And that's the next chapter. It was a interesting one. It was originally to act as a set up for the fight and then i managed to in the sidelines accidentally set up for another fight in the process.
Good news though is that I'm managed to fire the old writing engine again. The bad news is that I'm currently engrossed in another fandom. But I promised tp carry this until the end and i will. I still want to do this.
Thanks goes to Ban3 for the work as usual.
Tenma gripped her sword.
Morris's words left much to sift through, and even more to decide.
She should have seen this coming. Yukari was always knowledgeable about the ongoings of Gensokyo, even to the most recent of events. And while her gaps could fulfill even the most obscure of requests, it would have been easier to simply have someone reporting to her.
The Tengu noted that such a measure would have taken time to instill. Time that humans had little of. Not so much for Youkai.
I'm sure your village has people like me too.
Those words rankled her. She knew that the Sage probably did have someone like Morris hovering around in the Tengu village. No one in Gensokyo believed that the Youkai Sage would keep her reach to herself.
But the hint gleaned from Morris bit into her more than it should have. Every time she thought about it, it raised her hackles, clenched her hands.
On her being observed, Tenma had no issues. It was only natural that Yukari would keep track of her chess pieces. No leader worth her weight in salt would not do so.
No, Tenma realized, it wasn't the revelation that tore into her. It was what underlay it. To reveal one of her pieces meant that Yukari was taking a more direct hand in the proceedings.
The notion that she had graduated from autonomous chess piece to a controlled one was a bitter one. Like the doubts that Dutch once raised against her fighting abilities, it was a stab at her pride and Tengu were never accepting of those.
Riding along with that was an unsettling question. If Yukari had a direct hand here, how about the Tengu village? How many times had the Sage worked those hands there?
Just how many times were her decisions guided by the Sage?
No, she told herself. Second guessing her choices with such an ambiguous question would only lead to mistakes. She knew that the paths she had chosen were made with her best judgement and information. Until something else appeared to tell her otherwise, she would stand by her choices.
Doubts quelled, the Tengu returned to more pressing matters. It was clear from Morris that Yukari expected her to pull her own weight against their mysterious opponents.
On paper, it was a good idea. Tenma, even hidden behind her current alias, was one of the most powerful youkai in Gensokyo. Her wind scouting skills, briefly tested against the village guards, was one of the best even before her ascension a thousand years before.
And her skills with the blade were no less. The tengu suspected if she so wanted, she could rise to the very top of the youkai arena easily.
But she knew that Dutch would object to such arrangements. The man saw only her role in Gensokyo and her importance. In that aspect, he was no different from the palace guards. He would rather do all the work than involve her.
But he wasn't here. Tenma knew that the Sage had given him a much darker role to play, one more crucial and dangerous.
A small part of her knew that she was rankled. Such important proceedings and she was simply a side character. But the tengu knew that this was simply a matter of chance.
Just like her meeting with him. All because he found that crystal.
She had come to terms with her attraction to him. Be it chance or fate, the youkai lord was drawn to the human in an intimate way. She wanted to be by his side, at the very least. Even now, she worried about him.
It was a worry that would destroy her office but she didn't care. For now, she wasn't Tenma, leader of the Tengus, she was Tenma and Teri.
A hint of déjà vu arose with that thought. She had done this once before. Not quite the same now though, with all these different agendas around.
In her musing, Tenma kept alert of her surroundings. A disturbance made her stop as a human girl, haphazardly carrying a cargo of books and racing with the energy of the young , brushed past her. The contact was enough to sent the girl stumbling, her books tumbling to the ground in a mess.
Tenma immediately bent to pick up the books.
"T-thank you!" The bespectacled girl gushed as she followed to grab the books.
"It's no problem." The tengu answered, stacking the books. The cover of the topmost book made her pause.
The girl peeked at the stack. "Ah! That book is a guide for dealing with various youkai, written in..."
"Old Tengu..." Tenma cut in. All the examples of old tengu write that she knew of were kept well under lock and key by the Yamabushi. She also knew that the Yamabushi would guard those samples with ferocity that rivaled the Hakurou.
The girl perked up. " You know old tengu? How old are you?" She inquired eagerly.
"Old enough." Was Tenma's answer as she examined the book. She remembered from ages past this particular book but she didn't know of any actual surviving examples.
Just how did this human girl come across this book?
"Where did you get this?"
The girl smiled. "I can't really give away my sources. But I can say this came from old hell."
A surviving copy from the depths of the former hell? Tenma didn't know if the Yamas, with all their deathly gazes and black-white notions, would keep such a copy or if it was the Oni, with their honest dispositions and their rambunctious parties. Both were viable candidates and both had the means and the age to have acquired such a book.
"Can you help me translate this? I can read this but some of the terms elude me. " The girl inquired.
"Of course." As a tengu, Tenma knew well the value of knowledge. And to come across lost knowledge was an opportunity to be seized.
The rapid answer made the girl pause. "I don't suppose you wish to buy this?"
"That I do. This particular book was thought lost. Finding it is incredible."
"I see...I can sell this to you. But I do so want to read this before I release this to your care. If you're willing.." The girl mused.
"That can be done." Tenma answered.
"That's great. I'm Kosuzu Motoori!" The girl introduced joyfully.
"Teri. Just Teri." Tenma returned.
Forest of Magic
Dutch wondered about the difference between him and his soul mate as he waited on Alice's couch.
Much was revealed during the time since she confessed to him. Their viewpoints, for one.
He saw things rather objectively. Time could heal away pain. But time couldn't fix the problems he could. Some might call it selfless but he simply saw it as a process. Fix the problems, rest, do the next task. Rinse and repeat.
But Vale was very different. Contrary to him, the spirit saw things more personally. Problems were dangerous and the barest threat of one worried her. Where he might shrug off injury, she would get hurt by the pain.
And her attitude to him was obsessive, to say the least. It felt like she needed to feel him, to feel his constant presence there for her to be at ease. While he experienced the same to some degree, the almost insane glint in her eyes earlier told her that the spirit saw things very differently.
She needed him much more than he needed her. As the Vault's master and her reason for existing, he could see why she was protective of him. He should be lucky that her protectiveness only led her to developing his armor. Who knew just how far she could go to keep him safe.
An errant thought pointed out that a prisoner was safe in his cell.
At least this happened within the confines of his own mind. She gave him his privacy at least.
'We lost.' Her lament broke his thought.
To that he smiled.'In a fight where we didn't die. So no real loss. Take what we learned from it and move on."
Vale considered the statement. "I guess you're right.' She decided. "Still, we lost.'
'I would have been worried if I kept winning.' He answered.
The spirit sighed in answer and retreated back to her mind, though she kept their bond open to let their essences mingle.
Any thought about the action was interrupted, as Alice entered the room. The magician was clad in a new set of clothes, carbon copies of the destroyed participants of the fight. A set of runes hovered in front of her, following her movement as she sat opposite him,
"Hmm. Your artifact functions not too differently from the Sage. Portals open to allow passage between reality and the realm of the artifact. A rather common form of magic transference." She noted, reading off the array of runes. The magician had little to show from her earlier fight, other than the slight tremble of punished muscles
"Really now? It definitely doesn't feel like a portal." Dutch answered, watching her examine the runes.
"That is simply aesthetics. Similar magic may look entirely different. It really depends on the maker of the artifact. If this artifact was copied by someone else, it would still be different due to the different makers." Alice explained.
"It makes identification easier too. You can track who made what simply by looking at the maker's magic signature." She continued. "Even where the maker was from."
Then the magician paused. "I must say, I have never come across a lunarian artifact before. Where did you find this?"
"In a cave."
"Hmm. Curious that an artifact made by a race of such caliber and isolation could end up in such a place." Alice murmured.
Dutch winced. "It was guarded."
"Still, such a location. What history does it bring?" She wondered.
"Bad." He answered with finality.
Alice nodded. "Very well. I will probe no further." She acknowledged, palming the runes away. "My job here is done. Your spellwork is complete. All you will need to do is to cast it."
The magician glanced out the window, where the sun started its descent westward. "I recommend doing it somewhere safe. You will not be able to defend yourself during the process of casting it or for some time after."
"I have a guide to help me. One that I trust." He returned.
"I see. I don't think I am the first to tell you that the forest gets more dangerous at night but know this. Lately, there have been magic traces in the forest that I have never come across before. I can't begin to fathom what has made these traces but I can say that these traces are distantly similar to your artifact in origin." Alice described.
"Something from the moon?" Dutch prodded.
His counterpart nodded."Not only that, the traces appear to have a pattern. They appear close to the roads and other points of interests. Whatever, they are, they're looking for something." She finished, leaving the unspoken part hanging.
"I will keep that in mind." He answered, rising from his seat.
Alice sent Shanghai off to unlock her front door as she rose too. "I have one last request. I would like to see the result of the spell. I have never seen a spell like this before."
Dutch paused. "I can't give you an answer. Things are too.. hectic right now for the future to be set easily."
She nodded. "Very well. I will keep my hopes up nevertheless. And if you do return, I may be able to make it worth your while. The data from your artifact interests me greatly. Something may come out of it."
"If I return." He answered.
"If you return." Alice echoed.
Dutch should be leaving soon, Kaimi wondered, as she waited within the trees outside the puppeteer's house in the dying light.
"Are you sure about this...person?" A voice from thin air questioned her.
Kaimi smiled coyly. "Oh my. You have never been this...reserved before." She tittered.
The leaves above her rustled in seeming answer. "I have always been like this." The voice grumbled. "It's just...this person. Things from the moon have been hunting in the forest, looking for something. He might be it."
"Or it could be something else."
"And what are the chances of that?" The voice retorted. "And he's...strange." It murmured. "Like he is but he's not."
"Oh? How so?" Kaimi questioned.
"From a glance, he's human. But if you concentrate, there's something about him...like a part of him isn't. And that part is just like those things..." The voice trailed.
The Snail princess smiled reassuringly. "If danger happens, I can take care of myself. But I'm sure that violence won't come from him. More likely towards him."
"And if you get caught in that?"
"I walked this world ever since my entry. I expect to continue after today." Kaimi finished. "There are still people to meet."
"And people to harass..." The voice added in.
"Oh dear, is that jealousy I hear? I didn't know you had such interests."
"Har Har. You're not going to get me that easily. Just stay safe." The voice finished.
"Of course. I will return to you." Kaimi answered sultrily.
The voice spluttered before disappearing.
The snail princess giggled as she returned to watching Alice's cottage. The figure of a living man made her smile.
She mentally plotted her course, heading to reach him just at the tree line. He seemed deep in thought, she noted, as he headed on the path into the trees.
She was very curious of the person that would inspire such duty in him. The man appeared inwardly intelligent, her experience told her, the kind that blossomed in a group. Such people were quiet, islands of silence in a sea of conversation. They hovered noiselessly, simply listening, always taking in. And when they spoke, their words had meaning, distilled from the sea of words.
Kaimi liked that kind of people. They tended to be less prejudiced and were always excellent conversation partners.
They also made excellent partners most of the time, Kaimi noted. Their introspective view usually made them loyal people, a trait she found very attractive.
It was a pity that this man was already taken.
Kaimi had no intention to force her way in. Stealing hearts was abhorrent to her and only left scorched earth. She preferred honey to vinegar.
That didn't mean that she couldn't poke the hornet nest. In fact, she relished it. It was alway enjoyable to re-ignite the fire between partners. The sudden possessive glint, the defensive posturing and the combative tone were all sweet tidbits to her.
A wandering thought caught her mind. That person might just be the Tengu, she decided. It wouldn't make sense with the magician but she had seen those same exact actions from the Tengu.
Kaimi was well aware of the sensitivities between humans and Youkai. It was just that she didn't care.
By that point, she had reached behind him. Trailing him, the snail princess kept silent and let him feel her presence.
At least, for now she could bask in the company of someone worthwhile.
Just like before, Dutch felt the presence of Kaimi behind him a few minutes into his walk.
He never knew when the snail princess inserted herself behind him. She had the sort of presence that eased her way in. You never knew when she appeared, she was just there.
"The light is almost gone." He noted, turning to the snail princess. A small pouch was bounced gently at her waist, a nondescript bag of unknown purpose.
Kaimi nodded. "Be assured, they will not touch us. But watch your vision. The night blindness will come soon.
Experience made Dutch decide that the affliction wasn't something his enhancement could handle."I assume this is magical?"
"How perceptive. Wait for the night Sparrow's song. It will herald the way for us."
"To the establishment you speak of?"
"Yes. It is a very good lure."
As the final hints of sun disappeared behind the mountains, the sounds of the night rose. Crickets started their symphonic battles while fireflies rose and danced in starry swarms, the first of many occupants of the night.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Dutch saw that Kaimi's hat gave off a luminescent glow, enough that even normal human eyes could have tracked her.
The snail princess noticed his attention and smiled. "It's not my power." She answered preemptively. "Certain substances within the forest give off this light. I simply used what I could find."
"That's an interesting bit of resourcefulness. What else can be used from this forest?"
Kaimi giggled at the compliment. "Oh there are many. The mushrooms closer to the human village tend to be edible or even medicinal. I know of one that can actually boost the magical powers of whoever consumes it."
Then her smile turned dark. "But of course, there is peril."
"There is a mushroom deep within in the forest. It gives off a smell that you will find...painfully appetizing. When you bite it, it will give off the taste of the food you desire the most at the moment. It even has the texture of the food." She described.
Dutch thought about it. "That sounds nice."
"But it is dangerous." She warned. "The illusion hides the spores of an addiction. You will find yourself wanting to go back, to taste that mushroom once more. In time, you will want nothing more than that mushroom. You will risk life and limb to get it, your life forfeit for just one more bite."
Dutch winced. "...I see. Any reason why this thing exists?"
"The deep forest is a place few willingly enter. It has found ways to entice the few that do."
Dutch paused. "Why would anyone enter it?"
"The forest of magic is a strange place. Its inhabitants are stranger still. Its many plants and mushrooms offer a wide variety of powers and afflictions. Used correctly, it can gift a human power beyond their limits. Even the ones at the edge of the forest are more nutritionally potent than the ones you find elsewhere. Deeper in, their afflictions are more...varied. The spores of some are enough to drive you into hallucinations, doomed to die a wandering death."
Dutch's mind flashed to the corpse of the father those few days ago. "And the creatures that live here?"
Kaimi tut-tutted. "Some tact please. I do live here too." She scolded grinning.
He smiled apologetically. "My mistake. I will be more specific next time."
She nodded in acceptance. "The forest will feast on those ensnared in it."
"If I were to be trapped by one, perhaps. The forest is not partial to what it ensnares. But a princess knows." Kaimi finished, giving him a knowing wink.
"I see." Dutch chuckled.
'I don't know about her.' Vale mumbled in his head.
'What?' He returned, feeling frustration from her.
'...It's like she's playing. She's not serious about it and yet...' The spirit continued.
'I really can't catch what you are saying.'
All he got was a sigh from her before she disappeared back into her own mind.
"Do you think they will be there?" Renko asked as the two headed back to the tavern.
Maribel smiled. "No."
"Wow, so curt..."
The blonde sighed. "But you can see it too can't you?" She said."Those two are in something important. Something that he would know."
"Yea. That stupid crystal." Her friend growled.
"No." Maribel shook her head. "Something else. Something...different."
"I don't know. And I don't think it relates to the moon."
Renko hissed. "Yukari?"
"If not, she would know about it at the very least. She just isn't telling us."Maribel said.
"Dammit!" Her friend clenched her hands. "Why is no one telling us anything!"
Maribel said nothing, her mouth a thin line.
"So what is this establishment like?" Dutch asked as the two continued down the path. Just like Kaimi had warned, night blindness had gripped his eyes, making it difficult to see much, even with the light of the moon and the fireflies. Those two broke through the darkness but lit little else.
At best, he could only follow the road. At least that stayed somewhat visible.
Kaimi smiled. "It's an eatery unlike anything in this world. The owner has a rather interesting way of bringing in the customers and her food is quite well done."
"I see. What does she offer?"
She grimaced. "She serves lamprey eels, as her main course. Although her rice and vegetables are quite delectable."
The expression did not go unnoticed. "I presume that you dislike flesh?" Dutch questioned.
Kaimi smiled. "I am a snail princess. Plants are in my nature. But even then, the idea that something died to feed me is rather...sickening."
That's a rather strong word to use, Dutch noted. Perhaps he should think well about his order.
"But I will not judge. We are wholly different people and to find fault where there are only trivial differences is foolish." She finished.
"Very well." He answered, glancing around him. This night blindness was making him rather uneasy. It was easy to imagine danger when you didn't know what was there.
And he had the experience to assume danger behind every corner. And with the sort of creatures that inhabited this forest, the feeling at the back of his neck wasn't leaving any time soon.
Who knew, this could be the forest weighing down on him.
'It is not the forest.' Vale whispered.
He said nothing, waiting pointedly for her to continue.
'This blindness is coming from elsewhere. The feeling of the magic afflicting you is different from the ambient forest magic.' She explained.
'Something hunting us?'
'Could be...' Vale answered fearfully as she considered the thought.
Dutch paused their mental exchange as he and Kaimi came to a crossroad. Rather strangely, one particular road seemed brighter than the other.
Kaimi smiled as she watched the human." You see it, don't you?"
"That is the Night Sparrow's song. It will guide the way for us." She said, starting down the road.
"That should be it." Tenma announced as she put down the book and turned to one of the most amusing expressions she has seen in her life.
Kosuzu beamed at her with awestruck eyes. "That was incredible!" She exclaimed.
It made the Tengu chuckle. Her own experience back home was a lot more...reserved, she decided. Amongst their military prowess, Tengu were also well known for their respect for knowledge. Even Hakurou Tengu on a mission would make an effort to recover and preserve any knowledge they had found.
And that also meant that emotions tended to be sober. The Yamabushi Tengu were downright paranoid about the integrity of the knowledge that they kept. Records were constantly checked and rechecked and any new information was carefully noted down. Ten pages of a record may swell to a hundred or even a thousand.
Such outbursts were unheard of in the archives of the Yamabushi tengu. Emotions were brushed aside in the course of their precise work, lest they let themselves taint the records.
It was probably why the Yamabushi were one of the most fervent patrons of the festivals.
"It was nothing. Almost all of it was simply knowledge I remembered." Tenma answered as she brushed aside a lock of silver.
"Still, you remembered so much! I wished I had that sort of memory!" Kosuzu gushed.
Those words made Tenma smile again, albeit slowly. "You shouldn't. Some things are best forgotten." She murmured quietly.
"Like embarrassing mistakes?"
At least the human had the optimism of the young, the Tengu decided. It was best to preserve such fleeting ideals. "Like those." She finished before sounding off a number.
It made Kosuzu start. "Is that how much you are willing to pay?" She asked surprised.
"For the book itself as well as for my own offer."
The human girl blinked. "For?"
"A service, to notify me if you were to ever find more of such knowledge. We value our knowledge well and any chance of recovering lost knowledge must be taken." Tenma informed.
"Wow...so much." Kosuzu whispered.
Perhaps to the human girl it was but Tenma had no qualms with the amount. She was if nothing else practical and knew most of the money would have returned to the village coffers by the end of her adventure. Best to shed it on something worthwhile.
"Okay. But how will I tell you?"
The Tengu raised her hand. In it was a single black feather, which turned into a crow. The bird stared into Kosuzu and cawed before changing back into a feather.
"Use it when you find something that might interest me. I will find you." Tenma instructed.
"Whoa..." The human said, taking the feather.
The light was returning to normal, Dutch noted, as the pair continued down the road. Already, the road and forest were being lit up by the moon, a stark difference from before. But there was something else too.
Dutch could hear a barely discernible voice singing. It rang in his ears, a soft whisper that never changed. More important, the contents of the song were...impossible.
Instinctively, he could tell that it wasn't human. It never kept the kind of rhythm that he knew of outside music. The song had words, yet the words were perplexing, changing in ways that he couldn't comprehend.
Even as he strained to understand, Kaimi noticed it.
"You can hear it can't you? That is the essence of the night sparrow song." She said.
"I...can't understand it."
"You shouldn't. Humans and Youkai are different. It would be worrying if you could." The snail princess added. "Though if you can actually hear the songs, we should be close."
And indeed she was right, as the pair saw the orange of artificial light in the distance.
"Seems like a rather strange place to set up a eatery." Dutch quipped.
"Oh the feral Youkai know to stay far from the establishment. The song helps keeps them away. It is safe here."
The pair soon found the cause of the light, as a row of lanterns lit the way for them. Compared to the clear hue of the moon, the light felt homely and safe, bathing the path and the forest itself with orange.
"Oh yes, we are here now. Can you hear it?" Kaimi inquired as they proceeded down the path.
Dutch paused. "I...can't. It's gone."
"Excellent. That means that we are in the right place."
The two followed the lanterns to a clearing where along the side, a roadside stall had been set up. From inside, the sound of charcoal being moved emitted from the stall, the view of the counter blocked by drapes of paper.
"I'm surprised. You don't seem like the sort of person who would choose such informal settings." Dutch decided.
Said person giggled. "Was I ever formal?" She asked coyly.
A few thoughts made him smile. "Not that I remember." He admitted.
The snail princess giggled once more before they entered the stall.
Inside, the owner of the stall perked up from her cutting board.. "Welcome!" She exclaimed before halting at the sight of one of the customers.
"Good evening." Kaimi greeted, moving to sit on a chair. She glanced around. "I see we are the first of the night."
The owner stayed silent as her eyes shifted from Kaimi and Dutch. Then she sighed. "You again."
"Yes me." The snail princess laughed.
Dutch stayed silent as he took a seat. The owner looked friendly enough, as a pair of grey eyes regarded his partner with resignation, though the feathery ears that jutted out from her short dark pink hair made it clear she wasn't human.
"Dutch, I introduce Mystia Lorelei, night sparrow owner of this delightful stall. She's quite the cook."
The human nodded in greeting as Mystia returned it.
"So what will it be?" Said night sparrow asked, as she pushed back the sleeves of her brown yukata.
Dutch paused."What would you recommend?"
"A set of lamprey, rice and fresh greens. It's the most well received among your kind."
"And I will have rice, pickled and fresh greens. And hot water, if you are willing." Kaimi drawled.
Mystia nodded as she got to work, placing a few skewers over the hot coals leaving those to cook as she busied herself with the rest of the orders.
"What else do you serve here?" Dutch questioned.
"Mushrooms and sake completes my menu. Lamprey is my best seller and I don't see any need to change it. After all, why change what is successful?"
"We wouldn't want it too complicated after all." Kaimi added, making Mystia grit her teeth.
The night sparrow continued her work, taking out plates of clear rice and glistening vegetables. She set the food in front of the duo before coating the contents of the skewers with sauce and flipping them.
Reaching under the counter, she pulled out a kettle and set it on the table. It was soon joined by three bowls and a teaspoon.
"Work your magic."
Kaimi nodded as she reached for the small pouch at her waist. From inside, she pulled out a cloth bag and a whisk.
Dutch kept his curiosity silent, watching Kaimi stick the teaspoon into the bag and scoop out a mound of green powder into a bowl. She then added water from the kettle and stirred the contents of the cup with her whisk.
Smiling , the snail princess offered the bowl of green liquid to him. Dutch accepted the cup and sipped it, both Kaimi and Mystia watching him
The drink had a gentle sweet taste, though the distinctive flavor made it clear what it was. He set the bowl on the table.
"I thought tea had a more intricate ceremony to it?" He asked.
Kaimi giggled. "I could do so. But this isn't the place or the company to do so with."
"I see." He nodded before sipping again.
Kaimi smiled as she spooned more powder into the other bowls. "This particular batch was grown in the shade of the inner forest. I ground it with some stevia for added sweetness." She explained.
The distant cry of something in the forest made Dutch pause.
"I think that's the sound of tea purists crying out in pain." He quipped.
Both Youkai laughed at the statement. Mystia accepted a bowl from Kaimi before facing Dutch. "You have a good sense of humor. That's nice. I don't get that much from my usual group."
The human shrugged. "I'm an outsider."
"That explains a lot." Mystia said before placing a plate of deep green vegetables on the table.
Kaimi immediately took one with her chopstick and ate it. "Mmm..." She hummed. "Less salty this time. You did take my advice about the pickle."
Mystia sighed. "As much as you irritate me, your taste is right. So yes, I did take your advice."
"Now if you could only follow my advice about your patrons safety..."
Dutch swore he saw a vein twitch on Mystia forehead.
"I...cannot guarantee the safety of the customers here. Not with the kind of people they are." She muttered slowly.
Kaimi smiled. "Oh but of course. I was referring to the ambient sound..."
" Not another word." Mystia hissed.
The snail princess paused and giggled. "But of course. A secret between friends."
Her only answer was a glare.
Dutch watched the two silently, preferring to dig into his meal. The rice and vegetables were excellent for the sort of place that served it.
The two Youkai both looked away from each other, letting the mood settle. Mystia flipped the skewers and scanned them with her trained eye before nodding to herself and taking them off the fire and onto a plate.
Kaimi leisurely picked at her meal, eating her food in an alternating pattern. Fresh greens, then pickled, then fresh greens again. Always accompanied by a pinch of rice.
Dutch held up the skewer and examined it. The lamprey pieces were meaty and glistened in the light.
A bite made him pause. "This is really good." He complimented. "Perfectly cooked.
Mystia nodded in thanks. "Thank you. I had time to practice.."
"Decades even." Kaimi quipped.
The night sparrow sighed.
Even the human village has it's own surprises, Tenma decided, as she made her way back to the tavern.
Her hand cradled the book, wrapped in cloth. She could already see Eri's amused face in her mind's eye, the Hakurou Tengu's wolf ears flicking in mirth.
"Even on leave, you do something for the village." She could definitely imagine the words too.
But it would be an unworthy Tengu who didn't preserve knowledge. Especially if it was someone like Tenma.
Her train of thought changed. She needed to deliver the book as soon as possible. Wrapped in cloth among the tools of an adventurer would be a poor treatment for an object of such age.
And she doubted anyone in the human village would accept such a job. If she could even trust them.
And that meant she had to do it herself. Tenma was willing to bet the moment she stepped into the palace, Eri would have her kicked out. Less than a week on break and already back would definitely anger her subordinate.
Perhaps somewhere closer to the village would be better. The Youkai market had its fair share of no questions asked delivery men.
Of course that meant breaking away from Dutch. While she knew he would have no issue with that, Yukari's words made it very clear that he would need all the help he could get.
And then there were her own feelings regarding that matter.
Her mind paused as she came up to the tavern. She entered it, giving the tavern keep a nod of greeting before proceeding in. Past the laughing merchants and travellers and into the private rooms she strode.
Inside the room, Renko and Maribel both pored over books. The pair looked up as the Tengu entered, Renko frowning.
"Where's Dutch?" She demanded.
Tenma shook her head. "We went our separate ways." She answered.
The answer changed little of Renko's expression as she kept frowning at the Tengu.
"What are the two of you doing?"
The question made Tenma look up. "What do you mean?"
"Don't play dumb! I know the two of you are involved in something dangerous!" The brunette snapped.
"It's...better if you don't know." Tenma returned.
"Why? Why is it better for us if we just stay silent and do nothing?"
Tenma opened her mouth and stopped. There were many reasons for her to use, like how these two had no experience in this sort of danger or even their skill level.
No, she decided, it was best to go to the source of the problem.
"It is not mine to say." The Tengu answered.
"Then whose!" Renko shouted.
The silence hung in the air.
"Yukari." Tenma spoke.
"Then why doesn't she say anything?" Renko growled.
"It's her choice."
Maribel watched the exchange silently, clearly thinking hard. When Renko sank, simmering, she finally spoke up.
"We met in the Tengu village didn't we?"
Tenma paused. "Perhaps. In passing?" She asked, knowing full well where she had met these two. It was strange though, even with those short moments, knowing that the human had remembered her was an unsettling one.
"No...I am sure that we met for something else. Something 'him' related." The blonde murmured, frowning in concentration.
"Many Tengu attend to Lord Tenma. You may have seen me there." The Tengu put forth. She was getting good at referring to herself in third person, Tenma noted.
Maribel on the other hand seized on the implication of the lie.
"So you are someone close to Lord Tenma?" She asked darkly. Too late did Tenma remember the conversation from two days back and her warning. But she had no way to dodge the subject now.
"How did you and Dutch meet again?"
Renko halted her simmering thoughts, her mind now on a different target. "Mary?" She questioned.
Tenma could feel the majority opinion on the room rapidly turning sour. Maribel's hostile thoughts were coming to a head and it would sweep her friend along. For all her prowess, the notion of fighting these two humans would draw attention at a time when they needed none.
"You see Renko, it's strange that just days after Dutch completed a mission from the Tengu leader, there's a Tengu traveling by his side. You would think that after such a mission, the Tengu would keep their distance." Maribel hissed.
"What do you mean?"
"Why would they involve a human?"
The brunette turned to the Tengu, tense in body and voice. "So, what will it be?"
For a second, Tenma contemplated revealing her identity. It could immediately end this dangerous turn of events, with both humans looking ready to pounce.
Caution however, won over her idea. The lower the number of people who knew who she was, the easier for her to hide.
It wasn't as if doing so would definitely calm the women in front of her. Her hand inched towards her katana, her Tengu instincts telling her to prepare for a fight. The air started to pick up, moving to her command.
A small part of her whispered that Dutch wouldn't have done what she had. The human would have stayed still, appearing passive until the very last moment.
But he wasn't a Youkai and Tenma wasn't the sort of person to quietly take the threat of violence.
The movement caught both of the humans' attention. Renko's clock hand sword materialized in her hand, her eyes glaring.
"So?" She asked again.
"I already said. I don't know. He went into the forest." Tenma answered.
"How convenient. He went into the forest, a place where the feral Youkai live. If he doesn't come back, they probably killed him. It is a dangerous place after all." Maribel growled, trembling fiercely.
Her eyes started to flicker, cycling through different shades of purple. Energy started to collect at her hands, an unearthly violet glimmer around her fingers.
"Where is he?" The blonde woman whispered, her words more akin to the beginnings of a mantra.
Tenma gripped her katana, abandoning all illusions of niceties.
"I don't know."
"Hmm, we should be off now." Kaimi said, watching Dutch and Mystia trade words.
The proclamation, out of nowhere, cut short the conversation between Dutch and Mystia as the two turned to the snail princess.
"The night is still young. We should get moving before the feral Youkai get really active." She continued.
Dutch paused, then nodded. "Indeed. It would be best to complete what I need quickly."
He turned to Mystia. "It was a pleasure talking to you and your servings were excellent. I think I might definitely come back here."
The night sparrow smiled. "That's nice to hear. Perhaps with better company next time."
"Oh my, such words." Kaimi moaned. Mystia sighed at the words before waving goodbye.
The duo left the stall out into the open air. Dutch looked up at the night sky, a tapestry of stars amongst the blackness.
"So, where to next?"
His partner smiled. "A safe place. For you to do your task."
"Lead the way."
The two took off again, quickly moving away from the fiery lights of the lantern into the dim light of the moon. Dutch quickly noted that surprisingly, the prior night blindness was gone with clear vision everywhere.
"The night blindness is gone." He said, straining to hear the whispering song from before. That was also gone too, leaving only the sounds of the forest and it habitants.
"Oh, It disappears once you have eaten from the source." Kaimi answered slyly.
The human paused as he took in the words. "Mystia uses it for her customers, doesn't she?"
"Why yes!" The snail princess giggled, clapping softly. "It is her main draw, her fishing hook. After all, once you have eaten there, you are inclined to return by virtue of taste and sight, for as good as her food is, being able to see in the forest is far better."
They both kept up a rapid pace, Kaimi's graceful steps deceptively quick.
"It's going to be difficult to explain to the village guards." Dutch sighed as he looked up at the stars once more.
"You could always stay the night at my home." His partner invited.
"Could I really? I mean, I have essentially been calling on you for two days now. Staying overnight at your home might be pushing it."
"Oh it's only for a night."Kaimi laughed. "And you have been worthwhile company."
"Well then, thanks." He grinned gratefully.
They continued on for a few more minutes before Kaimi stopped. "We must delve into the forest now. Stay close." She warned.
"Lead the way." Dutch answered.
She made her way into the trees, the human close behind her. They moved through the trees, following an invisible trail that cut through the ground and roots.
Instinct made Dutch tense his glove. While his friend, for she had been nothing else, had shown grace, the same could not be said for the forest itself. His armor waited at a moment's notice, ready to phase into existence at the first sign of danger.
As He ducked under a branch, Kaimi stopped. She turned to him and smiled, welcoming in expression.
"We are here."
He walked up to her and paused. Beyond the trees was a small clearing, the change from woodland to open ground was so sudden it seemed almost artificial.
Dutch stepped past the trees onto the grass, looking up at the stars. "It is safe here?" He asked.
Kaimi nodded. "If it isn't, I will defend you." She said.
"Let's hope not." He answered, walking to the centre of the clearing and looked around, scanning the earth and trees.
Yes, this place was suitable.
An urge made him kneel down and touch the grass. Feeling the blades, Dutch was not expecting the voice that spoke in his head.
"Youngling, there is much to discuss."
And then he was pulled inside.