FIFTEENTH SCROLL: CRIMSON HELM
Back on the L-shaped bridge spanning the massive chasm, I examined the windmills on each end. Now that I had the power of the wind, I could make them turn…and see what happened. I called on Kazegami's power and a gust of wind made the dusty windmills creak. With a ground of wood against stone, the bridge slowly swung in the direction of the wind to a new chamber, one that I could not reach before.
Before me was a long dark hall flanked with columns. Torches blazes in sconces high on the pillars, too high to cast much light on the floor. I could hear the faint squeaking and scuttling of mice. This part of the shrine had seen better days; one of the massive columns had fallen at an angle. The smell of something burning was stronger here. The only sign that this was part of the Gale Shrine was several hanging wall scrolls depicting Kazegami. They barely fluttered in the still air. I circled around the fallen column, but my progress was halted by a gate. A search of the ground level showed no levers or contraptions to open the way. I turned my attention back to the column. Perhaps I could use it to climb up and get a better look around. Luckily the column was wedged tightly in place, so it did not roll when I clambered up.
Here, the torchlight was more useful. I found a latticework of beams supporting the other columns, as well as a few Konohana Blossoms. From my perch at the top of the column, I could see an exit on a balcony overlooking the impassable gate. I sniffed the air. The smell of smoke and burned bones wafted from the balcony. So, that was where I needed to go. There was only one problem: I couldn't reach the balcony. The span was too far to jump and there were no Konohana Blossoms for me to use my Vine Brush.
Then Issun pointed out the Kazegami banner-scrolls. They were made of a thick, heavy cloth, and if the wind blew hard enough…perhaps I could use them to cross the gap. I woofed an agreement with the plan, and braced myself for the initial gust. As soon as the banners lay flat in the wind, I leapt. Once, twice…the banners started to waver. I leapt…and fell beween the banners. I growled and raced back up the column to try again. Jumping from banner to banner was harder than it looked! This time when I felt the banners start to waver halfway through, I called on more wind from Kazegami. Three, four, five…and my paws touched solid wood once more.
I pushed through a pair of doors and entered a smaller, narrower corridor. Lanterns were strung along the walls, lighting my path. Directly in front of me, barring the way a few lengths down the hall were some strange ceramic pots shaped like dragon heads. As I approached, flames shot from them, forming a curtain of fire. The heat in such an enclosed space was intense. Once more, the wind served me, blowing out the flames long enough for me to jump over them. Two more fiery barricades greeted me and were dealt with just as easily.
I felt some level of annoyance. This was what everyone was afraid of? For a powerful demon, this Crimson Helm had pretty poor defenses. Issun reminded me that, if we didn't have the Celestial Brushes, we too would be hard-pressed to advance. Before gaining the Galestorm Brush, the only Brush that could have dealt with the flames would have been Nuregami's Waterspout technique, and that Brush was useless without a source of water. I growled because Issun was right. With each Brush, I was becoming stronger. But I had to remember that the Brushes had their limits.
The last pair of doors at the end of the hall opened into a vast stone chamber. Free-standing columns with dark torch sconces stood in a ring. It looked like some kind of arena. Through the gloom, I could just barely make out some sort of shrine on the far side of the arena. I sniffed the air, but could not smell anything unusual. That was odd. The scent of fire and bones had come from this place, I was sure of it. And yet there seemed to be no sign of Crimson Helm.
I entered the ring of columns cautiously, wary of a trap. The shrine became more distinct, and I saw something strange. In the center of the shrine, in a place of honor, was a strange statue. It was made of eight purple crystals, each with a different elemental symbol engraved on it. A snarl forced its way from between my teeth. I knew that configuration of symbols. Orochi.
Issun recognized it too. At least, as the Serpent Crystal, the one that could dispel the barrier from Orochi's cave. The one you sent me to look for, Waka. I found it. But taking it could be another matter. I raced forward, hoping to snatch the crystal, but when I reached the center of the ring, I felt a change in the air. It became dark and full of hate. The dark sconces mounted on the columns burst into flames. The flames rose and swirled into a fireball above my head. I tensed and leapt out of the way as the fire exploded. Something huge and heavy hit the ground.
Standing before me was a monster. It looked like a bull, but with a serpent face and a pair of human arms wielding katanas. Its entire body was covered in armor and its head was crowned with a red helmet. Fire burned in its eyes and its skin glowed like hot coals. Smoke and heat poured from its nostrils as it roared a challenge. So this was Crimson Helm. Suddenly a blur of rainbow light encircled Issun and I. The Satomi Power Orbs had reappeared! I could feel their protective energies surround us.
Just in time. Crimson Helm struck with one of the swords, too fast for me to see. The word struck a barrier…and one of the Satomi Orbs disappeared in a flash of colored light. So. This shield was limited. If I planned on surviving this fight, I would have to be quick. I darted in and struck with my Divine Instrument. Embers flew and my weapon was deflected. I tried my Power Slash but to no effect. Desperate, I slashed again and again with my Divine Instrument. I hooked under the edge of the armor and pulled hard. The armor came off, almost like a second skin, revealed the skeleton of a massive bull wreathed in flames. The heat drove me back. Before the armor could return, I called on my Galestorm and blew out the flames. Crimson Helm's heart still glowed like a coal in its bony chest, so I had to move fast. While the flames were out, I battered the skeleton.
I wasn't quite fast enough. The armor returned to shield the vulnerable body and I narrowly missed being cut on two by a swipe from one of Crimson Helm's now-flaming swords. Its sword strikes were fast and the flames burned hot, but the demon was slow to turn and was vulnerable from behind. I pulled the armor from the bones a second time, blew out the flames, and drew a Cherry Bomb. I leapt out of the way of the explosion. When the smoke cleared, the flaming skeleton still stood. I snarled in anger as the armor covered it once more. How could I kill this thing?
Then Crimson Helm reared up on its hind legs and raised its swords above its head. They glowed with flames and I felt a strange tremor. Then the ground beneath me began to crack, letting eerie purple light shine through. Not good. If Crimson Helm destroyed the arena… But the ground did not crack apart. Instead, the purple ring flashed, and eight flaming serpent heads rose from the earth. Orochi! Here?! Now?! I wasn't ready. I wasn't strong enough to fight it yet. I didn't have all of the Celestial Brushes! Crimson Helm took a few steps back to be better protected by its patron. I growled and crouched to leap.
But someone beat me to it. A familiar brash voice rang out amidst the flames. It was Susano! Armed only with a wooden sword, he lunged at one of Orochi's fiery heads. In desperation, I channeled my Power Slash through his sword. With my power in his sword, Susano's blows struck true, splitting the flaming heads. As he struck, the heads vanished until only Crimson Helm remained. So the fiery heads were just constructs created by the demon to confuse us, not actual manifestations of Orochi. With barely a pause, Susano called for wind, spinning in a circle. For a split second I was confused…then I smiled and called up a Galestorm to fuel his attack. Once, twice, three times he called for wind and the strike he delivered cut through the demon's helmet. The now-empty bones collapsed to the floor, sending a circle of purple magic into the air.
I took a few steps forward, hoping to congratulate Susano…but he was having none of it. He knew, after that last attack, that his success was not due to his own strength. He screamed up at the shrine, to the gods, demanding to know why they tormented him, why he was given the burden of being Nagi's descendent. I was taken aback. I had no idea that Susano was so unhappy about being descended from Nagi. I thought such a thing would be an honor…but apparently Susano did not see it that way. He saw it as a burden, a curse, not a gift.
As Susano's anger reached its height, purple flame burst from Crimson Helm's corpse. Susano froze, then turned to look. I watched in horror as a shadowy shape rose into the air, seething with malice and evil power. Like the fires, this was not Orochi, just a shadow…but unlike the fire heads, which were constructs of Crimson Helm, this was real. This was truly Orochi's power manifesting. The head stooped towards a terrified Susano. I tried to race forward, to help him, but a barrier stopped me. I barked, urging Susano to run, but he seemed paralyzed. He seemed to be hearing voices…voices I couldn't detect. He held his head, weeping, screaming, then something seemed to break and he ran from the chamber. The shadowy head turned my way, then rose into the air and vanished.
Both Issun and I swallowed hard. That was far too close to the real Orochi for comfort. I turned back towards the Serpent Crystal's shrine…and let out a bark of surprise. You turned, Waka, holding the crystal, the thief with his hand in the rice basket. I leapt for the crystal, but you were too swift. I landed on the steps in front of the shrine while you floated down to perch on one of the railing posts. I growled and Issun demanded the Serpent Crystal. After all, we were the ones who came all this way, fought all these demons, to get here. You had done nothing, yet were taking the reward. A dangerous reward, at that.
You laughed and admonished me, saying that only you could use the power of the Serpent Crystal. Only you could dispel the barrier surrounding Orochi's prison. Uneasiness filled me. I wasn't interested in dispelling the barrier. I wanted the Serpent Crystal to make sure no one would try such a thing! Then the cave shuddered with the vibrations of a familiar roar. Orochi sensed the crystal. He knew we had the key to his release.
And then…you laughed, Waka. You laughed and told Orochi to wait. That you would be there soon.
You have no idea how much it sickened me to hear those words, Waka. How much pain they caused me, how much fury. You treated this like a game when Orochi's release would bring calamity to the land. Undo all the work I had done. And quiet likely would mean my death. When I faced Orochi one hundred years ago in the incarnation of Shiranui, I was in peak condition. I had all of my power, all of my Celestial Brushes. And yet that victory cost me my life. Now I would have to face Orochi at half strength and win or all would be lost. I thought you were an ally, even if you were not necessarily a friend. But I still… I thought…
But perhaps I was wrong. And as I watched you fly from that chamber with a cheerful wave, I howled in helpless confusion. I did not understand how someone who seemed to know me so well could do such a thing. I ran from the chamber, hoping against hope that I'd misread you. That there was another explanation for your actions. That what I feared was not true.