When Crows Cawed

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


Chapter 2. Enjoy!

Chapter 5 (v.1) - Chapter 2

Submitted: September 12, 2019

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Submitted: September 12, 2019

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“We really should do something about your nightmares.” Zetsu remarked as they strolled along the walkway leading to the medication chamber.

Murasa winced as his bronze earring snagged against a stray branch. A sign of bad luck? Murasa leaned to the side that was snagged and gently eased his earring free.

“Just a moment, Zetsu.” Right overhead, a bright-eyed gecko observed them from the beamed ceiling of the corridor.

Their compound’s numerous structures were connected by a lengthy series of shaded walkways. Along their path were wooden banisters elaborately carved with the forms of the graceful, winged tengus, and the hulking, horned monstrosities that are the oni. Stout columns supported the corridor at regular intervals, from which lamps hung besides them, unlit at the moment.

Murasa sighed deeply. He paused and gazed outward as droplets of last night’s rain dribbled down the corridor’s roof and onto the sodden earth below.

“You think I haven’t tried?” Murasa glanced at his friend with exasperation. His eyes were sunken from a week’s worth of poor sleep. The nightmares are visiting him every night now, it seemed.

“I went to see a witch doctor once, several weeks ago. She gave me some herbs and claimed that they cure nightmares.” Murasa complained while messaging his temples against the growing headache. “From the crows begotten smell it induced them, more like.”

“Oh, that thing that smelled like horse soil?” Zetsu broke into laughter. “I’m so glad you threw them away. I almost puked from the smell. Several times. Repeatedly.”

“I’ll tell you now. That horse soil cost me a whole month’s pay too.” Murasa grumbled. “Two whole blasted silver hooves, could you believe it?” At least, Murasa was glad that the order had paid them in silver hooves, rather than their copper counterparts.

 Since a hundred copper hooves is equal to a silver one, and one hundred silver hooves are further equal to a bronze hoof, the biggest unit of currency. Otherwise, he’d have to hurl off two entire bags of copper hooves just to pay the crows-darned witch doctor, which would add even more to his already evident frustration.

Zetsu applauded enthusiastically, “Applause for the number one gullible fool in our ranks, the one and only Murasa! You never failed to disappoint, my friend.” 

Murasa punched him lightly in the shoulder and chuckled despite himself.

They had passed from the shaded walkway into a courtyard basked by the morning sunlight. Zetsu shaded his eyes and glanced up at the cloudless blue sky.

“Looking on the bright side, with you crying like a tormented cat every morning, I’ve never once woken up late.” That elicited some more chuckles.

Somehow, no matter how grave his worries, Zetsu would always be able to make jokes of them and made the burden seemed that much lighter.

Thank you, Zetsu. Murasa thought while glancing at his friend. You didn’t know how much that meant to me.

The gardens around them were lush with vegetation. Morning glories blossomed alongside hedges of bamboo, their petals glistening with dewdrops from the night before. Murasa drank in the view and breathe deeply the crisp morning air.

Before the pair, a stone bridge arched over a slow flowing canal, one of the numerous man-made waterways dug up throughout the tengu compound. Lotus buds and leaves floated languidly upon the crystal-clear water. Dragonflies swerved by and frogs croaked, lashing out with their tongues to snatch the insects out of the air.

The grisly sight reminded Murasa of tengus who snatched out of the air and devoured by giants. He looked away, nauseous, and shoved the thought away from his mind.

They strolled without much hurry, Zetsu and Murasa. The daily morning meditation could wait, since the senior master in charge there was pretty lenient with his charges.

They came across a vast training courtyard where rows upon rows of novice were being viciously drilled. The young warriors swung their wooden blades with the enthusiasms of youth, and they roared battle shouts until their voices went raw.

The novices were practicing with long-bladed katana, the nodachis that tengus often employed against the massive giant kin. The tengus, with their enhanced strength, were the only fighting force in the known world to be able to use such a large weapon with this much proficiency.

Being descended from Lord Karasu Tengu, they are at least half-yokai. Besides their wings, the tengus had enhanced speed, strength, reflexes, with eyesight and hearing that are much keener than an ordinary human being. They are also able to regenerate and came back from more grievous injuries more rapidly than an ordinary man.  

“Seemed like ages since we were novices.” Zetsu remarked as they stood there watching the novices being barked at by the attending battle master, his voice furious and reprimanding.

“Heh, I still had nightmares of that crows-soiled Assistant Miura. That Yokai-spawn holler at me for just pointing out that he himself arrived late to the training session. That wasn’t my mistake, was it?” Zetsu frowned slightly in thought as he observed a particularly drained tengu fainting under the sun’s heat.

Murasa broke into a grin as he remembered that day, “Aye, you shouted that in his face while he was drilling the others, Zetsu. Into the face of that Demon Miura.” The corner of Murasa’s eyes wrinkled in amusement, “That wasn’t wrong. You just went plain nutty, that’s all. The extra nuts with a sprinkle of crazy type.”

A mosquito buzzed by his ear, and Murasa swatted at it, leaving a blotch of crimson on his palm. Blasted buzzers, He swore absently, as if the heat wasn’t enough.

“Being a junior apprentice isn’t much better, though.” Murasa complained grumpily. “We still can’t leave the compound unless it’s for missions. I’m bored out of my mind, Zetsu. We aren’t prisoners, soiled the crows. The capital is just a stone’s throw away and all we could do is to gaze at it?”  

Uncharacteristically, Zetsu said, “It wouldn’t be long now, Murasa. Be patient for a bit.”

“You, telling me to be calm? It must be raining frogs tomorrow.” Murasa feigned a mocking groan.  

“Talking about that, it’s coming up soon isn’t it? The examination to become a blademaster?” Zetsu fidgeted with the beaded bracelet on his wrist. His gaze was far off, and Murasa thought, somewhat worried.

“It is?” Murasa exclaimed, shaken out of his momentary reverie. “That soon?” The exam only came once every three years, open to both junior and senior apprentice tengus.

This is my moment. At last!

“It is on the month of your upcoming seventeenth birthday, if memory serves me right. Not that far off from your birthday, actually.” Zetsu noticed the flames of determination blazing up within Murasa’s eyes and groaned slightly.

“Hold your blasted wings. You aren’t actually thinking of taking the examination, aren’t you? Have you evil spirits muddled your mind or something?” Zetsu made a face as if he had swallowed something that had gone bad. “Even amongst the best of the elite tengus, only a handful of applicants managed to pass it last time. They say that you either passed and become a blademaster or you died. Horribly. You are out of your mind, Murasa.” 

“I have to do it, Zetsurou.” Murasa replied with a firm edge to his voice, using Zetsu’s full name. Zetsu made to reply, but drew himself up short. Murasa only referred to his full name extremely infrequently. When he does that, he meant business.

Besides, Zetsu felt a sense of absolute certainly in Murasa’s words. It was a kind of firmness that would not yield to any words he hurled at his friend, gone crazy or not.

This is why I became a tengu in the first place. Murasa felt his heart pounded with excitement and anticipation. His hands had clenched into fists by his side. This is my chance to show Master Tengu my appreciation. He had brought me into the order all those years ago and treated me like a son since…

Murasa looked on ahead with a gaze blazing with determination. I will pass this exam, and I will make him proud.  

While Murasa was still deep in his zealous aspiration, Zetsu mumbled, “You could’ve just waited another three gods forsaken years and become a senior apprentice, Murasa. You won’t end up being crow food that way.”

With a determined glint in his eyes, Zetsu looked up at his friend, “Alright, if I won’t ever persuade you, I’m going to take the crows blasted exam too. At least you should be safer if we take it together.”

Murasa gaze at his friend, aghast. He didn’t want Zetsu to have to take this risk alongside him, no matter what. Before he could open his mouth to protest, though, Zetsu cut him off.

“I’ll let you know that I have my own reasons to take this exam too.” In voice so soft Murasa could barely heard him, Zetsu whispered, “Kana is waiting for me too.”

Before Murasa and Zetsu could continue their conversation, a tolling of bells resounded across the compound. Murasa snapped to attention and sprinted off, Zetsu following close behind. Back at the courtyard, the battle master hollered some orders to the collection of novices, who promptly scattered.

“The southern border?” Murasa scowled as he strained to pick up the subtle variations in tune and rhythm of the clanging bells. “Weren’t  a squadron of tengu sent there just a few weeks ago?” The southern border of Rinho was bordered by Oni Kaigan, the land of the giants, so it was an area often sentineled by the tengus.

If it wasn’t a false alarm, that meant the oni are coming in more frequently and in greater numbers. They’re growing bold. That worried Murasa. Worried him a lot.

“It’s not just the southern border.” Zetsu cursed, his lips pressed into a grim line. “It’s the southeastern district. Morino town…”

Blasted Karasu! Murasa swore under his breath. His hand clutched furiously at the blade by his side. The Tanegawas!

With a shout he quickened his steps along the sunbaked thoroughfare. The compound’s main gate was just visible above the surrounding lower-tier buildings. “We must hurry!”

Almost a dozen tengu stood clumped at the base of the massive gate, prowling about in confusion and arguing fervently amongst themselves. The red feather emblem upon their lacquered armor marked them as junior apprentices, tengus of Murasa’s and Zetsu’s own rank. Besides them, stallions stomped and snorted idly, feeling the wave of fear and anxiety coming off from their masters.

“What happened here?” Murasa swept his gaze through the throng in a hectic search. He caught hold of a particularly young apprentice to answer his question. “Where are the blademasters?”

“All of our available blademasters are gone for training deep in the Kakuri mountains.” The young tengu whimpered, his voice quivering with apprehension. “The elders and Master Tengu went with them.”  

“How about the senior apprentices?” Murasa persisted. His clutch on the young apprentice’s arm was so tight that the man cried out in pain. He shook the young man and bellowed, “Where are the senior apprentices!”

“Stop it!” Another tengu barged in and wedged himself between Murasa and the young tengu.  “There was a distress call from the northwest.” The newcomer supplied, his face haggard, “All of our available men went to answer the call.”

“Blasted deities.” Murasa swore fervently. The blademasters, and after them, the senior apprentices, are supposed to be the ones to lead them on strike missions against the oni.

If I wait for them, it’ll be too late. Murasa’s scowled deepened. A deep nauseating sensation gnawed at his insides.

Murasa glanced at Zetsu, who seemed as apprehensive as he felt. No one seemed to be in charge of the group of apprentices tengus. They prowled restlessly, the men ready for battle but not exactly sure of what to do next. Someone had to step up and lead them…

Blasted gods, I guess I had to be the one. With a sigh, Murasa raked his disheveled hair with his fingers and turned to face the squadron of tengus.

“Brothers,” He began, his voice tight and strained with urgency, “a distress call had gone up from the Morino town district. We couldn’t wait for the blademasters or senior apprentices to return, lest risk the lives of those townspeople.” With a single leap Murasa was atop a stallion. He raised his fist to the sky and hollered. “So who’s with me?”

It was responded with a raw-throated cheer very much like his own.

They rode in silence, accompanied only by the clomping of hooves across the muddy fields. For two days straight, the tengus rode without pause, pushing their stallions onward until they were foaming by the mouth.

As the town of Morino appeared over the horizon, a hellish keen set the skin on the back of Murasa’s neck prickling.

“Hurry!” He readied the blade by his side and pitched the stallion into a headlong charge. Behind him, Murasa could hear Zetsu and the other tengus in the squadron went into full gallop. Racing toward the town of Morino, where the oni awaited them.

 

Thump

Thump

Thump

The ground shook with each step. They are getting closer…

Tomoya pressed himself against his grandmother and whimpered. The old woman stroked his hair. She whispered to him with the same soothing voice he’d often heard when he scraped his knees, or when his dreams were plagued with nightmares. Even as he hugged her, however, Tomoya knew that his grandmother was trembling.

Surrounding them were hundreds of other families, huddled together in this emergency underground bunker. The chamber wasn’t large, and as the ragged bodies pressed against one another, the stank of sweat and urine pervaded Tomoya’s nostrils. There were low murmurs coming in from every direction; prayer to the gods, curses and frightful arguments, and tearful sobbing.

Behind him, his father was busy calming his baby sister, who broke into a wail as the thumping neared. In truth, Tomoya wanted to break into a wail too.

“Mama,” He turned to his mother, who had grandpa asleep upon her lap. Grandpa had fainted as they came into the shelter, after the strenuous run they had made toward the place. I hope he will wake up soon. “Will we be alright?”

“Oh, my poor boy.”  She gingerly moved in and wrapped both her mother and son in a tight embrace. Tomoya saw his mother’s eyes glistened with tears, and a drop of it fell down to wet his cheeks. “We will be alright, Tomoya. We will.”

“The tengus will be here, grandson.” His grandmother reassured, her voice gentle yet steady, “I just pray that they will be here in time.”

At that moment, the earthen roof came tumbling down. Humus and debris rained over him, and the sudden exposure to light almost blinded Tomoya. When he finally glanced up, he met a pair of glowing crimson eyes. The oni grinned and howled in triumph. Thick globs of saliva dripped down from its serrated fangs, and Tomoya screamed.

Murasa was several blocks away when the giant smashed a house to splinters. He stared in horror as it started digging through the earth beneath the rubble. There was a hungry gleam in its eyes, and the oni suddenly roared in triumph.

Blasted crows. Murasa’s eyes widened. The underground bunker! As he charged, the oni reached into the bunker and withdrew a small figure, clutched within the vastness of its palm. It was a young boy, not much older than five. Blood flowed freely from the wound on his head.

Murasa went for his blade, leaving only his left hand holding on to the rein. Suddenly, the stallion tripped on some unseen obstacles, its legs snapping with a loud crack. The beast collapsed under its own weight, and pitched Murasa forward. He flew, wings halfway extended…

… and slammed right into the giant’s face.

It cried out in shock and pain, and let the boy fell freely from its grasp. Murasa gritted his teeth and held onto the oni’s horn as it thrashed frenziedly, knocking down a few houses in the process. His feet only narrowly evaded its snapping fangs as he swung to and fro.

Crows soil on those instructors. Murasa clutched the horn with both hand and hauled himself onto the oni’s head. This is so much harder than those oni tactical drill classes! He drew back his nodachi and aimed it for a strike at the base of the neck. Before he could plunge in the blade, the oni hollered and break into a mad stampeded.

The earth rumbled as Murasa desperately clung onto the giant by a tuft of its hair. Forceful gales whipped against Murasa and threatened to throw him off. The clump of hair was oily, and his white-knuckled grip started to sip and give away. That was when he glimpsed Zetsu charging across town, galloping straight into the oni’s path.

“Zetsu!”
 

Zetsu glanced up and their eyes met. The two nodded their heads simultaneously.

The oni swung its head and Murasa loosed his grip, falling backwards and off the giant. It lifted its feet to stomp at Zetsu and his mount. As the shadow of the enormous feet fell, Zetsu leaped, and the stallion was reduced to a ruptured pile of gore beneath him. The giant swept its hands at the soaring tengu. Zetsu dodged it by a hairsbreadth, its claws almost scraping the tip of his wings, and shot forward. Zetsu’s arm moved in a blur, scoring a shallow cut along the giant’s ribs. The oni howled and swatted at the tengu, but he had flown off by then.

The cut was shallow, barely able to make the huge creature bleed, but that was never its intended purpose. The oni turned to pursue Zetsu, reaching out its hand for the tengu. Murasa swept down from behind and with a roar, rammed his blade into the giant’s neck. Blood gushed down the huge blade as it severe the oni’s spinal cord. The giant stumbled for a few steps, then collapsed with an earth-shaking thud.

A cloud of dust rose up to greet the other tengu as they arrived. They swiftly dismounted and armed themselves as a deafening roar rose up from behind Murasa. Several oni were charging towards them, howling with such ferocity that the younger tengus winced and backed away. They promptly snapped to attention under Murasa’s bark,

“Tengus. Take off!” The squadron of tengus sprinted forward and shot into the sky. They dove straight for a gap between a pair of oni. Around them, the wind whistled and whipped against Murasa’s armored form, plastering his hair to his forehead.  

As the row of crow-winged warriors flew, Murasa swept his hand in a brusque cut.

“Split formation. Engage enemy forces!”

With the corner of his eyes, Murasa noticed tengus on his right veering off to face the second oni.

Survive, brothers!

He roared a battle shout as his own group engaged the first monstrosity.

“Bring the net!”

A pair of tengus hauled forth a massive weighted net and threw it into the oni’s face. The ensnared giant howled in rage and struggled to tear it away. The two tengus drifted fluidly with the tremendous force of the pull. As the oni let down its guard, the pair abruptly shot past one another and snapped the net taut over the giant’s face.

Sword in hand, Murasa glanced at Zetsu, who hovered beside him, and nodded. Zetsu nodded in turn and dived down at the scarlet monstrosity. The two tengus that were holding their net against its face were grunting with the effort. One faltered, and the oni’s hand closed around his winged, writhing form.

Murasa heard a sickening crunch, and bile rose at the back of his throat, threatening a vomit. He howled as he swooped, dragging the full length of his blade across the giant’s abdomen. He felt muscles, fat, and sinews gave way as he split open the oni’s stomach.

Above him, his friend cleaved similarly, forming a cross over the vast abdomen. Entrails and brownish blood erupted from the cut, bathing the tengus in a shower of pulp and gore.

“Murasa! Are you all right?” Zetsu drifted up from the corpse of the oni, his blade stained a deep crimson. Murasa made no reply. He stared blankly at the mangled body of the tengu crushed within the oni’s grip.  

He wearily landed upon the roof of a nearby building. I’ve failed them. He bent over, clutching at his stomach. I’ve let them here to their deaths. I’ve failed them. Murasa vomited, then vomited some more until his eyes stung. He remembered the nauseating sound as the tengu was crushed, and his disfigured remain afterwards, and the contents of Murasa’s stomach continued to gush out.

Zetsu wordlessly stood by his side and patted Murasa’s back as he retched.

“It’s not your fault, Murasa.” The tengu rasped, his voice strained and weary. “You did your best in leading us here. Without you, everyone left in this town would have been slaughtered.”

“I know, Zetsu.” Murasa stood up, his eyes red-rimmed but without tears, “I know.”

Murasa scanned the town’s perimeter for the second oni. As he watched, an arrow slammed into its eye, blinding the giant instantly. Other missed shots raked across its cheeks, lips, and ears. Perched on the roof of a building nearby, a clump of tengus were busy loosing arrows at the howling monstrosity. The oni swatted blindly at the air in front of its face, vainly tray to block any more projectiles.

Struggling as it was, the oni didn’t sense a pair of tengus creeping up from behind it. They shot past one another, whipping their blades across the giant’s hamstrings in bright silvery arcs. The hulking brute keened horribly as it fell down on both knees, blood gushing down from its back thighs. Defying the ear-piercing howl, a tengu swooped down at the oni and plunged his blade into its heart.

“Murasa-mara,” a young female tengu approached him. Her armor was damaged, and her bandages were seeping blood eve now. “The immediate enemy threat had been dealt with. Six oni were slain, while two had escaped into the woods. We had found the townspeople hidden in their underground bunker, of most were unharmed.”

“Good work,” Murasa turned to the tengu, his tone crisp and business-like, “Were the teams able to identify the location of the oni raiding party?”

“Yes, mara,” the young apprentice replied energetically, “from the tracks the oni had left, along with their usual traveling distances, we figured that their campsite should be located a few miles to the south.”

“The southern bamboo forests.” Murasa’s eyes alighted in recognition. He had been there a couple of times along with the Tanegawas, hauled along during one of their many family picnics. “It’s possible, the area is sparsely populated enough for an oni raiding party to pass through unnoticed.”

“They killed Sanade. Those horned yokai-spawns will pay for this.” Zetsu growled vehemently, “We ride to this whatever bamboo forest, fly in, and we gut those yokai-spawns right now.” The tengu’s eyes were hard, his hand clutched white-knuckled around the hilt of his sword. “Who’s with me!”  

“Shut up, Zetsu.” Murasa snapped. Zetsu glanced up at him in indignation, only to look straight into Murasa’s harsh stare. Zetsu’s gaze wavered as Murasa barked, “I said. Shut up!” The other tengus around them, huddled just at the edge of hearing, were shocked into silence. Even the groans of injured men seemed subdued after Murasa’s strident command. Zetsu bristled and pressed his mouth into a grim line.

He hated seeing his friend like this, and liked speaking to him like this less, but Murasa did what he felt was necessary. He couldn’t leave Zetsu to his own hot-tempered devices. Not now, when so many of their lives are at stake.

I am not prepared to lead as it is. Murasa pondered as his brows furrowed. Please don’t make this even harder, Zetsu.

“At least for today, I am your commander.” Murasa continued, staring straight at Zetsu, a hand upon the pommel of his sword. “I won’t let your temper get us all killed.” At this, Murasa’s gaze softened. He knew his friend, and understood his train of thought more than anyone else.  

The gods knew I felt the same.

Murasa gave his friend and pleading look, and silently prayed, Please don’t make this harder than it already is, Zetsu. If you truly are my friend.

Zetsu nodded, his gaze softening as if in mutual understanding. Murasa’s relief was palpable. I’m sorry, Zetsu. When the other tengus weren’t looking, Murasa silently mouthed to his friend, I’ll make this up to you later. Alright?  

Zetsu nodded curtly in reply, and mouthed, Ramen… at Ichiya’s store. Extra pork and toppings.

Murasa almost broke into an involuntary grin, and that was enough to alleviate some of the strain inside him. Thank you…

Murasa turned to the scout tengu, who too seemed relief at the lift of the sudden tension. “We’ll attack the oni in the midst of night, while they’re resting.”

Murasa scanned the face of all of the remaining men of the squadron. The first ever group of men he had ever led. The tengu roared until his throat felt raw,

“We will show those yokai-spawns not to mess with the tengus!” He remembered the mutilated form of the tengu crushed within the oni’s grip, and his eyes smoldered with rage.

There was a thunder of cheers, and Murasa gestured at the battle-tested giant slayers around him.

 “Get the horses. We ride for the oni’s camp!”


© Copyright 2019 S. K. Inkslinger. All rights reserved.

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