LESSONS IN BLADE AND BARRIER
by Siobhan Gallagher
The blade surged forward, more lightning than steel. The very air went dense with static. Izo tumbled more than dodged, leaped quickly to his feet, but found his balance off. There on the ground was his right forearm, clawed fingers clenching his katana.
“No,” he gasped, throat suddenly dry. This couldn’t be real, just couldn’t. He didn’t feel anything missing. Eyes squeezed shut, he used his left hand to probe where his right forearm should be. His hand came away wet. He put two clawtips to his mouth, tasted iron and salt.
Only then did he cry out.
“That was sloppy of you,” Master Takumi said, wiping his bladed forelimb on his hakama. He resumed his praying posture as if nothing had occurred; no expression on his mantis-face.
Izo clutched his stump. With the realization came a throbbing so intense it made him dizzy, took all his effort to keep standing. In the forest background something snickered.
“You should sit down,” Master Takumi said.
“Why?!” he yelled through clenched teeth.
Master Takumi tilted his head. “Why sit down?”
“No! My arm!”
Master Takumi took a moment to acknowledge the missing limb. “It’ll grow back.”
“Painfully,” Izo muttered.
“Better pain than death.” Master Takumi moved in slow, deliberate steps. The large sleeves of his kimono hid his deadly forelimbs. In less than a blink, he snatched up the fallen forearm, pried the katana from its grip and handed it to Izo, hilt first. “Now you can practice with your left arm.”
Izo wiped his hand on his chest before grudgingly accepting the sword. The snickering grew louder, more irritating, as if humiliation wasn’t enough.
“Your master has been too soft on you,” Master Takumi said. “No student of mine would stumble like that.”
Izo weighed the katana in his left hand, found his balance wanting. More than anything he wanted to cleave that mantis-face in two. His master had insisted he visit Master Takumi, that his swordsman training wouldn’t be complete without a mantis’ teachings. Ha! Now what good was he? It would be weeks before his arm grew back, and all he had was practice with his left arm. He hoped his master choked on his sake tonight.
And that damnable snickering… Why wouldn’t it stop?
“Shut up!” he yelled.
Silence, then– Blinding white. He stood petrified with fear, forgetting his lost arm as heat passed over him. Oh gods, don’t let it be an ill omen! He’d had enough bad luck for today.
The light died. Vision returned slowly through tears and black spots. A ball of white fire hovered over Master Takumi’s shoulder. Izo pointed with his katana, but found no words; his jaw worked around a tongue gone dry.
“It’s just an onibi,” Master Takumi said. “It likes to have its fun.”
Within the onibi’s sphere, shadowy faces flickered–a mournful expression, a look of terror. Izo took a step back, careful not to stare directly at the onibi. Rumor had it an onibi could suck a soul clean from a body that got too close, and in no way was he going to confirm this.
“Little lizardling doesn’t seem to like me,” the onibi said between chuckles.
Little?! The nerve of this ball of noxious spirits! If he had both his arms…
“That’s enough,” Master Takumi said. “If you will, please go to Izo’s village and inform Master Kenta that his pupil will be staying with me for the night.”
“What? I didn’t agree–” He winced at the stabbing pain, had to sheath his sword and clutch at the stump.
“Your wound needs to be cleaned and dressed. I won’t send you back bleeding all over.” This brought another wave of snickering. Master Takumi shooed the onibi. “Go on.”
“Very well, I’ll return shortly. You promised me tea, after all.”
“Only if you heat the water.”
The onibi winked out, leaving behind a burning afterimage.
As they walked to Master Takumi’s hut, avoiding rocks, fallen branches, or anything else that might trip him, Izo said: “You keep strange company.”
“All company is strange,” Master Takumi said, “yours included.”
Izo nearly spilled his tea when he heard the news from the onibi.
“What do you mean it’s gone?” he hissed.
“Vanished. Gone. Nothing.” The onibi hovered over the tea pot, extended flame tendrils to lift the lid. “Oooh, lovely smelling green tea.”
“With jasmine.” Master Takumi sat across from Izo, tea cup held by fingers protruding from the joint above his bladed limb.
Izo slammed his cup down, sloshing hot liquid all over his hand. “Ah! Dammit!” He shook his hand. Bad luck indeed. An akuma must’ve visited him in his sleep last night.
The onibi rolled around, laughing.
Izo threw his cup at the obnoxious fireball–missed, cup smashed on the back wall. “Shut up! I’m tired of you. You are either lying or the worse prankster ever.”
Master Takumi gently set his cup down, breathed a sigh. “I understand your concern, Izo. We’ll investigate in the morning.”
“In the morning?! That might be too late! We have to go–” A sharp pain erupted from his left shoulder. The world spun, blackened, came back into focus with an awful throb, as if his back was being massaged with hot coals.
Master Takumi stood over him in his prayer position. “You need to calm down. We’ll go in the morning. Right now, rest.”
Rest, ha. How could he rest with all this pain? Or with the thought that his village might be gone?
The onibi seemed to have a solution to this: it blew itself up to half his size, and within its flame was the silhouette of a female–he wasn’t certain what kind, but pleasing to the eye. The silhouette danced, rhythmic steps, curves swaying, arms spread, ready to embrace.
There was a girl with pretty ebony eyes and scales of teal back in his village, and he imagined being wrapped snug in her arms. It made the pain a bit more bearable as he daydreamed into sleep.
As Master Takumi said, they set off in the morning. What Master Takumi didn’t say was that the onibi would be tagging along.
“Why is that coming?” Izo asked, pointing a claw at the soul-sucking fireball.
“Why not?” the onibi said, circling both him and Master Takumi. “I’m just as curious. After all, it’s not every day that a village disappears.”
“I see no harm in this,” Master Takumi said, and resumed their walk along the trail.
Izo gritted his teeth, but said nothing. He already hurt enough, didn’t want to start an argument that would end with him on his back.
The walk took the better part of the morning, but it already felt like afternoon with the sun bearing down. His grass hat didn’t provide enough shade to keep him cool. By late morning they’d made it to the hill that guarded his village. It was far too steep for him to climb with his one-armed balance, so they took the long way around.
“On any other day I would make you climb that hill,” Master Takumi said.
“Why does it have to be another day? Today is as good as any other,” the onibi chimed in, and Izo swore he saw a smirk in its flames.
“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” he growled at the onibi.
“You’re just grouchy.”
Maybe now would be a good time to practice with his left hand–the onibi was certainly within sword’s reach. How unfortunate that out of habit, he was wearing his katana on his left.
“Does it seem quiet?” Master Takumi said.
It did. Even on a day of prayer there were wheels grinding, trickling water, squawking chickens and grunting pigs. But now it was only the breeze and the rustling of grass. Izo charged ahead. It couldn’t be true, the onibi had to be lying.
Beyond the hill the ground was completely blank, as the village had been erased from existence. Izo ran; feet stomping, eyes watering, pain searing his side. As with his arm, he had to reach out, to feel that his village really wasn’t there.
He collapsed where once had been a barn, shuddering, gasping. Gone! All of it. Friends, family, even Master Kenta. What was he supposed to do? What–
A strong grip lifted him by his good arm, forced his mouth open to pour water down his throat. He gagged, coughed, sputtered most of it out. When he could stand straight again, Master Takumi was in his prayer posture.
“You were overheated.” Master Takumi indicated the empty water gourd at his feet.
Izo shook his head, gaze downcast. Couldn’t bear the sight of this barren land. Oh gods, why? The weight in his chest was too much, the pain too great. He sank to the ground, trying not to cry before Master Takumi. All he could do was hang his head between his drawn-up legs.
Master Takumi grabbed his left foot and jerked it up.
“Hey!” He struggled, flailing his arm to keep from falling over.
Master Takumi scraped some jelly residue from the sole of his foot, put it to his mandibles. “Slug magic,” he murmured, then released Izo’s foot.
Master Takumi nodded. “They always leave a trail.”
“But why my village? We’ve never harmed them!”
“They’re the lowliest of life forms. They have no reason save spite.” Master Takumi straightened up, looked about. “We must go back for my salts.”
“But my village!”
“The slugs likely have it, them and their wicked sorcery. Only thing to overcome such taint is salt. I know.”
Izo sat there, speechless. Things were happening so fast. Just yesterday he had two arms! Now his village might be in the slimy hands of slugs, and Master Kenta hadn’t taught him how to fight mollusks. What good was he?
“Stop moping. Come.” Master Takumi reached out.
As much as he resented the words, they were true: sulking wouldn’t help. Still, he wanted this to be a dream, to wake up and find all his limbs intact and a village to go home to.
As he took the outstretched limb the onibi whizzed past, nearly knocking him over. Everything seemed intent on putting him down today. Grumbling, he stood with Master Takumi’s help.
The onibi bobbed frantically, intent expressions within its flame. “Something’s changed.”
“What do you mean?” Master Takumi asked.
The onibi didn’t answer, and in its silence, Izo became aware how still the air was, how the sun wasn’t as hot, that the day felt more late afternoon than late morning. What was going on?
“Come,” Master Takumi said with more urgency, tugging on Izo’s good arm.
Izo nodded, joined Master Takumi as they rounded the hill and–smack! He staggered back, felt like he’d been punched in the face and chest. Master Takumi recovered first, extended his forelimbs till some invisible barrier stopped him, then drew himself up, bladed forelimbs ready to attack. Slash-slash. Where he’d struck the barrier , shimmering slash marks soon faded.
“We’re trapped!” Izo cried.
“Shush. I’m thinking.” Master Takumi went into his prayer posture.
The onibi rammed full force into the barrier, and splattered into a hundred flaming fragments. The scattered flames crawled back together, squirmed into a ball. “That,” it muttered, “was a terrible idea.”
“So what are we to do?” Izo asked.
“Start digging,” the onibi grumbled.
“I wasn’t asking you.” He glared up at the stupid fireball. “Why don’t you try burning us a hole?”
“Quiet, you two,” Master Takumi said. He tapped along the barrier, seeking a gap. It was as good an idea as any and Izo joined in. His claws brushed against solid nothingness, sent a static shrill up his arm. What odd magic, and for what purpose? Why trap them?
And for that matter, why take his village?
He stopped to watch the onibi bounce along the barrier. This had all started with the onibi’s message–or was it bait? Then it had followed them for the weakest of reasons–or was it making sure they fell into the trap? Maybe it was waiting till he and Master Takumi were too tired and weak to fend off a soul-sucking fireball.
He side-stepped over to Master Takumi and whispered, “I think the onibi has tricked us.”
“Why would you say that?” Master Takumi didn’t turn his way, or even pause in his tapping.
“How can we trust the onibi? It eats souls.”
“And you think the onibi is working with the slugs.”
Master Takumi touched his stump, making him wince. “Bandages are wet.”
“I don’t care.” He pulled away. “Could you at least take me seriously?”
“Your seriousness would divide us when we need to work together. Your master has failed to teach you this point.”
“At least Master Kenta never cut my arm off,” Izo said through gritted teeth, his remaining hand balled into a fist.
“If we ever get out of here and find your village, perhaps I’ll discuss teaching techniques with Master Kenta. Till then, let’s not fight each other.”
“I’m not fighting,” Izo hissed. “I just want to know. Tell me why the onibi can be trusted!”
“The onibi doesn’t require the help of slugs to suck our souls. It can do that whenever it wants.”
“Then why us? Why my village?”
“Not us. Me.”
“I suspect this was a trap for me. They knew you had come to me for training, so they kidnapped your village to draw me out.”
“So this is your fault?!”
Izo rammed his fist into the barrier, instead of into Master Takumi. Searing agony seized his arm. He lost all awareness of his body, just him and his arm floating in a fiery abyss. Senses returned slowly, his screaming became a hoarse croak. The barrier had gelled around his fist and it was crawling quickly up his arm.
Master Takumi was poised to chop his arm off.
“No!” Izo pulled and yanked, but his arm was trapped.
He didn’t see it happen–maybe he blinked–but now Master Takumi’s forelimbs were caught in the gunk. Worse, Master Takumi was pushing into it. Izo struggled back as Master Takumi was drawn in, then through. Master Takumi popped from the barrier in his own isolated bubble, posed in prayer. Master Takumi was brave, Izo would give the mantis that much.
A dark form emerged from the nearby forest, moving with all the slowness of a dead mule. Of course it was a slug, the slimy bastard. Master Takumi’s bubble rolled to face the slug, and the slug’s black maw flapped open and closed as it laughed.
When the slug threw back its cloak, Izo saw that it wore a medallion around its fat no-neck. No, not a medallion. A globe with a miniature village–his village!
He pushed with his right side against the barrier, as if his very rage could break through, but all he did was twist his stuck arm. His bloody bandages smeared the barrier, stump bleeding anew. A dizziness fell over him.
“What are you doing making a mess when Master Takumi is in trouble?” the onibi said from above.
“Shut up!” He leaned his forehead against the barrier, now oddly cool, trying to keep from passing out. The barrier was sizzling where his blood had touched it. He felt the faintest breeze… was his blood weakening the barrier? He pressed his stump against it–a wave of heat, sound of a thousand hornets buzzing in his ear–he pressed and bled and bled some more. The barrier spit and popped like water on hot coals. A breeze! He could feel it on the other side.
The onibi flicked a tendril out to capture a drop of blood, withdrew both tendril and blood into itself. “Salty.”
“How about helping?” Izo grumbled, wiggling his trapped arm.
“Oh, all right.”
The onibi lapped up blood directly from his stump–Izo cringed, expecting it to burn, but it tickled like goose feathers. Then the onibi spat the blood all over the gunk around his arm, and within moments the gunk sizzled off, and he was free!
Izo shook melting gunk from his left arm, and switched his sheathed sword to his right side.
“Better hurry, before the slug notices us,” the onibi said.
Izo looked up to see the slug’s tentacle eyes staring at them from over Master Takumi’s bubble. Crap! He clumsily drew his sword and winced as he touched the blade to his stump. A cry bubbled at the back of his throat; he choked it down, blinked back tears. His red-stained sword slashed the barrier, two, three, four times, hard and harder.
The slashes shimmered, sizzled, fell away. Fresh air blew in. Sword raised, he charged.
The slug muttered something unintelligible and threw up its arms. Izo tripped, sword went flying, his chin smacked the dusty ground . Couldn’t pull his legs apart. The gunk was around his ankles!
Quick!–he needed to hack it off. But his sword was out of reach. The slug oozed closer.
Fireball and sword flashed before him. The slug screeched and split right down the middle.
Exhaustion weighed Izo like a heavy blanket. He had to be jarred awake by Master Takumi, who helped him up.
“Well done,” Master Takumi said, and Izo’s heart lifted. “Sloppy, but resourceful.”
The onibi delivered him his sword and Izo asked, “Why didn’t you suck the slug’s soul?”
“Slug souls? Eck! No thanks.”
Then he remembered. “Did you see the slug wearing a globe around its neck?”
Master Takumi nodded and produced the globe from his sleeve. “Not sure how they shrunk your village. Their sorcery seems to be getting stronger.”
“Let me see that,” the onibi said, tendrils extended.
Izo was about to object–handing an entire village-worth of souls to that thing?!–but the onibi had saved him; and besides, it probably couldn’t get at the souls inside.
The onibi examined the globe and said, “Ah, I know of a yōkai who knows a yōkai who could reverse this. Free of charge if I call in a favor.”
“That would be appreciated,” Master Takumi said, bowing. And after a stern look from the mantis, Izo also bowed.
“Only if you make more tea.”
“There’ll always be a pot reserved for you.” Master Takumi then turned to Izo. “I could also reserve a spot to train you, Izo. You would make an excellent slug slayer.”
Slug Slayer… The title had a catchy ring to it, though he wasn’t sure if he’d even survive Master Takumi’s training.
“I’m honored, Master Takumi. But, uh, let me think on it after my arm grows back.”
“Very well. Let’s head back before anymore damnable slugs appear.”
The onibi raced on ahead while Master Takumi half-carried Izo. Slug Slayer, he thought dreamily. The girl with the teal scales would probably find that attractive, the sort of thing a lizard could carve a legacy out of. Yes, he looked forward to that, along with his right arm.
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