(IP) Tengu

The warrior sat on the bridge, the lantern hanging from the hilt of his katana casting swinging shadows on the gurgling water below.His head was bowed, his face obscured by the straw hat he wore, but it failed to hide his hair, brown curls. He was so quiet that even his breathing couldn’t be heard. “I wish I hadn’t had to do it,” He murmured in a harsh, raspy whisper. He was holding a round object in his hand. Upon closer inspection, one would realize that it was the head of an oni, a grinning demon with red skin and yawning black eyes, and the warrior sighed, shaking his head. If he could, he would stay here forever, silently mourning the creatures he’d had to slay. Even if they weren’t human, didn’t have souls, they’d still existed. And even after all this time, he still felt remorse.It was one of the things he’d prided himself upon most. He was still capable of feeling, and that meant that he could not hang up his weapons yet. Besides, he was still young, and he’d known what he’d signed up for, even if it meant compromising almost everything he’d ever known.He was broken from his maudlin thoughts by the clatter of shoes on stone, and he looked up, frowning and tucking the head back into his pack, the bright jewel in its forehead glinting dimly in the light.“Tengu! What in the gods’ names have you been doing out here? It’s late!” A girl’s voice, bright and flute-like, broke the silence as she skidded to a halt beside him. “You need food, and rest. You can’t keep running yourself this ragged.” She sat beside him, as fluid and graceful as her companion, folding her legs beneath her. The fine material of her kimono glimmered in the lantern light, shifting like firelight.“The innkeeper’s wife asked me to patrol for an hour or so,” He replied, a bemused grin pulling at the edges of his full, feminine mouth. “She said that she’s been having trouble with patrons disappearing and asked me to check it out.” “Anything?” She asked, though her mind was more on dining; as to give her away, her stomach grumbled angrily. “Not so far. Don’t worry; I just need a few more minutes, and if all’s clear, we’ll go inside and have dinner. I have to make money somehow.”“What do you think could be out there, Tengu?” Her long dark hair was piled in a messy bun at the nape of her neck, and she leaned into him, putting her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know,” He admitted, shrugging slightly. “It could be a lot of things.” He left it at that; he didn’t want his younger friend to be privy to all the things that lurked in the shadows, nightmares made real. He would never forgive himself if he, of all people, shattered his ward’s innocence. He could handle his own self being compromised, but he was intensely protective of Yuki, even after he’d taken this mad chase as a job.The pair sat together for a few more moments, then Yuki stood up first, holding a hand out to her friend. “All right, come inside. We need to eat, you especially.” She wasn’t wrong on that score; he’d been so vigilant in his patrol that the food had been the last thing on his mind. “All right,” He replied, taking her hand and standing up. His stomach gurgled at the thought, and his mouth watered as they entered the inn.The innkeeper’s wife was standing at the bar, and she smiled at the pair as they entered. “Did you find anything by chance, sir?” She asked Tengu as they approached.“No, nothing for now. All’s quiet,” He reassured her, smiling and taking off his hat; he didn’t believe in wearing his hat indoors. “Could we get some food, please, ma’am?” Yuki piped up from next to him, her arm hooked through his as if she were afraid that he would vanish if she let go.“Of course you can.” The woman replied, holding out two menus for them to look at. Tengu reached for the pouch of coin that rested against his hip, but she shook her head. “Oh no, you don’t pay here, warrior. Your money isn’t accepted here. You’ve already done me a great service, keeping vigil over my establishment. I insist your meals are free.”“But–”“No buts. I insist.” Her eyes flashed, and Tengu sensed that, whatever he wanted, it wouldn’t matter. This kind, generous woman had already made up her mind, and who was he to refuse her? Yuki gave her the order, and she disappeared back into the kitchen to give it to the cook. When the door swung open, the delectable aromas of ginger, orange, garlic, and pepper wafted toward them.“Gods, I’m hungry,” Yuki murmured, fighting to stifle a yawn. Tengu nodded in agreement; if it hadn’t been for his rigorous training, he’d be nodding off too. But they would sleep after they filled their empty stomachs.“Are you sure there isn’t anything out there?” Yuki asked in a low whisper. “I’ve been… Sensing something. But I can’t put my finger on what it is, exactly.” “I don’t know. I’ll check again tomorrow, at sundown, if that makes you feel better. But for now, let’s focus on resting.” Indeed, he’d been holding vigil for nearly eight hours, and was ravenous, though he’d never actually admit it. “We’ll be okay."Their conversation was interrupted by a slim serving girl, balancing trays on her arms carefully, laden with dishes. "My lady insists that you not pay, and eat as much as you like. She also sent along a bottle of her oldest rice wine,” She winked at Yuki, who beamed, her cheeks flushing scarlet. “Please do let me know if you need anything else,” She added, then left them to their meal.There was rich, fragrant miso soup, with mushrooms floating in a clear broth, shredded lamb over black rice, vegetable dumplings with dark, salty soy sauce, delicate duck in rich, fruity plum sauce, fried chicken laden with black garlic, beef curry with mangoes and cardamom, and for dessert, red bean cakes with symbols of protection iced on the top of them, drizzled with honey syrup. It was a magnificent feast, and the pair dug in with relish, famished. They ate every bit of food, and soon Tengu’s bed was calling him. But he couldn’t get up just yet; it was all he could do not to untie his robes; he was feeling a little bloated, like he’d eaten too quickly.Suddenly, Yuki sprang up from her chair, all drowsiness leaving her features. “Tengu! There was something outside, its eyes were glowing–” She was talking so fast that he could barely understand her.“What are you talking about, Yuki? Are you sure that your mind isn’t playing tricks on you?”“Yes, I’m sure! Look!” She cried in reply, pointing to a fogged over window. With a chill, Tengu realized that his ward was right; he couldn’t see it very clearly, but there was indeed a pair of eyes, glinting bright like rubies, staring in at them. But before the warrior could even reach for his blade, the creature turned and disappeared, the only remnant of its presence a wide, long-fingered handprint on the window.