Masami did not awaken at dawn the next day. Though Toshiro took her shoulders and shook her, called out to her, splashed cold water on her face, her eyes refused to open. In a panic, he checked her breathing. It was there, but shallow. Relief washed over him. At least she was still alive. He set about clearing up what camp he’d laid as he contemplated what to do. He’d have to carry her, that much was certain. Not impossible - he was a strong lad, used to hard work - but inconvenient. It would slow his progress badly, and he had no idea how far they were from Kurume. Take her back to Ichinomiya? No, that was even farther, and they would still be low on supplies. Forward it was. He’d find someone in Kurume who could help.
It was odd to Toshiro to see Masami in such a state. Her raven hair, normally kept controlled in a high ponytail, lay unkempt about her shoulders. Toshiro was sure he could see lines and creases in her face that hadn’t been there the day before. She was not a tall or large woman by any measure, standing barely over five feet. But her poise, her tenacity, had always made her seem larger than life. Unconquerable. Flushed and hardly breathing under the blankets, she suddenly appeared terribly small.
Toshiro knelt to remove the blankets. As he lifted her to free them, he caught a glimpse of her bandaged back and recoiled. The wraps were stained, not with the dull reddy brown of pooled blood, but a terrible green-tinged black. Toshiro could see more oozing from where the two terrible punctures ruptured her skin beneath the bandages. Slowly, to be sure. But the wounds were not closing.
He gritted his teeth and slung Masami over his back, not daring to remove the bandages. Not knowing whether he could stomach what he feared lay beneath. He pushed such thoughts from his mind. Newfound urgency now guided him. He thanked the gods his teacher was small of frame, and took off down the road. He did not stop, even as his muscles screamed for rest, even as morning turned to midday, and midday to evening. Only when the sun had cast its final rays for the day did he allow himself rest. No sooner than he had unfurled the bedrolls and wrapped Masami in her blankets did his legs give way. He crumpled to the ground, his breathing laboured, his brow and shirt choked with sweat.
Toshiro’s eyes widened. Someone was coming. Another monster? He reached for his sword, tried to bring himself to his feet. His body soundly refused to obey.
Another twig snapping. Whatever was coming, at least it wasn’t trying to be quiet. Toshiro wasn’t sure whether that thought was comforting. He scanned the sparse brush in the direction of the noise. Up the road. It was coming from the direction he was headed. He narrowed his eyes, focused on the crest of the sloping hill.
Finally, movement. A young woman crested the hill. She carried herself casually. Her pressed kimono and the tight bun she kept her hair in gave her a striking poise. Toshiro couldn’t help but notice the pair of swords at her hip; one long, like his, the other short and lithe. Should he call out? Perhaps she could help. Then again, what was she doing out here, alone in the monster-ridden countryside? She certainly seemed unconcerned; what if she was one of them? A shapeshifter - a kitsune perhaps - taking a friendly guise so as to get close.
His heart pounded in his chest so hard he was certain she could hear. But she made no indication she saw him or Masami, hidden as they were amongst the brush. She strode down the hill with some haste. In a moment, she would be upon them. Time to make the decision.
Toshiro called out “hello? Who goes there?”
If the woman was startled, she hid it well, though her hands slipped to the long blade. “Who calls from the shadows?” Her voice was proud, confident even.
“I mean you no harm. Believe me, if I could stand, I’d meet you fairly.” A rueful chuckle escaped Toshiro. “Please tell me you’re not some manner of evil spirit. I’ve had more than enough of those recently.”
“I am Yasuko Koji, envoy of Ichinomiya and student to the venerable Takeo the Lion. I ask again, who are you?” She scanned the brush, until finally her eyes landed on Toshiro. “And why are you lying in a bush?”
“Ah, well, I wasn’t kidding about not being able to stand. I’m Toshiro Fujioka, I come from a small village near Amagasaki. With me is my teacher Masami Hisakawa, though she is gravely injured. Please tell me we’re near Kurume.”
“Masami’s with you? A friend of hers is a friend of mine. And you’re in luck. I left Kurume this morning.”
Toshiro allowed himself a sigh of relief. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to help us get there? Masami is...hurt. Badly. And I don’t know if I can carry her the rest of the way alone.”
“Hurt how?” A flash of concern darted across Yasuko’s placid face. “To hear my master Takeo speak of her, I’d thought her just shy of immortal.”
“A demon came last night. Huge, and coiling. It resembled a mukade, the centipedes we have up in the mountains. But it must’ve been thirty or forty feet long, and thicker than the oldest tree. They fought terribly, I -” He hesitated. Should he tell her what he’d seen? What Masami had done to the thing, to herself?
He decided against it. “I saw them. The creature took all of her strength to defeat. See for yourself, I suppose.” With much labor, he managed to prop himself up on his elbows, nodding towards Masami.
Yasuko dipped her head and strode into the brush where the old samurai laid in her tenuous rest. She pursed her lips as she looked over Masami, noting her shallow breath, her unnatural stillness.
“Did it put its venom into her?”
“I think so. She had two huge punctures in her back, which dripped a terrible green liquid. Do you know how to heal her?” A tinge of desperation slipped its way into the boy’s voice.
“I do not. By all rights, she should have died within hours. I have heard of the creature you describe, from master Takeo. One of the greatest foes humanity faced in the old war. That she is still breathing is a miracle, something not feasible for a normal human.” The words were almost accusatory. “What manner of strength she must wield... well. I know a little.”
The woman nodded, slowly. “Bits and pieces. I am given to understand it is a terrible burden, and one given to her by the lord of the town to which you travel.”
“She mentioned as much.”
“You may find one who could aid her in Kurume. I would go with you, as you ask. My business in town did not end agreeably, for my cause at least.”
“We saw Ichinomiya.”
“A tragedy, no? But to alleviate our suffering does not seem Lord Kubo’s goal.”
“I’m sorry.” His voice was low.
“Whatever for? You did not bear the torch, did you?”
“No, but...” He gave her a pained look. “We weren’t even a day out of town when it happened. I just wish we’d been there.”
She shrugged, her intent impenetrable. “Many more sure balms lie within closer reach, yet fail.” Something in her voice betrayed her pain. She couldn’t have been much older than Toshiro. A woman wise beyond her years. A woman who had seen too much of the cruel side of the world.
Toshiro lowered his gaze. “Of course. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it.”
“It is nothing. And the hour is late. Sleep. There will be time to speak further in the morning, and we will both need our strength to carry Masami.” She unfurled a thin bedroll and blanket, slipping beneath.
Toshiro followed her example, thanking his lucky stars that he’d had the forethought to unpack his own before collapsing. He slept as only the truly exhausted and the dead can, dreamless and quiet. When he finally awoke, it was well past dawn. Yasuko stood nearby. Her light bag was already packed. Toshiro tested his legs. They were sore, but did not buckle or fail. He rose and gathered his belongings quickly.
He called out, “Miss Koji? I’m ready to go.”
Yasuko inclined her head. The two of them hefted Masami between their shoulders. She was wracked with fever, her skin a pallid grey. Beads of sweat clung to her brow despite the chill air. They left her in the blankets as they carried her. Toshiro stole a glance or two at Yasuko as they walked, trying to gauge her thoughts. But he could glean nothing from her stare, equal parts confidence, nonchalance, and stoicism.
Between them both, the burden was not too much to bear. They walked quietly for most of the day. Toshiro bit back the urge to ask how far they were exactly. He was soon gratified by sight. As they left the treeline, there before them sprawled Kurume.
The city dwarfed even Amagasaki. It must have spanned a dozen miles in any direction. Smoke rose from ten thousand chimneys, light spilled into the streets. High atop a spindly hill in the northeast of town stood a walled palace. Its angled roofs gleamed glossy black against the twilight sun.
Toshiro breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally. Thanks again, Miss Koji.”
Yasuko flashed a brief smile. “Don’t thank me yet. We still have to find a healer.”
He nodded, and they continued. By the time they reached the gates, the sun’s final rays had faded. They passed freely, for the guards recognized Yasuko from the previous day. They indicated a place where they might find a healer, and off they went, though they were weary from the travel despite each other’s aid.
The healer’s name was Hisa. A wizened old woman, she stooped under her years. She beckoned them in, making no mention of coin. A matter left for later, no doubt. She brought them wordlessly back to a small, sterile room. The woman gestured for them to lay Masami on the low cot within. Then, she set about her wordless work.
First she unwrapped the blankets, which had become sticky with blood and whatever else dripped from Masami’s terrible wounds. Then, the bandages. These she cut away. Toshiro and Yasuko turned to spare Masami her privacy. They heard the old woman shifting Masami, flipping her over to reveal her back.
“Ōmukade. When?” Her voice quavered, yet the words were as a command.
“Two nights ago,” Toshiro offered.
The woman pushed past Toshiro and Yasuko, turning when she reached the door. “She will die.”
Toshiro stared at here, aghast and enraged. “You won’t help her? What kind of healer are you?”
The woman shook her head. “No. I will help her. But she will die. Be prepared for that eventuality.”
With that she strode out the door. When she returned moments later, she bore with her all manner of tools and instruments.
“Wait outside. You do not wish to see what I intend to do.”
“And what might that be?” Yasuko spoke this time, as measured and reserved as ever.
“Suck the venom out. It is not pleasant. Wait outside.”
Toshiro shuddered. “Think I’ll take that advice.”
Yasuko followed. There was a bench in the front room, a waiting area of sorts. Toshiro sat, trying and failing to hide the worry on his face. Yasuko gently joined him.
“You really think she’s done for?” The boy’s voice was weak in his throat.
Yasuko pondered for a moment. “I am unsure,” she hummed. “Anyone else, no doubt. Her? Well. I would not abandon hope just yet.”
“How are you so...unaffected? Isn’t she your friend too? She’s certainly a friend of Takeo’s.”
Yasuko laughed softly. “Forgive me, I am accustomed to court and leadership. Believe me when I say that Masami’s situation worries me greatly.” She shifted, letting down her hair as she leaned back and sighed. For the first time, Toshiro saw some emotion cross her face.
“Wish I had your composure.”
“It is not as agreeable as it appears.”
“Still, it’s gotta be useful. But I won’t pry. Besides, we should talk about other things. I still have to repay you for your help, after all, and I’d like to know who I’m repaying. Masami spoke highly of you, when she mentioned you.”
“I am happy to tell. And I would learn of the farmhand who walks in the path of such a warrior.”
And so they spoke at length, Yasuko of her tutelage under Takeo and her prospects for taking over from him, Toshiro of his father and grandmother and his desire to be more. All the while the old crone did her gruesome work.
Masami floated in darkness. She opened her eyes, but could hardly tell the difference. She moved her arms. Water sloshed around them. Ah. Where else would she be? She drifted lazily in the mindscape, knowing she would find nothing in that empty, placid expanse.
But there was something there. Pain. Searing, indescribable pain as her whole body rebelled against the fiery venom that coursed through her veins. Fuck. Jiro?
Fuck. I’m really going to die.
There was no fear in her thoughts. Only disappointment and resignation. She called to mind the image of Kohaku as she had left them, their kind face smiling down at her, as they always had. I’m sorry, my love. I broke my promise. The waters rose, engulfing her until her nostrils began to fill.
And then a hand massive enough to flatten a house wrenched her from the pool, and she bolted up, awake, gasping for air.