Block high, step in and half-turn, cut low, dodge, block low, dodge, step in and find a sword against my neck.
Feint high, sidestep and cut left, cut left, dodge, cut right, sidestep, half-turn and cut high, and the sword taps against my side.
Cut high and the sword is already poking at my belly, as Kikuchi takes an unusually aggressive opening.
He beat me. He always beat me.
“Good work,” he says, once we’re done.
“Yeah,” I say, forcing a fake smile onto my face. “It was great.”
As I walk away, I cut viciously at a tree. A branch hits the ground a few seconds later as I walk away with a calm smile.
The next day, Kikuchi tells me there’s something I have to do, someone I have to fight. Not just me; a large group of us are going to take care of this. Kikuchi, me, and at least a dozen tengu, leaving in a few minutes.
He doesn’t tell me why we’re fighting, and I don’t ask.
It doesn’t take long to get ready. Not for me. Grab weapons, grab armor, and I’m ready to go. I always keep them close, anyway. A knife, a sword, a gun. The armor is just a set of reinforced motorcyclist’s leathers. It’s comfortable enough to sleep in, and I sometimes do.
I meet them a quarter of an hour in a clearing in the woods. There are a dozen tengu, none of whom I recognize. They aren’t important members of the court here. On a chessboard, they would be pawns.
And then there’s Kikuchi himself.
We make our way off the mountain, a phrase which has a much more complex meaning to a tengu than the literal meaning of the words would suggest. Mountains tend to act as confluences, gathering points for the currents of power that run through the mortal world. Tengu could use that power to support a coterminous domain on the Otherside, and to step from one to the other without even trying. From their perspective, there was no distinction between the mountain and the domain Kikuchi ruled.
Leaving the mountain, then, entailed both exiting the domain and getting far enough from the summit to be outside of the area of convergence. This fight is in the mortal world, then, in the city.
Probably we should ask the jarl for permission before starting a fight, there. It’s his territory, and not ours. Probably Kikuchi did ask, since his devotion to proper form is even greater than his ego. Probably.
I don’t ask whether he did or not.
Most likely he did, though, because there are cars waiting at the base of the mountain. The jarl is the sort of person who could easily arrange that sort of mortal convenience; Kikuchi is not.
After a short drive across the city, we reach the battlefield. It’s smaller than most, not much more than a shack. I know as soon as we get close what the enemy is, today. The stench of ghoul is distinctive.
We stop a short distance away and get out. The tengu begin stretching and warming up. Kikuchi gives me a look, and I know what he wants without a word said.
I step out of the car and into my other skin. As a fox, I’m even smaller than most kitsune, and that’s a high bar. Foxes as a whole aren’t known for their great size, but fennecs are the smallest variety by a fair margin.
It’s unusual for a kitsune to turn into a fennec rather than a red fox. Not as rare as a swift fox or Cape fox, but still quite unusual. In my youth, it had been a sensitive topic, to the point that even mentioning it could easily provoke me to violence. Since then, I had come to recognize that being small could easily be a weapon as well as a weakness.
The extreme difference in size make it easy for me to simply walk out of my clothing. I don’t expect any difficulty in sneaking up on the target. It’s dark, and I’m small, and I know what I’m doing.
I don’t move into the building. But even keeping a reasonable distance, I can gather a great deal of information. I can see signs of the ghouls, I can smell them, I can hear them. My hearing is very, very good.
At a guess, there are at least thirty of the ghouls in there, packed in like rats. Probably more. Odds re good they outnumber us by three to one. It isn’t remotely a fair fight.
I almost feel sorry for them.
I can’t find any hint that there was anything else in there. There’s no sign of defenses, no suggestion of a hidden exit. None of the things that Kikuchi had sent me to look for. I head back. I’m starting to get excited, now. I’m looking forward to this. Ghouls are a fairly basic opponent, fairly straightforward. But they’re strong, and tough, and not something to disregard completely.
I change back and start pulling my equipment back on. “Nothing special,” I say. “There are about thirty of them in there, I think. Doesn’t seem like they’ve done much to get ready for an attack.”
“Good,” Kikuchi says. “Let us proceed.”
Kikuchi leads as we close in. He couldn’t do otherwise; tengu culture does not allow one to lead from the rear.
However, I am the one directly behind him. I earned that position.
He opens the door neatly, rather than kick it in. It figures that he would do so. It also figures that they didn’t lock the door. Some ghouls are quite smart, but this particular group obviously didn’t put much thought into security.
Once inside, there are a few ways that things might go. The ghouls choose the worst of them when they rush Kikuchi as a mob.
He cuts down the first several in instants and continues walking straight forward at the same pace. I strike off to the left.
Step in, cut low, dodge, dodge, thrust high and a ghoul falls, its spine severed. Sidestep, cut low, cut high, dodge, half-turn and cut high, and another falls, missing several limbs. Feint high, feint low, cut high, and a third is decapitated.
They’re respectable opponents. They’re lethal.
But I’m stronger, faster, smarter, better than they are.
The fifth ghoul manages to duck under the sword, and connects with a swipe of its claw. It does no harm, but I’m still snarling as I step in and gut it.
Too slow, I think. Too slow, too weak, too clumsy.
I’m better. Just never quite good enough.