Sendo’s voice was drowned out by the sound of wood splintering and breaking, as the huge snake dove headfirst into the floorboards, straight into the spot that Kiyashi had been standing moments ago.
Now, Kiyashi was airborne, gracefully arcing over the scaley body of her target, a pole-vaulter over a bar.
Everything slowed down like an action movie sequence. From her position mid-air, Kiyashi could see nearly the whole interior of the building: the damaged floorboards, the splinters flying up, Sendo rolling away from the giant snake’s point of impact, the glimmer of the scales of the beast as it burrowed into the floor, tail whipping in the air, and the dark dust-like particles fluttering through the air as the bodies of the smaller snakes melted away.
In the next instant, she landed on an undamaged part of the floor, boots creaking against the wood. Putting a hand to the wall to steady herself, Kiyashi stood there, breathing heavily, confused at what her body had just done. She had never been one to be athletic and considered herself average in terms of flexibility.
She looked down at her right hand, gripping the katana. Her katana. It felt like an extension of her arm, like it had always been there. But yesterday, when she picked up the weapon, that was the first time she had even touched a katana. Yet, it was as if she had always had it. She felt as though she had found a missing piece of her body. However, that was something to ponder later. Bringing her left hand to the tsuka, Kiyashi looked up, her attention on edge for the snake.
Sendo’s voice sounded far away. Kiyashi spotted him across from her, the giant hole in the floor separating them. He had an arrow notched to his bow, and was picking off the smaller snakes that had continued to swarm about. Around Kiyashi, there were none; perhaps when she had gone airborne, they had all focused on Sendo who was still on the ground.
“Yes. How about you?”
“I’m managing fine. Don’t mind me; you need to go after that snake.”
“Right, the snake.” Kiyashi scanned the area for the snake but she could not see it. She edged towards the hole in the floor and peered in. And all she could see was a sea of glimmering green scales.
Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of red and the serpent’s tail shot up, wrapping around her leg. And before Kiyashi could shout, the tail pulled her down below the floor and threw her against the wall. She landed with a gasp, the breath knocked out of her. She struggled to stand up, the point of the katana shaking as Kiyashi tried to keep it aimed at the serpent.
The space below the floor had an equally tall ceiling as the main floor above did. Except this floor looked to be made of stone. Catching her breath, Kiyashi took a step towards the snake, her boots crunching on some gravel underfoot.
As she raised her katana in preparation to lunge forward at the giant snake, Kiyashi heard a voice in her head and her body froze.
Hunter, why do you hunt?
The voice was soft and almost a whisper. Dumbfounded, Kiyashi glanced around but there was no one else besides her and the snake. However, before she could ponder any further, the snake lunged forward. Kiyashi grit her teeth and jumped out of the way, again with her mysterious new athletic ability.
As she landed and began to parry the jabs from the snake’s tale, Kiyashi thought about the question that the voice had asked. Why did she hunt. It was her first hunt and her first assignment. And she had to hunt to survive in this world. Clear her norma daily and eventually leave this world. If the rumour that Yamato had mentioned was true. In short, she did not know.
To survive this, perhaps?
The blows from the serpent’s tail were like a hailstorm. All Kiyashi could do was parry and guard against them. The motions of the tail were a blur, and through that, the snake just watched Kiyashi struggle, ruby eyes shining in the gloom.
Suddenly, one jab passed through Kiyashi’s defence and whipped by her shoulder. She felt a stab of pain as the scales ripped through her clothing and made contact with her skin. It was like the scales were actually little blades. She ignored the pain and tightened the grip on her katana.
In the next instance, Kiyashi saw a window of opportunity appear. It was like the tail had slowed down and she could see the clear paths of where it would strike. Swallowing a ball of nerves that threatened to rise and envelop her, Kiyashi gave a cry and swung her katana. The blade made contact with scales and cut straight through the tail. The stump drew an arc of blood as it flew through the air. There was a loud hiss from the snake which sounded almost like a scream. As the serpent faltered, tail stump bleeding, Kiyashi jumped up onto its many coils and kicked off, running straight for the beast’s head.
The giant snake’s head lurched forward, scales gleaming, mouth open, fangs bared, but Kiyashi paid no mind. Right as the fangs were about to close around her, she jumped up, used the snake’s nose as a stepping stone, and landed between its eyes. Then raised her katana up, left hand on the kashira (pummel), and brought it down with all her might.
The blade entered the top of the giant snake’s head as if the scales were made of paper. A piercing hiss issued from the beast’s mouth and the coils convulsed. With that motion, Kiyashi lost her footing and was thrown from the top of the snake’s head, her katana still embedded in its head. Landing on her butt with a grunt, she watched helplessly as the snake thrashed about, convulsing in its death throes, with her katana pierced from the top of its head and protruding from the bottom.
Then, the giant beast stopped moving completely and went limp. Kiyashi watched as the shimmering emerald light of its scales slowly dimmed and then its entire body burst into a cloud of dust, bits fluttering down from the sky like flower petals. Kiyashi’s katana fell with a clatter to the ground. Kiyashi walked over and picked it up, returning it to its saya, and held out her hand. The dust melted away like snow as soon as it touched her gloved hand. It was strangely peaceful and Kiyashi stood there, in silence, strangely without emotion. Light from the floor above pooled around her, spilling in from the hole above.
“Kiyashi, target cleared?”
Sendo’s face appeared from above and called down to her. Kiyashi lifted her and nodded.
“Yeah, I just-“
But before the remaining words left her mouth, Kiyashi felt a pain she had never felt before, enveloping her and she fell, clutching at her arms, curling into fetal position. It was white hot, like an iron burning her entire body, all at once. She couldn’t breathe and could only gasp for air like a fish out of water. Then the whole blanket of pain rolled across her skin and flowed to pinpoint her right wrist. It now felt like someone was carving something into her skin with the tip of a knife. Her skin seemed to writhe and pulse, her blood boiling. Then, as suddenly as the pain had enveloped her, it receded, waves leaving the shore. She could breathe again.
The sensation of her skin being carved slowly waned and Kiyashi felt something moving on her wrist. Rolling onto her back, Kiyashi shakily lifted her right arm up. And felt bile rise to her mouth.
There was a ring of letters encircling her wrist, slowly moving under her skin. The letter strokes looked as though they were written with a quill and ink, the flourishes on the letters looking unnecessarily extravagant. As Kiyashi watched, the words slowly came to a halt and settled into their places. The sickening feeling passed and Kiyashi squinted her eyes to try to make out the words.
Green. Bejeweled. Worm. Her first target’s name. It was now etched into her skin. A permanent inky bracelet. With a sigh, Kiyashi let her arm drop and she lay there, feeling the cold stone on her back.
There was a series of bootfalls as Sendo came down the stone steps on the far end of the room. He came over and offered a hand to Kiyashi. Taking it, she got to her feet slowly, expecting the pain to still linger. But it had disappeared completely, as if it had never happened.
“Good job. One down, two more to go,” said Sendo.
Kiyashi managed a tired smile. “And three more for you.”
“You’re right about that.” Sendo smiled as well and nodded towards the hole in the ceiling. “Ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” responded Kiyashi.
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