Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part VII

There was the world of the humans and the world of the spirits. These two worlds rarely crossed. Of course, there were ghosts and hauntings and wild tales of mysterious things. But then, that was the way of the worlds. Sometimes crossings happened. Sometimes there was a reason. Sometimes not. The assassin did not spare much thought to the spirit world.

Those that did not fit neatly in either world were a different matter. The assassin considered them carefully. Only fools did not and they did not come out the other side of an encounter with the yokai intact.

The assassin watched the procession bobbing and weaving towards her and the tea house. It would have been beautiful, if the fire had been glowing lanterns floating down a calm river. But it was not. The assassin breathed in and out, steady and unhurried, with a pause between the inhale and exhale. It was the same pattern as if she were focusing an arrow upon an unsuspecting target. The space between breaths. That was the assassin’s place of calm, of planning, of waiting.

The individual yokai resolved themselves out of the night and the assassin, who was not the praying kind, prayed that the tea mistress and others heeded her warning and were not watching from the windows. It was not a sight for human eyes. The fire gleamed off red skin and eyes too large for human faces. Claws that promised deep scars and pain and wings that shimmered in colors indescribable. The oni were in the lead, followed by kappa and kamaitachi with the tengu circling behind. There were others, too many to see at once, but the assassin numbered them all. It would be unfortunate to meet them under the moon tonight.

The oni leading the procession stopped short when it saw the assassin leaning casually against the post as if she saw such things every night. A cry, hungry, rose from its throat and propagated down the line until the night was filled with shrieks and yowls that could cause white hair and frozen blood.

“What are you doing, human?” the oni said, pointing its torch at the assassin. “It is bad fortune to meet as this…for you.”

The assassin did not answer immediately, but pushed away from the post and cocked her head to the side in acknowledgement. It was not how she had planned to spend the night.

“We will give you a chance to run…the tea house is near.”

“The tea house is beyond your reach.”

Howls reverberated down the line. Nothing was beyond the reach of the yokai at night.

“You are on dangerous ground, human.”

The assassin looked down at her boots, travel stained with dust. The ground felt solid enough. It would do. “No.”

“No?” A look of confusion passed over the oni’s face. Those they found on the road rarely had the wherewithal to speak, yet alone argue.

“It is you who are on ground that is not yours for the taking.”

But before she finished speaking, the yokai surged as one, howling, towards the tea house.