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

The yokai at the front of the pack appeared to hit an invisible wall before they reached the tea house porch. They were flung backwards, toppling those behind them. The howls morphed into cries and furious chattering. The tengu tried to fly to the tea house, above the others, but they too slammed into a barrier, falling on the pile of bodies below. They turned as one back on the assassin, who looked on, impassive.

“A wall?!”

“That language is not yours to use!”

“How dare you?!”

“It is our due!”

“We hunger!”

“You will pay, human!”

The shouts of the yokai tripped over each other like a nightmare chorus as they came to circle around the assassin. The smell of bogs and soot, mountain breeze and dusty paper, burned wood and ice clashed in the air around her. Most would tremble, even the bravest of warriors who faced death and lived. Still, she was not moved.

“There are other, easier prey on the road tonight,” she said as if commenting on the weather.

The shouting stopped as swiftly as if a kami had taken their voices. What passed for smiles transformed their anger into glee.

“Easier prey, say you? Where?” the oni who was the current leader asked. “They must not be far or easy they are not.”

“Two, on a horse, down that way.” She pointed past the tea house, towards the sea. “Easy.”

“You have a quarrel with them.” It was not a question.

“The humans. Not the horse. Leave the horse unharmed.”

The oni narrowed its eyes at her. “You do not order us.”

“I do.” She leaned forward and smiled. It was not kind. The torchlight reflected off her teeth and the oni reared back as if struck.

“What do we want with a horse? Human prey is sweeter!”

A cheer went up from the gathered yokai and they did not notice the slight tremor in the oni’s voice. They moved off as one, silent now so as to not spook their prey.

The assassin watched until she could no longer see even an afterburn of a torch when she blinked her eyes. Then she returned to the tea house, knocked three times on the door without saying a word, and was let in. She sat down and waited. First for tea, which came quickly. Then for the third trouble, which would come when it did. There was no hurrying either time or trouble.