The forest was sombreous, mysterious and somehow soothing, at least to the person who was walking through it right now. Her task was to chase the yokai that had attacked villages nearby with an unknown ferocity. Every human being in the region was outright terrified. Even rogues started to become wary. The young woman sighed, stroking a flick of her coppery hair back into her ponytail and sighed. 'This is boring. Why do I of all people have to deal this damned man-eating...' Akira's thoughts were interrupted by a sudden rustling, coming from behind her. As trained as she was, she turned around quickly, holding her bow and arrow ready to shoot. But only a lonely man came out of the thicket. Still, he was a stranger… He could be anyone, friend or foe. Holding her bow ready, she narrowed her eyes and waited for her opponent to come closer. He approached her with confident strides. ‘Maybe this one didn’t know about the dangerous creatures around?’ The young woman was not sure, taking in his form. The man was not much older than herself. But he carried himself like he wasn’t afraid of anything. Akira felt quite irritated when his features softened into something else. Now he had an annoyingly cocky grin on his face while his eyes took in her form. Regardless, she didn’t have the nerves to tell him off or start an unnecessary fight. So she lowered her bow slowly.
“So, what're you doin’ here, pal?” The young man asked curiously, still nearing her position. She tightened the grip on her bow, getting some comfort from the familiar touch. He came to a halt a few steps away from her. Akira’s eyes widened a bit. The young man was carrying a large weapon on his right shoulder as if it was as light as a katana and it was the first time she had noticed it. She had heard about this kind of weapon before but never actually seen it. If she remembered correctly this was a zanbatou, a so-called horse-slayer, resembling a large halberd. He moved his weapon slightly, maybe to get it into a more comfortable position.
“There have been repeated attacks in this region.” Akira answered with restraint. This guy irritated her enough to take her mind off the hunt. There was something about him... The young woman couldn’t really pin the feeling she had down. But she knew from experience no villager would roam the woods in these dark days. Furthermore, the man certainly didn’t look like a commoner. Not with his attire – she’d noticed a breast plate much like the one she wore herself – or his weapon. So he was probably some kind of warrior. Maybe a wandering samurai? Some kind of demon slayer? Those were known to use special weapons.
“But why're you here then? Didn't your parents warn you about these yokai? They could easily kill ya, farm boy.” Her eyes widened once again in disbelief. ‘Did he really just call me that?’ The young woman could feel her blood start to boil and she wished she could wipe that arrogant smirk off his face.
“I'm here to slay a certain demon.”, she answered already pretty vexed, trying to calm herself. Then his words really sank in. The man had just called her a guy. She stopped dumbfounded, searching for the right words. He had hit a sore spot. Akira knew she hadn’t this special feminine aura that she secretly admired in other women. But still… she had always thought she was seen as a girl. Tears of anger began to well up in the corner of her eyes and she gritted her teeth. “And I'm not a bloody farm boy!”
“You don't look like a grown-up slayer, though...” He interrupted her, moving his head slightly right towards his weapon. The young man acted like a curious young boy. “How old're ya?”
“16, but…” The young woman answered perplexed, still reeling on the verge of a blowup.
“See?” She knew immediately she had made a mistake. The man grinned teasingly. He was clearly enjoying insulting and belittling her. Akira couldn’t take it anymore. Who was he to talk like this to a total stranger?! “Still a boy.”
“Am not!” She finally exploded on him, clenching her fists tightly. “Besides, look at yourself! You're around my age, you jerk!"
“Big mouth, huh?” The black-haired man was obviously tickled. He laughed heartily. That was certainly not what she intended.
“How old are you, then?!” Akira hissed with an aggressive glint in her eyes. First, the young man didn't answer but then his overconfident grin returned. He shook his head so that his long dark black plait budged soflty.
“I’m 17. But I'm certainly more adult than you are. After all, I’m...”
“That's enough!” The young man in front of him exploded once again. His eyes grew big. Bankotsu hadn’t expected a reaction like this from this youngster. Normally, boys his age were unsure and easily frightened. He examined him again. The young man was a bit shorter than himself and had a small frame. His body was covered in a blue haori, a dark hakama and his chest was protected by a breastplate. This was the only indication he was a trainee warrior – like he had assumed – alongside the bow in his right hand. Even though he didn’t understand how the guy wanted to fight demons with just arrows. His eyes went back to the boy's face. He had to admit that the other one was rather handsome even if he was staring at him so angrily with his dark sparkling eyes. It seemed like a fire burned in them. When he’d first laid eyes on the boy Bankotsu had thought he was a demon with his unusual hair that was gleaming like fluid copper. He’d been quite fascinated when he couldn’t feel a demonic presence and had to assume the young man was indeed a human. An intriguing one at that. ‘What the hell! I’m not Jakotsu! It’s his job to swoon over guys...’ He thought startled. However, after he listened to the other's words the black-haired man regained his composure. “You jackass insulted me and on top of that you questioned my honour! I won’t allow that any longer!”
“Wanna challenge me then, or what?”" The plait-boy asked provocatively even if he didn’t know why his counterpart was so mad. He hadn’t done anything of the sort. Not that he remembered. Bankotsu had no real interest in fighting the guy. Boys like him were weak and not worth a kill. However, he wouldn’t have thought his opponent would actually accept his teasing offer.
“Of course!” The boy yelled bad-tempered, clenching his fists till they turned white, then stopped and stood there like a stone. ‘What was that about?’ Bankotsu asked himself curiously. The other one sighed deeply, rubbing his forehead gently. Then he added, calmer now: “Better without weapons. It’d be an unfair fight with your zanbatou against my bow.”
"How do ya know I’ll fight without Banryu?" The plait-boy asked curiously, quite impressed that the copper-haired man knew what kind of weapon he wielded. So he had been right in his assumption. This youngster was a warrior-to-be. Suddenly, his opponent turned and laid down his arrows and his bow. He looked surprisingly stern, facing Bankotsu once again. Maybe there was some fire in the guy.
“I don’t. But if you do you’d lose your honour.”
“And who’d know about that?” The mercenary replied, deepening his smirk to a toothy grin. The boy really wasn’t stupid, appealing to his honour. No one had ever tried that move before. Somehow, he started to like the guy.
“You would.” His opposite answered, smiling sweetly. But his eyes still held a provocative flicker. ‘Okay, I’ll admit it: He’s really good with words...’ He thought, serious again. As answer Bankotsu rammed his halberd into the ground. He didn’t need to think twice about it. After all, he could fight against somebody, he could measure his strength with the copper-haired boy. It would be over in a blink of an eye.
“Alright, I didn’t wanna hurt you but if you wanna die your wish may come true, boy.” He grunted and waited for the boy's attack which didn't come. They eyed each other for a while, each waiting for the other to attack. After a short time, Bankotsu started to get bored. There was certainly something more entertaining than just standing. He would even prefer to do the work he got paid for. ‘Well, then I'll attack first. The sooner this is over the better.’ He thought and swatted his right fist on the ground. The mercenary looked up as dust, small and big rocks blew up, ejecting into the air. For a few seconds his view was blocked by his own attack but then the dust settled and his eyes followed the hole in the ground which reached up to the place where the boy stood. Bankotsu grinned wide. Clearly, the youngster had underestimated his fighting skills without his companion Banryu. But something wasn’t right. ‘Wait... where is that boy?’ He thought and looked there again, then up in the air. The boy had jumped highly to escape his attack. Maybe, just maybe, this would be an enjoyable fight after all.
“This all you got?” His opponent asked unsmiling while he landed smoothly on the ground again. It seemed like he was teasing the mercenary with his big mouth. The boy was almost as mouthy as himself. And Bankotsu didn’t like that. Not at all. After all, he was the head of a pretty well-known band of mercenaries and so he didn't want to be embarrassed even if no one else was watching.
Starting to get angry, he quickly ran to his rival, always punching directly to his weak points – head, chest, stomach – but the other one always avoided a blow. ‘Man, this one’s really fast.’ He acknowledged grudgingly. But because of his constant attacks his rival had to back away from him until they finally reached a big tree, the boy's back hit against it. He had no means of escape anymore. If he wanted to send him to the netherworld, now was the time.
However, his final decision was interrupted when a sudden surge of demonic power flared up out of nowhere. Bankotsu turned around to face the source of the energy, scrunching up his nose by the sight of a long lilac leg coming out of the already scarred ground. Ignoring the surprised gasp of his former opponent, he was busy running back to Banryu which was still rammed into the ground. On his way back the young mercenary ducked sudden attacks by the yokai which had now fully crawled out of the ground. It seemed like they disturbed his sleeping time. Finally, the young mercenary reached Banryu and pulled it out of the ground, holding it towards the large demon. This ugly creature seemed like a big brown creepy millepede with big red insect eyes. He was at least ten times bigger than himself. Even Bankotsu could only barely look into its eyes.
“Hey, you worm! You the one who’s attacking the villages nearby?” Bankotsu asked without expecting an answer. It was one of the lower, dumber demons. Most of the times they weren’t a problem for humans because they were so weak. The thousand legger turned his head towards him and he smiled cockily, hoping that boy was still alive. After all, the two had a score to settle. The demon snarled loudly and started to run on his many legs towards him. The ground shook from the sheer weight of the yokai. However, Bankotsu was used to this and could stand rather safe. He wielded Banryu towards it, yelling “Kanetsu Bakufuu!”, one of Banryu’s special attacks since it was forged. Several blue-coloured ball-lightnings flew right towards the thousand legger, piercing through the demon’s body, leaving big holes in it, tearing its body apart. Bankotsu watched on as the demon fell to ashes. He sighed silently, before he smirked confidently again. He had hoped the demon would put up a better fight than the boy had. But the young mercenary also knew that weak yokai like this tended to gang up. “Well, that was too easy, I guess...”
He should be proved right because other yokai like the one he had just defeated bursted out of the ground in a flash. There were at least a dozen new demons. ‘I knew it. This’ll be fun.’ Bankotsu thought. He felt his heartbeat fastening while his mood increased. The thrill of the fight. ‘But… I can’t use my strongest attack… Damn it!’ His body stiffened when the realization hit him. The guy he’d fought was still nowhere to be seen, maybe he was already dead. But Bankotsu wasn’t willing to risk the boy’s safety, not now. He fancied his ego too much to kill the redhead off without a proper fight. The thoughts nagging him about would be too pesky. ‘Damn it, you foolish boy!’
“Banryusen!” The young mercenary yelled, wielding his halberd towards a bunch of demons which were erased by a pink light without even being touched by his sharp blade. This was his most common attack. It was efficient and fast. “That was fun. But they’re still too weak...” He mumbled satisfied, raising Banryu again. The young man looked around briefly but there was still no sign of the other boy.
“You stupid fool!” A dark, shattered voice behind him laughed. Bankotsu turned around quickly just to see an even bigger thousand legger with a kind of human face between his red eyes rising in front of him. “Do you really think you can defeat me, youngster?”
“Well, I’ve beaten bigger and more dangerous yokai than you, ugly!” The young mercenary stated boredly but was carried off his feet when a leg of that demon hit the unsuspecting mercenary hard in the front. At least the big halberd was still in his hand. Moaning, he tried to lift Banryu again from his lying position but he couldn't move it. Somehow it must have gotten stuck in the ground.
“You insulted the wrong person, fool.”, were the last words from this yokai before it moved quickly towards Bankotsu, his mouth open to eat. His fangs were gleaming dangerously while drivel was trickling from them. The black-haired man sat up, pulling Banryu out of the ground as fast as he could. But he knew he wouldn’t end the battle unscathed anymore.
“You took the words right out of my mouth.” An angry voice yelled all of the sudden, closely followed by an arrow covered in pure white-blue light. The demon was just as surprised as Bankotsu was when both turned towards the voice. Then, the arrow hit the big yokai exactly in his somehow human face, resulting in a pained scream that sounded like “Damn you!”. Within a second the thousand legger was completely encased by the light blue light. Bankotsu stared in awe as this king of millepede yokai decomposed into ashes. In that moment he regained his senses and jumped to his feet instantly, looking to the arrow's origin. There stood his former rival, still holding his bow ready to shoot. ‘That’s new, a warrior with spiritual powers... I wouldn’t have thought of that.’ He realized, grinning. That was when the earth shook violently again. The young mercenary yelled towards his former opponent, urging him on: “Get ov’r here immediately!”
The copper-haired youngster reacted on his order by starting running towards him. He came to a sudden halt next to him, then twirling around. He raised his bow again and shot at the remaining demons. Every time he released an arrow Bankotsu felt a soft surge of spiritual power running through him, sending shudders down his spine. But the demons fell into ashes the second the blue light of the arrow touched them. Bankotsu himself raised Banryu towards the sky to make his final attack. “Ryuraisen!” He yelled. “This should finish 'em off.”
The blue lightning ball hit the clouds in the sky, causing them to sent lightnings back to the ground. Every one of them hit a demon which fell burnt dead to the ground. Some remaining yokai tried to attack them again, others tried to escape but all of them were finished off after another minute or so by lightnings and more arrows. Breathing heavily, the redhead looked over the dead bodies and ashes of the yokai, then looking at his temporary battle companion at ease. He lowered his bow, strapping it on his shoulder again, while the black-haired mercenary shouldered his old companion.
“We're done here.” The youngster sighed relieved and stroked his fringe away from his closed eyes. Bankotsu looked lightly cross at the other boy. He acted as if he had already forgotten about the young mercenary who was still bearing his company. “Gosh, finally I don’t have to listen to their complaints anymore...”
“Are you serious? Is that all what you can think about?! We still have a score to settle, remember?” The mercenary snapped at the redhead harshly. He closed his eyes for a second to cool himself down and wondered why his battle companion was getting on his nerves so easily. When he opened his eyes again he could hardly believe them. The young man in front of him stretched himself in a completely unbent manner, leaving his hand behind his head. This made Bankotsu even more annoyed, causing his eyebrow to twitch. “You!”
“My name is Akira, not ‘you’.” The redhead answered calmly. He even smiled slightly at him. Bankotsu frowned, regarding the other man confused. “What’s yours?”
“Ban...” He began to say but was interrupted once again. The youngster chose this moment to try to stifle a yawn which failed miserably. His jaw went slack as the mercenary watched bewildered. The boy’s behavior had changed completely since he met him just before the battle.
“Sorry, Ban. I didn’t mean to be rude.” Akira said, sounding a bit tired. Then he turned and wandered towards the direction he came from. Bankotsu stood still for a few seconds longer before he came to his senses again and started to make his way through the dead bodies that surrounded them. The whole forest around them looked like a demon graveyard. The redhead looked back at him. “Are you coming along? I thought you wanted to collect your reward or something like that...”
“Don't tell me what to do, you bossy kiddo!” The black-haired mercenary complained sore. He didn’t want to admit it but he was starting to get seriously annoyed and tired of his companion. Why did this stupid boy act so natural now... just like they were friends? What wasn't the case. He didn't understand this guy and this fact bothered him. After all, he had always judged others correctly but with this guy he was at a loss. And he didn’t like it at all when he couldn’t predict something. Or, in this case, someone.
“Oh, that hurt... Very resourceful, Ban.” The copper-haired boy answered snippy and taunting while Bankotsu unwillingly followed him. After all, Akira had been right. He wanted to collect his money.
“It’s Bankotsu, not Ban!” He corrected tart and glared. Bankotsu wouldn't allow this unnerving man to call him that.
“Yeah, yeah. Relax.” Akira tried to stop the young mercenary with a wave of his hand but this made him even angrier. It seemed so dismissive, like he sometimes acted towards others. He didn't even know why he got so worked up over this.
“Stop that already!” The mercenary reprimanded him and turned his head away, choosing to ignore his companion for the remainder of their shared but short journey.