To Slay a Monster: The Adventures of Tessa Harper and Ueno Taro

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  1. "HOI!"

    The heavy percussion of drums came soon after the call into the night air. The sound broke through the clamoring and droning sounds of festival revelry, flowing along the light spring wind with as little effort as the scents of festival foods. People from all walks made their way up and down the promenades of the city, the likes of which were lined, for the most part, with cherry trees. It was the Festival of Blossoms and Masks in the city of Nado, and all took part. A few enchanting members of the human hill clans had come to Nado in their boats, bringing with them sweet forest vegetation and exotic animals from deep in the hilly woods of the cool northwest island chains. The caravans of the Ookamijin, the wolf-men and women of the south, had brought with them hearty foods and tales from old days. The Tengu Clan had flown from their high-perched mountain homes, bringing with them weaponry of iron and jewels from the mountains. Even some of the Torajin had come to Nado, though their numbers were few.

    Looking out over the water of one of the many hand-made waterways of the city of Nado was a man; a lone man with his wooden mask situated atop his head rather than over his facade. He was of the Torajin, the tiger-folk of the eastern coast and her many small islands and atolls. He was ragged in appearance, his nearly forty years on the earth having been, more often than not, hard ones.

    Ueno Taro was, by large, a quiet man. He looked at the fried fish he had bought for himself, eying it as it eyed him, skewered upon its stick and dead as a stone. He narrowed his eyes and sniffed it. He then took a bite, removing the thing's head, chewing and swallowing. He sighed.

    He hummed to himself after a momentary silence, standing and devouring the rest of the small fish before tossing the stick into the waterway. He had to find work, and Nado was as good a place as any. With the festival, he added mentally, it was even better. People needed things done. Taro got things done. It was simple enough in his mind; however, in practice, finding work was a rather difficult thing in those days.

    Retribution was not an art any longer, and folk were frightened to bring karma down upon their heads for hiring swords and muscles. Karma and law, at least. The emperor frowned upon hired swords, thinking that combat training was best received in the standing army of the crown. Training was nice, but experience was a better teacher than any general. That was Taro's thought, at least.

    He looked about. Karma, laws, and then there were the youkai--the demons. Something strange was happening in the land. People were no longer the enemy of one another. Not chiefly, at least, for the demons had come from their caves and crypts to haunt and devour mortal men and women. Exorcists and hunters were now more valuable than ronin and ninja. Taro spat upon the ground at the thought of them, demons and their hunters both! Curse them!
  2. The human girl frowned as she passed through the bustling and noisy town. Festivals were a hassle and difficult to work in. With so many people in bright costumes and colourful masks, it was difficult to tell what was demon and what wasn't. She had picked up her own mask, not wanting to stick out too much, but it seemed it was far too late for that. The straight brown hair that fell just shy of her shoulders and her lighter complexion gave her away immediately. Combined with her muscular figure and grey eyes, she stood no chance of being mistaken by one of the natives.

    Tessa sighed and adjusted the leather strap that held her double bladed lance flat across her back. The weapon was the only thing she made sure to keep anymore. It was her key to vengeance, to destroying the thing that had taken her sister from her.
  3. Something glinted in the light of the festive paper lanterns. It was a weapon, by the looks of it, but no weapon that the man had ever seen before. His curiosity piqued, he made his way through the crowd and toward the weapon and its wielder. Perhaps, whomever they may be, they knew of a source of employment in the area. Warriors had to look out for one another, after all. It was either that or banditry.

    He spoke in the language of his lands, a common tongue to the people of this part of the world. Little did he know that it would sound foreign to the lance-wielder. He put a hand upon the person's shoulder so as to get their attention, speaking again in his own language.
  4. The girl whipped around, her hand ready to pull her lance out if required. A gigantic tiger-man stood above her, speaking strange words she didn't quite understand.

    "Who are you and what do you want?" She demanded in her native tongue, doubting that she would be understood in these parts. Her mask had fallen to reveal a young face, barely even an adult if she was at all. Dark and brooding grey eyes remained fixated on him, unwavering and unafraid.
  5. "Ah, ah!" he verbalized, nodding.

    "You're not from here, then," he said in addition, still nodding lightly to himself. He'd learned the common tongue of the western lands well through his years and travels, though he seldom had reason or chance to speak it. It was an interesting language, much less concise than his own. Still, he tended to speak it concisely. "You're a warrior from the west. And a woman, at that. Is work so hard to find where you come from that you come to steal it from us?" he questioned, his hand idly falling to the longer of his two blades.

    "Or are you here on some other business? You don't look the part of a trader. You've no wagon, and that weapon tells me warrior more than spice seller."

    "Manners. Ueno Taro, at your service," he said, giving a heavy bow from his waist to the woman. "First son of the Ueno family of Nan-Bo village, ana mine dan-no marushite. Whether it stands or not."

    "Perhaps a poor man could ask a favor of you, Western-Woman. Have you heard of any work for hired swords in your travels?"
  6. "That would depend on what kind of sword you've got." She said, eyeing him carefully. She seemed calm and composed, despite a beast-man of twice her size standing over her. "Normal sellswords do fine across the water, for your information. I wouldn't need to come this far just for work, nor would I want to." She was blunt about everything, for sure. Her black and brown leather clothes left a certain air around her, even without the spear strapped to her back.
  7. The tiger-man offered a rather toothy grin and stepped back, pulling his shorter katana from its sheath with a precise movement. His stance was wide and battle-ready, and his eyes were narrowed as if he would charge against his foes at any moment. He stood like this for a long moment before he relaxed and put his weapon back into its housing upon his back. "The other sword's for horses or larger foes," he murmured, patting the hilt of the larger blade upon his back.

    The man untied the dark green sash about his brown yukata, letting the fabric part to show off his well-toned, scarred body. "And if you're doubting my strength," he said, his words trailing momentarily. "I keep to my training. I haven't let myself get sluggish in the nearly thirty years I've been wandering these lands, and I don't intend on letting it happen anytime soon."

    "So," he said, "have you heard of work or no, Woman?"
  8. "Like I said, it depends on what kind of work you're looking for. Based on your response, I'd say no." She heaved out her lance, an ebony beauty tipped with obsidian fixtures to hold the hard steel blades. Two stretches of leather and twine around the handle formed hand holds, giving her the perfect grip on the weapon. "I wouldn't start a scene here with me. It may not end well for you or your pathetic little sword."
  9. "I'm no enemy for you to make, Stranger," he said, chuckling.

    "And as far as my work goes, I'm a versatile man. I've escorted noblemen and their families through bandit-riddled forests. I've fought warlords' armies in the hills. I've even faced off against a demon or two in my time. You see me still standing. My sword is not as pathetic as you might think."

    With that, he walked past the woman, his yukata hanging from his shoulders. His ears perked and he turned, smirking. "Besides, it's not the size of the blade. It's how you use it that counts. But," he said, his smirk a little more toothy and mischievous, "at least I'm not compensating with a hulking thing like that weapon."

    He kept walking, his tail swaying idly behind him as he went. "Let me know if you change your mind about an escort, Western-Woman! These lands can be dangerous to strangers!" he called back, raising a hand in farewell without turning back around.
  10. "Don't think me a weakling. I've fought off bigger things than a few bandits." She called after him, easing up in her stance. "I'm a hunter, and the things that I hunt can tear you to ribbons, Beast-Man." She hooked the lance back in it's holder, dismissing the small crowd that had formed with a cold glare.
  11. She was a hunter, then. They thought themselves better than anyone else with a blade, the hunters. Taro resented the demon hunters not for hunting demons, for that was admirable enough, but rather for the mere fact that they were now largely more important than those whose quarry was mortal men, like himself. He hunted bandits, warriors and corrupt noblemen. He hunted warlords, assassins and thieves. The emperor unifying the land did away with the uncertainty and strife that bred and bore those he had hunted in his time, and the strange happenings in the land gave people like this western woman a seat in the job he had once had himself.

    Here he was. Starving while a foreign woman could find work in his homeland!

    He growled and nearly turned about, one of his hands forming into a fist at his side; however, he kept walking. He would not respond to the woman's pitiful attempts at breaking his resolve. At least not outwardly. No, he would go and drink himself into oblivion instead.
  12. She sighed and walked swiftly after him. Yet another chance to grab some information, and she just let it slip through her fingers.

    Catching up to him, she took a deep breath and called out. "Look, I don't mean to insult you." She began, crossing her arms over her chest. " I'm hunting something, currently. I've heard it's moved to the south and I've heard of work for hired swords that way. If you would show me the way, I would be grateful."
  13. "South is a bit vague," he said, looking over his shoulder and letting his feet stop carrying him toward the first sake house he might find. "But," he added plainly as he turned about and looked at the woman, "I suppose I can share the road with you. You seem apologetic enough for me."

    "We stay a night here in Nado where it's safe; we'll set out due south tomorrow at first light so I can find work and you can find, well, whatever it is you're looking for. I don't want to know, either. You're hunting something, and it's an "it," I know that much already. There's no need in wasting a story on my ears."

    With that, the man turned back about and motioned at the woman. "Come, then. We're headed for a drink either way, it seems."
  14. She nodded, saying a quick thanks to the man and another towards the sky, hoping her praise was heard by whatever lord or lady presided over her luck, which had finally turned around and led her somewhere.

    "I suppose we should at least introduce ourselves, seeing as we'll be working together. I'm Tessa Harper." She said, following him to a nearby tavern, or whatever they liked to call this foreign equivalent. "Who might you be?"
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