A small neighbourhood clinic, not far from the main road. It was where I worked as a doctor's assistant, helping to prepare simple medicine and treatments.
"Your medicine is ready, ma'am."
"Thank you so much. You're such a great help to me," the woman thanked me.
"No matter how old you get, Ume, you never seem to age a day," one of the other patients commented.
"Oh-ho-ho. Well, if that's so, it's all thanks to this clinic, and our dear doctor's prescriptions," the old woman, Ume, laughed wholeheartedly.
"No doubt about it. Which just makes me think ... It's such a shame we lost him so soon."
"The doctor was such a kind, honest, hardworking man. He always did everything he could to help us. We may never find another like him."
I smiled sadly as I listened to them talking. The doctor they spoke of was my father and he died about a year ago due to exhaustion. I wasn't with him then.
"We all wondered what would become of this place."
"And we were all so glad when you decided to follow in his footsteps, and keep this clinic open."
My retribution - being a doctor. To make up for the lives I took and will continue to take for my own survival. Some doctor... No, I was, was a killer oni bound to laws of nature I couldn't control.
"I don't want to shuffle off this mortal coil until I've seen you reach your full potential. But I can't hang on forever, so don't let me down! " Old Lady Ume gave me a hearty pat of encouragement on the back.
"Mm. Thanks," I smiled wryly.
"Oh-ho! In that case, you'll be the last one standing, Ume! We'll all have kicked the bucket by then. "
As usual, the clinic resounded with the laughter and good cheer of its patients.
"I can help whoever's next." After seeing Ume off, I called the next patient.
My next patient was easy on the eyes, but he reeked of human blood. He didn't have blood on him at present, but I could still scent it. It was there, even if you washed it off your hands a thousand times. It was always there.
A samurai I suppose? I didn't recall seeing him around here before. Must be new to the neighbourhood. The man seemed to have a small wound on his finger.
"Well, the bleeding has already stopped. It's a pretty superficial cut, but we'll dab some ointment on it, just to be safe," I told him as I got to work.
"Thank you." I started gathering the particular dried medicine needed for his cut. He stared at me as I worked; a little too intently for my liking. "Are ... Are you alright?" he asked.
"Mm." I nodded. "It'll only take a moment to prepare this."
"That's not what I meant. You're... frowning." The man reached out to my forehead. I gently swatted his hand away.
"I'm just concentrating."
"Hmph ... Is that right? Well, in that case, I suppose it's no problem." He smiled coolly.
I continued treating his injury in silence when I happened to overhear the other patients talking in the waiting area.
"You know, that reminds me. I heard that a group of ronin were spotted recently."
"They're ruthless! Killing anyone who crosses them. Even women and children! They don't care. On her way home from a meeting, the lady from the general store was surrounded... And supposedly, as soon as she cried out, they cut her down, right there in the street!"
"My goodness ... Is no place safe these days?"
"Are you worried ... about the ronin?" the man I was tending to suddenly asked.
"Huh?" I looked up at him.
"You've stopped what you're doing." I looked down at my hands. He was right; I had unconsciously stopped my hands from moving.
"Oh. No," I smiled faintly, "Things like that just don't happen that often around here. I was just a little surprised." I gave him as friendly a smile as I could muster.
"So what would you do ... if you knew there were ronin near you?"
I paused. "I do not know. I've never really thought about it," I answered apathetically.
"An innocent young woman like yourself ... You'd better keep your guard up ... Or you might find yourself being devoured by those wolves." I looked up at the man.
"I'll keep that in mind. You're all set. " I smiled.
Later that evening, I was on my way to deliver medicine to some people in town when something caught my attention and I stopped.
"Please, give it back! We need that money to live ...! Without it, our shop ...! " A child cried out.
"Shut up! It's mine now!"
I discerned the situation easily enough. A rough-looking ronin was antagonizing an errand boy. All the other adults around were just standing there, staring. No one was lifting a finger to help the child.
"Are you trying to get in my way!? Huh!?" The ronin was annoyed now, and he had his sword in his hand. I narrowed my eyes in anger. This was my turf, and as murderous as I was, I wasn't about to allow a child to be cut down by someone who would be better suited to be my dinner. I stepped forward.
"Wait." A tall man, dressed in a casual kimono and coat, grabbed hold of my arm. "You don't know what you're getting yourself into." T he man leaned close to my ear. "But," he chuckled, "I've always had a fondness for strong women." Having whispered that, he walked over to the ronin, without the slightest hint of trepidation.
"Who does this... casually-dressed fool think he is?" one of the bystanders asked.
"At least he had the guts to do something. He wasn't about to stand and watch that little boy be killed," I snapped, glaring sharply at them.
The commoners immediately shut their mouths. I looked back at the man. He also had blood on his hands. He was also a soldier or a warrior of some sort. Whatever the case was, he was causing quite a stir.
Before the ronin could even draw his sword, the strange man twisted his arm behind him.
The ronin groaned in pain. " What're you...!?" The expression on the ronin's face changed. In direct contrast to the other man's calm grin, the ronin wore a twisted grimace of pain. "Y-You're... You're one of the wolves! Listen, just let me go...! I'll give back the money! " He tossed the boy's stolen purse back to him, shaking himself free, and ran away.
"...That's... it?" My mouth hung open. That was all it took? I cast my gaze back from the fleeing ronin, but the casually-dressed man was gone.
Shaking my head, I continued on my way to the Dango shop, where my friend, Kaya, worked. Kaya was a Tengu; a crow demon. She was initially my sister's friend to begin with, but in the years I'd been living here, she and I had grown rather close.
"Here, have some dango, " Kaya said, handing me some dango.
"Thanks. " I noticed Kaya staring at me. "Something on my face?" I cocked my head to the side.
"No. I'm still not over it. You're the spitting image of Emi, but you have a completely different air about you," Kaya replied.
"My sister has a real 'stay the fuck away from me' aura. I'd like to think I have a less hostile aura about me."
"Well, you wouldn't have many patients willing to be treated by if you didn't. Though you can be pretty scary too when you want to be." I laughed at her statement. "So, was the clinic very busy today? You're later than usual today."
"I guess you could say I ran into an incident." I recounted to her what happened as we sat together, eating the dango she made.
"That's quite something, isn't it... Now that I think about it, I think the number of illegal ronin going around town wreaking havoc has risen..."
"I heard that too."
"So this man that saved the boy ... Was he a samurai?"
"Apparently he was a 'wolf', whatever that means."
"A wolf?" A look of recognition passed over her face.
"Have you heard of them?"
"I have. You know the local ronin have been scattered lately, and the capital is in chaos, right? Well apparently, these 'wolves' or whatever they're called are supposed to be the most dangerous of the lot, just killing and pillaging..."
"They all dress the same. Pale blue, with jagged white patterned sleeves. Plain coats. I heard their coats are often stained with the blood of the people they've killed... These are all just humans spreading rumours, though. You know I always take it with a grain of salt."
"That's true. "
"Fret not, little lamb. Those 'wolves' will soon be expunged from this world," an unfamiliar voice said.
"Hm?" I looked over my shoulder to find a rather gorgeous man standing behind me. "It's rude to eavesdrop..." I turned my head back.
"Forgive me. It's hard for me to stay quiet when a woman such as yourself looks so concerned. Peace will come, and it's going to be here soon." A pleasant smiled graced his features.
"That's ... doubtful, honestly," I replied.
"Why do you say that?" he asked curiously.
"People are always going to find something to fight over."
"I will be sure to prove you wrong, then." That was all he said before walking away.
Kaya chuckled beside me.
"You sound just like your sister."
"But it's the truth. There's no such thing as peace. Not entirely, anyway. "
"I do agree, but you still sound like your sister." She grinned.
That night, just like most nights, I stayed up late as I poured over the medical journals my father had left behind. This particular volume was full of my father's handwritten notes, from when he first started studying medicine. It was one of a kind. I smiled nostalgically as I traced my fingers over his writing.
I went rigid as I heard what sounded like someone banging on the door. I quickly stood up.
"We'll be spotted if we keep standing here. Get inside! "
I heard what sounded like several panicking men running towards me. Not even a second passed and the sliding door to the room was slammed open. Several men, all carrying swords, burst into the room.
"Hey!" Lightning fast, I positioned myself in front of them, sword in hand. "You're trespassing."
"Don't say a word!"
"Give us shelter! Otherwise, you'll taste this blade." One of the ronin blew the candle out, and the room was plunged into darkness.
I closed my eyes and when I opened them, I knew they were red, giving me a full view of what was happening in the dark. I focussed my attention on the man who threatened me. I wasn't in the mood for games, and I didn't bother with a warning before I moved. The sound of blade meeting flesh reverberated in the room. Blood splashed, and I was standing behind the human. He didn't even have time to scream before he crumpled to the floor. I waved my hand and the candle was ignited once again.
Looking at the ronin's shocked faces as they stared at me, I held my sword horizontally out in front of me. "So. What was it you said about tasting a blade?"
"You...!" As another lunged for me, I heard the commotion outside start up again.
"Now what?" I muttered, keeping an eye on the door while my sword clashed with the ronin's.
"Big mistake, girl!"
"Is it?" I casually dodged the downward swing of his sword, twirled, and swung my own sideways against his. His sword shattered. I let him look stunned for a second before I moved again. I plunged my sword through his chest just as the door slammed open yet again.
"Hey! We know you're in there! "
"If you thought you could hide from us that easily, you were sadly mistaken. Prepare yourselves..." their pursuers shouted with authority.
"Let's take them by surprise. You go left, I'll go right. "
"Sounds good." The ronin in the room spoke amongst themselves, having completely forgotten the red-eyed girl in the room who just slaughtered two of their men singlehandedly.
With a loud crash, they came tearing through the paper door.
"Come out of hiding already and face me!" An imposing man stood before me, wielding a lance.
I heard the whoosh of the lance slicing through the air, and then a groan. The scent of more fresh blood filled my nostrils. As men bustled around the room, their weapons clanging, I was quickly beginning to lose my patience.
"Run..." Without looking at his approaching enemies, the ronin with the lance deftly avoided their swords.
"You! I won't have you getting in my way!" Yet another ronin, irritated by my presence, came lunging at me with his sword. With a low snarl, I avoided his blade and grabbed his throat. I sunk my claws in and squeezed. The ronin choked and let his sword drop while I held him up by his throat. The sound of his neck snapping was barely audible in the room full of clashing swords as I quite literally crushed the life out of him.
"ENOUGH!" I screamed at the top of my lungs. The fighting stopped and each and every fighter turned to me. My aura darkened, seeping off me like tendrils of dark smoke. It blew my hair upward as I took on my demon form. I sent off a wave of my power; wind blew past the men, followed by sharp, invisible blades cutting into the flesh of each and every one of them, killing almost all of them. The only ones left standing were the ones dressed in light blue coats with jagged patterned sleeves. They stared at me, tensely clutching their swords. No doubt not knowing what I was going to do next and whether they should strike me down. "Get. Out." I breathed.
I sighed heavily at the mess they left me with. I should have insisted that they compensate me for all this damage. Maybe it's not too late to catch up with them.
I rushed out after them.
"Hijikata! Fire! They're flinging fire at us!" the man with the lance exclaimed before I could get a word in.
I spun around. Tongues of flames lapped up from the clinic.
"No ..." Unsteady on my feet, I took a step towards the clinic. Then another, into the clinic.
"Wait! Stop! Where are you going?! " the samurai with the lance exclaimed.
Put it out. I had to put it out.
"Have you lost your mind ?! It's dangerous in here!" the samurai gripped my arm tightly.
"Let go of me!" I roughly pushed him away from me just as a beam and a pile of debris came crashing down on me from the ceiling.
"Hey, come on! Breathe for me. Come on!" I vaguely remember the feeling of being held up before completely losing consciousness.
I groaned as I opened my eyes, returning to my senses. An unfamiliar ceiling came into view. I looked from side to side; I was clearly out of it. Next to me, the face of a man I had never seen before appeared before me.
"Oh, good. You're awake," he said. The atmosphere was calm and still, and his eyes were keen. He was an impressive sight. "Looked like you were having a nightmare for a while there... Are you hurt at all?"
"No..." I replied hoarsely and sat up.
"Got a change of clothes for you here, whenever you're ready," he said. "One other thing too..." The man pointed to some folded women's clothing, and next to them, my father's journal. My eyes widened ever so slightly. I picked it up. "Couldn't save all of them, but I thought having at least one of them might help you feel better," the man said.
Seeing the soot on my pyjamas and the slightly singed pages, I began to remember the fire.
"I see... Thank you..."
"Those medical journals. They belong to you? "
The man left the room and quietly closed the door. I quickly got changed and left the room as well. Outside, the crimson sunset assaulted my eyes and I squinted. I looked around me, but I didn't recognize any of it. It looked like some sort of base.
I explored the premises for a while until I happened upon a familiar face. It was the man that came to the clinic yesterday. But he seemed to disappear in front of my eyes.
"Huh?" I looked around the place, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was human; how could he move so fast?
At that moment, someone came up from behind me and I felt a cold object pressed against my neck before I had a chance to turn. My back went rigid; I didn't even notice his presence!
"Looking for something?" the man asked. I turned my head to the side. "One false move, and you'll lose that pretty little neck of yours ... Watch yourself."
"Is that so?" From beneath my kimono, my tail shot up and wrapped itself around the man's throat. He let out a surprised noise as my tail lifted him off the ground. I heard the clanging of his sword falling to the wooden floorboard. My tail pulled him by the neck in front of me.
"What was that, again? I don't think I heard you right." He choked and punched feebly at my thick tail. "Hmph." I dropped him.
"So it's true. You really are a..." an unfamiliar voice said behind me, unable to even finish his sentence.
"A demon. I'm a demon. An oni," I said, casually turning around.
"I've never seen a real demon before." He looked at me in awe, then at my tail, which I quickly made vanish.
"Your naivete will be the death of you someday, Kondo," the man who tried to pull one over on me said - right after he was done having his little coughing fit.
"I'm surprised no one tried to kill me in my sleep." I slipped my hands behind my neck underneath my hair and flipped it. I picked up the sword that lay on the floor and handed it back to its owner, who was eyeing me quite dubiously. When I turned around I was met with quite the spectacle. With the setting sun behind them, the men stood wearing coats of pale blue, with jagged white patterns on the sleeves. I narrowed my eyes. "Wolves, huh ..." I muttered. I hadn't paid much attention to it last night.
"Oh-ho. Wolves, are we? " The one called Kondo asked. The men watched, grinning ominously at me. "This is no place to stand around talking. There's a chill in the air. If you're feeling up to it, let's continue our discussion inside. "
I followed them inside a room with not much in it.
"Are you frightened?" the man who saved my father's journal asked.
"Being around so many humans unnerves me." I sat on top of my knees, fidgeting awkwardly. Kondo seemed to have noticed.
"Sorry for startling you. We're known as the Shinsengumi, under orders of the lord of Aizu," he explained.
"I've never heard of you before," I replied.
"I suppose I shouldn't expect you to know about us yet. Our name was only just decided recently. I am the general in charge of our group. Isami Kondo. And you are? "
"My name is Ai. Ai Yukimura. "
"I see. A lovely name." His smile only served to confuse me. "Allow me to introduce the rest of my squad. This is my second in command, Toshizo Hijikata. " He looked to the side, at a man with cold, keen eyes. I recognised him as the man who stopped that ronin in town yesterday. Next, we have ... "
"Soji Okita. Probably more trouble than he's worth. Why do we keep him around again? " Hijikata asked. Soji Okita was the same man who thought it was a clever idea to point a sword at a demon's neck.
"Unbelievable. He's only just been introduced and already the Demon Deputy is spouting nonsense," Okita retorted.
"Demon deputy?" I asked incredulously.
Okita gave me a sinister grin. "Hijikata is known as the demon deputy, cause he acts like one."
I raised an eyebrow at Hijikata. "You've probably never even seen a demon before. Or let me guess, you thought we're the things of myths and horror stories."
Hijikata didn't respond as he glared angrily at. He obviously took some pride in being called a demon deputy. I, on the other hand, was not amused.
"Now now. Next to Soji, that's Sanosuke Harada, master of the lance. He's the one who saved you from being burned alive," Kondo said, effectively diffusing the situation. Or should I rather say the killer sparks Hijikata was sending my way like it would intimidate me.
"You got me out from under the beams."
"No worries," Harada said.
"And beside him is Hajime Saito. I suppose he already told you about your book?" Kondo Asked.
"Yes. Thank you for that. " I looked at Saito, who merely gave a little nod of his head, but said nothing.
"We have been selected by the lord of the Aizu Clan, entrusted with protecting the capital and its people. It is our daily duty to patrol, and apprehend outlaw ronin before they can disturb the peace."
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, lot of good that title does you," I retorted sarcastically, "Tell me. Is burning people's houses to the ground common when 'protecting the capital and its people'?"
"Those Choshu bastards ...!" As the man named Harada rose to his feet angrily, my body jerked involuntarily.
"Shouting like that will only scare her," Saito said.
Harada clicked his tongue.
I held up my palm. "No, it's fine. I was just surprised." Don't treat me like a puppy.
"I apologize. These men need to learn to control their tempers," Kondo apologized.
"You said something about Choshu?"
"Yes. Last night, we were chasing those arsonists through the city, and unfortunately, you got involved."
"Is that all you have to say to me?" I placed both hands on the floor and leaned forward. " What happened to my house?" I asked, even though I probably already knew the answer.
"Completely destroyed," Saito said. He said it so offhandedly, it took me a few seconds to register his words.
"In other words, you no longer have a home to go to..." Okita stated.
According to his story, Kondo and the others weren't to blame for what happened. But I'm blaming them anyway. After all, if they hadn't been pursuing those ronin, or if they had taken care of it sooner, that never would have happened.
"It's still your fault. You were the ones they were flinging fire at. That clinic was my god damn inheritance." I glared at them.
"I am so sorry," Kondo apologized.
"Sorry isn't going to start paying the bills," I snapped.
"I do have a suggestion... if you'll hear it. If you find yourself with no other place to go, why not stay here with us for a while," Kondo said.
"Stay with you?"
"You would be a great benefit to our cause. Soji informs me that you have some medical knowledge. Which is perfect. We have been searching for a first-aid officer. It would mean putting up with the filth and slovenliness of us men, but..." I stared at him, mouth agape. "What do you say? "
"Wait just a second, Kondo!" Harada protested.
"Tossing a young woman like her into a den of wolves? That's rather audacious, isn't it? " Okita asked.
"You don't have the faintest idea of what a wolves' den looks like, believe me," I retorted under my breath, giving him the side-eye.
"What do you think, Toshi?" Kondo asked.
"Makes no difference to me. I've always had a fondness for strong women like her. But she's an adult, and if she says she wants to leave, then let her. Only problem is, those Choshu dogs know what she looks like..." Hijikata said.
"Could be dangerous," Saito added.
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "You've got to be joking. This is your solution? Hell save me... " I heaved a sigh. "Fine. Seeing as I have no other options... I still expect compensation for property damage." I pointed my finger at Kondo.
"Then it's settled." Kondo patted me gently on the head.
"Don't touch me." I swatted his hand away.
"My apologies. You've no need to worry, though. Nothing bad will befall you here. "
"If you say so." I didn't believe him. I was sure there were a number of soldiers at this base who would think killing a demon would give them a higher status, or just to prove that they were strong. "But let me tell you this. If anyone gets it into their head to hunt and kill me, their lives will be forfeit."
"Fret not, Miss Yukimura. The only people who know of your identity are the ones in this room. You can trust us." Kondo smiled somewhat awkwardly. I hummed suspiciously in response.
A soldier burst through the door with great urgency just as we concluded our discussion.
"General! We just received word that those outlaw ronin are terrorizing civilians!"
All at once, their eyes took on the gleeful glint of wolves hunting their prey. Protectors of the innocent, huh? Riiiiight. I rolled my eyes.
"Let's see. How many men will we need tonight, I wonder? " Okita asked.
"If last night was any indication, we're going to have our hands full!" Harada said.
Their joyful smiles were starting to make me sick to my stomach. I didn't enjoy fighting. My sister didn't seem to enjoy fighting. Everyone in our clan was good at fighting, but we only ever fought if we had to.
A dark mood had taken over Hijikata. He looked at me with cold, steely eyes.
"What'll we do with her?" he asked.
"She can fight..." Saito said.
"Are you suggesting we take her with us?" Okita asked, shocked.
"Not happening." I scoffed and sat down in the corner of the room, away from everyone else.
"We can't just leave her here. She might get our quarters burned down to the ground, too," Harada retorted.
I waved my hand dismissively. "Let's not forget who got whose house burnt down."
"I take your point ... One of us will have to stay behind, to help her settle in..." Kondo said, looking at the others.