“Such a pretty little thing,” Muzan croaked. His thick thumb and forefinger held Ink-Eyes' chin. The ogre's four-fingered hand could crush her delicate skull with ease, a thought that seemed to pass through his eyes, briefly, before he brought her face closer. Fetid breath stirred Ink Eyes' fur, breath that smelled of meat, blood, and wine. “So pretty, and so cruel.”
Ink-Eyes stared back, unblinking.
“Ah, how you taunt me, little sweetling,” Muzan continued. “I found you alone in the swamp, cast out by your own rat people. You came to me starving and cold, now you are well-fed on carrion, well-warmed by chores, no longer alone. You would have died without me, little rat.” The ogre laughed maliciously.
“Yet do you love me for it?” The grip on Ink-Eyes' chin became painful. Bone creaked under the pressure. The ogre's leathery face filled her vision, its skin a grayish purple. “I have made you everything that you are, and I get no expression of thanks. You are nothing but a wretch, my nezumi sweetling, a thankless, loveless, cruel wretch.”
With a flick of his arm, Ink-Eyes sailed through darkness. Her back struck stone, then her head, and she fell in a heap on the cold floor. She rose, unsteadily, to her knees.
“I am what you made me, Master.”
“Bah!” Muzan yelled. With surprising speed he hurled a heavy chair at her. The chair would have crushed her lithe form had she not moved, but Ink-Eyes rolled sideways. Wood cracked against stone, splitting the chair in two. Before she could stand, the ogre was towering over Ink-Eyes with fists clenched. Muzan was massive, all muscle and bony protrusions, and his roar was deafening. “Look! You have ruined my favorite chair!”
Muzan closed his fingers over her throat. He raised her, dangling, above the floor. Once again his rotting breath billowed around her face.
“You will fix my chair!” he demanded.
“Of course,” Ink-Eyes wheezed. She could no longer breathe so her voice was a whisper. “I will fix it, as I always do, Master.” Darkness began closing at the edges of Ink-Eyes's vision.
“That's a good sweetling,” Muzan said. He dropped her then. “So sweet, so tender.”
Ink-Eyes grasped her own throat, coughing and gasping for air. Muzan had turned his back to her and shambled unsteadily into the shadows. Darkness consumed him. Ink-Eyes could hear him fumbling with another bladder of wine, filling another broken mug. His voice echoed to her eerily off of the bare stone.
“The Master requires more blood. He tells of a nezumi gang camped nearby.”
Ink-Eyes sat erect. Her black eyes glittered in the meager light of the room. “Nezumi gang?” she asked. “Are you sure that is what he said?”
“Of course, of course. The Master was quite clear. You want to know if it is your precious Okiba gang, eh? Who can know? All rats are the same: pathetic and sniveling. Ask me to which family the frogs outside belong, and my answer is the same. Who can know, who can know?” Ink-Eyes heard him take a long draught, then exhale wetly. His voice carried across the room from the shadows. “All you need know is who leads the rats, sweetling. Find the fattest rat, slit his little rat throat, and bring me his little rat blood.”
Ink-Eyes bowed. “As you wish, Master.”
“As my master wishes,” Muzan corrected, then belched. “But fix the chair before you go, my pretty little thing.”
* * *
A poet had once called the Takenuma Swamp the Stealer of Dawn. Sunlight had not touched its murky floor since the kami wrought their rage upon the world nearly twenty years ago. Now, no matter what time of day, the sprawling bamboo swamp glowed faintly gray in perpetual twilight.
Ink-Eyes pushed through thin, rotting bamboo weighed down by moss. A mist curled around her legs as she splashed through shallow water. She knew these parts of the Takenuma well and was able to avoid its most deadly traps. She stepped around sinkholes, beds of flesh-eating beetles, and haunted graves as easily as if she were gliding through a field of lilies.
It was still early in the night, her prey not yet asleep. The Great Master would receive His blood tonight, but not for several hours. Ink-Eyes hacked at a section of bamboo with her long-bladed tanto, approaching the clearing she sought.
Standing in the open muck and mist, Ink-Eyes unstrapped the naginata from her back. She planted the butt of the polearm into the soil, then sunk the blade of her tanto next to it. Ink-Eyes inhaled deeply, closed her eyes, and stretched.
Slowly, she began to hear the full melody of the Takenuma. Frogs croaked. Insects chittered. Every so often a nightbird called, suddenly and hauntingly. These were the first sounds into Ink-Eyes' ears, the sounds of nature, yet gradually they faded into the background as stranger noises replaced them.
Ink-Eyes heard the moaning of voices—kami of dead humans lost and wandering amidst the bamboo--rise to drown out the sounds of the swamp. She was sure these voices were nothing her ears should be able to detect, yet they rose nonetheless whenever she chose to focus on them. Few of the words were intelligible, but Ink-Eyes sensed the emotions driving those ghostly moans--vengeance, or sorrow, or sometimes nothing more than lost, pitiful confusion.
As her focus deepened, even the specters’ cries slowly faded. A third melody rose then, wholly unnatural, apart from the world rather than part of it. Shrieks of tortured animals, incomprehensible gibbering of a thousand voices speaking at once, and bubbling gurgles of someone drowning in quicksand all surrounded Ink-Eyes. These were the eerie mutterings of kami who made the Takenuma their home, Ink-Eyes sensed; they were the reason for her meditation.
The dark noises of the kami swirled around Ink-Eyes in currents and eddies. At first they were nothing more than a murmur. Murmur became tumult, tugging urgently at her mind. Tumult grew to cacophony, screaming in her ears, threatening to rip her sanity to shreds. Ink-Eyes braced herself against the onslaught of unnatural sound, using her soul to search for what she sought there. After several frantic moments, she had found it--a silent, peaceful eye to the storm of the kami’s rage. The cacophony remained, swirling and pounding at the muted sphere she wrapped around herself, yet Ink-Eyes focused only on the silence. In that silence lay the knowledge she sought.
As she touched the cocoon of silence with her mind, she surrendered to unseen forces, and Ink-Eyes' body began to move. Her left foot slid sideways in the soft mud, disturbing nightcrawlers beneath. Her other foot slid forward. Body weight shifted. Soon arms moved, along with head and tail. Alone at night in the Takenuma, Ink-Eyes danced as if on invisible puppet strings within her silent bubble of meditation.
She danced for hours in that silence, guided from beyond. Ink-Eyes believed herself the most skilled ninja of the nezumi, yet she had never been trained by a mortal sensei. When she could manage it, she returned to this clearing, the place where she found she could most surrender herself to her training. Years ago, the sounds of ghosts and kami that only Ink-Eyes could hear had offered little to the mind of a tortured girl. Somehow, that she could hear them at all was a comfort, albeit a small one. It was not long, though, before Ink-Eyes found herself searching for something more than comfort amidst the unnatural babbling, some pattern in the song of the kami.
When she first found the pocket of silence, the place where her mind was not flayed by voices beyond the veil, Ink-Eyes began to change. She became noticeably faster and stronger after these meditations, more proficient with her weapons. Already her abilities outstripped what she could have learned at her age from a hundred teachers. These skills had ensured not only her sanity, but her survival. Ink-Eyes had been sent on countless bloodletting missions by Muzan and his dark master, and she had never failed them. Muzan had never questioned how his sweetling managed her success. That Ink-Eyes always succeeded was enough.
Ink-Eyes slowed her movements, then stopped. The sounds of the kami faded as if dropped into a deep well. For a few moments, the phantom voices replaced them, yet those too quickly ebbed. Soon she was surrounded only by the frogs, insects, nightbirds, and the heavy sound of her own breathing. As was always true after her subconscious lessons, she found the naginata in one hand, the tanto in the other. At the edges of the clearing in a wide circle, rotten bamboo had been cleaved almost to the ground.
Ink-Eyes straightened. Despite the weird luminescence of the swamp, the moon was plainly visible overhead, a pale white disc. It was midnight, or near enough, and time for her to move.
* * *
Rising before her in the gloom stood what had once been a grand temple. Its steepled roof was still intact, yet missing nearly as many tiles as remained. Its walls were the same, worn bare in places yet hinting at the temple's former grandeur. Ink-Eyes did not stop to wonder who had worshipped here hundreds of years before the Takenuma swallowed it. Instead she scouted the terrain to plan her approach, choosing her entrance into the structure.
Pausing, Ink-Eyes secured the black mask that was the mark of her trade over her nose and mouth. She wore little besides the mask, for Ink-Eyes had as much use for armor as she did modesty.
She padded silently through the mist, circling to the side of the desecrated temple. Above her, a second-story window lay open and black like an empty eye socket. With one flex of her legs, she vaulted upward to scrabble through the vacant window. No guard appeared. No alarm sounded.
The hallway before her was almost utterly black. Ink-Eyes moved slowly, weapons in hand, with her back against the stone wall of the temple.
She stopped, listened. A soft snore echoed from a nearby room. Ink-Eyes moved in the darkness towards the noise, eager to fulfill her mission.
With a whispered word, an orb of red light appeared before Ink-Eyes. It throbbed and pulsed like a dying heart, illuminating the hallway. As Ink-Eyes moved the orb moved with her, always in front to light her way. Her mastery of ninjitsu had not been the only result of her Takenuma meditations.
Almost casually, Ink-Eyes stepped into the room after the orb. In the crimson glow lay a figure on a straw mat, wrapped tightly in a tattered blanket. The room was bare otherwise, except for obscure symbols that littered the walls to form a crude mosaic. These were not writings of the temple's original inhabitants. Indeed, the marks looked primitive against the master stonework of the temple walls. Ink-Eyes scraped the edge of her tanto lightly across several of the symbols, sending dried blood flaking to the floor. Whatever blood-magic power the marks once held had long since dissipated.
Ink-Eyes spun her naginata lightly, gripping it when the blade pointed downward. She stepped forward and plunged the weapon into the sleeping figure's stomach.
With a lurch, Muzan sat upright, opening his mouth to scream. Ink-Eyes passed her knife sideways to slit the ogre's throat.
In the pulsing light, Muzan's eyes seemed to focus on Ink-Eyes only briefly before he died.
Blood from the wounds poured over the straw mat. Ink-Eyes used one foot to push Muzan on his side, emptying the corpse of its remaining blood. When the stuff began pooling on the floor, she tossed her weapons aside and knelt beside her former master.
Ink-Eyes placed her hands palm-down into the warm blood. On the floor, she drew two quick arcs, then dipped her hands again to make a series of sharp lines intersecting the arcs. Blood continued to flow from Muzan's corpse, and Ink-Eyes scrawled her pattern in a wide circle around the ogre.
After several minutes, the red orb of light moved to hover over Muzan's body. The orb began to grow. With each pulse, the light expanded. Soon it was as large as a skull, then twice, then the size of Muzan's torso. The light stretched, upward and outward, until it resembled a pyre consuming the corpse of Muzan. Ink-Eyes bowed, arms outstretched before her, and waited.
She did not wait long.
“Good,” a voice like ten-thousand cicadas said.
Ink-Eyes looked up.
The light now hung above Muzan's corpse like a shimmering curtain of blood. Beyond the curtain, Ink-Eyes could see an enormous figure. The figure seemed to be some distance away, allowing her to view it in its entirety. It looked roughly like a man in head and torso, though it bore two downturned horns as wide as its shoulders. Its arms and legs were like that of a distorted skeleton, all knobby joints and lacking any discernable muscle. Each arm ended in a mass of tentacles that writhed like snakes.
What Ink-Eyes noticed most, however, were the oni's eyes. Three perfect globes of red peered at her intently.
“I am most pleased with your treachery,” the demon intoned. “Rise, my servant.”
“You have brought me more blood, yet I require still more, and will require more after that. Muzan was weak. He tried to hide you from my gaze. However, I have seen the true servant who has fed me all these years. You will receive bounties for your faithful deeds, my servant, and power beyond what you have already discovered alone in the Takenuma Swamp.”
“You know? How--?” Ink-Eyes began.
“Be silent. I know of your meditations, yes, and I know what they have brought you. Do my bidding and what you have already learned will be as nothing. Let my gifts be a reminder to you of the need to serve me well, and let Muzan's corpse be a reminder of the price of failure.”
Ink-Eyes' body went rigid as a bolt of red light struck her. For a moment, she screamed with pain unlike anything she had ever experienced. Her blood seemed to boil beneath her skin, her eyes prepared to burst from her skull. Every muscle felt as if it were being pulled from her bones. Yet as quickly as the pain had come it disappeared, leaving only a memory of torment. Ink-Eyes gasped, laying sprawled on the floor.
“Rise. Rise, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Kuro. Rise, Ink-Eyes the Desecrator.”
Power leaked from her eyes in the form of red mist. Her body felt stronger, faster than it had ever been. Always after her meditations she had felt refreshed, yet nothing could compare to what she now experienced. Her former abilities seemed almost laughable by comparison. Every limb tingled with the hunger to kill.
Ink-Eyes paused, cocked her head sideways. A different awareness struck her suddenly. She looked below the shimmering portal and reached out with her power.
Muzan's finger twitched.
The ogre's corpse stirred amidst straw, bathed in red light. Muzan climbed to his feet, naked except for the gory gash in his stomach. His head lolled to one side, the neck nearly severed by Ink-Eyes' blade.
“What--?” the ogre said thickly. His hollow stare regarded the nezumi before him. He bowed before Ink-Eyes. “What is your will, Master?”
The oni laughed, then, from behind its curtain, a sound that drowned out everything.
Ink-Eyes looked at her new servant standing before her new master. The ogre looked back patiently, waiting. Kuro's laughter filled her ears.
A black mask still covered her mouth, yet for the first time she could ever remember, Ink-Eyes smiled.
“Come,” she motioned to Muzan’s corpse. “We have much to do, sweetling.”