Interlude: Encounter

A sharp cry pierces the air as a griffon swoops down from above. Jin, wielding his Sasayuki, counters with a magical blade—a gust of wind known as “Flying Strike.”

The invisible blade becomes a whirlwind, slashing through the enemy. The griffon, in agony, roars and retreats back into the sky.

Jin wipes sweat from his forehead, his mouth opening in frustration..

“Damn, it’s endless!”

He wonders how much time has passed since the battle began. Half an hour, an hour? Surely not two hours. He looks to the sun’s position but notices the number of griffons in the sky hasn’t decreased since the fight started and clicks his tongue in annoyance.

The Mythical Creatures—black griffons—have been overwhelming since their appearance. The clan of Satsuki has been on the losing end, having lost one of their three Soul Equipment users. The situation shows no sign of improvement.

Jin had hoped that while they fend off the enemy, other Soul Equipment users would defeat the Mythical Creatures. But there’s no sign of that happening. Either the other two can’t handle the black griffons, or, an unwelcome thought, they’ve already been devoured.

The Satsuki clan’s counterattacks are noticeably less frequent. The few that happen are sporadic and largely ineffective.

Originally, the warriors of the Phantom Blade Style weren’t an organized military force but a group centered around powerful individuals wielding Soul Equipment. Without these key figures, disarray was inevitable.

“Even if we run…”

Jin hides in the shadow of a tent, glancing back with troubled eyes. There, two unconscious women lay on the ground, entrusted to him by a fallen Soul Equipment user.

They had fainted from the shock of witnessing the brutal death and had not woken up since. Jin and his Boss decided not to wake them, fearing they might panic.

To Jin, they may be strangers, but he cannot abandon those entrusted to him by a fallen comrade.

Initially, Jin and his Boss planned to carry them to the eastern forest, but they noticed the griffons targeting those who tried to flee. Staying put seemed the safer option.

Their strategy so far was to watch for the enemy silently. If spotted, Jin would attack to fend them off before swiftly moving the tent. They were waiting for the griffons to retreat or for the tide to turn with the help of other Soul Equipment users.

Unfortunately, neither seemed likely. With their reduced counterattacks, the griffons had more freedom to roam, increasing the likelihood of Jin and his group becoming targets. Staying any longer seemed reckless.

Resigned, Jin made up his mind and spoke.

“Boss,” Jin called out.

“What is it, newbie?” responded the large man in charge of the Satsuki clan’s kitchen, responding to Jin’s call while holding a thick log under his right arm.

Jin turned to him, ready to share his plan.

“I’ll act as a decoy and run west. During that time, Boss, please carry these women and escape to the forest in the east.”

The boss, about to protest, was silenced by Jin’s calm continuation.

“I can only carry one person, but Boss, you can carry both, right? Compared to the mountains of potatoes you always carry, they’re light. A nimble runner and a strong carrier—it’s about using the right person for the job.”

Seeing Jin wink with one eye, the Boss seemed deflated.

The Boss was aware of the worsening situation. They were just waiting for death.

He sighed heavily.

“You’ve got guts, newbie—no, Jin. With your strange swordsmanship, you should’ve been wielding a sword, not a kitchen knife.”

The Boss promised to recommend Jin as a warrior if they survived. “So don’t die,” he added.

Jin had finally graduated from peeling potatoes and was taking his first step as a warrior, but that depended on surviving this crisis.

Borrowing an iron helmet from the Boss, Jin put it on and stepped out of the tent, running westward.

Unlike the forest to the east, the west had plains, and further on, a small hill with scattered trees. It seemed like the hill continued on the other side.

If he could make it there, he might escape the enemies in the sky.

“To Boss the power of Soul Equipment, I can’t die here. I could pretend to be a decoy, hide, and make the Boss and others the actual decoys to survive…”

Jin briefly considered this but shrugged off the petty thought. It wasn’t out of a sense of justice or conscience. His actions were driven by a simpler, more urgent emotion.

“I refuse to be like those cowardly Soul Equipment users.”

With this thought, refusing to be like those he despised, Jin dashed towards the western plains.

Jin glanced at the sky and noticed several griffons focusing on him. As he intended, the sunlight reflecting off his iron helmet made a good marker.

The griffons didn’t immediately attack. Instead, they circled overhead, as if restraining each other. This was also part of Jin’s plan.

Reflecting on the attacks so far, the griffons had been mercilessly diving at the warriors from above, but they never attacked in groups.

Griffons don’t naturally flock together, nor do they hunt in groups.

The flock above, gathered by the Mythical Creature, hadn’t changed their individual nature. By introducing a noticeable target, Jin hoped to create confusion, allowing him to escape or at least buy time.

The real problem would arise if a superior species, unconcerned with such restraint, decided to act. Jin pondered this possibility.

As it turned out, Jin’s plan worked, but his fears also came true.

Annoyed by its kin’s hesitance, the black griffon that had been soaring above its brethren let out a roar, reminiscent of distant thunder.

The griffons targeting Jin scattered, frightened by the roar. Jin was now in the black griffon’s sights.

Halfway to the hill, with nowhere to hide, Jin felt an oppressive silence from above. Looking up, he saw the Mythical Creature looking down at him.

The black griffon, flapping its wings, began its descent towards Jin. It was the same attack that had devoured a Soul Equipment user along with his equipment. Jin, who had been unable to react then, couldn’t even think of countering or evading now.

At the moment he was targeted by the Mythical Creature, Jin’s life was essentially over.

This wasn’t just about Jin. Whether human, Kijin, or a Soul Equipment user, the outcome was the same. Mythical Creatures were created for this very purpose.

Jin had thought he understood this, but now he truly felt the harsh reality.

Only when exposed to inescapable “death” does one truly understand. It was as if the Mythical Creature’s will itself was saying:

“You are not even allowed to exist.”

The malevolence, strong enough to cause physical pressure, could have killed a weaker person with its murderous intent alone.

At that moment, Jin was overwhelmed by the same oppressive force that had killed the Soul Equipment user earlier. It was a negation of his very existence, as if living itself was a crime. Jin nearly crumbled under this force.

He felt hopeless, like he couldn’t possibly resist.

…But still.

With his back teeth clenched tightly, Jin stood his ground. Even if he would lose his life in the blink of an eye, he refused to kneel here. It was a tiny act of defiance, likely insignificant to the Mythical Creature.

But it didn’t matter to Jin. He reached for his Sasayuki, intending to at least strike one blow.

That’s when a delicate, bell-like voice reached his ears.

“Soul Equipment Activation.”

If the approaching Mythical Creature was a storm, the figure that dashed past was lightning.

Two shadows intersected at an untraceable speed.

“Rebel, Chiyou.”

Jin couldn’t comprehend what happened or even when this person appeared.

Only two things were clear to Jin.

One was the words spoken by the figure.

And the other—

The black griffon, the embodiment of absolute death, screeched as it was slammed into the ground, raising a cloud of blood.

The impact lifted Jin off his feet, and he staggered slightly.

The violent dust cloud rose as the Mythical Creature struggled. It seemed ready to rise and attack again, but the black griffon neither stood nor flew. It was more than just unable; it had suffered a fatal blow.

In that instant, the Mythical Creature was defeated.

Half-dazed, Jin looked for the person who had felled the creature.

The individual was soon found, not far from Jin, a woman staring intently at the fallen creature.

Long black hair, two horns protruding from her forehead, dressed in a white kosode and crimson hakama.

The word “shrine maiden” came to Jin’s mind, though he had never heard of one fighting on the frontlines. The long sword in her hand clearly indicated she was the one who had slain the Mythical Creature.

Noticing Jin’s gaze, the woman turned towards him. She seemed to have judged the griffons overhead no longer a threat and approached Jin, still wary of the sky.

“I am Atori of the Kamuna clan. Are you from the Satsuki clan? Are you injured?”

Her inquiry was gentle and polite, unbelievable for someone who had just slain a Mythical Creature.

Struck by a thunderous realization, Jin stood rooted. He instinctively knew she was the person he was meant to seek teachings from, perhaps even the reason he left the Mitsurugi house.

Bowing deeply, Jin voiced his thoughts, forgetting the griffons still flying overhead.

“Please allow me to call you master!”

Atori, the woman, blinked at Jin’s passionate words.

After a moment, she tilted her head slightly, a confused sound escaping her cherry-colored lips, “…Yes?”

Liked it? Take a second to support WordyCrown on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!