Chapter 23: That Shapeshifter, Congenial
Silenthawk led Yoka past the row of barracks, the private courtyard for team leaders and into the darkness gorged out of the mountain.
Master lived in a dwelling built into the mountain slope at the back of the mercenary base.
The single-storey house was wrapped on three sides by the mountain and separated from the rest of the base by a hidden forest trail and a disguised wooden gate.
An agent on guard duty appeared from the surrounding foliage when Silenthawk and Yoka approached.
He saluted to Silenthawk and opened the gate for him before disappearing into the darkness once more.
A dim lantern hung from the eaves of the porch.
Translucent shoji windows that glowed with warmth from the lit rooms within.
Silenthawk knocked the door and waited.
After a moment, Yoka made out footsteps and a gruff voice muttering vague curses.
Silenthawk heard it too and slid the door open without further ado. ‘Pardon the intrusion,’ he said perfunctorily as he strode into the main hall.
The interior was bigger than it looked from the outside.
An old man sat behind a low table, his face scowling, arms crossed over his chest in dissatisfaction.
‘I was about to sleep!’ he said. ‘What’s so urgent it can’t wait till morning?’
He gave Silenthawk a sullen look and glared at the informant that came with him.
Yoka looked up and was stunned to find herself staring into a pair of light-grey eyes just like her own.
‘One of your kind came, so I thought it best to bring her directly to you,’ Silenthawk explained blandly.
The glare directed at Yoka turned into surprise. ‘You!’
Maiko’s polite demeanour distorted as Yoka sat down. ‘So this is where you’ve been hiding all this time, Seventy-One.’
The old man’s light-grey eyes flashed with a hint of unease. ‘Hmfph! I wasn’t hiding. I’ve just chosen to settle down here and didn’t tell you about it.’
Yoka raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that so? My bad then. I thought you fled the underworld because you felt guilty.’
Seventy-One’s wrinkled face flushed with anger. ‘Why should I feel guilty? You’re the one who should feel guilty for coming up with such a ridiculous method of consumption. How was I to know that person was your prey?!’
He pushed up his sleeves and jabbed a finger at Yoka.
‘And it’s been 300 years! Why are you still holding a grudge?’
Yoka nodded sagely. ‘Indeed. It’s only been 300 years. A yokai’s anger doesn’t subside so quickly.’
Master squinted. ‘And so you’re here to get revenge?’
Long ago, there was only a basic type of consumption. Shapeshifters devoured their prey immediately, sucking their souls out of their bodies and swallowing the person’s form.
Weaker shapeshifters would leave the innards and bones behind, unable to dissolve those parts with their venom. Alternatively, there were those who devoured the person’s soul but left the human shell behind.
As the most powerful shapeshifter, Yoka was different. She devoured everything and left no evidence behind.
The primitive enjoyment of hunting prey came from leaving messy remains behind to show off the might of a predator. Yet, Yoka had nothing to show for it.
Thus, she invented two new methods of consumptions to play with. The first was delayed consumption, where she marked her prey with a seal and nurtured it until either its appearance or ability matured.
The second had been a new idea she toyed with 300 years ago. She called it “puppet consumption”. Using this method, the prey’s blood was drained and replaced with the shapeshifter’s. This allowed the prey to retain all of its faculties and strengths but prevented them from running away.
She had been in the process of experimenting the effects of puppet consumption on a human when Seventy-One inadvertently consumed the person she had been playing with.
Her fun had been cut short and the culprit who messed things up for her fled.
What’s more, other shapeshifters heard that she had come up with a new method of consumption and wanted to know what it was.
When she first came up with delayed consumption, it was merely for her own amusement. She didn’t expect it to become so popular that every shapeshifter started using this method to devour their prey.
It became a nuisance afterwards because she would set her sights on a person only to find that person was already sealed by a different shapeshifter.
Undoing another shapeshifter’s seal took up too much time and having to look for another person to devour when you’ve already set your mind on someone made her extremely irritable.
Thus, she hadn’t wanted anyone to learn about her latest game.
Unable to find Seventy-One to shut it up, she was forced to lay low and stop experimenting in order to dismiss the news as heresy.
‘I wasn’t here for revenge,’ Yoka replied as she cracked her knuckles, ‘but since I met you along the way, I might as well vent my pent-up frustrations.’
The old man acquiesced with a sigh, his light-grey eyes turning dull. ‘Then, I’ll admit defeat in advance, okay? I’m not in the mood to fight with you right now. I’ll keep quiet about your fetishes and swear to never tell a soul. Is that good enough?’
Yoka frowned. ‘You’re not sincere at all, Seventy-One.’
Seventy-One spread his hands wide. ‘We both know I’m no match for you. And I’m really not fond of physical fights. You know that, Soulshifter.’
Silenthawk tensed up beside her.
He had worked with Master for the past thirty years. Long enough to know he was extremely fond of physical fights. He never shied away from a fight.
So the fact that he was surrendering to Maiko—no, Soulshifter—so easily meant that this creature was many times more powerful than he.
A chill ran down his spine.
Master’s abilities already surpassed the descriptor “infallible”. They were never forced to give up on a mission before because they were led by such a powerful leader.
But Master would rather admit defeat than attempt to outwit Soulshifter?
‘You helped the daimyo of Karatsu find us,’ Silenthawk murmured in surprise.
Yoka retracted her claws with a smirk. ‘Your subordinate is sharp.’
She sat down again.
‘My current prey is, indeed, Terazawa Rin, the daimyo of Karatsu. I’m helping her take revenge on the people who killed her family.’
Seventy-One sighed again and massaged his temples. ‘So you want to kill all my people on her behalf?’
Silenthawk frowned, his hackles rising.
‘Why are you doing so much to appease a piece of meat that’s going to get eaten anyway?’ He paused, then shook his head. ‘Never mind. You’ve always had strange fetishes, I should be used to it now.’
Soulshifter resisted the urge to beat up the insolent creature in front of her.
Seventy-One’s eyes brightened. ‘How about this? I’ll give you my mercenary group. Just let me and Silenthawk go. Whitemoon and the ronin division were responsible for that mission in any case. It has nothing to do with us.’
Yoka laughed. ‘Do you actually think I’ll take your word for it?’
She pulled a length of rope bound around her waist, one hand morphing into a tiger’s claw again. Her light-grey eyes gleamed with malice.
‘But your idea is a good one. I’ll let my prey decide how all of you should die.’