That autumn I dug harder than I ever had before. There were more Oni in the hills than at any time in my life, their cackling echoing through the night. I did not have my father’s skill at the forge, but I was strong for a woman. I could dig pits outside the village and fill them with his iron spikes, trying to trap some of the monsters as they came out of the hills.
It was that or let them devour the harvest. Demons or no demons, I did not intend to starve.
Frustration seized me as my shovel clanged on something solid in the mud. Rocks meant harder digging and heavier lifting.
But this clang was different, and as I brushed away the dirt I realised why. Instead of a rock I had found a brass tube, which was in turn connected to a barrel like torso, topped off with the helmet of a samurai. We were used to finding fragments of such things, remnants of steam warriors fallen in the War of Clouds, but this was the first time I had found one whole.
My father beamed when he saw what I had. He knew automata from his days in the city, before he met my mother.
“Now we are safe,” he announced as he stoked his forge. “I will make him live again.”
Leaves were falling in their thousands by the time father beat the dents from the samurai and made his boiler burn once more. He was magnificent, tall and proud despite his scratches and scars. Seeing him, I almost felt hope.
But soon would come the Screaming Wind, and the Oni would be upon us. When I saw how feeble our defences were, and heard their cackling chorus in the night, I wept with fear.
Half the village watched as the last green leaf curled up in the orchard. A gust of wind caught it, jerked it once, twice, three times, and snatched it from the branch.
With a vast screeching, the Oni came. Hundreds of them, their eyes blazing and their teeth flashing, horns protruding from their bulbous heads. They leapt and danced their way out of the hills, heading for our village.
As the first of them reached the fields, the samurai emerged. His armour was tarnished, his helmet dulled with age, but his blade had a fresh edge thanks to my father. Steam poured from his back as he strode out to face the Oni.
We pitiful humans retreated safely behind our walls. The Oni could only enter buildings that held no food, and we had taken care to keep our homes clear. We would not die no
w, even if the samurai failed. Instead we would wait for our empty bellies to devour us.
Fail he might, for all the strength and skill of his blows. He cut down a dozen Oni in turn, darkening the soil with black blood. But then two of them latched onto his arm, while three more grabbed him around the waist. He disappeared beneath a heap of monsters.
That magnificent steam man had shown more courage than any of us. Now he would die, and soon we would too.
I grabbed my shovel and made for the door.
“Katsume!” my father exclaimed. “What madness is this?”
I did not answer, but rushed out into the fields. Screaming from the top of my lungs, I charged into the mass of Oni, caving in the face of one with my shovel blade, knocking two more aside as they stood in my way. I leapt at those on the samurai, battering them away from his arm, freeing his blade to do its deadly work.
Back to back we stood, the brass samurai and I, fighting off the frenzied beasts. Soon my arms were more weary than they had ever been from digging, my palms rubbed raw. But still I fought on, the steam that poured out behind me a reminder of the strength one person could have.
At last the throng dwindled. Only a score of Oni remained. Exhausted, I lifted my weapon to face them.
Lifted it too high. An Oni came in under my defences and sank its teeth into my arm. There was a crunch, a flash of agonising pain, and where my hand had been blood poured from the stump.
I slumped to my knees, cold and faint. The samurai turned to stand over me, slicing my attacker in half, fending off the Oni that gazed at me with hungry eyes. I could already hear others battering at his back.
As my mind spun and the world went black, I heard footsteps and shouts.
I looked down at the body of the brass samurai. His head was a mangled mess, his torso stooped protectively over where I had been. He had saved me, becoming my armour as the villagers chased down the last Oni.
My father wept over the stump of my wrist, but I did not. Instead I looked down at the brass samurai’s hand, still clutching his sword. He had given us the inner steel to fight. Perhaps he could give me something more.
* * *
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