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This is part 3 of a 3 part series. You can read the first part here.
Mamoru paused in front of the door. He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders a few times, steeling himself for the confrontation ahead. He pulled a cloth bandage from the bag at his side and draped it across one arm. He pressed his coarse hair flat with his free hand.
He knocked, wincing as his knuckles wrapped against the wood.
There was a crash as something smashed against the other side of the door. “You will not touch me again, Hideyo!”
Mamoru pushed the door open slightly and waved his hand through the crack. “Kats! It’s me, not Hideyo.” Mamoru made sure the bandage remained out of sight behind the door.
There was a moment of silence. “Come in.”
Mamoru slid through the doorway into a small, windowless room. The ceiling was tall enough for him to stand at his full six and a half feet, but short enough that he slouched reflexively. A small fire pit smoldered in the corner, coating the wall in soot.
Functional was a good word for most of the buildings in Hokko.
The opposite side of the room was dominated by layers of animal furs arranged into a bed. Katsumi sat amongst them with her back propped against the wall. When she saw the bandage in Mamoru’s other hand, her eyes narrowed.
“She sent you, didn’t she.”
“Kats, we’ve been over this. Hideyo is trying to help.”
“A hawk does not seek help from a mouse.”
Mamoru sighed as he knelt down beside Katsumi. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine. It’s been three months. I am ready to leave.”
“Hideyo says you need another week or two. Her magic stitched you up, but your body isn’t done strengthening the threads. Can I take a look?”
Katsumi nodded and pulled the rough-spun shirt over her head. She wore nothing underneath. Mamoru took a moment to admire her thickly muscled arms, her powerful shoulders. His eyes lingered on her breasts. Katsumi watched him as he looked at her.
He blushed and shifted his gaze to the bandages wrapped around the her midsection. “I, uh… I need to look at the… can I remove the…” He shifted his hands awkwardly, reaching towards the bandages gingerly.
Katsumi snorted. “Like a frightened deer every time.” She raised her arms over her head.
Mamoru set the new bandage on the furs next to him, careful not to touch the thick poultice smeared across it. He moved closer to Katsumi and gingerly untied the knot on the old binding. His arms wrapped around her waist as he unwound the bandage. Her hands rested on his shoulders as he worked, their faces inches apart. Their breathing quickened.
Mamoru finished removing the bandage, revealing a fist-sized, angry red scar that obscured Katsumi’s otherwise well-defined abs. Mamoru’s fingers rested against the scar. His hand moved upwards hesitantly, trailing along Katsumi’s skin. She pulled him towards her.
Katsumi kissed like she fought. She used her strength to move Mamoru where she wanted, pulling his body onto hers. Mamoru tensed in surprise as she bit his lip. But he quickly adjusted, letting the energy overtake him as well. Mamoru grabbed one of Katsumi’s hands and pushed it against the wall behind her. Lost in the moment, his hand moved faster than he expected. She winced briefly.
Mamoru pulled back like a man avoiding a blow. “Ah, sorry! I’m still getting used to–.”
Katsumi reached out and grabbed him, pulling him back towards her. “Don’t insult me with your concern.”
But Mamoru pressed a hand against the wall, holding himself back. “No, this is a bad idea. I’m still not used to the strength Tsukuyomi left inside me. I could hurt you.” Mamoru pulled himself away with visible reluctance.
Katsumi growled and brought her hands down in frustration. “I am not as fragile as you think I am.”
“I know you’re not fragile, Kats. But you are injured. Acknowledging one doesn’t require accepting the other.” Mamoru clasped his hands behind his head. “I already did this to you. I’d rather not make it worse.”
There was a long silence as the two regained their composure.
“You want to wait until I am fully recovered. But when that time comes, I will leave.”
Mamoru’s face fell. “Still? The rebellion needs you.”
“The rebellion is dead, Mamoru. It died when your friend shot Yoshinobu in the heart.” Katsumi looked towards the coals of the fire. “It’s time I found my own battles again.”
“The rebellion isn’t dead. We still have the three of us and Seiji once he wakes up. Hideyo says more soldiers should be coming up from the south soon.” Mamoru paused for a moment. “And Chiyoko. I don’t know what her plan is, but she has one. That’s how she always was, growing up. Three steps ahead of me.”
“You are a fool. Chiyoko struck because she was strong and Yoshinobu was weak. That’s all.”
“That’s not how she works.”
“Regardless. I did not join the rebellion because these people needed me. I joined to fight. Without Yoshinobu, the army thinks only of defense.”
“It won’t always be that way, though.” Mamoru picked up the new bandage and began to wind it around Katsumi. She continued looking into the fire.
“It’s been three months and all Hideyo has done is strengthen the walls and build defenses. There is no fire in her eyes. Only fear and sadness. If I stay here I may as well be a beast in a cage.”
“What about us?” Mamoru caught himself and quickly added. “If you leave you’ll never get your chance for a rematch, I mean.”
“I have said that you may join me.”
“I want to. With Chiyoko gone and my mom… there’s a lot of pain for me here now. But I can’t leave these people. Not while they’re in danger.”
“And I cannot stay.”
Mamoru finished wrapping Katsumi’s bandage in silence, unsure what to say. Eventually he finished and the two sat next to each other, their shoulders touching. The mood fell into to a comfortable silence.
After a few minutes, the pair was broken from their reverie by a knock at the door. “Mamoru, sir. Hideyo has asked that you meet her on the walls.” One of the soldiers from the rebellion. No one from Hokko would call Mamoru sir.
“Can it wait?”
“I don’t think so, sir. The rest of our forces just arrived from the south. Most of them are dead.”
Mamoru hurried between buildings, his breath fogging in the perpetual cold. A soldier had pointed him in the direction of Hideyo and he made his way as directly as he could, picking through the busy village.
Rebellion soldiers had helped rebuild many of the single-story, thatched roof buildings of Hokko. But the village was still littered with rubble from the battle nearly four months ago. A group of men and women were splitting tree trunks piled at the village center, preparing them to use for further repairs. They discussed the newly arrived soldiers in nervous whispers.
Slender pyramids built from wood dotted Hokko’s perimeter just inside the inner wall. Each tower had a series of interlocking gears working from the base of the structure up to a large metal sphere covered in holes. Periodically, a small gout of flame would erupt from one of the openings.
Between Hokko’s inner and outer wall lay the town’s farmlands. Many of the terraced rice paddies had been drained to accommodate the rebellion’s forces. For nearly three months, tents and cook fires had sprawled along the patchwork hillside. At roughly two hundred soldiers, the rebellion almost doubled Hokko’s population. Thankfully, they brought enough rations to sustain themselves.
When Mamoru reached Hideyo on the inner wall, she was already listening to a beleaguered soldier with a long, black braid down his back. By the bandage on his arm and the ragged condition of his clothing, Mamoru guessed it was a member of the southern forces.
”–no more than a couple days ahead. Maybe less–.” The dark-haired soldier quieted as Mamoru approached.
Hideyo turned and looked over her shoulder. She acknowledged Mamoru with a curt nod and turned back to the soldier. “It’s OK, he can hear this too. Go ahead and start from the beginning, if you don’t mind.”
A flash of annoyance crossed the soldier’s face as they started the story over. “Yes, sir. I’m the new leader of the southern detachment. Umako is dead.
“We were traveling north, escorting the heavy weaponry you built. While we were crossing the mountains we were ambushed and eventually overrun. We were forced to abandon the weapons.
“We’ve been fleeing north ever since, taking heavy losses. About 80 of us are still alive. Of that, probably 60 are able to fight. The enemy forces are no more than a couple days behind us.”
Hideyo’s face was stern and hard to read. Since taking over the rebellion, she had become increasingly detached and calculating. The timid woman had been scoured away as she fought desperately to protect Yoshinobu’s legacy. “80 survivors from an initial force of 300. And armed with our heavy weaponry, no less. This must have been quite the force. Kitsune?”
The man nodded. “Not just the foxes, though. Tengu as well. Plus a couple dragons.”
Hideyo’s eyes widened slightly. “Ninigi and Amaterasu have joined with Tsukuyomi as well, then. Were any of the three gods present during the fighting?”
“No, sir. But there was a woman who fought alongside them. Before she showed up we might have had a chance to hold.” The man shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like what she did. Not even from you and the rest of the commanders. She took out 50 men on her own.”
“Did she fight with a bow?” The man nodded. “We’re aware of her. Is there anything else?” Hideyo dismissed the man when he shook his head. As he walked away, Hideyo turned to Mamoru. Her short form suddenly looked weary.
“Well, your friend has been busy.”
Mamoru’s mind was reeling. “There must be some sort of mistake. Or something’s gone wrong with Chiyoko’s plan.”
“Mamoru. Chiyoko doesn’t have a plan. She betrayed us.” Hideyo’s face twisted in anger, but she quickly let the emotion fade. She held up a hand. “No, it doesn’t matter. There’s no reason to have this fight again. We’ve lost.”
“What are you talking about? We can’t give up now.”
“Don’t be stupid. Did you hear him? We were relying on those soldiers and those weapons. And that was just to defend against Tsukuyomi. If there were tengu and dragons attacking, then at least three of the gods have decided that our rebellion is no longer amusing. I think we struck a nerve when we fought Tsukuyomi.
“And that’s not even talking about Chiyoko. You saw what she was capable of. Unless that newfound strength you got from Tsukuyomi’s possession is a lot more than you’ve let on, how exactly do you suggest we get out of this?”
Mamoru stared at Hideyo, unable to find an answer.
The woman shrugged. “The best we can do is get the villagers out of here. If we can hold on long enough, we might be able to give you a big enough head start to get away. You’ll have to leave immediately. I’ll have the soldiers round up enough rations for all of you. We won’t be needing them much longer.”
“We’re not leaving you here to die, Hideyo. We all leave together or we all stand and fight.”
Hideyo pounded her fist on the wall next to her. “I’m not asking you to leave people behind, Mamoru. I’m asking you to save at least some of the people here.” She opened her arms, gesturing to the soldiers and the village. “Look at everyone here. They all followed Yoshinobu because he made them believe we could change things. He was wrong. And now they’re all going to die.
“I don’t care what we have to do. Or how we have to do it. All I want is to salvage something. Otherwise… otherwise everything he did will have been worse than useless. The gods are going to pursue the rebellion no matter what. But what do they care about your village? You can save them.”
“Why are you all so intent on giving up? What’s the value in just salvaging things? Why live if you have to spend your life running from everything that matters?”
“Don’t be shortsighted, Mamoru. Even if you lose everything now, you can always rebuild. There’s nothing noble about dying pointlessly for a cause. You’re just… gone. You leave everyone else trying to find some meaning in it.” Hideyo looked down quickly, tears in her eyes.
Mamoru softened his shoulders, tears welled in his eyes and ran down his cheeks as he watched Hideyo struggling to regain her composure. He reached out and pulled Hideyo into a hug. “I’m sorry, Hideyo. I didn’t mean to… I’m not saying let’s just throw our lives away.” Mamoru held the hug for a few heartbeats. Hideyo did not cry, but he felt her body relax into him. “I wish I’d had more time to get to know him.”
The two pulled back, Mamoru wiping his eyes with the back of his hands. “But you don’t have to do this alone. Our best chance is together.”
“Mamoru… we have no chance. The odds were stacked against us when we were only hunting Tsukuyomi. We pulled you into this mess, at least now we can make sure you and your village escape.”
“You all are my village, Hideyo. Once we let anyone through those walls, we look out for them. You can ask anyone in Hokko. Besides, where would we go? 300 people wandering through the forest don’t have any chance to survive either.”
Hideyo shook her head, laughing incredulously. “It’s… The odds are just so overwhelming. Three gods, accompanied by all of their followers. Not even Yosh would have tried, I think.”
Mamoru paused, thoughtful. “Do you think it’s a little too overwhelming?”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. When we came staggering back here three months ago, Seiji and Katsumi were completely out. Hokko was a ruin. We had no defensive fortifications. Tsukuyomi was right next to his domain.
“Why didn’t he just gather his followers and overwhelm us straight away? Why be so methodical? Since when have the gods acted cautiously? This doesn’t sound like them at all. It sounds more like… Chiyoko.”
Hideyo sneered. “What’s the difference?”
“There is a difference. I know you don’t trust her. But think about it for a minute. Even if Chiyoko is grabbing for power, why would she be so methodical about destroying Hokko? This is her home town. Maybe she would just let Tsukuyomi run over it. But intentionally avoiding the town, gathering followers, and bringing such overwhelming force that there couldn’t be any survivors. Why go so far?
“I think she’s been trying to keep the confrontation away from us as long she could.”
“Why, bother though? We’re still going to be destroyed in the end.”
“You said it yourself. The gods can’t let the rebellion keep going. Chiyoko probably can’t stop them from attacking us. And she knows that if they came in a bunch of smaller waves, we’d try to fight. And we’d just keep fighting until we’re all dead.
“She wants it to be obvious it’s over. I think she’s trying to tell us to surrender. She must have some sort of plan!”
“Or she just wants us to give up so they win without a fight. But… either way, you have a point. It does feel like we’re being set up to surrender.”
“Look, Mamoru. I don’t think Chiyoko has a master plan. She’s not going to suddenly jump back to our side. But it doesn’t really matter at this point. We only had a chance when the gods thought they were toying with us. If they’re taking the rebellion seriously… well, giving up is better than dying.
“If Chiyoko does try something, I’m not helping her unless we’re certain it will work. If the gods offer any kind of surrender, I plan to take it. Even if all we can do is get safe passage for the soldiers, that’s better than nothing. They’ll know they fought and lived. They’ll pass that to their children.
“This war has to mean something more than a pile of dead bodies and burning villages.”
Two days later, the rebellion waited within Hokko’s inner walls. Soldiers lined the wooden ramparts and manned the defensive towers Hideyo had built. More fighters stood grouped by the gate, armed and ready. But flying from the wall were several white flags.
Hideyo, Mamoru, and Katsumi stood side by side outside the gate. Seiji was still within the village, lying comatose in a building at the center of town.
The three leaders of the rebellion stood alone, exposed outside the walls, as they saw just how overwhelming the gods’ army was.
Kitsune swarmed from the trees, leaping onto Hokko’s outer wall and then dropping into the terraces below. It was mostly single-tailed, human-sized foxes with an occasional two- or three-tailed beast. One four-tailed kitsune, it’s fur golden, was leading the other beasts. It was twice as tall as the others.
Following behind the kitsune were twenty red-skinned creatures. They looked like humans except for the white wings at their back and the six inch long noses extending from their face. They wore formal armor, much like Seiji’s, and carried long golden staffs topped with a loop of jangling rings. Like the foxes before them, the tengu generals leapt atop the wall easily, beckoning forward with their staffs.
Flowing behind them came a horde of child-sized crow people. Their bodies were covered in black feathers and they wore brown leather trousers over taloned legs. Their upper bodies were bare, leaving their arms - more like wings - free to move. The crow tengu soldiers were constantly cawing from long, hooked beaks. They flew over the wall and came to rest amongst the kitsune, shifting restlessly.
The creatures kept coming, fanning out and filling the upper terrace levels. Eventually, the tide began to slow and the full army could be seen arrayed at the top of the valley. The force was nearly 500 strong. They looked down on the rebellion huddled within Hokko.
Katsumi looked disappointed. “I thought you said there would be dragons to fight as well. I do not wish to die swarmed by these insects.”
Mamoru looked at her with concern. “We’re not fighting Kats. Just remember–.”
As he spoke, a series of roars quieted him. Five long, reptilian forms emerged from the trees, their sinewy forms swimming through the air like snakes in water. Each of the dragon’s scales was a different color, with gems forming a row of spikes along their back.
There was a blue dragon, lined in sapphire spikes, a red covered in rubies, white with diamonds, black with onyx, and green with emeralds. Their heads were wide, with long whiskers like a catfish shifting in the air. Their short, taloned legs flexed absently as they twisted lazily about one another. Each dragon was nearly 30 feet long.
Katsumi watched them arrive with a smile.
Mamoru shifted uncomfortably. “Chiyoko has a plan. She’s going to do something.” Even Mamoru and Katsumi seemed frail before the army arrayed above them.
Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. The rebels along the wall began to shift uncomfortably. Their resolve weakening as they were left to watch the mass of snapping, snarling creatures in front of them.
Eventually, there was a ripple amongst the trees at the back of the army. Creatures shifted out of the way as Tsukuyomi’s white-furred form emerged. Standing more than 20 feet tall, he simply stepped over the wall. Dropping to the ground and walking beside him was a familiar, dark haired woman.
“Chiyoko!” Mamoru’s face brightened.
As Chiyoko and Tsukuyomi cut through the horde, the creatures gave them a wide berth. Dropping to a terrace below their forces, Chiyoko noticed Mamoru and beckoned towards herself with a hand.
Mamoru immediately began to approach, but Hideyo put out her arm. “Wait, it could be a trap. What if they’re just trying to take us out before the fight begins? They should come to us.”
On the other side of Mamoru, Katsumi began to walk forward. “If I die today, it will be surrounded by enemies, ripping out the throat of one of those dragons. Cower by the wall if you must.”
Hideyo blinked, stung by the words. Mamoru pushed past her and joined Katsumi, drawing his axe from over his shoulder.
Hideyo hesitated a moment longer. “That woman is going to get us all killed.” She trotted after them reluctantly, jogging to catch up.
Tsukuyomi sat behind Chiyoko, his tails billowing about him and his ice-blue eyes shining in the cold morning light. Chiyoko looked the same as always, save for her eyes. They were the same blue as the god’s.
The air got colder as Mamoru and the others pulled themselves onto the terrace and stood face to face with the pair.
“I told you the knight could not survive the blow I dealt him. What will you tell Ninigi now?” Tsukuyomi’s deep voice was filled with amusement as he spoke.
Chiyoko looked to Hideyo. “Is it true? Where is Seiji?” She looked tense.
Hideyo was silent, glaring at Chiyoko. Mamoru stepped forward. “He’s alive. But he’s still unconscious.”
One of Tsukuyomi’s tails twisted forward in front of his face. His eyes turned towards the tail, ignoring the group for a moment. “Only unconscious? A shame.”
There was silence for a time. No one knew what to say. Mamoru and the others remained tense. Eventually, Hideyo broke the silence. “We’re prepared to fight if we have to. But as you can see by the flags along our wall, we’re ready to surrender. Are you here to discuss terms?”
Chiyoko relaxed. “Good. Yes, we’re here to discuss terms. Though I don’t think they’ll be what you’re expecting.”
Mamoru nodded. His hand tightened on the shaft of his axe and he glared at Tsukuyomi, preparing to leap.
“I’ve talked with the gods. They wanted to kill you all to avoid future conflicts. But I convinced them of a different path. They’re willing to let everyone live on two conditions.
“The army has to disband, obviously. But in addition, the remaining leaders of the rebellion - you three and Seiji - must pledge yourselves to the gods, serving them and helping to suppress any future dissent.”
Mamoru paused, letting his axe drop slightly. “Huh?”
Hideyo finally tore her gaze from Chiyoko. Her eyes narrowed as she turned towards Tsukuyomi, who was still in the process of inspecting his tail. “I second Mamoru’s confusion. That seems… lenient. What’s to stop us from turning on you at the first opportunity? A promise can be broken. Why take that risk?”
Tsukuyomi looked down at the dwarven woman. The ground rumbled as he chuckled. “My, my. She’s gotten one shot at slaying me and now she assumes she’s just bound to get another.” Tsukuyomi’s lips pulled back in a smile, showing too many teeth. “It took you and your army years just to get one chance. And you failed. So please go on about this great risk we’re taking.” Tsukuyomi leaned forward and breathed a cloud of frost across Hideyo. To her credit, she did not flinch.
“This diversion has reached its end, so we planned to wipe the slate clean. Rebellion was fun. Now we’d like to try something new. But starting from scratch is so slow. Yosai is quite boring when it’s empty. With you lot serving us, we don’t have to start over.”
“That’s it? After everything we did you’re just willing to let it go for some entertainment? There must be more to this.”
Before he could reply, Chiyoko held up a hand. “This is not the time for your banter, Tsukuyomi. Do not provoke her.” The god rested back on his haunches dutifully, a feral gleam of amusement to his eyes. “This is my plan, Hideyo. Talk to me.”
Hideyo turned back to Chiyoko. “Fine. You’d have us serve him? Listen to how he talks about us. Like pieces in a game. At least if we die now, others can try to fight in our place. If we join the gods, their control will be absolute. Our rebellion will have been worse than meaningless.”
“I–.” Chiyoko sighed in frustration. “There’s so much to explain! Let me start with this.” Chiyoko pointed to her eyes, shining blue. “Tsukuyomi explained to me where we all get our powers. We each have a bond with a source of energy somewhere in the world. When we use our abilities, we’re drawing from whatever that source of power is. Mamoru, take your strength for example. It probably comes from the people of Hokko.”
Mamoru blinked, clearly confused by the direction the conversation was going. “What does this have to do with anything right now?”
“It has everything to do with right now!” Chiyoko’s eyes flashed, wild for a moment before she calmed herself. “Everything hinges on this. In order for a bond to form, you have to be ideologically similar to the source of power. Mamoru, your loyalty embodies this town. Everyone takes care of everyone else. Because you believe that to your core, you’re able to draw energy from the people around you. And the more power you draw from your bond, the more strongly you come to embody the ideal that created it.
“But your bond can change if your ideals change. Or if you find a different source of energy that shares similar ideals. That’s what happened to me.” Chiyoko looked to Mamoru. “I decided to rely on myself to protect the things I care about. And when I made that decision, I started to resonate with Tsukuyomi.
“That’s why the bonds are so important. I couldn’t convince the gods to let you go free. You’re all too powerful. But if each of you can shift your bond to one of them, they’ll let you live. You’re not just making a promise to serve. Over time, it will change who you are. That’s why they’re not worried.”
“My point still stands then. If we save ourselves, the five races will be subjugated forever.”
“It won’t be that way. Yes, no one will be able to overthrow the gods. But we won’t have to. These bonds I’m talking about, the changes they create go in both directions. We’ll become more like the gods, but they’ll also become more like us. And those changes will ripple through all the beasts they’ve created.”
Chiyoko gestured at the army above them. “The rebellion was never going to succeed. Even if we had killed the gods, what would happen next? We’d still be trapped in the vicious playground they built for us. This is the only way we can actually build a future that doesn’t destroy everything in the process.”
Hideyo paused, considering Chiyoko’s words.
Mamoru looked between the two women. Eventually his gaze settled on Chiyoko. “The two of you are so focused on what comes at the end. You always keep your eyes forward, looking to where we’re going.
“But how we get there shapes who we are. Whatever result we end up with, we have to live as the people who got to that point. Hideyo wanted me to abandon her so that the villagers in Hokko could survive. But then we would be a village that abandons their friends to save themselves. You want us to pledge ourselves to the gods. But then we would be a race who bows to tyrants.
“We can’t just strive for a perfect world. We have to deserve it when we get there.” Mamoru took one last look at Chiyoko. He smiled sadly. Then he turned, facing the god behind her. “You killed my mother. Make whatever deals you want with these people when we’re done, but I will not serve you.”
Mamoru gripped his axe, knuckles white. He raised the weapon over his head and yelled, the muscles on his body surging. The ground beneath his feet shattered as he leapt with all his might towards the nine-tailed fox. Mamoru moved faster than anyone could react. Even Tsukuyomi seemed caught off guard.
As he flew through the air, his axe began to spark. Small pulses of electricity flared to life across the blade, disappearing quickly.
Arcing out of the woods, directly towards Mamoru, lightning struck.
As the bolt of electricity connected with Mamoru’s arm, the energy condensed into a hand. The bolt flared, blinding everyone as it materialized into a 15 foot tall human form holding Mamoru by the wrist. Mamoru’s body swung violently as his momentum was abruptly halted.
“Whoo! What a speech!” With its free hand, the creature clapped against its forearm, causing Mamoru to shake in the air. Their lean-muscled limbs were wrapped tightly in bandages. “Bonus points for dramatically leaping to your death right afterwards.” The voice crackled and distorted like static shocks. They wore a heavy cloak, hood up and cape blowing in the wind. Beneath the hood, they wore a blank white mask. Electricity crawled along the masks’s surface, shaping itself into eyes and a mouth that moved in conjunction with the creature’s words.
Chiyoko reacted before the rest. In a blur of movement, she pulled the bow from her hip as she turned towards the new creature. The air popped as she pulled an ice arrow into existence and took aim. “Put him down Susano.”
Susano lifted Mamoru by the arm, bringing his face to their own. Despite Mamoru’s bulk, they lifted him with ease. “Relax. I like this one!” There was a crack in the air as the god and Mamoru disappeared in a flash of electricity. The pair reappeared ten feet away, standing on the other side of Tsukuyomi. Susano now held Mamoru around the shoulders with both hands. “I choose him.” They planted Mamoru on the ground roughly, the ground buckling under Mamoru’s feet as he absorbed the shock with his legs.
Susano peered around Tsukuyomi’s shoulder and made a face at Chiyoko. The electricity arcing across the god’s mask formed the shape of a tongue sticking out. They turned to the fox god. “Leave it to you to pick the most dramatic one of the bunch, Tsuk.”
One of Tsukuyomi’s tails flicked forward and snapped across the back of Susano’s head. There was a loud crack and Mamoru flinched beneath Susano as the shockwave tossed his hair. “And leave it to you to pick the biggest fool.” Tsukuyomi growled at Mamoru.
Susano rubbed the back of their head, unfazed. “Ow! Sheesh, what was that for? Hey, what’d you think of the entrance? Pretty cool, right?” Tsukuyomi rolled his eyes.
Chiyoko sighed, relaxing her bow and standing out of her crouch. Mamoru was stunned by the sudden change in circumstances, but Hideyo and Katsumi were both tensed. The ice arrow evaporated from Chiyoko’s hand as she raised it in a calming gesture. “It’s OK, we’re still just here to talk.” Chiyoko turned back towards the woods and raised her voice. “I guess you all might as well come out now. Preferably in a less ridiculous fashion.” She glared at Susano.
There was more movement amongst the army above. Creatures hurried to clear a path as two more figures emerged from the tree line.
The first was a giant man similar in height to Susano, but more solidly built. His skin was like burnished silver and he wore immaculate white robes. Six diamond shaped pieces of metal, each a different type, orbited his head like a halo. As he passed the red-faced and black feathered tengu, they threw themselves to the ground in deep bows, their heads touching the ground. Ninigi, The Emperor.
Beside him, slightly taller, walked a woman with dark brown skin made of bark. Her clothes were a chaotic weave of vines and leaves. Sharply pointed antlers, three feet in length, emerged from her forehead. Around the antlers, long black hair flowed to the woman’s waist. Pink flowers were continuously blossoming and wilting in her hair. The dead petals trailed behind her. Where she walked, the creatures in the army threw themselves out of the way in abject fear. Sakuya, The Woodheart.
Above them, the trees rustled as a massive serpentine form emerged. Floating through the air came a golden dragon. It was similar in shape to those that already floated above the army, but more than twice as large. As she flew, the air around the gold dragon periodically ignited into ribbons of flame. The other dragons immediately began orbiting her as she passed. They twisted and turned about her like ducklings around their mother. Amaterasu, The Dawnforge.
The three came to rest near Susano and Tsukuyomi, with the five colored dragons floating together a hundred feet above. Arrayed behind Chiyoko were the five gods of Yosai.
Hideyo took a step backwards, overwhelmed by the gods’ appearance. Seeing her reaction, Amaterasu - the giant gold dragon - flowed towards the small woman. Hideyo’s hands ignited instinctively and she held the the flames in front of her.
The Dawnforge continued, swirling around Hideyo. As she did, the flames leapt from Hideyo’s hands of their own accord, joining the random bursts already streaming off the dragon.
“You are the one who built those towers below, yes? Chiyoko has told me about you. About the things you create. I have been so disappointed with the five races. All you do is destroy and consume. When we shaped you, I had such hopes for what you would build.”
Hideyo looked around nervously as the god encircled her. Sweat formed on her brow from the heat of the dragon’s body.
Amaterasu paused, floating in the air with her body circling Hideyo several times. Her massive head rested in the air a few feet from the dwarven woman. “You used to create so much more, before this rebellion began. You have great skill, but I will teach you so much more.”
The whiskers that trailed off the dragon’s face swam forward through the air. They touched the ground and there was a flash of light and heat. At the point they contacted the ground, liquid metal began to bubble and seep from the earth. It leapt upwards, onto Hideyo’s hands. She yelped and tried to pull her hands back, but the metal quickly spread across her arms. It formed into an intricate set of metal gauntlets. Hideyo looked at them in awe.
Susano bent at the waist, looking down at Mamoru between their legs. A small jolt of energy arced to Mamoru’s shoulder from the god’s finger tip. Mamoru tensed. “Hey, wasn’t there supposed to be another one of you?”
“I… uh… Seiji is unconscious. In the village.” Mamoru’s fury had left him completely, undone by the gods’ sudden arrival.
Chiyoko turned towards Susano, the ground beneath her feet frosting. “You will not treat him like a plaything, Stormbringer. I told you this before.” To her left, Tsukuyomi growled softly, adding weight to her words.
Susano held both hands up in front of them. “Woah! Lighten up! I’m just getting to know the guy.” Susano stepped to the side of Mamoru and patted his back with a massive hand. There was another spark and Mamoru jumped forwards. “Whoops! Sorry. Really - I’ve just never tried to not do it before.”
As Mamoru walked towards Hideyo and Katsumi, Susano pointed a finger at Ninigi’s spinning metal halo and arced a lightning bolt towards it. “Hey Ninigi, wasn’t Seiji the one you were interested in? Sounds like you got the weak one!”
Ninigi caught the lightning bolt in his hand without looking in Susano’s direction. “It is his discipline that intrigues me, not the strength of his body. Besides, it is only proper that he should struggle to recover from Tsukuyomi’s attack. We are gods and they are not. That is the order of things.”
Amaterasu stopped circling Hideyo and swam through the air to Susano, wrapping around them. The Dawnforge let her body, and the flames around her, drape over the Stormbringer. They didn’t seem to mind. There was a warmth to the dragon’s voice as she spoke. “Always causing trouble.”
When Mamoru passed Chiyoko, she caught him, placing a hand on his thickly muscled chest. She looked into his eyes. “You’re right. What you said about who we become along the way… you should never have to work with Tsukuyomi. I’m not asking you to. Susano may seem crazy, but they’re loyal. They believe much of what you do. Right now the Stormbringer is callous and unthinking, but if you guide them… I think you would like what they become.”
Mamoru placed a hand on Chiyoko’s. He looked over her shoulder towards the white-furred fox. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t support that beast, even indirectly.”
“You won’t have to.” Chiyoko turned her back on the gods and spoke to the rest of the group. “There’s still one part of the terms I haven’t mentioned yet. We don’t have to hope that our bonds make the gods grow a conscience. They wanted a new game to hold their interest, so I proposed one. A competition. Between them.
“The gods have agreed to a set of rules. When we bond with them, we will each be given a domain, an area that we have complete control over. None of the gods, or the creatures they’ve created, will be allowed to interfere within that domain. Even outside of our areas, gods and their creatures must offer any member of the five races a reasonable challenge before causing that person harm. If the person passes the test, they must be left alone.
“In exchange, we will cultivate powerful people to enter the wilds and face those challenges. Whenever one of those people becomes strong enough, they pledge themselves to a god, the same as us. They’ll be given their own domain, increasing the influence of the god they now follow.”
Ninigi spoke, his voice deep and solemn. “We will battle for control of Yosai.”
Chiyoko continued, excited. “The people of Yosai will be protected. We’ll have control of our domains, able to shield them from the chaos that everyone lives in today. New people who show promise will test themselves and help the five races expand.” Chiyoko lowered her voice and spoke so only Mamoru could hear. “You can still work to oppose Tsukuyomi. You can even try to kill him. It will be part of the game. And if you bond with Susano, you’ll have more power to fight. Please Mamoru.”
Mamoru paused, looking down at her thoughtfully. Hideyo also seemed to be considering her words.
Katsumi had been silent until now. “This plan is very convincing. It is complicated and relies on the whims of the gods, but it’s better than anything else the rebellion could hope for. But I no longer represent the rebellion. Nor do I bow to words .” The shapeshifter pointed a hand at the bark-skinned woman standing silently beside Ninigi. Katsumi’s finger grew long and sharp. “You. All the others have laid claim, so I assume you mean for me to join you?”
Sakuya turned, wilted cherry blossoms falling from her hair as new ones sprung up to take their place. “I care little for this proposal. I would prefer we wipe the land clean rather than let you weeds continue taking root. But I was outvoted. So yes, I guess we will play this game together.”
“No. I will not serve you just because you asked. Or to help the five races. If you wish for me to follow you, then don’t let me kill you.” Katsumi leaned forward, her body swelling in size. Her arms elongated as her legs bent the wrong direction. She shook her body and grey fur erupted, completing her transformation into a ten foot tall grey wolf.
Katsumi howled and circled Sakuya.
Mamoru pushed past Chiyoko, concern on his face. “Kats, what are you doing? Your injuries haven’t healed yet.”
Hideyo didn’t move, but she looked at the gods nervously. “Even if they had, what do you think you could do in this situation? Think of the people in the city, Katsumi. Soldiers who’ve fought alongside you. We can’t risk a confrontation.”
The wolf ignored them, lowering its head and growling.
Ninigi waved a hand dismissively. “Relax. The shapeshifter seeks to understand her place in the order. Admirable, if unnecessary. You will not be punished.”
Mamoru hefted his axe and continued towards Katsumi, his face set in grim determination. “You’re not doing this alone.”
The wolf turned her head and growled in Mamoru’s direction. Sakuya raised an eyebrow. “It seems she does not want your help.”
Mamoru stopped reluctantly, keeping a tight grip on his axe.
Sakuya lifted her arms, palms turned upwards. Thick roots erupted from the ground in front of her, hanging in the air like snakes poised to strike. “Very well. Killing you will be no great loss.” The roots lashed out.
Katsumi didn’t hesitate, charging forward to meet the onrushing limbs. At the last moment she leapt to the side, letting the roots rush past. Before they could twist around, Katsumi caught one in her mouth. Her powerful canine jaws flexed and she bit clean through the wood.
The remaining roots plunged into the ground, erupting directly beneath Katsumi. Her wolf form leapt backwards, avoiding the strike.
She landed on all fours 10 feet back and stumbled. Katsumi’s fur rippled and her form began to shrink. She shook herself and the form stabilized. She sprinted forward again.
This time, the roots flared wide as they approached, making evasion impossible. The wolf leapt into the air. As the writhing wooden cage converged on Katsumi, her body shrank rapidly as shifted into the form of a small grey monkey.
The monkey ricocheted between the constricting limbs, continuing forward. She burst through a gap and raced towards Sakuya along one of the thick tree roots. Katsumi got within 10 feet and threw herself into the air, enlarging as she took her bear form.
Sakuya laughed scornfully. “Your courage is impressive. It’s too bad it serves you so poorly in this instance.” A gnarled tree limb several feet in diameter sprang from Sakuya’s chest and crashed into the bear.
Katsumi was knocked aside like a rag doll. She landed heavily, rolling through the dirt. As she slid, Katsumi returned to her human form. She managed to right herself, coming to a halt in a crouch with one hand against the ground. Her other hand held her stomach. She coughed and blood splattered before her.
The Woodheart clenched her rough-barked hands and the ground began to shake. Fissures appeared in the dirt, racing hungrily forwards. The ground beneath Katsumi ripped open and the shapeshifter fell.
Katsumi stretched her arms out and shifted into the form of a hawk. Her body twisted and turned, wings flapping furiously as she dodged the falling rocks around her. She emerged from the fissure, angling steeply upwards.
Before she could gain any altitude, a thick root whipped from behind, smacking the hawk viciously into the ground. Katsumi’s body returned to it’s human form the instant she impacted the ground. Her limbs flailed as she bounced.
Katsumi came to rest face down in the dirt. Her body shook as she rose slowly. Sakuya’s roots surged towards their fallen prey, twisting around one another into a single massive spike.
“Look out!” Mamoru threw himself forward, standing in front of Katsumi. He squared his feet and raised his axe, ready to absorb the blow.
Katsumi dragged herself upright, breathing raggedly. She wiped blood from her mouth. Her shirt had been ripped, revealing the scar on her stomach. Blood poured from it, the wound reopened. “I. said. NO!” Twisting tree roots sprung from the ground to Mamoru’s right. He turned in surprise as the roots gripped his arm and pulled him out of the way.
Katsumi caught the onrushing mass of wood as it slammed into her. The muscles in her arms bulged. A vein stood out against her neck as she slid backwards. She slammed the roots into the ground, halting their momentum. Katsumi planted her feet and roared at the sky. The wound along her stomach closed rapidly, the scar tissue covered by a thick, bark-like skin.
Katsumi rushed forward, faster than she had before.
Sakuya brought her hands up, drawing more roots from the ground around her. But before the god could send them forward, Katsumi thrust her hands out. She clenched them into fists and pulled them apart like she was tearing a cloth in front of her. The ground beneath the god ripped open, forcing her to leap to the side. Sakuya laughed despite herself, her previous scorn forgotten.
Katsumi used the distraction to close the distance. Her body swelled as she returned to her massive bear form, throwing herself towards the Woodheart.
Sakuya regained her balance quickly, but Katsumi was too close for her to evade. The Woodheart planted her feet and lunged forward, meeting the onrushing shapeshifter with her antlers. Even as a 10 foot tall bear, Katsumi was dwarfed by Sakuya.
“Such ferocity! It’s been a while since I killed such worthy prey.”
Katsumi snapped her jaws, raking out with her claws. The god’s antlers had scored slashes across the shapeshifter’s shoulders, but they quickly closed, covered with the same bark-skin as earlier.
Sakuya took a step forward. She raised her head, lifting the giant bear into the air on her antlers. She flung Katsumi ten feet away.
Katsumi caught herself by shifting in midair, arcing back towards her opponent as a hawk.
As the two fought, Mamoru pulled himself off the ground, ripping free of the roots that had gripped him. He lifted his axe. But before he could run forward, there was a crack and a blinding flash. Susano stood before him, bending at the waist, their arms clasped behind their back as they stared down at Mamoru. “Need a hand?”
Mamoru staggered back. “You! Why would you help me?”
“You care about her, right? I’ve messed with Sakuya for less interesting reasons. Your friend is strong but she’s going to die if she keeps fighting alone.” Behind Susano, Sakuya had grabbed Katsumi and thrown her to the ground. The god held the shapeshifter in place as tree roots gathered ominously overhead.
Susano held one large hand out, their cloak billowing in the wind. The lightning eyes on their mask scrunched closed as they grinned. “I can give you the power to help.”
There was no time to hesitate. Mamoru reached out, clasping Susano’s forearm. The loose rocks and dirt surrounding them were flung away as a sphere of electrical current discharged outwards. Mamoru’s entire body tensed as he felt his muscles growing, his body lengthening as he reached nearly seven feet tall. His eyes glowed a bright blue.
“I’m going to throw you now.” Mamoru nodded his assent. “By the way, I’ve never done this before.”
Mamoru looked up at the god, still gripping their forearm. “Thrown someone?”
“No. Had a friend! I always wanted one.” Their electric grin widened, almost manic. “But you’re all so fragile.”
Mamoru opened his mouth to respond, but the attempt was cut short. Susano turned their body towards Sakuya, pivoting at the hips and tensing the muscles in their arm. Even holding with all his might, Mamoru had a moment of panic that his arm would simply be ripped off.
The surge of strength from Susano was unbelievable. But Mamoru found his muscles filled with new strength. His mind moved faster, allowing him to react as his body was pulled off the ground. He lifted his axe as Susano released him. The air around him ignited from the speed of his passage. He opened his mouth to yell but the force of his travel pressed the sound to the bottom of his lungs.
Sakuya’s eyes moved, glancing in the direction of Mamoru’s approach. That was all she managed.
To the rest of the world, Sakuya had Katsumi pinned, ready to deliver a fatal blow. Susano grabbed Mamoru by the forearm. They nodded to each other. The Stormbringer turned, hefting Mamoru. Then Mamoru and Sakuya disappeared.
In their place, a horizontal column of burning air extended from Susano. It passed through the point Sakuya had been standing, burning a line through the woods as far as the eye could see. A ten foot wide swath of the attacking army had been incinerated instantly.
A heartbeat later, a shockwave flattened the surrounding crops. The gods leaned into the surge of pressure as it passed them by. Chiyoko barely managed to keep her feet by clutching onto Tsukuyomi. Everyone else was knocked prone.
“Whoops! Maybe that was a bit much…” There was a crack as Susano disappeared in a flash of sparks. A moment later, another crack heralded their return. The god held Mamoru in their arms. He was unconscious, badly bruised, bleeding from several gashes, but otherwise still breathing. “Ha! Look at that. He’s OK!”
Chiyoko released Tsukuyomi’s fur and charged towards Susano. “What have you done? I told you not to treat him like a plaything!”
“Hey, woah! I get it! I’m still getting used to working with you people.” Susano laid Mamoru along the ground. “He’ll be fine.” Susano looked over their shoulder to Tsukuyomi. “Did you see that? I picked a good one.” The Stormbringer was beaming.
Amidst the confusion, Katsumi picked herself up off the ground and approached, limping slightly. She had returned to her human form, though the bark skin still covered the scar on her stomach. She crouched beside Mamoru’s unconscious body and lifted him gently.
Holding Mamoru, she turned to Susano. “Sakuya lives?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah she’s fine. You should have seen her face though! So indignant trudging back through the forest.” The god’s electric eyes closed again as they laughed. “Are you going to keep fighting when she gets back?”
Katsumi shook her head. “No. She bested me. I will follow, for now.” Katsumi turned away. “Hideyo! Can you come heal Mamoru’s wounds?”
Hideyo approached cautiously. She glanced at Katsumi’s bark-covered skin. Chiyoko’s ice-blue eyes and the frost that formed around her feet. Mamoru’s even larger frame, still occasionally sparking with electricity.
Hideyo held her hands out as she began sending energy into Mamoru. The metal gauntlets seemed to help her focus her abilities.
Hideyo looked over Mamoru at Chiyoko, who was looking down at her childhood friend in concern. After a moment, Chiyoko took notice and looked up. Hideyo’s face was full of anger as she spoke. “You haven’t left me with much of a choice, have you?”
There was a tense silence as the two women stared at one another. “The rebellion accepts your terms.”
Without looking over her shoulder, Hideyo addressed the giant gold dragon. “I will follow you. But judging by my friends’ new abilities, I would say we’re already falling behind in this new game of yours.”
Amaterasu laughed warmly as she approached Hideyo. “Oh, I think we’ll catch up soon enough.”
Two weeks later, Mamoru and Chiyoko stood at the gate to Hokko’s inner wall. The sun was high in the sky, making the day clear and brisk. The village center was awash with activity as people continued rebuilding. They milled about the farmland outside the wall as well, re-tilling and re-seeding the destroyed fields. Even with the workers, the terraces still felt empty now that both armies had dispersed.
Chiyoko and Mamoru stood face to face, avoiding each other’s eyes. Mamoru shifted the strap on the pack slung over his shoulder. “It almost looks like it did before, huh? Now that Seiji and Hideyo left.” Chiyoko nodded.
The army had been split in three. A smaller chunk remained in Hokko, helping rebuild. Hideyo lead another group as she departed with Amaterasu soon after the agreement was made. Two days before, Ninigi had grown impatient and left with Seiji to return to the god’s domain. He brought the rest of the army with him as well. Seiji remained unconscious.
Mamoru laughed despite himself, shaking his head. Chiyoko looked at him in confusion. “Just think what a surprising wakeup Seiji is going to have. One minute we’re dragging him through the woods, fleeing Tsukuyomi and frantically trying to keep him and Katsumi alive. The next he’s waking up in a bed with The Emperor looming over him like a concerned father.”
Chiyoko nodded, her face stern. “I asked Ninigi to call on us when he wakes. Seiji should hear the news from us.”
“That was good.” There was a long silence. “Well, I guess I should get going. Honestly, there’s a good chance Kats got tired of waiting and took off already…”
Chiyoko finally looked up, meeting Mamoru’s eyes. “I still can’t believe you’re leaving.” Chiyoko gestured behind her. “Everything I did was so you could stay here. So we could stay here. This is your home.”
“Things changed, I guess. We changed.” Mamoru paused thoughtfully. “We’re all evolving, thanks to these bonds. I can already feel Susano bubbling up inside me. They do not like to stay in one place. I’d rather leave now, before anything else shifts. I want to be able to hold onto this time in my memory.”
“I’m sorry, Mamoru. I couldn’t save your mom. I couldn’t help you get revenge. I couldn’t even help you stay here.
“You and the village, you did so much for me. This was the only way I could think to repay that debt. The only path I could see that kept everyone alive.”
Mamoru smiled. “You never owed us anything, Chiyoko.” Mamoru reached a hand out, as though he wanted to pull Chiyoko into a hug. He hesitated. Eventually Chiyoko stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. He brought his arms down across her shoulders, wincing briefly at the chill surrounding her body. “You know, it really is a good plan. Putting aside how we got here… I think it gives the five races more of a chance than we’ve ever had before.”
Chiyoko didn’t respond for a while. “Where are you going to go?”
“Somehow, I don’t think Kats is going to let me have much input on that…”
The two embraced for a moment longer. Eventually Mamoru pulled away. He shouldered his pack, gave one last look at the village where he grew up, then turned and walked towards the woods. Chiyoko stood and watched until he was out of sight.
She looked into the trees for a moment before setting her face in determination. “He’s alive. You’re all alive.” Then she turned towards the village. Towards her new domain.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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