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The wind tugged at Denri’s clothes like an antsy child, flapping the loose fabric against her body. It groaned as it blew though the village, eager to break free of the boring, ramshackle huts and go frolicking down the mountain hillside. It never seemed to tire.
The tengu residents had long ago adapted. They subconsciously walked at a half-falling angle against the wind’s tireless enthusiasm. Sadly, the trick took longer than two months to learn.
Denri mourned the loss of dignity as a strong gust blew her several feet to the right. Her arms pinwheeled dramatically as she struggled to plant her feet and lower her center of gravity.
Hattori watched her from the center of the ring as she staggered. He leaned back against the wind and held a staff ready in his hands. Hands that had only existed for a month.
The tengu’s body was still changing from Aki’s power. His wings had thinned and flattened against his arms, revealing the hands he now used to fight. His shoulders and head were completely white, with a large patch of alabaster feathers spreading down his chest as well. Yet his expression remained alien.
Are you OK?
Hattori’s voice still felt unnatural in her mind. She made a face and thought something rude back at him.
Why do you keep doing that? You know I can only project my thoughts. I cannot hear you.
“If that’s true then how did you know I was thinking anything? Hmm?”
You stood silently and your face moved as though you were speaking.
Denri remained skeptical.
“Stay focused.” Eizo stood at the edge of the ring, his arms crossed behind his back. His lanky frame was regaining muscle quickly. “Denri, keep your stance balanced. When the wind catches you like that, it’s saying that you’re overextended.”
Denri sighed and raised her triple staff, holding a forearm-length metal rod in each hand. A third rod hung between, suspended by a short chain connecting it to the ends of each rod in her hands. “Learning martial arts, on top of a mountain, in the middle of the wilderness, yet somehow these two make it boring and annoying.”
She inched toward Hattori, repeating all of Eizo’s lessons in her mind at once. The tengu held his staff with both hands at one end, swinging it toward Denri’s shoulder like a bat. She turned her body sideways, deflecting the blow. As she twisted, she swung the other rod toward his arm, but he blocked and shuffled backward on his taloned feet.
With each blow, Hattori’s expressionless avian face stared back at her. Mocking Denri and the fear she felt in their first fight. Her strikes became frenzied.
Denri made a feint toward Hattori’s head, then pulled up short and swung toward his stomach with the other rod, sending a pulse of energy into the metal. There was a flash of electric discharge as the weapon connected with his side. The tengu grunted, his muscles spasming.
Denri grabbed the triple staff at its center, planting her other hand on the ground as she sent a sweeping kick toward Hattori’s legs. Jittering blue lines of electricity trailed from her foot as it swept across the ground. Hattori jumped backward to avoid the blow and landed off balance.
Denri spun the triple staff behind her back and the weapon snapped straight with momentum. She focused behind Hattori and shifted, reappearing on the other side of the tengu in a burst of sparks.
Her swing faltered as the wind suddenly caught her from the opposite side. She went tumbling forward, crashing to the ground on top of Hattori.
Denri looked anywhere but Eizo as she disentangled herself from the mass of rumpled feathers that broke her fall. She didn’t bother offering a helping hand.
“Denri, you have a natural flare for offense. But you try too hard to break your opponent’s guard. Focus on remaining grounded in your stance. If you offer no weakness, eventually an enemy will show you theirs.”
“I know, I know.”
Eizo turned toward the tengu and stroked his chin. “Hattori, we may need to rethink your weapon choice. A two handed staff limits the mobility and range advantage of your wings.”
Hattori planted his staff in the ground, jangling the four rings at the top. This staff is the sacred weapon of the daitengu.
“But daitengu have wings on their back, allowing them to fly while they hold the weapon. Your situation is limited.” Hattori’s grip tightened on the staff and he pulled it toward his chest. Eizo’s face softened. “I know it’s not what you wanted. But you’ve got a chance to become something new.”
I do not want to be something new.
The hut’s walls rattled in the wind. After two months living in the tengu village, Denri could almost tune it out as she sat on her straw bed with legs crossed and body hunched over a flat chunk of stone.
A single torch filled the small space with flickering light. Her bundle of colored chalks lay unfurled on the bed beside her. She held a stick of white in her hands as she made a series of delicate marks against the stone, her face set in concentration.
The empty room was now filled with decorated stones. Some were covered with pleasing patterns of color. Others depicted stick figure scenes of limited artistic quality. Nearly all were vulgar in some way.
Shiri’s head perked up from the bed and he looked toward the door. Denri paused and looked to Onara, who lay across the room on a throne of dirty clothes. She was looking at the entrance too. A few minutes later, there was a knock and a whisper at the door. Denri called Aki inside.
“Had to be at least 5 minutes. That’s the furthest they’ve ever sensed you.”
Aki eased the door shut and turned into the room. She beamed. “I’ve been practicing! I told them I was coming when I left my room. I wasn’t sure if the range was still too far though. Neither one of them is good about responding.” Aki stuck her tongue out at Onara, then flopped onto the bed and pulled Shiri into her lap.
She kicked her feet against the edge of the bed with the frenetic energy that only a small child with a secret can muster.
It gave Denri a momentary sense of vertigo. She had to remind herself that Aki was still a very young child.
Ever since she awakened Hattori, Aki’s body had been growing fast. The girl was now taller than Denri, with a body approaching that of a teenager. The large vertical slash where her right eye had been made her look even older.
“What’s got you so excited?”
“I learned a new trick!”
“Yeah? What is it?”
Aki wiggled and squirmed on the bed, jostling Shiri. The cat glared at her sideways. “I don’t wanna tell you, I wanna show you!”
“All right, all right. Can you contain yourself for a few minutes while I finish this drawing? Or are you gonna keep bouncing my cat until he pukes on the bed?” Aki bobbed her head up and down in a decidedly unrestrained way. But she did her best to hold still. Somehow that only raised the tension in the room.
After a few minutes, Denri felt Aki’s chin rest on her shoulder. “What’re you drawing?”
Denri shooed her away. “I can’t finish with you flopping all over me! Artists need space, you know.”
Denri made a few dramatic flicks of her wrist as she put the finishing touches to her work. She lifted the stone and turned it toward Aki with a healthy dose of pride.
The dark stone depicted a lanky stick figure with scraggly hair that looked passingly like Eizo. He stood beneath a tree, a frown on his face. Hattori sat in the branches above him. A white glob was in free fall from Hattori’s butt to Eizo’s head.
Aki giggled. “Are you two getting along better?”
Denri hefted the stone and placed it along the wall with the rest of her masterpieces. “Define better. I hit him in the face a couple times today. That’s better in my book.”
Aki shook her head. “You should be nicer to him.”
“Hey, I talk to him and train with him and I’m not arguing to kill him anymore, right? He’ll get nice Denri when he proves he deserves her. Besides, I thought you wanted to show me a new trick or something. Let’s get back to that part.”
Aki made a huff, but Denri stayed quiet. The young girl was too excited to hold out long.
“Alright, alright!” A grin broke out across Aki’s face. She leaned in toward Denri and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Do you wanna pull a prank with me?”
Denri looked at Aki seriously, her face dark. “Aki. You came here to pull a prank?”
Aki sat back, caught off guard by Denri’s response. “We don’t have to! I just thought I could show you my new–.”
“And you let us waste all this time drawing on rocks and talking about Hattori? Lead with the fun stuff next time!” Denri clapped her hands and rubbed them together. “What did you have in mind? Should I bring my chalk?”
The mountaintop was exceptionally dark in the evenings. Lanterns stood no chance against the wind, so the only light leaked out from behind closed doors and boarded windows. Aki and Denri crouched against the rough stone of the mountain near Eizo’s hut. The building was huddled against a cliff at the highest point of the village. Eizo’s desertion of Ninigi and Aki’s unexplained powers had earned them an honored spot.
Denri elbowed Aki. “Does he know you’re gone?”
Aki nodded. “I told him I was going to see you.”
Denri threw her head back and groaned. “Aki! You have so much to learn. He’s totally going to be on alert if he knows you’re with me. Next time tell him you have to poop or something.” Aki looked toward the ground. “No, no, don’t give me that ‘I’m adorable and you made me sad’ crap. I don’t need that on my conscience. Where does he keep the journal?”
“It’s always beside his bed at the back of the room.”
“Alright, then I’ll climb up on the rock and slip in one of the side windows. Can you keep his attention at the front of the hut until I get the notebook?” Aki nodded. “Great. I’ll grab the book while he’s not looking, we run like mad, then we work some artistic magic all over the front cover. Easy.”
Denri’s slinked forward, using her night vision to pick out the loose rocks and move without making a sound. When she got near the house, Denri took two steps and launched toward the cliff wall and caught a handhold. The hut had a window set near the cliff face where it was shielded from the wind. Denri climbed up to it and gave Aki a thumbs up.
The young girl just stood there, staring blankly. Then Denri remembered Aki couldn’t see in the dark. She flicked a spark across her hand to illuminate the gesture.
Aki returned the thumbs up, then placed her hands along the ground. She strained for a moment before her skin darkened and rippled. Her body shrank and a tail sprouted from her back. Denri blinked and Aki was replaced by a perfect replica of Onara.
Denri almost whistled in appreciation until she remembered where she was. She peeked through the window as cat-Aki stalked toward the front door.
Eizo was sitting in his underwear at a small desk, diligently repairing a hole in his pants. Denri felt a small flash of jealousy that Eizo and Aki got furniture in their house. But she reserved the rest of her mental faculties for memorizing Eizo’s current appearance. She was going to need an exceptionally nice rock to make fun of this scene.
The door swung open a crack as Aki pressed her feline head against the door. Eizo looked up at the sound.
“Oh no.” He stood up and backed away from the door as Aki meowed and walked toward him. “What do you want? I don’t have any food.” Eizo nearly jumped out of his skin as he backed into a low wooden stool. He grabbed his chest and muttered to himself. “I thought the other one snuck in too.”
Aki meowed again and elicited another groan from Eizo. The girl was relentless. Denri used the distraction to ease the window open.
It was hard to work while clamping a hand over her mouth to stop the laughter.
Eizo reached his bed and sat down heavily. He threw his pants at the cat in a final defense. “There! You can sleep on those. They smell like me.” Aki jumped onto the bed.
Denri slid through the window as Aki curled up in Eizo’s lap. He winced as she kneaded his bare legs with her claws. “Denri let you out to torment me, didn’t she?” He placed a resigned hand on the cat’s back and began to pet it.
Denri turned her attention to the small leather book on the table by Eizo’s bedside. How much extra furniture did these two need? Honestly.
Denri snuck forward, bare feet moving soundlessly across the floor. She reached the table and probed her arm forward.
Eizo’s hand darted backward, catching her in a grip like iron. It was a testament to her hard-earned street instincts that Denri didn’t flinch or yelp. “May I help you?”
“Oh, you know. Just looking around for Onara. Have you seen her lately?” The cat in Eizo’s lap stood and tried to slink away, head and tail drooping. Eizo caught her by the scruff. “Oh look, you found her! Good thing I came looking here first. Ha ha ha.”
Eizo held the cat to his face. “I assume this is not Onara. Aki?” The cat meowed piteously. Eizo gave it a shake. “Aki.” The cat grew in Eizo’s hand until he deposited Aki onto the bed next to him.
“How did you know it was me?” She looked at the floor, prepared for a lecture.
“You didn’t scratch me when I reached for Denri and jostled you. Onara always scratches.” He shivered. “What were you two trying to do?”
Denri tried to catch Aki’s eye and signal to stay cool, but Aki spilled the beans immediately. “We were going to steal your notebook and draw funny things all over it.”
Eizo gave Aki a stern look. “I understand something like this from her, but I expected better of you.”
“I’m sorry.” Aki looked miserable. “I just wanted to show Denri my new trick.”
Eizo moved his hand to Aki’s shoulder. He still held Denri like a vice. Maybe she should just chew through her wrist. “It was a very impressive trick. You’re getting stronger every day.” Eizo turned toward Denri. “You both are.”
Aki brightened. “We are! Do you think the sage will let us leave soon?”
Eizo nodded. “She said once we’re strong enough to take care of ourselves and avoid getting caught.”
“Good, because we don’t have much time!”
Eizo mussed up Aki’s hair. “Time for what?”
The girl shook her head, fighting off his hand. “Time to win the Tournament!”
Eizo and Denri both looked askance. “Say that again?”
“I want to join the Tournament!”
Eizo looked at Aki sternly. “Aki, people are looking for you and me. We can’t do something public like join the Tournament.”
“Sure we can! We could just use made up names so no one knows who we are.”
Denri thought for a moment. “You know, the idea might not actually be that crazy.” Eizo’s head whipped around to face her, looking betrayed. “No, really. If we’re in the tournament, then in theory the gods and other champions have to offer us a reasonable challenge before they can attack us. And if we beat that challenge then they have to leave us alone.”
“What’s your point?”
“The people who are looking for you are gods and champions. And whatever is going on with Aki, there’s got to be people of a similar power level behind it. What I’m saying is that I’d rather deal with those people in a series of well-structured challenges that we have a chance of beating. As opposed to, you know, just getting snuffed in our sleep.”
Aki nodded vigorously. “And if we win, then the gods have to give us a place where no one could bug us. Hattori and the other tengu could come live with us too!”
Eizo scratched his chin. “It seems like a big risk to take with so little information. The Tournament rules might give us some cover, but there’s so much we don’t understand about what’s going on with Aki. What if we broadcast ourselves and the people hunting her don’t care about the Tournament rules? And I’m not sure I want to be in charge of a domain playing politics with the other champions.”
“No argument on that last point.” Denri flopped down onto the bed. “I don’t think our ranking will get very high, but if it does we can talk about it then. Let’s just take it as it goes.” Aki took a breath to protest, but Denri held up a hand. “We don’t need to decide that now, though. Let’s focus on the world in front of us and see where we end up.
“But to your other point. Even if we don’t know what’s going on with Aki, we know joining the Tournament would take the heat off you, right? That lets us focus at least. Besides, running across the country and going on adventures sounds like a lot more fun than spending our whole life in hiding.”
Eizo didn’t look convinced. “I would still rather understand what’s going on with Aki’s abilities before we make ourselves known.”
“Sounds good to me. So when we leave here we find a way to track down more information on our little cat god, then decide on next steps.”
“I suppose so.”
There was a pause before Aki jumped forward and wrapped her arms around both of them. Denri returned the hug without thinking. “What’s this for?”
“Nobody mentions splitting up anymore. We talk like a family.”
Denri looked over Aki’s shoulder and grinned at Eizo. “Sure, sounds about right to me.”
Eizo hesitated for a moment, years of hardwired defense mechanisms warring for control. Then he returned the smile and leaned into the hug.
Denri slid her hand toward Eizo’s journal but he smacked it away.
A few days later, Denri stood in the training circle with Eizo, focusing on her triple staff. She held the weapon at each end, electricity arcing across its length. Sweat dripped down her brow.
“Good. Now try to center the flow in the middle.”
Denri did as Eizo instructed, focusing on the center rod. It was much harder, like going from tossing a ball back and forth to becoming the ball and floating in midair. It required a sort of half-focus, giving her body enough space to work instinctively while also directing the motion.
The blue sparks traveling up and down the weapon coalesced at the center. As the sparks left the two end rods, they jerked out of Denri’s hands and snapped together with a sharp clank. The staff fell to the ground with a clatter and a flash of discharged sparks.
“Whoa! What happened?”
“Interesting. I’ve heard that electric resonants could move metal with their abilities, but I never understood how. It seems like the rods are attracted to one another when they don’t have the same electric current.”
Denri picked up the weapon and tried again, focusing her electricity into various parts of the staff. It was clumsy, but if she focused, she was able to make the staff twitch and snap in different directions. “Coooool.”
“Indeed. I have no idea how to incorporate this into any of the fighting styles I know, but it seems like it could be interesting. You’ll have to experiment on your own.”
Denri smiled, her mind already spinning through possibilities.
“Your electrical output has increased substantially over the last couple weeks.”
“Yeah. Why is that? It’s just sort of happening.”
“Increasing strength is natural. Using your power causes you to come into better alignment with the bond. But usually the progress is not this quick. My guess is that you were already very well aligned, but the stress and fear brought on by the wilderness was suppressing it. As you grow more comfortable, you’re returning to your earlier state of mind.”
Denri looked up at Eizo. “Wait, you’re telling me I can lose my power if I get scared? That’s so dumb!”
Eizo shrugged. “Resonant bonds can be quite fragile. That’s why many champions keep their towns ideologically pure. You don’t want your soldiers losing their power because someone made a good point over beers.
“A significant part of our training as Blades was mental exercises to keep a clear head and strong ideals. There are countless stories of promising new recruits panicking in their first battle and being left defenseless.”
Denri made a face. “Does that mean I’ll have to become like you?” She let her face fall slack and expressionless, moving her arms stiffly. She dropped her voice to imitate Eizo’s. “I am a serious warrior. I do not like cats.”
“It depends on the ideal. Knowing you, I would guess your resonance is something more disorganized.” He smirked, raising an eyebrow at her.
Denri looked at Eizo, momentarily confused. “Are you trying to– was that supposed to be a comeback? Oh buddy. We need to work on your banter.”
Eizo frowned, looking self conscious. But before he could respond, there was a flutter of wings. They looked up in time to see Hattori as he descended from the sky, flapping hard against the wind. He landed heavily near them, white wings folding flat against his arms. His body was tense.
Eizo took a step toward the tengu. “What’s wrong?”
Jakucho has requested your presence immediately. One of our scouts saw a raiding party approaching through the woods. They appear to be Blades.
Denri and Eizo sat around the fire pit in Jakucho’s hut. The old sage sat at the head of the room, her staff crossed over her lap. Hattori sat behind a few of the senior daitengu.
Denri got the feeling she and Hattori were only present because they had been around when Jakucho called her advisors.
A crow tengu knelt by the fire near the door, delivering its report in a series of grunts and caws. Jakucho translated for Denri and Eizo.
“He says a group of five knights are approaching from the north moving purposefully in our direction.”
Eizo sat formally, his hands clenched. “What were their colors?”
A brief interchange between Jakucho and the scout. “Red and orange. Their shields had the image of a sword thrust into the ground.”
“Sadashi.” Eizo spoke quietly. He lifted his head and addressed the rest of the group. “If your scout saw them, they saw her as well.”
Denri looked at the crow tengu by the door. How could Eizo tell it was a girl?
Jakucho nodded. “They are here for us. If not, they would have made contact with the scout and requested aid on their mission. They have no reason to believe we aren’t loyal to Ninigi unless they know who we are.” Many around the circle nodded in agreement, Eizo included. “I would like to hear this group’s opinion on what to do before I make my decision.”
One of the daitengu bowed his head. “Elder, we should gather our hunters and strike when they break cover from the trees. The terrain is in our favor and we wouldn’t have to worry about defending the village.” A few of the other tengu mumbled in agreement.
Jakucho held up a hand for silence. “If we attack his followers, he may decide that we are his enemies, not just deserters. I do not want to give him any more reason to hunt us. Eizo, you know the Blades better than any of us, what is your opinion?”
“If Sadashi has sent a party of Blades this way, it’s safe to say that they’re already serious about finding your village. Ninigi views disobedience more or less the same as a direct assault.”
“What do you think about attacking then?”
Eizo kept his eyes toward the ground. “I would not know. You know the land and your people’s capabilities better than me. I shouldn’t make such a decision on your behalf.”
“I am not looking for you to make the decision. Only to give your opinion.”
“I–.” Eizo paused, looking uncomfortable. He clutched his hands nervously.
Denri cleared her throat, trying to draw the conversation off of Eizo. For some reason, he didn’t want to talk. “Wouldn’t attacking be stupid?” The daitengu who had spoken earlier turned angrily toward Denri. She shrugged. “I’m not trying to be rude, but Jakucho said if Eizo still had his powers, the hunting party that captured us would’ve been crushed. Now there are five of them. Seems like bad odds to me.”
Jakucho nodded in agreement.
“Then what are we to do? If they can find us this easily, they must be able to sense our presence. They’ll keep hunting us if we flee. And we can’t keep moving the entire village indefinitely.”
Denri was undeterred. “You all could sense Eizo as we approached, but you clearly missed some of the details. They might be using something similar. Is there some sort of range to your ability? Maybe we can run if we get outside that.”
Jakucho shook her head. “We would already be out of range if they were using our ability. That’s why we roosted so deep in the wilderness. This must be something different.”
Denri turned to Eizo. “Well, is there some secret Blade power that lets them track us forever?”
Eizo thought for a moment. “No, I can’t think of any techniques we learned for long range tracking. But it may not be an ability. Most of the Blade’s equipment is supplied by the Twins. Who knows what kind of machines those two have concocted in the years since I left. They may have something that amplifies a Blade’s ability to sense the tengu.”
Denri sat back, pointing at Eizo in triumph. “There you go. We don’t need to attack. If we take whatever device they have and run, we’ll leave them blind.”
Jakucho looked at Denri thoughtfully. “And how do you propose we steal this device if it allows them to sense us as we approach?”
“That’s simple. You don’t. I do.”
Eizo and Denri stood at the edge of the village as the hunting party prepared. A small group was going to attack the Blades at the front while Denri snuck in the back.
“Any other big abilities I should be on the look out for?”
“They focus their power through their blades. Do not try to block their blows. You have to dodge. And they will heal quickly, so do not count one out just because they’ve fallen to the ground.”
“Oh, great. Unkillable killing machines. Remind me again why you quit?”
Eizo ignored the frenetic humor and grabbed Denri by the shoulders. “Are you sure you want to do this? I thought you hated wilderness monsters. Why risk your life for them now?”
Denri shrugged. “I’m not gonna be a bleeding heart for all monster kind. But these people are trying to be better. I don’t like all of them, but they’re trying.”
“That’s very honorable of you.”
“Yeah, well, that’s me. Brave hero standing up for the little guy like a big old idiot right here.”
There was a companionable silence as the two stood waiting for the tengu to finish their preparations.
Denri looked at Eizo sideways. “By the way, what was the deal with you back in that meeting? The whole time I’ve known you, you’re decisive military man through and through. But back there you turned green the moment Jakucho asked your opinion.”
Eizo looked away. “It was nothing.”
Denri elbowed him. His ribs weren’t quite so bony anymore. “Hey, none of that. Remember what Aki said. Family now.”
Eizo stared across the preparing tengu for a moment longer. He returned his attention to Denri with a sigh. “I thought I could be a better person if I gave up a life of killing and violence. But I spared Hattori and he nearly killed Aki. I’ve been wrong so many times. I just don’t want to make decisions with people’s lives anymore.”
Denri wanted to tell Eizo that was stupid. You don’t get to avoid morality just because it’s hard. But Eizo looked so sad and uncertain. And she didn’t want to punish him for opening up. “Well, you’re in luck. Aki and I are pretty much the best, so you can leave the decision making to us for a while and not feel too bad.”
Eizo gave a brittle smile. “That’s the plan.”
“Great, just one more reason not to die. No pressure or anything.”
As the two stood together, Hattori broke off from the other tengu and approached. “Ugh, remind me again why I have to take him along.”
“The Blades can sense other creatures with a bond to Ninigi. But since Aki awakened him, Hattori’s bond has shifted to her. And your chances of success are much higher with–.”
Denri was looking at Eizo with an arched eyebrow.
“Oh. Just banter.”
Denri did her best to stay quiet as they flew through the trees. It wasn’t easy; Hattori’s talons dug into her shoulders every time he flapped his wings.
He brought them to the ground a few hundred feet from the Blades’ camp. Denri rubbed her shoulders gratefully. “That has got to be the worst way to get around.” She kept her voice low.
My talons are not meant to carry willing creatures…
“That’s a happy thought.”
They made their way toward the pinpoint of light that was the Blades’ campfire. If she hadn’t already known, the fact that the Blades were unconcerned about drawing attention in the wilderness would have been a sure sign of their strength. Denri and Hattori paused a hundred feet out, waiting for the hunting party to make their move.
A few minutes passed. Big shadows with lots of sharp edges walked across the fire. There was a loud crash at the far side of the camp and the shadows turned. They resolved into gleaming suits of armor as they rushed to the other side of the campfire and disappeared into the woods.
“Alright, that’s our cue.” Denri stood and started walking toward the camp. Hattori lumbered beside her, his eyes straining ahead while his feet stumbled frequently. “Hey, stay focused.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
I should be fighting with my brothers and sisters. An elbow from Denri brought his attention back to the ground in front of him.
They reached the edge of the camp and made sure there weren’t any stragglers.
A felled tree lay near the edge of the clearing, its branches torn free to feed the fire. A few rounds had been cut from the trunk to make seats. A large tent stood on the opposite side of the clearing.
The sounds of combat rang through the woods, but the clearing was quiet.
“You keep watch outside while I check in the tent. And take a look around the fire in case the tracker is there.”
Why do I have to be on watch? I’m already away from the fight. I want to do something.
“Well, since you can give me a heads up in my mind - you know, without alerting anyone - you can just go right ahead and deal with it. Unless of course you actually can read my thoughts.”
Fine. I will keep watch outside.
“That’s what I thought.”
Denri swung around the clearing until she was near the tent, then slipped from the trees and padded toward her target. She reached the back of the canvas and dropped to her stomach, lifting it to peer inside. The tent was empty.
A twig snapped to Denri’s left and her head shot up, body filling with adrenaline. Hattori stood at the edge of the trees, frozen as he looked around. Nothing happened. Denri rolled her eyes and slid under the canvas into the tent.
Denri rifled through the Blades’ belongings, starting with the packs against the tent wall. The tengu hunting party was on the lookout for a sensing device as well, but Denri didn’t think the Blades would risk bringing it into a fight. They wouldn’t need it up close anyways.
She made it through the packs without finding anything out of the ordinary, then started tossing the bedrolls left and right. Still with no success. Maybe the Blades had carried the device with them after all.
There was a loud thud outside the tent, followed by a scramble of feet and a flurry of wings. Help!
Denri pulled the folded triple staff from her belt and ripped open the front flap of the tent. Hattori was lying on the ground, backing hastily away from a mountain impersonating a man. A mountain wrapped in metal and moving with the quiet ease of a cat. Where did he come from?
He looked up at the sound of the tent flap and Denri felt 20 pounds heavier just from the weight of his gaze. The sword hanging in his hand glowed a faint silver.
Hattori flipped onto all fours and scrambled toward her. Time to get out of here! As he ran, the Blade took a step forward and swung his sword, arcing up from the ground toward Hattori’s back.
There wasn’t time to think. Denri’s body tensed and she shifted forward, reappearing between Hattori and the onrushing sword. She brought her staff up, holding two of the rods so the chain connecting them would catch the blow.
The chain held for a heartbeat. Long enough for Denri to remember Eizo’s advice: don’t block. Whoops. She staggered back into Hattori, pulling her head out of the way just as the weapon flared with light and cut through the chain like butter. The passing wind whispered against her chin as the sword arced toward the sky.
Denri pushed off Hattori’s and swung the uncut segment of her staff like a nunchuck. The metal rod sparked as it flew toward the Blade’s head. The giant man’s sword twisted in the air and snapped across his body, cutting through the other chain easily. The end of Denri’s staff flew through the air and landed behind him.
“Aw, come on! Do you have any idea how long I’ve been learning to use this thing?”
The Blade introduced his boot to Denri’s chest and sent her careening through the air.
Denri landed in a heap, clutching on to the two disconnected metal rods that were the remains of her staff. She spit some blood from her mouth. “OK, I’ll give you round one.” She staggered to her feet and raised her weapons. “But your not a monster. So that’s pretty nice for me.”
She stepped forward but the Blade reached down and grabbed Hattori from the ground, stopping her. The tengu kicked fruitlessly, trying to break free.
On the man’s wrist was a chunky, mechanical bracelet with a small weighted chain anchored at its center. As the giant knight lifted Hattori into a headlock, the chain snapped taught and pointed at the tengu.
The device must have been sensitive enough to detect the remains of Hattori’s connection with Ninigi. The Blades had known they were sneaking around the back the whole time.
“Where is the girl?”
Denri froze. “What?”
The man called to the woods around them. “You try to hide your presence by sending one of your pets closer.” He shook Hattori. “I’ll just kill it if you won’t come out.”
The Blade’s words clicked into place and Denri cursed. The device wasn’t sensing the remnants of Hattori’s connection to Ninigi. It was sensing his very current connection to Aki. They weren’t here for the tengu village.
“So be it.” The Blade brought his sword up toward Hattori’s neck.
Denri raised both metal rods and filled them electricity. Many things happened at once.
The two rods shot apart until the left one ripped out of her hand, pinwheeled through the air, and buried itself an inch deep in a tree trunk.
A metal pot that had been resting on the nearby fire shot toward her. She pulled her hand out of the way and the pot went careening into the forest.
Finally, the man’s sword ground to a halt in the air.
The Blade strained against the magnetic pull. Denri staggered forward, planting her feet. She grabbed the rod with both hands and leaned back with all her strength. The weapon continued inching forward as Denri slid along the ground.
“Hattori. If you wanted. To Do. Something. Useful.”
Hattori fumbled in the pouch at his waist, his motions clumsy with his arms pinned to his side. He grabbed a dagger out of the pouch, then nearly lost it as Denri’s magnetic field tried to rip it out of his hands. He clenched his fist and drove the dagger into the Blade’s side between two armor plates.
There was a sharp intake of breath before the man pulled on his sword with renewed strength.
Denri flared the current as bright as she could, trying to hold the sword at bay. The knight’s armor groaned in response. There was a loud whirring sound, followed by an earsplitting metallic thwack.
The arm holding Hattori went limp and the tengu dropped to the ground. Buried several inches deep in the Blade’s shoulder was the metallic rod had been cut from Denri’s staff earlier.
Denri released the current as the other rod pried itself free from the tree trunk and shot back toward her. She dropped to the ground before it impaled her. “I meant to do that!”
The man growled, stabbing his sword into the ground and reaching up to the rod embedded in his back.
“Seriously? You’re just gonna rip that out no problem? What was Eizo thinking when he bailed on you freaks?”
Denri raced forward. “Hattori, we need to do something about that tracker on his wrist!”
The tengu drew two daggers from his belt and leapt into the air as he threw them. They bounced off the knight’s armor as he pulled the rod free and dropped it to the ground. He drew his sword again.
“Try that again!” Denri slid past the man, putting him between her and Hattori. She pulsed energy into the rod in her hands as Hattori threw another wave of daggers. The weapons accelerated as Denri’s field caught them, punching through the man’s armor. He snarled in frustration and swung his blade behind him, aiming straight for Denri’s neck.
There was a soft whine as the blade cut through the air, moving too fast for Denri to duck. Well, if she couldn’t dodge, at least she could make it hurt like hell for him. Denri drew another burst of energy and focused it into her arm.
There was a heavy, mental click as her perspective shifted. The energy took on a different tone as it flowed into her body. Her muscles flared.
Denri caught the Blade’s wrist, stopping his progress completely. He looked down at her in surprise, his metal bracer warping under her fingers. She looked on as well, her jaw dropped.
Then she filled the other arm with electricity and punched the man so hard his armor buckled. Ribs definitely snapped as he flew backward several feet and landed on his back. Pain lanced up Denri’s arm from the strength of the impact.
“Hah! Did you see that? I was all like pew!” She punched the air. “Pew!” She punched again, then winced at her bruised arm. She stumbled as a wave of exhaustion and dizziness hit her.
The Blade on the ground groaned and started to stir. “Are you serious?” Denri pointed with her good arm and called up to Hattori. “What are these things?” She staggered forward and stomped on the man’s wrist several times, shattering the tracking device. And probably some bones. “Hattori, let’s get out of here.”
One more thing. Hattori landed near the fire and pulled out a burning branch. He tossed it into the Blades’ tent. Denri gave him an impressed look.
Then they ran away.
The tengu village was frenetic. Villagers darted between buildings, collecting what could be carried and gathering on the cliff that loomed over the village. Hattori set them down where Eizo, Aki, and Jakucho were standing.
“OK, do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
Eizo and the sage both spoke at once. “Bad news.”
Denri paused. “Actually, the bad news makes no sense without the good news. I don’t know why I asked.”
We have destroyed the sensing device.
Denri turned to Hattori and gave him an angry look. “Really? You’re just going to snipe my news like that? You barely even did anything in the fight!”
You were rambling.
Denri turned back to the group with a sigh. “Well there you have it. No big dramatic reveal. Mission accomplished. They shouldn’t be able to follow.”
Jakucho got an inch shorter as the tension wound through her back released. “This is good.”
Aki high-fived Denri. “Nice!”
Eizo remained stern. “And the bad news?”
“Well, bad news number one is that one of your old buddies cut my staff into pieces.” Denri held up the single remaining rod from her weapon.
She wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Eizo’s back straightened even further. “You fought a Blade?”
“Yeah, one of them ambushed us and then he was wearing the tracker so we had to get up close. You two weren’t kidding about how scary those dudes are. Hattori and I both nearly died twice!”
“How did you manage to escape?”
Denri’s resonance proved quite useful.
Denri scoffed. “Understatement!” She turned to Aki. “You shoulda seen me! First I was throwing metal all over the place like nyow, nyow!” She threw her arms from left to right, reenacting the path of the projectiles.
“I hit the Blade in the shoulder with one piece so Hattori could escape. And then I got up close and I was like ‘Is that all you got, tin can?’ and he swung his sword at me and I filled my arm with energy and then I caught his swing. He was huge and I just caught his arm like nothing! Then I punched a big hole in his armor like pow and it knocked him unconscious! I was great.”
“Whoaaa.” Aki looked at Denri with eyes like dinner plates. Denri soaked up the attention.
Jakucho and Eizo shared a look. The sage raised a hand to interrupt Denri’s gloating. “You said you used the electricity inside your own body?”
“Yeah! It was awesome.” Denri turned to Eizo. “How come you never told me I could do that with my power? Super strength is a pretty big thing to omit.”
Eizo looked shocked. “I never showed you because I didn’t think you could do it.”
Denri crossed her arms. “Well that’s pretty insulting!”
“It had nothing to do with your skill. Most resonants can only use their abilities internally or externally. It’s one or the other. When you channeled energy into your staff, I assumed you were an external resonant.”
Jakucho still looked troubled. Her gaze moved between Denri and Aki. “These two together. An adept and a spark with power over monsters… the gods themselves are going to hunt you.”
Denri looked at the daitengu elder, some of her enthusiasm draining away. “That reminds me of the other bad news. The Blades weren’t here for the village. They were tracking Aki. Which I guess is more bad news for us, rather than the tengu. What’s an adept?”
“An adept is someone who can manipulate their resonance while drawing energy across it. It allows you to do things like turn from an external resonant to an internal one.
“Adepts are incredibly rare and powerful. The gods make a point of hunting them down personally.”
“It seems Sadashi was already looking for Aki, but now the gods are going to be very interested in both of you. They’ll never let us disappear.”
Aki brightened. “So that means we can join the Tournament!” She clapped her hands together, looking smug. “I knew I was right.”
Denri clapped her shoulder. “That’s one way to look at it, I guess.”
Eizo shook his head. “The Tournament might be our only way to make the gods play fair, but we can’t just join. Once people know what the two of you can do, everyone is going to come at us with everything. We won’t be safe until we win.”
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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