This is part 5 of an ongoing story series. If you haven’t already, read the last chapter or start from the beginning.

The port beneath Sky Furnace was chaos. Crews ran around barking orders so loud Denri could barely hear her own thoughts. If the docks hadn’t been dominated by flits, she probably would have been trampled.

It was wonderful.

Captain Hama docked on the right side of Kazora’s crescent bay, leaving them to walk a ways to the central cable connecting to Sky Furnace. Denri was in front as they walked, swaggering with the unsteady, bow-legged gait of a long time sailor back on land. She grinned, berating the younger ship hands as they darted across decks and into holds. Just like her mom always used to.

It was a fun part to play.

Aki and Eizo plodded along behind her. Eizo scanned the crowd with his hand on his sword. Aki stared at Denri with admiration.

They haggled a set of masks from a kid sitting near a battered hot-iron covered in a patchwork of repairs. Aki was disappointed the only option was a dragon with a blank expression. But at least there was some selection of colors.

Masks acquired, they pushed through the throngs to the massive tether at the back of port, the only way up to the city. A glass sphere the size of several carts lumbered up and down its length. They waited in line until they were shoved unceremoniously into the transport when it was their turn.

Denri squirmed through the passengers and pressed her face against the glass for one last look below. She smiled at the frenetic energy. The voyage had been short, but Denri made a resolution to herself. Somehow, before this was all over, she was going to get a boat.

A flurry of activity caught her eye while she was fantasizing about a life at sea. On the the far left side of the crescent bay, a ship was being unloaded with panicked intensity, the crew tugging at three crates, each taller than a man. The crew stumbled over one another in their haste.

They were dragging the cargo toward an open flat of rock at the edge of the docks. Judging by the number of people and the effort required, the wooden containers were unimaginably heavy. The captain stood at the bow of the ship, calling down orders and thrusting a finger towards the top of the volcano.

The glass sphere began to rumble as it climbed the tether. It was weak at first, but soon there was a steady vibration shaking the glass in its frame. The docks collectively paused and looked up. Several crews ran to help the sailors struggling with the crates.

“Uh… guys…?”

A plume of lava erupted from the top of Kazora. A serpentine form, 50 feet long at least, emerged from the spray. Black scales glistened in the soft red glow as the iron dragon uncoiled from the pools of lava and swam into the sky, heavy rivulets of molten stone dripping from its back and claws.

Denri felt her stomach grow cold as the creature snaked down to the docks. The whiskers on either side of its face snapped back and forth as it tasted the air. Denri pressed back against the people behind her. For some reason they were chattering excitedly, craning forward to see.

“I didn’t know there was a Gifting today. I’ve never seen Tetsujin emerge before!”

“Isn’t he splendid? They say he answers to no one but the Twins.”

The crew below had wrestled their crates onto the stone clearing, though they were still a ways from the center. As Tetsujin approached, the men and women dropped their leads and fled back to the ship.

Tetsujin coiled around the crates like a mother protecting her children. His head reared up and a gout of silver flame erupted from his mouth. The wood caught instantly, burning away before Denri could blink.

Inside was filled with iron ingots. They glowed dull red, then orange, then white, then melted. Liquid iron spilled over Tetsujin’s body, dripping from his maw. A laugh like crackling flame washed up from the dragon as he plunged his body into the molten ore.

When he emerged, Tetsujin was gleaming. The iron had fused with his scales, turning him a pure silver. Yet his body still moved with the smooth undulations of a snake. He made one final circle above the docks before he returned to the mouth of the volcano. Denri’s body shook as she watched the dragon’s talons, now shining metal blades, disappear beneath the lava’s surface.

She pressed back through the crowd until she found Eizo and Aki. “Th-that thing lives here?”

Aki still stared at the place where the dragon disappeared, her eyes alight. “He was beautiful!”

“Beautiful! That thing is a monster! It’s not safe here.”

A woman in a dragon mask - Denri understood the imagery now - looked down and spoke in a soothing tone. “Do not worry, child. Tetsujin has lived in Kazora for over 300 years without issue. He serves the Twins without question. The heat he generates is what keeps the city aloft.”

Eizo’s hand rested on Denri’s shoulder. “Remember, focus on what it is, not the fearful image your mind has made it to be.”

She nodded, stomach turning. Not a dragon. Just a lump of scaly flesh. A big lump of scaly, muscly flesh. She took a deep breath. He served the Twins, so he wasn’t all powerful. His teeth and talons were bone. The metal coating his body was no more deadly than Eizo’s sword.

Denri swallowed hard and looked towards Sky Furnace as they climbed toward it. Her breathing slowed, though her chest remained tight and her cheeks hot. Tetsujin was a creature like any other. If there was a bear in the woods, she would tread carefully. But there was no reason to fear if she left it alone. This was no different.

“Why does Tetsujin serve the Twins?” Aki’s face was obscured behind her mask, but her voice sounded tense.

The woman who spoke earlier turned to Aki. “Before the Twins were Champions, they challenged Tetsujin at the summit of the volcano and defeated him. They built their forges with the heat of his lair. When they won the Tournament, this became their domain. And as a gift for their allegiance, Amaterasu bound Tetsujin to serve them.”

“So it was Tetsujin’s home first and the Twins took it?”

“That’s right. The Twins are very strong.” The woman answered cheerfully, unaware of the accusation in Aki’s voice.

“That’s not–.”

Eizo placed a hand on Aki’s shoulder, the scars along his wrist going white as he gave her a firm squeeze. “My daughter is very curious. Thank you for the story.”

The woman bobbed her head and turned back to the front. Aki fumed quietly.

Denri stepped out of the lift and breathed deeply, trying to calm her nerves from earlier. She coughed. This high up, a steady breeze cut across Sky Furnace, but it could not completely rid the city of the sulfurous haze from the volcano.

It felt strange to call Sky Furnace a city. The ground rocked and swayed like a ship at anchor. And the buildings built atop the floating platforms looked more like contraptions than shops and homes. The building to Denri’s right was ticking loudly as it rotated on a giant gear mechanism. Three streets off, an entire block detached in a hiss of steam and began to float away.

They stepped down from the lift and walked around the ticking house to a bridge that crossed to a park. A large metal tree stood at the park’s center, with branches that moved in mechanical jerks approximating limbs swaying in the breeze. A fence surrounded the tree, keeping passersby from the large vents of steam that periodically shot from the joints.

Eizo caught the attention of a local crossing their path.

“Hello.” The woman’s response was deadpan, even compared to Eizo.

“We’re new to the town and looking for a fairly specialized piece of equipment. Could I trouble you for some directions?”

“No. I do not track the movements of the zeppelins. I am unlikely to know the current configuration well enough to guide you.”

“Perhaps just the names of some people to seek out, then?”

The woman shook her head a fraction of an inch. “I cannot say for certain who is still docked.”

Denri threw up her hands in frustration. “Sheesh, try to be a little less helpful, why don’t you?”

The woman’s eye’s widened briefly behind her mask before they returned to normal. “I speak the facts as they are known to me. Speculation is prohibited in Sky Furnace.”

“Is there some sort of problem here?” Metallic footsteps approached from behind. Denri turned to see a tall man in golden armor wearing a roaring dragon mask. There were several others like him patrolling the platforms.

“No, of course not.” The woman glowered at Denri but quickly let the expression drop. “I was telling these individuals that I did not have enough information to offer them directions.”

“I see.” He nodded to the woman. “Thank you, you may leave.”

The woman bowed as she backed away, then turned stiffly and stalked off.

“The Arbiters are briefed on the general layout of Sky Furnace each morning. I will be able to direct you. What are you looking for?”

Denri looked to Eizo. She got the sense he should do the talking while they were here.

“We were hoping to purchase some tracking equipment that we saw a group of heroes using. We do not know who produced the equipment, but we know it was made here.”

“There are several zeppelins currently docked that specialize in one form of tracking or another. They are scattered, though.”

“The heroes hailed from Sadashi’s domain, so they likely purchased the equipment there. Perhaps you could narrow the list to shops that do business with Jidoka?”

“That won’t be possible.” Denri sighed and rolled her eyes, earning a sharp look from the Arbiter before he continued. “Zeppelins are not allowed to display their affiliations, and you are likewise forbidden from asking. Neutrality is required within Sky Furnace.”

“Ah, I suppose that makes sense. A broader list is fine then. We don’t mind walking. And a recommendation for a good place to stay while we’re searching.”

The guard made them a list of names and gave the general locations of each. “The Dragon’s Den is one platform away from the Hub Spring. It will be easiest if you stay there, navigating to and from the center for each shop. Outsiders are not advised to navigate the rim platforms.”

Eizo nodded and thanked the man. They turned to make their way.

“Also. In the future please direct questions and complaints to the Arbiters. We do not encourage negotiations between citizens directly, and public disturbances are strictly prohibited.” He looked at Denri pointedly.

They followed the Arbiter’s directions to the Dragon’s Den and found themselves on a grass-covered platform crisscrossed with smooth steel walkways. A large statue, standing two times Eizo’s height at the center of the platform, depicted a dragon coiled around a mound of treasure. Its claws gripped an ornate chest protectively. A few benches looked over the edges of the platform.

“Perhaps we made a wrong turn?”

“I don’t think so. He said it was next to the Hub Spring.” Denri gestured to the adjacent zeppelin, dominated by a circular fountain. The spring shot a wide plume of water up and over the edges of the platform, shrouding pedestrians behind wavering sheets of water. “If that’s not the Hub Spring then I officially give up on understanding this place.”

They milled about the platform, meandering down the steel pathways as they watched for another outsider who might know something they didn’t. Eventually they came to rest in one of the benches at the edge of the zeppelin, chatting as they waited.

Eizo sat stiff-backed, though Denri wasn’t sure if the tension was from spending time idly or from Onara. Immediately after sitting, the black cat dropped from her position atop Eizo’s pack, stretched luxuriously, and slinked into his lap. He grimaced.

“OK, I have to know what the deal is with you and cats. Onara loves you, but you act like the 9-tails himself is curled on your legs. What gives?”

“I have said before, I do not like cats.”

Denri rolled her eyes, stretching out and placing her feet on the back of the bench near Eizo’s shoulders. “Yeah, I’ve gathered as much. But why?” Denri flapped an arm at Aki. “Do you know anything?”

The young girl was lying on her back in front of the bench, near the edge of the platform. Her eyes were closed behind the mask and she didn’t respond. Denri pointed a finger at the girl’s toes and arced a small charge. Aki jumped.

“Hmm?” She opened her eyes and Shiri shook his head a few feet away before continuing his explorations. “Sorry, I was practicing. What was the question?”

“Do you know why Eizo hates cats so much?”

Aki shrugged. “I think it’s because they’re soft and cuddly and he’s sharp and pointy.”

Denri stroked the chin of her mask in deliberation. “That’s not a bad theory. He’s protecting his image. When Onara sits in his lap it’s like wrapping the hilt of a sword in big fluffy furs. Ridiculous.”

Aki snorted, then clamped a hand across the mouth or her mask when she saw Eizo bristle. She couldn’t stop the giggles completely, though.

“Appearances are of little concern to me.” His voice was laced with wounded dignity.

“Oh yeah, sure.” Denri shoved Eizo’s shoulder with a foot. “Why don’t you tell us the real reason then? Otherwise I’ll just start calling you Furblade.”

“That does not even–.” Eizo sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Very well. If you insist on prying, my first assignment with the Blades was at an outpost on the Cross near Ninigi’s Citadel. The mountains were filled with nekomata and I lost many friends to the demon cats.”

Denri had never really thought of Eizo having friends before. She couldn’t imagine him sitting around the fire, joking with the other recruits. In her mind, he had been hard his whole life. “Oh… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

Eizo shook his head. “It is fine. Perhaps it is best I overcome these mental barriers.” He looked down at Onara and gave her a more earnest pat. She looked up at him and yawned, then rolled onto her back. He scratched her stomach, very warily, a few times before continuing.

“They aren’t bad memories. Not really. Some are sad, but they come from a time when it felt like the violence, the deaths, did something good. I was more content in that outpost, even on the worst days, than I ever was in command.”

Command? Eizo’s tone did not invite further questions, but Denri was dying with curiosity. She was weighing the risks of probing deeper when Aki changed the subject.

“What’s the Cross?”

“The Imperial Crossroads. You have seen them at least once. It is the constructed pathway that you were being transported on when I tried to free you and Danzo captured us both.”

“Oh yeah, I remember! Why did you have to guard the Cross? It’s just a path through the woods.”

“The Cross is far more than just a path in the woods. Most domains are completely disconnected from one another. A merchant or a family may occasionally hire a group of heroes to escort them through the wilderness, but for the most part every domain is self sufficient. Even in larger domains with a few towns, trade between communities can be dangerous.

“Ninigi built the Imperial Crossroads to connect the domains pledged to him. And the Blades guard them so anyone can travel, not just powerful heroes. The Cross is one of a kind.”

“But everybody you know is in your home town. So are all the farms and shops. Why bother walking all the way to another place?”

“People are more spread out in Ninigi’s domain, thanks to the Cross. It is difficult to explain succinctly, but there are many benefits from being more connected.”

“Why don’t the other gods build their own roads, then?”

“Most don’t care about connecting their domains. Or they fear diluting their Champions’ ideals. And it was a costly endeavor. Even with the Blades, Ninigi could not build the Cross until Sadashi’s Penance gave him the excuse.”

Denri had been zoning out during the geography lesson, but she perked up at the name. “Isn’t Sadashi the one who’s chasing us? What’s this penance about?”

Eizo nodded. “The Warlord. Sadashi’s domain is on the border of a large lake on the western coast. So large, in fact, that two other domains were also founded on its shores. Several hundred years ago, Sadashi conquered them.”

“But that’s against the rules, isn’t it? No god or Champion can interfere with another’s domain.”

“Sadashi decided to test that rule. He overwhelmed his neighbors and then set his sights more broadly.”

“Why didn’t the gods just destroy his armies? There’s no way he could have stood against all five of them.”

“The gods are not as united as they once were. A thousand years of squabbling over the Tournament has left them territorial. Ninigi helped stop Sadashi’s expansion, but he was loathe to let one of his Champions die. Or to give up the newly acquired territory.

“No one wanted a war between the gods, so they allowed Sadashi to keep the two domains he conquered. But as punishment for his aggression, most of Sadashi’s army, the Blades that Ninigi had given him, were used to build and guard the Imperial Crossroads. The Warlord’s strength was crippled, spread thin across Yosai. And Ninigi swore that if Sadashi or any of his Champions ever broke the rules again, he would destroy them personally, using the Cross to bring all his Blades to fight.”

“It seems like Ninigi got the best of everyone, then. Why did the other gods let him keep the two domains when Ninigi wanted the Crossroads all along?”

“You underestimate Sadashi’s strength. The five gods were able to halt his advance, but if Ninigi had supported him, it would have been far closer than the other gods would have everyone believe.”

Aki sat up, looking frightened. “Is Sadashi really that powerful?”

“There has never been a Champion like him. It is said that during Sadashi’s Tournament, half of the Sanyaku pledged fealty to him and fought on his behalf in the True Combat. They were that certain he would kill them. Several of those Champion-level heroes now serve in his court.

“Perhaps Chiyoko could oppose him, or the Four Seasons together, but he is a force beyond comprehension. And he has broken the rules of the Tournament in the past.

“That is why I am so concerned with learning the nature of Aki’s powers. Why does Sadashi pursue her? He must be reluctant to break the rules again, with his armies weakened and Ninigi’s promise of enforcement.

“But what if his ambition has returned? Does Aki play some part in that? Is she worth such a risk to him? Without knowing, we could be caught completely unaware.”

Aki sniffed behind her mask, her eyes shining with tears. Denri shot a glare at Eizo then got to the ground and placed an arm around her quivering shoulders.

“Hey, there’s no need to worry. I fought off the Blades once and I’ll do it again if I have to. These things are only scary because we don’t know what’s really going on. Isn’t that what you say, Eizo? Someone in this city knows about your power. They have to if they can make that tracker we saw the Blades using.

“So we’ll find that person and I’ll zap them until they tell us what we want to know. And eventually we’ll be strong enough that nobody can mess with us.”

“Y-you promise?”

Denri charged her fingertips and poked Aki until she giggled. “I promise, kid.”

Eventually, another traveller approached the platform. He looked around, confused in much the same way as Denri and the others. He dropped his pack to the ground and produced a rolled up parchment, scanning its contents before walking to the statue at the platform’s center. The traveller knocked on the chest in the dragon’s claws.

After a long pause, the front of the chest swung forward to reveal an elderly shapeling woman. Her hair was grey, done up in a messy bun held in place with a silver pick. Her short form was badly hunched, and her eyes were massive behind thick glasses resting on a prominent nose.

The traveler said something, but the woman turned her head and cupped her ear. “Eh-? Speak up!” She grabbed the front of his shirt, jumping to reach his collar, and pulled his face close to hers. “Don’t worry, lad. I won’t bite unless you ask me to.” She chuckled then waited for the man to speak.

The man floundered through the question a second time, straining to escape the woman’s grip.

“Why didn’t you say so? ‘Course we got rooms. Go downstairs and the boy’ll get you a key.” She shooed him inside while she squinted around the platform, hand on the handle of the door. She passed over Denri and the others twice before she noticed them.

“You lot! Go loiter somewhere else!”

The woman’s entire demeanor was so different from the rest of Sky Furnace, Denri couldn’t help but smile. She jumped to her feet and scurried toward the statue.

“We’re not loitering. We want a couple rooms too. We just didn’t know where the entrance was.” Denri made sure to raise her voice.

“Whad’ya mean? It’s right here.” The woman gestured at the entrance like Denri was an idiot.

Eizo made his way to the statue, carrying the pack that Denri left behind. “So it seems. Our mistake. Do you still have rooms available?”

“‘Course we got rooms. It’s an inn yeah? People asking bought rooms like a bunch of fools.” The woman trailed off, muttering to herself as she narrowed her eyes over Denri’s shoulder, struggling to focus on Eizo. When she did, her jaw dropped, then she flashed a devilish grin. “Pardon my manners, the name’s Anko.” She extended a hand past Denri.

Eizo took the hand awkwardly, balancing two packs. “Eizo. A pleasure–.”

Anko snatched his hand greedily, bringing it close to her chest. “With arms like these, yessir we’ve got rooms. You can take mine free of charge if you like.” She winked.

Denri would have paid any amount of money to see Eizo’s face under the mask at that exact moment. He blinked in surprise, eyes moving so fast their motion was nearly audible. “That- no, that won’t be necessary. Just two, uh, ordinary rooms, if you please.” He tried to free his hand.

“Well, suit yourself. I know where to find you if you change your mind.” The grin widened and she turned to let them pass. Aki gave a start as the old woman forced herself between the girl and Eizo. “Make sure to close the door, lass.”

Inside was a steep, spiral staircase angling down and out of sight. A few feet down, the packs in Eizo’s arms clattered as he stood abruptly straight.

“Don’t mind me lad, these stairs are steep for a delicate lady like myself. I need to hold on and steady myself. You wouldn’t let a lady fall, would you?”

Denri struggled to contain her laughter.

The stairs ended in a mid-sized room lit by softly glowing lanterns. The room was sparse, with no chairs or tables for guests to congregate. A heavy wooden counter with a young boy seated behind it filled most of the room. When he saw Anko coming down the stairs, the boy gave a nervous laugh and retreated behind the counter.

“There, thank you for the help dear. You’re a valiant man.” Her hand did not move from his waist. Denri met Eizo’s desperate eyes and hoped he couldn’t tell she was smiling. “Now, two rooms you said? Nezumi!” The boy started in his seat. “Two rooms, make ‘em good.”

The boy jumped up and ran through a door at the back. Denri heard the sound of jangling keys.

“How come you’re not wearing a mask? I thought everyone had to wear one.” Aki squeezed past the elderly woman, who made no effort to get out of the way.

“Bah, the masks are only required in public spaces, I can do what I want in my own inn. You’re free to take them off if you’d like. Come on dear, show me that handsome face.”

Eizo’s hand shot to the mask. “That’s OK. We’ll have to get used to them while we explore Sky Furnace anyways.”

Denri reached for her mask, enjoying Eizo’s squirming. “That’s silly! Let’s take them off!” A serious look from Eizo staid her hand, though. “Or… maybe once we’ve had a chance to set everything down. Your hands are pretty full.”

Denri looked around, searching for something to change the conversation. “I’m awfully hungry. It doesn’t look like there’s much space to grab a meal here. Is there a common room somewhere?”

Anko shook her head. “Sometimes a wealthy lord will hire us to take them and their researchers to a remote site. Or we just undock for a bit of travel. When that happens we set up topside as a dining area. But here in Sky Furnace, public gathering spaces aren’t allowed. We can bring private meals to your rooms, though.” Another wink for Eizo.

“Oh, just the rooms for now, thank you.”

After a few stern refusals, Eizo convinced Anko that he did not need any special accommodations. Denri was certain the upgrade would be conveniently placed beside the elderly woman’s own living space.

They made their way through a narrow hall and down a few flights of stairs to their rooms. Eizo all but slammed the door as Anko fussed about his blankets needing straightening.

Aki and Denri took a larger room beside Eizo’s, with two beds and a large glass window on the far wall.

“Well, that explains why we couldn’t find the inn!” Denri tossed her things on a bed and pressed her face to the glass. The entire inn was below the platform. Their room had a view straight into the mouth of the volcano.

Aki joined her at the glass. As they watched, a slow stream of ripples spread across the lava. Testujin’s head emerged briefly before he sank below the surface again.

Aki wore a frown as she watched the dragon. “It’s not fair.”


“It’s not fair! Tetsujin was here first. Why do the Twins get to come and take it?”

“At least he still gets to live here. It sounds like the town has been pretty accommodating. I can’t imagine living so close to a monster like this all the time.”

“But he has to do what the Twins say all the time. They came and attacked him and now he’s their slave. What if he doesn’t want to help them?”

Denri turned from the window. “That’s just how the world works. You could just as easily ask why do the monsters attack us in the woods.”

Aki stomped away from the window and threw herself on her bed, arms crossed and eyes shining. “They don’t have a choice! The gods make them do it. We don’t have to be mean back.”

The usual response came to Denri’s lips. She pictured the faces of her parents as they fled through the woods, pursued gleefully by the monsters. At least, they had seemed gleeful. But now she saw Hattori’s confusion, too. Torn between the world he was born to and what he was becoming. She shook her head.

“They may not have a choice, but at some point that doesn’t matter. Don’t let Hattori confuse you. The other monsters want to hurt us. It doesn’t matter if the gods put that desire inside them. If we try to help them they’ll kill us just the same.”

“That’s not true! The other tengu didn’t want to fight either. I lived in a whole town filled with monsters and none of them wanted to hurt us!” As soon as she said the words, Aki’s eyes went wide and she clamped her hands over her mouth.

Denri paused, her mouth open. “Sorry, say that again. You lived… with monsters?”

Aki shook her head, eyes wide.

There was a sharp knock at the door, followed by Eizo’s voice. Denri called him in without thinking. He stepped in and shut the door quickly, pressing his back against the entrance.

“I thought I heard Anko coming down the hallway. That woman is– what’s the matter?”

Denri was still staring at Aki. “You lived with monsters?”

Aki looked at the bed sheepishly. “Eizo said I’m not supposed to tell anyone.” She looked up at him. “I’m sorry! I was just angry. But it’s OK I told Denri, right?”

Eizo paused for a heartbeat. He looked at Denri, then nodded. “Yes, I suppose it is. But don’t speak too loudly. For the same reason we should keep our masks on outside the rooms. Who knows who’s watching and listening?”

“Can we stop talking like I’m not in the room?”

The words spilled out of Aki as though she had been itching to say them for a while now. “Where I grew up there were monsters all around. They didn’t attack us. They helped us. Me and the other kids would even play with some of them.”

Denri stared in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me. She’s kidding, right? There’s no place in all of Yosai like that. I may not have heard much about the world, but everyone would know about a place like that.”

“It was secret! Mama said no one else would understand. She didn’t let anyone in or out.”

“Your mom ran this… monster town?”

Eizo cleared his throat. “Not her real mom. None of the children in the town knew who their parents were.”

“Mama was our real mom! She took care of all of us.”

Eizo raised a soothing hand. “None of them knew who their biological parents were. Based on Aki’s descriptions and where I met her, I think the town she’s talking about was some sort of experiment outside of Matsuri. I think ‘Mama’ is Emiko.”

Denri and Aki shouted at the same time.

“One of the Four Seasons?!”

“It wasn’t an experiment! We were family!”

Eizo nodded in Denri’s direction, confirming her question.

“And you didn’t think this would be useful information to tell me sooner?”

He looked chastened. “At first we didn’t know if you could be trusted. And then… I’m sorry. We should have told you. Old habits die hard.”

Aki jumped in quickly. “And you were so mad about monsters. I didn’t want you to hate me. Please don’t be mad! I never would have been friends with the monsters that hurt your parents, I promise!”

Tears spilled down Aki’s cheeks, cutting momentarily through Denri’s confusion and frustration. She walked from the window and sat beside Aki, putting an arm around her shoulder. “Don’t worry kid, I’m not mad. Well, I’m not mad about the fact that you grew up with monsters.” Denri laughed to herself. “That sentence still sounds ridiculous.

“But I am mad you didn’t tell me sooner! First of all, that’s crazy. Second, what are we doing all the way here in Sky Furnace, messing around with all this Tournament stuff? Why don’t we just go back to this town of yours? If Emiko’s protecting it then we should be safe, right?”

Aki looked at the ground sadly. “I don’t think it’s safe there anymore. Not since the Question Man came.”

Eizo provided more concrete details. “One of Sadashi’s followers infiltrated the town.”

Aki’s hands gripped each other tightly in her lap, her voice was brittle with remembered pain. “He asked us all sorts of questions. And he made us try to do things. Like changing things into different shapes, or hurting the monsters. Some kids had to live in a special house after they talked to him. We never got to see them after that.”

“He kidnapped Aki and was taking her to Jidoka when I tried to free her. It’s unclear if Emiko knows that the kidnapping was thwarted. She may think Aki is with Sadashi.”

“Why don’t we go back and tell her, then?”

“I don’t know if that’s wise. We don’t know what was going on in this experiment. Aki felt safe, but I want to understand Emiko’s ultimate plan before we hand ourselves over.

“Right now, Aki is just another Tournament competitor. It helps that she looks older as well. But if details about where she came from got out, Emiko might connect the dots and come after us, too.”

“She wouldn’t come after us! Mama would try to help.”

“Even if that is true, we don’t know how deeply Sadashi has infiltrated her ranks. Her ‘help’ may be nothing more than another tool for the Warlord to control. We need more information.”

Denri’s head was reeling. “Well. I guess we were willing to take on one Champion. Adding another to the list won’t hurt.”

Eizo shifted in his seat. “We should not rule out the possibility that whatever Emiko’s role is, she works on behalf of all the Four Seasons. They serve different gods, but the group has always remained close.”

Denri laughed, only partly manic. “Sure, why not? Champions are hunting us. Monsters are friends. We’re in a city that floats above a volcano. I’ve pretty much lost all sense of normal and possible. Who’s to say the four of us can’t beat them?”

Eizo nodded. “If Sadashi wants Aki, it means she has power. Based on what she did with Hattori, I’m beginning to believe that whatever was happening in that monster town, it was the kids who were doing it. If we can learn how to harness that ability, we may not have to fight alone. With your strength as an Adept, supported by a force of monsters, we might be able to level the playing field.”

Denri imagined herself standing at the head of an army of monsters. She laughed. This time, it really was manic.

You can read the next story in this series here.