This is part 2 of an ongoing story series. You can read the first part here.

It was safe to say that Denri was panicking. It felt odd. Distant, yet familiar. She thought she was past this.

Denri crashed through the forest underbrush, leaping over decayed tree trunks and shouldering through the vines and shrubs that pulled against her clothes. She gripped Aki’s hand, pulling the young girl along and trying to ignore the pain in her foot, still healing from the burn in Danzo’s lair. The forest around them reverberated with the sound of crows.

Denri saw flashes of black feathered bodies leaping from tree to tree. The pursuing tengu looked like a cross between a small child and carrion birds. They were the same size and general shape as Denri, but their legs ended in talons. Their bodies were covered in black feathers, with large wings instead of arms. Their eyes were beady, overlooking a straight beak.

Denri ducked as one of the creatures swooped from above, narrowly missing her shoulder. Her eyes glowed blue in the dark forest gloom, hunting desperately for a place to hide. Aki stumbled blindly behind, her human eyes unable to see in darkness like Denri’s.

Up ahead, the trees thinned and gave way to raw stone formations, the beginning of the mountains they needed to traverse. Denri squinted against the distance. There was a slash of darkness against one of the rocks. Was it a cave mouth? The distance made it hard to tell for sure, but it was their only hope.

The cawing grew louder behind them, centered on Eizo. When the beasts appeared, he raised his staff and told the other two to run. Her last image of the man was his tall, thin frame standing resolutely as the tengu descended. Eizo’s body spoke of former martial prowess, but he was still badly emaciated from his time in captivity. Denri didn’t think she would see him again.

Aki’s hand ripped free of Denri’s grip. There was a sharp inhale of surprise.

Denri pivoted, skidding to a halt. She could see Aki a few feet behind her, lifted into the air by one of the foul creatures. Her hand was still outstretched towards Denri, as though her mind hadn’t fully caught up to the situation.

Denri reached towards the young girl, but her feet stayed rooted. Her heart hammered in her ears as she spiraled downward into the tengu’s cold, compassionless eyes. Her stomach churned at the smell of carrion and rot emanating from the creatures. Her eyes lost focus as she heard the cries of her parents, telling her to run.

Denri was pulled back to the present by the hiss of onrushing wind. She tried to throw herself to the side, but stumbled on her injured foot, grunting. Sharp pain blossomed in both shoulders as talons wrapped around her. The world shifted violently as she was lifted from the ground, her vision bobbing as the tengu lurched skyward.

She should be doing something. Escaping. Trying to save Aki. But the weight of her memories left her paralyzed. It was all happening again.

There was a crash and a yell as Eizo came charging through the woods. He raised his staff, arms dripping blood from several wounds. He swung with both hands towards the creature carrying Aki, earning a pained squawk as the staff connected with the creature’s wing. The blow sent it swerving into a tree and Aki fell to the ground heavily.

Eizo’s arrival woke Denri from her panic. She twisted in the creature’s grip, its talons pressing deeper into the muscles of her shoulder. She focused on the ground, near the cave she had seen earlier, then took a mental step towards it.

The crow tengu cried out in surprise as its prey suddenly vanished, replaced by an arc of electricity shooting towards the ground. Denri reappeared by the cave and turned towards her friends. “Over here! There’s a cave we can use to hold them off!”

Eizo caught Aki under the arms, scooping her off the ground as he ran by. His face was set like iron as he pushed his body to outpace the shapes lurching through the darkness behind him.

Eizo made it to the cave right as a tengu dove into him, its legs stretched forward and it’s wings thrown out behind. Talons dug into the meat of his back and sent them both careening through the mouth of the cave. Eizo curled his body around Aki as he hit the ground.

The cave became a riot of flesh and feathers. From his prone position, Eizo brought his staff up to block the talons of the angry tengu looming over him.

Denri pressed herself against the wall.

Eizo caught a taloned strike with one end of the staff, then swept the creature’s remaining foot with the other end. It went sprawling to the ground.

Eizo stood in the span of a heartbeat. The butt of his staff struck against the tengu’s head with practiced precision. It’s angry squawks turned to groggy whimpers.

He left the stupefied creature and ran to the entrance of the cave, readying himself for the coming onslaught. But the odds had shifted. The tengu would have to attack one at a time, with no room to maneuver. Some of the beasts made a few careful swipes at Eizo, but when he held firm they turned and fled into the woods.

They were safe, for now.

“We should kill it.” Denri stood as far from the crow tengu as she could. It sat with its back to one of the cave walls, arms and legs bound by rope Denri scavenged in Terminus before they fled. The creature’s body was tense, its gaze tracking every motion.

“I do not kill.” Eizo leaned heavily against his staff. His arms and back were wrapped in bandages that they were quickly running out of. There was little else they could do for him. He had only been free from bondage for a week, and they had been fleeing that whole time. He needed time to recover.

Denri scoffed. “You expect me to believe that you’ve never killed anyone after watching you fight? With all those scars? I know you want to hide your past but don’t pick something that’s so obviously a lie.”

Eizo flinched and looked towards the ground. “I do not kill anymore.” His voice was soft.

“Look, the world would be a lot better if people weren’t so eager to kill. But when you do find something evil, you have a responsibility to stop it. If you weren’t sure, this is one of those times.”

“And how do you know this thing is evil?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the way it just tried to eat us?”

“Even so, who are we to decide it is beyond redemption?”

Denri waved her hands dismissively. “Questions like that are designed to paralyze people. If you overthink it, you can create doubt around anything. But we know when someone is evil or dangerous to others. It’s one thing to seek more context and try everything you can to be merciful. But I don’t care how guilty you feel about things you did in your past, it’s no excuse to spare something that’s obviously going to hurt others.”

The crow tengu remained passive. Its attention shifted back and forth between Denri and Eizo as they spoke, but she couldn’t tell if it understood their conversation or was simply following the sounds. Whenever it looked at Eizo, it cocked its head sideways.

“I do not believe it is as easy to tell good from evil as you think it is. And given the obvious fear and hatred you have for these creatures, I would not trust your judgment anyways.”

“These things just attacked us! They tried to kill Aki! If we let this one go, that’s just one more threat when they start hunting us again.”

Eizo turned his back on the crow tengu, placing himself between Denri and the creature. “That may be true, but I will not let you harm it. If you disagree, I am not stopping you from leaving.”

Denri took a step forward, clenching her fists.

Aki stomped between them, holding her hands up. Frustrated tears spilled down her cheeks. “Stop fighting! We’re supposed to take care of each other!” She looked back at the prisoner. “And I don’t want to hurt the tengu either.”

Denri bit back a retort. Taking it out on Aki wasn’t the right thing to do. And it didn’t look like she was convincing Eizo one way or the other. She threw her hands in the air. “Fine. Do what you want.” She stomped further into the cave.

Denri sat in the darkness, throwing rocks against the wall. She didn’t understand why people like Eizo always wanted to think about the right thing to do. To weigh things against each other and make complicated theories about what was wrong and what wasn’t.

Doing the right thing wasn’t something you thought about. Whenever she tried to figure things out intellectually, she just ended up justifying the things she wanted to do. Her mind was too crafty to really be trusted. Her gut was the one that told her the hard things she didn’t want to hear.

“Denri…?” Denri turned and saw Aki stumbling through the darkness of the cave.

“Over here.”

Aki turned towards the sound and made her way towards Denri’s glowing eyes. She sat down a small distance away and pulled her knees to her chest. “Are you still mad?”

Denri sighed. “No. I’m just not used to dealing with others when I make my decisions.”

“Is that why you’ve been different since we left Terminus?”

“What do you mean?”

Aki thought for a moment. “You seemed happier before. Are we making you sad?”

Denri couldn’t help but smile as the young girl stared at her feet. She pushed on Aki’s shoulder playfully. “It’s not you two. It’s these woods. They bring back bad memories for me.”

Aki let out the breath she was holding. She sidled closer to Denri, sliding under her arm and leaning against her shoulder. “What kind of memories?”

Denri hadn’t willfully thought about those days for years. She didn’t really want to relive them. But maybe telling someone might help her process the fear she’d been dealing with. “When I was your age, I lived with my mom and dad on a boat.”

“Really? Did you go out to sea? What was it like?” All the context of the discussion fled Aki’s mind in her excitement.

Denri chuckled. “One question at a time. Yes, we went out to sea. We worked on a trading vessel that moved goods up and down the eastern coast. We stayed pretty close to shore, though, so it probably wasn’t as grand as you’re thinking.”

“But you must have had some adventures! Did you see any sea monsters?”

“One time we did get pretty close to a giant squid.”

Aki gasped. “Were you scared? What did you do?”

“Of course I was scared! It was bigger than our boat! Some of the crew managed to scare it off by lighting a powder keg and throwing it into the water. Now that was exciting.”

Aki crossed her arms. “That’s mean! I wouldn’t have been scared. I would have tried to talk to it.”

“Oh?” Denri raised her arms in the air and started waving them around Aki, she dropped her voice into a spooky monotone. “Even with it’s massive tentacles thrashing about around you?” Denri grabbed Aki’s sides and started tickling. The pair devolved into a fit of giggling as Aki tried to squirm free.

Shiri’s feline eyes peered around the corner at the noise, gleaming in the dim cave light. Aki threw her arms wide. “Shiri! You found us.”

“Of course he did. Those two cats have lived on the streets for years. They know how to steer clear of trouble and find their way back.”

The mottled cat stalked forward, stepping across Aki’s legs and arching his back. Aki pet him dutifully as he took his usual position. He dropped into her lap and started purring.

“Why did your family stop sailing?”

“Living on a boat you end up dealing with a lot of storms. Growing up, they were my favorite part of sailing. I thought they were beautiful, crackling through the sky on the horizon. And when you got caught in one, it was wild. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of fighting the elements, knowing any minute your boat could crash against the rocks.” Denri let out a long breath.

“Eventually, that’s exactly what happened. Our ship got caught in a big storm and wrecked against the shore. My family barely made it out.”

Aki was silent for a moment. “That’s horrible.”

Denri shrugged. “It’s just how nature works. If the storms didn’t make sailing dangerous, we wouldn’t have been able to make a living taking risks on other people’s behalf.

“We got lucky and washed up pretty close to a town south of Terminus. It was a small place, probably some new village set up by a recent champion. We came knocking on their door, asking for help.” Denri’s fists clenched. “But they sent us away.”

“Why would they send people away?”

“We were a group of flits. Pretty much all of us take after Susano. But this town’s champion followed Sakuya, one of the gods opposed to the Stormbringer. The champion thought letting us in might diminish Sakuya’s favor and weaken the town.

“My parents died trying to get us through the woods to Terminus.”

Aki burrowed deeper against Denri’s side, giving a hug. “That must have been really scary.”

Denri’s knuckles were white. “I never minded the storms. Gods and nature are what they are. But I’ll never understand someone who sees good people in need and thinks of anything but helping.”

Aki lay against Denri quietly for a few moments, petting Shiri in the darkness. Her movements were tense as she worked herself up to say something. “Why didn’t you want to help the tengu we caught, then?”

Denri looked down at Aki, the girl was staring blindly into the cave. “Those monsters are just as bad as the champion that wouldn’t let my family in. They see people walking through the forest, scared and lost, and they prey upon them. They killed my parents without thinking twice.”

Aki looked up at Denri, her chin thrust forward. “But no one ever tries to talk to them. What if they’re just scared too? Maybe they think they’re defending themselves.”

Denri patted Aki’s hand. “Believe me, we can’t talk with them. They’re like animals.”

Aki prickled. “That doesn’t mean we can’t talk and try to understand them! Shiri is an animal but you forgive him when he bites your finger.”

“That’s different.”

“It’s not different! When we tied up that tengu it didn’t look like it hated us. It just looked scared and lost. I don’t think it really wanted to hurt us in the first place, it just didn’t know any better because no one ever bothered to try and teach it.”

“You’re imagining things. That creature didn’t show any emotion at all while we had it tied up.”

“It did. You just weren’t trying to look for it.” Aki stood up, holding Shiri in her arms. “Eizo was right to let it go.” She stamped away into the darkness before Denri could respond.

“Well, I guess that’s both of them angry with me now.”

They rose before dawn. Everyone saw to their own meager travel packs, avoiding eye contact as they worked in silence. Denri coiled the empty rope and put it away.

The air outside was cold and bright, snapping them awake as they began their climb. The slope steepened until their shivers were replaced by a thin sheen of sweat. The mist at their feet burned away as the sun rose.

A few hundred feet up, leaning forward against the steep incline, they paused for a heartbeat to enjoy the view. Jagged boulders cast long shadows around them. Below, the forest lay like a thick green carpet across the landscape, the last tendrils of mist coiling delicately in the shade of large cedar trees. The sun lit the sky a brilliant orange.

Denri let out a sigh, some of the tension in her shoulders fading. She hadn’t seen a view like this since her time at sea. For a moment, she wished Aki was right about the monsters. She had grown fond of Terminus over the years, but the tight spaces and rigid, manmade lines never quite replaced the untamed beauty outside the walls.

“It’s so pretty.” Aki’s voice was filled with awe.

Denri tested the waters. “Have you ever seen anything like it before?”

Aki shook her head, ponytail flapping behind her. “Me and the other kids were never allowed outside.”

“Other kids?”

“We should keep moving and stay quiet.” Eizo gave a pointed look to Aki as he moved past her, continuing up the mountain.

They stepped a bit lighter after the interchange. Denri even got a few smiles from Aki as she made faces behind Eizo’s back. The sunrise had worked better than any apology to brighten everyone’s mood. It didn’t last long, though.

They had been hiking for an hour before they heard a chorus of crows around the cave where they had slept. Denri and the others threw themselves behind a boulder, hoping none of the creatures had seen them. The eruption of sounds quickly shifted to silence.

“I guess they figured out we’re not there anymore.” Denri felt the familiar pit of fear form in her gut. This time she had a chance to prepare herself. She wouldn’t let it paralyze her like last time. “If they were going to attack, why weren’t they waiting for us when we came out?”

Eizo looked calm. “They probably went back to camp to get help from their daitengu. Crow tengu aren’t really intelligent enough to leave a guard behind.”

“What’s a daitengu?” Denri’s firsthand knowledge of wilderness monsters was a handful of mostly repressed weeks screaming and running. And she hadn’t gone seeking more information once she lived in Terminus. She never thought she’d be in a situation like this again.

“The crow tengu we saw yesterday are sort of like caterpillars. As they get older, most die of old age. But some go through a transformation into daitengu. They get bigger and more intelligent. Some can even resonate. Every crow tengu flock is lead by a group of daitengu.”

“Oh, great. I really felt like our experience yesterday was missing something, you know?”

“Daitengu hunting us would be very bad.” Eizo looked at her flatly. Onara’s yellow eyes blinked at her over his shoulder. The cat preferred to travel on top of the tall man’s pack. There was a row of thin red scabs marking the one time Eizo had tried to protest.

Aki squeezed Denri’s hand. “I’m glad you’re being silly again.”

Denri gave a shaky smile, her stomach a knot of tension. “Trying my best.”

For a while, the creatures searched through the forest. Denri and the others stuck behind boulders as much as they could, but eventually the tengu turned their attention towards the mountain. After that, it didn’t take long. They couldn’t really hide against an enemy that could fly.

Denri stood atop a cliff face, breathing hard as she reached a hand down to help Aki up the ledge. The girl’s hands and knees were covered in dirt and blood, yet she pushed on doggedly. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re pretty tough, kid?” Denri forced her voice to stay light, it was the only thing keeping the fear at bay.

A few hundred feet below them, the tengu were swarming up the mountain side. They ate the vertical distance with enormous leaps, their wings making light of the climb. The hunting party consisted of five crow tengu, their bodies small and black, along with two daitengu. If not for Eizo’s assurances earlier, Denri would have thought them a completely different species. They were twice the size of the crow tengu, with muscular builds and smooth, red skin. They wore clothing and carried staffs in human-like arms. A pair of white wings emerged from their backs.

Eizo pulled himself over the edge of the cliff and looked around. The slope of the mountain was gentle here, allowing for easier footing. Many large stones had gathered in the relatively flat space. “We should make our stand here. It will give us our best chance.” They moved further onto the plateau and found a narrow gap between two boulders. Aki wedged herself deep within the shadows. Shiri and Onara joined her, sensing the tension.

Eizo and Denri walked a short distance, drawing the battle away from Aki. Many boulders had been eroded in the area, creating shallow overhangs that Denri and Eizo now used to provide some amount of cover from above. They stood with their backs pressed against a pair of closely placed boulders. “I will disable as many crow tengu as I can before the fight begins, but then I will focus on the daitengu.”

Eizo paused for a moment, looking conflicted. “If you want, you can still flee. We dragged you out of Terminus and into this danger. You owe us no debt.”

“Have you seen me out here? Imagine if I was also alone.” She shook her head and chuckled at the image. “Besides, there’s worse ways to die than hanging out with you two.”

Eizo nodded. “You will have to keep the crow tengu distracted, then.”

“Yup.” Denri’s hands shook around the knotted club of wood she gathered during the climb. It felt awkward in her hands. In Terminus she had been a thief, not a fighter.

They heard the predatory click and scrape of talons landing against the rocky earth of the plateau. There was a series of caws as the creatures coordinated, followed by an abrupt silence as they pushed into the air again. The tension persisted a heartbeat longer before there was another hail of clicks and scrapes, this time scattered around the boulders near the cliff’s edge. The pattern repeated itself.

Silence. Talons. The sounds grew closer.

They heard a creature land on a stone nearby. Eizo took a pebble and bounced it off a boulder. The tengu made a curious sound, it’s caw soft and with an upward inflection. Silence. There was a rush of feathers and disturbed earth as the tengu dropped to the ground amidst the boulders. It’s back was to them.

Eizo pounced. He brought his staff in a low sweep, cutting the creature’s feet out from under it. As it fell, Eizo twisted the staff and delivered two sharp blows, one to the creature’s chest and the other to the side of its head. The tengu was unconscious before it hit the ground.

A chorus of cries erupted around them as the tengu responded to the dull thwack of Eizo’s staff against feathered flesh. Eizo stepped back against the boulder as the remaining tengu descended.

They had the sense to land together, alert and looking around them. Up close, Denri saw the daitengu did not have the large black beaks of the crow tengu. Besides the red skin and bone-white hair, the only difference between the daitengu faces and those of humans was a long, beaklike nose.

Again, Eizo leapt forward without hesitation. Denri wondered if the man even understood what the word fear meant.

Eizo brought his staff up, cracking against the bottom of a crow tengu beak. Before the creature’s body could acknowledge its new unconscious reality, Eizo twisted, aiming his weapon towards another black-feathered face. This tengu managed to pull itself back, absorbing the blow with a shoulder. It dropped to the ground squawking in pain.

Eizo let his swing follow through and brought the butt of his staff around in a motion made smooth and automatic by years of training. His hands snapped forward in a lethal strike towards the fallen creature’s throat.

As his staff shot forward, Eizo’s face contorted. He cried out and pushed his weapon to the side, avoiding the tengu and digging a furrow in the ground. He paused for a heartbeat, breathing heavily and staring at his hands in disgust.

The remaining tengu capitalized on the hesitation. The two crow tengu leapt into the air while the daitengu struck forward with their staffs. Eizo managed to block the blow aimed for his jaw, but the other staff whipped across his back, staggering him forward.

Denri cursed, then forced herself to start moving lest her muscles freeze again. Seeing Eizo surrounded, she felt a wild urge to rush forward. But she knew how little help she would be. She had to stick to the plan. The two airborne monsters were her problem to deal with.

Denri grabbed a fist-sized rock and scrambled up the side of a boulder. She hurled the rock as hard as she could towards one of the crow tengu, catching it along the hip. The creature gave a sharp caw and dropped a few feet in the air before it regained its composure and turned towards Denri. It called to its companion and the two creatures dove towards her.

Denri stared up at the monsters, fear rising in her belly like a wave crashing towards the shore. She forced herself to wait. At the last moment, right before the lead tengu’s claws dug into her belly, Denri shifted to the boulder 30 feet away.

The tengu was moving too fast to react. It’s claws gripped a wisp of electricity, then nothing but air, as it crashed into the stone. The other tengu pulled up, avoiding a second collision.

Denri reappeared in a flash of light. “How’d you like that move! I call it the ‘you looked like an idiot’!” She turned and began jumping from boulder to boulder. Her left foot stung from her partially-healed burn, but she had double-wrapped it tightly that morning. She had to hope it would hold as long as needed.

Denri looked over her shoulder to make sure she was being followed. She was. The tengu that had avoided impact was closing quickly. The other was further behind, holding one leg close to its chest.

Denri turned, planning to engage the first tengu before the second could catch up. It brought its taloned legs forward. Denri raised her club, her heart hammering in her ears. The creature’s form grew wider in her vision. It’s wings flared out.

Denri’s nerve broke at the last minute and she dove to the side. Her shoulder burned as the tengu’s talons cut through her skin. The weight of the impact sent her spinning off balance and she fell to the rock, jarring her other shoulder. She pushed to her hands and knees just in time to throw herself forward as the second tengu lashed out.

Denri scrambled to her feet and started running again, blind panic pressing at the edges of her mind. She looked up and saw a distant flock of dark, feathered forms descending from higher up the mountain. More tengu would be joining the fight soon.

Things were going bad very quickly.

Denri ran back towards Eizo. She needed to warn him before the new flock arrived so they could break off and run. There was a wet squishing sound in her right boot. She ignored the injured foot as much as she could, but the pain made her limp.

Denri felt a talon wrap around her arm, the skin cold and reptilian. She turned and lashed out with her club, but the tengu blocked the small knot of wood with its large, black-feathered wing. As Denri turned, another weight crashed into her chest, toppling her to the ground. The fall ripped her arm free of the first tengu’s talons, scoring long red lines down her arm.

Denri landed on her back, the impact knocking the wind out of her. The second tengu landed on her chest, its black beak snapping forward towards her face. She ducked out of the way and brought her club across the tengu’s face. There was a solid thud and the creature staggered backwards, shaking its head.

The momentary reprieve gave Denri enough time to turn and scramble across the boulder on all fours. She jumped to the ground just as one of the tengu went diving through the space she had occupied. Denri landed awkwardly, taking most of her weight in her damaged foot. She yelled and crumpled to the ground.

She was near the clearing where the battle had begun. Eizo still stood at its center, his staff whirring through the air as he struggled to hold the two daitengu at bay. The shirt on his back was splotchy with blood where yesterday’s wounds had reopened.

There was a loud screech from above as the second wave of tengu approached. Denri’s vision blurred from the pain and exhaustion.

At the edge of the circle, a flutter of motion caught her attention and snapped her to focus. Aki was pressed against a boulder, inching towards the clearing. What was she doing?

“Aki, no! Run away!” Denri heard an echo of her parents calling the same thing to her.

Eizo looked up at Aki’s name, his eye’s searching the clearing. He took a step towards her, but the two daitengu continued their strikes, forcing him to return his attention to them. His eyes kept darting back to the young girl. The daitengu’s blows landed against Eizo’s body with more frequency.

Aki ignored Denri’s warning, continuing toward the clearing. She inched toward the crow tengu that Eizo had hit but hadn’t finished off. The creature lay in a heap on the ground, holding its wing in pain.

Denri pushed herself to her feet and staggered forward drunkenly. Her foot was a fresh tableau of pain with every step. She expected to be knocked back to the ground by one of the tengu above, but the blow never came. They must have joined the second flock to attack in safer numbers.

The injured tengu gave Aki a confused look as she approached. It snapped it’s beak defensively but Aki continued forward. She made a strange, low sound. The tengu cocked its head, calming. Aki took another step forward and placed a gentle hand against its broken wing.

One of the daitengu noticed what was happening and snapped a command towards the injured tengu. It hesitated for a moment, then lashed out towards Aki, its beak cutting into the small girl’s arm. Aki yelped, then wrapped her free arm around the tengu’s shoulders, holding herself close. Her hands began to glow.

Eizo screamed at Aki’s pained cry. He swung wildly at one daitengu, shattering its staff with the force of his blow and sending the creature sprawling to the ground. He took a step toward Aki but the other daitengu caught him across the back of the head and dropped him to the ground.

Denri continued to hobble forward, desperation driving her. She cursed at the pain in her foot, slowing her down.

The tengu’s beak caught Aki in the side of the face and the small girl finally fell away. Her hand flashed as she fell, filling the clearing with light.

When Denri’s vision returned she saw the tengu’s wing had been healed. It looked on in confusion as the color drained from its feathers, turning bright white. Aki lay on the ground, her face covered in blood. One of the daitengu was moving towards her.

Denri fell to her knees. Her body couldn’t move any further. “Stay away from her!” She slammed her fists into the ground. A strange pulse ran through her body as a current of electricity sparked down her arm, then radiated out. The energy wrapped itself around the tengu standing in the clearing and their bodies tensed. They fell.

Denri looked at her hands in wonder, then heard Aki coughing weakly. She turned her attention back to the girl and crawled towards her.

The second flock of tengu landed. Denri tried to summon whatever power she had used a moment before, but her body felt hollow. She’d used every ounce her body had to give.

“I’m sorry, kid.” Denri collapsed.

Denri woke on a bed of straw in a small wooden hut. The walls rattled against a strong wind outside. She pushed herself to the edge of the bed, looking around in confusion. Her wounds had all been cleaned and wrapped. Was she still in danger? She thought of Aki and Eizo.

She stood from the bed, wincing at her sore muscles, and limped to the front of the hut. She cracked the door. A male daitengu, larger than the creatures Eizo fought before, stood guard outside, wearing armor and carrying a sword. The daitengu turned towards Denri as the door opened. She tensed and pulled away, shutting the door between them.

There was a knock. “Don’t be alarmed, you are no longer in danger.”

Denri paused, caught off guard by the voice. Eizo said the daitengu were more intelligent, but she hadn’t expected them to speak the language of the five races.

“Please, I was asked to bring you to our elder when you woke. Your comrade is already there.”

Was it a trick? If they were going to do something harmful, they probably would have done it while she was unconscious.

She cracked the door again. “I don’t exactly have a choice, do I?”

“No I am afraid not.”

Denri walked alongside the clanking suit of armor. They marched through a mix of lopsided wooden huts, tattered tents, and what looked like nests constructed inside cracks in the stone. Everything was built in relation to a steady wind that tore through the town. Buildings huddled behind rocks or leaned at steep angles.

They were much higher up the mountain. The verdant forest below was like a formless green cloth stretching away to the horizon.

“Sheesh, you all must have really hated having neighbors.”

“That is a fairly accurate statement.”

Denri was surprisingly calm. Spending the last two days steeped in her childhood fears had pushed her past a threshold of sorts. Panic had been an unnatural emotion for her and it seemed she had used up whatever store she had. That or she was just too exhausted to properly quiver.

They approached a large wooden structure nestled into the rocks at the highest point of the village. Denri drew the attention of most tengu she passed, though she couldn’t read any kind of reaction on their faces. Not like Aki could.

“The girl I was with. Is she OK?”

The daitengu looked at her sideways, his face uncomfortable. At least the daitengu had real expressions. “I am unaware. I was set to guard you when you were brought to the village. She lived at that time, though she was badly injured. The elder will know more.” They reached the large wooden structure and ducked beneath a cloth covering the entrance.

They entered a wide room with cushions surrounding a sunken fire pit. Smoke filled the air. On the far side of the pit, an older female daitengu sat with legs crossed and arms folded amidst billowing robes. Wavy, white hair dropped past her shoulders and pooled on the ground around her. A staff lay across her lap, one end capped with a large golden circle looped through 12 smaller rings.

Eizo sat formally to the elderly woman’s right, staring at the fire. Denri could tell something was on his mind - both Shiri and Onara pressed against him without causing him any sort of alarm.

On the other side of the woman, a crow tengu knelt with head bowed. Its wing feathers were bleached white.

“Welcome. Please take a seat beside your friend.” The woman gestured to a cushion beside Eizo. Denri caught his eye as she sat, trying to read his expression. Did he have a plan?

He must have sensed the question on her face because Eizo shook his head. “Strange as it seems, I believe we are now guests of the sage.” He nodded towards the woman. “Though I also believe we are guests that cannot leave.”

“I think prisoners is the word you’re looking for, then.” Having nothing better to do, Denri glared across the fire at the crow tengu. The creature had not yet lifted its head.

The sage frowned. “There is much confusion to unwind before this conversation can continue. I am Jakucho. Eizo has told me your name is Denri. Let me begin by asking a question that is of dire importance to my clan.” The sage focused her attention on Eizo.

Denri cleared her throat. “No, let’s begin with Aki. Where is she? Is she OK?”

The sage looked troubled for a moment. “She is with our best healer. The girl will recover, though she will bear scars. But please, one thing at a time. I promise that we will discuss the girl in just a moment.” Denri crossed her arms and sat back. “We felt the presence of someone with a strong connection to Ninigi approaching through the woods. Yet the brother you captured says that in closer proximity the connection felt dormant. Please explain.”

Eizo was quiet for a moment. “Dead, not dormant. I was once a Blade serving Sadashi. Trained in Ninigi’s Citadel.” Eizo pointed to one of the scars along his wrist, a circle with six hatch marks spread evenly along its circumference. “I had a change of heart and my abilities faded. I’m a deserter.”

The sage’s eyes widened in surprise. “Your story confirms itself, otherwise the brothers and sisters who confronted you before would no longer be alive.”

Denri looked sideways at Eizo. She had only heard rumors about the Blades. Every high-level Hero in Terminus seemed to have some near-death encounter with Ninigi’s mythical fighting force at some point in their career.

Jakucho pushed on. “It seems that we have more in common than expected. We are also hiding from Ninigi. We do not serve him any longer.” This time it was Eizo’s turn to look surprised.

Denri elbowed Eizo. “Perhaps a bit of extra context for the person who doesn’t really understand what’s going on?”

Eizo’s eyes remained on Jakucho as he spoke, his body tense. “Ninigi created the tengu as monsters to do his bidding. He’s supposed to have complete control over them. But Jakucho just implied that they have found a way to resist.”

“Oh.” Denri turned to Jakucho. “Now see that’s much more clear, why didn’t you just say that?” The sage’s dour look remained. Denri turned back to Eizo. “I’m beginning to see the family resemblance.”

“We thought you were an enforcer sent by Ninigi to punish our disobedience. Perhaps you can understand our fear then.” Eizo nodded. “But when you freed one of our brothers, we began to doubt. He flew here and insisted that you were not intent on harming us. He led the group of tengu that flew out to stop the hunting party from attacking you.”

“I am glad we spared him, then.”

“Yes, that kindness very well saved your life.”

Denri prickled. “Yeah, well that kindness also nearly got our friend killed. Aki was trying to help that tengu over there when it attacked her.”

Jakucho looked sad for a moment. “It is still hard for us to resist the directives given by Ninigi. Please understand that we were programmed at creation to oppose the five races. But we are trying to change.”

The black and white tengu finally raised its head and met Denri’s eyes. I am not proud of my actions.

Denri flinched backward. The creature hadn’t spoken out loud. It’s voice had appeared directly in her head. She turned to Eizo. “You didn’t tell me they could get in our heads.”

“We can’t. Nor are crow tengu able to speak your language. It seems that the girl triggered a partial Awakening within this one. He sits somewhere between the crow tengu and the daitengu now.”

The Awakening is the most sacred gift of our people. Even if it is not complete, I can see the world in a brighter light thanks to Aki. The creature looked towards the ground. And yet I have repaid her with violence.

Jakucho held a hand towards the crow tengu. “Do not fear, Hattori. You will have a chance to repair your mistake when the girl wakes.” The sage turned back to Eizo and Denri. “As far as we know, Hattori is unique among the tengu. We have never seen anyone do what Aki has done.”

“What’s the big deal? Shifters who can alter animals are powerful and rare, but it’s not like they’re unheard of.”

“We tengu are not animals. Even a spark would not be able to affect us. What Aki has done, it should only be possible for a god.”

You can read the next story in this series here.