This is part 8 of an ongoing story series. If you haven’t already, read the last chapter or start from the beginning.

Denri’s mind clawed free from a deep sleep of exhaustion. She was lying on a thin mattress with rough linens. The ceiling’s polished steel plates had a dull, red sheen, reflecting torchlight from somewhere. She rolled onto her side.

Her head throbbed as she moved. It felt like a horse had methodically stomped across her, taking care to bruise every inch. Three long lines on her arm, back, and hip burned sharply. Her right leg didn’t move properly. Memories returned with the pain.

They had been discovered infiltrating Shinmon’s zeppelin. Fleeing into the streets. Cornered by the Arbiters. Fighting. They had almost escaped until a man appeared in a flash of lightning. Denri could still see his grin as the man emerged from the searing flash.

A guard cleared his throat impatiently. He knocked the back of his gauntlet against the bars again. “Get up. The Twins have summoned you.”

Denri sat up, suppressing a wince as the man watched. “Where is my friend?”

“She has been summoned too.” Denri released her breath. Aki was alive.

She smiled tightly. They were making progress. The situation looked bad, but she had been in tight spots before. At least this time it was of their own doing, to achieve their own goal, instead of running blindly. She was through letting Sadashi call the shots.

They had learned a lot from Shinmon’s discussion with Yotogi. And once they took a look through his notebook, they would know even more.

Denri’s head shot around. Save for the bed, her cell was empty. No sign of the research they had stolen, or the jacket where she had hidden Sadashi’s ring and the mysterious white stone. She reached to the back of her belt. Her pouch and weapons were gone too.

“You’re belongings have been confiscated.” The man placed a hand on the pommel of his sword. “I will not ask you to move again.”

“Alright, alright.” Denri eased to her feet and limped to the door. Her right leg was in a splint.

If they wanted to kill her, the Twins would have already done it. That meant there would be a chance to escape. And retrieve the research. As long as they were ready to act. Whatever came, she would face it running forward.

The guard’s boots rang against the steel floor. They were loud compared to Denri’s bare feet. Flickering torchlight reflected from burnished metal, covering the floor, ceiling, and walls in wavering red eyes.

Castle Six was spartan. A few recessed alcoves held ornate contraptions with no apparent purpose besides being complicated. But even these were rare. Anything softer, or more flammable, than an iron ingot was nowhere to be found.

“Hoping there’s no need for Castle Seven, eh?” The guard did not respond.

The hallways were monotonous. The wide ramps that connected the castle’s floors were identical. Denri was completely lost by the time the guard shoved her through a set of wide double doors into the largest room she had ever seen.

The chamber’s ceiling soared 30 feet overhead. It was so wide she could have rigged a sail in the time it took to walk the perimeter. Glass windows dominated the side walls from floor to ceiling, letting in light on long rows of cluttered worktables.

At the far end of the room were two high steel thrones occupied by two men. Denri couldn’t imagine how people with the same blocky faces could look more different.

One sat stiff-backed in flowing red and gold robes. His long, black hair was brushed to a shine and fell over his shoulder in a ponytail. A sword, covered in gears and levers, lay across his lap.

The other sat cross-legged, hunched over a book. He wore fitted worker’s clothes covered with belts and pouches. His short, tangled hair was held back by a pair of goggles with too many lenses. One of his arms was mechanical, with ticking gears and hissing steam waging a quiet war to dominate the room’s background noise. It was the man who had appeared from the lightning.

Fidgeting in front of them, Aki looked small in such a large room. Denri limped over and punched the young girl’s hip, wincing as her own arm tensed with pain. Aki looked down, showing a bruised cheek and a busted lip. Added to the scar where Hattori had destroyed her right eye in that first fight with the tengu, she struck a fearsome image.

The fancy twin cleared his throat. “Good. Now that you are both here, we may begin. I know of your name from the bounty report, Denri. And what is your name?”

“Aki.” Denri was proud to see that Aki met the man’s gaze as she spoke.

“Very well. Denri and Aki. Do you care to explain why–”

“Usually, it’s polite to offer your name in return.” Denri crossed her arms, refusing to whimper as her hand rested on the sword wound along her bicep. She wouldn’t let them control the conversation. Whether it was wise or not, she didn’t want anyone choosing her course for her anymore.

The man with the book in his lap loosed a cackle that pushed the boundaries of sanity. His eyes remained buried in the book as he spoke. “She’s got a point, Man.” His head cocked a fraction to the side. “What! I wasn’t even talking. You always take his side.” A pause. “Fine.” He glanced up at Denri. “Hideki. Happy?” He returned to his book.

The formal twin waited to see if the crazy one had anything else to say before proceeding. “I am Manabu. My brother’s name is Hideki, in case that wasn’t clear. Now, if you don’t mind, why are you in Sky Furnace?”

“We’re here to buy equipment.”

“Is that so? Explain to me, then, why my brother found you carrying a ring with the personal seal of Sadashi. Surely, he can provide the equipment needed for your journeys?”

Denri almost laughed. Was that why they were still alive? After all this, would Sadashi save them? “We just wanted to restock. We didn’t intend to cause any problems in your domain. If the Arbiters had not accosted us, we would have left quietly. We still can. Unless you plan to anger the Warlord…”

Manabu steepled his fingers and leaned forward. “I have no doubt that you are powerful. Your bounty, and the squad of Arbiters who can barely stand this morning, attest to that. But do not overestimate your position. The book my brother holds, the book he took from you, contains detailed notes on our castle, along with information about some of our most closely guarded research.

“You are spies. Sadashi’s protection or no, you will face the consequences. If you have any hope of leaving this room alive, you will tell us everything. Who in Sky Furnace gathered this information? What is Sadashi planning?”

Denri blinked. Apparently the book contained more information than she thought.

She threw her hands in the air. “Fine, I was lying. We don’t work for Sadashi. I only said that hoping you would let us go.”

“A convenient change of tact.”

Denri continued, ignoring the interruption. “But there are spies in Sky Furnace. We infiltrated their lab last night and stole the ring and that book, which is why we have them. We’re not spies. We never had any experience with Sky Furnace before this week.”

“Yet the Arbiters say you had an ally. Someone who would have helped you escape had Hideki not intervened. How is it that you have no experience with our city, yet you have a comrade willing to risk their life for you?”

“That was the person we stole from.” Denri pointed at the book in Hideki’s hands. “You’ve read that thing. The worst place for it to end up would be in your hands. Better for us to escape with it.”

Hideki slapped the side of his face, inhaling loudly. “These figures! Man, if these are real, it’s just the data we’ve been missing!” There was a blinding flash and an earsplitting crack. When Denri opened her eyes, Hideki was across the room haphazardly shoving things off a table with one hand as he held the book with the other.

Manabu ignored him, though Denri thought his eyes trailed to his brother with interest. “Why should I trust anything you say?”

“You don’t have to trust us.” Denri strained her memory for details that might convince him. “We were hunting two men. Shinmon and Yotogi. If you send Arbiters to Shinmon’s lab, you’ll see I blew out one of the windows. Why would I make that kind of scene if I was working with him?”

Manabu’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Yotogi. He thought for a long moment before responding. “Very well. We will send a patrol to Shinmon. If things are as you say, we will discuss further. But I would still know why you are pursuing this information.”

Before Denri could answer, there was a heavy whoomph from Hideki’s direction. He was standing with his hands, one gloved and one mechanical, on either side of a metal sphere. Trails of energy arced from the sphere to his fingers. He threw his head back and laughed in triumph.

Manabu stood, Denri and Aki completely forgotten. “You’ve got it working! How?” Manabu strode past them to join his brother.

“The book! It’s got data on living trials. They’ve exposed people to the Stone. No more guessing at the parameters.”

Manabu’s eyebrows flew up in surprise. “You can’t be serious! Amaterasu has never allowed such a thing… How could they…? Which one provided access?”

With their heads pressed together over the orb, the Twin’s similarities were suddenly apparent.

Denri got the feeling she probably shouldn’t be hearing what the Twins were saying. But the Champions were completely absorbed. Manabu laid a hand on the book like a captain holds the wheel of his ship.

That book had the locations of Aki’s brothers and sisters. Not to mention information about the girl’s powers. But the Twins were never going to give it up now that they had it. Even if Denri proved she and Aki weren’t spies, the best they could hope for was to be sent away empty handed.

Maybe escaping with their lives was the best she could hope for. They had more information now than they had before eavesdropping on Shinmon. But small steps weren’t going to outpace Sadashi. And Denri was tired of being on the back foot.

She could challenge them. They were Champions, after all. Bound by the rules of the Tournament.

But she was in no condition to fight. And Eizo said her bounty was close to the Sanyaku, the twelve strongest Heroes in the Tournament. As hard as the trial with Kiyoshi had been, this would be harder. Sadashi’s plan had worked, they had no options.

“Screw it. Screw Sadashi if he thinks he’s so smart.”

Aki looked to Denri. “Huh?”

“Kid, remember how you healed Hattori? Could you heal me like that?”

“I don’t know. I think so. Do you want me to try?” She reached a hand out uncertainly.

“Good enough.” Denri raised her voice so the Twins could hear. “Hey! We didn’t finish our conversation.”

The Twins peeled their eyes away from the orb reluctantly.

“I’m glad you found the book useful. You’re welcome to copy the information down. But we stole that book fair and, uh– fair and square. We want it back.”

“You are in no position to make demands, girl. We haven’t even confirmed your story about Shinmon. And if we do–.”

“Save it, buddy. I know exactly what position we’re in. We haven’t broken any of your laws and we’re Tournament competitors. If you want to mess with us, we get a challenge first. I’m not making demands, I’m talking stakes.”

“Don’t be foolish. This is not the time for Tournament challenges.”

“That’s my decision–.” Aki cleared her throat behind Denri. “That’s our decision, not yours. We challenge you. Winner keeps the book.” Manabu continued to hesitate and Denri pressed on. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a couple injured rookies?”

Manabu’s mouth hung open. He clearly was not used to being spoken to in this way. Hideki laughed so hard he nearly dropped the glowing orb. “Look at his face! Oh, farmer, please tell me you were watching and not… shoveling manure? Whatever it is you do. Come look now!”

Manabu’s jaw clicked shut, his teeth grinding. “Very well. If you’re so set on dying. We accept.”

They stood at Kazora’s summit. Lava roiled below, blasting them with heat and casting a red hue over everything. Black, jagged rock stretched in a ring to surround the molten pool. A sulfurous haze hung in the air, distorting the shapes of the zeppelins above.

Denri was surprised the rim of the volcano was so large. At it’s thinnest, the ring was three streets wide. In many places, it opened into wide plateaus with ragged pillars and hills of stone.

“At least no one can say we died somewhere boring.”

Aki laughed weakly.

Denri stepped from foot to foot. Even with her boots returned, the ground was nearly too hot to stand in place comfortably. The Twins stood across from her, unimpressed by the heat or haze. The pit of lava to their right might as well have been a mid-sized lake.

Manabu stepped forward and Denri dropped into a crouch. He gave her a dismissive look. “Cute. But we will not be fighting you ourselves.”

Denri threw her best condescending smirk back at him. “Afraid?” Hideki chuckled behind his brother.

“Hardly. You set the stakes and we choose the challenge. If you insist on continuing with this foolishness, then I will at least pick something entertaining. One of our patrols tells me that your friend has a fondness for dragons…”

Manabu held out his arm, palm facing the sky. A flame appeared and began to pulse. The lava below distorted, rising in a dome.

“Let’s see how she feels once she’s come face to face with–.”

Denri groaned. “Really? Fighting a dragon on the rim of a volcano. Don’t you think that’s a little much?”

Manabu stood with his mouth open. The flame stuttered above his hand. Hideki erupted into full blown laughter. He bent forward and grabbed his stomach. “This one! I like her. I hope she lives.”

Manabu clenched his hand into a fist. Jets of flame shot between his fingers as he stalked back to his twin. “She has challenged you too, little brother.”

Hideki frowned. “By four seconds!”

Manabu placed a hand on his twin’s shoulder. The cloth beneath his grip began to smoke, then ignited. Hideki yelped, jumping to the side and batting out the flames. Manabu’s mouth quirked up as he continued.

“Your challenge is to defeat Tetsujin. I doubt you will be joking for long.”

Denri’s small triumph vanished as she turned to stare at the swell of lava. Butterflies filled her stomach. She ran through the mental exercises Eizo had taught her, deconstructing the dragon in her mind. She took a deep breath. The sulfur made her cough.

Aki was staring into the lava entranced.

“Hey! On alert. Don’t forget the Twins control him.”

Aki grunted absently and Denri rapped the back of her head. “Ow! What was that for?”

“You’re smiling! That dragon is going to try to kill us, Aki. Whatever you think, this one is not a friend. Now quit gawking and heal me before things get crazy.”

“Oh! Right.” Aki grabbed Denri’s wrist and her face screwed up in concentration. There was a terrifying moment when nothing happened, then Denri’s mind went blank. A rush of memories and emotions filled the space. Some she recognized, others she didn’t. They rushed past too quickly to hang onto any one in particular.

A connection blossomed at the back of her mind. A seed that had been there for some time, suddenly bursting into life. She had always been able read Aki’s emotions. But now she could feel the girl. A conscious force resting at the back of Denri’s mind.

Thought and vision returned. Denri stood in the same place as before, though she stood straighter and no longer favored her broken leg. She felt strong and whole again.

Better than whole. She clenched her fist and sparks jittered across her knuckles, dancing up her arm.

There was a thrill of relief inside her head, emanating from Aki with absolute clarity. Denri turned to the girl and smiled. “You ready to do this?”

Aki’s eye, the one not covered by scar tissue, was closed in concentration. When she opened it, Denri saw the eye was a bright, glowing blue. Just like her own. Aki nodded and they turned towards the lava as it erupted.

It was four stories from Kazora’s rim to the lava below, but Tetsujin’s face was level with them when his tail finally emerged. His head was wider than a cart, surrounded by a mane of gleaming iron that flowed like hair. Large whiskers tested the air before him.

“Are these the toys you’ve brought me, lords?” Tetsujin’s voice boomed through the air, shaking Denri’s bones.

Denri grinned as the dragon swam through the sky before them, her nerves turning to excitement. The air around her popped and cracked with electricity. She knew she should be scared, but suddenly all she wanted was to move.

Denri threw her head back and laughed. Her fingers itched as trails of lightning jumped between them. She said a thanks to the Stormbringer.

“Let’s see what you can do!” Denri called lightning and shot forward.

Tetsujin loosed a jet of silver flame, but to Denri it seemed to crawl through the air. She dove to the side, rolling and springing back to her feet. She moved faster. Lightning trailed from her legs as she leapt towards the dragon. Tetsujin lashed out with his iron talons. Denri was already gone.

She reappeared in a flash of light, shifting behind him. “Over here!” She brought her fists down in a double hammer strike against the back of his head.

Her body rang with the backlash of the blow. She might as well have punched solid metal. Tetsujin’s tail whipped forward and she raised her arm to catch the strike. Her bones and muscles creaked as the blow knocked her from the dragon’s neck.

She twisted in the air, landing on her feet against the inside wall of the rim. Vaguely, she thought a blow like that should have broken her arm. Just jumping from a window the day before had broken her leg.

“Is that all you’ve got?”

She surged forward, running along the wall as she drew the metal rods from her belt and launched them at the dragon. Tetsujin hardly noticed as they bounced from his hide. He shot another jet of flame that Denri outran.

She could feel the electric charge in the air around her. She could change it. No need to send a bolt of lightning to call the rods back. She reached out and grabbed them, set them dancing through the air about Tetsujin’s head.

She leapt at his face again, calling the rods to her hands at the last minute. His hide was strong, but how about his eyes?

“Denri!” Aki’s call was matched by a flare of disapproval in the back of Denri’s mind. It was strong enough to make her hesitate.

Denri’s body lurched as Tetsujin’s tail caught her midjump and sent her flying into the wall. The stone cracked, but her body held.

“Don’t hurt him! It’s not his fault he has to fight.”

Tetsujin’s laugh was like a thousand dry logs tossed on a fire. “You think I need protection, girl?” He lunged toward her.

Aki waited with square shoulders and arms wide as Tetsujin approached. She planted her feet as the beast’s mouth opened wide.

At the last moment, Denri’s connection with Aki flared and their thoughts were one. Fear and determination warred inside Aki as the girl stepped forward, almost as fast as Denri. She dipped her shoulder beneath Tetsujin’s onrushing jaw. Denri felt lightning course from her into Aki.

The girl’s legs tensed as she threw her body against the dragon’s chin. Tetsujin’s head snapped to the side as though he had collided with the mountain itself. He grunted in surprise as he crashed into a pillar of stone. It collapsed, momentarily holding him in place.

Aki stumbled, limbs suddenly heavy. But she caught herself and pounced toward the dragon, taking the form of a large cat. Her paws glowed as they dug into Tetsujin’s scales. There was a flash of bluish white.

The dragon laughed like hungry flame. “I am not so easily cowed. It took Amaterasu herself to bind me, girl!”

A jet of silver flame burst from the rubble. The fire passed through the space Aki’s body had occupied a moment earlier as the girl sprouted wings and took flight as a crow. Another blast of flame shot from the rock and Aki barely dodged it.

Focused on the flames, she didn’t see the dragon’s tail whipping from behind.

Denri slammed her hands into the rock, muscles flaring as she pulled free of the wall. Even with her new speed, she couldn’t cover the 40 foot distance to Aki in time.

Denri felt no concern. Only curiosity. She needed to move faster. Could she meet the challenge?

Her body coiled like a spring as she charged her body. Not enough. She called more. Time slowed and nearly stopped. More. A giddy laugh slipped from her throat, half crazed as the energy overwhelmed her. A peel of thunder split the air as lightning struck.

All flits could shift. But that was something small, like her body was contracting and then simply moving. It left Denri feeling drained. But this. This was an explosion. Her body stretched, arcing from the wall to Tetsujin in an instant. Her body coursed with energy as she reformed. She batted the dragon’s tail away from Aki with ease.

As she landed on the rim, Denri could still feel the energy pulling against every cell in her body. It wanted to keep flowing. Demanded it.

Tetsujin burst from the rock with a snarl. The silver mane around his head snapped straight and a cloud of iron darts went flying toward them. Denri didn’t even have to call the lightning. It leapt from her fingers as she raised her hand, spilling forward in a wave that scattered the needles in a thousand directions.

Aki’s crow form dove toward the dragon again, landing against his skin as a leopard. She growled and there was another flash. Again Tetsujin laughed, batting the girl away with a gleaming claw.

“These are wonderful toys you’ve brought, my lords.” The dragon gripped the rock before him and the mountain shook. The ground split as iron spikes of all shapes and sizes erupted at their feet.

Denri sidestepped them lazily. She watched with curiosity as Aki struggled to keep up, wondering what the girl would do next. Vaguely, she thought she should be helping. But it was hard to focus with the lightning tugging at her thoughts, pulling her attention back to Tetsujin.

The dragon’s black metal body snaked around the volcano’s rim. Huge and powerful. She’d never faced a test like this. Didn’t she want to see what she could do? What she could really do. Denri opened herself to the lightning.

It felt like dying. And living.

She raised her hand in front of her face. Her fingers unraveled into threads of energy. The threads continued down her forearm, up her bicep, across her shoulder. Denri watched with fascination, the world frozen around her. She felt the threads stretching up her neck. And then she was free.

So long cramped and contained. Everything so sluggish. Like touching the world through a stiff leather glove. But now she was present. Her body flowed and expanded, pure energy held together by her will alone. She was the lightning.

The metal spikes all over the ground let out a loud groan. It was easy, reaching out and bending each iron pillar to the ground.

With the threat gone, Aki looked around. Denri felt the barest flicker of confusion at the back of her mind. She pushed it away.

A gout of silver flame washed over Denri’s body. It was strong. It tried to burn her, turn her to fire. But she was lightning. And it was not strong enough. Denri arced forward, wrapping around the flame playfully. Gripping it in her elemental hands. Squeezing until the flame gasped for air and sputtered out. Tetsujin’s head pulled back in surprise.

Denri laughed. A dragon made of iron. Such a wonderful plaything. She let her body flow forward, wrapping around Tetsujin. She had bent the metal spikes with such ease. Would this steel serpent be any different?

“No!” A flash of guilt, easily brushed aside.

Denri flexed, and watched the dragon’s body quiver. Tetsujin groaned, his first sign of pain and fear. Denri smiled. Her puppet.

But why stop here? What else could she do? She turned, more a shifting of attention than an actual motion, and saw the Twins. Manabu’s smug superiority was gone. He frowned, but he did not look afraid. He did not understand her power. She would change that. Denri sent a bolt at his chest.

The bolt moved too fast for him to dodge. Manabu’s eyes widened in shock. But there was a flash of light and Hideki was standing in the way. The crazy twin grabbed the lightning bolt with both hands, the muscles on his biological arm flaring as jets of steam burst from his mechanical arm in hissing jets. He threw his hands up and the lightning arced skyward, narrowly missing Sky Furnace above.

Joy filled Denri. Such strength. This man would be a wonderful test of her power.

Again, she felt a flash of guilt in her mind. But this time, she felt a command alongside it. A command to stop. Rage overtook her. Who dared? She was lightning, and she would not be caged. She would not be held back. Denri turned and saw a young girl staring at her with a frown, sweat dripping down her face.

Denri threw forward a massive fist of crackling energy. But the girl’s form shifted, shrinking to a bird as it evaded the blow. Denri was surprised. The girl moved with nearly the speed of lightning.

The crow flew toward her. So bold! Denri threw her arms wide to meet the girl’s charge.

But the girl was not charging toward her. At the last moment, she became a large cat and plunged through the rippling energy of Denri’s body to the dragon held within. Denri let her body bite, but the girl ignored the shocks. There was a blinding flash of light.

Tetsujin roared. His smooth, snake-like scales snapped out, stretching into long, jagged iron crystals. Long metal horns, like a deer’s antlers, formed on his head. Black flame erupted all around his body.

These flames were different than before. Stronger. They burned and tore at Denri’s body, forcing her to release the dragon. She pulled back, then brought a fist down on the dragon’s midsection, crushing it into the rock. Tetsujin roared again, this time in pain. But he pulled himself free. The girl stood tall, holding one of his horns. Her eye shone white.

Great metal pillars erupted from the ground, drawing Denri’s body toward them. She pushed and they bent away. But more rose in their place. The dragon opened it’s mouth and loosed a torrent of jet black fire.

Denri threw herself to meet it. Exalting at the challenge. She was still the greater force. She could feel it. The black flames halted, began to twist into themselves beneath her grasp. She laughed.

But the metal rods still pulled at her from behind. And the dragon’s flame was slow to die. They held her in place.

A hammer blow struck her mind. The girl again, but stronger. Denri felt another presence behind it, reinforcing the girl’s strength. Ancient. Stubborn like iron.

The dragon and girl roared together as they redoubled their efforts. The fire held, pushing itself to a stalemate against Denri’s lightning. The force in Denri’s mind inched forward. Step by step it wrapped itself around her. Holding her. Caging her.

Denri screamed. She would not be held. Lightning was free. Anything else was death. She lashed out, sending bolts in all directions. One ripped along Tetsujin’s side, leaving a long trail of red. Another crashed into the side of Kazora, exploding the rock.

But the girl would not be stopped. With another frantic push, she embraced Denri’s mind, pinning her completely. Abruptly, the flow of lightning broke. Denri’s body snapped back to her normal form and she fell to her knees.

Aki shouted something from her perch on Tetsujin, but it meant nothing to Denri. Confusion gripped her mind, churning her thoughts like a whirlpool.

The Twins appeared on either side, hands raised in threat. But a jet of black flame pushed them back. More shouts from Aki. This time they were joined by Tetsujin’s roar.

Denri was lifted. Placed delicately beside Aki. And they were flying. To where? Had they won?

The next two days passed in a jumble. At least, Denri thought it was two days. It was hard to judge by the brief moments of clarity. It felt like her mind was slowly walking back from a great distance. Or like she was snatching up pieces of herself as they floated by like driftwood.

Eventually, she could hold a whole conversation. Aki came to see her, joking and smiling. Denri remembered being surprised during the visit, but she couldn’t recall what they talked about.

There was something important she needed to remember. A question that she couldn’t quite grasp. Whatever it was, it made her anxious. There was something about Aki’s casual visits and the lazy hours spent lying in bed that felt… out of place.

When the confusion finally left her, Denri sat in a wheeled chair in front of massive, 30 foot windows. Tables littered with tools and machines surrounded her. She could hear voices behind.

“What do you mean, I won’t? The experiment can’t run itself!”

“No more experiments. I don’t care if Tetsu doesn’t mind. I do!”

Denri recognized the voices. She turned her head toward them and immediately wished she hadn’t. Every inch of her body throbbed. Her vision swam and a bout of queasiness overtook her. Denri groaned.

“Denri!” A pattering of feet and then a woman who looked to be in her mid twenties was kneeling before the chair. Denri would have called her pretty, with her dark hair and curves, if she didn’t look so fierce. Her face was angled like a hawk, with well defined muscles on her arms. Most striking was the scar along the right side of her…

“Aki? You’re so old!”

The woman stuck out her tongue. Her remaining eye was a bright blue like Denri’s. “Hideki says using my power on Tetsujin was too much for my body. So I used my power on myself without thinking about it to keep up. Are you feeling better?”

Denri thought for a moment, then nodded. The motion sent sharp pains up and down her neck. “Things feel… clearer now.”

Aki grinned and leaned forward to give her a hug.

“I love you kid, but I think if you touch me right now I’m going to pass out. Let’s save the hugs for later.”

Aki pulled up short, looking disappointed. She could still pout like a 10 year old.

Denri sighed. “Alright, fine. One hug. But very gently, please.”

“I can be gentle!” Denri’s body tensed in anticipation of the collision. But Aki made a show of slowly wrapping her arms around Denri and giving her shoulders the barest of taps.

There was a crack and a flash of light. When the spots faded from Denri’s vision, Hideki was standing in front of her. “Can I examine you?” Without waiting for an answer he bent forward, bringing his face uncomfortably close and peering into her eyes. “How do you feel? Are you having strange thoughts? Any unexplained new powers? Don’t leave anything out!”

Hideki paused and hitched his head to the side. “It’s not rude! I’m just curious.” He reached a hand toward Denri’s wrist.

“If you touch me right now, I will zap you so hard you can’t feel anything in that hand for a week.”

The Twin pulled his hand back hastily. “Now he’s going to think he was right!”

Denri turned her head to Aki, slowly to avoid another stab of pain. “Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?”

The girl shrugged. “He says he has a farmer in his head. I don’t really understand.”

Denri looked down at Hideki’s tangled mess of hair as he peered closely at one of her arms. “Hey! Are you sniffing me?”

“I want to see if your body is still ionizing the air around you. No one has ever fully manifested a region from an elemental plane before. I don’t want to miss a single detail!”

The situation finally clicked in Denri’s mind and she pushed Hideki away. “Wait a minute. What happened to the challenge? Why are we back in the throne room? It doesn’t seem like we’re fighting anymore. Why can’t I remember anything that’s been happening?”

There was a flash of concern at the back of Denri’s mind as Aki frowned. “We won the challenge! What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Tetsujin knocked me into a wall and then… just… images I don’t really understand after that.” In her mind’s eye, Denri saw Aki riding Tetsujin. The dragon’s scales flared like daggers, gleaming horns erupting from his mane of iron. Black fire washing over Denri. Her body like a cloud of lightning.

Hideki nodded as he scratched the back of his head. “That sounds about right. That was when I felt the lightning take over.”

“What are you talking about?”

“There are five elemental planes that were the animating force for our world’s creation. In those realms, the elements exist in their truest sense, sentient like you and I. Our world used to be strongly connected to those realms, and it was a common occurrence for people to be overwhelmed by elemental beings. But sometime, a long, long time ago, the bonds were damaged. The energy we call is weaker now, with less of the element’s personality.” Hideki paused as though he had offered a full explanation.

“And that has to do with what happened because…”

“I just told you! Isn’t it obvious?” His head tilted to the side again. “Oh, fine! I don’t know why you all need everything spelled out. When Aki healed you, she fixed more than just your wounds. She completely restored your connection to the elemental planes. When you called lightning, you got the real deal. That entity took over your mind.”

Denri struggled to understand what Hideki was saying. She remembered feeling different during the fight with Tetsujin. Everything had seemed easier. Her attacks more powerful. Tentatively, she reached for the lightning again.

Hideki flailed his hands in front of her. “Don’t do that! Resonant bonds will always affect your mind, but with the strength of your connection right now, that affect is overwhelming. You may lose yourself like you did during the battle.”

Denri pulled back. “It’s dangerous to use my power?”

There was a small, dignified cough from behind before Manabu walked into view. “For now, yes. My brother can train you to use your resonance more skillfully. Perhaps that will be enough. He is no doubt interested in studying you to find out. But you will have to be on guard. Even without calling lightning, you will feel an increased influence from your bond. More reckless. Or more reckless than usual, I suppose.”

Denri turned to Aki. “Can you undo the… healing that you did?”

“She could, but without a subtle hand, she could very well destroy your resonance completely. Pushing your bond to its maximum required a great deal of power, but very little precision. Targeting a specific degree of connection is more subtle.”

The Twins’ words finally cut through. “You all know about Aki’s powers?”

“After your awakening, and Tetsujin’s transformation, yes. We figured out the broad strokes. Aki provided some additional details about her past that filled in the remainder.”

“You told them?”

Aki looked at the ground guiltily. “We were trying to figure out what happened to you! I thought they could help better if they knew everything.”

Denri looked back to the Twins, eyes narrowed. “You two don’t seem surprised…”

Hideki tried to push his way under Manabu’s arm. “Of course we’re not surprised! We’ve been studying the Stone for years. Now, since everyone is feeling better, how about we run some tests?”

Manabu pushed Hideki back with a good deal of patience. “Not yet brother, we have things we must discuss first.” He turned back to Denri. “Yes, we know about the origins of Aki’s power. She is connected to a secret that concerns the origins of the gods themselves. If they knew of her existence, they would almost certainly stop at nothing to destroy her.”

Hideki finally stopped squirming against his brother’s hand and sat on a work table. His feet tapped on the ground impatiently. “Amaterasu nearly killed us when we discovered it, and we were only asking questions! She’s never allowed us direct access. Not like you!”

“Which is why we have a proposal for you.” Manabu carried on fluidly. The more Denri watched the Twins, the more in sync she realized they were. “You won your challenge. If you want to leave, we can’t stop you. But if you stay and let us study Aki’s power, we’ll offer you our protection and share what we know.”

“It sounds like Amaterasu doesn’t want you studying this power, whatever it is. You would oppose her?”

Manabu cleared his throat pointedly. “We’re not opposing her. Just conducting research. Anything we learn will be to her benefit. She doesn’t have to know how we made the discovery.”

Was the offer sincere? Manabu could be lying. Hoping to glean more information before betraying them. But Aki and Denri had won the challenge. If the Twins were treacherous, there was only so much they could do. Certainly less than what Sadashi could.

They should probably wait until they had a chance to talk to Eizo.

Denri’s whole body tensed as she thought of the former Blade. What had he been doing the last few days? He was going to be so angry with them. She shuddered and pushed that concern aside for now.

They needed strong allies. And information. They were being offered everything they needed.

“Deal. But we have conditions.”

Manabu and Hideki both smiled, excitement plain on their faces. “Name them.”

“First, you have to tell us everything you know now. No holding out important info or telling us ‘when we’re ready’. If we find out later that you hid something from us, we’re gone. Got it?” The Twins nodded. “Second, we need more than protection.”

It was Manabu’s turn to narrow his eyes. “How much more?”

“You’ve seen inside that research book. Sadashi has Aki’s siblings and he’s doing experiments that are driving them insane. You have to help us rescue them. And I don’t want to stop there. Whatever Sadashi is planning. I want to find out what it is and stop it so no other kids get hurt.”

Manabu frowned. “We can offer you protection as Aki trains. But we have no interest in a larger conflict.”

Denri shrugged her shoulders, a painful maneuver. “Then no deal. We’ll find our own path, and all those other kids who also have Aki’s power will come with us. I’m sure there’s all sorts of interesting things to learn from them.”

Hideki inched forward in his seat, eyes shining greedily.

Aki took a step forward with hands on hips. “And Tetsujin is bound to me, now. I’m sure we won’t have much trouble if he’s with us. Too bad about all of Sky Furnace’s zeppelins sinking into the ocean without his powers.”

Even Denri turned towards Aki, mouth agape. Fierce indeed.

Manabu looked to Hideki, but the other twin already seemed to know which decision he wanted to make. The fancy twin resisted a moment longer, but it was clear how much they wanted this knowledge.

“Very well. We will do what we can to help you uncover Sadashi’s plan. And as you rescue the other children, we will provide them protection here. But in exchange, you will let us study everyone’s abilities. And Tetsujin stays here.”

Aki crossed her arms. “No more experimenting on Tetsu, though.”

Manabu waved a hand angrily. “So be it.”

Aki nodded to Denri.

“I would shake your hand, if I could move my muscles more than an inch. But you’ve got yourselves an alliance. Now tell us what you know about Aki’s power and then I would like to go pass out.”

“Do you want the simple story, or the more complicated one?”

Denri’s head was still throbbing. And they really should talk to Eizo as soon as they could. “Simple is fine to start.”

“There is a stone. Whether it has always existed or was constructed, we do not know. But it is the source of the gods’ power. Each of them holds a fragment. The stone is able to repair and reshape our world’s connections to the primordial planes that formed it. That power lets them reshape our world nearly any way they see fit. They used it to create the five races, to shape the monsters, and to travel wherever they will.

“During the True Combat when the Four Seasons rose to power, after they defeated the other Sanyaku, they refused to fight one another. Sakuya tried to force the issue, but the four women fought the god and managed to hold her off. Since then, Sakuya’s powers have always seemed… diminished.

“After hearing of Aki’s story, we believe that the Four Seasons managed to take some piece from Sakuya’s fragment of the Godstone and have been raising children in it’s presence. Aki was one of those children.”

“I guess that makes sense. But when we overheard Shinmon, he said Aki was the strongest of the kids. Why? And do you have any idea how Sadashi fits into this?”

“Regarding Aki’s power, we do not know. Perhaps she was raised closer than the others. Or was the oldest.”

Aki frowned. “There were lots of kids older than me.”

“Well, we won’t know until we can investigate further. As for Sadashi’s involvement, there were some letters that you stole along with the research. It seems from that correspondence that Sadashi has teamed up with the Four Seasons.”

“To do what?” Denri’s heart was beating fast. Sadashi had almost overwhelmed the gods on his own. And that was hundreds of years ago. The Warlord was only that much stronger now. And now he had the support of the Four Seasons, too.

“The Four Seasons have always been rebellious. Even before they were champions, they spoke about somehow ending the animosity that the gods built into monsters and the wilderness. It seems that Sadashi has offered his support to their cause, if they can use the children’s powers to reunite his armies.”

“Would that work?”

“Perhaps. It is possible, if they had a large enough network. I would have to study the children. Maybe if there was some sort of amplifier. Or we could build a device to–.”

“Hey! Stay focused. We’re saving the kids, not experimenting on them, remember?”

“Oh, yes. Of course.”

Hideki grinned from behind his brother. “But you said we can still study them! Non invasively, of course.”

Denri swallowed hard, as she digested the new information. She was surprised to find that, for the most part, she was excited.

“Well, I was tired of running around without a clue. I guess I got my wish.” She turned to Aki. “What do you think Eizo is going to say when we tell him we want to go save the world?”

Aki grimaced. “He’s going to be so mad!”