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“Watch it.” The man struck Denri and sent her spinning to the ground. He loomed over her, his large frame covering her in shadow. She couldn’t see his face beneath a rough-woven conical hat, but Denri figured the man’s range of facial expressions was about as small as the chance he could scratch his nose with the tree trunks he called arms.
“Sorry, sir.” Denri scrambled backwards on all fours, looking towards the ground. She hunched her shoulders, shrinking her frame even further. Denri was average height for a flit, but at three and a half feet tall, the other four races liked to see her as a child. This probably wasn’t the best time to correct the misconception.
The man scoffed and turned away, shouldering through the thick market crowd. Denri made a face then joined it with an obscene gesture. She pushed herself off the ground and dusted the dirt from her butt as she pulled her arm from behind her back. She tossed the brute’s coin purse in the air. There was a crudely stitched skull across the front.
“Of course there is.” Denri rolled her eyes.
Denri noted what direction the man traveled so she could check on him later. Thugs like that had a habit of hurting good people.
She turned and wove her way through the crowd, bouncing back and forth to dodge knees and swinging hands. Denri hadn’t gone far before she noticed a gap moving through the crowd. At its center was a dour face attached to a lean-muscled, feminine form. Most of Daggerstorm’s knives were hidden, but people saw enough to understand the request for personal space.
Behind Denri, a male voice started yelling about a misplaced coin purse stitched with a skull. A wicked thought entered her mind. She smiled.
Denri pocketed a few coins from the pouch, then went bouncing up to Daggerstorm, eyes bright and innocent. “Miss! Miss!” Denri grabbed one of Daggerstorm’s calloused hands. The dangerous woman looked down at Denri and frowned, but she didn’t snatch her arm back.
“Sorry, child. I’m a bit preoccupied at the moment.” She dug in the pouch at her side, pulling out a coin.
“Is it true? Is it true?”
Daggerstorm hesitated, coin halfway out of the pouch. “Is what true?” Denri eyed the coin hungrily, but forced the reflex down. Daggerstorm was one of the good ones.
Denri threw an accusing arm over her shoulder. “That big man in the straw hat says he tossed you in a fight last night, no problem! But I said no way. Daggerstorm is the toughest Hero in all of Terminus and nobody tosses her!”
Daggerstorm’s frown deepened. She thrust her chin towards the man, who was now shaking down a merchant and making a ruckus about pickpockets. “That one there?”
“Yeah, he’s tellin’ anyone who’ll listen.”
Daggerstorm dropped the coin into Denri’s hand and pushed past her. “Excuse me while I go have a word with this man.”
“Yeah! Teach that dirty liar a lesson!” Denri gave Daggerstorm an encouraging pat on the back and slipped the man’s coin purse onto her belt, skull facing out. Just to make sure both sides had the appropriate motivation.
A few moments later, Denri was rewarded by the high-pitched whine of a man begging for mercy.
She hummed to herself as she slipped Daggerstorm’s coin into her shirt, next to the handful of coins she’d taken from the thug’s pouch. A generous reward for meting out some much-needed justice.
Denri liked Terminus. No one bugged you if you weren’t causing trouble. Hero’s shared a bit of coin with the beggars. Crime had the decency to stay organized and underground. But it didn’t get that way by accident.
Just doing her part.
Denri made her way to the edge of the street and prepared to slip into one of the many dark, twisty alleyways that snaked between the tall buildings of Terminus. But before she could disappear to safety, an opportunity caught her eye.
She was standing in the shadow of a wide, ornate building. It had a steeply angled roof with deep blue shingles that shone like dragon scales in the afternoon sun. A pair of lion dog statues stood vigil at the corners. Denri knew the place. A gang house that belonged to Danzo, one of the larger crime bosses of the city.
The guards watching the front entrance had taken a few steps forward, turning their back to the door as they craned their necks to get a view of Daggerstorm and her latest prey. Denri was inching along the wall before she’d thought twice. Not that there was anything that could convince her to waste an opportunity anyways.
The lax guards probably meant more security inside, but she could face that problem when it came. Denri reached the doorway without issue. She blew a kiss towards the sky, thanking the Stormbringer for her good luck, then ducked through the entrance.
Inside was dimly lit, the air noticeably cooler. A hallway stretched deeper into the building before ending in a T-intersection. Denri stuck to the shadows, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Once she was ready, she dropped into a crouch and inched towards the intersection. She pulled a heavily worn dagger from her belt, fogged it with her breath, then rubbed it with the cleanest scrap of her shirt she could find.
Not exactly a mirror-finish, but it was bright enough to reflect small blobs that approximated real shapes. Denri slid the blade along the floor, using it to peer around each corner.
The left direction ended in another turn with a dull glow spilling out from around the corner. A few stern voices accompanied the light from wherever it emanated.
The right direction had a few doorways branching off before the hallway dead-ended in darkness.
The real valuables would be deeper in the house, behind the serious voices to the left. But Denri wasn’t looking to make an enemy out of the most dangerous man in Terminus. Just score a couple nice meals for her and her friends. She took the right hallway and started peering through cracks along doors.
The third room contained the food. Denri tried the sliding paper door but found it locked. She took a step back and dropped into a squat, squinting at the obstacle while she thought. She could shoulder through the wooden frame easily enough, but the sound would draw guards.
Dancing around some goons sounded fun. But from what she could see through the crack, all the food was in crates. She might need some time to pry them open.
Denri sighed, bored by the lack of forward progress. She moved back to the door and dropped to her stomach so she could look through the widest part of the crack. She took a mental step forward, through the opening.
Denri’s body tensed and her vision flickered a bright white-blue. There was a faint crackle in the air as her body shifted into a flow of electricity that jittered around the door frame. An instant later, she was standing on the other side, dusting her hands off with a self-satisfied smile.
Denri didn’t have a resonance like all the Hero’s training in Terminus. But the Stormbringer was close to all of their creations. Every flit had the ability to shift, even if it was hard on the body. Denri’s muscles ached like she had climbed a mountain. She wouldn’t be able to do the trick again until she had a chance to sleep off the strain. But at least now she could keep moving.
Denri made her way to the crates and used her dagger to pry a few open. “Jackpot.” Her stomach grumbled reflexively as she stared down at the feast in front of her. She looked up at the ceiling briefly. “Thanks again, boss.”
She hopped up, resting her waist along the edge of the crate as her upper body disappeared into the container. Denri’s eyes darted between apples, cheese, and some dried meat. She chewed her lip with a look of serious contemplation.
She came up for air a second later, struggling vainly to close her mouth around all three.
Ten minutes later, every pocket on Denri’s person was testing the strength of it’s threadbare seams. Her face was a mess of grease and sticky fruit juices. She smacked her lips and licked her fingers clean. She was looking forward to all the stomach aches she was about to have. A rare luxury.
Denri replaced the last lid and looked around. Her belly was full, but she was disappointed. She would have thought infiltrating one of Danzo’s lairs would have been more exciting. Sure, she was only filching a few days of fancy food. But still. It felt a bit anticlimactic.
She’d just have to make some fun for herself. Denri dug around in one of her pant pockets, navigating around a handful of dried meat, until she found the bundle of leather she was looking for. She unrolled the bundle on one of the crates, revealing an assortment of colored chalks. Denri picked a few and stepped up to the wall, face screwed up in concentration.
She started with her usual calling card. A crudely drawn thundercloud with a mocking face and a suggestively placed lightning bolt. She had never seen Danzo before, so she drew what she imagined every rich old man looked like and put a name underneath. She added white squiggles to show him being electrocuted by the phallic lightning.
She took a step back, framing the drawing between her fingers and admiring her work. Denri was no artist, but everyone would get the joke. She closed her mouth to stifle a burp, her cheeks puffing out. “Thanks for the loot, Danzo buddy.” She saluted the drawing and turned to the door, pushing against the handle.
It didn’t budge.
“Ohhh. Right. Still locked.”
She didn’t worry much. It was hard to be upset after such a nice meal. And this was not the first time Denri had shifted into a locked room with no way out. Another opportunity would come along. Besides, she still had her plan to throw herself through the door frame.
Denri did a quick circuit of the room, looking for other doors or windows. Nothing. She walked back to the door and jammed a hairpin in the lock, twisting it back and forth until the thin metal broke. The door remained obstinately closed. Obvious ideas exhausted, Denri jumped up onto a food crate and sat with her chin resting on her hands. She stared at the door. “Hmmm…”
Denri woke a couple hours later. She lay sprawled across the crate, her left arm asleep beneath her body. She sat up in a daze, wiping a stream of drool off her cheek. What was she doing again?
“I swear I heard something coming from the storage room.” The voice came attached to a pair of boots tromping down the hall.
“You’re always jumping at the wind. I didn’t hear anything.” The boots had a friend.
“Honest! It sounded like some kind of growling or something.” Denri took a modicum of offense. “Do you think an animal got in? Boss will kill us if all the food is ruined.” A warm glow shown through the thick paper walls. Two shadows made their way to the storage door. It jiggled.
“See? Locked. No way an animal got in.”
“Let’s just check to make sure.” There was a metallic jangle as keys were pulled from a pocket. Denri flattened herself against the wall by the door, squishing as far as she could behind a storage crate. The lock clicked and the door slid open.
Two boys walked in, their scrawny teenage forms shifting under the flickering light of a lamp.
“Everything looks fine. Let’s get back to–.”
“What’s that on the wall? Bring the lantern up closer.” The two boys stepped into the room. Denri inched towards the door behind them. Danzo really needed to teach his guards about looking in multiple directions.
One of the boys snorted in laughter as the light fell on Denri’s drawing. But the other boy quickly elbowed him.
“Idiot. How do you think this got here? Someone must have snuck in!”
Denri was slipping through the doorway when an opportunity caught her attention. The keys dangled in the lock, calling to her. These two kids were practically begging that she stir up a bit of mischief. Denri smiled.
She put her arm across her mouth and blew a loud, wet raspberry. It ripped through the silence like a loud fart in a quiet room, which was mostly the point. The two boys spun around, mouths hanging open like a pair of dumb monkeys. Denri couldn’t have asked for more. She slammed the door shut and turned the lock.
By the time they had processed what happened and run to the door, Denri had slipped the keys in her shirt and was halfway down the hallway. They shouted and pounded against the door frame.
Denri chuckled as she pictured their dumbfounded expressions. It almost made up for the fact that she didn’t get to go smashing through any walls.
Denri ducked back into the main hallway just before a set of guards came from the intersection’s left hallway. They went running towards Denri’s prisoners.
Denri turned, planning to head out the way she came. But before she could take a step, she heard a sound like a child crying. The sobs were coming from where the latest batch of guards had emerged.
Denri’s feet were moving before she’d processed the information. She poked her head around the corner to make sure the guards weren’t looking behind them. Unsurprisingly, they were not. She darted further into the compound.
After a couple twists and turns, Denri found herself peering around a corner into a large room with exits to the right and straight ahead. This area was more brightly lit, with several lanterns around a low table. The table was covered in bottles of sake and playing cards.
Near the far left wall, two individuals were chained to the floor. One was a middle aged man who had clearly lived a hard life. His short, thick black hair was streaked throughout with gray and his skin was leathery from sun exposure. Scars crisscrossed his arms and face.
Huddled between his arms, was a young girl no older than ten. Her tears were muffled as she buried her face in the man’s shirt. Her hair was in a long, sloppy braid down her back.
Both of them wore tattered clothes and seemed dangerously thin.
Denri ran up to the pair. Up close, their features were different enough that Denri didn’t think they were related. The man had a blocky jaw and large nose, while the girl was all delicate angles. But the man did have a lot of scars. He could have looked like anything before.
“Hey, you two look like you could use a hand.”
The man eyed her warily, his arms tightening around the girl. But at the sound of Denri’s voice, the girl sniffed in surprise. She squirmed and twisted in the man’s arms until she faced out. Her eyes were big and brown, with floodgates ready to open again at a moment’s notice. “Wh-who are you?”
“My name’s Denri.” Denri put on her most heroic smile. “I’m here to rescue you.”
“But you’re so small.” The quavering voice convinced Denri to let that one slide.
“Size isn’t everything. I already took care of a bunch of guards to make it here, you know.” The girl’s eyes went wide. “What’s your name?”
The girl sniffed and wiped a trail of snot from her nose. “My name’s Aki.” She patted the man’s arms encircling her. “This is Eizo.”
There was a loud crash behind Denri, muffled by distance and walls. The guards must have broken through the locked door. Aki immediately started crying again while Eizo gave Denri a stern look.
“I thought you took care of the guards.”
“I did! Sort of. Look, I’m just kind of winging it right now. And doing a pretty good job considering I was asleep five minutes ago.” Denri ignored Eizo’s confused look and pulled out the ring of keys. She flipped through them, trying each on the locks.
There were shouts and footsteps down the hallway. The guards were checking with the sentries at the front. Not much time till they came this way.
“Did they bring you all in the back or something? I don’t think the front door is a viable option.”
Eizo nodded and pointed towards one of the hallways. “They brought us in through there.”
“Great. Can you run?” Denri found the right key and slotted it into the manacles around Aki’s legs, then moved to the girl’s hands.
“I think so.”
“Can you carry her?” Chains clattered to the ground as Aki’s wrists were freed. The girl stopped crying for the moment, rubbing her wrists appreciatively.
“Yes.” The set of the man’s jaw suggested the answer would have been the same even if both his legs were broken.
“Great.” Denri handed the key to the man and then grabbed Aki by the shoulders. She was only slightly taller than the child. “Hey. We’re going to get out of here now, OK?” Aki nodded, sending a couple tears spilling down her cheeks. “While we’re running, I need you to do something for me. No matter what happens, you have to stay quiet. Not a single peep until we’re outside. Can you do that for me?”
The girl wiped her eyes on her sleeve and nodded.
“Perfect. Otherwise the bad guys won’t be able to hear all my heroic jokes.” Denri winked and earned a watery smile from Aki.
Eizo’s chains clattered to the ground and he lifted Aki in his arms. The two of them looked even thinner standing. “What’s the plan?”
“Step one is run. Step two is don’t get caught.” They took off for the back exit with the sound of boots stomping down the hallway behind them.
They ran through the hallways, doing their best to balance speed with stealth. Behind paper doors they heard card games and drunken arguments. This was one of Danzo’s larger dens. It was filled with cronies drinking the day away.
They managed to make it pretty far before a hollow clanging sound filled the building.
“Well, looks like they know you two are gone.” Aki clutched Eizo’s shirt, her knuckles white. But she kept her word and remained quiet.
Through the paper walls, they saw silhouettes looking around in confusion. A few drew long, sharp looking shadows and moved towards the door.
“OK! Time to run very fast.” Eizo grunted in agreement. His breath was too ragged to manage much more. Denri glanced back, a concerned look on her face. “Are you–?” She saw nothing but cold iron in Eizo’s eyes. “Right, lets go.”
They burst into another intersection, the sound of pursuit close behind them. “How big is this place? Honestly.”
Eizo moved past her, picking a direction with confidence and disappearing around the corner. Denri was impressed he’d been able to memorize the path on the way in, given his state. Presence of mind like that took training.
A second later Eizo came running back into view, angry shouts following him. Denri grabbed one of the lanterns at the intersection and smashed it into a wall as Eizo came running back. She was mildly disappointed that the paper didn’t immediately erupt into flame. But there was an ominous crackle that might encourage a few guards to stay behind and deal with the issue. The trio turned and ran down the other hallway.
“I’m guessing we don’t know where we’re going anymore?”
“Yes. I am. Sorry.” Eizo was gasping for air.
Denri laughed. “Don’t be! This is pretty standard. Things always work out in the end.” She flashed Eizo a smile as they slid around a corner and wove their way deeper into the compound. At one point, Denri hooked an arm around another lantern pole and sent it crashing to the ground. “Besides. I was just thinking how boring my morning was.”
A group of guards came bursting around the corner ahead of them. Denri skidded to a halt and turned to run the other direction. The guards behind them finally came into view.
Seeing their prey surrounded, both sides drew their blades and moved forward cautiously. “Lay on the ground and we might let you live.”
Eizo set Aki down and pushed her behind him. “I will do my best to clear a path, get ready to run.” His determined frown flickered in the lantern light.
Lantern light? Denri looked around, confused. There weren’t any lanterns in the hallway. But a dull light was wavering through the wall to their left.
“Hey, eagle eye. You’ve been paying attention to the route we’ve been taking, right? How close do you think we are to the hallway where I threw that first lantern?”
“Close. Why?” He raised his hands, preparing to charge the guards.
“Nice.” Denri grinned. “New plan! I get to break things after all. Stay close behind me, Aki.” Eizo looked over his shoulder.
Denri let out a yell of delight and threw herself through the wall.
Denri hit the ground amidst a pile of broken wood and torn paper. Jagged wooden pieces dug into her skin, drawing blood. She ignored the pain, giggling as she scrambled to her feet. There was a shout and heavy footsteps as the guards from the hallway behind her rushed forward.
Denri’s new surroundings were loud and hot. The door at the far side of the room was flung open and two of Danzo’s goons were failing to smother a roaring wall of flame in the hallway. The makeshift fire brigade didn’t bother turning around.
Aki gasped as she followed Denri into the room. She backed away.
“Sorry Aki, only one way forward and we don’t have time for a pep talk.” Denri snatched Aki’s arm and started running. She hoped Eizo was chasing along behind instead of dying like a hero.
Aki resisted at first, but the rush of the chase had filled Denri with strength. Her iron grip wasn’t letting go. By the time they reached the flames, Denri hardly had to pull the girl at all. They jumped together.
The fire hadn’t taken the hallway completely, but it was still too wide for either Denri or Aki’s short legs to clear in a single jump. Denri landed with one foot amidst the embers and pushed Aki onward. The small girl tumbled and rolled along the floor beyond the flames.
Denri felt a searing pain in her foot. The tips of her hair started to singe. But the pain didn’t last long before she felt a heavy weight collide with her from behind. Denri and Eizo spilled into the hallway beyond.
Denri sat up and immediately started ripping off the tattered remains of her now-burning shoe. Her fingertips burned as they ripped through the leather and revealed raw, bloody skin underneath.
Behind them, the guards forgot their chase in favor of the flames consuming the building.
Denri stood, placing weight on her burnt foot tentatively. She cried out and crumpled to the ground. Eizo caught her with a shoulder. “The exit is not far, you can lean on me.”
Denri nodded, wrapping her arm around the tall man’s waist. His bony hip pressed into her armpit uncomfortably. “We really need to get some meat on these bones.”
The trio limped towards the exit as quickly as they could. They were tense, waiting for sounds of pursuit that never came. Smoke filled the air towards the ceiling, forcing Eizo to hunch forward.
They staggered through the exit and blinked in the daylight. A crowd had formed around the building, drawn by the alarm and the smoke that billowed from the windows. A woman from the city watch ran up to them. “Are you three OK? What’s going on in there?”
Eizo stood straighter, his voice taking on a more commanding tone. “A lantern was left unattended. Gather the nearby watch and get in there to help before this spreads across the whole block. I need to get this one to a doctor.”
The woman snapped to attention, turning on her heel and running towards the corner. They made their way into a dark alley before the woman could realize she had taken orders from a beggar.
“Quick thinking.” Denri felt Eizo’s hands shaking against her shoulder as they walked. She looked at him curiously, but his eyes were fixed ahead.
They pushed on until they could no longer hear the metallic rhythm of Danzo’s alarm. The three of them sank against a wall gratefully, regaining their composure.
As the adrenaline drained away, all of Denri’s aches and pains came flooding in. Her foot begged the most attention, but the rest of her body was making a compelling case as well. Her muscles still felt like they’d been trampled by a small cow from when she shifted earlier. There was a bruise on her shoulder and countless stinging cuts from when she dove through the wall.
Denri groaned. “Well, that escalated.”
Eizo shook his head. “Not exactly subtle, no.”
“We’re not entirely out of the woods yet. Danzo is going to come looking for us. I’m guessing you two don’t have a place to lay low. You can hideout with me until things calm down a bit.”
“We shouldn’t involve you any further.”
Denri started to respond, but Aki beat her to it. She pushed out from under Eizo’s arm and turned towards him. “I wanna stay with her. She’s amazing!”
“It isn’t safe for her. We should leave the city as quickly as possible.”
Aki pointed at Denri’s foot. “She rescued us. She doesn’t need protecting. And she got hurt! You said getting hurt together made us family. And family never leaves each other. You promised!”
Eizo hesitated, his mouth hanging open slightly. Aki loomed over his seated form with all the imperiousness of a child who knows she’s made a point. He acquiesced.
“Is your home far?”
“Well, home might be a bit of an exaggeration… but it’s not too far.” Denri winced as she pushed herself up the wall into a standing position.
Aki gasped and pointed at Denri’s midsection. A look of concern spread across Eizo’s face. Denri looked down and saw a large, angry blob of crimson covering her shirt near her midsection. She groaned, both hands reaching towards the red stain reflexively.
“Those strawberries were so ripe!”
Denri had to lean against Eizo and hop on one foot, but 20 minutes later the trio slipped into an alleyway between an izakaya and an upscale restaurant. It was dark, the buildings pressed so close together that Eizo had to turn sideways to move forward comfortably.
At the back of the buildings, they came upon a pile of broken wood and rubble wedged between the walls to create a barrier. A tattered curtain hung limply near the bottom. Denri pushed aside the curtain and crawled through a hidden gap. Aki followed quickly, but it took Eizo a bit of time to find the right angle to jam himself through.
Beyond the portal, the ground sloped down and curved right, opening up into a low-ceilinged space beneath the izakaya. Wooden beams stretched from floor to ceiling. Earthquake stilts. Denri and Aki were able to walk comfortably, though Eizo had to hunch.
“Sorry, I’ve never really had a human over.” Denri fumbled in the darkness until she lit a lantern that barely illuminated half the underground space. The light revealed a heap of clothes pushed together against one wall like a nest and a few makeshift shelves littered with dry food and other trinkets. The walls were covered with crude chalk drawings, their colors washed out in the dim lantern light. Muted footsteps and laughter sounded through the wood above them.
Denri held her hands out in a welcoming gesture. “It’s a bit sparse. Hard to get furniture in through the alley. Can’t grow any plants in the darkness.” She plopped down into the nest of clothing, sighing comfortably. There was a tentative meow from deeper in the darkness. Denri smiled. “But the roommates are great. Come on you two, don’t be shy. Come closer!”
Eizo cleared his throat and shuffled a few steps closer. “Where would you like us to stand?”
Denri looked up and laughed. “Not you, stupid!” Denri rummaged in her pants and pulled out a strip of dried meat. She dangled it towards the darkness. “Come on! I got you both a snack.”
Two cats walked into the light. One was predominantly white, with a black and orange mottled face and a bobbed tail. The other was pure black. The two cats approached Denri, keeping wary eyes on the newcomers. Denri ripped the small chunk of meat in half and handed each cat a piece.
“These are my friends! Shiri is the white one, he’s a boy, and Onara is the little princess.”
Aki squealed as the cats came into view, running towards them without hesitation. Onara startled and ran off to lick her paw, exuding wounded dignity, but Denri managed to clamp down on Shiri and hold him in place. Aki jumped into the pile of clothing and started to pet him. After a moment the cat acquiesced and climbed into her lap, eliciting another exclamation of joy.
Denri winced as Onara approached and sniffed her foot.
“A doctor should look at that before it gets infected.” Eizo seated himself away from the pile of clothes, his legs crossed formally beneath him.
Denri grabbed her ankle and pulled the wounded foot to her face. “Yeah, this sucker’s pretty bad, huh? There’s a doctor a few blocks from here who spends some of his evenings helping street kids. I’ll have him take a look at it tonight. In the meantime, there’s some clean bandages on that shelf. Would you bring them over?”
Eizo stood and retrieved a few long strips of cloth. He handed them to Denri and returned to his sitting position. He watched Denri with a skeptical look as she shooed Onara away. “I do not understand. Given the events that just happened, you are remarkably calm. Aren’t you concerned? Don’t you want to know who we are?”
Denri wound the bandages around her foot, trying her best not to press against the raw flesh. “Not really. I mean, yes I’d like to get to know you two, but I’m not worried. You needed someone and I was the only one there, so of course I was going to help. The rest went about as well as you could hope. Worrying about it would be like worrying that eating makes you poop. No point being anxious about things you can’t change.”
Aki looked up from Shiri, who was now batting at a string dangling from her clothes. “But you didn’t have to help us.”
“Sure I did. If I hadn’t rescued you two, who would have helped carry me back here with this useless foot?” Eizo frowned and opened his mouth to correct the obvious lack of logic, but stopped when Aki and Denri both started giggling. Aki returned her attention to Shiri, leaning her head against Denri’s shoulder.
Eizo pushed on. “Still. There will be consequences for today. We should figure out what to do next.”
Denri waved her hands. “You said you two need to leave the city, right? I figure we can figure out the rest later. I need to get this foot fixed up before we can do much of anything and you two could obviously use a day or two of rest. Besides, we won’t know what Danzo plans to do until he starts doing it.”
Aki looked up again, her face bright. “Oh! You could come with us! And bring the kitties!”
Eizo hesitated for a moment before nodding himself. “We would need to do something about your foot so that you could move freely, but you were quite capable today. Moving through the woods would be easier with another set of eyes. If you’re interested, of course.”
“Sorry folks, but I’ll have to pass. I like my place here in Terminus. Plenty of adventure but nothing too serious.”
Aki held Shiri up by the armpits, imitating a high pitched animal voice and waving the cats arms around. “Please! We want to go with Aki!” Shiri’s gaze remained fixed on the loose thread of Aki’s shirt. He strained towards it.
Denri shook her head, addressing Shiri. “You make a very compelling argument little guy. But the wilderness is just too much for me. I wouldn’t do well there.” Aki looked disappointed. “But I am curious how you two ended up chained in one of Danzo’s bases. Are you family? Wife had some gambling debts she couldn’t pay off?”
Aki’s voice still sounded a little sulky. “Nope. Eizo and I only met a couple months ago and I don’t know who my real family is. I was being taken to Gotan when–.”
“Aki.’ Eizo matched his voice with a stern look that left Aki momentarily abashed. He turned to Denri. “I am sorry. You seem like a good person, and we are grateful for your help. But we have only just met you. Please understand the desire for privacy.”
Denri shrugged. “If you two have been prisoners for months, that explains why you’re both just a bag of bones with no muscle. But you’re in luck.” Denri rummaged through her pants and shirt, pulling out all the food that had survived the journey. “Today is a very good day to be my house guest.” She started passing food to each of them. “Eat up!”
Aki grabbed an apple and bit into it with such fervor that all previous disappointment was forgotten. Eizo swallowed hard while looking down at the wedge of cheese in his hands. He forced himself to pick at it slowly. “Thank you.” His voice was thick with gratitude. Or maybe just saliva.
“No problem, food is meant to be shared anyways.” They all ate in silence for a moment. Eizo and Aki seemingly overcome with such a simple pleasure back in their lives.
The reverie was broken when Eizo’s body suddenly stiffened. He looked over his shoulder as Onara came from behind him, rubbing herself along his hip.
Denri whistled. “Would ya look at that. Shiri will tolerate anything, but I’ve never seen Onara take to anyone like that before.”
Eizo’s body remained rigid. “I do not like cats.”
Aki looked shocked. “What?! But she’s so pretty.” She looked on jealously as Onara pressed her head into Eizo’s thigh, purring contentedly. Eizo looked like he might be sick.
Denri chuckled. “She just wants a few pets and she’ll leave you alone.” Eizo looked at her skeptically. “It’s the quickest way to freedom.”
He extended a hand and ran it woodenly across Onara’s back. The cat jumped into his lap and deposited herself with a sense of finality and ownership. Eizo looked at Denri with a sense of absolute betrayal.
“One of the kids says you’re being followed.” The doctor spoke without looking up from his work.
Denri stared absently at the liver spots that dotted his balding head, kicking her good foot against the table. Her burns felt blessedly cool from whatever salve the doctor had rubbed into them. “Is that so?”
“Yuki came in behind you. Said she saw a teenage boy trailing you. He went into the shop across the street when you came in here. Hasn’t come out since. Do you want to stay here tonight? I don’t mind if you want to wait until the kid gives up.”
“Nah, I can lose him. Thanks for the heads up though.”
The doctor looked at her foot skeptically. “These bandages will help you walk, but you won’t be able to move much faster than that for a couple weeks. Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine doc.”
The doctor gave Denri a handful of clean bandages and a few bottles of the salve. She stuffed them into her bag and stepped off the table gingerly, testing her weight on the injured foot. It twinged uncomfortably, but the pain was bearable. Denri smiled and hugged the doctor. “You’re the best.”
He smiled and patted her back. “Just be careful to keep it clean. And come back in a couple weeks so I can check on it.”
“Sure thing.” She left through the front door.
Denri saw the boy immediately. He was standing inside the clothing shop across the street, glancing in her direction through the window. She made sure he saw her leave the doctor’s office. Denri didn’t want Danzo thinking the doctor had warned her. He was too important to the kids to get wrapped up in all this.
The boy left the clothing shop and picked up her trail, keeping his distance. Denri stuck to brighter, more crowded streets for as long as she could, trying unsuccessfully to lose the teen amongst the throngs of people. Her foot slowed her down too much.
Her best bet was to cut quickly into an alleyway and then shift someplace unexpected. Maybe an abandoned building, or over a fence the boy couldn’t climb. So long as she could see where she was aiming, it wouldn’t be hard to reach a place where the boy couldn’t see or follow in the darkness.
Denri turned off the main road onto a quieter street, looking for a suitable place to disappear. There were still enough people to keep the boy at bay for now, but he started closing in.
A palanquin came from one of the alleyways ahead of her and stopped for its occupant to look through one of the store windows. The burly man and woman carrying the poles were both looking at her just a little too much. And why would a palanquin be coming out of an alleyway?
Things were starting to feel a little too coordinated. Denri turned on her good foot and walked straight into the nearest alleyway. Time to make her move before this trap had a chance to spring.
She made it a few steps before a dark form came leaping from a doorway. A burly woman, arms bared in a sleeveless jerkin, pounced on Denri and lifted her from the ground, clamping a hand over her mouth.
Denri didn’t bother struggling. Even if she could somehow break free of the massive woman’s grip, she’d never be able to outrun her pursuers. She tensed her body and looked around. She just needed to find a good target and she could shift to safety.
“I wouldn’t bother shifting if I was you. We’d just find you again.” The woman’s breath was uncomfortably warm against Denri’s ear. It had the kind of moist quality that suggested it would smell even worse than it felt. “Besides, you’re lucky. Boss doesn’t care about you. Just wants the other two back. You play your cards right and you might walk outta this with all your fingers and toes.”
Denri mumbled a rebuttal against the woman’s hand. She kept searching in the shadows for a good place to shift. If the woman would just let go of her head she could look to the rooftops.
“What she says is true.” A man walked around the woman holding Denri. He looked middle-aged, with fancy clothes and a thick, black ponytail hanging down his back. He must have come from the palanquin. “Danzo is not happy with your interference today, but the other two are more important. He’s willing to let all this go if you’ll show us to them immediately.”
Another mumbled reply. Denri knew the offer for mercy would last about as long as it took to confirm Aki and Eizo’s location. The man nodded to big woman. “You may uncover her mouth, but keep her head still. Do not let her look around.” The hand shifted to Denri’s forehead.
“This is an awful lot of goons for a couple scrawny prisoners. Why go to all this trouble?”
The man shook his head. “You think you’re doing what’s right. But those two are incredibly dangerous. Danzo is trying to protect this city. All of Yosai, even.”
“You’ve got a funny way of playing hero, holding a woman against her will in a darkened alleyway.”
“How things look is pointless. What matters is the greater good.”
Denri scoffed. “The ‘greater good’ is how rich scumbags like you justify helping yourselves. You’re just too self-absorbed to try and find an answer that doesn’t step on half the town’s neck.”
The man sighed. “Given the circumstances, your bravery is impressive. But stupid.” He reached into the sleeve of his robe and drew a short, straight blade. It gleamed in the moonlight. “We will get the information one way or another.” He brought the blade up to Denri’s cheek, pressing it into the skin until it drew a line of blood.
Denri winced but didn’t cry out. The moon reflected brightly at the base of the blade. Denri laughed.
“You know, if you were as smart as you think you are, you would have covered my eyes completely.” She focused on the reflection in the blade and took a mental step onto the roof above them.
She blew a raspberry at the figures below and went running along the rooftops.
Denri squirmed her way through the opening and dragged her bag behind her. Eizo looked up from a length of wood that he had pulled from one of Denri’s shelves. He was whittling it into a crude staff. Aki was asleep in the nest of clothes with Shiri purring beside her head.
Eizo noticed the blood on Denri’s cheek and stood abruptly. “What happened?”
“What, this? Well the doc fixed my foot so I figured I better pick up another injury or the two of you would leave early.” She smiled at the man. He did not relax. “It’s no big deal. Some of Danzo’s goons held me up but I gave them the slip easy enough.”
“‘S goin on…?” Aki raised herself up on an elbow, rubbing one eye and yawning.
“Are you sure you weren’t followed?”
“Yeah, we’re fine for now.” Eizo’s shoulders dropped a fraction. “But we may need to move our plans up.”
“Well, it turns out I’m also not so welcome here in Terminus anymore.” Denri sighed as she excepted what came next. She turned to Aki. “Does that offer to join you two still stand?”
Aki threw her arms in the air, scaring Shiri awake. “Yes let’s all adventure together!”
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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