This is part 7 of an ongoing story series. If you haven’t already, read the last chapter or start from the beginning.

They darted from shadows to alleys to abandoned crates and carts, barely outpacing the Arbiter search parties that stormed the city. Every clang of the alarm bell knotted Denri’s stomach tighter. It was ringing for her.

They knew who she was. Even before she blasted one of the city guards, they knew enough to be suspicious. But now there was no doubt. No way to hide.

They had to get out of the city. But Denri wouldn’t leave Shiri and Onara. For years they had been her only family, living on the streets of Terminus.

But what if the innkeeper had recognized Denri from the bounty description? What if Arbiters were already swarming around the Dragon’s Den?

They reached the platform with the giant dragon statue, its stone talons clutching at its gold painted hoard. The steel walkways cutting through the grass were empty, but the guards would be inside. Below the platform and out of sight.

Denri and Aki hid in an alley as Eizo approached the statue. He knocked, ready to bolt. Anko appeared and the two exchanged words. She pulled back her sleeve and Eizo’s body stiffened, then she hurried him inside, eyes darting left and right.

A few moments later, Eizo emerged and returned to their hiding spot. “Come, it’s safer inside.”

Denri puffed out her cheeks, releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Are you sure?”

“I am.” He led them back to the statue where Anko was waiting.

“I figured you all might be coming back. Those cats have been meowing in your room all day. I would have seen to them if I weren’t afraid they’d bolt soon as I opened the door.”

“Thank you.” Denri looked to Eizo uncertainly, but Anko slapped a hand against her back. “Eh, none of that! I didn’t tell the Arbiters to go blow smoke just so you could be suspicious of me. You’re safe here, lass.” She smiled as she pulled back her sleeve to show a tattoo. A circle with six hatch marks around the perimeter. The same tattoo as Eizo.

“You’re a–!” Anko clamped a hand over Aki’s mouth with lightning speed.

“Careful now, lass. That’s not something to go yammering on about. Yes, I was. Not a fighter like this one. I was a healer before I– well, Eizo and I have a fair bit in common. I sensed him straight away, even if his bond is dead, more or less.”

She shooed them down the stairs as she continued to talk. “If I wanted to turn you lot in, I would have done it as soon as I saw him. I tried to come and warn you all about the bounty this morning, but you’d already left.”

“Thank you.” Denri spoke more earnestly this time.

Anko waved her hand. “For a looker like this? I’d sell out my own husband. Not that I have one, thank the Mother’s Scales.” She winked at Eizo. “Now, let’s get you all to your room. The Arbiters have locked down the Tether, but you can hide here until things die down a bit. They can’t keep the city locked up for long.”

They walked through the hallways in silence for a moment before Aki cleared her throat. “Did you really tell the Arbiters to go blow smoke?”

Anko barked a laugh. “No, lass. Even I’m not that crazy. But I did tell them I’d never seen hide nor hair of you. And when I started leering at their captain he finished up his questions nice and quick. Not that I was looking seriously now, dear.”

Anko placed a hand on Eizo’s back and laughed, but she was alone in her amusement.

When they opened the door to their room, Shiri and Onara dashed to Denri, winding their way between her legs and crying anxiously. She couldn’t help but smile.

“Alright, alright, calm down you little monsters.” She bent and scooped Shiri into her arms as she nudged Onara towards Eizo. Denri gave the man a look and he lifted the black cat into his arms. She held Shiri to her face, rubbing his nose with hers. “There, see? I’m never gonna leave you two.”

She looked under the beds warily. “They don’t know a thing about what’s happened, why are they so freaked out?”

“I think they sensed my fear when I reached out to check on them.” Aki was leaning over Eizo’s shoulder, rubbing Onara between the eyes.

Denri nodded and turned to Eizo. “OK, we can go now.”

“Like I said, they’ve got the Tether shut down. No way out of Sky Furnace until that’s reopened.”

Denri turned back to the front of the room, only now realizing that Anko had slipped in with them. Denri glanced at Eizo.

“Don’t go lookin’ at him like he gets to decide. I’m already up to my elbows after lying to the Arbiters. And besides, it’s my inn. So let’s have it.” Anko waved her arms. “Off with the masks and tell me what’s going on.”

No one removed their masks. Even Aki narrowed her eyes. “Why are you helping us?”

“I read the bounty report. After what you did, there’s no way you’d risk coming to a city unless you had a purpose.”

Anko paused, then seemed to reach a decision. “I’ve got no love for Ninigi and his Blades. I want them out of my city. You took out five Blades and you’re traveling with a deserter, so I’m hoping whatever you’re up to, it’s against them.

“If it is, I’ll help how I can. But I’d like to know I’m not helping a bunch of criminals who are trying to hurt my town. So you can show some trust or I’ll turn you in.”

“I guess we don’t have much choice.” Denri shook her head as she and Aki removed their masks. ”Did you say there are Blades here in Sky Furnace?”

Eizo’s mask remained in place. “The Arbiters. For the most part, the Blades trained in Ninigi’s Citadel are given to his Champions. But he sends a few to the other gods to curry favor.”

“Act as spies, more like.” Anko’s lip curled distastefully.

“Why couldn’t the Arbiters sense you like Anko could, then?”

“They’re pledged to Amaterasu. The oath that Blades take only allows them to sense creatures bound to the same god. The only reason I can sense him is because I used to be tied to Ninigi as well.”

Anko looked pointedly at Eizo. “Don’t push your luck just because I think you’re handsome, lad. Off with the mask.” She reached towards the door to emphasize her point.

Eizo’s hand moved haltingly. Distrust warring with necessity as he pulled the mask free.

When he did, Anko gasped. Her mouth hung open for a moment before she regained enough composure to speak. “Takeshi Foxbane.

He shifted uncomfortably. “I no longer hold the blade. I use my birth name once again.”

Denri’s gaze shifted between the two. “You know him?”

“Not personally. I doubt many would recognize you with your face so gaunt and scarred. Mother help me but I wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t seen you once before. The stories I heard of how you left… I was right, then. You are here to fight the Blades.”

“Hold on now. What happened when Eizo left where?”

Eizo held up a hand firmly. “This is not the time for sharing stories. We need to find a way out of Sky Furnace.”

Anko was looking at Eizo with a new sense of awe. “There are some amongst the Blades who disapprove of how their strength is used. Depressingly few, but some none the less. Takeshi– Eizo, you would not know, but your desertion had larger effects than anyone could have guessed. If word spread that the Last Standing was in Sky Furnace, opposing the Blades, some of the Arbiters may rally to your cause. They could help you.”

“No. I will not lead men and women again. Not in violence.”


“I said no.” There was a force to Eizo’s voice that stopped Anko dead, her jaw clicking shut as she nodded. “Besides, it would bring more attention than we want. We’re in Sky Furnace to gather information, not to start a conflict.”

“Did you find what you needed, then?”

Eizo shook his head. “We were only able to get a name before we were discovered.”

Denri flinched. Eizo said we, but it was her who the Arbiters recognized. “A man named Shinmon. He makes the–.” She realized that Eizo wasn’t sharing specifics. “–some technology we’re interested in. But we don’t have to give up yet, we can still find him!”

Eizo shook his head. “It’s too risky. The whole city is on high alert and they’re looking specifically for us. We’ll just have to find another lead.”

Anko tapped her lip thoughtfully. “Shinmon, you said? I’ve never heard the name, but I could ask around. Maybe find out if he’s undocking anytime soon. You could make a move in a different city.”

“We don’t have the time to wait.”

“Nonsense, lad.” Anko was halfway toward batting Eizo’s chest before she remembered herself, pulling her hand back like she had stuck it in a viper pit. “I mean, forgive me for disagreeing Ta– Eizo. You’ll have to stay here until the Tether is reopened. At least let me help until then.”

Eizo frowned, clearly uncomfortable with the situation. Eventually he nodded. “I suppose we have to trust someone if we’re going to get out of here. And it would be good not to leave empty handed.”

Denri stared at the ceiling, sleep a distant possibility. Every noise sent her ears straining for the sounds of foot steps and creaking armor.

All she heard was the blood pounding in her ears.

Hiding again. Every time she thought she had found her stride again, something came crashing through, upending her confidence. One step forward, four steps back. There was still so much they didn’t understand.

She didn’t used to mind uncertainty. She trusted her instincts, taking things one step at a time. But how could she improvise when it was Eizo and Aki’s lives at stake? She wouldn’t risk them getting hurt. This family, she would protect.

She needed to get stronger. Strong enough to fight back against the people pursuing them. But that wouldn’t happen overnight. And they were being hunted now. Denri knuckled her forehead, forcing herself to focus on a plan. They could keep running, or they could find strong allies. But they wouldn’t know where was safe or who to trust until they knew what was going on.

Learning about Aki’s power was necessary no matter what path they took. It would help Aki train and let them maneuver around Sadashi. If Anko could gather information on Shinmon, maybe they could follow him to whatever city he visited next. But who knew how long he would stay in Sky Furnace? Or where he might be going.

Would they be able to keep running long enough to find out?

Denri chewed her lip in frustration. Shinmon was right in front of them. But they had to be careful. Avoid risks.

Except doing nothing was a risk too. She was a risk.

Denri dropped her hands to the bed. A sense of dread filled her. The Arbiters only had information on her. If she was gone, Eizo and Aki would have more time to train and research. What if Eizo decided that Denri was more trouble than she was worth?

She shook her head. He trusted her. Cared about her. Eizo wouldn’t abandon her just because things were getting hard.

But he still wouldn’t tell her anything about his past. Did he really trust her?

And should he? If Denri was the problem, then shouldn’t she leave to protect them? But she didn’t want to be alone.

She wanted to scream. Her hands tensed like claws at her side. Everything ran in circles. The more she thought, the more uncertain she became. Every direction had tradeoffs. Good and bad that were impossible to measure against each other. The deeper she probed, the more paralyzed she felt.

Denri sat up abruptly, her tension translating into motion. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t plan for every problem. If she tried, she was just going to fail. Her strength had always been action. The stakes were higher, but she had to keep playing the game she knew. The game she was good at.

Shinmon was here. Now. That was certain. That was the opportunity.

Denri eased the covers back and placed her feet on the cold metal floor. If she went alone, at least the others would be safe. If she got caught, they’d could escape. And if she found important information, Eizo wouldn’t be able to leave her behind.

She nodded to herself, certainty easing the tension in her shoulders, then snuck to their packs by the door. Denri slipped the folded map from the outer pocket. She had no problem reading it in the dark, her blue eyes shining.

The mark for Shinmon’s shop was on the far side of Sky Furnace, in the opposite direction of Anchor. But the far side was less dense. She could move quickly and make it back before the sun showed on the horizon. A smile hitched the corner of her mouth as she turned to the door.

Shiri’s shining green eyes stared back at her, sitting by the door. The white and orange cat blinked and Aki sat up.

“You’re leaving.”

“I thought you were asleep.”

Aki shook her head. “Where are you going?”

“I just want to get some air. Calm my nerves so I can get some sleep.”

Aki searched her face. “You’re going to find Shinmon.” She threw the covers back.

Denri sighed. “Yeah. But I’m going alone.”

Aki slid out of bed and shot Denri a stubborn look. “I’m coming. This is all my fault. Everyone is trying to get me. And the Arbiters found us because I lost my temper.”

Denri nearly laughed. It looked like she wasn’t the only one lying awake berating herself.

She felt a moment of concern and almost insisted that Aki stay. Then she took a deep breath and pushed it aside. No more worrying. The Stormbringer was telling her Aki was part of the opportunity.

Denri felt a moment of shock when she realized how long it had been since she thought of Susano. She looked to the ceiling and muttered an apology to the Lord of Storms.

“Eizo won’t let us go.”

Aki flashed a mischievous grin. “Who asked him?”

Denri realized she was smiling too.

Everything flowed as Denri slipped through the night. She rolled over a wall, darting across an open park to a warehouse at the far side of the platform. She jumped without slowing, planted a foot on a crate, and threw herself towards the wall.

Time slowed as she called lightning, letting it fill her body. Her momentum held her against the wall for an instant. It felt like several seconds. She looked around lazily as her body coiled. Then she pushed off and up, clearing the rooftop of the neighboring building with ease.

She landed in a crouch beside Shiri. The cat stared into the night, watching for the Arbiters that were turning the city upside down. Denri felt a tug in her mind, guiding her left. Aki had found a path around the nearest patrol.

Sadashi wanted to isolate them by reporting Denri. But he didn’t say anything about Aki, hoping to hide his true target. That left the Arbiters blind, unsuspecting of a black cat picking its way through the town.

Denri had been so afraid earlier. But now she felt invincible. Sadashi could search and scheme and be as clever as he wanted. All he did was tie himself in knots, leaving opportunities for them to act.

With Shiri and Aki charting a course, Denri flew across Sky Furnace. She barely even had to stop. It wasn’t long before the three of them were standing in an alleyway, across a bridge from their target.

Shinmon’s zeppelin was small compared to the other platforms of Sky Furnace. It held a narrow tower standing across from a shed. A small, manicured garden filled the space that remained. The shed was dark, but the windows on the second story of the tower shone brightly.

Aki’s returned to her human form. “What next?”

Denri chewed on her lip as she thought. They couldn’t make a scene. Even the hint of a disturbance would bring an army of guards down on their head.

A tall shadow periodically swept past the window on the second floor. Probably Shinmon. Was that where the information they needed would be? Or should they avoid the second floor to minimize the chance of detection?

Aki was looking up at her with complete trust. If Denri got it wrong, who knew what would happen to the the young girl?

She shook herself. She had to stop thinking about the risks. Sailing through a storm, it didn’t matter how important your cargo was. You made it through by racing with the waves.

“The roof. We’ll check the third floor first, then figure out what to do next based on what we find.”

They padded through the darkness, moving across the bridge and pressing against the wall of the workshop. The stones of the tower had enough gaps that the wall seemed climbable.

Briefly, Denri wondered if there was any way to use a resonance to set some sort of magical alarm. She shrugged. No way to find out now. She’d ask Eizo tomorrow morning.

They left Shiri at the bridge to watch for patrolling Arbiters. Aki shrank back to a cat and perched on Denri’s shoulders. They moved to the back of the tower where there were fewer prying eyes. Denri wedged her fingers into the cracks between stones and climbed.

They reached the third floor windows without incident. Denri eased her head over the sill, keeping low in case anyone was watching. Poorly made glass distorted the darkened interior. It was a bedroom, simply appointed with a cold fireplace on the far wall.

How to get in? She could slide her dagger under the seam of the window, looking for a latch. That might be the safest way, conserving her strength in case there was a fight later. But it would be slow.

Denri got Aki’s attention. She pointed to the fireplace, then to the rooftop.

You want me to go through the chimney? OK, wait a second and I’ll unlock the window.

Denri nodded and Aki jumped off her shoulder, scrambling the last few feet onto the roof and padding out of sight. Denri turned her attention back to the window. She had no intention of waiting around for others to act.

“Never drop anchor in a storm.” She focused on a spot inside and shifted. Her body melted in a flash of light that crawled through the seams of the window, aiming between the bed and a tall wardrobe to block the light of her travel.

By the time Aki dropped into the fireplace, shaking soot from her fur, Denri had finished rifling through the bedroom. Aki’s yellow eyes blinked in surprise, but the girl adjusted quickly.

Did you find anything?

Denri shook her head, then slinked up to the door at the far side of the room on light feet. She tested each floorboard before giving it her weight, though it proved unnecessary. Rich people rarely had any squeaky floorboards or creaking hinges to worry about.

She inched open the door and peered through the crack into another dark room. A heavy writing desk stood along the left wall, topped with a stack of blank papers, a quill, and a stoppered bottle of ink. Moonlight streamed in through a tall window in front of the desk. The glass was of a similar quality to the window in the bedroom, warping the light and casting a strange skein of shadows across the desk and floor.

An elegant book shelf stood opposite the desk, filled from floor to ceiling. Aki returned to her human form and moved toward the books while Denri approached the desk.

A glance confirmed that there was nothing interesting on top. She opened the first drawer and found it full of spare supplies immaculately organized. The second drawer contained a heavy looking machine covered in lenses and gears. The third drawer was locked.

Denri tried to pull the second drawer out, but it stopped a few inches from being completely removed. If she called lightning, she could rip the drawer off easily enough. But that would be noisy. Maybe…

Denri laid the palm of her hand flat against the lock and sent an electric shock through the mechanism. She had never picked a lock before, but she knew it had something to do with aligning the internal mechanisms. She could hear a series of faint ticks as her electricity caused pieces of the lock to move inside. After a few seconds she let the charge fade and pulled on the handle. It didn’t budge.

She stepped back, rubbing her chin. There had to be a key somewhere. Shinmon probably kept it close to his person. She took a moment to listen to the muffled footsteps emanating from below. Maybe she could sneak up on him and steal the key.

Look at this. Aki was holding one of the books open in her hand. Denri approached, standing on tiptoe to get a look. The book was hollow, holding an ornate metal ring sized for a man’s hand. The top of the ring was embossed with Sadashi’s crest, a sword planted on a hilltop.

“Well, at least we know we’re on the right track.” Denri scooped the ring out of the book and tucked it into her pocket. “This might be useful later.”

They finished searching the books together, but found nothing else. The titles of the books might have held useful information, but neither Aki nor Denri could read more than a few letters. Enough to puzzle out a sign on a street, but not enough to understand the complicated subjects before them.

That left the second floor, glowing with warm candlelight below. Denri took one last look at the locked drawer on the desk, wondering if she should just pry it open.

Aki stiffened. Shiri says someone’s coming. A pause as she closed her eyes. It’s the man from the Scale and Talon!

Denri smiled, turning away from the desk. “Perfect. A guest might pull Shinmon away, or at least distract him enough for us to look around.”

A bell sounded throughout the house as they crept to the edge of the stairs. The second floor was a single room, filled with large, clean tables and tools neatly arranged along the walls. Shinmon sat hunched over something with his back to the stairs. Periodically he raised his head to look at a large parchment in front of him.

The man wore a long, well-fitted crimson trench coat. His hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail. Denri couldn’t see what he was working on, but his fine-fingered hands were adorned with a series of delicate tools.

The bell rang again and Shinmon startled. When he went downstairs, Denri would have an opportunity to search the workshop. But it wouldn’t be long. What to grab?

Shinmon stood and stretched his lanky frame. He pulled the instruments off his hands and turned to go down the stairs. He had a long, proud face.

Denri felt Aki’s alarm before the girl made a sound. A sudden rush of panic filled her mind and she called lightning on instinct. Time slowed as she turned towards the young girl beside her. Aki’s face was contorting with fear. Denri’s hand shot out, lightning quick, clamping over Aki’s mouth and muffling her cry of alarm.

Aki pulled back, but Denri held her firm until the initial shock wore off. Eventually she calmed enough that Denri let her go.

He’s the one who kidnapped me. The words came with a flash of pain and fear that made Denri’s heart beat fast. Aki’s sudden desire to run was almost a physical aura around her.

Denri swallowed, trying to overcome the fear she felt from Aki. She pulled the girl close and whispered in her ear. “Don’t worry, kid. He doesn’t know we’re here.”

Aki made a sound, half whimper and half growl. Like a cornered animal wavering between fight and flight. “I don’t want to go with him again.”

Denri pressed her forehead against Aki’s. “You know I’d never let him take you. This is good. If it’s the man who came to your village, he definitely has answers.” She could feel Aki shaking in her arms.

A new emotion blossomed within Denri, replacing the fear. Anger. She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to stay in place as Shinmon and his guest returned.

“Some fool girl smashed it on the ground. But the Arbiters are out looking for her and her friend now. Bunch of tasteless brutes.”

“I don’t have time to make you a replacement, Yotogi. I’ll only be docked a few days.”

The pair walked into the shop and returned to the table Shinmon had been using. Yotogi sat in a stool, the portly man crossing one leg over the other with a petulant look on his face. Shinmon was already dawning his instruments again, returning to his work.

“A few days? But you only just got here.”

“There was a… setback in acquiring the girl. She was lost. I want to get the other waypoints in place ahead of schedule, in order to assuage Lord Sadashi’s displeasure.”

Denri strained her ears for every word, trying to make sense of them. She thought they were talking about Aki. What was this about waypoints?

Yotogi tsk‘ed loudly. “Well while you try to cover for your own mistakes, I’m suffering. Do you have any idea how stressful it is, being here alone? It’s getting harder to find all the information the Lord wants. The Twins have been suspicious of me ever since they caught me wandering while I built the Dragon’s Roar. They still need my equipment, but even the scatterbrained one watches me from the corner of his eye.”

“Your comfort is unimportant. All that matters is success.”

Yotogi gave a wounded look. “Well, my comfort is certainly important to me. You would think the Lord would offer at least a modicum of consideration for my efforts. I was the one who discovered the Stone, after all. If this crazy scheme fails, I’d at least like to enjoy my final days with some company.”

Shinmon paused in his work and looked at Yotogi. “Just be patient a bit longer. The plan is going to work. We’re close.”

Yotogi’s face sobered. He leaned forward in the stool, the wood creaking beneath his weight. “What have you seen?”

“I was skeptical when you first told me. But the children’s powers are as strong as we hoped.”

Yotogi gasped. “All of them?”

Shinmon shook his head. “More than we expected, though. At least half are capable of forming the bridge.”

“So many! Why worry about one girl, then?”

Shinmon exhaled, sounding frustrated. “It seems some of the gods’ powers are more taxing to wield than others. They can form the bridge, but transferring even a single person burns away their mind. The power remains, but it can no longer be focused. They’ll still serve as waypoints, but the girl was the only one I found strong enough to sustain the network for the numbers we want.”

“What if we can’t find another like her, then?”

Shinmon waved a hand dismissively. “She will be found. The Lord hunts her as we speak.”

Denri tried to comprehend what the two men were saying. The waypoints were children like Aki, it seemed. But they weren’t talking about these kids controlling monsters. There was a different power. A power that drove the children who used it mad. And they wanted to make Aki use it too.

Denri’s anger returned. She stood, reaching for her resonance without thinking. But a hand at her shoulder stopped her. Aki shook her head fearfully.

Yotogi let out a long breath. “Well. I suppose I can suffer on a bit longer. Will you need any help in preparing the other waypoints?”

“I’ll have you send on some of my equipment to each of the cities. It would seem strange if I sent large shipments to so many places at once.”

“Very well, do you have the list of locations?”

“Yes, its in my notebook upstairs.” Shinmon waved a hand absently and Denri heard a solid click from the desk behind her. “In the third drawer of my desk. There’s paper on the table that you can use to copy the information down.”

“Do you mind if I flip through the rest of your observations as well?”

Shinmon grunted his ascent and returned to the work.

Denri was still standing, energy curling around her clenched fist. She wanted to beat the mens’ faces in. She wouldn’t let them get their hands on Aki.

Denri, please. He’s stronger than you think. Aki looked to the desk. He said he has a list of the– the waypoints. They’re my family too Denri. We can’t help them if he catches us.

Yotogi stood from the table and walked toward the stairs. Reluctantly, Denri stepped back. They walked to the desk and slid open the final drawer. Inside was a thick, leather notebook and a stack of loosely bound papers that looked like correspondence.

Beneath the papers and the notebook was a smooth, opalescent stone the size of Denri’s thumb. The stone was regularly shaped, with flat planes like a gem. When Denri lifted it, the color inside the stone began to swirl. She stared for a moment, transfixed. It felt like the stone was calling to her.

Aki shook her shoulder, returning Denri to the present. She tucked the stone into a hidden pocket along the seam of her jacket, then tucked the papers and notebook under another arm.

“Alright, no time to waste. Let’s get out of here.”

Aki returned to her cat form and leapt onto the desk. Denri reached towards the window to unlock it. As she grabbed the latch, it felt like reaching through pudding. Denri glanced down and realized that her hand was warped just like the glass of the window. Her perspective shifted.

The glass itself wasn’t distorted. There was a layer of congealed air, shifting and swirling a hair’s breadth in front of the window. Denri snapped her hand back, but it was too late. The swirling air exploded outward, shattering the window and knocking Denri and Aki backwards. They crashed into the bookshelf on the other side of the room.

Denri groaned as she stumbled to her feet. There was a cry of surprise from below, followed by the staccato beat of feet rushing up the stairs.

Shinmon cursed. “The alarm!”

“Well, there goes subtlety.” Denri scooped up Aki’s cat form and charged towards the window. Before she made it halfway across the room, a blast of wind threw her back into the bookshelf. The wind continued to blow, holding her in place.

Shinmon called from below. He sounded like he was rushing up the stairs now, too. “I’m holding them, but we must deal with this quickly. On a night like this, the Arbiters will be on us in seconds to ask about that noise.”

Denri growled through gritted teeth. “You aren’t holding anyone.” She pulled lightning into her body and charged forward. The wind intensified, but she continued putting one foot in front of the other, lips peeled back in a grimace.

Shinmon cried out on the stairs below, his voice heavy with exertion. “Whoever it is, they’re strong. Hurry!”

Yotogi reached the top of the stairs at the same time Denri reached the window. She arced a bolt of lightning at his head, sending a large portion of the ceiling crashing down on him and the stairs. Then she threw herself into the night sky.

With her body supercharged, the three story fall took ages. Denri rolled to absorb the momentum. But even with increased strength, she felt a bad pop in her leg as she landed. She yelped as she placed weight on the leg.

Aki jumped from Denri’s shoulder and her cat form grew. Denri gritted her teeth, leaning against Aki and limping forward.

They made it across the bridge before they heard Shinmon and Yotogi bursting through the front door. At the same time, Denri heard the metal clamor of Arbiters fast approaching. They cut left, ducking through an alley as they fled the sounds.

Denri’s leg was white hot agony. She did her best to ignore it, filling her muscles with energy, but she still moved slowly. The Arbiters were getting closer.

They stumbled into a park, looking wildly for the next path. Denri’s heart sank. Arbiters covered both exits. They turned, but the Arbiters had caught up behind as well. At least there was no sign of Shinmon or Yotogi.

Denri and Aki moved to the center of the grass, their backs to one another. Denri pulled the three metal rods from her belt. On a normal day, against a single patrol, she might have been able to hold them off. But with her leg hurt, and with every Arbiter in the city looking for them…

“I’ll try to make an opening. Get ready to run.”

Denri charged all three rods, then threw one in the air. She pulsed energy through the metal in her hands, sending the airborne rod screaming forward to punch through armor with a loud thwack.

At the same time, the two rods in her hands leapt away from each other. She let one go, sending it flying into the patrol to their right. There was a pained grunt and one of the Arbiter’s fell.

Denri shot an arc of lightning towards the group in front of them, but a soldier at the front caught the bolt with their blade. Denri pulled her rods back to her hands, then sent them whirring out again.

She fought with everything she had. The pain in her body melted away as she lost herself in the fight. Metal whirred through the air and lightning cracked through the night. The Arbiters looked at her with fear, but they kept coming nonetheless. Every time she brought one down, they rose back to their feet in an instant. More patrols flooded in, drawn by the fighting.

Eventually, they reached her. She caught their swords, sending bursts of energy into her weapons to repel them. She threw the back of her hand into one of the Arbiter’s faceplates, collapsing it in a bloody mess.

Aki fought as well, lashing out with a wild fury that held the Arbiters back nearly as well as Denri’s lightning. Together they held.

The square filled with enemies. Reinforcements were responding faster than Denri and Aki could push them back. The Arbiter’s swords started to find their mark, scoring wounds along Denri’s arms and side, cutting into Aki’s feline shoulders.

Denri stumbled under a sudden blast of wind. But it wasn’t directed at her. It tore outwards, knocking the Arbiters back. The Protectors tried to close again but another blast knocked them away, clearing a path toward one of the bridges.

Denri saw Shinmon hiding in an alley, his face a mask of fury and exertion. She had a moment of confusion until she realized. He needed Aki alive.

The Arbiters were closing the gap again. No time to hesitate. “Aki, get small!” Aki shrank without question and Denri grabbed her. She pulled every ounce of lightning she could into her legs. “It’s gonna be up to you after this, kid.”

Denri leapt forward so hard the ground beneath her feet buckled. She felt her leg break under the strain. Then they were flying through the gap that Shinmon had made. The Arbiter’s struggled against the wind, but they weren’t going to make it in time.

Denri felt an unbelieving thrill. They were going to make it.

A bolt of lightning struck the ground directly in their path. She had just enough time to realize that it wasn’t hers before the bolt materialized into a man.

His features were obscured by the crackling energy around him, but Denri could make out a manic grin that split his face. Then he was catching her out of the air, the muscles along his arm flaring as he spun, absorbing their momentum and crashing them into the ground.


You can read the next story in this series here.