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The fire popped and crackled with a simple-minded abandon. Aki shuffled around the edge of camp, eyes closed and nose sniffing. Eizo sat on a stump in front of the flames, oiling and sharpening a blade given to him by the tengu. Onara had claimed half his seat.
It was a happy scene. For crazy people.
Denri huddled as close to the fire as she could, Shiri curled in her lap. No matter how close she got to the fire, she couldn’t quite stop shivering. She flinched at the steady scrrrtch of Eizo’s whetstone against steel.
“Do you have to do that every night? It’s driving me crazy.”
Eizo’s hands paused and he looked up. “Probably not. It’s mostly a matter of habit. But you never know when it could make the difference.” His voice took on the tone of an old mantra. “Dull blade, dead Blade.” He chuckled to himself.
“Well it’s putting my nerves on edge. It sounds… predatory.”
“Perhaps you could do something to take your mind off of it. Have you tried training?”
Denri held her hands up and a feeble stutter of sparks flashed across her fingers. “Can’t focus.”
A crash of leaves behind them pulled Denri’s head around fast enough to cramp her neck.
“No fair!” Aki had fallen face first into a low bush. She squirmed and struggled until she was on her back, breathing hard from the exertion. Her arms and face were covered in scratches from the bramble.
You said to make it a challenge, mistress. Hattori perched on a branch above Aki’s shrub prison. He dropped down to pull her free. You did very well to find my general location.
“I wasn’t expecting you to go up! It’s hard enough figuring out direction with my nose.” It was strange to watch a teenager pouting like a small child. “I don’t want to play anymore today.”
Aki shook her head like she was clearing away cobwebs. In Denri’s lap, Shiri did the same, opening his eyes and stretching. Aki gave him a pet on the head as she dropped down by the fire. “Thanks for the help, Shiri.”
Hattori stood by the edge of camp, looking uncertain. Maybe. Denri still couldn’t really tell.
I am sorry mistress, I will be more careful next time.
Eizo gave Aki a stern look. She stared back stubbornly for a moment, chin thrust out. Eventually she wilted and waved a hand to Hattori. “It’s OK. I’m sorry I lost my temper.” She patted the ground beside her. “You should come sit by the fire.” Hattori nodded and joined.
Denri puffed her cheeks and let out a long sigh through pursed lips. She tried to lose herself in the flames again. It had been a week since they left the tengu village. A week pressing on through the foggy, overgrown wilderness that stretched across most of Yosai.
There had been a couple close calls. One outright fight with a one-tailed kitsune. But on the whole they had avoided the worst of the dangers. Aki’s mysterious connection to monsters was getting stronger. Every day she could sense them further away.
Relatively speaking, they were having an uneventful journey. And after the first few days without incident, the others had found a rhythm. Denri had not.
Spending a month in the tengu village had helped. When they fought the kitsune, she kept her head enough to fight. But she couldn’t relax during the in-between moments like the others. The constant nerves suppressed her powers.
She hated the fear. Life in Terminus hadn’t been easy, but she liked who she had become there. The old fears dredged up by monsters made her feel like that bold, trusting girl had never really existed. Just a mask worn by a broken girl who failed her family when they needed her most.
A mask worn so long she fooled herself into thinking it was real.
Denri smacked her cheeks, blinking against the sting. Right now she was brave or she wasn’t. No point tying herself up in knots worrying about it. She knew where she wanted to aim for the future and that’s all that mattered.
Eizo watched her across the fire. “There is a mental exercise we learned as Blades to help cope with fear. Would you like to hear it?”
Denri looked at Eizo with her hands still on her cheeks, stretching her face down as she responded. “I’ll try anything at this point.”
“The key is to deconstruct the thing you are scared of into smaller and smaller parts until it ceases to be something you fear.”
“When you fear something, you ascribe more power to it than it actually has. Breaking it down helps you remember that, fundamentally, it’s just as mundane as we are.
“You fear the monsters in the wilderness. Labeled as ‘monsters’, they are something that inspires terror. But they are also just a head, a torso, and limbs. And those are nothing more than skin, flesh, blood, mucus, and bone. No different than you or I.”
Denri made a face. “Ew.”
Aki looked up from the fire. “Do you feel any better?”
“No, now I’m just imagining a big goopy ball of flesh and blood coming to crush me…” She let out another long sigh. This was pointless. “I’ll get over it eventually. It’s just taking a bit of time.
“Let’s talk about something else to take my mind off of it. What’s our plan once we make it to the water? How are we getting to Kazora?”
Eizo finished oiling his blade and sheathed it. Onara immediately jumped into his lap. He was still as stone while she spun and kneaded his legs. When the cat laid down and closed her eyes again, Eizo sighed in relief. He began to pet her carefully while he spoke.
“The Twins do business with every major town in Yosai, selling weapons and technology in exchange for raw materials. The payments of raw materials come in through a port at the base of the Sky Furnace.
“That port is chaotic at the best of times. If we can get passage on a ship heading that way, it shouldn’t be hard to slip into the city without drawing attention.”
Denri brightened. “A bit of time at sea sounds great to me.”
Aki frowned. “Why do we have to be unnoticed? Why can’t we just tell everyone we’re in the Tournament and then nobody can mess with us?”
Eizo shook his head. “There’s more to it than that. Right now none of us have bounties. Our first challenge is going to determine a lot about our chances of winning.”
Denri nodded, but Aki looked completely lost. “Kid, how much do you actually know about how the Tournament works?”
“I know enough! You fight and get strong and then the strongest have a big battle to decide who’s the winner.”
“Well… I mean yeah, in broad strokes…”
“But perhaps a more thorough understanding would be helpful. The ‘big battle’ you referenced is officially known as the True Combat. Every 50 years, the 12 highest ranked Heroes - the Sanyaku - come together for a final confrontation to determine who wins the Tournament.
“Our goal is more or less what you said, Aki. One of us must earn a high enough bounty to join the Sanyaku and win the True Combat three years from now. But three years is not a lot of time.”
“Yeah! So we need to start fighting!”
Aki groaned. “Why not?”
“The bounty that determines your ranking is set by those who run the Tournament and there are only two ways it can go up.
“The most common way is to complete quests submitted by ordinary people. Someone comes to the Tournament officials with a task and a reward for completing it. The officials rank the difficulty, then make it available to Heroes.
“But most of these quests are low-ranked. Ordinary people have ordinary problems. And the rare high-ranking quest usually goes to stronger competitors with higher bounties. Increasing your ranking through quests is a slow process.
“The other way to increase your ranking is by challenging Kami.”
“What are Kami?”
“Kami are anyone, or anything, directly affiliated with the gods. That includes the gods themselves, all the past Tournament Champions, and the monsters created by the gods.
“If a Kami wants to attack a Hero in the Tournament, they must first offer a challenge at the level of the Hero’s bounty. Which means completing these challenges also increases your bounty slowly.”
Aki pulled up a patch of moss in frustration. “That’s not fair! Every way is slow then.”
Eizo nodded wearily. “Now you see our problem. The Tournament was designed to control the growth of the Five Races, not foster it. But there is one moment where we will have some agency.
“While we’re unranked, we get to choose the difficulty of our first challenge. Which means we can pick something that would set our starting bounty much higher.
“Right now the two of you are getting stronger much faster than bounties typically grow. Until that changes, we should try to stay unranked.”
Aki was still looking at the ground, digging in the dirt sulkily. “It’s still annoying. I’m tired of hiding and running away!”
Eizo sighed. “Believe me, we’re going to have plenty of excitement soon enough. Once people know what the two of you can do, things will never be quiet again.”
Three days later they stepped out of the trees and Denri released her two-week-long held breath.
They stood atop a hillside sloping gently toward the coast a mile away. Well-manicured terraces walked like giant steps toward a modest village huddled by the sea.
She couldn’t hear it yet, but the sight and smell of the ocean filled Denri with an energy she hadn’t had years. Nothing felt like home more than a good boat with a solid wind at your back.
Before the others could react, Denri let out a whoop and started bounding towards the village.
Aki squealed. “It’s a race! Come on Hattori!” The crow tengu jumped into the air and flew lazy circles overhead.
It is nice to spread my wings again.
Eizo called out behind them to be careful. He was completely ignored.
A few terraces down, a trail began. Standing ankle-deep in one of the rice paddies by the path was a short, sturdy woman plainly dressed. She stood with her hands at the small of her back, unconcerned as she watched Hattori circle through the air. She raised a hand and waved at Denri.
The woman exuded a simple warmth that pulled a smile to Denri’s face. She walked up to the woman. “Hi!”
The woman nodded to Hattori in the air. “Is that one with you lot, or should I be worried?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah!” A monster flying overhead was probably not the best way to approach a new town. The woman seemed to be taking it well enough, though.
“He’s nothing to worry about. Hattori!” Denri gestured at the ground aggressively.
“You must be part of Ninigi’s lot then. I’ve never known one of the crow tengu to have a name before. Or white feathers for that matter…”
The woman didn’t look suspicious. But somehow Denri felt like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
“Oh! Um, yeah he was born weird.” Denri looked over her shoulder desperately. The others were still catching up. “We’re not allied with Ninigi, though.”
She realized she had no idea what this woman or this town’s affiliation might be. “Not that we don’t like him or anything! That’s just not why Hattori’s with us. We… saved him from the rest of his flock. They attacked him. Because he was born so weird. I’m sorry if he scared you. We’ll make sure he doesn’t go flying overhead anymore.”
The woman held up a hand, chuckling. “No need to worry, friend. I was just curious, is all.” She nodded to Hattori as he landed. “Where do you hail from?”
“Terminus!” Denri blurted the answer without thinking, then nearly clamped her hand over her mouth. The woman seemed so honest. And they had been in the wilderness so long. Denri was desperate to trust someone again.
Eizo and Aki caught up at last and the woman nodded. “Greetings. Your friend tells me you all made your way here from Terminus.”
Eizo frowned and looked to Denri, but she was preemptively staring at the ground in shame. He nodded reluctantly. “That’s true.”
“Awful far from home. You lot must be Heroes to make it over the mountains in one piece. What’s your bounties?”
“We’re not Heroes. We hired a party to take us this far, but they weren’t interested in coming into town so we parted ways yesterday.”
The woman’s head tilted sideways a fraction, looking at Eizo with curiosity.
“Hey!” Aki pointed a finger at her. “She’s doing something in our heads. I can feel it!”
Eizo looked back to the woman and placed a hand on the hilt of his sword.
The woman held up her hands. “Whoa, whoa! Alright, you caught me. Sorry to pry, but you can never be too careful when strangers come spilling out of the woods. I’m just keeping an eye out on behalf of my village. Can’t fault someone for that.”
Eizo didn’t take his hand off his sword. The woman did not look particularly concerned.
“We’re all being careful, yeah? You lot aren’t just hapless travelers. Not coming as far as you did. With a tengu tagging along to boot.”
She looked at Aki. “And one of you is a soul resonant like me. I’m going to guess the rest of you have powers too. So why don’t we start again? People call me Ki.” She held out her hand.
Eizo looked at it for a moment, then shook. “Eizo.” The rest of the group introduced themselves as well.
Aki looked confused as she shook the woman’s hand. “What’s a soul resonant?”
Ki smiled. “I’m surprised you don’t know, if you could sense what I was doing earlier. There’s two kinds of resonant bonds people can form. Elemental resonants bond with a source of natural energy and draw from it like a well. Soul resonants bond with living things and share thoughts and abilities between them.”
“Oh! Like how I can use Shiri’s smelling!”
“That’s right. Soul resonances can go both ways, so in this case I was sharing a bit of my trust in the hope of encouraging honesty.”
Aki looked at Eizo. “How come you didn’t tell me it’s called soul resonance?”
“Labels are far less important than the skills that will keep you alive.”
Ki looked at Eizo and nodded as though a suspicion had been confirmed. “You’re her teacher? I thought it felt like you had some mental training.”
Denri patted Aki’s shoulder. “Don’t worry kid, Eizo didn’t tell me squat either. I didn’t know the difference between an internal and external resonance until way after it was relevant.”
Ki laughed. “This one on the other hand. Like leading a pup with a strip of meat.” She winked at Aki. “Which element is your resonance?”
This time Denri actually did clamp her hand over her mouth. She glared at the woman.
Aki laughed and poked Denri in the side. “She got you! So can you turn into animals too?”
Ki shook her head. “Sadly, no. I’m a mind resonant, not body. It’s like how your friend here can only do internal or external. Only sparks have both types of soul resonance, just like only adepts can use internal and external.”
“Oh, right.” Aki had the sense not to say any more.
Ki looked sideways at Eizo. “I don’t want to interfere with your training, but if you folks were planning on staying a while, I wouldn’t mind showing Aki a few training exercises. I’m curious to see what the girl can do. You can stay here with me.”
“Really?” Aki looked to Eizo with excitement.
“That’s a very generous offer, but unfortunately we’ll have to decline. We were hoping to find passage on a ship as soon as possible.” Aki’s shoulders slumped.
“You’re sure I can’t convince you? I never met a person who couldn’t use a break after a long trek out there.”
“Quite sure, thank you. We really should be heading on, we don’t want to keep you from your work.”
Ki’s face took on a slight frown, becoming stern. “Well, see, that leaves me with a bit of a problem.”
Eizo’s hand returned to his sword, sensing the sudden shift in Ki’s tone. “What problem is that?”
“Well, you lot are clearly lying. You say you aren’t Heroes, but you made your way across half the continent and you’ve got at least two resonants in your party. Not to mention whatever training it is writ all over you and the way you move.
“You all seem like nice folks. I don’t mind one bit sharing some knowledge and helping you out, in exchange for letting me know what you can do. But you want to make a straight shot into my town, with who knows what kind of powers and what kind of motivations. So, one more time, do you want to tell me a bit more about yourselves?”
Denri felt a pit of fear form in her stomach. Ki suddenly loomed much taller. Only Eizo held his ground, though his hand tightened on his blade. He spoke carefully.
“I assure you, we are not Heroes and we mean your town no harm. If you are truly worried about our intentions, you are welcome to alert the authorities and they can watch us until we charter a ship and leave. Otherwise, I’m afraid we are done here.”
Ki shook her head, muttering to herself. “I don’t like when things go this way. Once we make it official, my hands are tied.” She looked Eizo square in the face, unblinking.
“I think you misunderstood what I meant by ‘my town’. Perhaps a better way of putting it is ‘my domain’.”
Eizo took a step back, his eyes widening. “I am sorry, I had no idea we were dealing with this town’s Champion. My apologies for my insolence before.”
“A bit late for that now. I am Kiyoshi of the Whispers and I ask as formal challenge, what are your bounties?”
Eizo raised a hand in a placating gesture. “We really don’t have bounties. Please, if you are adamant that we not enter your town untested, we will be on our way. We can find another port.”
Eizo’s concern only heightened the fear budding in Denri’s stomach. But why was she so afraid? She turned back to Kiyoshi. Without moving, the woman’s posture had somehow taken an ominous tone.
Denri bristled. “Champion or not, I don’t like you putting fear in my head.”
Kiyoshi smiled humorlessly. “I don’t put fear in your head, I only show what’s already there.”
“Denri, watch yourself. We are leaving.”
Denri looked over her shoulder at the wilderness behind them. Her heart sank at the thought of another night shivering in the darkness. Maybe Kiyoshi was right. Maybe fear was at her center.
Denri turned back toward the Champion, her jaw thrust forward. “I accept your challenge.”
Kiyoshi and Denri stood facing one another across a rice paddy, water coming just past their ankles.
“Since you’re unranked, you get to set the terms.”
Denri looked to Eizo. “You said go big, right?”
He shook his head violently. “You are not even remotely ready to take on a Champion. You must set the smallest terms possible.”
“Right, big it is.” Denri turned back to Kiyoshi before he could protest. “If I win, you let us into your town with no more questions asked.” Denri held a finger to her chin thoughtfully. “And you have to give us a place to stay and your protection if we request it in the future. Guaranteed safe harbor.”
Kiyoshi raised an eyebrow. “Well then. Unqualified protection is quite the request. If I win, then, you all must let me look through your heads until I am satisfied. No secrets. And if I find something that threatens my town, you all will become my prisoners for as long as I see fit.”
“Fair enough.” Denri wondered if Eizo would actually honor that deal if she lost. Or whether he would have a choice.
If Aki’s freedom is at stake, then I am honor bound to fight as well.
Eizo turned sharply towards Hattori. Ki seemed unsurprised. “I was wondering when you were going to say something.”
She nodded. “I could feel your awareness brushing up against mine throughout the conversation.”
I didn’t realize.
“I thought not. It takes a lot of training to mask your attention enough to hide from other mind resonants. To be honest, I was surprised how well the young one concealed herself given her inexperience.”
And you are not surprised by my ability?
She shrugged. “It’s weird for a tengu, sure. But I’ll have plenty of time to get my questions answered once I win. You’re welcome to join the fight.”
Hattori stepped off the path into the rice paddy beside Denri. They nodded to each other and turned back towards the Champion.
Eizo sat formally with his legs beneath himself. He had given up on stopping the challenge. Now he looked to be lost in thought. Probably thinking of contingency plans.
“Alright, now I know the stakes, I’ve got a sense for about how hard to go. Let’s begin.”
Denri staggered, her heart no longer beating in her chest. She fell to her hands and knees, vision swimming as she stared at the ground. Muddy water concealing her hands and reflecting the sky above her dully. She screwed her eyes shut and drew a desperate, panicked breath.
Air returned in a ragged, tearing gasp. With it, her sensations returned to normal. She coughed, breathing heavily. She stared at the water as she tried to recover.
Kiyoshi’s voice rang in front of her. “I’m impressed you managed to resist. Your friend, unfortunately… well, monsters have always been easier to control. Violence is in their nature.”
Denri stood, her hands shaking. She turned to Hattori, already knowing what she would see. The white tengu stood facing her, his eyes distant, his body crouched menacingly.
“Hattori, snap out of it!”
A wild screech filled her mind as the tengu flexed his arms at his sides. Talons extended from his fingertips. Denri took a step back. She knew his body was still changing from Aki’s awakening, but this was…
“Aki! Is there something you can do? You’re still connected to him! Force Kiyoshi out.”
Silence. Denri looked behind her and saw both Eizo and Aki laying unconscious on the path.
“The battle’s just begun, and you’re already asking for help? And what could the girl even do? Not a good sign. You’re all alone, Denri.”
Hattori leapt to the air, water droplets flying from his feet. He screeched again and dove towards her, the strength of his mental cry forcing Denri to grip the sides of her head in pain. Overwhelmed, she threw herself to the ground, narrowly avoiding his taloned feat.
She rolled through the water, dragging her hands through the mud to bring herself to a stop. She sent a burst of energy through the water, but Hattori was in the air before it could reach him.
“A storm-bringer. Rare. Though not so surprising for a flit, I guess.”
Hattori flew at her again, but this time she sidestepped his taloned feet and placed a hand on his side. His body tensed as she shocked him. Before she could pull away, he spun around and raked his new claws across her arm, drawing blood.
Denri flared the energy in her hand and his body went rigid, collapsing into the water. She leapt over him and ran towards Kiyoshi.
“Well done. But you don’t think that’s the only defense I have, do you?” Kiyoshi raised a hand, fingers dangling like a puppet master. The water in front of Denri shimmered and rose, taking the form of a human-sized, translucent snake. The remnants of rice plants and insects floated inside the water whip’s body.
Kiyoshi raised her other hand, directing it towards the woods by the field. Snarls filled the air as two weasels, each as large as Denri, burst from the trees, their bodies wreathed in flame. A hissing steam momentarily obscured them as they leapt into the water.
Denri shrank back as the creatures approached. She turned, only to see Hattori rise from the water, his screech filling her mind once more.
She spun, crying out as she arced electricity in all directions, hoping to keep the monsters back. Except the energy didn’t come. A feeble stutter of sparks slipped off her fingers. Denri looked at her hands in dismay. “No! What’s happening?”
A searing heat gripped her shoulder as one of the weasels knocked her to the ground, muddy water filling her eyes and mouth. Denri clambered forward through the muck, unable to see or hear as she scraped the water from her eyes. She pulled lightning into her body and leapt, trying desperately to get away.
She did not jump far. The surge of strength left her quickly, panic overwhelming her resonance. Denri pulled herself up the edge of the rice paddy, still coughing up water. The monsters turned and continued their approach.
“My, my. An adept even. No wonder you were confident.”
Denri tuned Kiyoshi out. She had to get the fear under control or she was dead. What did Eizo say? She willed herself to see the monsters for what they were.
The weasels were nothing but flesh. Just bigger versions of creatures she had seen countless times. Their fur was no different than normal fur. And their claws. And teeth. And flames wreathing their bodies.
Denri grabbed her head. Calm down!
A thick tendril of water snapped out, grabbing her foot and pulling her bodily back into the water. Denri’s cry was cut short as she was dragged through the shallow water.
She came to a stop at Hattori’s feet, the water snake pinning her legs and torso. The weasels held her wrists, their claws painfully hot. Denri sent an energy pulse all around her. Nothing more than a few sparks danced across her body.
Hattori flexed his hands, talons out. He took a step towards her.
Denri’s mind raced a thousand miles. She forced a deep breath. She couldn’t give up. Hattori was a crow tengu. Eizo broke his arm and Aki healed him. He was not invincible.
Hattori knelt down. He reached for her neck.
She had trained with him. He was clumsy with his feet, easy to knock off balance. Denri had beat him many times. He was just feathers and flesh and blood. Nothing made him stronger or faster than her.
His talons wrapped around her throat, she felt the sharp points digging into her skin, drawing blood. Denri closed her eyes.
He was not some unstoppable evil force. He was frustrated when he couldn’t fight with his brothers. He was hurt when his village no longer saw him as a tengu. He was lonely and vulnerable, uncertain of what he had become, which part of himself was real.
He was just like her.
Denri took a deep breath. Her eyes snapped open, shining blue as lighting erupted from her hands. It crackled and tore across the water, seeming to rip the air apart around her.
She blinked, and she was standing, lightning arcing wildly off her body. The monsters were gone. Her body was clean and dry, the water of the rice paddy placid around her ankles.
To her right, Hattori knelt in the water, his beak tucked to his chest and his eyes closed. His body twitched randomly.
“Yes! Keep fighting, Denri. Get up!” Aki called from behind them, her voice full of frustration.
Realization struck her all at once. She turned back to Kiyoshi, quieting the lightning that danced across her body. “None of it was real?”
Kiyoshi stood, arms crossed and smirking. “I am Kiyoshi of the Whispers after all.” She threw up her hands. “The challenge was to overcome your fears and escape, and you did. A little melodramatically, but a win is a win. Well, half a win.”
Kiyoshi raised her hand in a vicious claw, pointing at Hattori. Denri didn’t know what would happen, but it didn’t look good for the tengu. She raised her hand and arced a bolt of lightning at the Champion.
It passed straight through Kiyoshi’s chest. The Champion’s form shimmered and faded. Movement caught Denri’s eye to her right, behind Hattori.
“You didn’t think I only had the one trick, did you?” Kiyoshi materialized from the air, aiming a knife at Hattori’s back.
Without thinking, Denri charged her legs and jumped. She collided with Hattori, pushing him away as Kiyoshi struck. She felt the agonizing burn as the metal pierced her skin. Felt the cold dread as she saw the blade bury itself to the hilt in her heart.
And then the blade was gone. Kiyoshi was holding her by the front of her shirt, pulling her out of the water of the paddy.
Denri’s chest still burned, her head and arms felt tingly and brittle. She flailed away from the Champion.
“Whoa! Easy there. Your body’s OK. But a hit like that is going to leave your head pretty shaky for a while.”
Denri staggered back, eyes white and wild. Hattori was pulling himself up from the water slowly.
Kiyoshi’s eyes scrunched closed as she smiled. “Congratulations, you won.”
Denri sat with a blanket around her shoulders. Every few minutes she grabbed some nearby object, proving to herself it was real.
They sat around a table in Kiyoshi’s home. It was a single room, with a wood stove and several jars of pickled winter vegetables on one side. A straw bed filled the opposite wall. Not what Denri would have expected for the home of a Champion.
Kiyoshi handed her a cup of tea. “For what it’s worth, I was rooting for you.”
Denri looked at her with mouth open. “That was rooting for me?”
“I said I didn’t want to handle it officially. Once a challenge has been made I can’t hold back. But the world is dangerous. More than once my people have been hurt trusting folks just because they had a nice face. I had to be certain.”
Aki made a face. “You’re just being nice because we won and you have to let us in anyways!”
Kiyoshi laughed. “Well, that’s only partly right. True, Denri won–”
But I failed.
Kiyoshi nodded. “By right, I could collect the terms against Hattori. And since he said he was fighting on behalf of Aki, I could examine both of your minds.”
The Champion held up a hand before they could say anything else. “But! The way Denri handled her fears, finding common ground and then taking a knife for someone, I figure I don’t have anything to worry about. I’m satisfied.”
There was a long silence. Hattori stared toward the table.
I am sorry for my weakness.
Denri watched him. She could read the doubt written in his slumped shoulders. He had been standing up for them. Trying to prove his worth. Not to them, but himself.
The tengu’s expressions didn’t seem so alien anymore.
Denri clapped his shoulder, putting on a smile. “Being completely honest, I didn’t really break out either. I had no idea it was an illusion. Even once I escaped, I still fell for all her tricks. I just got lucky that the fear made my powers stop working. It gave me a reason to try to calm down. Dumb luck.”
Still. I was not strong enough to help. The tengu was silent for a long moment before he turned his eyes on Kiyoshi. You offered to train Aki, but perhaps you would train me instead?
Aki was the first to speak. “She can’t train you, Eizo said we have to keep going.”
I was thinking I could stay behind, if Kiyoshi is willing.
Aki looked hurt. “Are you mad because I yelled at you for hiding in the tree?”
I am not mad, mistress. Hattori looked down at his hands. But if I cannot fight the way I was raised, I want to understand these new powers inside me.
Aki shook her head, tears spilling down her cheeks. “You’re part of our family, you can’t leave! I’m sorry I haven’t been helping you practice. Next time we play I can hide and you can look for me.”
Hattori shook his head. People will notice my presence if I go into Sky Furnace. But I can rejoin you when you return. It won’t be that long. And perhaps I will learn something to teach you as well. Hattori turned back to Kiyoshi. Would you accept me as a student for a time?
“Sure, I figure if I could spare time for the girl I could spare time for you just as well. You’re gonna have to help around the fields though.”
Hattori bowed his head. Yes, I am happy to help with your daily work. Thank you.
“No need to thank. It’ll be interesting.” Kiyoshi chuckled. “Who’s ever heard of a tengu helping around the house?”
Hattori turned back to the group. I will wait here while you all explore Sky Furnace. If you cannot return to this town directly, Aki can let me know.
Kiyoshi cocked her head at the last part, but said nothing.
Aki looked at Hattori, her expression fragile. “You promise you’re not trying to leave us?”
Hattori pressed his forehead against hers. I promise. She nodded weakly.
Eizo stood from the table. “I hate to be brief, but we really must take our leave.” He held his hand out to Hattori. “If all goes well, you won’t have much time. Train hard.” As Hattori shook, Eizo held his gaze for a moment. “And stay guarded.”
Tears were flowing freely down Aki’s cheeks as she wrapped her arms around the tengu’s neck. When she was done, he turned to Denri.
When you return, I hope to be a better match in our training sessions.
Denri nodded. “I’m still going to hit you in the face, but it would be nice if it was a more interesting challenge.”
“What! We’re being manly. He gets it.” Denri turned back to Hattori and gave him a quick hug. “Good luck.”
Denri stood at the bow of the boat, grinning as the salt spray splashed against her face. Her stomach lurched pleasantly with the rise and fall of the waves. She thought of her parents and smiled.
The ship had no sail, yet somehow it cut forward through the water. Not as fast as the sailboat she grew up on, but it kept a reasonable pace. It felt strange to be traveling against the wind.
Weirder still was the body of the boat itself. Gone were the sleek, wooden lines she had known. Thin and light like a needle for cutting through the waves. The vessel they hitched a ride on was chunky, with metal plating and a lot of noisy, moving parts.
They didn’t have any coin, so working for passage was their only option. The only reason the captain accepted their offer was because Denri was a flit with experience at sea. As much as she wanted to spend the day leaning over the railing staring at the water, Denri had the most weight to pull to earn their keep. She sighed and hopped down from the ledge.
Her work was mostly odd jobs filling gaps in the regular crew. She spent some time helping with the cargo, moving newly acquired heavy items into the lower hold while bringing forward the raw materials to be offloaded at Sky Furnace. When that was done, she helped retie some rigging that had gone astray in a storm a few days ago.
Nearly everyone was a flit. She’d spent so long in Terminus, dodging knees and careless hands, that being surrounded by her kind was jarring at first. Everything here was sized for her. Everyone shared the same sun-darkened skin. The sea was home.
Every ship had it’s own dialect, but they always followed the same utilitarian logic: clear and concise. No time for shades of grey in the middle of a storm. After a couple hours, Denri had picked up the vernacular, walking with a wide stance and joking with the rest of the crew.
Eizo was doing his best to fit in, though his tall frame was especially conspicuous. She had lost count of how many times the poor man thunked his head trying to duck under something. It almost wasn’t funny anymore. To avoid further head injury, he stuck to one place, shoveling peat into a furnace that somehow powered the ship.
Aki had proven so immediately useless, and seasick, that the captain excused her from duty. She hung over the railing at the stern, alternating between petting the cats and puking her guts out. The town had long ago faded from sight, but occasionally she looked into the distance morosely. Hattori’s absence still stung.
Denri gave one final tug against some netting that she was retying to the side of the boat, then pulled herself back over the railing. As she landed on the deck, she saw the captain walking by and caught her attention.
The captain was a flit woman an inch or two taller than Denri. Her dark skin was leathery, with a web of weather-worn wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Her black, frizzy hair erupted from beneath an oversized cap.
The woman was dressed eclectically. A heavy, body-length coat, frequently patched, hung over a loud, billowing shirt and tight trousers. It was a throwback to the days when flits spent more time pirating than transporting goods for the Five Races.
Despite the interesting garb, Captain Hama was plain in speech. As the one who handled negotiations at port, she was also the only crew member who didn’t speak much sailor’s cant.
“I was curious about the ship. My family bounced a pretty small route when I was young, but still, I never saw anything like it.”
“Aye, south east. Mostly along Stormcatcher Bay.”
The captain whistled. “Tough bounce, that one.” Denri felt a moment of pride. “I imagine you wouldn’t have seen any hot-irons in an area that angry. These girls are clunky. Can’t flow with the storms since we’re not catching the wind.”
“That part confuses me. How do the hot-irons move? I see my friend stoking a fire and they say somehow that’s doing it.”
“I don’t much understand it myself. Nobody really does except the Twins and the bookworms they’ve got floating around them. Basic principle is simple enough, though. We keep a fire going under a big pot of water. That water turns to steam, which spins a wheel under the ship. The wheel pushes us forward. When that stops working, we go back to Sky Furnace and they get it going again.”
“Sky Furnace builds the hot-irons?”
The captain nodded. “Sailboats couldn’t carry the heavy loads the bookworms wanted. And the wind was too unreliable for their tastes. So they did what they always do, built something to do it better.
“For a while now they’ve been giving a hot-iron to any crew willing to bounce a certain number of supply runs to the Sky Furnace each year. It’s a pretty good deal.”
“You must’ve been to Kazora a lot then.”
“Going on 10 years now.”
“What’s it like?”
The captain laughed. “I don’t wanna ruin the spectacle if you’re going in fresh. Trust me, the surprise is worth it. There’s nothing quite like Sky Furnace. You’ll need to buy masks, though.”
“Everyone wears masks in Sky Furnace. Don’t worry, they sell ‘em in port for people who want to enter the city.”
“It’s supposed to minimize emotion. They bring in bookworms from all over Yosai with all kinds of ideals. They’ve gotta be pretty careful to avoid conflict.”
Denri tried to imagine a completely emotionless society. All she saw was a bunch of Eizos walking around stiffly, nodding to each other sternly in passing. She shivered. “That sounds horrible.”
The captain shrugged and spit over the railing. “Can’t argue with the results. Sky Furnace is one of the most powerful cities in Yosai.”
The voyage was a relatively short one. Kazora was on Seki, the desolate, volcanic island in Yosai’s northwest. Kiyoshi’s town was directly across the strait that separated Seki from the mainland. It only took four days for Sky Furnace to appear on the horizon. Denri was glad the captain didn’t spoil the surprise.
At first, she didn’t know what they were looking at. A mountain loomed, obscured through haze. The summit was lopsided.
A little closer, the mountain began to glow. A billowing cloud poured from the top. A volcano.
Denri hadn’t seen many volcanoes in her life, but she had spotted a few in the distance as the four of them crossed the mountains. She was pretty sure their summits weren’t supposed to look like what she was seeing now.
A bit closer and Denri realized the summit was moving. Swaying ever so slightly with an unseen breeze. She asked the captain about it.
Captain Hama laughed again. “You’ll see.”
Soon the volcano dominated the horizon. Denri had to crane her head backward to see the summit.
Kazora was a massive, active volcano. Lava ran down its sides in lazy rivers, casting a dull red under-glow to the surroundings. At its base, shielded from the lava runs by a high metal wall and overflowing with hot-irons, was the port. It filled a crescent bay edge to edge, and Denri couldn’t see a single dock that was empty. Even from a distance the chaos of loading and unloading cargo was audible.
At the back of the port was a thick metal cable. Following it up through the ash and haze, the summit finally clicked into place. Denri gasped.
Sky Furnace wasn’t on the volcano. It was above it.
Giant, oblong balloons - Hama called them zeppelins - floated in the air over the summit. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, tethered in small groups like clusters of grapes. Some were connected by narrow bridges. Others were connected by large, flat platforms making a single surface.
On top of the zeppelins were buildings and parks. One even had a fountain spraying water over its edges with a basin underneath to catch the flow. It had all the pieces of a city, just thousands of feet in the air.
A handful of zeppelins around the edges were in the process of undocking from the city, taking their buildings and parks with them.
“Whaaaa…?” Denri turned to see Aki standing beside her, slack jawed. The girl’s arm was half raised, like she intended to point but lost the train of thought halfway through.
Eizo walked up behind them, looking upward stoically. “Quite the sight, isn’t it?”
“‘Quite the sight’? ‘Quite the sight’? It’s a fairy tale in real life! Look at this place!”
“Yes, it makes a strong impression.”
Denri shook her head as she looked back to the sky. “Unbelievable. Does anything get a reaction out of you?”
The captain returned to the deck after delivering orders to her crew. “We’ll wait here for a dock to open up. Shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. We aren’t staying long and it sounded like you all had business skyward. I can give you the names of some good captains for the return journey, if you’d like.”
Eizo nodded to the woman. “Yes, if you wouldn’t mind.” When she left, he spoke softly so as not to be overheard. “Kiyoshi promised to wait as long as she could before reporting Denri’s battle. I figure that gives us about two weeks at the most before Denri’s bounty is announced. We must be off of Sky Furnace by then.”
Aki turned from the spectacle back to Eizo reluctantly. “How come?”
“A high starting bounty this close to the end of the Tournament is going to draw a lot of attention. The Sanyaku don’t like Heroes upsetting the rankings this late. There’s going to be a lot of attention around the circumstances of the fight, and the details will only raise more questions. An adept, traveling with a strange tengu and a young soul resonant is going to be curious.”
Denri knocked her knuckles against the railing. “Won’t that be a problem anywhere we go?”
“To some degree, yes. But nothing is as dangerous as being near the Twins when they decide that you are ‘curious’.”
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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