Just over a day into their journey together, Toshi decided Kobo was not such a bad traveling companion after all. The hulking bald monk hardly ever spoke, carried more than his share of the supplies, and kept up every step of the way. Together they made steady progress across the edge of the mountainous badlands until the road grew soft and loamy and saplings struggled to rise above the hard, beige dirt.
Toshi had dropped back behind Kobo, who was clearly more familiar with the route. Now, as the youth hesitated, Toshi urged him on with an impatient wave of his hand.
“I’m out of my element from here on,” he said. “You take the lead.”
Kobo grunted. He adjusted his pack and strode forward, his big feet leaving deep prints in the soggy grass.
They continued to march until midday. After they stopped for water and a chaw of jerked meat that Toshi didn’t examine too closely, he said, “How much farther until we hit the tree line?”
Kobo shaded his eyes with his hand. “Not far.”
“How long, then?”
“Before sundown.” The big monk loped off again. Toshi choked back the rest of his canteen and hustled to catch up.
As they walked, he tested the ogre’s apprentice, slowly closing the gap between them. Earlier he had established that Kobo had limited peripheral vision on his left side, probably a result of the damaged eye socket. His hearing was excellent, however, and that seemed to help compensate. The ochimusha let his foot scrape against a stone as he passed it, and Kobo’s head immediately jerked to the left.
“It’s just me,” Toshi said.
“I know,” Kobo replied. He glared at Toshi from the corner of his eye as he hiked, then turned his attention back to the trail.
Toshi didn’t exactly admire Kobo, but he respected anyone who could withstand Hidetsugu’s abusive training regimen for five years. Now that they were all linked by the hyozan, he wondered if the o-bakemono would ease up on the youth’s physical punishment. He quickly scanned Kobo’s back and shoulders, taking in the network of scars and half-healed lacerations. He smelled the still-fresh hyozan brand in angry red on Kobo’s breast and decided that if anything, Hidetsugu would be an even sterner taskmaster from now on.
Hours later, they stepped through a curtain of cedar trunks and ivy into the cool, shaded interior of the forest. The sun was setting, but they still had hours of daylight left. Above them, yellow light streamed through the thick cedar branches and danced along the moss and exposed roots along the forest floor.
“Wait,” Toshi hissed.
Kobo stopped. “We still have far to go-“
“Shhhh.” Toshi looked up at the canopy and listened carefully. “I heard something.”
Kobo shrugged impatiently. “The forest is full of noise. Hidetsugu trained me to filter out sounds that mean nothing. You will have to adjust.”
“Then I smell something. Hold still a moment and trust your oath-brother.”
Kobo grumbled and loosened the straps on his pack. The heavy bundle thumped loudly to the forest floor and rolled onto its side.
“I smell nothing.”
“That’s because Hidetsugu smeared your nose across your face. Shut up and let the handsome, smart member of our party assess the situation.”
Toshi stared at the trees ahead. There was only the barest hint of a path through the thickest part of the forest, but what there was led to a small opening in the trees. The massive branches and draped moss cast deep shadows on each side of the opening. Among the ruins in the city, Toshi had seen alleyways that reminded him of the path ahead. There was usually a nezumi-bito ambush waiting inside.
“Kobo,” Toshi whispered. “Are you carrying any ranged weapons?”
“Ranged weapons. Bows, spears, shuriken. Even a weighted chain. Anything we can use from here to attack people over there.” Toshi pointed at the opening.
Kobo shook his head.
“There’s someone watching us up there.” Toshi quickly scanned the ground around his feet for something to throw. “I want to flush them out.”
“Yes, oath-brother.” Kobo squatted down and dug his fingers into the turf. The smooth, rounded top of a large stone poked up between his hands.
“Easy,” Toshi hissed. “That rock’s bigger than it-”
With an explosive grunt, Kobo wrenched the barrel-sized stone halfway out of the ground. With his muscles rippling across his back and veins pulsating on his forehead, the ogre’s apprentice let out a roar that echoed across the forest.
The rock came free in a cloud of dirt. Kobo staggered back, balanced the stone on one shoulder, and then positioned his hands beneath it. A low, dangerous growl started deep in his chest, and his legs swelled as they dug into the turf.
“All right then. Grab the big rock. Don’t mind me,” Toshi spat. He drew his jitte in one hand and his long sword in the other, stepping clear of Kobo in case the youth lost control of his burden.
But the bald monk was in his element. With a surge of brute strength and another tree-splitting roar, he heaved the small boulder across thirty feet of open space. Toshi had one second to marvel at the sight of the crude missile arcing over the grass, and then it smashed down into the shadows and moss on the right side of the path ahead.
“Look out below!” Toshi yelled. Kobo tilted his head quizzically, his face flushed and his breathing heavy.
“Ideally,” Toshi explained, “you would have waited for me to say that before you threw the rock.”
Cedar leaves and bits of broken wood rained down from above, but Toshi could not see the stone. He narrowed his eyes, focusing on the long, claw-fingered hand now lying limp on the edge of the path. The owner of the hand was obscured by brush and foliage.
“Use your good eye,” Toshi said, as he pointed to the hand, “and look there.”
Kobo squinted, then straightened up, slamming his fist into his open palm. “Akki,” he said.
“Akki,” Toshi agreed. He raised his voice, calling, “So anything on the right side of the path is now paste. And anything on the left side of the path is paste-to-be. Kobo… fetch the other rock.”
Kobo looked confused and started to shrug. “No more rocks, oath-“
Two small figures suddenly sprang out from their cover on the left side of the path. One of the akki goblins turned and faced them, blocking the path as his partner scurried off into the forest. The little monster screamed defiantly, waving its too-long arms and drumming on its own carapace with clawed fingers.
“Come on,” Toshi shouted as he charged. “I want to catch the other one before he brings back the rest of his clan.”
Small as he was, the remaining akki managed to block the entire path. He was unarmed, but his claws were dangerous enough and the armored plate on his shoulders protected him from Toshi’s swords. The ochimusha slowed as he closed on the akki, staying clear of the goblin’s long reach.
“Go back, go away,” the akki screeched. “Killyou, killyou, killyou dead!”
Toshi leveled his eyes at the little brute. “Kobo,” he said calmly, “kick this little dungball across the forest, will you?”
A huge bald blur swept past Toshi. The comic look of surprise and fear on the akki’s face was priceless. Then it disappeared behind Kobo’s roaring form.
The huge, sandaled foot slammed into the akki’s chest, driving it up into the air like a child’s inflatable ball. The little monster screamed as he sailed off, spinning awkwardly until he slammed into the solid center of a cedar trunk.
Kobo turned. “I cannot run long distances, oath-brother.”
“Then step aside,” Toshi said as he sprinted past. “And try to keep up.”
Toshi ran, fending off branches with his jitte and slicing through vines with his long sword. The akki were a lot like the nezumi, he thought. Small and cowardly, but numerous. Goblins were nowhere near as good at throwing off pursuit as the ratfolk were, so Toshi had little problem following the fleeing akki’s trail. Behind him, he heard Kobo lumbering. Hidetsugu should have trained him for distance as well as sprints.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter. If Toshi could catch the akki, all he had to do was delay him or pin him down until the ogre’s apprentice came along to mop up. Hidetsugu had not been bragging about Kobo’s fighting skills-the big bald lump was formidable.
He broke through into a clearing just in time to see the akki disappear into the thicker brush on the far side. Toshi sheathed his sword and sprinted across the tranquil glade, barely noticing the bright evening sun overhead. He was catching up. Another few moments and he could tackle the akki and sit on its head.
Toshi plunged back into the brush, then stifled a yelp as the ground fell away beneath him. He maintained his balance as he hurtled down the incline with branches slapping his face and torso.
Momentarily blinded, Toshi crossed his wrists in front of his face to protect it and continued to run. He was careful to watch the ground in front of him to avoid any more surprises the terrain might throw at him. He half-staggered into another clearing, and as he regained control of his own momentum, Toshi smelled smoke.
The ochimusha lowered his hands. All around him, fifty yards in every direction, the trees had been felled. Most of the lumber seemed to be piled onto a great bonfire in the center of the circle. The fire was blazing ferociously, its flames licking higher than the tallest nearby tree.
Scores of akki goblins knelt around the fire, chanting softly and hurling dirt in the air. Most were unarmed, but some carried crude clubs made of bone or makeshift spears made from broken swords tied to the ends of poles. Lit by the great fire, the dirty little creatures took on a hellish red tinge.
As one, half of the akki fell silent and turned to glare at Toshi.
“A party for me?” Toshi said, more loudly than he’d intended. “This is a surprise.”
Near the fire, three akki stood next to two humans who had torches in their hands. Toshi didn’t recognize the biggest goblin, but the others were familiar. There was the one he had been chasing, who was still panting and wild-eyed. Beside him was Ben-Ben the hermit, fresh from Hidetsugu’s hut. He still wore his ridiculous squid hat proudly on his knotty little head.
The humans were likewise familiar. Dressed in bandit armor, the two men slowly turned to face Toshi, and cruel smiles formed on their identical faces.
“You,” the first twin said. “The ochimusha with the mouth.”
The second twin’s voice rose over the goblin’s chant and the roar of the fire. “Complete the ritual,” he said. Then he looked to his brother. “This can’t be a coincidence. He dies?”
“He dies.” The first twin turned to a squad of armed akki nearby, who were eagerly stroking their weapons. “Kill him.”
An akki with a crude spear whooped and let it fly. Toshi barely deflected it with his jitte as he leaped clear. As the rest of the party readied their weapons, Toshi backpedaled and scanned the smoke-filled clearing. The path behind him was all uphill. Everywhere else was full of gristly little toads with hard heads, small brains, and orders to do him harm.
He considered making a kanji that would turn the ground into damp, clinging quicksand, but it wouldn’t affect the entire clearing and by the time he finished inscribing it, he’d have half a dozen akki spears stuck in him. He needed something else, a spell or a tactic that could affect a small army.
From his left, one of the other akki screeched and pounced on his back. The little monster’s grubby fingers clawed at Toshi’s face, and as he struggled to throw it off him, Toshi saw the armed party unleash a volley of spears.
Quickly, Toshi spun in place so that his back was to the fire. He felt a thump and the akki on his back grunted. There was another thump as the second spear bounced off the goblin’s hard shell, then a third. Then Toshi heard a wet, slapping sound and felt the tip of a spear enter his own lower back. The akki riding him gurgled and went limp.
Toshi shrugged off the dead goblin with the spear sticking clear through it. He touch-inspected the wound in his own back, nodding grimly. It was minor with very little pain, but it was bleeding freely. He faced the fire again, carefully watching the armed akki party as it closed the distance between them.
All the spear-carrying goblins had already let fly. Those that remained carried cudgels and spiked clubs. He turned his body so that they could not see his wound and then dragged the tip of his jitte through the blood flowing down his back.
“I’ll just be on my way now, thank you,” he said. He brandished the jitte, blood dripping from its point. “You just stay back, or I’ll do something you’ll regret. I’ll regret it, too, but you’ll regret it more, I promise.”
“Keep chanting,” said the first twin.
“You there,” said the second, gesturing to another cluster of akki. “Help see to our guest.”
Twelve more akki started toward him, and Toshi clenched his jaw. Blood, tears, and other bodily humors on his jitte made the kanji he inscribed all the more potent, but the only magic he had for a group this size was difficult to control. He could strike everyone in the clearing down with a temporary plague if he didn’t mind exposing himself to it, but he wasn’t that desperate yet.
A leering, snaggle-toothed akki hurled a stone throwing axe. It missed, but it buried itself deep into the trunk of the tree beside Toshi.
I may be that desperate after all, he thought. He glanced down, looking for a clear patch of dirt where he could draw a symbol.
Then a huge bald figure exploded out of the forest like a cannonball. Kobo charged past Toshi with his tetsubo war club drawn and ready. The massive youth plowed straight into the pack of goblins, his roar every bit as intimidating as one of Hidetsugu’s.
At first, all Toshi could do was watch as Kobo laid into the akki with his tetsubo. He may not have been fast over long distances, but he was a tornado in close quarters. The studded club was alive in his hands, smashing goblin weapons to pieces and the goblins themselves into pulp. He twirled the heavy weapon like a baton, crushing limbs, cracking skulls, and staving in the akki’s natural armor like stale bread. As a traveling companion, the ogre apprentice’s worth was increasing by the second.
The twins barked out another command, and another wave of akki swarmed toward Kobo. They surrounded him and literally began to scale him like a tree, even as he battered the others aside with his club. For a moment, Kobo was completely covered in squirming akki bodies, and the burly youth faltered. Then, like a dog shaking off water, Kobo rose, shuddered, and sent the vicious horde flying.
Kobo spun his tetsubo up one arm, behind his neck, and down the other, coming to rest in a position of complete readiness. He glared at the twins, beckoning them with his fingers.
“That’s my oath-brother,” Toshi called. “We look out for each other.”
The twins both raised a hand, then simultaneously chopped down. The akki chant stopped and the only sound left in the glen was the crackle of the fire and the groans of fallen goblins.
“Impressive,” said the first twin.
“But this,” said the second twin, “is our patron, the Myojin of Infinite Rage. And we also look out for each other.”
The second twin waved, and the bonfire expanded out past the boundaries of the clearing, engulfing the entire area in blood-red flames.
Toshi was mildly surprised to find himself alive and unbroiled. As his vision cleared, he saw that all the akki had fallen to their knees and were facing the fire. The twins were still sneering, their eyes locked on Toshi and Kobo.
An giant, ornate wooden throne floated above the pile of burning logs. It was the kind of chair a warrior king would have, once he had conquered most of the globe and built a castle from the bones of his enemies. A small jade and ruby statue sat in the center of the throne, a different weapon in each of its six arms.
The statue and the throne were surrounded by bright red flames that flickered too slowly, as if the fire was somehow heavier and denser than those of the bonfire. In these flames, Toshi could discern a kind of face above the throne and multiple arms on each side. Some of the limbs carried beads, some carried fans, but most carried swords, pikes, and other bladed weapons. These arms and items rotated around the central figure on the throne, floating like bubbles in oil.
Toshi’s eyes watered and his ears popped as the kami’s terrible voice tore through his head. He fought the urge to look around, to pretend he didn’t know the Myojin of Infinite Rage was speaking directly to him.
You are not welcome here, Toshi Umezawa. You are a tool in my enemy’s hands. I shall make an example of you.
“A blessing,” the first twin cried. “O Majestic Kami, we serve at your pleasure.”
“Touch us with your wisdom, empower us with your rage,” said the second. “Godo and his entire army stand ready.”
Beside them, Ben-Ben the akki hermit prayed fervently, his fishy hat forgotten on the forest floor.
The swirling mass of the kami’s body seemed to reorient on the twins.
You have my blessing. Continue your work. Leave the thug and the ogreling to me.
The second twin scowled, but both bandits lowered their torches. The scowler let out a long whistle and both twins jerked their heads to the north.
As the great kami’s form flickered hypnotically overhead, the entire assembly of akki turned and began filing out of the clearing. Even those who were latched on to Kobo with claws and teeth stopped in mid-attack to join the exodus. Kobo struck down any who weren’t quick enough to get out of range, but the ogre’s apprentice did not pursue them. Instead, he backpedaled closer to Toshi, keeping his eyes on the kami.
You are a troublesome man, Toshi Umezawa.
“You don’t know the half of it. And how do you know my name?” Toshi had never directly encountered a major kami in person before. He was surprised to find himself more annoyed than awed. “What do you spirits want from me?”
I seek the same goal of all clear-thinking sentients: an end to the Kami War.
“That’s rich,” Toshi said. “A fiery spirit of anger wants peace? Tell me another one.”
The kami’s flame rose higher and brighter. I never said I sought peace. I seek an end to the war. An end that benefits me and mine.
“Well, carry on then. Good luck with that.”
Your kami handlers should never have sent you here, ochimusha. But you have come, and I cannot permit you to leave.
“I have no kami handlers,” Toshi said.
No? The disembodied voice seemed amused. Then who guides your destiny? Who answers when you call?
“The hyozan does.” Kobo stepped forward. “Do your worst, false god. We are not afraid.”
The flames grew hotter. Be silent. You serve a blasphemous brute who serves the beast of chaos. Your ogre blood will boil this night. Your master and his oni will suffer the same, in time.
Toshi shrugged. “He’s new. But he’s right. If you’re going to kill us, at least be quick in the attempt. We’ve got places to go.” He tightened his grip on the handle of his jitte, his own blood still smeared across the tip. How would a spirit of rage attack them, he wondered. Force them to turn on each other? Burn them from the inside out?
As he stood waiting, Toshi heard another sound just under that of the crackling flames. It began as a dim, buzzing hum, but as it grew Toshi realized it was a distorted echo of the akki chant that summoned the great red kami.
Three balls of red flame leaped out from the bonfire, each as big as a chariot. They hovered just above the ground, spinning in place as the flames licked the air around them.
Die well, Umezawa, and be remembered. Otherwise, no one in either world will notice your passing.
“Same to you,” Toshi called.
The flames around the Myojin of Infinite Rage flared. There was a blast of concussive force, and then the bonfire collapsed in upon itself in a great implosion of air.
The great kami’s departure also sucked the flames away from the three fireballs, leaving three huge, grotesque shapes among the stumps and burned grass. The first resembled a tangled bale of barbed wire that had been doused with oil and set aflame. Twisted points of fiery metal floated in the air around its central mass as the kami shimmered and undulated, slashing the air with whips of sharpened wire.
The second kami was a great, barrel-shaped insect with two oversized forelegs and a scorpion’s tail. It floated several feet off the ground, surrounded by a cloud of stinging flies. Its armored exoskeleton clicked as its sank its scythe-like forelegs into the turf and hauled itself forward.
The third looked like a cross between a turtle, an eagle, and a razor-tusked boar. Toshi blinked and rubbed his eyes, but the thing’s true shape was lost in the cloud of heat distortion that surrounded it.
“Oath-brother,” Kobo hissed. “I can summon a lesser oni to aid us, but it will take time and concentration.”
Toshi scanned the three spirit beasts before them. Each was a “lesser” kami itself, and he wasn’t sure one lesser oni would be enough. Besides, each of Rage’s subordinate kami was only a short leap or lunge away, and time was something they didn’t have.
Toshi shook his head and drew his long sword. “That’s no good to us, Kobo,” he said. “I think we’ll have to do it ourselves.”