A small island’s worth of debris erupted into the air in a scalding pyroclastic flow, falling to earth like water in slow motion as it cascaded over the forest, burning it alive. The hot gas maelstrom of one thousand degrees celsius plowed through everything in its wake for miles, flattening it then vaporizing what remained. And to think, this was only the fifth time this had happened today. Whatever had remained of the giant forest was gone. America had lost a national preserve, and gained a stunning new mountain range.
The two demihuman giants continued to clash in the magmatic crater they’d created as the sun rose in the ashen sky. The hole boiled like an open sore in the Earth’s crust, magma of over sixteen hundred degrees flowing around their feet like a warm bath. To them it was nothing. Their battle continued unabated. Though they were cut, bruised, burnt, and completely naked, their clothes long since stripped away by the heat and the intensity of their brawl, they continued to fight.
Ren dashed towards Nayeli, her toes skimming the layer of liquid magma at the bottom of a crater like an eagle in flight fishing for its next meal. Nayeli responded with a quick riposte, swatting Ren away like a fly with the blunt side of her axe. Though the attack was not serious, it still sent the oni spiraling through Earth, her trajectory conical like a bullet. Her crushed bones did not survive the trip. Yet, when the demigod jumped out of the smoking crater and into the other, Ren stood back up.
Nayeli made a tsking sound, her mouth and her eyes the only things still visible underneath layers of caked on dirt and cooling magma.
“That’s forty seven times I’ve killed you now. You’ve got to be running out of that yolk shit by now, right?”
The words tasted like ash in her mouth as she said them. Looking around, she regretted not ending this sooner.
My clothes are destroyed, my hair’s a mess, Marq is probably going to chew me out for turning this place into a volcano… is he gonna take this outta my pay? I don’t think I can afford that…
The oni cricked her neck.
“You not even close, god-girl. We no pack light when we take this trip. I still got fifty-three capsules left, and I only getting stronger. It what we oni call ‘zenkai’. We get stronger the tougher the guy we fighting is. Every time you kill me, I get another zenkai. By the time you finish, I going to be much stronger than you.”
“Fifty-three more, huh?” Nayeli said, scowling. “Good, then I’m halfway done.”
The demigod punched the oni, who countered the strike by guarding with the handle of her iron club. Nayeli had already killed the oni over a dozen times with simple punches like this, and yet…
At first it looked like another good hit. The ground gave way beneath them, and Ren was being forced back, her arms shaking. Then…
The oni threw back her fist with all of her strength, shoving the demigod back and swatting her hand away with her club. Nayeli took a step back to regain her footing. She clenched her teeth.
“What… the… FUUUUUUUUUCK?! WHAT IS GOING ON RIGHT NOW? WHY WON’T YOU JUST FUCKING GIVE UP AND DIE, YOU FUCKING BITCH?!”
The demigod’s frustrated roar shook the ground around them, and parted the sky above, creating a tunnel of light in an otherwise impenetrable ash fog. Ren stood her ground, covering her face from the ash.
“Oni-ni-kanobō. I am oni, strongest of strong. My honor is the honor of my people. It mean I can’t lose, and I can’t give up. Besides, I fight for them. For Kichirō and his little idiot brother. That why too. Long as I fight for them, I can’t lose.”
“Of course you can lose! Everyone can lose! What kind of retarded logic is that?! You think that just because you fight hard enough that shit’s always going to go your way?! Well I got news for you, sister! The world ain’t so fucking pretty like that!” the demigod screamed, the frustration finally going to her head. “We all got our people! We all got things we want! What makes yours any better than ours, huh?! You think you deserve to be happy more than we do? You think your dreams are worth more than ours?! The boss ‘n me, even that dipshit Alfonso, we all got something riding on this! What makes your cause any more fucking just?!”
Nayeli jumped into the air, bringing her axe down on Ren’s head. She blocked with the iron club, but the pressure was enormous! She could feel her bones cracking and her blood vessels popping the longer she held out. Crap! She thought she felt herself blacking out…
“But you know what? It wouldn’t make a lick of fucking difference even if it was, because some asshole in the sky is just gonna decide that that’s not how things are gonna be today, and then you get shit on!” Nayeli yelled. “Nothing ever works out the way you want it to! There are things in this world that you just can’t fight!”
You think I don’t know that, god-girl? I know it all too well. But that’s why I fight. Because fighting is better than nothing.
“<What do you mean I can’t?>” Ren said, pleading. “<It’s just a favor, you know there’s nothing wrong with it, father!>”
“<It’s not the what, it’s the who!>” her father said, putting his foot down. “<Do a favor for a yōkai tamer? Are you insane, Ren? Doing a favor for one of them would be as good as submitting to them! You might as well sign yourself up for a slave collar now! Have you learned nothing from the folly of your great-grandfathers who served that half-breed filth Seimei?!>”
He slammed his fist down on the log table. Ren winced. Her father was a large man, especially by oni standards, and he was respected and feared by many, just as he had to be. He was their clan’s chief. If his word was not kept law, there would be chaos, power struggles. Clansmen killing clansmen, vying for position. Oni hated to submit. It was natural for them. But still…
“<You let Seiji challenge that bull Matsuda from our rival clan, even though you knew he would lose! He threw himself into the ring thinking his zenkai would protect him, and he died before he could finish adjusting to his new power! How is that any better?! At least here there is a chance to bring greater honor to our clan, instead of just throwing it away!>”
“<Seiji knew the risks when he asked for that fight. You clearly do not,>” her father reasoned. “<Besides, as tragic and isolated an incident as it was, his death still brought dishonor to us. We cannot forgive him for that. I will not have you follow in his footsteps!>”
Ren frowned. “<An ‘isolated incident’? That’s a lie and you know it, father! All of our youngest clan members except me are all dead now, because you keep letting them go off to fight battles we all know they can’t win! They think it doesn’t matter how tough the enemy is because you’ve taught them to think the zenkai makes them invincible! But what you haven’t taught them is how to pick and choose their battles! Our power doesn’t mean anything if you don’t live long enough to use it! Our people keep dying because you refuse to budge from the old ways and let them admit defeat! Your pigheaded adherence to tradition is costing us more in blood than a hundred new generations could spill! How is that honorable-”
Ren felt a cold, hard sting as her father slapped her across the face.
“<That’s enough. I will not have you question my leadership, you understand?! I will not have you becoming an outcast and one of the forgotten dead like Seiji. You will not bring that kind of dishonor upon me or this family, do you hear me?! If you’re so concerned about the future of our clan, then fight! An oni submits to no one! You are strong, Ren! Prove our superiority so the next generation has a better example to follow!>”
Ren looked around. They’d gathered the attention of half the clan by now. All of them were huddled around the firepit, their eyes fixed solely on the two of them, just watching, waiting for a sign of weakness. That was why her father couldn’t show them anyway. That was why he had to put on this charade, even for his own daughter. There had to be a way though!
“<But father, there isn’t going to be another generation if we don’t->”
“<If we don’t what? Make peace? I’d sooner die.>”
Ren looked behind her to where the voice was coming from. One of the green-skins, Shosuke.
“<That’s not what I meant!>” she said. “<This is one yōkai tamer, and an inexperienced one at that! He needs my help if he’s going to save his brother! It should cause me no dishonor to help him, and if I do my job well, we may even gain some prestige for our achievement->”
“<Your job? Our achievement? Pah! Seems like you’ve already cuddled up to these humans plenty!>” The young bull oni spat. “<What would you have us do next, princess? Prostrate ourselves before the yōkai tamers? Ask them for forgiveness so they’d take us in and feed us like some common whelps who have never detached from their mother’s teat? I bet you’d even lick their boots if you could, wouldn’t you little girl?>”
“<N-No, I just->”
“<Well I for one have no intention of ever working with any yōkai tamers. Never have, never will. If I want something done, I’ll do it myself. That’s how a real oni lives!>”
“<I told your father he should have never fucked that blue-skinned whore,>” the yellow-skin Matsumoto piped in. “<Clearly some of her weakness has started slipping into you through your skin! That ugly purplish color… why couldn’t you have been born pure red instead like your father!>”
“<I said that’s enough! Apart from myself, I don’t see anyone here with skin as radiantly red as my daughter’s! Fool she may be, but you are not allowed to talk to her like that, Matsumoto! You yellow-bellied wench! Insult her, and you insult me. And Ren! We are done talking about this! I don’t care what your relationship to this boy is, you are not allowed to help that… yōkai tamer,>” her father said. “<You are an oni and he is a human, and that is the end of it. The feud between our kind goes back centuries, and I won’t have you disgracing this clan or the memories of your forefathers any longer! Do you understand?>”
Ren was speechless. Was this the extent her people were willing to go to protect their honor? That they would sooner die than accept someone’s help, or even give it in return? She couldn’t believe it. It was no wonder they were dying out like this. They refused to make any allies, and anyone who tried approaching them was turned away at the door. To the oni sitting around this fire, death was better than compromise, and everyone in the world was an enemy. A challenge to be overcome, and one they clearly could not defeat should their numbers continue to decline like this. No… was it even possible to overcome such odds to begin with?
For the first time in her life, Ren began to wonder if maybe the people who had raised her from birth were honestly insane.
“<Well?>” Kichirō asked her once she emerged from the forest. “<What did they say?>”
Ren’s lip quivered, so she bit it. It hurt. Telling the truth and being honest with the one you loved was supposed to be a good thing, so why did it hurt?
“<I’m sorry,>” she said.
“<Huh?>” Kichirō said.
“<I said I’m sorry… but I won’t be able to help you this time,>” Ren said more clearly, choking back tears. Her apology sounded like a frog’s croak than an oni’s roar. She was afraid. Emotional. Compromised. A thousand thoughts were running through her head, trying to think of a way to beat this situation, but she was stuck, and helpless, and afraid.
“<Oh. I see…>” Kichirō said. His voice sounded dejected, and empty.
Ren shut her eyes, still biting her lip. That’s what she was afraid of. What he would say. Would he hate her? She didn’t Kichirō to hate her, but she wouldn’t be surprised. This was his brother they were talking about. The affections between lovers was paltry compared to the bond shared by brothers. What she had just told him was the same as saying she was willing to sit back and let his brother continue to suffer. Surely he would have to hate her after something like that.
She looked away from Kichirō in shame, and stared bitterly at the wooded trail that concealed their centuries-old home. Kichirō was right. Damn this honor, and damn them, for making her choose between her family and the person she loved.
“<… Alright. I get it.>”
Ren raised her head in surprise.
“<I get it, I do. I can’t ask you to choose between me and your family. So I’ll do it alone, big deal. I was originally planning on doing that anyway. I’ll just need to prepare a bit more.>”
“<Kichirō, you can’t be serious!>” Ren said, now just as angry as she was upset. “<You know you can’t take on a high-class yōkai like Tamamo-no-mae without my help! You’re going to get yourself killed if you go alone!>”
“<I won’t be alone,>” Kichirō said confidently. “<I’ve got a bunch of other familiars now.>”
“<They won’t be enough!>”
“<I’m sorry Ren, but… I’m not going to put you in a position like this where you have to choose between me and your family. If I have to do it alone, then that’s how things were meant to be. It’s my burden to bear, and mine alone. It was selfish of me to ask for your help to begin with. For what it’s worth though…>”
Kichirō turned to smile at her underneath the clouds of gently dripping rain.
“<I’m really glad I got to meet you. So don’t cry. This isn’t your fault.>”
“<Kichirō…>” Ren said, speechless.
For a moment, the two of them just stood there under the trickle of the autumn rain, feeling just as bare, naked and exposed before the elements as they day they were born. Then, in a simple passing moment, both of them did something stupid they would always remember. They kissed.
Ren snapped back to attention. She heard a sharp cracking sound. It was her club. The iron had fragmented in places, and was cracking down fault lines like glass. Even this club, forged in a volcano from meteoric iron… even it would break before her?
That’s right. Getting back up and fighting, telling yourself you’re invincible and trying to believe it… that’s better than nothing. I see that now, father. That’s why…
Ren grunted. “Don’t look down on me, god-girl!”
Struggling against the demigod with every fiber of her being and every ounce of her will, Ren lifted the axe that felt like an asteroid falling to Earth, trying to break free. Ten inches, no, ten centimeters would do. Just a little farther…
The club finally couldn’t take it anymore and broke, pieces of her family’s history shattered all around her. All that was holding back the axe now was a jagged lump of metal half the size it used to be, only the very sturdiest parts of the weapon surviving. But even that would break eventually.
Summoning the last of her strength in a quick burst, Ren shoved the axe back just far enough to jump and get out of the way so she wouldn’t get hit fatally. She felt the axe cut into her diagonally, holding back the urge to scream. Twenty or more yolk capsules on her bandolier were smashed, soaking into her wounds. She was healed when she landed.
Ren grimaced. Twenty vials of yolk for one resurrection. That was a waste of resources she couldn’t afford.
“Awww, what’s the matter? Did I break your precious capsules?” Nayeli said mockingly.
“And my club,” Ren said, tossing the ruined metal aside. “But this good news.”
“Huuuuuuuhhhhh?” Nayeli said exaggeratedly.
“That last strike… was serious, yes? I feel it. That your full power, isn’t it? And I survive. Now I know I can beat you. It not impossible.”
Nayeli snarled. “Don’t get the wrong idea, you dumb bitch!”
The demigod pulled back and wound up a mean right hook that would’ve made Jack Dempsey proud. There was no avoiding it. And now, without her club, there was no blocking it. The only option left to her was to take it.
Ren braced herself and made a crossguard with her arms to protect herself, hoping they wouldn’t be so broken it would be impossible to hold a capsule. The demigod hit her, and for a moment, Ren felt herself pass out again.
The tiny oni smashed her iron club against the nue’s simian head, cracking it like an egg. It was a successful killing blow. There was no further need to continue, yet somehow the oni felt like she couldn’t stop there, and kept pounding the dead creature’s head, bashing at it to vent her frustrations. Finally she stopped and took a breath, panting.
That was the fifth one today. She hadn’t killed it because she was hungry, or because she needed to stock up on food. She’d taken to hunting these past few weeks as a way to deal with her life. Metaphorically speaking, of course. She knew that no amount of yōkai heads she smashed could assuage the guilt and anger she felt, but it was something tangible. Something she could keep score of. At least she could always point at this and say “I’ve smashed this many yōkai heads today!” and derive some sense of purpose and achievement from it.
Basically, it was better than nothing.
She wrestled her club from the nue’s head, untangling it from the sticky mush of sinew and clingy bits. She sighed. She could already tell she’d gone a bit too far today. It would take hours to clean this club off now, and she felt like she might be lost after chasing the nue so far…
Ren sniffed. She smelled something… weird. Was it smoke?
She turned around and looked at the sky. There was a giant pillar of smoke rising up from somewhere, but she couldn’t see where from inside the forest. At first she thought it might’ve been her clan preparing to cook dinner, but then she remembered their tribal fire pit was in the exact opposite direction. No matter how lost she’d gotten, she could never forget that. Besides, there was no way their fire pit could produce that much smoke. The fire would have to be huge!
Then she realized. The direction the smoke was coming from…
Ren’s eyes widened. No, it couldn’t be. Not them. There was no way her clan’s great enemy could be defeated so easily, so Kichirō had to be okay, right? No… no, it just wasn’t possible! was what Ren wanted to tell herself. But reality was not so easily persuaded as she. The irrefutable truth was right there in front of her, plain to see.
The Sadoyas and their castle were burning.
Ren ran as fast as she could, trampling the ground beneath her feet. No no no no no no!
Soon a crumpled, beaten body came into view. To her horror, she could tell right away that it was Kichirō.
She ran for it, scooping his vastly larger frame into her tiny arms and only stopping once she knew she would never let go. Kichirō’s eyes were closed, and it was hard to tell if he was even breathing. Unable to take her eyes off the ball of cuts and bruises and battered limbs she held in her arms, she set him down next to a tree and searched desperately for signs of life.
“<Kichirō… Kichirō! Are you here? Oh please tell me you’re awake!>” she cried. Distraught, she started to curse. “<Shit, shit, shit, shit! Noooo… no, no, no, no! Dammit, you can’t be dead! You hear me, Kichirō? You can’t be dead, you stupid son of a bitch! I told you! You can’t be dead…>”
Ren pounded on Kichirō’s chest pathetically, the thumps becoming less loud and determined with every passing moment. Finally, she could do nothing except lament.
“<Fuck…>” she sobbed, her anger her only point of solidarity anymore. Then, something happened. There was a sound. Faint at first, but slowly it became audible over the sound of the rain.
Ren gasped. She briefly wondered if she was hearing things, too afraid to be optimistic. But then she felt it. As she forced herself to be still and silent so she could listen for any more words, she finally felt it. The weak, rhythmic beating of Kichirō’s heart beneath his dirtied clothes.
She didn’t need to hear anything else. No words were needed, from him or from her. She just hugged him and held him tight, as close as she could, sobbing into his shoulder.
Finally, after a long embrace, Kichirō said her name. “<Ren…>”
“<K-Kich-chirō…>” she said in return, still sobbing embarrassingly.
“<What?>” Ren said, jumping to attention. “<You what?>”
“<… I need a little room to breathe. You’re kinda crushing me…>” Kichirō said in a strained voice. Ren looked at his face and saw it was starting to turn purple. She let go immediately.
“<S-Sorry…>” she stammered. Kichirō gasped for air. “<What happened to you? Are you okay?>”
“<Do I look okay, Ren?>” he said, smiling wryly.
“<Sorry,>” she said. “<Had to ask.>”
Kichirō sighed, groaning. “<Yoshi jumped me. On the way to the killing stone. I think he was waiting for me.>”
“<What?!>” Ren said. “<Why?>”
“<He said something about ‘showing me what he was really capable of’, and that ‘the Sadoyas would regret underestimating him’. I think he’s after the stone.>”
“<That idiot!>” Ren said. “<Doesn’t he know the kind of power that stone has?>”
“<Yeah, he does, and that’s why he’s after it,>” Kichirō said, coughing. “<He thinks that if he can prove he’s better than me that it’ll somehow fix things. I don’t think he’s thought this out much farther out than that. We gotta stop him, Ren. He can’t handle the stone’s power, not by himself.>”
It took a second, but something clicked in Ren’s head.
“<Kichirō… can you walk? How hurt are you?>”
“<Well…>” Kichirō said, shrugging and testing things out. “<I think my arm’s broken. I won’t be able to perform as many mantras until it heals. Which means I can’t heal my broken arm. So… yeah. Other than that, it’s just cuts and bruises. Nothing serious. Why?>”
Ren turned her head around, and nodded in the direction of the fire where smoke was pouring into the sky. Kichirō’s eyes widened.
Somehow, miraculously, she managed to survive that hit. No, not just survive… were her arms even broken? She thought at first she could only move them because it was that kind of non-dislocating fracture, but the more she tried moving, the more there seemed to be no break. Had she really taken a full-strength hit from the demigod?
Ren smiled. She’d broken through the wall.
She struggled to her feet. Survived or not, that hit still hurt (the pain had been great enough to convince her she had broken her arms, after all). Her body was one giant bruise. Should she use the yolk for a non-fatal injury?
In the distance Ren saw the demigod approaching.
“Heh… I finally beat you, god-girl. No yolk this time. I survive. I strong as you now.”
Not dignifying the taunt with a response, Nayeli took up her axe and swung, bridging the gap between Ren and the horizon in the blink of an eye. Pushing her muscles to their absolute limit, she dodged without a nanosecond to spare. Feeling the edge of the blade whizz over her head, she quickly adopted a stance and launched a wild haymaker at the demigod’s jaw, forcing her head back. Nayeli stood still, a shocked expression on her face. Unbelieving, she wiped blood away from her lip, as if to verify.
“Surprised? I told you I make you bleed,” Ren said, panting heavily. “You believe me now, god-girl?”
Nayeli snarled. Wasting no time, she launched another attack, this time fighting back with her fists. Ren responded in kind, and the valley shook.
“You should have killed me from the start, god-girl!” Ren yelled. “Now I as strong as you! Now I stronger than you!”
Nayeli grimaced as the two exchanged blows. “Don’t get so fucking full of yourself… don’t make me end you, you fucking stupid bitch!”
The two threw punch after punch. Even though Nayeli still held her axe, it didn’t matter. The concept of weapons had long since been abandoned. This was just a primal brawl now. Ren felt it, felt the animal scraping at the back of her subconscious, and let it take over. She was driven into an uncontrollable battle frenzy, a trance of true berserker rage. There was no thought remaining. Only violence.
And as she drifted deeper into her own subconscious, submerged memories of a similar time surfaced…
The small oni carried the wounded Kichirō piggyback, running towards the burning island in the distance.
“<Look, I’m going as fast as I can!>” Ren complained. “<But if we don’t make it in time and he kills them all, what is it to you? I thought you two hated this place?>”
“<It’s not the Sadoyas I’m worried about, it’s Yoshirō,>” Kichirō said. “<He may be good, but he’s not going to survive a fight with the Sadoyas. If they see he’s been demon-possessed, they’ll kill him on sight.>”
“<Do you really think the Sadoyas are that strong, to be able to take on a legendary yōkai like Tamamo-no-mae?>” Ren asked.
“<Definitely,>” Kichirō said as they passed over the water. “<There’s no one in the world who could defeat them. They’re the best at what they do. As much as I hate to admit it, there’s a reason I’ve never tried going against them. Even with my power, if they joined forces against me, they’d slaughter me. And if Yoshi dies, it’s going to be my fault.>”
Ren sped past the burning torii leading up to the complex, coming to a stop and dropping Kichirō off at the gate. She took his side, and raised her club to defend him in case anyone or anything decided to attack them. But…
“<There’s… no one here…>” Kichirō said. He walked through the gate into the flaming inferno inside.
“<Kichirō, wait!>” Ren yelled, following after him.
It was true what he’d said. There wasn’t a sign of life throughout the entire courtyard, human or yōkai. Just collapsed and burning buildings, wreckage as far as the eye could see. And blood. So much blood. It was clear a battle had been fought here. Who was the winner and who was the loser was hard to determine from just bloodstains, but considering they hadn’t run into any Sadoyas yet, she had a sinking feeling.
“<We need to find the bodies,>” Kichirō said, dread growing in his voice. “<There’s got to be some bodies or something that can tell us what happened here. The Sadoyas wouldn’t just disappear into thin air like this.>”
Ren nodded. Holding up her club, she began to twirl it like a baton, her great strength extinguishing the fires and clearing the smoke. The fire settled across the complex, and there was silence, save for the sound of scorched crackling. Then they heard something move in the debris.
“<What was that?!>” Kichirō said, whipping his head around. “<Did you see it, Ren? Was it Yoshirō?>”
“<I don’t know,>” Ren said, hefting her club. “<But stay behind me. We still don’t know what happened to your family.>”
“<Yoshirō is my family, Ren,>” Kichirō said. “<We focus on finding him first.>”
The sound of the rustling intensified. Both Kichirō and Ren took a step back. The pile of charcoal pillars that used to be the garden shed trembled slightly. Kichirō and Ren watched it intently, tensing at each new sound. Finally, a hand appeared, clawing at the wreckage, trying to force it apart. Desperate, scrabbling. Like a man buried alive inside a coffin.
The burnt logs were pushed aside, and a bloody, ash-covered man crawled, gasping for breath.
“<It’s one of the Sadoyas!>” Kichirō exclaimed. “<Maybe he knows what happened to Yoshirō!>”
Kichirō started running towards the injured man, but he held up his hand and yelled.
“<Huh?>” Kichirō said, faltering. “<Don’t worry, we’re not going to hurt you, we’re here to help->”
“<No! You need to run! I-It’s still here!>”
“<What? What’s still here? Is it Yoshirō? Have you seen my brother?!>” Kichirō said, taking another step towards the injured man.
“<I-It’s a monster! A demon! We couldn’t stop it. And neither can you! You need to run! Do you hear me? You need to->”
Something else moved in the shifting wreckage, except Kichirō didn’t see it when it did. No one did. They felt it only by its presence when it passed by on a gust of wind, taking with it the skin from the injured man’s neck.
“Guh…” the throatless man gurgled, blood spurting from his carotid artery. Kichirō and Ren gasped.
The something else moved again, the intact building it leapt from crumbling into tinder as it took with it the man’s arm, again without anyone seeing it. Kichirō took a step back and started mumbling while Ren readied her club.
Over and over the invisible presence leapt across the courtyard, taking chunks of the man with it each time. Kichirō got the feeling that the only reason the mortally wounded man didn’t scream was that he no longer could.
“<Ren…>” Kichirō huffed, genuine fear filling his voice. “<Make a contract with me and become my familiar.>”
“<What?!>” Ren said, staring at him. “<You know I can’t->”
“<If you don’t we’re both dead!>” Kichirō yelled.
The half-dead man crawled on two stumps and one leg, trying to get away as he bled out fatally. Finally the invisible presence dealt its killing blow and ripped off the man’s head, collecting it and his heart in two more lightning-fast dashes. It was clear that if they didn’t act, they were next.
“<Is your honor really worth your life, Ren? Think about it! Is it?!>” Kichirō yelled.
Ren hesitated. She saw the wreckage start to shift. Shit!
But it was too late. The invisible presence, the something else leapt from the shadows, and with a single clean motion, ripped through intestines and plunged its clawed hand out through the other side, disappearing again before its face could be seen from within their shadows. Blood spattered to the ground in a terrifyingly large amount, like thick red syrup.
“<Ren…>” Kichirō said, his voice deathly quiet.
“<It’s worth my life… but not yours,>” Ren said, bleeding from the mouth. She propped herself up with her club. “<Don’t worry, this is nothing. Now what do we need to do?>”
“<… We need to mix our blood,>” Kichirō said, gulping.
“<Well, that’s not gonna be so hard now,>” Ren said before crying out in pain as something razor sharp clawed at her back, ripping open deep gashes that went down to the spine. “<We’d better hurry though, or else I might not have much left.>”
Kichirō nodded, and bit his lip. Ren did the same. Dabbing both of their thumbs with their own blood, they held them out, hovering over each other’s lips. Now it was time for the incantation. The substance of the phrase and its clauses didn’t matter so much as the intent, so Kichirō felt comfortable winging it, and kept it short to suit their current predicament.
“<Do you swear to stand by me?>”
“<Through thick and thin, through the good times and the bad times?>”
“<I will never leave your side.>”
“<Do you swear to treat my life as your own?>”
The invisible presence began to stir again in the shadows, preparing to strike again.
“<I will treat it better than my life. Protecting you and all your precious things will be my sacred duty, your commands will be my divine edicts.>”
“<And will you answer the call whenever I command you? Will you appear by my side no matter what danger I am in?>”
“<I will answer with the speed of a thousand lightning bolts. Nothing will keep me from being there, no force on earth shall stop me.>”
“<Then you swear to be my familiar, to be my instrument?>”
The invisible presence struck, ripping the flesh from Ren’s bones. She cried out in pain. Through her tears, she said.
“<You swear to serve me until the end of time, past the ages and from beyond the grave?>”
Ren hesitated. “<… I swear.>”
“<Then by my name, Sadoya Kichirō, no, Kichirō Woods, you are my familiar Ren, now and forever!>”
The magic of the geas, the powerful magic of the contract, worked immediately, filling both of their bodies with strength and vitality. It healed their wounds and resuscitated them, filling them with power they didn’t know they had. It was bringing their full potential to the surface. But this was one time only, sort of like the honeymoon of contracts. After this, the magic would be gone. So they had to make the most of it while they could.
The invisible presence leapt at them once again, except now it wasn’t so invisible.
I can see it! Ren thought, and then smashed it into the ground with her club, pinning it. The thing was like a wriggling mass of shadows, living darkness so thick it was tangible surrounding what looked like a human being.
“<Did you get it? Are you okay, Ren?>” Kichirō asked, somewhat nervous. He stepped out from his defensive position behind her to take a look, then felt sick. “<Yoshirō…>”
He knew right away. The shape underneath the blanket of shadows was his little brother, his eyes red, slit-like and feral. He was covered in blood from head to toe, and that’s when Kichirō finally came to terms with the fact that the Sadoyas were all dead.
“<Ren, let go of him!>” Kichirō ordered.
“<But->” Ren said, but she immediately felt the effects of the contract. The more she resisted his orders to her, the weaker she began to feel until a momentary gap in her concentration allowed Yoshirō to get loose, squirming out from under the club and retreating back into the shadows.
Kichirō looked around for him desperately. “<Ren, he’s been possessed!>”
“<By what?>” Ren asked. “<The spirit of Tamamo-no-mae?>”
“<Possibly,>” Kichirō said. “<We need to be careful. It’s still Yoshi in there. If we can just get it out of him…>”
“<Okay, so what do you want me to do?>” Ren said, keeping an eye on the ruins.
“<I need you to pin him, keep him still.>”
“<But that’s what I was just doing!>” Ren said, angrily.
“<I know, I’m sorry!>” Kichirō said. “<I just… I don’t wanna see him hurt.>”
Ren sighed. “<… Alright, I’ll try. I’ll see what I can do.>”
“<Thanks. I’ll start preparing the exorcism rites.>”
Kichirō began chanting mantras while Ren stayed on the lookout.
So this is Kichirō’s bratty little brother, huh? If he’s this fast now, I can’t imagine what he must have been like before being possessed. For a human to have had even a fraction of this speed would’ve been incredible! Still, I can see him now! I just have to get the timing right…
Ren saw something flash out of the corner of her eye and reached out to grab it, but caught only air. Both of them only nearly missed, Yoshirō diving past Ren by mere inches. Ren regained her balance.
Yoshirō rushed again, and this time Ren caught him, holding him down on the ground by the scruff of his neck. He thrashed and writhed, roaring and screaming in a way no human should’ve been able to, and the shadows that covered him began slinking up Ren’s arm. She flinched, utterly repulsed by their touch that felt like cold, wet garbage on her soul. She didn’t know why, but she felt like letting them touch her was dangerous.
“<Kichirō, do it now! I don’t know how much longer I can hold on to this guy!>”
His palm outstretched like the buddha, Kichirō slammed his hand down onto Yoshirō’s back, white light clearing away the shadows. Yoshirō screamed with the sound of many voices.
“<Leave, foul demon! Leave, impure one!>” Kichirō chanted. “<This world is not meant for you! This body is not yours! Leave at once! Leave, foul demon!>”
Yoshirō convulsed, and a crater bearing the kanji for purity appeared in the ground as he smashed into it. The voices coming out of his mouth screamed.
“<You cannot destroy us! We are the many! We are the forsaken!>”
“<Leave, foul demon! Leave, impure one! This world is not meant for you! This body is not yours! Leave at once! Leave, foul demon!>”
Yoshirō screamed again as the crater widened, the kanji burning.
“<We have been abandoned, so we seek shelter! We have been hunted, so we hunt back! We are the fox’s children, and we claim this body as our own! You cannot stop us! We will have this boy!”
“<Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before!>” Kichirō said over its screams and protests. “<Leave, foul demon! Leave, impure one! This world is not meant for you! This body is not yours! Leave at once! Leave my brother, foul demons!>”
The spirits screamed louder and louder until they burst from Yoshirō’s eyes and mouth like black smoke, solid shadows escaping into the atmosphere. Dragged behind them was Yoshirō, strung along like a fish on a hook. He rose a few feet into the air, suspended by nothing but the shadows, before everything stopped and he fell, the shadows snapping back into his body like rubber bands before disappearing.
“<Did it work?>” Ren asked tentatively.
Kichirō sighed. “<No. They’ve attached themselves to him. They’re bound to him now. I can’t get rid of them. I’ve suppressed them for now, but we’re going to have to start looking for a more permanent solution.>”
“<Hey. Yoshirō. Are you awake? Hey, Yoshirō!>” Kichirō said, shaking him lightly in his arms.
“Kichirō?” Yoshirō whispered hoarsely in English.
“Yeah Yoshi, it’s me,” he responded tearily.
“I’m… sorry… I failed. I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have-”
Yoshirō coughed violently, blood flecking his clothes, and Kichirō held him steady.
“Don’t push yourself. It’s okay, Yoshi. It’s gonna be okay.”
“No, it’s not,” he said. “Brother… it’s not what we thought it was. It’s something else. Something completely different! Now it’s inside me, and… and…”
Yoshirō’s eyes opened.
“Huh…? That’s funny…” he said nervously, eyes darting from side to side. “I can’t see anything. Brother, it’s too bright. Why can’t I see anything?!”
Yoshirō began to wail, and Kichirō’s mind raced, trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Then he saw his eyes. They were milky white, and empty.
They seared away his eyesight, he thought to himself, horrified. He’s blind!
“Brother! It’s… it’s getting hard to breathe, brother! My throat hurts! Oh god it hurts so much! Big brother! Where are you?”
Yoshirō’s hands grasped wildly for Kichirō, and Kichirō took them, holding his brother’s hand like when they were kids.
“I’m right here, Yoshi,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “I’m right here. It’s okay, Yoshi.”
Kichirō hugged his brother tightly, crying quietly.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Outside the complex, trees fell over. They heard a voice yell, “<Ren!!!>” and a posse of onis led by an enormous red one taller than a fully grown man crashed through the walls surrounding the compound.
“<Father?!>” Ren said, confused.
“<Ren! We heard your yelling and we came right away!>” her father said, brandishing his club. “<Are you okay? Did anything happen to you? Who hurt you? If it was those yōkai tamers and that boy, I swear on the names of all our ancestors, I will->”
That’s when he stopped. The mark of the contract still glowed brightly on the back of Ren’s neck. It was fresh like blood, and it told her father all the story he needed.
“<Ren…>” he said, lowering his voice to a dangerous pitch. “<What have you done?>”
“<After all these years…>” he said, growing steadily angrier. “<I told you what would happen, didn’t I? I told you! And now I find you making a contract with… with this? In this place? For these people?! You’re a disgrace, Ren! You’ve brought shame to us all!>”
“<Father, it’s not like that. I->”
“<Enough! You’ve stained our clan’s reputation irreparably. I see now that the only way to keep you from doing it again, the only way to make you pure again, the way a true oni should be…!”
Her father raised his club at Kichirō.
“<Is by killing this human filth!>”
Her father swung his club, fully intending to smear Kichirō’s remains across the entire courtyard. Acting fast, Ren swung her own club. Backed by the power of her new contract, it made contact with her father’s club, knocking it out of his hands. The large hunk of iron clattered on the ground as her Ren stood before her father, defiant.
“<Ren…>” her father said, steaming with quiet rage. “<Do you really intend to leave us like this? For him?>”
“<If I have to,>” Ren said without hesitation. Her father grit her teeth.
“<Very well. Then so be it.>”
He charged at his daughter, ready to fight, and Ren gripped her club, then swung.
By now the battle was beginning to shift drastically in Ren’s favor. Every time she got knocked down, she got back up, and after so many resurrections she wasn’t just keeping up with the demigod anymore, but marginally, nay, massively more powerful than her. She could feel the weight of her punches, and actually see herself inflicting damage on the previously invulnerable demigod. Even if she had strength, she didn’t have technique. Now that Ren was her equal, years of training in her clan’s unique martial arts gave her the edge.
Ren grinned maniacally with unrestrained glee. Even if she could reforge it, she didn’t need the spear anymore. She was plenty powerful on her own.
“And it all thanks to you!” she said, punching the demigod in the face to the sound of gargled blood. “You help me achieve the most powerful zenkai! Zenkai zenkai zenkai! Zenkai times a thousand!”
She pulled back her fist, enjoying the feeling of the pure elemental fury behind her punches as she prepared to strike. This was the power of an erupting volcano, or a hurricane making landfall! Every punch felt like her fists were meteors! Such glorious strength! Had any oni before her ever tasted power like this?
She and the demigod clashed, their fists impacting with each other made the landscape shatter. They pushed against each other, testing the strength of each other’s punches, until finally Nayeli’s strength gave out and the muscles in her arm momentarily relaxed out of exhaustion, allowing Ren’s fist to slip past and pound Nayeli into the ground the same way she’d done to Ren.
She picked up the demigod and held her by the throat, choking her.
“I got to thank you, god-girl. I never thought I ever get this powerful. Those vials you made me use cost thousands of dollars, you know? But it worth it. Money like that can’t buy you power like this. Now nothing can stop us. Once we get the philosopher stone, Kichirō and I gonna rule the world!” she said, as if making a pledge to herself. “I wonder what I should do when I done killing you? Should I try out my new power by jumping to the moon? Or maybe I go back to the train to pick up Kichirō and I pluck out the heart of your little boyfriend?”
Nayeli’s eyes shot wide open. Ren smiled viciously.
“Oh yeah. I gonna kill him good. Your boss only human, unlike mine. With you gone, we gonna break every bone in his body, then peel the skin off his bones. We do to him what he would have done to us. And when we done, there won’t be-”
And then it was all over. In that instant, with those words, it ended. Nayeli grabbed Ren’s arm, the very one that was in the process of choking her, and gripped it so hard it snapped like a twig. Ren screamed in pain, and dropped the demigod.
“What the…?” she huffed. “I thought you-”
Nayeli grabbed her by the face, squeezing her until her she felt like her head would pop. Then, she slammed her into the ground. Ren coughed up blood, and it ran between Nayeli’s fingers.
What the hell? she thought. What the fuck is this? I was beating her! She was supposed to be reaching her limits! I don’t get it! What is she-
Then she remembered what she had said herself not an hour ago.
Besides, I fight for them. For Kichirō and his little idiot brother. That why too. Long as I fight for them, I can’t lose.
It was true what she’d said. Fighting for something could make you crazy, could make you strong. Could make you crazy strong. But what Ren had failed to realize was that this went both ways.
She had never bothered to consider that she wasn’t the only one who could tap into that power.
No way… did me threatening her boss make her this strong? She loves him that much? A thug like her?!
The demigod said nothing. The angry insults and snide, condescending banter from before was gone. Now all Ren could see was rage. Her eyes seemed to glow red like the color of blood in the morning sun, and her breath was hot, so hot that steam was pouring out of her mouth. She wasn’t human anymore. Just an animal, driven by aggression and pure instinct. To protect what was hers.
Ren reached across with her good arm to grab one of the last remaining vials. She had ten or so left. There was still a chance of salvaging this and overpowering her again! She wasn’t going to lose like this. Not when Kichirō was counting on her!
But the demigod noticed what she was doing, and broke her other arm with a quick jab as it reached over, also breaking two or three ribs. She ripped off Ren’s bandolier and crushed it before throwing it away, far out of reach. Then she lifted her up into the air again, and slammed her back down, again and again. Each time the earth shook, and the forest came closer and closer to just falling into the Earth’s mantle, threatening to take the entire state with it. No, the entire West Coast if she got angry enough. If Ren’s power had been like an erupting volcano, then this would be like an erupting supervolcano.
She shuddered to think what would happen should the boundaries of their fight leave this forest, or even this fifty kilometer radius. If her power grew any stronger than this, the death toll could be in the millions. How many had already just died just on the outskirts? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? They shouldn’t have fought here.
No… it likely didn’t matter. Once the violence escalated to this level, there would’ve been casualties no matter where they fought. And she was partially to blame. They had both pushed each other to this. Once they started fighting, they should have known it could only end this way.
After all, this is just how demigods were.
Ren blacked out every time she hit the ground, each time regretting her decision more and more. That one mistake could lead to this…
She looked up into the bloodshot eyes of the demigod, and couldn’t help but wonder. Was this even ten percent, no, one percent of her real power? Was it even one in one-thousandth? It was said in legends that Heracles could topple mountains, dig rivers, and hold up the sky. The power she had so foolishly claimed to be Nayeli’s limit, the power that she herself had now obtained… it was nothing next to the true power of a demigod. She saw that now. This whole time, she’d been holding back.
Ren doubted it was intentional. With strength like that, with power like that… the world must feel like it’s made of glass and paper mache. One mistake or one bad day could mean the deaths of millions. Maybe more. What was happening now was proof of that. You’d have to find some way to contain that power to protect the world you lived in, to stop yourself from destroying everything. It must’ve taken years of discipline and building block after mental block just to attain the shaky level of restraint she’d shown in their fight, and she’d been fully ready to die to protect what little peace she’d managed to build in her life… before Ren pushed that button, and pushed her over the edge.
The bloodied and crazed demigod raised her fist, preparing the strike that would end the world. Ren stared at its shadow like it was a black star at high noon. Somehow she felt oddly at peace with this.
I’m like an insect next to her. An insect trying to fly towards the sun.
She smiled weakly. She was going to die now. She could feel it. Nothing was going to stop this indestructible god of war. Maybe nothing ever would. But if she was going to die, she was going to die thinking of something happy.
Ren laughed. Remember that day… when this all began?
Ren stood on the side of the train tracks next to a suit of shogunate-era armor, guarding it while Kichirō was away. The atmosphere here was deathly oppressive. Ever since they had left the island, she hadn’t felt like speaking. It was just her, the armor, and complete silence. The station was deserted. People were being told to stay in their homes, and there was constant radio coverage of what had just happened outside their little island world. The natural world had finally met the supernatural. Nothing would ever be the same again.
But now, none of that mattered.
Ren stared at a puddle on the tracks. She had killed her father. The rest of the clan backed down, but she would never be welcome back there now. She was an exile, an outcast, in all of oni society. She was on her own.
Maybe in a way the timing of these events was a blessing. With the revelation of the fae, she could wander freely. If she was unable to return home, at least now she could go wherever she wanted to. But… that didn’t mean she’d be accepted there either.
Ren sighed. She didn’t have the strength to be angry anymore. It was what it was. She was alone in the world now. An oni without a clan, or even a father. She had no more family, she’d fallen to the lowest of the low and out of oni society, and she had nowhere else to go.
She looked at the suit of armor containing the injured Yoshirō that was standing next to her. What had happened these last few days… what had happened? The whole thing was a blur. There was still so much neither of them knew or understood about their situation. In many ways, it was like being born again into a world wholly different than the womb they had been sheltered by before. The womb of the forest on that island, cut off from the rest of the world. All they did know was that none of them were the same.
The suit of armor reached over with a clunking sound, tapping her on the shoulder. It slowly turned its head, the sound of plates clinking against each other as the joints moved. Ren frowned.
“<What do you want?>”
The suit of armor pointed at the information booth. Kichirō stood at the front desk, impatiently tapping his foot as he waited for service that probably wasn’t coming. The shock of the past few days was real for them, but it blinded them to the shock everyone else was facing. To them, the supernatural was fact, a reality they’d grown up with. To the rest of the world, the idea of gods, demons and immortal monsters was a frightening and wholly alien prospect. Infrastructure was collapsing just under the force of people taking time to recover from the shock.
“<You’re looking for Kichirō, huh?>” Ren said, interpreting the armor’s vague movements. While before she’d been so close with him, the events of the past few days made it feel like a wedge the size of a glacier had been driven between them. Years of relationship progress had been lost, and she wasn’t even sure if they were friends anymore. She couldn’t help it, but she dreaded even seeing his face, much less looking him in the eye. She knew what she’d done, and there was no undoing it.
The suit looked down at her, not saying anything. Just judging.
“<What?>” Ren said, irritated.
The armor kept staring at her.
“<No, I’m not going to talk to him. You go do it.>”
The armor looked down and slumped its shoulders, as if exasperated.
“<You got something to say? Well come on then, spit it out!>” Ren yelled suddenly. “<What, you think I wanted this to happen? You think I want things to be this way?>”
But the armor didn’t say anything. Ren snarled.
“<Oh yeah? Well maybe I wasn’t there for him when he needed me, but who’s fault is it that all of this happened in the first place?! I’m not the one who was so jealous of their brother that I went and got myself possessed! I’m not the one who killed all the Sadoyas! I’m not the reason we’re homeless! I’m not the reason we’re outcasts! This isn’t my fault!>”
“<Say something!>” Ren shouted. “<Go on, say something! Say something, goddammit!>”
But the armor stayed silent, like talking to a brick wall. So Ren decided to break it down.
She punched the suit of armor. “<Fuck you! Acting like this isn’t all your fault! I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just trying to do what was right! How was I supposed to choose between Kichirō and my family?! How?! I was just trying to do what was right! I was just… it wasn’t my fault… I didn’t do anything wrong! I didn’t do anything…>”
Ren fell to her knees, banging on the armor’s shinguards. She started sobbing.
“<I didn’t do anything at all. I didn’t stop you, I didn’t stop Kichirō… I just let it happen because I was too afraid. So please, just say it. Don’t keep trying to trick me and make me think it’s alright. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. I know it’s my fault, so just say it! Don’t let me keep making me go on with all these fake smiles! He hates me now, I know he does! That’s already more than I can take, so just give me my punishment and get it over with! This is my fault!>”
She felt someone judo-chop the back of her head. Turning around, she saw that it was Kichirō, smiling at her.
“<Who told you that?>”
Ren felt the urge to back away overwhelmingly, like she didn’t want to be here. After the death of her father, Kichirō was the most important person left in her life, and yet she couldn’t bear to see him. She didn’t want him to even look at her after what she’d done.
He saw this in her eyes, and he sighed.
“<Is there something you want to tell me, Ren?>”
“<Well uh, I ummm…>” Ren said, choking on her words. Come on, where did all that bravado go? She’d said everything just a second ago! “<I… I…>”
Ren gulped. Well if he’s gonna make me say it, I might as well go all out.
Slowly, she got down on her knees and then slammed her head into the ground.
“<Please forgive me, Kichirō-sama!>” she pleaded loudly. “<I’m sorry I didn’t help you seal the nine-tailed fox that day! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, I didn’t know!>”
Kichirō stood there quietly, stunned.
“<I’m not worthy to call myself your friend after what I did, but please still let me call myself your servant so I can stay by your side! If not, then give me a sword so I can->”
She felt someone’s hand on her head, ruffling her hair. She looked up, and saw to her disbelief that it was Kichirō.
“<I’m touched by the way you feel, Ren, but losing you would be an even bigger loss to me than anything else that’s happened to us in the last couple of days. So let’s take it easy with the ritual suicide thing, okay? As your master, I order you to never even think about that again. Oh, and I also order you to stop calling me -sama. Just because we have a contract now doesn’t mean you need to start treating me any differently, okay? Now raise your head, and stop looking so mopey.>”
Ren did so, and looked up at Kichirō with tears in her eyes.
“<Thought I hated you? That’s what you said earlier, right?>” Kichirō smiled reassuringly. “<I could never hate you, Ren. If there’s anything I do hate, it’s that look you have on your face right now. It doesn’t suit. Where’s the tough, strong, proud oni I know and love?>”
“<Love. That special thing two people have when they feel like they could never be without each other? Remember? That’s not going to change either, Ren.>”
“<But it’s my fault your brother is like this!>” Ren blurted. “<And you didn’t say anything to me after we left the island, so I just kind of assumed…>”
“<That I hated you? Ren, come on. I’d have to be pretty petty if I hated you just for valuing your family more than me. If anything, I’m the one who should be apologizing to you. After all, I didn’t know that your father would…>” Kichirō suddenly stopped talking, deciding to bite his tongue before he dug any deeper into fresh wounds. “<Besides, these last couple of days I wasn’t ignoring you, I was just thinking about things. Trying to figure out how to cope with all this. I still don’t know how I’m going to do that. As it is I’m barely holding it together right now. But what I do know is this. It’s not your fault.>”
“<O-Of course it is!>” Ren stammered. “<If I had been there with you to seal Tamamo-no-mae, Yoshirō wouldn’t have gotten the drop on you and->”
“<And I probably would’ve been possessed instead. This thing is a lot stronger than we thought it was. If I’d gone, I probably would’ve been the one who was possessed. You saved my life Ren. Both of you did. Besides, if you wanna start thinking like that, then it’s my fault for even concocting this hare-brained scheme in the first place, and for not being there for my little brother when he needed me most. I regret both of those things, more than I think I’ll ever be able to ignore, so if it’s anyone’s fault it’s mine.>”
Yoshirō’s armor rumbled.
“<No. My… fault. I… started… it. Stupid…>”
The sounds came out slurred like gurgles. It was the sound a deaf man might make since he could no longer hear his own voice, but in Yoshirō’s case the possession was rapidly claiming his ability to speak, just as it had claimed his eyesight. Over time, it might begin to steal even more from him as well. That thought made both Kichirō and Ren’s moods sour.
Kichirō groaned. “<Fine. It’s your fault, it’s my fault, it’s Ren’s fault, it’s everyone’s faults. If we sit around debating who’s to blame, we’re never going to accomplish anything except hating ourselves and each other. For now, let’s just say we’re all to blame and move on, so we can figure out how to fix it and make things right again.>”
“<Yes, of course!>” Ren responded a bit too enthusiastically. “<But uhh… how do we do that, Kichirō-sa->”
Kichirō raised an eyebrow.
“<-iiiirrrrrrrr?>” Ren said weakly.
Kichirō sighed. “<It’s just a matter of exorcising the spirit, like we originally intended. I’ve been reading up on different methods of exorcism the last couple of days and I think it’s possible, we just need to figure out a way to develop and perfect the technique. This is a powerful spirit, so we can’t be too careful or take too much time preparing for it. Between consulting the experts in China and the Catholic church and gathering all the materials we’ll need to perform an exorcism of this level, I doubt we’ll be ready in less than five years. That should give us plenty of time on the road to search for a way to fix Kichirō’s body. Those tsukomogami he’s in will only hold for so long.>”
Kichirō stood up, straightening his tie over his newly bought business suit. It looked… good on him.
It was then Ren truly saw how much Kichirō had grown. She had never been bothered by his height before or seen him as anything less than her equal, than as a bratty kid, but now it seemed like he towered over her. He exuded a kind of cold confidence only survivors could. It was the pride of the battered, the badge they all shared. These last few days… he’d changed. There was no pretense of arrogance or overconfidence and no delusions of fatalism or self-pity. All she saw now was a man on a mission. A man who would do anything to protect them, and make things right again. In many ways, he reminded her of the best of the things she had once seen in her father.
Seeing him like that, it was like she was falling in love all over again.
He stood up, and turned to look at both of them.
“<So are you two idiots ready to go? It’s a long road ahead of us, and I won’t have you complaining until we get there!>”
“<Yeah!>” Ren and Yoshirō said, raising their fists in the air.
They all picked up their luggage, and started walking. Of course Ren knew. She knew words could change nothing, and that promises made with uncertain determination could only take you so far. They were just a trick, self-hypnosis to make you feel better so you would be able to do what you had to do without any doubts. But for some reason, she felt as if that if anyone could make them true, it was Kichirō. And that’s when she realized.
Father… I would gladly follow this man into the depths of hell and back. To serve him faithfully and honorably, to bring him success and glory like you would have for your old master… this is how I will forgive myself, and keep your memory alive. By acting as you would have in your stead. It may be an empty gesture from someone who no longer believes in your kind of honor, but I hope you’ll accept it either way. This is my apology to you.
Ren recalled those words fondly as her vision started to fade to black.
So that’s how it is, huh?
“<Sorry Kichirō, it looks like I’m going on ahead before you. I wish I could be there to see it with you. The end to this bizarre little adventure of ours. And these past fourteen years I spent loving you… it was really fun.>” The bloodied Ren smiled.”< Truly, it was really, really fun.>”