“Your subordinate is insane, Marquis,” Kichirō said. “Clearly he’s lost it if he thinks leaves will bring my brother back to us.”
“Hey, don’t diss the leaves!” I said. “They’re what got us into this mess, remember? So with the right leaves, why shouldn’t I be able to get us out of it? If you ask me, it’s lucky for you that we had some nep’ lying around. This makes your job a lot easier, pally.”
“My job?” Kichirō questioned. Marq snapped his fingers.
“Yeah, yeah! I get where you’re going with this!”
I nodded. “Your job, Kichirō pally, is to guide Yoshi on a trip down memory lane. Nepenthe is a strong drug, with a high risk of emotional and physical dependency. It relaxes the body while stimulating the mind, promoting all sorts of memory recall and shit. It doesn’t do much for me that a patch of reefer couldn’t, but for Yoshi it’ll help him re-live some of his happiest memories in his life. You need to use this to ground him. Walk him through it, talk him down. The sedatives in the nepenthe should do most of the work for you, but you need to finish it off with the nostalgia tour. Flood his brain with dopamine, bring him back down to Earth. He won’t be sober but he’ll be calm, hopefully enough to realize what kind of situation he’s in and wrangle the poltergeist patrol back into their place.”
“I… see…” Kichirō said, barely comprehending. “Herbal medicine was never my forte, but this seems relatively straightforward. But…”
“He can’t talk,” Kichirō said, bringing up something none of us had considered. “How do I know what kind of memories he’s seeing?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. How well do you know your brother, I guess? Look, just pick a memory you know you’d both remember, then try and lead him to it. If that doesn’t work, then either keep guessing or we’re screwed.”
I turned back towards the fight.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and get myself hospitalized again.” I looked at Marq. “How difficult would you say it is to stick a cigarette in the mouth of a murderous lunatic with only half a jaw?”
“Wait,” Kichirō said. “I may… have a way to help. To make this easier. It’s the least I can do, for you and for my brother. Do you still have control over that dragon, Marquis?”
“Yeah… wait, don’t tell me you’re thinking of bringing that skeleton back!”
“I can control it!” Kichirō protested. “If we can get it inside the car, we can use its ribs as a makeshift cage. It’ll hold my little brother in place. Then, I’ll be the one to deliver the nepenthe.”
There was a moment of silence. Did we trust him? Did he understand the limits of his own abilities, especially with one arm crushed and his mind emotionally compromised? And most importantly, would any of it even matter if we all died anyway?
“… Alright. It’s all yours, Kichirō. Your family, your familiar. Your call.”
Kichirō nodded. “Thank you.”
He took the nepenthe from my outstretched hand.
“There are two cigarettes and about five buds left,” I said. “You can use either type, but you’ll have to administrate it differently if you’re planning on making him chew the leaves instead of smoking it.”
He stared at the cigarettes and the plant leaves in his palm, clenching his fist.
“Oh, and one more thing. Thanks for uh… thanks for sparing me another trip to the hospital. You’re a real pal.”
“Stop calling me that,” Kichirō said bluntly. “Marquis, have you called your dragon? Does he have my Gashadokuro?”
“Yeah,” Marq said, twirling the dragon whistle he’d given to Theo. “He’s on his way.”
Kichirō nodded. “Then I guess it’s about time I get a move on it.”
I watched with a certain admiration as Kichirō slowly started approaching his brother. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the guy is a overtly sanctimonious douche-canoe, but there was something about what he was doing that I could respect. The sacrifice. The mistakes and the redemption. The older brother protecting his younger sibling. This was how it should be. Family, looking out for family. Especially when they can’t look after themselves.
There was a trumpeting roar from Sigurd as he flew past and dropped a pile of dismantled bones into the pit.
I watched as they plummeted into the cold grey cloud of magma cooling at the bottom like someone was dropping chopped vegetables into a pot of boiling water. Sigurd had done quite a number on it. “That’s… that’s not good.”
“You know you could all stand to be a little more patient,” Kichirō said. “Just give it a second.”
Moments after they disappeared from sight, I felt the walls of the pit rumble. A giant skeletal arm appeared from out of the hardening cocoon, dripping with fresh red magma like a hot shower. The whole pit groaned as the anatomical model from hell pulled itself out of the lava at the bottom of the pit, its baking bones crawling over each other in a race to fit themselves back into place. So this is what made it invincible.
“Behold my Gashadokuro,” Kichirō said in a way that reminded me of a certain someone.
The skeleton climbed the wall one bony hand at a time, digging into the sides of the pit with fingers the size of screaming children as boulders trickled down around it like water. The final bone in its ribcage clicked into place and, as if taking Kichirō’s direct demands as literally as possible, the skeleton monster used both hands to throw itself at the train without its hips and legs, lunging at us like a cat poised to strike. It grabbed onto the hole it had made and started squirming its way inside (we made sure to give it a wide berth).
Yoshirō roared as the Gashadokuro’s hands started swiping at him like moving walls, trying to corral him into its barrel-like chest dripping with hot lava. The car’s atelier interior had been expanded to fit a ballroom dance floor but in the end there was only so far he could go, and the skeleton grabbed him, swallowed him whole and deposited him behind the bars of its ribcage, crossing its arms around its chest to keep him inside.
We all swallowed hard lumps in our throats. This was working well so far. Now came the hard part. Getting him to take his medicine.
“Al, you forgot to mention this but how the hell is he going to get him to take it?” Marq hissed. “He can’t smoke it or chew it with half his jaw gone, and even if he could how is Kichirō gonna make him?”
“I don’t know!” I said. “He took it from me before I could think of anything!”
Kichirō stopped a few feet from the Gashadokuro. The desperate pounding of an animal could be heard from inside its chest, and the bars on Yoshirō’s makeshift prison which had survived dragonfire and being submersed in magma were beginning to crack. The only thing separating him from a violent death at his brother’s hands was quickly starting to fail. Kichirō took a deep breath.
“Yoshirō!” he yelled as loudly as he could. There was a series of loud thumps and cracks before a hole opened up in the giant skeleton’s ribcage and an arm burst out of it, its metal talons inches from Kichirō. He didn’t flinch. His brother growled with frustration on the other side of the cage, swiping as much as he could at something he just couldn’t reach.
I paid close attention. It was make or break time. How was he gonna do this? He couldn’t just stick it in his mouth if it was just gonna fall right out again, and the only way to make him hold onto it was by force. Kichirō would never hurt his brother by choice. So how was he going to make this work?
Kichirō’s grip on the nepenthe tightened. Some leaves squeezed off and slowly fluttered to the ground, the plant’s thick, sticky-sweet sap dripping like honey from Kichirō’s palms.
“Yoshirō… forgive me, but…”
With a lightning-fast jab Kichirō flickered past Yoshirō’s defenses and the walls of his cage, jamming all the nepenthe into his wide-open gullet. In another equally fluid motion, he pulled his crushed arm back and flicked a lighter, burning the end of the joint while it was stuck inside his throat, and setting the whole clump ablaze inside him.
“If I must hurt you to save you, then that’s what I’ll do.”
I heard barely covered gasps from everyone around me. I agreed with them. For Kichirō to do something like that? That had to take some serious moxie. But…
“How the hell did he do that? Don’t tell me they ‘trained him’ how to light a cigarette at the speed of sound with a broken arm!”
Kichirō grit his teeth and bore it as Yoshirō howled like a dog with its leg caught in a bear trap. He knew. He must have known that this was the best way to force feed the drug to someone who wasn’t allowed to die. But that didn’t make it easy. Listening to that from your own brother… I bet he’d rather put his jewels in a vice and twist until he yelled two octaves higher.
He turned back to look at us. “Now what?”
“Try to remind him of a happy memory!” I shouted back. “Something that’ll calm him down!”
Kichirō nodded, and turned back to face Yoshirō.
“Yoshirō. Can you hear me?” he said.
“Bruh… ther…” he gurgled. That was good. Some of his original consciousness was already returning.
“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” he said, trying to be heard over his brother’s whimpers and gurgling screams. “I know it hurts but you have to pay attention to me! I need you to think. Ignore the pain, and try to remember your thirteenth birthday.”
“Yes, your birthday. Remember when we snuck out into the forest and I showed you the hitodama I found in the marshlands? They were so beautiful, and we played with them for hours. I even made them dance.” Kichirō laughed, wiping a melancholy tear from his eyes. “Saito was so mad at us when we got back.”
“Noh…!” Yoshirō grunted unexpectedly. “Mhad… a’ meh… noht yoh…! Beat meh! On… my berfday!“
Yoshirō started to struggle, growing increasingly agitated. Kichirō backed off.
“It’s not working!” he hissed. “I gave him a happy memory! He still didn’t calm down!”
“Try a different memory!” I called back. “Maybe that one wasn’t happy for him!”
“Why wouldn’t it be?! It was his birthday! We were having fun!”
But even Kichirō knew we were losing Yoshirō pretty quickly at this rate, so he tried something else.
“Ummm…” he said, snapping his fingers. “Remember the first time I showed you a tanuki?”
Yoshirō growled, losing more and more of his conscious mind.
“Okay, that didn’t work…” Kichirō mumbled. “What about the ice cream shop in New Delhi? We bought ice cream for everyone and Ren tried to get you to eat yours by shoving it against your faceplate, and it left this huge pink smudge on your armor? We laughed, and laughed. We all thought it was the funniest thing ever, especially when that stray cat wandered up to try and lick your face? Remember that, Yoshi? Wasn’t that fun?”
“Do you remember the New Year’s fireworks when we were visiting China? Remember how amazing those were?”
“What about the Gashadokuro? Remember when we fought the Gashadokuro? Wasn’t that exciting? Wait, maybe that’s a bad example…”
Yoshirō roared. Little flakes fell off the bones of the Gashadokuro and he pounded its sternum with his head, cracking it.
“What do I do?!” Kichirō turned back to us. “I keep trying to think of all the happy memories we could’ve had together but none of them are working! Am I doing something wrong?!”
Shit. This wasn’t good. We were seriously losing him. Much farther and we wouldn’t get another chance like this.
“Try something else!” I yelled.
“Like what?!” Kichirō snapped back testily.
“I don’t know! Fucking anything! Just try something else!”
Kichirō turned around. Much longer than this and he’d be in serious danger of being killed by his own brother. But he sighed, and sucked it up. A different look came over his face.
“Do you remember the first week we spent with the Sadoyas?”
Yoshirō stopped, and became completely silent. Kichirō gulped, and continued.
“You didn’t fit in at all there. We were from a different place, a different time. I remember we both felt lost. But you… you had it so much harder than I did.”
Yoshirō grunted angrily, whipping his head around and rattling the bars.
“Kichirō!” I hissed. “What the hell are you doing?! Say something positive!”
But he wouldn’t stop. As dumb, and as self-destructive as it seemed, he insisted on opening old wounds.
“Saito… he beat you practically every day. Sometimes he’d drag you outside so you wouldn’t interrupt the lesson. Other times he’d just discipline you right in front of me. I started losing track of how many times he’d hit you in just the first five days… so I started keeping score based on how many new bruises you had at the end of every day. I promised myself I would pay Saito back a thousandfold for each the day we got out of there. Well, you took care of that for me. Eventually anyway.”
Yoshirō grunted, roaring aggressively. He’d almost completely regressed back to the animal side, and after we’d gotten less than a minute of lucidity out of him. But then Kichirō said something unexpected.
“I remember…” Kichirō sniffed, stifling tears. “I remember going to bed the seventh day. You were really badly hurt. Your face was so swollen you could hardly talk. I couldn’t read you, that’s how smashed up your face was, but you looked dead inside. I tried to hold you… like Mom used to. I sang you lullabies. I tried so hard to make everything better, to tell you that everything was going to be okay, but… I started crying.”
Kichirō sniffled, but this time he couldn’t hold it back. He started to cry.
“I kept telling myself that I was going to make Saito… make our family pay for what they were doing to you. I made all sorts of idle threats, like how I’d pay Saito back a thousand times or how we were going to get strong enough to escape one day. I kept telling myself I was going to protect you. But after seven days, after seeing you so beat up… I just couldn’t fake it anymore. I was losing hope.”
Yoshirō stopped moving altogether, stopped completely to look at Kichirō, eating up every word.
“I buried my head in your shirt and I just… cried. I was so pathetic. There was nothing I could do to protect you. I felt like a failure. But then… then you started to rub the back of my head like mom used to, and even though you were so swollen you could barely speak you said, ‘it’s going to be okay’.” Kichirō took a deep breath. “That’s when I knew, Yoshi. That’s when I knew you were stronger than me. That you’d always be stronger than me. When it came to what was important, what was really important, I was nothing compared to you. They broke me, Yoshi. They made me a part of their stupid nightmare world. But you never stopped fighting. It’s not that you were a failure. You would just never give them the satisfaction, am I right?”
Yoshirō groaned, the embers in his throat starting to fade. “Ki… chi…”
I couldn’t believe it. It was actually working! Kichirō sniffed, and wiped away his tears.
“I don’t care what the Sadoyas thought about you or what anyone else says about ‘who the superior sibling is’, because I already know. I know something they don’t. That you’re the strongest person I know, Kichirō. You made mistakes, we both did, but you never stopped fighting. You never gave in, never broke, never compromised. Somewhere along the line I lost sight of that, and I became just like them, but you never gave up hope. That’s why I need you to be that brave little boy again, Yoshi. Show me that never say die attitude! You can beat this, Yoshi! You can beat them! Show them that this isn’t you!”
Yoshirō looked straight into Kichirō’s eyes. He reached out a hand. “Bruh… ther… Ahm… so-“
Suddenly he yelled, a human yell, gasping in pain and grabbing his head. He shook spasmodically, trembling as the living darkness around him flickered, fluctuating.
“No!” the children of the fox yelled in perfectly clear audio quality unlike Yoshirō, their voices reverberating. “This boy is ours! This boy is ours! You cannot have him!”
Kichirō snarled. “You ectoplasmic assholes… GIVE ME BACK MY LITTLE BROTHER!”
And then Kichirō punched a ghost. No, seriously, I’m not kidding. He pulled back his arm and made it into a fist, and somehow he punched a ghost. I don’t know how, but he did it. Knocked it straight the fuck out, too. The darkness curled to the floor and melted away like fog, and the train started to right itself as we cleared the pit and made it back onto solid ground. Everyone fell over but Kichirō just caught Yoshirō, holding the gigantic metal fucker with his crushed arm like he weighed nothing.
I got up, coughing and dusting myself off, and got a good look at the scene that had just played itself out in front of me.
“… Okay, if you try to tell me your ‘training’ let you do that too, I’m going to punch you in the face.”