Ren

Street Lawyer 5.7

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Nearly two weeks had passed since Nayeli left, and Marq was getting desperate. He’d had our guys comb the entire city trying to find her, and when that failed to turn up anything, he’d resorted to taking Sigurd out on joyrides and flying over the countryside, trying to pick up Nayeli’s scent. So far, no luck. In the meantime, I’d been asked to pick up the slack in taking care of our three fugitives hiding out at the docks.

I stopped in front of Mickey’s old studio warehouse on Pier 6, the one I’d nearly burnt down a couple months ago. There were still scorch marks toasting the place and nobody had bothered to replace the broken windows. All in all, it couldn’t look more abandoned if you stuck a tumbleweed in front of it.

Balancing a food tray with my one hand, I knocked on the rolling shutter door with the other. Faster than I can react, the terrible end of Yoshirō’s turgid metal deathstick speared through the door’s thin sheet metal only a few terrifying inches from my face. I think I almost pissed myself.

Who. Is. It.”

Kichirō’s voice asked me tersely from the other side. I swallowed, trying to regain my composure.

“It’s Alfonso. I’ve got your food. Y’know… soup’s on…”

“… Oh. You can let him in, Yoshi.”

The shutter doors rolled up and I walked on inside, looking around for the three of them. Were they hiding?

“You know,” I shouted into the darkness, “you really don’t need to do that every time I stop by. Can’t you just tell it’s me by sensing my ki or whatever?”

“True,” I heard Kichirō say as he stepped into view. “But Yoshi doesn’t like you.”

I felt a snort of hot air on my neck and nearly dropped the soup all over my new loafers. The big guy was right behind me, wasn’t he?

“H-Hi, Yoshi…” I squeaked, turning around slowly. “How’s it going?”

“Don’t call him that. He’s still mad about how you drugged him back on the train, Kichirō said, snacking on a tiny bag of circus peanuts. “He says you’re lucky he doesn’t turn you into sashimi.

“Duly noted…” I said, slowly backing away. “Do I at least get some soy sauce?”

Kichirō raised an eyebrow at me.

I set the tray down on a toolbench and unwrapped the bread, breaking off bits of it in their soup. The chunks float for a few seconds before sinking to the bottom. Typical New York cuisine. Soup was so watery you could stick a boot in it and call me Ishmael.

“You know, not that I don’t enjoy these daily chats of ours, but why don’t you just go and lay low with the Four Beasts again?” I asked as I literally broke bread with my enemies. “I mean I like the smell of mildew and stewed human flesh just as much as the next guy, but this isn’t exactly a five star hotel you got here. Don’t you want some better digs?”

“Asking the Four Beasts for help again would be… unwise,” Kichirō said. “They seem to have heard about how we treated their men, and now they want revenge. They’ve already sent men after us numerous times.”

“What? Why didn’t you tell us?!” I said, dropping half a loaf in one of the bowls.

“We going to, but…” Ren started.

“… they don’t seem to be particularly thrilled with the Allesandris right now either,” Kichirō said.

“Yeah, and whose fault do you think that is?” I said, sighing. “Here’s your soup.”

The bowl clanked to the floor, spilling a few precious drops of its liquid sustenance. My immediate instinct was to reach for my hanky and wipe it up, but I held myself back. I figured the floor could stand to get a little dirtier. Once you reach a certain point of no return (like say, burnt clothing and human flesh), any new mess you make kinda just gets lost in the background. No point in dirtying a perfectly good handkerchief then.

Ren hesitantly picked up her spoon and took a nibble, then immediately spat it out.

“Bleh! This taste worse than yesterday!”

“Oh really?” I replied sardonically.

“Yeah! It taste like nuppeppō pus!”

“I have literally no idea what that is,” I said. “It’s cream of mushroom soup from a can. Just eat it.”

“Canned? I thought they use fresh ingredients?” Ren said, or rather accused.

“Yeah, right,” I replied, snorting. “Fresh water, maybe.”

“Ren,” Kichirō chided. “It’s impolite to criticize the food someone’s given you out of the kindness of their hearts.”

Kichirō raised his spoon to his lips and tasted the soup, smacking his lips.

“That being said, I have to agree. This does taste an awful lot like nuppeppō pus.”

“Still don’t know what that is,” I said. “And I thought you said it was impolite to criticize.”

“I also said the food had to be given out of the kindness of their hearts,” Kichirō said with a wry smile.

“Fair enough,” I sighed, taking a seat. “If the food tastes like crap it’s because our local kitchen just lost one of its biggest supporters.”

“God-girl, right?” Ren asked, blowing on soup.

“Yup,” I said. “Without her around they’ve had to switch to canned to keep up with the demand. Her disappearing act is throwing a lot of monkey wrenches in a lot of peoples’ plans.”

“Why you think she did it?” Ren said, blowing on her soup.

“Who knows?” I said, sighing. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice. All that matters is that Marq is tearing his fucking hair out trying to find her. If she doesn’t show up before a formal arrest is issued, they’re probably gonna send the Untouchables after her, and that’s not going to end well for any of us.”

“The… Untouchables?” Kichirō asked.

“Yup.” I cracked another loaf in half and offered it to Kichirō. “They’re an anti-magic law enforcement division, beholden only to the highest authority within the US government. Sorta like secret agents crossed with cowboys by way of Merlin.”

“Uh-huh. So what make them so special?” Ren asked, chomping on bread.

“Easy shortstuff,” I say, enjoying my one chance to say that to someone else for a change. “Each of them is given a special mythical weapon that only they’re allowed to wield. Y’know, astra and holy swords and all sorts of cursed shit. Real nasty stuff like that. They’re the government’s last line of defense against monsters and magic users.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Ren commented.

“You don’t know the half of it. If they caught wind that any of us had dealings with the Cintamani stone, we’d all be locked up right now faster than you can say ‘I plead the fifth’. We should thank our lucky stars they haven’t perfected the technology for audio-based psychometry yet.”

“Hmmm… If they’re law enforcement like you say though, shouldn’t the Marquis just be able to buy them? That seems to be your family’s preferred way of doing things. Bribing people until the problem goes away.”

I grunt in annoyance. Cheeky little…

“Wouldn’t work. These guys? They’re incorruptible. The textbook fuckin’ definition of fanatics. Assassination, blowing up family-owned trucks and boats, smashing up entire warehouses then burning them to the ground. And that’s just the stuff they do to harass us. When the real monsters come knocking and the big guns come out, I’ve heard of entire towns getting written off in the name of their mission. Tabula fucking rasa, like they never existed. All to keep the peace, supposedly. Nobody knows where they find these psychos but they make the Vitalis look restrained by comparison. If you ask me, they dig ‘em up from the deepest pits of Alcatraz, give them a badge, then just turn them loose.”

“And your government let them get away with that?” Ren asks. I shrug.

“We live in crazy times, I guess. It all makes about as much sense to me as it does to you. All I know is that they’re tough, they’re mean, and they’ve got a license to kill. If they’re brought in to deal with Nayeli, we better just pray they bring her back in one piece.”

Ren snorted.

“Really? You worried about god-girl? When she can give Yamata-no-orochi a run for his money? It don’t matter what kind of weapons they bring. She tough enough. She can take it. God-girl is invincible.”

“Against an enemy like you who just uses brute force, maybe. But you weren’t there at Central Park.” I paused. “Anyway, you should always remember one thing. Demigods? They’re weak against magic.”

I soaked up the last of my soup with my half of the loaf, and stuck it in my mouth. Forcing my arms into my coat’s sleeves, I brushed myself off and got ready to go.

“You leaving already?” Kichirō asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I got two more mouths to feed back at home.”

Light shone through the slit in the door Yoshirō had made. Working my hands under the door, I lifted with my knees, and pulled up the metal sheet like a blind. Dark sunbeams from a cloudy but-not-too-cloudy sky pierced my eyes, flushing me back into the kind of daylight you only find hanging over New York City smog. I look back over my shoulder.

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Let us know from now on when the Four Beasts start to give you any trouble. We’re… working on a fix. Things have just been… well, you know the way they are right now,” I said. “I’ll let you know once Marq has something he wants you to do. For now, just stay put.”

“What you think we’ve been doing?!”

I walk out and let the door drop behind me, drowning out the incensed oni’s protests. The way things are right now, huh? And what exactly was that? What way were they ever supposed to be to begin with?

The stairs creaked softly as I walked up to our apartment on the second floor, carrying a bag of groceries. I only mention this because normally the stairs make noise like a pissed off cat whose tail someone just stepped on. I can think of a few good reasons for why today was different. For one thing, the bag’s lighter than it should be, on account of me having to skimp now to pay Frankie. I don’t know how much extra he wants, but I’m not about to go overspending and test the man’s generosity any more than I already have.

Second, they’ve been doing renovations around here lately, something they say is finally gonna have us all caught up with the new building code they instituted a few years after war. Been a miracle they managed to get away with not doing it for this long, but then again nobody’s in a hurry to pay for the living conditions of the working class.

Dwarves – excuse me, dvergr – clung to the architecture wherever I looked, hammering away and tearing down walls, ripping out electrical wires. That part was probably gonna be easy. Not much in the way of commodities here. We were lucky we had our own bathrooms, let alone lights. A few of them muttered something in Old Norse as I walked past them, which made me frown. If you’re gonna say something about me, at least say it to my face in the King’s English.

I walked to the other end of the hall where our apartment was, and noticed there was one thing they weren’t touching. The spriggan’s old room. So far it had been spared the hammer and the hacksaw. Not a single soul had touched it. I snorted. Probably because they were still figuring out how to get inside. The spriggan had always been a private old girl, and now that she was a tree she was going to be even harder to convince to leave.

As if to prove my point, a vine crept out of the mass of roots and flower buds that had already grown out of the wall surrounding her apartment and coiled around the doorknob, its slow, deliberate movements more than making the tenant’s wishes clear. She’d move when she was damn well ready to. As for us, I wasn’t sure what we’d do when they started fixing up our place. Probably sleep downstairs in the basement until it was fixed like everybody else. I could ask Marq for a place to crash, but I don’t think Annie would like that, and she’s plenty pissed at me as it is. Besides, he… needed his space right now.

I fished for my keys, trying to keep the contents of the bag from spilling over. Turning the key in the lock, I heard that satisfying ka-chunk that let me know “I’m home!” and then I shut the door to our apartment behind me.

“Annie? Theo?” I announced to seemingly empty space. “You guys here?”

I didn’t expect to hear much back. Theo wasn’t the talkative sort most of the time, and she said she would be out doing the laundry this afternoon anyway. As for Annie, she was still mad at me, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

To my surprise, I heard her call back, “Yeah Al, we’re in the living room!”

Funny, I could’ve sworn she still wasn’t talking to me this morning. “You’ll never guess who’s here!”

“Who’s here?” I asked, immediately suspicious. Had that shitty agent stopped by again? Dr. Evans?

I looked down and noticed an extra pair of shoes by the door. Spit-shined leather oxfords, with their laces carefully tied.

“Oh no…” I said to myself. I turned the corner into the living room, walking as naturally as I could. There I saw Annie in her wheelchair, and setting next to her was…

He looked up at me. “Oh, hello Alfonso.”

I tried smiling as convincingly as I could. “Hey there, Cavvy.

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Street Lawyer 5.1

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Finally the train arrived at the station and we all piled off, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. We’d left the scene of the disaster behind us, but it was only a matter of time before they tracked us down. Right now, what we needed to do was take the stone back to New York as quickly and quietly as possible. The rest we could ad-lib from there. As much as it’d pain Marq, I’m sure the Cintamani stone would make some pretty slick bail for-

“Hello, brother~”

Oh no. No. No. Not now. Marq and I swiveled our heads in unison to find ourselves confronted with the absolute last person we both wanted to see. Milo Allesandri. He smiled.

“You look upset, Marquis. Is there anything I can help you with? A certain stone that needs smuggling back into New York, maybe? Or perhaps you’re suffering from a guilty conscience? This is all your fault, after all.”

Theo brandished her knives while I stood stock-still. How. How was he here? How did he know? Wait, that’s a stupid question, I thought at I stared at Leo and Figaro. Who else could’ve told him?

Getting over his surprise, Marq cleared his throat, straightening his tie. “Sorry Milo, but the stone was a fraud. We don’t-”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Marquis. You’re better than that. We both know the stone is a fake, and we both know it’s hiding a much better prize.”

“The Cintamani stone,” they both said in unison. Milo’s tone was loud and triumphant. Marq’s was subdued and defeated.

Crap…

“How-”

“Did I know? Please brother, we both know I have my ways, just as you have yours.”

“… It was Figaro and Leon, wasn’t it?”

“Huh?” the two goons in question replied.

“You put them undercover on the train and thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did. I erased their memories of the stone, but they must’ve been bugged too. Clever. You knew even if we caught on to them we wouldn’t bother checking our own men for surveillance devices, didn’t you?”

“…”

“…”

This was it. Would Milo admit to it? No, of course not. No logical person would. Even if you knew they knew too, admitting to it doesn’t benefit you at all. It only gives them ammo to use against you later, even if it’s brick-shittingly obvious you did it. The only one who’d admit to that would be a narcissistic psychopath. Then again, that’s what Milo was.

And that’s exactly what Marq was banking on.

“Uh, boss Marquis?” Figaro asked. “What are you talkin’ about? What stone?”

“I’ll admit, it’s a pretty brilliant scheme. So clever I’m a bit surprised you came up with it. You even used low-tech bugs too, didn’t you? Something basic like a pocket mic I’m guessing? So we wouldn’t think it was you, the amulet-obsessed magic tchotchke-freak. You’ve surprised me for once, Milo. Congrats.

Don’t push it, I thought. Feeding into his psychotic ego was all well and good, but sarcasm wasn’t going to help.

Milo frowned. “… I have no idea what you’re on about.”

What?!

Marq maintained his cool. “Sure you don’t. And I’m guessing you just happened to come here because you wanted to meet your beloved half-brother at the station to make sure he was alright? I’m touched, Milo, really.

Milo sighed. “My sources, of which you will not be made privy to, have never and will never incorporate either of these two. Doubt me all you want, brother, but I didn’t send them.”

Marq and I exchanged quick glances. Something was definitely wrong here.

“That being said however, I suppose I am here to congratulate you on what can loosely be called ‘a job well done’. Believe me, it’s the only one you’ll be getting after the devastation you and your… friends caused here.” He looked at us with disdain. “Make no mistake, I have no intentions of defending you or that raging bull of yours in front of the federal court, let alone father. Your best defense right now is compliance. Make me look good in front of father, and it makes you look good by association. I’m sure as a fellow attorney you realize this is your best option at this point, yes?”

Marq nodded. “Yeah.”

“Then hand over the stone.”

Marq didn’t do anything for a second. Then he nodded slowly at Kichirō, who nodded back. Approaching the banged up boxcar of the Nimbus, Kichirō forced open the sliding door with his good arm, revealing stacked cages of animals. Nayeli squealed, the prospect of getting to see Bob making her momentarily forget her funk, and clambered inside.

“Ohooo…” Milo sneered, mildly impressed. “So you hid the stone with the animal feed.”

“Not quite,” Kichirō said. “We actually hid it in the cargo container. It’s connected directly to the boxcar containing the animal’s cages, so no ordinary passengers would be able to fumble in here by mistake. Or by design.

The tone of his voice showed just how much he trusted Milo: only about half as far as he could throw him. Which judging by the look on his face was something he had definitely thought about doing.

“Stay here, Annie,” I said. But she glared at me and propped her crutches on the rim of the car, pulling herself up. After what had happened between us earlier, I decided not to press the issue.

Everyone clambered inside, carefully stepping over the strewn hay and bountiful craps of the animals that had been released in the chaos earlier that morning.

Hmmm… in retrospect, maybe that doesn’t clear things up a whole lot. The chaos at the train station then.

We all followed Kichirō, who stepped with confidence. Worst came to worst, we all figured he’d do his new allies a solid by offing Milo rather than letting him get his hands on the stone. Sadly, fate and a certain gassy ungulate had other plans.

“Where’s Bob?” Nayeli asked, looking around the empty cages. But everyone ignored her.

“We hid the stone in a bottle of ceremonial champagne the shipping company included as a gift for the Monkey King. He likes having little presents hidden in the bottles,” Kichirō explained. “The boxcar should be just up ahead- oh. Oh no.”

Everyone leaned and took a peek over Kichirō’s shoulders. It was difficult to see in the darkened boxcar, but the door had been opened. Violently. Crumpled in like the lid on a pack of goddamn cigarettes.

No one rushed. We all tiptoed in slowly, dreading what we might find.

“What the hell happened to this place?” I asked. “It looks like a damn minotaur got loose… They didn’t actually have a minotaur in here, right?”

“No,” Marq said, sighing. “They had something much worse.”

I looked around. There were some holes poked in the side of the car where dim light shined in from outside. Did I say “poked”? I meant more like “stabbed”. Splinters of wood and broken glass were everywhere, making the place look like it had been torn apart.

Who was I kidding, it had been torn apart. But by what? What could stab a hole through a sheet of solid magically-reinforced steel and looked like it munched on hunks of wood and glass bottles?

Wait…

I groaned. Oh no. I hated it once I figured it out, but I caught on to what we were gonna find just a few seconds after Marq did.

Finally the light beaming in revealed enough and Annie gasped. Nayeli just flipped the hell out.

“Bob!” she yelled, running over to the prone, horse-like animal lying on its side. About eight feet long and seven feet tall if it were standing upright, it had a bright white coat with brown age spots and was unmistakably a unicorn. It also was unmistakably slurping alcohol from a bottle it held in its drunk-ass purple lips, noisily smacking it down.

“Ohhhh, now I remember!” Marq said, going “aha!”. “Bob was retired from the races ‘cause they said he had a drinking problem!”

I look at him weird. Weirder. “Horses drink?

“Oh yeah, all the time, Al,” Marq said in a calm, relaxed tone that made it clear he was completely fucking serious. “Their jockeys feed it to them all the time. They especially love hoppy beer.”

He turned his head. “Hey, Nayeli? You might not want to do that.”

Nayeli, for her part, was trying to get as close to her dream animal as possible (hopefully to make some good memories before we all sailed down piece-of-crap street here in the next few weeks). She had tiptoed her way most of the way there already before stopping to kneel, the unicorn so ass-blastingly drunk it hardly noticed her. She reached out to touch Bob with her outstretched hand. Then she started to stroke him.

“There there, Bob…” she said lovingly. The horse-monster’s eyes snapped open. Forgetting that it was supposed to be drunk and thus sloppy and uncoordinated, it flipped its head around and clamped its chompers around Nayeli’s outstretched fingers.

“Owwwch!” she yelped, pulling her fingers back. Surprisingly, they were red and starting to swell. “B-bob… why?”

The unicorn neighed wildly, bucking and flailing even though it couldn’t stand up on its own. It tried jabbing Nayeli with its horn but to no avail now that she was ready for it.

“Bob!…” she protested, obviously feeling let down.

“That’s a unicorn for you,” Marq said, sighing. “They don’t like anyone who’s not a virgin. They can smell it on you. Drives them crazy.”

“B-but that’s not fair…” Nayeli said with tears in her eyes as she looked at Bob, who’d settled back down now that she’d backed off a bit.

No, I thought. What’s not fair was Marq not telling you this from the beginning.

“These uhhh…” Milo said, picking up the empty bottles scattered around the floor. “These wouldn’t happen to be the bottles you hid the Cintamani stone in, would they Kichirō?”

Our tall Japanese friend sighed. “As a matter of fact, they are.”

Bob belched.

“Oh, that is just disgusting,” I said, plugging my nose as everyone else tried to waft the scent away.

“So what do we do now?” Milo said. “I don’t think I have to remind you what happens to your crew and that homunculus should you fail to hold up your end of the bargain, do I Marquis?”

Not on your fucking life, I thought. Nayeli was already in the shit, but I wasn’t letting Theo join her.

“Well Kichirō?” Marq said, sighing and letting his hands fall to his sides. “What can we do?”

“We can wait for the creature to pass it.”

How long will that take?”

“A few days… a few weeks… who knows?” Kichirō said.

“Okaaay… any other options?”

“We could surgically remove it?”

Marq clapped. “Great! Al, get on it.”

I froze. “What?”

Marq motioned at the prone, bloated Bob blob. “Get on it. You’re Mr. Medicine Man, right?”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said. “Slow down. In fact, back up. You want me… to do gastrointestinal surgery… on a unicorn?”

“Yeah… What’s the problem?” he asked me dangerously slow-like.

I gulped. “Well… do you realize how fucked up that is? I mean, it’s a goddamn unicorn!”

“Oh grow the fuck up, Al!” Marq shouted out of nowhere. “This isn’t some fairy tale with pretty pink little princesses, and I’m not going to let you fuck us because you don’t wanna cut open the poor widdle unicorn! It’s a goddamn animal! There’s nothing special about it! I thought you said you’ve worked in the operating room before!”

I stared at him. “I’ve assisted in an operating room before. I’ve memorized how to perform certain surgical techniques, and practiced a few. This isn’t one of them. And even if it was, what makes you think just because I can operate on a human means I’m qualified to chop up a goddamn horse?”

“What’s the difference?!”

“They have four stomachs, Marq! Horses have four stomachs! How am I even supposed to know which one the stone went through?”

“That’s cows, Al. Horses only have one stomach,” Annie said, correcting me. “It’s separated into a front and hind gut.”

I sighed. “Fine. You want me to cut up the goddamn unicorn?”

Yes,” Marq said through grit teeth.

“Well too bad, ‘cause I can’t!” I said. I regretted saying it right away, but I was too angry, too caught up in the moment to stop. “You saw what Bob did to Nayeli when she tried to get too close, right? Well some of us here don’t have adamantine skin, and I’m pretty fond of my fucking hands. How about you?”

“Well there’s gotta be someone here who can!” Marq said, his desperation obvious. He was losing his cool. “Come on Al. Give me something. Give me anything. Isn’t there anyone here who’s a virgin?”

I hesitated. We were pinned down here. We needed that stone, or all of this, literally all of this, would’ve been for nothing. There had to be something we could salvage from this, something that had even the slightest bit of meaning that we could look back at and say “well at least we did that” when we were thinking of just how much this job had cost us all. But there was nothing.

Milo sighed. “Well, this has been fun, but if no one else has any ideas, I propose we just shoot the damn thing and take the stone out from its body by force. Any objections?”

Milo spun the chamber on his revolver, leveling it at Bob’s head. Nayeli sprung into action.

“Yeah! Here’s a few!” she said, shielding Bob with her body. “Go fuck yourself! You want me to kill you right here and now?”

“Go right ahead,” Milo said. “But know you’ll only be adding to your list of crimes by doing so, and once our father gets word of it, expect Marquis’ head to be next on the chopping block once he learns his pet bitch offed his other son. That’d certainly kill his chances in the war for succession. Or would you rather just keep standing in the way like an idiot so I can tell our father Marquis refused to cooperate in retrieving the stone?”

Nayeli was sweating like crazy, and it wasn’t just because the boxcar was damp with animal shit. Milo had had her trapped like a rat again. I bet she wasn’t eager to relive the same experience.

There was nothing we could do. Every way out was a dead end. It seemed silly, but this one little fucking unicorn had become a symbol for this whole fucking job, and if we let it die it’d be like fucking this whole thing up all over again. Something good had to come of this. Anything. But unless we could think of something fast, nothing would. We’d be right back where we started. Totally defeated.

That’s when we all heard a sound no one was expecting to hear. Bob nickering in his sleep.

“Ummmm… I could do it.”

I turned around to see my sister kneeling next to Bob in a sea of booze, broken glass and horse piss. The smell was was so bad it was almost physically repelling, but she just knelt there, bearing it as she stroked the incensed unicorn to calm it down.

“And who are you?” Milo said.

“She’s my little sister,” I said. “And… she’s the only one that can do this.”

I hated saying it. I wanted to protect her, protect my little sister from anything that could hurt her, but right now we didn’t have a choice. Either she operated on a wild, dangerous animal in my place, or we all paid for it. Theo, Marq, Nayeli, me. This was the best option. The only option.

“Lil’ squirt…” Nayeli said, almost teary in the eyes.

“Don’t get me wrong!” Annie said, looking at Milo and Marq. “I’m not doing this for any of you. I just want my brother and Theo back home safely. And this unicorn doesn’t deserve to die either! Is violence all you people can ever think about? There are other solutions!”

Milo snorted. “Feh. Fine. Do as you wish. It’ll probably just end up dead anyway.”

Annie looked at me, asking me what to do first. For just this second, I had some of her trust back.

I sighed, and flipped open my knife. I passed it to her gently.

“Here. Use this. It’s sharpened to surgical standards. Bob should be okay on pain, he’s kind of already… self-medicated.”

The unconscious unicorn farted loudly, and we all pinched our noses.

“Okay,” Annie said, taking the knife. “Where should I cut first? Shouldn’t we sterilize the equipment and move him somewhere clean?”

“We can’t really worry about that right now,” I said. “We’ll leave those problems for the vet. Speaking of…”

“Right, already on it,” Marq said, exiting the car to find the station’s phone.

I looked around. Dark. Damp. Smelly. Probably full of shit and other things that could cause infections. This was hardly the ideal operating room. But we didn’t have much else. It was time to start.

“Alright, first you need to shave the area you’re going to make an incision into. In this case, that’d be his midline,” I said, instructing her as I pointed where to cut and what needed to be shaved. “We’ll use some of the leftover booze as antiseptic. Wait for me to pour that stuff on before you make the first incision.”

Angling the blade carefully, Annie made a few ragged passes, shaving a rough patch into Bob’s belly. Dabbing part of her dress in alcohol, she sponged the area down with our makeshift cleaning agent and antiseptic. With me guiding her, she slowly, very slowly, made the first incision.

Almost immediately Bob whinnied and neighed, but quickly fell silent again. I felt ready to jump in at any minute to yank Annie back. If Bob hadn’t been so completely trashed, I doubt we would’ve been able to do this. A conscious unicorn would turn us into a horn kebab.

Annie finished the long first incision, stopping after more than a foot. Perhaps a bit too generous, but this was my sister’s first impromptu veterinary surgery. All things considered, I thought she was handling it pretty well.

“Okay Annie, this is gonna be the hard part,” I said carefully. “Things are gonna get kinda gross, but I want you to stay strong, okay? Now, you gotta reach in there-”

Without even hesitating, Annie dove into Bob’s guts up to her elbows, smearing blood all over her hands and dress.

“Okay,” she said, turning to look at me calmly. “What am I looking for?”

Damn, I thought. My little sister was a bit more hard-boiled than I’d thought.

“Uhhh… the small intestine,” I said. “You need any help describing what that looks or feels like, or-”

“Nope,” she said, dragging a coil of guts out onto her lap. “I got it.”

“… Alright then. You see a bulge, feel any bumps where the stone might be?”

Annie squeezed the unicorn’s gut-piping in her hands, groping like a pro doctor administering a mammogram. Wrong form, but you had to admire her enthusiasm. Finally, her fingers closed around a section of intestine with a slight bulge in it.

“Find it?” I ask.

She nods. “I think so. It’s big. You want me to make another cut?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Gently, though. You don’t want to poke the tip through both sides.”

She did so, a little squeamishly at first with shaky hands, but in the end she made it through without perforating Bob’s intestines. Pantomiming what she’d need to do, I slowly guided her through the process of squeezing the stone out of the hole she’d made.

A few pushes later and it was finally done. The stone clattered to the floor, a dark orange, almost blood red color like amber. I breathed a sigh of relief, and grabbed my sister in a hug.

“Hrrmmmm… Al,” she said, but ignored her. “… Al. That’s enough.”

She shoved me away, or tried to. I was much stronger than her weak little arms. I let go of her.

“Ah, and there’s the prize~,” Milo said, reappearing just in time to scoop up the stone. “With this I should be able to heal whatever it is that ails father. That should be more than enough to ingratiate myself into his will. Though admittedly, it does stall our family’s little feud somewhat. Such a shame, isn’t it Marquis?”

“Yeah,” Marq proffered with venom. “Should paint a nice fat target on your back now that you’re the frontrunner for the inheritance.”

Milo just smiled. “We’ll see.”

He turned and walked away. And that was the last we saw of him. Till that dreadful day when Nayeli’s fate would be decided.

Previous || Next

Tokyo Drift 4.11

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The train stopped, and it was over. It was finally, really over. So, when all’s said and done, when you’ve won the day, gotten the girl (in our case represented here by the darling Cintamani stone), and everyone, even the bad guys, live happily ever after, what else can you say?

“Well that was a fucking disaster.”

I grimaced along with Marq. Well I guess there was that. Both of us staring outside at the massive gaping hole where a tenth of the entire state of Arizona used to be kinda put our personal victories into perspective.

“That… got out of hand quickly…” I said, agreeing with him.

“Indeed,” Theo said.

Marq groaned. “People are gonna have some really fucking interesting things to say about this. One thing’s for sure, this is not going to help come election day.”

“Ah come on, Marq,” I said, trying to cheer him up. “It’s not that bad. Like they have any way to trace this back to us or Nayeli. And even if they did, what are they gonna do? Johnny Dumani destroyed an entire fucking mountain fighting that hydra and they let him get away with it.”

“First, that was in defense of public property,” Marq said, sighing. “The collateral damage might’ve been pretty severe in the surrounding areas, but Johnny still saved the entire county from total annihilation. That alone negates half the charges against him. This was completely senseless, not to mention a thousand times worse. We’ll be lucky if people aren’t still talking about this when we’re all old and gray.”

Marq turned to the two Yamada brothers. “Kichirō! What the hell did you give Ren that made Nayeli go all-out like this? Some kind of mythic weapon?”

Kichirō glared softly at him. He was cradling Yoshirō, who was barely conscious and barely breathing. “I appreciate your help, Marquis. More than you’ll ever know. I never thought you’d actually deliver on your promises. But right now my brother is still gravely injured. He’s in pain, and he needs me. Whatever this is, it can wait.”

“Really?” Marq said. “The biggest un-natural disaster in recorded history since the Lost Renaissance… and it can wait? Look, I didn’t even know Nayeli had that kind of strength. This places her in the United States’ top ten for demigods, if not top ten in the world. If this had gotten any worse, she might’ve cracked the whole damn continent in half. Now I don’t know what you or Ren did that made this possible, but I need to know, because right now we are on a countdown until this place is swarming with feds and cinder dicks and aaaaalllll sorts of Untouchables, and we are all implicated. If I don’t even know where to start building a case, how could I possibly-”

“Waitwaitwaitwait. Wait,” I said. “What do you mean we’re implicated? We had nothing to do with this!”

“It won’t take a genius to check the registry and see our names listed right next to Nayeli’s, Al,” Marq said. “She’s a registered demigod and a known associate of the Allesandris. Trust me, the legal system and I are both intimately acquainted with her.”

“Uhhhh…”

As her lawyer, Al,” Marq said, telling me to keep it quiet around others. “Even if we personally had nothing to do with this, we’re all persons of interest.”

“Okay, so what? How are they going to prove anything? We’ll just pay off the judges like we always do. Make it look like some kind of natural disaster. Like, I dunno, a volcanic eruption. The Allesandris have always been good at covering our tracks. That’s why we’re top of the New York food-chain, right?”

“Second to the top, Al,” Marq said. “You forgot the Pescatorres. We’re pretty neck and neck with the Sartinis right now too, and you can expect a major upset now that we’ve got this to deal with. Besides, you’re missing the point. The second one I forgot to mention earlier.”

I did a mental search of all the conversations we’d had in the last forty-eight hours, seeing if anything fit what he was talking about here. Then…

“Oh,” I said. “Oh shit.

“You remember, don’t you? The bill just got passed last week. Psychometry can now legally be used as evidence in a court of law. And with a disaster of this size? The feds are gonna be rolling out the spirit cameras by the thousands, capturing every possible angle. Soon this entire crater is going to be on lockdown, and they’re gonna rewind the whole damn thing, Al. They’ll have a frame-by-frame playback of the whole fight. Even if they do think it’s just a natural disaster, they won’t be thinking that for long. Which brings me back to my question, Kichirō. What did you do?

Kichirō stared at us silently.

“… The nepenthe should be dulling the pain,” I said. “For what it’s worth, your brother probably doesn’t feel a thing right now.”

Kichirō hesitated for a moment, then gave in. “Phoenix yolk. I gave her phoenix yolk.”

“Phoenix yolk?”

“To activate her power of zenkai, Ren needs to be close to death,” Kichirō explained. “I gave her a belt of phoenix yolk vials so she could fight at full health while retaining the extra power she gained from each zenkai. Ren is strong, but there are people much stronger than her, like your demigod. This was a strategy we developed to fight those people that allowed for theoretically infinite gains as long as phoenix yolk was in steady supply.”

Marq became deathly pale. “You mean to say-”

“Yes. It is theoretically possible that Ren became strong enough to kill your demigod friend. Just as possible as it is that she killed mine.”

“Or!” a voice cried out in the distance. “Or maybe we could both be alive, and you could be crying for nothing, ya worry-warts!”

I poked my head out the car door. Two smokey female figures started to resolve themselves on the horizon. Both were covered in ash, and one was leaning on the other. The taller and bustier of the two (I assumed Nayeli) waved at us.

“Also, we could use a change of clothes!”

“Yes! Quickly!” the shorter one (Ren) said while she tried to strategically cover herself with her hands. “Before anyone see!”

“Heh. Heheh,” I chuckled, before wheezing and breaking into gut-busting laughter. “Hahahahaha haaaa. Holy crap! Marq! You’ll never guess who it is!”

“Nayeli!?” Marq yelled, all too relieved.

“No, uh, seriously boss. We need clothes,” Nayeli yelled back. “Like, right now. Please?”

“Oh, uh… right. Rightrightrightright!”

Marq scurried back into the car, panicking and trying to find some clothes to cover them up. I laughed again. Somehow, in spite of or maybe because of how much of a literal trainwreck this day ended up being, this was the funniest thing I’d seen all day.

I poked my head back outside.

“You do know you two ladies look like English chimney sweeps right now, right? I don’t think anyone’s seeing nothing until they give you like five baths and a de-skunking, at least.”

Fuck you asshole, you already got a free show and I’m not giving you another!” Nayeli said, her middle finger raised high.

Marq rushed outside carrying a children’s night-gown in one arm and his coat in another. Handing the night-gown to Ren, who scurried off to change behind the train where nobody could see her, he wrapped the coat around Nayeli and proceeded to bombard her with the usual slew of questions.

“What happened out there?”

“Things… got really out of control.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No, not really.”

“Define ‘not really’.”

“I got some bits of a spear stuck inside me.”

“Oh jesus…”

“Relax boss, it barely even hurts anymore.”

“You got bits of a spear? How did that even happen?

“I uh… kinda crushed it with my abs.”

“Okay one, that’s kinda hot and I am so tearing the clothes right off your body as soon as we get home. Y’know, after we give you like, five baths and a de-skunking,” Marq said, causing Nayeli to blush (though you could hardly notice it). “Two, what the hell were you thinking?!”

W-What?” Nayeli said, flustered by Marq’s sudden outburst. “Well, I mean I was kinda thinking that if I let her stab me I could-”

“Not what I meant, but finish that thought later. I mean what the hell were you thinking when you let this happen?!” he almost shouted, pointing at the gigantic hole in the state that a lot of mapmakers were probably gonna get pretty pissed off about, come to think of it. “And I meant that for both of you! I told you to keep things discreet, Nayeli, that’s why I told you to fight outside in the middle of nowhere! And Ren, why did you egg her on?! Do either of you have any idea what you’ve just done?!”

“Oh come on, it not that bad,” Ren said, stepping out wearing the night-gown. “This Arizona. We fight in the middle of giant forest, there no cities for miles! Besides, there no way they can trace this to us.”

Marq sighed. “First, yes there is, and second, no, but there are towns. A good handful if I remember correctly, and they’re going to want to know why their homes and their loved ones are now part of a giant hole in the ground! This is serious, like ‘eyes of the world’ serious! We will all be lucky if a ten-year legal battle is the worst that happens to us as a result of… this.

Marq gestured at the giant hole. I swallowed dry as the high from the battle came crashing down. Yeah, it didn’t really occur to me until just then, but uh… wow. When you looked at it, this was… wow.

I tried to forget about it. Not like we didn’t belong way down below already. This was just… this was a little more extreme than we were used to, I think. I mean, no one wanted this to happen. Even Nayeli seemed a bit shaken up by how scary her own power was.

“Hey… I uh… so Marq I mean boss I… if you w-want me to, I can just… go, I guess is what I’m… t-trying to say,” she said, sniffling. “I mean I know I… I… oh god… I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, I swear I didn’t!”

The woman I thought was an invincible stone-cold bitch started crying like a little girl, and Marq welcomed her into his arms. Was it because she knew she’d just killed gods know how many people and regretted it, or because she wanted so desperately for Marq to not hate her? I dunno. Which was more sad, do you think?

“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay. I’m not mad, it’s okay…” Marq said, trying to comfort her. If that was a lie, it wasn’t a very convincing one.

“No, no it’s not ‘okay’! I mean holy shit, I… I-I-I-I…”

“Just don’t think about it, babe,” Marq said. “Focus on me, okay? You listening? We’re gonna make this alright, Nayeli. One way or another. I don’t know how, but it’s gonna be okay. Just… trust me. We’ll think of something.”

Nayeli sniffled into his coat. No response, in a situation for which there really were no words.

I suddenly became acutely aware of just how cold and clammy I was for an Arizona morning.

This was the world we lived in, a world forever changed by gods and monsters, where one minute everything is great and peachy and keen and the next minute everything you thought you ever knew and would never go away gets swept up in an instant by some storm of heavenly or demonic violence that was just so much greater than you were. So great it may not have even intended to put you in harm’s way to begin with. And then? You get fucked. Just like that. Straight up fucked, like DVDA.

I looked out at the huge pit. This time it was Nayeli, and Marq. How long before the uncaring hands of the Fates came after me and Annie?

Panting with exhaustion after the stress of the recent battle, Felicity pushed the door to the car open and came stumbling out. She quickly picked herself up and dusted off her suit.

“If,” Felicity said, huffing, “you two are quite done, I’d like to remind my husband of his position, and recommend he start taking action if he wants to keep it. Starting with unhanding a wanted fugitive.”

Nayeli heard what she’d said and surprisingly clung to Marq instead of saying anything, begging him with her eyes not to do what she said.

“You know, before anyone starts to get the wrong idea.”

Desperately, Nayeli mouthed, ‘no’.

“Felicity…” Marq said slowly, still holding on tightly to Nayeli.

“Now darling, you need to begin preparing a preliminary statement in your defense if you wish to have any chance in the upcoming election, or else your campaign will tank like the Titanic.”

Felicity…” Marq said, his tone sharper.

“Of course I’d recommend just cutting all ties completely to save face, but I know my sentimental fool of a husband would never do something as sensible as that. So instead, I’ve devised a plan that will hopefully still prove to be effective if we can’t just deny we know anything about her. If you throw the demigod under a bus, darling -figuratively speaking of course, there’s no way that would kill a mutt like her- then you may still be able to make an appeal to the public-”

Felicity!” Marq shouted. His eyes were sharp and cold like a reptile’s. “I appreciate your input. But I’m not your husband yet. So if you’d kindly fuck off, I have business to attend to. Allesandri business. You know, with the family.”

Nayeli didn’t quite smile, but she looked relieved. Felicity snarled.

“Listen, you-”

“I’m sorry, did I not make myself clear? Take it to a ten cent box, or I’ll call one for you. Or better yet, a meat wagon.”

“Al! Allllllll!”

Everyone’s heads turned. I heard the voice of my little sister as she crashed through the door to the dining car. She stumbled, catching herself on the rails before she fell. She was… running. I couldn’t believe it. She was running!

“Al!” she yelled, jumping down off the train and heading straight for me like an adorable cruise missile. I welcomed her in my arms and caught her with a bear hug.

“Annie!” I said, relieved.

“Oh thank god you’re alright, Al!” she said on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what happened! You disappeared as soon as I left and when I tried to look for you outside everything was exploding, it looked like the world was about to end!”

“Yeah…” I said hesitantly. “Yeah, it was a… volcano… right, Marq?”

Felicity opened her mouth to say something, but Marq shut her up.

“Yeah, that’s right. There was some kind of eruption. They think it was due to some unexplained seismic activity in the area. Sounds like Gaia having a stomachache, doesn’t it, Nayeli?”

She nodded. Good. About time someone shut Felicity up.

“I’m just happy you’re okay!” Annie said. “But… you’re sober. How did you do that so quickly?”

“I, uhhhhh…” I said, trying to explain.

“It was because of me, Mistress Anastasia,” Theo said, approaching Annie in full maid mode. The red party dress and bloody knives did not sell the look.

“Theo?!” Annie shouted in genuine surprise. “I thought you were in Montreal! How did you-”

“I flew here on the back of a dragon. It is not important,” Theo said dismissively, shrugging. Sorry Theo, but even I think that sounds like a big deal.

Annie looked around. First at Theo, then the wounded Yamadas, then to the dragon circling almost silently in the clouds above us. The wounded Sostene, Felicity who was still carrying her empty Tommy guns. Then her gaze settled on Marq and the half-naked Nayeli, and I think that’s when she put the pieces together.

“Al…” she said slowly, with trepidation. “What’s going on here? What happened?”

“What do you mean?” I said. “We told you, there was an earthquake followed by an eruption and-”

“Don’t give me that crap, Al!” she said with a ferocity I wasn’t accustomed to that may have scared even me. “Something’s going on here, I know there is! First all this stuff with the Marquis, and now these people we don’t even know, this disaster…

“What, you can’t seriously think Marq caused that,” I said, laughing nervously.

“That would be ridiculous,” Theo said dully, nodding.

“Answer me, Al! Why do those people have weapons? Why are they wearing suits of armor, and why do you have a gun?!” she said with alarm as she spotted the revolver I’d tried to keep hidden. “There’s something you’re not telling me, and I can guess what it is! Why have you been hanging out with the Marquis? Why do you have this gun and a knife? Where did Theo really come from, and what happened here?! What have you been doing brother, and don’t tell me you’ve just been working at the hospital and that Marquis is your financial advisor, because I know that’s a lie!”

Tears started dripping down her face onto the arms of my suit.

“Tell me, Al!” she said, close to sobbing. “I don’t want to hear it from someone else… but I will if I have to!”

She glared at Marquis, who instantly took a step back from the crippled invalid girl, my little sister. When she wants to be, my little Annie can be as scary as a bearcat. But… what did I tell her? I knew this day would have to come eventually, but not this soon! Not now!

Kichirō and Ren stared me down with a look of urgency. Figaro unsubtly mouthed “no”, while Leon and Felicity looked like they couldn’t have given less of a shit. I looked at the expression on her angry, tear-stained face.

Tell… me…

I looked over at Marq, silently asking for his permission. He shrugged, and I sighed with resignation. So this is where it ended, huh?

“… Annie… I’ve been working with Marquis.”

“I knew it…” she choked through hot, angry tears. “How could you, Al? You know what he does! He’s a murderer-”

“Hey!” Nayeli said.

“-and a thief-”

“He certainly is,” Felicity said.

“-and a no-good lying bastard son-of-a-bitch!”

“Guilty as charged,” Marq said nonchalantly.

“You’re not helping!” I said, pointing at Marq. “And you watch your language!”

“Why? Because you said so? Why should I listen to anything you have to say if you aren’t going to listen to me?”

“Because I don’t want you growing up like me!” I blurted. We floated through the awkward silence for a moment before I sighed, and tried to explain myself. “I was running out of money to pay for your cancer treatment-”

“Then why not just ask me to help with the finances? I’m sure there’s something I could do to make money! Or better yet, why not ask Marquis?! If he’s such a good friend of yours, why doesn’t he help pay for our hospital bills?”

“You know you’re in no condition to be working, Annie, and besides, the family business is a family business. You can’t expect them to just hand out money. A boathouse burned is a dollar earned, and it’s a lot better than owing them money. Trust me.”

“Or y’know, trust me because I’m the one who usually has to hand out those punishments to all the naughty boys and girls!” Figaro said with a chipper voice.

“Then we need to budget ourselves better!” Annie protested. “You work at a hospital! Even as an assistant nurse you should be making more than enough to-”

“Annie!” I said, interrupting, already regretting what I was about to say. “I… I didn’t get the job at the hospital. I never did.”

She looked confused. “W-What?

“They turned me down, Annie. Because I was a medium. I was ‘the least favorable candidate’ because they didn’t trust my powers, so they gave the job to an elf instead. I’m sorry. I… I didn’t have the heart to tell you. That was the last straw. We had no more money, we didn’t have any other options, so I went to to work for Marq.”

“I bet that’s how it happened,” she said, glaring at Marq. “That’s when he suckered you in-”

Actually,” Marq said. “Your brother came to us.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Ouch. So quick on the comebacks…”

“She’s got your number, Marquis,” Kichirō said, rasping wheezily.

I sighed again. “No, he’s right, Annie. I did. I came to them looking for a job, because it was the only way I was going to be able to pay our bills. I already had a history as one of Marq’s associates, and as it just so happened another made man had gotten bumped off recently, so they, y’know, held a ceremony and welcomed me into the family.”

“I was there!” Sostene pitched in unhelpfully with a slurred voice. He sounded really dizzy. “Can someone get me some blood? I think I… I think I ran out…”

“I can’t believe this…” Annie said, shaking. “I don’t want to! That you would… you said you’d leave that life behind once you became an adult! So you could look after me! Those were your words! How am I ever supposed to trust you again, Al?”

Everyone looked at me. Yeah, great. Put me in the fucking spotlight why don’t you?

“I… I dunno,” I said, giving up. “How can I make you trust me again, Annie?”

She glared at me. “Stop telling me lies.”

“Okay.”

“You promise this time?”

“I promise.”

“And you’ll start listening to me from now on?”

“I promise.”

“Good. Find another job.”

“No can do,” I said, throwing my hands in the air.

“Al!” she said. “Already?!”

“What do you expect from me, Annie?” I said. “Once you’re in the family, you can’t just leave!”

“He’s right, you know,” somebody added.

“It’s a life-long commitment, both in honor and in blood!”

“There are people who would kill me just for being Allesandri, Annie, and they’d kill you too!” I said, trying to sound as urgent as possible to convince her. “The only reason we don’t have to worry about those kinds of no-good punks is because we’re under Marq’s protection! Even if I could just turn in a letter of resignation to Franky Allesandri and walk away from the mafioso lifestyle, we’d have to constantly look over our shoulders! I don’t want that life for you, and if I have to bite the bullet so you can live like a normal, happy girl, then that’s just how it’s gotta be! That’s my decision, Annie!”

“But you’re making it about my life!” she said. “And you’re my brother, Al! Don’t I get a say in this? I don’t want to see you become something like him!

Marq sighed. “And again she singles me out… Listen, Annie. You know the rules, or at least I think you do. Your brother can’t just leave us. There are strict laws and codes of conduct in place about how you honor the family. Pay your tributes, respect the family, never snitch. It’s all about omerta.”

Go to hell,” she said.

“Ah ah ah,” Marq said, tutting. “You’re gonna wanna hear what I have to say. It might make you change your tune. I did say your brother can’t leave us. I didn’t say he had to keep doing what he’s doing. There are other jobs available to a made man besides being a hired gun. It was just my preference that Al’s skills be put to good use. If both of you want, I can try to find him a different job besides being a hatchetman. Say, maybe, butter and eggs?”

She looked at him, confused. Marq sighed.

“He could work the bankroll. Manage finances. Maybe do work as an information broker? I’m sure he’d be good at that. Point is, there are less lucrative but also less violent jobs we could have him doing. How does that sound? Would that help you forgive your brother for lying to you?”

Annie blinked.
“Huh?”

Previous || Next

Bonus Interlude (Ren, pt. 3)

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Blinking, Ren slowly came to.

Huh? I’m… not dead? What is this? Why do I feel warm?

Someone’s arms were wrapped around the crook of her legs and armpits, carrying her like bride or a princess. She felt a comforting strength radiating from those arms, like they could carry her for a million miles and never drop her. Ren smiled.

Ahh… I see. This is Kichirō’s warmth. He’s the one carrying me. Which means this must be the afterlife. Oh Kichirō, why did you have to follow me here?

She looked up at him.

Still… I’m glad I get to walk into heaven with you… Wait.

Her vision gradually focused, losing the bright and blurry bloom until she could recognize a face that wasn’t Kichirō’s. It was sharp, spartan, slightly angular, and it did not look kind. Hair the color of thistles covered in dirt fell down its scalp like a waterfall.

Ren’s eyes widened. She knew that face. That meant… that this wasn’t the afterlife. And this… wasn’t Kichirō!

Finally she could see clearly again. The face of the demigod Nayeli Knossos loomed down at her.

“Yo. Finally awake, huh?”

Ren stared up at her, mouth agape. For a minute she did nothing.

“… Gah?!?!”

Ren panicked, flailing. What the hell?!

The demigod sneered, annoyed as her flailing limbs smacked her. “Would you cut that shit out? I’ll drop you.”

“God-girl?!” Ren squealed. “What the hell is this!? What are you doing, and why are we naked?!” she realized to her mortification.

“Our clothes burned up in the fight, remember? Or are you too stupid to remember how heat works?” Nayeli intoned mockingly. “And what does it look like I’m doing? I’m carrying you, you idiot. Now stop squirming and shut up, before you break something again.”

Ren’s red face became even redder, darkening with embarrassment.

“Stop acting like you care about me! Let me go! This feels so wrong! This isn’t what I-“

Ren felt something crack.

“My back…” she whimpered, going limp in Nayeli’s arms. The demigod sighed.

“I fuckin’ told ya, but noooooo…”

Ren looked at Nayeli through teary eyes. “What did you do? Why I still alive?”

“Because I gave you my blood,” Nayeli answered. “Why do you think? It healed you, and you weren’t gonna survive in that state without some of it. So stop squirming and breaking things. You’ll heal soon if you just let me finish carrying you, you fucking ingrate.”

The two of them walked in silence for a while. The ash was thick, enough to choke, and neither of them took many breaths. They saved their energy for walking. Climbing piles of debris, and new mountains. Eventually, Ren spoke.

“… Why did you save me?”

“A ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

“I being serious. Why? I your enemy. I try to kill you. You were going to kill me. But you save me anyway. Why?”

“Well it’s not because of your stellar personality, I’ll tell you that much,” Nayeli remarked, mumbling to herself. “Seriously, show some fucking gratitude…”

Ren looked around at the devastation. Fires coated the horizon and the morning sky had gone dark with ash. It looked like a volcanic pit, only it was miles wide. This… is what they’d done?

“… We kill a lot of people just by accident today. You know that, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“And we gonna have a lot to answer for when we make it back.”

“Yup.”

“So what difference does one more life make? Just another number at this point, right?”

“Jesus, are you still fucking on about that? Maybe I saved because I didn’t want anyone else to die! Did you ever think about that?”

The oni went quiet, the two of them walking in solemn silence.

“That the real reason then, isn’t it? You feel guilty.”

“I told you, I just don’t like killing other demihumans,” Nayeli said. “That’s all there is to it. Don’t go thinking you’re special or anything.”

“…” Ren stared at the growing fires on the horizon. “It hard for me to imagine what it must be like for you. To live knowing that you can do this. That it inevitable that someone will die because of you no matter how hard you try to control it.”

“Jesus, you make it sound like we’re trying to kill people. We’re not. It just… happens.”

“Earthquakes do not try to kill people. Volcanoes do not try to kill people. They just do. They no can help it. It just how they are. As long as they exist people will die, but they can’t help that. It very sad. Living like that.”

“Yeah well get used to it. You’re living that life now too.”

Ren shook her head. “No. Zenkai no last long. I can already feel the power fading. I keep some of it, but not all of it. Not enough to be as powerful as you are. Besides, you demigods always attract bad luck. It in your blood to cause trouble. Get in fights. Kill people. You in mortal danger every week, so you have no choice but to fight. I can go back to the forest, and hunt by myself. Alone.”

“Is that what you’re gonna do then?”

Ren thought about this. “No. I have someone I look after too. Someone I need to protect. I think that familiar to you, right? He do the thinking, you do the fighting.”

Nayeli chuckled. “Yeah… that sounds about right.”

Ren sighed.

“Well, things work out somehow for you. They always do. I thought I die today. Turns out I wrong. God-girl much more forgiving than I thought she’d be,” she said with a smirk.

“Feh. Don’t make me let go of you, shrimp.”

“Not unless you want me to swing from those giant udders, you dairy cow.”

“Bitch.”

“Whore.”

“Slut.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you.”

“…”

“…”

The two of them laughed uproariously, straight from their bellies. It was happy laughter. Guilty laughter. Sad laughter. Shocked laughter. Glad-to-be-alive laughter. Every kind of laughter there was in one giant melting pot of complicated emotions, summed up by just about the only thing either of them could do about it at that point.

“This is a fucked up world, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it definitely is.”

Previous || Next

Bonus Interlude (Ren, pt. 2)

Previous || Next

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…

“Hrrrrrr… HRRAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!”

“Wait, what?!”

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.

“Haaaaaaaaah!”

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.

“<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.

“<… owwwww…>”

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.

“<Ren, I…>”

“<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.
“<Oh no…>”

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…

“<Run faster!>”

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.

“<Stop!>”

“<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.

“<But->”

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?>”

“<I swear.>”

“<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.

“<I swear.>”

“<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.

This time!

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.>”

Yoshirō coughed.

“<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?>”

“<Father, I…>”

“<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!>”

Nothing.

“<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.

“<B-But I…>”

“<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?>”

“<L-L-Lo->”

“<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.>”

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Bonus Interlude (Ren, pt.1)

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It was a curious sight, Ren admitted. An oni in full armor and an axe-wielding woman in a party dress standing on top of a train as the wind blew past them. Not something you saw every day.

“Are you sure you wanna do this?” Nayeli asked.

“Absolutely. Is my job to protect Kichirō from people like you.”

“Really? Cuz if that’s all you want you could just give up and I’d take you out for ice cream or something some place far away, promise. We could talk about boys,” Nayeli quipped sarcastically.

“No,” Ren said. “I want to fight you. Fighting strong people exciting to me. Makes me feel alive. Is what I live for.”

“Uh-huuuuuuh…” Nayeli sighed, and grabbed the handle of her axe from the back of her dress. “Alright, I guess we’re doing this then.”

“Yes,” Ren said, brandishing her spear. “We are.”

The two demihumans faced each other atop the train, their eyes never leaving one another’s. Their white-knuckle grip on their weapons was absolutely unbreakable. Neither one of them dared to look away in fear that they would give their opponent a chance to make the first move.

Ren smiled. This was how a battle between two warriors should be. Simple, and threatening, like a lump of sharpened steel. None of the arrogance or fancy politics that dominated Kichirō’s world. No talk of principles or ideals. Just the clash of two indomitable wills, showing their respect for another in the vital, focused art of combat-

Is she looking away from me?

Ren stared dumbfounded as the demigoddess casually broke eye-contact to look out on the forest like some sort of sightseer, sticking a finger in one of her ears and twisting it around like she had nothing more important to do than scratch some itch in her inner ear. She flicked away a wad of greasy yellow earwax and returned her gaze to Ren, looking utterly bored.

Ren returned the gaze in kind, her furious expression making the demigoddess uncomfortable.

“….”

“…. So is there any place in particular you wanna do this, or-”

“Here is fine.”

Ren dashed forward, the wrapping on her spear blowing away in the wind as she struck the first blow. Her naginata clashed against the rough slab of rock her opponent called an axe, sinking only a few millimeters into the handle. The entire train shook instead. Ren clicked her tongue in annoyance. Hyper-dense, huh?

The demigoddess looked at her, annoyed. “Well that was rude. I only have one of these things, you know. You gonna pay for this later, or are we gonna have to cut that out of you too?”

“You assuming you’ll win?” Ren said, smiling. “Arrogance. We killed demigods before. Kichirō much better at what he does than your boss. And I no-”

Still locked blade to blade, Nayeli’s feet left the ground, her lower body twisting around and driving a powerful kick into the tiny oni’s side, sending her flying into the distance.

“What’s that?” Nayeli bellowed. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you!”

————-

What incredible power, was what Ren thought as she soared through the air like a bird. Or a bullet. Landing almost fifty kilometers away, she crashed into a thick thicket of trees, coughing up blood. Her vision spun dizzily. She was much, much stronger than Ren had expected. The last time she’d been kicked so hard she couldn’t see straight… that was more than a decade ago, right? Was she sure she wasn’t more of a monster than she was?

Ren looked around. It was hard to tell what with being in a crater where everything looking like she’d just gotten off a nasty bender, but… was this a forest?

The demigoddess landed a few feet away from her, still holding her axe.

“Sorry about that, I lost control there for a second. I get a little fucking touchy when people talk shit about my boss,” Nayeli said with an air of disinterest. “It won’t happen again, I promise. I’m impressed though, I really meant to kill you with that. They build them tough where you’re from, huh?”

Ren laughed. “I am oni. We do not die so easily. Something we have in common, I think.”

“Don’t build ’em very tall though, apparently,” Nayeli said derisively. “Or curvy. That a part why Asian girls don’t have any tits or is that just an oni thing?”

Ren instinctively clutched her chestplate, her red face becoming imperceptibly redder. “Really?! You bring that up now?! Not everyone can have boobs the size of Mt. Olympus, god-girl! Besides, they just get in the way!”

Nayeli snorted. “Yeah, whatever.”

She reached down, and tore a slit in the leg of her dress. Then she undid her ponytail. “Ready to rumble, shortstuff.”

Ren looked around. Now that her vision had settled, she was sure of it.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Ren said, a note of concern sneaking into her voice. “This an Arizona national park. We can’t destroy this. We fight here, maps will need to be rewritten.”

“Yeah yeah,” Nayeli said dismissively. “Look, I don’t like beating up other demihumans. Makes me feel like a bad guy. I’m a good girl, you know? So are you sure you wanna do this fight? Like, really sure? Here, tell you what. If you wanna fight me, how about put one hand behind my back and swing my axe one-handed? That way nobody gets hurt and-”

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Ren once again lunged at the demigoddess.

“Hey!” Nayeli shouted. “Are you even listening to me?! Be fucking nice!”

The two of them locked eyes and weapons, demihuman against demihuman, polearm against polearm. They disengaged, the air crackling between them. Ren swung her spear, and distant trees cracked in half, sliding apart like cut vegetables. Nayeli did the same in return, except when she did it, it was the hills that were cut apart instead. A small cut opened in Ren’s cheek as she dodged the glancing blow. So this was the difference in their power.

This is bad. If things continue like this, then I won’t be able to reach it in time. I have to move things along here.

Ren thrust the spear towards her head, trying to end the fight immediately by destroying her brain. Nayeli lazily tried to parry it, pushing it to the left so it’d just miss her face, but when the spear passed, she felt it cut her. Actually cut her. But the blade had never touched her. She’d cleared it by centimeters at least. Blood dripped down her face in the exact same spot where her glancing blow had struck Ren.

Nayeli’s expression turned sour. It was the same look she’d had fighting the homunculus in Central Park. Her eyebrows twitched as she narrowed her eyes and sighed, pinching her brow.

“I knew it. I fucking knew it. No way I could get a break. Alright, so what’s this then? What did you do? Peel my skin apart with your mind? Put a spell of shared pain on me that rebounds your wounds back to me? Does that spear cut through time and space to deliver wounds that’ll never heal? What is it?”

Ren smiled.

“You know what this spear is? It a replica of Tonbogiri, spear of Honda Tadakatsu, so sharp it cut things without touching them. Edge so thin it’s invisible, yet harder than steel.” She withdrew the spear, allowing the light to hit it so that the demigoddess could see her own blood hanging off the invisible edge of the spear what seemed like inches from where the blade should have ended. “Sharpness decreased by more than a thousand, but it still carves the atoms off your bones. Sharpest blade there is besides original.”

The small red oni spun the spear, Nayeli’s golden-red blood sliding off the surface of the blade like grease.

“How about we go back now?” Ren intoned threateningly. “You come with me or-”

But the demigoddess seemed unconcerned. In fact, she seemed delighted.

“Oh, is that seriously it? For real? Thanks for telling me how it works!” she said, smiling and laughing. “‘Bout time I got a fucking break! Here I thought you might’ve had some sort of crazy-ass superweapon that like, reverses the order of cause and effect or some shit, but really all it is is just a sharp stick! Now I know I can stop being so careful!”

Ren growled. “Why you…”

But there was no time to finish that thought. Nayeli rushed towards her like a freight train moving at light speed. Her speed was overwhelming!

Ren quickly brought her replica up to guard as Nayeli swung her axe down on her with her left-hand, shattering her bones, her footing and everything else in a five-mile radius. Hills turned to dust and trees blew away like sheets of paper in the wind.

True to her word, Nayeli handled Ren’s spear one-handed, catching her by surprise by forcing the spear towards the ground with her axe and slowly overpowering her. Finally, she pushed aside the naginata altogether and rammed her fist into Ren’s face, punching her so hard she bent backwards and fell flat on her back with enough force to collapse the ground into an enormous crater, deeper than the Empire State Building was tall. Blood spurted from Ren’s nose like the magma that seeped out of the violated earth in tiny rivulets. If this kept up, she might just carve out a new caldera. And Ren would be the shovel.

But still, she could feel it. The desire to win coursing through her veins, the determination succeed. She was an oni. It was in her blood. As she becomes stronger… so do I! I can take the punishment!

Willing her destroyed arm to move, Ren took advantage of Nayeli standing right over her and plunged the spear straight into her stomach.

I’ve got you now, god-girl. There’s no way you’re walking away from this. This spear is going straight through you!

That was Ren realized… it wouldn’t.

“Wha-… what?” she said weakly. The spear had struck her, but she was having trouble getting it to go any deeper. The Tonbogiri, the spear that was supposed to be sharper than anything in this world, was stuck barely six inches inside her. She hadn’t even reached the other side! What’s more… she couldn’t pull it out!

What the hell?!

“You said you’ve killed demigods before, but you mustn’t have killed very many,” Nayeli said, the smallest trickle of blood lining her lips. “Otherwise you’d know that shit like this… isn’t going to fucking work on me!”

Grabbing the spear by the shaft, she kicked Ren in the gut so hard she vomited blood and let go of the Tonbogiri. With the spear safely in her grasp, Nayeli clenched her abdominal muscles and shattered the spearhead while it was still inside. Then she snapped the shaft into two worthless pieces.

She looked down at the hole in her stomach, pulling back some of the fabric of her dress.

“I’ll pull this out later,” she said, like she hardly cared about the incredibly sharp pieces of metal lodged in her. “Did you really think that’d work though? If you really knew jack of all fucking shit about killing demigods, you’d know that you’d better do it with magic. Words like monomolecular, subatomic, q-blade… those things are worth less than crap. None of them can kill me. You wanna cut a demigod? You better bring a sword made by God Him-fucking-self. At this rate, I’d say that rat-fuck Mickey was smarter about killing me than you.”

The oni sputtered, blood filling her lungs.

No, it’s not enough. It’s still not enough. But I’m almost dead. At this rate, I might not be able to do it before I bleed out. I thought I’d have at least a couple of minutes. We onis are supposed to be hard to kill, dammit! Is this girl…

Ren looked at Nayeli, bitter, angry, respectful fear in her eyes.

Is there any part of this girl that’s really human?

“Last chance to do the smart thing and give up, shortstuff!” the demigoddess said. “Just say the word and I can take to the hospital. I’ll swoop in and scoop you up in my arms and take you away, your knight in shining armor! Though I guess your boyfriend wouldn’t be too happy about that, would he?”

The demigoddess mocked her. Ren got up, her body held together by almost nothing but willpower. She smiled in absolute defiance, as if every movement was a curse on Nayeli.

“That all you got, bitch?”

Nayeli stared back, confused but annoyed.

“See, I don’t get you,” she said plainly. “I don’t get this right now.”

Sticking her thumb out, she gave it a lick and rubbed it on the cut on her cheek, the cut disappearing almost instantly.

“I keep trying to be nice to you and give you a fighting chance, but you just gotta go and keep pressing my fucking buttons. I’m trying to be merciful here. Why don’t you just show a little bit of fucking appreciation?”

“I never ask for your mercy,” Ren replied sharply. “I going to beat your ass just fine without it. Besides, it disgraceful for me to accept charity from my opponent. I no fucking think so.”

“Yeah, but it’s smart.

“Then I guess onis stupid.”

“Very, very, very stupid.”

Ren laughed, even though it caused her pain. “I say the same thing to him once.”

Nayeli frowned. “Well, sayonara compadre. Can’t say it’s be fun.”

Putting both hands on her axe, Nayeli swung, opening the tiny red oni girl up like a gutted fish. She collapsed into an unrecognizable scarlet heap, the blood that matched her skin so well soaking into the pulverized ground like fresh rain.

Nayeli sighed. “What a fucking joke. Not even a good one either…”

She started to walk away, a visibly bad taste left in her mouth.

“Did I say I was done with you yet, you fucking bitch?”

Nayeli looked back in surprise. “Oho?”

Ren stood up, a red vial clutched between her teeth. She tipped her head back, and then spat out the empty vial. Her wounds had healed.

“Phoenix yolk,” she explained, unfastening her shattered armor. “Good for one use only. Heals all wounds. No lasting effects like ambrosia, but better than nothing. We always carry some in case of emergency.”

The armor fell away, revealing nothing but a tiger-skin loincloth and a bandolier of the same red vials. There was a large iron club strapped to her back. Ren hefted its weight with meaningful familiarity.
“Now I show you how oni really fight.”

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Tokyo Drift 4.5

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The sound of the explosions, if they could even be heard at all, were quickly dwarfed by the sheer chaos they created. Cacophony is the right word, I think. People screaming, loudspeakers blaring, and animals roaring and howling as metal screeched like it was about to give way. The circus car rocked as the animals inside rampaged, knocking over their cages as they scrambled to get free. Every instinct they had was telling them to run, and when you set cages full of lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) loose in a crowded train station, pandemonium is all that can ensue.

“What was that?” Annie yelled. “Are there… are there animals loose in the station?!”

“Hmmm… sounds like it,” Marq said nonchalantly.

“You’re being way too calm about this!” Annie accused. “What did you do?!”

“Me? I didn’t do anything!”

“Boooooob!” Nayeli wailed.

Marq got up out of his seat and walked out of the diner. It looked like it was his time to gloat. Despite the last minute crunch, the plan had gone off without a hitch. Disable the train and cause some chaos by spooking the animals into escaping. Delay the departure of the Nimbus for as long as possible and force a reroute. The passengers would transfer over to the City of Cleveland, and we’d have the Yamadas right where we wanted them. It all worked too perfectly.

Marq walked up behind the Yamadas, who stood stock still, staring at the chaos unfolding on their train, dumbfounded. He put a hand on Kichirō’s shoulder.

“Wow, looks like your train broke down and all the animals escaped. That means they’re gonna have to wait until they round up all the animals and fix the train before they depart again. That’ll take like what, two days? Maybe three? That’s too bad, Kichirō ol’ buddy.”

“You… I know you had something to do with this!” Kichirō said.

“What, me? Come on Kichirō, let’s be practical. There’s no way anyone could sabotage those trains, they exist in their own separate space! Nothing can cause them to break down,” Marq said, feigning innocence. “Unless you had brought some kind of explosive charge designed to penetrate ateliers, of course. But then you’d have to prove such a thing existed in the first place, and what then?”

Marq smiled crookedly.

“How would you accuse us of using a weapon that doesn’t even exist yet?”

Kichirō stared at Marq, the agitation clearer than the frown lines on his face. Marq was right, and he knew it. Even assuming any court in the states would take the word of a visiting immigrant over the word of one of the five families, he couldn’t prove we had a weapon that wasn’t supposed to exist, because no one else had thought of it yet.

Marq backed off, giving Kichirō some space.

“Of course, you’re more than welcome to join us for a ride in my private car.”

“Absolutely not!” Kichirō yelled, the hand gripping the briefcase at his side whiter than a sheet.

“Aw come on Kichirō, don’t be like that,” Marq said. “They’re just gonna transfer you anyway. And don’t you have tickets for a boat in California to take you back to Japan? You stay here too long and you’ll miss it. You might not get another chance like this. Besides…”

Marq looked around at the chaos we’d created as a thunderbird flew overhead.

“If you don’t leave now, the birdies and the beasties may just gobble you right up.”

He pointed to Sostene’s eyes and I watched them constrict until they were slits so thin you’d swear he didn’t have pupils. The imminent sign of a vampire about to use some high-level illusion magic. The threat was as clear as it could be. If he didn’t agree and come quietly, we were more than capable of killing them and making it look like an accident.

Kichirō hesitated, then sighed. “Very well. I guess we have no choice except to dine with the devil.”

Annie looked at me uncomfortably as we walked down the aisle alongside the Yamadas, surrounding them on all sides.

“Al, who are these people?” she whispered. “They look dangerous.”

“Errrrm…” I responded half-heartedly. “They’re uh… they’re friends of Marq’s. Former business partners.”

Hey, technically it was the truth.

Marq walked with a spring in his step, happily explaining everything about his personal car, just to fuck with them.

“It’s a 1913 luxury passenger car they had refitted to be perfectly silent. Totally soundproof, it doesn’t rattle-”

“None of the leyrails rattle, Mr. Allesandri,” Kichirō said under his breath.

“-and it’s got all the amenities. I think you’ll love it. No, I know you’ll love it.”

Finally we stepped outside onto the connecting platform. I grabbed Annie’s hand. She frowned.

“This way, lady and gentlemen.”

Marq flourished as he opened the door. He was having way too much fun with this.

The Yamadas stopped at the entrance. Their hesitation was incredibly obvious, at least for Kichirō and Ren. If you watched closely, you could almost see the steam pouring out of their fucking ears. You couldn’t blame them. They were about to walk into enemy territory. However…

I turned my gaze towards the armored giant wearing a metal jockstrap on his face. Yoshirō was different. His face didn’t betray the slightest feeling of trepidation, like some kind of fucking stone man. He should have been going “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” like everyone else. Was it the mask? The way it covered his mouth and his ears made it hard to tell what he was thinking, what with the way it covered his face.

“Well?” Nayeli asked impatiently. “Are you coming or what? Don’t make me ask nicely.”

She cracked her knuckles and I sighed. Subtle as always, Nayeli.

Reluctantly, the Yamadas walked into our car, the two faceless suits of armor keeping pace at least ten steps behind. Like I thought, they weren’t officially part of the group. Must’ve been hired help.

I kept pace with Yoshirō, examining his facemask. There were two carved hands laid over each other on his mouthpiece that looked like a ball gag. Two other hands decorated his ears, one covering each ear.

“Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. The three wise monkeys. That’s what you’re getting at, isn’t it? That’s an old Buddhist saying about dealing with impropriety, right?” I said dryly. “It’s cute. But you’re missing a part.”

“Hrm,” he grunted.

“The eyes,” I said, pointing to mine.

He turned his head to look down at me, and for the first time I took notice of his eyes, and looked deep within them. Turns out he wasn’t missing anything. Well, except for maybe one thing.

He’s blind… I thought to myself.

And it’s true, he was. But you’re not supposed to be able to tell. True blindness, natural blindness was something invisible, something you were born with. This man was given his blindness by something, and it showed in the way the tissue in and around the eyeball was scarred, the way you couldn’t even see his pupils. There was a mist covering his eyes, like a veil someone had placed over his head.

As if he’d sensed I’d figured it out, Yoshirō immediately turned his head away from me, our brief moment of contact done, leaving me to wonder. How did he move? How did he fight? He should’ve been struggling to find his way around but he was having no problems at all.

“Alright, let’s begin!” Marq said, pulling up some chairs. “There’s a lot for us to talk about Kichirō, so… where would you like to begin?”

Kichirō looked around uncomfortably. “Is it really necessary for the woman and the girl to be here?”

“If you’re talking about Nayeli, I assure you she’ll be more than fine-”

“I wasn’t talking about her,” Kichirō said. “Your wife and the little girl. I don’t want them getting involved in this.”

“Wait, why? What’s that supposed to mean?” Annie asked.

“I don’t want them being hurt, understand? I gave up on my honor long ago, but I don’t plan on staining the Yamada group’s reputation with their blood.”

Annie’s eyes opened wide. “W-Wha-”

Kichirō,” Marq said firmly. “Don’t say things you might regret. Family business should stay in the family, don’t you agree?”

Kichirō smiled nervously. “What? Afraid to expose yourself for what you really are?”

Marq grimaced. “Felicity darling, would you please escort Annie back to our compartment and wait for us there? There’s some business we need to discuss here with Mr. Yamada.”

She nodded curtly and grabbed Annie’s wrist. “Come with me.”

“What?” Annie said in surprise. “No! Let go of me!”

“Annie,” I said sternly. “Listen to her.”

She stopped, her eyes fearful. “Huh?”

“Don’t worry. Just go back to the compartment and wait there with Felicity,” I said. “We’ll see you soon.”

“But Al-”

“Hey, I said don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay. And I promise, once this is all over, I’ll explain everything. I mean it.”

“Al,” she said. “What do you mean by that? Al? Al?! Aaaaaaal!”

I listened to her yell my name at the top of her lungs as Felicity dragged her out the door and shut it tight, sealing us inside.

“You have a lot to answer for, Kichirō,” Marq said. “You do realize that regardless of what you may say or do, we’re still honor-bound to hand you over to the family for… enhanced interrogation, right?”

“Heh. There is that word again. ‘Honor’,” Kichirō laughed. “Yes, Mr. Allesandri, I am well aware of the way your family does things. Ours operates somewhat similarly. We will be tortured, yes?”

“Of course,” Marq said, not trying to hide. “What did you expect? Don’t worry though, ours is one of the best. He’s quick and he’s clean, and above all else, he’s had a lot of practice.”

“I see,” Kichirō said. “I am glad to hear we will be in such capable hands. Now, is there anything you’d like to know before you begin torturing us? Pain has a way of exaggerating the truth, so if you want answers, I suggest you get them now.”

“Okay then,” Marq said. “Why did you renege on our deal?”

“Us? Renege? We did not renege on anything, Mr. Allesandri. You were the ones who overstepped your boundaries.”

“Ah yes, the philosopher’s stone. Tell me, what exactly is it you need that stone for? Wealth? Power? World domination?”

“None of the above.”

“And where does your little fake fit into it? The Cintamani stone, I mean.”

Kichirō frowned. He obviously didn’t expect Marq to know about that.

“It seems you’ve done your research, I’ll give you that much. Very well, you’ve earned an explanation of that much at least. We intend to trade it.”

Marq narrowed his eyes. “Trade it? To whom?”

“I cannot say.”

“For what?”

“The real philosopher’s stone.”

“Where did your buyer get it?”

“I cannot say.”

“Why would they trade it to you for an inferior imitation?”

“I cannot say.”

“You’re playing a dangerous game with me right now, Kichirō,” Marq warned.

“I cannot say because I do not know,” Kichirō said. “We were just as surprised as you are. However, we didn’t have the luxury of asking questions like you do.”

Marq stayed silent.

“… What are you here for, Kichirō?”

“To save my brother’s life.”

“In what way?”

Kichirō stood up. “If that is everything Mr. Allesandri, I think we will be going. Our buyer is waiting for us at the end of the Nimbus’ line, and I don’t intend to keep them waiting.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Marq said, laughing dangerously. “You’re not allowed to leave, Kichirō.”

“Oh, I understand perfectly.”

Marq frowned. “I take it this means negotiations have broken down, haven’t they?”

“Indeed they have. Although I would hardly call kidnapping us and threatening to torture us regardless of what we do ‘negotiations’.”

“… Nayeli?”

Nayeli looked up. “Hmm?”

“I need you to take Ren and open up the ceiling hatch so you two can fight outside.”

“What?!” the two of them said simultaneously. “Why?!”

“Because,” Kichirō said. “If the two of you were to fight in here, the shockwave would have nowhere to go and it would kill the rest of us.”

Marq smiled. “Do you really think your little oni friend is enough to match Nayeli?”

Kichirō smiled back at Marq unflinchingly. “More than enough.”

Marq flicked his wrist and the ceiling hatch swung open. Begrudgingly, Nayeli and Ren jumped out onto the roof.

“Oho,” Kichirō said. “I’m impressed. For you to acclimate so quickly to a rented atelier…”

“Don’t be. I can only do basic tricks with it. Besides, this car wasn’t built to be a magical workshop. My power remains unchanged.”

“Well that is certainly a relief. For a second I thought maybe you had given yourself another unfair advantage. Shall we begin then?”

I tensed. Both of them eyed each other’s guns. Kichirō had pocketed a semi-automatic Colt M1911 .45 ACP handgun, while Marq’s fingers curled around his huge .357 S&W Magnum revolver.
“… Draw!”

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