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"Shut up, you'll make me fall."
"I'll catch you, Princess."
Jurou managed to scramble low enough to drop to the ground, hitting the concrete and rolling to his feet with something approaching flair. Yoshi gave a small round of applause, pulled his kerchief up over his grin. Upstairs, they heard heavy boots in the stairwell, followed by splintering wood and angry shouts.
"Time to go." Hana pulled on her goggles.
Yoshi slipped down the exhaust-choked alley on the tips of his toes, the others following close behind. Hana reached out to the nearby corpse-rats again, mind awash with rich gutter-scent and maddening flea-itch. She could still sense a few rogues in the drains out front, but the pack at the building's flank had scattered when the guards approached. Too few eyes. Too few breaths. Fright drawing her stomach tight, her gums chalk-dry, lips sticking to her teeth.
The quartet stole eastward along one crud-ridden alley, Akihito's hand wrapped in hers. She glanced at the big man. His face was cold and hard, his kusarigama clutched in one fist, blade glinting in the scorching light.
Her voice was a whisper. "Do you think they're-"
"Daken seeing anything, Hana?" Yoshi glanced over his shoulder.
"He's up top." Hana scanned the rooftops, voice cracking. "The way out front is no good, we'll have to-"
Yoshi and the bushiman rounded the corner simultaneously, ran straight into each other at almost full tilt. Yoshi's face bounced off the soldier's breastplate and he staggered back, hand to nose, cursing up a storm. The bushiman fumbled for his naginata-a long spear with a three-foot blade-bringing the weapon to bear and adopting a front-foot battle stance.
"Halt in the Daimyo's name!"
Yoshi blinked away tears, the red knuckles he wiped across his nose coming away bloodier. The bushiman was clad in scarlet and black iron, tigers embroidered on his tabard in gold thread. His jaw was set, stance fierce, naginata's blade glittering and death-sharp.
"Against the wall!" A bark of command. "Now!"
"Corpsef.u.c.ker, I think you broke my nose..."
"I have him!" the bushiman yelled over his shoulder. "He's here!"
Hana heard the heavy drum of approaching boots. Metal on metal. Shrill whistles. More soldiers on the way, corpse-rats fleeing into the drains as the bushi' thundered across the cracking concrete, beggars and lotusfiends scattering.
The bushi' fixed his glare on Akihito, blade leveled at the big man's chest.
"I said against the wall, Kage sc.u.m!"
Yoshi blinked. Looked back and forth between the bushi' and Akihito as Hana's stomach dropped into her toes.
"Kage?" A darkening frown. "Wait ... you're here for him?"
Akihito released her hand, stepped forward, a blur of movement, wrapping his kusarigama chain around the bushiman's spear and dragging the boy off balance. Teeth bared in a silent snarl, he swung his sickle blade upward, burying it beneath the soldier's chin, punching straight out through the top of his head. More soldiers were rounding the corner as Akihito tore his blade loose, the bushi's lower jaw with it, and with a howl, the big man waded into the mob.
He slung his chain across one soldier's face, cleaved a naginata off at the haft. Hana whirled as she heard soldiers behind, three more charging down the alleyway at their backs. The roar of flame above, the girl shielding her eye against the blast-furnace sun as she looked up and saw two Lotusmen alight on the eaves overhead, red eyes aglow, pointing with bra.s.s-clad fingers.
"Alive!" one cried with a cicada voice. "Take him alive!"
The shot rang out, shattering the air, bouncing off the narrow walls and making her wince. A bushiman fell with half his face missing, screaming, b.l.o.o.d.y gauntlets clutching the gaping wound. His comrades ducked for cover back around the corner, cursing as Yoshi fired again, blasting a star-shaped hole through the back of a fleeing soldier and dropping him like a stone amidst a spray of fine red mist.
"He's got an iron-thrower!"
The acrid stink of burning chemicals filled her nose. Yoshi whirled on the spot and leveled the weapon at the bushi' behind them, the Lotusmen above them, figures scattering like autumn leaves in a storm wind. Jurou was yelling something, screaming, but the echo of the shots was filling Hana's head, the sight of the blood, boys no older than she lying dead on the ground, puddles of bright and sticky red, water-thin yellow, howling voices, Yoshi's face, bloodless and snarling. She was thirteen years old again, the weight on her chest, broken gla.s.s pressed to her cheek as she screamed and screamed and screamed.
"I can get them out..."
"Hana, move!" Yoshi roared, pushing her toward Jurou. The boy had peeled back the storm drain cover in the alley's gutter, was already disappearing down into the dark. She blinked, pulled herself together, Daken's voice a whisper in her mind-gogogo-as she fell to her knees and crawled into the drain, down into a stinking rush of dark, ankle-deep slush, a pipe of black stone, ten feet wide. She heard her brother snarl a warning to the other soldiers as Akihito dropped down beside her, Yoshi tumbling on top of them a second later. A burst of high-pressure flame rushed in through the drain, Jurou dragging her down into the filth as the fire scorched the air above their heads, Lotusmen shouting, faint and distorted.
Blurred sunlight spilled down the grubby stone walls, the reek of smoke and s.h.i.t and old death filling her nose. Jurou had her by the hand and was up and running, splashing, stumbling in the dark, the echoes of their footprints amplified tenfold in the bottomless gloom. A pain-hoa.r.s.e cry behind, the whistling song of Akihito's kusarigama chain in the black. She reached out to the rats above and below, pulling Jurou left through a junction, straight at the next, footfalls and gasping and sweat in her eye, slick on her hands, stink making her gag. Running, running until her breath was fire and her legs shook, until her heart pumped oil and acid and her stomach rolled, cold and churning. Corpse-rats streaming about her, dark and sharp, s.h.i.t-slicked, dead doll's eyes piercing the murk ahead.
Footsteps behind them, dozens splashing through the filth, lantern light setting their shadows dancing on the moist black walls. Akihito's heavy breath, limping tread, grunts of pain. Yoshi stumbling, hand pressed to his b.l.o.o.d.y ribs. The Lotusmen would have been too big in their suits to follow, but it sounded like half the Kigen army was still back there, metal-clad hounds running swift, fangs bared, tight tight tight on the rabbits' trail.
She reached out into the Kenning, the tiny minds and tiny eyes and long yellow grins. Turning fear to anger, flooding them with it, the sleek broods and hulking rogues gathered in the quiet, lovely dark-their dark-now filled and fouled with the noise and the reek and the steel of these accursed men. Calling them to her, one by one, looking over her shoulder to her brother, his face pale and blood-spattered, eyes wide, loose tendrils of black hair scrawled like cracks upon his skin.
"Help me, Yoshi," she gasped.
He swallowed, winced, nodded. Together, entwined, reaching out and calling, pulling, pleading. The flood began with one black droplet, streaking past them with dirty fangs bared. A handful more followed, then a dozen, heeding the call scritch-scratching at the backs of their minds, ringing in the empty behind their eyes, swelling, rising, all mangy fur and tails like lengths of old knotted rope, filth-encrusted claws and mouths bathed in death. Hana heard a soldier cry out, the clang of steel striking stone, more of the mongrel, gutter-born flood flowing past them as they ran on and on and on.
More shouts behind. Screams of pain. No time to stop and listen, to press or to fight. Just to run, to run when every new step seemed an impossibility, when the vomit rose scalding and boiling in the back of her throat to the edge of her teeth, when every muscle wept and screamed, drawn taut and tight and stretched to snapping. Turning blind at every junction, straight, left, left, right, the black stabbed through by occasional blinding light from the drain grilles overhead. Akihito finally gasped, fell against the wall and collapsed into the filth, hands pressed to the weeping wound at his thigh. Yoshi skidded to his knees, blood spilling thick and red and hot from his side down his fingers. Hana on all fours, retching, gasping, weeping, tears on her cheeks as the reek scored her throat.
And as her heartbeat pounded in her temples, as her breath seethed in her chest, she stretched out to the children of the grave around her-the scabrous, worm-ridden horde-and found no other men in their eyes. No soldiers in their fears. Only them. Only her. Licking scabby jowls with flat gray tongues, and wondering if she fell facedown into the murk right now, spent her last throes inhaling that soup into her lungs, what her pretty, pretty eye might taste like.
"They're gone..." she gasped, coughing. "... We ... lost them..."
Jurou leaned against the concave wall, chest rising and falling like sparrows' wings. "Izanagi's b.a.l.l.s..."
Akihito reached out, groping for her hand in the dark. "Are you ... all right?"
"Worry about yourself, wh.o.r.eson!" Yoshi snarled, jamming the iron-thrower up under Akihito's chin and forcing him back against the wall.
"Yoshi, stop it!" Hana cried.
Though he outweighed the boy by eighty pounds and stood half a foot taller, Akihito allowed himself to be pressed against the slimy brick, the 'thrower's barrel jammed against his larynx. He raised his hands slowly, scarlet-slicked, eyes fixed on Yoshi's.
"Calm down, son..."
"You fixing to be my da, old man? Because I promise that'll end less than pretty." Yoshi leaned closer, pressing harder on the 'thrower, his tone a boiling c.o.c.ktail of incredulity and rage. "You're a G.o.dsd.a.m.ned rebel hiding out in my home? Dragging my sister into your s.h.i.t? The bushi' through our front door? I should end you!" Spittle flying. "I should feed you to the f.u.c.king rats!"
"He didn't drag me into anything, Yoshi!" Hana shouted. "Stop it!"
"Izanagi's b.a.l.l.s, Hana, he's in the f.u.c.king Kage!"
"I'm in the Kage!"
A hollow silence, lined with teeth, Yoshi turning and peering at her in the dark with bewildered eyes. "Tell me you're joking..."
"I joined weeks ago. After the Stormdancer came back to-"
"Have you lost your G.o.dsd.a.m.ned mind?" Eyes narrowed to knife cuts. Voice rising to a roar. "I said have you lost-"
"I heard you the first time!" Hana shouted.
"What the h.e.l.ls were you thinking?"
"I told you! They stand for something, Yoshi! They stand and they fight. The Guild, the lotus, inochi, all of this s.h.i.t. I swim up to my eyeb.a.l.l.s in it every single day and it makes me want to puke. There are people out there fighting and dying for this! For us! And you want me to sit back and do nothing? Hope someone else fixes it for me?"
"You know what we are." Yoshi turned on her, pointing to the streets above their heads. "You know those b.a.s.t.a.r.ds up there wouldn't give one speck of lotusfly s.h.i.t for you or me if they really knew. We don't owe them a thing. Not a G.o.dsd.a.m.ned drop!"
"Yoshi," Jurou pleaded, touching his arm. "Calm down."
Akihito's voice was soft. "Listen to your-"
Yoshi whirled, aimed the 'thrower between Akihito's eyes.
"You wanna stay handsome, best stay quiet," he spat. "This is family talk now."
He turned back to Hana, voice growing cold and hard as ice.
"This little dance is over, sister-mine. You ran with heroes and had your fun and now it's done. We're ghosting, right now, and leaving this fellow to his tricks. We don't see or speak to him again. We're walking away. And we're not looking back."
Hana shook her head, scowled. "You don't tell me what to do, brother-mine."
"Not telling you what you're doing." Yoshi stood slowly, took Jurou's hand and hauled himself out of the muck. "Telling you what we're doing."
Hana glanced at Jurou, the boy's face pale and pained. But he stood beside Yoshi, smeared in rot, squeezing his hand tight. "Please, Hana..."
"I'm not dying for folks who'd gladly light me on fire," Yoshi said. "I'm not waiting for the bushi' to kick down my door again, drag me to die blind and starved in the belly of Kigen jail. Not for people who wouldn't spare a drop of p.i.s.s for me if I was dying of thirst. Not now. Not ever. Now you think about that, and you decide if they're worth dying for."
"Your brother's right, Hana." The siblings glanced over as Akihito got slowly to his feet, clutching his bleeding thigh. "You should go with your family."
Yoshi blinked, confused.
"Doubtless," he finally nodded.
"This is my fault," the big man said. "I should never have brought it into your home. Never placed your family in danger. I'm sorry."
"Akihito..." Stupid, girlish tears welled inside her and she clenched her teeth, stamping them down into her boots. "I can't turn my back now..."
"You should go. I've seen enough of my friends die over this. Over what I could have done and failed to do." He stared down at those broad, clever hands, smeared in blood and filth. Shrugging helplessly. "I don't want to be carving spirit stones for you too."
The four of them looked up, Daken's silhouette peering down at them from the storm drain above, etched in black against the scalding, garish daylight.
"I'll keep moving," Akihito said. "Exit a few blocks down, nowhere near you three."
"You do that," Yoshi growled, sparing him a toxic glance. He held out his hand to Hana, eyes locked on hers. "Come with?"
The tears were flowing now, spilling and burning down her cheek. Hateful, horrid things, making her feel a weak and frightened girl, the child she'd tried to kill long ago. She was thirteen years old again, small and afraid, shaking so hard she couldn't stand. Yoshi rising from the ruins, fists clenched, drenched in scarlet ...
She couldn't leave him now. Not after all he'd done. All for her.
All for me.
Hana hung her head. Took one step toward her brother, a few inches and a thousand miles, reaching out to clutch his hand. She looked back at the big man, blurry through her tears.
"I'm sorry..." she sobbed. "Akihito, I'm so sorry..."
"It's all right," he said, forcing a smile. "You've done enough. More than most."
The big man spared an apologetic glance for Yoshi and Jurou, met by a pitiless scowl and uncertain, doleful eyes. And then he turned, hand pressed to thigh, foot dragging through the muck as he limped into the dark. The sound of his tread echoed off the sweating walls, bounced down into the tunnel depths, in the cavern of her chest and the empty in her heart.
"Don't fret now, Hana." Yoshi took her hand, looked her in the eye. "I take care of us. Always. Blood is blood, remember?"
Lips trembling. Cheeks burning. Throat squeezed tight. But still she managed it. To force them out. The words. The vow. All she had left.
"... Blood is blood."
The rain sang a hymn of white noise on the ocean's skin in the s.p.a.ce between one thunderclap and the next. The nomad was pressed low to the ground, blood-drunk and snarling. Buruu hauled himself to his feet, shook himself like a sodden dog, glaring at the younger thunder tiger as hackles rippled down his spine. Yukiko held out a gentle hand, took one step closer to Buruu's foe. Her voice rang in the Kenning, loud enough for them both to hear.
"It's all right, don't be afraid."
*FEAR NOTHING. NO ONE.*
The nomad's thoughts were a shout in her skull, bright as a shot from an iron-thrower, loud enough to be felt as physical pain. She winced, shuddering with effort, pushing her wall between them in the Kenning, as if she were damming a river and allowing only a trickle of him through. His trepidation was obvious; his fear in the face of this strange girl who spoke to his thoughts, whose will beat upon him heavy as the storm itself.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
"I want to talk to you."