Light, love, and lessons learned

The creature emerged from his hiding. Legs veined and muscular. Skin ashen purple. The arm I had once cut from his body had grown grotesquely disproportioned from the other, bearing claws and twitching with eagerness. The Shogun’s face was stretched with horror over an alien skull. His mouth perpetually open in a gaping and hungered maw, moaning in both anguish and thirst for blood. His eyes were milky and wandering. Hair fallen off to show the deep black veins pulsing all throughout his person.

What a curse put upon you, to appear both the same outside as in.

Once the Shogun’s eyes finally met with mine his face frowned as much as it could while so tightly wrapped around his misshapen head. His moaning turned to frenzied chattering as he stumbled forward like a baby learning to walk.

The Shogun had turned into a monster with no recollection of balance or speech, the only thing inside his mind was his feverish hunger for pleasure and his hatred for me. With a body in continuous pain and a mind no longer capable of rational thought, the only pleasure the Shogun would find was in revenge.

Finally, what was once the Shogun’s mind clicked with the natural dexterity and predator like nature of his new species. Ducking low to the ground, he jumped toward me and attacked.

I leaped to the side, letting myself roll back on to my feet once I hit the snow. As the Shogun failed his lunge he let himself drop to all fours and began galloping towards me. It seemed it didn’t care to take the time to think of new strategies, he just wished to constantly press the attack.

The Shogun barred his jagged teeth as he got close. I only tightened my grasp to my katana. I dodged far too great so I could witness his maneuvering capabilities, now that I had learned how the creature that was once a man moved, I could parry his attack and reward his eagerness with a cut.

The Shogun outstretched one arm as he used the other to continue his stride, trying to pull me in range of his teeth. Instead of fruitlessly trying to dodge, I braced myself and swung my sword forward, letting the beast’s smaller arm release itself from his body.

Purplish black blood sprayed from the stump at the Shogun’s shoulder as he yelped in pain.

I took a sigh to keep my concentration, letting hot breath and cold air mix to steam the air in front of me. Clouds for the new light of day just halfway to the horizon now, spreading like a bright watercolor over a bleak canvas.

I looked behind me to see the yokai that was once the Shogun clutch his shoulder. With such a grievous wound, this fight would be over in a matter of moments.

But instead of bleeding, his gash clotted. The demon’s monstrous body shivered throughout as he let go of his injured shoulder, blood and tendons shot forth and twisted together in demonic matrimony to regrow the hewn arm.

That was a problem.

The Shogun stumbled forward on two legs, newly formed claws stretching and readying themselves for use. Feet dug through snow as the beast leaned forward and began sprinting towards me once again.

An enemy with infinite stamina and unrelenting healing… There seemed to be but one solution.

As the Shogun frantically ran towards me, arms swinging, I lifted my sword high. I had become vulnerable, but I had to aim for his head and kill him instantly if I wished to win. As I readied to strike, though, my gut started to churn. With my foot partially severed my sense of balance was ever so slightly off, and my positioning wasn’t correct.

That was perfectly fine, if there was one lesson I had learned through these years to reclaim my honor, it was patience and humility. With both of those in mind, I slid to the side and let the Shogun stumble himself to a halt.

There is only you and yourself. The only person you must defeat is the anger and the restlessness inside you. Everything else will follow.

With another deep breath, I stomped my feet into the ground, anchoring myself and bringing perfect balance to my form. The Shogun was sprinting towards me screaming and wailing in the demonic tones of yokai just like before, but this time I was prepared.

Once he was in range, the yokai lowered his head to tackle me to the ground, leaving me the perfect opportunity to slice deep into his brain. With his remaining momentum, both the Shogun and I fell to the ground.

Even with his exponential size and weight, I still managed to push the beast off of myself in an instant.

I looked at the Shogun’s corpse, black fluid pouring from the motionless husk.

With a sigh, I began to look over to Amaterasu and my companions, but a stirring arose below me. Ashen purple fists clenched to the snow as the Shogun’s head reformed into its previous hideousness and began moaning in pain and horror once more.

I had dealt a killing blow through the most vital organ… Yet, he still lived…

The old and deranged Doctor crawled out from under the upturned carriage in amazement of his own creation, simply chuckling with wide eyes as I grimaced.

From the sky flew an arrow with a direct course to the Shogun’s head. Sora the undeterred was appreciated, but the arrow he struck into the demon’s cranium only hindered him for a brief moment.

The Shogun stood, and raised his head into the air, screaming a horrible scream that echoed throughout the mountainside.

Chitters and screams responded in a similar tone eerily close. More yokai were flocking to us like moths to the flame.

Once he was done calling for the others of his kind, the Shogun looked back to me with a vicious fire in his eyes. He swung his claws wildly, letting me simply step back to dodge. It didn’t matter if I countered or cut, the husk that was once the Shogun would continuously regrow. The Doctor had truly created something unkillable.

Another swing and another dodge. My mind wildly raced from one prospective plan to the next, but nothing arose. In all my experience, I had no earthly idea of how to succeed in this fight. In all the demons I faced, none were as unrelenting and horrid as this.

I continued to back further towards the center of the plateau, watching my love and my companions’ retreat from the uncountable hordes of yokai crawling towards them. There were many hiding in the shadows, waiting for their new master to call upon them. No longer a twisted lord of men, but of demons and beasts without thought.

Soon my desperation had caught to my physical self, causing me to trip as I watched us become hopelessly surrounded.

The Shogun jumped toward me, but I hadn’t given up completely just yet. A clawed hand swung towards me and a clawed hand was severed. A mouth moved to tear out my throat and a jaw was cut from his skull.

I frantically cut from my spot in the snow, but the Shogun only continued to grow back at an increasing pace, each failed attack getting ever so closer to ending my life.

Finally, the demon of my past grew too close for me to swing my sword, so I lodged my katana between his teeth and let his claws dig into my abdomen.

The world grew slow as I felt the daggers pierce flesh. Everything I had worked for was at stake. Everything I wished to reclaim would be lost again. Seventeen years in hiding only to come back to the light and lose it all again.

No. I wouldn’t let myself fall into nothingness once more. I wouldn’t lose my last opportunity to live the life I had lost.

With all my strength, I pushed my katana as deeply through his head as I could before I felt no more resistance. In the instant the Shogun went limp, I rolled out of his grasp and stood.

The demonic thing was quick to regrow his head and follow, watching me writhe in pain with its obelisk eyes. With one hand clutched to my bleeding stomach and the other holding the katana gifted by Amaterasu so many years prior, I glared back at the creature. One final attempt at victory had crossed my mind as I stared at the yokai, backlit by the beam of sunlight shooting from the summit’s mouth.

I ran forward, and so did he. He was heavy, but I was determined. My feet dug into the snow as I continued to push. His claws tore into my back but I failed to care.

Lifting the yokai I once knew as the Shogun from his feet, I screamed in pain and determination. I could barely see from the light of the sun, I could only feel the blades leave my back as I pushed the Shogun off of me.

His face so horribly stretched over a foreign skull seemed confused as he shrieked in desperation. The Shogun stumbled trying to bring himself back to his feet in time, but he was too lazy and too stupid as he had been from the start.

His body emerged into the flowing pool of light, vaporizing into ash on contact. The only thing to be heard was the echoes of his horrid shrieking across the mountaintop. The world was finally rid of the fat and selfish Shogun. A weight left my shoulders as I finally accomplished the task I had sought to do so many years ago.

Finally, the beam of light at the summit ceased as the sky turned bright blue.

The sun shone from the peak of the sky, it’s light flowing down and burning the yokai surrounding us.

The evil and shadow in the world screamed in plea one last time as the light scoured the land, ending the demon therein.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The tormentor I had grown so acquainted with was dead. The demonic creatures I had failed to exterminate were eradicated. Only a final enemy remained.

Sheathing my katana, I turned back and looked to the broken carriage. The Doctor stared at me in horror. I had destroyed all he had worked for, letting us both know this was the end of our game. He began to run towards the end of the plateau as I walked steadily closer to him.

An arrow shot from Sora rendered his knee useless, causing him to quickly buckle under his own weight. The rest of my friends sheathed their swords and began to make their way to us.

Falling onto his hands and knees in the snow, the sniveling Doctor turned to look at me with fury. I looked back down at him with nothing but determination to finalize it all.

“He was immortal! We could have all been immortal! You fool!” He hissed as my companions grew near.

I didn’t care to respond, as I had no remark to make. The only fool was the man kneeled before me, using his lies and cruelty in a vain attempt at godhood. “No one lives forever.”

Under his breath, the old man let out one final disdainful retort. “I could have…”

I shook my head as my hand hovered to the hilt of my sword. “May those you wronged find peace. And may you find justice.” For all those times you called me your friend, I still feel no sadness at your departure.

His eyes grew in selfish realization. Hastily forming another malformed lie, the Doctor shouted. “I-!”

My katana reflected the light of the blazing sun in a beautiful glowing streak. In its wake, nothing but a misty cloud of sanguine red.

It was finished.

I took in a breath in the cold air of Mt.Fuji. Clarity and peace that I hadn’t felt in decades washed over me as I looked at the stark expanse of daylight. Even though I was injured, I felt as though I was born anew.

Hayato was the first to put a hand on my shoulder. My friend that had been with me from the start of our journey. With the smile he seemed to always wear, he spoke. “I knew you could do it, Kenshi.”

Sora nodded, his blank exterior breaking to show a genuine smile. “I am… Happy to see the day again… Thank you.”

Lee nodded with confidence and optimism. “We did well. I’m happy I was able to help us make it here.”

Anzen looked at me as he moved aside for Amaterasu to enter our formed circle watching the beautiful view of Nihon. “My faith was well put. I wouldn’t have wished for anything else but to fight this fight with you.”

Finally, Amaterasu ran up to me and gently wrapped her arms around my shoulders, being aware to not squeeze my injuries as she leaned in and kissed me. “I missed you more than you could imagine. And the sky is more beautiful than I had ever seen before.”

I smiled at her as we turned our attention back to the vista at our feet. The entirety of our home shimmered in bright colors as the heat of the sun beamed down on us.

A smile came across my face as I held tightly to Amaterasu, with no intention of ever letting go again.

Through the wind rustling the lilies and the birdsong in the trees, you could hear it.

Bliss.

Honor-bound

The leather straps loosened on Eizo’s forearms as he pulled them off. Lee had proven himself extremely useful in our time of trials. I was now more sure than ever that any worries that he had over himself were nothing more than delusions. Anzen also worked spectacularly. His intuitiveness let him injure and daze Eizo for the later fights. Instead of trying to win the battle by himself like he once would have, he worked for the team and gave us much more of an advantage than we would have had if he had chosen to bite off more than he could chew.

Each of them overcame their imperfections and worries in this fight. Without them, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the slightest chance of winning.

A horn sounded in the distance. The footsoldiers must have arrived at the plateau, which meant that our time was going to be cut short, and our focus would have to be spread thin.

No matter. I had to focus on the task at hand before moving on to the next. And that task was finishing this game of cat and mouse once and for all.

Eizo took a deep breath before he shot himself forward. He would be expecting me to dodge to the left or right like usual, so instead I held my katana pointed in front of me and braced my feet. Without his shields, the dogmatic samurai would either have to move and make himself vulnerable or impale himself. In any situation, it was good for me.

A shockwave pushed Eizo to the side of my sword, with a multitude of others to slowly easing his momentum and turning him around. Although he was safe from one attack, he had just made himself vulnerable to more. I jumped forward to seize my opportunity as the previously shield bearing samurai slid backward on the icy ground with his excess momentum. He held his arm up instinctively, forgetting that he was no longer protected from my slice.

With a grunt and a bit of luck, my sword dug deep and hit bone, but with the icy ground I couldn’t get enough traction to fully amputate before we both slid slightly back.

Eizo grimaced as he held his mangled arm. That pain turned to anger as he ducked down and flew forward. He was low enough that I couldn’t reach him with my sword before he threw his good arm in a punch upward.

His fist made contact with my gut, sending a shockwave to push me off my feet in an instant.

In the blink of an eye, I was in the air. I could see the beam of light erupting from the summit. The many samurai and deranged doctor just climbing over the peak of the summit. Amaterasu watching me soar like a bird that never learned how to fly.

A foggy portal began to emerge below me, but quickly halted it’s progress and dissipated as Eizo flew upward. When we met in the air, the furious samurai punched me again. Luckily the only angle he could send me in was flying closer to the beam of light and my companions.

I was shot in a straight diagonal line to the edge of the summit. Anzen and Lee ran to Amaterasu to defend her in their injured states while Hayato and Sora ran to me, preparing for a fight.

Eizo was already on the ground and running towards us as my two companions arrived. Hayato outstretched his hand and helped me out of the snow as Sora shot an arrow towards the injured samurai, only to have it sent off course by another shockwave at the wave of his hand.

Once he was close enough, Hayato held out his hand and materialized a portal beneath Eizo, Anzen making another over top. With little time to react after all his focus was on Sora’s arrow, he fell through and began falling at an increasing rate, but with enough time to orient himself, Eizo used a shockwave to get out of the twin’s attack and tumble through the snow.

Hayato tried to follow him, but another shockwave aided Eizo in standing before he could seize the oppurtunity.

Our straight-faced archer let another arrow loose, but it was deflected once more just like the last.

Eizo burst forward and swung at Hayato, nicking his shoulder as the short haired twin dodged to the side. The punch wasn’t enough to hurt him in any way other than a horrible bruise later. But although the attack didn’t hurt Hayato’s shoulder, it was mere inches from his head, which would have certainly incapacitated or at the very least dazed him.

This time, Hayato was indeed close enough to punish the shockwave creating samurai for his lack of control in the air. As Eizo slid across the snow and gathered himself, my portal manifesting companion ran forward and swung his sword down at him.

With another shockwave, the previously shield bearing samurai shot himself to the side, but not fast enough to completely dodge Hayato’s broad slice.

With a gash from his hip down to his leg, Eizo was much less mobile, allowing Hayato to sidestep so he was in front of his enemy once more. Then, he swung again towards his chest this time.

The determined samurai leaned back in an attempt to dodge as he regained his footing, but Hayato was still able to make a solid cut down his torso and injured him even further.

Eizo outstretched both his hands and sent a shockwave in return, sending my friend flying backward. Although it was a good effort, Hayato was determined. Creating a portal behind himself, he was thrown out the other that Anzen had created behind our samurai adversary, knocking both into the snow.

The dogmatic Eizo immediately shot Hayato into the air as he pushed himself up from the snow, but another portal was quickly manifested so instead Hayato was threwn sideways and not up, letting him slide and recover quickly.

He made another portal and appeared next to the trapped samurai, only to be pushed away once more.

This could work. Eizo couldn’t rid himself of Hayato, and although slowly, he was draining his stamina. Eventually, he wouldn’t be able to make anymore shockwaves and would be completely vulnerable.

That plan would have worked, if not for the oncoming wave of samurai. I called out to Hayato. “Stop!”

He briefly switched his attention to me and opened a portal next to us. Jumping through, he asked in shallow breaths. “What’s wrong?”

Eizo had already began to propel himself forward, so I had to be brief. “I need you and Anzen to focus the soldiers. Use your portals or else we’ll be overwhelmed.”

Hayato seemed reluctant to leave a winning fight, but we both knew that winning this fight didn’t matter if the doctor captured Amaterasu. With an unsure nod, my portal creating companion jumped into the foggy gate manifested behind him and united with his twin to disrupt the enemy.

Eizo was close. He was no longer strong enough to send himself flying to us in a single bound, so instead he bounced every few feet to gain similar momentum without the physical strain.

Sora was next to me aiming his shot. He had missed the last two, so he had spent as long as he needed to clear his mind and find his mark this time. Once Eizo landed from one of his jumps, my quick witted friend let loose an arrow. His target had already lifted himself in another leap, leaving the arrow to hit his hip instead of his abdomen which would have ended up as a crippling shot.

Although the arrow didn’t hit exactly, it was certainly still a powerful shot. Eizo was sent off course and tumbling into the snow.

Sora tried to capitalize on the shockwave producing samurai’s vulnerability, but instead, his projectile found itself planted in the snow. Eizo was so mobile even when rolling through the snow hitting him was a near-impossible task.

I saw only two more arrows in the quiver on my blank faced friend’s side. He realized this as well, as he lowered his bow to conserve them. Sora’s jaw unexpectedly clenched and eyes furrowed. Although his expression stayed only slightly off from the emotionless face I just saw him wear, I also saw the fire of determination and concentration in his eyes. Instead of running, the now steadfast Sora began to walk towards Eizo as he darted closer.

My attention was brought to the sideline as I followed behind him. Hayato and Anzen had moved to the front of the plateau while Lee and Amaterasu stayed by the beam of light at the summit. The twins created an enormous portal under many of the soldiers’ feet and sent them tumbling down the edge of Mt.Fuji. The two brothers continued to subdue and herd the untrained soldiers as I turned myself back to my bow wielding friend and the Shogun’s chosen samurai.

Said dogmatic samurai was only a moment away from us as Sora switched to holding his bow with his offhand and pulling the small dagger Anzen had gave him earlier in Amaterasu’s palace out from his kimono with his primary hand.

He swung with the footwork I had taught him those many months ago while sparring as Eizo swung at him to dodge the attack. The determined archer took his dagger and sliced the similarly as determined samurai in the arm, causing him to reel back.

Once he stumbled backward, I jumped in to attack, but Eizo pushed me away with another one of his shockwaves. I was leaning forward enough that I was able to slide and stumble back without falling, but it would still be a brief moment before I returned to the fight.

In that brief moment, Eizo swung for Sora with his least injured arm. Sora replied by swinging his dagger in a colliding course with the previously shield bearing samurai’s fist, causing the beaten and battered Eizo to pull his punch back before he ruined his only good arm.

As Eizo pulled back, my determined friend moved using his expert dexterity and split-second intellect to make an unexpected attack. With his offhand holding his bow, Sora swung it forward and tilted it, allowing the dogmatic samurai’s neck to be caught between the string and the bow.

Sora pulled him forward with one arm and jabbed his knife out with the other. As Eizo was stabbed he tried propelling himself away from the determined archer, but with a tight grip on his bow they both simply fell to the ground.

The dagger fell out of Sora’s hands as he took hold of the string of his bow. With enough effort, he was able to position himself behind Eizo and began pulling.

Our frantic samurai frantically tried to use his shockwaves to push them apart, but Sora’s grip was tight and Eizo had little energy remaining. I arrived as he finally settled down and looked at me. The chokehold ceased as they both waited for what I had to say.

Before I could speak, he sputtered out words as he still struggled for breath. “You don’t understand what kind of chaos you’re causing! The people need the Shogun to lead them! The old man told me he could save him with her blood! It’s my duty!”

I respected Eizo’s loyalty, but it was given to a deceiving cause. “The Shogun is beyond saving. The doctor lies to you.”

The still dogmatic samurai frowned deeply at my words. He was honor-bound, and the only chance at not having failed his responsibility to the Shogun was a mere facade. He knew that, but he still blinded himself to it. “You’re a criminal! A deserter! I will not abandon my oath, even to the gates of hell!” I noticed that Sora wasn’t holding on to Eizo as strongly as before. And, although Sora was strong from training with his large bow, Eizo could have easily broken free. I knew Eizo was also tactical, and he needed to have had more reason than a simple eagerness to run so far ahead of the other soldiers or to abuse his ember to the edge of exhaustion. I began to have the feeling he knew as well as I did there was no salvaging the Shogun, or his honor. He didn’t come here to kill me or take Amaterasu.

He came here to die without dishonoring himself.

The dogmatic samurai spoke once more as I stared at him, now more collected. “If you’re going to kill me, then kill me. I won’t surrender to the likes of you.”

We both stared at each other. He seemed calmer once I understood why he walked so blindly into us. “As you wish.” Without struggle, Eizo grimaced as I gripped tighter to my sword and pointed it at his chest. “You fought well. Die with honor.”

His eyes closed as I pushed forward, gently pulling my katana back out and spilling hot blood over the cold snow.

Sora let him go as Eizo took a few deep breaths. Although he seemed defeated, he also seemed satisfied, in a way. After just a brief moment, his chest stopped moving and his grimace lessened to nothing but a blank expression.

Sora stood as I turned. I looked to the battle going on at the plateau as he commented. “He seemed a logical decision maker when we fought previously, yet he acted extremely recklessly attempting to fight us alone… Why?”

I shook my head. “There are some things that you can only understand once you’ve experienced it yourself.” I faced dishonor by hiding, Eizo faced it by dying with his honor as to not lose it.

Sora picked his dagger from the ground and tucked it back into his kimono, thinking on my words.

After such events it was difficult, but I was able to calm my breathing and focus on the fight ahead of us. The twins had a solid grasp on maintaining the footsoldiers. The furiously shaking carriage with the doctor on it now stood alone. The old man began to climb off as Lee ran over to the twins.

Lee spoke with some sort of plan, which both seemed unsure of. The twins looked to Amaterasu, who nodded with determination.

After having her approval, Hayato and Anzen moved their attention from the soldiers and created a portal beneath the metal-plated cart and sent it toppling as it fell far away from the edge of the plateau and near the center. Lee backed away to protect Amaterasu as the twins kept the soldiers at bay. Sora looked at me, and, after I nodded, left my side and began circling the carriage. He only had two shots, and once he ran out he needed to stay with Lee and Amaterasu.

That left only me next to the upturned vehicle and the frantic doctor. The old man pulled his leg from under the carriage where it had gotten pinned. Whatever was left of the Shogun had toppled the cart in its animal fury, and as the doctor tried to stand, he realized it was fruitless with his broken leg. So instead, with an expression of both frustration and desperation, the deranged old man began to crawl to the back of the carriage. I had already begun running to stop him, but I was too far away as he unhatched the end and revealed consuming darkness and foul stench.

The beam of light next to us cast dense shadows out of all our forms, not letting me see into the carriage’s depths.

The doctor manically crawled away as the cart rumbled and something heavy and large stood.

An enormous, ashen purple arm grasped the edge of the cage as two pale white eyes opened. An ungodly snarling reverberated from the metal box.

I thought to myself as I swung the blood off my katana. The doctor and his monster, equally as vile and infinitely selfish.

It was time to do what I should have done seventeen years ago.

A duel of dogmas

My thumb pressed against the hilt of my sword, dislodging it from its sheath. My right hand slowly moved to the handle and gripped tightly, still waiting on pulling the katana out in its entirety.

The light at my back shot into the sky in a brilliant display, slowly turning the depressing purple-ish sky a bright blue. The change was moving slowly but surely, like a drop of oil spreading over the top of a bowl of water.

In the distance, a familiar metallic ring echoed. I took a deep breath in expectation.

At the edge of the plateau, an angry and shield bearing samurai flew through the air. He shot straight up, but with another metallic clang and shockwave of orange energy, Eizo propelled himself towards us.

Eizo was dogmatic and so loyal that he would even kill himself overextending to follow orders. In terms of replacing me as the highest-ranking samurai in the shogunate, I gave the Shogun credit for his choice. Although with how the Doctor poisoned the Shogun, I doubt he even had the mental ability to accept the credit I gave him. With that, I wondered why Eizo even continued to fight. The Doctor had fully usurped the Shogun, turned him mad, and half yokai… Perhaps the Doctor kept him from seeing the Shogun, or perhaps he simply wanted to follow through his orders of killing me.

In any case, it didn’t matter what his motives were, Eizo was still trying to kill us all and disrupt the light from returning.

We had to protect the light. Protect Amaterasu. Nowhere to run this time and nothing to do but face our hunters directly.

Eizo landed almost thirty feet away from our group and started running through the snow. He seemed angrier than usual, and seeing that he had separated from the group showed that he didn’t think support was necessary. Even though we had three ember wielders on our team, one ember wielder that was willing to push his power to the point of death was more than favorable for the solitary samurai.

We spent the time Eizo took approaching to get into the best position we could. Anzen was best to counter Eizo, so he took the front. Lee could use his foresight well in battle, so he and I stood behind to support Anzen. Hayato was a good defender. I trusted him more than anyone to keep Amaterasu from harm’s way. Sora stayed back with Hayato as well, keeping his sightline on the horizon for the inevitable wave of footsoldiers.

Halfway through his sprint, Eizo used his ember. This time, his legs shook with energy and he was propelled from them rather than his shields. Instead of the metallic clanging of the iron rims of his wooden shields smashing together, it was a sonic boom. Eizo was even neglecting using his Vices, he had much less control over his ember, but his power was stronger and now he had access to all parts of his body, not just his arms.

It was unexpected as he flew wildly towards Anzen. Anzen was fast enough to put his arms up in defense, but Eizo’s incoming punch with all the momentum of his shockwaves was far too much.

The iron lined shield collided with Anzen’s arms with enough force to break them, sending Anzen flying backward with Eizo.

They were close enough for me and Lee to run and aide Anzen, but Eizo simply put his shields together again and sent us both skidding far away through the snow. Once I was able to pull myself out of my cold and wet crater I looked back to the battle at hand. Anzen had gotten Eizo off of him, but his arms were already turning an ugly bluish purple. we all knew he wouldn’t be able to throw a punch without doing more damage to himself than Eizo.

Eizo tried to seize his opportunity and threw a punch towards Anzen, who took a step backward with every attempted blow. Anzen growled in frustration as he continued to back up. Eizo wasn’t going to hit Anzen with such short jabs, so he started to swing farther out. As he made himself more vulnerable, Anzen’s expression changed from looking like a cornered animal to the dastardly and cunning look he made when a dirty solution came to his mind.

Eizo threw a punch as wide as he could in an attempt to reach Anzen, leaving a straight path from the ground to his jaw. Anzen’s foot found that path and kicked him. Before Eizo even had a chance to stumble backward Anzen threw his foot down, letting his heel collide with Eizo’s mouth yet another time. With a grin, Anzen continued through his ingenious solution, all before Eizo had a chance to defend himself.

Sliding a small bit forward, Anzen spun himself in a circle to gain all the more momentum in his attack. He hit Eizo squarely on the side of the head, leaving him staggered for one more attack.

Anzen turned to his side and kicked out with all the energy left in his body directed solely at Eizo’s abdomen, sending him through the air and on his back.

There was silence for a moment as Anzen walked over to finish the job. As he reached Eizo, it seemed like he was the one being tricked. Anzen raised his leg to drop the final blow on Eizo, but with the sound of metallic clanging, he was sent spiraling through the air instead.

Eizo jumped to his feet and ran for him. Anzen was in the middle of standing, so he had no way to dodge, and with his broken arms, he had no way to defend. Eizo knew better than to give him any chance to turn the battle around for his favor, so instead, Eizo raised Anzen by the front of his kimono and sent him flying with the strongest shockwave he could create.

Anzen flew through the air towards the beam of light shooting out of the summit, but Hayato was keeping watch over the fight. Anzen created a portal in his path as Hayato created another next to him and Amaterasu. The beam of light was undisturbed and Anzen was safe, but that left it to Lee and myself to finish Eizo.

I finally pushed myself from the snow and got to my feet. Lee and I both ran for Eizo as he steadily walked towards Amaterasu and the summit.

After much running, Lee closed his eyes and immediately opened them, shouting. “Duck!”

I did so and jumped into the snow. Eizo screamed in some mix of pain and effort and an orange glow surrounded him. An ear-piercing boom shot through my head as I felt the force coat my body like a stone blanket. Snow flew out in all directions as Eizo’s unidirectional shockwave made an enormous crater.

Both Lee and myself were thoroughly dug into the snowy walls of the crater. The snow of the summit was hard, almost ice. When stepping on it, one wouldn’t think that the snow went so deep, but seeing that the crater Eizo had just made was at least four feet into the snow, it was deeper than you would think.

I pulled free from my indentation in the snow and brushed the icy slickness of the handle of my sword. Through my training, I had learned to instinctively grip harder to my sword in situations like the one we had both experienced, but Lee did not have the same habits. He dug through the snow looking for his sword as Eizo approached me.

He shot through the air with a shockwave again, giving him more force in his incoming swing than any normal person could muster. I held up my sword and sidestepped at the same time, letting the shield brawling samurai simply slide past me and into the snow he had formed around us.

By the time I turned, Eizo had already pushed himself out of his indentation and was swinging towards me again. I began to step backward and dodge, but I realized there was little room to move back without hindering Lee from participating. Instead, I barely dodged Eizo’s attack by leaning backward, and then grabbed him by his kimono and kept leaning back.

I rolled onto my back and held Eizo in the air with both my hands and feet. With a bit of struggle, I continued my momentum and threw him backward. Afterward, I rocked forwards and got on my feet, the sound of metal clashing wood could already be heard.

Turning, I saw Lee swinging and Eizo blocking. Lee’s strikes were clumsy and amateurishly placed, he must have been saving his foresight for a better opportunity. Lee wouldn’t get that opportunity, though, as Eizo glanced at me back on my feet and shot himself backward, switching positioning mid-air to punch me. I suppose I did throw him off of a two-story balcony once.

I sidestepped and dodged him again. He had a lot more force, but much less accuracy by throwing himself through the air like that. Eizo did at least make sure he wouldn’t find himself planted in the snow again and used a shockwave to cancel his momentum.

Lee was on one side, I was on the other. Eizo was in the middle, intent on getting a punch in before Lee arrived.

I blocked his shielded punch with my sword. Hearing the metal rimming on his shield clash with my sword made me wince. It was bad practice to hit metal on metal, but it was either that or take the punch myself.

Lee arrived, but Eizo simply raised a hand in his direction and shot another shockwave. Initially, Lee slid on the slick ground, but after a moment he landed on his back. Eizo pulled his weight to his right, so I instinctively ducked right. Before he raised his right hand, Eizo set off another shockwave at his left side, swinging a punch from the opposite direction with devastating force. I had already committed to dodging a swing from his right, so I had no defense as his shield collided with my jaw.

I stumbled back. Lee was back on his feet and getting close once more. Eizo turned and threw a punch towards Lee, but Lee simply ducked under his fist.

As Lee rose, he swung his sword upward, hitting Eizo’s unprotected upper arm. Eizo swung with his other arm, but Lee punched with his off-hand and with expert precision hit Eizo in the crook of his elbow, making his attack fall flat.

Lee sliced his sword up again, making a shallow gash up Eizo’s abdomen and chest. After that, Eizo realized something was irregular. He held his shields for pure defense as Lee continued his ceaseless attacks. Eizo’s shields chipped and splintered as Lee furiously continued with complete precision.

When he was using his foresight, Lee had deadly accuracy and perfect planning. While he was normally clumsy and lacked self-confidence, he completely switched to the opposite when using his ember. All of that perfect planning and precision came together as Lee gave one final sweeping blow across both shields, sending them both shattering in all directions, leaving nothing on Eizo’s arms but pieces of wood hanging to defenseless leather straps.

Lee’s expression went from focused to unsure, meaning he must have run out of time. Eizo noticed this as well as me and took his opportunity. Lee swung forward but it was too late as Eizo kicked him with a shockwave blast, sending him out of the crater and into the distance.

Just the two of us. Every fight of ours ended in an unsatisfying conclusion. It was time to finally find the real victor and settle this.

We were two men loyal to the core for their respective ideals, crossing paths, with neither willing to concede.

Only one will survive.

Nowhere to run

Hayato’s hand hovered over the handle of his sword. He had just finished procuring the makeshift sled. Lee told him that a glowing bear would emerge from the woods soon afterward, and Hayato’s fate would be less than desirable if they didn’t work according to the new plan…

The faint glow of ember orange shone in Hayato’s eye, letting him finally commence the first step of their plan. Hayato searched the treeline, trying to make sure the concentration on his face looked solely devoted to searching the area rather than his real goal.

In one of the large oak trees above them all, a foggy gate opened. Out came Sora, shrouded in a black cloak they had stored for the colder weather of the summit to assure he wouldn’t be seen.

The angry and glowing bear sprung from its hiding place in the brush towards Hayato. Keeping his wits about him, Hayato ducked under the beasts raised arm and cut into it as he spun on his heel to face the creature again. Sora only had six arrows left, and on top of that, he held the element of surprise.

Lee had already told Hayato the decision he would make, so he had no hesitation in sprinting past the bear and getting on to his makeshift sled. With a swift push, Hayato was clumsily bouncing down the hill, Sora following from the densely populated treetops.

Sora quickly got into position and looked for his mark, pulling back the string of his bow with an arrow ready to fly. As the stone pellets soared through the air and pierced Hayato’s sled, Sora’s target finally revealed himself.

Hayato heard surprised yelling as he crashed down the hill. Once he came to, he saw the glowing orange bear struggle and break free from its ember fueled fealty. Hayato raised his arm and opened another portal right in front of him, Lee quickly jumping out.

Anzen had to stay back, both so they wouldn’t be set so much farther down the mountain, and that hand to hand combat was not the most efficient for fighting bears or men covered in stone.

Lee outstretched a hand, helping Hayato to his feet.

The angry and now arrow impaled earth manipulating samurai pushed himself back onto his feet and frantically searched the treetops before wildly turning his attention to the boy behind him and shouting. “Why did you let the bear go!?” Before the boy could even respond, the samurai turned as he saw Hayato and Lee approach in the corner of his eye. In desperation and fear for his life, the pathetic ember wielder grabbed the boy by the neck with his one functioning arm and held him as a human shield. “Stop! You’ll kill him before you touch me!”

Lee and Hayato both stopped dead in their tracks. Sora couldn’t get a clear shot with the risk of hitting the child. Lee desperately wanted to look into the future and see the easiest way to solve this dilemma, but with how extensively he used it the night prior he still didn’t have the energy to use his foresight again.

Hayato raised his hands from this hilt of his sword, Lee sheathed his and similarly raised in surrender.

Lee was grimacing behind his blank-faced mask. He needed to be calm in this situation, but on the inside, he was anything but. He could have just led every single one of them to their deaths with his plan. Kenshi was always the one that made the plan. Without him, everything had far less certainty in Lee’s mind.

With all the concentration he could muster, Lee focused on using his ember once more, for even a brief second. He saw both of their deaths from the same spike attack that killed Hayato in his first vision, but in his new foresight, he saw an opportunity. In the smallest whisper audible, Lee told Hayato of their only chance. “As soon as he raises the arm, get the kid out.”

Hayato subtly nodded as they waited tensely. He prepared himself to work in a moment’s notice…

Once the earth bending samurai was satisfied that they were vulnerable, he outstretched his only good arm. The boy he was using was free, but he could only take a few steps forward before the ground started to form into pikes to impale both Hayato and Lee. With the child still there, the ember wielder had as much cover as he needed.

As soon as the opportunity showed itself, Hayato opened a portal below the boy’s feet. He fell instantly, revealing the now completely vulnerable ember wielder. Within the second, Sora’s readied arrow shot through the earth manipulator’s skull. Lee took a deep breath as he looked to the ground below him and saw how the ground had already malformed into bumps in that split second.

Hayato opened a portal below the branch Sora was perched on, letting him hop back to camp, then he opened a portal next to the sled. He gestured for Lee to go in. “I’ll wait here. We need to bring the kid back.”

Lee nodded. “Right… I’ll be right back with him.”

Hayato closed the portal after Lee went through and waited. First, he checked their makeshift sled to be sure they didn’t damage it in the crash. Other than the few holes in the side from the rock attack, everything looked fine.

Once he was sure everything on that front was fine, Hayato moved his attention elsewhere. He looked down on the crazed earth bending samurai. With the injuries he had in their last fight, Hayato was surprised he survived to cause them trouble. As he looked the man up and down, Hayato noticed that while the one arrow that pierced his skull was bent and misshapen from impact, the one in his shoulder was still intact.

With a bit of hesitation, Hayato pulled the arrow out and kept it for Sora to use later.

Afterward, Hayato looked out towards where the edge of the forest should have been. He thought that he saw a faint glow, like torches. As he focused, he could hear faint murmurs and horses galloping.

Damn. Are they already this near to us? Hayato thought to himself as he walked closer to the noise to investigate.

There were a lot of soldiers walking on foot, but in the center Hayato found a cart covered in white cloth. The Doctor sat in the driver’s seat of the cart, although people were leading the ox in front of him, so he was merely a passenger.

Inside the cart was loud and rustling. There were moans and growls and chirps like yokai made when they were on Mt.Fuji. The Doctor called to one of the men walking alongside the carriage and ordered something. Hayato couldn’t make out what exactly he said, but he understood when the soldier promptly went to the back of the cart and entered.

Instead of calming whatever it was in there, instead, the samurai was immediately thrown out of the cart like he weighed nothing. There was more shouting, but eventually, it looked like they no longer cared and prioritized moving forward from that point onward.

Hayato wanted to stay and see if he could look at the creature in the cart with his own eyes, but he had the tingling feeling in the back of his mind that he always got when Anzen was trying to open a portal. After a quick jog back to the sled, Hayato opened his end of the portal, and out came Lee with the boy behind him, holding a bag of supplies.

Hayato had guessed that the child had been forced to come along with the insane earth manipulating samurai. Lee spoke as the boy started to walk down the mountain. “They apparently stole a horse in the town we left them in. It’s not too far from here and he seems to know how to ride well enough to get back there. We only have a day’s walk from our camp, so we gave him the food we have left.”

Hayato nodded, and right before the boy left his sight, he got his attention once more. “Hey. Good luck.” Hayato was recruited by the Shogun when he was young as well. He knew the kind of manipulation that was used by your superiors. That boy deserved a better life, and Hayato genuinely hoped that he would find one.

Finally, Hayato opened a portal and they brought themselves and the sled through.

Sora was waiting with our little amount of supplies left and packed. Anzen was waiting with a frown, most likely because he had to simply stand around while the rest dealt with the crazed earth bending samurai.

Nevertheless, they were back on their way after getting the bodies secured in the sled. Hayato barely had enough time to give Sora the arrow he gathered.

Chilly weather quickly became frigid. Grass turned to mud, then ice, and finally snow.

Hayato kept looking at their backs. They could easily see the military’s lights in the distance, there. It would take all the effort they had to get to the summit before they were within range of the shogunate’s archers, now.

A lot of hiking and anxiety later, and they were almost to their destination. Everyone had moved to the warmest clothing they had on hand, which still wasn’t much. Hours upon hours of pulling and walking in the shin-deep snow.

Anzen looked back at the lights just behind them and commented. “They’re quicker than I first thought.”

Sora replied through the cold. “If we slow, they will surely catch us before we make it to our destination.”

Lee shook his head. “Even if we get to the summit, what are we going to do about the archers?”

Hayato kept pulling the sled as he kept his eyes towards the summit. “We’ll figure something out. Right now we just need to keep going.”

Lee sighed. “I guess you’re right.”

The military behind them was catching up, so the group moved even faster. Throats felt like they had frozen, trying to breathe the icy air of the summit. Snow soaked through clothing and made them wet. Still, none of them could afford the energy to complain.

They were almost to the plateau, but the shogunate was quicker. A strange sound of many objects piercing through the air could be heard. Turning their backs, the party saw what was doing such a thing.

The archers were finally within range. Dozens upon dozens of arrows were flying through the air towards them.

Lee shouted. “You guys!”

Anzen raised his hand, already with a plan in mind. “Hayato!” A portal larger than Anzen had ever made was created above the group. Hayato made another portal just as large pointed as well as he could aim towards the lights. Some flew into the snow around the portal, but most arrows were shot right back at the enemy. None of them could see if the arrows hit, but with so many, they were sure to have gotten some. Anzen shouted after he let the portal dissipate. “Shit! That was too close!”

Hayato nodded as he grabbed the rope to their makeshift sled and started pulling with all his strength. “We need to go faster!”

Anzen ran to the back of the sled and pushed as Hayato pulled. Sora kept his bow ready and watched the horizon. Lee ran ahead to the plateau to make sure all was safe.

Some tense sprinting later, and they had finally got to the very top of Mt.Fuji. The edge of the mountain was a long and flat area, but in the center, it dropped drastically into a pit that went farther down than the eye could see.

Hayato and Anzen pushed the sled to the edge of the mountain and looked down into the pit. Kenshi told them to reach the summit, but nothing had happened. They had literally nowhere to run and their last plan seemed fruitless.

For a moment, there was just the freezing wind of the summit and their beating hearts, waiting for a hope they thought was dead.

That was until the black pit in the center of Mt.Fuji opened its very eyes. Two ember orange obelisks peered at the group as the voice from this creature shook the entire mountain. “Giiiiiive theeem to meeee…” Whatever this thing was, it was the size of Mt.Fuji itself… No, the size of Nihon itself.

Hayato gave Anzen a look of hesitation, but he only received a nod in reply as Anzen pushed on the sled and pulled out the extra clothing and weapons they had stored in it. Hayato moved to the side and helped, sending the two bodies gracefully sliding towards the endless pit.

Shouting could be heard from behind them. The military was breathing down their necks. The great eyes closed, and for what felt like forever, nothing happened.

Lee ran from the edge of the large plateau and shouted. “They’re coming!”

Sora pulled back his bow and arrow. Hayato looked away from Anzen and spoke. “I don’t know if-”

A flash of light as bright as the sun itself shone at Hayato’s back. Anzen covered his eyes immediately. Hayato was foolish enough to turn and have to cover his own eyes as well.

Blackness, I thought.

The extreme cold was the first sensation I felt, then, just as my vision came to me. I couldn’t see much as my eyes grew used to the light once more, but I could look at myself.

I was wearing nothing, which explained why the freezing cold felt stronger than I had ever felt before. My left foot was still cut solidly in half, but it had now healed completely to a scar. My arms still bore the marks of my past. My body still showed the scars of all our previous fights. I was healed, but that didn’t mean my lessons or sacrifices could be forgotten.

Amaterasu was next to me, holding herself as best she could to conserve warmth. The memory of heat and the physical form was still in my mind, but she had been gone for so long, being bathed in the snow and cold had to have felt a thousand times harsher.

I could finally see the twins. Hayato was still adjusting to the light once more, but Anzen was able to squint and see me. Without a word, he searched through all the extra clothes we had on our trip. Three sets of clothes. I threw the heaviest and warmest set to Amaterasu, dropped the lightest one, and held the last close to myself as I started to sort through it all. Before I began, Anzen threw one last object. A katana, finely crafted and gold-accented, sheathed and kept as pristine as the day the warriors of the sunlight reformed it.

Amaterasu and I got dressed as quickly as possible. I made sure my katana was tightly strapped and ready to fight. We had to move swiftly to be ready before the deranged Doctor and his followers would show themselves.

Bathed in the light of the sun and the luck of the elder dragon, we shall all make our last stand.

Now was the time to win.

Forward-thinking

The rabbit’s nose parsed through the leaves and dirt, searching through a small pile of greens it had found for any manner of edible shrubbery.

It’s head raised to survey its surroundings, and in that small moment, an opportunity had opened.

The thin wooden arrow flew towards the newly revealed animal, and in less than a second pierced the rabbit’s neck and killed it. Sora trot from his hiding place over to his trap, and finally to his prize. The rabbit was dead upon impact, so there was no need to draw his knife. The arrow had gone straight through the creature and hit a root in the dirt, snapping it in half.

Six left. Sora thought as he buried the pieces of the arrow to assure that they couldn’t be tracked and dispersed the small trap he had made. Grabbing the rabbit, he made his way back.

After only a small walk, Sora had returned to the makeshift campsite and spoke. “All I was able to hunt was a mere rabbit. It won’t feed us all without more food.”

Lee frowned as he stared into the starry sky. “I guess we have to eat more of our last rations then…”

“Indeed,” Sora said as he sat on an upturned log and readied the rabbit for skinning.

Anzen stared blankly into the small fire they had recently lit and spoke to his twin brother beside him. “Why bother, Hayato? There’s no point in carrying him with us.”

Hayato sat beside Kenshi, lungs no longer breathing and heart no longer beating. “I can’t just leave him.”

Anzen sighed. “I don’t want to leave him either, but he gave us a final wish, and if we’re too slow the shogunate might catch up to us before we complete that wish.”

Hayato turned away and kept looking over Kenshi and the linen-wrapped body of the goddess beside him. He had been dead for days, his body was completely cold. They had taken a white-hot blade to his deep wounds and Sora sutured and wrapped him with all the knowledge he had gained from his various readings, but Kenshi still couldn’t make it. Hayato still held hope, though. Whatever plan Kenshi had for Amaterasu, maybe would also work for Kenshi himself. There had to be some way to fix it.

While the others spoke their concerns and skinned wild animals for the pot, Lee sat at the edge of camp with his eyes closed.

He had never been able to see far into the future, but in a time like this, he was willing to try once more.

Concentrate Lee repeated to himself in thought.

He saw himself and his companions talking, and then cooking and eating a disappointingly small meal.

Next, the talked about various subjects. Mostly trying to surmise a more efficient method of carrying the two bodies. Finally, they all decided upon fashioning a hollowed-out tree they had found as a makeshift sled. It still felt like spring where they were, but the higher up Mt.Fuji they went the colder it was, soon they’d be hitting snow.

Soon they all slept, and in the morning it was the same dull moonlight skyline as the night before.

It was decided Lee was to look after Kenshi and lady Amaterasu while Hayato went back to the spot where he previously saw the hollow tree.

Hayato walked down the path they had taken as he recounted his surroundings. He had stamina, but if they were to continue in shin-deep snow he would definitely need assistance in carrying Kenshi and lady Amaterasu.

Hayato didn’t know much about myths and Nihon’s lore of old. He didn’t know why Kenshi so vehemently wanted them to take Amaterasu to the summit, but he made it sound like it was their only chance of winning and Hayato was more than willing to try whatever options they had before giving himself up to the Shogun and the old man.

Finally finding the tree, Hayato drew his katana. He knew it had to be terrible for the sword, but it was all he had to cut with.

A few swift strikes and the hollowed-out tree was ready to take back. Luckily, the top part of the tree had fallen off earlier, leaving just a wide and hollow trunk left to fit two people side by side, rather than one over the other or stacked on top of each other.

Hayato reached into the bag at the small of his back and searched for the long piece of rope he had saved for just such an occasion. Eventually, his hand found the object and pulled it out, using his sword to cut two small holes in the wood. Then, Hayato tied the rope into a long handle so he could easily pull the makeshift sled.

He tested out his creation, and it pulled easily. Hayato started to sheath his sword and close the bag he had previously opened, but in the corner of his eye he caught a flash of orange.

Hayato immediately dropped the rope and brought himself into formation as he surveyed the surrounding forest to get a better image of whatever that was. If it was glowing and orange, it was either a torch, or something ember related. Either of which meant unfortunate things for Hayato’s subtlety.

He could create a portal and drag the sled through with himself back to camp, but it was far more important to get a handle of the situation and find out where the threat was before Hayato made himself vulnerable.

For the longest time, nothing was visible in the shroud of brush. Then, as Hayato’s suspicions eased, a firey orange bear emerged from its hiding place in the brush and lunged forward.

As the bear flew forward with its arms raised, Hayato ducked under and sliced into its torso. Letting his foot slide against the dirt, Hayato spun himself in a circle so he was once again facing the creature. It didn’t do much to faze the bear, but honestly Hayato was just thankful he had actually accomplished that move.

Now that it was more than a mere streak of light in his vision, Hayato could see the glowing bear clutch onto its chest where he had cut into it. The lighter colored splotch of fur at the beasts collar bone told him that it was your average black bear, or it was imaged after that, at least. Whatever this was, an ember wielder, and by association the shogunate, had to be involved.

The bear quickly dropped to standing on both its legs and started moving much faster than before. It was most likely only approaching on its hind legs to try and intimidate Hayato, but if there was anything Kenshi stressed when they were sparring was that you needed to stay calm and keep your wits about you.

The bear charged at Hayato as he thought. He contemplated holding his ground and stabbing the glowing and angry creature in its head and trying to end it quickly, but if he didn’t hit his mark just right, the bear would be able to tackle him to the ground. If it even lived for a few seconds after getting Hayato to the ground, he’d be dead meat.

Normally Hayato would’ve used a portal to change positions, but the portal would bring him all the way back to camp, and they would be stuck without the sled. Instead, Hayato threw all of his body weight to the side and jumped into the dirt. The bear was already changing course, so he had no time to wait as he pushed himself up and started sprinting again.

There was no way he was killing this thing. And, unlike some of the more stubborn people in the group such as Anzen and Kenshi, Hayato was more than happy to begin looking for ways to escape.

Hayato was able to make it to the sled before the bear caught up with him. There was a small clearing down the slope of the mountain.

There was, of course, only one option anyone in their right mind would do.

Hayato put one foot onto the makeshift sled, letting the other one push before he got himself stably in the hollowed-out tree trunk. The ride was rough going through the mud and wet leaves instead of the snow this was planned to be used for, but it worked well enough.

Hayato was looking for a place to create a portal ahead of him. He would have to guess where the sled would end up being, but it wouldn’t be too difficult. As Hayato found a spot, something began to fly through the air. Pellets of rock flew above Hayato’s head and shot through the bark of the hollowed-out tree trunk. Luckily the wood slowed the pellets enough so the impact on Hayato’s side did nothing but hurt slightly. The real problem was that now the sled had started spinning and was wildly off course.

Eventually the spinning turned to rolling, and in a moment Hayato found himself and his sled sitting still by a large tree they had run into.

Looking up the mountainside, Hayato saw two figures and one large and glowing silhouette of the bear he had just fought. The bear was acting strangely. It was fighting the urge to go back to being on all fours. Its movements were less intelligent and instead conflicted. Eventually, with a growl, the bear stopped glowing and dropped to all fours, running into the forest.

The two figures were strange. One was hunched back and limping, the other was small and looked like it could have even been a child. The hunched over one slapped the kid in the back of the head and shouted. “Why did you do that? Bring it back!” Hayato recognized that voice. But the exact person still failed him.

The child rubbed their nose as if they were crying or had a bloody nose. They responded as the hunchbacked one walked closer. “I couldn’t do it any longer. It’s too big!”

The hunchbacked figure grumbled as he finally got into sight. Hayato finally remembered who that raspy voice belonged to. The earth bending samurai got into view, both his eyes were black and swollen, one arm was misshapen and clung to his chest. His jaw was off-kilter and to the side like it had been badly broken and never completely healed back. The child must have been the one always following them with the glowing owl. Apparently, his ember was controlling any animals he wanted. Even bears.

The samurai that Kenshi so nearly killed that week ago raised his good arm and the ground underneath Hayato shook.

Hayato raised his sword, but a spike of rock flew out of the ground and impaled the hand that was holding his katana. The earth bending samurai’s malformed face twisted into a smile as his revenge finally began.

More spikes shot from the ground and impaled Hayato. Through his legs and then his back. Spinal cords severed and finally his brain pierced into.

This wasn’t as planned. Hayato thought as things turned black…

Lee’s eyes opened with shock as he stared around camp. Sora was still skinning his rabbit. Hayato and Anzen were still talking about Kenshi and how they were going to make bringing both bodies easier. Eventually, all their conversation and concentration stopped as they turned to look at the hyperventilating Lee.

He had never seen more than a few hours into the future, and that was with even more hours of meditation. As he processed everything he had saw happen in the future, Lee spoke simply.

“We’ve got some planning to do.”

A spark of hope

More horizon. More ash. More walking.

I had been alone with my thoughts for far too long now. I had contemplated everything to contemplate. All I had done. All I was currently doing. And all I’d yet to accomplish.

Previously, I had thought that continuously walking was my future, but my old friend gave me hope that something was hiding in the ashen wasteland I trekked.

With nothing to do but continue walking, I allowed my mind to wander. Trying to remember what happened before I ended up in that place was like trying to look at your reflection in a rushing stream. The image is there, but it shifts and distorts, making things much more difficult to get a clear grasp of. I had more clarity in the things that were currently missing than actually picturing what had once happened. The scars on my arms were gone, and if I focused on why having unburnt forearms were unfamiliar to the mind, I was able to bring memories back to life.

Since I had woken, I remembered, it was simply hazy. When I concentrated to remember it simply faded away, like trying to grip tighter onto a fistful of sand only for it to fall out of your grasp quicker. But by focusing on the injuries that I should have had. The injuries my old friends should have had. I could remember the details with precision.

I had finally come to terms with the feeling in my gut. I knew where I was.

As I came to terms, my focus went back out to my surroundings. My eyes widened with surprise as I caught a flash of red in my corner vision.

Quickly turning around, I saw the figure that I very nearly walked past. A long and stark red kimono, pitch-black hair flowing behind it as she walked farther down the horizon.

I hastily chased her, sliding onto my side as I tried to turn in the ash. I was able to speedily bring myself back to my feet and run after her.

Once I had sprinted a good while and grew close enough, I saw the face I hadn’t seen in the flesh for almost two decades. She was more beautiful than I remembered in my dreams, although my mind couldn’t resist sending me flashing images of the horrid and mauled version of her that I had found at the doorstep of her palace.

This woman was familiar enough that I was confident in calling out her name. The ash floating in the air coated my throat, making it hard to speak initially. After clearing out the dust in my throat, I spoke. “Amaterasu…” She turned to face me. A smile grew on my face, but her’s stayed completely neutral. I stared into her eyes for the longest time, and without words, she turned and began walking again. “Amaterasu? Do you not remember me?”

I followed behind her as she continued to walk. “I remember you…” she said.

The tone in her voice was the kind that she would only speak in when she was angry. It was at that moment I realized I had gotten ahead of myself. Although I went through an entire journey seeking redemption, the last she heard of me was when I betrayed her. “I-I’m sorry…” A little blunt, but I was at a loss for words seeing Amaterasu again after all this time, even if she was understandably upset.

She turned to look at me now, brow furrowed into as angry as I had ever seen them. “You’re sorry now. You weren’t sorry in the seventeen years that I hoped you would come back, no, you’re sorry now that we’ve accidentally found each other in this limbo.”

It was strange seeing someone so endlessly merciful mad, especially when that anger is pointed towards yourself. That feeling only made the lump in my throat bigger. “You… Deserting you was the biggest mistake of my life, and I was too stubborn and self-pitying to come out of my walls and my hiding place… But even though I was bitter and tried to hide the feelings in the back of my mind, I haven’t stopped feeling endless regret over that decision since the day my consequences came to me.”

Her grimace lessened a small bit, but her eyes still showed sadness and anger twirling in a fight for power. “Even if you regretted it, you still did nothing to fix it.” She began to turn again before one of those two emotions finally got to her.

Shit. Stop refusing to tell her. “No!” Too abrasive, but it got her to turn back. “No. I didn’t just regret it. In the last six months I’ve fought against the Shogun. I went back for you! I climbed Mt. Fuji again with my companions and we went to save you!… I didn’t think you were… Gone.”

“And how do I know you aren’t lying like you’ve done before?”

“I…” I had no way to prove it in this place, I only had to plead. “I’ve broken my legs and healed them. I’ve cracked ribs. Fractured arms. Cut off my foot and been stabbed in the back. I jumped off a building just to make sure he couldn’t get to your body. I’ve done so much to right my wrongs, and I know that it will take a lot more to make up for leaving you like that. But for the past two months, since I escaped imprisonment, I’ve only thought about finding you once more.”

Her brow shot up. “Imprisonment?”

I winced on the inside. My choice for words were certainly not the wisest. “When you took away my ember, and I had realized what a mistake I had made, I left the Shogun and his temptations. The power. And hid… Once the sun set, he found me once more and made sure I suffered. I escaped and vowed to never run again.”

Amaterasu simply looked down and thought.

“I died just to make sure you were safe from that Doctor. So he couldn’t harm what was left of you. Please…” Seeing her now, I wanted her to believe me so badly.

She looked back up at me, confused. I kept forgetting over and over again that she wasn’t with me during my journey. “Who is this Doctor?”

I sighed. “He’s… A deranged old man. He’s trying to merge man and yokai into one. He was going to use your blood and body to perfect it… That’s when I jumped out of the window of our old bedroom. To get away from him and to keep you, and everyone else, safe from his twisted ambitions.” She kept looking at me, her anger fading away slowly like charcoal glowing with the final embers of a roaring fire. My pride still made it hurt, but I continued to speak. “I’m so, so, sorry. I’m beyond words for how much I regret what I did. How much I still… You know.” The tiniest bit of a smile cracked at the side of her mouth as the smallest tear formed in the corner of her eye. It was still hard to see as she stared at the ground. My entire body felt awkward, but I finally choked the words out. The ones I had been waiting to say for what felt like forever. “I still love you. And all that I hope is that you’ll say the same.”

She opened her mouth and spoke, but it was so quiet I couldn’t hear. I understood what it was when she outstretched her arms. She finally looked up at me with a smile and tears softly rolling down her cheeks. And I would hate to say it, but I was crying just the same as I finally felt her embrace once more.

After letting the emotions clear out a small bit, I managed to speak through the hair in my face and the lump in my throat. “I had imagined myself to be more manly in this moment.” She chuckled along with me as we finally let go of each other.

All that I had wished for was to see her smile again, and I had the sight right in front of me.

With a bit of a pause, Amaterasu spoke. I could tell things were still tense and uncertain, but that only made me appreciate more when she told me. “… It is good to see you again, Kenshi.”

We sat for a while, giving me the chance to finally explain to her in full what had happened in the past six months. I could fully explain the time I spent isolated and lonely at Mt.Fuji. The Shogun’s temptations of riches and power. How much guilt and regret I felt over giving in to such foul promises.

Amaterasu was always generous and understanding. She was the goddess of life and mercy, after all. The more I spoke about my tribulations and the journey it took me to come back to Mt.Fuji, the more comfortable she seemed to be around me. Eventually, she began asking more questions about my friends and the various people I had met and the places I had been. It became less and less of myself explaining my actions to an actual conversation. The stories I had to tell were more than I expected, but Amaterasu seemed happy to listen.

I felt like I could talk with her forever and be content. My memory truly failed me when it came to remembering just how pleasantly listening to her talk was.

We seemed to speak with one another for hours, going through every topic and thought that had been brought up since we had departed with each other.

In any other situation, there might have been more anger. More accusations and pain from the time we spent apart. But at the ashen end of the world, things seemed calm.

After a long while, I began to go quiet. It almost pained me physically, but I knew we would have to quit our conversation. I still had a duty to accomplish, and we had been sitting for far too long. If I truly did want to redeem myself with Amaterasu, I needed to fix all that was left to fix. And to fix the problems I had left behind, I needed to continue forward just like my old friend had told me to do.

Amaterasu realized this as I stood, and stood with me. She spoke. “Time to continue walking, then? I assume you are searching for the same thing I was.” I nodded my head. She nodded her’s back. “Then let us proceed.”

With that, we continued. The endless walking feeling far less lonely with Amaterasu alongside me.

It still felt like a dream to be with her again. I felt as though she would just disappear from the corner of my eye and be gone again, but she never left.

Hours passed as we walked with the occasional conversation. Hours became days, days became weeks, weeks became months.

Time didn’t feel right in that place. It felt like both minutes and years from when we had first reunited.

The walking continued. The ashen dunes and smoky landscape staying the same.

Finally, the object of our search came to view. A towering pillar black as night shot out of the ash, reaching far into the sky and out of view. Once we noticed it, our walking turned to running. The object was much farther away than I initially expected, but after much determination, we reached the spiraling obsidian structure, I raised a hand out to it. Before either Amaterasu or myself could touch the thing, the long and thin pillar swayed and moved as the earth shook below.

A scaled body as large as Nihon itself emerged from the ash. The face of a serpent moved from below our feet, revealing the black pillar as just a mere whisker on the reptile’s face.

Ember orange eyes stared down at us with the wisdom of the universe shining through. Breath the force of a thousand tsunamis burst the ash at our feet into clouds of dust behind us, revealing the scaled hand we stood on.

Face to face with the elder dragon.

It’s great mouth opened, letting it’s voice rumble, nearly pushing both of us to our feet. It spoke slow and contemplative, like something that hadn’t the need for language in millennia. “Wwwhhhhyyy haaaave you disturbed meeee?”

Amaterasu was the first to speak in the diplomatic tone she would always use when attempting to speak in a professional manner. “We wished to speak with you about the state of things…”

She halted her speaking early as the elder dragon opened it’s mouth once more. “III am awaaaaare ooof the state of the woooorld I’ve given you…”

I spoke up. “Then surely you wish to help us fix it?”

Amaterasu stayed silent. The dragon’s enormous eyes shifted from Amaterasu to myself. He spoke faster this time, growing familiar with speech once again. “Whhhhy should I do such a thing? I owe you nothing…”

I crossed my arms. What a situation to be in, arguing with the creator of the cosmos itself. “Because you made this world! Surely you want to preserve it!”

Its brows furrowed. “I did create the world you call home. I created the seed for all life, even the one you wish me to aid you in killing…”

“The Doctor is deranged and foul! He’s trying to destroy his fellow man. You would assist in bringing justice to help the rest of humanity, right?”

Amaterasu interjected. “If I am not brought back. No one will be able to move to the afterlife. The righteous won’t be able to live in peace, and the evil won’t see retribution in the afterlife. Without light to guide them, all humanity will end up in this place between places. We all linger. Our stories never end.”

The dragon stared at the both of us for what felt like eons. Its torso rumbled and shook the world with it as he contemplated. “Hmmmm…”

I shouted out to it, my emotions getting a small bit ahead of me. “Don’t let it end like this! We can’t let this be how we all die out!”

The elder dragon looked back to me. “I have been alive for longer than your mind could imagine… In the infinite blackness. Fighting the rest of my kind in a struggle for power. And when all was done, I saw the scales that were thrown off our backs, the ones that created the stars and the life of humanity. I brought myself into a slumber, letting you all use my power to thrive… But the wounds I have received never heal. I am dying, my creation…”

Amaterasu spoke, still diplomatic but much more pleading this time. “But you aren’t dead yet! You could still help us fix this!”

Its eyes closed and reopened, now looking at Amaterasu. “Child of the light… I gave you the responsibility of the sun. To make sure the crops were prosperous and the people lived happily… If I were to bring you back, I would die. You would have no more power to derive from… I could bring back the sun like you both wish, but it would listen to no command, and it would not ensure the bountiful harvest that it once always did.”

I looked to the endless horizon as I thought aloud. “But it wouldn’t leave us dying as the world grows cold. It wouldn’t leave those things growing from the evil and the shadows to continue, would it?”

“The yokai, as you call them, have grown prideful. They leave themselves in the open, with no fear for the light… If I were to bring your sun back, they would be destroyed… Save for those your enemy has amalgamated with man. They derive their power from more than just the darkness. The soul itself is tapped into when kept on the razor’s edge of yokai and man.”

Amaterasu spoke. “Then do it! Bring the sun back, and bring us back.”

I continued her plea. “The Doctor will continue to bring the world to darkness, even if the sun is returned. The people need Amaterasu. The Doctor needs to be stopped… Don’t let her story end like this. Don’t let mine end like this. Don’t let the world end like this! We deserve more than to fade into the dark!”

The fire in the elder dragon’s eye grew brighter as it thought and stared the both of us down.

Soon, the world around us went black. Amaterasu faded from my view. My own body ceased to exist.

Everything was dark and cold until a flash of light shone in the blackness. One last chance at redemption. For myself. For the world.

Let us end this story with more than a whimper.

Ashes to ashes

All pain faded away into nothingness. I felt some mixture of serenity and the kind of regret that churned your stomach. It was a mixed brew inside me.

My feet sank into the ashen dunes. The horizon was nothing but grey fogginess.

I absentmindedly walked forward. Walking felt strange… It felt like I was forgetting something.

Looking down at my legs, I noticed that my left foot was intact. Why did it feel as though that shouldn’t have been the case?

While looking down, I noticed my arms at my sides. They were unblemished, which yet again felt wrong. My back felt good as well when I thought it should’ve been in pain…

Then I remembered the knife in my back. The dishonoring scars on my arms, and my mostly severed foot. Then I remembered the one I loved. My companions. The fall off the ledge.

I already had a feeling brewing in my gut, telling me where I was, but I didn’t want to listen to it. Not yet.

My clothes weren’t what they once were. I wore a silky red kimono with embroidery of the sun on it. The clothes that I used to wear those many years ago when I lived atop Mt.Fuji.

While I had a foot to walk on, I continued to do so. The horizon just simply spread out wider and wider. No ashen dune was the same, so I knew I wasn’t going in circles, but nothing changed. No change in the horizon. No sound but the wind carrying ash in an infinite twirling dance.

There was no fire, no light. Just ash and the reminiscent musk of smoldered wood.

My eyes easily lost focus in the expanding landscape as my mind wandered. Voices whispered in the back of my head. I could only hear them with concentration and a clear head. Honing in on the shushed tones was like forcing your eyes to see the blue-hued fractals of color when one’s eyes are closed. Like trying to listen to the faint yet lingering ring after two glasses have clashed together.

I couldn’t make out any of the words they spoke, only wisps and hums of phrases spoken by a multitude of voices. Some sounded deep and masculine, others higher and in feminine tones.

As my mind drifted, I lost my sense of balance and ended tumbling down the unstable and shifting dune I was previously descending. A few gentle tumbles and I found myself firmly planted in the soft debris.

I stared at the immensely foggy and black sky. There was no source of light yet everything within sight was perfectly illuminated.

With no motivation to continue, I let myself lay in my bed, watching the hazy ceiling to the box I was entrapped in.

Hours. Days. I really didn’t keep track of how long I ruminated in the nothingness. That was, until the ash shifted around me. Pouring over my body from the dune next to me.

Leaning my head up, I looked around. There was now a figure with his hand outstretched. He wore a simple grey cotton kimono. An insignia embroidered onto the lapel from a familiar tea-shop.

I obliged the man’s kind gestured and took hold of his hand, helping myself lift back to my feet. The man stood much higher than I did, his chest the size of a barrel and his hair tied into a tightly wrapped bun atop his head. His mouth smiled in a familiar and genuine way.

Brushing the ash off myself, I spoke. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to help. You know I’ve always made an effort to lend a helping hand when those under my wing are in need of it.”

“Why are either of us here?”

“You have already found the conclusion to that question in your heart, haven’t you?” With a sigh, I nodded. The large man continued his train of thought. “Why were you laying here? You were so determined to complete your mission and find redemption in yourself.”

“How would you know all that? Last you and I were together, I had only the faintest embers of my old ideals in heart.”

“Because I need to know it in order to help you…” He spoke his question once more “Why have you given up, friend?”

With a shrug, I finally replied directly. “There’s nowhere to go. I walk one direction, and it’s ash. Another, only the familiar sight of ashes piled over disappointments.”

My friend chuckled. “Ashes piled over disappointments. Pah. Even with your newfound determination, you’re still the same as always. Nothing is the end if you don’t decide it is so.”

I looked away from him as he emptied his chest of his hearty chuckles. “Then what should I do? Where should I go?”

After finally getting his fill, my friend replied simply. “Forward.”

“Why? What’s forward? How am I supposed to fix all of this now?”

“So many questions when the answer is so simple. Forward. In heart, and mind, and body. You’ll be consumed by the ash if you don’t move forward, and you’ll be swallowed from the inside first and go hollow.”

“Forwards… But… Hmmm…” I tried to continue my reasoning, but it all faded away by his simple words of advice.

He smiled and nodded his head. “It was good seeing you one last time. May we meet again on a more cheery note someday.”

The large man walked back up the ashen dune and out of sight. Climbing back to the top showed that he was still nowhere to be seen.

I shook my head and descended the dune, continuing forward like he had told me.

Again, it felt as though I walked for millennia with not a single difference in scenery. Yet I still continued going. I never grew tired, and I never grew hungry, so I continued without slowing.

I’d be damned if I stopped listening to the one person who had never led me astray before. Although damnation was probably already all but achieved.

Upon going farther, nothing had changed. My brows furrowed as I kept walking. The ashen bed beneath my feet called to me once more, but I still refused. Don’t stop walking. Don’t stop walking. Whatever you do…

My pace slowed as I contemplated. There was still nothing ahead of me. Nothing behind me.

One more step. One more dune. My heart hadn’t lost itself just yet.

After climbing yet another dune of ash, I was met with yet another figure sitting down at the base of the shifting hill. His hair was unkempt and went to his shoulders. He wore a utilitarian and dirty white kimono, like prisoner’s garb. He turned to look at me with dark bags under his eyes. Once he realized who I was, he scoffed. “A lot of good came from that sacrifice, eh? We still ended up in the same boat.”

I walked down and sat next to my old friend. “A lot of good did indeed come from that sacrifice… You did all of us a greater favor than we could have hoped for.”

“Then why have you ended up here?”

“One of a thousand cuts brought me here, and I’m afraid that I can’t find the way out.”

He snorted at the thought. “That’s the same for both of us. I’ve been here for… However long, and I still haven’t found the exit.”

That brought me to think. I wanted the way out, but I didn’t feel like I was looking for an exit. “I don’t know if escaping should be your focus. There’s something else hiding under our noses.”

The man glared at me oh so familiarly with his baggy and apathetic eyes. “Then what are you searching for if it’s not the exit to this damn place.”

“I… don’t know…” I looked into my heart, trying to find what I hoped to see. Nothing resonated other than the command from my former superior ranking samurai.

We sat in silence for a moment before the baggy-eyed man interrupted my thought. “Still day-dreaming instead of focusing on the task at hand. As expected.”

With a chuckle. “And I see you haven’t changed much either, with your criticalness.” We went back into silence as I continued to think. “Say, why are you still going?”

“What? I told you, to find the exit.”

“Why search for this elusive exit? Doesn’t the soft ground seem inviting enough for a rest?”

He looked away from me and at his feet. “I can’t rest…”

My brow shot up. Usually, he was always so blunt, but my baggy-eyed friend had decided to start playing coy here in all of places? “Why can’t you rest?”

“I… Nothing…”

“Stop dancing around the subject. The man I fought alongside always went straight to the point.”

His generally unhappy expression cracked a grin. “That was me, wasn’t it…” After another long silence, he responded to my question with his serious face worn once again. “I don’t know where I’d go… Most of my life, I hadn’t been a good man. I felt like I helped a good cause in the end. Sacrificing myself for a friend surely would solidify me as a good person, right? But there’s some part of me that remembers, even when I don’t want to. Some part that still follows the anger and the hate. I’m afraid that if I rest I’m going to end up with the other people that have done what I’ve done.”

I made sure to take my time to respond. Never had I seen him speak about his fears like that. If my old spear-wielding friend was supposed to be the one to give me guidance, I guess that was my role for the baggy-eyed and regretful one. “You were once a person deserving of punishment, yes. But you overcame yourself. You fought against your own nature, quelled your anger, and learned to even sacrifice your own life for someone like… Well, me… If you ask me, someone who overcomes evil deserves peace much more than someone lazily born into easiness and never had any tribulations.”

He chewed on those words for quite a while, contemplating my philosophies. “That makes some sense, I guess.”

I shook my head with a grin. “Everyone goes at their own pace. Hell, I definitely took my time realizing I wanted redemption.”

My good-hearted and baggy-eyed friend finally smirked. “You never did tell me exactly what that mysterious past of yours was.”

With my own inner peace, I obliged my friend and explained to him my upbringing. The warriors of sunlight. My father. Climbing Mt.Fuji. My time spent with Amaterasu. My time spent under the Shogun’s command. The seventeen years I took brooding over my own failures. All up to the day I was moved into the yokai hunting caravan and sparred against my baggy-eyed friend for the first time of many.

Through the story, his composure gradually lifted from somber and contemplative to attentive and determined.

After I was finished and a bit of silence passed, he spoke once more. “I still feel anxious, resting. There’s no way to know for sure.”

“There never is. The only way to answer that question is by finding out yourself.”

“And what about you?”

“I still have my searching to do. Once I know I can rest in peace, I intend to join you wherever you may go.”

My baggy-eyed friend leaned back against the soft ashen dune and closed his eyes. “That sounds nice…”

Standing up and brushing myself off, I agreed. “It does indeed.”

My feet sunk into the ash once more. No looking back.

Find peace, friends. I would stay to recollect, but my job isn’t quite over just yet.

A thousand cuts

With the blood loss, I somehow felt like I was both weightless and stuck to the ground at the same time. My limbs felt as though they worked against me as I raised my sword to the wrinkled old man. “I’m not here to play games anymore.”

The Doctor smiled as he sat on the plush bed. “I’m surprised that you’re still lucid with such grievous wounds. You should sit if you don’t want to find yourself on the floor.”

Slowly, I limped towards Amaterasu’s body while still keeping my sword pointed towards the deranged man. As I got to the table, what was once my foot screamed at me to sit, so I slowly eased down to the two or three-foot desk and sat at her feet. As soon as I sat, my legs refused to budge. I knew the Doctor spoke only in falsehoods, but I couldn’t help myself from questioning him. “Have you done anything to her?”

He shrugged, still smiling. “Nothing at all. We only just recently moved the corpse into this room.” I looked to Amaterasu, then back to the Doctor, then back to Amaterasu. He spoke with such honesty that I couldn’t tell if he was trying to fool me or if he was telling the truth. With a chuckle, the Doctor spoke while I continued to inspect her. “For having such dogmatic loyalty in your goddess, you’re quite the skeptic when it comes to the word of your fellow man.”

I shook my head. “I trust my fellow man. You’re the exception.”

“Oh please. From the first time I saw you walking behind the fat one those months ago I saw nothing but a confused and overly suspicious animal behind those eyes. You’re still the same now, only you’ve replaced confusion with ignorance.” The old man sat up, losing his smile. “She’s dead. You could save the sick if you allow me to continue my research. We could save this world. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

I shifted in my seat. The Doctor was trying to manipulate me as he would always try to, but I wouldn’t be so pliable. “I saw what you’ve done to the Shogun. Is that what you call salvation?”

“That’s what I call the first step to salvation. An unpolished glimpse of what’s to come.”

With an air of disgust, I countered the old man. “You aren’t very convincing when that’s your testament.”

“True. He is a rather pitiful display at the moment, but there will always be unpleasant side effects to the first of many trials to come.” The Doctor slowly reached into his bag and pulled out a vial of musky purple fluid. “With time… I could even bring the ones you love back.” His genuine smile creased at the edges as his brows tensed.

The old man may have been experienced in deceiving, but it had become painfully obvious when he was lying through his teeth. “And how do you plan on achieving that when the only thing keeping you from dissecting her like some animal is me.”

The Doctor grew a smirk and changed the subject, holding his syringe of yokai blood. “I could heal you with this. You aren’t weak like the shogun, you could withstand it. Can’t you?”

“You won’t find success in stoking my pride either.” My legs finally obeyed my commands, bringing me back to standing as best I could. I could feel my blood loss, I had no more time for the deranged old scientist’s musings. On top of that, needed to finish this before I passed out.

The Doctor’s smirk turned to grimace when he watched me hazily stumble closer. He spoke as he put the vial of yokai fluid back and rummaged through his bag of medical equipment. “What a pity. There was a time when you seemed intelligent enough to subside this feverish loyalty when there’s nothing left. What are you going to do? Kill me and take the body where? There is no future other than my future…”

Getting closer, I pointed my sword towards the Doctor, his false image fading and showing anxiety in his eyes. “I don’t care. There’s always an alternative.”

The katana’s blade slipped through the air, thrusting towards the Doctor’s heart. His hand slapped the sword off-target, sinking deep into his shoulder instead of his chest. The old man stared wildly at me, one hand bloodily holding on to the sharp blade of the sword, the other rummaging through his bag of medical supplies. Before I could rear back, the Doctor finally found purchase in his bag and swung the small and reflective scalpel at me. Slashing through my chest. Chuckling as I slowly pulled my sword from his shoulder.

The Doctor held on to his wound, bargaining between his laughter. “I can still heal you. Heal everyone of the disease they’re born with. But you must get out of my way… Save yourself, Kenshi. You’ve always done what was necessary to survive…”

My vision was fading. Time was running out. Damn it!

I lost balance and could only stumble back into the desk with Amaterasu laying atop it. My companions shouted in the distance, looking for me.

My choice was to finally end the Doctor or make sure Amaterasu was safe with my last breath. If I killed the Doctor, the Shogun would take charge again. She would be taken away and put on some display cabinet. The world would still rot like it would if the Doctor was left in control. There was only a singular option that left some sort of hope for the future.

Damn it all.

Ignoring the Doctor, I grasped the cloth surrounding what was left of Amaterasu and pulled it as best I could into a bundle. I pulled the knife out of my back and quickly sheathed my sword before grabbing the cloth between my arms. The Doctor shouted meaningless pleads as I limped to the balcony. If I killed him, I would die and Amaterasu would still be in the hands of the shogunate. What I could do was impede his plans. I didn’t give a shit whether what happened next as long as my task was accomplished. Brutal efficiency is what suited my mind. Time to fly with what I came for.

The old man was too injured and frail to stop me as I shifted my weight and let myself roll over the railing with Amaterasu.

The scenery spun as I fell down those three stories. Everything moved slowly. I felt no panic. No need to shut my eyes. I simply stared at the sights in the distance. The places where this damned journey all began. Kamakura. The ocean. The summit of Mt.Fuji… Everything blended together before the sudden impact. All that purpose quickly doused out like a candle left out in the rain. All the immaterial possibilities of the future all finally decided their course of action.

A piercing pain rang throughout me. The ground was warm and wet where it should have been cold. Blood.

Her weight was pressed on top of me. That once felt comforting, but now I only felt like I was suffocating. Even in triumph, I was still a coward. I still resisted my oncoming demise deep within my core. Even the smallest bit of regret was too much. I was tired of living in it. Reveling in it. It was time for peace. All the anger finally flushed out of my body as I noticed my legs buzzed now that I had no more blood to give to them. The world started to grow fuzzy, leaving me to lay on the bloodied ground staring at the summit of Mt.Fuji. People were shouting and stomping towards me. It seemed like my companions had finally found me. How long had I been laying in the dirt?

The dead goddess. The sleeping dragon. The abandoned man.

Sleeping. Sleeping felt so desirable in that moment, but I couldn’t let my eyes close. Not yet. I still had a final plan I needed to formulate.

The elder dragons fought in a cataclysmic battle, the scales on their backs scattering across the blackness and making the stars. Their Blood forming man. Their determination and will forming the soul…

Why remember these stories? Why was my mind drifting? I needed to focus before the lights went out. Surely all that pure determination hadn’t expired just yet.

Figures formed around me. Hayato’s voice called out, but I was too intent on thinking to answer. I still stared at the summit of Mt.Fuji.

Once the battle was over, the elder dragon came to see the people he had created from the cataclysm. He gave them the sun. Created someone to rule over that sun and keep life blooming. Once he was satisfied in his work, the dragon created Mt.Fuji around himself and slept…

“Wake him up…”

Hayato looked down at me. “What?”

All I had sought was redemption. To see her face again. Instead, I got the image I had seen in my nightmares… The Doctor filled my veins with his poison, but I had saved Amaterasu. No, I hadn’t saved her yet. I hadn’t saved anyone yet.

Ressurection.

My lips finally opened again to answer Hayato, forcing the last life in my body to hiss out my final ounce of determination and purpose. “Take her to the summit. The only thing we have left is a bargain.”

Their faces were confused, but there was no more time for me to elaborate. I could feel myself fading.

I couldn’t fight it. For so long I lived off of determination and a surplus of luck, but there was nothing for me anymore. Only blood and regret. Whatever my last plan was, was held on the backs of my companions.

My eyes shut as the voices around me grew louder. All the pain went numb. All the wounds I had accumulated on my journey had finally caught up to me. It didn’t matter. The plan was in motion, and I was finally ready to get that rest I had promised myself once I had her safe.

Death by a thousand cuts.

An egregious antidote

Wrinkled hands rubbed together in anticipation. A career spent wasting in poverty and futile research would now come to its grand end with the finest specimen the Doctor ever had to inspect.

Careless and impudent soldiers moved two desks in the master bedroom to form a table and then laid the linen-wrapped corpse onto it. With a shooing motion, the samurai left the Doctor at peace.

With a sigh, the old man carefully sat his supplies atop the plush and silky bed as he turned to the sheet concealed cadaver, pulling the veil off and revealing the goddess. Flesh and blood like all others.

The scalp has been razed and the specimen’s hair has been torn, most likely damage to the skull as well. Lacerations down the face. Jaw dislocated. Severe damage from the neck down to the breasts. Abdomen in even worse shape. Entrails completely exposed. Arms and legs both dislocated with major tissue loss.

The Doctor sighed and shook his head. He had learned so much from yokai. They were the key to so much of his plans. But it was quite a shame to have the most important autopsy of his life be done on such a poor carcass.

Turning to retrieve his equipment and get to work, the Doctor received an unexpected and unwanted visitor.

The Shogun’s lapdog slid open the door to the Doctor’s room and spoke. “Our men still haven’t found your friends and are getting tired. They’ve been working without rest for days on end now.”

Finding Kenshi and the rest of his companions didn’t matter to the Doctor. The ember wielders he had gathered got to sleep comfortably in the back of their carts on the way and were already patrolling the palace. Either they killed Kenshi and his friends or injured him enough to sufficiently pacify him. “Tell them to sleep then. I’m confident in the night patrol.”

The ember wielder ambiently tightened and adjusted the shields at his arms. “I already gave them those orders myself. You may not remember but you don’t control me or the men the Shogun has entrusted with me.”

The old man turned away and rolled his eyes at Eizo’s naivety and stared at the horizon through his window. They both knew who had the samurai’s true allegiance. “Then why have you bothered me?”

“I came to tell you how you’ve run these men into the ground. That no matter how hard you try to hide the Shogun, I’ve seen what you’ve done to him. His arm.

The Doctor smirked. So much to learn from yokai. So much power to derive from them. “Why? Are you unhappy that I’ve given him an antidote for disability?” Ah, Eizo hadn’t even the faintest hint of what the Doctor had done before it was too late. The Doctor hadn’t been with the Shogun for long when that yokai was spotted next to Kamakura’s walls, but by then the Doctor already had those loyal to him, and the Shogun was busy with his recently severed arm. So he broke the emperor’s law and brought the yokai into a discrete location alive. Experimenting on the immortal creature, learning about its physicality and intelligence. Taking the blood, mixing it with neutralizing agents, and injecting it into the Shogun’s wound. The results being victorious in using the yokai’s power to regenerate entire limbs. With manageable side effects.

A voice shot through the Doctor’s thoughts. “You know you haven’t cured him. What you’ve put upon him is a curse.”

A chuckle escaped the Doctor’s lips. He spoke as he turned once again to face Eizo. “Sometimes someone must accept a curse for the answer. And the knowledge your master has given me answers things of far greater worth than the risk of his life.”

Eizo’s cheeks had flushed with anger. His shielded arms shook as he tightly clenched his fists. The Doctor smirked as his hand drifted to his medical bag resting on the bed, ready to pull his scalpel from it if need be.

This was his test, Eizo would either leave to fruitlessly protect his Shogun from harm, or he would try to kill the old man.

Closing his eyes, Eizo took a deep breath. Opening them again, and he began to back up. “The Shogun will learn about this. We aren’t finished.”

“Yes. I’m sure he will.”

The shield bearing samurai left the room to walk aimlessly around the third floor as the Doctor went back to his business.

Grabbing a soft pillow, the Doctor moved to the master bedrooms open balcony and sat. He had noticed that his hands were shaky, and the Doctor wouldn’t allow himself to perform any sort of surgical procedure without complete precision. He had never let nerves get the best of him before, so the Doctor wondered if instead it was his age finally getting to him.

No matter. With his new research, even mortality itself could be rejected its dues. A new land, with new laws free of disease and injury… With an intelligent leader to herd the masses from their previous ignorance, of course.

As he watched the horizon, the Doctor pondered the status of the body laying on his homemade examination table. Even the ‘goddess’ was flesh and blood on the inside. There had to be something that ceased her aging inside, something that she derived her power from.

With yokai, it was simple. The composition of their flesh was akin to fungi. Cut some off, and it slowly tries its best to recreate its original form, usually to little success. But with a human host, it’s like giving the fungi somewhere moist and stable to grow, all along with a template for its humanoid form. But with the goddess, nothing about her at a glance seemed beyond human.

It didn’t matter, as long as he had the body, the Doctor’s curiosity was boundless, but all that really mattered was a successful serum.

To make the healing elixir, the Doctor would take his yokai fluid and mix it with blood from an ember wielder. Their’s was the goddess’s power and it kept the yokai flesh from completely taking over the body. With the Shogun, the Doctor gave him a strong mixture that was primarily yokai fluid, and the more he healed the more he would transition to being more yokai than human. Over time the Doctor adjusted the recipe until the Shogun’s arm completely reformed into its puss-filled and ashen purple state, now he was barely anything more than blood transfusions to keep him from turning. The Doctor knew that the transfusions wouldn’t last forever, but with Amaterasu, the effects could be permanent. Working like yin and yang and making a perfect balance, giving all the benefits of the yokai while purging it of its infectious abilities. Making something more than human. Something better.

Taking a deep breath, the Doctor stood from his cushion and walked back into the luscious bedroom. Woodblock paintings of different historical events sat atop various nightstands and desks. The furniture was made of ancient mahogany and was handcrafted into complex and ornate structures. When the Doctor wielded the power that he had worked for, he wished for a palace with as much grandeur as the goddess’. Why act with such complexity while such a simple solution is all around you? The old man thought. If he wanted a palace like the goddess’, then he would simply take it for himself. Would some see that as a statement of godhood? Well, when the elixir was finally perfected…

A smirk came over the Doctor’s face as he went back to the task at hand, finally moving back to the bed and his bag of medical supplies. As his fingers hovered over the knot keeping the sack of metals hidden, he felt the ground beneath him shift.

Loud crashes sounded as he sighed and opened the bag, not reaching for the scalpel or clamps or the different vials of yokai blood, but a small knife he had hidden away under all the other equipment. Carrying his knife, the Doctor left his room and went into the entrance of the third floor. Metal clashing against metal could be heard. Shouting. Doors slamming open and shut. A familiar voice barking commands at his simpleminded followers. Ah, it seemed that Kenshi was indeed able to get past the first line of defenses. The invisible one he had hired wasn’t surprising, he had little faith in someone that took his duties so lightly from the start. The two at the great hall on the first floor were the smallest bit surprising in their failure. They were originally part of the emperor’s guard. No matter, the Doctor had known Kenshi’s thick-headed determination for long enough to know that he wouldn’t die from any head-on altercation.

The old man walked to the Shogun’s room and looked at the door. Eizo had taken a rope and tied the door shut, but the Doctor couldn’t have that. He wanted Kenshi to see his work, and if he ended up killing the Shogun, the Doctor wouldn’t necessarily mind.

After using his knife to cut the rope and leaving the door slightly ajar, the Doctor walked over to a small closet near the stairs and opened the door. A young girl sat on her knees with her hands sitting on the wooden flooring, concentrating on warping the palace to hinder Kenshi and his companions.

The Doctor squatted down and slowly sat the knife in front of the girl. Kenshi would endlessly rant over honor with his companions back in their old caravan of soldiers, but the Doctor thought no such thing. Any means to the most preferable end, and the Doctor wanted Kenshi dead or incapacitated at the least.

Hearing Kenshi scream in pain from below had a pleasant ring to the Doctor’s ears. He wanted to listen more, but as the crashing grew louder and shouting came closer the Doctor knew he needed to go back. He wouldn’t break the girl from her concentration with the ember. She would know what to do with the weapon supplied to her.

Going back to his room, the Doctor heard the shouting and ruffian behavior grow ever closer. The old man noticed his hands had finally calmed with new confidence in his plan. He thought he’d finally begin the first few incisions to pass the time, but as he reached into his bag the door to his room slammed open. The old man brushed his hand through his hair as he turned with a smile.

Kenshi stood before the Doctor. His left foot was little more than the heel, and peeking out of his back was the Doctor’s knife he had given to the girl.

“Ah, my dear friend, Kenshi. It seems you made it just in time…”

The Doctor is in.

Doctor’s Appointment

The glowing orange cylinder moved slowly yet steadily forwards destroying all in its wake. Chunks of the ancient stone flooring flew through the air as the samurai Hasami grew ever closer.

The plan I had mustered together didn’t take this possibility into account. We had an indestructible and very angry sphere of razors blocking our path to the stairs. Surely he must grow tired with such excessive use of his ember?

No, he was too dangerous to rely on evasion. We could lead Hasami into the tighter corridors and try having him topple the building on himself, but then we would have to find another way into the great hall with the passage blocked. Not to mention that if we brought the noise any closer we could wake dozens of samurai all with orders to kill us.

Hayato was the first to speak as he dodged the flying rubble and backed away from the slow-moving orb. “What now?”

All I could emote with was a shrug as my mind raced for a solution. Hasami would surely have to take a break from using so much power at a time, but he was still wearing that armor. Armor like the metal manipulating samurai wore was harder to stab and slice into than a boulder was. Sora couldn’t shoot his arrows towards him. I couldn’t find anywhere with my sword. Anzen and Hayato seemed like our best bet.

As the glowing orange orb began to dim, we could all see the heaving body of armor. I shouted as our opportunity showed itself. “Anzen, Hayato!”

Hayato, face pale from using his ember so much, nodded as he raised his hand. A portal formed under Hasami, another over.

The armored samurai fell and kept falling. Continuously gaining momentum. We’d burst him out of there like a chestnut if nothing else.

With enough momentum, Another portal opened facing the stone wall leading to the courtyard. Hasami went flying through the portal, but in a flash, he was surrounded in orange light once more. He went cleanly through the stone and shot into the dark courtyard of the palace, eventually losing momentum and coming to a halt towards the outer gate.

I looked toward my companions. We may have not killed him like I had hoped, but the twins had at least opened us up one other option. “Run!”

With the samurai Hasami still barely picking himself up in his heavy metal armor, we all ran towards the stairs. He may have been indestructible and viciously deadly, but he wasn’t fast. We could lose him if we got up the second flight of stairs. It was our only option.

We ran with haste up the old and creaky wooden stairs. Hasami would surely search for us, but it bought us time.

As we all got to the second story, I looked around the large and comfortable room, in the middle was a railed off space open to peer at the great hall below. Everything looked near untouched, which meant that foot soldiers most likely weren’t allowed beyond the first floor.

Good, no need to be worried about waking more sleeping samurai.

I quickly waved for the rest to follow as I opened one of the multiple sliding doors. A peak and I saw no one, so we entered. The room we had walked into was a simple nook. A shelf of texts next to the sliding door that had to lead to the second story balcony. Old woodblock paintings hung on the walls depicting the elder dragon and various other creatures and locations.

As we all caught our breath, a metal clunk clunk clunk could be heard stomping up the stairs. “Great.” I heard Anzen mutter under his breath.

Hayato went from his hands on his knees to standing proper. “Let’s just avoid him. We’re quieter, and we’re quicker.”

Sora counted the arrows in his quiver as he commented, “It would be completely unreasonable to think our adversaries would neglect to put a guard routine on the higher floors. If we simply evade we could find ourselves in an even worse situation.”

I shook my head at Sora. “Although you’re most likely right with the guard situation, we need the twins and Lee to catch their breath if we’re to have the upper hand.”

Lee spoke in a hushed tone as the clunking got to the top of the stairs. “I can still fight, and I’ll beat him as long as he doesn’t do the ball of light thing.”

I opened the door to the second story balcony as Hasami’s armored footsteps grew too near for us to stay any longer.

As we stepped onto the wooden balcony, I took a moment to look at the view once so familiar. You could see the ocean town I had met Hayato at. The village and temple I had grown up in at the base of Mount Fuji. Kamakura shining brightly at the horizon. The entirety of the once-great Nihon laid bare in front of my eyes. Once shining bright and bountiful. Now dark and infested with demonic foulness.

A sigh escaped me as I turned my head.

We quietly stepped down the old wooden balcony as my mind counted names. The shield brawling samurai Eizo would certainly be either on the second or third floor to protect the Shogun. Other than that, I didn’t offhandedly know what samurai could be waiting for us. The Doctor was almost certainly in the main bedroom with Amaterasu. The Shogun was unpredictable. If he couldn’t have the best then he would surely aim for the second most comfortable, which would be the spare bedroom towards the third-floor stairs.

Soon the footsteps grew quieter, allowing me to continue salvaging my plan…

He’s unhittable. He’s angry, and he’ll follow us anywhere… He’ll follow us anywhere.

Finally gaining a bit of direction in my step, I continued down the balcony towards where the next set of stairs should be.

Hasami was smart enough, he would know we were heading for the stairs and try to meet us there when we reached it. If we could get to the third story before him… Well, I had a plan that would most certainly get him out of our hair.

Our walking turned to a jog and our jogging turned to run. Eventually, it all came to a halt once we reached the end of the creaky old balcony. With a swift tug to the sliding door, I revealed the old hall. At the right of said hall was the set of stairs I had been counting on.

Looking down the other end of the hall I saw the armor-clad man now running as speedily as he could towards us, which to say the least was not very fast. My hand waved for the others to come as I ducked from the balcony to the stairs, hastily stomping up. We would need all the height we could get.

Once I had gotten more than halfway up the stairs I heard a strangely familiar metallic ringing. It echoed around the stairwell, leaving me confused about where the sound was originating from. What I did know at least was that turning back wasn’t much of an option with the chasing ball of death.

As I finally reached the last few steps I had a full view of the third floor, where I saw what that sound was coming from. The shield bearing samurai Eizo’s shaking arms glowed with the same overwhelming power that showed when he had charged his attack. His arms sprung forward as soon as I was in sight, the force of the shockwave sending me straight backward.

Dammit, he must have heard us. No matter, we would just have to avoid him and continue our plan. Eizo wasn’t extremely lethal with his blunt-force attacks, and Lee could easily keep him at bay.

Or, that was what I originally thought. I realized that my plan needed more revising as I grew closer to the wall-like part of the roof that dropped down, separating the lofty stairwell from the roof of the second floor. As impact was imminent, the walls seemed to change. They turned like someone took a wet painting and drug a brush across the canvas. This created an opening that allowed for my continued fall.

The architecture shifted with malign sentience to keep me going as far as possible. My hands grasped every ledge within reach, yet my weight would always bring me falling again. I flew through the air to the other end of the second floor, luckily there weren’t any windows to throw me out of so I simply hit the far wall with a solid thud. Force eventually brought me back down to the ground. The impact, as was usual for Eizo, was relatively soft. There was no extra force to the shockwave, merely the force of gravity switching directions for a brief moment or two. The landing was even easier with the few times I was able to grab on to my surroundings and slow my momentum, still far from pleasant, but easier.

The real problem was that I had become separated from the rest, not to mention the walls were twisting like someone had slipped something potent in my morning tea.

While my surroundings looked like some sort of mirage, I felt completely in balance and focused somehow. I knew it couldn’t be mind-altering, therefore. The walls really were conspiring against us through some Ember.

I took a few cautious steps forward as I looked ahead. The others had already gotten off the stairs and were moving towards me, most likely using the twins’ portals to get out of their entrapment.

Seeing them brought me to move forward more hastily, which was a bad decision. At that moment I was at the large entrance to the second floor. Open space, a vaulted ceiling, and a railed off section in the middle to look down to the first floor or up to the third. As I got close, the rails warped inward, creating a much larger and open hole in the middle of the room. I immediately jumped backward, letting myself fall on to my backside to counteract the momentum I had accumulated. The hole kept growing, only allowing me time to slide back.

As I looked down I saw a familiar foggy gateway. With just enough time to get my feet under me, I immediately jumped forward and into the portal.

Coming out the other end, I was reunited with my companions. The problem of being separated was solved for the moment, but the walls still spun and we were still being chased by both Hasami and Eizo.

As I silently took a headcount, I noticed Lee was missing. I looked past the others and saw him down the hall, fending off Hasami, who was back to slicing with only one or two extra swings. I knew it most likely wouldn’t be long before he went back to his indestructible state, but for the moment we had the advantage.

Running farther into the hallway, I opened the door to the opposite side of the balcony and shouted Lee’s name. He gave a quick and shallow blow to Hasami’s leg before turning back and running towards us. Eizo was missing, which made me uneasy, but we couldn’t spend any amount of time searching for him if we wanted to move along before whoever twisted the palace had a new idea to throw us back to the first floor.

We jumped into the room and looked around. I instantly recognized the small room to be the second-floor sauna. A large stone structure sat in the middle of the room where extremely hot rocks would be put to create steam. Hasami was surely behind us, so I took no time to wander.

I pulled out my sword and stabbed it between the wooden boards of the sauna, bursting through the walls and revealing the next room. Hayato and Lee caught on and also started using their swords to break the boards apart. Those without swords moved furniture to the door to prevent entry.

With just enough space, I began to climb through the hole, only to have the walls seize up and clamp against my waist. Increasing pressure pushed against my sides as Hayato and Lee grabbed each end, trying to ease the tension. With a yell, I squirmed out to the other side.

“Damn it,” I muttered as I watched the opening quickly clamp shut. It didn’t matter where we were, the ember wielder could see us. He apparently didn’t have enough strength to crush bone, but I don’t think that was truly his intention. The real meaning of that attack seemed to be separating me from my companions yet again.

Although it wasn’t initially part of the plan, I made the best of my situation. I jumped over the small desk of the office I was in and got close to the paper and wood door. Hasami breathlessly ran past me and towards the sauna where the others were.

As I heard him pass, I jumped out of the room and swung my sword toward him. I stabbed, but just recently being nearly crushed takes a bit out of your precision. And for the armor he was wearing, if you weren’t perfect in your strike it would easily bounce off.

With my sword bouncing off his back, Hasami turned and took his turn swinging at me. Luckily, I was able to jump back and immediately started running. He followed me, so at the very least I kept my group from being ensnared in a room with the hurricane of sharp objects.

As he chased me he turned into a ball of firey orange anger once more. And of course, as I ran down the hall Eizo came out of one of the rooms he was previously searching, blocking my path up the stairs.

If I could just get to the stairs, I would win. The rest would know to leave the palace and regroup if I went missing. And I could easily face the Doctor and Shogun myself. But not if I was hit by another shockwave of Eizo’s.

If Eizo got to me, he would push me straight into Hasami. I looked from side to side. The walls still shifted and moved, the doors still opened and clamped shut like hungry maws waiting to sink their teeth into me.

If I tried to escape to another room, I would get stuck and be left to the mercy of the raging samurai. If I went forward, I would simply be pushed back and be met with the same fate. Hayato and Anzen already created one portal to get me out of the last trap, and I remember seeing in their faces that they had no more energy left in them. Sora’s arrows would be useless against Hasami and Lee couldn’t approach even when his back was turned. And that was assuming they would even have time to get into the hall and figure out what was happening.

With no other option, I charged forward like a cornered animal, most likely because I was one.

I jutted my sword as far forward as I could, but Eizo put his shields together as he had before and blocked my attack, sending a wave of energy as he did. I went flying backward, straight to Hasami. With all the strength and determination in my body, I grabbed onto the frame of one of the shifting doors. My death grip indeed held my weight, but what I didn’t take into account was which direction the door slide open.

I fell downward as it swung and I felt a sharp pain in my left foot.

Looking down, I could see toes and heaps of flesh scatter in every direction.

A shriek left my mouth as I swung my right foot upward, swinging my body enough to heave myself through the door and into the room too fast for the palace controlling samurai to react. I fell sideways and through the paper walling, falling more until I hit the wood walls at what had to be the end of the hallway. Gravity came back into effect and left me back on my feet. Or, foot.

With a piercing pain like I hadn’t felt before, my left leg gave and I found myself on the floor.

Quickly pushing myself to my knees, I looked back and saw that where my left foot was, nothing more than a mass of gnarled flesh and copious blood remained. I slowly lifted myself to my feet while murmuring to myself. “No time for pain. No time for pain. No time for- SHIT!” With the slightest amount of weight, my left leg would scream at me. The pain shot all across my body as I closed my now watering eyes.

My katana stabbed into the ground as a makeshift cane while I hobbled over to the sliding door and the balcony. It jerked back and forth like the others, but this time I had the moment to take my sword and cut through the paper.

I moved as quickly as I could onto the balcony as I glanced at the glistening blood trail behind me. It was like someone had upturned a bucket and flung red paint all across the room.

My head shook as I forced myself to continue down the balcony towards the stairs. Nothing could stop me. I just had to keep my mind on Amaterasu. On my mission.

Hasami burst onto the balcony in front of me, Eizo at his side. My companions burst onto the balcony behind me, most likely following the screaming and blood.

I kept walking towards Hasami as I shouted to the twins. “Do it!”

Hayato shouted. “We can’t!”

“I said do it!”

Hasami grew closer as a foggy portal slowly materialized under him. Just like before, he fell and kept falling. Except this time, he wouldn’t be thrown into an object.

It didn’t matter how strong his sword was or how much he could cut through or how untouchable he was, a sword is only so durable, and the more you cut through the weaker it gets. He would have a lot of cutting to do if he wanted to ease his momentum like last time.

I simply pointed my finger to the horizon, and the twins figured out the rest. The ball of orange energy shot through the sky like a comet, flying far into the distance down Mt.Fuji. No matter how much he tried to cut his way into the earth to slow his descent, he wouldn’t be surviving a fall like that unless he learned to fly.

Once the portals closed, I looked back. Hayato and Anzen were both on their knees gasping for air, bloody noses and sunken eyes. I shouted to Sora and Lee. “Get them to safety!”

With reluctance, Sora took the heavier Hayato over his shoulder as Lee grabbed Anzen and began to shuffle back to the first floor.

Hasami was gone. Next was Eizo and then whoever was controlling the palace.

Eizo looked fatigued. He had used his strongest attack twice in quick succession now. He thought he could kill me, but all Eizo had done is leave himself too exhausted for his Ember’s assistance.

I wanted to lean against the balcony’s railing, but that was far too easy for the palace manipulating samurai to take advantage of. So, I simply endured the debilitating pain as I stopped leaning onto my sword and moved it from my left hand back into my right.

Eizo walked forward as I neglected to move on my still bleeding stump.

A jab came to the left. I moved to the right too far and had to grab the railing. As predicted, it started moving with me, urging me to fall to the ground below.

With a push, I threw myself back to Eizo, grabbing his arm with my off-hand and swinging my sword with my other.

He quickly swung around me and under the blade to dodge to my right. I still barely had ahold of his arm and he was quickly overpowering me. Since he had turned on his arm, he forced himself to get between me and the now open part of the balcony.

I knew Eizo was too stubborn to die from such a fall, but I had no other option. Sorry friends, but you’ll have a gift when you leave the great hall.

My right arm was already extended far left from my swing, so I simply brought it back as forcefully as I could and hit the shield brawler in the back of the head with my elbow as I let go of his arm with my other. Eizo shouted as he fell to the ground below.

There wasn’t anything the palace manipulating samurai could do as I limped to the stairs and started climbing.

I had finally reached the third floor as I heard a coughing noise from the room beside me. The spare bedroom. The Shogun.

Hobbling over, I slid open the door to reveal the Shogun coughing up purplish-black blood. His face pale white with large lavender veins beating all throughout his neck and face. The fat man clung tightly to his missing arm, concealing it from the light. The soft pillows around him were thickly coated in dry blood. He-

My thought process ended abruptly as the door was shut closed by the ember wielder that controlled the palace. Along with the door closing, I felt a stabbing pain in my back. I couldn’t swing my sword without moving my lumbar, and with what had to be a knife lodged in my back so close to my spinal cord, it would be like playing with fire. Instead, I opted to throw my elbow back, hitting whoever was behind me.

They let go of the knife, allowing me to turn and look at them. The person who stabbed me was not what I had expected.

What looked to be a thinly framed girl in her teens stumbled back as she clutched to her jaw. She shrieked as she jumped forward, hands outstretched and coming to grab me.

She grabbed on to me and attempted to push me off my feet, almost succeeding in doing so even with what little weight she had.

I was forced to brace myself with my left hand as I dropped my sword with my right. I grabbed her head and pushed her to her side, bringing the thin girl to stumble closer to the stairs. And with an ounce of reluctance, I kept pushing against her with all the weight I could lend until the child was sent down the stairs. She bounced down each step before she hit the bottom, quickly pushing herself up and clutching to her leg. Throwing a young girl down a flight of stairs and most likely breaking her leg wasn’t something I suspected Amaterasu would’ve wanted, but I had dealt with enough shit for a single day.

The walls shifted back into their regular place as I limped farther down the halls of the third floor. Hopefully, the girl knew when to turn tail, but I wasn’t risking staying long enough to find out, even with the Shogun in my grasp. My determination was still as single-minded as when I saw what had happened to Amaterasu.

I had enough experience to know that you never pulled out a lodged knife unless you were ready to deal with a lot of blood, and with how dizzy I already felt from what was left of my foot, I knew it was best to leave it.

Only five more steps, I couldn’t let my leg give out on me yet. Four more. Three more. Two more.

Even using my sword as a cane, when I put weight on the bleeding stump of my leg, it gave way and collapsed.

I toppled to the floor but forced myself to get back up. I was too damn close. I had to keep her away from the deranged Doctor.

One more step and I was at the master bedroom, slowly sliding the door open I saw Amaterasu’s naked remains laid untouched atop two desks put together to make a table. The old man had just begun to take the different tools and syringes of strange fluids out of his bag.

The Doctor stopped what he was doing and combed a wrinkled hand through his frayed white hair as he turned with the same smile as he always wore.

“Ah, my dear friend, Kenshi. It seems you made it just in time…”