18. Kumataka

Hito jostled to the ground and cried out as the impact sent a jolt of pain through his broken leg.

Tengu danced in a circle around him, shouting and cawing as they hopped in a frenzy.

“Wh-what are you going to do to me?” Hito stammered. He didn’t expect an answer. But if they meant to kill him, wouldn’t it be easier to drop him over a cliff?

A commotion erupted from part of the dancing circle, the tengu’s cries rising higher with excitement. Out of the black mass of bodies emerged a pack of six, carrying a long wooden post. Its base was three feet thick, but it narrowed to form a sharp point at the tip.

“Oh no …” The post was for him, and he didn’t want to think about what they would do with it.

One of them seized Hito by the arm and dragged him over the dusty ground, his leg scraping behind him. As he struggled in vain, the creatures yanked off his shirt and jacket, then wrestled his skinny arms above his head. Sharp pain pierced his wrists as coarse ropes dug into his skin.

“Trespasser! Caw! Trespasser must die!”

“I didn’t mean to trespass!” he cried. “You don’t have to do this!”

They lifted and carried him toward the wooden post, and Hito’s wild eyes settled on the sharp point. With hands like clamps, the monsters held him firmly as he thrashed. They raised him up, placed his chest inches away from the spike …

“Just a moment,” a deep voice called from somewhere in the crowd. A calm and quiet voice, yet it somehow pierced the screams of the tengu, who fell immediately silent.

The mass of feathers parted, and the tengu grew solemn, bowing their heads in reverence to the approaching stranger.

The first thing Hito saw was his wings: a tapestry of golden brown and white, with black stripes at the tips of the longest feathers. The golden feather from before belonged to him! Hito realized. The skin of his face and muscular arms was as red as an apple. Wild, fierce eyes gazed at Hito above a long, thin nose which should have been comical, but something about the sense of commandment from this stranger defied ridicule. He wore a saffron robe over a loose white undershirt, and high in his brow rested a black, disk-like ornament.

The tengu carrying Hito dropped to their knees in a low bow, and he found himself seated on the stone. Seeing these mindless creatures displaying such respect felt incredibly strange.

The stranger drew close to Hito and literally looked down his nose at him. “I see,” he said. “You are the one all this fuss is about.” He stood up tall, his arms held behind him. “I am called Kumataka, the great daitengu who rules over my kotengu brethren.”

Hito swallowed his nervousness as best he could. “They were about to kill me! They’ll listen to you, won’t they? Please, tell them to spare me!”

“I cannot,” Kumataka answered. “I promised my brothers blood, and blood they shall have. They grow so unruly when denied their prize, you see. Besides …” He tilted his head in a very bird-like way. “I have my own masters to answer to. The venerable Wisps have placed their trust in me, and unlike those clumsy assassins, I don’t mean to squander it.”

“You mean Seine and Loire?”

“Yes, the Rivières. The humans.” He spat the word. “My masters hold them in such high esteem, yet through their ineptitude, they allowed you to escape.” He leaned in, the tip of his long, slender nose pressed against Hito’s, and stared at him with piercing, terrifying eyes. “I shall not make the same mistake.”

Caws erupted from the crowd like applause. The crow tengu rose from their bows and resumed their wild dancing.

Kumataka stood up. “Still, there is something to be desired in my brothers’ methods. They favor the blunt approach, but I prefer something with a little more art.” He motioned to one of the crow tengu, who rushed to his side, eyes serious. Kumataka whispered something into a point near the corner of its eye.

The creature’s eyes glittered, and once again Hito sensed it grinning in spite of its rigid beak. Cawing maniacally, it danced out to the others, and those who heard joined it in a chorus, their eyes full of excitement.

“Wh-what did you tell them?” Hito asked.

The corners of Kumataka’s mouth curved into a barely-perceptible smile. Without a word, he folded his craggy arms across his chest and watched his brothers close in on Hito.

They lifted the spike once more. Two tengu seized him by his arms, lifted him up, and twisted him around so he couldn’t see the sharp point of the wood. With his bound arms stretched above his head, Hito braced himself for the spike to impale him through his back.

Instead, they thrust it into the loop of his bound arms. Before he understood what was happening, the post tilted upright, lifting him high into the air. Rough wood scraped against his back as he slid down the pole until his arms caught. He hung suspended, the glittering eyes of the tengu gazing up at him.

But it wasn’t over yet.

He moaned as they carried the post toward a cliff ahead. Far below lay the jutting claws of mountain peaks, the harsh white sun blazing down on everything. When they reached the drop, they lowered him out over the yawning chasm with nothing around him, the arid wind whooshing around his dangling legs.

The post shook as the Tengu fastened it to the ground behind him. He clenched his teeth, expecting to topple down into the void, but a moment later, the shaking ceased.

What now? Hito wondered. His arms ached, stretched to their limit as they supported his weight. There was nothing he could do. Without Tama, he was powerless to fight back. Without Tama, he was nothing.

Gradually, the cries of the tengu faded. The number of dark-feathered forms in the air thinned, and he could hear the bird-men retreating behind him. After all they had put him through, after Kumataka promised them blood, had they lost interest? He couldn’t believe it.

He hung there for what felt like a very long time. Somewhere behind him, he heard the distant cries of the tengu in what he guessed was laughter, like a group of drunken men at a pub.

Once Hito was sure he was alone, he craned his neck to look up at his hands. They were bound in a cross-shape over the top of the post, a thick cord of plant fibers digging into the wrists. Maybe if he could move a little, he could lift himself up? He wiggled his arms, wincing. If he could only—

“Gah!” He cried out as his motion caused him to slide down the pole’s incline toward the drop at the end. “No! No! No!” Terror hit his stomach like rock.

But then he came to a stop, his body still swinging back and forth over the chasm.

“I would advise you to cease your struggling,” said Kumataka from behind him.

“Oh!” he cried, willing himself to remain motionless and avoid sliding further. Cautiously, he turned his head to find the daitengu seated cross-legged on the edge of the cliff. His eyes were closed, his head down, and his hands folded neatly in his lap. Has he been there the whole time? Hito wondered.

Pleading with him was useless. “What would you suggest?”

“It’s best if you make peace with your fate. A boy your age has lived such a brief life. No doubt you are ignorant of the futility and impermanence of it all. You can hardly be blamed. But you have some time, yet. To you, your time here may seem unbearably long, though it is the smallest drop in the river of time.”

“How long are you going to leave me here?”

“That depends on you.” Kumataka opened his golden eyes and looked at Hito, the shadow of a smile on his lips. “Will you die of thirst? Of baking to death in the sun? Will you fuss too much and drop into the void below? Or will you somehow persist for days, even weeks, well past the normal limits of your mortal body? It will be an interesting test of your endurance and resolve.”

“You’re going to leave me up here?!” His muscles tensing involuntarily, he winced as he slid a few more inches toward the end.

“Would you rather I let my brothers impale you?”

Hito stared at him, speechless.

“Use the time to meditate. What follows is a mere instant compared to the countless years some holy men have meditated. Some have grown so detached from their worldly concerns that they could calmly watch their own bodies wither away as if from a great distance. Perhaps you should aim to attain that state of mind. It could greatly ease your suffering.”

Hito cursed the Wisps, Kumataka, and his own weakness. How could the daitengu be so cruel? “You can act intelligent, even sympathetic,” Hito said. “But you’re a monster, just like those stupid brothers of yours. I find the hypocrisy … tiresome.” He heard the words come trickling out of his mouth as if they belonged to someone else, another of his imitations, perhaps.

Kumataka gazed at him, his head tilted. “You are right, of course.” Surprised, Hito looked at him again, and saw his golden eyes robbed of their fierceness.

“You were a man once, weren’t you? Human, like all the other monsters in the Labyrinth.”

“Indeed,” Kumataka said, his voice full of disgust. “My memory is not what it once was. I remember nothing of my former life. Every day, I feel the madness of this place creeping into my mind. It is only by the benevolence of my illustrious Wisp masters that I retain any shadow of intelligent thought. Even so, I am so far gone I can scarcely remember their faces.”

He’s like me, Hito thought. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t recall the faces of his family. All he remembered were broad details, like the names of places, the most basic characteristics of the city. Nothing that mattered. Would he become like Kumataka, a lost soul with no real sense of self?

“I don’t understand,” Hito said, more softly than before. “Before, you talked about Seine and Loire. You hate them, don’t you?”

Kumataka didn’t reply.

“But aren’t you like them? Both you and the Rivières would have become crazed monsters, but the Wisps prevented that. You gave up your humanity for power, like they did. And like them, you can still think for yourself.”

“No,” Kumataka answered. “I’m quite different from those two. It’s true the wise and powerful Wisps have bestowed on me the gift of my continued sentience, like the Rivières. But no matter how far it has deteriorated, my mind is still my own. The same cannot be said for those two. I choose to obey my Wisp masters out of the most profound respect. But the Rivières are compelled to obey. They are being controlled.”

Controlled? Hito wondered. Did the Wisps really have that kind of power?

“It wounds me that my glorious lords value simple puppets over my own heartfelt endeavors in their name. My greatest regret is that they will not allow me to serve them better. In spite of everything, they still view me as little more than a common beast.”

If the Wisps were controlling Seine and Loire, didn’t that mean the assassins were victims, like all the monsters within the Labyrinth? Just like Kumataka, and himself?

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Kumataka snorted. “Save your sympathy. I’ve indulged enough in disgraceful sentimentality.” He rose to his feet and started away. “Try the meditation, boy. It might make your agony over these long hours a sliver more bearable.”

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