19. The Thunder Thief

Hito hung suspended from the post for hours beneath the hot, motionless sun. His arms ached, his eyes stung from the harsh light, and sweat poured down his face. At times, a feeling of intense despair would set in; at others, a strong sense of rebellion, an urge to escape and fight. But most of the time, he merely dangled in defeat, his eyes closed as the hot breeze beat at him, his mind drifting to memories of people he had known and lost.

First he thought of the family he had left back in Edo. Did anyone miss him? If they did, it seemed unfair, given how little he remembered them. But it no longer mattered that he couldn’t remember, did it? He found a certain comfort in knowing he would die and no longer have worry about them.

His thoughts shifted to Jack and Will. If they could see him now, he felt certain they would be laughing. And yet Will hadn’t seemed so bad. Beneath his “nature,” as he’d called it, lay a kind and gentle boy. Hito could even admire something about Jack, his strength and determination and sadistic delight in—

Catching himself, Hito shook his head vigorously. What was he thinking? Jack and Will were monsters, cruel beyond all redemption. The heat must be getting to him …

Next, he thought of Tama, replaying the moment when the fierce wind of the tengu feather had blown him away. If Tama could be affected physically, could he be killed, too? Hito had promised never to leave the spirit behind, but in the end, he had broken his promise.

Then there was Ren. He recalled his last look at her, unconscious on the ground while the tengu carried him away. Was she okay? Through her confidence and strength, she had always brought him comfort. He pictured her in his mind, the memory so strong he felt like he could actually see her, looking up at him from a ledge not far below.

He blinked. It was no hallucination. Ren stood less than a hundred feet away on a small ledge in the side of a cliff. She grinned, jumping up and down and waving her arms.

“Ren!” he whispered, as if she could hear him. She was alright! And a few feet behind her trailed Tama, like a little purple lantern. They had come to save him!

Ren made a sweeping motion with her arms away from the cliff side. With a low rumble, the rock changed shape, and a rough chunk of stone plunged outwards. Hopping onto the platform she had created, Ren repeated the motion, forming another platform in front of her. Hito’s eyes trailed behind her along a series of similar ledges, arranged like stairs.

As Ren and Tama approached, Hito listened for sounds from the tengu encampment behind him. Harsh breathing carried from a considerable distance, almost like … Snoring? Could they be lucky enough to have caught the tengu asleep?

When Ren reached him, she drew an extra long jut of rock out beneath him with a sound that made Hito cringe. Still no sound of the tengu stirring.

Tama soared toward him, then into him, his light dissolving into Hito’s chest. Immediately, a sense of warmth and satisfaction spread through him, as if he had been hollow before, but now he was complete. Tama’s power shifted into his arms, and the ropes binding him burned away to ashes. As he dropped to the stone below, he braced himself for agony from his broken leg, but there was nothing. His leg was as straight and sturdy as it had ever been.

Purple light washed over him from head to toe, instantly healing the rest of his injuries. Even the scorching heat of the sun seemed lessened.

His heart pounding in excitement, Hito ran to Ren and hugged her, tears of relief springing to his eyes. “I thought you were gone,” he cried. “I thought you were lost.”

“Come on!” she said, hugging him back. “You should know bird brains like those guys are no match for me. Well, okay, maybe there was some trouble, but it’s all better now, right?”

Hito withdrew, wiping away his tears. “Yeah. Everything’s better now.”

Tama floated out of him and hovered a few feet away. “Honestly, you two and your sentimentality go way over the top. It’s unsightly, trite, and rather irritating.”

“Shut up and deal, you stupid ball!” Ren said.

Tama grunted. “As truly heartwarming as this is, perhaps we should escape before making an emotional scene.”

Hito glanced down at himself, remembering he was half-naked. Red blush bloomed in his cheeks, and he pulled back from Ren. “My clothes are over there.” He wasn’t leaving without his jacket.

“Let’s sneak!” Ren exclaimed, her voice echoing through the chasm.

“Quiet! Do you even know what sneaking means?”

She shrugged.

Together, they crept to where Hito’s shirt and haori jacket lay discarded. Glancing uneasily toward the encampment, Hito pulled on his clothes and knotted the ties. He could see a few tengu spread out on crude piles of straw, their eyes closed and their beaks gaping as they slept.

“Let’s get out of here,” Hito whispered once he had finished.

Ren wasn’t listening. She stared wide-eyed into the air above the tengu camp. Her eyes glittered as a huge grin spread across her face. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

She was staring at the top of the tower in the center of the camp, at some strange glowing thing up there. Squinting to make it out, Hito spotted a small bubble hovering in the air, with a bright blue light flashing inside.

“It’s a spell bubble!” Ren said.

Hito glanced from Ren to the bubble atop the tower. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

“But Hito! I neeeeed it!”

“There are tengu all over the place! There’s no way we’ll make it in there without being seen. We have to escape now, before they notice!”

“You don’t understand!” she pleaded. “I want the full set. I’ve always been a completionist. You know, ‘Gotta nab ’em all?’”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’ll go without you if you say no. Pleeeeease?”

Hito scowled. She wasn’t the one who had spent the last few hours roasting on a spike. What if the tengu tricked them again? What if they were separated again? But looking at her face, he could see it was hopeless. “Fine,” he grumbled, “but this better be a really good one.”

Their eyes scanning for any sign of danger, they crept toward the center of the camp. The four watch towers were empty. Why would the tengu need to keep watch, after all, when they were higher than anyone could reach them?

Clusters of bird men lay here and there as they drew closer to the center tower. Some snored, while others slept in silence, their wings twitching. A handful stood on their feet, their heads tucked beneath their wings in slumber.

They reached the tower, a wooden structure built of zigzagging poles bound together with rope. There was no ladder, but the horizontal poles on its sides were spaced closely together, making it easy enough to ascend. Hito and Ren exchanged a nod, and she began to climb while he remained on the ground, his eyes on the sleeping tengu. With the sun above this region of the Labyrinth frozen at the highest point in the sky, night would never come, but it was still strange to see the creatures in a deep sleep in the middle of the day.

Above him, Ren had almost reached the top of the tower. From here, he could see the spell bubble more clearly, the blue electricity crackling within.

He looked away from the spell—and into the distant black eyes of a tengu. The monster tilted its head to one side in confusion, its blank, sleepy eyes still processing what it saw. Hito lifted one finger to his lips in a gesture for quiet.

Incredibly, the monster stared for several seconds as if it would actually obey. But then its eyes filled with outrage, and it let out a long, screaming caw, its black wings beating as it alerted its brothers and took to the air.

Of course this couldn’t be easy.

Hito looked up at Ren as several tengu shot for her. She held the spell bubble floating between her outstretched hands, its blue light flashing across her face. When one of the tengu drew close, she clenched a hand into a fist, poofing the bubble away, then thrust her other hand at the monster.

An enormous boom cracked the air, and a huge bolt of blue lightning arced from Ren’s outstretched hand, through the tengu, and down to the ground below, striking with a blinding flash that sent stone flying like shrapnel from its impact. The wounded tengu dropped to the ground, leaving a trail of smoke behind it.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Ren said.

Another tengu dove toward her. “Ha!” she shouted, and pointed at it with one finger. Another bolt of lightning lanced through the beast, this time striking the top of another tower and setting it ablaze.

Ren began to laugh. Six tengu rushed toward her, and she blasted them down one by one, slinging thunderbolts in all directions. The deafening crack of thunder echoed through the air and reverberated off the cliffs. Tengu dropped from the air in droves, their twitching bodies thudding into piles on the ground. With every bolt she fired, Ren’s laughter grew more maniacal. Her eyes glinted, the light of electricity flashing across her face. “Come at me, you fools! All shall fall before Ren, Goddess of Thunder!”

“What an exhibitionist,” Tama grumbled.

Hito nodded. “You just have to roll with it.”

Ren might have continued until every tengu lay piled at the base of her tower, but then a powerful gust of wind erupted from somewhere beyond her. The tower swayed violently in the wind, and Ren tottered on her feet, fighting for balance. With a sharp cry of surprise, she lost her footing, fell from the platform, and plummeted toward the ground.

In an instant, Tama merged into Hito’s body. Hito leaped high into the air, catching Ren in his arms before floating slowly to the ground.

Before he could catch his breath, the wooden poles at the base the tower snapped in the wind, and it toppled toward them. Hito and Ren exchanged a terrified glance, then bolted in opposite directions. The tower slammed down between them with a loud boom, sending up clouds of red dust and fragments of broken wood.

Coughing against the dust, Hito looked into the sky beyond where the tower had stood. There hovered Kumataka, his gold-and-black wings beating gracefully. Above his long, slender nose, his eyes glowered at Hito in black rage. One hand held what looked like a fan made of his own feathers.

“Retreat, my brothers!” Kumataka’s commanding voice echoed. “I will deal with these foolish children myself.”

The crow tengu fled in a squawking mess, shedding black feathers. Some rushed to the aid of the fallen, while others dragged themselves away, their bodies still smoking from Ren’s lightning. They soared through the sky to a great distance and settled behind faraway cliffs, the tiny black dots of their heads peeking out as they watched.

Ren assumed a defensive stance, and Hito’s body glowed with purple light. “Watch out,” he said. “This one’s dangerous.”

“Don’t worry,” Ren said, much too loudly. “I’ll fry him with my awesome lightning, like all the others!”

“Ah, yes,” said Kumataka. “The Lightning spell. I must insist you return it.”

“Fat chance!”

“I have no love of trinkets, but my brothers consider it their greatest treasure. And a fine piece of bait to lure greedy humans.”

Hito glared at Ren.

“What?” she said. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Regardless,” Kumataka said, “I will have it back, along with everything else that belongs to me.” His sadistic eyes drifted to Hito, who shivered in revulsion.

“Surprise attack!” Ren shouted, her hand crackling with electricity. She fired a bolt of lighting with an ear-splitting boom … but instead of reaching Kumataka, it arced up a few feet, then back down to strike the ground in front of her. “Oh,” she said, deflated. “Ohhh …”

Kumataka snorted. With a swift movement of his muscular red arms, he swept the feathered fan in front of him.

A wave of ferocious wind rushed toward them. Recognition jolted through Hito as he dashed to the side, desperate to avoid the attack. Once again, he felt the buffeting wind blowing through his body, threatening to tear him from his feet. His power weakened as his purple light dimmed, Tama’s presence growing distant.

Then the wind subsided, and his powers returned. That’s the same wind that separated me from Tama! he realized. If Kumataka hit him head on, he would lose Tama again. Once more, he would be helpless without the power to fight. And they would all be finished.

Hito and Ren nodded to each other. They attacked together, Ren launching chunks of stone from the ground like cannonballs, while Hito fired a stream of purple energy bombs.

With another condescending grunt, Kumataka darted back and forth in the air, never turning away from them as his wings flashed him from side to side to dodge. Then, he swept his fan again, and another massive wind surged forth. It blew away Ren’s stones and snuffed out each of Hito’s projectiles like tiny candles.

“No!” Hito cried as the sickening pull of the wind threatened to tear his entire being apart. He clenched his teeth against a wave of dizziness, then fell to one knee, barely holding himself together.

Where had Ren gone? He spotted her all the way on the other side of the plateau, struggling to her feet. As the wind died down, Hito turned back to Kumataka.

But the air was empty. Hearing the beat of wings, Hito craned his neck and spotted Kumataka hovering twenty feet above his head. “You should have resigned yourself to the meditation, boy! Struggling only leads to further suffering!” He waved his fan once more, but this was different from before. Instead of one powerful swipe, he began to stir the air with a series of weaker strokes.

A powerful whirlwind formed, tearing dust and stone from the earth to feed its red mass. Hito’s clothes and hair thrashed about as he stood trapped in the eye. Then, the prison of wind began to shrink as the walls closed in.

There was no escape. Seine and Loire’s faces rose from his memory; this attack was just like theirs, after all. But this time, Hito had no time to make a portal, and even if he did, he couldn’t leave Ren behind. Panic crackled at the back of his neck, and despair flooded his mind.

But then he felt Tama’s power inside him, reassuring him. Tama would find it silly to panic like this. Tama would find this entire affair rather dull, another mundane distraction in his meaningless life. He had to remain level-headed. There must be some way …

He thought once more of his struggle against Seine and Loire. Yes, their wind had been much like this, but there had been something different, hadn’t there? Something more.

I need fire.

Hito crouched low to the ground, forcing all the power he had into his arms. Kumataka’s wind drew closer, so close that he could feel himself starting to come apart, but he focused as hard as he could, locking Tama inside him as if he were a part of his own consciousness. At the last moment, he gave a shout, rose to his feet, and swept his arms high above him.

Purple fire erupted around him, hotter and fiercer than he had ever thought possible. It ignited the wind and swirled upwards in a blazing storm, its light flooding everything Hito could see, as if the fire had become the entire world. Over the roar of flame and wind, Hito heard a scream above him as the fire enveloped Kumataka. Flames crawled up Hito’s body, curling around his arms and face and rippling through his clothes without singeing so much as a thread.

Kumataka’s smoking body struck the ground with a loud thud, and he cried out in pain as the flames died down. Bits of fire still burning in his feathers, he climbed to his knees. His jaw dropped wide open as he stared at Hito, the sharpness of his eyes yielding to shock. He stammered, struggling to find his voice.

Closing his eyes, Kumataka drew in a long, slow breath. When he opened them again, they had regained some of their old composure, but Hito could still see the tremors shaking through his feathers.

Kumataka bowed so low his forehead touched the ground. “I beg you to forgive my rudeness,” he said in lofty Japanese.

Hito blinked, taken aback. “Oh, uh … Don’t worry about it.”

Kumataka gave him one last fearful glance, then dove away, launched himself into the air, and shot into the distant sky. It seemed only a few seconds before he disappeared into the vast, barren sea of blue.

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