If you’ve googled yourself and happen to stumble on this note, then you have a no-longer-secret admirer.
(See: Orange Shirt)
If you’ve googled yourself and happen to stumble on this note, then you have a no-longer-secret admirer.
(See: Orange Shirt)
The wind hums and trees sway as Itachi follows the forest path from above the treetops. The early morning sun shines brightly on the translucent dragonfly wings he has manifested. His only other oddity is, once again, a dog’s nose. His limbs are drawn in close as he swerves from side to side, making sure to keep above the trail that is below the canopy of treetops.
A fork in the trail becomes visible, so he dives in and touches ground. On all fours, he sniffs the dirt, circling around. He stands up confused, one eyebrow raised. He begins to backtrack up the road, sniffing the ground every few strides.
A bridge comes into view, wooden and arch-shaped. He stands up suddenly and sniffs the air. Then, he gives a weary glance about and takes off once again.
He stops to land on the far side of the bridge, leaning down to sniff once more. He looks up for a moment, moves his head side-to-side, then continues to sniff the ground as he makes his way back toward the bridge.
Once there, he stands up and looks around again. He glances one way, then another. Birds can be heard chirping somewhere far off. Then, an arrow whistles past his ear.
Itachi falls backward just in time, but is up again in an instant. He flutters his wings and propels himself up into the treetops, disappearing from view. Then, a large, dead branch falls from above, right under the place he disappeared.
He swoops down, now with gangly limbs and claws. He has a long, prehensile tail and a torso that is armored in a segmented, brown shell. Silver-blue mandibles have sprouted from his jaws, clicking together several times. Antlers crown his head, looking more intimidating than combat-effective.
Arrows barrage him from all sides, a couple deflecting off his shell, but one grazes his arm. He snarls bestially, darting to a spot in the trees where an arrow was launched from. A man’s screams can be heard, then he comes again into view. Archers continue to fire at him from their various hiding places. Lightning-quick, he moves from one location to another, filling the air with the sounds of dying men.
Before long, a handful of them come out into the clearing. Yuitsu does as well. They group near the underside of the bridge, anticipating the attack that soon comes.
From his last victim’s hiding spot, Itachi literally flies at the newly-formed group, rending through flesh and snapping bones. The terrified bandits swing wildly at him. One manages to hack halfway through an arm, but his life is soon ended to fuel its regeneration.
Finally, the last man chokes to death on his own blood and is tossed aside. Only Yuitsu is left, standing wide-eyed with his jaw dropped and his cudgel held out before him.
The adolescent sputters for words. “Y-you’re– you’re a– a Locust?”
Itachi gulps in air through his nostrils and lets out a big breath through his mouth, then grins. He takes a step forward, snatches Yuitsu’s cudgel away with his tail, and picks the boy up with one blood-soaked mitt.
“Don’t worry. I’m not in the habit of slaughtering children.” He licks his lips and clicks his mandibles together. “I’m just looking for a friend of mine. I owe him a favor, you see, and I just couldn’t live without repaying it!”
Yuitsu is unable to speak, partly from shock, partly from being squeezed in the stranger’s grip.
“Tell me,” Itachi’s tone changes. “Where is the warrior called Reiki?”
“He’s– he’s for sale,” Yuitsu manages.
“Ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha! You caught him? That’s too great.” Itachi puts a thumb and a finger to his chin, looking aside and speaking to himself. “Reiki in slavery… might not even want to do him in anymore.” He licks his lips.
Yuitsu groans under pressure as Itachi shifts his weight.
“Actually, nah. Best to see it done. A man like that– he might find a way to get free. Well,” he throws Yuitsu down and grips him with a talon-like foot, “the place can’t be too far from here. These types of operations never occur regularly very far from a camp.”
Buzzing fills the air as Itachi once again takes flight. He pulls up Yuitsu with him, rising above the treetops. Then he takes off.
“Eh, you’re heavier than I thought,” says the Locust. “Ah well, so much for a navigator. Too much deadweight!” With that, he flings Yuitsu screaming into the forest below.
Yuitsu tumbles like a ragdoll into the blanket of canopy, smashing definitively into a thick treetrunk. Then he is in freefall. A multiplicity of limbs snap and give way as plummets to the forest floor, ending with one last yelp of pain as his leg shatters against a root. Then, in a crumpled heap, he shuts his eyes and lies still.
* * * *
A few fleeting images fade in and out from Yuitsu’s perspective: a surviving archer stalking toward him, the archer carrying him through the woods, Keiji’s horrified expression at hearing the news, and finally being laid to rest on the cot in the cave.
At last, he opens his eyes and sees Hiroshi staring at him curiously from the other side of the room: “Oh? He’s not dead after all.”
Camera cuts to a third-person perspective. Reiki and Hiroshi are still chained to the wall. Reiki’s head is leaned over and his eyes are closed. He is apparently asleep. Yuitsu is lying on the cot on his back, covered by a blanket.
Yuitsu gives a hacking cough and struggles to a sitting position. There is a little dried blood around his nose that he wipes away with his sleeve. He swallows and then tenderly removes the covers. His whole foot has been haphazardly wrapped and a couple of sticks splint the leg. The bandages are stained with deep red. “Arrrgh!” He leans back on his hands and grimaces.
“Well, that looks like it sucks. What happened to you? Fall in your own bridge trap?” Hiroshi smirks just a little bit.
Yuitsu tightens his fists. “You shut your mouth!” He tries struggling to his feet, but doesn’t get very far. “Ahhh!” he groans tenderly, then holds his thigh above the injury as he sucks in a long, slow breath through his teeth.
Reiki jerks his head up and opens his eyes at the noise. He rubs his face on his shoulder and looks at the boy.
“Lookie here, Reiki; not so tough now, is he? Humph. Just a sad little boy who grew up under a rock. Serves you right you know! Throwing things at me, clubbing me on the head. No respect!” Hiroshi looks contemptibly at Yuitsu. Then the man’s belly makes a noise. “Sooo hungry,” he mumbles. Then he looks puzzled. “Say, why are you in here? I thought that big guy didn’t want you around us?”
“I don’t know,” admits Yuitsu. Then he yanks his head upright and looks around a little, wide-eyed. “We– I saw one! It was terrible. A Locust!”
“A Locust!? Are you sure?” Reiki narrows his eyes.
“It killed everyone! It had giant wings and a tail– crushed me and threw me from above the trees!” Yuitsu makes a few motions with one hand to illustrate. Then he lifts up his shirt, revealing a nasty-looking bruise that encompasses half of his ribcage.
Reiki looks thoughtful. “No, it couldn’t be… Did he say his name?”
Yuitsu concentrates on the floor for a moment. “…No, but, he was looking for you! I gotta tell the others! Yearrgh!” He falls over again painfully when he tries to stand. Catching his breath, he looks accusingly at Reiki and spits, “What do you know about this!? Nothing to do with Locusts ever happened until you came along!”
“Hey, as I told your other friend before,” Hiroshi interjects, “we didn’t ask to become your prisoners!”
“I am sorry this happened to you,” Reiki says. “Hiroshi, you don’t think…”
“Itachi?” Hiroshi sniffs. “Well, when I carried you away, I didn’t really have time to take care of his body. I sort of forgot about it too.” He looks down and then over at Reiki. “I hope it isn’t him. Komakai is my home. Who knows what he could have done there?”
Reiki turns to Yuitsu. “You must be Rakki to survive a fight with a Locust.” He pauses, then, “Listen, I am a healer. If you want to be able to go warn the others about what’s going on here, I may be able to help you. Whoever dressed your leg did a poor job, either in haste or ignorance. I have… certain gifts. I believe I can help you to walk again.”
“You can help me?” Yuitsu looks angrily at Reiki.
“Yes. If you can’t go warn everyone to get away, a lot of people could get hurt. Keiji seems like a man who would know what to do.”
Yuitsu stares at him suspiciously.
“Look!” Reiki struggles against his bonds. “I want to help your leg so you can go warn everybody else, so threaten me with whatever you want but I can’t work with my hands like this!”
Yuitsu’s glare lingers for a few moments, then he looks around him and reaches into a box, pulling out a large knife. He then glances over and spots a ring of keys by the door. He scoots backward, dragging his bum leg. Each move causes him to groan in agony. A couple times he has to stop and pant before he reaches it.
“Okay, now, there are a few things in my pack that would help me. Can you reach it?” Reiki instructs, nodding to Hiroshi’s backpack that still contains his own backpack.
Yuitsu looks at it, then takes one scoot towards it, but one of the sticks splinting his broken leg gets caught on a crate. “Oh fuck! Ooooo.” The boy lets out a slur of groans and obscenities. The crate was drug a few inches and the stick is now halfway out of the wrapping. With a few sharp breaths, he pulls it out the rest of the way and flings it angrily across the room, knocking over a jar filled with unknown liquid.
“Okay, okay! You don’t have to get that.” Reiki spreads his fingers. “It only helps me more than anything. Just come here and I’ll fix you up.”
Yuitsu collapses to his back. “What!?”
“Forget that stuff. Just come over here and I’ll help you.”
“How are you gonna help me if you don’t have anything to help me with?”
“Alright listen, I think– you remember me telling you about kiseki?”
Yuitsu laughs callously. “You expect me to believe you can magically fix my leg if I just come over there and unchain you? You almost had me too.”
“Listen, this is not a joke. I also told you that sometimes the gods intervene on a mortal’s behalf. I don’t know why they have, but it seems they have favored me with this capability.”
Hiroshi cuts in. “Well, he did heal me when that ugly guy about choked me to death.”
Yuitsu props his head up and looks at the other two, judging them with his eyes.
“Hurry! You have no other choice but to trust us. The others must be warned!” Reiki pleads.
“Besides,” Hiroshi reasons, “earlier today, you saw a man with a tail and wings. What’s so hard to believe after that?”
There is a moment of silence as Yuitsu continues to stare, considering his next course of action. Then, he clenches his jaw and continues his trek, inching his way toward Reiki. Each lunge brings an tortured grunt from the youth.
“That’s it! Keep it coming!” Hiroshi encourages.
“Oh, shove it old man!” Yuitsu says as he nears Reiki.
Finally close enough, he turns to his side and maneuvers the key and the knife so he can release Reiki while still threatening him. One bond clicks open, then the other. Then he tosses the keys across the room, back toward the door.
Reiki rubs his wrists, then shakes his arms so his sleeves fall down and cover them. “Alright, now I need you just to lie still for a moment.”
Yuitsu keeps the knife trained on him with both hands. Reiki positions himself next to the boy. The whole time, Yuitsu is keeping a close watch.
Reiki leans in, ignoring the knife that comes dangerously close to his neck. He places one hand over Yuitsu’s solar plexus, and the other one on his wounded leg. Then, as before with Hiroshi, he murmurs a prayer: “All the benevolent gods of Gokuraku, I invoke you once again. This boy was harmed by the seed of your sworn foe, Raiden. Let not his injury stay.”
There is a pause. Yuitsu stretches his leg out and Reiki lets go. Yuitsu stands up, face in amazement. Still holding the knife to Reiki, he edges him hastily back against the wall. Then, one then another, he snaps the bonds back into place. He kneels down and cuts his own bandages off– the leg is completely whole. Then, he tosses the knife aside and dashes for the door, exiting the room.
Reiki listens to his footsteps die away, then slumps his head down once more to rest. The camera shows a shot of his face from the side as he does this.
The camera pans to the side to show Hiroshi next to him, completely aghast. His eyes are wide, his mouth is hanging open, and he is staring right at the warrior. “Wa?” he manages to let out.
Reiki looks at him. “Huh? What’s wrong?”
“You actually healed him?”
Reiki looks confused. “You said yourself that I healed you before.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think you did all that much. I only blacked out for a little bit!”
Reiki shakes his head a little. “Then why did you say that, and why did you encourage him to come over to me?”
“Well,” Hiroshi says as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, “I thought you were tricking him as part of an escape plan!”
Reiki looks at the floor and takes a moment to let it in, then erupts in uncontrollable laughter.
“Hiroshi the fool again, eh!?” protests his companion loudly.
* * * *
Keiji stands in the middle of camp. Only the eldest bandits are present, forming a ring with him. A few of the younger ones peak out from behind tent flaps. Everyone is speaking in hushed tones.
“I have no doubt, if what you say is true, that the man you encountered was a Locust,” Keiji says to the man who carried Yuitsu back. “And you say he was looking for him?” He points a thumb over his shoulder toward the ledge that leads to the cave.
“Uh-huh! Assuming Yuitsu knew what the prisoner’s name was,” replies the archer. “The Locust asked, ‘Where is this man?’ and Yuitsu was like, ‘We’re selling him.’ Brave little punk. Got himself hurt pretty bad.”
“Well, at least he’s safe now down in the cave,” Keiji says. “Those strangers can’t tell him anything else while he’s unconscious. Plus he’s safe in there.”
“What about everyone else?” another bandit asks. “When there’s a Locust around, tents won’t save them. They may as well be right out in the open.”
“True,” says Keiji, “but there’s no reason a Locust would want to bother us at all. He just wants to see the prisoner, so we’ll give him what he wants and there won’t be any trouble. We can keep everyone inside and they’ll never have to learn the nature of our intruder.”
“Still,” another says, “I don’t like my wife being that close to a murdering spawn of Raiden.”
“You have a good point.” Keiji rests a hand idly on his dragon-hilted sword. “Okay, I want a team of archers ready to snipe this bastard if negotiations go rough. Get the others down in the caves where they can be easily protected. Be prepared to bring out either or both of those two prisoners from below. Nobody makes their move until I command!”
His orders are met with “Right!” and “Yes sir!” The bandits scatter, each taking to their own tasks.
“Keiji!” Yuitsu runs up the ramp and toward the leader.
“Yuitsu! Oh, thank the gods you’re alright!” Keiji rests a hand on Yuitsu’s shoulder.
“Keiji! I’ve got to warn you, there was a man who attacked us. He was a Lo–”
“Shhh! Calm down. I know. It’s under control and we don’t want anyone else to panic needlessly.” The ex-samurai waves a palm reassuringly at the bandits running about. Then he looks back at Yuitsu, puzzled. “Hey, how are you now able to walk? Your leg was practically crushed before!”
Yuitsu opens his mouth and draws a breath to speak, but a droning sound fills the air and drowns him out, catching Keiji’s attention. Down from the sky speeds Itachi, looking just as he did during the fight before– mandibles, antlers, tail, armored torso, and gangly limbs with vicious claws. He swoops in close to the ground then pulls up a bit and stops his beating wings, landing on his feet with a distinct thud in the dirt.
Everyone around the camp freezes, eyes fixed on the newcomer. Many of the younger bandits were still in the process of grabbing things and shuffling out of tents. The archers had yet to hide.
Looking quite pleased with himself, Itachi takes a few steps forward. He wipes his chest and clicks his mandibles together a few times. Blood still stains his claws and face. “What a difficult place to find. Is there anybody in charge here I can speak to?” he croons.
Keiji pushes Yuitsu back gently and steps forward. “You may speak to me. My name is Keiji. Please, who do we have the honor of greeting?”
“I am Itachi the Locust. I take what I want and I kill whom I will.”
Keiji wets his lips and glances around at his followers. He then folds his hands. “I hope there is no one you wish to kill among us, friend.”
“We shall see,” he smirks, “friend.” He struts around in a semicircle, surveying his potential quarry. He stops when he gets to Yuitsu, surprised. “Well, either you have a twin or you are quite the resilient little human, hm?”
Yuitsu swallows but does not speak.
Keiji clears his throat. Then, in a kindly voice, he says, “Is there anything we can do for you, master Itachi?”
Itachi turns to him. “Yes, I believe you have a prisoner who I’d just love to take off your hands.” He walks past Keiji and surveys the others present. “However, now that I’ve seen what a nice set-up you’ve got here, I may want some other things as well.” He stops in front of a woman and holds her jaw in his palm. His tail removes the hat she was wearing and flicks it aside.
The camera cuts to the man from earlier who mentioned that he didn’t want his wife getting close to a “murdering spawn of Raiden.” He tightens his grip on his bow and bites his lip.
“Of course,” Keiji says, “you must be thirsty after such a long flight in the hot sun. Someone bring him some water.”
Effectively distracted, Itachi turns to him. “Sake.”
“Yes, sake then.”
Someone runs to bring him a flask. Itachi snaches it roughly and drains it in one go. He gives a satisfied “Ahhh” and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Then he tosses the flask off the cliff and into the ravine.
Keiji takes a few steps forward. “Now, please, tell us, who is this prisoner you’re looking for?”
Itachi scratches his chin and clicks his mandibles together once. “I like her.” Without looking, he points to the woman behind him with his furry tail. “And I could use him,” he points to Yuitsu. “Must be quite exceptional to survive a fall like that unharmed.”
Keiji raises his hands in protest, but keeps a sympathetic tone. “Please, maybe we could–”
“And one more thing,” Itachi cuts him off. “I want your food. And your liquor. All of it. It’s been awhile since I truly gorged myself and I’m afraid that a poor man’s cupboard just wouldn’t do.” He begins to bounce himself on the ground in a semi-sitting position with his tail.
Keiji holds his palms open. “Gracious master, we would gladly give you our liquor and many other fine things as well, but surely you realize that without our food provisions, many of us would surely starve.”
Itachi stands up. “Then perhaps I should thin your numbers?” He begins to clean the claws on one hand using his antlers. “Listen, friend, you have until my patience grows thin to give me what I want. Oh yeah, and bring me that Reiki fellow. He should be a recent catch for you. A pompous man with a sword. Somewhat like yourself, but younger. Now give your orders before I do something impulsive.”
Keiji stares at him for a moment, mouth slightly open. Then he clears his throat a bit more and says, “Right. Get the food and drink from storage. Bring the one called Reiki out.” He points as he issues commands. Then he points to the woman and to Yuitsu. “You two, go down below and prepare yourselves for each thing that our guest has asked of you.”
“But–” Yuitsu objects.
“I said go down below and prepare yourself for what our guest wants from you!” Keiji shoves him toward the ramp with one arm.
Reluctantly, Yuitsu does as ordered. The other bandits who were going below before Itachi came now continue in that direction. They all file down the ramp and into the cave.
When it is only the eldest of the group remaining above ground, Keiji discreetly raises a finger, then moves it forward with the flick of the wrist.
If Itachi suspects anything, he doesn’t show it. He leans back on his tail, arms crossed, a smirk on his face.
Carefully, Keiji and the bandits armed with swords circle in closer. The archers position themselves for clear shots and the ones out of Itachi’s sight nock their bows.
There is a fateful silence as Keiji rests a hand precariously on the dragon-hilt of his sword. He swallows. His heartbeat is loud as a drum.
“Friend,” Itachi says abruptly, now looking at him and smiling menacingly. He slowly stands and puts his hands on his hips.
Surprised, Keiji gives an “Unh?”
Dirt and gravel shoot into his face, causing a small dust cloud to stir up. Itachi has used his tail to fling the crud into Keiji’s eyes.
“Aaah!” Keiji screams. He spits dirt from his mouth and draws his sword, cutting at the spot where Itachi stood a moment before, but hits only air.
Itachi has jumped high off the ground, evading many arrows and sword swipes. It is just narrowly that the archers avoid hitting one of their own. The Locust laughs and leaps backward, toward the ramp.
“Stop him!” shouts Keiji.
Still laughing as he evades more arrows, Itachi leaps farther backward. He reaches the ramp, then keeps going, throwing himself down into the trench.
The men gasp and rush to the edge, swordsmen coming up first. There is nothing to be seen: the canyon appears empty. Then, a buzzing noise fills the air and grows louder as Itachi flies out from under a rock ledge. He shoots himself back up into the group, clawing through skin and innards. The bandits drop like insects. Itachi’s black shell absorbs most of the damage from blades, and the archers are too reluctant to fire into the fray, so they simply stand back and wait with their bows set.
Keiji evades several blows and even lands a few of his own. He cuts deep wounds into the Itachi’s shoulders and wrists, but it does little to stop the inhuman monster.
Soon it is only the two locked in melee, Keiji and Itachi. Itachi’s front is covered in blood– his own and the dead bandits’. The vital fluid leaks down his arms and drips into puddles on the ground. Keiji pants.
The two stare each other down. Keiji adjusts his grip on the blood-stained katana. Itachi is still smiling. The archers are left standing around in a wide semicircle, still only able only to watch.
Itachi feints a strike but Keiji sees through the trick and only slightly adjusts his blade in reaction. Itachi’s strike that was supposed to follow the false one is then stopped by Keiji’s katana. Itachi’s left hand is severed completely.
“Eeee!” the Locust screeches. He recoils and clutches the stump, no longer smiling. His nostrils flare as he eyes his opponent again, judging his enemy.
Then he attacks, using his remaining claw, antlers, and even the bloody stump, which makes contact with Keiji’s cheek at one point and stains it crimson red.
Keiji manages to land a telling blow that removes one of Itachi’s antlers. He even makes an attack that would decapitate Itachi if the chitinous shell were not there to stop it.
Enraged and frustrated, Itachi finally makes a lunge with his claw that over-extends his body. The ex-samurai must lean widely to evade the attack, and seizing the opportunity, makes a counterstrike. Having given up attacking the torso, he executes a downward slash on Itachi’s arm.
Rather than try to evade it at all, Itachi just keeps it there, letting the steel tear through skin, muscle, bone, and all the nerves and vessels in-between. In the instant after, Keiji glances confusedly at him. Itachi cracks a smile.
Woosh! Keiji’s foot goes in the air, entangled by Itachi’s tail. His eyes go wide in surprise as he falls to his back. Itachi follows his motion as he goes down and sinks his mandibles into his neck. Keiji’s surprise turns to terror and he desperately chops at Itachi’s back, but only manages to stab holes in his dragonfly wings. Itachi clenches the mandibles tighter and rips through more flesh until they connect on something hard. By now, Keiji has stopped moving, but Itachi twists his head and struggles until there is a snap, and then the man’s cervical spine is disconnected.
The Locust stands up, completely covered in fresh, red blood that shines slightly in the sunlight. He licks his lips and with his tail, wipes his eyes clean. Then he leans his head back and takes a deep breath, soaking in the warmth of summer.
The others stand around, awe-struck and immobilized. One has peed himself. Their bows are all nocked but pointed to the ground or otherwise not aimed.
Finally, one works up the courage to move; he pulls back his bow and takes aim, but then stops. His eyes grow frightened as his hands begin to shake. He lets go of the arrow involuntarily, the shot whizzing away aimlessly. He drops the bow as pain floods his face.
The archers around Itachi begin dropping to their knees, bodies shriveling up, hair turning white. They gasp for breath and die as Itachi makes himself whole, then begins to change.
* * * *
The rest of the band waits underground in hushed whispers. Guards by the cracked door bear arms at the ready. The storage room is packed. Despite this, there is a small berth between the two prisoners and anyone else.
“I’m suffocating in here!” complains Yuitsu from somewhere. He is abruptly shushed. Everyone is listening carefully.
“It’s been awhile,” someone says.
“Should we go out and check?” someone else says back.
“Well, Keiji would have come and gotten us if it was all over…”
“What if Keiji got hurt? We should go help him!”
“He wanted us to stay here. Let’s just see if we can hear something.”
“I can’t hear anything!”
There is no noise for awhile except for a mass of of breathing mouths. Then, there is a faint thud, thud, thud.
“Hey, did you hear that!?”
There is stillness again for a pause. Then, THUD! THUD! THUD! The whole room shakes and trembles, a concussive force from above causing the ceiling to crack.
“It’s caving in!”
“Get out! Everybody!”
“Waaa!” Hiroshi screams.
Dust and rock break loose, raining down from the slowly imploding chamber. There is a mad scramble for the door as its occupants all simultaneously try to leave.
Yuitsu gets caught up in the rush and is carried out the door with the crowd, but no sooner is he out the door than he turns around and steps back through the door. He snatches up the keys that are lying nearby on a crate. Reluctant to cross the crumbling chamber to free the trapped prisoners, he tosses them over to the captives. It lands two meters diagonally from Hiroshi’s feet.
Hiroshi arches an eyebrow, looks at it, then looks at Yuitsu. “You serious?”
Yuitsu flexes his hands and tenses his shoulders, looking at the ceiling then looking across the room. He bounces in place a couple of times and waits to act between thuds from above, then makes a mad dash for the keys and jams one into the lock on Hiroshi’s wrist.
“Hurry and I’ll take back everything I ever said about you!” Hiroshi wails.
His lock comes undone and he rubs the life back into his wrists as Yuitsu is already moving to free Reiki. Hiroshi runs over to grab his backpack and just as he puts it on, Yuitsu scampers out the door. Reiki follows close behind. As he goes, Hiroshi tosses him his katana. The warrior catches it and continues to make strides toward the surface.
* * * *
The terrified people flee out of the cave and up the ramp, turning on to the surface of the cliff. They stop at the sight they are greeted with.
Amidst the bodies of all those they left before stands Itachi, great and terrible. He has turned himself into an elephantine creature that resembles the fused body of a quadruped and the torso, arms, and head of a humanoid. His lower section is covered in thick scales. His feet are thick and round, like tree trunks. A short tail swishes in the air. His humanlike torso, arms, and head are covered in hard, black spines, and his hands end in long claws. Long, grimy hair hangs from his head and his eyes are huge and catlike. He is jumping up-and-down, stomping on the ground above the cave hollow.
Itachi bellows, “See me and fear, humans! Your live because I’ve not bothered to stain my claws with your blood. Now, little people, take me as your god or I’ll slaughter the lot of you for the insult!”
The bandits tremble with terror and several fall to their knees, bowing before this awesome force. Not long after, the others follow suit.
“Heh-heh-heh,” Itachi chuckles. “Should have come out here years ago!”
Fast footsteps approach. Yuitsu, Reiki, and Hiroshi spring into view, coming up behind the mob. Reiki holds his sword at his side by the sheath.
“Reiki!” Itachi muses. “Not a slave any longer, I see. Too bad. Heh, heh, heh. Well,” he extends his claws, “I owe you a favor!”
“Please,” Reiki pleads, “your quarrel is with me. Leave these people out of it and we’ll have our fight.”
“Fight? Ha! HA-HA! What fight can there be between gods and men?”
“Alright, kill me then, if you can,” Reiki jeers. “I don’t see what anybody here has to do with it. Let’s take this elsewhere.”
“You don’t seem to understand.” Itachi steps forward and the terrified bandits move aside to make room for him. “I am Itachi the Locust. Anything’s for me if I want it! Humans live or die by my whim. I am the living will of Raiden!” He stomps his foot for emphasis. “Besides, what interest do you have in these people? Weren’t you just their prisoner!?”
“That’s something I guess you’ll never understand,” Reiki sighs.
Itachi scowls. “Out of my way!” he yells at the crowd, charging straight for the warrior. People scatter terrified, into the woods. Itachi’s feet smash bones and bodies left from the fight before.
Everyone, including Yuitsu and Hiroshi, splits and scatters. They try to find a safe place to watch the two super-humans locked in combat.
Reiki is too close to the cliff to move backward any farther, so he dodges to the side just in time to avoid being trampled by Itachi’s charge. Itachi expects this and bears into him with all the ferocity of his claws and spiny arms.
With expert grace, Reiki ducks, dodges, parries, and counter-attacks. For all Itachi’s speed, Reiki seems one step ahead of him, aiming strike after strike at his much-larger opponent. It appears to be a hopeless endeavor because none of it draws a drop of blood. Itachi bats blows to the side with his bare arms, which seem perfectly capable of taking the impact. Finally, Reiki rolls away and moves inland from the cliff.
“Har-har-har-har!” Itachi grins and turns on him. “Give it up!” He charges again, much faster this time.
Reiki rolls aside and manages a swipe at the beast, unable to break through the scales on his flank. Itachi stops and turns at the edge of the forest, where he knocks over a few trees. He pads at the ground a couple times before charging back again, this time at a group of bandits crouched behind a tent.
“Ahh! Look out!” one of them cries as they scuttle away in different directions.
Itachi gives pursuit to one of them and knocks down a few tents entirely in the process. It is a young boy, fleeing in terror for his life. Just as Itachi comes upon him, Reiki reaches their position and shoves the child out of the way.
Anticipating this, Itachi snatches the warrior up in his claw, letting him take the blow instead. “How kind of you,” Itachi roars. “Here, let me give you a hug!” He extends the quills on his body. Reiki struggles against his grip as he is brought in closer.
Out of nowhere, a rock pelts Itachi just above the eye. “Owww!” he howls, letting go of Reiki to clutch his palms to the spot where it hit.
Yuitsu moves into some growth in the forest edge on the side of camp closer to the bridge, disappearing from sight.
“Who the hell threw that!?” Itachi rubs the ridge of his brow. “I’ll kill you all!”
Reiki grabs his attention by stabbing repeatedly at his foot, trying to find a toe or a crack in the armor to exploit. Itachi swipes at him and he ducks aside, stepping back and away. The Locust follows him, clawing madly. Reiki continues to dodge and flee. Itachi stampedes in pursuit. In his rage, he totally wrecks tents, boxes, fire pits, and makeshift benches. He finally loses track of Reiki and storms off to the tree-line to survey the camp.
Reiki springs from hiding and stands his ground with his sword ready in the center of camp. Itachi runs right at him, panting hard, trying to trample the man underfoot. At the last second, Reiki sidesteps and swings himself up on Itachi’s back.
With indignant fury, Itachi kicks and bucks. He knocks things over as he moves, trying hard to throw Reiki from his back. Then he takes off running into the forest, plowing right through trees, bushes, and briars.
“Ahhh! TSSS! Oooh,” Reiki cries as the limbs, thorns, and vines tear into him with rapid succession. Still, he leans forward and clings to his mount.
“It’s useless!” Itachi booms. “I am invincible, there’s no way you can hurt me!” He emerges from the woods and gallops right through the camp, heading straight for the ravine. There at the edge, he plants his front legs and leans back his upper torso. He kicks his hind quarters into the air in a fantastic attempt to flick Reiki straight into the trench.
Horrified, Reiki spins around as he is about to be catapulted through the air. He latches on to Itachi’s tail with one arm and, in slow motion, acts upon a sudden realization.
The camera cuts to Itachi’s face. His eyes bulge out of his head as he gives a shocked, silent scream. His muscles give way and he falls forward, tumbling head-over-heels into the chasm.
Reiki manages to twist his sword out of Itachi’s rectum before he, too, disappears over the edge.
“Reiki!” Hiroshi screams as he runs to the rim. He peers down, looking for his companion. The bandits begin to creep out of their hiding places and most of them come up behind Hiroshi, also looking into the canyon.
“Hiroshi!” Reiki screams. He is clinging to the cliff face several meters down, holding on for dear life to some roots growing out of the rock. “Get me the hell out of here!”
Looking relieved, Hiroshi shouts and motions over to some others, “Rope! Get us some rope!”
Quickly, some rope is found and lowered down to the conquering hero. He grabs on to it desperately and several men pull him up. He wearily heaves himself over the edge and stands before the band of people around him.
He clears his throat. Everybody is watching. He walks over to a fallen tent and uses the material to wipe the putrid fluid from his blade, which he’s still managed to hold on to even after falling. Then he looks back around at everybody.
“Eh, I’m pretty tired,” he murmurs.
A few people start cheering and it spreads like wildfire throughout the whole group. They crowd around him, gripping his robes, showering thanks upon him. Hiroshi tries to squeeze in, making sure everyone knows they’re associated.
The elation is short-lived, however. Everyone gradually notices Yuitsu, kneeling down by Keiji’s broken body. They become painfully aware of the carnage and destruction around them, and this does much to sober their expressions. The same woman from before finds her husband on the battlefield and begins to mourn him. All around, there is a general outcry of grief. The band of outlaws move to the sides of their fallen leaders. Reiki stands back solemnly.
With tears streaming down his face, Yuitsu looks up from Keiji’s body and points at Reiki. “Bring them back!” he yells.
Reiki gives him a sad look.
Yuitsu stands. “Bring them back! I know you can– you’ve got kiseki, right? So come here and fix them!”
Reiki walks over to him and looks down at Keiji. “I’m afraid that won’t be enough. I can heal people, but the greater their injury, the more difficult it is. Bringing someone back to life like that would be almost impossible.”
“What are you talking about!? You said a prayer and my leg was better! How is that difficult?” Yuitsu clenches his fists.
“Well, actually, when the gods channel their kiseki through me, it taxes me. I’m just a mortal, so my body is damaged by wielding it.” Reiki looks at Hiroshi. “When you were injured before, Hiroshi, I think you were dead; you were dying at least.”
Hiroshi looks taken aback and gives a slight “Wa?”
“You had no pulse,” Reiki continues. “But your body was mostly intact and you’d died gently enough. Plus it was recent, which helped, and I was able to sew up the wounds manually, which helped too. Still, reviving you almost killed me. I’m sure that is why I fell unconscious, not because of the scratches Itachi gave me.
“These men…” The camera pans to show the carnage. Many of the bandits’ throats are ripped out, many of them are disemboweled, and many have been trampled. Not one escaped massacre, except some of the archers whose lives were simply sucked away. “They died recently enough, but their bodies are too damaged to repair. I could treat those wounds if they were still alive, or I might be able to bring a couple of them back if they’d just died with minimal injuries, but it is beyond my capability to repair those injuries and bring them back to life at once. None of them could actually live unless I did both.
“And as for these,” he motions with his head toward a shriveled, grey-haired archer, “I have never been able to revive one whose life was consumed by a Locust.”
Yuitsu stays silent and looks back at Keiji. Many of the other bandits look confused at Reiki’s words and generally resume mourning.
Hiroshi looks completely bewildered. He keeps muttering under his breath, saying things like, “I… died?” and looking at his hands.
Yuitsu looks up. “You’ve got to try!”
Reiki hesitates. Then, after a moment’s pause, he walks over and kneels down by Keiji’s body. “Well..” He gently repositions the awkwardly-oriented head. “I can try.” He puts one hand over the man’s neck and the other on the solar plexus. Then, he closes his eyes and begins to pray: “Gods of Gokuraku, I ask you again for your kiseki. Use me if it suits you and I will be your instrument…” He goes quiet.
Yuitsu watches anxiously.
Nothing happens for a few lingering moments, and then Reiki’s fingers are drawn, almost magnetically, to Keiji’s forehead. Reiki’s mouth drops open a little and for awhile he just breathes raspy breaths. Then, he speaks, but not in his ordinary tone– it is more gruff and sounds somehow older: “Yuitsu… is that you?”
“Huh?” says the boy.
“Yuitsu, don’t get upset over this. It’s alright.”
Yuitsu stares in disbelief. “K– Keiji?”
“Listen, I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you. Is everyone alright?”
Tears begin to flow down Yuitsu’s face. “We’re fine, Keiji. You were the best leader we could hope for!”
Reiki’s mouth smiles slightly. “And you were like family.”
The other bandits have gathered near by this point. Hiroshi is paying attention now too.
“I don’t want anyone to worry about me,” he continues. “And, I was wrong not to tell you about the Locusts or anything else of the outside world. Now I realize, no matter how far we run, we’ll always be part of it. Just ask that prisoner, he can tell you more. I think they deserve their freedom now.”
“We will, Keiji!” Yuitsu says.
“Good, good,” continues the voice from Reiki’s mouth. “I want you to tell everyone that they are free to leave if they want to. Once they understand the danger, they should be able to choose what kind of life they lead. It was never my proper place to force protection upon them. The same goes for you, Yuitsu. I know you’re a strong boy, can look after yourself.” The voice starts to waver. “Take my sword, if you wish. It has been passed down in my family for generations and you are the closest thing I ever had to a son.”
Yuitsu grips Keiji’s arm and continues to talk at Reiki. “Don’t leave… I can’t– we need you!”
“No,” Reiki’s voice says. “You’ll do well without me. You will make a fine leader, Yuitsu.” He smiles again. “When you’re older.”
Yuitsu is unable to speak. Tears run heavily down his cheeks again. Almost all of the onlookers are likewise weeping.
“Take care.” Reiki slumps forward where he kneels. He is completely limp and leans over sideways– Hiroshi is just able to catch him before he hits the ground. At last, Reiki droopily opens his eyes.
Yuitsu’s face is buried in Keiji’s shoulder. Someone puts a comforting hand on his back. There is a respectful silence in the camp.
“Come on,” says Hiroshi, almost completely supporting Reiki’s weight. The two stand up and turn toward the ramp. “Let’s get you some rest.”
They leave the scene, slowly making their way toward the underground room. As they pass by the great ravine, Hiroshi glances into it and asks softly, “You think Itachi survived that?”
Reiki looks down too, watching the river flow. “It’s quite likely.”
Concerned, Hiroshi says, “Do you think we’ll see him again then?”
Reiki thinks for a moment. “I don’t know. I just hope that there won’t be any more trouble…”
They continue their walk without speaking.
The camera fades out.
* * * *
The camera fades in to an overview of the camp, now cleaned up and moving with activity once more. Hiroshi and Reiki are wearing their backpacks and gear, starting out on a walk away from the camp. They move outside the group of tents and head toward the tree line where a crowd of small graves now sit.
Leaning against the largest of the markers, Yuitsu sits facing the camp. The dragon-hilted sword lies horizontally in his lap. He watches the pair approach. When they get near, he says, “I knew you were leaving today.”
They stop to talk. “Oh?” says Reiki.
“Yeah. Nothing left to do here.” The boy stands and tucks the sword sheath-first into his belt. “I’m coming with you.”
Reiki slides his hands to his hips, spreading his fingers across his waist. “How will you lead these people one day if you leave them now?”
“You guys are going to Daitai, Lord Michi Sato’s province. I don’t know exactly what happened but Keiji once followed that man. Maybe if I come with you there, I can find some answers and figure out for myself what I think about all this.” He takes a few steps forward. “Besides, no way is a map gonna show you through this forest.”
“Wa?” Hiroshi exclaims.
“We change the trails to confuse travelers so we can ambush them more easily,” Yuitsu continues. “This is our territory.”
Reiki pauses, then nods. “Okay then. To Daitai. But, as I told Hiroshi, if you come with me, I might not always be able to protect you.”
Yuitsu scoffs and rests a palm on the hilt of his blade. “I think I can handle myself better than that old man there.”
Hiroshi gives him a sour look. “Old? Who’s old?”
“You’re older than anyone else here,” the boy retorts.
“Humph,” snorts Hiroshi. “In Komakai, the young respect their elders!”
“Out here, defenseless elders get eaten up by wolves!”
“Ha. We’ll see about that!”
Reiki interjects. “Okay, let’s get going then!”
With Hiroshi and Yuitsu still quarreling, the trio disappears into the trees. The camera zooms out gradually. It pans upward to show the bridge across the ravine some distance behind the camp, and the trail that leads onward beyond it.
The scene opens up to a plot of grass in front of the forest. The camera blurs out-of-focus so a chicken can step into view in the foreground. The shot is centered on its head, the chicken’s black eye staring vacantly at the camera. It twitches its head to the side quizzically, then disappears below for a moment as it catches a small insect in its beak.
Camera cuts farther out. Itachi’s body lies two feet away, ugly limbs sprawled out on the ground. The chicken steps closer as it swallows its meal. Then, near Itachi’s head, it cocks an eye at him.
The grass around his body slowly turns yellow, then browns and shrivels. The decay spreads outward.
Terrified, the bird flaps its wings wildly a few times. It gives a startled ba-kaw! and darts off into the woods.
Gradually, the wound in Itachi’s left side seals up. He sucks in air and lets out a long, groaning breath. The decay spreads out much more rapidly now, breaching the edge of the forest and feeding off a pear tree that lies at there.
His three horns fall away and he is able to lift his head up, straining his muscles against the earth. The extra pair of arms at his flanks are pushed out and drop off. His wings fall out as well. His claws retract and reform into ordinary fingers. His body begins to reshape itself into proportionate sizes and little by little, he regains his feet.
He now stands as a squatty, balding man with a rim of long, greasy hair. His clothes are dirty and stretched to rags, torn at the back where his wings burst through. Other than mere ugliness, his appearance is quite human except for his yellowish, cold-blooded eyes.
He stretches his head and neck back, then forward, bringing his hands to his face with a loud moan. He allows himself to fall back to his knees and breathes heavily between his palms. From far away, the camera slowly zooms in to his closed eye.
A series of images flash by: Itachi throwing a basket of pears down in disgust, Itachi transforming, Itachi’s horn getting severed, and Itachi being stabbed in the side. The last image is of a swordsman in red robes, standing defiantly with a drawn katana.
Itachi’s eye opens.
“Reiki…” he murmurs.
* * * *
Reiki surveys the countryside as he walks. He and Hiroshi have made it to the edge of a great forest. Over his shoulder, Hiroshi surveys a map while he speaks.
“It says we are at the edge of contested territory. When we reach the other side of this forest, we should be in Daitai, the realm of Lord Sato. It’s good to be very careful though; outlaws and brigands are known to use this forest to hide from authorities.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Reiki nods to show he understands.
“Huh. You really are fearless, eh?” Hiroshi regards him with a look of interest.
Reiki narrows his eyes and looks toward the tree line. “That’s not true at all. I have lots of fears, just like anybody else.”
After seeing he’s serious, Hiroshi replies, “You know? I’m not sure what to make of you. You’re a strange fellow, yeah? You fight Locusts and walk bold-faced into a forest filled with criminals, and you’re telling me you’re still scared? I bet you’re tougher than anything we’ll meet up with in there.”
“I’m not invincible, you know. I bleed just the same as anybody else. The mightiest warrior can die in an instant from a telling blow. Every fight, I find myself inches away from death. Master Chikao sometimes called me Rakki, or lucky one. He said I always had a way of surviving against the odds, but when I’m on the field… I don’t feel it. I always think, This time, Reiki, this time you’ve pushed it too far. You’re not going to see the other end of this. You won’t be the one who walks away…
“Yes, Hiroshi. I am afraid. Afraid of pain. Afraid of dying. Most of all, afraid of letting down those I try to protect, and so making their lives worse for having gotten involved at all. I am absolutely terrified. But I can’t ever show it. I can’t let it get ahold of me, or I won’t be the one who walks away. Show your fear to the enemy and you show him where to strike you.”
Hiroshi silently contemplates Reiki’s words as he walks beside him. His pots and pans jingle with every step he takes.
* * * *
Itachi crawls through the branches of the almost wholly dead pear tree. Camera gives a close-up of his nostrils as he sniffs the air with a dog’s snout. He pushes through dead leaves and rotten fruit. Then, there is a hopeful look on his face as he sees, far up on a branch, one unspoiled pear. He gets down low and crawls toward it on his belly, stretching his arm toward it. The camera shows his fingers slowly closing in on it. Then… Snap! The withered limb he’s lying on breaks.
“Yeeeargh!” he shouts as he falls to the ground. Wham! He lands on a patch of dead grass.
He opens his eyes. Delighted, he spots that the pear has fallen too. He grabs at it hungrily, but it caves in to mush. The other side and much of the inside were completely spoiled to begin with. He stares disbelieving for a moment at the ruined mess in his palm, then flings it at the tree angrily and snarls as he wipes his hand on the grass.
“Ha, ha, ha!” A high-pitched laugh erupts and is then stifled. Itachi looks on the side of the path toward the village to see two young boys. The younger of the two must have been the one to laugh because the older one is covering younger’s mouth.
Itachi raises a fist. “Hey, what are you two brats doing?”
The older boy pulls his hand away and says, “We were coming to visit our pear tree.”
“You have a funny nose, mister!” the younger boy pipes up.
Itachi’s dog nose twitches and he raises a fist. “Buzz off! I’m hungry.”
“Why’s our tree dead?” the younger boy asks, pointing at it.
“Because I killed it!” Itachi stands up. Though considerably broader and thicker, he’s not much taller than the children.
“That seems silly,” says the older boy. “Now you can’t eat from it. Why would you kill it if you’re looking for food?”
“Because shut up!” Itachi barks. He begins surveying the branches again for fruit. He pauses after a moment, then turns to the children. “Hey, you guys haven’t seen a guy with red robes and a sword, have you?”
The two boys look thoughtful.
“I seen ‘im!” The younger boy says.
Itachi looks at them with interest now. “Where? Tell me!”
“I seen ‘im knocked out cold. He was being carried by Hiroshi the fool! My dad says when Hiroshi worked for him at the bakery, he nearly burned his face right off!” The child makes an expressive motion with his hands to his face.
“Where did he go? What does he look like?” Itachi walks over to the boys.
The younger boy shrugs his shoulders. “Probably to his house.” He points to the right. Then he moves his fingers along his lips and says, “He’s got a funny moustache and,” he makes a triangle with his hands on top of his head, “a pointy straw hat.”
Itachi narrows his eyes. “Impossible!” he says to himself. Camera gives brief flashback to Itachi digging his claws into Hiroshi’s neck and collarbone, blood gushing out. “No one could have survived that… Must be another person.”
“My name is Itsuki and this is my brother Zenjiro,” the older boy says, giving a small bow. “What’s your name?”
“Shut up!” Itachi scowls. “I don’t care who you little punks are, just show me where I can find this Hiroshi!”
Zenjiro laughs a little. “You got a funny name, mister!”
“What did you say!?”
“Hey, if we lead you to Hiroshi’s house, can we have those?” Itsuki points to Itachi’s shed limbs, the horns, wings, and arms.
“Eh?” Itachi looks over his shoulder. “Ah… Yeah, deal.”
“Yay!” both of the boys yell as they push past him. Each one grabs an arm and they begin sword-fighting one another with them.
“Would you cut that out? Let’s get moving here!” Itachi stamps his foot.
The children look at him, then gather up the various limbs and appendages. They run down the path toward Hiroshi’s house.
“Come on Mr. Shut Up!” Zenjiro yells back.
“Errr!” Itachi follows.
* * * *
Hiroshi leans both hands against a tall tree, panting dramatically. Sweat streams down his face, gleaming in a patch of sunlight that penetrates the canopy of leaves far above.
“We’ve– done– a lot– of walking.”
“It’s alright, we can stop again if you need to.” Reiki helps to move him off to the side of the trail where there is a small clearing. They sit together on a log with shelves of fungi growing on it. Hiroshi removes his backpack, setting it on the ground with a loud clank.
“Maybe you wouldn’t tire so quickly if you weren’t carrying so many things?” Reiki suggests.
Hiroshi removes his hat and wipes his brow with his sleeve. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “You never know what you’re going to need.” He forces a smile.
Reiki watches as his partner fans his face with the pointed straw hat. “Well, at least let me carry my own things again.” He opens the backpack and removes his own, smaller one that has been crammed inside.
“But… you need to be ready to move around if you get in a fight!” Hiroshi protests.
Reiki feels around in his backpack. “I’ll be fine, I assure you.” He pulls out a flask and passes it to Hiroshi. “I was sickly as a child, so in order to get in shape for training, Master Chikao gave me a robe with 300 pockets. Our home was situated halfway up a mountain, and he told me to wear it as I walked with him to the top. Each day, he would find a stone and place it in one of the pockets, and he and I would again walk to the summit. We did this until I could do it with the pockets completely filled, and in this way I became healthier and able to bear heavy burdens with ease. So you see, I can really carry whatever I need by myself.”
Hiroshi hands the flask back and silently looks down at his pack.
“Hey, don’t look so unhappy my friend. It’s a very light load to begin with. In any case, you’ve done a fine job navigating. I guess I just like having my things close by in case I need them.” Reiki takes a small drink from the flask and replaces it in his bag, closing it shut.
Hiroshi puts the pointed hat back on his head and pulls a folded map from the side of the backpack. “Well, I’m not certain if we are going the right way now. I mean, there should have been a fork in the road right… here.” Camera shows where he points on the map. “But I’m certain we’ve passed it.”
“Old trails do become overgrown when no one uses or tends to them.”
“Yes, I’m sure I’ll be able to redirect us using the routes available, but I just can’t seem to understand why this part of the trail seems so well-kept if the other part has disappeared completely.”
Reiki opens his mouth to speak, but stops dead when he hears a rustling in the bushes behind where they sit. In an instant, he steps up on the log and pushes Hiroshi down (who gives a sharp Waaa!), hand on the hilt of his sword. He narrows his eyes and adjusts his stance, scanning the greenery.
Hiroshi peeks his head up from behind the log, using it as cover. The rustling noise comes again, making his eyes grow wider. He grips the log tighter, lips pursed.
A rabbit hops into view. It nibbles on some grass and twitches its whiskers before hopping over to a small flower, biting the tip of it off. Then the animal continues its way off through the forest.
“Wheeew. You scared me, Reiki.” Hiroshi resituates himself on the log and opens the map again, dusting it off.
Reiki watches the rabbit go, then looks back at the bushes one last time before sitting down again.
“I was going to say, we should be about…”
Reiki moves like lightning, standing and pivoting away from his seat. At the same time, he draws his sword and cuts at the fist-sized projectile that was aimed at his head– a rock covered in lichen.
Hiroshi is not so fast. He barely has time to realize what has happened before a concussive force– a blow from a cudgel –slams him in the back of his head, knocking him from the log to his hands and knees. Tears well up in his eyes. A short figure runs past him and snatches up the map from Hiroshi’s hands as he goes.
The figure stops and turns to face them. It is a young, adolescent boy with long, wild hair. He rests a cudgel on his shoulder with one hand, and with the other he waves the map at them: “Come and get it you fuckers!”
Reiki stands his ground, but Hiroshi wipes his eyes and looks at the boy angrily. “Waaa!? What did you say, you little punk?” He stands up and adjusts his hat.
“Come on, chicken-face! You want it?” the boy taunts him.
Hiroshi raises his fists. “I’m gonna knock you in the brains!” He runs at him.
The boy turns and flees, leading further down the trail. “Hey wait!” Reiki yells, but Hiroshi is clearly too upset and gives chase, yelling and cursing. Reiki stuffs his backpack in the larger bag, slings the big bag around his shoulders, and hurries after.
All three of them dash down the path. Hiroshi tries desperately to keep up, but the boy easily keeps the lead, almost toying with him. Reiki gains distance, but is still behind.
Eventually, the trail bends and there is an arch-shaped wooden bridge that spans a ditch. The boy dashes ahead to increase his lead just slightly, then stops at the far end of it. He turns and jeers, waving the map with one hand and holding his cudgel aloft with the other.
“Wait!” bellows Reiki, but Hiroshi doesn’t stop.
When the enraged Hiroshi runs halfway across the bridge, the bottom suddenly drops out from under him. “Waaa!” he screams, falling an unexpected ten feet and crumpling into the dirt.
Under the head of bridge, the man who sprang the trap draws his sword and runs at Hiroshi from his hiding spot, kicking him in the side before he has a chance to stand. From behind trees and foliage, five more men emerge with bows and swords. They surround Hiroshi and drag him out from under the bridge.
By the time Reiki gets there, one has a blade to Hiroshi’s throat. “Throw down your sword unless you wanna see the inside of your friend’s neck!” one of the men warns.
Reiki scans his foes with cool, calculating eyes. He counts them, looks at the bows pointed at him, looks at the grimace on Hiroshi’s face. Then, after a few tense moments, he hangs his head and lets the katana in his hand fall to the ground.
“Get ‘im” one of the bandits yells. Another gives a satisfied chuckle as several of them spring forth to restrain Reiki. A tall one picks up the katana and one with a scar on his face gives three solid punches to Reiki’s chest, face, and gut.
The wild-haired boy stands triumphantly atop the bridge, looking down at the two prisoners as their faces are covered with brown sacks.
* * * *
Itsuki and Zenjiro hustle through the streets of Komakai. Each one has taken off his shirt and used it to fasten two horns to his head– the three Itachi expelled plus the one Reiki cut off. Itsuki is holding the two clawed arms by their wrists, using them as clubs to pummel various crates and objects he happens to pass by. Zenjiro has punctured handholds in the dragonfly wings and is flapping them around, jumping off things in an optimistic attempt at flying.
A few stunned passersby stop what they’re doing and stare, but it is Aneko at her stall who says anything.
“Itsuki and Zenjiro Sakura! What are you doing with such grisly trophies!?” She steps out and stands in their path, hands on her hips.
The boys stop in their tracks and look up to face her looming silhouette, clearly intimidated. Itsuki speaks first.
“We found a dirty man by our pear tree. He gave them to us.”
“He had a funny nose!” yells Zenjiro.
“Oh? And just what are these things you’re carrying? Are those a man’s arms!? Why did he give these things to you?”
“We helped him out! He gave them to us because we helped him out! You can’t take them away from us!” pleads Itsuki.
Aneko shakes a finger at them. “I’ll take them if I have to and you’re lucky I don’t get your parents involved right this minute!”
“We showed him where you live! He wanted to talk to Hiroshi the fool,” Zenjiro explains.
Ignoring the insult to her husband, a grave look comes over Aneko. She turns her gaze aside, wondering.
“He said he’s looking for a man with red robes and a sword,” continues the child.
Aneko leans down close to them and says in a low, stern voice, “Listen, I want you two to throw those things away, and go help your father in the bakery for awhile.”
“Awwww!” the boys protest.
“Listen to me!” she snaps. “That man is dangerous, and I want you to get rid of anything he gave you. Go inside, and stay with adults where it’s safe until tomorrow. Did he say anything else to you?”
The boys stand still and look attentive. Zenjiro says in a completely serious tone, “His name is Mr. Shut Up.”
Aneko looks at him. Her mouth hangs open with uncertainty for a moment, then she puts a hand on each boy’s shoulder and says, “Alright. Now go and do as I ask.” Then she stands up.
Heads hanging low, the youths drag their toys away, turning down the path and out of sight. Aneko watches them leave, then turns her head to a different direction. She furrows her eyebrows and begins to walk with deliberation.
* * * *
From overhead, the camera shows a camp pitched at the side of a steep ravine. There is a trail bridge visible in the background, but trees around the camp obscure sight between the two places. Water can be faintly heard running from the depths of the chasm. The sun is low in the sky and casts a long shadow on the large tents and people. There are numerous crates and barrels of supplies, and various bits of debris strewn about.
In the camp, there are a few men playing with dice, bringing firewood, and moving in and out of tents. There are even a couple women and children present. They are talking indistinctly amongst themselves.
The party of bandits returns with Reiki and Hiroshi bound and blinded with brown sacks. A few of their captors move them to the edge of the canyon, where there is a ramp that lowers down the cliff face. It drops down a few meters and then stops by a cave entrance that turns right and leads into the rock. The bandits in the party not escorting the two fall out of the procession and move to different parts of the camp. The wild-haired boy, however, follows them into the cave.
The cave darkens as the small group moves farther in until one of them stops and lights a sizeable lantern lying near a door in the rock. He picks up the lantern and opens the junky door. Its hinges creak loudly.
Inside there is a small room with many boxes and jars against the near wall. There is a bedroll lain out to the side and several manacles chained to the rock on the far wall.
The bandits force Reiki and Hiroshi across the room where they replace their rope bonds with the iron manacles. Then they pull the bags off to reveal a disheveled Hiroshi and a pursed-lipped Reiki. One of the bandits tosses Hiroshi’s backpack with the crates. Another humorously replaces the straw hat on Hiroshi’s head.
“Let me take tonight?” the boy asks the others.
“Sure,” one Bandit says. “We’ll probably eat soon.”
“Bring me some?” the boy demands more than asks.
One of the men rustles his hair and nods his head.
He indignantly shoves the arm away, then watches them move toward the door. One of them sets the lantern down by the bedroll before they leave.
The boy turns to look at his prisoners. “Alright, listen here. I’m in charge of you now.”
“Wa, wa, wa?” Hiroshi pipes up. “What are we being kept here for?”
“Well, seeing as you aren’t nobles we can ransom,” the boy remarks, “you’re gonna be sold into slavery. As your first master, don’t do anything unless I say so, you got that!?”
“Humph!” Hiroshi protests. “Who you think you are? You’re just a little kid!”
The “little kid” smacks him on the forehead with his cudgel. “My name is Yuitsu and I’m grown enough to kick your sorry ass!” He turns to walk to his cot with his weapon resting on his shoulder. “You want water or you have to do your business, you talk to me. I’m afraid we’re low on provisions, so it’s not likely you’ll see a meal anytime soon. Don’t even think about escape because if you try it, I won’t stop clubbing you ’till my arms get tired… in the nuts!”
Through a closed eye and a grimace, Hiroshi murmurs, “Never thought I’d meet someone more abusive than my wife!”
“What was that!?” Yuitsu wheels around and takes a step back toward him, raising the cudgel once more.
“Ha-ha. I said yes, I understand you!”
Yuitsu gives him a suspicious glare, then turns to sit cross-legged on the mat. He rests his cudgel against the wall and forages through a crate for a canteen. He twists open the lid, takes a swig, wipes his mouth, then leans his back against the wall as he stares at his captives.
After a silence, Reiki speaks up. “You have a very good arm, Master Yuitsu.”
“Damn right I do! Been practicing as long as I can remember.” He picks up the weapon and slams it loudly against the cave floor to illustrate his point. “Nobody wants to mess with me!”
“Bet Reiki here could squash you with his bare hands!” blurts Hiroshi.
“Nobody asked your opinion!” shoots Yuitsu, throwing a nearby shoe at his head.
Hiroshi dodges it.
“I’ve taken on eleven– no, twelve! — people at the same time!” Yuitsu boasts.
“Oh yeah, have you ever taken on a Locust?” Hiroshi retorts.
“Locust?” Yuitsu furrows his eyebrows. “The bug?”
“Wa? You grow up under a rock or something?”
Bonk! This time the shoe makes contact.
“WA! Oooooh! Tha’s it! I’m not gonna tell you now!”
At this, Yuitsu snatches up his cudgel and takes a step forward, pointing it at Hiroshi. “Speak, prisoner!”
Reiki cuts in with a kind voice. “I would be glad to tell you.”
Yuitsu stops and points the weapon at Reiki. “Alright, speak!”
Reiki wets his lips. “Well, the story of the Locusts has its origins in Gokuraku.”
“What’s that?” Yuitsu lowers his arm.
Hiroshi scoffs quietly.
Reiki glances at his companion once with reproach, then continues. “Gokuraku is the realm of the gods. It is impossible for mortals to live there because everything there is bright and hot, like the sun. We would burn up and die.
“Amongst the gods was a deity named Raiden. Raiden was an arrogant and wrathful god, so he once decided to try to become king of the gods.”
Yuitsu sits as Reiki continues to speak.
“The gods discovered his plot, and they punished him. For his greed, he was stripped of his immortality, sentenced to die one day from accident, sickness, or old age. For his aggression, he was stripped of his godly powers, unable to freely use kiseki. For his deceitfulness, he was thrown from Gokuraku, sentenced to walk Tairiku for the rest of his life. In these ways he was made to be like a mortal man.
“However, Raiden’s ambitions were great and he was not content to suffer this fall. To spite the other gods, he made plans to circumvent all they had suffered him. He killed the emperor and made himself ruler of all Tairiku so that he did, in fact, become king of the realm he dwelled in. Though he could no longer freely use his godly powers, he still remembered the way he used to call upon them. It was thus that he learned to use them again, fueling the kiseki with the lives of the mortals around him. He stained the earth with the death that this caused, but it was nothing compared to what was to come: though he could not prevent himself from ultimately dying, he wandered the land spreading his seed, so that he might live on through his offspring.”
“Wait, so ‘kiseki’ means godlike powers?” Yuitsu asks.
“Yes, or any ability with mystical or spiritual energy. It is a special property and normally, mortals do not have it unless the gods intervene on their behalf, but after the days of Raiden ended some two decades ago, a new era began. His children and descendents are the Locusts, so-named because they are manifold and like Raiden, they consume all living things to fuel their own kiseki. It is said that each displays particular powers more strongly, but in theory each could access any of Raiden’s abilities. They now rule Tairiku almost unopposed, for it is really only other things with kiseki that can effectively defend against this consumptive onslaught.”
“But… Lord Sato, he is not a Locust, is he?”
“No, many of the old noble houses are still around. Either they were already at the fringes of Tairiku or they had enough sense to go there. The Locusts in general do not care enough to stamp them out because they pose little to no threat. Many of the nobles are just thankful to still be alive after all this time.”
“They sound like cowards to me.”
“Heh, heh. Maybe, but from what I’ve heard, Sato may be different. Not only is his province closer to the capital than any of the others, but he’s–”
“That’s enough,” comes a voice from the other side of the door. It opens, revealing a large, tall man with muscled arms. The hair on top of his head is grey, but his thick mustache and eyebrows are black. He’s wearing long pants and a V-shaped shirt that shows a thick patch of hairs on his chest. He’s wearing a band that keeps his shoulder-length hair up in a knot. He is frowning and there are wrinkles on his forehead that amplify his furrowed eyebrows. A katana hangs from his side, its hilt decorated to look like a dragon. He’s holding a plate of food by his waist.
“Keiji!” Yuitsu turns around and stands up to greet the newcomer.
“Yuitsu, I want you to go to outside,” Keiji says.
“I’m replacing you tonight. Go out and enjoy the evening.”
With his head hung, Yuitsu steps forward, takes the plate of food, and exits the room. Keiji does not turn around as the boy shuts the door after him, nor does he speak until the sound of footsteps fade as they head to the mouth of the cave and beyond.
“Look, I don’t know what you’ve told him, but I’ve tried very hard not to scare the young ones with anything going on outside this forest. I won’t make the mistake of allowing him to be left with captives again.”
“Wa? How could you keep them so ignorant!?” Hiroshi chimes in.
Keiji looks angry. “I said I don’t want to scare them. Since the days of Raiden, things haven’t been looking up in the world. Here in this forest, we’re far away from Locusts or nobles or anything else that could hurt us. To hell with the rest of Tairiku. Here, I can protect these people and raise a generation that won’t have to suffer the strife of war or politics. We’re a family now and we look after each other. I’ll be damned if a peddler and his bodyguard are gonna come here and screw all that up in one day.”
“Well, it’s not like we asked to be here,” Hiroshi replies.
Keiji crosses his arms. “Humph. Well, at least you’re not gonna be here much longer. And a good thing for that. We’ve been needing to restock on supplies. We’ll have to sell you two when we do. Sorry, but there’s only so many people this family can support.” He shuffles over to the cot where Yuitsu sat before and sits there himself, back leaning against the wall. He closes his eyes and folds his arms again.
“That sword–” Reiki asks, “are you–?”
Keiji slits an eye open. “I was. Keiji, Master Samurai of the House of Sato. Nice title, eh? Lord Michi Sato, that selfish, arrogant bastard, was willing to risk everything– homes, people, families –just to mount a suicidal resistance against the Locusts. I realized it was him as well as the Locusts that were dangerous. Got out while I could. Started my own ‘kingdom.’ It’s a new era. The Locusts have everything they want. They don’t need us. We can both live with the peace of never having to meet.”
“But, surely you must see that this cannot go on forever,” objects Reiki.
“Yeah? And neither does life! Listen, if the Locusts mean the end for us, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Either we kill ourselves fighting the good fight, or we relax and enjoy what happiness we can get from our remaining time.”
Hiroshi opens his mouth. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Reiki here, he’s–”
“I don’t wanna hear another word about it!” Keiji gives them a stern look.
There is a pause, then Reiki says, “Yes, Master Keiji.”
* * * *
A troupe of about a dozen and a half men stand outside the Fukui house. Aneko stands at the back, holding a large, bright hooded lantern. It is dusk and there are crickets chirping in the background. The men grip spears, scythes, knives, and a few swords and improvised weapons. They look nervous but determined, weapons gripped tight and close, eyebrows furrowed.
The one in the lead, wearing a small, round hat and holding a pole with a hook on the end, creeps up to the front door. After a suspenseful moment standing still, he quickly slides it open. He holds his weapon out in front of him, scanning for intruders, but does not see any. He grits his teeth. The other men scoot closer and Aneko brings up the rear, illuminating the kitchen. There is no one inside.
The troupe emits general sigh of relief. They file in and search around. Some of them poke around in cabinets and shelves. One mentions, softly but urgently, “There isn’t any food here– it’s all gone!”
Aneko raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth slightly. Then, after taking it in, furrows them and her face flushes. She purses her lips indignantly.
A sound comes from elsewhere in the house. The men draw closer together, looking about and listening fearfully.
Camera cuts to a door in a darkened room. Against the door, there is the silhouette of the small mob. The man in the lead from before slides it open, revealing himself and the men, Aneko holding the lantern overhead from behind. They’re all facing the screen.
Lying on a cot in the floor, Itachi snores heavily. The men’s shadows are cast upon him. There are empty sacks and crates strewn around him within arm’s reach. Bits of rice and vegetables lie all about, even speckling the space around his mouth. His mouth is unnaturally wide and his belly is bloated to an abnormal size.
The man in front gulps, larynx sliding up and down his thin neck. He edges forward and the other men crowd around. They all hold their weapons at the ready, then he pokes Itachi with the blunt end of his stick.
Itachi stops snoring and awakens with a start. He sits up and rubs his eyes. Pulling his hands away, he reveals them to be particularly bulbous in the darkness. They shift from side to side, taking in everything around them. Then he grins a mischievous, insane grin, lips curling from one side of his face to another.
Camera cuts farther away, showing him stand up. Most of his body is obscured by the crowd, but the change in his expression is visible. He grunts, holding his arms in tight.
With rapid succession, all the men around him, starting with the closest, begin to die. They sputter and gasp for breath, but their limbs shrivel up and their hair turns white. They fall to their knees and curl up into fetal positions, dropping the toys in their hands.
As this happens, Itachi begins to change. He grows and his limbs twist and shape. Great mandibles protrude from his jaws and his skin becomes black and chitinous. He sprouts many legs and they arch and raise him high to the ceiling. At the end of it, he is a spider-like horror, yellow gaze bearing down on Aneko.
The woman, almost completely paralyzed with fear, takes a few steps backward then falls to her bottom, dropping the lantern. She sucks in loud, panicky breaths, letting out, “Ooooh! Ooooh!”
One man who was at the edge of the little gang is still barely alive, trying with one arm to crawl into a corner away from the terror. Itachi takes a step forward and purposefully crushes the man’s skull with one of his legs.
He draws in close to Aneko, larger-than-life. The lighting from below twists the shadows on his face to amplify his monstrous features. Then, in a demon’s voice, he demands, “Where is Reiki!?”
The scene opens with an overhead view of the tiny continent, Tairiku. The camera zooms closer and closer into a particular spot, moving through cloud cover to reveal a small, rustic village at the edge of a forest. The camera zooms farther in to a road where a figure is walking. Finally, a man has come into view.
The man is wearing a pointed straw hat with a wide brim and a strap. He appears to be middle-aged and has a long, thin moustache with a small tuft of facial hair above his chin. He is scowling.
“Hiroshi! Hiroshi! Go get some supper you layabout!” he says in a mocking voice. “Tsh! Who does she think she is? I’m the man of the house. Why do I always get bossed around?”
Hiroshi takes a peek in the basket as he continues to walk. A live chicken peers out at him.
“Wa, wa, wa! Don’t give that look to me! Blame Aneko! She’s the one who wants to cook you!”
The chicken cocks its head to the side, blinks once, and gives a puzzled ba-kaw?
“Consider yourself lucky! You only have to deal with her for one night– I’m married to her until I die!”
The chicken moves closer to the small gap where the lid is open.
Hiroshi firmly shuts the lid. “I don’t think so. I’m not going anywhere, you’re not going anywhere.”
Camera cuts farther from his face.
“Sigh. It would be nice, though. Young men should be able to go out in the world, to seek their fortune.” He looks to the distance and raises an arm to his side dramatically. “There’s a whole world of riches out there, and I’m missing out on it! I’ve been stuck in this village my whole life! That tyrant Aneko makes more money than me by selling clothes!”
His head turns downcast. “How did I let myself get in this situation? I’ll never be a rich man living like this. What shame to get allowance from your wife!”
He looks again to the distance and raises a fist. “I just wanna get out of here and– Waaaa!” He suddenly trips on a small rock and lands in mud, his basket flying out of his arm.
Hiroshi opens his eyes and sees the chicken poking its head out of the sideways-turned basket.
“Waaaaa!” he yells comically, staggering to his feet and diving after the bird. He snatches up the basket, letting out a sigh and smiling smugly to himself.
“Sooo, you thought you could get away from the great Hiroshi Fukui, eh? Heh, heh, heh.” He starts to peek in the basket once more. “Well, guess aga–” The basket is empty.
His eyes go wide and he looks about frantically. He spots the chicken running full-speed between two buildings, away from the path.
“Wa! You come back here!” He darts after the bird, holding his hat with one hand and the basket with the other.
He wildly chases the terrified creature between buildings, through a garden, past a woman washing clothes (who protests loudly), and out to the edge of town where there is another section of dirt road. Hiroshi comes into view just in time to see it escape into the underbrush at the rim of the forest.
Panting, he stops and puts his hands on his knees. He then extends a hand for a moment and says, “Pah! No one wants you anyway.”
He regains his breath, stands up straight, and kicks the ground, causing a small dust cloud to billow up. “Shoot! What am I gonna do for dinner now? I can’t just go back and ask for more money.”
He walks to the place where the chicken disappeared, looking around hopelessly. “No, much dishonor. And she’d never believe me anyway. Though, I may prefer her to think I spent it all on sake than to think that I couldn’t even keep control of a tiny bird!” His expression hardens. “No, I must not come back empty-handed!”
He looks around and a pear tree catches his eye. “Yes, happy day! My ass is saved!”
Excitedly, he runs to the tree and begins picking the fruits, filling his basket. He hums a little tune to himself and bobs his head side-to-side.
When he’s finished, he turns to leave down the dirt path. His eyes are closed in satisfaction and he walks with confidence.
Abruptly, there is rustling in the underbrush to his side. He cocks an eye open and halts in his tracks. He turns to face the spot where the noise came from.
“So, you’re back I see? This time you won’t get away…” He creeps closer and reaches a hand into his basket, pulling out one of the pears and raising it above his head. The brush stirs slightly once more.
“GOTCHYA!” Hiroshi yells, throwing the fruit where the disturbance is.
There is a definitive “Urg!” that comes from the brush. Then, all the growth and vegetation in that area rapidly withers and dies right before his eyes. Hiroshi blinks confusedly, giving a “Hrm?”
Flying right at his face, a man leaps out and pounces on Hiroshi, knocking him over. The man is short, squatty, and has long black hair, but there is a large bald spot on the top of his head. His eyes are wide and somehow reptilian. He is barefoot and dirty, and his hands end in long claws. He is positioned on top of Hiroshi’s chest, his hands resting dangerously close to his neck.
“What’s in the basket?” the stranger hisses, his eyes moving from Hiroshi’s to the container in his hand.
“Wa, wa, wa! Buzz off now, this is not for you!” Hiroshi gasps, gripping the basket tighter and holding it closer to his body. His eyebrows furrow as he looks at the assailant.
“Fool! Don’t you know who you’re talking to? I am Itachi the Locust! Anything’s for me if I want it!”
Hiroshi’s eyes go wide. “Locust? Waaaaaa!” he begins to scream and tries to escape, but Itachi shifts his weight forward and keeps him down.
“That’s right. Be afraid little fool!” He digs his claws into Hiroshi’s neck and collar, causing blood to gush out from the wounds. The wail ends in a gurgle, and Hiroshi goes limp.
With a grin, Itachi pulls his claws out and leaps from his perch, snatching the basket as he does. He looks inside, licks his lips, and reaches for a pear. He bites into it greedily as he begins an idle stroll away from Hiroshi’s body. Juices stream down his chin and stain his ragged clothing.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” comes a man’s voice some distance behind him.
“What? Who’s there?” snarls Itachi, wheeling around.
The camera shows a silhouette, zooms in closer, and brings into view the owner of the voice. It is a young man in red robes. He has a handsome face with messy hair of medium length. A small pack hangs from his shoulders and a sheathed sword hangs from his side. He is staring intently at Itachi.
“Who are you supposed to be?”
“My name is Reiki the warrior. I fight for those who cannot defend themselves. I saw you hurt this man and take something from him. Please give it back.”
Itachi’s look is incredulous. He stares blankly, and then, “Aha… Ha, ha, ha… HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!” He points at Reiki, still holding the half-eaten fruit. “What a lunatic! You’re so funny I think I’ll spare your life.” He turns to leave, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “Now do yourself a favor and fuck off.” He brings the pear up to his mouth, about to take another bite.
The sound of a blade being drawn causes him to stop and cock an eye backwards. He then turns to see Reiki defiantly standing in the same place, holding the katana at his side. His pack now lies on the ground beside his feet.
“You fool! You really do have a death wish, don’t you?” Itachi angrily throws down the pear in his hand, then throws down the basket with the rest of them. They tumble out onto the ground. “You will beg for death before I kill you!”
The camera shows a close-up of Itachi’s face. His eyes bulge out and every vein begins to show. His mouth turns into a grimace as he grunts loudly. His forehead starts to slope forward and his jaw starts to recede. A bump in the front of his skull grows and breaks the surface of his scalp, branching out into a black, pointed horn.
The camera cuts to the ground he’s standing on with the fallen fruit in the foreground. The grass under his feet turns brown and shrivels. The decay moves farther and farther out, causing the pears to rot.
The camera cuts to a shot above him, showing the decay spread to the growth and trees at the edge of the forest. The more plants that die, the more Itachi transforms. Still grunting, he twists into a horrible shape.
His horn grows long and sharp, his arms stretch and dangle to the ground, and his claws thicken and extend further. His eyes turn yellow, his body sprouts plates of turtle-like shells, and a double-pair of dragonfly wings bursts from his back and begins to grow.
Seeing the decay spreading toward the body of Hiroshi, Reiki acts quickly to drag his him to safety. Finally the decay stops, and a great buzzing sound fills the air.
Itachi has taken flight. Before Reiki has time to stand up, Itachi is upon him. Reiki is just able to avoid the deadly horn aimed right at his face.
He regains his footing and watches as Itachi makes a large arc to swoop in again. At the last second, Reiki rolls out of the way, camera flashing to show where he takes a strike at Itachi’s body. It is stopped by one of the impenetrable shells.
Itachi laughs through distorted vocal cords as he again turns through the air. He speeds in for another dive-bomb. This time, Reiki sidesteps and makes a clean cut right through his black horn.
Itachi’s shrill cry pierces the air. His path of flight staggers and he crashes into the pear tree, disappearing from view. Then only birds can be heard singing somewhere far off.
Reiki stares intently at the tree, trying to hear his enemy. After a moment, he can hear a faint rustling, which clues him in on where Itachi’s hiding. He narrows his eyes and tightens his grip on his sword, trying to follow the movement.
In another moment, a large patch of leaves shrivels up, revealing Itachi now with an extra pair of gangly arms, each one grabbing pears as he squats on a limb. He hurls them down at Reiki.
Reiki moves his head to the side, dodging one. Another he slices in half before it reaches him. The next one hits him in the side of the jaw, knocking him off-balance. He then crouches and wraps his arms over his head, trying his best to simply absorb the volley.
Having run out of pears in immediate reach, Itachi chuckles a bit and stands up. Many more leaves wither away as his torso elongates, making room to bulk up his four arms. His wings slightly broaden to compensate for this new weight. The stump on his head regrows to a nasty point, and two more horns sprout from either side of it. His snakelike eyes gleam with menace as he flexes his claws. Then, he takes a step forward and the limb he’s standing on breaks. He’s prepared for it though, and the droning buzz of his wings fills the air once more.
Now on his feet, Reiki stands ready for Itachi’s attack, but this time Itachi isn’t attempting another fly-by and there is no way to dodge. With lightning speed, Reiki is tackled flat on his back.
Itachi’s two lower claws pin Reiki’s left arm and right leg. His upper claws grip Reiki’s right arm and throat. Reiki swings the katana impotently with his right hand. The weight of his assailant crushes the breath out of him and his face turns red from cut circulation. His sword-arm manages to land a swing or two on the closest of Itachi’s limbs, but it can’t break his protective shells.
Itachi snarls with glee, lifting up with the claw around Reiki’s neck and bashing his head back into the ground. He then leans forward to stare, up-close, into the face of his dying opponent.
This shift in weight gives Reiki the opportunity he needs. Putting all his force into his left leg, he knees Itachi in the side to unbalance him and then pushes off the ground to continue his movement. Itachi shifts awkwardly and catches himself, but too late. Reiki has managed to slip the sword into the unprotected gap between his two left arms.
A horrible noise emits from Itachi’s disfigured mouth. He rises to his knees and flails about, reaching around for the hilt of the weapon that injured him, but unable to reach it. Coughing and choking, Reiki gasps for breath and struggles to get out from under Itachi’s weight. In his death throes, Itachi takes a swipe at him. Part of Reiki’s clothes are torn away and parallel red streaks appear on his chest. Itachi begins to fall forward, deliberately aiming his horns at him.
Without space to spare, Reiki turns his head and shoulder aside. The horns stick in the ground where his neck was an instant before. Then, Itachi stops moving.
With much difficulty, Reiki wrenches himself free from under Itachi’s body. He clutches his neck, then holds his robe in tighter to slow the bleeding from his chest.
With his other hand, he pulls his sword from where it is lodged and cleans it swiftly on his sleeve. He then sheathes it and hurries over to his pack, which he takes over to Hiroshi.
Kneeling down, he removes some packages and a flask from the pack. He pours the flask over Hiroshi’s wounds, then unwraps the packages and begins to administer herbs. One by one, he then sews up the holes where Hiroshi has been punctured.
There is silence again, but for the birds in the distance. Hiroshi lies motionless. Reiki stares at him with great intensity. He holds a hand over the wounds and another over his solar plexus. He closes his eyes and furrows his eyebrows, then begins to pray.
“Please, great gods of Gokuraku. Let this man live. It was by kiseki that he was injured, so by kiseki let him be healed.” He then removes his hands.
There is no longer any visible evidence that Hiroshi was ever hurt. His eyes flutter open and, seeing Reiki, props himself up to a sitting position with his arms.
“Waaa? Who are you?”
Reiki smiles. “I am a warrior with some skill in medicine. My name is Reiki. You’re safe now.” He looks as though he would say more, but his face clenches up with pain.
Hiroshi looks over and sees Itachi’s corpse. “Ah, I see you took care of that nasty fellow! Thank you so much. You must not be an ordinary swordsman to defeat a Locust!” He scratches his head. “Say, you wouldn’t want to– Waaa!”
Reiki suddenly collapses forward onto Hiroshi, cutting him short. Hiroshi struggles to support him in his lap, turning the warrior over to see the open wounds on his chest.
* * * *
A time passes and Reiki fades in and out of consciousness. Each time he catches pieces of different scenes: his wounds being dressed, an angry woman yelling at someone, spoonfuls of hot soup being fed to him.
At last he awakens fully and finds himself lying on a mat in a small room. It is dark, apparently night, and there is a figure kneeling to his left. It is Hiroshi, humorously asleep with a soup spoon in his hand. He is dressed in night robes, head lolled to one side and snoring. His hat is gone, showing his short hair, and there is a bowl of cold soup beside him.
Reiki is dressed in similar robes. There is a bandage wrapped around his torso. A faint bruise is visible on his lower jaw, right where the pear hit him. He sits up, showing signs of slight discomfort, but is overall unhindered.
He reaches a reluctant hand out to touch Hiroshi’s arm. Quietly, he says, “Excuse… me…”
“WAAAA!” Hiroshi bellows, swinging the spoon wildly and knocking over the bowl of soup.
Reiki withdraws quickly in surprise, watching Hiroshi pant to recover from his sudden shock of being awakened.
“Oh, it’s you. You’re up! We thought you might be dead.”
“No, not dead,” Reiki replies. “Just recovering. My teacher always told me I was very resilient.”
“I see, very good. You want some new bandages for that?” Hiroshi points at the wounds.
“No, to be honest I think the soup did me the most good. Thank you so much for the hospitality!”
“Of course, I am indebted to you. You saved my life.”
“And you mine. I owe you my gratitude as well.”
“Sure, sure.” Hiroshi picks up the spoon and bowl. He stands and heads toward the door. “I’ll just get you some more soup then.”
The door suddenly slides open and, turning just in time, Hiroshi stops in front of a plump woman in night-robes with a highly irritated expression. She’s gripping a ladle in her hand.
“Waaaa!” yells Hiroshi.
“And WHERE do you think you’re going? You jobless layabout!” she says.
Smiling nervously and innocently, he replies, “Ah, Aneko. I was just–”
“YOU were just about to leave that man who saved you from your own foolishness! How shameful! How ungrateful! You would not show the slightest sign of responsibility even if the gods themselves came down from Gokuraku and beat you over the head!” As if to illustrate her point, she raises the ladle menacingly.
Hiroshi cowers, but Reiki speaks up and says, “Um, excuse me.”
Aneko notices him and lowers the instrument, immediately assuming a pleasant expression. “Oh, samurai! You grace us with your presence. Please, from what house do you hail?” She steps toward him and takes a bow.
“Well, actually I’m not a samurai. I’m just a warrior who wishes to protect people. My name is Reiki Shoukin. I am a student of Master Chikao of Yurikago.”
“I see.” She looks disappointed only in the slightest. “I am Aneko Fukui. This sorry man is my husband, Hiroshi. Warrior Shoukin, is there anything we can get you?”
Hiroshi chimes in, “I was just getting him–” Boink! Aneko brings the ladle crashing on his head. “…more… soup… Ehhh.” He drops to his knees.
“Wait a minute, I know! I’ll get you more of my soup!” Aneko turns to leave the room. Before shutting the door, she turns back and points the ladle at Hiroshi. “Stay where you should!”
When she’s gone, Reiki comments, “What a spirited woman.”
“Spirited, yes. Too spirited.”
Reiki rubs his eye. “Might I ask what town I’ve come to?”
“Komakai. You going somewhere important?”
“Well, yes. And no. I have an idea but I’m not really sure where I’ll end up. I’m going to Fumou.”
“Wa? Fumou? I knew you were a skilled warrior, but why would even the greatest of warriors want to go there? Nothing grows and nothing lives except Locusts and slaves. You eager to move into a casket or something?”
Reiki’s expression turns serious. “I am skilled, that is true. And there are people out there who need my help. It would be irresponsible of me to just stand by and let the world grow sicker without trying to make it better.”
Hiroshi looks incredulously at him. “You’re cra-zy! You’re going to the Locust capital of all Tairiku on some self-righteous suicide mission? Even if you managed to put up a fight and save some people, you could not help them all. What does it matter?”
Reiki closes his eyes. “…It mattered to you.”
Hiroshi raises a finger to object, but finds himself speechless.
Aneko bursts into the room. “Here you go, brave warrior!” She carries a steamy pot over to him. “Is Hiroshi bothering you dear?” She serves Reiki a bowl.
“Not at all. He’s been a kind host.”
“I see…” She notices the soup from earlier, still spilled on the floor. “Gasp. HIROSHI!”
Hiroshi’s eyes grow wide.
Aneko begins beating him over the head with the ladle. He puts his arms over his head in a desperate attempt to protect himself. “Don’t – leave – a mess – for our – GUEST!”
Hiroshi hurries out of the room.
“He-he. Sorry about that. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No ma’am. Thank you again for the hospitality. I am feeling much better and I think I may be able to continue my journey tomorrow.”
“Well, take all the time you need. Our home is your home. When you’re finished with the soup, just tell Hiroshi and he’ll take care of it for you.”
Hiroshi runs back in the room with a large rag and moves over to the spill, cleaning it frantically.
Aneko stands up and moves to the door. Once again, she turns to speak before leaving. “Have a good night, Warrior Shoukin. May the gods bless your travels. Hiroshi–” she gives her husband a stern look, “attend to him!”
When her footsteps die away, Hiroshi gives a sigh of relief and slows the pace of his cleaning.
* * * *
Camera shows a trail snaking out to the sunrise. Far below at the bottom of the shot, Reiki stands repacked with provisions. Camera lowers to an over-the-shoulder shot, showing the path from his perspective. He is now wearing a fresh set of red robes.
“Wait! Wait! Waaa!” Hiroshi runs up to him from the porch of his house, not far behind. The porch is stacked with crates of clothes, creations of Aneko’s, to sell at market. Hiroshi is wearing his pointed hat again and he is strapped in with an oversized backpack. Pots and pans dangle from its sides.
He pants to catch his breath, leaning his hands on his knees. Then he says, “Listen, I’ve been thinking. You’re going all the way to Fumou, right?”
“Er, yes…” Reiki responds.
“I’ve seen your bag. No way do you have the provisions to make it that far.”
“So you need to get money, or at least supplies on the way. How do you expect to do this?”
“Well, I’ve been offering to do odd-jobs for food and places to sleep.”
“So that’s it then? Just hobo your way across Tairiku? Listen, you need someone to help plan this journey for you. Someone to manage your assets and carry your things. You can’t expect to have a moment to put your cumbersome possessions down every time you’re ambushed. You don’t even own a map!”
“Hm. I guess you’re suggesting–”
“That I, the great Hiroshi Fukui, should accompany you and be your professional manager!” He stands proudly, smiling, eyes closed. His thumb is jabbed at his chest.
“Sigh. I’m afraid I cannot accept.”
Hiroshi looks utterly surprised. “But, I owe my life to you!”
“You saved mine in turn. There is no debt. And anyway, I did it freely.”
“Well, I still want to be your manager!”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow you to put yourself in danger. If you came with me, I might not always be able to protect you.”
“HIROSHI!” Aneko’s angry voice carries over to the two men. Camera shows her striding up to them, holding the ladle once more. She comes right up to her husband and pokes him in the stomach as she speaks. “You’re not leaving! What makes you think you can follow this man around to trouble him wherever he goes? You ought to be looking for a job!”
A change comes over Hiroshi. He stands up tall, holds his chin up, and narrows his eyes. It suddenly becomes noticeable that he is actually taller than Aneko. In a calculated tone, he says, “I am.”
Aneko opens her mouth to say something, but seems taken aback by this new attitude. She lowers her ladle.
“Listen,” Hiroshi addresses the two of them. “I’ve stayed in Komakai my whole life. As a youth, I dreamed of going out and doing important things in the world. I like to joke that I’m still a young man with vast opportunities ahead of me, but I am forty-three years old and I can’t even keep steady work.”
He turns to Reiki. “I understand the dangers. There are risks with every investment. You saved me once already and I won’t hold you accountable for me. Plus, almost dying back there did something to me. It made me realize that I don’t have forever. All these dreams of greatness mean nothing if they’re just that– dreams. Sooner or later you wake up. But I, I want to follow my dreams. I want to follow them until I can reach out and grab them, or else be destroyed trying.”
Reiki bites his lip and furrows his eyebrows, but then gives an understanding nod.
He turns to Aneko. “Aneko, you’ve been scolding me for twelve years to get out of the house and make a man out of myself. I’m no good to you. I’ve been fired by half the employers of this village, and the other half know not to hire me because of it. I’ve never been content with those jobs anyway because those have always been others’ dreams, not mine. In my impatience, I’ve often taken shortcuts and made mistakes. Now everyone believes I’m a fool. You are more than capable of supporting yourself with your business. Now, here is my opportunity to make a business of my own. I can no longer live here with the disgrace of my reputation. The road may be long and dangerous, but I promise you, I will return to you a wealthy man, or no man at all.”
Aneko steps forward, lips pursed. She raises the ladle, but holds it in place. Her eyes almost seem to water for a moment, then she gives a firm embrace. Hiroshi hugs her back, then she lets go. There is a short pause, and then she firmly tells him, “Keep your feet dry,” and strides away.
Hiroshi watches her for a few lingering moments, then faces Reiki.
“I suppose there’s no stopping you,” Reiki says.
Hiroshi nods. “I’m absolutely determined.”
“Sigh. I am resigned. Well, no time to lose then.”
The two of them turn to leave, setting out on the long road ahead. Hiroshi looks over his shoulder and sees Aneko, just standing on the porch. He turns back and wipes one tear from his eye. “As much as she beats me and calls me names, I sometimes can’t avoid remembering that I do love her.”
Without turning to look at him, Reiki gives a soft, sad smile.
They move out of sight. For a short time, only the sound of their footsteps and Hiroshi’s jingling pots and pans can be heard.
At last, Hiroshi breaks in. “So, we have to think of a name for you. Some title that will shoot dread into the guts of your enemies, something that will bring hope to the oppressed who utter it! Something… catchy!”
“No, no. Something clever… Let me think.” He rubs the tuft of hair above his chin. “You’re like a Locust-slayer, right? So maybe your name should be like a bird or something. Hmmm…”
Reiki eyeballs him curiously.
“Oh wait, I got it! How about… The Rooster!?” He watches Reiki with a pleased grin, waiting for his response.
Reiki stops walking, eyes downcast as if considering it. Then, he bursts out into uncontrollable, mirth-filled laughter.
“Wa, wa, wa, wa? I see how it is– Hiroshi the fool at home and abroad! Come here you!” He pulls a ladle from his pack and gives chase to Reiki, running along the trail, off to meet the sunrise.