It was the fury of the waves that frightened Albion the most, crashing against the ship like a titan’s fist and rocking the ship with all its fury as the roar of the winds all but drowned out the cries of the sailors charging about him. Chancing a glance off starboard, the elf swallowed hard as the ship began climbing yet another monstrous wave, his heart rapidly sinking in his chest as the rain soaked everything.
“Albion!” came a cry from behind the elf, pulling him to his senses. “Gods damn it, boy, this is not time to be gawking! They’re gaining on us!”
Tearing his gaze from the waves, the elf turned port-side, his eyes darting to the five ships chasing after them. They were close enough now for him to see the patterns in their sails.
“Get down below!” the voice behind him called out. “Go aid Jisoo!”
“Right!” Albion nodded, then forced his gaze from the ships as he made his way as quickly and as carefully as he could below deck, taking great pains to keep out of the way of the sailors darting about, desperately fighting to keep the ship racing through the storm.
“Jisoo!” he cried as he descended. “Jisoo, where are you?”
“Over here!” came a cry from behind the stairs. “What’re you doing down here, though?”
Nearing the bottom of the stairs, Albion leapt over the remaining steps before darting about them.
“Aunt sent me below,” he said as a young woman came into view, sweat running down her forehead and keeping her short black hair pressed against it. “You need aid?”
The young woman looked behind her a spell, then nodded.
“Come,” she said, reaching for his hand, and pulling him behind her, led him to the stern of the ship.
“How close are they?” she asked as they went, shoving past the few sailors in their way.
“Close,” Albion replied. “I can see their sails clearly.”
As the words left his lips, the young woman named Jisoo stopped and turned to him, her eyes wide as the blood swiftly drained from her face, and forcing a smile, the elf squeezed the hand within his and neared the woman.
“We’ll get away,” he soothed. “Alright? Aunt’s an Archmage. She’ll get us away!”
The young woman pursed her lips, but the fear in her eyes remained undimmed.
“Trust in Aunt, Jisoo,” Albion added. “She gave you her word, we’ll get you to safety. You’ll see.”
At those words, the woman’s courage seemed to return, and breathing deep, she nodded and hurried forth.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to keep everything from spilling everywhere,” she said as she went. “If the ship keeps rocking about like this, I’m not sure anything’ll survive.”
“Don’t say that!” Albion said as they reached the room at the far end of the ship, a smile on his lips. “Not after all Aunt paid for this stuff!!”
Smiling, the young woman shouldered the door open and stumbled in, Albion close behind, and as the elf entered, he paused, his lips slightly agape as the stared in wonder at the ingenuity on display. With nothing more than ropes, sacks and rags, the woman named Jisoo had shored up each and every barrel and box within the room, in some cases using the very weight of the barrels themselves to her advantage. It was a complicated, almost surreal web she’d woven, one that kept every container firmly in place, even as the ship lurched from side to side.
“Are you sure you need me?” he said at last, turning to the woman.
Biting back her smile, the woman shrugged and made her way into the room.
“Come,” she said as she went, “there’s these two in the corner I’m having trouble with. I don’t have the strength to move them, and I have nothing left to shore them up. This way.”
Hurriedly, the pair made their way past the containers towards the far left corner.
“It’s those one,” Jisoo added, pointing to two barrels that wobbled where they stood.
“Hrm,” Albion muttered. “I see what you mean.” Then he stood tall. “Stand back, I’ll—”
At that moment, a loud crash rang out as wooden splinters flew at the pair, and with a shriek, Jisoo dove for cover. Then another crash rang out, and another, and turning , Albion’s blood ran cold as his eyes fell upon three tapered bolts of iron jutting out from the ship’s hull.
Then, the sound of groaning wood reached his ears.
“Stay down!” the elf barked before darting forth, calling forth blades of wind as he went, and as he reached the harpoons, the elven mage lashed out, cutting free the harpoons one by one. But as they fell away and he stared out through the holes they’d made, the icy hand that had gripped is heart began to squeeze tight as he laid eyes upon the three ships sailing right behind them, sailing so close he could see the men on their decks scrambling to ready fresh harpoons for them.
“Gods damn it!” he seethed as his mind raced. An ice lance would do little against a whole ship, and a fireball was too risky – were he to ignite something on any of the ships and led to them sinking, his aunt would have his head for it.
Then, his eyes drifted to their sails, and at their sight, his eyes shone bright for he knew what to do, and as their pursuers aimed fresh harpoons at them, the elven mage harnessed the power of the raging winds about the ship to call forth the largest wind blade he’d ever formed, and with a grunt, swung it through the mast of the nearest ship.
As the blade sliced through the mast, the screams that followed brought sweet joy to the mage as the other ships swiftly fell back. But he knew the reprieve he’d bought would be short-lived, and letting go of the wind blade, he spun on his heels and darted towards the cowering woman.
“Jisoo, come!” he cried, pulling her to her feet before racing for the door.
Once out of the room, the elf hurried towards the stairs, cursing feverishly as the ship lurched from side to side, tossing them about like a pair of rag dolls.
“Wait!” Jisoo cried as they reached the stairs, pulling her hand free of Albion’s grip as he made to climb up them. “Your aunt said I should hide below!”
Turning to her, Albion shook his head and reached for her hand anew.
“It’s not safe down here,” he said as he reached.
The woman shook her head in response before hiding her hand behind her and taking a step back from him.
Standing tall, Albion stared at her square, only to see the fear in her eyes, and forcing a smile, he sighed.
“They’re not going to take you, alright?” he soothed.
“But if they see me—”
“It matters little if they see you,” Albion interjected. “They are not going to take you.”
“But if I stay down here, I—”
Gritting his teeth anew, Albion stared deep into the woman’s eyes as he kept a firm grip on his smile and stretched forth a gentle hand to her cheek, only to curse aloud as the ship lurch once more, hurling him into her and sending the pair of the clattering against the cabin door behind them.
“Are you alright?” he cried as he stepped back from her, his eyes scanning her frame for any sign of injury.
Smiling, the woman nodded. “Yes.”
“Good!” Albion grinned, though it was fleeting.
“Come, Jisoo,” he added, gripping the woman’s calloused hand tight. “It’s not safe down here anymore! It won’t be long before they resort to setting the tips of their harpoons on fire before launching them at us, and you know better than I how hot the fat they use burns. Do you wish to be in that store room should one of those hit Aunt’s oil barrels? Hm?”
The woman’s eyes grew wide as she shook her head.
“Good!” Albion nodded. “Now, come!”
Pulling the woman once more, and this time with no resistance from her, Albion led her up the stairs till they came on deck, and as they stepped into the storm, the pair’s eyes were swiftly drawn to the sole figure standing still amidst the chaos there. Though petite in statue, she stood tall against the elements, her blond hair blowing wildly in the wind as she held one hand outstretched towards the ship’s sails, and the other aimed down behind her, both palms out, and both channeling magic of different sorts.
“Aunt!” Albion cried as he made his way carefully towards them.
“Albion?” the woman cried as she tore her gaze from the ships sails to face her nephew, only to glare hard at him the moment she noticed the woman behind him.
“Why in the hells did you bring her up here for?” she bellowed, her arms outstretched still, the magic flowing from them undimmed.
“They’re right behind us, Aunt!” Albion shouted back. “They’re harpooning the ship!”
“Yeah!” Albion nodded. “I had to cut three loose!”
The woman’s eyes grew wide. “Is the ship on fire?”
“No.” Albion shook his head. “But it’s only a matter of time before they start using flaming ones.”
“Gods damn it!” the woman cried, turning back to the mast.
“Can’t you make us go any faster?” Jisoo asked.
“No.” The woman shook her head. “The masts are close to breaking. I send any more wind into the sails and we lose them.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Albion yelled.
The woman glances around her before turning to the ether, her lips pulled a thin line, till at last, she shook her head.
“Come!” she cried, gesturing with her head.
“Why, what’re you going to do?” Jisoo replied as she and Albion neared the woman.
“I’m porting us to Hanseong,” the woman replied. “Come.”
“What? No!” Jisoo cried, darting back from the woman. “The crew! They’ll be slaughtered!”
“No, they won’t,” the woman yelled back. “None of the ships have gotten close enough to see me use magic. Without proof of any magic-casters ever being aboard, the captain can feign ignorance when we get boarded. Now, come!”
“But…” Albion began, words that drew the women’s gazes to him.
“But what?” his aunt demanded.
“I… I used magic against the ships that we behind us.”
Slowly, the woman’s eyes grew wide as she stared hard at her nephew.
“Tell me you were cloaked,” she said at last.
“I…” Albion began, then shook his head.
“Gah!” the woman cried before standing tall and turning her gaze to the mast, the fire in her eyes akin to an inferno.
“It all happened so fast,” Albion continued as he wiped the rain from his face. “I mean, I barely had time to…”
As he spoke, the elf watched as his aunt turned her gaze to the sea, but then, without warning, the woman turned to them, the fear in her eyes unmistakable.
“Get down!” she cried just as a most peculiar sound drifted to Albion’s ears, but as he heard it, he knew what it was almost at once, and without pause for thought, he leapt at the human woman beside him, pulling her to the deck as he dove for cover just as a harpoon flew past where they once stood and slammed into the deck.
Then, there came another, and another, and a third, the first two aimed at his aunt and the third where they lay. Of the two that flew towards the standing elf, neither found their mark, for an invisible wall barred their way, the harpoons slamming hard into it before clattering to the deck. But the third was different, for it was on fire, its metal tip coated in a thick fat that burned brightly as it flew toward Albion and his friend, and gritting his teeth, the elf shoved the woman to safety before scrambling out of the harpoon’s path, his mad roll enough to save him from the harpoon’s tip, but not enough to stop him from being showered by flaming splinters and burning fat.
“Albion!” came a sharp shriek, and as his heart raced up his throat, the elf turned to the source of the shriek, and as he stared, what he saw froze his insides, for he was staring into the terrified eyes of his dear friend Jisoo as she hung desperately on to the side of the ship.
“Jisoo!” he cried as he darted for her.
But then, the ship lurched once more, a wave slamming into its hull and launching the front half of it clear of the water, and in that moment, an ear-splitting cry rang out. The elf’s blood froze in his veins as he watched his dear friend lose her grip and fall into the sea.
“No!” Albion yelled, and before even he realized, he raced forth and dove into the freezing waters below, the roar of the storm falling away as he swam deeper into the darkened depths of the sea.
“Found another something!” young Haru cried as he picked his way through the debris strewn about him across the beach, his eyes upon the glimmering orb not too far from him as a smile parted his lips.
“Not fair!” came a cry from a distance behind him. “You’re always finding things!”
Grinning, the young boy picked up the orb and wiped it with the end of his noragi, the black fabric wiping the dirt and water off the orb with only a few scrubs, and with a sigh, the young boy held the orb up to the sun, and though the young boy knew not what material it was made from, he nonetheless marveled at how magnificent it shone|.
“Perfect!” he gasped, then moved to place it in the small basket attached to his waist.
But, as he did so, something further up the shore caught his eye, and frowning, he turned his attention to it.
“Haru!” the voice behind him called out. “Haru, I found one!”
But the young boy wasn’t listening, his full attention upon what lay before him as he squinted. There was… something in the water, or rather, being buffeted by the water, something big, but the boy couldn’t quite make out what it was.
“Haru!” the voice came again, this time closer, and nearing him rapidly. “Haru, look! Look!”
Tearing his gaze from what lay before him, the young boy turned to the young girl racing towards him, a wide grin upon her lips.
“Look!” she cried, as she reached him, holding a sheathed tanto in her hand, its kashira and kojiri seemingly made of gold, and with gold shining through the partings between the leather wrapped around its tsuka. It was without a doubt their greatest find so far.
The young boy stood stunned as he stared at his sister with a wide grin.
“Look!” the young girl cried, showing him her prize. “Look, Haru! Look!”
“Not bad, Hanako,” Haru said, words that widened the young girl’s smile.
“Grandma will get a lot for this one, won’t she?” she said.
Chuckling, young Haru nodded. “Yeah, she’ll get loads for it. Well done!”
“Hm!” Young Hanako nodded, a proud smile upon her lips, then, turning to the tanto, she held it firm in her hands before wiping it on her kimono.
Then, the boy turned to the distance once more.
“Hanako, look,” he said once turned.
“Hm?” Young Hanako turned to her brother.
“Look,” Haru repeated, pointing as he did so.
The young girl followed her brother’s finger, and as she stared at what had caught his eye, she frowned.
“What is that?” she soon said.
Haru shook his head. “Not sure, but… I think it’s… bodies.”
“What?” young Hanako gasped, turning to her brother.
“Mhm.” Haru nodded, his eyes upon the mounds.
“Biting her lip, Hanako turned to the mounds.
“Come,” Haru added before moving heading towards the mounds.
“What?” Hanako cried, turning to her brother.
“Wait!” she added, grabbing hold of his arm and pulling as hard as she could.
“Grandma said to stay away from any bodies, remember?” she added when her brother turned to her.
“Yeah, I know, but—” Haru began.
“We promised, Haru,” Hanako interjected. “On our honor and everything!”
“No buts, Haru!” the young girl cried.
“Would you just listen!”
“No! You’ll only get us in trouble!”
“I won’t! We just—”
“But grandma said we should—”
“Hanako!” Haru yelled. “Just listen!”
Falling silent, the young girl glared at her brother.
Shaking his head, Haru gestured at the tanto in his sister’s hand. “If we can find something that expensive in the wreckage, imagine what we can find on them!”
The young girl stared at her brother, then at the tanto.
“Come,” Haru repeated. “Come.”
The young girl turned to her brother, her face twisted.
“But they smell, though,” she whined. “And the way their eyes bulge, I—”
“Okay, then,” Haru soothed, “you keep searching the beach, I’ll go check them.”
“No!” The young girl shook her head. “Grandma said we should stay together! She said—”
“Gods, would you stop worrying! Aki and Ichiro are watching us from the trees, remember? If anyone comes near, they’ll protect us.”
At those words, young Hanako turned to the line of trees not far from where she stood.
“Now, go,” Haru urged as he gently shoved her. “Go on.”
Hanako stared at her brother, and though she fought his nudges at first, it wasn’t long before she began stepping back from him.
The young girl stared for a spell longer, then turned and began making her way towards the wreckage once more.
Sighing, Haru shook his head, then turned to the mound.
“Right,” he muttered, then stepped forth.
As he neared the mound, young Haru’s steps began to slow, and once or twice, he glanced at the trees as if for strength. But then, as the features of the bodies began to be clear, he stopped altogether, a deep frown upon his lips.
“What in the…?”
It was the golden-haired one that held him fast, and for a great many reasons. First, he’d never seen hair of golden hue on a person before, and in truth, he’d simply assumed it was some rag that had attached to the man’s head.
At that last thought, Haru’s brow furrowed deeper. A man?
“That’s not a man,” he muttered as he shook his head, for the features were far too soft to be that of a man. From his high cheekbones to his tapered jaw, from a skin fairer than any he’d ever seen to lips that put even those of Mistress Fumiko to shame, everything about them marked them to be a woman. But what woman in what part of the world had ears like that?
Taking a cautious step forth, Haru cocked his head to the side as he stared at the woman’s ears, then reached up a hand to his.
“Why are they so pointy?” he muttered.
At that moment, a soft groan reached his ears, and turning, he watched as the other mound began to stir. In many ways, this one was even more confounding. Her garb, similar to the gold-haired one, marked her a foreigner. But everything else about her screamed she was from Gaibun. In fact, everything about her reminded young Haru of Mistress Fumiko – her slender frame, skin the color of summer cream, fingers that seemed as delicate as they were long, and a face that radiated such serene beauty. The more he stared, the more young Haru felt a stirring that always came over him whenever Mistress Fumiko bent low to speak to him, and on instinct, the young boy glanced at the woman’s chest. Even in that area, she rivalled Mistress Fumiko.
Coughing, the woman rose onto an elbow and turned to him, and as their eyes met, Haru felt his knees began to weaken, for as he stared deep into the woman’s hazelnut eyes, he found himself getting drawn into them, the lashes about her eyes adding a whole other level of mystique to the woman. Then, he realized she was talking to him.
“Hunh?” he said, shaking the cobwebs from his head.
“Where are we?” the woman said, her voice soft and warm.
“Hanju, Mistress,” Haru breathed.
The woman frowned. “Hanju?”
Haru nodded at the woman.
The woman stared into the ether, as if searching her thoughts. Then, she sighed and turned to Haru, smiling.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
Haru’s lips parted as if of their own accord into a smile as he nodded at her.
“Haru!” came a cry in the distance.
As one, the pair turned to the sound, then watched as young Hanako raced towards them.
Reaching the pair, the young girl slowed as she held the seated woman in a cautious stare, her feet taking her towards her brother.
The woman smiled at Hanako. “And who might you be?”
Hanako stared from the woman to Haru, who shrugged.
Hanako turned to the woman. “We’re not supposed to give our names to strangers.”
The woman’s smile grew. “That is correct, you shouldn’t. What a clever girl.”
Hanako giggled in spite of herself.
The woman turned from Hanako to Haru and back.
“I take it you’re… brother and sister?”
The pair exchanged glances, then nodded.
The woman’s smile turned to a grin as she sat up, her gaze on Hanako still. “It was obvious from the way you raced over here to save your brother from this strange woman!”
“Yeah, I have to do that a lot,” Hanako replied, grinning.
“Hanako!” Haru hissed.
“He always gets like that around pretty women.”
“You should see him around Mistress Fumiko.”
“Hanako!” Haru barked as his cheeks reddened greatly.
“Who’s Mistress Fumiko?” the woman asked.
The children exchanged glances, but fell silent.
The woman smiled and nodded. “Stranger… No talking…. Right?”
The pair nodded as one.
Sighing, the woman nodded once more.
“Well, she added, turning to her companion. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done, but now I must get my companion up on his feet and—”
“That’s a man?” Hanako frowned.
Smiling once more, the woman turned to her and nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Why’re his ears so pointy?” Haru added.
Stopping, she turned to the children square, her smile fading. “You mean you’ve never seen an elf before?”
The children frowned.
“What’s an… elf?” Hanako asked,
“Yeah,” Haru added.
The woman frowned, staring at the pair in silence for a spell.
“How far are we from Ida?” she asked at last.
“Ida?” Hanako cried.
“You’ll have to take a boat,” Haru added. “And it’s not a quick ride either.”
“Yeah,” Hanako nodded, “it’s not.”
“I see…” the woman muttered, turning to the ether. Then, she turned to the children once more. “Elves live in a faraway forest. Far, far away from here.”
“Then, why is he here?” Haru added.
The woman moved to speak, but fell silent, turning to the elf.
“He saved me from drowning,” she said at last, then leant forward and gently began shaking the elf.
Stirring at last, Albion groaned and opened his eyes, only to shut term once more as the blazing light of the morning sun awakened a most crippling headache.
“Albion,” a familiar voice soothed. “Albion, it’s me. It’s Jisoo.”
“Jisoo?” the elf said, and squinting, he turned to the figure whose gentle hand was on his shoulder. Then, as Jisoo’s form became clear, he smiled.
“Hello, there,” he said.
Smiling, Jisoo sighed. “Seems we made it.”
Sighing, Albion lay flat on his back against the sand. “Let’s never do that again.”
“Looks like your aunt unleashed something in the end, though.”
“Hm?” Albion said, sitting up and turning to where Jisoo’s gaze lay, and as he stared, a slow frown twisted his lips.
“I see wrecks for at least two ship,” Jisoo soon added, her eyes upon the debris strewn across the beach.
“Anything that could be from our ship?” Albion asked.
“I…” Jisoo began, then shook her head. “I don’t think so.” Then she turned to him. “At least, I don’t see anything.”
“Me neither,” Albion said, turning to her at last. It was then he realized they weren’t alone, and with a start, turned to the pair standing before them.
They were staring at him in wonder, the hue of their skin marking them as children who spend much more time outdoors than the children he’d seen in Ida, save the street urchins.
“Jisoo, who’re they?” he asked, his gaze upon the pair.
“Locals,” Jisoo replied.
“Local to where?”
“Hanju. It’s an island some ways from the cities.”
“Oh…” Albion muttered.
Then, the boy spoke, his gaze darting from Albion to Jisoo and back, and as he spoke, Albion realized something, his brow furrowed deep as he turned to Jisoo once more.
“You sound different to him,” he said.
Jisoo nodded. “I’m speaking to you in my native tongue.”
Albion moved to speak, to ask why, but then a thought struck him, and with it came a smile.
“Trust you to take precautions,” he said, then cast his eye about them.
“Well,” he said, rising to his feet, an act that seemed to startle the children.
“Oh, I mean you no harm,” Albion said, smiling. “Truly!”
“It’s alright, children,” Jisoo said, her eyes upon the children. “It’s alright.”
The boy spoke in response, the words lost to Albion, and as he turned to Jisoo, she smiled at him.
“Keep your movement simple and slow. They’re on edge.”
Forcing a smile, he turned to the children, then slowly showed them in his hands.
The children exchanged glances, then stared at him in silence.
“We can’t stay here, though,” Albion soon added. “Can they lead us somewhere? Somewhere where we can hide and plan.”
“Is there a place my friend and I can rest?” Jisoo said.
The children exchanged glances, then the boy spoke, but his words seemed to anger the girl, who turned let out a string of heated words, only for the boy to speak once more.
“It’s alright,” Jisoo added, interrupting the pair. “We won’t be staying long. You have our word.”
The children exchanged glances once more, but as the girl turned and marched forth in a huff, the boy smiled at them and gestured to them to follow. Albion turned to the seated woman beside him.
“They’re taking us to their grandma,” she said. “Seems she’ll know what to do.”
“Well, then,” Albion sighed, offering Jisoo a hand, “grandma it is.”
But, as Jisoo took his hand, Albion tensed and turned to the trees, his eyes narrowing to slits.
“What is it?” Jisoo asked.
“I…” the elf began, then made to cast a scrying spell.
“No,” Jisoo hissed, tugging on his hand, and as he turned to her, she gestured to the children.
Gritting his teeth, Albion turned to the children, then to the trees once more. There was something in there watching them, he was sure of it. Something dangerous. But Jisoo was right, the last thing he needed was to show he was a spell-caster. If the locals here had the same hatred of spell-casters as those in Ida had, their escape from the island would be more fraught than it needed to be. And so, gritting his teeth, he turned to Jisoo.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The woman nodded, and with Albion’s aid, rose to her feet. Then, as one, the pair marched forth, the elf throwing the odd glance at the trees as they went.
Standing by the door to their modest home, Ayame stared down the street, her brow furrowed deep as she scanned for her grandchildren.
“Where could they be?” she muttered.
A soft squeak from behind her brought her gaze to the two small creatures hurrying towards her, the smaller of the two reaching her first and rubbing against her leg, and when the second began rubbing against her other leg, the elderly woman sighed and smiled.
“Yes, I know Aki and Ichiro are with them,” she said at last, “but still. I worry, you know.”
The two creatures sat and raised their gazes up at her, their long brown fur immaculately clean as they stared at her with hazel brown eyes, their noses twitching as they took in the scent that was all around them. Then, the smaller of the two rubbed against the woman’s leg once more before turning about and making its way back inside, the larger creature following close behind.
The elderly woman watched them a spell, then sighed.
“You’re right,” she said at last, moving to follow them, “Ichiro would never let any harm come to them. I’m just worrying for nothing.”
“Grandma!” came a cry from behind the woman, drawing her tall and her to spin about, and as he eyes fell upon the pair racing towards her, she smiled.
But that smile swiftly faded when two new figures stepped onto the path behind them, with one having a scarf about his head and ears that looked remarkably like the scarf Hanako had on when she left that morning. As her frown returned, the pensive woman scanned the trees lining the beaten path, the hair on the back of her neck standing ramrod straight.
“Hello, Grandma!” said young Hanako as she reached her grandmother.
Forcing a smile, Ayame continued her scanning as she held the young girl close.
“Hello, Grandma,” Haru added as he, too, reached her.
As the woman moved to speak, she saw at last that which she sought, and as she stared into the pair of eyes locked onto her, she frowned once more. If they were content to stay in the shadows, then that must mean…
Straightening, Ayame turned to face the pair square. If Aki and Ichiro were content to stay in the shadows and observe, the least she could do was hear these strangers out. And so, drawing herself tall, the elderly woman cleared her throat and nodded at the pair.
“You let me do the talking,” Jisoo whispered. “Alright?”
“As if I have a choice.”
Jisoo smiled at the spark within Albion’s words, but her smile was brief.
“Still sensing something?” she whispered.
“Yeah,” Albion whispered in response, nodding slightly as he did so. “For sure of it. And I think the old lady senses it, too.”
“You mean with the way she was looking around just now.”
“Gods,” the woman gasped. “Well, let’s just hope whatever is out there keeps it distance.”
Then, they reached the trio, and as they did so, Jisoo bowed. Seeing her gesture, Albion did the same.
“Forgive us,” Jisoo said, smiling at the woman, “we don’t mean to trouble you, but your lovely children said you could help us.”
Smiling once more, the elderly woman turned to the children, and though Albion had no idea what words were said, the guilty stares from the children told him all he needed to know.
“Oh no, please!” Jisoo said. “Your children were most cautious! They wouldn’t even tell us their names, for instance!”
At those words, the children’s smiles returned, warming Albion’s heart. But at that moment, rustling behind the pair reached the mage’s ears, and as he turned, a sharp gasp escaped his lips as his eyes fell upon a creature he had never seen before. With fur the color of mahogany, it sauntered forth, its reddened eyes giving it a most unholy look, and as it sauntered forth, Albion knew without a doubt this was the creature that had been stalking them from the beach. Then, as it neared, it bared its teeth.
“Get behind me!” Abion barked, darting to place himself between the creature and the three humans, lightning dancing between his fingers as he did so. “Quickly! Before the—”
But his words were cut short by a sharp cry from behind him.
Though Albion did not speak the tongue, that word was one whose meaning he knew nonetheless, and hearing the terror in young Hanako’s voice as she shrieked that word over and over, Albion felt his heart break. But he stood firm – they may hate him, but he would protect them all the same.
“Jisoo!” he cried. “Get them inside! Now! I’ll…”
Once more, Albion’s words failed him, though this time it was because of young Haru, for the boy had raced forth and thrown himself between Albion and the creature, his arms wide as he glared at Albion with all his might.
“Child, this isn’t a game!” Albion barked. “Move!”
“Albion!” Jisoo cried.
Albion glanced behind him, but what he saw brought him pause. The old woman was smiling, her eyes upon him as she gestured for him to lower his hands. Slowly, Albion complied, letting go of his spell as he did so. Then, he turned to Jisoo.
The woman spoke up, then placed a calming hand upon the cowering girl beside her before making her way indoors. Albion turned to Jisoo once more.
“She wants us to come inside.”
Frowning, Albion turned to the creature. It was sitting beside Haru, its head higher than the boy’s. Then, as another rustle reached his ears, Albion turned his gaze to another creature as it stepped out from shadows, its fur a shade lighter, the cream ring about its right eye making it easier to stare at its reddened eyes.
Albion turned to Jisoo once more.
Not know what else to do, the mage straightened and fell in step beside his companion, and as one, they wandered inside after the elderly woman.
Shaking her head, Ayame sighed and smiled as she wandered down the short corridor to the living room.
“G… Grandma,” Hanako stammered as she hung on tight to her grandmother. “Are you sure?”
Stopping at the entrance, Ayame turned to the terrified child before raising her gaze to the two wandering towards her, and as her smile widened, she turned to the child once more, placing a calming hand upon her head.
“It’s alright, Hanako,” she said. “We’re safe.”
“But… but he’s a majin!”
“Yes.” Ayame nodded, turning to the mage. “But he’s a good majin.”
“You don’t trust me anymore?” Ayame asked, turning to the child.
Swallowing hard, the young girl held her peace.
“Then, I tell you, it’s alright.”
Slowly, Hanako nodded, then turned to their guests.
Sighing once more, Ayame stepped aside and gestured to the living room.
“Please,” she said, smiling at the pair.
“No, please,” the woman said, bowing. “After you.”
Bowing herself, Ayame led the way into the living room as Hanako raced to her favored spot, her brother squeezing past to join her.
As the pair entered, Ayame gestured toward the empty space to her right, then held her peace and her smile till they were seated.
“You needn’t hide your ears in here,” she said at last, her eyes on the mage.
“What?” The woman frowned. “You know of elves?”
Ayame smiled and nodded. “I wasn’t born in Hanju, my dear. I know a great deal of the world.”
Through it all, the mage stared from his companion to her and back again, the confusion on his face drawing a soft frown to Ayame’s lips. Then, he spoke to his companion, who whispered a response in a tongue Ayame hadn’t heard from a stranger in years, and as the elf turned to her, he slowly pulled free the headscarf on his head, freeing his ears.
Ayame smiled and nodded at the elf. “That’s better, isn’t it?”
The elf turned to his companion.
“He doesn’t understand me,” Ayame said before she could speak, “but he understands you?”
“I…” the woman moved to speak. “Yes, well, he understands me when I speak in my native tongue.”
“Can he understand me when I speak it, then?” Ayame said, switching effortlessly to the woman’s tongue.
Stunned, the woman stared at her. “You speak it?”
Ayame nodded. “I lived in Gojin for a time in my youth. In Hanseong to be exact.”
“I… see,” the woman said, frowning. Then, as her frown deepened, she turned to the children.
“Do… they speak it?” the woman asked, her words in her native tongue still.
The elderly woman frowned, but before she could speak, Haru spoke up.
“Yes, we can speak it,” he said, in the same tongue. “But we just thought it’d be rude to say anything earlier, so we didn’t.”
The woman stared aghast at the child, words lost to her. Then, her friend nudged her, speaking in the same foreign tongue he’d spoken since his arrival.
Flustered, the woman turned to him.
“So, he doesn’t understand us?” Ayame said before she could speak.
“Hunh? No, he doesn’t, he’s uh…” Stopping, the woman closed her eyes and breathed deep, as if collecting her thoughts. But before long, she opened her eyes once more and smiled.
“His aunt,” she said, “another majin, she put a spell on me, on my thoughts. Whatever I say, in whatever tongue I use, she and my friend here will understand me.”
“Does it hurt?” Hanako asked, her voice soft.
Smiling still, the woman shook her head. “No.”
Once more, her companion spoke, and once more, as the woman moved to answer, Ayame spoke up.
“Tell him if he wishes, he can cast the same spell on me.”
“Grandma!” Hanako shrieked.
“You can’t! Haru added.
“Ayah!” Ayame cried, waving the children’s words away. “It’s alright, I tell you!”
“I’m afraid that won’t be a good thing for him to do,” the woman spoke up before the children could respond.
“Oh?” Ayame replied, turning to the woman.
The woman shook her head. “His skill as a majin isn’t high enough to cast such a spell on his own.”
The elf put a hand upon the woman’s shoulder, and in response, the woman sighed and bowed slightly.
“Forgive me,” she said, then turned to face her companion square.
As Jisoo finished regaling him on all that had been said, Albion slowly turned to the children.
“Are you telling me they understood everything you’d been saying,” he said.
“It would seem so,” Jisoo replied, turning to the children.
The children held the pair in a sheepish smile.
“Damn,” he breathed. “So much for precautions.”
The elderly woman spoke up once more.
Albion turned to Jisoo, who soon turned to him.
“She wishes to know what you intend to do.”
“Ah…” Albion muttered, turning to the woman. The what was easy – he had to find his aunt, get Jisoo to Hanseong. The how, however… that was far less so.
“Albion?” Jisoo said after a spell.
Albion turned to her, his lips pursed. She, too, wanted to know his plans.
Sighing, the elf shook his head. “We have to find my aunt, and quickly.”
“Any idea where she’d be?
Sighing once more, Albion shook his head. “I’ve lost my seeking stone, and with no other means of reaching her directly…”
At those words, a coldness fell upon Jisoo’s face as her shoulders sagged and her face fell. Forcing a smile, Albion reached out and squeezed the woman’s hand. “We’re not beaten yet, Jisoo.”
Then, the elderly woman spoke up once more. Except this time, both children gasped at her words before screaming and gesturing wildly at her.
“What?” Albion frowned, turning to the woman, “what is it?”
But the woman was too busy calming the children to even look at him.
“Jisoo,” Albion added, turning to his companion. “What did she…”
It was the wide stare from Jisoo that silenced the mage, a cold hand gripping his heart at that moment.
“Jisoo,” he repeated at last, drawing the woman’s gaze. “What did she say?”
Jisoo glanced from the woman to Albion and back. “She said if she helps us, will we take them with us?”
“What?” Albion cried.
Albion stared hard at the woman, then, shaking his head, he sat tall.
“Can you translate for me?”
Jisoo frowned at the elf. “But… that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Albion smiled at his companion. “I mean translate everything I say as I say it, and everything she says as she says it. Alright?”
“Right!” Albion grinned, then turned to the woman square. She was staring at them once more.
“Why do you wish us to take you with us?” he mage said.
The elderly woman sighed at the mage, a deep sadness overcoming her as she did so.
“Because we’re like you,” she said. “We’re hated in Gaibun, and have no reason to stay here.”
The mage frowned. “Hated? Why?”
The woman sighed once more, then turned to the young girl. “Go fetch Hinata and Sakura.”
“Are you sure, Grandma?”
The elderly woman nodded. “Go fetch them.”
“Okay…” the young girl said, then rose and wandered out of the room.
A tense silence fell upon the room, one that was broken by the sound of rapid squeaks interspersed by the odd soft growl, and before long, the young girl returned with two creatures in her grasp, one in each hand. But it was the two creatures that entered right behind her that caught Albion’s eye, for they were the same two that stepped out of the shadows earlier.
“Give them one each,” the elderly woman said.
“What?” the young girl cried.
“Ayah! It’s alright! Ichiro won’t harm them since it’s you giving them the pups. Go on.”
The young girl stared at her grandmother, then at the pair, then with clear hesitation, placed the smaller pup on Jisoo’s thighs, and the larger one on Albion.
Almost at once, the larger of the creatures at the entrance began growling and huffing at the pair, its gaze intent and fierce while the other one simply stood and stared at them, though with a gaze that was equally fierce. Then, the larger creature began baring its teeth.
“Ichiro!” the elderly woman said at last, waving at the larger creature. “That’s enough!”
Huffing, the creature licked its lips and glanced at the seated woman before turning to the pair once more, but though it no longer bared its teeth, it still growled and huffed.
“What…” Jisoo soon asked, her eyes darting from the creatures by the door to the one squeaking and clinging to her trousers, “what’re we supposed to do now?”
Before any could speak, the pup on Albion’s legs stumbled to the floor, a sharp squeak escaping its lips as it fell.
In response, the creature named Ichiro huffed and darted forth before picking up the fallen pup, and as it turned, it smacked Albion in the face with its bushy tail before marching towards the door.
“Ichiro!” the woman cried. “Don’t be so rude! She’s not even yours!”
The creature paid the woman little mind, choosing to strut out of the room with the pup gently clutched within its jaws, and as it stepped out, it turned to the other creature. As they shared a glance, the second creature stepped forth, and with such gentleness, picked up the pup on Jisoo’s thighs, then hurried after its companion.
“What in the world—” Albion began.
“Do you know what they are?” the elderly woman interjected.
The mage shook his head.
As those words left the elderly woman’s lips, a startled yelp left Jisoo’s, the seated woman’s eyes growing wide as she stared hard at the elderly woman.
“What, you know what this… ikniadu is?” Albion asked.
“Ikinadu,” Jisoo corrected, turning to him, the surprise in her eyes unmistakable.
“What’s so special about them, then?” he asked.
“They’re supposed to be gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” Albion frowned.
“I mean gone! No more! All lost!”
“You’re right, they are supposed to be all gone,” the elderly woman replied. “The edict passed by our Shogun’s father at the start of his reign sealed their fate.” Then the woman sighed. “But we’ve been fighting to survive ever since.”
The despair within the woman’s words was hard for Albion to bear, far more than the sadness in her eyes.
“What do you mean, fighting to survive?” he asked.
The woman smiled. “We’re breeders. The last of my commune.”
“Breeders…?” Albion frowned, turning to Jisoo.
The woman’s lips moved as if seeking to form words, but fell silent. Then, she sat tall and turned to her companion square.
“Ikinadu were once seen as a samurai’s battle companion.”
Jisoo nodded. “My father told me of the time of his grandfather, a time when samurai would ride into battle with an ikinadu racing alongside them, or two if you were a general. They were meant to be a great asset on the battlefield, fast and lethal. He told stories of them leaping high to slice their claws right between the slats of a samurai’s armor, or simply hamstring the samurai’s horse and cause him to fall. And then there were the ambushes, many ikinadus climbing trees and waiting in silence for samurai to ride beneath before dropping on them, blinding them or killing them outright before scurrying into the bushes before the rest of the samurai’s army could even act.”
“Hm!” Jisoo nodded, warming to her tale. “He also told stories of breeders tied to the great clans. They would form great communes and compete with each other to breed the fiercest, fastest ikinadu, and the greater the breed, the more the breeder’s commune was feted. In fact, it was seen as the greatest honor to have your Daimyo chose an ikinadu you raise from pup. A great honor that brought with it great wealth – for both breeder and commune.”
“Hm!” Jisoo nodded eagerly. Then she turned to the woman. “But I never thought I’d ever get to meet a breeder.”
“If they were such a great prize,” Albion asked, glancing from Jisoo to the woman and back, “why are the ikni… ikinadu gone?”
At those words, Jisoo’s face fell, and with a sigh, she turned to him.
“My father said the ikinadu were too good as assassins. They had a cunning unlike any other creature, and good memory, too. They could lie in wait in the shadows, in water, in a great many places, and always, they went for the throat first. It took a skilled warrior to fend off an attack, and often there were three or four attacking at once. It got to a point where Daimyos were retiring half their ninja and replacing them with ikinadu. And on the battlefield, well, the ambush I mentioned, in the trees…?”
“Right, well, using that and a few other unpleasant tactics were seen as a great dishonor. So, one day, the Shogun in my grandfather’s time, our now Shogun’s father, passed an edict when he rose to his station saying any clan that had any was bringing great dishonor to themselves. After that, the communes there turned out with no-one willing to help them.”
Then the woman spoke up.
“Ah, of course,” Jisoo said, her voice sullen.
“The hunt that followed. The ikinadu were hunted. By everyone.”
“What?” Albion frowned. “Why?”
“Their meat,” Jisoo replied. “It’s meant to rival the greatest wagyu beef, and their teeth and claws… they’re meant to be almost as sharp as folded steel. A great many bandits and samurai alike paid good coin to have them turned to weapons.”
“Woah…” Albion said, then turned to the woman. “How did you survive this long, then?”
A sad smile parted the elderly woman’s lips.
“We were a commune of seven when the troubles started,” she said. “Me, my sister, Hanako and Haru’s parents—”
“Hold, you mean they’re not yours?”
The woman shook her head. “No.”
Smiling once more, the woman nodded. “When the troubles began, we had eleven ikinadu between us. But we moved a lot, always with our eyes and ears open. We were never safe anywhere, though. Sometimes, when the villagers decide to turn on us, we wised up soon enough and got away, and sometimes… well… leaving your loved ones behind is never easy no matter how many times you do it.”
Albion knew not what to say.
The woman carried her gaze about the room. “And this place, we’ve only been here a month, but I fear we may have to move soon.”
The woman sighed. “There’s a fishing village south of us—”
“Yes,” Albion nodded, “we passed near it on the way over. Hanako gave me her scarf to cover my ears with in case we were seen.”
“Yes,” the woman nodded, smiling, “I thought she’d do something like that.” Then her smile faded. “The villages are beginning to get anxious. About the only reason we’ve not left yet is we have a friend amongst them. A sweet young girl.”
“Hm.” The woman nodded, her smile returned. “Fumiko. Beautiful thing. Has all the men fawning over her. Including the married ones!”
Albion and Jisoo giggled in response, and so, too, did the woman.
“Yes, she’s been able to temper their distrust so far, but I fear we’re on borrowed time. The women of the village are getting restless, and it won’t be long before she loses her grip on the men. Only, I don’t know if I have the strength for moving again. And even if we do, I don’t know where we’ll go next.”
Sighing, the woman sat forward. “Now, you know my tale. Will you take us with you? If not me, then take my babies. All of them.”
Silence fell upon the room as Albion stared hard at the woman, and as time wore on, a heavy weight began to press upon all within, till at last, breathing deep, Albion sat tall.
“You have my word,” he said at last. “If you aid us in finding my aunt, we will take all of you with us.”
At those words, the woman’s face lit up as a wide grin parted her lips, her eyes brimming with tears as she nodded and bowed deeply at the pair over and over. In response, Jisoo leapt from her seat and hurried to the woman to hold her shoulders and whisper to her.
Through it all, Albion stared in utter silence. It was an easy thing to say, but how in the world would they find his aunt? Where would they even begin looking? What if she’d been injured and had fled to Hanseong to recover, what then? But as he raised his gaze to the children, he knew, without a doubt, that he had to try. And thus did the silence return, a much lighter silence, one interspersed by the soft whispers of the woman Jisoo as she calmed the elderly woman.
Sitting on an old bench, Albion watched the waves in the distance, the sounds in the garden calming him some. It was not often he took the time to sit in the old lady’s garden and take in all that was around them, but Ichiro had become especially irritable, snapping and growling at him no matter where in the house he sat, stood or lay down. The only way to silence him in the end seemed to simply step outside.
Sighing, the seated elf fanned himself with the wooden fan in his hand as he turned to the path leading up to the house.
“Still not back yet…” he muttered, then shook his head.
“There you are,” came a voice from behind him, and turning, Albion watched as Jisoo made her way towards him, a smile upon her lips.
“All done, then?” he said as Jisoo sat.
“Hm.” The woman nodded, then shrugged. “It’s a small house. Nothing like Jiro’s palace.”
At mention of that name, Albion’s smile began to fade, but the mage caught himself and forced it back to his lips.
“So,” Jisoo said as she sat beside him, “what were you thinking of?”
Once more, Albion turned to the path. “Hanako’s not back yet.”
The mage nodded. “A little.”
“Well, you needn’t be, Aki’s with her. She’s safe enough.”
“Hrm.” Albion muttered, but it was clear he was not convinced.
“Oh?” Jisoo soon added, drawing the mage’s gaze.
She was smiling at him.
“What?” Albion frowned.
“Are you mothering her?”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” Albion snapped, his cheeks reddening.
“Your face says otherwise.”
“Jisoo,” Albion warned, “this is no time for games.”
The woman chuckled at him, and though her words had clearly irked him, hearing her laughter soothed his rancor quite a bit.
Then, the woman sighed as a sadness came over her.
“You’re right,” she said, turning to the path herself. “This is no time for games.”
Her words brought a deep frown to Albion’s lips, and as their gaze met at last, the woman smiled.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just—”
“We will get out of here, Jisoo,” Albion interjected. “Upon my honor.”
“We’ve been here over a week, Albion,” Jisoo replied, “and still no sign of your aunt.”
“Ida’s a big place, and this is only their second trip. It’ll take a fair few more trips before they cover everywhere Aunt may be.”
“I know, but…” Jisoo began. “The longer we stay in Gaibun, the greater the chance of us being found, and I… I just… I mean I can’t…”
Turning to the woman square, Albion clasped her hands in his and squeezed gently.
“I understand your fear, Jisoo,” he said, “your frustration. I feel it, too. I’d like nothing more than to find Aunt today! Hells, me sitting here instead of being out with Ayame and Haru on that boat is eating me up inside!”
A guilty smile parted the woman’s lip at those words, but she held her peace.
“But Ayame’s right,” Albion continued. “We can’t alert suspicion at the village. Or anywhere else, for that matter. If we had our own boat, then, yes, we can hasten the search. But we don’t. We must rely on the fishermen in the village, and thus, we must only go to them in the sort of frequency they’ve become accustomed to seeing Ayame and the children. It’ll make things harder, for sure of it, but we will endure. You’ll see.”
Sighing, Jisoo shook her head and raised a gentle hand to Albion’s cheek.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Your aunt is missing, and here I am talking about my fears. What must you think of me.”
Clearing his throat, the mage sat tall, pulling Jisoo’s hand from his cheek as he went.
“It… uh… It’s nothing. You needn’t worry about—”
Without warning, Albion turned to the path, his brow furrowed deep. One of the wards he’d placed about the house had triggered, the one on the path leading up from the village. Two people approached. No fear in either. One was Hanako.
“What is it?” Jisoo asked, her voice low.
“Hanako comes,” Albion replied, his frown deepening. “But she’s not alone.”
“Oh? Who’s with her?”
Albion shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Gritting his teeth, he turned to Jisoo and, placing a hand on her shoulder, whispered words of arcane. As he whispered, the appearances of both began to morph and change till two very different people sat where they once sat. And then, in silence, the pair stared down the path. They hadn’t long to wait.
“Hai!” Hanako called out as she came into view, waving eagerly at the pair.
“Hanako!” Jisoo replied, rising as she did so. “You’ve returned.”
Then another face appeared.
“Ah, Mistress Fumiko!” Jisoo said, bowing as Albion sprang to his feet. “Welcome.”
The woman bowed in response, a warm smile upon her lips.
“Aiko!” Hanako cried as she hurried over, holding forth the basket in her arms.
“Woah!” Jisoo cried, staring into the fish basket in the child’s hands. “That’s a lot of fish!”
The young girl beamed at those words.
The woman named Fumiko spoke up, drawing the pair’s gazes just in time to see her raise another fish basket for them to see.
“How much?” Jisoo cried, her eyes wide.
Giggling, the woman bowed, then turned her gaze to Albion, and as she turned, her smile began to change and, cocking her head to the side, spoke in a tone that reminded Albion of the courtesans in Hanabira.
“No, it’s quite alright,” Jisoo replied, her smile as stiff as her back as she marched forth. “My brother’s rather tired, I’ll take them instead.”
The woman straightened, her smile returned to as it once was, and as Jisoo reached her, bowed slightly and offered the basket. But as she made to leave, she turned to Albion once more, stared deep into his eyes and smiled, then turned and left.
Albion watched her leave till she was out of sight and hearing.
“What did she say?” he asked at last, turning to Jisoo.
Jisoo had also been watching the woman, and at Albion’s question, she came alive and began marching towards the house.
“Never mind,” she said at last, then marched right into the house.
Albion turned to young Hanako. She stared back at him, and with a shrug, hurried after Jisoo.
“What in the world…?” Jisoo whispered, then sat back down.
“bion, wake up. Wake up.”
With a snort, Albion woke from his slumber, his sleep-addled eyes focusing on Jisoo as she stood over him, but for a brief moment, he was unsure who she was, for his illusion spell was still upon her.
“Jisoo,” he said at last, before closing his eyes and stretching as a deep yawn took him.
Freezing, Albion turned to the woman square, then turned to the house.
“When?” he asked, turning to Jisoo once more.
Albion turned to the door, then sprang to his feet and hurried in, Jisoo close behind.
“When you said you wished to stay hidden, I wasn’t expecting you sleeping out in the garden,” the elderly woman said as he entered the living room. “Though I suppose being a majin has its benefits.”
Smiling sheepishly, Albion lowered his gaze to his hands, and with but a thought, undid his illusion spell.
“So, did you find her?” he asked.
The elderly woman lowered her gaze where she sat and shook her head.
“No,” she said. “We didn’t find her.”
“But we found something else,” Haru added, drawing the mage’s gaze.
“What?” he frowned.
Haru turned to the seated woman, who nodded at him. Then he turned to Jisoo, but as he spoke, Jisoo fell silent, her face slowly turning ashen.
Albion frowned and turned to Jisoo after a spell. “What did he say?”
The woman stared from Albion to the boy and back, the dread in her eyes equal to that which coursed through Albion. “He… said there were wanted posters of me in Ida.”
Slowly, Albion sank into a nearby seat as he stared into the ether.
“They must know we’re still alive and in Gaibun,” he said at last.
Jisoo shook her head. “Or perhaps they’re hoping that’s the case. Perhaps some of the samurai survived the night, samurai who saw me fall over board and—”
“And they’re hoping Aunt hasn’t found you yet!” Albion gasped. “Of course!”
Then he turned to Haru. “How much are they offering?”
“More than a poor fisherman would make in his lifetime,” the elderly woman said.
“Fisher…” Albion began but soon sat ramrod straight, his eyes wide. “Hold, do you mean the vill—”
“No,” the elderly woman interjected, shaking her head as she spoke. “Hiroshi didn’t venture past the port.” Then she raised her gaze to Jisoo. “But in six days, all the men will head to Ida to sell their wares, and the posters mentioned you may be travelling in disguise.”
“Oh, gods,” Albion breathed, his eyes on Jisoo.
“Yes.” Ayame sighed, nodding. “It won’t take long for one of them to think the young stranger staying with me may be the woman in the poster, and with the reward as it is, they will try to claim it.”
“So we have six or seven days before samurai start paying us a visit,” Albion said.
Sighing once more, the woman nodded, lowering her gaze once more.
“Gods…” Albion breathed. “We do not need this right now.”
The woman turned to Albion, her tired gaze holding him square. “What do we do?”
Albion stared hard at the woman, searching his thoughts for a plan, something to hasten their search, or at least limit the damage of the fishermen going to Ida. But his mind was blank. Breaking gaze with the woman, he shook his head and rose.
“I need to think,” he muttered as he began to pace. Then he darted for the door. “I need to think.”
As Jisoo made to follow him, the woman reached for her, stopping her in her tracks. Then, she turned to the children. The siblings exchanged glances, then rose and left, closing the door softly behind them.
“Sit,” the woman said, a smile on her lips. “Please.”
Jisoo stared from the woman to the door and back again, but soon did as bidden.
“I have always been honest with you and your friend,” she said once Jisoo was seated. “But now, I ask you to do the same.”
“What do you mean?” Jisoo frowned.
“There were no posters of him, even though he’s a majin. Only of you…”
Jisoo held her peace as she slowly sat tall.
“…and the reward is from the Daimyo himself. “Not Ida’s governor, but the Daimyo.”
Jisoo sighed and lowered her gaze as she waited for the question that was sure to come.
“Who are you, child? And why would the Daimyo want you and not him?”
A sad smile parted Jisoo’s lips as she shook her head. “Because I belonged to his son.”
Jisoo nodded in response.
“So, you were his concubine?”
“More like his personal comfort woman.”
The elderly woman frowned. “He would pay such a reward for a comfort woman?”
Jisoo smiled. It was a most bitter smile. “It’s a long tale.”
The woman stared at Jisoo in silence, a soft smile her only response.
Sighing once more, Jisoo nodded and faced the woman square. “Very well. I’m from Hanseong, and my family wasn’t terribly rich, but we were comfortable. We had a small silk business, and life was good… till it wasn’t. Our workhouse burned down one day, Father claimed it was because he refused to pay protection, and we were being made examples of, but really, it didn’t matter who did it, we still lost everything. Then the debts began to mount, and before we knew it, we were about to be homeless. That was when we decided that, me being the oldest, I’ll be sold, and with the money, Father would rebuild. Then, one day, he’d buy me back.”
The elderly woman’s face fell at those words.
“Except Father sold me to an official who, after he’d bought me, got sent to Gaibun. To Hanabira—”
“Where Jiro’s palace is.”
Jisoo nodded. “Yes.”
“What did he do?”
Jisoo’s smile returned, the chill from it filling the room. “He… freed me from the official, then began parading me as a sign of his virtuous honor. When guests were around, he treated me like someone who mattered, and when they left, he…”
Breathing deep, Jisoo sighed, lowering her gaze.
“Then, one day,” she soon continued, raising her gaze to the elderly woman once more, “Albion arrived, along with his aunt.” As she spoke, Jisoo’s smile began to warm at last. “It only took one look from him to see how much pain I was in. He managed to get me away from Jiro, away from everyone, get me to his aunt. Oh, you should’ve seen how livid his aunt was when he brought me in to her! They were guests of Jiro, and here he was, dragging one of their host’s prized possessions into her bedchamber!”
The old woman grinned at those words, but kept her peace.
“But anyway, he managed to convince her to cast this spell on me, and when I realized I could make them understand me, I told them everything – about Jiro, about my family, everything. When I was done, he vowed to take me with him to Hanseong, help me find my family and take us all with him back where he came, said we could seek sanctuary there, whatever that means.”
The old woman smiled. “That majin is a good soul, isn’t he?”
Jisoo’s smile widened as she nodded. “Yes, he is.”
“You think he’ll find his aunt before it’s too late?”
As Jisoo’s smile faded, she breathed deep and let out a long sigh.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “But I’m going to trust in him.”
Nodding, the elderly woman turned to stare into the ether.
“Trust in him,” she muttered as she nodded still. Then, she smiled at Jisoo and nodded. “Very well.”
Smiling herself, Jisoo nodded back.
“Well,” she said, rising, “I’d best go see what he’s up to.”
“Yes,” the elderly woman nodded. “You’d best.”
Bowing, Jisoo, turned and left, closing the door behind her.
But then, and the door closed, the elderly woman’s entire demeanor changed, her smile fading away as an indescribably sadness came over her, and with a shake of her head, she lowered her head to her hands and sighed, her shoulders sagging greatly as she did so.
Slowly, Jisoo opened her eyes and stared into the moonlit room, for, once again, sleep had left her early. Her heart felt heavy as her head was filled with a myriad thoughts, all of them foreboding, and as she lay on her futon, she felt once again the sense of overwhelming hopelessness that been her friend and companion for so long.
Sighing, she turned to her side, the bed of air beneath her futon making the barest hiss as she turned, and she turned, her gaze fell upon the children as they slept together, their futon gently swaying as the air beneath it swirled and spun lazily, and as she stared, she couldn’t help but smile. Her brother was about their age when she left home. Did he still think of her? Will she ever truly see him again? It was a thought that tore at her, and shaking her head, she turned on her back and stared up at the ceiling, eager to silence the voice.
Just then, the soft sound of shuffled feet reached her ears, and with it, her heart froze. Rising to her elbow, she turned to the door, and it was then she noticed the light beneath it. It could only mean one thing – the main door was open. On instinct, she searched for the others. Ayame was not on her futon.
Frowning, the woman slowly rose to sitting and strained her ears. Nothing untoward to be heard. With the greatest of care, she rose and made her way to the door. Nothing still. Holding her breath, she reached for the door and opened it a smidge. It creaked.
“Who’s there?” came a hushed voice from the corridor. It as Ayame.
Standing, Jisoo opened the door a bit more, then peered out. The woman was alone, sitting in the doorway, facing the night.
Jisoo smiled and shook her head. “You?”
Sighing, the elderly woman shook her head.
With a smile, Jisoo stepped out into the corridor and closed the door as carefully as she could behind her, then made her way toward the woman. As she neared, the elderly woman moved to the side to make space for her, and before long, the two women were seated by each other.
“You have a lot on your mind, then?” Ayame asked, a smile on her lips.
As Jisoo moved to answer, she noticed the streaks down the woman’s cheeks, and as she stared at them, her heart ached,
“You’ve been crying,” she said.
“Oh! No, no!” Ayame sniffed, wiping her tears. “It’s my eyes. At his age, they water whenever they feel like.”
Jisoo knew better than to press, and nodding, she smiled and turned her gaze to the stars.
“A new moon tonight,” she said.
“Hm.” Ayame nodded. “The gods are most likely to hear your wish tonight.”
Jisoo smiled. “Yes, they are, aren’t it?”
“Yes.” The elderly woman nodded.
As a heavy silence fell upon the pair, Jisoo, turned to woman beside her.
“Everything will be alright,” she said. “You’ll see.”
For the first time that night, the elderly woman’s mask fell, and as her smile faded, her face fell at last as her shoulders began to sag.
“We’ll find his aunt,” Jisoo continued, “And we’ll all get away from her. Far, far away. You’ll see.”
The elderly woman’s smile returned, but so, too did her tears, and biting back her own tears, Jisoo slipped a hand into the woman’s and squeezed before turning to the stars once more.
Ayame stared at her in silence for a spell longer, then turned to the moon., and breathing deep, she let out a long, ragged sigh, closed her eyes and whispered words Jisoo couldn’t quite hear. Then, she sniffed, wiped her tears and turned to Jisoo.
“I’m going to Ida in the morning.”
“What, so soon?” Jisoo frowned.
The woman nodded. “We don’t have a lot of time; I think it’s worth the risk.”
Jisoo pondered the woman’s words, but soon nodded at her. “You’re right.”
“Yes.” The woman nodded, then sighed. “But I need to go on my own.”
“You’re not taking Haru with you?”
The woman shook her head. “He and Hanako have chores that must be done.” Then she leant forward. “But I do need your help.”
“To do what?”
“I intend to get Haru something, I been promising him for days now. Only, I want it to be a surprise. Can you meet me tomorrow at the little cave near where they found you? I’m going to need help getting it up here without Haru seeing.”
Jisoo’s frown deepened at this. “Won’t Hanako be jealous?”
The woman grinned and shook her head. “No. If anything, she’ll cheer for her brother when she sees it.” Then she frowned. “But don’t tell her, she’ll tell her brother.”
“Ah.” Jisoo smiled. “Alright, then. I’ll meet you tomorrow at noon. And I won’t tell Hanako.”
“Thank you.” The woman bowed. “Now, you might as well go back to bed.”
“Go on,” she swiftly added as Jisoo moved to speak. “I’ll be in shortly.”
Jisoo stared at the woman in silence a spell, then smiled and squeezed the woman’s hand before rising and heading in. As she reached the door to where the others lay, she turned to the elderly woman. Her eyes were to the heavens once more. Not knowing what else to say, Jisoo opened the door and crept in as silently as she could.
Stopping, Jisoo raised her gaze to the heavens as she massaged her neck, and as a sigh escaped her lips, she turned to her handiwork and felt nothing but pride.
“Impressive,” came a voice from not far behind her, and turning, she watched as Albion stepped out from the house, his eyes upon the pulled weeds lining the path to the gate, the path she’d been working to bring back to life all day. “I can see the paving stones much more clearly now.”
Smiling, Jisoo admired her handiwork once more.
“Never realized how much work it is though,” she soon said, turning to Albion once more.
“Well,” the mage smiled, “my offer still stands. One or two spells and—”
“No,” Jisoo said, shaking her head. “I’m doing this by hand.”
With a sigh, the mage shook his head. “Stubborn, aren’t you?”
Jisoo smiled and shrugged. “Maybe.” Then turned back to her work. But it wasn’t long before she was interrupted once more.
“Hey!” came a yell from inside. “Get back here!”
As one, both Albion and Jisoo turned to the house, with the mage darting out of the way just in time as a grinning Hanako raced out, a rag in her hand.
“Give it back!” thundered Haru as he raced after her.
“You’ll have to catch me first!” Hanako giggled as she raced behind Jisoo, waving the rag triumphantly.
“Give it back!”
“Hey, hey!” Jisoo yelled as she rose, planting herself between the siblings as Haru reached her. “What’s going on?”
“Hanako finished her chores, and now she won’t stop bothering me!”
“Not my fault you’re slow.”
“What?” the girl cried, turning to Jisoo. “He’s always doing the same to me when he finishes first!”
“No, it’s not!”
“Yes, it is! I’m older!”
“Just give it back!”
“Alright! Alright!” Jisoo yelled, grabbing Haru as he lunged at his sister.
“Hanako!” she continued, turning to levy a hard stare at the girl. “Give him back the rag.”
Huffing in frustration, the young girl stamped her foot, glaring at the woman, but soon, she turned her glare to her brother before tossing the rag at him.
“Thank you!” Haru said, the air of triumph unmistakable in his voice.
“Thank you!” Hanko repeated, her mockery of his voice biting.
“Wha— Jisoo! Tell her to stop mocking me!”
“No, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are!”
“Alright!” Jisoo thundered, then turned to Hanako once more. “Stop haranguing your brother!”
The young girl frowned. “What’s har… harrang—”
“Bothering! Stop bothering your brother!”
Then she turned to Haru. “And you! What’s taking so long!”
“Don’t Wha me, young man! You should’ve been done ages ago!”
“But Hanako keeps bothering me!”
“No, I don’t!”
“Fine!” Jisoo cried, then grabbed the boy by his shoulders.
“You!” she spat, spinning Haru around before giving him a gentle shove. “Go finish your chores!” Then she turned to Hanako. “And you! Stay here and help me!”
The siblings turned to one another before sticking their tongues out at each other, and as Haru marched back to the house, Hanako turned to Jisoo, her smile returned.
“So, what should I do, then?” she asked.
“Well,” Jisoo sighed as her mind raced, “you can help me with…”
Then, she paused and stared at the sun. It was almost noon.
“Actually,” she said, wiping her hands on her monpe before turning to the young girl, lowering her voice and bending forward as she did so, “I need you to keep your brother here. Keep him distracted. Aright?”
“Why?” Hanako asked, cocking her head to the side as she frowned.
Jisoo moved to speak, but soon remembered the promise she’d given the night before.
“Because there’s something I must do,” she said. “And I don’t want him underfoot.”
Young Hanako’s brow deepened at this, then her eyes lit up. “You’ve got a surprise for him!”
“What?” Jisoo gasped. “No!”
“Is it that toy horse he’s been bothering Grandma about?”
“No, it’s nothing like that, it’s just—”
“Can I come?”
“Oh please!” Hanako whined. “Please! Just let me come. Please! Albion can look after Haru! Haru likes being around him!”
“You’re going somewhere?”
Jisoo turned to the mage behind her. His brow was furrowed deep.
Jisoo stared a spell, then sighed and stepped forth.
“Ayame’s planning a surprise for Haru,” she whispered. “She needs my help to bring it up to the house.”
“Ah.” Albion smiled, but soon frowned. “Why didn’t she say something to me.”
Jisoo smiled sheepishly at her friend. “I think she’s a little… scared of you.”
“Ah…” Albion replied. “The whole… majin thing.”
Sighing, the mage shrugged. “Go on, then. I’ll keep Haru occupied.”
Jisoo smiled at her friend. “Thank you.”
But as she spun about, her smile dissipated as her gaze was upon a beaming Hanako.
The girl widened her grin.
“Fine,” Jisoo said at last, rolling her eyes as she did so, “you can come.”
“Keep your voice down!” Jisoo hissed.
“Sorry!” Hanako whispered.
Shaking her head, Jisoo made her way towards the small gate, but as Hanako fell in step behind her, the ikinadu Aki stepped out from the shadows and fell in beside the young girl.
“If she doesn’t come, she’ll start squeaking, and Haru’ll come see what’s going on!”
Jisoo glared hard at the young girl, her teeth gritted hard.
“Gah, fine!” she cried at last, and stepped forth, a giggling Hanko behind her as Aki sauntered on beside the girl.
For the thousandth time, Ayame turned to the mouth of the cave within which she sat. And for the thousandth time, she found herself asking if this truly was the only way, and if she truly was prepared to live with her choice. But, as with all other time, she sighed and shook her head, her guilt overflowing as she swallowed against the pain in her heart. It was this or losing her babies, that was the only choice before her, and with such a choice, there was nothing else she could do.
“Ancestors forgive me,” she whispered once again. “Forgive me.”
That one word tore through the elderly woman like a thunderbolt, numbing her soul as her heart as her entire frame quivered in dread.
“No!” she gasped, rising.
No, no!” she screamed before racing towards the cave’s entrance with all the strength she could muster, but before she’d taken her fifth step, her dread turned into full-blown horror as young Hanako raced into view, the ikinadu Aki close behind.
“Grandma!” the young girl cried as she raced towards the woman.
“What’re you doing here?” Ayame breathed.
“It’s my fault,” Jisoo said as she stepped into the cave. “She was insistent, and—”
“Why did you bring her here?” the elderly woman yelled, tears brimming her eyes as she glared at Jisoo. “Why in gods’ name would you bring her here?”
Stopping, Jisoo slowly stood tall, as she frowned at the woman.
“Why would it matter?” Jisoo said at last. “If she’s here, she can’t tell Haru anything.”
“But you weren’t supposed to bring her?” the woman shrieked.
“Why is that an issue?” Jisoo asked as the young girl slowly shied away from the elderly woman. “What’s the harm in having her here?”
“Because…” Ayame began, but as she glanced past Jisoo, whatever it was she saw behind the woman crushed her spirit and let her tears run free.
At those words, Jisoo froze, her eyes wide as all blood drained from her face.
“It’s been a while. I see you’ve been keeping well.”
The stunned woman stared at Ayame, and as their eyes met, the elderly woman lowered her gaze and bowed her head.
Forcing a smile, Jisoo turned to Hanako and Aki. There was fear in Hanako’s eyes as she stared at what lay behind Jisoo. As for Aki, the ikinadu had her teeth bared, glaring at what had frightened Hanako so.
“Hanako,” Jisoo whispered.
The girl turned to her.
“Go to your Ayame.”
The little girl shook her head.
“What?” the voice from behind Jisoo continued. “No warm words of welcome for an old friend?”
“Go, Hanako,” Jisoo pressed, nudging the child forward. “Go before Aki does something she shouldn’t.”
At last, the young girl acquiesced, and as she hurried to her grandmother’s side, Jisoo breathed deep, stood tall and spun around, careful to place herself before Aki as she turned.
“Daisuke,” she said, staring at the samurai standing in the middle of the group of seven that were blocking the cave entrance. “I wish I could say it’s nice seeing you again.”
The samurai chuckled. “You always were a cold one. I never understood what my Lord Jiro saw in you.” Then he sighed. “No matter, you’ll be in Hanabira soon enough. He’ll be most pleased to have you in his company once again.”
Jisoo swallowed hard, but said nary a word. It was taking all she had to keep her tears at bay.
Smiling still, the samurai turned to Ayame. “Looks like you were telling the truth after all, old woman.”
Frowning. Hanako turned to the woman. “Grandma, what does he mean?”
Forcing a smile, Ayame grasped the young girl’s hand and squeezed tight. “It doesn’t matter, my dear. Alright? None of it matters.” Then she raised her gaze.
“None of it…” she continued, but she did not have the strength to pretend anymore, and soon her smile faded.
“Forgive me, Jisoo,” she soon added. “As the ancestors bear me witness, I wish there was another way.”
Forcing a smile, Jisoo turned to the woman and shrugged.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” she said, her tears breaking free at last. “You were protecting your babies. Right?”
Not knowing what to say, the old woman nodded instead.
Nodding herself, Jisoo widened her smile. “Then, there’s nothing to forgive.”
“Give her her reward and let’s go,” the samurai Daisuke growled, and at his words one of the samurai tossed a bag at the woman, the weight of its contents sending it sinking deep into the sand as it landed before Ayame.
“Let’s go,” the samurai Daisuke muttered, and at his words, one of the others stepped forth and lay a heavy hand upon Jisoo’s shoulder.
“No, no!” Hanako cried as she stepped forth, but Ayame’s grip held her back.
“No!” the young girl shrieked as she fought her grandmother’s grip.
“Ayame!” Jisoo cried, switching to her native tongue. “These men do not know what Aki is! Do not give them a reason to ponder!”
“I’ll be alright! Just tell my friend… tell him to get home. Tell him to forget about me.”
“Let’s go!” the samurai Daisuke barked.
The hand upon Jisoo’s shoulder pulled hard on her, sending her stumbling backwards.
“No! No, I won’t let them take you, no!”
Breaking free of the elderly woman’s grip, Hanako raced forth and hugged Jisoo tight.
“I don’t have time for this!” the samurai Daisuke snapped before stepping forth and crashing a fist against the side of Hanako’s head, then pulled the dazed girl off Jisoo and tossed her onto the sand.
As she fell, Aki darted forth, standing before the fallen girl, her teeth bared as she growled at the men.
“What is that?” muttered one of the samurai, turning to the one named Daisuke.
“How should I know?” the samurai spat. “Who knows what these peasants are doing to their pets around here.”
“Looks like a… mongoose… dog,” said another.
“More like mongoose cat from the way it’s standing,” said a third.
“You ever seen a cat grow so big?” demanded the second samurai.
“Well, whatever it is, it’s growling’s getting under my skin,” muttered a fourth, and stepping forth, he pulled free his katana and made to strike the ikinadu down where she was.
But Jisoo’s cry fell on deaf ears, and as the stepped forth, the samurai steadied himself and swung, a clean strike that would’ve cleaved Aki’s skull in two. But the strike never found its mark, for at the last moment, the ikinadu darted to the side, the samurai’s blade swinging in an arc past her, and before he could right himself, she leapt at him with a suddenness he was not prepared for, and though he darted back to regain distance enough to use his blade, it was all for naught, for the instant she was within range, the ikinadu swiped her claws at either side of his neck, slicing through his jugulars and creating a blood fountain on either side of his head, and as her paws touched the sand, she turned to the others and bared her teeth as she hunched forward.
The others stood stunned, their lips agape as their eyes went from the creature to their companion as he slowly crumpled to the earth and back again. Then they turned to their leader.
“What are you waiting for?” Daisuke barked. “Kill that thing!”
“Daisuke, no!” Jisoo cried, and lunged at the men, grabbing as many of them as she could before pushing forward with all her might.
“Run!” she shrieked. “Aki, run!”
But Jisoo was only able to hold three of them back, and as the other three pushed past her, the ikinadu’s growl deepened as it lunged forth.
Except the three were ready for her, their blades a blur as they attacked in harmony, each one defending the others as they attacked with a barrage of slashes and thrusts, forcing the ikinadu on the retreat deeper and deeper into the cave, and though none of their attacks struck home, it was clear it was only a matter of time before victory was the samurai’s.
Then, at last, it happened, a thrust from one of the samurai catching the ikinadu in the shoulder, the blade slicing through her as a deep sharp yowl escaped her lips, and as the samurai pulled free his blade, the ikinadu fell to her knees. Sensing victory, the men closed in to end the creature’s life.
Through it all, Jisoo had watched in desperation, her heart in her throat as her mind raced, and as the samurai closed in to end Aki, she scanned her surroundings. Then, as her eyes fell upon a stone near Daisuke’s feet, she dove for it and flung it at the middle samurai before her captor could stop her.
As the stone struck the man, he and the others paused and glanced at her. It was brief, barely more than a moment, but it was all the ikinadu needed, and with a squeak, she leapt past the men, and raced for the exit.
“Oh no, you don’t!” Daisuke growled as he pulled free his blade, ready to cut the creature down, but as he raised his sword, Jisoo grabbed his arm and held it aloft.
“Gah! Let go!”
Jisoo didn’t, not till Aki had raced past, and as the ikinadu sped off into the distance, she grinned and let go of the samurai, her eyes upon Aki as she disappeared. And there they stayed till a fist crashed into her jaw, sending her careening to the floor.
“Get after that thing! Now!” Daisuke barked to the three who’d come close to ending the ikinadu.
“You! Go with them!” Daisuke continued, pointing to one of the samurai Jisoo had managed to keep out of the fray.
“You!” Daisuke continued, pointing to the last samurai. “Bring Kuno’s body.”
“Hai!” the samurai cried and scrambled to do as they’d been ordered.
Then, Daisuke turned to Jisoo as she lay prone in the dirt, his eyes ablaze.
“If you give me any more trouble, I will beat that pretty little face of yours into a pulp!” he seethed, then reached for her hair. “Now, up!”
Yanking hard, the samurai pulled Jisoo to her feet, and with a sharp tug, began leading her away from the cave.
“Leave her alone!” Hanako yelled, and, breaking free of her grandmother’s grip, raced forth to the samurai before sinking her teeth into his back.
Roaring, the samurai pulled the child off him.
“Damn you, you little…!” he yelled, then reached for his belt.
Then, it was as if time slowed to a crawl for Jisoo, and in that slowness, she watched as the samurai gripped his tanto. In that slowness, she watched as the samurai pulled free the blade, and in that slowness, she watched as he plunged the dagger deep into young Hanako’s chest.
As one, the two women shrieked as young Hanako curled forward from the blow, and as the samurai pulled free his blade, the pair leapt for the child. But Jisoo’s leap was cut short by the samurai as he grabbed her hair once more. Filled with rage, she spun about and slapped him with all her might, channeling all her pain and hate into her palm. But the slap did little to faze the samurai, and with a snarl, he barreled a fist into her gut and slung her over his shoulder as she doubled over.
Then, as the samurai Daisuke carried Jisoo off towards their hidden boat, she watched in stunned silence, tears streaming down her face, as the elderly woman Ayame held dear Hanako in her arms, her wails haunting as she held the lifeless child close.
Desperately, the ikinadu raced on, her blood pouring from the deep cut in her shoulder. The pain was excruciating, but she knew she couldn’t stop. They were behind her, she was sure, no doubt tracking her by her blood trail, and in her current state, should they reach her, she would surely die. She had to get to the house. She had to get to Ichiro and the pointed-ears one. She had to before they reached her.
And so, onward she raced, her vision swimming as her blood continued to run free. But her resolve remained strong, and as she crashed through the undergrowth, she sniffed madly about her. But she could smell nothing above the stench of her own blood , something that worried her no end. If she couldn’t smell them, the only was she had of knowing of their presence was by sound, and by then it would be too late.
Fighting against the rising panic within her, the ikiadu grunted as she urged herself on, her teeth gritted hard as she raced on through the brushes till at last, she burst out onto the path that would lead to the house.
“Over here!” came a cry from behind her.
On instinct, the ikinadu ducked and dove to the side, the whistle of steel filling her ears as something immensely sharp sliced through her fur, and digging deep, she darted forth. But she was not fast enough to evade the slash that followed, the tip of the samurai’s blade slicing deep into her right rump, and with a yelp, she leapt forward, willing herself to go even faster.
“Hurry! This way!”
She was almost there! Just up the hill! She could make it! She had to make it!
“Hurry! Don’t let it get away!”
“How is it still running so fast!”
“How should I know? Just don’t lose it again!”
At last, the gate to the house came into view, a euphoric wave rushing over the ikinadu as she raced for it. She was almost home! She was almost there! Just a few more paces! Just a few more!
“”Come on! It’s getting away! Move your—”
At that moment, a new scent filled Aki’s nostrils, and as its meaning dawned on her, a raging ball of fury flew out of the shadows at the man closest to her, its shrieks ringing out as it clawed at the man.
Slowing at last, Aki turned, her joy overwhelming as she watched her beloved Ichiro charging at the samurai, his fury all-encompassing.
But then, as the samurai made to surround the fury-filled ikinadu that was Ichiro, a sharp crack rang out as white flash flew over Aki, startling the injured ikinadu, and as she stared, she watched as one of the samurai was flung to the earth, a smoking scorch in his throat.
The other samurai stopped and stared past her, all stunned. Even Ichiro stopped, the startled ikinadu staring first at Aki, then at what lay behind her. Then, at last, Aki turned, and what she saw both warmed her heart and filled her with dread. It was the pointy-ears, his face filled with rage, and his entire frame shimmering in the noon sun.
“Aki!” came a sharp cry from behind the pointy-ears, but as Haru burst into view and was about to race past him, the pointy-ears caught him, holding him fast.
In response, young Haru fought the pointy-ears’ grip, but the point-ears held firm, and before long, young Haru’s form began to shimmer, too.
Then, Aki felt a strength she’d never known fill her limbs. On instinct, she glanced at her legs, and for sure of it, she, too shimmered. With lips agape, she turned to Ichiro. As their gazes met, he, too, began to shimmer.
The samurai watched it all, backing away from them as startled gasps escaped their lips. But soon, their courage returned, and gripping their blades tight, they charged at the pointy-ears, with one turning to face Ichiro square. Then the battle was joined, with Aki throwing herself at the samurai who’d chosen to face her beloved Ichiro, the sounds of battle rising high till at last, the samurai were all dead.
Panting, Aki turned to Ichiro, and as her beloved turned to her, the wounded ikinadu felt her strength begin to fade and fade fast, and before she could make so much as a sound, her feet gave way, and as she fell to her knees, she lurched forwards and began to retch, blood flowing from her lips.
Cursing, the pointy-ears ran to her, pulling Ichiro aside as he knelt beside her, and placing his hands on her side, he whispered words that burned Aki’s ears, but called forth a warmth to his hands that healed her insides and returned some of her strength.
Staggering to her feet, the ikinadu grunted and spat out the remains of the blood in her mouth, then tested her leg. The cut still pained her, but was nowhere near before. Then, she remembered the others. With eyes wide, she yipped at the pointy-ears, then at Ichiro, but neither moved. Stamping her feet, Aki yipped once more, her voice a higher pitch, and without waiting for a response, she spun about and raced forth. As she ran, however, she glanced behind her. Her beloved Ichiro was racing after her, along with the pointy-ears and Haru, both of whom kept pace with a speed she’d never seen of them before. But it was a sight that warmed the ikinadu’s heart nonetheless, and turning forward, she dug deep and raced on. Perhaps it was not too late. If she could get the pointy-ears to the cave in time, perhaps she could still save Hanako and the others.
“Hang in there,” she thought. “Help is coming. Just hang in there.”
Albion’s heart beat loudly in this chest as his lungs burned with an unquenching fire, but he raced on, nonetheless.
“Please let them be safe,” he thought for the hundredth time. “Please let me not be too late.”
Racing on, his boots digging deep into the beach’s sand, he glanced from Aki to what lay before him, and then to what lay around them. The last thing he needed was to be caught out in the open under a hail of arrows. Then, at last, the openings of a cave began to be visible in the distance, and as he glanced at Aki, he saw the ikinadu veering straight for it.
Gritting his teeth, the mage turned to the boy racing beside him. Haru was beyond spent, the pace taking more than he had to give, and breathing deep, he muttered under his breath, lending the child some more of his strength. As the boy shuddered, he turned to him. Albion nodded in response, then raced on.
The entrance of the cave was visible now, as was the pool of blood before it.
“No…” Albion breathed, but didn’t slow his steps.
But when he saw the woman sitting in the sand just within the cave, bent over and cradling a bundle tight as she rocked to and fro, the mage stopped at last. It was not the sight of the woman that had stopped him, or the sound of her deep and haunting wails, but the lone arm that hung from the bundle in the woman’s arms, and the blood that had pooled beneath her.
“Hanako!” he heard Haru shriek before racing past him.
At last, the woman looked up. It was indeed Ayame, and as she saw them, she sat up, and it was then that Albion saw it truly was Hanako, the light long gone from the young girl.
“No…” he breathed once more, his whole frame going numb as his heart broke.
But there was no sign of Jisoo.
Tearing his gaze from the woman, Albion scanned the cave. Save for the pool of blood not far from where the elderly woman sat, there was nothing in the cave. Except a single satchel.
At first, Albion moved to dismiss the satchel, but something about it caught his eye, and turning to it, he stared hard at it, his brow furrowed deep. Then, he noticed what it was. The insignia upon it, he’d seen it before. In Hanabira. In Jiro’s palace.
As that realization dawned on him, the chill returned, this time defiling him as it numbed him. For that satchel to be in that cave at that time could mean only one thing. Slowly, he turned to the woman. Haru was kneeling beside her, the elderly woman consoling the weeping child. But the sight merely fueled his building rage.
“You told them, didn’t you?” he seethed.
The pair turned to him. Neither understood his words.
Clenching his fist, he stepped forth. As he did so, the pair cowered from him, the ikinadus bounding to their side and glaring at him. It was clear they all sensed his rage. Gritting his teeth, his gaze boring into the woman, Albion marched round them deeper into the cave towards the satchel. Picking it up, she spun about and tossed it before the woman, its contents spilling as it fell. The silence that followed was deafening.
“You told them!” Albion said at last. “How could you?”
The elderly woman stared from the bag to Albion, her face ashen. Then Haru spoke up. His voice was quivering, and though Albion could not understand his words, he understood the pain and rage within them. He, too, had realized what had happened, and every time Ayame spoke, Haru’s voice rose in pitch in response, his rage clearly building till at last, the boy screamed at her and raced from the cave.
As the silence returned Albion watched as what was left of Ayame’s spirit shattered, the woman too worn to even weep. But he felt no pity for her. No doubt, the samurai that came for Aki’s life came to Hanju at her behest, chasing after the ikinadu because of what she was. No doubt Hanako fought to protect the ikinadu, and got slain for it. And now Jisoo was gone. No, there was no pity for this woman, for her pain was her own doing.
“Gods, you’re pathetic,” he snarled, and marched forth.
Stopping at the mouth of the cave, Albion spun about, his brow furrowed deep.
Ayame was staring at him.
If the samurai had taken her to Ida, there was only one place they’d keep her.
“Don’t think this absolves you of what you did,” he growled, then spun on his heels and marched forth, oblivious to the ikinadu named Aki, who had been staring intently at Hanako’s body the whole time, tear her gaze to glance at him as he walked past before turning to Ichiro, and as an understanding passed between them, the pair began following him.
But soon, Albion sensed their presence, and stopping, he turned to face them square.
“What’re you doing?” he demanded. “You can’t follow me where I’m going. If they get their hands on you, you’ll surely die.”
The ikinadu stared blankly at him.
Sighing, Albion shook his head.
“Go away! Shoo!” he cried before resuming his march.
The ikinadus began following him once more.
After a few paces, the mage stopped, shaking his head as he turned to them once more.
“Are you serious?”
Once more, the ikinadus stared silently at him.
The mage breathed deep and shook his head. “Why am I even talking to you? You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?”
Still, the ikinadus stared silently at him.
At last, the mage sighed. “Very well. But if you die, on your heads be it.”
And with that, the mage spun about and marched forth, vengeance the only thing on his mind.
Sitting at the back of the izakaya, the young man kept his head low as he sipped on his sake, his hood covering his face and hiding his features from the low light of the room. The place was busy, which was expected for this part of the city, the noise of the patrons enough to drown out the man’s thoughts.
Just then, another patron burst in, panting as he scanned the sea of faces, and as his gaze fell upon the young man, he swallowed hard and made his way towards him.
“You’re late,” the young man growled as the patron reached them.
“Forgive me Misstr—”
“We’re in public, Aku,” the man interjected.
“Forgive me.” The patron bowed.
Sighing, the man nodded.
“So, is it true?” he soon asked.
The patron sighed and nodded himself. “Yes.”
“They’ve taken her to the castle.”
“No sign of him Mi… No sign of him.”
Gritting his teeth, the young man closed his eyes and breathed deep.
The young man looked up, frowning. “What?”
The patron leant forward, the gleam in his eyes unmistakable.
“I passed a young man on the way here,” he said. “He seemed in a hurry to be somewhere.”
“And what does that have to do with me?”
“He was wearing an ill-fitting kimono, and while he looked like a local, he walked like a foreigner.”
Slowly, he young man sat tall.
“And he had two dogs on either side of him,” the patron continued. “Tall ones. Their fur was perfect.”
The young man frowned. “I don’t—”
“Only the rich in Ida can groom their dogs to that degree, and that man’s attire did not speak of money.”
“Gods…” the young man gasped. “You mean…”
Slowly, the patron nodded, but soon leant forward. “But he’s not showing much caution. If I can see though his actions, it won’t be long before the call goes out of a majin in our midst.”
Smiling, the young man shook his head. “He’s always been a reckless boy.” Then the smile faded. “Though I wonder where he got the dogs from, or why he needs their nature cloaked.”
The patron shrugged in response.
“Hrm…” the young man muttered, staring in the ether, then turned to the patron once more. “Do you remember where he went?”
The patron nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” The young man nodded and rose. “Let’s go.”
“At once!” said the patron, then leapt to his feet and headed for the door, the young man following close behind.
Albion made his way through the city with hesitant steps, his head bowed slightly as he sought to recall the ways about Ida. He’d only been through the city once, and even then, they’d been in a hurry to get to the port. But they had passed by the castle, and it was this that the mage sought to recollect.
“Could it be down here?” he thought as he took another left turn, and as a vaguely familiar wall came into view, he smiled.
“Finally!” he breathed.
Then, remembering where he was, he paused and scanned his surroundings. There were a few people walking past the entrance to the alley within which he stood, but none paid him any mind. Satisfied, he turned to the ikinadus. They were staring up at him.
“Right,” he muttered, “our priority is Jisoo. We find her above all else. No drawing attention to ourselves till we find her. Understand?”
The ikinadus stared on, making nary a sound.
The mage sighed and shook his head.
“What am I doing?” he muttered, raising his gaze, “I’m bloody talking to animals as if they can understand me.”
Sighing, he scanned the entrance once more. None still paid him any mind. Satisfied, he undid his illusions, then placed a cloaking spell about them, centered on him. Then, breathing deep, he turned to the wall.
“Here goes,” he muttered, then call forth a wind spire beneath their feet, using it to raise the three of them up and over the wall. For a mercy, the ikinadus stayed silent, though it was clear the spell unnerved them greatly. Regardless, soon as they touched the earth on the other side of the wall, the two creatures hunched forward, their eyes scanning their soundings as they sniffed silently.
Going into a crouch, Albion scanned his surroundings as he fought to form his thoughts. He was over the wall, now what?
“Now what indeed,” he muttered, then turned to the great building before him, and breathing deep, he sighed and rose.
“Let’s go,” he muttered and hurried forth, the ikinadus’ paws as soft as snowfall as they hurried forth on either side of him.
Resting on its sill, Jisoo stared out the window beside her with blood-red eyes as she gazed at sights unseen. It had been a beautiful dream, freedom, but she should’ve known that was all it was destined to be. At least, then, its end wouldn’t hurt so much. Worse, now, she must live the rest of her life knowing she’d brought death to such a beautiful child.
“Damn you, Daisuke,” she muttered. “Damn you. Damn all of you.”
Sniffling, she wiped her nose and stared out of the window, and in silence, she watched the samurai slowly milling about the courtyard below, her eyes lazily drifting from those training in the courtyard to those sitting together enjoying each other’s company, and even to those wandering the yard with no clear destination.
As she watched, however, a most peculiar thing happened. Her gaze drifted to one particular samurai who saw fit to head to one of the outhouses in the courtyard, but as he opened the door, something within seemed to startle him, so much so he reached for his katana. Then, without warning, the samurai reached for his throat, fell forward and simply… vanished.
Frowning, Jisoo sat forward as the door to the outhouse closed seemingly of its own accord. Tearing her gaze from the scene, she scanned the courtyard. None seemed to have noticed anything untoward. But she knew what she’d seen. Then, the door of the outhouse opened and closed of its own accord again, and leaning against the window, she scanned the courtyard once more, her mind racing. There was an explanation for what she’d seen, one as simple as it was incredulous, and though a part of her prayed fervently for it to be true, a bigger part of her wished her friend hadn’t been so reckless as to charge headlong into the jaws of death just for her.
“Please let it not be you, Albion,” she whispered as she scanned. “Please let it not be you.”
Just then, the lock of the door behind her turned, and as she spun about, she watched as Daisuke marched in, flanked by an older samurai. The two men held her in a fiery glare.
“Shut the door,” Daisuke ordered.
“Hai!” cried a voice from outside, and as the pair stepped forward, the door was closed and locked.
“I was telling Kenji of your mongoose dog earlier,” Daisuke said as he wandered towards her.
“Oh?” Jisoo frowned, sitting tall as she spoke.
“Hm.” Daisuke nodded. “He told me a most interesting tale. Tell me, did you know that thing was an ikinadu?”
The samurai smiled. “Playing the fool, I see. Well, it changes nothing. Kohei and the others haven’t returned, so I must assume there must be a burrow or two full of those things on that island. Soon as you’re off to Hanabira, I’m going to return to that island of yours, and purge every little blasted creature off there, and while I’m there, I might just put the local peasants to the sword for daring to harbor those creatures right under our noses.”
Jisoo’s face turned ashen at those words, her eyes wide as she shook her head at him.
“No,” she said, rising. “No, Daisuke, no, leave them alone. They had no idea they were there!”
“Ah!” The samurai smiled. “So, you do know what an ikinadu is!”
Swallowing hard, Jisoo nodded.
“There’s only one burrow,” she continued. “A burrow of four.”
“Four?” Daisuke frowned. “You mean to tell me four of those things will be enough to face Kohei and the others?”
“They’re ambush predators, Daisuke,” the older samurai said. “If Kohei wandered into their trap, it’s feasible he succumbed. And besides, didn’t you say one killed Kuno right in front of you?”
“Yes,” Daisuke replied testily as he spun to face the man square, “but Kuno was weak, useless. This is Kohei we’re speaking of! And Daichi! You mean to tell me samurai of their caliber would succumb to only four?”
The older samurai moved to speak, but instead fell silent.
“Exactly!” Daisuke spat, then spun about.
“Was the old woman lying to us?” he demanded, his gaze fierce upon Jisoo. “Did the majin really abandon you on Hanju? Or has he been there the whole time?”
It was now Jisoo’s turn to fall silent.
A cold smile parted the samurai’s lips. “I see.”
Then, he spun about to the older samurai. “Gather as many of the men as we can spare. We will go hunt these ikinadus, and the majin.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes.” The samurai nodded, his smile growing. “Lord Jiro would be most pleased if we present this majin’s head to him when he comes for his woman. He will be most pleased indeed.”
Daisuke’s smile spread to the older samurai, and with a bow, he turned to do as he’d been ordered.
Jisoo watched in silence as the men left her be, her heart in her throat, but as the door locked once more, she turned to the window, her eyes scanning frantically.
She saw nothing.
Shaking her head, she undid the window’s latch and pulled it open, then peered outside.
Still, she saw nothing.
Just as she was about to go back inside, a soft breeze began blowing in her face, and frowning, she scanned for its source.
“Jisoo, step back from the window.”
With a yelp, the woman scrambled back from the window before falling into the floor on her rear, her eyes wide and upon the window, and as she stared, she watched as the breeze blew in, then shut the window before blowing into a corner, and as it petered out into nothing, her elven friend shimmered into view, the two ikinadus Aki and Ichiro on either side of him.
“There you are!” the elf gasped. “I’ve been looking all over for y—”
But the mage’s words were cut short by Jisoo herself as she scrambled to her feet and lunged at him, wrapping her arms about his neck and hugging him tight before burying her face in his neck, tears streaming down her face as she sobbed.
“There, there,” the mage said as he held her close. “It’s alright now. It’s alright. I’m here, it’s alright now.”
“What’re you doing here?” Jisoo cried as she pulled herself from him. “Why would you—”
But at that moment, the key was turned once more in the lock.
“Quick!” Jisoo hissed as she darted away from Albion. “Hide!”
But she needn’t have bothered, for, already, Albion had recast his cloak, standing still as the door swung open and a frowning samurai stepped in, a hand on his katana.
“Is everything alright?” the samurai asked.
“Hm? Oh everything’s alright, I just…”
That was as far as Jisoo’s words went, however, for in that moment, a deep guttural growl rang out, a sound that drew the blood from Jisoo’s face and drew her eyes wide.
“What’s that?” the samurai said, turning to where the sound came from, but he saw nothing.
“What… what sound?” Jisoo stammered.
The samurai took a cautious step forward. The growl grew in strength, echoing strongly about the room. Then, as the samurai took another step forward. The ikinadu Aki stepped out as if from the very air itself, her teeth bared as she glared at the samurai.
“You?” the samurai gasped.
Without warning, the ikinadu lunged at him, the startled samurai only just able to draw his blade in time to parry the beast’s swipe at his throat, and as he steadied himself to swing in response, another beast leapt from nothing, and with eyes wide, the man ducked beneath the lunge and darted from the room, sounding the alarm as he went, the beasts in pursuit.
“What in the hells has gotten into her?” Albion shrieked as he undid his cloaking spell.
“That samurai was there when Hanako died,” Jisoo replied, wincing.
“Ah, gods damn it!” Albion barked, then hurried forth. “Come, then!”
Racing through the door, the pair came to a screeching halt at what lay before them. The ikinadus had forced the samurai down two floors, but from their vantage point, they could see at least ten others racing up the stairs. It wouldn’t be long before the beasts were surrounded, and there was no way for them to reach the beasts before the other samurai did.
Gritting his teeth, Albion stared down the stairwell. Many more samurai were racing up it.
“What’re we going to do?” Jisoo asked, her voice quivering.
“Hang on tight!” Albion barked in response, and as Jisoo did as ordered, the mage flung forth two wind vines, one for each beast, and as he pulled them towards him, he pulled Jisoo close and leapt off into the stairwell, the woman at his side screaming for all she was worth as the four of them plummeted straight toward the wooden floor below, and just as they were about to crash into it, a wind spire erupted beneath them, cushioning their plummet till at last, the four landed safely on their feet.
“Run!” Albion barked, and rushed forth.
At first, the ikinadu that was Aki made to run for the stairs, but as she saw the stampede of samurai racing for them, she bolted for the door, her beloved Ichiro close behind, and together, the four raced right out of the main castle.
But their nightmare was not over, for as they ran, samurai appeared seemingly out of nowhere, bearing down upon them with weapons drawn. Then the arrows began to rain.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it!” Albion roared before whispering words of arcane.
As he finished, the four of them began to shimmer, strength flowing into their limbs as Albion and Jisoo’s new pace forced the ikinadus to increase their stride.
“Where are we going?” Jisoo cried as an arrow thudded against Albion’s back, drawing a startled yelp from the elf.
“I don’t know!” he yelled in response. “Just run!”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I don’t bloody know, Jisoo! I wasn’t expecting the blasted beast to become feral and attack people when we’re this deep in enemy territory, did I!”
“Well, we can’t just keep running! We’ve got to have—”
“Just run, damn it!”
And so, on did they run, their blind dash first taking them towards the castle gate, but when samurai began racing straight for them from there, they turned and headed towards the eastern part of the castle, only to be halted by a hail of arrows as that was the archery training grounds, and ducking past that, they raced toward the baths, their limbs growing heavy as their lungs burned.
But even as they ran, Albion knew they would have to make a stand, there were just too many samurai, and that thought filled him with dread, for though his enchantments would protect him from every blade and arrow, they offered much less protection from blows and blunt weapons, and should they do battle with this many, it was only a matter of time before the samurai realized that.
Then, it happened, samurai racing at them from every direction. They were cornered at last.
“Get behind me,” Albion panted, pulling Jisoo behind him as the ikinadus leapt before them, teeth bared as they growled at the slowly advancing samurai.
Breathing deep, Albion called forth the largest wind blade he could and held it aloft.
“Come no closer!” he barked, the blade’s wicked edge shimmering in the evening sun.
The samurai stopped their advance, their eyes darting from the mage to the blade and back. Then, they began to part as two samurai marched to the fore, and as they stepped forth, the ikinadu Aki began to growl once more as Jisoo’s gaze darkened greatly.
“Oh, great,” Albion muttered as he recognized one of them as the samurai Aki had chased from the room.
“Daisuke…” Jisoo snarled before he could draw breath.
“I thank you, majin, for saving me the trouble of going out to find you. Though, I’m afraid this is where you will die.”
“If you kill him, I’ll open my throat!” Jisoo spat. “See if I won’t!”
The samurai smiled and shrugged. “I have good healers here, they will mend you quick enough. Then he turned to the samurai to his side. “I leave this to you, Itsuki. Reclaim your honor and kill the beasts that made light of your skill, then bring me the majin’s head.”
“Gladly!” the samurai snarled.
“Kill them!” Daisuke barked, then stepped into the mass of bodies and blades.
The samurai began to advance.
“Any ideas?” Jisoo whispered.
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
He needed time to cast a wind spire strong enough to carry them over the wall, and at this distance, the samurai would haul them off the spire before it got high enough, he was sure, and he had no spell of sufficient strength to slay enemies that were this many and this widely spread apart. But he had to do something!
“Albion!” Jisoo hissed.
“I’m thinking, I’m…”
Just then, a familiar tingle came over him, and standing tall, he focused his gaze on the air just before them, and as he caught sight of the faint azure shimmer that was growing in strength, his heart was filled euphoric joy, and grinning widely, he stood tall.
“Itsuki, was it…?” he said, words that stopped the samurai advance as the mage undid his wind blade.
The samurai Itsuki frowned at him.
Grinning in response, Albion pointed to his eyes, then pointed skywards. As the samurai raised their gazes to the skies, they all gasped as they watched the great meteor that was directly above where Itsuki stood hurtle towards them, and as one, the began to withdraw, Itsuki included. First slowly, and as the meteor drew near, in a rout as they raced for cover.
“Get down!” Albion roared and pulled Jisoo close before pulling her to her knees, holding her tight as he went.
The blast that followed as the meteor crashed into the castle ground could only be described as earthshattering, the shockwave from the meteor’s explosion smashing away the walls on either side of the group, the azure dome about them just about enough to protect them from it, and as for the rest for the castle grounds, men dirt and debris was thrown far and wide. Many of the samurai were fortunate enough to find suitable shelter, some were not, and as a deathly silence fell upon them all, the silence was swiftly chased by the moans and cries of the wounded.
“Go!” Albion cried, rising to his feet and pulling Jisoo out through the shattered wall behind them. “Go! Go!”
Once more, Aki made to pounce forth, but this time, her beloved warned her against it, bringing her to her senses and leading her after the mage, and it wasn’t long before the four were hurrying into the shadows and making their way from the castle.
“Aunt!” Albion hissed as they stepped into the shadows.
“What?” Jisoo gasped, staring hard at the elf.
“Aunt Rathena!” Albion hissed.
“Over here!” came a voice neither Jisoo nor Albion had heard in so long, but filled their hearts with joy upon hearing once again, and as they turned to its source, they grinned as the elven woman stepped before them, dressed as a man.
“Gods, Aunt!” Albion cried as he hurried towards the woman. “It’s good to see you!”
“Oh, my boy!” the woman grinned, but her grin turned to shock as she saw the ikinadus beside him.
“Hold,” she said as she came to a stop, her brow furrowed deep as she pointed to the beasts. “Are those… ikinadus?”
“You know of them?” Jisoo asked.
“Of course, I bloody know of them!” she gasped, turning to the woman. “Where in the world did you find them?”
“Hanju?” The woman frowned. “Where’s that?”
“It’s one of the nearby islands,” came a voice from behind the woman as a man stepped forth.
“Aunt, who’s he?” Albion asked, turning to the man.
“It’s Aku,” Rathena replied. “He was a deckhand on our ship. He came back to help me find you.”
“But enough talk, this place will be crawling with samurai soon. Come close, all of you. I’ll teleport us to Aku’s home, then I’ll gather my things and open a portal to our place in Hanseong. Come.”
“Oh!” Jisoo cried. “Can we return to Hanju first? We made a promise to someone.”
A dark frown twisted Albion’s features as he turned to the woman. “You wish to honor that promise after what she did to you?”
Jisoo smiled at her friend. “Yes, Albion, I do.”
“But she betrayed you! She got Hanako killed!”
“And that is something she will have to live with for the rest of her life,” Jisoo replied, then took a step forward, raising a gentle hand to the elf’s cheek. “But she was scared. Scared for her family, for her babies. Were the roles reversed, I’m not sure I’d have done any differently.”
“But I gave her my word to save her, didn’t I?” Albion spat. “She didn’t need to do what she did!”
Smiling still, Jisoo nodded. “Yes, you did. And yes, you always keep your word. But she didn’t know you, did she?” Then she stared deep into her friend’s eyes. “Would you place the life of the ones you love in the hands of one you barely know, even when another path presents itself?”
“Albion,” Jisoo pleaded. “I’m the one she betrayed, and I’m the one asking to save her. Is that not enough?”
The mage moved to speak, then sighed.
“Very well,” he muttered, then turned to his aunt. “I’ll teleport to Hanju and get them, bring them here.”
Albion’s aunt frowned. “Are you sure? Your teleport magic is weak after all.”
Albion smiled at his aunt. “It’s only two of them, and Hanju isn’t that far.”
“Don’t forget Hinata and Sakura,” Jisoo chimed in. “And they might have possessions they want to bring.”
“Hrm…” Albion muttered, then sighed. “Alright then, I’ll teleport you there, Aunt, and you can teleport us all back.”
“Sounds fair.” The woman nodded. “Now come, time we were away. I can hear men approaching.”
The two turned behind them and strained their ears. They could hear it too.
“Yeah, let’s,” Albion said.
“It’s a shame Daisuke gets to live,” Jisoo growled. “I’ve have loved to have seen him die for killing Hanako.”
“Well, my dear,” Rathena replied, “you may not see it, but die he shall.”
“What do you mean?” Jisoo frowned.
“Well, think upon it. From what I’ve heard, Jiro’s displeased with him for allowing us set sail right out from under his nose the first time. And now, not only does he lose you and Albion, but Ida castle is blown up under his watch? You can be sure our dear Daisuke’ll be committing seppuku when Jiro gets here.”
The smile that parted Jisoo’s lips was cold and oh so delicious. “Good.”
“It is, isn’t it? Now come! We must go. Come! Oh, and… Albion?”
The woman smiled at her nephew. “Forgive me for doubting your skill throughout this trip. You’re a Mage Adept on his way to becoming Mage Savant, and it’s high time I treat you as such. This adventure of ours has shown me you can handle more than I give you credit, but just… try not to lead with your heart so much, eh?
A slow smile parted the elf’s lips as his cheeks began to redden.
“But enough talk, come!”
And with that, the group stepped closer toward the woman, and as the clamoring from afar began to grow louder, they all began to fade from view.