Misaki’s world tilted. It was a strange lurch—shifting from the thought that she might die to the realization that they were all going to die. Siiranu ago, she had turned her Blood Needle on her husband, she had been ready to raise her jiya to brother-in-law, Takeru had looked at her with murder in his gaze. But the moment the wind slammed into the house, the world tipped like the deck of a ship, pitching them all in the same direction.
In the midst of groaning wood and foreign nyama, Mamoru was the first one to find his feet. Turning, he raced down the hall toward the front deck. Misaki followed, Takeru and Takashi close behind her–fighters who had been dinamu from turning their blades on each other, all running the same way. Because suddenly, none of it mattered. None of it would ever matter if they were dead.
When Mamoru threw the door open, biting wind burst in on them.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, seemingly remembering that he had an infant in one arm when Izumo started to cry. “Sorry, little brother!” Hastily, he wrapped the baby in his sleeves, shielding him from the wind.
The sky was the wrong color—not the blue twilight or misty gray native to Takaybi. This was foreign darkness, dingy like rust, veined with day-old blood.
“Give the little one to your mother, Mamoru-kun,” Takashi said as he and the rest of the family came out onto the deck.
“Yes, Uncle,” Mamoru said carefully handed his wailing brother to Misaki.
She patted Izumo on the back in a weak attempt to comfort him, but her eyes were on the horizon. Out at sea, a universe away, Misaki could make out clear sky and the sinking sun, but the window was fast disappearing behind a wall of clouds. As the storm front loomed closer, the wind picked up, causing the beams of Kumono Academy to bend and whine. The usually placid Kumono Lake writhed with waves, and further down the mountain, the pines bordering the western village whipped around as if they were blades of grass.
Nagasa toddled out onto the deck, only to be knocked off his feet by wind.
“Careful,” Mamoru chided, picking up his crying brother and shunting him back into the house.
Hiroshi was smart enough to walk directly into the wind like Nagasa had, but stayed at the threshold, gripping the doorframe for balance, his unnervingly intent stare fixed on the gathering clouds.
“Setsuko, Misaki, get the children inside,” Takashi said. “Shut all the doors and windows.”
Shut all the doors and windows. Misaki could have let out a hysterical laugh. What good is that going to do?
“Look!” Chul-hee exclaimed, pointing down the mountain.
“What in Nami’s name is that?” Setsuko cried.
The darkest of the clouds were massing just off shore, near the fishing village at the base of the mountain. Misaki realized what she was seeing before she was ready to believe it…
Chul-hee seemed to be having a similar thought. “No…” he said under his breath. “There’s no way…”
At Daybreak, it had been common knowledge that wind funnels could not be taken into battle. No solitary fonyaka was powerful enough to generate one, and no team was coordinated enough to control one they had started. Many skilled fonyakalu–including some of Misaki’s fellow students–had been injured or killed attempting to weaponize wind funnels. And those had been small wind funnels, no bigger than a dozen bounds across.
Judging by the way the cloud cluster dwarfed the fishing village below, this was something far bigger.
“They’re not…” Chul-hee’s voice had taken on a note of horror. “They’re not.”
Yet, before their disbelieving eyes, the clouds swirled together and formed a funnel above the shore. And even though Misaki knew it was human fonya, even though she did not believe in sky gods, it looked for all the world, like the dark finger of a god, extending earthward.
“No,” Setsuko said as she realized what was happening. “Wait! They can’t!”
The attack was strategically-placed, Misaki realized. The fonyakalu had formed their storm system out at sea where it wouldn’t draw immediate attention, but their tornado was only going to touch down now that they had reached dry land. That way, they avoided bringing seawater ashore and giving their enemies more to fight with — as if the poor fishermen would have stood a chance either way.
“No!” Setsuko screamed as the roaring column descended on her family’s village. “Wait! Wait!”
Ignoring her cries, the sky god rumbled and put its fingertip to the shore.
They were too high up to see the houses break into splinters or hear the screams of the fishermen inside them. But Misaki felt it. The death of single theonite could cause a disturbance in the atmosphere. The deaths of so many—all in the same moment—hit her like a physical blow. Normally, Misaki couldn’t sense nyama at such a distance, but the snow acted like spinal fluid, shooting the agony up rocky backbone of Takayubi. She felt it shudder, like a sob, in her veins before dropping into silence. Dozens of pulses. Gone. In a single beat of her own heart.
And Misaki had not known her sister-in-law could let out such a sound.
“Setsuko—” Takashi started, his own voice strained. As he reached for her, she lurched forward, into the wind, as if to run down the mountain. “Setsuko, wait!” He caught her before she could lunge off the edge of the deck and held her tight.
She shook in his arms. Her jiya, usually as light as bubbling waves over sand, could have churned blood. Takashi held her tight. His eyes were squeezed shut, like he could feel every drop of her pain, like he could take it all into his own chest if he only willed it hard enough.
“Don’t look.” He placed a hand on his wife’s head, wrapping his nyama around her like a blanket as the last of the houses below were consumed by the wind.
He made his power a solid wall, shielding Setsuko from the tremors of destruction, but she didn’t stop shaking. Burying her face in Takashi’s chest, she screamed. A shrill, raw sound made of more than just grief… made of rage. Takashi bent his head and spoke a few soft words into her hair before turning to the others.
“Misaki, take her inside. It isn’t safe out here. Takeru-kun…” He looked to his brother. “We have some Ranganese to kill. You too, Mamoru-kun. Let’s go.”
Misaki’s blood seemed to still in her veins.
Not Mamoru. Not Mamoru.
She opened her mouth to raise an objection—he’s too young, or he should stay here and protect his brothers—but she abruptly found her arms full of a sobbing Setsuko. Shifting Izumo to one hip, she found her sister-in-law’s shaking hand, held it tight and guided her inside. They were barely through the door when the men swept past them.
It was customary for a Shirojima warrior to pray to his sword and his gods before battle. But there was no time for ritual. Takashi barely paused to bow at the dojo threshold before racing to the weapons rack and grabbing two swords in each hand. Turning, he tossed Takeru and Mamoru their katanas.
Nobody seemed to notice that Takeru caught his Moon Spire with his left hand. He held the pearly sheath still at his side while his brother and son hurried to tie their swords in place. The fingers of his right hand were twitching. They would be in working condition soon, but he evidently didn’t trust them to tie a knot yet.
Mamoru’s hands moved fast, almost manically so, driven by an energy Misaki recognized. She used to feel it too—a cocktail of adrenaline, determination, and fighter’s madness that could drown out fear or better judgment—whenever she gambled her life against an enemy who outclassed her. Maybe she would have felt that same rush now, if she was the only one in danger. But that was her son. That was her son, who was bright, and growing, and a better koro than she had ever been. His life was too precious to gamble.
“Mamoru…” she started, but everyone’s attention was on Takashi, as the Matsuda patriarch tied his wakizashi in place alongside his katana and turned to give his commands.
While the mayor was the official head of the village, the head of the Matsuda family was the closest thing Takayubi had to a military commander. Not just Mamoru and Takeru—every fighter on the mountain would answer to Takashi before anyone else. It was the way their people had done things long before the Jungsan had ever sent bureaucrats to oversee them.
“That tornado can’t come up the mountain,” Takashi was saying. It was a reasonable assumption; naturally occurring tornadoes were characteristic of western Ranganese desert country and flat Abirian plains, not rocky Kaigenese coast. “As soon as it reaches the roots of the mountain, the uneven terrain will break it apart. Whoever is making it will have to touch down on solid ground, and we’ll be there to meet them.”
“I don’t know about that, Headmaster,” Chul-hee said.
“Kwang-kun, this isn’t the time for your weird—”
“He’s right, Nii-sama,” Misaki interjected. “This isn’t a natural wind funnel.” She couldn’t fathom the amount of precision and teamwork it must take to not only generate that much wind, but then control it. This was no gaggle of mercenaries or ill-trained peasants’ sons on their doorstep; it was a highly organized military unit. “An army of fonyakalu strong enough to manipulate that much wind is strong enough to bring it up a mountain.” There was no doubt in her mind. “That tornado will be at the village gates in siiranu.”
“Even better,” Takashi said and Misaki was mildly horrified to find him smiling.
“Saves us the trouble of taking the fight to them. If they’re so eager to taste our ice and steel, they can have it.” Takashi turned to face Takeru and Mamoru, looking more alive than Misaki had ever seen him. “These Ranganese dare to attack my wife’s people—our fishermen, on our coast. They dare to mock the gods of our ocean. Let’s show them the real power of gods. And you, city kid.” He pointed to Chul-hee.
“People are still calling me that?”
“You have that thing Takeru-kun talked about—that little telephone rectangle?”
“Yes, Headmaster,” Chul-hee said, pulling the info-com device out of his pocket.
“Can you use it to call the government?”
“Um—not from here. So far, the towers we set up are only working further up the mountain.”
“Then you’d better get up there now,” Misaki said. “Assuming the wind doesn’t take out the towers, that rectangle may be the fastest way for us to let the Emperor know that this is happening.” She didn’t trust the Kaigenese government by any stretch of the imagination, but right now, they were Takayubi’s only chance at reinforcements.
“Head up the mountain now,” Takashi said, “and take this.” He took a spare wakizashi from the rack and tossed the sheathed weapon to Chul-hee, who just managed to catch it. “In case you run into trouble.”
“I get a girl sword?”
Takashi snorted. “I’ve seen you fight, Kwang-kun. Our full-sized katanas are too much for you.”
“Ahh.” Chul-hee glanced from Mamoru’s sword to Takeru’s even bigger Moon Spire. “Touché. But… if we need someone to get to the towers as fast as possible, should I really be the one? I mean—Mamoru is faster.”
“Mamoru is faster,” Takashi agreed. “He is also a Matsuda. He was made to face the enemy, not run the other way.”
“Face the enemy?” Chul-hee said incredulously. “I don’t know if you noticed, Headmaster, but the enemy is a tornado! What are you going to do?”
“Stop it,” Takashi said. “Now, go!”
“Right.” Chul-hee’s tone was casual, but he was clutching the wakizashi’s sheath so tightly that his knuckles had turned white. “It was good to… I-I’m glad to have met all of you.” His eyes met Mamoru’s for a moment before he ducked his head in a deep bow. “Thank you for everything. And don’t worry.” He straightened up. “I’ll get you those reinforcements. Just hold on.” Turning, he ran from the house, calling back to the Matsudas. “Hold on!”
Takashi turned to hold Setsuko one last time.
Tenderly, he touched her face. “No more tears, my love. Your parents and brothers and sisters are about to rest so peacefully. I’m going to send them off with the butchered corpses of all their enemies.”
Setsuko nodded with savagery Misaki had never seen in her eyes. “Do it,” she whispered.
“I’m going to throw so many Ranganese corpses at their feet that they’ll be able to walk over them like a bridge into the Laxara. Don’t fret, sweetheart,” he added to Ayumi, crying in Setsuko’s arms. “Your father is going to protect you.”
And they were moving. They were leaving. Misaki felt the world slipping through her fingers.
“We don’t have time, Misaki,” Takashi said.
She ignored him and grabbed Mamoru’s arm. Stay! She wanted to beg. Stay where I can protect you! But that was a ridiculous thought. Mamoru was a strong fighter. If he couldn’t protect himself, she was hardly going to be any help.
“Pay attention to your distance,” she said instead. “Fonyakalu are most dangerous at mid-range—two to three bounds. That’s where their attacks land with the most impact. Stay back or in close, with your sword. Don’t linger in their mid-range striking zone.
Despite his uncle’s impatience, Mamoru was listening intently. “Yes, Kaa-chan.”
“And look at the color of their uniforms,” Misaki added. “Rank and file Ranganese troops wear yellow. Their elite fighters wear black. If you see yellow, you stand a chance. If you see black, I want you to run.”
“Kaa-chan, you know I can’t do that.”
“But…” I want you to wasn’t a good reason.
“Kaa-chan.” Mamoru held her shoulders in a firm grip—and when had his little hands gotten so big and strong? “I’m a Matsuda. Wasn’t I born to do this?”
And Misaki couldn’t argue. The answer was yes. This was the reason she had left everything she loved to marry into this family, the reason she had endured her father-in-law’s abuse, and her husband’s indifference all these years, so that the Matsuda family would have a powerful heir, worthy of his martyred ancestors.
It was all to give Kusanagi its blade edge.
This was as much purpose as any of their lives had ever had. And now was the moment Mamoru was supposed to live up to that purpose—to give all of it meaning. She couldn’t take that from him.
So all she said was, “Yes.” With her heart hurting, she squeezed her son’s arms. “Yes, my son. I’m proud of you.”
“I’m not sure I’m worthy of your pride,” Mamoru said with a smile. “But I’m going to be. Just wait.”
Mamoru broke away from her, but Misaki found her legs carrying her after her son and husband, her hands reaching out, not ready to let go, not ready… There had to be something else, some way she could save them. She was the only one who had ever encountered fonyakalu. She had spent years watching them, training with them. She knew the theory behind wind funnels, even if she had never seen one successfully mastered. There had to be something in her memory…
Think, Misaki. Think!
“Don’t try to attack the wind itself,” she said, catching Mamoru’s sleeve. “It’s stronger than any individual theonite.”
“Misaki,” Takashi said. “We don’t have time for this. Say your goodbyes–”
“No!” Misaki growled, past caring about propriety. “Listen!” Misaki had never heard of anyone stopping a tornado once it got going. If anyone was going to do it, it would be these men—but only if they had a working understanding of what they were facing.
“These wind funnels are created by two-part teams. One group keeps cool air circulating around the outside, while the other forces warm air into the center to feed the updraft.”
Takashi was looking at here in confusion. “How would you know—”
“You’re not going to stop the tornado by taking out the fonyakalu on the outside,” Misaki continued. “All they’re doing is streamlining wind that’s already moving. That updraft is what powers the cyclone. The strongest fonyakalu will be there, inside the funnel, forcing that hot air upward. If you want to stop the tornado, they’re the ones you have to take out. You’ll have to find them, inside the wind.”
“Alright…” Mamoru said, but she could see on his face that he wasn’t quite following.
“Wind is faster than blood or water—more sporadic—but you can still pick out the bodies in it, like little fish in a stream—”
“That’s enough,” Takashi said, pulling Mamoru away, out of her grasp. “We have to move.”
Desperate, Misaki shouted out the last thing she could think of. “Takeru!”
Her husband didn’t turn. She had no right to expect him to listen, no right to speak to him at all… but he was her last chance to save her son.
“It has vital points, like the human body… Like your arm.”
Mamoru looked back at her in utter confusion. “What—”
“Come,” Takeru grabbed the front of Mamoru’s kimono in his left hand and hauled him out the door. “Your mother is talking nonsense.”
Mamoru moved without thinking. His body knew what to do. Every man and boy knew what to do once the alarm bell sounded, the same thing their forefathers had done during the Keleba: the men of the eastern village would converge at the gates, then head down the mountain to join forces with the fighters from the western village. As the Matsudas sprinted toward the village gates, Yukino Sensei fell into step beside them, along with his older cousins and the fighters of the Mizumaki house. As one, they raced down the mountain to meet their enemies.
This scene had played a thousand times, in Mamoru’s daydreams in class, on the dark ceiling before he fell asleep, and in his dreams after… since he was old enough to dream anything. He had spent his whole life preparing for this moment, fearing it, hoping for it. But even as his legs carried him down the mountain, he couldn’t quite believe that it was real.
The copper-colored sky tinted the whole village, making the familiar houses seem alien and far away. The deafening sound, like a thousand fighter jets, felt like it could tear a rift between this world and the next. Even Mamoru’s own flesh didn’t seem quite real. The wind made his body by turns slower and lighter than it should be. It tore at his skin, making it numb and tingly, more like the skin of a spirit, as if his body belonged to that grown warrior from his dreams—far away, far in the future, on that day that might never come…
“I need numbers, Takeru-kun!” Uncle Takashi shouted over the wind as they ran. “How many men of fighting age do we have between the eastern and western village?”
“Two hundred and four,” Tou-sama said without missing a beat.
“Ha!” Uncle Takashi let out a laugh. “More than enough!”
But the sight that greeted them at the edge of the village caused them to pull up short, tabi skidding to a stop in the snow. The smile disappeared from Uncle Takashi’s face.
He swore under his breath and turned to Tou-sama. “Your wife was right. The damn thing is coming up the mountain!”
Not only that; the tornado was advancing faster than Mamoru had ever seen any theonite move over land. It had already swallowed the forests on the lower slopes of the mountain. In moments, it would be at the edge of the western village.
“We have to get down there, Matsuda-dono!” one of the Mizumaki men cried. “Now!”
But not all the men were assembled yet. And it was already too late.
“No!” Mamoru made to run toward the western village before it was gone, only to be jerked back.
Yukino Sensei had a handful of the back of his kimono.
“Wait for orders,” the swordmaster said.
“But we have to help them!” Mamoru’s upsurge of adrenaline mixed with a keening strain of pain as the wind reached the lowest houses. “Keichi-kun is down there! Yuuta-kun, your family—”
“We can’t do anything to help them now.” Yukino Sensei pulled him back, and for a moment, Mamoru felt an unbearable pang of the swordmaster’s pain. But it was only a moment. Yukino Sensei had enough control to keep his emotions under the surface. “The only thing we can do now is avenge them.”
Yukino Sensei was right, of course. Even sprinting, unimpeded, down the mountain, they would never reach their sister village in time. All the men of the eastern village could do was watch as the majority of Takayubi’s population was ripped from the side of the mountain. Mamoru tried to power down his jiya, to feel as little as possible. But the adrenaline in his veins wouldn’t allow it. He couldn’t shut out the death any more than he could look away from the destruction.
The koronu fought. Even at a distance, Mamoru felt their jiya gnash like teeth against the wind. Spikes of ice jutted into view between the buildings before falling to pieces, along with everything else. But of course, it wasn’t just those who fought who died. Mothers and children were torn from their homes and dashed against the rocks. The temple where Mamoru had prayed every holiday and learned the names of his gods burst apart, clay roof tiles scattering into nothing. There was no way the fina monks who lived inhabited those sacred halls could have survived.
Even though the wind felt like nyama, Mamoru couldn’t believe that it was human. What human with a soul of nyama could kill koronu and non-combatants in the same breath? This was the work of demons.
As the agony receded, Mamoru realized that Yukino Sensei had never let go of him.
It wasn’t just Yuuta and Yukino Sensei’s other cousins who lived in that village. Almost all of Yukino Sensei’s students came to Kumono from the western village. Mamoru was the only one left. Around them, other men cried out in rage. Some shed tears. Some fell to their knees. Yukino Sensei didn’t buckle or cry. He didn’t scream the way Setsuko had. He stood perfectly still, his shoulders back, his eyes fixed ahead, but somehow, he had never seemed so fragile. It was as though he had turned himself to ice. If he moved, it would crack.
“Sensei…” Mamoru started, his own voice shaking, but he didn’t know what he could say. He blinked and felt tears slide down his cheeks. He had grown up with the boys from the eastern village, and he felt their loss like a hole in his chest. But Yukino Sensei was their teacher. He had devoted years of his life to nurturing them, pushing them, and watching them grow. They were his pride. To have all of that vanish in a moment… Mamoru couldn’t imagine how it must feel.
“Takeru-kun…” Uncle Takashi’s voice had sobered, “numbers. Who do we have left? How many from each family?”
“Ikeno: twelve, Katakouri: nine, counting the thirteen-year-old, Ameno: six, Ginkawa: six, counting the twelve-year-old and the cripple, Mizumaki: five, Yukino: four, and Matsuda…” Tou-sama looked from his son to his brother, “just the three of us.”
“So, how many total?”
“Good.” Uncle Takashi turned to face the assembled men. Despite the destruction they had just witnessed, not one had turned back. “Ameno, Ikeno, Ginkawa, to the northern pass! Form a line—two deep, Ameno and Ginkawa up front, Ikeno behind! Katakouri, keep watch on the cliff. Shoot down any fonyaka who tries to scale the rocks.”
Uncle Takashi’s voice—as loud as it was—couldn’t carry to all the men over the wind, but in moments, fighters were shouting his orders across the group.
“Wait…” Mamoru said as the Ameno, Ginkawa, and Ikeno swordsmen, and the Katakouri archers raced to follow orders. “Who’s going to guard the southern pass?”
The southern pass was the wider of the two avenues up the mountain, and Uncle Takashi had just sent more than two thirds of their fighting force in the other direction.
“We are,” Uncle Takashi said. “Yukino, Mizumaki, with me!” he called and the eleven remaining fighters followed him down the slope toward the western pass.
Mamoru walked this path almost every day of his life. It was the path that he took every time he visited Kotetsu-kama in the blacksmith village, every time he met up with Yuuta and Keichi before they headed up to Kumono Academy. Yet it looked unfamiliar now, stained with the rust-colored light of the storm. Snow and dust thrashed like fitful ghosts, like the Laaxara rising to grab them as they raced to face their enemies.
“Hyousuke!” Uncle Takashi called to the nearest Mizumaki, “Go tell the blacksmiths to stay inside their houses with the doors closed!”
The man nodded and split from the rest of the group to run to the numu village.
Uncle called the men to a stop at the narrowest point in the pass. With a sweep of his arm, he cut a straight line through the snow extending from the jagged rocks to their right, to the base of the slope leading up to Kumono Academy on their left.
“We hold them here!” he bellowed. “No fonyaka crosses this line!”
The line he had drawn looked to be at least thirty bounds long. Mamoru imagined that general who hoped to defend such an area would have sent in fifty-some soldiers.
There were twelve of them.
The men automatically arranged themselves by skill, with the younger Mizumakis placing themselves on more defensible edges, and the powerful Yukinos covering the open ground near the middle of the pass, where the Ranganese were most likely to break through. Realizing that he had lined up in between his uncle and Yukino Sensei, Mamoru stepped back, thinking he should cede his position to a more experienced fighter.
“Stay where you are, Mamoru-kun.” Yukino Sensei’s voice was firm, but gentle. “You’re a Matsuda, aren’t you?”
Swallowing, Mamoru nodded. He felt a hand clap onto his shoulder and turned to find his uncle smiling at him.
“It looks like you won’t have to see rust after all, nephew.” Uncle Takashi squeezed his shoulder and Mamoru felt a disorienting jolt of pure elation. His uncle wasn’t just smiling to raise the spirits of the other men. He was excited.
The mountain shook beneath their feet as Uncle Takashi took up his position between Tou-sama and Mamoru. The tornado had consumed all of the western village and the surrounding forest without slowing down, and was now no more than a hundred bounds from where they stood—twelve men against a towering column of wind.
“We hold this line!” Uncle Takashi boomed.
“We hold this line!” the other fighters echoed, matching his ferocity.
“We are the Sword of Kaigen!”
“We are the Sword of Kaigen!”
“We hold this line!”
The wind rose as if in response to their voices, trying to deafen them and rip the skin from their bones. But the men of Takayubi stood strong, rooting their feet in the snow.
“Fire at will!” Uncle Takashi roared into the wind.
Mamoru raised his jiya and tried to form a spear, but it was difficult with the wind trying to rip the snow from his grasp. And even if he could form a proper projectile, what was he supposed to fire at? They faced a solid wall of wind. It was impossible to discern anything through the whirl of snow.
Yukino was the first to take a shot. Raising a bound-long spear from the snow, he launched with all his strength and precision.
As far as Mamoru could tell, all they did was disappear into the vortex, but when he looked back toward his teacher, Yukino was smiling.
“I hit something.”
“Yes.” Yukino Sensei flexed his calloused fingers and raised another ice spear from the snow. “Just not hard enough to do damage. It’s hard to sense the target and attack at the same time. I could use a bit of Matsuda power.”
Yukino Sensei made a sweeping movement with his hands, positioning the spear so that it hovered in front of Mamoru.
“Running start, Mamoru. Then spin.”
It took Mamoru a moment to catch on. Then he smiled in understanding. “Yes, Sensei!” He backed up, counting his steps. Then he ran at the ice spike.
Launching off the snowy ground, he spun in the air, and slammed the heel of his hand into the projectile, channeling all his jiya through his arm. At the last moment, he felt Yukino Sensei’s jiya join his own in an unbelievable burst of power. His teacher’s more controlled jiya entwined with his, guiding the spear through the wind to its target. Mamoru started as he felt it make contact with a solid target.
Yukino Sensei senses were so sharp that he could detect the bodies through the swirling snow, just like Kaa-chan had said—like fish in a stream.
“Again!” Yukino Sensei shouted before Mamoru could stand and marvel any longer.
Mamoru had practiced his spinning launch in the months since Yukino Sensei had told him how to perfect it. His aim still had room for improvement, but he could fire projectiles at full power for a waati without tiring.
All along the line, other jijakalu had replicated their technique, forming two-man teams to fire projectiles into the whirlwind. Only Tou-sama and Uncle Takashi were powerful enough to line up and launch their attacks without assistance. In a siira, a steady barrage of well-aimed ice was raining into the oncoming tornado.
Mamoru could tell that they were hitting bodies. Even if he was relying entirely on Yukino Sensei’s superior aim, his jiya still picked up the vague sensation of ice thudding into flesh—over and over again. They were felling fonyakalu. But somehow, the wind wasn’t slowing.
At a hand signal from Uncle Takashi, Tou-sama, Yukino Sensei, the most senior Mizumakis, and Mamoru all gathered to him. Even right up close, it was hard to hear anyone’s voice over the roar of the wind.
“We’re hitting fonyakalu,” Uncle Takashi said. “Why isn’t it stopping?”
“They must have replacements,” Yukino Sensei said. “As soon as one soldier drops, another takes his place.”
“What do we do?” Mizumaki Hyousuke asked.
“We need to get rid of the ones who can’t be replaced,” Tou-sama said. “We need to destroy the source of the funnel’s power.”
Tou-sama’s murmur was so quiet that Mamoru almost didn’t hear it over the wind. “Needles.”
“You mean spears, Matsuda-dono?” Yukino Sensei said. “That’s what we’ve been trying! The wind is too strong! We’re hardly getting through the wind surrounding the funnel. How are we supposed to pierce the center?”
“You can’t.” Tou-sama was massaging his right arm, his eyes fixed on the oncoming tornado. “I’ll do it.”
“Keep firing your spears,” Tou-sama said. “Take out as many fonyakalu as you can.” Turning his back on the tornado, he took a knee, laid his open palms on the ground, and closed his eyes. In an instant, his jiya dropped from fighting aggression to perfect calm.
“What is he doing?” Mizumaki Hyousuke demanded. “Matsuda-dono!” He reached out to touch Takeru’s shoulder.
“No, wait!” Mamoru grabbed the Hyousuke’s arm, stopping him. “He’s meditating.”
“Meditating?” the Mizumaki said incredulously. “Prayer isn’t going to do us any good now! We need him to fight!”
“Just wait,” Mamoru insisted.
It took Mamoru waatinu to reach his deepest state of meditation, but in it he could sense every water drop and snowflake that moved on the mountain. If his father’s legendary focus was enough to reach that state within these precious few moments, they might stand a chance.
Uncle Takashi seemed to agree. “Return to your post, Mizumaki. Root there until the wind dies.”
“Until it dies?”
“You trust your lords, don’t you Mizumaki?” Yukino Sensei challenged.
Hyousuke ground his teeth together, but nodded and stepped back to return to his post.
Mamoru and Yukino Sensei tried to fire more projectiles into the tornado, but the wind had grown so strong that neither jijaka could take a step without risking being swept away on the wind.
Yukino Sensei shouted something that Mamoru couldn’t hear through the deafening roar, but from the movement of his lips, it looked like, “Root!”
Mamoru did as he was told, raising the snow around him up to his knees and hardening it to ice, freezing himself to the side of the mountain. He could no longer hear anything. His own hair lashed his face hard enough to leave cuts.
As strong as his stance and his ice were, Mamoru realized that if he stood against the wind any longer, he would simply snap off at the shins. It took all his strength to curl his body forward and sink to his knees. Huddling into the snow, Mamoru made protective cocoon of ice around himself. Tou-sama still had not moved—still as the mountain itself before the wind.
The funnel was almost on top of them now. Mamoru wondered what it would feel like to die by tornado. Would he be ripped from the snow like a tree from its roots and then smashed into the mountainside? Or would it be slower than that? What if he was more stubborn? If he refused to let go of the mountainside, would the wind strip the flesh from his bones? He was certain he was about to find out—
Then Tou-sama moved.
Physically, it was the tiniest of movements, a sharp twitch of his fingers. But it was as if he had snapped a thread. Something changed. The wind still spun, but suddenly it had weakened, lost its otherworldly fury.
When Mamoru dared to lift his head, he found the wind funnel falling apart, dispersing into scattered shreds of cloud. Debris rained across the mountainside.
Most of the men didn’t seem to understand what had happened, but Uncle Takashi turned to his brother with a smile. “Well done, Takeru-kun!”
In the snow below, Mamoru could just see a two black clad bodies lying crumpled and motionless. A moment later, a third body thudded to the ground before them, making Mamoru jump.
As Mamoru backed away from the fallen fonyaka, Uncle Takashi strode toward it. Putting a foot under the body he turned it over to reveal the wound that had brought it down. The puncture itself was barely visible, but Mamoru could feel the blood seeping from the fonyaka’s chest to soak into the black cloth buttons of his uniform. The man’s face had been smashed beyond recognition in the fall, but his hair was still neat, pulled back into the long braid characteristic of Ranganese warriors.
Mamoru found that he couldn’t take his eyes off the broken body—the flesh, and blood, and hair. No matter how long he looked, it was a man. Just a man. That flesh-peeling wind that darkened the sky and roared like a god… the heart of it had been human.
“Is this how you killed all of them?” Uncle Takashi asked, considering the hole in the fonyaka’s chest.
“There were just the three at the center of the funnel.” Tou-sama rose smoothly to his feet and straightened his hakama. “Sorry, Nii-sama. It took me a while to pinpoint their bodies all at once.”
It was difficult for Mamoru to process what his father had just done. In order to lance those fonyakalu through the chest, not only did he have to track the movements of a million flecks of snow moving at unbelievable speeds—he had to take control of them. It was super-human. This was why it was said that the Matsuda veins ran with the blood of gods.
“I still don’t know how you do that,” Uncle Takashi said with an admiring shake of his head.
“I listen to the mountain.”
“And what did the mountain tell you, little brother? Other than where to strike?”
“We are outnumbered,” Tou-sama said, “twenty to one.”
Mamoru stared at his father in amazement. He hadn’t just killed the fonyakalu creating the updraft; while deep in that state of meditation, he had had the presence of mind to count the number of foreign bodies on the mountainside.
“Twenty to one?” Takashi scoffed. “The Ranganese are idiots if they think they can take us on with those numbers.”
“I’m not worried about numbers,” Yukino Sensei said. “It all comes down to how well they fight.”
“Resume your positions!” Takashi called to the Yukinos and Mizumakis staggering to their feet in the surrounding snow. “This fight isn’t over. We have enemies incoming!”
“I don’t see that many,” Mamoru said, squinting into the whiteness.
In response, Tou-sama raised a hand, lifting the swirling fog and snow before them.
Before the ruins of the western village, stood a wall of yellow—hundreds of rank and file soldiers standing in formation. Banners unfurled, revealing the black dragon of Ranga rearing against a blood red sun. These men must have followed the tornado up the mountain, stepping over the bodies and levelled houses.
With a strange prickle running up his spine, Mamoru realized that the moment they could see the yellow-clad soldiers was the same moment the Ranganese could see them.
There was a beat of perfect stillness.
Then a sound rose from the Ranganese. A war cry—raw and human—that shook Mamoru more than the roar of tornado. For the first time, his rust-colored dream hardened into reality.
And the Ranganese surged up the mountain.