Fred, the leader of Rasen, was naturally surprised to find Lairi, the lake kitsune, on the shore, and even more surprised to see the objects of her concern. Two massive silver centipedes laid inert on the wet grass. Their positions suggested that they had been in the process of capturing something (as a storm leader, Fred was familiar with the things by necessity), but that something was now in the charge of Lairi. She must have sent a wave of lake water over the centipede mechs, or they would have been coiled, waiting to be picked up.
He ran over the bridge, stopping short when he saw what the mechs had been targeting: a young ninja in red-brown clothing, with pale skin and very fair hair. Lairi was crouching over him, tearing off the last silver strands that had been drawing him into the belly of the mechanical beast. The tendrils fanned out over the ground as if the mech had been violently disemboweled. Suddenly seeming a little embarrassed, as she had forgotten about it, Lairi pressed a paw down on the boy's chest, expelling the water that he had swallowed.
The boy vomited, rolled over, then coughed and reached out in a desperate attempt to pull himself away from Lairi and the wrecked mechs. He could hardly push himself off the ground. Fred began moving again, hoping to reach the boy before he somehow hurt himself.
The boy had a naginata, a relatively uncommon weapon. This was not an important detail in itself, as Raven, a master with the naginata, had moved to Cohron as a teenager. It was merely evidence that the boy could indeed be from Cohron.
When Fred got close enough, he saw that this was not just any naginata. It was Maelstrom, a weapon of devastating potential, and it belonged to Raven. But if he had stolen it, why had the mechs been chasing him? He likely wouldn't have made it twenty feet had he swiped it, mechs or no.
It was puzzling, but there was no time for thinking about it. It was late afternoon, and he had to get the kid inside before the sun set. The boy was already shivering, his soaked clothing hanging heavily off his frame. He looked like a half-drowned scarecrow.
Fred approached carefully, making sure to stay within the boy's line of sight. Once close enough, he knelt and held out his hand. The younger ninja stared at him blearily and took it, allowing himself to be pulled upright. Fred asked no questions, but helped him walk into the city and to the Rasen infirmary.
In Cohron, Lord Kashi, Adan, and a very few others were still searching for Bryant. They probed along the swath of damaged forest that the centipede mechs had left behind them in an attempt to find out what had happened to the boy. But the sun was setting; it was already too dark to follow the trail any farther.
Lord Kashi whistled loudly, the signal to turn back. He knew that most of the villagers cared little for the fate of the youngest Fallenson. Bryant was little more to them than a pair of fangs with a human face, but it was a greater loss than they knew. In future years, the security of the village might have to rest on his abilities alone.
In the morning, Lord Kashi went out searching alone. It was hundreds to one that Bryant could have escaped the centipede mechs and dozens to one that the machines would not have been picked up quickly after completing their objective. The mechs had left such an obvious trail, however, that he didn't even have to concentrate on following it. Trees were gashed, bushes flattened, and in some places where the mechs had made sharp turns, the ground was torn.
The trail was winding, but it went in one general direction: toward Rasen. Bryant, being unable to swim, had likely been heading for the border bridge once he realized his direction. Considering the capabilities of the centipede mechs, he had been taken long before he reached it.
Lord Kashi saw Adan's falcon- he couldn't remember its name- skimming through the trees. It was not a normal environment for falcons to hunt, but the young graifseng were still clumsy in flight, and he had seen the bird eating them before. He whistled, catching its attention. When the falcon came over, he asked, "Can you fly ahead and see where this ends?" He felt silly talking to a bird like that, but if everything he had seen was not just clever training, the peregrine was very smart.
The falcon took off at astonishing speed. When it disappeared, the little birds of the woods began to sing again. Lord Kashi waited and agonized over the answer the raptor would bring. Eventually, the falcon came back and whistled at him.
"I don't know what 'gibble urble' means, bird," Lord Kashi said, "but it had better be good."
The falcon bobbed its head, prompting the question, "Was that a yes?"
A definite nod.
"Do you want me to follow you?"
The falcon squawked impatiently and made as if to fly off. Lord Kashi shifted into his soulform, getting an approving head-bob, and followed the bird into the air.
Having rested, Bryant got dressed, grabbed his naginata, and walked out of the room.
“Feeling better?” A kindly-looking medic sat in a chair by the door.
Bryant nodded, although he was still tired.
“Good. Take it easy. You ran farther than anybody should have to. Here, let me help you strap that naginata on. You don’t want to be showing it off around here. The elder Maelstroms can be pretty scary around touchy subjects.”
Bryant nodded again and let the medic strap the naginata’s staff to his back. Still a little unsteady, he adjusted the sheathed blade on his belt and walked away. When he stepped outside of the building, he was instantly lost. The sounds and smells and everything were strange. He felt horribly exposed in the midst of the tall, dark buildings. The blue-gray stone felt totally alien.
He was wearing Rasen clothes, only a shade paler than the stone the city was built of. He put up the hood and slunk away, hoping to avoid attention altogether. Fatigue crept back in, weighing him down. He found a shaded alley and huddled at the base of a wall, not quite falling asleep. It was nearly sunrise.
Bryant couldn’t see it, but the barest sliver of the sun poked over the horizon beyond the mountains. A strange call echoed through the city, answered from various positions by other cries. He had the sudden urge to reply with Raven’s nickname for him, a sound not unlike those he was hearing. But he kept silent, doing nothing to give away his position. Another, brazen call sounded, and all the human sounds of the city were hushed. Bryant was wide awake now and shivering.
Many minutes passed. Someone passed by, and the frightened young ninja prayed that he hadn’t been seen. The footsteps receded, then Bryant heard soft conversation, too indistinct to understand. Another person approached, with footsteps slightly louder and farther apart. He turned into the alley, stopping to kneel in front of Bryant.
“What are you hiding from, hmm? That naginata staff gives you away. Look at me and I might take it easy on you.” The man’s voice was not unkind, but had a distinctly dangerous edge.
Bryant lifted his head and found himself staring into eyes the same captivating shade of indigo his mother’s had been.
“Blue? How disappointing. No doubt you would make a good storybook hero, though, if you were braver. Stand.” The man rose. Reluctantly, Bryant followed suit.
The old ninja’s hair was black streaked with silver. His being radiated freezing, quiet menace which belied his otherwise gentle demeanor. He carried a naginata. Without warning, his hands shot out and seized Bryant by the wrists. Bryant flinched but made no attempt to pull away.
“A musician’s hands.” The man turned Bryant’s palms upward and flashed a wolfish smile. “Or perhaps not. At least you’re accustomed to the weapon.” He let go. “Follow me.”
The man turned and walked away. After a brief hesitation, Bryant made for the other end of the alley. He didn’t make it out before a wave of sound slammed into him, stunning him. The old ninja walked up to him at a leisurely pace and knelt.
“When Ulfur Maelstrom tells you to follow, you follow. Understand?”
“Now peel yourself off the ground and follow me. You will be given no more warnings.”
Bryant obeyed. He ghosted after the old ninja, hoping there would at least be food. Unfortunately for his composure, everyone who saw Ulfur coming quickly ducked out of sight. He was led to an empty square and moved to the middle as yet more adults with his mother's eyes surrounded him.
“What do you think?” Ulfur asked of none in particular. All of them started muttering as if he couldn't hear it.
“He’s very fair of hair for Raven’s.”
“He does have some of her features.”
“And her naginata.”
“I think he’s going to cry.”
Ulfur stepped forward and lifted Bryant’s face. “I am confident that Raven gave birth to this one. He merely favors the other side of his family.”
“Why does he stand there like that?” a woman asked.
“He is from Cohron, Marigold. Remember your studies at his age.”
Bryant was frozen, following his deeply ingrained training. He could sense the Maelstroms’ excitement and knew it was better to pretend he was not there than to attempt escape. He did not want to risk worse than his most recent punishment. Ulfur brushed the hood off Bryant’s head, sparking a wave of further muttering.
“If the Lord Fallenson lets me, I shall keep him. He needs training.”
“Speaking of the Lord Fallenson, here he comes," someone said. "I believe he wants his boy back.”
Bryant both heard and felt the soulform’s wingbeats. Everyone but him looked up, then withdrew as the powerful gusts knocked down all who did not take cover. Too large to land in the square, the soulform perched awkwardly on top of the buildings and reached down to snatch Bryant as he picked himself up. Lord Kashi nodded to Ulfur and launched back into the air.
“That was fast,” Bryant heard Ulfur say just before all other sound was obscured by the soulform’s wingbeats. Dizzyingly far from the ground, he felt like he should have fainted. He could not bite through the bronze scales on the long toes that held him, nor had he any wish to do so. The rushing air blurred his vision and he closed his eyes, trying to pretend it was just windy.
There came the crunch of the soulform descending through the canopy, but Bryant was too sheltered to be whipped by recoiling branches. He was set on the soft forest floor and laid there, trying to gather himself, for almost a minute before climbing shakily to his feet. He leaned on his grandfather, who was now back in his true form. Through the trees, he could see the blocky shape of his house.
Lord Kashi helped Bryant inside. He knew the boy was exhausted, but uninjured. His largest problem would be shock. He had been through too much in too little time, and Lord Kashi didn’t know what to do but ensure that he rested.
Finding Bryant’s room, he left the boy there and went to the master bedroom. Here, he knew, were the shelves of medicine that would be kept for various situations. He searched through several squat bottles of dried leaves. Finding one with the appropriate symbol, he took it to the kitchen, started a fire, and set some water to heat. Looking in the cupboard, he found only cheese, dried fruit, and some stale bread.
He took some of the cheese and fruit to Bryant. The boy was standing by his bed, staring absently out of the window. Then his nose twitched and he looked around with an expression that might befit a ravenous wolf. Knowing the expression well, Lord Kashi tossed a bag of dried cherries at Bryant before he could do anything. The boy didn’t rush him as he set the stone tray on the desk, but managed to control himself by burying his nose in the bag to evaluate the cherries.
When Lord Kashi moved back, Bryant nodded, plucking an apple slice off the tray after a few seconds’ careful consideration. The boy would soon be able to breathe fire, he knew from his behavior. Kitsunekage, when hungry enough, might either beg or attack for food. The behavior, so alien in one who looked so human, was unnecessary in the modern world, a holdover from whatever place kitsune had come from. Once a kitsunekage learned to breathe fire, they generally moved away from begging.
Lord Kashi asked, “Are you all right now?”
Bryant nodded and swallowed hard. He really wasn’t fine, but he wasn’t going to let his grandfather know.
“Liar. When you’re done eating, you’re going to bed.” Lord Kashi turned away. “No excuses.”
He went to check that the water was hot; it was, and he made just enough ninjabane tea to put Bryant to sleep. When he got back, Bryant had finished everything but the cheese, and that he was gnawing slowly as if it were the last thing he would ever eat.
“Finish it and drink this.” Lord Kashi held out the half-mug of tea. He was fully aware that Bryant could tell what it was.
Sensing his impatience, Bryant nibbled more quickly at the cheese. After making sure his grandson drank all of the tea, Lord Kashi simply left and closed the door, leaving the cup and tray in the kitchen basin before he walked outside.ns 22.214.171.124da2