“Okay, give it to me straight,” Branch said as he tried to find his center as he sat cross-legged at the center of the weird raft that their people used. Kaia, who had a completely unfounded and obsessive interest in Branch sat across form him, cross-legged and didn’t seem to feel every wave passing under their two canoes as they sailed onward. She smiled at Branch’s discomfort, but had found him puking sap over the side of the raft less endearing. “What are we going up against?”
“We face the dark god Wiremu and his Taniwha minions,” Kaia said with great pride and honor in her voice. It was nauseating listening to someone who truly believed that they were going to save the world, but had no means to do it. Not that the world could be saved. That was a corpse that had fallen a long time ago.
“Yeah, I’ve heard all of that,” Branch shook his head. “I’m talking numbers. You said your island was attacked. How many were in the raid?”
Kaia looked to Tamati and the moment of silence told Branch all that he needed to know. She had no idea. He probably didn’t either, not that he would tell him otherwise. The Endless Sea, as Illythia called it, was home to numerous islands and they had a nasty habit of raiding each other. Raids are always tricky to figure out, especially tactics and numbers. Amidst the panic and the insanity, raiders used the chaos to hide how many there truly were. When they slip back to the sea or forest, the victims are left thinking that they had just faced an army.
“Twenty to forty?” Branch asked.
Tamati nodded from the back of the ship, holding the paddle they used as a rudder.
“Sounds about right,” Branch said. “So how many times have these raiders attacked you?”
“They have come twice now,” Kaia said. “The first time, many of us died before we were able to drive them off. My father and his brothers led the fight and when we barricaded ourselves safely in the village center. When the dawn came, many of our people lay dead, but none of theirs. Our wise women consulted Tui-Ono and we were told that Wiremu had risen and his Taniwha were corrupting the islands with his evil and that unending war would cover the world if his vile plans were not stopped. My father and many others laughed and disbelieved their words. Later, the Taniwha returned and we fought them off, but lost many. My father was injured in the battle. That was when Tui-Ono came to me and told me that she had chosen me to save Tokoia and my people.”
“Yeah?” Branch said with a sly grin. “Tell me about that.”
“Tui-Ono appeared in ocean spray to me,” Kaia said with a pleasant smile on her face as she looked up toward the cloudless sky. “She appeared as a beautiful woman, glittering and sparkling like stars. She gave me the Soul of Peace and told me my task. She gave me great power to help with my journey.”
The Wind was just like many of the other supposed old gods. She was a husk of what she had once been, but she still played her games. She still tried to move the pieces of the world and make things her way. Why she was so interested in freeing Branch and killing Wiremu was beyond him right now. No doubt, he’d figure it out too late.
“And where does he come into play?” Branch asked. “You, your body guard, even the goat makes sense, but what’s he doing here?”
The strange man sat as far away from Branch as he possibly could, sharpening strange daggers and looking through his pack that he carried. He was a shifty looking man and he was a dangerous looking man. Everything about him told Branch that he was well trained and that he knew how to take care of himself. That made Branch trust him even less.
“Him,” Kaia said cautiously, selecting her words carefully in the pause. “His people are from the end of the world. We see them rarely and some of the neighboring islands speak of seeing their great ships. Their sails are like fish fins and they have strange eyes. They are pale skinned and all have hair like the night. They have Sunlight weapons and wear strange clothes. They have little interest in us, but before the second attack, he washed ashore on a broken raft with two like him. His friends died from their injuries and he barely survived. When I declared my journey and prepared to set sail, he joined us. He does not speak our tongue. I do not know if he is aware of where we’re going.”
“Oh he knows,” Branch assured her.
Kaia called the boat that they were on a vaka and it was the largest boat that her island had. She told him of the islands that she had visited and the dangers that she had encountered which amounted to a pile of beans, but for a silent foreigner, a silent brute, a goat, and a girl on a mission, they seemed pretty well equipped. They could hold their own and Branch knew that they were as good as dead even with their luck and skill so far. Tamati, the silent watcher, took care of sailing the vaka and as the day passed into night, Branch stared up at the sky and realized that the only things that look familiar were the stars and the sea. Everything else had been so different.
How long had he been stuck on that island? That tree that he was stuck in was enormous, a towering monstrosity of green and brown proportions. He thought about the nights he’d spent on the Nautilium, keeping the watch company and laughing with old friends. Were they still alive, he wondered. He couldn’t help but think of soft, melodious giggles, poignant silence, and the comfort he had shared with Mirella. It all seemed so futile now, but back then, those quiet moments between words and laughter, those had been golden.
“We call that one Atua La’au,” Kaia whispered, stretching out her arm and pointing to the shape of stars that looked like a tree. The stars were brighter than those hidden in the black veil, just whispers of light. “It is named after you.”
Branch smiled at the sentiment. “Oh kid,” he sighed. “If only you knew how wrong you are about me.” He rolled his head and looked at her. “Get some sleep. We’re going to find Wiremu one day and you don’t want to be tired.”
Kaia smiled back at him and adjusted herself, staring up at the stars. “I am so fortunate to have met you Atua La’au. I am blessed to be Chosen.”
Branch didn’t say anything. Too often, people who knew better spoke. Knowledge was not a club to bash the innocently uninformed with. It was a club to bludgeon the deserving with. Being Chosen so often meant giving up a life that you might have had for a purpose that you don’t entirely grasp. It was a sentence, not a destiny. From near and far, Branch had seen promising men and women swept up by the whims of being beyond their power and march off to face certain death for something they didn’t fully comprehend. Being Chosen was signing terms that you get a chance to just glimpse. It was a rotten deal.
But, Chosen people had changed the world many times and whether they were national revolutions, great wars saving Humanity, or small like rescuing the unknown island of Tokoia, they were effective. It wasn’t Branch’s place to stop this girl from doing what she believed was right. It was Branch’s responsibility to do what he felt was right and right now, it was making sure that he found out what happened to his people. But, he was thinking about slipping in a clause to make sure these people don’t end up dead also.
When Kaia was asleep, Branch rose and looked at Tamati who, with sleepy, dreary eyes nodded to Branch in understanding. Branch wondered if the tall brute could read his thoughts or if Branch wasn’t nearly as sneaky as he thought he was. Tamati, however, had next to no interest in stopping Branch from doing whatever it was that he was intending to do. Good, because, didn’t feel like killing two people tonight.
The silent man who looked like he was a completely different race, something that Branch had never encountered before. Having not killed a member of a race was a uniquely unseen by him was something that Branch found sadly intriguing. He would see if they were any tougher than the Ryken or the Darak. The silent man was dozing, hunched over at the far corner of the vaka and when Branch was right on him, the man’s highly honed training whispered to him and he woke up, turning on Branch.
Branch moved faster. His wooden arm shot out and his fingers wrapped around the smaller man’s throat, squeezing and stopping him so that he couldn’t scream or cry out. “Shhhh!” Branch hissed at the man who squeezed Branch’s unbending, unyielding arm. His fingers prodded and probed, maybe effectively, had Branch been a human, but now it was a waste of time and the man’s energy. The man’s eyes narrowed more than they already were and Branch smiled. “Let’s have a chat, you and I.”
The man’s face was not filled with the terror and fear that Branch had hoped he might inflict upon him. After all, Branch was a monster, a man covered in armored bark and thorns, and burning eyes. But, there was nothing even hinting at fear in the man’s eyes. His right hand squeezed Branch’s wrist, but he let go of him with his left hand and moved quickly. The three sharp “whacks” that plunged into Branch’s side made him look down and stare at the small curved daggers in his side.
He didn’t feel a thing, but the speed of the man’s attack was truly artful. Branch shook his head in astonishment as the man punched into Branch’s abdomen four more times, digging metal pins into him.
“That’s not going to work,” Branch told him. “More people have stabbed, hacked, slashed, chopped, and burned me than you can even comprehend. So, why don’t you rest for a moment and answer a few questions.”
“How do you know my tongue?” The man hissed through his clenched teeth.
“I know every tongue,” Branch said. “The Wind and the trees tell me everything. I don’t have a clue who you are, but I know how to talk to you.” Branch tightened his grip around the man’s throat. “So why don’t we talk?”
“Fine,” the man squirmed. “What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with a name,” Branch said. “It’ll make it easier to mark your grave.”
“Katsu,” the man squirmed, digging his fingernails into Branch’s bark, cutting his fingertips.
“Just Katsu?” Branch said. “Nothing else?”
“Shinobi belong to Clans, but we are not allowed to take their names,” Katsu writhed.
The breeze picked up and Branch could see children in his mind’s eye, scrambling up poles barefooted and handed as if they were animals, sneaking over creaking floors, and practicing with a myriad of weapons that Branch had never seen before. They were Human, just another kind that looked slightly different. Branch wasn’t surprised. Humans were a diverse and colorful race.
“How did you wash up on Kaia’s island?” Branch demanded. “Are you a sailor, merchant? Explain yourself.”
Katsu growled and sucked in air, but Branch squeezed his throat again, warning him not to mess with him. “My Daimyo son dishonored the Shogun by taking his daughter to bed and ran away. As my Daimyo was greatly ashamed, he demanded that his son repay the debt to their family’s honor. The Daimyo’s son loaded the finest bushido warriors into a Atakebune and I volunteered to join them as a scout for the mission. We sailed to bring back the head of the Great Oni on one of the Demon’s Teeth. We were to bring it back as a trophy for our Daimyo and restore the honor of our house in the eyes of the Shogun.”
“But, you got your asses kicked,” Branch finished the story for him.
“Indeed,” Katsu swallowed. Branch could feel the vibration in the palm of his hand, his fingers twitching. “After a month of sailing east, we passed the primitive islands and found the Demon’s Teeth and searched for an island where we might find a Great Oni. After sailing past two islands, we found hope on the third, as many ships had wrecked around the reef. The Daimyo’s son instructed us to land and remained aboard the ship with his personal guard. I scouted ahead and found many Oni, but no sign of a Great Oni. So we returned, only to find Oni in the water, surrounding our ship. Many died as we pushed our ship back out to sea and the rest of us repelled their attack as they came through the water for us. When we thought we were safe, the Great Oni appeared through the dead trees, throwing them aside like reeds before a tiger. In its mighty hands, a boulder ready and it hurled true, splitting our ship in two, throwing many from the deck and I watched as the Daiymo’s son slipped into the water as I gripped the rigging. I awoke, adrift after many days with two of my bushi comrades, severely injured. We floated for days before washing ashore on the primitives’ island where they nursed me back to health.”
Branch realized that he was no longer gripping the man’s throat and gently lowered his arm. This man had lost everyone, just like Branch had. He knew what it was like being abandoned by fate while your friends die. Branch had no illusions that the others were dead. They would have come back for him if they had survived.
“So why go back?” Branch asked him. “How did you even know they were heading back?”
“I didn’t,” Katsu confessed. “But I had to hope. I am bound by my oath by honor to see the Great Oni slain. I vowed to see the Great Oni dead or to die in my attempt. Once I have slain it, the Daimyo’s son and my brothers may pass through the Mists in peace.”
Branch reached up and pulled out on of the daggers and handed it back to Katsu, yanking each of them out one by one and giving them to him. He was fast and he had plenty of gear. If they were going to take on a legion of blood thirsty Vark, then Branch was grateful to have someone who actually had something on his chest.
“I’ll help you kill it,” Branch said. “I’ve got a promise to keep as well.”