“What’s it called?” Branch’s fingers never lest the mast as the stiff wind billowed the vaka’s only sail.
“Monga-Tui,” Kaia answered for him. She scratched behind the goat’s shaggy ears as it bleated and stared at the island. Branch didn’t quite get the goat, but he figured they’d have food on the way back if they needed it. They were running low on bananas, coconuts, and pork. Thankfully, Tokoia was fairly close. Branch didn’t partake of the food, but he had three other people to worry about.
“Mongo-Pongo,” Branch chuckled. “Remember anything useful?”
Katsu was seated at the edge of the raft with one foot on one of the canoes and the other dangling over the edge, staring at the dark peaks on the horizon. He tied his hair into a knot and looked over at Branch, squinting as his fingers blindly worked. “They’re weapons are inadequate. She doesn’t even have a weapon and the goat will give our position away. We might be able to scavenge from my fallen brothers’ corpses, if the Oni have not already done so.”
“You’re cool with us just pilfering your dead friends’ bodies?” Branch raised a mossy eyebrow.
“It was their bodies that needed their equipment,” Katsu said. “Their souls need nothing now.”
Branch was surprised to see such a practical outlook for a warrior. In Illythia, warriors tended to have a strange connection to the bodies of the dead, particularly their comrades. They didn’t give two thoughts to the bodies of their enemies, but there was something particularly important about hunks of skin and meat that stopped moving for them. Branch found this impractical and annoying. He’d seen plenty of people fighting desperately over the bodies of their fallen friends long after their lord had surrendered the battle or their lives only to have their own lives forfeited for being annoying to their captors. Meat was meat, just let them have it.
The island was dark, a jagged formation jutting out of the water and Branch didn’t know what he had expected, but this was different. He had pictured an island much like Tokoia or the other tribal islands they had visited. He pictured a lush, green lump poking out of the island with warm beaches and palm trees. This, this was an island devoid of any color other than varying hues and shades of black or very dark gray.
Over the days that they had been sailing, Kaia had regaled Branch with stories of her people and the valor of her tribe. She spoke of how her people had been raiders, warring with her neighbors and other islands for centuries until finally they had established a peaceful relationship, but men like Tamati never forgot the ways of war and continued training for times like these. She told Branch of the legends that he had apparently partaken in when he was frozen in a tree and he just smiled and affirmed her beliefs, telling her that it was “super neat” or “totally something he did.” When asked how he performed such great deeds, Branch provided the answer that he did whenever anyone asked him how he did anything: “with wit and finesse.”
Now, looking at the island, Branch knew that Katsu had been right. Tamati looked like he could hold back a whole constabulary with a few pints in his belly, but the Vark were something entirely different. He had no armor, none of the potions that the Centurions had infused their bodies with, and none of the training that Katsu’s brothers or the Centurions had. He might take out one or two with that saw stick of his, but that was where his use was going to end. Kaia, she might be Chosen, but she still lacked any martial skill as far as Branch could see. That just left the goat who might knock one to the ground and then wander off to let fate run its course.
So that left Branch and the Shinobi.
“Anything on the island that we might be able to use?” Branch asked Katsu. The man turned and looked at Branch and then gazed back at the slowly growing island. He thought for a moment, something that pissed Branch off, contemplating the question as if he’d been asked one of life’s great mysteries.
“The front of our ship had three cannons,” Katsu said after a moment. “They were loaded and ready, but no one had a chance to fire them. I will need to check the powder, but it would serve as a strong advantage for us.”
“Get the damned thing to walk in front of the cannon,” Branch said, not sure what a cannon was, “and you do your thing?”
“Yes,” Katsu said. “Of course, we will need to draw it close to the Atakebune so that it is in range and very close.”
Branch smiled, it was a ranged weapon. He pictured a trio of ballistae and grinned. That might do the trick. If he could scavenge a few weapons, they could wound the Titan with the bolts and then he could finish it off once it was wounded. That left an army of Vark for them to deal with and then they could leave the island, everyone a hero. Branch figured that he would deal with the Vark the best that he could, drawing them away until he could take no more. Katsu and the others would just need to stay alive. Hell, goat didn’t even need to survive. Come to think of it, once the Titan was dead, Katsu didn’t have much of a reason to live either. He could die too.
“What are you two talking about?” Kaia interrupted.
Branch looked over his shoulder and stared at the girl. “How we’re going to kill What’s-His-Name.”
“Wiremu,” Kaia cleared her throat. “We need not worry about fighting Wiremu. We simply need to take the Soul of Peace to the heart of the island and Wiremu will die. Gods are not like men, they must be slain in a different way.”
“Listen,” Branch said. “When we land on Mongo-Pongo, you and Tamati take the goat and sit tight while we deal with Wiremu. Once he’d dead and we can all share the title of Godslayers, then you can do the whole Soul and heart thing. But, until I say so, you are not to leave this boat.”
“I am Kaia of Tokoia, Chosen of the Wind and Sky,” Kaia called out in her prideful voice and Branch rolled his eyes. He clamped his hand that he wasn’t clutching the mast with for dear life over the girl’s mouth and felt her voice vibrating in the palm of his hand. Tamati released the rudder and stepped forward, Branch giving him a clear look that warned him not to take a step further.
“Not so fast, Bruiser,” Branch said. The man stopped and looked at Branch. “Let’s get one thing straight here. You’re not in charge here. You are officially Chosen to shut up and sit tight until Papa Branch says all the boogeymen are in the ground. Until then, you don’t get to ask questions, you don’t get to play with magical rocks, and you don’t get to fulfill any destinies until I say so. So go on and on and on about how you are Chosen, but until I give the word, you’re just Kaia, boat sitter. Understood?”
Kaia glared at Branch with a withering look that might work on someone who was scared of girls. Branch let go over her mouth and waited for the inevitable bark of the dog that had been tied up. There was no getting around this and there was no convincing him. She was staying out of this and that was final.
“How dare you?” Kaia growled. “What gives you the right to—”
“What gives me the right?” Branch cried, cutting her off. “What gives me the right? Are you seriously asking me that? You think you’re the first Chosen that I’ve met? Let me tell you something, little girl, you’re not. I’ve known more Chosen than I have leaves. Blessed by the gods, hone by destiny, gifted from above and all that other bullshit and you know what it gets them? An early grave. I’ve known terrible assholes and sweet people that deserve better who were Chosen for great things and you know what they all have in common? Their lives sucked. If they didn’t die in the process of some glorious end that was beyond their understanding, then they died miserable and unhappy. There’s no happily ever after for heroes. There’s happily for a few days and then life got back to normal and that shit got old real quick. Or, happily until they became puppets in the scheme of spiders. There’s no winning here for you, Kaia. There’s a grave and that’s it. I don’t care what the Wind told you about that rock, the Wind is sending you there to kill Wiremu, something you’re not capable of doing, so I’m going to do it because you’re the kind of stupid that takes orders from the wind, even if it’s suicidal. So sit down, shut up, and let the master do his thing.”
Kaia’s eyes had filled with defiant tears long before Branch wrapped up his diatribe, but he wasn’t going to relent and he wasn’t going to apologize for giving her the truth. She was a puppet and a means to an end and that was all. The Wind had used her to free Branch so the damned Titan would end up dead and that was all that mattered to the Wind. If Kaia died on her rock quest, then so be it, so long as Branch was free and the Titan was dead. Hell, this probably wasn’t even about the Titan. They wanted Branch back in play on the board of their twisted game.
Her lip didn’t quiver but it did tremble and when she turned away, Branch looked back at the island that came closer. Katsu stared at Branch, oblivious to what Branch had been saying, but he understood well enough. He looked back at the island himself and his hand rested on the handle of his curved sword. No doubt he realized there was only trusting himself.
“Did the Vark seem organized?” Branch asked Katsu as they drifted past the first rotten, half submerged skeleton of a sunken ship, impaled on the reef they glided over.
Katsu stared at him with a confused look.
“The Oni,” Branch corrected himself. “Did they seem smarter than normal?”
“Organized,” Katsu nodded. “They sprang an ambush. We were told Oni are stupid, attacking in waves with little tactics. This was not what we encountered.”
Branch frowned. Varguine, Forlorn Centurions who had been taken alive by the Vark and forced through the corrupting, torturous ritual of becoming a Vark, a slave to the Reckoning and Scourge. Because of the potions and elixirs the Centurions inflicted upon themselves to better fight the Scourge, it made their minds sharper, better fortified against the madness that regular beings suffered during the transformation. They were noticeably smarter, stronger, and faster than other Vark and they were the reason the Vark seemed so organized for Katsu’ brothers.
Berrus and the others hadn’t all died in their assault. Rather than lesson the threat for any future attack, they had made things much worse. Branch frowned. He wondered how many Varguine were on the island.
They sailed past another sunken ship, half of it sticking out of the water at an angle, the bottom of the sun scorched hull crusted with long dead barnacles. Branch didn’t recognize many of the ships. Katsu said that his people often sailed to the world’s end where the Demon’s Teeth held many Oni to hunt them as trophies. They must have been wrecked ships who had attempted to hunt the Oni for sport.
That was a certain kind of crazy to Branch.
Katsu guided them into the shallows where half of his former Atakebune rested like half of a perfectly normal boat waiting to be reunited with its other half. Branch noticed that there were no ballistae on the bow, but rather three large, ornately cast iron cylinders and he didn’t understand, but trusted Katsu not to be screwing with him. They had to do something and he hoped that whatever they did, it would be enough.
Rising from his perch, Katsu gazed over the side of the vaka and searched the clear shallows for any signs of the Vark. Branch had also been watching the waters nervously, waiting for any sign of an attack. The shimmering surface held no secrets for them, only the occasional fish darted under the vaka, leaving them completely alone. The hull of the canoes pushed into the moist, black sand of the beach and Branch felt his body lurch forward slightly.
He turned and looked at Tamati, giving him a very stern gaze. “Take the boat out a little ways and keep her safe. If anyone comes for you, just sail away and if Wiremu comes for you, get out of here. Understood?”
Tamati gave a very solemn nod while Kaia glared furiously at Branch.
“We can end this now,” Kaia said with a determined voice.
“Soon,” Branch assured her. He turned and looked at Katsu. “You get the boat ready. I’ll do some scouting. If you have any trouble, shout and I’ll come running.”
Katsu merely nodded and dropped from the raft of the vaka and made his way toward the Atakebune, wading into the surf and leaving Branch alone as Tamati used the oar to push off and take the vaka back out and away from danger. The goat bleated at Branch and he waved it off.
The beach was clear, save for a few jutting rocks that pierced the black shore, hulks of jagged, porous stone that crabs scuttled around the bases of the monoliths. Past the shore, the soil was a deep gray with tuffs of dried, brittle grass sticking out like the hair of an elder not long for this world. The palm trees that covered the island were sawed off at their stumps. Leading into the heart of the island, where two mountains speared up like wicked horns from some giant aquatic bull, the terrain became rough and inhospitable, completely cruel and unforgiving. There were plenty of caves where pockets of air had once been and lava tubes lurked, deep cavernous mouths in the side of the mountain. There was plenty of hidey-holes for waiting to kill whatever treeman came waltzing down the path into the heart of the island.
There was no sign of Wiremu or where he might be hiding. This was the point where Branch felt like a fool yet again for not actually listening to the Centurions and Mirella when they talked about what the Titan was. As far as Branch had been concerned or worried, he was looking to face off against something that was big, hard to kill, and completely out of the legends of primordial Humanity. It was supposed to be a glorious battle and Branch had missed all of the nuanced details, like what the damned thing looked like.
As far as Branch was concerned though, the Vark knew that they were here. How could they not know that they were here? If the Vark had half a brain, they would have lookouts high up on their mountain tops and they would be watching for ships. They had to have seen the vaka coming, which meant that it wouldn’t be long now.
The arrow that smacked into the armored bark over his chest, shattering and spiraling into the sand nearby confirmed his suspicion and Branch looked toward the direction of the arrow. That was the problem with archers. They had one shot to be surprising, to kill their prey, and when that failed, well, now Branch knew where they were hiding. A smile spread across his lips as bark grew across his face, thicker and harder, covering his lips and nose until his full face was covered in a thick, thorny helmet that made him look like something out of the nightmares of normal people. The gods only knew what the Vark had for nightmares.
The first came running out from behind a rock. He was a tall brute, not nearly the gray or inky black skinned Vark from the Black Highways that Branch had history with. No, this one was pale, milky in its complexion, a fresh convert to the Vark. His hair had fallen from his head and brows. His eyes were sunken and bruised a purple shade like deep twilight. Black ichor dripped down his lips and over his chin, his mouth twisted in a furious snarl as he raised his large, studded club and charged. His body was covered in a strange sort of tiled lamellar, but Branch wasn’t worried. He could hear others coming, pouring out of their hiding spots and coming for him.
The brute swung his club and Branch caught it in the palm of his hand and sank the barbed knuckles of his other fist into the teeth of the brute, hurling him to the sand, wrenching the club from his hands and twirling it in his nimble fingers before bringing it down on the crossed arms of the brute, shattering the bones and smacking the creature in the head. He gripped the fine leather wrapped handle with both hands and bludgeoned the broken creature again, caving its head in and bringing the club in an upward swing at the next Vark, taking it in the jaw and whipping its head violently backwards as its body flailed before taking flight back the way it came.
Branch roared, the spatter of inky, Vark blood covering the thick bark on his arms and hands as he felt the rage overtake him again, coursing through him, feeding him. They came in swarms, charging Branch, their minds chaotic and poisoned by the transformation that overcame them. To villagers, innocents, militiamen, or even footmen, the Vark were horrifyingly ferocious and vicious, relentless in their attacks, feeling little pain. So the key to Branch was to make them feel a lot of pain.
They came at him with blades much like the curved, folded steel that Katsu wielded, but they never got a swing that struck true. Their blades would sink into Branch’s bark and he’d feel it pierce his woody flesh, hurting, but faintly, like a whisper of a worry. When their blades were stuck, he’d move, spin to another and shatter their bones with a blow from the club that he’d confiscated. Then he’d obliterate the skull of the next with a swing, knocking them dazed and brutally maimed to the ground before moving to the next, stomping wherever he stepped, snapping ribs, splintering bones, and fracturing joints.
In their past lives, these men were warriors and they would have ripped apart other warriors, but there was a reason that Mirella had gone hundreds of miles out of her way, months of time lost, just to contract the sentient Floran in the tavern at the edge of civilization for this mission. He could remember her laugh, the way she smiled at his jokes, the silent moments late in the watch, and the fire inside of him grew and Branch swung harder.
Ripping the stuck blades free of his body, Branch caught one of the Vark by the back of the head and forced the tip of the curved sword between the abomination’s snapping jaws, listening to the creature gurgle and hiss as the blade punched through the back of its skull, sliding between Branch’s fingers. Hurling the dead Vark at an archer that was getting too close and cocky, both tumbled into the sand and Branch roared again, bringing his club down on the top of Vark with a strange helmet, forcing the creature to its knees before planting a foot into the creature’s chest and taking it to the ground, slowly adding his weight to the foot that sat in the middle of the Vark’s chest as its comrades dove onto Branch’s shoulders and back, stabbing and hacking fiercely as the Vark screamed in horror as Branch crushed it. The creature’s face writhed and shook violently before twisting to the side and it went limp under Branch’s weight.
The Vark on his back and shoulders screamed as enormous thorns ripped through the gaps in the tiles of their lamellar, impaling them onto Vark as the great thorns punched through their backs, leaving them hanging on Branch. As he sucked the thorns back into his armor, they plopped at his feet and the few remaining Vark scattered to their cover. Their first assault a failure.
Branch, his chest heaving and his eyes wide with bloodlust, searched for the archer that had taken the first shot. His body was covered in arrows, but none of them sank past the bark. Pulling a blade free from his thigh, Branch hurled the blade in the direction of the archer half submerged into the tufts of grass. The silver blade shimmered as it danced through the sunshine and hit true, dropping the Vark severely wounded into the grass. The blow was fatal, but it wasn’t immediate. He could hear the creature howling like a wild dog, shrieking in agony.
The dead littered the beach, turning the surf black as Branch turned to look out to the reef where Kaia and Tamati stared at him. They watched him work like an artist, like a force of nature, and they saw what their legends might have hinted at, but never truly grasped in full articulation. This was a sight of horror and pure slaughter. It was godly in all the weight of awe.
A whistle pierced the air and Branch turned to look at Katsu, who had made it up the ship to where the weapons were being prepped. Branch saw him point and turned, searching the island for the source of his worry. As he turned, the arrow smacked his face and several others hit his face as well, forcing Branch to close his eyes and shield his face with his arm, tightening his grip on his club. Kaia shouted to him, but the arrows and the surf were too loud for him to make out what it was that she was saying to him.
The arrows continued to hit him. He tried to count the hits as splinters rained from his arm and bolts dug into his chest. There were twenty, maybe more, continuously firing at him. They would run out of arrows soon, but it was damned annoying. He needed to protect his eyes, but he would risk the glance to see what they were plotting. Kaia continued to scream.
Branch lowered his arm an inch to see two larger Vark, gray skinned, older than the chaff that had come to be burned by him. They were larger too, not enormous, but the size of Tamati at least. Their gray skin was thicker, sliced by black veins, and patches of purple hinted at the coming transformation. They rushed him, large axes in one hand and stretched between them a heavy, thick net that they hurled at Branch before it encased him, shrouding him and covering him. The two Vark dove, landing hard on the sides of the netting, sinking all of their weight into forcing Branch to his knees. The weight of the rope was immense, scavenged from the rigging of the numerous ships that died upon their reef. More Vark surrounded him as the arrows kept striking him, forcing themselves onto him. Branch roared, spearing them with thorns wherever he could feel them, but there were too many. They slammed into him, weighing him down, covering him completely until he was forced down. He thrashed and punched, clawed and jabbed wherever he could.
There were too many and for everyone that he injured severely, another took its place. They chipped at his bark with knives and daggers, prying deep into his wooden flesh and Branch roared. He desperately tired to move, sinking the tips of his fingers, formed into sharp claws into any flesh that he could feel, tearing and ripping. He pictured Mirella and Berrus and the others facing off against this horde lurking on the shores. How had they fared against all of this? What had come of them? Was this how they met their end as well? Overwhelmed and alone.
The sand beneath Branch began to shift and move, rolling past him and digging into his eyes as he pinched his wooden lids shut and felt the world around him rush and scream. The Vark roared and shrieked in horror, but it wasn’t because of Branch. He heard them as their screams started just next to his ears and suddenly vanished, faint whispers of their screams arcing above him. Branch opened his eyes and felt the weight lessen on his body and could feel some freedom.
He thrashed out viciously, ripping into the face of the larger Vark to his right and taking the creature’s upper lip with his hand as he slashed the monster’s noseless mug. The creature roared before being picked up by the growing wind and slamming hard into one of the jagged monoliths along the beach, the crack of its bones shattering completely vanished in the howl of the wind. The last of the Vark near him were hurled back by the wind, tumbling over the sand that whirled and whipped around them before finding purchase in the side of a rock, their bodies going limp from the impact.
Clamoring to his feet, Branch tore the net off and turned toward the sea, watching as Kaia held out her hands and her face written with a determination that defied everything that Branch had thrown at her. It was the face of a Chosen who knew their destiny and knew that they were more than just the servant of a faceless, heartless immortal. This was the face of a girl who would save her people. This was the face of a true Chosen.
As the wind died down, Tamati and the Goat splashed through the surf and reached the beach to inspect the dead. The silent Bruiser wasted no time in picking up the shiny, silver weapons and inspecting their armor.
“Want to trade?” Branch said, looking at the club with its black teeth. Tamati looked at the club that Branch had slaughtered dozens of Vark with and marveled at the offering as if Branch were giving him a living legend. Maybe it was. Tamati offered him the strange club and Branch grinned under his armored bark plating over his face feeling the wood speaking to him, telling him its story, its history. “Take what you can use,” Branch told Tamati. “It will protect you.”
Tamati nodded and began stripping the dead of the armor that he could comprehend. Most of it was beyond his understanding in the short amount of time he had, but Branch left him to explore the work of distant nations in the art of war. Instead, he turned to Kaia and approached her.
“You saved my life,” Branch said. “I can’t believe it. Do you know how powerful a Magician has to be to work without an apparatus? Without a talisman or the right ritual? That was incredible.” Kaia did not look at him. She stared past him defiantly to the heart of the island where she knew her task awaited. “Thank you,” Branch said softly, feeling like the ass that he was. “I’m sorry I was an ass. I shouldn’t have treated you like that.”
Kaia said nothing to him, as if his words were lost in the surf. Branch understood. It’s not like he would have much to say to himself either. Kaia closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “The Goddess says he is coming.”
“Who?” Branch furrowed his armored brow. “Wiremu?”
Kaia didn’t have to answer. It felt like the whole island was shaking and a great jet of dust shot up into the sky at the heart of the island as a deafening crack split open the air around him, punching his eardrums and making him blink.
“Run,” Branch shouted to Kaia.