The black arrows stuck out of the hairy back of the goat, sending a deeper read running through the hair of the creature, more vivid than the pain it was covered in. The goat’s eyes were wide with pain and fear, its whole body shivering and shaking as it lay in the sand for Branch and Katsu. Branch approached it first and looked at the black arrows that had sunk deep into the poor animal’s back, killing it slowly. If he pulled them out, the shock alone would put the creature down. It bleated softly and he ran his clawed fingers along the neck of the animal.
“Where are they?” Branch whispered to the animal.
Of course, since it was an animal, it couldn’t communicate. It blinked and stared at Branch as its nostrils flared in agony. He looked back through the rocky pass that led to the heart of the island where Kaia, in her prideful ignorance, had marched during the battle of the Titan. Tamati would have gone with her, along with the goat. Tamati believed in Kaia and her mission to save their people. No matter what Branch said to him, he would obey Kaia to the end and they may have just found that end.
“Stay with the goat,” Branch looked at Katsu.
“I will come with you,” Katsu insisted.
“No,” Branch insisted firmly with his hand on the Shinobi’s shoulder. “This animal came all the way from Tokoia. It deserves to die with a familiar face near it.”
Katsu frowned at this and Branch flicked one of Katsu’s cuts to indicate that it was more about the fact that his ally was badly beaten already and less about the goat. Katsu was silent for a moment before nodding. If the Vark returned, Katsu would have a rough fight on his hands. Going through the rocky terrain to the heart of the island, Katsu would struggle even more. Branch nodded, saying his farewell to Katsu before he rose up and headed into the heart of the island.
The Vark were not a stagnant people, a people who just sat around and waited. Branch had been fighting Vark for many years, well, he did once upon a time, before Mirella had frozen him. The Centurions were fascinated with trying to convince the Florans into marching into the Black Highway to face the Vark, but they were terrified of the dark. So when word reached them of a Floran who wasn’t mindless or fanatical and was more than willing to go down into the dark, the reclamation work began. The things Branch saw down in the second layer of the world was staggering. Cities built by primordial cultures, infested with Vark as old as time itself and he had killed them. But, he saw what they had done to those places, how they had forged armor, build weapons, carved great statues, and dug their own tunnels. And when the preparations were done, they raided the surface again and again through the breaches in the Black Highway, pulling survivors down into the dark and plundering before vanishing back into the darkness.
But here, the Vark had nothing. They had hacked away at the mountains, searching for veins of malleable ore, but they found only the brittle and hard volcanic rock. They had hacked the trees down and stripped the ships that had floundered on the shore, repurposing everything they could scavenge, but there was only so much for them to do before hunger, time, and madness took its toll on them.
There were no females on the island, which the Vark were so eager to corrupt and transform to build their numbers. Sailors from Illythia were too superstitious to have female sailors on their ships and they were guaranteed to start a fight among the men who couldn’t control themselves and fell prey to the madness of the sea. So there was no breeding, no labor, and the Vark were notoriously fearful of the water, for whatever unknown reason. This left the island as a desolate prison for the Vark and Branch understood why they were so eager to attack anyone who landed on the island. Violence was a reprieve from the monotony of their existence.
Branch scrambled over the rocks of the pass, making his way up the slope between the two mountains. Looking over his shoulder, he could see Katsu stroking the neck of the goat, keeping it company in its last moments. He looked back to the path in front of him and made his way over the crest, seeing the trap that had been waiting for Tamati and Kaia as they had made their way past Wiremu’s last fight.
For as much killing that Branch had done in his lifetime, his impervious nature made him a terrible tracker. For Branch, subtle was not announcing his intent when he kicked in the door of his foes’ home. He couldn’t read footprints or follow anything. He was a last resort for desperate people who knew where to point him, like a trebuchet bringing down a fortress. You didn’t need subtlety and insight to completely obliterate something. You just needed to know where to aim the thing.
Branch stepped into a small, carved out section of the pass, near the crater where Wiremu nested when it wasn’t rising up to sink ships or destroy challengers. The dead Vark that had laid in ambush were scattered all across the opening that Tamati and Kaia had crossed. The rock was chipped and shattered black arrows littered the ground. The goat must have been struck here and it looked like Tamati had suffered a similar fate.
Branch found the hulking bruiser a few feet down the path, surrounded by dead Vark, his right arm missing, his body hewn all over and his head leaning back on a rock, staring up at the sky. Branch counted the dead around him. He’d fought off six before he was taken down by the unknown assailants. He had four arrows in him and he’d barely gotten any of the armor on that he had stripped form the dead. He never stood a chance. Branch knelt next to Tamati and closed the warrior’s eyes. He would come back for him once he found Kaia and he would make sure that he was returned to his people. The man had taken up a journey that would never have been possible. He had come here to slay a god and he had died not knowing whether he had succeeded or not. It had taken Branch hours to kill Wiremu and he had just now finished the deed. Tamati had to have died before then. Branch shook his head. This was always the fate of those who followed the Chosen. There was only death waiting for them.
Walking down the path, Branch found the rest of Tamati’s arm, still gripping the club that he had given him. He marked the spot and continued on, searching for Kaia. She had left her mark on the battle as well. Numerous broken Vark littered the hillside and the rocky crater. Their limbs were shattered, bent in horrific ways, bodies snapped, and heads crushed in. The power that the Wind had given her was immense and Branch had wondered just how the Wind thought Kaia was going to kill Wiremu if Branch had denied going with her. Well, Branch figured that the Wind knew better. Branch would never refuse to help her.
And still he had failed her.
“Kaia!” Branch shouted, nearing the heart of the island, the place where Wiremu had called home and where Kaia had taken her march toward on her suicidal quest. Branch didn’t like the look of the place. It was surrounded with dust that had settled into the tar lick mud that filled the crater from the black ichor that the Titan continually dripped. He couldn’t see her anywhere. “Kaia!” Branch shouted again.
“She is dead!” A voice snarled as an arrow smacked Branch in the face. He growled and turned to face the archer that had stepped into sight, just as another arrow shattered against Branch’s jaw. “Put one in her myself!” The archer was wearing the rusted, tainted armor of a Centurion and had the look of a Varguine. That explained why it could even speak. “She’s feeling the change as we speak. Never had a Chosen become one of us before.”
Branch lifted Tamati’s club and pointed it at the Varguine. “I cut your god’s head off,” Branch said, approaching the archer. “I cut his goddamn head off. So what makes you so smug?”
The archer’s yellow eyes flickered with an emotion that it was not used to, a sort of rage that filled its soul before it let out a roar before ripping a dagger free from its sheath and charging Branch. Branch whirled the club over his head and the Varguine raised its bow to block the blow, but the bow snapped from Branch’s weight and the jagged edge of the club sank deep into the neck of the Varguine. Grinding his teeth together, Branch pulled the club back toward him and sawed the head off of the archer before black blood gushed from its savaged, headless neck. The Varguine’s arms flailed, clawing at Branch before flopping onto the hard stone and twitching.
“You cannot kill a Titan,” Berrus said from behind Branch. He spun and looked at the pack of Varguine that had snuck up on him. They were armored and armed better than the others that Branch had faced earlier and they were cunning, crafty opponents that Branch was not eager to face off against. If someone was going to kill him today, it would be this lot. “But, then again, you weren’t hired for your brains.”
“You’ve got big brains, Berrus?” Branch asked, pointing the club at him. “How about I take a look?”
Berrus’ laugh was a sickly, wicked sound, echoing off of the jagged rocks around their little battleground. His eyes were narrow in a vicious look of bloodlust and hunger. “The Titan must be tended, but without a Titan, we can leave this desolate rock. We can show Illythia what a true Scourge looks like.”
“Delusions of Darklordhood?” Branch asked. “Very fairytale of you, Berrus.”
“Kill him,” Berrus ordered his men. There were five of them, two flanking Berrus, two flanking Branch, and one sneaky bastard that was coming up behind Branch, thinking that he had the upper hand.
Branch put an end to that, real quick. He gripped the club and spun, bringing it down over his head and hammering it into the horrified eyes of the sneaky bastard, cleaving his head in two and sawing through into his chest before ripping the club free, but not before the two flanking him made their move. They slammed into him, one sinking a pair of axes into Branch’s stomach and another into his back. He threw back his head and roared in the stab of pain from the attack as the second scrambled up his left side and chipped at Branch’s neck with a dagger.
Dropping his club, Branch clamped down on the Varguine’s wrist that held the axe in his stomach and pulled him in front of him. The Varguine roared as the two flanking Berrus charged Branch, one sinking a spear into Branch’s knee, giving him more than enough of a reason to bring his thorn covered knee down onto his captured Varguine’s head, crushing him like a grape. The Varguine chipping at his neck was next. Branch ripped the axe out of his stomach, spilling yellow sap down the front of him as he swung the axe hard and took off the Varguine’s hand that held onto his shoulder. The Varguine plummeted to the ground just as Branch’s foot slammed down on the writhing Varguine’s stomach, crushing his guts. He left the Varguine there to shake and flail in agony.
Refusing to relent his attack, Branch hurled the axe in his hand at the spearman’s chest, hitting him square in his rusted breastplate. Grabbing the spear from the Varguine who was convulsing from the strike, Branch twirled the shaft and faced the last of Berrus’ lackeys who charged with a shield and mace, swinging hard as he blocked Branch’s first blow from the spear, swinging the mace into Branch’s hip with a loud, splintering crack. Branch roared as the pain reverberated through him, but it wasn’t enough to end him. He grabbed the Varguine’s shield and twisted it, pinning the creature’s arm and contorting its body so that he had control. With the Varguine’s head thrown back, Branch brought the tip of the spear down into the Varguine’s throat, pushing down into his chest, sinking it deeper and deeper until the tip of the blade chipped against the volcanic rock beneath the Varguine’s feet.
Limping toward Berrus, who was holding a great axe, ready for his foe, Branch ripped the hand axe out of his back and held it tightly. Berrus said nothing, dropping his visor that looked like a rusted, forgotten falcon and approached. He blocked Branch’s first attack and sunk the head of his blade into Branch’s stomach, raking the side of the blade across Branch’s stomach. Branch could feel the pain, but it was distant and a whisper. The Centurion was slow, his lethargic years on this island had wasted his speed and skill that he once had. Branch grabbed the shaft of the axe and forced Berrus backwards, charging as Berrus attempted to find his footing. Slamming him into the side of a rock face, Branch slammed his forehead into the rusty visor and cracked it, sending a plume of red dust around his face.
There was only one way that Branch was going to do this and he was going to need to let go of the great axe and that meant he was opening himself up for Berrus to attack. If Kaia was wounded, then he was running out of time. He had to act. This was going to hurt. Dropping the hand axe, Branch threw back his fist, loosening his grip on the great axe. Berrus took the advantage and slammed the head of the axe back in Branch’s wounded abdomen and forced his weight down, opening the wound even more. The pain was excruciating, worse than he had ever felt as a tree before, but he didn’t care. He slammed his fist into the visor, breaking through it and crushing Berrus’ face.
Spreading his fingers, Branch dug his clawed fingertips into Berrus’ corrupted flesh. “Where is the girl?” He demanded.
“Down the slope,” Berrus panted, slurring his words through broken fangs. “At the edge of the crater. We were moving in to kill her when I heard you call her name.” Berrus writhed as Branch’s fingers sank in deeper. “End this,” he said in a defeated cough. “Give me freedom.”
Ripping Berrus’ head from his shoulders seemed like the mercy and kindness that Berrus had deserved. He had been a noble captain once, a true hero in the living form, willing to do whatever was necessary to make sure that his men survived and that the mission was completed. The fact that he had failed was the greater tragedy of this mission. Branch left his head there as his body toppled over and promised to let the Black Academy know what happened to the men who sailed with Mirella.
Kaia was exactly where Berrus had told him she would be. There was an arrow deep in her side and despite what the owner of the arrow had said, it wasn’t going to corrupt her. That wasn’t how it worked. Branch had learned that lesson a long time ago. She was huddled into a ball, weeping and hissing in pain as she tried to pull the arrow out. Branch held up his hands.
“Stop!” Branch warned her. “Don’t pull it out.”
She flinched and turned to look at Branch. She scuttled away from him an inch before he dropped down next to her and took a look at the arrow. Branch didn’t know how to track people and he didn’t know where Titans came from, but he did know a lot about dying and he knew a person who was dead before their body knew it. The arrow was killing Kaia and there was nothing that he was going to be able to do to stop it. Sure, a good surgeon and a quality physicker might be able to pull her back from the brink, but they were hundreds of miles from either. He looked at her and saw in her young, terrified face, that she knew the same.
“I can’t die,” Kaia said to him. “I’m scared to die.”
“We’re all afraid to die,” Branch told her. “But I don’t think you need to worry, Kaia.”
“No,” she shook her head as her whole body quivered and began to shake, the shock settling in. She extended her shaking hand, a hand that should have seen many years beyond this, but the Wind had seen a different fate. Branch knew what she clutched and he felt his heart ignite in a rage that he had to force down deep inside of himself. Her fingers opened and the piece of pale blue quartz rest in the palm of her quivering hand.
Branch knew why she was scared and it was a pity. Branch had met plenty of people who had been Chosen and they all had that look in their eyes when they failed. They were so convinced that they had to do something that death felt like the ultimate failure, the ultimate defeat. It was a doom that Branch had watched too many people face. It didn’t take a Chosen to feel a fear unresolved purpose in the face of the end.
“This is going to hurt,” Branch told her just before he scooped her up and cradled her like a small child. She was practically a small child in his arms. She winced and her face twisted in agony as Branch carried her into the muddy crater. “Wiremu’s dead,” Branch told her.
“Tamati is too,” Kaia said as tears ran down her cheek. “The Taniwha ripped him apart as I ran away.”
“You did what you had to,” Branch told her.
There was no magic spot in the heart of the crater for her to place the stone. There was no altar or throbbing heart for her to place the stone. The quest was a lie and Branch worked with what he had. He stood at what he gauged to be the center of the crater and looked at Kaia who was look pale. Her blood was covering Branch’s torso and he knew that he was running out of time.
“This is it,” Branch told her. “This is the spot.”
Kaia held out her hand and looked around with confused eyes, her whole body quivering with the shock that consumed her. Her eyes told him that she was somewhere else, that she could barely comprehend what was going on. Her fingers let go of the stone and it plummeted to the muddy slick of black ichor and dirt. It didn’t sink fully into the mud, but it did just sit there and for a breath, Branch expected something to happen. He didn’t know what he had expected, but regardless, nothing happened. It didn’t glow or levitate. There was no bolt of lightning from the heavens or sound of thunderous, divine fury. There was just a stone, stuck in black mud.
He swallowed and looked at Kaia whose mouth was weakly moving, trying to ask a question of Branch. He blinked and looked back at the stone. “It worked,” Branch told her. “Can you feel it? The island is cured! You’ve saved your people, Kaia. You did it!”
Kaia, who had sailed across the ocean, searched for a living god, and had been there when, on an island of nightmares, the God of Evil Wiremu was slain, was dead. Her eyes stared up at the sky and Branch felt his fingers coil into a fist before he reached down and picked up the worthless chunk of quartz. He hated being right about so much.
Making his way back to the island, Branch didn’t care that Katsu had cleaned the sacred goat and was now roasting it while he dressed his wounds. He didn’t care that they were the only two living things for hundreds of miles around them. He didn’t care that the Titan had melted away to the armored plates and bones, sinking back into the heart of the world. He didn’t care that the vaka was heavily damaged in the battle with the Titan. All Branch cared about was the dead woman in his arms, the woman who proved to be the hero that he didn’t think she would be.
He thought that she would have turned tail and run when she saw the Titan or the Vark. She had marched into the heart of Monga-Tui and she had done what she had believed with all her heart to be the right thing. Branch wrapped her in the old sail canvas that he scavenged from the wrecked ships and retrieved Tamati’s body as well, wrapping him too.
For the rest of the night, Branch was silent as the stars came out to witness the horrors that had unfolded.