The ocean never forgot, but not because it was sentimental, but because it never remembered in the first place. The ocean wasn’t like the earth. Fight a battle and the grass would be trampled into a mud slick, a forest would burn, and the dead would haunt the soil for generations. If Humanity set up camp, they might hew stone into a fortress, plow the fields into order, or carve roads across the countryside. Land remembered, the ocean did not. The ocean consumed its dead and they were never seen again. There were even rumors of the ocean pulling islands into its depths, never to be seen again.
Perhaps that was why the Vark stuck to land and Humans set out on the sea. Humans were the only creatures that could match the ocean’s lack of sentimentality. Branch looked over to the two bodies wrapped in mildew infested canvas, bound by old, mossy ropes.
Branch had seen a lot of people die, many of them because he’d had something to do with it. He’d watched the life melt from their eyes and their limbs go slack. He’d watched some fight against the inevitable with the last of their strength and he’d seen others embrace that unyielding certainty. It was rare to see someone go to their death with absolute vindication and he hoped that he’d provided that for Kaia. He hoped that her death wasn’t full of terror and disappointment. Those deaths were the worst.
Katsu, having stripped his dead brothers of what he needed was a completely different man from the scrawny, rag adorned drifter that Branch had met on the beach of his island. This man was clad in armor and had more daggers hidden on his body than Branch thought was possible. He had iron stars, metal pins that were as lethal as crossbow darts in his nimble fingers, several curved blades of folded steel, and strange chains with wooden handles at the end with hooks of talon like lethality that he had demonstrated on Monga-Tui with impressive precision for Branch before they left. At full strength, Katsu was something that Branch genuinely feared ever facing. The Shinobi’s head was wrapped in black cloth save for his face as he took to one of the goat’s roasted legs, chewing contemplatively as he stared at the horizon before them.
“That’s a lot of smoke,” Katsu said, nodding toward their destination. “Are you sure that’s Tokoia?”
Branch glanced up at the sky, squinting into the penetrating gaze of the sun and took in a deep breath. Yeah, they were heading the right way and Katsu was right. That was a lot of smoke. Katsu had rationed his food wisely, but their voyage had been long. Neither had mentioned the smell of the bodies, but it was getting powerful, even in the shade of the small cabin on the vaka.
“Have you ever known of the Oni to sail?” Branch asked Katsu after a moment of silence.
“No,” Katsu said with a moment to think. “Sarju would have been overrun centuries ago if the Oni sailed.”
“That’s what I thought,” Branch said through his teeth.
“The girl,” Katsu turned and spoke of the Chosen for the first time since they’d loaded her onto the boat to return her back to her island. “The woman,” he corrected himself. “In my land, the gods select those deemed worthy by the holy monks through many tasks and the holy men declare them Divine Vessels of the Gods. I have seen one Divine, once over my journeys. She was as beautiful as the moon and as powerful as a storm.” He paused, drinking in the memory before looking back to where Kaia lay. “I think the women was more powerful than any sorcerer or Divine. It is a shame she perished in the fight. She would have made a great leader of her people.”
Branch chuckled, his cynicism bleeding through his teeth as he shook his head. “She would have made a great leader without the help of the gods. They take the best of us and they throw them into the maw of fate to be chewed up and spit back out, either dead or ghosts of what they once were, or something worse.”
“You speak much of the gods,” Katsu sighed, ignoring the lecture. “Do you commune much with the gods, treeman?”
“I did,” Branch tossed a piece of branch he pulled from his cheek into the water. “Once upon a time.”
“Perhaps one day you will again,” Katsu said. Katsu gripped the rope fastened to the mast and pulled himself up to his feet and let the breeze whip behind him and push them closer to Tokoia. “But, I think they will speak with them on your behalf first.”
Branch was already staring at the island where he could see the sails of ships that marred their view of the beach, but the billowing column of smoke was enough to tell Branch that he was about to get his hands dirty again. Katsu, still injured from his battle with the Vark while Branch was sawing his way through the gullet of the Titan, was more than ready to jump into the fray again.
The people of Tokoia would tell their children for many generations how in the time of peril, when the Taniwha attacked their shores, Atua La’au and his Warrior of Sunshine single handedly defeated the army of Taniwha who had plagued their people, raiding and enslaving them. They would tell of how the great tree had ripped men apart with his bare hands and how he speared their heads on spears along the beach as a warning for generations and how those who had witnessed the slaughter would warn their grandchildren not to touch them, lest Atua La’au return and punish them. But, if that was not enough, they would tell of how the Warrior of Sunshine used his sun club to slice heads from necks or remove torsos from hips.
What they wouldn’t tell their children was that the Taniwha were nothing more than men, men who tattooed their skin with the savage history of their vile deeds. They would not tell them of how they painted their skin with charcoal and soot to inspire fear in their enemies and that they were slavers who dragged their victims back to their island after sacrificing half of the survivors to their God of the Sun who demanded a payment in blood for calm seas. They would not tell their ancestors that it was not demons that plagued them, but common men who thought themselves better than the people of Tokoia, a belief that brought them to extinction. They would not tell their children of the women and babies back on the raider’s home island who would stare out to sea night and day, waiting for their men to return, only to be answered by the tide.
When Branch had ripped the last screaming head from the last pair of shoulders, tongue swollen, eyes bulging, and everyone screaming in horror as the tendons and skin ripped and shredded, peeling free from the neck in a bloody tear, Branch punted the head into the raging fire that had been Tokoia’s village hut where Kaia’s father had once kept council for his peaceful people.
Bloody and furious, Branch looked at the captives who were on their knees, wrists tied behind their backs and staring in horror at what had transpired. They had watched a god sail to their shore and save them from the demons who had killed many of their friends and family members. He was more terrifying than any of them could have imagined and even Katsu, who some of them recognized when he pulled the cloth from his face, was horrifying. When they were cut free, Branch stared at them, gripping Tamati’s club. “Who knows Kaia of Tokoia, Chosen of the Wind and Sky?” He demanded.
“Atua La’au,” a young girl rose to her feet and approached him. Branch blinked and stared at her. She was a tiny identical version of Kaia, with bigger eyes and knobby knees. She approached him with the kind of courage that her older sister had displayed for her, no doubt, many times. “I know Kaia. I am her sister.”
“Your sister fulfilled her destiny,” Branch told her, his voice feeling strangely weak as he spoke. “I watched as she delivered the Soul of Peace to the heart of Wiremu’s island and the god fell with his demons. You will remember her as Kaia of Tokoia, Chosen of the Wind and Sky, Godslayer. You will remember her as the hero she was and the doer of incredible deeds. She was a damned hero, kid. Make her proud.”
“Where is she?” The girl asked, her eyes filling with tears as the rest of her village whispered and muttered behind her.
“She died doing what she had to,” Branch said. The girl’s head lowered and he could see her shoulders shudder as tears padded the sandy beach at her toes. Branch held out the club that Tamati had given him, offering it to the girl. “This is the weapon she used to saw the head from Wiremu’s body, whose bones sit upon the cursed shore of Monga-Tui. Follow her example, kid. Should anyone threaten your island again, show them the bravery Kaia has shown you.”
The girl took the bloody club and Branch patted the girl on the cheek before returning with Katsu to the vaka to take the bodies of Kaia and Tamati to the heart of the island near the base of the island’s solitary mountain where he buried them and carved their names into the face of the island. He didn’t know if the people of Tokoia burned their dead, which they probably did, but Kaia was his hero too and he would bury her the way that he had buried other friends in his past.
The people of Tokoia gave Katsu enough food to survive his journey as Branch told them. They gave him nuts, fruit, and dried fish, which he thanked them for with a strange, official bow and the two of them pushed back out to sea. Branch had hoped beyond reason that he might save the people of Tokoia from strange, sailing Vark, but in the end, he’d ended up killing bad men, like he always did. It was rare that he got to face down a primordial god, kill it, and turn out not to really save the people that he’d intended to. It was a bit of a downer.
“How far is Sarju?” Branch asked Katsu, only when Tokoia was far behind them.
“Too far,” Katsu answered. “My master is dead. My friends are dead. I have no home.”
“You can tell them you killed the Giant Oni?” Branch suggested. “You could be a big hero.”
“Without the Daimyo’s Son, I will only face exile,” Katsu said. “Even if I were to bring the Great Oni’s skull, the Daimyo could not suffer anyone who survived when his son had perished. He might spare me death on account of bringing him word of his son’s fate, but exile would be a death sentence of its own. I could only find work in dens of shame and the houses of criminals. All my training and all my life’s work would be for naught.”
Branch sighed and slapped Katsu on the back. “There’s a place I know, where people would pay you kingdoms for a man like you. Hell, the two of us, I’d wager we’d get two kingdoms for the price of one.”
“I only serve with honor and courage,” Katsu said. “We hold to sacred tenants and oaths. I am not a common killer.”
“Where I’m going, people have got honor and chivalry coming out their asses,” Branch said. “Trust me, kid, we’re going to be just fine.”
Branch pointed the vaka east and pushed back toward where Katsu’s people believed the world ended and with the wind at their backs, they would make it just before Katsu starved to death. It was going to be brilliant.