"Touma!" Ryo yelled across the car. But the blue hair flashed and was gone through the blown-open door. The wan conductor fell silent, staring at where Touma had hopped out of the train.
"Shin’s with him," Shuu said.
Seiji turned to Will. "Where? Outside?"
Will reached out with his senses. It was so close, shifting quickly. Bran touched his shoulder but he didn’t feel it.
"Not on the train," Will said. They were off before he could finish. Between one step and the next, form-fitting armor appeared on their bodies. There were no seams showing, not even on the joints. Giddily Will thought of tin cans with their heads sticking out.
"What’s happening to my home?" Seiji blurted as the view out the windows turned black as soot.
A solid wall of the same insubstantial stuff blocked up the open door. Or perhaps it was a lack of stuff. They could hear the shrill wind from the train’s speed, and see it stirring Ryo’s hair, yet the cabin remained dead calm. Impatiently Ryo stuck his red armored hand into the void.
Shuu suddenly looked alarmed. "Touma, where’s Touma. Shin can’t find him."
Ryo flashed a glance at Will and Bran, then laid a hand on the threshold. "Ike!" One by one they swung out and up, into the darkness.
Will dithered. The black void was pressing on the windows, squeezing the train from all sides. Casting out his senses to search for their enemy was like pushing through burnt molasses. He pondered if the five ronin would be able to see it before it struck.
"Should I go after them?" he asked Bran.
His friend had been staring. "You’re mad!" Then, "Why are you asking me?"
A loud blast cut through the whistling wind. Will and Bran exchanged looks; at 270 kilometers per hour, an accident would be a horror. And if their attacker was looking for Will, his presence endangered everyone on board.
Will bit his lip. He didn’t want to leave Bran unprotected.
"Go," Bran said suddenly. "Hurry. And if your neck’s lopped off, I’m never speaking to you again."
A grin spread over Will’s face. "I promise. Keep a sharp eye." He zipped up his jacket and took off after the others.
Mentally he pushed into the stream, gravitating to the brightest thread. /Seiji, I’m coming up./
There was a brief moment of surprise. Then the stream quickened, and Will had the fleeting impression of a blade edge turned towards an enemy. /Yes. Shuu will get you./
Will waved aside the stammering conductor, and stuck his arm out the door. From above a strong hand grasped and yanked him out.
His first impression was of a million knives cutting his skin. The wind nearly toppled him off his feet before a hard rock wall slammed it out. No, thought Will. It was not a wall. Beside him Shuu had extended an invisible shield around him. This close, the beat of the armor was so purely earth-rock-hard that Will’s mortal senses were fooled into a imagining a solid barrier.
The next thing he noticed was that the high voltage lines had disappeared. They were truly off the tracks now, held by the enchantment of their attacker. Will shielded his eyes and looked for the other ronin.
Their armor had changed. They were faint glowing figures standing fast in the void, spread out over the tops of two cars, yet even then Will could pick out the horns and wings of their helmets, and great gleaming weapons of the samurai.
His admiration didn’t last long. From the wind itself came a piercing shriek, and Shuu was throttled from behind. Hard armor crashed against Will. It was like a boulder fall tumbling down to crush him... quickly he closed his mind to the sensation. Shuu was yelling. He raised his hand and in it was a rapidly spinning chain — oversized nunchuks.
As quickly as it swept in, their enemy was gone. The train roof had a new crater in it, which Shuu toed sheepishly.
/Seiji! Shin! Switch off and guard Will-san!/ Ryo was standing beside Touma, two swords crossed and at the ready. Enveloped in blue light, Touma held a longbow taut and ready to fire.
Will strained to get his bearings, barely noticing when Seiji and Shin appeared. He could sense a general direction but not anything Touma could aim at. "It’s moving too fast!"
"I know," Shin said. He held a long spear, its edge a sharp glimmer in the thick darkness. "We need some light."
Seiji nodded, his face strained; the warrior of light was likely at a disadvantage here. His was a massive sword, something Will imagined was more suited to cavalry than hand-to-hand fighting. Ryo’s order suddenly made sense: these two’s weapons had the longest reach.
That also meant he was drawing them away from a fight. "By the time I point it out, it’ll be gone!" Will scanned the blank darkness, nails digging into his palms.
Seiji kept his eyes on the sky. "Where is it! It could be anywhere." He stiffened. "If it goes after Satsuki..."
"I’m sure your sister is fine," Shin said quickly. "If we’re still moving, we’re far from Sendai now."
Will let out a triumphant gasp. He had forgotten the beacon on the hill. "Shin, Seiji. Be wary, I won’t be able to sense anything while I do this..." He took a step forward, the twin shields of bright light and crashing waves making him feel he was on a ship’s prow. He raised his hands. His eyes fell shut as he began to chant in the Old Speech, a song of calling, light to light.
"There! I see it!" The motion blur seemed to melt away despite the train’s flight. Gradually they comprehended shapes out of darkness and distance and great speed.
"Aoba Castle," said Seiji softly. The ronin watched in awe as the distant match-flame grew into a roaring bon. The light spread like a golden curtain down the hill, disappearing into the river valley, then bursting out over the buildings. At the highest points it flickered like a thousand candles.
Will’s brows knit, shielding each little light as it guttered and sparked. In a final triumphant flare it kindled the sky.
The black fog turned to white mist.
Will opened his eyes, his body humming with excitement and happiness. But he was pulled out of his reverie by Shin’s strangled cry.
Seiji raised his sword against the wind, toward the western sky. Will followed its point, and gasped in horror. Flying through the mist was a vaguely human-shaped figure. It had black wings on its back, more like a crow’s than an angel’s; instead of a nose and mouth, a crow’s beak protruded from its face.
Its face was an angry red splotch in the pale gloom. It was dressed in what looked to be a Buddhist priest’s robes, yet its eyes burned with a mad fury that no man, priest or no, could ever emulate.
Seiji pulled his sword in, ready to strike. "Tengu!" At the sound of its name, it vanished in a blur, followed swiftly by a barrage of golden arrows. "It is a mountain demon, Will-san. Some are benevolent, but some are child-stealers, mischief-makers."
"Still extreme for a tengu," Shin said. "They are not known to attack directly."
As though on cue, it appeared in front of them.
Seiji was swinging before Will could move. One arm instinctively flung up, he ducked just as Shin jumped back, missing the point of Seiji’s blade by inches. He realized Seiji was feeding his moves to him.
The tengu was fast, and Seiji’s blade just as fast. He jumped between it and Will, slicing the air with his giant sword as though it were light as wood. Seiji spun and stepped into one graceful form after another, faster and faster. Yet this fell short of a warrior’s dance; Will could sense Seiji’s anger blunting his otherwise fluid moves. And the tengu, while clumsy, was moving so fast that it could vanish, only to reappear from another direction.
Suddenly Shin grabbed Will from behind as Seiji barely deflected a hit to the chest. Seiji toppled back where Will had been standing, landing with a metallic clang.
Seiji levered himself up, with Shin on guard. Gruffly he said, "Tengu are known for their skills as warriors, too." A couple of black feathers caught on his armor and were whipped away.
"I just need one shot!" Touma yelled from the other car. He had been drawing power from the wind, and Will could tell his attack would be devastating if it hit its mark. He was seized with the urge to warn him of the passengers just below.
"We should be closer. Our armors could help Touma," said Seiji. Shin nodded, and the three of them started forward. Walking on the smooth surface, Will tried not to think of how fast they were moving. At least in the dark he had been less aware of their dizzying speed.
Then Shin’s grim face softened into a smile, and he laid a gentle hand on Will’s elbow. From his ribs to his ears, the vertigo melted into something deep and cool and calm. Will smiled back gratefully.
Without warning the tengu appeared again, swooping low on Ryo and Shuu. Now Will could see that it wielded a long iron staff. They dodged its blow, rolling precariously along the roof. The staff struck the metal with a bang. Stymied, the tengu gave a warbling screech and was gone.
Despite the close impact, Touma’s stance didn’t waver from the sky. It was too close to fire accurately, Will guessed. Unhurried, Touma’s aim meandered as he tracked what they could not see..
His bow suddenly dipped, pointing at Will, Seiji, and Shin. "Get down!" He shouted, the same warning roaring through the armor bonds in his rough Kansai accent. They had just enough time to flatten themselves before a missile thundered over their heads. Any closer and Will thought it might have flayed their skin. He rolled on his back. The arrow was disappearing into the distance, and he raised his hand to push it upwards before it hit anything.
Then his heart about stopped. A blurred figure had leapt from between the cars and swooped into the train’s open door in an explosion of black feathers.
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