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 Cartoon Eyes Chapter 5

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PostSubject: Cartoon Eyes Chapter 5   Cartoon Eyes Chapter 5 I_icon_minitimeFri Dec 03, 2010 12:38 pm

Why do I always wait until halfway through the book to introduce my favorite characters. It's just weird, man. Well, here he is.

Episode 5: Mr. Michi

Jeremy rocketed past the rice-paper door with enough force to shake it from its track.
“Kim!” he called, dropping from the wooden walkway, shielding his eyes against the intense morning sunlight.
Urgent, jangling music, the ludicrous song of an insane xylophone, assaulted his ears and forced through to his mind.
Cameron appeared in a sudden explosion of smoke to his right.
“You check the places over there,” he said, pointing, “I’ll try the other way. Yell if you find anything.”
Jeremy nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He veered toward the small collection of abandoned houses on his left, trying unsuccessfully to forget what the book had said about his sister.
“Though both she and her creature vanish from the accounts some time before the final confrontation.”
The words rang through his head like the grating, high-pitched chorus of a maddeningly annoying song, set to double speed and stuck on repeat.
Why hadn’t they asked about her sooner? Why hadn’t he taken just a little time the night before to figure out his sister’s role in the storyline and possibly put her mind, and Sondra’s, at ease?
Reaching the first of the houses, Jeremy nearly crashed through the door when it failed to open quickly enough. He ducked in the building, saw only a writing desk and a dusty bare sleeping mat, and sped away to check a nearby structure.
“Kim, are you in there?” he called, scrambling up the walkway, “Are you here?”
Finding the door stuck, he pressed his face against the rice-paper to peer inside. As he did, Cameron’s called out from the other side of the village.
“I found her!”
Jeremy cold not tell by Cameron’s neutral tone if, “I found her,” signified a good or bad thing, but his mind hurried to conjure the worst.
Had his sister been trapped by hungry ogres? Fallen down a deep, slick-walled well? Become pinned beneath the rubble of a collapsed building?
“Coming!” he called, dodging around buildings with agitated speed, desperately wishing for Cameron’s anime gift of smoky teleportation.
He visualized having to tell his mom that he had allowed something awful to happen to his sister, and for a moment the cartoon nature of the world dropped away and everything seemed jerky, jarring and far too real. His breath expelled in heavy puffs and his heartbeat hammered like machinegun fire as he sped around an empty Koi pond, skidded on the loose gravel of a Zen garden pathway, and careened around the corner of a long wooden platform to find his sister…
…Having tea?
“What? He said. “Where did…? How did you…?”
He shook his head to stop the babbling.
The scene before him seemed unreal, even for a world ruled by the principles of anime.
Kim sat at a low outdoor table with her knees tucked neatly beneath her. Across from her knelt a very old man in off-white robes beneath a faded red kimono. Between the two sat a small assortment of delicate white tea cups, a squat, round teapot, and a container for sugar, all of which appeared to be empty. Charlie slept peacefully a short distance from Kim, and beyond Charlie stood Cameron, who, motionless in his ninja garb, resembled a darkly dressed statue.
A chime-filled melody with muted, earthy tones drifted on a sweet, blossom-scented breeze.
“Kim, what are you doing out here?” Jeremy sputtered. “You didn’t tell anybody? You didn’t even say…”
He turned to the old man, who watched him with a strangely gleeful smile.
“And who’s this guy?”
The old man’s smile widened. He positively beamed. After a moment of extricating his hands from the long folds of his robes, he rose from the table, bowed deeply, and announced, in a booming, self-important voice, “I am Michi!”
When Jeremy gave only an uncertain nod, Michi cleared his throat and tried again.
“Michi!” he cried, throwing his hands high in the air.
He inclined his head in Jeremy’s direction as if to ask, “Do you understand now?”
Jeremy didn’t.
“Kim, you can’t just run off like that,” he said, turning back to his sister. “We were freaking out back there. We thought ogres got you or something. And here you are having tea?”
“Tea!” Michi exclaimed, emphatically clapping his hands and reclaiming his place at the table.
He stared with great concentration at the empty teacups as though they might fill at any moment.
“Wow, calm down,” Kim said. “I wasn’t lost or anything. I just woke up early because Charlie had to use the…”
She reached down and carefully covered her dog’s ears before proceeding to whisper, with deliberate, overemphasized slowness, the letters:
“And then I saw Michi taking his morning walk…”
Michi smiled wide at the mention of his name.
“And he said he was on his way to have tea, so…”
“Tea is best in the morning,” Michi said, patting his ample stomach. “Also, in the afternoon.”
He thought for a moment before adding, “And in the evening.”
Jeremy nodded with what he hoped looked like understanding.
“We heard that nobody lives in this village anymore,” he said. “I thought everybody was afraid of the spirits.”
Michi leapt from the table and cast a series of suspicious glances around the area.
“Spirits, you say?” he asked, swiveling his head from side to side. “I haven’t seen any. Do you mean to say they’ve been about all this time?”
He glanced over his left shoulder, raised one foot to peer beneath it, and crouched low to examine the underside of the table, giving Charlie a long, inquiring look when Kim’s little dog raised his head.
“We don’t really know,” Jeremy said, watching the old man dance around. “That’s just what the book told us.”
“Ah, well, books are very wise,” Michi said, “at least most of the time. You should probably listen to it.”
He glanced down in disappointment at the still empty teacup.
“Is it a good book, do you think?”
Jeremy was a little thrown by the question.
“I think so. I guess we haven’t really thought about it. It’s helped us so far.”
Michi absently scratched his head, stared longingly at the teacup for another moment, then heaved a heavy sigh.
“Well, as it seems we won’t be having any more tea today,” he said, “I had better continue my walk. The road must be getting a bit lonely by now. Not many travelers have been by recently.”
Jeremy frowned.
“The road is…?”
“A very good friend of mine,” Michi agreed quickly, grinning. “Why don’t you gather up the rest of your friends and…”
Jeremy shot Kim a quick, slightly worried glance.
“How do you know about the others?” he asked. “Did Kim say something?”
“Well no, but I did stop by for a moment last night,” Michi admitted, “You all looked quite comfortable though and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“So that was you last night who opened the door?” Jeremy said, relieved.
“Just to peek in,” Michi clarified, holding up a finger to punctuate the point.
“Wait,” Cameron said, “half us of were sleeping on the floor. How did we look comfortable?”
“It appeared to be a very comfortable floor,” Michi said.
Cameron seemed about to contradict the old man, but then shrugged, titled his head to one side, and finally gave in.
“It actually kind of was.”

Lauren, Sondra and Arthur were awake and waiting when Jeremy, Kim, and Cameron returned to the house where they had slept, and explained about meeting Michi. Lauren had her robe back on, the bulky expanse of it somehow perfectly dried, and Sondra and Arthur sat on one of the beds, examining Arthur’s book and its blank, quiet pages.
“We had a tea party,” Kim announced brightly, stepping in the door, “Mr. Michi’s going to introduce us to the road. He’s really smart, and really old, and he really likes tea.”
“That’s…nice,” Lauren said slowly, “but who is this guy again, and how exactly will the road…?”
“Because Jeremy figured it out,” Kim said, pointing at her brother.
“Figured what out?” Sondra asked, rising from the bed and running a fidgety hand through her already perfect hair.
“I didn’t really figure out anything,” Jeremy said, giving Kim a look. “It’s just that the book said it would put us on the path and…”
“And a path is like a road!” Kim announced, clearly expecting applause.
“I just thought it kind of made sense,” Jeremy admitted, sudden, shaky beads of nervous sweat dripping down his face. “The book didn’t seem to know a whole lot about what to do after the village, except it said something about putting us…”
“On the right path so we could find our purpose!” Sondra remembered, appearing a little surprised at having made the connection, though no more so than Lauren, who looked absolutely stunned.
Sondra, not about to have her small victory diminish, hurried on.
“That book is like the history of this place,” she said. “Arthur knows some stuff, and that book knows some stuff, and maybe this new guy, whoever he is, with the road, knows more stuff.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lauren muttered, “the thought process of Sondra Brenner.”
“And maybe,” Sondra continued, oblivious, “maybe if we put all the stuff together then we’ll be able to know…like…”
“More stuff?” Cameron suggested.
“Totally!” Sondra agreed.
Lauren opened her mouth but couldn’t find the words.
“It probably is the best plan we have,” Arthur said, saving his sister from Lauren’s eventual outburst. “The book doesn’t seem to be talking this morning…”
“It’s probably still asleep,” Kim commented.
“…And I don’t have any of those random ideas jumping into my head, so Michi is probably our best source of information at this point.”
Sondra stared at her brother.
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
“More of less.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her.
“So what’s the plan with this guy, anyway?” she asked, “Do we just go follow-”
“I have found my walking stick!” Michi announced, sliding the door aside with a flourish and brandishing a gnarled, sturdy cane, “now we can go visit my very good friend the road.”
“And there’s your answer,” Lauren said, while Michi beamed at everyone expectantly, his old, weathered face alight with eagerness.

The perfectly spherical, liquid gold sun had completed only a fraction of its daily distance as the group, lead by the surprisingly spry Michi, began down a wide but heavily overgrown path leading out of town.
“Yes, this old road and I have had many fine adventures,” Michi said to his assembled audience, who frequently collided while straining for a better vantage point behind the old man, “it has been quite a good friend. Though of course it is not without its faults. It can by quite crafty at times, believe it or not. Yes, it certainly does like its tricks.”
“It plays tricks?” Lauren asked.
Each member of Jeremy’s group listened closely to Michi in the hope that he might accidentally spill some bit of wisdom or insight that could lead them back home, but the last hour had been only one rambling story after another about things Michi had seen or thoughts he had had while out wandering.
“Eh? Tricks you say? Oh yes, this old road has played its share of those. Why, once I was on my way to the marketplace and repeatedly found myself coming over the hill to my house, sometimes just after I’d left it.”
“There’s a marketplace?” Cameron asked, nearly tripping Jeremy on the small path as he angled closer.
“Oh, quite a grand marketplace,” Michi agreed. “All sorts of good things to eat.”
“And tea?” Kim asked.
“And what tea!” Michi exclaimed. “Many different kinds. So many flavors to try.”
He licked his lips and seemed for a moment to remember the sweetest taste of his life, but soon the euphoric expression faded.
“But all gone now, I’m afraid. No more marketplace. This was years ago of course, before all those troublesome creatures came and scared everybody away. Still, the road remains, and together we have had many good…”
“How come you keep talking about the road like it’s alive?” Jeremy asked, wondering if perhaps the idea was something common to anime that he had simply missed.
Michi stopped abruptly, turned, and focused his gaze on Jeremy as though he might be some important new species.
“The road? Alive, you say? Ha!”
Michi laughed uproariously, then giggled madly and sputtered with such force that he put himself into a coughing fit. Kim had to reach up and slap the old man on the back before the coughing would subside, and even then he laughed hard enough to keep his body bent nearly double.
“Preposterous,” he cried merrily, “the road is made of dirt.”
Jeremy watched the old man with distinct unease.
“It’s just that you said, I mean, the way you talk about it…”
“It’s the spirit of the road, boy, the spirit,” Michi said. “And quite the mischievous spirit at that.”
He stood to his full height and wiped tears away from his eyes.
“But the road? Alive?”
He burst into laughter again.
“Where did you find this one?” he asked Kim. “Most entertaining. Most entertaining!”
“Don’t ask me,” Kim said, throwing up her hands and pushing her mouth sideways, “he was just born that way.”
“The spirit of the road is responsible for travelers, you see,” Michi explained, clearly mystified that he had to, “but sometimes it grows tired of leading them in the correct direction and grows mischievous. It is boring to see everyone always end up exactly where they mean to be going, and so the spirit of the road adds some adventure to their lives.”
“By getting them lost?” Lauren asked.
“By seeing that they go somewhere new,” Michi said. “Now, doesn’t that make a good deal of sense?”
“Not really,” Kim and Sondra said at once, as Cameron drew close to Jeremy and whispered, “This is great. This guy is completely nuts!”
Jeremy glanced over with a cautious, guarded expression.
“Why exactly is that great?” he whispered back.
“Because crazy old people in anime know everything,” Cameron explained. “You just have to wait around forever until they get to the important stuff.”
“Well, isn’t that kind of our plan?” Jeremy asked.
“Oh, I guess it is.”
“So we just have to let him keep talking.”
“I doubt you’ll be able to stop him.”
Jeremy smiled.
“Probably not.”
Turning his attention back to the old man, he asked, “So, Mr. Michi…”
“Eh? Mr. Michi you say? Why, that rhymes! Wonderful!”
If Cameron’s right the answer should be coming soon, Jeremy thought, the old guy is getting crazier by the second.
“Uh…yeah,” Jeremy went on, “so that book we were talking about, it told us to get on a path, which could mean this road…”
“I figured that part out!” Sondra called.
“Right,” Jeremy agreed, figuring that giving her credit couldn’t hurt, “but now we’re here and we’re thinking, well, it’s just that we don’t really know where we’re supposed to be going next. Where does this road go anyway? Is there another town? Or maybe a castle?”
“But not the kind with ogres!” Sondra clarified, intent on remaining in the conversation.
Michi rested his chin on his walking stick and regarded Sondra with lazy interest.
“Ogres, you say? You must be talking about Kasane Castle. But that is the other direction, and very far away. I don’t think we need to worry about ogres all the way out here.”
“All the way out here?” Lauren asked, “but we’ve barely left the village, and the monsters from Kasane were there at some point. Just because they didn’t stay…”
“Barely left the village?” Michi said, blinking. “This is the Hanuki province. Haven’t you been paying attention?”
They all looked around, but saw only the same off-green and dusty-white pattern of country landscape they had come to expect.
“How long have we been walking then?” Lauren asked. “It feels like only an hour or so.”
“Yes. About that,” Michi agreed. “But as I’ve told you many times, the road is quite mischievous.”
Jeremy glanced at the path with uncertainty.
“So the road took us…?”
“You mean we’re really far away from the ogres now?” Sondra cut in.
“Quite far,” Michi said. “So you see, none of the terrible things happening in that place will trouble you all the way out here.”
He nodded to himself as though answering a question.
“Certainly not. Why don’t we just enjoy the day? I know of a good teahouse where we could enjoy a tasty meal and have something to drink.”
He seemed suddenly to think of something, stuck out his tongue, and observed it with crossed eyes.
“Yes, quite dry,” he said. “Now of course, the best thing would be…”
Jeremy took a fast step forward before the old man could start in again on his favorite topic.
“That sounds great,” he said, “but maybe later. See, the problem is that what’s going on in Kasane castle is going to trouble us.”
He glanced at Kim and Sondra.
“At least two of us.”
“Oh?” Michi asked, turning, with a sudden, crafty look.
“And it will start troubling everybody at some point,” Jeremy went on, unnerved by Michi’s strange new demeanor but determined to make his point.
“Hyaku has this giant army of creatures that already mostly control the forest around the castle, and if half of what the book says is true, then he’s planning on sending out his armies to conquer a lot more than that.”
Michi furrowed his bushy eyebrows and formed his mouth into a slight, grim line.
“So you think people might be in danger all the way out here?” he asked. “You think it might be worth warning them? Taking action?”
Jeremy had the strangest sensation that Michi was waiting for him to say exactly the right thing.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “At least I think so. We can’t get the book to talk anymore, but it seems like…”
“Then we must do something!” Michi sang out
He leapt into the air, turning in mid-flight to face forward.
“I’ll show you the way to the resistance headquarters,” he announced. “They could use well-informed young people like you.”
“Resistance headquarters?” Lauren asked. “There’s a resistance?”
“I kind of thought we were,” Cameron admitted, watching Michi skip merrily down the road, waving his walking stick like an oversized baton.
“Is he serious?” Lauren asked. “Because if he is…”
“Yeah,” Cameron interrupted, “we know we’re supposed to be opposing Hyaku, right? It sure couldn’t hurt to have an army. Or at least join one.”
“What happened to storming the castle all by yourself?” Lauren asked, her lips curling into a smile.
“Hey, I said you could help.”
“Right, tearing down walls. Yeah, that sounds-”
“Are you guys all crazy?” Sondra interrupted. “This guy is completely senile. He thinks we’re on a different continent or something. He’s probably going to lead us to some other weird little town and forget who we are. Or who he is.”
“He’s not that bad,” Kim said defiantly. “He’s just a little…different. Plus, Charlie likes him.”
As if on cue, Charlie raised his head from his place on Kim’s shoulder and began franticly barking in the direction Michi had gone.
“See?” Kim said.
Cameron shrugged.
“Yeah, but that dog likes everybody.”
“He’s not even really a dog,” Sondra said, “he’s just a little puffball thing.”
Charlie turned and growled at her.
“Okay, maybe he doesn’t like everybody,” Cameron said, mostly keeping the laughter from his voice.
“He does seem to be getting smarter though,” Arthur said. “Or at least he seems to understand us better.”
Kim turned her head to her shoulder so that she was nose-to-nose with Charlie.
“You do?” she asked.
Charlie nodded a very distinct, very precise, “Yes.”
“Whoa!” Jeremy and Cameron said at once.
Kim looked Charlie right in the eye.
“Did you just say, “Yes?”
Charlie nodded again, and licked her face.
“Awesome!” Kim squealed. “This new Charlie is really smart. We should let him tell us where to go.”
She set her pet down and Charlie bounded after Michi, barking happily and wagging his tail to such an extent that it almost knocked him over.
“We can’t just follow the dog,” Sondra said, “that doesn’t even make sense.”
“Actually we’d be following Michi,” Cameron corrected, “who it sounds like is going to take us exactly where we need to go.”
“If he can remember how to get there,” Sondra said. “Or if the place he’s thinking of even exists.”
“Well, either way,” Lauren said, “we should do something. We sure aren’t going to get home any sooner standing out on this road in the middle of nowhere.”
“The Hanuki province,” Arthur reminded her, “that’s what Michi called it.”
Sondra rolled her eyes.
“Great, so where’s that?”
Arthur took a moment to think, finally seeming to receive some glimmer of memory.
“It’s pretty much directly in the middle of nowhere,” he admitted. “Not much out here but the ruins of some ancient towns and leftover mining tunnels.”
“That doesn’t sound very helpful,” Cameron said.
“But the road is weird,” Jeremy said, “it took us all the way out here in an hour, maybe in another twenty minutes we’ll come to a city or something.”
“So we should keep going down the road,” Cameron said.
“Which means following Michi,” Lauren agreed.
“Which means following Charlie!” Kim announced.
Jeremy shrugged, thought for a moment, and eventually nodded.
“Which means following…”
He didn’t bother to finish. Kim had already run off after her pet, her inky black anime shadow bouncing after her, hurrying to keep up.
Jeremy studied the road at his feet but could see nothing beyond the usual light tan strip of cartoon roadway. He started to prod the earth with the toe of his boot, but thought better of it. Best not to provoke the thing, in case there actually happened to be some truth to Michi’s ramblings.
“Road spirits,” he muttered, and started down the road after Kim.
A moment later, the rest of the group followed.
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PostSubject: Re: Cartoon Eyes Chapter 5   Cartoon Eyes Chapter 5 I_icon_minitimeThu Dec 30, 2010 6:12 pm

Capter Five Edited

Sorry this one took so long, Rad ol' chap. I'm ready and revving to work on the next'un!
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PostSubject: Thank you thank you   Cartoon Eyes Chapter 5 I_icon_minitimeFri Dec 31, 2010 2:19 pm

Ah, man, some good catches there. Franticly is a variant of an adverb and frantically is a verb? Let me just say, what the hell is that all about?! Somebody was sniffing ink at Webster's that day.

Sondra's continual use of "dog" for Charlie was an attempt to show that she was still in denial about the cartoon reality. I guess it didn't work. She has some other word choices to that effect as well and hopefully the whole tapestry of shallow disbelief on her part will weave together. I guess I'll leave it for now and see if anybody else complains.

I think it's funny that you caution against the risk of overwriting. I thought that was this book's mission statement! But in terms of many of the sentences you found fault with, I either corrected, clarified or just straight deleted. Your edits are very helpful, is what I'm trying to say.
I think that's it.
Posting chapter 6 (AKA that f'ing chapter that took me three months to write)!

Oh, and Steven, I'm just sending it to you via email via word so hopefully all the italics come through. There is quite a bit of emphasis used in this one and it will read more clearly if you can see which words are italicized.

Episode 6: Meeting With Resistance Part 1

It took only a few minutes, after the decision to follow Michi had been made, for the group to catch up with the old man, but in that time the world changed drastically. The long swathes of yellow, green, and brown that stretched away from the road took on a distant, hazy quality, and above them loomed purple mountains, dressed in shadows, propped crookedly against a light gray afternoon sky. Flowering shrubs, formed from many shades and angles of watercolor greens and yellows, squatted at the roadside, exhibiting deep pink and purple blooms. The sun, pushed past noon to occupy the evening hemisphere, cast a cooler, softer light. It made the anime landscape seem more natural and somehow quiet, despite the obvious soundtrack of breezy, upbeat traveling music.
Michi, once more in possession of a listening audience, rambled on as though Jeremy and the rest had never left.
“Yes, I am certain the resistance will be most pleased,” he said. “They must surely be in need of assistance. I haven’t sent them many people lately, you see. I’ve been far too busy. What with-”
“What are you, then?” Cameron asked, as the group resumed their tight, bumbling formation behind the old man, “some kind of army recruiter?”
“Eh? Army? Army, you say?” Michi asked, turning with a sly look.
He grinned so widely that his eyes nearly disappeared.
“If it’s an army you want you’ll have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. It’s not quite an army they have. No, not quite that.”
“Well, you said there was a resistance,” Jeremy pointed out.
“I did,” Michi agreed.
“And we figured the resistance was some kind of army,” Lauren added.
“I see the logic of your logic,” Michi said, stroking his bare chin thoughtfully as though he had a long, fine beard.
“So it isn’t an army, then?” Kim asked, the confusion in her voice reflecting that of the group.
“Of course not,” Michi said. “It’s the resistance.”
They all stood around blinking.
“Now, the leader of this resistance,” Michi went on, as though things had been easily cleared up, “his name is Kysho. He and his sister Suta, a most wonderful girl who makes the very best tea, have been opposing Hyaku the Third since he first assumed power.”
“Opposed?” Lauren asked. “Like politically.”
Michi thought about that.
“Not exactly.”
His wrinkled face showed the intensity of his thoughts.
“Imagine two stones,” he said. “One is red and the other…”
“Wait. No. That doesn’t make any sense. Forget the stones.”
Jeremy glanced at some of the others and saw only expectant stares.
“Imagine two dragons,” Michi tried again.
“Charlie can be a dragon!” Kim said.
“Yes,” Michi agreed. “Now, imagine two dragons-”
He peered at the sky, hooked his thumbs together and spread his fingers to imitate wings, began to say something, and decided against it.
“Hmm. Perhaps Kysho would do a better job of telling things. Yes, I am certain of it. He does enjoy his planning. Been doing it his whole life, I suppose. And planning is all well and good, if you like that sort of thing. But for myself, I prefer to drink Suta’s excellent tea.”
He rubbed his hands together and licked his lips.
“Why, I can just taste it now. A little sugar to sweeten things up, perhaps, then-”
He leaned his head back and stretched open his mouth, producing a satisfied gargling noise as he patted his stomach.
“It gets very dusty out here on these roads,” he explained, lowering his head, “and it is so very nice when I can sit for a while and enjoy some tea.”
A dreamy expression settled on his face.
“Ah! But we must be going! I’ve promised to take you to Kysho and here we are standing about discussing tea.”
For a moment it appeared as though the mere mention of his favorite beverage might return him to blissful contemplation, but he somehow found the will to proceed.
“Now then, the resistance headquarters is located at the far eastern edge of this province. In order to get there we must travel-”
“The far eastern edge!” Kim complained. “That sounds really far away. We’ve already been walking all day. This road goes on forever!”
Michi started at her, blinking.
“No it doesn’t,” he said. “It takes you where you need to go and stops. That is the purpose of a road.”
He continued to blink.
“I’m quite surprised you didn’t know that, actually.”
“Hey, I know lots of stuff,” Kim said. “I just don’t know anything about roads except that they take forever and they’re boring!”
“Boring!” Michi sputtered. “Boring! Why, I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life.”
With his eyebrows knitted together and his chin pulled up in indignation, Michi managed to resemble a very confused, slightly alarmed owl.
“You are quite right,” he told Kim, “you don’t know anything about roads. It is a very good thing that I am around to show you.”
At his final word, a deafening peal of thunder cracked across the landscape, shaking the world with its force. A blinding series of lightning flashes followed. They sizzled with sound and scarred long, jagged lines against a midnight-black sky. Rain fell in heavy waves, each drop audible as it struck the road, like a hundred thousand fingers slapping the rim of a dusty drum.
“Did you just make it rain?” Arthur asked Michi, with a scholar’s curiosity, as Sondra went into hysterics, covering her head with her hands and dancing around as though through sheer panicked movement she could keep the storm from ruining her hair.
“Make it rain?” Michi asked, peering at Arthur through the downpour. “Do I look like Numo, spirit of the sky? Or Haruko, spirit of the water?”
A flash of lightening lit up Michi’s wry face.
“Or perhaps I am Toshiro, spirit of the forest, and have requested water because my trees are thirsty? Yes, that must be it.”
“Okay, okay, we get it,” Sondra said, miserable and bedraggled, “you didn’t cause the stupid-”
“Wait, did you just say Toshiro?”
“Spirit of the forest,” Michi confirmed. “A very good friend of mine. Well, more an acquaintance really. Well, come to think of it…”
“Toshiro?” Sondra asked again. “He’s a spirit? You mean he looks like that and he’s all-powerful?”
“Hardly all-powerful,” Michi scoffed, scowling. “But yes, he is one of-”
“But you know him? Do you think you could, like, introduce me?”
Michi gave her a quizzical look.
“Introduce you?” he asked. “But you’ve already met. He told me-”
“Whoa! Stop!” Sondra commanded, raising a hand. “You talked to him. What did he say about me?”
Jeremy, who had been somewhat distracted from his affection for Sondra since entering the cartoon world, and especially after Lauren had kissed him, now felt his feelings rise again in the form of one glowing red, angry thought. He wanted something very bad to happen to this so-called spirit of the forest.
“He said you mentioned trees,” Michi reported.
“I did,” Sondra agreed.
“And that you liked them.”
“I do!”
“Yes, that is what he said.”
Sondra pushed back the tiara against her wet hair and stared hard at Michi.
“That’s all he said about me?” she asked.
“Perhaps you would like me to make something up?” Michi suggested. “Talking with Toshiro is like talking with one of his trees. You have the feeling that something is there listening but you get very little answer. He likes to pretend he knows what is going on in the world, that he has some part in the realm of humans, but he does not truly understand their ways or what can happen as a result of his tampering.”
Michi appeared genuinely annoyed, but his agitation soon passed.
“Ah, but then everyone knows that Toshiro is scared and upset about his forests being invaded by Hyaku’s forces, and that he is searching for a place to hide. He is trying to pass as a human, of course, find himself a bride and-”
“He’s what!” Sondra nearly screamed. “Looking for a-”
“A bride,” Michi finished, nodding. “He believes that it will be easier to live among humans if he has a large quantity of happy children and a nice little wife to look after them.”
Sondra looked ill.
“That guy suddenly got a lot less cute.”
Lauren’s response was caustic.
“A nice little wife?”
“But of course you knew all this,” Michi said. “That is why you so tactfully rejected his offers of guidance. You knew that he would slowly work his magic on one of the young ladies in your group, and so you turned him away, even though he could easily have guided you safely through the woods.”
Michi ended the sentence with a smile, but it did not last long.
“Are you saying that you did not know?”
“We hadn’t been in the world that long,” Jeremy said lamely, “we didn’t know how-”
“You are a very silly group of people!” Michi said, his voice rising, “you know nothing of the spirits and yet you insist on crossing their lands. You know nothing of the resistance and yet you insist on being part of it.”
“I wouldn’t really say we insisted,” Cameron said, but Michi wasn’t finished. “You don’t even have the sense to seek shelter when the rain comes, though obviously it is the spirit’s way of saying you have reached your destination.”
“Huh?” Cameron asked, as Kim said, “We haven’t even moved in forever! We’re just standing here getting wet.”
“Ah, but that is not true,” Michi said, “Miss Sondra danced about quite a bit when the rain came.”
“Well yeah, sure, and I maybe took a step back or something,” Lauren agreed, “but you can’t tell me that we somehow hopped and skipped all the way down a road in the space of two seconds.”
Michi regarded her with folded arms and a deadpan expression.
“Very well, I will not tell you,” he said. “I will also neglect to point out that we are now in the mountains, or that there is a cave just to your right that looks very much like the one I remember the resistance using. No, I will not tell you any of that. Instead, I will stand in the rain.”
He produced an oversized gray umbrella, seemingly from thin air, opened the canopy above his head, and stared at the group in simple contentment as water pounded down on them.
“Okay, fine,” Lauren said, after a moment of annoyed stubbornness, “we’ll go to the cave, but I still don’t see how we got-”
Charlie, hearing Lauren’s decision, leapt from Kim’s shoulder and flew unevenly to the stony floor of the cave mouth, where he bent low, braced himself, and shook off several waves of water.
“Your pet clearly sees the wisdom of entering the cave to escape the storm,” Michi told Kim. “It is a very good thing that you have made him the leader.”
“He’s not the leader,” Sondra complained, but ran after Charlie to take shelter in the cave’s overhang, which brought a satisfied smirk from Kim and an exasperated sigh from Lauren.
“Okay, I guess we might as well get this over with,” Jeremy said, moving toward the cave, “let’s go meet the army, or the resistance, I guess. Michi, when you introduce us, maybe you should-”
He realized suddenly that Michi hadn’t moved.
“Aren’t you coming?”
Michi regarded his umbrella, glancing at the rain from beneath its rim.
“Somebody must stay here and make sure that the road does not tire of being in one place for so long that it wanders off looking for somewhere more interesting,” he said.
He favored the road with a patient smile.
“But when you see Miss Suta, please be so kind as to inform her that I am standing here in the cold rain and would like some of her excellent tea.”
“But you have to come with us,” Sondra said from the entrance to the cave, “we don’t even know these people.”
“Ah, but you are very good at making a strong first impression,” Michi answered.
Jeremy noticed he didn’t say, “good,” just “strong.”
“What are we supposed to tell them?” Lauren asked. “Just say that you sent us and we want to help-”
“Beat the crap out of Hyaku?” Cameron suggested.
Lauren shrugged, more-or-less in agreement, while Michi pondered the question.
“I would not phrase it quite so bluntly,” he said. “Kysho takes his mission very seriously. You should perhaps…”
A wide grin slowly crept across his face.
“Ah, perhaps you could ask the dog to speak for you.”
“Forget it,” Lauren said, rolling her eyes, “we’ll figure something out.”
“Yes,” Michi agreed, “that is what I would do.”

Frequent flashes of lightning illuminated the soggy landscape as the group went forward. Ominous, windy music, accompanied by the sound of the storm, rushed noisily around the cave mouth between forceful, cracking thunderclaps. Huddled in the dimness of the rough arch entry, they could see little beyond the rugged, stone-spiked ceiling and the narrow, rock-strewn pathway of the cave floor. Both extended quickly into darkness.
“It’s pitch black in there,” Sondra complained, “how are we suppose to find-”
“Fire,” Lauren whispered, and her glowing, floating ember flickered into existence.
“Don’t ask me how I’m going to get rid of it,” she said, “but at least now we have light.”
“Dropping a lake on it worked pretty well last time,” Jeremy said.
Lauren shot him a devious look.
“You just want me to take off the robe again.”
“What’d she just say?” Cameron asked, with sudden interest.
“Nothing,” Lauren and Jeremy said at once, though it occurred to Jeremy that he had never actually seen the outfit Lauren wore beneath the robe and, now that he had considered it, had trouble thinking of anything else.
“Okay, so we should probably stick together,” he said, forcing his mind to focus, taking his first few steps into the cave, “everybody stay near the light. We’ll go really slow until we find something.”
“Charlie already found something,” Kim said, her voice hushed. “He found people tracks.”
“People tracks?” Jeremy asked, and spotted Charlie, sniffing around the cave floor with his rear high in the air and his nose firmly pressed to the first of many scattered footprints, faintly lit by Lauren’s ember, but clearly visible.
“It looks like a lot of people have come through here,” Arthur said, studying the footprints. “I’d say about twenty or so different pairs.”
“Let me see,” Sondra said, pushing forward and colliding with Cameron, who was nearly invisible in his black ninja garb.
“Hey, think you could back up a little?” Sondra asked, water still dripping from her clothes, “I can hardly move in here.”
“We’re supposed to stay close,” Cameron said, “for the light.”
“We don’t need to be this close.”
“We’re in a cave. It’s not like I can go any farther back.”
“Sure you can,” Sondra said, with false sweetness, and shoved him into the wall.
Cameron, his faced pressed firmly against the stone and his mouth strangely contorted, muttered, “Oh, okay, yeah, that’s great. Thanks. That’s so much better.”
“You’re welcome,” Sondra said pleasantly, as she crossed to Jeremy and Lauren. “So what’s the plan now?”
“This looks like the right place,” Jeremy said, studying the footprints, trying not to laugh at Cameron, squashed against the wall. “But we should still be careful. They may have traps set or something. And there could be holes or stalactites or whatever those things are.”
“Or Michi might be as crazy as he seems,” Sondra said, “and he sent us in here to be food for some kind of evil monster.”
While Jeremy had never shared Sondra’s suspicious opinion of Michi, the old man had befriended their group rather quickly, brought them to the supposed hideout of the resistance with relative ease, and then essentially refused to accompany the group inside.
“Okay,” he said, one hand on his sword, “so let me and Lauren go first and check things out. Just be sure to stay close.”
“Don’t worry,” Kim said from behind, “if anything bad happens Charlie will turn into a dragon and eat it!”
“Eat it?” Cameron asked, peeling himself away from the wall, “eat what?”
“Anything,” Kim repeated, “that’s what I just said. Weren’t you listening?”
Jeremy held up a hand.
“Hold on a second. Do you guys hear that?”
“Yeah, what is that?” Cameron asked, “drumming?”
Lauren tilted her head to one side.
“That’s what it sounds like. But is it coming from the cave or-”
“I think it’s just part of the soundtrack,” Sondra said, frowning. “I think.”
Arthur stared into the surrounding darkness.
“I can’t tell. It’s coming from everywhere, but it might just be bouncing off the walls.”
“Mom says I do that,” Kim said quietly, still listening.
Charlie, his antennae bobbing along as he swept his nose back and forth across the floor, came to rigid attention. He thrust his body forward and pointed a paw straight ahead.
“Did you find the people that go with those people tracks?” Kim whispered.
Charlie maintained his statue’s pose, but shifted his eyes knowingly in Kim’s direction and blinked three times.
“Are they monsters? Or are they okay?”
Either Charlie didn’t understand the question or he couldn’t decide how to answer. He lowered to his hind legs, ran his tongue twice along his muzzle, glanced balefully at Kim, and whined.
“Does that mean yes or no?” Kim asked.
“I think it means that Sondra’s right and we should stop listening to the dog for all the important decisions,” Cameron said. “Lets go see what’s in the cave. It’s probably just what Michi said. Some kind of hideout. Bedsides, if some monster lived here and ate people all the time, wouldn’t this place smell like dead bodies or something?”
This caused everyone to stand very still, noses in the air, for the next few moments. When it was determined that only a musty, earthen smell existed within the cave, they all relaxed somewhat.
“Okay, fine,” Sondra said, pressing closer to the front of the group, “lets go meet this army that’s so amazing they have to hide out in some stupid cave out in the middle of nowhere.”
Jeremy had to admit that the location did little to inspire confidence, but Michi had seemed sure they were needed here, and as they had no other plan…
He started further into the cave, his breath forming in perfect, hazy puffs as the temperature dropped. The group kept as close as possible to Lauren’s ember, which put Lauren and Sondra, near the front, very close to Jeremy. He thought about telling them to fall back just a little, giving him room to fight if things came to that, but found that he preferred their close contact to a clear tactical advantage.
“My hormones are going to get us all killed,” he thought, feeling soft strands of Sondra’s long hair brush against his arm.
The sound of drums increased as they continued down the surprisingly straight corridor. After nearly a full two minutes of carefully edging forward, a soft collection of voices rose above the drum’s steady beat.
“I think it was just the soundtrack,” Cameron said, “I can still…
“Quiet,” Jeremy warned. “Listen. Can you hear what they’re saying?”
The voices grew more pronounced as the group inched further, and very soon Jeremy could hear select bits of what sounded like two or three conversations occurring at once.
“…Tore into that place and took everything I could…”
“…To get it nice and sharp, then I…”
“…Plan the assault. As soon as we talk to…”
From behind the curve of what appeared to be the corridor’s single corner shone a wavering yellow light, though it lacked the unmistakable flickering quality of torch or candlelight.
“Lanterns,” Arthur said softly. “We’re definitely dealing with people.”
“Or a monster that knows how to use a lantern,” Kim said, in a questioning tone that made it clear she wasn’t entirely sure what a lantern was.
“That doesn’t sound very scary,” Cameron said.
Jeremy took another step forward.
“Here we go, I guess.”
He glanced at Lauren, took a deep breath, and, his hand on his sword, rounded the corner.
“Hi,” he started. “My name is Jeremy, and-”
Fifteen surprised faces belonging to a ragtag assortment of men and women in poorly fitted clothing and ill-suited armor turned to face him at once. They sat or leaned against darkly shaded brown crates stacked in a semi-circle, against which rested an unruly collection of well-worn weapons and other items of an indeterminate nature. As Jeremy’s group shuffled into the room behind him, the people, representing all manner of anime eye, hair, and body styles, rapidly changed their expressions from astonishment to wariness, and finally to rage.
“Intruders!” called a round-faced man with a strained leather belt and a few days worth of stiff blue stubble.
“Intruders!” Echoed a slender but rigid young woman with determined violet eyes and a bright sweep of orange hair that traveled the length of her back in two messy pigtails.
Jeremy held up his hands.
“We’re not-”
“Spies for Hyaku!” called a muscular man with blue-black hair, a narrow white and black patterned headband, and a crookedly aligned eye patch. “Burley, Cutter, take care of them!”
Two hulking, square-jawed men who could only be brothers rose from their game of cards, cracked their knuckles in unison, and stared at Jeremy with undisguised, violent glee.
“You got it, Mr. Eto,” they said at once, and moved deliberately forward while the rest of their party cheered them on.
“Wait!” Jeremy cried, “we aren’t from Hyaku! We’re supposed to help you.”
“We’re looking for Kysho and Suta,” Lauren added, trying to help.
A wiry girl of perhaps thirteen with blonde hair a bit like Sondra’s and a rumpled white frock jumped down from a crate.
“Hyaku’s spies are better than we thought. They know the names of our leaders!”
“We aren’t spies for-”
Jeremy words collapsed into a hard grunt the one called Burley crashed into him and sent him reeling back into Cameron, who, even with his ninja skills, couldn’t entirely escape the swift double-impact. He, Jeremy and Burley went down in a tangle while Cutter edged closer to Lauren, with a wary eye on the fiery, orbiting ember.
“I don’t think I have enough room to make the staff work here,” Lauren said, edging away, “whatever element I try might get us too.”
The drumming soundtrack, spurred on by Lauren’s announcement, doubled its pace.
“Quick, Charlie!” Kim shouted, “turn into a dog! Wait, no. I mean a dragon. Go eat them!”
Charlie let out a series of high-pitched yips but otherwise remained annoyingly passive, waiting for instructions more to his liking.
“Oh, great,” Sondra complained, “he’s too smart to be stupid now.”
Jeremy agreed that charging blindly into an enraged, unpredictable group of trained militants wasn’t the best idea in the world, but he would have tried it in a second had he not been pressed beneath the weight of the aptly named Burley. The fact that Burley seemed content for now to merely press his opponents into the ground did little to calm Jeremy’s nerves. He was certain that given a command from Mr. Eto the pirate king, or whoever he was, the two brothers would happily tear the “intruders” limb from limb.
Feeling very real pain, crushed beneath the man’s hulking body, Jeremy wondered again just how hurt somebody could actually get in a cartoon. The maddeningly nonchalant line from Arthur’s book about Kim and Sondra disappearing ran through his mind yet again and he found himself thrashing beneath the weight of his attacker.
“Kim,” he called, “go back through the cave. Go find-”
Michi’s name never made it past his lips, as Burley chose that moment to shift his weight and press his knee hard into Jeremy’s side, knocking the wind from him.
“I can’t,” Kim called. “It’s too dark.”
Jeremy managed to turn his head so his view included Arthur franticly flipping through his book of blank pages, and Sondra, with a worried, exasperated expression, pressed against the cave wall beside him. Lauren, her staff reduced to a club without its magical capacity, awkwardly swung the thing at the slowly advancing Cutter while Kim continued to try and provoke Charlie to action.
“Do something, you stupid dog! You’re supposed to be my magic weapon!”
“At least you get one,” Sondra called, in a trembling voice, backing into the shadows pulling Arthur along with her.
“I’m going to have to use the staff,” Lauren said. “Everybody get ready. I don’t know how well I can control this thing in here.”
“You can’t,” Sondra said. “You’ll flood the whole place. Or set it on fire!”
“Or cause a cave in,” Cameron muttered, from his crushed position at the bottom of the pile.
“Well, unless you have any better ideas…” Lauren started, as the music quickened its pace to the rapid, angry staccato of a jackhammer.
Mr. Eto barked an order.
“Do your job, Cutter. Stop them! Or do you want me to tell Kysho that you failed again? Like you did with the ogre?”
The threat seemed to work. Cutter, after a final, worried glanced at Lauren’s ember, backtracked to a nearby crate, hoisted a dangerous looking blade, and moved forward again.
“You’ve got to me kidding me!” Sondra cried, as Jeremy struggled painfully to escape Burley’s iron hold and Charlie started franticly barking at a pace matching the speeding beat of the pounding soundtrack. “What’s wrong with you people? Why aren’t you listening?”
Cutter raised the blade high above his head and lunged forward. Lauren deflected the blade with a wild swing of her staff, but crumpled to her knees near Charlie, who danced around in a prissy, agitated fashion as Kim, crouched nearby, chanted, “Be a dragon, be a dragon, be a…”
“The book is still blank!” Arthur called, half-concealed in shadow next to Sondra, “and I can’t get it to talk!”
Jeremy had never heard anything near the level of panic in Arthur’s voice from the boy and it caused his own alarm to quickly escalate to peak level. He threw his weight to either side, jabbed with his elbows, and tried to kick at Burley from every possible angle, but the man simply would not move.
“What is wrong with you?” Sondra called again, as Cutter turned toward Charlie and spotted Kim. “What are you doing? Stop it!”
Cutter spared just enough time to shrug and mutter, “Orders,” before raising his sword and advancing.
“The book was right,” Jeremy thought, his heart slamming against his chest and his frightened, mumbled narrative bounced audibly around his part of the cave. “Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in anime, not to eleven-year-old girls, but something’s gone wrong. Maybe the rest of us survive this, but somehow Kim, then Sondra…”
“Stop it!” Sondra screamed, but Cutter ignored her.
Kim pressed herself against the wall and turned her head away as the sword strike came for her, cutting through the air fast enough to whistle.
Jeremy felt his eyes slam closed and his breathing suddenly halt, and then, one final time, he heard Sondra.
It was the one word that did it. A single syllable, four letters, spoken in the terrified, squeaky voice of an anime princess, but with all the power in the world behind it. The word roared through the room. It echoed at an ever-increasing volume until the entire cave shook. It was as though Lauren had screamed “earth” at the top of her lungs and let her staff do its worst.
Jeremy found himself suddenly able to breath again as nearly all of Burley’s substantial weight lifted from him. He heard the sound of crates overturning, thunderously colliding like bowling pins, and brief, surprised cries from a number of people who had been near them.
At some point the soundtrack ended. Moments later, Charlie ceased his frantic barking. When Jeremy finally opened his eyes it was as though someone had pressed the most powerful pause button of all time.
The eye-patched Mr. Eto stood on frozen, unsteady legs in the midst of many fallen crates with a look of absolute astonishment. The young woman with the bright orange hair had tripped into Burley and Cutter’s card game and her long legs, mostly covered by her sleek gray, too-large coat, splayed in the air while her arms struck a permanent pin-wheeling pose. The rest of the people, Michi’s supposed resistance, stood frozen in place, their eyes large and their bodies charged for action.
It took a moment for Jeremy to untwine his legs from Cameron’s and slide out from under Burley, who dangled, unmoving, as though supported by unseen strings, to the roof of the cave. Gaining his feet, Jeremy went to Kim and backed her away from Cutter’s sword, which had stopped just inches from his sister’s chest.
“I think we found your superpower,” Lauren told Sondra, too astounded for anything more than the lightest sarcasm. “How did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Sondra confessed. “I just kind of did. I don’t think it was really me, though. I mean, it was, I wanted them to stop, but…”
She scanned the room of unmoving figures.
“…I just wanted them to stop.”
“Whatever you did, it worked,” Cameron said, standing painfully and working the kinks out of his limbs with audible pops. “How long do you think they’ll stay like that?”
“No idea,” Sondra said.
She crossed to the frozen form of Cutter, still in mid-strike but now aimed only at the wall, and tapping him lightly on the forehead with her index finger.
“Until she tells them they can move again?” Lauren asked.
“I don’t know,” Cameron said. “I don’t think this is a permanent thing. I swear that guy with the eye patch just blinked. I’m not totally sure, but…”
Jeremy, looking around the room, saw that Cameron was right. Little by little, the immobile people were starting to move. In some, it was only the quick blink of an eye, but in others, the young woman with the bright orange hair for instance, the slow failure of Sondra’s spell was more obvious. The girl’s body, arms reaching and long legs still upended, gravitated inevitably toward the floor.
“They’re in super-slow motion,” Kim said.
“And it looks like they might come out of it at any second,” Arthur added.
“They do,” Lauren agreed, “which means we really need a plan for when-”
“What just happ…!?” was all the falling girl had time for before she struck the ground.
Cutter broke from his stasis, staggered forward in surprise, and banged his sword sideways against the cave wall, vibrating a visible shockwave along his arm. The others, apparently with some sense that they had been slowed, regained their bearings and looked around for the source of the strange effect.
“I think we better come up with something fast,” Lauren said, “because they don’t look happy.”
“They never looked happy,” Kim grumbled, keeping an eye on the badly shaken Cutter, who regarded his sword as though the weapon had just grown two sharp rows of teeth and bitten him.
“Maybe if you tell them to just relax and listen to us,” Arthur suggested, his eyes on Sondra, “it might buy us enough time to explain things.”
“I guess it’s worth a shot,” Sondra said, shrugging, but when she called out, “Relax!” the word lacked the obvious power of her previous command.
As the people in the cave fully shook themselves free of their paralysis and Burley and Cutter regained their offensive stances, Jeremy and the others slowly backed toward the dark hallway that led outside.
“I don’t think they’re going to listen to us,” Jeremy said, “and I really doubt we can fight them all, so I guess our best shot is to go back to where Michi is. Maybe he can help.”
“Yeah, right,” Sondra said. “Half the time he’s as crazy as these people. He’ll probably just sit there with one of his stupid smiles and-”
“Oh, please excuse me,” came a woman’s soft voice from the darkness, “but it is improper…”
“Ahh!” Cameron cried, spastically waving his arms as he vaulted into the air.
He collided with the cave’s stone ceiling and bounced back to the floor with a loud thud, a long groan, and a ring of blinking yellow stars circling his head like an off-kilter halo.
The overly cheerful notes of a circus inspired song played an off-key musical spiral.
“I can’t believe you haven’t knocked yourself out yet,” Jeremy muttered, as the woman’s voice came again.
“I’m very sorry to have frightened you, but you really must not speak of the spirits in such a manner. They do so much for us and it really isn’t polite to-”
“Miss Suta, you’ve returned!” Mr. Eto said, straightening his eye patch and snapping to attention, “we didn’t expect you back so soon.”
“Yes, well, the road was shorter than expected,” the woman said, stepping into the light.
She was only a few years older than Jeremy, but had such an aura of confidence and maturity about her that she seemed far more adult. Her long brown hair fell in a loose ponytail, tied with the same smooth blue ribbons that adorned the off-white borders of her apron-inspired dress. Her eyes disappeared into tiny, happy arcs as she curtseyed and introduced herself.
“It’s very nice to meet you all,” she said, “my name is Suta. My brother Kysho and I were only just-”
“You’ll want to be careful of that lot, Miss Suta,” Mr. Eto said. “We think they’re spies for-”
“Oh, nonsense,” Suta said, waving him away with a musical laugh, “they’re help, sent by our dear Mr. Michi.”
Mr. Eto’s voice took on an unsure, worried tone.
“They…they are?”
“Oh yes, and I’m sure they will be quite helpful, especially since Kysho and I were unable to locate Hiro Mitsu as we had hoped. My dear brother is in quite a poor mood, I’m afraid, but I’m sure the arrival of these newcomers will cheer him up.”
Mr. Eto swallowed audibly.
“Poor…poor mood?”
Kim glanced from Mr. Eto to Suta and back again. Her mouth dropped open and she thrust an accusing finger at the nervous pirate captain.
“You were supposed to be nice to us and you tried to kill me!”
Mr. Eto raised his hands in apology and took a hesitant step forward, but jerked the foot back as a muscular young man with hard-set, grim features, jet black hair tightly gathered in a precise topknot, and a well fitting, dark blue kimono emerged from the darkness behind Suta.
“You did what?” the man growled, his dark eyes glittering in Lauren’s ember-light and his hand lovingly wrapped about the black and gold hilt of his finely crafted sword.
Mr. Eto took another step back, waving his hands in protest.
“I thought they might be spies. We just planned on detaining them for you, but things got a little…out of control.”
“A little out of control!” Sondra cried, as Kim pointed angrily at Cutter and said, “That guy tried to kill me with a sword!”
Cutter cast his eyes at his boots while trying to shrink into the nearest wall.
“I was only going to stun her,” he muttered, “I would have turned the sword at the last second, except all of a sudden-”
“I don’t want to hear any of your excuses,” Kysho said, entering the open area of the cave and unloading a heavy leather bag from his shoulder to a crate. “When there is time I will determine the proper punishment for your actions, but at the moment we have more pressing concerns.”
He turned on his heel to closely examine Jeremy.
“The road spirit has sent us new recruits, and we must get them outfitted and up to speed by the morning. We start the march for Kasane castle at dawn.”
“Whoa, hold on a second,” Lauren said. “We never actually said we’d-”
“They are spies!” cried the girl with the orange hair.
“We’re not spies,” Jeremy protested, extremely uneasy beneath the heavy scrutiny of Kysho’s dark gaze, “we just came here to see if you guys wanted to team up…”
God, that sounded stupid.
“…But that doesn’t mean we’re just going to follow along and do everything you-”
“That is exactly what it means,” Kysho snapped. “That is what it must mean if any of us are to survive the coming battle.”
Jeremy shot a worried glance at Kim and Sondra as Kysho unsheathed his sword and regarded the blade as though judging its quality.
“The road spirit speaks highly of your group. He says you have some skill on the field of battle. But the enemy we fight outnumbers us twenty to one, and our army is comprised only of pirates, mercenaries, and loyal but unskilled refugees.”
Mr. Eto and the others stood uncertainly in the center of the camp, torn between pride and offense at Kysho’s blunt labeling.
“We have received valuable information through many years of study, and of course Michi the road spirit has been of great help. But the fact remains-”
“Um…I think you’re confused,” Sondra said, “or maybe I am.”
“It’s probably you,” Lauren said automatically, and clapped a hand over her mouth, annoyed that she’d spoken the words aloud.
Sondra didn’t have time to notice.
“What is there to be confused about, dear?” Suta asked, hovering over the princess as though the source of the girl’s distress might be clearly evident and fixable with a kind word or a Band-Aid.
“No, I mean, it’s just that,” Sondra began, startled at Suta’s closeness, “it’s just that he said Michi was the road sprit. But…”
“But Michi is the road spirit, dear,” Suta said. “They all have human forms of course, and how else would he enjoy his tea. I couldn’t very well just go and pour it onto the road.”
She clasped her hands together happily and smiled.
“That would just be silly!”
“Even with Michi's assistance,” Kysho went on, as the others tried to digest the information, “there are many things we have been unable to determine regarding Kasane Castle.”
He sheathed his sword and scanned the faces of his ragtag army before retuning to Jeremy’s group.
“The enemy has every advantage,” he said. “They outclass us in might, numbers, and resources. We will be confronting a monstrous enemy force without knowing the true level of their skill, the reach of their ferocity, or the complete layout of their stronghold. And because of Cutter’s escaped prisoner, they probably know we’re coming.”
Cutter winced and pressed further into the wall as Kysho shook his head and let out a heavy sigh.
“We’ll be going in essentially blind, with only our conviction and outrage to keep us going. But that must be enough. It must be. Because even now Hyaku’s forces grow, and soon the enemy will truly be unstoppable. We must end this now, while we still can. If you are intent on joining our cause, you must obey my commands. It is the only way.”
He glanced earnestly at his sister.
“Kasane castle is four days from here. Now that we know Hiro Mitsu is no longer an option, I see no reason to tarry. I’ll speak to the road spirit and see if he can speed along our journey.”
With that, he spun on his heel and retuned to the darkness of the hallway. His boots treaded heavily in a silence where no one spoke and no soundtrack played.
Watching him go, her expression one of resigned contemplation, Lauren said, “So I guess we just joined the resistance.”
“I guess so,” Jeremy echoed, overwhelmed.
“And they’re a bunch of psychos on their way to commit mass suicide in a couple of days who want to bring us along,” Sondra added, “fantastic.”
Suta, looking around the group with expectant, worried eyes, smoothed down her dress, put on her best smile, and asked, “Would anybody like tea?”
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