The air was thick with fire, and it sat heavily in Kai’s lungs. It wasn’t smoke—not yet, anyway—but rather the kind of oppressive heat that could turn a corridor into a cookpot. Considering they’d been in battle for less than a minute and his brow already beaded with sweat, it appeared they were well on their way.
Longtuck’s ice barriers stood between them and their ambushers: nasty things, jagged as Adaro teeth. There was little the keen edge of his scimitar couldn’t cleave, and he doubted even that would leave a mark on them without some serious effort.
Of course, when it came to breaking down ice, fire held a distinct advantage over steel.
“How are they doing this?” he yelled over the roar of flying flames. “I don’t detect any magic!”
Longtuck grunted and re-shaped some of his ice barrier that was starting to melt. “Not magic,” he said, batting aside a firebolt with a long tendril of water. “These are firebenders.”
Kai looked at the red-vested enemies arrayed against them. Sure enough, they were punching and kicking at the air, their every motion punctuated with angry bursts of flame. It was similar to the techniques he’d seen Longtuck use a hundred times, but not the same. Where the old monk’s motions were fluid as his patron element, these gangsters’ moves were showy, acrobatic, and explosive.
Also, there was fire. That was a key difference, too.
The room Saito and Suni occupied burst open. Kai’s eyes darted to identify who was emerging. The girl, Maho, hadn’t seemed as if she were physically capable of overwhelming Saito, and she certainly didn’t have the kind of spellcraft that would let her stand against Suni. But he didn’t let himself truly relax until he saw Saito’s armored form join the fray, flaming sword in hand.
“It started out with a kiss,” the drifter said. “How did it end up like this?”
Suni appeared next to him so suddenly she seemed to have sprouted from the floor. “Because you’re bad luck.”
“Me?” said Saito. “You literally create misfortune!”
Suni gestured. The smell of ozone spread through the air. A moment later, a bolt of electricity lanced from the Samsaran’s outstretched fingertips and took a Zii Tong man straight through his heart. He fell to the floor, twitching as smoke curled from his body.
“I also create lightning,” Suni said brightly.
One of the Tongs vaulted over the ice wall. It was a clumsy jump, and he landed on the other side with blood streaming down his forearm. But nonetheless, he’d gotten past their defenses and started to slide into what Kai was quickly recognizing as a firebending stance.
Saito brandished his sword and rushed to meet him. “Less bantering, more chantering!”
“That isn’t a word,” Kai said.
With his companions arrayed around him, he shifted himself to their center. They’d been traveling together for a while now, leaving a trail of blood and cucumbers in their wake. But even though he still wasn’t totally sure he trusted these people, he couldn’t deny that they’d developed a strong team dynamic. Longtuck worked best at a distance, Suni destabilized their foes with her spellwork, and Saito did a lot of hitting before his foes got snatched out from under him by Longtuck.
And then of course, he had his own part to play.
He bowed his head. Instinct told him it was dangerous to do so in the middle of a battle, but his faith told him to do it anyway. He closed his eyes, began chanting, and felt positive energy spark to life inside of him—his own kind of fire.
“Yu mo gui gwai fai di zao,” he muttered. “Yu mo gui gwai fai di zao.”
A white aura burst from him, swallowing his companions whole. His eyes were closed, but he knew what he was missing: cuts were sealing themselves shut, burns were shrinking away, and his allies were standing up a bit straighter as they all caught a second wind.
Instinct urged him again to open his eyes. This time, he listened—
—just in time to see Dagato the Phoenix hurtle into the fray, throwing a firebolt straight for him. But this one was different; this, his senses told him, was proper spellcraft.
His reflexes had improved of late; he’d begun to train himself in combat techniques he’d observed in some of the enemies they’d come across on their quest, and Saito had become his occasional sparring partner. But even with that on his side, he only managed a partial dodge. His entire right side side erupted with agony, and his scimitar clattered to the floor.
He fought for control of his mind. Control would let him heal this. Let him make the pain go away. If he lost his cool for even a second, it would be the death of him. And without him, he didn’t know how long the others would last. They were a formidable bunch, but they’d escaped almost every encounter by a razor’s margin.
Saito leveled his katana Dagato’s way. When he spoke, it was with that strange affectation of his, the one he’d used to infiltrate the Triad. “Oh, it’s time for you and me to dance, little bird,” he drawled, before thundering off at the gang leader.
In a spare moment between beats of pain, Kai had to admire the man’s commitment. His alter ego, Muto Kenji, had been exactly the sort of steely-eyed braggart that Saito wasn’t. During their meeting with the Triad and Yura the Spider, the drifter had assumed the part so fully that at times Kai had found himself forgetting that that wasn’t how Saito was all the time. Even through the haze of his burn wounds, Kai noted the strangeness of that. It seemed out of step with Saito’s other talents. Someday, he’d have to ask the man about it.
He flooded his burns with more positive energy, and the pain ebbed as if he’d put a balm on it. It gave him enough lucidity to properly take stock of everything that had happened. It wasn’t a hard inventory to take; his companions stood, while sword, sorcery, and ice shard had put paid to every Zii Tong.
Every one, that was, except for Dagato the Phoenix.
Saito had a swordpoint at his throat, but while the man’s posture said surrender his eyes spoke only of defiance.
“You want to kill me?” Dagato said with a sneer. “Do it. They don’t call me the phoenix for nothing.”
“Friend, you don’t look terribly avian to me,” Saito-as-Kenji said. “And I sincerely doubt your ability to shrug off the immolation I have in store for you in the event of your insufficient cooperation.”
Dagato smirked. “You might think you can scare me,” he said. “But I see you all for what you are. You’re a bunch of losers who’ve gotten this far on dumb luck. At least, that’s what I see, and my sight’s pretty—”
Suni struck him across the face with a bolt of purple energy.
“Ahhh! My eyes!”
“That’s a blindness curse,” Suni said. She spoke with the same kind of pride that a cat might exhibit when dropping a dead rat at its owner’s feet. “And it’ll never go away—”
“—Unless you tell us what we need to know,” Kai interjected, sensing opportunity.
Suni looked at him as if he were stupid. “No,” she said, “it doesn’t wear off—”
“Yes, it does,” Kai said loudly.
At long last, Suni seemed to understand. She gave a big, theatrical nod…and then wagged her tongue at Dagato, mere inches from eyes that could no longer see it.
“It’s your choice,” said Longtuck, folding his arms over his chest. “You may tell us what the Zii Tongs are planning, or you may live the rest of your life with our friend’s face as the last thing you ever saw.”
When it was put into those terms, even Dagato seemed to think it was an easy choice.
“What’s so bad about him seeing my face?” Saito said later as they frog-marched Dagato to the law enforcement deck.
“Hey, don’t pull that strong-but-silent-old-man thing with me. What’s wrong with my face?”
“Nothing,” Longtuck said, still smirking. “Nothing at all.”
Off to the side, Kai and Suni exchanged glances, then indulged in smirks of their own.
But Kai’s quickly faded when he considered the scope of what Dagato and Maho had told them. If they were to be believed—and Saito insisted they were—then the Zii Tongs were set to stage a takeover of the Yamato.
In a few moments, his thoughts roamed all over the decks they’d seen, visiting memories of all the people they’d met. Young Wang Fire, keeping his potion shop open for his father. Tsuten, hoping to prove his worth to Kanna by crafting the perfect weapon. Asaba and Arima, following their wish to make an honest living in defiance of their people. All of them were strivers and dreamers, drawn to the Yamato by opportunities the rest of the world would never offer them.
And unless something was done, they and everyone else aboard would become flies in Yura’s web, or kindling for Genenji’s inferno—he wasn’t sure yet which.
It figures, he thought. The Yamato was a true wonder of the world, a living testament to harmony and free trade. He’d heard stories of it since he was a boy on Genbu. Of course he’d finally have his chance to hobble aboard right when it was about to plunge into crisis.
But then, he thought, his return home had also heralded crisis. And from the sounds of things, they were about to hit Byakku when there was trouble brewing. And who knew what else lay ahead on Seiryu or Suzaku, let alone on the remaining two decks of this ship?
He cast a glance around at his three companions. And for the first time, he wondered: did they find trouble? Or did they bring it?