Rue shifted again in her axebeak’s saddle. The beast was ungainly, its saddle doubly so, and in the past three hours she’d yet to find a comfortable position astride either. She was undine. She was of the salt and tide, not the sand and smelly birds. But the undine also served, she reminded herself, minus a few deviants. Rue was no deviant, and so she served.
Still, she wished her duties could have taken her somewhere more pleasant at least once.
She glanced at the four she’d been dispatched to aid. Kai, the cripple with faraway eyes. Suni, the owl-keeper with skin as blue as Rue’s own (What is it with this party and birds? she wondered). Saito, the fast-talking drifter with a hard face. Longtuck, the quiet old man whose affinity for water surpassed even Rue’s own. They were as odd a bunch as any Rue had seen on her travels. They’d also walked into the jaws of every danger Genbu and the Yamato could throw at them, and ended up as the ones doing the chewing.
As a bard, she knew that image made no sense. Then again, neither did their continued survival.
And yet, here they were.
Saito and Kai rode at the front, discussing the finer points of swordplay. “Your scimitar’s nice and all,” the drifter was saying, “but it’s got no reach.” He patted the katana sheathed at his side. “Those extra inches can mean a lot when it counts.”
Kai grunted. “Is that wisdom you’ve heard often, Saito?”
Saito rolled his eyes. “You can do better than that.”
Just behind them, Suni kept flicking her wrist. Every time she did, four small lights appeared in the air around her. They would bob up and down a bit, then wink out of existence. The witch clapped and squealed her amusement, then summoned the lights back again. Next to her, Longtuck sat straight up in his saddle, arms folded and eyes closed. Rue was fairly certain he was actually just asleep.
Her left fingers tapped across the strings of her pipa, but her right didn’t dare pluck them. Now was not the time for a serenade. “How much further?” she said.
Saito glanced back at her. “Right,” he said. “You water types probably don’t like the land so much, huh? Should be in the next mile. And don’t worry,” he added with a grin. “Last time we were there, we gave them all the water they’ll ever need.”
By the time they arrived, the water had become something else entirely: so thick with blood now it had practically turned black. Rue couldn’t help but stare at it. She felt a connection to any water nearby, but she shrank from this. Water meant life, and this naga-ji blood was anything but.
The village looked as if it had been through a typhoon. Houses lay ruined or burned. The ones still standing had naga-ji cowering inside behind locked doors. It had only been a day, but already the bodies had begun to stink. They were laid out in a line, covered in blankets that seemed more meant to keep the flies away than anything else.
“Listen, you wrinkly sack of scales,” said Saito to an elderly naga-ji, whom Longtuck had called Razmaga the Elder. “Do you not see us covered in naga-ji blood here? And naga blood, while we’re at it? If we’re naga spies, we’re really doing a shit job of it, don’t you think?”
The old naga-ji’s eyes burned intensely enough that Rue had to take a step back. He spoke in the strange hissing language of his people. As he spoke, another naga-ji, the oracle Anil Rattletail, translated: “He says that an attack so soon after your last visit is too much of coincidence. Freeing the traitor Devana did not help your case, either.”
Saito gritted his teeth and looked ready to bark back with something nasty, but it was Kai who spoke. “When last we were here, you mentioned a burial site,” he said, “with weapons your people could use to defend themselves. If we bring them to you, would that coin to buy your trust?”
The two village leaders immediately began hissing at each other. Rue was completely lost, but their body language wasn’t hard to read. The elder grew more and more agitated, while the oracle never lost his cool. After a few moments, Razmaga bared his fangs at all of them, then turned and shuffled away as fast as his old legs would carry him.
“He is not distrustful without reason, and with our leader Sharyrar Spike-Tongue dead, it is to him we look for wisdom and guidance,” said Anil. “Do not mistake my leniency for trust.”
Longtuck crossed his arms. “Noted,” he said.
“But hey,” said Saito. “We’ve learned our lesson about going in without backup. You want us to do this for you, we’ll need the best warriors you have.”
In reply, Anil nodded grimly to the line of rotting corpses behind him.
To Rue, the idea of a graveyard seemed itself barbaric; the only proper place for the dead was beneath the waves, not rotting underfoot. This place did little to assuage her feelings. It had been hastily thrown together, a pit that had been filled with the dead and then topped off with soil. Something in the air seemed to whisper: Keep moving. You have no place here.
It was midday on a desert island, and yet she still shivered.
“The nerve of that guy!” Saito said as they dismounted.
“Saito, that happened, like, four hours ago,” said Suni.
“He could’ve just said, ‘No.’ Wouldn’t have been that hard.”
Rue allowed herself to smile. She’d begun to understand how the four of them worked. In a way, they were like the iconic players in traditional theatre: Kai the hero, Saito the clown, Longtuck the sage, and Suni the…
Well, it wasn’t a perfect analogy.
“Where’d they say it was buried?” said Suni. She looked around, hand visored across her forehead, as if expecting to just see a sign pointing to the exact spot.
Longtuck jerked his head towards the edge of the burial mound. “They said that way.”
Rue hung back with Suni as the three men trudged off to start digging. She slipped her pipa free of its strap, once again fingering frets but not playing strings. She knew plenty of harmless songs, but some deep-seated instinct told her that in this atmosphere, her music would be somehow disrespectful.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Suni staring at her, head cocked. From atop the witch’s shoulder, the witch’s pet owl was looking at her in precisely the same way. Awkwardness bubbled up inside her. She’d briefly adventured with these four, but she barely knew a thing about them. Now would be the perfect time to say something to Suni…but what?
“So,” said Suni. “…You’re blue.”
Rue nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I am.”
Suni nodded back. “Me, too.”
And that was the last time she and Suni tried making conversation.
Not that it mattered; soon enough, the air was full of enough words to make theirs unnecessary. At first, it was just Saito’s constant stream of curse words on the wind. But after a few moments, Rue’s pointed ears pricked up as they detected something else.
“Suni,” she said. “Do you hear—?”
A skeletal arm erupted from the ground like a particularly terrifying daisy. And then another, and another, until the five of them stood amid a prairie of bones.
“Necromancy!” shouted Kai as the skeletons hauled themselves up to the surface like swimmers from a pool. “Everyone stay back!” He hadn’t drawn the curved sword at his belt, but white nimbi of energy had begun to coalesce around his hands. He bowed his head and immediately began chanting.
As the others armed themselves, Saito smirked. “Nothing we can’t handle, guys,” he said. “After the shit we went through yesterday, a pile of bleached bones’ll be a wash.”
“Speaking as resident magical expert-slash-owl tamer,” said Suni, looking over the shambling horde surrounding them, “if there’s necromanc_y_, there has to be a necromanc_er_. Also: dancing lights!”
Saito shrugged as the glowing orbs flitted around them like fireflies. “Some egghead with a scroll and something to compensate for,” he said. “Bring it on.”
Sure enough, the next being to step into sight was none other than Razmaga the Elder, ever-irate leader of the Longfen tribe. Rue’s brow knitted. Had the old naga-ji followed them here to lend his assistance? Had he just wandered here on his own by accident?
A moment later, a third possibility presented itself.
Razmaga’s mouth yawned wide—wider than possible, so wide no set of jaws could possibly stretch that far—and from it erupted a massive, horrifying snake with a screaming human face and curling, ram-like horns. As its old skin crumpled to the ground like an empty bag, it righted itself and then immediately streamed for the five of them, murder in its eyes and a spell on its lips.
Rue felt a jolt of terror at the sight of it. She’d just done battle with those monsters and their armies, and somehow managed to survive. But open war wasn’t a life she was meant for, and she didn’t like her odds facing a naga again.
Her ad hoc companions didn’t show nearly as much concern. “Naga’s mine,” said Saito. “I could use some snakeskin to go with my pelt collection.”
“If you can get to him first,” said Suni. The air around her eyes had begun to coil, as if heat were radiating from them.
“We should leave it alive,” said Longtuck, whipping up his water. “It may tell us where to find Motoko.”
The old monk said her name so casually, but those three syllables caused shame to spread through Rue like blood in water. She was undine, and undine served. Hers had been to serve Lord Onizuka in battle, and she had proven unequal to her own task. The kidnapped bride was proof of that. Though she dreaded the howling beast before them and its sickening perversions of the magic arts, what she dreaded more was leaving a task unfinished when its fulfillment still fell to her.
“I don’t believe we’ll be getting a very warm reception the next time we visit the Longfens,” said Kai.
“I don’t believe I care,” said Suni.
“On three,” said Saito. “One—”
Everyone surged forward.
“_Hey!_ I said—oh, by the tanuki’s mask…” he muttered.
And so as Kai’s first wave of energy stopped the skeletons in their tracks…
As Longtuck unleashed a spray of ice shards, glittering and deadly…
As Suni’s eyes turned an angry red, making all they looked upon ripple and boil…
As Saito brandished his green blade and threw himself into the fray with a roar…
…Rue’s fingers slotted themselves into familiar places along her pipa’s neck.
And as the battle sounded its first chords, she began to play her counterpoint.