‘Come on, climb up!’ said Kaede. She ran to a nearby tree and kicked off the ground. The next moment, she was hugging the trunk and balancing on a branch twenty feet up. The rest of us sped to the tree. I grabbed one branch, its splinters biting into my hands, and stomped a foot to spring myself up. Sparks of inner spirit burst in my soles, propelling me far higher in the air than my other self could've done. With a practiced motion, I shifted my limbs; a grip here, a push there. The air whistled, and the tree’s arms brushed past me in a blur. My eyes darted back and forth but only noticed the branches, as if they existed on a background of nothingness.
Before I knew it, I was on the top limb with an arm curled around the trunk as the branch bounced up and down when Kaede leapt to the other tree. Shifting my body weight, I steadied myself, then let go of the tree and galloped across the bough to the neighbouring plant. Foliage slapped my face, and dangerous creaks filled my ears. My body slammed on the trunk, and I moved my feet on the bobbing branch, hands wrapped around it. My mouth devoured air. I cursed my low stamina, and therefore, weak inner spirit.
Kaede stood beside me, rigid and head turned down. I peered over her shoulder, breathing hard. On the worn road below stood Ahio's kidnapper, brandishing a colossal axe with his equally giant arms. Black ink coursed over his left shoulder, curling around his neck in the form of a cawing crow. Below him lay Ahio, the mischievous twinkle in his eye gone. Around one arm, a shredded sleeve stuck to it with blood, and the wrist of the other was pink, swollen with a tendril of purple snaking across. His sword slept useless in his hands.
Kaede leapt down as two bodies crashed into me, and Daisuke and Tsubasa circled their arms close to mine. I was too numb to feel any pain, and the sound of Kaede's landing was drowned by my heartbeat.
But the kidnapper heard her.
Like a hunting dog, he twitched his eyes from Ahio to Kaede. Stomping his feet, he lumbered to her, an ugly scowl visible even from afar. Before he advanced too close, Kaede threw a smoke bomb, and a blackish-grey cloud bloomed around the man, shrouding him from our view. And us from his.
Now it was my turn.
With one hand still around the tree, I tugged at the already loosened waist strap of my backpack. Once I'd made it as large as I could, I let go of the bough and hopped down, leaves and small branches crackling and snapping as I fell. A sensation of flying, of weightlessness came over me. With inner spirit blazing in my joints to soften the blow, I landed and gave the pads of my feet a little roll. Kaede stood with her back to me, feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent. She held three throwing knives in her right hand and one of her swords in her left. Behind me was Ahio.
Tugging my backpack off, I crouched next to him. His blue eyes, with the whites more red than white, focused on me. I placed my arms around him.
‘Can you stand up?’ I asked.
He jerked his chin and shuffled his feet, causing his sword to fall to the ground with a muffled clang. Tightening my hold around him, I pulled. After much kicking and flying gravel, Ahio was up.
‘You need to put this on,' I said, and shoved the backpack over his head. With one arm holding the right strap, I tugged the other till it went over his wrist. While shifting it to his shoulder I nudged his arm. Ahio winced, and his face twisted around his fastened eyes.
‘Sorry…’ I whispered, and dragged the other strap over his hand. As I moved it to his shoulder, Ahio gasped, and shiny tears bled out his eyes.
‘Quickly, the smoke’s clearing up!’ said Kaede. I swirled around as my fingers meddled with the waist strip. Sure enough, the grey cloud was no longer opaque, and the silhouette of the man became clearer and clearer. We must've become clearer to him too. I swore under my breath. Too soon. Too soon. My skin prickled as the man marched to us. His rolling shoulders gained colour, and in his left hand was what looked more and more like an axe.
My sweaty fingers locked the waist strap around Ahio and me, the buckle nipping my index on the way. Paying no mind to the sting, I pushed both arms through the shoulder straps. Ahio whimpered again, and his body trembled. I just had to get him up the tree now.
Kaede flung her knives when I leapt. Where before were sparks, this time a blazing flame within me pushed me up. A great echoey roar beat my ears mid-air, and Ahio's weight on my back didn't help. When I landed, my knees almost burst from their sockets, and the extra mass dug into my shoulder blades, nearly throwing me off. I should've tied Ahio to me after we got to the tree.
The clanging and clashing of metal, and a sound of nails on chalkboard which made my teeth twinge came from behind us. I grabbed a low branch and kicked off, using more inner spirit than usual. We still moved up the tree slower, and my hands were dangerously clammy. But I kept climbing, using more points of contact than I was wont to.
Two hands, one olive and one as pale as paper, grabbed me on the top branch. Once I got a proper footing, Tsubasa pulled my arms out of the backpack’s straps. I hugged the bough and buried my face in the moss around its shredded bark.
He was safe. Ahio was safe.
While I fed oxygen to my searing lungs, a small click came, and the blunt pain on my back vanished. After a moment, I turned around, my chest still heaving. Ahio sat on the tree’s limbs, supported by Daisuke while Tsubasa crouched on an adjacent branch and rummaged through his bag. He took out a silver card and popped it on its side to reveal a small white tablet. This he reached out and pushed it into Ahio's mouth.
Something broke, like crumbling rocks, below. I whipped my head down, fingertips barely holding onto the tree. Kaede staggered up from the ground a few meters away. The tree behind her had a rough oval burst out of it, and with a spin of his axe, the man lurched towards her. Cold shivers ran down my spine, washing away my relief. What was I thinking? It wasn't over yet.
The man's back was to the carriage, and I remembered the pouch of powder Yuuhei had mentioned. If I was quiet enough, it could work. Instead of jumping off, I climbed down the tree as quick as I could. Every time my boots struck bark, I winced at its loudness. Finally, my feet slapped the leafy floor. The gurgling river was loud, and the clash of metal went on as strong as before. Still, I grimaced each time a weed snapped or a pebble rolled away as I sneaked to the carriage.
It's doors were ragged splinters jutting here and there. On opening, they screeched loud enough to wake a hibernating animal. Clenching my teeth, I hopped in. I didn't have to turn to know the man would be on his way.
The main lighting source now blocked, what little sunlight that got through the cracks was abysmal, and my impatience made things worse. I groped at everything, but none was what I was looking for. There were magazines and bottle caps and dirty old boots. But no bag of powder.
‘Tahro, watch out!’ rang Kaede's voice.
I jerked around, one hand drawing my sword from its scabbard. The kidnapper stood a meter away, some strands of his black mohawk sticking to his forehead, teeth bared. The tattoos on his arms and neck flexed as he raised the axe high above his head.
I held my sword tight with both hands. I must’ve practiced this move a hundred times, yet unlike the classroom, my hands shook with terror. The axe smashed against my sword. Sparks flew out, and the clash clawed my teeth. The blade came close to slash my chest, and it was all I could do to push it back. The force sent a current up my arms.
The man swung his axe again, and I dodged. The blade broke through the carriage’s wood and sent giant cracks across the floor, tilting the vehicle and throwing me behind. My sword, thankfully, fell handle first on my lap, its blade positioned to the side, but the carriage’s walls flogged my sore back and several somethings pelted me. One of which was soft and squishy. And leathery. And fell on my palm.
The pouch of powder.
It should've consoled me. It should've been a mercy from heaven. But the man cocked his head and smiled, axe raised high, right over my head. There was no more space to move, no more time to gasp and certainly none to open a pouch and throw its contents. I braced myself to die.
And hot blood splashed my face.