“I’m not so sure.” Lines of doubt settled across her face. “Are you also going to inform me I need to be as swift as a fire so I may move mountains in the wind?”

Yoshi laughed loudly.

Mariko caught herself before she could smile. “And you shouldn’t dismiss your abilities. It insults both you and me at the same time.”

Another raise of his brows. She suspected people did not often speak to Yoshi in such a direct manner. “Is that so?”

“Yes. You insult yourself by dismissing skills that took you a lifetime to develop. At the same time you insult me by stating that I need only try—as though the only hindrance is my own lack of effort.” Mariko’s speech grew more rapid with each passing word. She took a deep breath before continuing. “To even attempt something, one must first believe in the possibility. And then be granted an opportunity.” As Mariko finished, she glanced meaningfully at the portly fellow.

Yoshi’s grin turned knowing. “Alas, Sanada Takeo, you will not be granted the opportunity to throw a dagger here. But your attempt to try is duly noted. And appreciated.”

“Not an attempt. Rather an unceasing challenge of life,” she mused. “To learn, even when knowledge itself may fail you.”

“Rather the unceasing challenge of youth,” Yoshi said drily as he lowered more eggs into the simmering pot. “Not to worry; I can promise that all great opportunities in life follow some form of struggle.”

“May I ask what it is you struggle with most?” Mariko prodded.

Yoshi rubbed a sleeve on the sweat gathering above his brow. Then he wandered to the bushes to retrieve the blade he’d thrown at Ren, prying it from where the kunai was embedded in the tree trunk. He lifted the dagger into the light, then lovingly restored it to its place at his hip.

“Learning a new blade,” he replied.

A groove formed at the bridge of Mariko’s nose.

Yoshi said, “Every blade has its own path. Every handle is different. Every tang is unique. The balance of every dagger is its own.”

Again Mariko lingered in thought. “Would consistency not make it better? Consistency in the forging of the steel. In the forming of the blade.”

“Consistency is not enough. It doesn’t account for chance, and there is always a chance the handle will strike the mark instead of the blade. No amount of skill can thwart it every time.”

Mariko studied the hooked dagger Yoshi had used to shave slices of pickled ginger. “Two blades affixed in their centers like a cross would work better.” She considered further. “Or perhaps even three. Like a star.”

“Why not four?” Yoshi said with amusement. “Alas, you will never see me wielding a cumbersome thing like that. Any effective kunai would need to be light.” In one flowing motion, he whipped a blade from its sheath and hurled it toward the same branch. “Quick.”

Mariko considered the quivering handle. Yoshi had thrown it to strike the exact same place as before. It fit into the previous divot at a near-identical angle. The way the handle shook—trembled into solid motion—brought to mind Ōkami and his mysterious abilities. Mariko frowned.

She did not wish to be reminded of anything she did not yet understand.

Especially something pertaining to the Wolf.

Mariko lowered into a crouch. Picked up a twig. Began to draw.

Indeed.

Why not four?

JUBOKKO

That night, Mariko woke from her slumber to the sound of screaming.

It startled her into awareness, like a splash of icy water. Her forehead grazed the rock she’d been using as a pillow. Her fingernails dug into the damp soil.

The screams echoing through the forest were the screams of a tortured animal. Not a man.

It couldn’t be a man.

No human could make sounds like these.

As the screams continued, each beat of her heart crashed through her, a drum pulled taut beneath her skin. She opened one eye, trying to focus on the forest’s shadows. Trying to drown out the sounds of pure suffering.

Men with torches were massing in the distance. Several rings of fire blurred through the trees.

For a moment, Mariko considered running. The Black Clan was distracted. Perhaps they would not notice her slipping into the night. Perhaps she could find her way out of the forest without tripping any of their supposed traps.

Perhaps.

A foot kicked the small of her back, frightening her all the more.

“Get up.” It was Ren. “Now.” The tenor of his voice was surprisingly sad.

Mariko scrambled to her feet, too unnerved by the screams to protest. She followed Ren as he wove through the trees, his torch held high.

Save for the screaming, the forest had grown eerily silent. The wind did not stir through the branches. Nor did Mariko hear the sound of any life in the air about her. Only the crackle of Ren’s torch. The snapping of twigs beneath her bare feet.

And the screams.

Ren walked silently, Mariko at his back. As they made their way toward the cluster of torches, the screaming grew louder.

Mariko refrained from covering her ears.

They approached several members of the Black Clan, standing around the base of a tree, its branches twisting into the darkness like skeletal fingers stretching for the sky.

At first glance, the tree appeared completely normal.

What Mariko saw once her eyes adjusted to the shadows almost elicited a scream from her own lips.

At the base of the tree was a young man. His limbs were tangled in the roots. Roots that had risen from the soil, wrapping around him like a thorny vine. Thin rivulets of blood dripped down his face. Down the skin of his arms. Across the meat of his stomach.

The thorns had pierced through the young man’s skin. All over his body, the vines squeezed tight, their thorns cutting deeper and deeper.

But the horror did not stop there.

When the thud of her pulse lessened, Mariko heard a slurping sound emit from the vines, followed by the rustle of dark leaves bursting to life in its skeletal branches.

The vines—the tree itself—was feeding on the boy.

The tree was draining him of blood.

He screamed again, the sound amplified by raw anguish.

Ranmaru and Ōkami stood before him, watching.

Mariko wanted to plead for mercy. Surely they could cut the boy away from the branches. Save him from such a slow, horrific death. She reached for a thorny branch, with a mind to rip it from the ground itself.

Quicker than a spark, Ōkami seized her by the elbow. “Don’t touch it.”

She blinked, the warmth of his hand searing through the thin hemp of her stolen kosode. He looked strangely severe. Much more so than ever before. His dark eyes roved across her face. Whatever he saw there briefly softened his expression.

“If you touch it, the jubokko will snare you, too,” he said.

Horrified by this revelation, Mariko’s jaw fell slack. Her eyes widened at the dying boy before her.

Ranmaru glanced her way. “Don’t look on him with pity.” The boy screamed again. His cries were becoming weaker with each passing moment. “He was sent to find our camp. To find it and murder us in our sleep, like a treacherous snake.”

“Even the most treacherous of snakes doesn’t deserve to die this way,” Mariko said hoarsely.

Ren started at her words. His glazed eyes flickered toward her, his expression unnerving even in the darkness.

“He is not a snake. He is something far worse.” One of Ōkami’s fists clenched around a piece of stained cloth. Mariko caught the edge of a white crest in its folds, but she could not make out the family. Nor could she make out anything of note.

The young man’s screams had become soundless. His mouth hung open for a beat, only to shudder shut, his teeth chattering like insects scuttling across stone. The tree slurped again, and a sundry of black flowers burst into bloom.

Her horror abounded with each passing moment. Mariko wanted to tear her eyes away from the sight. Tear them away from the truth. She briefly considered asking Ren why he had brought her here.

Why they had forced her to witness this horror.

“You could end it.” Mariko looked toward Ranmaru. As she struggled to keep her voice level, her eyes drifted to Ōkami’s face. To the torchlight wavering around its carved hollows.

***

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