Santa Marta Slum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 4:13 AM EST
Paulo’s yell was lost in the narrow streets of the slum, in the sound of automatic gunfire, the screams, the wail of the sirens. He ran, machete in hand, his cheap plastic flipflops smacking his feet as he descended the steep alleyway that twisted between the brick cobbled-together houses, occasionally getting views of the city spread out along the bay far, far below.
The night was warm, and the sea breeze didn’t get this high up the mountain slope. Instead, he smelled trash, raw dirt, diesel, and over it all, death, the stench of blood, of violence, of gunpowder.
He careened around a corner, leaped over a corpse, slowing just enough to make sure it wasn’t his little brother, then ran along the narrow ledge to leap down into the next street and into Lucas’s house, baile-funk blaring out the narrow windows, the building three times as tall as it was wide.
The tiny living room was packed. Cinderblock walls were painted a grubby pale blue, benches lined the walls, and a tiny TV was playing Globo News. Lucas was yelling into Antônio’s face, the argument watched by six other young guys, all of them holding weapons.
“Lucas!” Paulo broke in, not caring. “Where’s João?!”
Everybody went quiet. When Paulo spoke, people listened. Even Lucas broke away from his argument long enough to look Paulo up and down. “Where you going with a fucking machete, Paulo? Where’s that machine gun of yours?”
“Where is my little brother?”
One of the other guys in the room spoke up. The youngest there, Carlos.
“I saw him earlier, over at Auntie Cassandra’s shop. He was furious, yelling about how he was going to get revenge for your mother, find the cop who killed her.”
Paulo stepped right into Carlos’ face, making the younger kid shrink back. Few stood up to his glare. “Where was he going?”
“Down to the Michael Jackson,” Carlos said hurriedly, looking away and flushing in anger. “Said he was meeting with the Comando Vermelho, that they were recruiting.”
“Fuck!” Paulo ran to the door.
He looked back. Lucas tossed him a big chrome pistol. “If you’re going to get fucked, take a gun, man.”
Paulo caught it. It was Lucas’s favorite, his Colt Anaconda. “Thanks, my friend.”
And he took off.
The Michael Jackson square was halfway down the slum. His little brother couldn’t be that stupid. Commando Vermelho was bad enough, but the local group here was led the Rainha Vermelha, a crazy mãe de santo who just barely recruited more new gang members through the baile-funk parties than she got killed in gang wars and her own supposed candomblé rituals.
No way João was stupid enough to sign up with her.
A Bicho-papão leaped out of a dark window, its claws extended, black scaly skin gleaming in the toxic orange light streaming through a second-floor window. Paulo yelled in fury and hacked at it with the machete, catching it across the skinny waist and driving it down to the ground, where he head-stomped its skull, smashing its glowing red eyes into the red dirt.
He kicked the little corpse and resumed running. AK-47 gunfire split the night further up the slum, and he heard laughter come from a rooftop, then screams.
He was a good runner, and his Speed 12 and Agility 15 allowed him to navigate the steep alley and chaotic slum like a professional parkour guy, making leaps onto roofs then down onto balconies and over streets like in a dream.
Another Bicho-papão came at him, bursting out from under a car, and he shot it with the Colt Anaconda. It exploded into black blood, and Paulo ran on.
There, at last, Michael Jackson square. The musician had used it once, decades ago, to film part of a music video in, and now a metal statue of the musician stood at the square’s edge, arms raised, looking out over the slums and the white lights of the skyscrapers far below, the three other walls covered in graffiti and dedications to the dead man, the open space often used for games or football, but now crowded with the ranks of the Comando Vermelho.
He leaped down some eight yards to land at the foot of one wall, and immediately a dozen scoundrels turned to aim their guns at him.
Paulo rose, hands up, but his eyes were only for the Rainha Vermelha, who stood before Michael Jackson. She was his age and didn’t wear the white gown of a true orixá but checkered black and red dress with a cross-body ammo belt and her black hair done up with a red headdress.
João was there, standing in line with a dozen other young men, all of them tense and obviously signing up.
“The great Paulo.” The Red Queen’s voice was warm with amusement, but he knew that could change in a second. “You change your mind?”
Paulo walked forward. They’d tried to recruit him a dozen times. He was ex-military, commanded respect in the neighborhood for not fucking around, was known to have killed a guy who tried to rob his grandmother’s house where he lived.
Always he turned them down.
And ever since he'd liberated that M2 Browning .50 cal machine gun from the military police? He'd been too busy cleaning up the slums.
The view from the Michael Jackson square was stunning. A glittering belt of white and gold light twinkled along the bay, punctuated by black mountains that rose up here and there like teeth, the ocean water a void that stretched to the night sky’s horizon. The city had erupted in panic and violence, and it was said that millions had died over the last few nights, with even the millionaire’s being torn apart as they drove frantically to the airports.
But that was another world.
All he cared about was his little brother.
“Has he sworn?”
“I have,” blurted out João, stepping forward. “This is my choice. You won’t give me a gun? You won’t go after the police, get revenge for our mother? Then I will!”
Paulo ignored him. Up-nodded to the Queen. “Let him go. Release him from his oath. I’ll take his place.”
The Rainha Vermelha laughed, delighted, the sound half crazed. “You think it’s that easy? But fine. I’ve always wanted you by my side. But first you have to do something to prove you’re as good as they say.”
João went to protest but fell silent when guards lifted their guns.
“What?” demanded Paulo, voice cold as iron.
“Go hunt one of the Uncles,” she said. “But not with that machine gun of yours. Use just a machete. You bring me back one of their white masks, I’ll let you take your brother’s place.”
Cruel laughter sounded from everyone around them.
It was a suicide mission.
Paulo stared at the Rainha Vermelha, studied her fevered, mad eyes, then nodded. “Fine. An Uncle’s mask by dawn. Nothing but a machete.” He looked to João. “You wanted a gun?” He tossed him the Anaconda. “Here.”
His little brother caught it, stared at him, speechless.
“Good luck, Paulo. You do this, you’ve a bright future with the Comando Vermelho. You’ll be my king.”
“Fuck that,” said Paulo and hefted his machete. “I’m just doing this for my brother.”
He turned and walked away, ignoring the catcalls, his brother’s plaintive shout, the weight of the Rainha’s stare on his back.
And as he disappeared into the darkness, he pulled up his character sheet.
Looked at the bottom row.
No more hesitation. No more second-guessing. No more waiting for someone to point out the ultimate build.
Time to spend those 35 experience points.
* * *
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Sapporo, Japan, 5:13 PM JST
It had all gone horribly wrong.
Matsuzaki Miho shouldered open the tram door and leaped down onto the snowy sidewalk, her kendo bogu bag bouncing heavily against her back, the air fiercely cold, the dirty snow crunching underfoot. The Ropeway Iriguchi Station was an unimpressive intersection in northern Sapporo, and hardly resembled a destination for which so many of them had died to reach.
The remaining members of the Shimabara High School Girls’ Kendo Club leaped down after her. Only three remained, and all were wounded to one degree or another.
Miho glanced back. As the captain of the kendo club, they were her responsibility, and though she had failed the other thirteen members, she would do everything within her power to get them to the Fushimi Inari Shrine where Coach Takeda had gone to pray three days ago.
Himari had her phone out. “It’s only one kilometer to the shrine. Ten minutes if we hurry.”
Yua limped, the bandage around her thigh betraying a crimson blossom, her round face pale and determined. “Don’t wait for me. I will be right behind you.”
Hina, the last off the tram, adjusted her bag on her angular shoulders and stared down at Yua in disgust. “We are the Shimabara High School Girls’ Kendo Club. We will leave nobody behind. Isn’t that right, captain?”
“Yes.” Miho gave her former greatest rival a firm nod and clenched her fist on her wooden sword. It was little more than strips of bamboo tightly bound together, but its length was splotched with black blood stains. “Let us go. Now.”
She led the way, moving as quickly as she thought Yua could handle. This part of town was silent, the heavy white sky pressing low and promising more snow, the five and six story buildings that lined the street betraying no signs of life. Here and there she could spot the mountain rising just beyond, heavily forested and still.
Yua fought to keep up. “What if Coach isn’t there? What do we do?”
“He will be,” said Miho, not saying what she really meant. He has to be.
“But if he isn’t?” persisted Yua.
“Coach will be there,” said Hina sharply. “Otherwise he would have returned to the hotel where we were waiting. Enough, Yua.”
Miho tuned out the conversation. The little tengu could appear out of nowhere, leaping like fleas and falling upon you in an instant. Too many of their team had paid for their lack of focus.
The road curved, more trees appeared, high retaining walls on either side of the street, and they passed under a pedestrian bridge which arched overhead into a little neighborhood. The way ahead looked completely rural, with only trees on either side of the street.
“You sure this is the way?” asked Yua from the back of the group, her voice pitched to a plaintive whine.
“Yes,” said Himari firmly, phone held like a talisman before her. “Three more blocks, and the shrine will be on our left.”
Miho slowed. A body lay on the sidewalk ahead, surrounded by slashes of blood that had partially melted the snow. She approached carefully, searching for the tengu that had killed the older woman, but saw no movement.
They’d seen too much death to stop and pay their respects, so one by one they hurried on. Miho felt exhausted, drained of all vitality, yet strode on, only to spin as Yua screamed.
A tengu had appeared on the girl’s back, must have leaped down from the pedestrian bridge, an incredible leap, its mouth planted in her neck as it bit deep.
“Aaaaiiieeee!” screamed Yua, dropping her sword and staggering against the wall.
Miho reacted first. She rushed past the other two, sword rising and cracking down in a men strike, the bunched bamboo hitting the tengu neatly on the skull.
The tengu were fast and incredibly dangerous, but a solid strike could shatter their bones.
The hit was clean, Miho’s power and focus formidable, and the tengu’s skull shattered. It fell of Yua, who slid down the cement wall as her blood washed down her chest.
“Yua!” Himari covered her mouth with her hand, frozen.
Miho put her feelings away and crouched before the wounded girl. Too much blood was coming out. Her artery had been cut.
There was nothing they could do for her.
“Miho?” Yua’s eyes were liquid with pain and terror. “Miho, help.”
Miho set her sword down and took Yua’s hands. “Think of your parents, Yua. Think of Tenaka back home.”
Yua began to shiver violently, her pale face growing paler.
“Think of Tenaka. Do you see him?”
“Yes,” whispered the other girl.
“He’s smiling,” said Miho. “He’s happy to see you. He’s holding flowers. You are going to spend time with him. Do you see him?”
“Yes,” whispered Yua, even fainter, and then she blinked once, twice, and went still.
Miho felt a knot form in her throat. She wanted to remain crouched and still, but she had to keep moving.
They had to reach the shrine.
“Oh my god,” whispered Himari.
Miho picked up her bamboo sword. “Let’s go.”
Hina tore her eyes away from the corpse of their friend and gave a jerky nod. “Ready.”
Himari’s hands were shaking, but she raised the phone and pointed down the empty street. “This way.”
Miho strode on.
Himari had been right. Three blocks later the trees on the left gave way to more buildings, a quiet residential block. They passed brick homes, brutalist concrete residences, two restaurants, and then there were the crimson Tori gates, stark and beautiful in the snow, protecting the cement path that led gently uphill to the hidden shrine.
“We’re almost there,” said Miho, looking twice before crossing the street and stepping up onto the path. “Hurry.”
Hina and Himari hurried after her, and together they jogged up the path, the city falling away, the snow thick and fluffy and lining the black curved tops of the Tori gates.
A Shinto shrine. Miho was an atheist, but she fervently hoped that if there were such a thing as kami that they had kept the tengu at bay. That against all odds the demons were fearful of this ancient shrine.
The path rose and rose, passing under endless crimson gates. Miho saw movement off to one side, then the other; tengu were tracking them through the narrow strip of forest that insulated the shrine from the residential buildings.
“There are so many!” wailed Himari. “What are they all doing here?”
The tengu were converging on the path, grinning their needle teeth as if aware of something Miho had missed.
“Run,” she hissed, and the three girls broke into a sprint.
The tengu chittered and came bounding out of the forest.
Miho swung her sword, not seeking to kill but simply keep the tengu away; her years of training allowed her to strike true and strong, and she batted one tengu out of the air after another.
Himari screamed from behind her, and then went abruptly silent.
Miho felt a spasm of horror but knew that to stop was to be overrun.
The Tori gates came to an end, and the trees pulled back to reveal two flights of cement steps rising through a massive Tori gate which framed the shrine behind low decorative stone walls.
The steps and clearing were covered with countless tengu corpses, all cleaved with impeccable skill in twain.
“He’s here!” shouted Miho, racing over the corpses to the base of the steps. There she turned to look back.
Hina was powering toward her, but three tengu had landed on her back, her shoulder, her sword arm.
Hina. The new girl that had joined their club that year, so aloof, so tall, so intense, so talented. For most of the year they had been rivals but had finally bonded over their win earlier that week at the Sapporo tournament.
“Go!” shouted Hina, dropping to one knee and propping herself up with her sword. “Run, Miho!”
A cold chill flooded through Miho as a tengu dragged its claws across Hina’s throat, silencing her forever.
Hundreds were bounding toward her.
Only her heightened stats allowed her to outrun them and fend them off as she went. Speed 15(19), Agility 20(22), Power 15(17), Stamina 13, Strength 10(12). All she had been able to increase with her four gained levels.
She smashed the skull of another leaping tengu, her sword moving of its own accord, and a message flashed before her eyes:
Your rank is now Basic 5
You may select an Empowerment:
Floating Shield | Great Strike | Enhancement
Your choice of Empowerment is your first step
in determining your class.
You may now purchase Infinity points
You have 5 unspent points.
Up she flew, her feet barely touching the cement steps, right up to the shrine’s huge doors.
They stood closed.
“Coach Takeda!” her cry rose over the hisses and giggles of the tengu. “Coach Takeda!”
There was no time to wait for the coach to open the doors. Only her heightened agility and strength allowed her to pierce the broad gap between the two doors with her sword and lift the crossbar before she slammed into the wooden panels. She bounced off, the crossbar crashing to the stone floor within, yanked open one door and stepped inside, pulling the door closed behind her as did so. A quick heft, and the crossbar was in place.
She could have practiced that maneuver a thousand times in her old life and never been able to execute it so smoothly.
Tengu hit the door like a hundred bags of rice being hurled from a cannon.
Miho caught her breath and gazed around the shrine. Everything was as it should be but for the man who sat cross-legged on the floor, a naked blade across his lap, head bowed.
“Coach!” She fell to her knees before him and pressed her brow to the stone. “Coach Takeda, I’ve found you.”
Tears brimmed in her eyes, and she held the post till she could master herself, could bring her raging emotions of relief and joy back under her icy domination.
The Coach remained silent, allowing her to save her honor by not attempting to console her.
Finally, she rose to sit on her heels. She didn’t wipe away the tears, but looked expectantly at the old man, who hadn’t moved all this time.
He was dead.
The knowledge slid into her heart like a cold blade.
His wiry body, always so fiercely energized, had once seemed as indomitable as his will. Now it was scored with countless bites and cuts. He sat in a pool of dried blood, his body stiff, his chin resting on his chest, having maintained perfect posture right up until the moment of his death.
He’d written something in his own blood on the flagstone before him. Written it upside down, so it would face whoever entered the shrine.
His jisei, his death poem.
For a time
Then, below it, in a more ragged hand:
The tengu rattled and clawed at the door, battered at the shutters.
Miho bowed her head, her mind empty, all her will having been expended to reach this final point.
From outside she heard the chitters and hissing laughter of the tengu.
No decision was made. She simply began to move.
Miho unslung her pack, opened it, and methodically set about donning her kendo armor. Piece by piece, the motions smooth, unfurling straps, tying the tare around her waist, tying the gently curved breastplate do over her stomach and chest, then drawing out her head bandana with the school’s motto on it: The Spirit and Skill are One Body. She wrapped this around her head, then paused.
Her bamboo sword was splintered and almost useless.
Slowly, cautiously, she looked at Coach Takeda’s sword. He had wiped it scrupulously clean. It gleamed in the low light, its edge rippled and wickedly sharp. His family blade. He had brought it here for inscrutable reasons of his own. A vow from his youth, he had said.
“Sensei,” she whispered, bowing her head low. “I pray that I do not offend, but I believe you would give me your blessings.”
Carefully, reverently, she reached out and took hold of the ancient blade. It was light but felt good in her hands, a beautiful instrument of death. Coach had never spoken of it, but the club had passed down the rumors from generation of students to the next: the blade was a national treasure, and Coach had refused numerous museums the right to put it on display.
How many warriors had wielded it over the centuries?
And now it had come to her, Matsuzaki Miho, Captain of the Shimabara High School Girls’ Kendo Club.
A sense of rightness washed over her. She laid the blade across her knees and closed her eyes.
Slowly, with great care and clarity, she whispered the kendo creed:
“The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
This will make one be able:
To love her country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture
And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples.”
With the last word spoken, she reached for her men, the great enclosing helm, and rested it over her head. It sat lightly upon her shoulders, stiff and fierce, her vision now filtered through the horizontal steel bars that attached to the vertical centerline that ran from chin to brow. She methodically tied the ribbons behind her head, and then inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.
Only then did she summon her character sheet. She considered all her options, but really there was only one Empowerment she could choose.
She focused on the power and made it hers.
Quickly, carefully, she spent five points on Speed, raising it to 20(24) and giving her Agility a 2-point boost, bringing it to the same.
Mind calm, focus total, she moved to the front doors and lifted the crossbar free, tossing it aside. She pulled the doors opened and stared out at the snowy shrine steps and clearing.
Hundreds, no, thousands of tengu were gathered.
They paused at the sight of her.
Snow fell slowly in large, fat flakes.
In that stillness she grasped her master’s blade and raised it in a salute. Gray fire burst down its gently curved length, and then she lowered it and entered her fighting stance.
A thousand tengu narrowed their eyes.
“Hajime,” she whispered, and burst forward.