The Pathfinder was close.
Okubo could sense its unnatural presence lingering in the air. The gates of the fort lay broken open before him. Several of his scouts had gone inside to investigate, but he already knew what they would report. There would be no sign of survivors. The visible gatehouse told him a too-familiar story, no bodies, only drying puddles of blood, unidentifiable scraps of meat, and stained fabric whipping in the desert wind.
The horse beneath him shifted, protesting, not wanting to get any closer to the dangerous scent. Animals seemed to be able to sense the Enemy long before men could, but that difference no longer mattered. Even those without the slightest inkling or familiarity with magic could feel the wrongness in this place. The entire desert stunk of corruption.
It would not be long now. Their pursuit would end shortly, with what Okubo could only hope would be a battle worthy of legend.
The man astride the horse next to him spoke politely. “You seem particularly intense this afternoon, my lord.”
“Looking inside my mind again, Hattori?”
“Of course not.” Hattori answered. “Attempting to listen to your thoughts would be insulting.”
“Indeed…” Okubo nodded in agreement, not that he was worried about a mind reader stealing his secrets. He had already demonstrated on more than one occasion that attempting such a thing had terrible consequences. In fact, an attempt had been made by a Qing spy only a few days before. The man had been subtle in the ways of magic, but when Okubo had sensed the intrusion, he had surged his own Power and ruptured vessels in the spy’s brain so forcefully that blood had squirted from the man’s ears. “Insulting, and sometimes fatal.”
“Of course. That too.” Hattori chuckled. “I do not need magic to know what is on your mind when your concerns are so plain to see upon your brow.”
“I will have to work on that,” Okubo stated. A warrior had to control his public face at all times. To display anything other than complete control was a weakness, and weakness was the one thing that Okubo could not accept. “Yes, Hattori, only a fool would not be concerned. Soon we will find this invader, and the outcome of our struggle will determine the fate of the entire world. I do not fear death, but I will not tolerate failure.”
Passing his horse’s reins to his subordinate, Okubo slid from the saddle with practiced grace. He knelt next to one of the huge red stains in the sand. Having fought in countless battles, Okubo was exceedingly familiar with blood and could usually estimate how long ago it had been spilled. “We are only a few hours behind it.”
“I believe you are correct.” Due to his criminal background, Hattori was also no stranger to blood, most of it shed in the darkened back alleys of Edo by flashing knives. Hattori had once been an honorless collector of debts and inflictor of violence, but Okubo had still recruited the young man into the Brotherhood of the Dark Ocean. Okubo did not care what station his warriors had been born into, only that they were useful, and Hattori was extremely useful. “The gap has closed. We are gaining on it.”
Okubo heard his warriors returning from the fort. They were silent as ghosts, but Okubo had no difficulty hearing ghosts either. He did not bother to look up. “So it is like the others?”
“No bodies,” the lead scout, Shiroyuki, reported. “Just like every village along its trail. The entire garrison is missing, at least a hundred soldiers. The armory has been stripped of rifles and ammunition.”
Hattori spoke. “Judging from the tracks leaving the other villages, the creature has recruited a force of at least a thousand men.”
Okubo nodded. Hattori was forgetting the women and children. The Pathfinder did not care. It could manipulate all flesh.
“Pathetic,” said the other scout, Saito. Like Okubo, he was a former member of the samurai caste. Saito had once been an officer of the shogunate. There were new fabric patches sewn onto his clothing, hiding where his clan insignia had once been worn proudly. Some of Dark Ocean’s members had sacrificed much in order to follow Okubo’s grand vision. “Conscripting villagers over a few days does not make an army. I’m not worried about peasants.”
“They will not be peasants anymore.” Okubo shook his head. No matter how brave his men were, they could not understand the horrors Okubo had witnessed the last time such a creature had walked the earth. “It will shape their flesh and control their minds. They are nothing but tools for the beast now. We may not even recognize them as men.”
“Lord Okubo is correct,” said Shiroyuki. “The footprints are odd. The bare feet especially, as if they are changing as they walk. The first gathered, they are more like animal tracks—”
Okubo held up one hand to silence the warrior. “Do not speak of this to the others.”
“But the men of Dark Ocean fear nothing!” Saito shouted.
“Of course. I picked them because they are the strongest there is, and I made them stronger. There is no need to trouble their thoughts before this fight. Man or not, the Enemy’s slaves can still die. That is all that matters.” Okubo adjusted his armor and climbed back into the saddle. “If we ride hard we can intercept the creature before it reaches Yining.”
Saito looked to the sky. There was not much daylight remaining. “Is it wise to fight it in the dark?”
Okubo scowled. “It is not
Saito, clearly realizing that he had just committed a terrible breach of etiquette by daring to question his superior’s decision, bowed deeply.
Okubo could respect his subordinate’s caution, but the more lives the Pathfinder consumed, the stronger it would become, especially if it found anyone else with magic it could turn against them. The only reason he’d been able to defeat the last creature was because it had arrived in such an unpopulated area. Giving it access to more time, more lives, and potentially more forms of Power, could prove disastrous. The others could not comprehend the madness that awaited them if the creature grew strong enough to send a message back to its creator.
“We must catch the Pathfinder before it reaches that city. It must be stopped at all costs. If we die in the process, then so be it, but let them speak of our deaths with reverence for generations to come.”
Okubo had faced this sort of creature once before, back during the decades he had taken to calling his wandering time.
He had been the first that the Power had chosen as a vessel in this world, and his sudden, uncontrollable abilities had been a cause of political embarrassment. He had been cast out of his family, his name—Tokugawa—stripped away. Once free of his homeland, he had taken upon himself the name Okubo, in honor of a friend who had argued, despite considerable personal risk, against his banishment. As a masterless swordsman he had traveled the world, first across Asia, and then Europe and Africa, and finally even the distant Americas, selling his skills to whichever petty warlord made the most interesting offer. The wandering time had helped him explore his strange new magic and introduced him to others that shared his burdens. As the years had passed, the Power had chosen more vessels, and he had found more and more people like himself, none as strong, a few close, but all useful to learn from.
It was during one of the many minor wars he’d participated in that he’d first come across one of the creatures. It was as foreign to this world as the Power itself. His magic had given him an instinctive fear of the new arrival. The Power actually feared the creature. It was a predator, and anyone with magic was its prey.
Yet, even as impressive and dangerous as it was by itself, the creature was merely a scout for a much greater being. If not eliminated quickly, it would alert its master to the presence of magic here on this world. Okubo began to think of the creature as a pathfinder of sorts, blazing a trail for its master. If the master followed, everyone with magic would be destroyed in the ensuing feeding frenzy, and the Power would flee this world as it had fled other worlds before. The Enemy would leave the Earth as nothing more than a lifeless husk.
The presence of such a profound threat had given Okubo the Wanderer a purpose, and he had become Okubo the Hunter. He had been alone and unprepared when he’d caught the first Pathfinder in the rem ...