Heimatsu crashed onto a pile of boulders and broke into a sprint.
The volcano god of the northern mountains, which took the form of a giant ox with a coat of fire and hooves of rock, had ruined his robes days ago. His shoes were burnt to a crisp. Heimatsu had thrown up walls of earth to keep the furious god at bay, but after two weeks of fighting, interrupted by ember-ridden tirades against humanity, his endurance was starting to wear thin.
Tea and poetry indeed, thought Heimatsu, his back against a boulder as lava spewed around him.
Chirikai had been right.
Heimatsu would never, ever tell him that. He would bite off and swallow his own tongue before admitting it.
The volcano god stomped his hooves and scraped his horns against the ground, straining the long chains that tied him to the mountain. “I don’t tell you how to do your business, Catfish.”
Heimatsu had given up trying to implore the god to use his name.
“That is true indeed,” he shouted over the crumbling rock. “However, if you were to offer your opinion on the matter of earthquakes, I assure you that my family would take your considerations to heart simply as a matter of respect!”
The volcano god rumbled as he made his way closer. “The humans don’t fear old natural disasters. They think they’re used to them. They think there is nothing they can do to control them.”
Heimatsu gazed up at the sky, helpless. Well, that’s sort of correct.
“I could lay waste to their city,” continued to the volcano god with roar, “and they are so stupid, they would never realize what they were doing wrong!”
I am never negotiating anything ever again.
“I promise to help them understand!” Heimatsu pleaded for the hundredth time. The local volcano god had a laundry list of grievances: lack of offerings, lack of ritual, lack of shamans, lack of respect... and then there was the whole issue of the Bosa, the recently imported religion, which was as toxic as the smoke he would vomit into the sky.
“Silence, Catfish, or I will roast you!”
“Like I’ve never heard that one,” murmured Heimatsu. If he could just get to the river, the water would help him regain some of his strength. He wiped the sweat from his brow and his sleeve came away soaked.
“What are you whispering about?” snapped the volcano god, suspicious. “Are you mocking me, Catfish? Mocking me like those humans?”
“No, no,” Heimatsu gasped. “We are all in awe of your might, oh volcano god—”
“If you love these humans so much, you’ll be willing to fight for them.”
“Fight for them,” sputtered Heimatsu. “No, that’s not what I meant—”
“You are defending them and betraying me.” Lava dripped down from the ox’s fur, and ash littered the earth with each stomp of his foot. The trees around the volcano had perished days ago, nothing more than burnt sticks. “You and the humans think yourselves equal to a god like me!”
“Not at all,” cried Heimatsu, but the god was already roaring away. The earth shook as the volcano began to erupt. He watched in horror as a wave of lava followed its master.
“We will see how brave you are with your fake gods when I obliterate your city!”
Heimatsu slammed his fist, and a chasm opened, swallowing the lava.
With a shake of the ox’s head, lava splashed the ground. “Prove your worth, petty Catfish.”
In despair, Heimatsu gazed at the stretch of flatland between the mountains and the capital. Peasants used the entire plain for rice paddies, a checkerboard field of mud and water. One rampage across the flatland would result in widespread starvation, even if the volcano god spared the capital.
Heimatsu sank to his knees and pressed his forehead against the ground, humbling himself in such a way that would have humiliated his father. He clutched his tattered robes, burying his pride. “Please, I beg you, powerful volcano god. I plead your patience and your mercy.”
Heimatsu held his breath as the volcano god paused, considering him, and finally responded:
“The humans have become fat and cowardly, just like the demons.”
As the volcano god continued leisurely towards the rice paddies, Heimatsu tipped his head up. His hands trembled as he sat back on his ankles, watching.
The fields quivered as the volcano god took his first step in the shallow water, and Heimatsu swallowed.
It was still a long way to the capital.
“You’d better be watching, Chirikai.”
It was nighttime, and for the first time, Heimatsu fought back.