The morning started well enough. They awoke refreshed with the sun shining on their faces and ate a breakfast of bread and dried fruit. The hike back down the hill was easy and pleasant. Manjoume was able to relax and enjoy the fresh breezes and the sound of the birds all around him.
It wasn't long before he stopped enjoying himself. After that hill, the ground began sloping steadily upwards. The sun rose higher in the sky, beating down on him and reflecting off the stones until he felt like he was being slowly roasted. The trees they had been walking under had given way to a number of prickly bushes with grayish leaves that offered no shade and scratched at him as he walked by. It wasn't long before his legs ached from the constant upward climb.
His brothers seemed to be getting tired of it all, too. At about noon, Chosaku finally gave up and collapsed onto a stray boulder.
"I give up!" he said. "I'm not going another step. I don't care if we don't make it home today, I am not walking!"
Shoji didn't even bother to object. He simply dropped down in a space where a large rock was providing some shade and closed his eyes. Manjoume sighed.
"I guess we can stop for lunch," he said. "Don't give up on me, guys. You can sleep all you want when you get home."
"Home," Shoji repeated longingly. "When I get back, I am going to have a long soak in the hot tub, and I'm going to have a good stiff drink and some real food and a long sleep in my own bed."
"You and me both," said Chosaku.
"You aren't allowed to sleep in my bed."
Manjoume gave a snort of laughter. "Who would want to sleep in your bed?"
"Me," said Shoji, and pointedly closed his eyes.
"Well, I'm going to eat something now," said Chosaku. He started to go through the bag of spare supplies, and then paused. One of the thorny gray bushes was growing nearby. Fat purple berries the size of grapes were growing on it. He looked up at the Ojamas. "Hey, you things! Ojamas, whatever you are! Are these berries poisonous?"
"Oh, no!" said Black. "They aren't poisonous."
"Great," said Chosaku. He pulled off a handful of berries and stuffed them in his mouth.
"They just taste awful," said Green.
"Blech!" Chosaku exclaimed. He spat out the berries, dribbling purple juice down his chin and into his beard. He spat several times, trying to rid himself of the taste, while Manjoume and Shoji enjoyed a laugh at his expense. He glared at them. "Stop that! Argh, that was disgusting! This is not funny!"
"Yes, it is!" said Manjoume. "Your face is all purple now!"
"What? Ugh!" said Chosaku. He rubbed at the stains around his mouth, but it didn't do much but smear them a little.
"It's not coming off," said Shoji helpfully.
"They won't," said Yellow. "Those are inkberries. You don't eat them, you make ink out of them. It won't wash out for a long time."
"Well, why didn't you say that?" Chosaku demanded.
"You never asked," said Yellow.
"Argh!" said Chosaku. "That is it! I am sick of this place! What did I do to deserve to be stuck here in this insane wilderness with a bunch of monsters gibbering at me? This is ridiculous! I shouldn't have to put up with this! This is not fair!"
Manjoume was mildly alarmed. He wasn't used to his big brother losing his self control that way.
"Take it easy," he said. "Your brain's overheating. Drink some water and calm down."
He handed Chosaku a water bottle. Chosaku took it, looking sullen, and set about trying to rinse the taste of the inkberries out of his mouth. Manjoume went to sit next to Shoji. He was surprised at how naturally it came to him. Then again, Shoji had been making some effort to talk to him. He figured he might as well meet him halfway.
"He wouldn't have lasted a week at Duel Academia," he remarked as he sat down.
"I don't blame him for being annoyed," said Shoji.
"Me either," Manjoume admitted. "That doesn't mean he has to throw a tantrum."
"Well, he never got to act like a little kid at home," said Shoji philosophically.
"Yeah, I guess so," said Manjoume. And after he thought about it for a moment, he decided it might even be true. Chosaku was the oldest, and when their parents had died, he had been forced to take over running the family whether he liked it or not. He hadn't been much more than a teenager himself at the time. Being suddenly given responsibility over two younger brothers probably hadn't been easy for him. Manjoume wondered what Chosaku might have been if he hadn't been forced to step into his father's place so suddenly.
Maybe that's his problem. I got to choose what I'm doing with my life and how I do it, and he never did. Maybe he's jealous...
"What do you think we should do?" he asked Shoji.
Shoji thought it over for a while. His gaze fell on the purple berries growing on the shrubs.
"Let's throw things at him," he said.
Manjoume shrugged. "Sounds good."
A few seconds later, Chosaku had his head tipped back, eyes closed as he drained the last few drops of water from his canteen. That was why he didn't notice when Manjoume threw a berry at him. It made a satisfactory splat, leaving a purple blotch on his cloak. His eyes snapped open.
"What... What?" he blurted. Several more berries splattered against him. "Stop that!"
"Make us!" Manjoume shouted.
"Stop ganging up on me!" Chosaku shouted. His brothers ignored him. He snarled. "All right, that does it! This means war!"
He ripped a handful of berries off the nearest bush and flung them back at Manjoume and Shoji. Manjoume yelped as berries pelted him. The Ojamas gave a gleeful whoop and joined in the fun, throwing berries at the brothers as well as each other. For a few moments, chaos reigned as all of them pelted each other with fruit.
Suddenly a voice said, "Hey, that looks like fun! Can we play too?"
Everyone froze. Manjoume looked around for the source of the voice, and saw two small blobby creatures peering over the edge of a rock. One had bright blue skin and narrow eyes, while the other was red and had a scowling face. Manjoume stared at them. He had never seen them before, and yet there was something very familiar about them...
The Ojamas gave a squeal of delight and rushed at the newcomers.
"Cousin Blue! Cousin Red!" they exclaimed. All five hugged each other and danced around joyously. Manjoume stared.
"There are more of you clowns?" he exclaimed.
Yellow looked delightedly up at him.
"These are our cousins!" he said. "We haven't seen them in forever!"
"Great. Just wonderful," said Manjoume.
"We knew you'd be happy!" Green said.
"We've been following you guys," said Red.
"For miles and miles," Blue agreed. "We wanted to, like, introduce ourselves, but we're, you know, shy."
"Really shy!" Red agreed. "So can we play now or what?"
Manjoume regarded them suspiciously. "You guys aren't planning on joining my deck, are you? Because it's getting pretty crowded in there."
"Aw, heck no!" said Red. "We're here for these guys!"
He pointed at Chosaku and Shoji. Blue nodded vigorously.
"You're... what?" asked Chosaku.
Blue flitted over to land on Shoji's shoulder.
"This is going to be, like, so totally cool!" he enthused.
"That's right!" said Red. He nested down in Chosaku's hair. "From now on, we're partners! Whaddaya think of that, huh?"
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold it," said Shoji. "Do you mean to say that this..." He pointed at Blue. "...is my monster?"
"You got it, dude," said Blue.
Manjoume stared blankly a moment. Then the reality of the situation set in on him, and he began to laugh. The more he laughed, the more he couldn't seem to stop laughing. He slumped over sideways, howling with mirth, beating his fists on the ground.
"Oh, this is great!" he gasped. "This is too perfect!"
"Boy," said Yellow, "Big Brother sure is happy to see our family!"
Chosaku was attempting to dislodge the Ojama from his head. It seemed to be firmly settled in.
"How do I make it go away?" he said helplessly.
"You don't," said Manjoume, swiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "Once its yours, its yours forever, and it'll never, ever go away!"
"Isn't it great?" said Black.
"I don't believe this," said Chosaku.
"Now you know how I feel," said Manjoume.
Shoji seemed to be taking the development in stride. He laughed a little.
"You should keep him," he said. "You're obviously meant for each other. He looks just like you!"
Manjoume looked at the scowling Chosaku, and then at the pugnacious face of Ojama Red, and burst into fresh streams of laughter.
"You're right! They look just alike!" he agreed.
"Very funny," Chosaku muttered.
"I don't see the resemblance," said Red. "I'm much better looking."
That set Manjoume off again.
"Oh, please stop!" he said. "I can't take much more!"
Chosaku glowered. "Fine, I get it. Karma is hilarious."
"You bet it is!" Manjoume agreed.
"Whatever," said Chosaku. "I give up. Let's eat and get going."
"There's food?" said Blue. "Radical!"
"Good thing we stopped to buy extra provisions," said Shoji. "I wonder what else we're going to run into on this trip."
Much to everyone's relief, they didn't run into anything else for quite a long time. The path smoothed out into a gentler slope that wasn't quite as hard on their legs, and they began to make better time. It wound around and through the hills, and occasionally Manjoume thought he caught a glimpse of one that was teller than the rest, with a squat boxy shape at its peak that he guessed might be Misawa's lab. The thought filled him with hope. Soon they would reach it, and they would be able to go back home where things were normal. Fleetingly, he wondered what was going to happen once he got there. There would probably be a media stir about him disappearing like that in the middle of a high-profile event. If he spun it right, he could get good publicity out of it.
Then he would go back to his job, and his brothers would go back to theirs. They would all be traveling around in different parts of the world. He probably wouldn't see them again face-to- face for months. It dawned on him to wonder if he was going to miss them. He was starting to get used to having them underfoot all the time. Even before he'd made his split with them, he hadn't spent a whole lot of time with them, what with their jobs and his schoolwork. He felt like he was just starting to get to know them.
It'll probably be different back home, anyway, he thought, a bit sourly. You had to expect that it would make a difference when you were relying on each other to stay alive and in one piece. Once they were home, they wouldn't need him anymore.
"Are we there yet?" Ojama Red shouted.
Manjoume corrected himself. They might need some advice on how to cope with Ojamas.
The trail rounded a corner, and around the bend, Manjoume found that the path split in two. One direction sloped down into a valley; the other continued curving around the mountain and towards a bridge he could see in the distance. Beyond the bridge, he could see the peak of the tallest hill that he was certain now was Tempest Top.
"Hey, look at that!" he said. "We're almost there!"
"Bodacious," said Blue. "Uh... where are we going?"
"Home," said Chosaku. "And not a minute too soon!"
"We've still got some hiking to do," said Shoji, "but at least we can see where we're going now."
"Do you live up on that mountain?" Red asked.
"No," said Chosaku. "Don't even bother asking. It's too complicated to explain."
With their spirits raised, they set out towards their goal with renewed speed. Manjoume had some concerns about the bridge, but once they reached it, he could see that it was in good condition, built solidly of thick logs and reinforced with metal. In fact, it appeared to have been repaired and strengthened recently. He wondered who had done it. Carpentry had never struck him as one of Misawa's interests. Who else came up here?
They crossed the bridge and began the last leg of their journey. Tempest Top looked much closer now. The sun was beginning to set, making parts of the path shadowed and hard to see, and Manjoume was concentrating on where he put his feet more than where he was going.
Chosaku was obviously paying attention, though.
"Your friend didn't mention anything about someone meeting us up there, did he?" he asked.
"Huh?" said Manjoume. "No. Why?"
"Well, because there's light in the windows. Somebody's home."
"Maybe they're friendly?" Yellow suggested. He didn't sound particularly hopeful.
"Well, whoever they are, I am not letting them stop me from going home," Manjoume declared. "If they won't let us go through then we'll just have to kick them out."
"Are we going to have to fight?" asked Green.
"Only one way to find out," said Manjoume.
Within another few minutes, they were close enough to the station to see its front doors. They could also see clearly that all the windows inside were lit, and shadowy shapes were moving around inside. The brothers stopped walking.
"What do we do now?" asked Shoji.
"You guys stay here," said Manjoume. "I'll go up there and check things out."
"No," said Chosaku. "I'll do it."
Manjoume was surprised. "You will?"
"I'm the head of this family," said Chosaku. "If anyone is taking the risk, it's me. You stay here and be ready to bail me out if something goes wrong."
And with head held high, he went marching towards the door. Manjoume watched him, impressed in spite of himself.
"Brave guy," he said. "Stupid, but brave."
"Do you think he realizes his face is still purple?" Shoji asked.
Chosaku reached the door and rapped sharply on it.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Open up!"
The shadows inside stopped moving around. The door opened a crack, and a small horned head peeked out.
"What do you want?" the creature asked in a raspy voice.
"My brothers and I need to use the equipment in this building," said Chosaku.
"Well, too bad," said the fiend. "This building belongs to us now, and you can't use it, so nyah!"
He slammed the door in Chosaku's face. Chosaku stared a moment. He pounded his fist on the door, but his only response was a rumble of laughter from inside the building. He slunk back to the bushes, defeated.
"Well, that didn't go well," said Shoji. "What's plan B?"
"I'm thinking," said Manjoume, "that blasting the door off its hinges might just be a start."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" asked Green.
"Yeah, maybe they'll change their minds if we ask real nice?" Yellow suggested.
"Not likely," said Manjoume.
"I'm with him," said Chosaku. "Nobody slams a door in my face and gets away with it."
"Now you're talkin'!" said Red. "Count me in!"
Manjoume cast a look at Shoji. "What about you? Any objections?"
Shoji shook his head. "If it's the only way home, then I guess we have to do what we have to do. I'm in."
"Right," said Manjoume. "We take them as a team."
"As a group," Chosaku corrected. "That's what we are. The Manjoume Group."
Manjoume felt a little shock at the realization that he had been included, unhesitatingly and definitively.
"Well, whatever we're calling ourselves," he said, "let's get out there and kick some ass."
His brothers nodded, their eyes alight with eagerness to do battle. They were watching him, waiting to hear what he was going to say next. He smiled. This was going to make for a pleasant change of pace.
"Okay, guys," he said. "Here's how we're going to do this..."
A short while later, Manjoume sauntered up to the front door of the building. It was a solid-looking sort of door, made of thick planks held together with lots of metal and rivets. He hoped Misawa wouldn't mind losing it too much.
With the flourish of a card, he summoned up a huge armored dragon. It belched a fireball at the front door and reduced it to flaming kindling, revealing a room full of shocked-looking monsters of various sizes and descriptions.
"Hey," he shouted. "Turn around when I'm talking to you! Oh, wait, those are your faces. I thought those were your rear ends."
"Who do you think you are, talking to us like that?" one of the monsters demanded.
"Who do you think you are?" Manjoume retorted. "Personally, I think your mother was a dead slug and your father was a garbage disposal."
Manjoume wasn't quite sure what came after that, other than that it sounded insulting. He responded with a rude gesture of his own. That was all the fiends could handle. They rushed forward in a mass, waving their weapons and howling for Manjoume's blood.
But they didn't get very far. As soon as they started forwards, the Ojamas dropped down from the lintel above the door - Yellow, Green, and Black on one side and Red and Blue on the other. They were holding a rope between them, and as soon as they hit the ground, they pulled it taut. The first unsuspecting wave of monsters tumbled over it, and the ones behind tripped over their comrades, until there was a remarkable pile-up in the doorway. Manjoume strolled casually down the path, whistling.
"Thanks, fellas!" he called, waving over his shoulder to the Ojamas.
"Any time, Big Brother!" his monsters called back.
He had made it halfway down the path before the fiends managed to unentangle themselves from each other and retrieve the members of their party who had been squashed underneath them. Then they went charging after Manjoume again, howling for his blood.
They ran straight into a pair of jeweled dragons, courtesy of Chosaku and Shoji. Their howls of rage turned to wails of fear and pain. Manjoume dodged around a dragon's tail and made a dash for the now empty station. He met his brothers on the way up, and all three of them pelted as fast as they could go up the path. Manjoume cast a glance over his shoulder to see how the fight was going, and his foot caught in a rut. He stumbled, tried to wrench himself back upright, overbalanced and fell on his face. His breath was knocked from his lungs, and for a moment he couldn't think how to move or breathe.
"Come on, get up!" Chosaku shouted at him. He doubled back, seized Manjoume, and hauled him to his feet, half-carrying him towards the station. By the time Manjoume had figured out how to get air back inside where it belonged and which way to unfold his legs, he was safe inside the building.
"Quick, find something to barricade the door with!" said Shoji.
Chosaku glared. "There isn't anything!"
"Then make something!" said Shoji.
"Never mind, I'll do it!" said Manjoume.
He took out his deck and selected a barrier spell. A glowing wall of energy appeared a few yards beyond the building. When Manjoume stepped outside to give it a better look, he was pleased to see that it extended all the way around the station. Just to be on the safe side, he took out a few trap cards and set those as well.
"That should keep us safe for a while," he said. "Long enough to get in touch with Misawa, anyway. I hope."
"Great," said Shoji. "Let's get to it, then."
"Wait," said Chosaku. "There's something I want to do first."
He strode briskly outside, and Manjoume, curious, followed after him. There were a few more of the spiky gray bushes outside, growing against the walls of the building. Chosaku plucked a handful of inkberries and splatted them against the wall. He rubbed a purple streak across the stones, then another long downstroke perpendicular to the first, and then an angled one connected to that. Then he seized some more berries to make a circle around the figure he'd drawn. Manjoume smiled a little. It was the family logo, stained into the brick of the building.
"There," said Chosaku, sounding satisfied. "Now everyone can see that this is our building, and we're not giving it up without a fight!"
"Not unless Misawa can get us out of here before those goons get back," said Manjoume. "Nice artwork, though."
They went back inside and found Shoji fiddling with the machines. Of the three of them, he'd always been the best with computers. Now he had the instructions for contacting Misawa spread out in front of him and was busily pushing buttons. A screen in front of him was alight, hissing with static.
"I've almost got it," he said.
He tapped a few more keys and flipped a switch, and the computer emitted an encouraging bleep, and the screen turned blue. A tone sounded several times.
"What's it doing?" Chosaku asked.
"It sounds like a phone ringing," said Manjoume.
Sure enough, a moment later, there was a click, and then Misawa's voice emitted from a speaker.
"Manjoume, is that you?" he asked.
"Were you expecting someone else?" Manjoume countered.
Misawa gave a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness. I was beginning to worry about you. Is everything all right?"
"Other than the fact that a bunch of monsters made a hideaway in your outpost?" Manjoume replied. "Everything's just dandy."
"Oh dear," said Misawa, sounding mildly perturbed. "I'll have to ask Taniya to send up a scouting party."
"No time for that now," said Shoji. "Just tell us what to do before those monsters come back!"
"Right," said Misawa. "Well, I can tell you what to do, but the fact is, it takes a while to power up the machine. You're going to have to hold the fort until then no matter what."
"We can handle it," Manjoume promised. "Shoji, deal with the computer. Chosaku, you help me guard the door."
Chosaku nodded, looking determined.
"I can handle that," said Shoji. "Just tell me what to do."
"Very well," said Misawa, "the first thing you're going to need to do is open that panel on the console to your right..."
Satisfied that the technical angle of things was under control, Manjoume walked up to the door, with his oldest brother following him. They took their places on either side of the door, standing like sentinels and watching the road.
The attack came a few minutes later. In an instant, the night went from silent to echoing with the howls of enraged monsters. They rushed up the road in a mass, waving clubs and knives and assorted farm implements.
"Should we...?" Chosaku asked.
Manjoume shook his head. "Not yet."
He stood calmly and watched the monsters come roaring up the road - and crash straight into the barrier. It exploded, sending creatures flying in all directions.
"Trap card," Manjoume explained.
"Does it work more than once?" Chosaku asked.
"No," said Manjoume, "but they don't know that, do they?"
Apparently they didn't. The monsters picked themselves up and retreated a short distance, eyeing the building with distrust. Manjoume hoped they were considering giving up and going home, but apparently they weren't that easy to dissuade. A few of the bolder ones began slinking towards the building, looking braced for impact.
"Okay, now!" he shouted.
Immediately a dragon and a giant spider burst out of nowhere - or rather, straight from Manjoume and Chosaku's decks. The fiends exclaimed in surprise at this fresh attack, but they weren't about to give up. They flung themselves at these attackers and battered at them, but the brothers' monsters proves too strong, and the fiends were blasted senseless. Several more times, the attackers charged the building, and each time, Manjoume and Chosaku summoned a fresh round of monsters to deal with them.
"Take that, suckers!" Manjoume shouted, as his Armed Dragon LV7 blasted through a cluster of imps. "There's more where that came from!"
"But how much more?" said Chosaku. "I can't keep this up much longer."
Manjoume cast a glance at him, a cutting remark on his tongue, but he swallowed it when he got a good look at his brother. Chosaku didn't look like he was in good shape; his face was paler than usual, and there was a sheen of sweat across his forehead and beading on his upper lip. His breath was coming as though he'd been running for hours.
Well, he's not really what you'd call an experienced duelist, Manjoume told himself. All this monster summoning must really be taking it out of him.
"Take a breather," Manjoume told him. "I can handle things myself for a while."
"Are you sure?" Chosaku asked.
"Sure I'm sure," Manjoume said. "Go help Shoji, see if you can hurry things along."
It was a sign of how tired he clearly was that he went without an argument or even a word. Manjoume watched him go, surprised at his own concern.
Guess we all can't be pro duelists, he thought.
He turned his attention back to the road. The fiends seemed to be getting tired, too. Several of them, injured from their repeated attempts at fighting, had given up, and had either slunk off dejectedly or were huddled in the bushes nursing their wounds. Others, perhaps more sensible, appeared to be applying first-aid to their brethren. But there were still a stubborn few - the biggest and ugliest of the lot - who hadn't given up yet.
"Come on," he groaned. "Haven't you clods figured out this isn't going to work?"
The next attack came, and Manjoume summoned a fresh monster. He was beginning to run short. He wished Taniya or Misawa had told him more about the mechanics of this universe; there seemed to be a single-use clause on monsters; his attempts to summon any of them more than once left him staring stupidly at an inert card. Maybe, he thought, they were getting tired, too.
It wasn't long before he realized that he was getting tired, too. He might have had more stamina for this sort of thing than his brothers, but even his strength wasn't limitless. With each summon, he could feel another bit of his energy being sapped away. With a shock, he realized that he recognized the feeling. It was just like when he had fought the duel zombies in the sand world.
Not good, he thought.
"Hey, guys, can you hurry it up in there?" he shouted. "I can't keep this up much longer!"
"We're almost there!" Shoji called back. "Those monsters have knocked everything out of calibration; we're trying to straighten it all out."
"Well, straighten faster! Otherwise we're going to have bigger problems than calibration!"
Almost as soon as he'd spoken, though, the monsters gave up. He watched in surprise as the last of them turned tail and fled down the path, with their companions scrambling and limping behind them. They darted around a corner and disappeared from sight. Manjoume didn't trust them, though. He stood in the doorway, panting for breath, listening for any signs of trouble.
"What's going on out there?" Chosaku called.
"Nothing," Manjoume called back.
"Did they give up?" Shoji asked.
"I don't know," said Manjoume. "I sure hope so."
"Well, it won't be much longer," said Shoji. "Hopefully by the time they get back, we'll be gone."
Manjoume nodded. He risked stepping away from the door long enough to go to their packs and get a drink of water. He poured a splash of it onto his handkerchief and mopped his face with it. Then he peered into the bottom of the flask. It was nearly empty.
"Here, guys," he said, passing it to the Ojamas. "You can take the last of it."
"Thanks, Big Brother!" Yellow chirped.
The five Ojamas began squabbling with each other, fighting over who got the last few drops. Manjoume turned away, too tired to even be amused by their quarreling.
"Could you keep the noise down?" Shoji called. "I'm working, here."
"Don't tell me that - tell them that," said Manjoume, waving at the Ojamas.
"Not them," said Shoji. "That thumping noise. It's annoying."
Manjoume paused and listened. Now that he was thinking about it, he realized that he'd been hearing it for a while, but he'd been so wrapped up in attending to his own discomfort that the sound had never made it past his ears.
It sounded like it was coming closer.
"Oh, hell," he groaned, and ran for the door.
The reason the monsters had left was not that they had given up. They had gone to get a friend. Stomping along the road was a Cyclopean creature nearly twenty feet tall, with a single red eye and a great underslung jaw full of crooked, pointy teeth. It had purple skin, scarred with many battles and caked with grime, with only a grubby loincloth wrapped around his waist for clothing. It was dragging a club carved roughly from a tree trunk. The club was longer than Manjoume was tall, and looked a lot heavier. He swallowed hard.
"Do either of you guys have any monsters left?" he asked.
"Nothing that can take on that," said Chosaku. "What about you?"
"I don't know. I... I'm pretty tapped out," Manjoume admitted. He looked down at his deck, feeling his palms sweating. He had never even seen a monster like that before. He had no idea of its level or power. If he summoned something and it turned out to not be strong enough, he wouldn't get a second chance. He wasn't sure he had the energy left to summon anything. The mere thought of drawing another card gave him a queasy feeling.
"So we're out of monsters," said Shoji faintly. "That's it, then. The machine's not ready yet, and we can't fight that thing..."
"We're not quite out of monsters," Chosaku said. He looked pointedly at the Ojamas, who were still tussling with each other, and Manjoume followed his gaze. The Ojamas seemed to realize that everyone was staring at them.
"Is it time to go home?" asked Green.
Manjoume glared at Chosaku. "You've got to be out of your mind! You want us to send them to fight that thing?"
"No, just one," said Chosaku. "With this."
He reached into his pocket and took out a card, which he handed to Manjoume.
"What's this?" Manjoume asked.
"The card I got, back at the market," said Chosaku. "It's for you. I meant to give it to you later, but I think we need it more now."
Manjoume scanned the text.
"Amulet of Ambition," he murmured.
Equipped to a normal monster, it would give a weaker monster an extra five hundred attack points for each level of difference between it and the monster it was attacking. His three Ojamas were level-one normal monsters. If that creature out there was as powerful as he guessed it was, the amulet could boost one of them by three thousand points or more. It was worth the risk.
"Yellow, come here a minute!" he barked.
"Yes, Big Brother?" the Ojama chirped, flitting into place in front of him.
"I need you to go out there and fight a monster for me," he said.
Ojama Yellow cringed. "Well, I, um, maybe it would be better if you sent someone else? I mean, I wouldn't want to steal someone's spotlight..."
Manjoume smiled. "Trust me."
A moment later, the ogre trudged up to the door and stood staring stupidly down at it.
"Where tiny men who hurt my friends?" he boomed.
"They're not here!" Ojama Yellow squeaked. He flew up so that he was hovering in front of the ogre's nose. "And even if they were, you can't see them!"
The ogre squinted. "Who you?"
"I'm the receptionist," said Yellow. "Do you have an appointment?"
Yellow raised his chin primly. "I can't let you in without an appointment. If I let you in, I'd have to let everyone in."
"You not let in?" the ogre rumbled. "Then me eat you!"
He reached out a huge hand to grab the Ojama, but it darted quickly out of reach.
"Don't say I didn't warn you!" he exclaimed.
The amulet around his neck began to glow. A dazzling gold-green light surrounded him, and the ogre flinched away. Ojama Yellow drifted towards the sky like a rising sun.
"Whazzat? Whazzat?" it exclaimed.
Ojama Yellow dropped out of the sky like a tiny yellow meteorite and crashed onto the ogre's bald head with a resounding THUD! The ogre blinked stupidly a few times, swaying slightly on its feet, before toppling over. It hit the ground with a crash that made the ground shake.
Manjoume ran out of the building and caught his Ojama as it floated down out of the sky.
"Oooh," it said. "Did somebody get the number of that truck?"
Manjoume tried to stifle a smile. "Well, you got the job done, anyway. Guess there's a reason I keep you around after all."
He braced himself for a mushy response, but he was saved by a victorious whoop from Shoji.
"Hey, guess what?" he shouted. "It's working!"
"It's about time!" said Manjoume.
He dodged around the unconscious ogre and ran back inside. The control room was now filled with a gentle thrumming, which seemed to be emanating from a pair of metal rods standing side-by-side against one wall. If he looked closely, he thought he could see the air between them rippling, like water with a breeze blowing across it.
"So that's it?" said Manjoume.
"That's it." Misawa's voice emerged from the computer console. "Just walk through that gate and you'll be home. Don't worry; it will shut itself down again automatically once you're gone."
"Seems kind of anticlimactic," said Shoji. "All that trouble for something so easy."
"I'm fine with easy. I just want to be home," said Chosaku.
"Yeah," said Manjoume quietly. "Me too."
"Just one thing," Misawa interjected. "I don't usually send multiple people through that portal. You might want to consider holding hands, just to be safe."
Shoji gave Manjoume a wry smile.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Can you bear to hold hands with us?"
"Geez, do you really think I care?" Manjoume snapped. He looked uneasily at the wall. "Besides, you guys... you're really not that bad."
Shoji ruffled his hair. Chosaku laughed and shook his head.
"Listen to you," he said. "All right, then. Let's get out of this place."
Manjoume nodded. He took his brothers' hands, took a breath, closed his eyes, and walked into the portal.
The hum began to grow louder...
When Manjoume woke up, he was relieved to find that he was not lying on the ground. He wasn't even lying on a floor. Some kind person had propped him up in what appeared to be a faux-leather chair of the kind he might have expected to find in a waiting room. In fact, further investigation revealed that the room he was in did, in fact, resemble some sort of waiting room. It was all done up in pale colors, soft lights, and little glass-topped coffee tables with magazines on them. There was a coffee machine in one corner, bubbling to itself, and a soft drink dispenser next to it. He had a feeling it wasn't a waiting room, though; the pictures on the walls were of galaxies and constellations, and the magazines on the tables were scientific journals.
On the sofa across from him, his brothers were still out cold. Manjoume considered waking them, and then decided against it. They had earned some rest.
The door to the lounge opened and Misawa darted in.
"Ah, good, you're awake," he said briskly.
"Oh, it's you," said Manjoume. "Where the heck are we?"
"At Professor Zweinstein's lab, of course," said Misawa. "That's where the portal is set to go. Are you feeling all right? No injuries? No disorientation, nausea, headaches, anything like that?"
"I'm fine! Geez, you'd think I'd never been to another dimension or something," Manjoume snapped. "What are you supposed to be, my doctor?"
Misawa made a note on a clipboard. "Perfectly normal, then. Good. You've been out for about two hours, by the way. You didn't seem to be in any particular distress so we thought you just needed some rest."
"Well, we did kind of have to fight our way through an army of monsters," said Manjoume. "Nothing we couldn't handle, though."
"Very good," said Misawa placidly. "Would you like to clean yourself up a bit? There's a bathroom through that door, and you're looking a bit dusty. I wouldn't normally say so, but Mr. Pegasus is here to make sure you're all faring well, and you'll probably want to look your best for him."
"Fine, fine," said Manjoume gruffly, but inwardly, he was pleased. It felt like forever since he'd had a chance to wash.
He spent several minutes over the sink, scrubbing every part of himself he could conveniently reach with soap and paper towels. By the time he returned, damp but dry, his brothers were stirring as well, so he chased them into the bathroom so they could have their turn to freshen up. While he waited for them, he regarded the soda machine, and idly fished in his pockets for change. The only coins he had left were monster-world money. He considered dropping them into the machine anyway to see what would happen.
Once his family was as clean as they were likely to get (Chosaku still had traces of purple on his skin from the inkberries), Misawa led them all out of the lounge and down a hallway into a different, more important looking room. A lot of men in white coats were running around, tinkering with computers very like what had been in the station at Tempest Top and talking to each other in serious tones. Pegasus was wandering among them, watching what they were doing and occasionally asking questions, and then listening as though he understood what they were telling him. Maybe he did.
When he caught sight of the brothers, though, he descended on them with a sunny smile, arms held wide, as though they were his dearest friends and he intended to embrace them. At the last minute, he changed his mind and shook their hands instead, each in turn.
"How good to see you all back safe and sound!" he said. "I don't mind saying that we were all a bit concerned about you."
"It was nothing we couldn't handle," said Manjoume. "Right, guys?"
"No problem," said Shoji, smiling slightly.
"Nothing to it," Chosaku agreed.
Pegasus smiled a little. "Is that so? No trouble at all? I had thought that under such hardship, there might be... a bit of friction among you all."
"What, us?" said Manjoume. "Nah, no way. We're family, right? We work best as a team."
"Well, that's good to hear," said Pegasus. "I can see my worries were misplaced. Anyway, I just came to say that I am very sorry that the three of you were put through all of this. The fault is entirely mine for not managing my security measures more effectively. If there is anything at all I can do to make up for it, just say the word, and if it is within my power, I will make it so."
Manjoume became aware of a misty presence off to his side, and he glanced up to see that his Ojamas had returned, and were now hovering over his shoulder, watching the proceedings. He was interested to see that his brothers had both turned their heads slightly the instant the monsters had appeared. Then they glanced at each other.
"Well," said Chasaku slowly, "now that you mention it, we could use a couple of cards..."