|Way of the Dragon|
|Written By:||Seth Mason|
|Released:||Dec, 2004 ()|
|Story Year:||First century|
Previously: The Hand of Peace.
Dawn of the Empire, Part Six of 10 “Shinsei’s arrival brought answers, but also many more questions — as answers usually do,” Unmei said. “In one case, these questions drove a Kami to seek his place where he had none. While other clans see it as their role to follow a certain path, it is the Dragon’s place to eternally seek a new path.”
Way of the Dragon by Seth Mason
Turn back, Kaiteru. Turn back… your family misses you…
The young man pressed a raw and bleeding palm to his temple as the voices returned. He could not tell if the howling winds of the mountains were playing tricks on him, if the hunger in his stomach was warping his mind, of if there were indeed spirits talking to him and him alone. The stickiness of blood drying on the side of his face did not bother him any more — he had grown used to the unclean feeling some time ago. After he reached the mountains, more and more of his clothing had become bandages for cuts and scrapes inflicted by the climb. Eventually, the rocks had even claimed those, and he was left with little more than torn hakama and his gnarled hair.
“Go away,” Kaiteru whispered to the empty wind as he gripped the mountain with both hands again.
Away? Oh, Kaiteru, away is where you have gone! Away from your mother, away from your sisters. Away from the family that needs you now that your father is dead…
Kaiteru closed his eyes and pulled himself up the mountain face with trembling muscles. The climb seemed much shorter from the base of the range, but he had been climbing for two days and he barely felt as if he were halfway up. “You lie,” he hissed as he moved slowly. “My father is alive.”
In his mind, he saw his father holding a mighty sword and standing against countless enemies. His golden armor shone in the sunlight and he seemed like a vengeful spirit sent by the Sun Goddess. Goblins and foul beasts fell before him, but it was clear the man was not an immortal spirit, and he was tiring. Enemies pressed against Kaiteru’s father, drawing closer and closer until finally one struck him savagely in the side. The samurai stumbled for only a moment, but it was all the horde needed to overwhelm him.
“NO!” Kaiteru shouted as the vision played out in his head, and his scream was whipped into nothingness by the howling reply of the mountain winds. “No…” he whispered, choking back tears. “You lie!” he screamed again, glaring out at the empty sky.
The end of a line, the father a hero and the son a coward, run away to the mountains when he could have saved his father. How sad… how sad…you gave up your family, little mountain lion. You gave them up to history.
The young man pressed his body against the mountain face as the wind blew harder and colder with each second. Had he been a coward? Had he failed to be a true samurai like his father had wanted? Had he given up…?
Kaiteru opened his eyes as clarity dawned on him, as it had when he saw the mountains years ago.
“Yes,” he said to the wind. “Yes, I left them, but they were never mine to give up, nor were they mine to save. Their kharma was not mine.” He reached to pull himself up the mountain, and found himself gripping a tuft of grass. The young man looked up and to his amazement found himself on a wide plateau.
One year before…
“Relax your eyes,” Hitoshi said, not taking his gaze off the scene before them. “You must learn to see what lies before you as a single picture instead of a collection of rocks, trees, and grass.” The older samurai’s gruff voice was used to command, and he had instructed Kaiteru for months in the duties of an advance scout in Akodo’s armies.
Hitoshi allowed his student a moment more to take in their surroundings, then turned his horse south, back toward Akodo’s outpost.
“Hitoshi-sensei,” Kaiteru said, his voice quiet, as if he were considering something. “Have you met… I mean, have you gone beyond these borders?”
“To the lands of the Dragon Clan?” Hitoshi responded, looking back towards the northern horizon. “No,” he said after a moment. “My duty has never carried me to that place.”
“A samurai does not listen to rumor, Kaiteru.” Hitoshi interrupted his student with a glare. “I have heard a great many stories of Togashi-kami and his followers, of men walking on water and a Kami being in many places at once, but they are only that — stories. Until I see these things with my eyes or are told of them by those I trust, they will never be more than that.”
Kaiteru bowed his head and nodded. “Of course, sensei. But it was… my father who told me these things.”
The older samurai raised an eyebrow at his pupil. “I see, Kaiteru-san. I apologize, then. I did not mean to imply your father is a liar; I know him to be an honorable and wise man.” Hitoshi looked back to the lands of the Lion Clan and smirked slightly. “Your father, from what I understand, is quite fond of Ikoma’s stories, however. Though I would never speak ill of Lord Akodo’s vassal, I would remind you Ikoma himself often remarks how fanciful his stories are. Perhaps it would be best to remember that it is Ikoma who once told a story of how he broke the back of a troll with his bare hands to amuse a pretty girl.” He looked back at Kaiteru and narrowed his eyes again. “Something to keep in mind.”
“Hai, sensei,” Kaiteru said, keeping his head down so that he could stare at the mountains without his teacher seeing him do so. Some day, he promised himself, he would find out just which of Ikoma’s stories were true, and which were … fanciful.
Kaiteru walked through the wilderness, not entirely sure if he was moving in the correct direction. His training taught him he was going north, but he could not keep track of how far he was moving. He knew that the stronghold of the Dragon Kami was reported to be in this area, but he had never seen it himself. It was entirely possible he had already passed beyond it and he would leave Rokugan to die in the barbarian lands. The weather was more moderate here than it had been on the mountain face, but it was still cold. It was late fall, which meant a slow cooling in the lands of the Lion Clan, but in the mountains temperatures sometimes dropped low enough to kill a man overnight. Even if Kaiteru found ways to sustain himself, he did not believe he would survive more than a day or two before the elements defeated him.
The young Lion was so lost in his thoughts that his trained senses barely heard the footsteps coming towards him. Though the stranger’s movement was quiet, given the speed of the footsteps it was unlikely whoever it was wished to surprised Kaiteru. He stopped as the movement grew closer and instinctively reached for the handle of his wakizashi, the symbol of his status as a samurai. When he left the Lion lands, he left behind his katana, symbolizing the choice that he had made. The blade had been a gift from his father, the man who had learned and embraced Akodo’s philosophy of bushido as a starving man would take to a feast. The sword had never felt right in Kaiteru’s hands, and though he never dared to say so, he never believed he could live up to the ideals that his father clung to so tightly. It seemed only right to leave such a fine weapon, perhaps to be wielded by a worthy owner.
After a moment, a tall man emerged from the foliage and stood several sword lengths away from Kaiteru. The other man was of middling age and had shaved his head bald like the Little Teacher. Kaiteru knew the samurai of the Dragon Clan were quite taken with Shinsei, and more than one of these swordsmen had chosen to emulate the little man’s look out of respect. This Dragon wore simple robes with the hakama of a proper samurai, though there was no pattern on any of his clothes, save the mon of the Dragon Clan. The only thing more remarkable than the man’s intense gaze was his daisho — it was perhaps the finest pair of swords young Kaiteru had ever seen.
“You are the Wanderer,” the stranger said in a dark voice. It was not a question, but Kaiteru felt urged to respond.
The younger man started to contradict the stranger, to tell him he didn’t understand what that title meant, but something deep within him responded to the name. It felt as if he had always been called that, and had just forgotten. “I have come from the Clan of the Lion… from the army of Akodo-kami,” was all he could think to reply.
The other man arched an eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest. “You come from the armies of the Lion Clan?” He grunted as if considering something, then added, “I had thought Akodo would send a larger invasion.”
“A what?” the younger man nearly stammered. After the natural beauty and the inexplicable phenomena that he had seen in the Dragon lands, Kaiteru was somewhat surprised to find that he was still caught off guard by a mere man. “I am no invasion army…” He paused to think of some way to address the other man, but could think of nothing so he simply added, “Samurai.”
“Mirumoto,” said a small woman who emerged from the forest behind the tall warrior, “do not taunt our guest.” The newcomer turned to regard Kaiteru and brushed her long, dark hair over her shoulders in order to bow deeply without interference.
Again, Kaiteru found himself somewhat confused, but not so much as to forget his manners. He bowed in return to the woman’s gesture, but remained silent.
“I apologize for my friend’s nature, Wanderer. He is Mirumoto, and Togashi-kami has charged him and his warriors with defending the borders of our clan. I am afraid this wilderness is host to all manner of… tricks. It is never unwise to be too much on one’s guard here.” The woman’s hand absently fondled a pouch overflowing with leaves and sticks of various sorts as she looked fondly at their surroundings. “You may call me Agasha,” she continued, looking back to the Lion. “I have been sent to teach you.”
“No, Agasha,” Mirumoto said, looking sideways at his companion, then back to the younger man. “It is I who have been instructed to teach him. Look at his stance and his keen eyes. The Wanderer is clearly a warrior come to learn at my feet.”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” Kaiteru asked impulsively, realizing that it was rude to directly question samurai of higher station. He bowed his head in deference, but added, “I have never had such a name… not such a name that others have called me, though I have wandered often in my short duties to Akodo’s samurai.”
“Do you see!” Agasha exclaimed, motioning to the young man and looking back at Mirumoto. “He is inquisitive and introspective. The spirits of the air tell me they have spoken with him, and he has spoken to them in return! He will make an eager pupil.”
“I apologize for my rudeness,” Kaiteru replied, looking Agasha in the eyes, “but I am no scholar. I do not believe I could learn the secrets of the spirits in this place.”
“Then you will come with me,” Mirumoto said, taking a step forward.
“No,” the young man said, holding up a hand to stay Mirumoto’s advance. “I am no warrior, Lord Mirumoto. I left my sword behind me, long before I came to the foot of the mountain.”
“Then why are you here, if not to learn from us?” Agasha asked.
Though he did not know why, he pointed beyond the two Dragons and said, “When I find out, I will find you and give you your answer, but I must go on.”
A week later…
Kaiteru stumbled and fell. He had long ago lost feeling in most of his body, and the last rational part of his mind began to wonder if he had tripped over a twig, a rock, or some exposed root in the dirt. Of course, it was unlikely to be a root, given the near-total absence of vegetation in the upper reaches of the mountain. The thin air and frigid climate made such things impossible, meaning that—
The young man’s thoughts were interrupted when his forehead slammed savagely into the rocky ground. He felt warmth travel down his face and he knew he was bleeding yet again. From sheer habit, Kaiteru’s arms moved to pick him up from the ground, and he knew as soon as he stood upright the blood would fall into his eyes. Instead of stopping himself, he allowed the automatic motion to carry him off the numbingly cold rock and steadied himself on his knees. His vision was blurred and his eyes stung, and he closed his eyelids to blink away the blood.
What Kaiteru saw when his eyes closed nearly sent him to the ground once again.
Like many things that are seen in the mind’s eye, it was a presence that could be described as if it were being seen clearly, though it was obviously not so. Kaiteru saw a man standing before him on the mountain path, but he was much more than just a man. Kaiteru knew he would open his eyes and see the stranger before him, but in his mind the man was an infinitely-long coiled dragon, though his entirety was no larger than Kaiteru.
“T… Togashi,” the young Lion whispered, not daring to open his eyes and abandon the awesome vision of the celestial being before him.
Wanderer, came the reply as a deep voice in Kaiteru’s mind. You have come.
“Why… am I… Wanderer,” he rasped, barely able to form words due to dehydration.
You, the voice replied, and Kaiteru felt a slight irritation and scorn in the words. You are not the Wanderer. You are Kaiteru. There was a moment of silence, and the young man felt as if the very air pressed against him with the weight of stone. You are not welcome here. Leave.
“I have… come too far… Togashi-kami… please. I have come…”
You have come to guide the Wanderer to me. Now go.
In the space of a heartbeat, Kaiteru’s soul plummeted to the darkest reaches of despair. His quest was in vain — the Kami had denied him the answer he sought and instead greeted him with riddles. He had given up everything to find the apex of the mountain, to quench the unnamable yearning in his soul — he had given up his sword, he had given up his sensei, he had even given up his own family. He had nothing left…
Nothing, except himself.
With his last ounce of strength, Kaiteru rose to his feet and bowed shakily before the Dragon Kami. “Very well… Togashi-kami.” He collapsed as his strength finally failed him. The only movement left in the young man was his lungs slowly pushing air in and out of his body. He was alive, but he felt the ‘shell’ of Kaiteru fade away. All that remained was the Wanderer he had been destined to become — one of the first of many such men who would act in Togashi’s name in the mortal world.
At last, he could hear Togashi’s voice as reality faded out. The Wanderer arrives. You have sought out my wisdom, my guidance, and you shall have it. I see a Dragon on your soul, and I will paint it for all the world to see.
I have come, the young man felt his soul respond in kind, but not with questions. I have come with your answer. I have come to show you the path of mortals, Togashi.
I have come to answer both of our questions.
At the end, there was nothing separating their two voices.
To Be Continued in: Defenders of the Empire.
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