The light of the sun. The warmth of touch. The feeling of long hair brushing through your fingers.
Things I missed.
But it was cold now. Lonely.
Slowly I was parted from these thoughts. Ground materialized under me and noises emerged from my surroundings.
I awoke from my slumber and was groggily met with the chaos of soldiers marching through the sleeping barracks.
Without thought, I spoke out loud. “What? What happened?” My eyes searched around the room, everyone was busy and not listening, except for one. Sora was next to me tidying his things.
He looked up momentarily, then back down to his work. “Sorry if I woke you. I requested we let you take your time to rest. This may have been the first time I’ve seen you asleep.” It felt like the first time. It probably was the first time in a while.
I nodded my head to Sora. “Ah. Good. Good.”
Without another word, Sora stood and disappeared into the mass of samurai.
I suppose those feelings were the bitter afterthought of whatever dream I had. Or nightmare. But sleep was sleep, and I would have to be appreciative.
My hands raised to my face and wiped away the tiredness. As my eyes fully adjusted to the torchlight, I could get a better view.
Men were rushing around packing, as I had thought. Our men needed time to heal, but that didn’t stop us from working. Today we were officially back in the saddle.
As I sat on my mat, my hands aimlessly tugged at the small beard forming on my chin, which I hadn’t noticed before.
I had never been clean shaven, but now there was enough to grab hold of.
My head shook at the train of thought. I was letting myself get lost in thought once more. And on the day our caravan finally went back to training.
I forced myself to stand from the soft mat. With enough time to get my footing, I was fully awake.
Slowly samurai started leaving the room and moving to their next tasks. I needed to move if I had any hope of being on schedule.
I clumsily fixed my covers and adjusted my clothing to be presentable, then went out the door.
Torchlight illuminated the campsite, bringing a clear view of my surroundings. By now I could remember my tasks by heart, so consulting Kohei would only waste time.
First I needed to resupply our Doctor with his medicinal herbs. I walked through the wet and cold mud until I reached a large grouping of barrels and crates. After searching through the supplies, I finally found the box labeled ‘medicine’.
I lifted the box and started my way towards the large green tent. The world felt like a mirage in my groggy half-asleep vision. Mud splashed as soldiers made their way to various locations, quickly forming icey and cold as it soaked into my kimono.
The cold brought some sense into me, at least.
I kept moving along, grasping a firmer hold on reality with every step.
Finally, I felt awake as I reached the Doctor’s tent. Soon I was out of the freezing air and into the warmth of candlelight.
The Doctor had his back turned to me. He stooped over whatever specimen he had recently collected.
I dropped the box on the nearest table, announcing myself to the old man. He looked back at the sound, then turned to his work after seeing me.
His hands grabbed various objects and cut into others as he spoke. “Kohei said he would be increasing my supplies. That barely looks as big as last week.”
The Doctor had Kohei doing whatever he liked. I didn’t even know if Kohei had really promised this, but that wouldn’t stop it. I simply replied. “Life is full of disappointments.”
He shook his head. “For people with prospects like yours, maybe.” Finally, he finished with whatever he was doing and shelved the indiscriminate jar of… flesh? “Just inform Kohei next time you see him that I’m still expecting an increase.”
I eyed the jars he had sat atop his shelf. Without answering what he asked, I spoke. “What is in the jar, Doctor?”
He looked at the glass jar he had just sat down, thought for a moment, then replied. “Samples.”
Not a satisfying answer. “Samples of what?”
He looked down for a moment, showing discomfort in this topic like there was something to hide. “Flesh. Specifically, flesh in contact with the claws of a yokai.” There was a long pause. Without speaking, I lifted my hands in a ‘go on’ motion. He continued. “From the samurai you brought in. In a… sad Turn of events, his leg had to be amputated. From that, I was able to retrieve an intact claw of a yokai and the flesh that was in contact with it.”
That samurai’s leg was clawed by the yokai, but the damage was minimal. I was certain he could have healed. But the Doctor unnecessarily crippled this man. “You-” Hold your tongue. Remember what happened last time, surely he has some excuse planned for this. Just move on. Stronger evidence than what I thought would come sooner or later. “You… Have an intact claw? I thought everything from a yokai would degrade too quick to study?”
His eyes sparked with a wild hypothesis. I had set him loose now. “That is true! But what you haven’t considered is that the yokai is still alive. So as long as it lives, everything it leaves behind stays.” I opened my mouth to talk, but his mad rant continued. He was probably glad he escaped talking about the samurai. “They can eject their claws from their sockets if it hinders them, like reptiles and their tails. Everything made about them is designed for the most effective killing methods!”
Finally, I took my chance to speak. “Exactly why we kill these demons. We-”
And again the Doctor interrupted me. “No no no. Don’t you see? These are opportunities! Perfect machinations for war. The fame I would be brought for weaponizing these things are much greater than the sacrifice of one man’s leg!” The deranged Doctor’s face grew awry. In his mad rant, he had confessed. But again, there was nothing to do, no one else to hear. There was no way to make them aware of his madness, and he knew it. It was only us.
Pull yourself together. I retorted his claim. “These things are ungodly. You can’t control them! And no progress for this cursed idea is worth the price of a man’s life.”
He smiled. “Demons are something you grow familiar with, you and I both know this. And with their outstanding presence these few years, everyone will have to grow familiar. Those who don’t die.” His face grew twisted, evil burned in his eyes. He adjusted his papers while he shifted to a casual demeanor. “That reminds me. How was it watching that boy turn? That was a sight I would have killed to see…”
My heart fluttered. How did he know about that? “Who told you about him!?”
The Doctor smiled greatly. He enjoyed toying with me. “My friend Kohei told me about it. He’s told me quite a bit about you…” He moved on, leaving me to guess how much he knew. “It’s intriguing, having people transform into yokai. I guess now that Lady Amaterasu has vanished, they have no need to be discrete…” He thought for a second, then smiled at what his memory brought to him. “You know, I decided to research a bit about the boy after Kohei told me. While you were off meeting with your parole officer, I went to his village… You would never guess what I found. Only one person claimed to be a relative of this boy. He smelt of liquor and filth. Apparently, his situation wasn’t the best, and his death finally brought his mother to end her sad life.” I took a step further in anger, but the Doctor held up his hand. Again, I could do nothing to stop him. “Evil festers in people, and eventually it takes hold. Unlike our friend Cho, who was used to ignoring the evil in him. The boy had no experience with the sin of our world, and it took hold quickly. As soon as the sun set, the disease within him spread, and he turned.”
I had enough. “Asao didn’t deserve that!”
The old man only smiled. “Asao? What a nice name.” He waved his hand at me, satisfied at my reaction to his rant. “I have work to do, Kenshi. I just thought you should be aware of how deeply knit we are. I know you like the back of my hand, friend. So please treat me kindly.”
My head held low to the ground. I only turned and left the tent in defeat. With every step, I could feel his smile growing. His damned smile.
I left the tent with my morning turned depressed. So much for a new beginning.
My next task was to spar and keep my skills honed. I begrudgingly sifted through the mud with my head held low.
Soon I got to the patch of grass. I picked the wooden sword from the rack of others and raised my head to get a look around.
Lee was waiting for me next to a torch planted in the ground. He watched the dancing flame, involved in thought.
With a shout of his name, I got Lee’s attention. He jogged over to our spot and stared at me. “Kenshi? Why are you upset?”
He gazed at me with an inquiring look. I shook my head. I couldn’t allow the Doctor to keep me from my goal. Obstacles like him would be everywhere, and I would need to get used to it. “It’s nothing, Lee. I’m fine now.” Act how you want to be, and your true self will soon follow.
Lee nodded and started back to the normal routine. We walked into position on our separate sides of the grassy patch.
I called out to Lee. “Are you ready?”
He nodded in response.
Slowly we moved closer to each other. There was no need to think of overcomplicated strategies. Just a routine spar, and more practice for Lee than it was for me.
As we got in range, the wood clashed together. For a moment we only pushed the training swords together, almost as a test to see how strongly the other would push.
After that moment, we stepped back again. Lee and I walked in circles, waiting for the next attack.
I fought with anger and an exceeding urge to win. I had to re-teach myself patience if I were to improve.
So this time I waited for Lee to come, and his eagerness let him do just that. A simple jab forwards, easily countered by a sidestep.
With my new opportunity, I took my chance to attack.
I swiped my sword behind him, but he was able to swing around in time to block it.
Our age difference was making its mark. He had agility that I didn’t. Change forms, play to weaknesses.
As our swords clashed, I didn’t put up any resistance to him. And as I expected, Lee clumsily had to halt his momentum himself.
In that time, I had the chance for an unprotected strike. I gently prodded Lee’s side with the sword, letting him know he had lost.
As he felt it, he stopped, nodded, and took a step back.
Lee knew I was expecting him to go first, so this time I did.
Even more sudden movement caught him off guard, but again Lee was too fast. After dodging the swing, he went in himself.
And from how it looked, Lee had been adjusting how he fought as well. With care into the precision, Lee swiped his sword at me.
I blocked at an awkward angle, but our swords still locked. Lee was fast, but he didn’t beat me in strength, even at an advantage.
But unexpectedly, Lee stepped forwards. I tried to move my grip for the shift of weight, but Lee had other plans.
His foot swung behind mine, then quickly pulled back. In a moment I was flat on my back.
A smug smile came over Lee’s face as he peered down at me.
I spoke as I gained my sense of direction back. “You beat me? Witchcraft…”
We both laughed, then Lee offered me a hand up. “I’m surprised just as much as you are, to be completely honest!”
I accepted and stood. “You shouldn’t have been. That was good.”
Lee smiled. “Well… Thank you.” He looked around at the other people still sparring. “Should we go again?”
I waved my hand. While I was making an effort, I was still conflicted over what the Doctor said. This time I would cut it short. “No. We’ll just say you threw out my back and I needed a moment to rest.” I gave Lee a mischievous smile, and he smiled back.
“Ooooh. Of course.” He immediately started walking towards the rack of equipment to put away his borrowed things, and I did the same.
Lee seemed off recently. Honestly, our break from work could be better for him than it was for me.
I would start the conversation. “Lee. You’ve seemed involved in thought. Is everything ok?”
He looked into the distance for a moment, then responded. “Yeah. I’m just worried.”
From where the grassy plane and the muddy walkways met, there was a small slope. I sat down and continued. “Well, what are you worried about?”
Lee looked down at me, then shook his head. “No. Nevermind. I’m fine. Sorry for bothering you.” He began to walk off to whatever chore he was assigned.
No, I wouldn’t let him get away that easily. After a quick jog to catch up, I spoke. “Lee!” He looked back at me. “Look…” Lee never stopped worrying about ‘bothering’ the older soldiers, something I bet he took up as he started acting clumsy. So I would have to find another way to get him to talk. “Look… You’re bothering me more refusing to tell me what’s wrong. What’s happened?”
He thought about what I said for a minute, and it looked like that did the trick. “Well… I’m just disappointed, I guess.”
Again he thought, then continued. “Disappointed in myself. I turned nineteen almost three weeks ago now. And I joined this place as an honorable act. So I might… You know.”
Ah, Lee had come here in hopes of being granted an ember, but now he’s aged out of the usual period. “Lee. You shouldn’t be disappointed in yourself. I don’t think anyone has been given an ember since the Lady Amaterasu went missing.” Our world had become grim, and it seemed almost everyone’s dreams were lost when the sun set. “You can’t blame yourself.”
Lee shrugged, dissatisfied in my answer. “I’ll see you around, Kenshi.”
And with that, he walked off.
I shook my head. Lee was a good person, clumsy and childish sometimes, but he didn’t deserve to blame himself like that.
A sigh escaped me. It seemed things were falling apart, rather than coming together. Everything was working against me, but I had to move forward.
A single snowflake drifted down from the sky. Winter was arriving.
We would have to endure. It only got darker from here.