Back in the saddle

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.

Round two.

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.”

“Disappointed?”

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.

A bleak homage

A good person leaves an imprint on the people they’ve touched. Once they pass, the people they’re around will always feel like something is missing. An even better person leaves a part of themselves with the people around them. Engraving their ideals and thoughts into the people’s hearts.

I suppose I rejected this. And now I’m only part of who I was.

But there was no amount of pondering that could change this. The only thing that could change me was an abundance of will I didn’t have.

But enough self-loathing. I have a story to tell.

The path was soft and made the daily trudge to the market a bit easier. A forest surrounded me while I walked, keeping the eternally setting sun from invading my eyesight.

But my solitude and shade didn’t last for long. Soon I was engulfed in a crowded rat race of a road. People shoved past each other to be but a small bit closer to their destination. I kept with the flow and kept from drawing attention, as were the rules.

But apparently, I couldn’t keep enough focus to not notice him.

A young boy, all alone, was pushed by the traffic of people. And with enough of a push, he stumbled, tossing the dozens of brass coins he was previously counting into the air.

Keep with the flow, and don’t draw attention to yourself.

I passed the boy without another thought. I was no longer the hero type.

But even though my eyes were ahead and on the track, my ears deviated. I could still hear the child aimlessly shuffling in the dirt, painstakingly picking up each piece.

His face was engraved in my mind. Maybe it was because I saw a part of myself in him. Something about it, about his situation and his familiarity. I found myself leaving the traffic and breaking my rules.

The boy looked up at me as I squat down. We were in silence as I helped him retrieve his brass.

After we finished, I started to leave. I had broken enough rules for the day. But, of course, I didn’t get back to my regular day. A small hand clutched my arm as I tried to merge into the crowd. I instinctively turned at the unexpected sensation.

The child stood there, not letting go of me. He spoke. “Um… Thank you, sir.”

At that moment, I was trapped. You knew this would happen. “You’re quite welcome.” A person like you can only be a bad influence. You’ve done your good deed, leave it at that.

The child spoke again before I could break from his grasp. “My name’s Asao.”

His familiar face captured my attention. Somehow, I had forgotten my long trodden rules. Something about speaking to a child. Their innocent outlook was intoxicating, something I’ve forgotten over the years. I responded nicely. “It’s nice to meet you Asao. I am called Kenshi.”

He smiled. “It’s nice to meet you too!”

We stood in silence for a few moments. I could tell which words he was hoping came out of my mouth. And I found myself speaking them. “Well, Asao. Is this your first time going to the market by yourself?” He answered with a nod. “Ah, I see… Well… I believe I could use a companion on my trip. I would love the extra pair of hands. If you aren’t too busy, of course.”

He answered excitedly. “I’ll help!”

I waved at him to follow as I entered the crowd of people. I kept myself from speaking. You’re still no mentor for a child.

But, my silence didn’t stop Asao’s childlike curiosity. He pointed ahead, at the oncoming gate and spoke too quietly for me to understand past the idle chatter of people.

The gate was something unusual. An ornamental and red wooden gate stood in the center of the road. A samurai sat on the top, his eyes intensely shut and focusing as his armor hid an orange glow radiating from his chest. Focusing to keep the foggy portal below him open.

I leaned down a small bit and spoke to Asao, like this we could speak through the crowd. “The gate? Have you never seen an ember using samurai before?” He shook his head. Asao must have come from a smaller village if he’s never seen an ember user. I continued. “So. An ember is a piece of lady Amaterasu. Her divinity shines in the samurai that she gives it to, and they gain uncanny powers. This man is quite famous. Lady Amaterasu gave him and his twin brother a shared ember, letting them make a portal between each other. Thus, letting the people of Nihon travel from the east to the west almost instantly.”

Asao’s eyes lit at the thought of supernatural powers. He spoke in remembrance. “Oh! We had a samurai like that pass through our town. He could move the earth with a wave of his hand. But I thought he was just a magician or something, that it was fake.”

We were close to the portal. I could only speak one sentence before we passed through. “Oh, they’re quite real.” Asao stopped for a moment in hesitation, then entered the fog. A moment of grey. Then the embrace of salty sea air, and the sound of waves crashing against a sandy shore.

Asao was amazed by the sudden change of scenery. “Woah. It worked!”

I nodded my head. “Of course.”

We went back to walking in silence for a while after that conversation had run dry. A stall was set with fish on display, that would be our first stop.

Asao and I got to the stall, and we bought a few fish. Next was rice.

We had already started moving down the wooden road before Asao came up with another question. “Kenshi. You know a lot about the samurai and lady Amaterasu, right?”

General knowledge came with my age, I supposed. “I know enough.”

Asao pointed to the horizon, where the sun sat locked. “My parents have talked about the sun moving in the sky once, and how the sky would change from light to dark. If lady Amaterasu is the sun, why is she no longer doing what she used to?”

I grimaced. Our world had been damned for so long, the boy doesn’t even know what night and day were. “Well… Have you heard of yokai? The monsters that hide in the dark.”

“My parents told me about them.”

“Good. Then you know that they dislike lady Amaterasu. I think that she’s in trouble. That’s why she gave the brave all these powers.”

He pondered for a moment. “Well. Why haven’t we helped her?” Man was a selfish creature. She gave us power and expected to be protected in return. But we only take.

I responded simply. “I don’t know. Maybe when you turn of age you’ll get an ember and help.”

And with that statement, Asao’s train of thought turned. “I can have an ember?”

“Only the brave and honorable get an ember. So I’m sure you will.”

He smiled.

Now, where had the rice shop gotten off to?

I turned sharply to the right to the stall. Asao followed quickly.

Another shop, the same interaction as always. With that, I had collected all that I had set out to collect, and it looked like that was all Asao needed as well.

With a wave we started going back. Or, I started going back. It looked like Asao was no longer following. I turned back and spoke to him. “What is it, child?”

Asao looked down for a moment, then responded. “Well. There was one last thing I needed to get.”

“And what is that?”

He blushed for a moment. “Well. There’s this girl in my village. I like her but she doesn’t pay me any attention. I thought…” He paused for a moment. “I thought I would use my extra brass to buy her flowers.”

I let out a chuckle. “Let’s go find the best flowers Nihon can offer, then.”

There was a flower shop on our way back, luckily. So we kept on our way back and stopped at the stall.

Asao stood there, staring intimidated at the options. “Uh, I want a… A…”

I picked up a flower and showed it to Asao. “If I were you. I’d pick the sun lily. It’s lady Amaterasu’s favorite flower. And a symbol of everlasting love. Just remember that it only blooms in the sunlight, so keep it out of the shade.” Asao took the flower from my hand and looked over it happily. He reached deeply into the pocket of his kimono, searching for his few coins. I held my hand out and stopped him. “Allow me.” It was only a few brass, and I was more than happy to pay.

The florist took the money and waved us goodbye. Sadly, our time was ending.

We started back to the gate.

A smile unknowingly came upon me. I had decided against my rules, yet I felt like I hadn’t been the influence I feared I would be for the child. Asao was happy around me, something I didn’t think anyone could be in my presence.

Maybe it wasn’t that bad to be around people.

As we got to the gate, I could hear bystanders mumble and gasp. Eventually, my attention drifted from their faces to where they were looking. At the horizon, the sun was setting. Something I hadn’t seen in decades. Something Asao had never seen.

I turned to the boy. “Asao! Do you-”

Asao looked at the ground on his hands and knees. After a moment he wretched a foul black substance. The boy looked up at me. “What… What is-” Again he wretched the black liquid.

I kneeled down beside Asao. I started to speak but was interrupted.

Asao’s body jerked back and forth. In a fit of seizures, his body started to mutate. The child’s pale skin ripped and tore into a mass of black. Bones broke and grew in size. Shrieks of pain turned to moans of an animal.

Finally, the demon stood. A yokai looked at me with its glassy eyes. It’s maw gaped open and closed. The thing started slowly moving towards me in its new body.

I stepped back with each step it took. “A-A-Asao… You…” It didn’t pay any attention.

Again I moved back and hit a fishing stall. Nowhere for me to go.

My hand slid over the counter until I blindly grasped a fisherman’s spear.

I then pointed it at the thing that was once a child. “Please…” Still, nothing but death showed in its eyes.

Eventually, the yokai grew too close. I had to strike to survive. My feet barred and my grip tightened. I-

A yell broke my concentration. The samurai that was sitting atop his perch awoke from his meditation as he heard people screaming. He leaped into the air, holding his sword.

Steel plunged into the yokai’s gnarled spine. What was once Asao fell to the ground.

That day the sun set. And our world was left in eternal night.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you Asao. You will forever be a part of me.