Light, love, and lessons learned

The creature emerged from his hiding. Legs veined and muscular. Skin ashen purple. The arm I had once cut from his body had grown grotesquely disproportioned from the other, bearing claws and twitching with eagerness. The Shogun’s face was stretched with horror over an alien skull. His mouth perpetually open in a gaping and hungered maw, moaning in both anguish and thirst for blood. His eyes were milky and wandering. Hair fallen off to show the deep black veins pulsing all throughout his person.

What a curse put upon you, to appear both the same outside as in.

Once the Shogun’s eyes finally met with mine his face frowned as much as it could while so tightly wrapped around his misshapen head. His moaning turned to frenzied chattering as he stumbled forward like a baby learning to walk.

The Shogun had turned into a monster with no recollection of balance or speech, the only thing inside his mind was his feverish hunger for pleasure and his hatred for me. With a body in continuous pain and a mind no longer capable of rational thought, the only pleasure the Shogun would find was in revenge.

Finally, what was once the Shogun’s mind clicked with the natural dexterity and predator like nature of his new species. Ducking low to the ground, he jumped toward me and attacked.

I leaped to the side, letting myself roll back on to my feet once I hit the snow. As the Shogun failed his lunge he let himself drop to all fours and began galloping towards me. It seemed it didn’t care to take the time to think of new strategies, he just wished to constantly press the attack.

The Shogun barred his jagged teeth as he got close. I only tightened my grasp to my katana. I dodged far too great so I could witness his maneuvering capabilities, now that I had learned how the creature that was once a man moved, I could parry his attack and reward his eagerness with a cut.

The Shogun outstretched one arm as he used the other to continue his stride, trying to pull me in range of his teeth. Instead of fruitlessly trying to dodge, I braced myself and swung my sword forward, letting the beast’s smaller arm release itself from his body.

Purplish black blood sprayed from the stump at the Shogun’s shoulder as he yelped in pain.

I took a sigh to keep my concentration, letting hot breath and cold air mix to steam the air in front of me. Clouds for the new light of day just halfway to the horizon now, spreading like a bright watercolor over a bleak canvas.

I looked behind me to see the yokai that was once the Shogun clutch his shoulder. With such a grievous wound, this fight would be over in a matter of moments.

But instead of bleeding, his gash clotted. The demon’s monstrous body shivered throughout as he let go of his injured shoulder, blood and tendons shot forth and twisted together in demonic matrimony to regrow the hewn arm.

That was a problem.

The Shogun stumbled forward on two legs, newly formed claws stretching and readying themselves for use. Feet dug through snow as the beast leaned forward and began sprinting towards me once again.

An enemy with infinite stamina and unrelenting healing… There seemed to be but one solution.

As the Shogun frantically ran towards me, arms swinging, I lifted my sword high. I had become vulnerable, but I had to aim for his head and kill him instantly if I wished to win. As I readied to strike, though, my gut started to churn. With my foot partially severed my sense of balance was ever so slightly off, and my positioning wasn’t correct.

That was perfectly fine, if there was one lesson I had learned through these years to reclaim my honor, it was patience and humility. With both of those in mind, I slid to the side and let the Shogun stumble himself to a halt.

There is only you and yourself. The only person you must defeat is the anger and the restlessness inside you. Everything else will follow.

With another deep breath, I stomped my feet into the ground, anchoring myself and bringing perfect balance to my form. The Shogun was sprinting towards me screaming and wailing in the demonic tones of yokai just like before, but this time I was prepared.

Once he was in range, the yokai lowered his head to tackle me to the ground, leaving me the perfect opportunity to slice deep into his brain. With his remaining momentum, both the Shogun and I fell to the ground.

Even with his exponential size and weight, I still managed to push the beast off of myself in an instant.

I looked at the Shogun’s corpse, black fluid pouring from the motionless husk.

With a sigh, I began to look over to Amaterasu and my companions, but a stirring arose below me. Ashen purple fists clenched to the snow as the Shogun’s head reformed into its previous hideousness and began moaning in pain and horror once more.

I had dealt a killing blow through the most vital organ… Yet, he still lived…

The old and deranged Doctor crawled out from under the upturned carriage in amazement of his own creation, simply chuckling with wide eyes as I grimaced.

From the sky flew an arrow with a direct course to the Shogun’s head. Sora the undeterred was appreciated, but the arrow he struck into the demon’s cranium only hindered him for a brief moment.

The Shogun stood, and raised his head into the air, screaming a horrible scream that echoed throughout the mountainside.

Chitters and screams responded in a similar tone eerily close. More yokai were flocking to us like moths to the flame.

Once he was done calling for the others of his kind, the Shogun looked back to me with a vicious fire in his eyes. He swung his claws wildly, letting me simply step back to dodge. It didn’t matter if I countered or cut, the husk that was once the Shogun would continuously regrow. The Doctor had truly created something unkillable.

Another swing and another dodge. My mind wildly raced from one prospective plan to the next, but nothing arose. In all my experience, I had no earthly idea of how to succeed in this fight. In all the demons I faced, none were as unrelenting and horrid as this.

I continued to back further towards the center of the plateau, watching my love and my companions’ retreat from the uncountable hordes of yokai crawling towards them. There were many hiding in the shadows, waiting for their new master to call upon them. No longer a twisted lord of men, but of demons and beasts without thought.

Soon my desperation had caught to my physical self, causing me to trip as I watched us become hopelessly surrounded.

The Shogun jumped toward me, but I hadn’t given up completely just yet. A clawed hand swung towards me and a clawed hand was severed. A mouth moved to tear out my throat and a jaw was cut from his skull.

I frantically cut from my spot in the snow, but the Shogun only continued to grow back at an increasing pace, each failed attack getting ever so closer to ending my life.

Finally, the demon of my past grew too close for me to swing my sword, so I lodged my katana between his teeth and let his claws dig into my abdomen.

The world grew slow as I felt the daggers pierce flesh. Everything I had worked for was at stake. Everything I wished to reclaim would be lost again. Seventeen years in hiding only to come back to the light and lose it all again.

No. I wouldn’t let myself fall into nothingness once more. I wouldn’t lose my last opportunity to live the life I had lost.

With all my strength, I pushed my katana as deeply through his head as I could before I felt no more resistance. In the instant the Shogun went limp, I rolled out of his grasp and stood.

The demonic thing was quick to regrow his head and follow, watching me writhe in pain with its obelisk eyes. With one hand clutched to my bleeding stomach and the other holding the katana gifted by Amaterasu so many years prior, I glared back at the creature. One final attempt at victory had crossed my mind as I stared at the yokai, backlit by the beam of sunlight shooting from the summit’s mouth.

I ran forward, and so did he. He was heavy, but I was determined. My feet dug into the snow as I continued to push. His claws tore into my back but I failed to care.

Lifting the yokai I once knew as the Shogun from his feet, I screamed in pain and determination. I could barely see from the light of the sun, I could only feel the blades leave my back as I pushed the Shogun off of me.

His face so horribly stretched over a foreign skull seemed confused as he shrieked in desperation. The Shogun stumbled trying to bring himself back to his feet in time, but he was too lazy and too stupid as he had been from the start.

His body emerged into the flowing pool of light, vaporizing into ash on contact. The only thing to be heard was the echoes of his horrid shrieking across the mountaintop. The world was finally rid of the fat and selfish Shogun. A weight left my shoulders as I finally accomplished the task I had sought to do so many years ago.

Finally, the beam of light at the summit ceased as the sky turned bright blue.

The sun shone from the peak of the sky, it’s light flowing down and burning the yokai surrounding us.

The evil and shadow in the world screamed in plea one last time as the light scoured the land, ending the demon therein.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The tormentor I had grown so acquainted with was dead. The demonic creatures I had failed to exterminate were eradicated. Only a final enemy remained.

Sheathing my katana, I turned back and looked to the broken carriage. The Doctor stared at me in horror. I had destroyed all he had worked for, letting us both know this was the end of our game. He began to run towards the end of the plateau as I walked steadily closer to him.

An arrow shot from Sora rendered his knee useless, causing him to quickly buckle under his own weight. The rest of my friends sheathed their swords and began to make their way to us.

Falling onto his hands and knees in the snow, the sniveling Doctor turned to look at me with fury. I looked back down at him with nothing but determination to finalize it all.

“He was immortal! We could have all been immortal! You fool!” He hissed as my companions grew near.

I didn’t care to respond, as I had no remark to make. The only fool was the man kneeled before me, using his lies and cruelty in a vain attempt at godhood. “No one lives forever.”

Under his breath, the old man let out one final disdainful retort. “I could have…”

I shook my head as my hand hovered to the hilt of my sword. “May those you wronged find peace. And may you find justice.” For all those times you called me your friend, I still feel no sadness at your departure.

His eyes grew in selfish realization. Hastily forming another malformed lie, the Doctor shouted. “I-!”

My katana reflected the light of the blazing sun in a beautiful glowing streak. In its wake, nothing but a misty cloud of sanguine red.

It was finished.

I took in a breath in the cold air of Mt.Fuji. Clarity and peace that I hadn’t felt in decades washed over me as I looked at the stark expanse of daylight. Even though I was injured, I felt as though I was born anew.

Hayato was the first to put a hand on my shoulder. My friend that had been with me from the start of our journey. With the smile he seemed to always wear, he spoke. “I knew you could do it, Kenshi.”

Sora nodded, his blank exterior breaking to show a genuine smile. “I am… Happy to see the day again… Thank you.”

Lee nodded with confidence and optimism. “We did well. I’m happy I was able to help us make it here.”

Anzen looked at me as he moved aside for Amaterasu to enter our formed circle watching the beautiful view of Nihon. “My faith was well put. I wouldn’t have wished for anything else but to fight this fight with you.”

Finally, Amaterasu ran up to me and gently wrapped her arms around my shoulders, being aware to not squeeze my injuries as she leaned in and kissed me. “I missed you more than you could imagine. And the sky is more beautiful than I had ever seen before.”

I smiled at her as we turned our attention back to the vista at our feet. The entirety of our home shimmered in bright colors as the heat of the sun beamed down on us.

A smile came across my face as I held tightly to Amaterasu, with no intention of ever letting go again.

Through the wind rustling the lilies and the birdsong in the trees, you could hear it.

Bliss.

Honor-bound

The leather straps loosened on Eizo’s forearms as he pulled them off. Lee had proven himself extremely useful in our time of trials. I was now more sure than ever that any worries that he had over himself were nothing more than delusions. Anzen also worked spectacularly. His intuitiveness let him injure and daze Eizo for the later fights. Instead of trying to win the battle by himself like he once would have, he worked for the team and gave us much more of an advantage than we would have had if he had chosen to bite off more than he could chew.

Each of them overcame their imperfections and worries in this fight. Without them, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the slightest chance of winning.

A horn sounded in the distance. The footsoldiers must have arrived at the plateau, which meant that our time was going to be cut short, and our focus would have to be spread thin.

No matter. I had to focus on the task at hand before moving on to the next. And that task was finishing this game of cat and mouse once and for all.

Eizo took a deep breath before he shot himself forward. He would be expecting me to dodge to the left or right like usual, so instead I held my katana pointed in front of me and braced my feet. Without his shields, the dogmatic samurai would either have to move and make himself vulnerable or impale himself. In any situation, it was good for me.

A shockwave pushed Eizo to the side of my sword, with a multitude of others to slowly easing his momentum and turning him around. Although he was safe from one attack, he had just made himself vulnerable to more. I jumped forward to seize my opportunity as the previously shield bearing samurai slid backward on the icy ground with his excess momentum. He held his arm up instinctively, forgetting that he was no longer protected from my slice.

With a grunt and a bit of luck, my sword dug deep and hit bone, but with the icy ground I couldn’t get enough traction to fully amputate before we both slid slightly back.

Eizo grimaced as he held his mangled arm. That pain turned to anger as he ducked down and flew forward. He was low enough that I couldn’t reach him with my sword before he threw his good arm in a punch upward.

His fist made contact with my gut, sending a shockwave to push me off my feet in an instant.

In the blink of an eye, I was in the air. I could see the beam of light erupting from the summit. The many samurai and deranged doctor just climbing over the peak of the summit. Amaterasu watching me soar like a bird that never learned how to fly.

A foggy portal began to emerge below me, but quickly halted it’s progress and dissipated as Eizo flew upward. When we met in the air, the furious samurai punched me again. Luckily the only angle he could send me in was flying closer to the beam of light and my companions.

I was shot in a straight diagonal line to the edge of the summit. Anzen and Lee ran to Amaterasu to defend her in their injured states while Hayato and Sora ran to me, preparing for a fight.

Eizo was already on the ground and running towards us as my two companions arrived. Hayato outstretched his hand and helped me out of the snow as Sora shot an arrow towards the injured samurai, only to have it sent off course by another shockwave at the wave of his hand.

Once he was close enough, Hayato held out his hand and materialized a portal beneath Eizo, Anzen making another over top. With little time to react after all his focus was on Sora’s arrow, he fell through and began falling at an increasing rate, but with enough time to orient himself, Eizo used a shockwave to get out of the twin’s attack and tumble through the snow.

Hayato tried to follow him, but another shockwave aided Eizo in standing before he could seize the oppurtunity.

Our straight-faced archer let another arrow loose, but it was deflected once more just like the last.

Eizo burst forward and swung at Hayato, nicking his shoulder as the short haired twin dodged to the side. The punch wasn’t enough to hurt him in any way other than a horrible bruise later. But although the attack didn’t hurt Hayato’s shoulder, it was mere inches from his head, which would have certainly incapacitated or at the very least dazed him.

This time, Hayato was indeed close enough to punish the shockwave creating samurai for his lack of control in the air. As Eizo slid across the snow and gathered himself, my portal manifesting companion ran forward and swung his sword down at him.

With another shockwave, the previously shield bearing samurai shot himself to the side, but not fast enough to completely dodge Hayato’s broad slice.

With a gash from his hip down to his leg, Eizo was much less mobile, allowing Hayato to sidestep so he was in front of his enemy once more. Then, he swung again towards his chest this time.

The determined samurai leaned back in an attempt to dodge as he regained his footing, but Hayato was still able to make a solid cut down his torso and injured him even further.

Eizo outstretched both his hands and sent a shockwave in return, sending my friend flying backward. Although it was a good effort, Hayato was determined. Creating a portal behind himself, he was thrown out the other that Anzen had created behind our samurai adversary, knocking both into the snow.

The dogmatic Eizo immediately shot Hayato into the air as he pushed himself up from the snow, but another portal was quickly manifested so instead Hayato was threwn sideways and not up, letting him slide and recover quickly.

He made another portal and appeared next to the trapped samurai, only to be pushed away once more.

This could work. Eizo couldn’t rid himself of Hayato, and although slowly, he was draining his stamina. Eventually, he wouldn’t be able to make anymore shockwaves and would be completely vulnerable.

That plan would have worked, if not for the oncoming wave of samurai. I called out to Hayato. “Stop!”

He briefly switched his attention to me and opened a portal next to us. Jumping through, he asked in shallow breaths. “What’s wrong?”

Eizo had already began to propel himself forward, so I had to be brief. “I need you and Anzen to focus the soldiers. Use your portals or else we’ll be overwhelmed.”

Hayato seemed reluctant to leave a winning fight, but we both knew that winning this fight didn’t matter if the doctor captured Amaterasu. With an unsure nod, my portal creating companion jumped into the foggy gate manifested behind him and united with his twin to disrupt the enemy.

Eizo was close. He was no longer strong enough to send himself flying to us in a single bound, so instead he bounced every few feet to gain similar momentum without the physical strain.

Sora was next to me aiming his shot. He had missed the last two, so he had spent as long as he needed to clear his mind and find his mark this time. Once Eizo landed from one of his jumps, my quick witted friend let loose an arrow. His target had already lifted himself in another leap, leaving the arrow to hit his hip instead of his abdomen which would have ended up as a crippling shot.

Although the arrow didn’t hit exactly, it was certainly still a powerful shot. Eizo was sent off course and tumbling into the snow.

Sora tried to capitalize on the shockwave producing samurai’s vulnerability, but instead, his projectile found itself planted in the snow. Eizo was so mobile even when rolling through the snow hitting him was a near-impossible task.

I saw only two more arrows in the quiver on my blank faced friend’s side. He realized this as well, as he lowered his bow to conserve them. Sora’s jaw unexpectedly clenched and eyes furrowed. Although his expression stayed only slightly off from the emotionless face I just saw him wear, I also saw the fire of determination and concentration in his eyes. Instead of running, the now steadfast Sora began to walk towards Eizo as he darted closer.

My attention was brought to the sideline as I followed behind him. Hayato and Anzen had moved to the front of the plateau while Lee and Amaterasu stayed by the beam of light at the summit. The twins created an enormous portal under many of the soldiers’ feet and sent them tumbling down the edge of Mt.Fuji. The two brothers continued to subdue and herd the untrained soldiers as I turned myself back to my bow wielding friend and the Shogun’s chosen samurai.

Said dogmatic samurai was only a moment away from us as Sora switched to holding his bow with his offhand and pulling the small dagger Anzen had gave him earlier in Amaterasu’s palace out from his kimono with his primary hand.

He swung with the footwork I had taught him those many months ago while sparring as Eizo swung at him to dodge the attack. The determined archer took his dagger and sliced the similarly as determined samurai in the arm, causing him to reel back.

Once he stumbled backward, I jumped in to attack, but Eizo pushed me away with another one of his shockwaves. I was leaning forward enough that I was able to slide and stumble back without falling, but it would still be a brief moment before I returned to the fight.

In that brief moment, Eizo swung for Sora with his least injured arm. Sora replied by swinging his dagger in a colliding course with the previously shield bearing samurai’s fist, causing the beaten and battered Eizo to pull his punch back before he ruined his only good arm.

As Eizo pulled back, my determined friend moved using his expert dexterity and split-second intellect to make an unexpected attack. With his offhand holding his bow, Sora swung it forward and tilted it, allowing the dogmatic samurai’s neck to be caught between the string and the bow.

Sora pulled him forward with one arm and jabbed his knife out with the other. As Eizo was stabbed he tried propelling himself away from the determined archer, but with a tight grip on his bow they both simply fell to the ground.

The dagger fell out of Sora’s hands as he took hold of the string of his bow. With enough effort, he was able to position himself behind Eizo and began pulling.

Our frantic samurai frantically tried to use his shockwaves to push them apart, but Sora’s grip was tight and Eizo had little energy remaining. I arrived as he finally settled down and looked at me. The chokehold ceased as they both waited for what I had to say.

Before I could speak, he sputtered out words as he still struggled for breath. “You don’t understand what kind of chaos you’re causing! The people need the Shogun to lead them! The old man told me he could save him with her blood! It’s my duty!”

I respected Eizo’s loyalty, but it was given to a deceiving cause. “The Shogun is beyond saving. The doctor lies to you.”

The still dogmatic samurai frowned deeply at my words. He was honor-bound, and the only chance at not having failed his responsibility to the Shogun was a mere facade. He knew that, but he still blinded himself to it. “You’re a criminal! A deserter! I will not abandon my oath, even to the gates of hell!” I noticed that Sora wasn’t holding on to Eizo as strongly as before. And, although Sora was strong from training with his large bow, Eizo could have easily broken free. I knew Eizo was also tactical, and he needed to have had more reason than a simple eagerness to run so far ahead of the other soldiers or to abuse his ember to the edge of exhaustion. I began to have the feeling he knew as well as I did there was no salvaging the Shogun, or his honor. He didn’t come here to kill me or take Amaterasu.

He came here to die without dishonoring himself.

The dogmatic samurai spoke once more as I stared at him, now more collected. “If you’re going to kill me, then kill me. I won’t surrender to the likes of you.”

We both stared at each other. He seemed calmer once I understood why he walked so blindly into us. “As you wish.” Without struggle, Eizo grimaced as I gripped tighter to my sword and pointed it at his chest. “You fought well. Die with honor.”

His eyes closed as I pushed forward, gently pulling my katana back out and spilling hot blood over the cold snow.

Sora let him go as Eizo took a few deep breaths. Although he seemed defeated, he also seemed satisfied, in a way. After just a brief moment, his chest stopped moving and his grimace lessened to nothing but a blank expression.

Sora stood as I turned. I looked to the battle going on at the plateau as he commented. “He seemed a logical decision maker when we fought previously, yet he acted extremely recklessly attempting to fight us alone… Why?”

I shook my head. “There are some things that you can only understand once you’ve experienced it yourself.” I faced dishonor by hiding, Eizo faced it by dying with his honor as to not lose it.

Sora picked his dagger from the ground and tucked it back into his kimono, thinking on my words.

After such events it was difficult, but I was able to calm my breathing and focus on the fight ahead of us. The twins had a solid grasp on maintaining the footsoldiers. The furiously shaking carriage with the doctor on it now stood alone. The old man began to climb off as Lee ran over to the twins.

Lee spoke with some sort of plan, which both seemed unsure of. The twins looked to Amaterasu, who nodded with determination.

After having her approval, Hayato and Anzen moved their attention from the soldiers and created a portal beneath the metal-plated cart and sent it toppling as it fell far away from the edge of the plateau and near the center. Lee backed away to protect Amaterasu as the twins kept the soldiers at bay. Sora looked at me, and, after I nodded, left my side and began circling the carriage. He only had two shots, and once he ran out he needed to stay with Lee and Amaterasu.

That left only me next to the upturned vehicle and the frantic doctor. The old man pulled his leg from under the carriage where it had gotten pinned. Whatever was left of the Shogun had toppled the cart in its animal fury, and as the doctor tried to stand, he realized it was fruitless with his broken leg. So instead, with an expression of both frustration and desperation, the deranged old man began to crawl to the back of the carriage. I had already begun running to stop him, but I was too far away as he unhatched the end and revealed consuming darkness and foul stench.

The beam of light next to us cast dense shadows out of all our forms, not letting me see into the carriage’s depths.

The doctor manically crawled away as the cart rumbled and something heavy and large stood.

An enormous, ashen purple arm grasped the edge of the cage as two pale white eyes opened. An ungodly snarling reverberated from the metal box.

I thought to myself as I swung the blood off my katana. The doctor and his monster, equally as vile and infinitely selfish.

It was time to do what I should have done seventeen years ago.

A duel of dogmas

My thumb pressed against the hilt of my sword, dislodging it from its sheath. My right hand slowly moved to the handle and gripped tightly, still waiting on pulling the katana out in its entirety.

The light at my back shot into the sky in a brilliant display, slowly turning the depressing purple-ish sky a bright blue. The change was moving slowly but surely, like a drop of oil spreading over the top of a bowl of water.

In the distance, a familiar metallic ring echoed. I took a deep breath in expectation.

At the edge of the plateau, an angry and shield bearing samurai flew through the air. He shot straight up, but with another metallic clang and shockwave of orange energy, Eizo propelled himself towards us.

Eizo was dogmatic and so loyal that he would even kill himself overextending to follow orders. In terms of replacing me as the highest-ranking samurai in the shogunate, I gave the Shogun credit for his choice. Although with how the Doctor poisoned the Shogun, I doubt he even had the mental ability to accept the credit I gave him. With that, I wondered why Eizo even continued to fight. The Doctor had fully usurped the Shogun, turned him mad, and half yokai… Perhaps the Doctor kept him from seeing the Shogun, or perhaps he simply wanted to follow through his orders of killing me.

In any case, it didn’t matter what his motives were, Eizo was still trying to kill us all and disrupt the light from returning.

We had to protect the light. Protect Amaterasu. Nowhere to run this time and nothing to do but face our hunters directly.

Eizo landed almost thirty feet away from our group and started running through the snow. He seemed angrier than usual, and seeing that he had separated from the group showed that he didn’t think support was necessary. Even though we had three ember wielders on our team, one ember wielder that was willing to push his power to the point of death was more than favorable for the solitary samurai.

We spent the time Eizo took approaching to get into the best position we could. Anzen was best to counter Eizo, so he took the front. Lee could use his foresight well in battle, so he and I stood behind to support Anzen. Hayato was a good defender. I trusted him more than anyone to keep Amaterasu from harm’s way. Sora stayed back with Hayato as well, keeping his sightline on the horizon for the inevitable wave of footsoldiers.

Halfway through his sprint, Eizo used his ember. This time, his legs shook with energy and he was propelled from them rather than his shields. Instead of the metallic clanging of the iron rims of his wooden shields smashing together, it was a sonic boom. Eizo was even neglecting using his Vices, he had much less control over his ember, but his power was stronger and now he had access to all parts of his body, not just his arms.

It was unexpected as he flew wildly towards Anzen. Anzen was fast enough to put his arms up in defense, but Eizo’s incoming punch with all the momentum of his shockwaves was far too much.

The iron lined shield collided with Anzen’s arms with enough force to break them, sending Anzen flying backward with Eizo.

They were close enough for me and Lee to run and aide Anzen, but Eizo simply put his shields together again and sent us both skidding far away through the snow. Once I was able to pull myself out of my cold and wet crater I looked back to the battle at hand. Anzen had gotten Eizo off of him, but his arms were already turning an ugly bluish purple. we all knew he wouldn’t be able to throw a punch without doing more damage to himself than Eizo.

Eizo tried to seize his opportunity and threw a punch towards Anzen, who took a step backward with every attempted blow. Anzen growled in frustration as he continued to back up. Eizo wasn’t going to hit Anzen with such short jabs, so he started to swing farther out. As he made himself more vulnerable, Anzen’s expression changed from looking like a cornered animal to the dastardly and cunning look he made when a dirty solution came to his mind.

Eizo threw a punch as wide as he could in an attempt to reach Anzen, leaving a straight path from the ground to his jaw. Anzen’s foot found that path and kicked him. Before Eizo even had a chance to stumble backward Anzen threw his foot down, letting his heel collide with Eizo’s mouth yet another time. With a grin, Anzen continued through his ingenious solution, all before Eizo had a chance to defend himself.

Sliding a small bit forward, Anzen spun himself in a circle to gain all the more momentum in his attack. He hit Eizo squarely on the side of the head, leaving him staggered for one more attack.

Anzen turned to his side and kicked out with all the energy left in his body directed solely at Eizo’s abdomen, sending him through the air and on his back.

There was silence for a moment as Anzen walked over to finish the job. As he reached Eizo, it seemed like he was the one being tricked. Anzen raised his leg to drop the final blow on Eizo, but with the sound of metallic clanging, he was sent spiraling through the air instead.

Eizo jumped to his feet and ran for him. Anzen was in the middle of standing, so he had no way to dodge, and with his broken arms, he had no way to defend. Eizo knew better than to give him any chance to turn the battle around for his favor, so instead, Eizo raised Anzen by the front of his kimono and sent him flying with the strongest shockwave he could create.

Anzen flew through the air towards the beam of light shooting out of the summit, but Hayato was keeping watch over the fight. Anzen created a portal in his path as Hayato created another next to him and Amaterasu. The beam of light was undisturbed and Anzen was safe, but that left it to Lee and myself to finish Eizo.

I finally pushed myself from the snow and got to my feet. Lee and I both ran for Eizo as he steadily walked towards Amaterasu and the summit.

After much running, Lee closed his eyes and immediately opened them, shouting. “Duck!”

I did so and jumped into the snow. Eizo screamed in some mix of pain and effort and an orange glow surrounded him. An ear-piercing boom shot through my head as I felt the force coat my body like a stone blanket. Snow flew out in all directions as Eizo’s unidirectional shockwave made an enormous crater.

Both Lee and myself were thoroughly dug into the snowy walls of the crater. The snow of the summit was hard, almost ice. When stepping on it, one wouldn’t think that the snow went so deep, but seeing that the crater Eizo had just made was at least four feet into the snow, it was deeper than you would think.

I pulled free from my indentation in the snow and brushed the icy slickness of the handle of my sword. Through my training, I had learned to instinctively grip harder to my sword in situations like the one we had both experienced, but Lee did not have the same habits. He dug through the snow looking for his sword as Eizo approached me.

He shot through the air with a shockwave again, giving him more force in his incoming swing than any normal person could muster. I held up my sword and sidestepped at the same time, letting the shield brawling samurai simply slide past me and into the snow he had formed around us.

By the time I turned, Eizo had already pushed himself out of his indentation and was swinging towards me again. I began to step backward and dodge, but I realized there was little room to move back without hindering Lee from participating. Instead, I barely dodged Eizo’s attack by leaning backward, and then grabbed him by his kimono and kept leaning back.

I rolled onto my back and held Eizo in the air with both my hands and feet. With a bit of struggle, I continued my momentum and threw him backward. Afterward, I rocked forwards and got on my feet, the sound of metal clashing wood could already be heard.

Turning, I saw Lee swinging and Eizo blocking. Lee’s strikes were clumsy and amateurishly placed, he must have been saving his foresight for a better opportunity. Lee wouldn’t get that opportunity, though, as Eizo glanced at me back on my feet and shot himself backward, switching positioning mid-air to punch me. I suppose I did throw him off of a two-story balcony once.

I sidestepped and dodged him again. He had a lot more force, but much less accuracy by throwing himself through the air like that. Eizo did at least make sure he wouldn’t find himself planted in the snow again and used a shockwave to cancel his momentum.

Lee was on one side, I was on the other. Eizo was in the middle, intent on getting a punch in before Lee arrived.

I blocked his shielded punch with my sword. Hearing the metal rimming on his shield clash with my sword made me wince. It was bad practice to hit metal on metal, but it was either that or take the punch myself.

Lee arrived, but Eizo simply raised a hand in his direction and shot another shockwave. Initially, Lee slid on the slick ground, but after a moment he landed on his back. Eizo pulled his weight to his right, so I instinctively ducked right. Before he raised his right hand, Eizo set off another shockwave at his left side, swinging a punch from the opposite direction with devastating force. I had already committed to dodging a swing from his right, so I had no defense as his shield collided with my jaw.

I stumbled back. Lee was back on his feet and getting close once more. Eizo turned and threw a punch towards Lee, but Lee simply ducked under his fist.

As Lee rose, he swung his sword upward, hitting Eizo’s unprotected upper arm. Eizo swung with his other arm, but Lee punched with his off-hand and with expert precision hit Eizo in the crook of his elbow, making his attack fall flat.

Lee sliced his sword up again, making a shallow gash up Eizo’s abdomen and chest. After that, Eizo realized something was irregular. He held his shields for pure defense as Lee continued his ceaseless attacks. Eizo’s shields chipped and splintered as Lee furiously continued with complete precision.

When he was using his foresight, Lee had deadly accuracy and perfect planning. While he was normally clumsy and lacked self-confidence, he completely switched to the opposite when using his ember. All of that perfect planning and precision came together as Lee gave one final sweeping blow across both shields, sending them both shattering in all directions, leaving nothing on Eizo’s arms but pieces of wood hanging to defenseless leather straps.

Lee’s expression went from focused to unsure, meaning he must have run out of time. Eizo noticed this as well as me and took his opportunity. Lee swung forward but it was too late as Eizo kicked him with a shockwave blast, sending him out of the crater and into the distance.

Just the two of us. Every fight of ours ended in an unsatisfying conclusion. It was time to finally find the real victor and settle this.

We were two men loyal to the core for their respective ideals, crossing paths, with neither willing to concede.

Only one will survive.

Nowhere to run

Hayato’s hand hovered over the handle of his sword. He had just finished procuring the makeshift sled. Lee told him that a glowing bear would emerge from the woods soon afterward, and Hayato’s fate would be less than desirable if they didn’t work according to the new plan…

The faint glow of ember orange shone in Hayato’s eye, letting him finally commence the first step of their plan. Hayato searched the treeline, trying to make sure the concentration on his face looked solely devoted to searching the area rather than his real goal.

In one of the large oak trees above them all, a foggy gate opened. Out came Sora, shrouded in a black cloak they had stored for the colder weather of the summit to assure he wouldn’t be seen.

The angry and glowing bear sprung from its hiding place in the brush towards Hayato. Keeping his wits about him, Hayato ducked under the beasts raised arm and cut into it as he spun on his heel to face the creature again. Sora only had six arrows left, and on top of that, he held the element of surprise.

Lee had already told Hayato the decision he would make, so he had no hesitation in sprinting past the bear and getting on to his makeshift sled. With a swift push, Hayato was clumsily bouncing down the hill, Sora following from the densely populated treetops.

Sora quickly got into position and looked for his mark, pulling back the string of his bow with an arrow ready to fly. As the stone pellets soared through the air and pierced Hayato’s sled, Sora’s target finally revealed himself.

Hayato heard surprised yelling as he crashed down the hill. Once he came to, he saw the glowing orange bear struggle and break free from its ember fueled fealty. Hayato raised his arm and opened another portal right in front of him, Lee quickly jumping out.

Anzen had to stay back, both so they wouldn’t be set so much farther down the mountain, and that hand to hand combat was not the most efficient for fighting bears or men covered in stone.

Lee outstretched a hand, helping Hayato to his feet.

The angry and now arrow impaled earth manipulating samurai pushed himself back onto his feet and frantically searched the treetops before wildly turning his attention to the boy behind him and shouting. “Why did you let the bear go!?” Before the boy could even respond, the samurai turned as he saw Hayato and Lee approach in the corner of his eye. In desperation and fear for his life, the pathetic ember wielder grabbed the boy by the neck with his one functioning arm and held him as a human shield. “Stop! You’ll kill him before you touch me!”

Lee and Hayato both stopped dead in their tracks. Sora couldn’t get a clear shot with the risk of hitting the child. Lee desperately wanted to look into the future and see the easiest way to solve this dilemma, but with how extensively he used it the night prior he still didn’t have the energy to use his foresight again.

Hayato raised his hands from this hilt of his sword, Lee sheathed his and similarly raised in surrender.

Lee was grimacing behind his blank-faced mask. He needed to be calm in this situation, but on the inside, he was anything but. He could have just led every single one of them to their deaths with his plan. Kenshi was always the one that made the plan. Without him, everything had far less certainty in Lee’s mind.

With all the concentration he could muster, Lee focused on using his ember once more, for even a brief second. He saw both of their deaths from the same spike attack that killed Hayato in his first vision, but in his new foresight, he saw an opportunity. In the smallest whisper audible, Lee told Hayato of their only chance. “As soon as he raises the arm, get the kid out.”

Hayato subtly nodded as they waited tensely. He prepared himself to work in a moment’s notice…

Once the earth bending samurai was satisfied that they were vulnerable, he outstretched his only good arm. The boy he was using was free, but he could only take a few steps forward before the ground started to form into pikes to impale both Hayato and Lee. With the child still there, the ember wielder had as much cover as he needed.

As soon as the opportunity showed itself, Hayato opened a portal below the boy’s feet. He fell instantly, revealing the now completely vulnerable ember wielder. Within the second, Sora’s readied arrow shot through the earth manipulator’s skull. Lee took a deep breath as he looked to the ground below him and saw how the ground had already malformed into bumps in that split second.

Hayato opened a portal below the branch Sora was perched on, letting him hop back to camp, then he opened a portal next to the sled. He gestured for Lee to go in. “I’ll wait here. We need to bring the kid back.”

Lee nodded. “Right… I’ll be right back with him.”

Hayato closed the portal after Lee went through and waited. First, he checked their makeshift sled to be sure they didn’t damage it in the crash. Other than the few holes in the side from the rock attack, everything looked fine.

Once he was sure everything on that front was fine, Hayato moved his attention elsewhere. He looked down on the crazed earth bending samurai. With the injuries he had in their last fight, Hayato was surprised he survived to cause them trouble. As he looked the man up and down, Hayato noticed that while the one arrow that pierced his skull was bent and misshapen from impact, the one in his shoulder was still intact.

With a bit of hesitation, Hayato pulled the arrow out and kept it for Sora to use later.

Afterward, Hayato looked out towards where the edge of the forest should have been. He thought that he saw a faint glow, like torches. As he focused, he could hear faint murmurs and horses galloping.

Damn. Are they already this near to us? Hayato thought to himself as he walked closer to the noise to investigate.

There were a lot of soldiers walking on foot, but in the center Hayato found a cart covered in white cloth. The Doctor sat in the driver’s seat of the cart, although people were leading the ox in front of him, so he was merely a passenger.

Inside the cart was loud and rustling. There were moans and growls and chirps like yokai made when they were on Mt.Fuji. The Doctor called to one of the men walking alongside the carriage and ordered something. Hayato couldn’t make out what exactly he said, but he understood when the soldier promptly went to the back of the cart and entered.

Instead of calming whatever it was in there, instead, the samurai was immediately thrown out of the cart like he weighed nothing. There was more shouting, but eventually, it looked like they no longer cared and prioritized moving forward from that point onward.

Hayato wanted to stay and see if he could look at the creature in the cart with his own eyes, but he had the tingling feeling in the back of his mind that he always got when Anzen was trying to open a portal. After a quick jog back to the sled, Hayato opened his end of the portal, and out came Lee with the boy behind him, holding a bag of supplies.

Hayato had guessed that the child had been forced to come along with the insane earth manipulating samurai. Lee spoke as the boy started to walk down the mountain. “They apparently stole a horse in the town we left them in. It’s not too far from here and he seems to know how to ride well enough to get back there. We only have a day’s walk from our camp, so we gave him the food we have left.”

Hayato nodded, and right before the boy left his sight, he got his attention once more. “Hey. Good luck.” Hayato was recruited by the Shogun when he was young as well. He knew the kind of manipulation that was used by your superiors. That boy deserved a better life, and Hayato genuinely hoped that he would find one.

Finally, Hayato opened a portal and they brought themselves and the sled through.

Sora was waiting with our little amount of supplies left and packed. Anzen was waiting with a frown, most likely because he had to simply stand around while the rest dealt with the crazed earth bending samurai.

Nevertheless, they were back on their way after getting the bodies secured in the sled. Hayato barely had enough time to give Sora the arrow he gathered.

Chilly weather quickly became frigid. Grass turned to mud, then ice, and finally snow.

Hayato kept looking at their backs. They could easily see the military’s lights in the distance, there. It would take all the effort they had to get to the summit before they were within range of the shogunate’s archers, now.

A lot of hiking and anxiety later, and they were almost to their destination. Everyone had moved to the warmest clothing they had on hand, which still wasn’t much. Hours upon hours of pulling and walking in the shin-deep snow.

Anzen looked back at the lights just behind them and commented. “They’re quicker than I first thought.”

Sora replied through the cold. “If we slow, they will surely catch us before we make it to our destination.”

Lee shook his head. “Even if we get to the summit, what are we going to do about the archers?”

Hayato kept pulling the sled as he kept his eyes towards the summit. “We’ll figure something out. Right now we just need to keep going.”

Lee sighed. “I guess you’re right.”

The military behind them was catching up, so the group moved even faster. Throats felt like they had frozen, trying to breathe the icy air of the summit. Snow soaked through clothing and made them wet. Still, none of them could afford the energy to complain.

They were almost to the plateau, but the shogunate was quicker. A strange sound of many objects piercing through the air could be heard. Turning their backs, the party saw what was doing such a thing.

The archers were finally within range. Dozens upon dozens of arrows were flying through the air towards them.

Lee shouted. “You guys!”

Anzen raised his hand, already with a plan in mind. “Hayato!” A portal larger than Anzen had ever made was created above the group. Hayato made another portal just as large pointed as well as he could aim towards the lights. Some flew into the snow around the portal, but most arrows were shot right back at the enemy. None of them could see if the arrows hit, but with so many, they were sure to have gotten some. Anzen shouted after he let the portal dissipate. “Shit! That was too close!”

Hayato nodded as he grabbed the rope to their makeshift sled and started pulling with all his strength. “We need to go faster!”

Anzen ran to the back of the sled and pushed as Hayato pulled. Sora kept his bow ready and watched the horizon. Lee ran ahead to the plateau to make sure all was safe.

Some tense sprinting later, and they had finally got to the very top of Mt.Fuji. The edge of the mountain was a long and flat area, but in the center, it dropped drastically into a pit that went farther down than the eye could see.

Hayato and Anzen pushed the sled to the edge of the mountain and looked down into the pit. Kenshi told them to reach the summit, but nothing had happened. They had literally nowhere to run and their last plan seemed fruitless.

For a moment, there was just the freezing wind of the summit and their beating hearts, waiting for a hope they thought was dead.

That was until the black pit in the center of Mt.Fuji opened its very eyes. Two ember orange obelisks peered at the group as the voice from this creature shook the entire mountain. “Giiiiiive theeem to meeee…” Whatever this thing was, it was the size of Mt.Fuji itself… No, the size of Nihon itself.

Hayato gave Anzen a look of hesitation, but he only received a nod in reply as Anzen pushed on the sled and pulled out the extra clothing and weapons they had stored in it. Hayato moved to the side and helped, sending the two bodies gracefully sliding towards the endless pit.

Shouting could be heard from behind them. The military was breathing down their necks. The great eyes closed, and for what felt like forever, nothing happened.

Lee ran from the edge of the large plateau and shouted. “They’re coming!”

Sora pulled back his bow and arrow. Hayato looked away from Anzen and spoke. “I don’t know if-”

A flash of light as bright as the sun itself shone at Hayato’s back. Anzen covered his eyes immediately. Hayato was foolish enough to turn and have to cover his own eyes as well.

Blackness, I thought.

The extreme cold was the first sensation I felt, then, just as my vision came to me. I couldn’t see much as my eyes grew used to the light once more, but I could look at myself.

I was wearing nothing, which explained why the freezing cold felt stronger than I had ever felt before. My left foot was still cut solidly in half, but it had now healed completely to a scar. My arms still bore the marks of my past. My body still showed the scars of all our previous fights. I was healed, but that didn’t mean my lessons or sacrifices could be forgotten.

Amaterasu was next to me, holding herself as best she could to conserve warmth. The memory of heat and the physical form was still in my mind, but she had been gone for so long, being bathed in the snow and cold had to have felt a thousand times harsher.

I could finally see the twins. Hayato was still adjusting to the light once more, but Anzen was able to squint and see me. Without a word, he searched through all the extra clothes we had on our trip. Three sets of clothes. I threw the heaviest and warmest set to Amaterasu, dropped the lightest one, and held the last close to myself as I started to sort through it all. Before I began, Anzen threw one last object. A katana, finely crafted and gold-accented, sheathed and kept as pristine as the day the warriors of the sunlight reformed it.

Amaterasu and I got dressed as quickly as possible. I made sure my katana was tightly strapped and ready to fight. We had to move swiftly to be ready before the deranged Doctor and his followers would show themselves.

Bathed in the light of the sun and the luck of the elder dragon, we shall all make our last stand.

Now was the time to win.

A spark of hope

More horizon. More ash. More walking.

I had been alone with my thoughts for far too long now. I had contemplated everything to contemplate. All I had done. All I was currently doing. And all I’d yet to accomplish.

Previously, I had thought that continuously walking was my future, but my old friend gave me hope that something was hiding in the ashen wasteland I trekked.

With nothing to do but continue walking, I allowed my mind to wander. Trying to remember what happened before I ended up in that place was like trying to look at your reflection in a rushing stream. The image is there, but it shifts and distorts, making things much more difficult to get a clear grasp of. I had more clarity in the things that were currently missing than actually picturing what had once happened. The scars on my arms were gone, and if I focused on why having unburnt forearms were unfamiliar to the mind, I was able to bring memories back to life.

Since I had woken, I remembered, it was simply hazy. When I concentrated to remember it simply faded away, like trying to grip tighter onto a fistful of sand only for it to fall out of your grasp quicker. But by focusing on the injuries that I should have had. The injuries my old friends should have had. I could remember the details with precision.

I had finally come to terms with the feeling in my gut. I knew where I was.

As I came to terms, my focus went back out to my surroundings. My eyes widened with surprise as I caught a flash of red in my corner vision.

Quickly turning around, I saw the figure that I very nearly walked past. A long and stark red kimono, pitch-black hair flowing behind it as she walked farther down the horizon.

I hastily chased her, sliding onto my side as I tried to turn in the ash. I was able to speedily bring myself back to my feet and run after her.

Once I had sprinted a good while and grew close enough, I saw the face I hadn’t seen in the flesh for almost two decades. She was more beautiful than I remembered in my dreams, although my mind couldn’t resist sending me flashing images of the horrid and mauled version of her that I had found at the doorstep of her palace.

This woman was familiar enough that I was confident in calling out her name. The ash floating in the air coated my throat, making it hard to speak initially. After clearing out the dust in my throat, I spoke. “Amaterasu…” She turned to face me. A smile grew on my face, but her’s stayed completely neutral. I stared into her eyes for the longest time, and without words, she turned and began walking again. “Amaterasu? Do you not remember me?”

I followed behind her as she continued to walk. “I remember you…” she said.

The tone in her voice was the kind that she would only speak in when she was angry. It was at that moment I realized I had gotten ahead of myself. Although I went through an entire journey seeking redemption, the last she heard of me was when I betrayed her. “I-I’m sorry…” A little blunt, but I was at a loss for words seeing Amaterasu again after all this time, even if she was understandably upset.

She turned to look at me now, brow furrowed into as angry as I had ever seen them. “You’re sorry now. You weren’t sorry in the seventeen years that I hoped you would come back, no, you’re sorry now that we’ve accidentally found each other in this limbo.”

It was strange seeing someone so endlessly merciful mad, especially when that anger is pointed towards yourself. That feeling only made the lump in my throat bigger. “You… Deserting you was the biggest mistake of my life, and I was too stubborn and self-pitying to come out of my walls and my hiding place… But even though I was bitter and tried to hide the feelings in the back of my mind, I haven’t stopped feeling endless regret over that decision since the day my consequences came to me.”

Her grimace lessened a small bit, but her eyes still showed sadness and anger twirling in a fight for power. “Even if you regretted it, you still did nothing to fix it.” She began to turn again before one of those two emotions finally got to her.

Shit. Stop refusing to tell her. “No!” Too abrasive, but it got her to turn back. “No. I didn’t just regret it. In the last six months I’ve fought against the Shogun. I went back for you! I climbed Mt. Fuji again with my companions and we went to save you!… I didn’t think you were… Gone.”

“And how do I know you aren’t lying like you’ve done before?”

“I…” I had no way to prove it in this place, I only had to plead. “I’ve broken my legs and healed them. I’ve cracked ribs. Fractured arms. Cut off my foot and been stabbed in the back. I jumped off a building just to make sure he couldn’t get to your body. I’ve done so much to right my wrongs, and I know that it will take a lot more to make up for leaving you like that. But for the past two months, since I escaped imprisonment, I’ve only thought about finding you once more.”

Her brow shot up. “Imprisonment?”

I winced on the inside. My choice for words were certainly not the wisest. “When you took away my ember, and I had realized what a mistake I had made, I left the Shogun and his temptations. The power. And hid… Once the sun set, he found me once more and made sure I suffered. I escaped and vowed to never run again.”

Amaterasu simply looked down and thought.

“I died just to make sure you were safe from that Doctor. So he couldn’t harm what was left of you. Please…” Seeing her now, I wanted her to believe me so badly.

She looked back up at me, confused. I kept forgetting over and over again that she wasn’t with me during my journey. “Who is this Doctor?”

I sighed. “He’s… A deranged old man. He’s trying to merge man and yokai into one. He was going to use your blood and body to perfect it… That’s when I jumped out of the window of our old bedroom. To get away from him and to keep you, and everyone else, safe from his twisted ambitions.” She kept looking at me, her anger fading away slowly like charcoal glowing with the final embers of a roaring fire. My pride still made it hurt, but I continued to speak. “I’m so, so, sorry. I’m beyond words for how much I regret what I did. How much I still… You know.” The tiniest bit of a smile cracked at the side of her mouth as the smallest tear formed in the corner of her eye. It was still hard to see as she stared at the ground. My entire body felt awkward, but I finally choked the words out. The ones I had been waiting to say for what felt like forever. “I still love you. And all that I hope is that you’ll say the same.”

She opened her mouth and spoke, but it was so quiet I couldn’t hear. I understood what it was when she outstretched her arms. She finally looked up at me with a smile and tears softly rolling down her cheeks. And I would hate to say it, but I was crying just the same as I finally felt her embrace once more.

After letting the emotions clear out a small bit, I managed to speak through the hair in my face and the lump in my throat. “I had imagined myself to be more manly in this moment.” She chuckled along with me as we finally let go of each other.

All that I had wished for was to see her smile again, and I had the sight right in front of me.

With a bit of a pause, Amaterasu spoke. I could tell things were still tense and uncertain, but that only made me appreciate more when she told me. “… It is good to see you again, Kenshi.”

We sat for a while, giving me the chance to finally explain to her in full what had happened in the past six months. I could fully explain the time I spent isolated and lonely at Mt.Fuji. The Shogun’s temptations of riches and power. How much guilt and regret I felt over giving in to such foul promises.

Amaterasu was always generous and understanding. She was the goddess of life and mercy, after all. The more I spoke about my tribulations and the journey it took me to come back to Mt.Fuji, the more comfortable she seemed to be around me. Eventually, she began asking more questions about my friends and the various people I had met and the places I had been. It became less and less of myself explaining my actions to an actual conversation. The stories I had to tell were more than I expected, but Amaterasu seemed happy to listen.

I felt like I could talk with her forever and be content. My memory truly failed me when it came to remembering just how pleasantly listening to her talk was.

We seemed to speak with one another for hours, going through every topic and thought that had been brought up since we had departed with each other.

In any other situation, there might have been more anger. More accusations and pain from the time we spent apart. But at the ashen end of the world, things seemed calm.

After a long while, I began to go quiet. It almost pained me physically, but I knew we would have to quit our conversation. I still had a duty to accomplish, and we had been sitting for far too long. If I truly did want to redeem myself with Amaterasu, I needed to fix all that was left to fix. And to fix the problems I had left behind, I needed to continue forward just like my old friend had told me to do.

Amaterasu realized this as I stood, and stood with me. She spoke. “Time to continue walking, then? I assume you are searching for the same thing I was.” I nodded my head. She nodded her’s back. “Then let us proceed.”

With that, we continued. The endless walking feeling far less lonely with Amaterasu alongside me.

It still felt like a dream to be with her again. I felt as though she would just disappear from the corner of my eye and be gone again, but she never left.

Hours passed as we walked with the occasional conversation. Hours became days, days became weeks, weeks became months.

Time didn’t feel right in that place. It felt like both minutes and years from when we had first reunited.

The walking continued. The ashen dunes and smoky landscape staying the same.

Finally, the object of our search came to view. A towering pillar black as night shot out of the ash, reaching far into the sky and out of view. Once we noticed it, our walking turned to running. The object was much farther away than I initially expected, but after much determination, we reached the spiraling obsidian structure, I raised a hand out to it. Before either Amaterasu or myself could touch the thing, the long and thin pillar swayed and moved as the earth shook below.

A scaled body as large as Nihon itself emerged from the ash. The face of a serpent moved from below our feet, revealing the black pillar as just a mere whisker on the reptile’s face.

Ember orange eyes stared down at us with the wisdom of the universe shining through. Breath the force of a thousand tsunamis burst the ash at our feet into clouds of dust behind us, revealing the scaled hand we stood on.

Face to face with the elder dragon.

It’s great mouth opened, letting it’s voice rumble, nearly pushing both of us to our feet. It spoke slow and contemplative, like something that hadn’t the need for language in millennia. “Wwwhhhhyyy haaaave you disturbed meeee?”

Amaterasu was the first to speak in the diplomatic tone she would always use when attempting to speak in a professional manner. “We wished to speak with you about the state of things…”

She halted her speaking early as the elder dragon opened it’s mouth once more. “III am awaaaaare ooof the state of the woooorld I’ve given you…”

I spoke up. “Then surely you wish to help us fix it?”

Amaterasu stayed silent. The dragon’s enormous eyes shifted from Amaterasu to myself. He spoke faster this time, growing familiar with speech once again. “Whhhhy should I do such a thing? I owe you nothing…”

I crossed my arms. What a situation to be in, arguing with the creator of the cosmos itself. “Because you made this world! Surely you want to preserve it!”

Its brows furrowed. “I did create the world you call home. I created the seed for all life, even the one you wish me to aid you in killing…”

“The Doctor is deranged and foul! He’s trying to destroy his fellow man. You would assist in bringing justice to help the rest of humanity, right?”

Amaterasu interjected. “If I am not brought back. No one will be able to move to the afterlife. The righteous won’t be able to live in peace, and the evil won’t see retribution in the afterlife. Without light to guide them, all humanity will end up in this place between places. We all linger. Our stories never end.”

The dragon stared at the both of us for what felt like eons. Its torso rumbled and shook the world with it as he contemplated. “Hmmmm…”

I shouted out to it, my emotions getting a small bit ahead of me. “Don’t let it end like this! We can’t let this be how we all die out!”

The elder dragon looked back to me. “I have been alive for longer than your mind could imagine… In the infinite blackness. Fighting the rest of my kind in a struggle for power. And when all was done, I saw the scales that were thrown off our backs, the ones that created the stars and the life of humanity. I brought myself into a slumber, letting you all use my power to thrive… But the wounds I have received never heal. I am dying, my creation…”

Amaterasu spoke, still diplomatic but much more pleading this time. “But you aren’t dead yet! You could still help us fix this!”

Its eyes closed and reopened, now looking at Amaterasu. “Child of the light… I gave you the responsibility of the sun. To make sure the crops were prosperous and the people lived happily… If I were to bring you back, I would die. You would have no more power to derive from… I could bring back the sun like you both wish, but it would listen to no command, and it would not ensure the bountiful harvest that it once always did.”

I looked to the endless horizon as I thought aloud. “But it wouldn’t leave us dying as the world grows cold. It wouldn’t leave those things growing from the evil and the shadows to continue, would it?”

“The yokai, as you call them, have grown prideful. They leave themselves in the open, with no fear for the light… If I were to bring your sun back, they would be destroyed… Save for those your enemy has amalgamated with man. They derive their power from more than just the darkness. The soul itself is tapped into when kept on the razor’s edge of yokai and man.”

Amaterasu spoke. “Then do it! Bring the sun back, and bring us back.”

I continued her plea. “The Doctor will continue to bring the world to darkness, even if the sun is returned. The people need Amaterasu. The Doctor needs to be stopped… Don’t let her story end like this. Don’t let mine end like this. Don’t let the world end like this! We deserve more than to fade into the dark!”

The fire in the elder dragon’s eye grew brighter as it thought and stared the both of us down.

Soon, the world around us went black. Amaterasu faded from my view. My own body ceased to exist.

Everything was dark and cold until a flash of light shone in the blackness. One last chance at redemption. For myself. For the world.

Let us end this story with more than a whimper.

Doctor’s Appointment

The glowing orange cylinder moved slowly yet steadily forwards destroying all in its wake. Chunks of the ancient stone flooring flew through the air as the samurai Hasami grew ever closer.

The plan I had mustered together didn’t take this possibility into account. We had an indestructible and very angry sphere of razors blocking our path to the stairs. Surely he must grow tired with such excessive use of his ember?

No, he was too dangerous to rely on evasion. We could lead Hasami into the tighter corridors and try having him topple the building on himself, but then we would have to find another way into the great hall with the passage blocked. Not to mention that if we brought the noise any closer we could wake dozens of samurai all with orders to kill us.

Hayato was the first to speak as he dodged the flying rubble and backed away from the slow-moving orb. “What now?”

All I could emote with was a shrug as my mind raced for a solution. Hasami would surely have to take a break from using so much power at a time, but he was still wearing that armor. Armor like the metal manipulating samurai wore was harder to stab and slice into than a boulder was. Sora couldn’t shoot his arrows towards him. I couldn’t find anywhere with my sword. Anzen and Hayato seemed like our best bet.

As the glowing orange orb began to dim, we could all see the heaving body of armor. I shouted as our opportunity showed itself. “Anzen, Hayato!”

Hayato, face pale from using his ember so much, nodded as he raised his hand. A portal formed under Hasami, another over.

The armored samurai fell and kept falling. Continuously gaining momentum. We’d burst him out of there like a chestnut if nothing else.

With enough momentum, Another portal opened facing the stone wall leading to the courtyard. Hasami went flying through the portal, but in a flash, he was surrounded in orange light once more. He went cleanly through the stone and shot into the dark courtyard of the palace, eventually losing momentum and coming to a halt towards the outer gate.

I looked toward my companions. We may have not killed him like I had hoped, but the twins had at least opened us up one other option. “Run!”

With the samurai Hasami still barely picking himself up in his heavy metal armor, we all ran towards the stairs. He may have been indestructible and viciously deadly, but he wasn’t fast. We could lose him if we got up the second flight of stairs. It was our only option.

We ran with haste up the old and creaky wooden stairs. Hasami would surely search for us, but it bought us time.

As we all got to the second story, I looked around the large and comfortable room, in the middle was a railed off space open to peer at the great hall below. Everything looked near untouched, which meant that foot soldiers most likely weren’t allowed beyond the first floor.

Good, no need to be worried about waking more sleeping samurai.

I quickly waved for the rest to follow as I opened one of the multiple sliding doors. A peak and I saw no one, so we entered. The room we had walked into was a simple nook. A shelf of texts next to the sliding door that had to lead to the second story balcony. Old woodblock paintings hung on the walls depicting the elder dragon and various other creatures and locations.

As we all caught our breath, a metal clunk clunk clunk could be heard stomping up the stairs. “Great.” I heard Anzen mutter under his breath.

Hayato went from his hands on his knees to standing proper. “Let’s just avoid him. We’re quieter, and we’re quicker.”

Sora counted the arrows in his quiver as he commented, “It would be completely unreasonable to think our adversaries would neglect to put a guard routine on the higher floors. If we simply evade we could find ourselves in an even worse situation.”

I shook my head at Sora. “Although you’re most likely right with the guard situation, we need the twins and Lee to catch their breath if we’re to have the upper hand.”

Lee spoke in a hushed tone as the clunking got to the top of the stairs. “I can still fight, and I’ll beat him as long as he doesn’t do the ball of light thing.”

I opened the door to the second story balcony as Hasami’s armored footsteps grew too near for us to stay any longer.

As we stepped onto the wooden balcony, I took a moment to look at the view once so familiar. You could see the ocean town I had met Hayato at. The village and temple I had grown up in at the base of Mount Fuji. Kamakura shining brightly at the horizon. The entirety of the once-great Nihon laid bare in front of my eyes. Once shining bright and bountiful. Now dark and infested with demonic foulness.

A sigh escaped me as I turned my head.

We quietly stepped down the old wooden balcony as my mind counted names. The shield brawling samurai Eizo would certainly be either on the second or third floor to protect the Shogun. Other than that, I didn’t offhandedly know what samurai could be waiting for us. The Doctor was almost certainly in the main bedroom with Amaterasu. The Shogun was unpredictable. If he couldn’t have the best then he would surely aim for the second most comfortable, which would be the spare bedroom towards the third-floor stairs.

Soon the footsteps grew quieter, allowing me to continue salvaging my plan…

He’s unhittable. He’s angry, and he’ll follow us anywhere… He’ll follow us anywhere.

Finally gaining a bit of direction in my step, I continued down the balcony towards where the next set of stairs should be.

Hasami was smart enough, he would know we were heading for the stairs and try to meet us there when we reached it. If we could get to the third story before him… Well, I had a plan that would most certainly get him out of our hair.

Our walking turned to a jog and our jogging turned to run. Eventually, it all came to a halt once we reached the end of the creaky old balcony. With a swift tug to the sliding door, I revealed the old hall. At the right of said hall was the set of stairs I had been counting on.

Looking down the other end of the hall I saw the armor-clad man now running as speedily as he could towards us, which to say the least was not very fast. My hand waved for the others to come as I ducked from the balcony to the stairs, hastily stomping up. We would need all the height we could get.

Once I had gotten more than halfway up the stairs I heard a strangely familiar metallic ringing. It echoed around the stairwell, leaving me confused about where the sound was originating from. What I did know at least was that turning back wasn’t much of an option with the chasing ball of death.

As I finally reached the last few steps I had a full view of the third floor, where I saw what that sound was coming from. The shield bearing samurai Eizo’s shaking arms glowed with the same overwhelming power that showed when he had charged his attack. His arms sprung forward as soon as I was in sight, the force of the shockwave sending me straight backward.

Dammit, he must have heard us. No matter, we would just have to avoid him and continue our plan. Eizo wasn’t extremely lethal with his blunt-force attacks, and Lee could easily keep him at bay.

Or, that was what I originally thought. I realized that my plan needed more revising as I grew closer to the wall-like part of the roof that dropped down, separating the lofty stairwell from the roof of the second floor. As impact was imminent, the walls seemed to change. They turned like someone took a wet painting and drug a brush across the canvas. This created an opening that allowed for my continued fall.

The architecture shifted with malign sentience to keep me going as far as possible. My hands grasped every ledge within reach, yet my weight would always bring me falling again. I flew through the air to the other end of the second floor, luckily there weren’t any windows to throw me out of so I simply hit the far wall with a solid thud. Force eventually brought me back down to the ground. The impact, as was usual for Eizo, was relatively soft. There was no extra force to the shockwave, merely the force of gravity switching directions for a brief moment or two. The landing was even easier with the few times I was able to grab on to my surroundings and slow my momentum, still far from pleasant, but easier.

The real problem was that I had become separated from the rest, not to mention the walls were twisting like someone had slipped something potent in my morning tea.

While my surroundings looked like some sort of mirage, I felt completely in balance and focused somehow. I knew it couldn’t be mind-altering, therefore. The walls really were conspiring against us through some Ember.

I took a few cautious steps forward as I looked ahead. The others had already gotten off the stairs and were moving towards me, most likely using the twins’ portals to get out of their entrapment.

Seeing them brought me to move forward more hastily, which was a bad decision. At that moment I was at the large entrance to the second floor. Open space, a vaulted ceiling, and a railed off section in the middle to look down to the first floor or up to the third. As I got close, the rails warped inward, creating a much larger and open hole in the middle of the room. I immediately jumped backward, letting myself fall on to my backside to counteract the momentum I had accumulated. The hole kept growing, only allowing me time to slide back.

As I looked down I saw a familiar foggy gateway. With just enough time to get my feet under me, I immediately jumped forward and into the portal.

Coming out the other end, I was reunited with my companions. The problem of being separated was solved for the moment, but the walls still spun and we were still being chased by both Hasami and Eizo.

As I silently took a headcount, I noticed Lee was missing. I looked past the others and saw him down the hall, fending off Hasami, who was back to slicing with only one or two extra swings. I knew it most likely wouldn’t be long before he went back to his indestructible state, but for the moment we had the advantage.

Running farther into the hallway, I opened the door to the opposite side of the balcony and shouted Lee’s name. He gave a quick and shallow blow to Hasami’s leg before turning back and running towards us. Eizo was missing, which made me uneasy, but we couldn’t spend any amount of time searching for him if we wanted to move along before whoever twisted the palace had a new idea to throw us back to the first floor.

We jumped into the room and looked around. I instantly recognized the small room to be the second-floor sauna. A large stone structure sat in the middle of the room where extremely hot rocks would be put to create steam. Hasami was surely behind us, so I took no time to wander.

I pulled out my sword and stabbed it between the wooden boards of the sauna, bursting through the walls and revealing the next room. Hayato and Lee caught on and also started using their swords to break the boards apart. Those without swords moved furniture to the door to prevent entry.

With just enough space, I began to climb through the hole, only to have the walls seize up and clamp against my waist. Increasing pressure pushed against my sides as Hayato and Lee grabbed each end, trying to ease the tension. With a yell, I squirmed out to the other side.

“Damn it,” I muttered as I watched the opening quickly clamp shut. It didn’t matter where we were, the ember wielder could see us. He apparently didn’t have enough strength to crush bone, but I don’t think that was truly his intention. The real meaning of that attack seemed to be separating me from my companions yet again.

Although it wasn’t initially part of the plan, I made the best of my situation. I jumped over the small desk of the office I was in and got close to the paper and wood door. Hasami breathlessly ran past me and towards the sauna where the others were.

As I heard him pass, I jumped out of the room and swung my sword toward him. I stabbed, but just recently being nearly crushed takes a bit out of your precision. And for the armor he was wearing, if you weren’t perfect in your strike it would easily bounce off.

With my sword bouncing off his back, Hasami turned and took his turn swinging at me. Luckily, I was able to jump back and immediately started running. He followed me, so at the very least I kept my group from being ensnared in a room with the hurricane of sharp objects.

As he chased me he turned into a ball of firey orange anger once more. And of course, as I ran down the hall Eizo came out of one of the rooms he was previously searching, blocking my path up the stairs.

If I could just get to the stairs, I would win. The rest would know to leave the palace and regroup if I went missing. And I could easily face the Doctor and Shogun myself. But not if I was hit by another shockwave of Eizo’s.

If Eizo got to me, he would push me straight into Hasami. I looked from side to side. The walls still shifted and moved, the doors still opened and clamped shut like hungry maws waiting to sink their teeth into me.

If I tried to escape to another room, I would get stuck and be left to the mercy of the raging samurai. If I went forward, I would simply be pushed back and be met with the same fate. Hayato and Anzen already created one portal to get me out of the last trap, and I remember seeing in their faces that they had no more energy left in them. Sora’s arrows would be useless against Hasami and Lee couldn’t approach even when his back was turned. And that was assuming they would even have time to get into the hall and figure out what was happening.

With no other option, I charged forward like a cornered animal, most likely because I was one.

I jutted my sword as far forward as I could, but Eizo put his shields together as he had before and blocked my attack, sending a wave of energy as he did. I went flying backward, straight to Hasami. With all the strength and determination in my body, I grabbed onto the frame of one of the shifting doors. My death grip indeed held my weight, but what I didn’t take into account was which direction the door slide open.

I fell downward as it swung and I felt a sharp pain in my left foot.

Looking down, I could see toes and heaps of flesh scatter in every direction.

A shriek left my mouth as I swung my right foot upward, swinging my body enough to heave myself through the door and into the room too fast for the palace controlling samurai to react. I fell sideways and through the paper walling, falling more until I hit the wood walls at what had to be the end of the hallway. Gravity came back into effect and left me back on my feet. Or, foot.

With a piercing pain like I hadn’t felt before, my left leg gave and I found myself on the floor.

Quickly pushing myself to my knees, I looked back and saw that where my left foot was, nothing more than a mass of gnarled flesh and copious blood remained. I slowly lifted myself to my feet while murmuring to myself. “No time for pain. No time for pain. No time for- SHIT!” With the slightest amount of weight, my left leg would scream at me. The pain shot all across my body as I closed my now watering eyes.

My katana stabbed into the ground as a makeshift cane while I hobbled over to the sliding door and the balcony. It jerked back and forth like the others, but this time I had the moment to take my sword and cut through the paper.

I moved as quickly as I could onto the balcony as I glanced at the glistening blood trail behind me. It was like someone had upturned a bucket and flung red paint all across the room.

My head shook as I forced myself to continue down the balcony towards the stairs. Nothing could stop me. I just had to keep my mind on Amaterasu. On my mission.

Hasami burst onto the balcony in front of me, Eizo at his side. My companions burst onto the balcony behind me, most likely following the screaming and blood.

I kept walking towards Hasami as I shouted to the twins. “Do it!”

Hayato shouted. “We can’t!”

“I said do it!”

Hasami grew closer as a foggy portal slowly materialized under him. Just like before, he fell and kept falling. Except this time, he wouldn’t be thrown into an object.

It didn’t matter how strong his sword was or how much he could cut through or how untouchable he was, a sword is only so durable, and the more you cut through the weaker it gets. He would have a lot of cutting to do if he wanted to ease his momentum like last time.

I simply pointed my finger to the horizon, and the twins figured out the rest. The ball of orange energy shot through the sky like a comet, flying far into the distance down Mt.Fuji. No matter how much he tried to cut his way into the earth to slow his descent, he wouldn’t be surviving a fall like that unless he learned to fly.

Once the portals closed, I looked back. Hayato and Anzen were both on their knees gasping for air, bloody noses and sunken eyes. I shouted to Sora and Lee. “Get them to safety!”

With reluctance, Sora took the heavier Hayato over his shoulder as Lee grabbed Anzen and began to shuffle back to the first floor.

Hasami was gone. Next was Eizo and then whoever was controlling the palace.

Eizo looked fatigued. He had used his strongest attack twice in quick succession now. He thought he could kill me, but all Eizo had done is leave himself too exhausted for his Ember’s assistance.

I wanted to lean against the balcony’s railing, but that was far too easy for the palace manipulating samurai to take advantage of. So, I simply endured the debilitating pain as I stopped leaning onto my sword and moved it from my left hand back into my right.

Eizo walked forward as I neglected to move on my still bleeding stump.

A jab came to the left. I moved to the right too far and had to grab the railing. As predicted, it started moving with me, urging me to fall to the ground below.

With a push, I threw myself back to Eizo, grabbing his arm with my off-hand and swinging my sword with my other.

He quickly swung around me and under the blade to dodge to my right. I still barely had ahold of his arm and he was quickly overpowering me. Since he had turned on his arm, he forced himself to get between me and the now open part of the balcony.

I knew Eizo was too stubborn to die from such a fall, but I had no other option. Sorry friends, but you’ll have a gift when you leave the great hall.

My right arm was already extended far left from my swing, so I simply brought it back as forcefully as I could and hit the shield brawler in the back of the head with my elbow as I let go of his arm with my other. Eizo shouted as he fell to the ground below.

There wasn’t anything the palace manipulating samurai could do as I limped to the stairs and started climbing.

I had finally reached the third floor as I heard a coughing noise from the room beside me. The spare bedroom. The Shogun.

Hobbling over, I slid open the door to reveal the Shogun coughing up purplish-black blood. His face pale white with large lavender veins beating all throughout his neck and face. The fat man clung tightly to his missing arm, concealing it from the light. The soft pillows around him were thickly coated in dry blood. He-

My thought process ended abruptly as the door was shut closed by the ember wielder that controlled the palace. Along with the door closing, I felt a stabbing pain in my back. I couldn’t swing my sword without moving my lumbar, and with what had to be a knife lodged in my back so close to my spinal cord, it would be like playing with fire. Instead, I opted to throw my elbow back, hitting whoever was behind me.

They let go of the knife, allowing me to turn and look at them. The person who stabbed me was not what I had expected.

What looked to be a thinly framed girl in her teens stumbled back as she clutched to her jaw. She shrieked as she jumped forward, hands outstretched and coming to grab me.

She grabbed on to me and attempted to push me off my feet, almost succeeding in doing so even with what little weight she had.

I was forced to brace myself with my left hand as I dropped my sword with my right. I grabbed her head and pushed her to her side, bringing the thin girl to stumble closer to the stairs. And with an ounce of reluctance, I kept pushing against her with all the weight I could lend until the child was sent down the stairs. She bounced down each step before she hit the bottom, quickly pushing herself up and clutching to her leg. Throwing a young girl down a flight of stairs and most likely breaking her leg wasn’t something I suspected Amaterasu would’ve wanted, but I had dealt with enough shit for a single day.

The walls shifted back into their regular place as I limped farther down the halls of the third floor. Hopefully, the girl knew when to turn tail, but I wasn’t risking staying long enough to find out, even with the Shogun in my grasp. My determination was still as single-minded as when I saw what had happened to Amaterasu.

I had enough experience to know that you never pulled out a lodged knife unless you were ready to deal with a lot of blood, and with how dizzy I already felt from what was left of my foot, I knew it was best to leave it.

Only five more steps, I couldn’t let my leg give out on me yet. Four more. Three more. Two more.

Even using my sword as a cane, when I put weight on the bleeding stump of my leg, it gave way and collapsed.

I toppled to the floor but forced myself to get back up. I was too damn close. I had to keep her away from the deranged Doctor.

One more step and I was at the master bedroom, slowly sliding the door open I saw Amaterasu’s naked remains laid untouched atop two desks put together to make a table. The old man had just begun to take the different tools and syringes of strange fluids out of his bag.

The Doctor stopped what he was doing and combed a wrinkled hand through his frayed white hair as he turned with the same smile as he always wore.

“Ah, my dear friend, Kenshi. It seems you made it just in time…”

A feeling so drear

Lee sat cross-legged with his eyes closed. Meditating and concentrating on using his ember in the form Hayato and Anzen had taught him to take. He muttered quietly as Sora stared into the horizon, keeping a check on the ever brighter light of the Doctor and Shogun’s caravan.

After somewhere close to a minute more of concentration, Lee opened his eyes and spoke. “You’re right about this road leading to the wall… I saw that the first gate was open and there was yokai wandering around, but not too many.”

Shit. I knew that the first gate was most likely going to be opened, but even so, a sense of dread stirred within me. Or perhaps I was simply still taken aback by our strange yokai encounter. In any case, I needed to concentrate on the task at hand, and that was surmising a plan to get us into the walls without attracting any yokai.

Lee led the way down the path as I thought to myself.

Hayato and Anzen were ready to fight. Anzen was unhappy earlier with me for excluding him from our previous debacle, but he seemed to be in a more agreeable state since then. The real question was whether we should try cutting down the yokai Lee saw and risking attracting more, or taking one of the twins and trying to open a portal from the other side. But that could be decided when we actually arrived.

Soon our path went from jumbled cobblestones into a flat and neatly paved pathway with old and mossy stone tiles. Our surroundings were still obstructed by the trees around us, so we didn’t know how close we were to the gate other than Lee’s word. The only other indicator we had was my memory, and as the trees went from old oaks to cherry trees it became all the more vivid.

I remembered walking these paths in the dappled sunlight. The serenity of it all was something that I had forgotten. Now nothing more than a melancholy feeling. Forgetting that feeling is what caused me to stray from my duties I had promised Amaterasu and join the Shogun, which is why I wouldn’t forget again.

We would walk throughout the forest and collect the wild cherries and use them in all sorts of ways. Remembering those hours spent collecting wild cherries made me wonder if the orchard still stood. It surrounded the outermost gate and was full of beautiful trees and flowers. Strawberries, apples, grapes, peaches, pears. Any fruit you could imagine, right next to the garden bearing every vegetable you could want. All that time spent hunting and gathering together… Well, not as much hunting. Amaterasu far preferred the act of eating the meat rather than catching it, so I practiced my trapping and bowhunting alone. Even though the game on the earth was brought to flourish like the plants for us to eat, she couldn’t make herself harm the creatures. All the same, the meat on Mt.Fuji was the most tender imaginable, and the fruit the sweetest.

As our group finally reached the clearing from the trees and saw the gate I hoped that there might still be fruit to taste once more, but I knew that was a far fetched hope. Once the gate was fully in sight, I saw that it was creaked barely open. One couldn’t see past the gates, but they were certainly open.

One yokai stumbled towards the entrance. With just a single yokai, we could go through with our first plan and cut it down before any others arrived. I looked over to the group and then to Lee. “Good work navigating us here.”

Sora drew back his bow. “Should I get it out of our way?” I knew Sora only had ten arrows left, but I didn’t want to risk another sour situation like last time, so I nodded my head. The yokai pushed the door open as Sora lined up his shot, but before he let loose, we saw something I had wished we wouldn’t.

As the door opened it revealed at least a half-dozen yokai walking back and forth in the courtyard. Putting my hand on his arm, I mumbled “stop” to Sora, who had already begun to put his arrow back on the quiver at his waist. What was once an orchard full of trees, colorful vines and plants was now nothing more than uprooted earth and withering grass. They had demolished the orchard and the only food source that could be found within the palace’s walls. Luckily food was nothing more than a pleasurable experience for Amaterasu, so she would never starve. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t upset at such a sight.

Besides my feelings, this meant we had to completely change our approach. All of us working together could most likely kill the half-dozen yokai given enough time, but we sorely lacked that with the doctor and Shogun only minutes behind us. The only option that fit with our time frame was trying to sneak past the yokai and open a portal from the other side. Hayato was both injured from our last fight and rather loud in these situations. Anzen had snuck into the Shogun’s palace with me some three weeks prior, so I knew he could get quietly into the goddess’ estate with me. With an unsure gaze to Anzen, I asked rather than commanded. “We could sneak by and open a portal on the other side. Will you come with me?”

Anzen just nodded and tightened the loose and noisy things on his person. The others began looking for a place to discretely wait.

The two of us moved quickly past the treeline of withered cherry blossoms and through the clearing of dead grass until we were hugging the red walls just next to the open gate. I looked at it for a moment. It was almost twenty feet tall and aside from the metal doors was made of age-old stones. We didn’t have the supplies to climb over the wall, nor to go through it or under it. We would have to go through the door without being noticed.

As I began to move forward, Anzen muttered something quietly. Stopping and looking back, I saw his face frowning. Reluctantly, he spoke. “Hey… I, uh… Just so you know, I didn’t mean what I said back then.”

I nodded and smiled. It was hard for Anzen to say such things, as it was for me. I also put in the effort and reciprocated. “And I apologize for letting my frugality get ahead of our safety.”

We both nodded and began to move once again. With all the things that had happened, it was good to know that our group was still strong.

Once I had crawled a small bit further, I could peek at the other side of the gates. Yokai walking in every direction, which meant we’d surely be seen if we simply tried to walk past. We needed something to distract them.

Searching through the pockets of my kimono was fruitless. A sandstone, and a piece of bread I had neglected to eat earlier. Anzen noticed my rummaging and caught on to the plan. As he dug into his pockets I could only hope he had better luck.

As his hands returned empty, I knew we had a predicament.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I hated the idea of literally throwing all our funds out, but we had no more need for money and the coin purse tied to my belt was the only option that was left.

Quickly untying the knot and securing it in my hand, I threw my arm back and finally slung it forward. The bag of brass coins flew magnificently through the air and eventually crashing into a pile of metal instruments, reminding me of how I used to have so many training dummies and racks of blunt weapons that I practiced with. I may not have had the slightest chance to recover any of my age-old belongings anymore, but the yokai were more than sufficiently distracted.

We ducked past the gate as yokai howled and investigated away from us. As soon as we had gotten inside the wall Anzen and I ran deep into the orchard, or, what was left of it. The trees hid us as we weaved past more crowds of yokai, still ambiently walking closer to the final inner gate.

Our work was efficient as we quietly moved from one pile of uprooted dirt and leaves to the next. Yokai only getting more and more dense as we caught our first glimpse of the innermost wall. It was small and made of white stones, inside it was only a tiny yard that immediately led to the palace. I could already see the many levels of the multistoried building jutting into the sky. The stone walkway that led to the final gate was covered in dirt, grime, and ash. Yokai huddled around the small gates that opened to the palace. These were particularly large. Instead of the average ten to twelve feet, they stood taller than fifteen. It was like watching titans shuffle in herds.

But enough speculation, we needed to get moving. We reached a safe enough spot between two uprooted trees, giving us full cover from all sides. Once I knew we would be safe, I gave Anzen the signal. Within a moment a foggy portal appeared in front of us, though nothing came out of it.

Moments passed with nothing to be seen until in the distance I heard loud yelling. It sounded like both Hayato and Lee’s voices, followed by horns sounding in the distance like last time we were spotted by the doctor and Shogun’s men.

Without hesitation, I jumped into the portal, but I simply passed through it like it was a regular cloud of mist. I jumped back through and eventually gazed at Anzen with a frantic dumbfoundedness.

In an anxious voice, Anzen shook his head. “Hayato must not have opened his end of the portal yet!”

All the yokai from within the gates rampaged towards the sound of the noise as the horns blew louder.

As soon as I decided that I would have to just try to outrun the yokai and help the rest of our group, figures began to appear out of the foggy portal. All of them unharmed, looking mighty pleased with themselves more than anything.

The blank-faced Sora spoke “Hopefully we did not startle either of you. We thought to make a diversion.”

Hayato nodded. “We knew there were going to be yokai blocking our path, so we decided that we could both clear a path and slow down the Shogun.”

Lee added. “Yeah, but we didn’t take the time to realize what it might have sounded like.”

I took in a sigh of relief. It was a very clever idea and usage of Hayato and Anzen’s ember. For half a second I thought our plans had gone horribly wrong, but luck was with us once again. I was proud of how we had become such an efficient team, and never in my years of solitude would I have expected climbing Mt.Fuji once more and redeeming myself. It was something I would constantly dream of whenever my old insomnia lent me time to rest, but it had now become a reality. It was time to regain my honor, prove myself and in that, bring the world to what it once was.

With a nod to my companions, I stood and exited our hiding place, taking in the spring air. Reminiscing over how brightly and warmly the sun would shine over the estate. Finally, I moved my gaze to the ancient gate. Seeing the swung open gates made my heart instantly turn from weightless to sunken.

With all the yokai moved towards the Doctor and Shogun, I ran as fast as my wobbling legs would take me. The blue, black, and purple world seemed to blur and streak as I got closer to the broken hinged-gates. The questioning shouts from my friends fell upon deaf ears.

I ran through the final walls to see the inner yard as destroyed as the orchards. Sun lilies and the most beautiful flowers withered and stomped over.

The red palace walls were painted a darker shade, darker, darker, culminating to a single spot just in front of the large doors.

My gut churned, I felt as though my heart had jumped into my throat and beat there as I stared.

The most intricate silk kimono, torn into nothing more than scraps of fabric, revealing what was once beautiful pale skin, now ghostly white and saturated in sanguine liquid hardened from months of exposure. Beautiful black hair ripped from where it belonged. Delicate limbs torn and mangled beyond repair. A once familiar abdomen and bosom turned into nothing more than a pile of gore. Face barely recognizable. Lips unmoving and no longer smiling as they always were. Eyes pale and unliving, staring into nothingness. The thing I loved most in the world taken away from me by horrid means.

I was too late. Far too late. Everything that I had feared would happen did, in a manner even my nightmares would never visualize.

My gut wrenched, and the lump in my throat finally gave way. My stomach violently emptied onto the yokai-trodden path.

There were voices behind me, but the words were unrecognizable like they were heard from underwater.

Voices became shouts became hands grasping onto my kimono and trying to pull me into their arms as my weight slowly shifted forwards. The now blurry world around me faded into black as I let myself fall to the ground unconscious.

Blackness beckoned, and I no longer resisted its call.

Amaterasu was dead.

May love guide your hand in your righteous quest

The start of it all was quite a few years back. I was somewhere from eighteen to my early twenties at the time.

During those younger years, it was a tradition for when a boy became a man to prove his worth in some way. Most would join the military or take a job to support their family, but growing up, I had visions of grandeur. The village I was raised in was small, the most noticeable asset of it being the large monastery nearby. It influenced me very much growing up, shaping me into who I was before all that had led me to my situation later in life, so I knew exactly what I wanted to do once I reached adulthood.

I remember contemplating it for what seemed forever. If Amaterasu had a palace atop Mt.Fuji, that meant you could go there, all you would have to do was survive the treacherous and steep climb. None had done it before, but I was a determined young man, and when I set my eyes on a goal, nothing short would satisfy me of it.

So once I was of age, against the protests of my parents and the monks, I started preparing for my climb. Our family was always low on funds, and I never worked a job that didn’t pay in more than pocket change. But still, I saved my money, and when the time came I was able to purchase at least the bare essentials. Cloth to sleep in, plenty of food and water, and a few choice odds and ends. Along with a simple sword I used to spar against my father with, I was off to the top of Mt.Fuji.

The first part of the climb started well. At the very base of Mt.Fuji, it was commonplace for people to walk and enjoy the scenery, so I was quite used to the trot. But eventually I would have to face the majority of the mountain and leave the minuscule amount of dirt paths behind me. I remember being at the highest part of the paths and just looking up into the steep and crowded forest, wondering if I really wanted to go through with it all.

Still, I overcame my fears and doubts and started my way up Mt.Fuji. The forest was harsh and unforgiving, and my pitiful supplies only lasted so long, leaving merely futile attempts at hunting to feed me. Yet I never turned back. My mind was set.

I lived off of whatever I could find and I barely slept. By the end of it all, my legs would barely carry me, but I still pressed on.

It had been multiple weeks since I departed when my fatigue finally caught up to me. I was the highest anyone had climbed the great mountain. And though I had made great strides and accomplished more than anyone before me, I felt I was unable to make myself get back up and finish my journey. I laid there on the warm grass, watching the sunrise, knowing that my ambitions fell short. I didn’t really feel sad nor frustrated at how close I was to success. I felt mostly peaceful in the presence of the beautiful rising sun.

So I closed my eyes to sleep. But before death sunk its teeth into me, I was found by her. 

Lady Amaterasu.

She must have used her power to heal me because once I awoke, I felt completely fine, although more than a little confused. Walking around the magnificent palace, inspecting the wonderful and ancient architecture, however, soon led me to realize where I was.

I walked onto the palaces scenic balcony, looking around for clues of where Amaterasu might have been. The vista was the most incredible I had ever witnessed, but my attention was entirely on the woman sitting in the corner of the balcony, watching the edge of the sky intently. Once she realized I had entered, she spoke to me. I still remember exactly what the first words she said to me were.

Her voice was more soothing than music and her smile was as bright as the day. Her beauty was greater than the most stunning sunrise. “I was wondering when you would awake! I had hoped you wouldn’t miss this sunset, I feel especially prideful with this one.” She moved her hand across the long horizon, presenting the mesmerizing colors to me with a grin on her face. And although the sunset was something to behold, it would never compare to the memory of her smile.

I sat on the comfortable cushion next to her, and soon enough we started talking. I’m sure she had just as many questions for me as I did for her on how and why I climbed all the way to her palace. And for hours on end, we spoke, never running out of topics or laughter.

And although she didn’t get tired, I did. So even though I didn’t want to, I knew I had to sleep. I excused myself and went back to the place I had woken up in as she left to walk her gardens, laden with the most wonderful assortment of sun lilies.

Once I woke up the next day, the same thing happened. We talked and walked the beautiful mountain, where I was able to see the garden she spoke so much about during our conversations and to see the amazing spots with waterfalls and cherry blossom covered ponds she told me she would have to show me. We explored for as long as our legs would let us, although I wasn’t sure whether she was actually fatigued or just pretending to be so as to not make me feel bad for having to stop. I found she was like that, eternally caring, loving, and excited.

The next day the same thing happened, walking new spots and talking. Before I knew it, the next day came and we similarly walked the palace and the mountain, talking all the way.

Something close to a week must have passed before I knew that I couldn’t take up her time any longer. My plan was to pack early in the morning during one of her walks around her garden to avoid having to say goodbye.

I felt different around her. Something inside me felt different when I was around her, something I knew I had never felt before and could never re-create. But I knew I couldn’t let myself drown in these feelings, so I did exactly as planned and packed while she was walking among the sun lilies.

As I crept through the large halls and into the bamboo filled courtyard, she saw me. I tried to look away but she ran over to me before I could make it out the gates. We spoke as the sun slowly raised. She asked me what I was doing, and my heart almost broke when I saw her reaction as I told her I was leaving. I couldn’t stay any longer, lest I would lose the ability to ever make myself leave.

I had never seen her cry before, and seeing a tear fall down her cheek to this day still makes me grimace. She told me something along the lines of “I understand.” and let me leave, but as I turned away to exit the gates, she confessed to me. “I haven’t spoken to anyone in what has to be centuries, and even then, I never felt the way I do when I’m around you. Please. I don’t want you to go.” Those words were all I needed, so I did exactly as she asked.

The best years of my life were spent there with her, talking and loving each other… It was as ideal a story as they came, in truth. The kind of thing to dream of. I was happy. We were happy.

Until those things started to appear.

As society moved forward, they strayed from the light, forgetting everything except mindless hedonism and pursuit towards needless power. That sin and evil had festered in the dark corners of Nihon like some sort of heinous fungi and materialized into what we know as yokai. The only things on their mind being indiscriminate violence, and a relentless mission to kill Amaterasu.

The first yokai to appear was smaller than anyone would find in the present day, only eight feet in height. At the time I was nearly twenty-five or twenty-six years of age. And in my spare time, I practiced intensely with the sword as my father had taught me before, along with working my body to be as strong as I could.

So when the ghostly creature crawled over the walls and into the palace, I was easily able to overcome its feeble and newly formed body. But once the first yokai was slain, we knew they wouldn’t cease, and there was no absolute way to kill them easily. Amaterasu held only the power to create and nourish life, so there was nothing she could do to kill these monsters herself. The only things with the power to kill the yokai themselves would have been the elder dragons, but they hadn’t been heard of or seen for millennia. The only option to kill these demons were to be creative.

Although Amaterasu couldn’t kill the creatures, I easily could if she were to grant me part of her power. The only fear we had at the time was if I was capable of holding such a thing.

She refused to go through with our plan due to the risks while I was more than ready. But before she could protest more, we realized our time was running short. It was either her life or mine, and I insisted it couldn’t be hers.

The same day I was given my Ember was the same day I told her goodbye. The last day I would see her face.

It was necessary if I wanted to protect her. I would have to circle the base of the mountain to make sure no yokai could even get close to the palace.

There were no tears on this departure, only a grim understanding that it would be more time than either of us wanted before we would see each other again. But before I finally left, she gifted me with a gold-accented sword with two unforgettable messages. One side read “Demon, shroud in the dark. May steel devour you with zealous purpose.” The other. “Man, made whole in the light. May love guide your hand in your righteous quest.” That sword would be the most precious item I would ever possess.

And with that, I set off. Spending years living off the land, protecting Amaterasu and a handful of surrounding villages, killing more yokai than anyone could possibly count.

Eventually I suppose I became a sort of legend to these people. A man who would appear in their village with otherworldly power and protect them from yokai, leaving just as quickly as he came.

Word must have moved quickly about me, because the more I returned to the villages the more people would be there, waiting to see me. Some just wanted to see if I was real. Others probed and asked questions on how I got my powers, to which I stayed completely silent.

These stories of me only grew as more people saw me, and eventually, they reached the ears of a man who would soon become the Shogun. During that time he was at a dispute for power. The Imperial family had decided to make a Shogunate and a surplus of small politicians and military men, such as he, were trying to take this position.

The prospects for the man who would become the Shogun to be elected were bleak, so he was willing to try almost anything to win the favor of the Emperor, and he knew that with a super-soldier under his reign he would get exactly that. Who was a prime candidate to play as his most valuable piece? Yours truly.

It had been years since I saw her face by the time the man who would become Shogun found me. I didn’t blame her for not seeing me, it was impossible to make sure she was safe along with being able to do her duties and meet me at the same time. But even though I knew that I still drifted away from her.

He came to me with propositions of fortune, fame, pleasurable company, and a seat as a high ranking Samurai. My composition cracked at this offer, and I accepted it without regard to the one I love or the repercussions that grave mistake would make across the world.

Of course, the man became the Shogun almost immediately after the Emperor saw me with him and what I could do. And with his new status, the Shogun took as much wealth and power as his fat hands could grasp. Making the new Emperor his puppet. Hoarding the newly raised tax money for himself. All while I turned a blind eye to the matter, too happy to indulge myself in his filth, food, and whores to care in the slightest.

Then it all came crashing down.

One morning I woke up, my veins burning with searing pain. Amaterasu must have realized what had happened and stripped me of my Ember, leaving nothing but grotesque scars over my arms and immense guilt on my mind, which was no longer clouded by lust and alcohol.

But once I had realized how idiotic my decision was, it was far too late to make amends. Once I left my dark and dirty chambers to look at the horizon in a helpless daze, I witnessed the sun lock itself in its eternal set.

After seeing that, I was grief-stricken. I took as much gold and riches as I could from the Shogun’s stash and ran to a discrete location, building a small house and a new life.

For more than a decade I hid in that hastily made shed, living off of the excess money and doing any work I could without being found out, hiding my once precious sword under the floorboards and neglecting all that had happened. That was, until I met Asao and was thrown back into the Shogun’s vengeful clutches, bringing me to where I was presently, wherever I was.

There was no more time to forget it all, nor was there more time to mourn my past. I could only move forward and come to terms.

It was time to wake up. Amaterasu had waited long enough.

Oncoming storm

I walked along the sandy road towards the large merchant city. My hands fumbled through the new kimono I had been given to wear, searching for the piece of paper I had been given.

After a moment of searching, I finally pulled the note out of the blue and black cloth. The list read a variety of food, horse feed, and other commodities that would be useful for our oncoming hunt.

People were walking along the coast to my right, gazing at the night sky. To my left was a great patch of forest, something I could get lost in, something no one had a chance of finding me in.

I shook my head, there was no more option for escaping. If I were to leave, Hayato would pay the price. Once I had been chained and trapped physically, but now there really was no escape besides completing my task.

My mind wandered back to my surroundings, I had reached the city while I was busy thinking. The merchant city was familiar, the very same city I went to with Asao all those weeks ago. The same Hayato was stationed in.

Unlike others, there were no walls protecting the city, making it easy for me to enter.

I merged into the small crowd of people easily. I had almost gotten used to people avoiding me and staring. I enjoyed the fact that I was now clean and presentable.

A red structure caught my eye as I almost walked past.

I rushed the people around me and moved out of the crowd. On top of the ornamental red structure sat Hayato, his eyes were closed as he concentrated.

People emerged from the foggy portal beneath him and pushed past me as I stood against the flow of traffic.

I moved out of the crowd’s way and called for the Samurai. “Hayato! Hayato!”

Hayato’s eyes slowly opened as he looked down at me, the foggy portal deforming into nothingness. “Kenshi?” He moved from his sitting position and climbed down from the structure. “Kenshi, why are you here so soon?”

“I’m here to fetch our company supplies, and to notify you of what’s happening.”

His eyebrow raised. “And what might be happening?”

“The Shogun has ordered our company to hunt a yokai.”

Hayato paced for a moment, thinking. “Well… Have you spoken to your superior officer?”

“I’ve tried, but he is more than eager to gain the Shogun’s approval…” I had to collect our oddities quickly. If I wasn’t back in my allotted amount of time Kohei would suspect that I’d tried to escape. “I must get going, Hayato.”

He stopped pacing and looked over at me, then to his seat at the large wooden structure. “No one will notice if I’ve left for only a few moments… Let me assist you with your supplies.”

Hayato most likely shouldn’t have left his station so abruptly… But if he was willing to leave, I decided I might as well take the company. “Then let us start moving.”

I turned and Hayato followed. Pulling the list from my kimono once again revealed the materials we needed. “First… We go left from here, towards the sandstones.”

We turned to the left at the crossways and started making our way to the small stall. As we walked, I noticed Hayato look down, then back to the path ahead. He spoke. “I’ve noticed, your leg looks completely healed.”

I hadn’t taken much thought of it, but now that my leg was mentioned, I realized that I walked with no hint of a limp, as I used to. “That’s right. I’ve almost forgotten about my leg.”

We reached the small shop. The stall owner looked at both Hayato and I, in our military uniforms. He spoke, trusting us to act according to standards. “Just leave brass on the counter, sirs.”

I took the few sandstones we needed and left the money Kohei gave me on the table.

The stones sat at the bottom of the large sack I was carrying. I pulled out the note once again and read our next object. “It looks like next… We need rice.”

Hayato looked around for a moment and pointed down the path. “The rice stall is that way.”

We turned and started making our way down the road.

It was my turn to reinvigorate the conversation. I spoke the first question that came to mind. “So… How is your brother, Hayato?”

He thought for a moment. “I’m not quite sure. It’s been months since last we met.”

That was strange. I thought that given their ember, the distance wouldn’t matter. “Can you not transport yourself to him?”

Hayato looked frustrated, like this had been on his mind. “No… We can only make a portal with a vessel and concentration. So the only place I can open the portal is with the pair of gates. And even then, I would be concentrating too much to walk.”

The rice shop was getting closer, but I still had time to speak. “Have you been training then?” Hayato looked curiously at me. I supposed he’d never tried to use he and his brother’s ember abstractly. So I explained further. “To use an ember is an act of will. You have placed these rules in your mind that doesn’t even exist. Your mind is holding you back, so you must train it as a muscle and go beyond your limits.”

Hayato paused in the road for a moment. “But, I’ve heard tales of the conception of Embers. And they’ve said that in the beginning, the old samurai could use their extreme powers with ease.”

We reached the rice shop. I looked from the note to the sizes of bags, then proceeded to buy while I spoke. “Embers have evolved over the years…” I handed the coin to the vendor. “The more people granted with Embers, the more people had to refine themselves to use their Embers properly.” I looked down at the note again, our list was growing shorter.

Hayato looked very interested in what I said. His world was two dimensional and goal oriented. Since all he had to do was use his Ember how it was, the thought of improving upon it slipped his mind. He spoke after taking it in. “That makes sense. I suppose that’s why they say that the first Ember had unspeakable power.”

With a nod, I replied. “I want to see improvements by the next time we meet.”

Hayato reminded me again of how new this all was to him. “How would I improve?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure… If I had to suggest a routine…” I thought for a moment. To break barriers created by one’s mind, the same mind had to figure out how to destroy them. All I could do was try to push him in the correct direction. “Every time I see you using your Ember, you’re always in a tranced state. So try keeping your eyes open. Watch the waves pass by as you work instead of focusing entirely on one task.”

Hayato thought for a moment. “Indeed. I’ll keep you informed on my progress.” He looked around for a moment. “Our next stop?”

The list was short, we only had one stop left. I pointed behind us, towards a stall we had managed to miss. “Over there.” We walked along the path closer to Hayato’s station.

Something in the corner of my eye caught my attention as we moved forward. Hayato took notice and spoke. “What is it?”

He wouldn’t understand. “Um, nothing.” He shrugged it off and we kept walking, but I couldn’t let this get away from me. “Hayato…” I fumbled around in my pocket and grabbed the note, along with the last of Kohei’s brass. “Take this and buy the last of my supplies, will you?” Without letting Hayato say a word, I handed him the coin and moved on my own path.

I walked quickly to the small stall. It held dying flowers and dead shrubberies. Except one lonesome lily in a large pot of soil.

I grabbed the man’s attention as I finally reached the shop. “Sir, is that a sun lily?”

He nodded, pleased that someone finally showed interest. “Yes sir, our last! It’s in bloom as well!”

“That’s strange. I thought they only bloom in sunlight?”

“They do. But I suppose this one is an oddity. It perked up only a few hours ago.”

I picked the small flower from the pot. “I’ll take it.”

“Wonderful! That will be-” I picked the last of the coins I had been saving since the sun set. It would be more than enough for a single flower. The man looked at the pile of coins on the table and smiled. “A pleasure to do business with you!”

The flower sat carefully and hidden in the pocket of my kimono.

Giving a wave to the flower shop owner, I set back to Hayato.

Hayato was leaning against the stall with supplies in hand, waiting for me to arrive. He stood as he saw me. “You’re back.”

He handed me the objects and I quickly transferred them to the sack I was given. “That’s all we need.”

We had spent longer than I had expected in the merchant city. Both Hayato and I would have to hurry if we wanted to keep ourselves from punishment. Hayato looked around. “We better move quickly, I’ve been away for far too long.”

I nodded my head in agreement as we started walking along the path once again.

The red structure was close, so we picked up the pace.

Within a few moments, we had reached the gate.

I talked as Hayato quickly climbed atop it. “I should be back to report in a few days.”

He reached his perch and responded. “I’ll be expecting you.”

We didn’t have time for much more conversation, so I left with a nod to keep myself from overextending my stay. As I moved back I saw Hayato frustratingly force his eyes fixed upon the sea as he opened the gate once again, keeping himself from falling into his usual tranced state. He gave after a few moments and reverted to normal, but at least he had tried.

But enough with tutoring, I had to bring the supplies to Kohei. So I set back down the sandy path towards our camp, dreading every moment.

My anxiety was palpable. A team of powerless miscreants set off to hunt a demon, and I was in the forefront of the fight.

Well, at least I had been able to go shopping beforehand.

Stark reality

My eyes were closed. My head between my knees.

I blindly toyed with the chains of my bindings as the carriage raced to my destination. They chained me in a cage in the back of the carriage. I sat in the autumn cold while guards were comfortably inside the cabin of the vehicle. And this was luxurious compared to how some would be shipped to the prison.

The reality was kicking in at about that moment. A stark reality. There was no wiggling out of this situation like I did with everything else. I would have to suffer through it if I wanted to get back to living my life in the shadows.

The carriage came to a stop, and men started moving objects and preparing for my transfer.

I didn’t bother to move as the door to the cage opened. Two men crawled in the cage and dragged me by the arms. I could barely keep up with their hurried pace as I hobbled along on my one good leg.

We entered a large wall surrounding the camp. We shuffled through large halls with various different doors to different parts of the military quarters. I was too tired and worn to bother inquiring what exactly was behind them.

Voices started growing closer. I’d soon reach whatever destination I was being dragged too.

Along with the voices getting louder, the lights started growing brighter. Soon I was met with the blinding light of a torchlit room. So I let my eyes adjust for a moment, then took in my situation.

Two men were chained and on their knees. One scrawny and skittish, another dark-eyed and round-faced. nameless prisoners.

They were looking at who mattered. An older samurai paced in a circle. His aging but still muscular physique was shroud in large leathers for the autumn cold. Also somewhat due to the coldness that comes with the dark.

A guard put a hand on my back and pushed me to my knees. Which was easy to accomplish with my broken leg easily giving, the binding and leather straps pulled uncomfortably as my leg bent.

I defiantly shrugged the guard’s hand off my shoulder, then adjusted myself upright.

Once we were all at attention, the old soldier started. “Now that you’re all here, I will begin. I’m the warden of this establishment. I’ve worked as the warden of this prison since it’s conception. Before that, I was working closely with the Shogun himself.” He paused for a moment. Then continued pridefully declaring his years spent in dogma. “And the Shogun has trusted me with keeping this camp the secure and well-behaving place it’s been for almost twenty years. And that means I expect you all to behave.” He smiled and leaned in. “And the Shogun lets me do whatever I want, as long as you’re all alive for your hearings. So expect there to be punishment for breaking my rules.” He looked over us. Inspecting eaches reaction to his words. None of us were fazed by his expected threats. He looked away somewhat disappointedly. “Fine. We’re done.” He waved at the guards to take us away. And so they did.

The three of us were escorted through large stone corridors and passageways. Time grew longer and eventually was lost in the sprawling maze. No point of reference or landmark.

After an endless amount of time, we were met with a new sight. An enormous gate blocked the path to a fury of cold wind. Damnation was behind those doors. The gate slowly creaked open at the sight of all of us.

If not for my leg, I might’ve been able to survive. Yet another rash decision comes another painful outcome.

Finally, the door opened enough to see what was hiding behind it.

A city, half burnt to the ground could be seen through the opening. Torchlight bounced off the ghastly faces of the prisoners. Starved and deprived of dignity. Filthy.

The gate fully opened and the guards threw us to the ground. The three of us gazed at each other after we regained our composure. I was the first to break the stare and go my own way. I didn’t want to be responsible for these criminals.

In the main area of the camp was some sort of large and open gathering center, possibly the remains of a market. I got out of the crowded and vulnerable place as soon as possible.

Out of the torchlight and into the dark. I hobbled weekly along in the hopes of shelter. If I wanted to live, I needed somewhere to hide, and quickly.

I started to feel eyes watching. Figures hiding in the shadows. Something with a sinister gaze was trying to watch me while staying undetected. I forced myself to keep on the path and not pursue them.

You’re injured. Keep moving and play defensively.

I quickened the pace, as it was the only thing I could do. Quicker. Quicker.

My leg was close to giving out. I wasn’t faster than a jog, but I could feel my body giving up.

There was a half-burnt building a short way. That would have to do.

I slipped into the rotting old house and closed what was left of the door. There was no way I outran whatever was following me, and there was no way it became uninterested. Find a hiding spot.

Stained black paper walls and burnt furniture was all that met my eyes. There had to be something.

It was hard to see in the dark, so far away from the torches of the courtyard. But I could use that to my advantage.

Ok. There was an upturned table, I would push it to its side and hide behind it in the corner of the lounging room.

I could feel whatever was watching getting closer. My body strained to push the light table, the side effect of not sleeping for days.

Finally, my hiding place had been set and I found myself crouched in the corner of the room. Gradually I came to lay flat on the ground.

Through the crack between the table and the bamboo floor, I could see the door creak open.

Large and fat feet stumbled into the room, pacing from left to right.

I tried to keep my breathing quiet and slow, but it was a hard task. And no matter what I thought about, my mind would ache with anxiety.

Closer and closer the heavy footsteps got. Faster and faster my heart beat. His path was getting closer with every step.

Soon I could no longer look through the crack. I had to lay completely flat and still if I had a hope to survive.

Even through my efforts, I could still hear the heavy footsteps grow eerily closer. Finally, the large silhouette looked down at me. My heart finally broke loose of its restraints and started beating rapidly. In a moment of desperation, I swung my fist. But the damned dark betrayed me, and I caught nothing but air.

The silhouette lifted what had to be a large club. With a thud, I could feel myself drift away from consciousness.

A canvas bag was draped over my head. My arms tied to the wooden chair I was sitting in. The only thing I could see through the bag as the exceeding amount of light in the room.

With a pull, the veil was lifted from my aching head.

The first thing I saw was a muscular man standing in front of me. With a quick turn to the side, I could see the two new inmates that I got briefed with earlier. In the corners of the room stood a few goons. Which meant that the muscular man in front was the leader.

I paid attention to the man in front. I would have to if I wanted to stay in one piece, I assumed.

After a moment, the man spoke. “Greetings. You may be wondering why my men so rudely interrupted whatever you had been doing and brought you here. Well, I brought you all here so we could get acquainted. I assumed you all got briefed by the warden of this place. So think of this as something similar to that.” He paced between us for a moment, nonchalantly checking our expressions and composures. “Now. What I’ve learned is that the warden doesn’t actually do a very good job of getting you all familiar with our slice of hell and its rules. So I’ll be picking up the old man’s slack. My name is Cho. And while the warden may think he owns this establishment. I actually have control of this place.”

The round-faced inmate spoke up. “You’re a prisoner as well, aren’t you? Why should we all pretend you have dominion over this place?”

Cho responded loudly, apparently he did not like to be spoken to out of turn. “Do not speak unless spoken to!!” He paused for a moment, the started speaking in his friendly demeanor once again. “That’s the first rule of this place…” He noticed that he had grown extremely close to the dark-eyed inmate. Cho backed up and went back to the planned lecture. “Now. The rest of the rules are quite simple. You obey my commands, you get fed. You don’t do what I ask, then I can’t help you.” He leaned closer towards the round-faced prisoner. “Now, what will you do?”

The prisoner’s face grew red. “I won’t follow your orders! You and your pile of horse shit group can burn in hell! Take me back to where you found me!”

Cho’s eyes burned with anger, while his face only grew a smile. “Oh no, we don’t take you back to where we found you.” He stood tall and commanded a couple of his lackeys. “Throw him in the pit and don’t feed him until he begs for it like a dog.” With that, the men grabbed the prisoner and dragged him into the darkness screaming. Cho then went to the next. “So. What will you do?”

The scrawny one’s face went pale in fear. “I submit! I’ll do whatever you ask! Please…” Cho smiled at the skitterish one’s panic.

He shook his head. “That won’t do. Someone who kneels to the first person he comes across. No integrity.” He waved towards a few more of his men. “Let him go. He can make his way with the rest and learn to rely on himself.” The man was untied and taken out by his arms. The final one was me. “So… What’ll it be?”

You know what happened to the first. Don’t do it. I said don’t- “I’ll be damned if I kneel to you.”

He smiled and started to command his men. But as his mouth opened, something caught his eye. A different order than what I had thought came out of his mouth. “Gentlemen, roll this man’s sleeves up.” Oh. I struggled as the men pulled on my dirty kimono, but there was nothing that could stop them. As my sleeves were pulled back, the ashen scars on my arms were revealed. Cho’s eyebrows raised as he saw them. “Oh. That’s interesting. The only explanation for burn marks as bad as those, would be if you’re ashen. You had an Ember, then it was stripped away from you by lady Amaterasu herself? You should’ve told me that at the beginning.”

I responded. “I’m not-”

Cho interrupted. “Oh, no. You don’t lose an Ember for some small sin. You see, I had to burn down this entire city before I lost my Ember. They had to build a wall around me even after it was taken away because I was still so powerful from its imprint. So don’t try telling me you didn’t do anything wrong.” He nodded his head and smiled. “You know what. I’ll let you stay with us in the big house. I think you have quite the potential… Are you ready to be civilized and join us for dinner?”

I was torn between shouting at this man in anger or forcing myself to stay quiet. This is how you survive. “Yes… I would love to.”

With that, I was untied from my cloth binding. Standing up, I finally got a good intake of my surroundings. This room looked like it was maybe once a lounging area. Busy rooms were hidden behind painted paper walls. Cho waved at me to follow, which after a moment of reluctance, I obliged.

We passed what had to be a kitchen. A deep hall full of doors, that must have been the bedrooms. We finally reached the dining room. Hot food was sprawled all over the enormous table. With all this room and intricate details, I guessed that this must have been a hotel in the past.

Cho spoke. “Sit… Uh.”

I responded quietly. I had to comply if I wanted to eat and live. “Kenshi.”

Cho smiled. “Ah, Kenshi. Sit and eat.”

My body tried to resist. But I hadn’t eaten in days. I guess in some way that was following an order, submitting. No. Food is essential. I’m not caving. I’m living.

Days of not eating made me eat quickly, and heavily. The men gathered around the table looked in awe at how much I ate so quickly.

Cho laughed. “Now you see how nice it can be as my friend.” Slowly his smile faded. I saw that the stare of awe of the men around me may not have been awe, but silently waiting for something. Cho continued. “And friends help friends, don’t they?”