** disclaimer: Digimon does not belong to me. Takeru and Hikari doesn't belong to me. If they did, I'd be rich. So leave me alone you vultures!
The Age of Gods: Chapter Four
By: TK Takaishi
"So…this is a wakizashi?"
Kari stared curiously, almost reverently at the small, slim blade she held in her hands. The sword was small, about three quarters the length of Takeru's Ishidan katana, but sharp enough to slice steel like paper. The long hilt, approximately the length of her forearm, was bound with black leather, just like Takeru's weapon. It had apparently been designed as a lighter alternative to the conventional katana, but with more reach and power than the kodachi. 'Assassin's weapon', if you may, but Kari didn't like the term. She preferred 'light-weight sidearm'.
Richard nodded with satisfaction. "That's it. I didn't know you knew the actual term. This particular wakizashi has been with me for years. It's served me since the beginning when I first began my apprenticeship as a knight, and it's remained one of my favourite weapons."
"Since you began as a knight?! But that must've been at least twenty years ago!"
Richard grinned. "Twenty-five actually. It's a durable weapon . Not a chip on it, the blade's as sharp as the day it was forged."
It was true. The blade gleamed softly in the late afternoon sunlight that filtered through the forest's foliage. Kari ran a finger along the razor-sharp edge, then "pinged" the steel shaft with her index finger. The clear, sharp tone of honed steel rang softly. She was no expert on swords, but even she could tell instinctively that this was an excellent weapon.
Richard and Kari were alone in the clearing that had served as their home for the past couple weeks. The knight's strategy had been to wait and stay secluded, for however long it might take, while he trained his apprentices.
At the moment, Takeru was off scouting the area, looking for another likely campsite in case they had to leave their current one. Not too far off, Richard had warned him, but they did after all need to be prepared.
"This blade has served me well. As I grew up from a boy into a man, I began to prefer my current sword, a full-fledged katana. But the wakizashi remained my light weapon of choice. Whenever I needed something light-to-carry, and quick-to-use, I chose this weapon. I think this'll suit you well." Richard said with a grin. "Small, light and deadly."
As Kari waved the wakizashi around experimentally, she marveled at its well-tuned balance. The flickering sunlight flashed off the gleaming blade. Then Richard's words sunk in.
"Sir? You want me to fight with this?"
A devilish grin spread across Richard's features. Drawing his own blade, he made an elaborate show of kissing the hilt, and bowing to the girl, the ritual of the sparring partner. "You bet I do. You said yourself, you wanted to be strong, didn't you?"
"Yes, but I…"
"Defend yourself, little lady."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to really attack you." Although the sword-master's face was set into a mock stern expression, his eyes twinkled with amusement. "But now that we know you're a stand-master, I consider it as my divine duty to tell you everything I know about Kenjitsu. And when I'm done with you, you'll be as good as Takeru."
Kari raised her eyebrow, even as she hefted the wakizashi higher in response to the challenge. "Hmm...don't blame me if I resist. I do know a little about Ken- "
"Enough. Defend yourself."
Suddenly, Richard was right in front of her, his blade already weaving in a complex, seemingly random pattern. Startled, Kari leapt back out of striking range. Richard pursued. There was no laughter in his eyes now. His voice was serious, a sensei instructing his pupil.
"I am your enemy. Only I can teach you how to fight, destroy and conquer. In battle, it will not be a friendly sensei. It will not be a gentle friend like Takeru. It will be a savage opponent who will stop at nothing to grind you into the ground. And the only way to stop him doing that to you, is for you to do it to him first. I am that savage opponent. Strike me down if you can."
As Kari began to get the hang of it, she experimented with several strikes of her own. Richard parried them easily. At first her attacks were clumsy and slow, but as the rally went on and on, they began to get swifter, surer, stronger. A small frown of puzzlement began to crease Richard's forehead, but he kept talking.
"Elbow up a little, keep your sword up! Up! Keep on the balls of your feet, always ready to move. Don't just look at my blade. Look at me. My mannerisms, my stance, my eyes. Where am I going to strike next? Where am I weak? Where am I strong?"
The mock fight had already extended for several minutes. A true sparring match almost never lasted for more than a heartbeat, but Richard was intentionally prolonging it. Round and round the forest clearing they clashed. Kari almost seemed to be enjoying it. Not with a bloodthirsty appreciation, but an exhilaration in the smooth, liquid motions of fencing, the intricacies of parry and strike, slide and feint. Kenjitsu in its purest form, as an art.
"Harder! Put your elbow and wrist into it. It's more flexible that way. Aim for the nine targets of Kenjitsu. Head, left shoulder, right shoulder, right waist, left waist, left leg and right leg, crotch, and chest. Go for all of them! Vary your attacks!"
Kari responded with a particularly savage stroke, aimed at Richard's head. A blinding series of rippling explosions traveled up Richard's blade as Kari sought to overcome his defense. It was a move that Takeru had shown her once, demonstrating it against a sapling.
The girl could still remembered how the sapling had been demolished.
In response, the former knight locked blades with Kari's wakizashi. Sliding his sword quickly along Kari's blade, he hooked her hilt neatly, and wrenched the wakizashi free. Kari lost her balance and fell as the blade tumbled end over end across the clearing, embedding itself into the ground several meters away.
"Enough! Enough!" the knight roared. Putting his hands on his waist, he gazed curiously at the girl sitting before him. "Ms. Kamiya. Where the hell did you learn to fence like that?"
Kari panted for breath on the ground. "Takeru showed me a couple moves, and the basics of stance and position, a long time ago. Mother disapproved. She was afraid of me falling into the same fate as my father, but she couldn't stop me." She glanced ruefully at her wakizashi embedded in the ground. "Apparently Takeru didn't teach me well enough."
"I thought I recognized that Kamuvei parry technique..." the knight muttered under his breath. "Well, what did you expect? That you'd defeat a knight of the Ishidan order on your first try?" Richard snorted as he offered a hand to the girl, helping her back onto her feet. Then he settled back into a defensive stance.
"Again. And try to be faster. That blade has to become a natural extension of your arm, as much a part of your body as your head of your leg."
And so they did it again. And again. Each time, Kari got better and better, as she began wielding the wakizashi boldly and confidently. It was impossible to beat Richard, of course, but she learned a lot about Kenjitsu in that hour and a half than at any other time in her life. And all through the lesson, Richard kept talking.
Eventually, Richard called a break, and Kari flopped down exhausted on the grass. Her body was covered in sweat. Even Richard was panting slightly as he sheathed his sword.
"As you progress and get better with your weapon, we'll begin adding some new stuff. How to use a cloak to conceal your movements, and confuse your enemy for example. A cloak, together with a dagger, can sometimes be an effective combination."
Then he paused as he cocked his head. He gave Kari an appraising look.
"Kari, I'll be frank. You are at about the skill level of an apprentice who has been practicing with his or her weapon for a month. And you accomplished it in an hour and a half. The only other pupil I know who has taken up Kenjitsu so phenomenally fast is Takeru. And he…well…I was kind of expecting that."
Kari dusted herself off as she retrieved her wakizashi. "Perhaps. Or perhaps you're just getting old." Her eyes twinkled merrily. "Do you think I'll ever be strong? Like you? Like Takeru?"
Richard tossed the girl a sheath, a stiff affair made of leather. The girl caught it and sheathed the wakizashi carefully. Then, the knight put away his own sheathed weapon as well as he pondered the question.
"That remains to be seen. For you, and for Takeru. The fundamentals, how to wield a blade, that is no problem. I have never seen anyone so proficient with Kenjitsu at such an early age as you two. Perhaps such things, like I said, didn't need to be taught. It was instinctive. As natural as walking, or talking, or breathing.
"But true strength does not spring from such as these. The stand-masters didn't become powerful because of their stands. People followed them because they respected their visions. People followed them because they were good.
"Because above all, they always lead for the good of the people. Their inner spirit, their courage and compassion. That was their strength."
Kari nodded. "So then- "
It was then that a blinding pain erupted inside her brain. She fell to her knees as she clutched at her head, her eyes squeezed shut.
Her left shoulder throbbed, afire with agony. Her heart lurched as it suddenly began beating at a furious pace. She couldn't breathe, couldn't gasp. A torrent of emotions raced through her mind. Fear, anger, hate…
And underneath it all, an overwhelming sadness...
"Kari? Kari, speak to me! What the hell happened?"
The next thing Kari noticed was Richard's face peering concernedly at her. She was lying on the ground. I must've blacked out for a second, she thought slowly. The constant rage was subsiding now, fading back to a dull pressure in the back of her mind. In its place, rational thought returned, slowly drifting back to the surface like debris after a storm of emotions.
"Takeru…" she whispered.
"There's something wrong…" She got up unsteadily, bracing herself against Richard as she stood up. "I…what the hell just happened…"
Richard's eyes suddenly widened in alarm. In recognition. "Kari." He grasped her shoulders tightly as he drilled her with a suddenly intense gaze. "What did you feel? What ran through your mind? Images? Emotions? Thoughts? What did you feel?"
"It's…it's like…suddenly seeing and hearing someone else's thoughts all of a sudden." She clutched her head in confusion. "No, that's not it. It's like…sensing someone…. I can't describe it! Fear, incredible hatred and rage. Almost like a battle rage. And underneath it all, an overwhelming sadness."
Richard however, was suddenly full of grim urgency. "Let me put this another way. Where did it come from?"
Kari shook Richard's hands off. Shaking her head to clear it, she pointed west. "Over there, and don't ask me how I know, I just- "
But Richard was not listening. Taking hold of Kari's arm, he began dragging her towards the west at a run. "Come on. We have to get there fast. I have a hunch Takeru's in trouble."
"But Richard, why? Just because I suddenly had a migraine?"
Richard shook his head, never once slackening his pace. "That, is the final proof that you and Takeru are stand-masters. Perhaps you didn't know this, but one of the abilities of stand-masters was that they could communicate with each other over long distances. With their stands."
Kari's eyes widened. "So, what I just felt…was Takeru being- "
Then, she sucked in a quick breath of surprise.
Richard's eyes took in the scene at once. Takeru was panting as he stood, his Ishidan katana drawn and bared. At his feet lay three, black-clad soldiers, dead from surgical strikes to their bodies. Blood had been sprayed liberally around the clearing, staining the grass, and splattered across Takeru's features. The boy's shoulder was bleeding again, the crimson stain spreading on the clean white bandage as his chest heaved for breath. His slight body was trembling violently.
Kari immediately rushed in. Unwrapping Takeru's bandage, she pushed the wad of cloth against his wound, trying to stem the bleeding. "Takeru, what the hell happened here?"
The boy didn't seem surprised that Kari was here. Or he was too stunned to care. His eyes were only beginning to return to their normal shade of blue. Taking a deep breath, he tried to pull himself together. "I…I killed them…" he gestured simply at the dead soldiers at his feet.
Richard frowned. "Be a little more explicit Takeru."
"They took me by surprise. Blindsided me from my left when I was heading back. They hit my injured shoulder. And I…" he trailed off as he bit his lip.
Then to Kari's surprise, he began to cry. His shoulders shook slightly as he wept bitterly. "Takeru?" she said as she finished tying up the knot on his bandage, fashioning an impromptu sling. "It's over now, you don't have to worry. You defeated them. They surprised you, and you, a fourteen year-old boy, made them look like a bunch of helpless old hags- "
All Takeru could see though, was the bloody evidence on his hands and clothes. All he could feel was the horrible rage of battle overpowering his senses. Kari's voice seemed to be coming from a great distance, as if she was far away.
"TK?" He heard Kari speaking again. "Are you…are you all right?"
"I didn't want to hurt them!" the boy cried. "Why couldn't they just leave me alone?"
Richard's voice was grim as he inspected the dead soldiers carefully. "Unfortunately, Takeru, you might just have to get used to that. I have a feeling you'll be doing this a lot more in the not-so-distant future." Turning one body over, he examined the golden serpent emblazoned on their chests.
"Takeru, did you bump into them, or did they find you?"
Takeru closed his eyes as he tried valiantly to compose himself. It was something he had developed over the years, bottling up ones emotions, sealing them to a distant corner so they wouldn't interfere in the moment. An almost visible mask dropped over his face as it settled into hard, unyielding lines. "They sought me out. It seemed like they were looking for something. It was a well-planned ambush from the start."
Richard was silent for a few moments as he looked back and forth in the forest. "Merde, merde, merde…" he cursed softly under his breath. Although there was clearly no threat, his katana remained drawn.
"Come on," he motioned urgently at the two children as he headed back through the forest. "We have to get back."
Takeru nodded once, hastily wiped his sword against the grass, and sheathed it. For a moment, he looked unsteady again as he stepped around the body of those he had killed. A flicker of the old uncertainty appeared in his eyes, but only for a moment. Following the knight into the forest, they headed back towards camp. It was Kari that hesitated, glancing at the three bodies of the soldiers. "Are we just going to leave them here?"
Richard's answer chilled her. "They're nothing but meat for the forest animals now. Why should we bother?" At that, Kari fell silent as she followed the others.
Several minutes later, as the group reached their camp clearing, Richard began at once to get the cart prepared. "We have to get away from here," the man explained hastily. "Help me with cleaning this place up, leave no trace that we ever camped here. Takeru, kick out that fire, and scatter the ashes. Kari, help me with the horses."
Takeru got to work right away. Kicking around, he crushed the embers into the earth, scattering them widely so there was no evidence of a fire except for the small burnt patch on the ground. That could not be helped. Kari frowned as she set to work harnessing the horses. "But why? Takeru's shoulder needs time to heal, especially after that last skirmish."
It was the boy that answered softly. "We've been tracked. It must've taken them some time for the army to turn around again after they discovered I hadn't been killed. After heading back, they probably picked up our trail, and tracked us here. Those soldiers I killed, I'd bet they were scouts for the main army. They'll come sweeping through this forest, and we have to be long gone by then."
"But your shoulder-"
"Will have to be fine until we can deal with it."
His cold tone of voice frightened her. There was an undercurrent of pain from his injury, but it was so tightly controlled, Kari doubted anyone else but her and Richard would notice it. She glanced over quickly at Takeru as he packed hastily. She had never, in all her years with the boy, imagined that his face, normally so caring and gentle, could look so…scary.
He couldn't hide his eyes though. It was as if he had put on a mask, a barrier around his emotions, and only Kari could see through his armour. Everyone saw a soldier with cold eyes, his katana covered in blood.
Kari saw a frightened, tortured boy.
For in that lucid moment, when she had shared Takeru's thoughts, she had known him, and understood him in a way that no other mortal could. For one moment, they were truly one, in the most literal sense of the word. She would tell him about that experience later, when he was more prepared, when he was calmer. More than anything, Kari wanted to comfort him, to tell him he didn't have to hide anything from her, that he was not a monster, not a killer…
"We're out of time." Richard tossed their only bag of belongings onto the bag, and finished up hitching the horses. Climbing on, he gestured impatiently at the children. "Let's go. Come on!"
Takeru leapt on-board easily. Kari followed. Time was cruel. She wouldn't have a chance to tell him, so instead, she settled for a quick prayer under her breath.
Lord, if we live through this, I pray that you would guard Takeru. Guide him through this dark time Lord, when he trusts not even himself.
For after this day, I fear he may never be the same again…
** several hours later**
PraetorCaylor Ga'artred straightened slowly from his crouch, standing up from examining the dead bodies of his soldiers. He rubbed the sticky blood on his black-gloved hands away as he gazed once around the forest.
"Sir, looks like we were on the right track after all." Locke murmured softly behind his commander. He too was dressed in full-battle armour, his Centurion's mask firmly in place, his features indistinguishable. His unit of men, along with the legions of the Praetor's entire task force, stood silently in the forest.
Caylor nodded once. "The bodies are still warm. This couldn't have happened more than several hours ago, which means we're close. This was the work of a skilled swordmaster. Look at the precision with which the strikes were applied. This battle didn't last very long. Not surprising, since they had an Ishidan knight with them."
"Actually sir, the boy, the Ishidan prince, was also quite proficient with the sword. I saw him myself wielding one of our own scimitars as if he had been born with it. He has been trained, of that I am certain…"
Then Locke realized what he was doing. He, a lowly, newly-promoted Centurion, was presuming to give his opinion to his superior commander, a full-fledged Praetor. He bowed his head, and waited for the rebuke.
Locke looked up in surprise. "But sir- "
"How do you propose we track down and defeat an opponent such as this?" Caylor's tone was genuinely inquisitive, without a trace of rancor.
So Locke kept talking. "Overwhelm them with numbers. Send out patrols, but with specific orders not to engage until the main body of the army is with them. Against small, isolated patrols, the Ishidan knight can defeat our soldiers indefinitely. If we use our numbers, we may have them within a day."
Caylor's glacial grin was frightening. "Very good, Centurion. Make it so."
Locke bowed. "At once."
For a single, flaring moment, the last, dying rays of sunset blazed brilliantly over the western ridges of the Novinha mountain ranges, casting into the crimson sky brilliant golden beams. Some might say that the sun was always determined to go out with a blaze of glory, for sunset was invariably the most beautiful time of the day.
Those last instants before the day's death were ironically the day's most splendid. Such was the way of life.
But night always came. And as those last rays died away, a cold, hostile darkness swept the land, plunging the forests into gray shadow. The friendly warmth of the day was gone, and in its place, shadows obscured the sky. Animals instinctively returned to their homes. Night was a time fraught with danger. Night was the time for a hunt.
The darkness was made even more complete with the gathering of ominous storm clouds over the sky. Already, small droplets of water were dropping onto the forest, as occasional lightning flashes lit up the clouds. A roll of low thunder rumbled in the distance. A storm was approaching.
On the peak of a mountain ridge, Richard stared grimly at a column of glowing dots in the distance, advancing ever closer to his position. Threading through the forest, the distant glow of fire-torches were evident to the knight's sharp eyes. They're onto us, the despairing thought flashed through his mind. And they're close. They'll be here in about three hours if we don't move it. Damn. Is there any way of shaking them?
Turning, he strode quickly back to the forest path where they had stopped for a brief break. Kari was tending to the tired horses, letting them graze. Takeru, seeing his father return, padded over. "Are they still onto us?"
Richard nodded. "They're still there. And they're gaining. I can see their fire-torches in the distance." They had purposely decided to take a rest break here, because it was the highest point in the trail. From here, they could overlook miles of valleys and mountain passes, and determine, if they could, where the enemy was.
Kari sighed. "How can we shake them? No matter how hard and how fast we push ourselves, they'll always be faster. No matter where we go, they'll always be able to track us."
Richard looked into the sky. "Our only hope now is to stay ahead of them until the rain comes. Thank God for this storm. If we can survive for that long, there's no way they can track us in the rain. Our tracks will be washed away."
"If we can stay ahead of them for that long," Takeru added grimly. He too looked into the sky. "About five hours. If we're still a sizable distance away from them five hours from now, we stand a chance."
Five hours. The time estimate sounded heavy. Five hours was forever. They were all exhausted. None of them had eaten since early afternoon. Even Takeru and Kari, mountain children that they were, were beginning to feel the effects of the strenuous march.
Richard spared another glance at the approaching motes in the distance, gritting his teeth in frustration. Then, apparently reaching a decision, he strode purposely over. "Takeru, Kari, come here. I need to tell you something."
Curious, Kari gave the horses a last pat to ensure that they were alright, and walked over. Takeru peered over his father's shoulder as the former knight spread a map out onto the wooden floor of the cart.
"My original purpose was to stay in this forest indefinitely. Perhaps when the Khaydarin army was gone, we could construct another life for ourselves in another village. And there, I could train you, help you to grow strong, teach you, especially you Kari, all that I know.
"In another five or ten years, you'd be ready. And then we could start the fight to reclaim the Age of Gods. To fulfill the purpose God set out for you."
Kari sucked in a breath, while Takeru looked away. So that was how high Richard's expectations were of them. They were to be the next Aduns. But Richard didn't give them time to reflect. His voice held a note of grim certainty.
"But it looks like I won't even have time to do that. Khaydarin is getting bolder and bolder in their border raids, almost passing the realm of skirmishes into outright battles. The razing of Kurtal was their boldest action yet. And now this. Romping through the Novinha mountain ranges like they own them. It's like they've completely given up the pretense of subtlety. They're determined to catch you, and put a stop to you, before you two can turn into threats. It's almost like they're planning something drastic soon."
Takeru frowned. "So where are we headed now? What do you plan to do?"
Richard made indicated a spot on the map. "This is where we are. In the Novinha mountain ranges. I want to head east along this path, then onto the flatlands.
"In short, I want to head for the ruins of Ishida."
Kari frowned. "Why?"
The knight's response was cryptic. "There, we'll find everything. The seeds of the future lie buried in the past."
Takeru was more practical, his finger tracing the map. "Where is it? I don't see Ishida on this."
"That's because it's not on there. It's so far away, this map doesn't cover it."
The boy sucked in a breath. "What?! But this covers almost a month's journey in any direction!"
Richard cast a glance at the approaching fire-torches. They were getting closer, but Takeru and Kari had to know this. It was crucial that they understood.
"Takeru, you have to understand. When I ran away, I ran. I wandered for over two years before finally settling down in Kurtal. Ishida is really far east. Some of the more fantastical people around here say that the ruins of Ishida lie on the place where the Sun rises every day. That's how far East it is, all the way on the other side of Gaea."
Takeru shook his head in amazement. So that was why he looked so different from the local people. That's why he was the only one in his village with blond hair and blue eyes. Because he was not native to this land at all. "But why would we want to- "
Richard grabbed the boy's shoulders. "Takeru, listen to me. It's critical that you get there! If anything ever happens to me, or if we get separated, promise me, promise me that you'll find your way there. All the way to Ishida!"
Momentarily overwhelmed by the man's sudden passion, Takeru backed off slightly. "All right! All right! I promise!" Richard turned to Kari, and received an affirmative nod as well. The girl's reply was more tempered.
"Fine. If anything ever happens, I promise that I'll get there. But how do we get there?" The girl still had no idea why, but she trusted Richard implicitly. If the knight deemed it important, then she deemed it critical. They had no place to call home, and the closest thing she had to family right now was Takeru and Richard.
Profound relief spread across Richard's features. He beckoned for Kari to come closer, and then the knight began to recount the journey to Ishida.
"First of all, head east. A long way east. Past the Novinha mountain ranges, past the plateaus and the Saera deserts and scrublands. Be careful of roaming desert bands. Always keep the rising sun in front of you by day, and orient by the North Star at night. Don't worry too much about heading. As long as you're going roughly East, you should be fine.
"After a long while, you'll hit the ocean, and the shoreline will begin forcing you North-East. That's fine. Follow it, past the kingdom of Ichijouji. You'll know you're on the right path when you come across some sky-high cliffs. The fortress the local people call it. Keep along the shoreline, always keep the ocean to your right, and it will lead you to a river.
"The sacred river Alph." For a moment, Richard was silent as he was lost in some personal memory. "You'll recognize it by its peculiar diamond-shaped delta, and its sheer size. That river was once the heart of Ishida, bringing life and precious water to her farmlands and people. Head upstream, following its course, even as it begins to ascend rocky mountains again, and down deep fjords. Don't be distracted by the tributaries, but keep to the main river. Follow it all the way to its head.
"And there lies the ruins of Palas, capital of the kingdom of Ishida. That's the road to your homeland. And in there, you'll find your answers."
Slowly, Richard reached behind his neck, and unfastened something. Drawing his hand back out, he pulled a fine, golden pendant, attached to a deep-green jade jewel. Carefully, he placed the chain and jade into Takeru's palm and closed his hand over it. "And Takeru, I want you to keep this for me."
The boy stared at the jewel. For as long as he could remember, Richard had worn the thing around his neck like some sort of good-luck charm. "But father, why?"
"Please, Takeru." The man's voice was pleading. "Just…just keep it safe for me. Trust me. If we are ever separated, I don't need that jewel. I would have no use for it. You and Kari however, need it much more than I do."
In the darkening twilight, both children stared incredulously at Richard. The first few splatters of raindrops began to fall from the sky, though all three were oblivious to it. A deep silence dropped like a veil over the rocky mountain ridge.
"But why?" Kari started incredulously. "Why would we want to risk our lives to go that far? For what purpose? And what's so important about that jade jewel?"
Richard cast one look back at the approaching army. Night had completely fallen by now, and the raindrops were beginning to fall in earnest. His reply was even more cryptic, almost lyrical in its poetry.
"He shall live the way of the wanderer. Fifteen years, his journey shall span from the ranges of the Western mountains, to the place where the Sun rises each morn. His homeland by birth and blood.
"Fifteen years, at the end of which, he shall discover the heritage left unto him by the Lord.
"Such is the life of therurouni, follower of the holy pilgrimage."
Kari shook her head in frustration. The man was obviously quoting from something, but from what? "Richard, stop speaking nonsense, and start giving us straight answers! Who is the 'he' you're talking about? Why is it so critically important that we get to- "
Richard opened his mouth to answer.
"Kari look out!"
Takeru's yell was accompanied by a blinding blur of blue steel as he unsheathed his sword. A small blue spark erupted in the darkness as the arrow that had originally been aimed at Kari was deflected neatly, flying back into the darkness from where it came.
Suddenly, the forest was alive with dark, shimmering figures, rippling into existence with the all-too-familiar shedding of their cloaks. The vanguard of the Khaydarin task force had arrived. Kari counted a full twenty-man unit, the masks and scimitars flashing in the fading light. More and more columns shimmering into existence behind them by the second.
"Dammit!" Richard unsheathed his blade as well, as Kari hastily drew her own wakizashi. "I should've known!"
Too late, he realized, that the burning torches from afar were simply decoys, a small force left behind to travel slowly, while the bulk of the army went ahead, under cover of darkness. It was an age-old tactic, made all the more effective with the forested terrain, darkness, and stealth cloaks. He should've known, should've anticipated this, but they had been one step ahead.
Stupid, careless, thoughtless,he berated himself mentally, even as he swung into battle. Richard Takaishi, if you die for this – you deserve it.
Takeru didn't hear his surrogate father. All of his senses were devoted to staying alive. He was suddenly surrounded by a plethora of scimitar-wielding soldiers, and he struck out savagely, like a hot summer flame. A flickering, golden aura shone from his blade, lending a fiery brilliance to its arcs and slashes.
The rain was falling in sheets by now, drenching the boy to the skin. But he didn't care. Indeed, he welcomed it, as if the water could wash away his hideousness. Thunder began rumbling in earnest, as cascades of lightning flashed across the sky. Strike, parry and feint; dodge, hack and thrust, the boy battled furiously against the dark soldiers. The calm path turned into a chaotic field of crashing steel and flying blood.
A whinny of horses and thundering hooves pierced the sounds of savage battle. Both father and son looked up as Kari, standing atop the cart, urged the panicked horses through the melee. In the confusion, Kari had somehow fought her way back to the wagon. The heavy cart and berserk animals smashed through the Khaydarin ranks, who gave way out of sheer surprise and shock.
"Come on!" she screamed at Takeru, who was closer than Richard. The boy gave one last slash, then threw himself back and up, landing clumsily on the careening cart. The shock of his landing knocked the breath out of him, and jarred his injured shoulder mercilessly, but he made it. A jagged shard of lightning pierced the sky, the terrible concussion of thunder rocking the mountains.
Already, Kari was steering the cart for Richard, plunging through the startled crowd of soldiers. Anyone who didn't get out of the way fast enough was crushed flat. The knight was fighting valiantly, blinding sparks erupting from his parries and strikes. Khaydarin soldiers fell like corn before a reaper, but still more pressed on and on.
"Father!" Takeru screamed, extending his right hand. Kari had her hands full trying to control the cart, so the boy knew he had to perform the tricky extraction himself. "Grab onto my hand!"
Richard heard. Even as the cart careened madly towards him, the knight was already jumping back, trying to gain himself some room. Parrying a strike to his throat, he kicked the soldier in the throat. As the man went down, gagging and choking, Richard leapt, his free hand seeking for Takeru's extended arm.
For a breath-taking moment, Takeru believed he would make it. His father would grab his arm. Kari would steer them clear. The cart would quickly outdistance its Khaydarin pursuers, and before they had collected their wits, they would be long gone. And they would never be able to track them in the rain.
There was his father, hanging in the air. Just in front of him.
So close…so close…
A feral howl pierced the night sky as a brilliant blue nova flare of light shattered the darkness. A jagged stream of lightning blue blasted through the space between the boy and the man's hand. Takeru could feel the electric power of it on his face as it streamed by within inches of his hand.
Richard, blasted in midair, went tumbling off to the side. The cart careened on, past the downed knight, down the steep mountain path. Takeru and Kari were now going downhill, and there was no turning back as the wagon picked up speed, tearing past tree branches recklessly. A fresh unit of soldiers closed off the gap. Horrified, Takeru realized there was no way for them to double back now to his father. It was death to try.
Another blinding blue flash erupted, in conjunction with a jagged fork of lightning that sundered the roiling, stormy sky. Looking back, Takeru saw a man, an eerie, blue-white aura blazing around his frame. The light gleamed off his metallic half-mask, and his gray-black cloak whipped around violently in the storm of his own aura, like a set of demonic wings. His eyes, what Takeru could see of them beneath his mask, also glowed the same brilliant blue.
Kari twisted around, and got one glimpse, one clear look, but it was enough.
A stand?! A stand-master?! But how could that-
Takeru, however, was oblivious. Almost blind with rage and frustration. "Father, come back!!" he screamed again, his crazed voice cutting through the howling wind. The boy was beyond reason.
Painfully, Richard picked himself up, only to find himself locked into battle again. Snarling Khaydarin soldiers hemmed in on him, shimmering scimitars slashed and thrust at him. For every one he slew, three more took his place. It was useless. No matter where he turned, there were more of them. He called on every last ounce of skill and strength, but there was too much. The odds were too great.
And so Richard did what his Ishidan warrior's discipline demanded. He embraced his own death, and fell unrepentant into the approaching darkness that clouded his vision. Even as Khaydarin slashes began to score hits, even as he felt himself beginning to lose strength and be dragged under, he fought savagely, tooth and nail, determined to thin the Khaydarin ranks as much as possible. Soldiers fell left and right to Vargas Takaishi's flashing sword and berserk strength.
For even within sight death, the master of the Shun Ten Satsu was a dangerous man. To protect his Emperor, this particular knight was willing to go all the way to hell.
Such was the way of life. Those last instants before the day's death were ironically the day's most splendid…
Richard's last words rang clear and true across the raging battlefield. Even as Takeru collapsed weeping on the floor of the cart, his body racked with savage sobs of grief. Even as the wagon careened farther and farther away, rapidly outdistancing its pursuers, the boy heard the knight's last words piercing the storm, piercing the rain to reach his ears.
"Long live King Takeru!!"
**five hours later**
The rain showed no sign of slackening. Although the rumbling thunder and lightning had abated slightly, sheets of water still poured down onto the forest. The driving elements battered any foolish enough to stay out on a night like this.
A small, horse-drawn cart jostled, and slowed to a stop along a narrow valley path. The two horses' heads were drooped, sweat rolling off their flanks, mixing with the rainwater. Their laboured breaths came out in puffs of smoke in the frigid mountain air.
A small girl hopped off the front board, dragging several objects from the flatbed behind her. The wakizashi fastened to her belt clacked softly in its sheath as she hoisted a bag of supplies over her shoulder. Then she turned, and helped another child leap off as well.
This one seemed to be injured, from the way he collapsed onto his knees right after he landed, regardless of the muddy puddles. A katana was fastened to his right belt. If one looked closer, one would notice the two tear-stained tracks running down his cheeks, mingling with the rainwater that dripped from his matted blond hair.
Kari, however, had no time to grieve. After unloading the cart of all the vital supplies, she turned the horses towards the west, gave both horses a small pat and a murmured word of thanks, then gave each of them a slap on the backside. The cart took off, without a driver, heading west through the forest.
Behind it, the girl spared one last glance at the receding wagon, then readjusted the bag on her shoulder, and struck due east with the boy.
They studiously avoided the path, choosing instead to blaze their own through the wild, mountain forests. After awhile, it was obvious they were both bone weary. Takeru especially. Perhaps the bloody sling on his left arm had something to do with it. Every few seconds, a drop of crimson blood dripped onto the ground below, only to be washed away quickly by the driving rain.
Both of them had been running for twelve hours straight, and were cold, wet, hungry and tired. There were limits to what the human body could endure.
Takeru held together for another hour before he finally collapsed from sheer exhaustion and grief. "Kari, I…I can't go any further," he panted softly as he kneeled on the ground, heedless of the mud. It was not mere sleepiness. It was that terrible, bone-numbing weariness of battle, the type that penetrates to your soul, freezes your mind, and turns your marrow into mud.
"Come on." The girl doubled back to help her friend up. "We have to keep moving, put the most distance between us while the rain's still erasing our tracks."
"Takeru, you can do it!" Her voice grew sterner, harder. "Get up, and start moving! We can't stop until sunrise, at the very least. Richard believed in you, I believe in you- "
It was a mistake to mention the dead knight. The boy crumpled to the ground, tears starting to run anew. "Richard…"
Kari felt tears prickling her eyes as well, but she held them back. She had to remain strong, for both their sake's. "Takeru, I grieve for him too. I know how you feel. But we have to keep moving!"
"Why won't anyone understand? They don't get it! They say I'd get used to it. But I can't get used to it! All I'm getting is tired, and more tired, and more tired…"
Kari bit her tongue to try to control her rising temper. "God doesn't think so. Richard didn't think so. Takeru, he really did believe in you. He honestly staked his life on the belief that you were going to be the next Adun, a visionary. Are you going to dishonour his memory by dying now?"
"As far as I'm concerned, his belief was misplaced."
"But your heritage! Your stand- "
Takeru heaved a shuddering breath. "Let someone else be famous. Let someone else have the power, the glory. Let someone else go down in the history books, and be hailed for generations as the next Adun."
His voice quieted down to a whisper. "Me? I just want to go home. Except I don't know where home is anymore…"
With a fury that surprised even herself, Kari struck the boy savagely across the face. There was no use trying to hold back her emotions now. All her rage, fear and grief spilled over like a raging river bursting over its dam.
"It's all about you, isn't it? I don't want to do it. I didn't want to be chosen." Kari's eyes flashed with anger. "Well, Takeru, wake up! It's not about you! The world doesn't revolve around you! It has always been about the others, the people of Gaea. From the very beginning!"
Takeru cradled his stinging cheek as he stared up at her. Kari began to cry as well. Or was it rainwater that slid down her cheeks? In the darkness, it might as well have been blood, and he wouldn't have noticed. He stared incredulously as Kari continued brokenly.
"Nobody said being a hero would be fun. Did Richard say that? Did I say that? No. But we dare to become that hero anyway. We willingly shoulder that burden because as stand-masters, we have a responsibility to God's people. Because we're the only ones who can!"
Hot tears slid down her cheeks as she too collapsed onto her knees in front of the boy, oblivious of the muddy ground, oblivious to the icy rain sliding down her back. Sobs began to rack her body as well.
"Don't come complaining to me about grief, Takeru Ishida. When you can bring me back my mother, then you can complain about what this costs you. I lost my home, my family, my life. Richard was as much my father as he was yours. But I want be strong. For the sake of everyone, I want be strong. I don't want anyone to get hurt because I wasn't enough!
"To fulfill the promise I gave to Richard, I will go to Ishida. I will risk my life to go that far east. On my own strength, if necessary. And when I get there, I will discover God's heritage for me."
The tears were blinding now. The cold mask she wore to survive was gone, washed away in the torrent of her emotions. For a moment, Kari was a frightened, little girl, lost and alone in a world suddenly upside-down.
"But if even you, Takeru, if you collapse on me…how can I be strong? When I am so much weaker than you are?"
Richard had been a rock in the storm, and Takeru an anchor so strong and secure that Kari, sheltered in his lee, hadn't even noticed the storm existed. And now, Richard was gone. And Takeru…this frightened her, more than she dared to admit. He too, was frightened and scared. The storm was free to blow her every which way. She was a helpless fleck of foam caught in the raging waves and wind.
If even Takeru can't do it, then what hope in hell doI have?
Kari collapsed, her exhausted frame unable to support her any longer. Her body utterly spent. Slowly, Takeru hugged her close, supporting her trembling body with his own. Staring at the sky, he allowed the incessant rainwater to wash over his face.
The people. God's people…
Was that it? This was about the people. The countless innocents that would die if Khaydarin ever launched their campaign, the dark rule that would result if they ever conquered Gaea. For the conquest was coming.
Richard had known all along, hadn't he? Known for fourteen years, ever since that preemptive strike on Ishida. Known that they were planning. And when will be the culmination of their plans? When they would finally move boldly in a bloody campaign against Gaea?
Ten years? Five years? Next week?
And father had most certainly hoped, every moment of my childhood thatI was the only one who would stop them. That's why he taught me all that he did, about Kenjitsu, about history, about leading. That's why he told me so many stories about Ishida, and about Khaydarin. That's why he devoted so many hours to teaching me, not just about sword-fighting, but about love, trust and loyalty.
No, he didn't teach me those. Heshowed me those.
And it must have killed him. Every moment of every day. To know that one day he would send me, the son he loved, into battle, perhaps never to return. His son, not in blood, but most definitely in spirit. But he did it anyway. He swallowed his fear and hid it, and did it anyway. Hid and concealed it so perfectly I never once suspected.
For to him,I was destiny's child. To him, I was Crown Prince of all Ishida, the last of the great stand-masters.
But was he correct? Am I the truly Godspoken? Do I have the strength? The purpose? For as long as I could remember, I was Takeru Takaishi, mountain boy of Kurtal.
Dare I shoulder the burden to become Takeru Ishida, Emperor of my kingdom?
The troubling thoughts raced through the boy's mind as he gazed upwards. The roiling thunderclouds yielded no answers. The driving rain yielded no answers. Instead, Kari's words resounded in his ears, even as he closed his eyes against the downpour.
And in them, he found answers.
"Nobody said being a hero would be fun. Did Richard say that? Did I say that? No. But we do it anyway, because as stand-masters, we have a responsibility to God's people. Because we're the only ones who can!"
"But if even you, Takeru, if you collapse on me…how can I be strong? When I am so much weaker than you are?"
It was not about him. People around him drew strength from him, whether he liked it or not. For their sakes, he had to remain strong. They must not be allowed to see his tears, most not be allowed to see his fear. If he was uncertain, they must not know it. If he was scared, he must appear confident. The strong were the most lonely, for there would be no-one to comfort them. They could not afford it.
The stand was not a blessing, it was a curse. He knew that now. Had known from the beginning. But it was also his duty. It was his heritage. It was his bitter responsibility. God demanded no less. The people demanded no less. Richard demanded no less.
But dare he fulfill it?
"Richard believed in you. He honestly staked his life on the belief that you were going to be the next Adun, a visionary. Are you going to dishonour his memory by dying now?"
Takeru opened his eyes again. Slowly.
He dared. He would do it. He dared to become that visionary. He would try his damned hardest, and if he failed, so be it. He'd die secure in the knowledge that he had done his best. The people around him would remember him as a fool, but a devoted fool. "Takeru Takaishi, the crazy boy who didn't know his own limits. But by God, he tried!!"
Yes, I'll do it.
If for nothing else, for the sake of the man I called "father", and for the man who called me "son".
He gave Kari's arm a reassuring squeeze. Startled, she looked up into his face. The tear-stains were still there, the bloody sling on his shoulder was still there. Rainwater still matted his blond hair to his forehead. But he looked different. His eyes shone with a glimmer of the old strength, the old purpose that Kari had come to depend on so much.
"I won't collapse on you." The words sounded almost childishly simple. "If you are willing to come with me, I will try to be strong as well." Slowly, he stood up, and offered a hand to the girl. "Can't stop till daybreak, huh? Well, let's go then. I'll get all the rest I need next week.
"Richard wanted us to go east. So let's go east."
Numbly, Kari took the offered hand, and pulled herself up. Physically, the boy was still weak. His slight body was bent with exhaustion, and his blue eyes were tired. But his hand was steady. Steady as a rock. Gratefully, she smiled at him, a small smile of heartfelt relief and thanks.
Takeru was back. The Lord had answered her prayer. And the funny thing was, she never once suspected that it was through her that He would answer it.
"Let's go then. Due east it is."
And so, both children struck through the forest once again, through the dark night and lashing rain. Supporting each other, helping each other. Together, in their weakness, they were strong.
Behind them lay the smashed remnants of Kurtal, and the dead body of one they had both loved as their father. Behind them lay what remained of their childhood.
Before them lay impenetrable darkness and uncertainty. Dawn, with its welcome warmth, was still a long way off, and a long night fraught with danger still awaited them.
But they would face it together. The coming years would be some of the most horrific either of them had ever faced. Indeed, the most horrific Gaea had ever seen. But they would face it together. Ever eastward, they went, ever farther from the pursuing Khaydarin army. Ever eastward, to Takeru Ishida's homeland.
I can't explain this kind of grace,
This kind of love.
Even when I break your heart,
When I stray from your arms,
You run to welcome to me.
I love the way you hold me close,
And say my name.
"Takeru" you whisper in my ear,
"My little boy.
My beloved son."
From the moment my life began,
You have been faithful.
And so I will be faithful to you,
To follow the path you set for me.
So this is my song of praise to you.
For who you are, and all that you do.
This is my song of farewell to you.
My precious guide,
My beloved father.
** Author's notes: Quite a lot of things to address here.
One. To the person who said "The Age of Gods" was "this is crap", don't bother looking for your review anymore. I removed it, and good riddance. Same for the person who flamed "Innocents of War" with a simple "this suks!!!!!! (cont'd)". Unsupported two or three word flames like that are no use to me. If you hate it, TELL ME WHY!! Constructive criticism is appreciated. Flames are…not. *sighs* I suppose every author gets flamed eventually…
Two. This is the last chapter of "The Age of Gods". Like before, this story will be continued in another saga. Title yet to be determined. *rubs temples* I don't know why, but I seem to be developing a bit of a writer's block with this story. Progress is…slow.
Oh yeah. The reason why this chapter was so late was because I was on vacation. It IS summer holidays now, you know.
Things I was inspired / took ideas, concepts or names from (just so I don't get friggin' called for plagiarism):
- The game "StarCraft" (The names "Khaydarin", "Adun", "Praetor")
- The anime "Record of Lodoss War" (The name "The Age of Gods")
- The anime "Rurouni Kenshin" (the sword fight scenes)
- The anime "Vision of Escaflowne" ("Gaea", the sword fight scenes)
- The anime "Jo Jo's Bizarre Adventure" (the concept of the "stand")
- Digimon (I'm not even going to bother…)
- Timothy Zahn's "Heir to the Empire" series. (It's a series of Star Wars books. The personality of Caylor.)
- James Ramsey Ullman's "Banner in the Sky" ("Kurtal", "Broli", "laesbube / angel-face")
- Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" (The name "Locke Dimak") **great book, by the way. You should try it. In fact, try all of the books I've listed. ^_^
- The story "Homeworld Return" posted on Vector's profile, (but incidentally, not written by him, but by Andrew Cole). (The name "Caylor Ga'artred")
- The Christian song "Faithful Father" (the little poem thingy at the end. Not exactly the same thing though. It's been heavily modified)
Um…I can't think of anymore. If I miss anything, remind me to put it in later.
And finally, thanks a TON to my editors, phawx and Dreamwalker. Phawx was a great help with the preliminary editing, like…rephrasing my free-writes. And Dreamwalker helped immensely with perfecting the final product. Let's give a round of applause to both of them!! *claps heartily*
The contest's due date, remember, is July 7th. That's not a lot of time. Get your entries in people! Late submissions will not be accepted. There are no exceptions. Remind your friends, if they somehow miss this chapter. Check back with my profile for announcements, as I'll be updating it with contest info.
Oh, and check out the new pic I posted on my profile! *giggles insanely* The moment I saw TK's ridiculous hat, I was just waiting for something like this to happen. Pity it never did in the series, so I did it myself. ^_^