Silence is broken by the sound of a pulse racing and the sound of a woman panting cuts through the serenity of the jungle. Panic permeates from her stoic face as she contemplates her next step. In the distance silence surrounds her; it is the silence that she fears. She quickly focuses her attention to the plan that she has put into action. She glares down an unseen path that disappears into the dense foliage of the jungle. Squatting down in a low crouch she begins to run down this unforgiving pathway into the abyss of the jungle. She stops only to listen for a response from her action and as she listens silence eerily reverberates back to her. She knows that she cannot rely on her sense of hearing so she refocuses her efforts to her olfactory glands and begins to sniff the air for a sign of the silent presence that haunts her every step. She is quickly rewarded as her nose picks up a foreign odor that causes her to look toward her right. She catches a small but significant motion, at a close distance a palm branch bounces up and down giving her some indication that she is being followed. She continues to inhale the cold, thick, and wet air searching for a sign of her attacker. As the woman contemplates her next move she notices a bright flash, as a falling star streaming toward earth, this flash cuts through the mist and is directed at her throat. Sounds of branches falling suddenly toward the earth, she has milliseconds to react, as a sharp and powerful blade hacks its way through foliage aimed at lopping her head to the ground. She is meters away from safety and she gives away to her instincts rather than her training. Falling toward the ground to save her head from being displaced she picks up a large stone and strikes upward at her attacker. No audible reply is heard but she can feel that her attempt to disable her attacker has landed to its intended target. The response is quick and decisive and a kunai is rapidly approaching her in a downward thrust.
"Mistress Takai, Mistress Takai, please teach me more katas, I want to train in order to be a great Samurai and protect our village."
"It is not enough to train in the arts of warfare, but a good Samurai must also learn how to heal, it is the ultimate goal of a Samurai to heal physically, mentally, and spiritually those that are oppressed. I would ask that you come with me and gather herbs and learn the art of a true hero, a physician."
"Gathering herbs is the job of a peasant and not the way of a warrior," the boy responded.
"A Samurai must always count themselves as a servant, a servant to those who are weak and to those who can not defend themselves against the strong."
The young woman reflects on the morning's events. It was these events that led her into the jungle where she was gathering the herbs for the wounded of her village. The sound of her voice reverberated in her ears as she lay underneath her attacker,
"A Samurai must always count themselves as a servant, a servant to those who are weak and to those who can not defend themselves against the strong."
Mistress Takai found the strength she needed to continue to fight back, she must defend the weak. With these thoughts she ignored the kunai that lay plunged in her left arm and immediately countered with a kick upwards toward the head of her assailant. While kicking upward she managed to put her hands on the kunai that lay in her arm and turned it on her assailant, striking at the large exposed mass of her enemy's body. With no intended target in mind, her only desire was to give herself a moment to escape from her current position. Plunging the kunai into the darkness that encapsulated her and pushing back until she could see light, Mistress Takai raised herself from off the ground onto her feet again. She regained her position and the hidden jungle pathway was once again in sight. Without looking back, she leaned forward and began to run, quickly she realized that she could not run back to her village or she would risk endangering the lives of the villagers. She knew exactly where she was; perhaps this might be to her advantage. The dark figure that pursued her appeared to be alone this also might be to her advantage. She quickly found a path that led to a mountaintop; she realized that this path led to a courtyard where her village elders trained the Samurai of her village and of the surrounding villages. While running toward the top of the hill the silence was broken by a wisp of air that carried a deadly shurikan containing an explosive powder. It struck the trunk of a tree exploding and releasing a deadly gas. Leaping into the air at the sound of the broken silence Mistress Takai evaded the deadly payload of the shurikan. Now in the branches of a tree she can see the courtyard of the training ground and instinctively she was compelled to head for the clearing. Leaping from tree to tree she made her way to the clearing and without looking behind her she listened for her assailant's movements. Her final leap led her into the heart of the training dojo. She leapt to the center of the dojo and rolled to her feet while simultaneously grabbing a bamboo bow. From above, a dark shadow encompassed her as she raised the bow in a defensive posture. She could feel the bow ring with vibration as it was struck with a metallic object. She turned into the direction of the strike in a half circle raising the other end of the bow into the shadowy figure and could feel it plunge into her adversary. The bow and the body of her assailant became one and she plunged the bow downward into the earth beneath her feet. The loud sound of a body striking the ground with a thud rang up into her ears and she flipped the opposite end of the bow back toward the same target. She felt the bow strike the hard ground as the dark shadowy figure rolled out of striking distance. The bright gleam of a katana blinded her eyes, as it appeared to approach her position. Mistress Takai stepped toward the glistening blade and stepped to her right into another half circle, aiming the bow at the center mass of her target. From the corner of her eye she could see the dust rise from the blade of the katana as it struck the ground behind her and she quickly moved toward the exposed center mass of her target. With success the bow struck the ribs of her attacker and she pulled her hands apart as the bow landed on its mark. Pushing upwards with both hands, as the bow's power was unleashed the momentum of the strike raised her attacker off his feet and he flipped over the bow to the ground. The katana was now exposed to her and she took this opportunity to strike at it. Her hands slid down to the base of her bow, as if holding a baseball bat, she swung her bow at the katana sending it flying into the air and lodging into a nearby tree. Now, her training had told her that she needed to place herself between the katana and her opponent. She placed the tip of the bow into the ground and catapulted herself over her assailant; she was now between him and his weapon. When she landed she anticipated her opponent's next move and sent the bow, with great force, toward her attacker's head. The bow sailed through the air failing to make any contact with the target. Once again a shadow appeared to be above her and she looked upward to see her opponent back flip out of her range of attack. As she watched her opponent flip out of her range she noticed the high-pitched sound of chains clanging through the silence of their heated battle. She watched as a pair of nun chucks suddenly appeared from his dark cloak. The chucks flailed about, in a rhythmic motion taunting her to approach. The opponent stepped toward her with an allure of superiority swinging the chucks with a calculating and distinct pattern. She quickly surmised that the length of the nun chucks was no match for her bow but in the hands of a master they could prove to be lethal. Mistress Takai still lay between her opponent and his trusted katana and thought that this would be an opportune time to exploit that fact. While she contemplated her next move the dark and strange figure moved in toward her quickly garnishing his new weapons and limiting her movements. She extended her bow with her right hand extending it out in a swiping motion toward his nun chucks while using her left hand to reach for the katana that lay lodged in the tree trunk. The sound of the chain as it wrapped around her bow clanged loudly and the vibration of its violent entanglement around the bow caused the bow to slip away from her hand. Her opponent swung the nun chucks toward the ground to free her bow from their deadly rotation as Mistress Takai pulled the katana free from the tree. Free from its imprisonment the katana leapt toward its master striking him across the torso. With a quick backhanded stroke Mistress Takai sent the katana plunging into the bloodied torso of its owner. Air expelled from his mouth as the sword lodged deeper into his vital organs and his body became limp falling toward the dojo floor. Mistress Takai looked upon her assailant, as he lay pinned to the dojo floor lifeless with his katana plunged into his torso. She looked on the katana that stuck out of her assailant; it was a double-edged blade, made of a fine metal. The metal blade appeared to be stronger than ordinary steel and inscribed upon the blade was an undecipherable inscription. The inscription, an old language not used by her clan or any clan within her region, was puzzling to her. She pulled the sword from her assailant's body and held it closer for examination. Perhaps the sheath would answer the question as to the identity of her opponent. She reached down and grabbed the sheath from the dead man's waistband and heard the sound of arrows cutting through the air. She jumped back with the sword and sheath in hand as an arrow struck her assailant's corpse. The arrow, flaming, struck her opponents body igniting his remains. She looked in the direction of the arrow's origin and caught site of another darkly shrouded figure dressed in similar attire as her attacker and she turned to run. Without hesitation she leapt down from the dojo floor into the jungle and down a hidden path hoping to disguise her location. She lay motionless for a moment assessing the situation. Stealthily she worked her way down the hidden path toward her village. As she approached her village she could smell the unmistakable odor of charred bodies and she heard screams of torture. From her vantage point she could see the village and as she looked on she could distinguish the small outline of a body. Her eyes began to well up with tears as it became apparent to her that she looked upon the body of the small boy that asked her for training. With the grief and guilt pounding at her heart Mistress Takai thought it best to remain close to the village until dark.
This had been one of the longest days of her life; nagging questions as she contemplated the day's events bombarded her mind.
"What have I done?
I have led these killers to my family and to my friends!
How can I live with myself?"
Darkness fell on the jungle and the eerie quite of the nearby village mocked Mistress Takai as she lay motionless contemplating her role in the slaughter of her village. It was time to move, she told herself; time to see what damage lay before her. She closed her eyes and whispered a silent prayer. Walking through the village her eyes filled with tears as she looked about she saw no signs of life. Walking toward a house she could see that fires smothered what was left of her home. Deep in thought she stared at the flames that licked up any combustible wood that remained intact, the sound of cracking twigs garnered her immediate attention. She whipped around in one sudden movement exposing the blade of her spoils from the day. The katana blade stopped just millimeters from the face a small, plump, scraggly, and dirty-faced puppy. The puppy looked at her with contentment happy to see another living being.
"Well my little friend I guess you and I are all alone in this world."
With the sound of her voice the pup jumped up into her arms and began to cover her face in kisses. The dog was about six or eight weeks of age, plump and furry like a little teddy bear. As the pup licked her face she noticed his unusual black tongue and mouth, he had a thick, short tail that curled up onto his back, and short pointed ears that resembled a fox's ears. He reminded her of a little black bear, he was powerful and majestic, and she could sense that they would be friends for life she named him Kuroguma. Takai gathered what supplies she could find, it was just enough for her to carry along with her. She and Kuroguma sat and ate their last full meal before they headed into the dark and wet jungle.
Takai was sure that it wasn't safe for her and Kuroguma to sleep in the village that evening and went in search of a suitable domicile where they can sleep for the night. Under a beautiful blossoming cherry tree they found sufficient cover for the night and prepared the area for an encampment. The tree appeared to be old and was marked on its trunk with ancient engravings signifying ownership of the tree and its area to the Kobuto clan. This brought comfort to Takai as she dwelled on the day's events and on the misfortune that had befallen her village. Takai had gathered some surrounding leaves and placed her bedding atop of the leaves as Kuroguma snuggled in for a good night's sleep. Kuroguma served as a pillow and young Takai was fast asleep as quickly as she laid her head atop of Kuroguma's fluffy fur.
Takai dreamt of the day's events and in her minds eye she wondered what led to the destruction of her village. Over and over she could see herself gathering herbs and as she gathered herbs she realized that she had inadvertently stumbled across the practice session of a clan of ninja. In her dreams these ninja were somehow different, something about them was unique apart from any other clan she had seen. While Takai slept she had repetitive dreams and within these dreams she noticed that these ninja had the ability to levitate off the ground. This fact alone might sound strange but it could have a logical explanation with the exception that within this same dream Takai had looked into the face of the Sensei. The Sensei was the master of his clan and all knowledge and wisdom of the arts were wrought through him. Most Sensei's were very humble and contrite people but not this Sensei. When Takai looked upon his face she knew immediately that he was not of this earth. Suddenly she was awoken at the quite growl of Kuroguma. The pup had awoken from his light slumber and alerted Takai that someone or something was watching them. Takai silently pulled the katana from its sheath and laid it in a ready position. The two friends worked in unison as they prepared to defend themselves against an unknown enemy. Takai looked to Kuroguma to help pinpoint the location of their enemy by watching his head as he listened intently for the direction in which the noise came. They had little time to become acquainted with one another but Takai trusted her new companion with her life as did Kuroguma trust in Takai.
Kuroguma's sense of hearing was very keen and he often relied upon this sense for guidance but something was askew. He knew that his sense of smell was always faultless, he might not be able to see or hear but he could always rely on his sense of smell. This time his sense of smell and his sense of hearing worked in direct opposition to one another. Kuroguma felt that it was imperative that he not error in this matter and decided to trust in his sense of smell. Takai noticed Kuroguma's inner dilemma and immediately thought that what they heard was only a ploy. Takai decided to trust her nose and she leapt with katana in hand toward the smell of old rotten fruit. The katana cut through the early morning mist until Takai stopped it at the throat of an old hermit. Without hesitation Takai looked down at the hermit's pant leg to see Kuroguma attached to it, biting and snarling ferociously at the old man.
"May I ask for your forgiveness miss, I did not intend to startle you?" The old man quietly groaned.
"What was your intention you old fool, to get yourself killed?" Takai shouted.
"I don't believe that I am in any danger here." The old man responded while walking away from Takai and shaking Kuroguma off his pant leg.
"Well old man you must be senile or just plain stupid, you were just about to meet your deity back there!" Takai said while laying the katana down on her bedroll,bewildered by the old guy's posture.
"No, nothing scary back there, just some snot nosed, baby faced, little girl and her mangy mutt." The old man blurted out as he kept walking.
At this response Kuroguma began to growl at the old man while he nipped at his heels. Takai was not sure what to make of the situation but pondered on the identity of the elderly traveler. She thought that perhaps she should not allow her guard down for one moment. Ninja are masters of disguise and often transform themselves into seemingly harmless individuals in order to gain the confidence of the target and strike at an unwitting opponent. Takai's problem was that she could not follow the old man in fear that he maybe leading her into a trap, the old man could not be allowed to walk away in peace because he has now made contact with Takai, he has seen her weapons, he knows who she is traveling with, her size, her age, and the weapons she is carrying. Takai rapidly formed a plan, she will befriend the elderly gentleman and invite him to sit and eat with her and Kuroguma. When the elderly gentleman is at peace and unaware she will ensnare him, tie him to a tree and make her get away.
"Excuse me sir, I beg your forgiveness, my faithful companion and I have had a tough night and we have forgotten our manners. Please sit and partake of our meal with us." Takai choked out politely as she could. Kuroguma did not hide his emotions and at Takai's invitation the little pup about barfed. Kuroguma looked at Takai as if she were as crazy as the old man but Takai shot a glance at Kuroguma signaling him to play along. The little pup was extremely bright and he quickly followed Takai's lead. He released the old man's pant leg and began to unction the old gentleman to sit down. The old man would have nothing to do with them and found their invitation insulting.
"I have no time to waste on stupid little idiots such as yourselves I must be on my way!" The old man yelled as he abruptly walked away.
"Now wait a minute, you geezers go on and on about how impolite youths are!! I mean, argh, umm, what I meant to say was, the elders have explained that it is the youths
obligation to extend the hand of courteousness toward the elders of our community and so I ask with all humbleness sir that you join my companion and myself for a meal." Takai exclaimed in her calmest voice.
"As I have stated earlier I have no time for you or your mangy mutt! Now get the hell out of my way stupid!" The old timer choked out.
"That's it! Oh I am going to love tying your but to a tree, and if we're lucky, maybe you won't get free!"
"Kuroguma get me the rope!" Takai said gleefully.
As Takai grabbed the old man by the arm from behind she felt a quick wisp of air pass between her and the old man. Immediately she found the old guy behind her grasping her arm in a locked position. She quickly broke free and fell to the ground with a foot sweep but almost in slow motion she watched the old man just jump right over her kick. She realized that she had left her new acquisition unattended; the katana lay on her bedroll out in the open. She jumped kicked to her feet and yelled for Kuroguma to bring the rope. The old man stood still with his hands calmly placed behind him waiting to see what Takai would do next. While the old man and Takai looked at each other, summing one another up, Kuroguma trotted by carrying the rope. The old man reached out his foot and placed it beneath the unsuspecting pup and kicked upward. Kuroguma let out a yelp and went flying in the direction of Takai while the rope slowly sailed straight upward and back down straight into the old man's hands.
"Dam you! What do you think you are doing? You will pay for that you old fart!" Takai exclaimed. Takai placed Kuroguma onto the ground and leapt for her bedroll. When she reached her bed roll her hands immediately sprawled out hunting for the katana.
"Is this what you seek?" The old man piped up.
Takai hopped toward the old man hoping to catch him off guard, no such luck. The old man reached out with the sheath of the katana striking Takai on the head. Kuroguma thought that perhaps he could distract the old man long enough for Takai to make contact with him and so Kuroguma charged at him. The old man flipped himself into the air and right over the top of the two would be attackers in a blur of a moment. Landing, the old man straightened his posture and slowly released the katana from its sheath exposing the blade while Takai and Kuroguma looked on.
"Now listen you old Fart that is not something you want to play with! Really, I want you to put the sword down and step away from it, just step away!" Takai blurted out.
"Humph, I don't believe that I am the one playing with it." The old guy responded.
"Are you dense or just stupid? That is not a toy geeze, like I said just put the sword down and step away from it just step away."
The old man quickly performed a kata swinging the katana strategically about, seemingly grazing the cluster of trees that they were under. He replaced the sword in its sheath and set it down onto Takai's bedroll and slowly walked from underneath the cluster of trees. Takai hastily reached for the sword and looked at Kuroguma and said,
"The old fart must be blind as well as stupid; he didn't hit anything, not even by accident."
Suddenly a large cracking sound alerted Takai that something was about to happen and before she could figure out what it was, the cluster of trees came tumbling round about her and Kuroguma.
"As I said earlier, I am not the one playing stupid, are you ready to stop playing, dummy?" The old man said with authority.
Takai was confident that the old man was not a threat to her and Kuroguma now and with the skills he had just displayed the old man could have harmed them at any time. Before she could think and before she processed what it was she desired to do about this new situation she blurted out,
"Yes master I am ready to stop playing."
Takai said in bewilderment but inwardly her thoughts and feelings were evident,
"What the hell?
Where the hell did that come from?
Yes master, yes master, what the hell is that all about?
I am not calling that old bag of dirt, master!
Oh he's a master alright, a master jack ass!
I am done playing oh mighty master, yeah right, what the hell was I thinking?
OH, I know he doesn't think I'm calling his old ass master, not on your life buddy!"
Takai openly debated with herself as she rolled up her bed and gathered her belongings. Kuroguma sat looking puzzled as he watched Takai argue with herself, he finally stood up and waited for his friend. The old man looked down at the two of them and thought about the work he had ahead of him. He had a mission to complete and was the time right for him to share his knowledge with this wild teen and her mangy mutt?
"Alright, let's get going, we have little time to waste on foolishness, hey mutt get your furry butt in gear!" The old man barked out.
They started their journey in silence and it continued that way for the whole of the day. As they walked the old man appeared to bounce off the ground seemingly not making contact with the ground at all. Takai pretended not to notice this unusual talent that the old man possessed and just kept walking in silence. Nighttime fell upon the trio and the old man rapidly found a spot suitable to make camp. Nearby a stream could be heard and the old man excused himself to refill their water supply and bring back the night's sustenance. Takai rolled out her bed and gathered wood for a fire, well Kuroguma sniffed around identifying any possible dangers. The old man returned with fresh water and eight large fish in one hand and a rabbit in the other. Takai was a little amazed by the catch the old man brought back only because he had not been gone for more than thirty minutes. The three of them were gathered around the fire, while the old man began to gut the fish and rabbit, he looked at Takai as if to prepare her for a long speech.
"I am Master Ryoku Jin of the Hogosha clan and I am ashamed to say that I was present at the destruction of your village and death of your clan. I had not the power to stop the Takokujin from their attack. I could not allow myself to become a victim along with your clan and for that I am truly sorry. The Takokujin are not mere mortals and they guard a great secret. They will do anything to assure that their secret is kept hidden from mankind even destroy a village and kill all those that reside within that village. It is an unfortunate turn of events but your village was targeted, I believe, due to the fact that you had witnessed the Takokujin clan at practice and their true nature had been exposed to you. I have been sent by my master to guard and train those that have seen the Takokujin clan for what they truly are.
At the sound of Master Ryoku's words Takai's eyes streamed with tears and she became numb, she could not even feel that her spirit and earthly body had a connection to this world. A wave of pain surrounded her and pulled her under as the thoughts of her family and close friends came to the forefront of her mind. Takai's training had overtaken her spiritless body and like a machine her body carried out data driven movements without personal thought. Takai seized a hold of one word in Master Ryoku's speech and held it captive as she had done in her martial arts training. She would hold her captive until she exposed its weakness and rendered it immobilized or dead.
"Ashamed, you are ashamed, my family lies dead and all you can say is that you are ashamed!
You son of a bitch, I will kill you!
Is that all you can say?
Well you should be you coward!
You have no honor!
You dare to be called Master?
Who do you think you are you yellow bellied coward!
I should go to the Takokujin clan and tell them where you are right now!
How would you like that you wimp!
You gutless, spineless wimp!
You need to get out of my site old man before I put this blade down your spineless throat!"
Master Ryoku sat motionless allowing Takai to drain her body of the poisonous words that ensnared her broken heart. As the words poured forth from Takai a tear began to form in the corner of Master Ryoku's eye. He was not impervious to the explicative verbiage that Takai dealt toward him and he often blamed himself for the many atrocities that the Takokujin clan committed. This is the first part of the cleansing process, although difficult to bear, Master Ryoku knew and understood that this must occur in order to proceed with any training. He reflected on the teaching of his Sensei and recalled his induction into the clan. In order to build a palace one must clear the ground from all debris before a solid foundation can be laid. It was unfortunate that Master Ryoku had to put his directives above his own personal beliefs but it had to be so. Master Ryoku had waited for this moment for a very long time and in his spirit he knew that this sad moment would be the fertile ground for many happy moments to come.
The Secret of the Sword
Kuroguma could sense the tension between his good friend and Master Ryoku and thought it was time that he helped to alleviate this negative tension. He decided to walk up to Master Ryoku and look him in the eyes. Master Ryoku was puzzled but transfixed on Kuroguma and slowly he watched the little pup raise his leg and begin to urinate on him.
"Hey, hey, you stupid dog, what the hell do you think your doing?" Master Ryoku screamed!
"You dam dog I am going to kill you!"
Takai looked on in silence at first but not even she could hold back laughter at the site of her two traveling companions. Master Ryoku chased the little pup around some large boulders and under some nearby bushes and he was still unable to catch him. Kuroguma could see his friend Takai laugh at his antics and he knew then, that she would be all right. Master Ryoku understood that what Kuroguma had done was for the benefit of Takai and he turned to see Takai smiling with glee at his situation. The two of them looked at each other and Master Ryoku put down his staff and came over to where Takai stood.
"Listen old man, I am not happy with what you told me back there and I sure don't pretend to understand but I am ready, I am ready to make them pay and for that I need training from you. I don't agree with what you have done but I hope to one day understand why and hopefully with time I can forgive you."
Takai murmured in a barely audible tone. Master Ryoku stood silent for a moment as if he was unable to respond to what he had just heard. He was an older gentleman about eighty years of age. He was short in stature and wore a long white beard and mustache, with long white hair that he kept neatly tied back from his face into what is called a sagegami. A sagegami is a pony-tail, not just any ordinary pony-tail. A sagegami represents commitment, honor, respect, knowledge, and wisdom of a sage. These characteristics were definitely attributes that Master Ryoku displayed. Master Ryoku was not an ill mannered man and he was very good at controlling his anger but like any living person he was subject to his own faults. It seems that Master Ryoku loved to drink and along with the drinking, he loved to swear, it was something he excelled at. The Master never allowed these faults to interfere with his duties. He believed that if he lived to be so old then he was entitled to enjoy himself from time to time. Master Ryoku knew what was important and it was at this moment he needed to be honest and open with his new pupil. If he was going to train Takai then she needed to understand and trust the old sage.
"I understand how you feel for I am not happy with the decisions that I made but what I feel and what is my obligation are two separate issues and I must not confuse the one with the other.
I have been charged with a responsibility, I was aware of those responsibilities, and I am often reminded how difficult it is to live up to those responsibilities.
It is my burden and my burden alone to bear but I ask you not to misjudge my actions as dishonorable for I had a higher sense of duty to fulfill."
The old man poured his heart out before his young pupil, not that he felt obligated but only because he needed to share his pain with someone. Takai realized that Master Ryoku was vulnerable to her and that he had shared an intimate part of himself, it was an action that garnered her respect. Takai and Master Ryoku had said enough that night and quietly they had found their way back to the campfire. The two of them sat down and without any more words being spoken they began to eat their dinner. During this conversation Kuroguma had managed to sneak near the campfire and he sat silent hoping to go unnoticed. Just when the pup thought it was safe the old man reached down and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.
"I got you now you little …. You thought I would forget didn't you?
I should urinate on you, you mangy flea bitten mongrel!
Well, what do you think I should do to you mutt?
The old man looked right into Kuroguma's eyes and then he quickly glanced over at Takai to see her reaction. Takai simply looked at the two from the corner of her eye pretending not to care but knowing that her two new friends would need to work things out on their own. Master Ryoku placed the pup on the ground and tossed him a large piece of rabbit meat. Kuroguma stared at the old man for a brief moment, Master Ryoku had garnered his trust as well, and the pup lay down and commenced eating his dinner.
"That's a good boy, you stood up to protect your friend I can honor your actions,
You're a very good boy Kuroguma." The old man said while biting on a piece of meat.
Dinner had ended and they all showed signs of fatigue but without a word they unanimously agreed it was time to get some rest. Crawling into her bed-roll Kuroguma snuggled in next to her Takai bid the old man a pleasant night of rest. Master Ryoku responded with the same good tidings and slowly wiggled into something similar to a sleeping bag and soon the trio would be sound asleep. During her slumber Takai's mind had little rest as she rehearsed, over and over, in her mind's eye the events of her incident in the jungle. This dream would prove to be fruitful as Takai recalled hearing the sound of the katana's blade call to her as she gathered herbs on the mountain side. Flashing through her mind Takai remembered that she had made her way to Kurotake, also known in her village as the Dark Mountain, and vividly she recalled that she was amazed to see the vast array of herbs available in one place when she heard the sound of the blade. The katana called to her, Takai remembered that it cried her name and she responded by climbing to the crest of the hill. Once she had reached the crest she heard the sound of movements and with a cat like step she looked over the bluff to see ninja in practicum. This would not be so unusual apart from these ninja never touched the ground. She was at that point of being startled just as the grand master made his way to the dojo, she new him by his attire and he turned to look her in the eye. Takai was awoken from her sleep with her heart pounding of fear and dripping in sweat but she could not recall what the grand master looked like. She looked around to see that Master Ryoku was watching her and with comforting eyes he nodded his head to her signifying that things were fine she may return to her slumber. Before snuggling into her blankets Takai took a moment and composed herself, she whispered a small prayer of protection before completely lying down. With one last glance before closing her eyes Takai watched Master Ryoku pray for her safety.
Morning had come and Takai slept much better after the nightmares had subsided. Strangely Takai never really remembered any other dreams but these were vivid and she recalled every detail. Kuroguma was stretching his limbs and did a little shake to get the morning fog off his peanut sized brain before he found a good spot to relieve himself. Takai released her body from her blankets just at the moment Master Ryoku arrived with more food for breakfast. Takai was anxious to share her memories with the old sage and began to explain what it was that awoke her in the night. The old man appeared not to take any interest in what Takai informed him of and he continued preparing their breakfast in silence. Takai seemed bewildered over the old sage's response just as she became offended by his response he interrupted her train of thought before its completion.
"Dreams in the night are not our concern at this moment, I am happy that you have shared your burden with me but we must always remember what it is we need to concentrate on at the moment.
Your dreams will not help in your training and it is training we need to focus on!
The time will come when your dream will help with our mission but that is for another time! I want you to eat well for today we train hard!" The old sage groaned.
Takai concentrated on the words that leaked out of Master Ryoku's mouth, how could these dreams not be important? These dreams were the focal point of what Takai was striving for, how could Ryoku just dismiss them? Signs of anger began to appear across Takai's face and in her body language. From out of no where Master Ryoku struck out at Takai with his walking staff just at the point when Takai was overflowing with anger. Ryoku narrowly missed the agile young girl as she cart wheeled out of striking distance. Kuroguma was taken by surprise also and he charged at the old sage barking and with hopes of landing his teeth into Master Ryoku's ankle. Master Ryoku showed no mercy and he kicked up a large scoop of dirt into the pups charging face. The pup was blinded and had to stop his charge but he saw enough to realize that Ryoku was not done with him yet and thought it wise to try and retreat. Just before the pup could find a safe place to retreat, Ryoku sent a net wound up into a small ball sailing toward the unsuspecting dog. The net began to open as it came closer to the immobilized canine until it consumed him and sharp needles lodged the net down to anything that they were able to penetrate. The Master's moves were so effortless that by the time that Takai and Kuroguma realized that he was pinned down the Master's staff landed on Takai's midsection. She hadn't the time to counter and she was sent flying backward and before she knew it she was on the ground. Hitting the ground Takai realized that she landed near the firewood and picked up a piece of wood in defense but it was to late as the Master swung his staff upward dislodging the piece of wood from Takai's hand.
"Why don't you use your dreams to defend yourself?"
Takai rolled to one side and reached for some stones to throw at the Master but he just swatted them away as if he were hitting baseballs at batting practice, sending a stone back at Takai just landing inches from her face. Takai felt helpless and all she could do was wish that she had the katana in hand and as she wished something strange occurred. The katana responded to Takai's desire, the blade began to shake loose from its sheath and she could see the exposed blade begin to glow red. It was to late the Master had positioned himself in an attack posture that prompted a sudden surrender from his pupil.
"I see that your dreams have left you defenseless but you have learned to unlock the secret of the sword. The old sage spoke rhetorically.
At her surrender the old sage had walked over to Kuroguma and released him from his netted cage. The feisty pup bolted at the old man and began to bite at his ankle.
"I admire your spirit little one but don't think for a moment that I can not place you within your imprisonment again."
At the old man's unction the pup released Master Ryoku's leg and he sat by Ryoku's side. Takai quickly rose from off the ground and headed for the katana which lay near her bed-roll. She quickly grasped the sword and returned to kneel down before the old Master.
"Master I have learned the wisdom of your lesson and I hope you do not find me as foolish as I feel at this moment, please continue your tutelage.
Takai humbly responded to Master Ryoku.
"Learning one's ability and one's limits was the desired result of my lesson and I hope I have the attention of my two pupils." The sage laughed.
Kuroguma was proud to hear the Master include him as a pupil but thought what could the Master teach a canine that didn't come by instinct. Seemingly reading his thoughts the Master began his first lesson.
"Instinct is good but often time's instinct should be coupled with wisdom.
Kuroguma your instinct to protect your fellow warrior is a fine quality but you lacked the wisdom and patience to select the appropriate response.
In your haste to protect Takai you exposed yourself too early and became trapped and useless to your friend.
I know that was not your intention but never the less you must use wisdom and patience and you will be rewarded with success.
When you attacked me Kuroguma you barked at me this gave away your position, what if I didn't know you were here with Takai?
Your barking informed me that if I had mistakenly miscounted you I now had another chance to correct my mistake.
Takai it was obvious that you were focused inward and exposed yourself to attack.
You allowed your emotions to dictate your body posture and this left you vulnerable.
Because you were so focused within, you allowed Kuroguma to be pinned down surrendering the advantage of numbers to your enemy.
If I can stress a point in this lesson it would be to see you use your head.
Strategy is the key to your success, when you attack with a plan you have two main elements, a start and a finish to your desired goals.
These goals remain constant but your points of attack can be altered to fit your desired outcomes.
Let us begin with our first exercise, Takai I want you to stand still holding your arms outstretched and standing on one leg. If you are right handed I want you to stand on your left leg and if left handed I want you to stand on your right leg. Kuroguma I want you to try and stay hidden all day today and quite and for your sake I hope I can not detect your presence."
The old sage sat down and began to eat while his pupils eagerly began their training. Time seemed to drag by slowly and beads of sweat appeared on Takai's forehead. The Master looked on without detection. He noticed that his pupil began to lower her arms and her leg was trembling under the pressure of her own weight. Just as Master Ryoku was about to address Takai his ears observed a small but faint crackling of vegetation in a small crop of bushes just in front of him. Silently the Master utilized his staff to swing a small rock up into his hand and he launched the rock toward the sound. Within seconds a yelp from Kuroguma rang out in the still dry air causing Takai to drop her arms and leg. Ryoku quickly swiped at Takai's unsteady feet with his staff and she tumbled to the ground.
"What the hell was that for?"
"It is training; you must not allow your inner feelings to dictate your outer reality."
The old sage snapped back.
Kuroguma had come out from hiding and it was evident that he was not happy; he walked up to Takai and Master Ryoku and lay down on the ground. He wore his feelings on his face as he lay in defiance almost refusing to participate in more training. Ryoku realized that his pupils did not comprehend the purpose of the exercise and offered lunch as an alternative. The old sage had been roasting more rabbit and with an outstretched arm he offered Takai a large portion. Ryoku knew that the little pup was angry with him because food did not even coax him from his spot where he lay. Ryoku laid a portion of the rabbit meat on a flat rock near the pup and stepped away allowing the pup to come when he was ready. The old sage sat down and leaned his back on a large stone facing the fire and began to eat. It seemed that lunch lasted longer than practice and in the silence the trio consumed their meal. Finally the silence was broken by Takai.
"Just how are these exercises going to benefit our fighting styles?" She exclaimed.
"How in the hell is throwing a rock at a defenseless dog going to help Kuroguma? All you're going to do is give him a concussion or something!"
At Takai's words Kuroguma barked in approval. The old man sat quite for a moment contemplating his response. Ryoku thought that perhaps action would best demonstrate his motives but at closer examination he thought it was not prudent. Takai would just have to begin to trust the old man. Ryoku knew that if Takai wanted to grow in skill she would have to submit to someone with more skill than her. It was inevitable; sooner or later the trust must be a part of each practice session. The old man refused to respond to his impatient pupil and continued to enjoy his meal. Night had fallen quicker than the three expected and dinner was not a priority. Finally Master Ryoku rose from his seated position and headed for his bedding. Takai and Kuroguma looked on in disgust as the old sage prepared to bed for the night. Anger welled up inside the adolescent girl as she had waited the entire day for a response from her instructor. Without warning the old sage flipped out of bed and began an assault on the unsuspecting girl. Takai was able to sense that the old sage may strike out at her with his staff to her right leg and immediately she began to construct counter measures. Predicting the sage's move she began to flip away from her master and call to her sword. The Katana responded with a red fiery glow and loosed itself from its sheath. The Master methodically swung his staff aiming to land a blow on his pupil. Despite Takai's intuition she became trapped by a large boulder and could not move out of the line of attack. Inwardly, in the consciousness of her mind, Takai demanded the sword to appear in her hands. Just as the old sage began to lower his staff in a triumphant blow the katana flew in mid air and into Takai's hands allowing her to defend against the sage's blow. Startled by the appearance of the katana the Master had a brief moment of surprise. In this brief moment Takai had executed a move that would render the Master vulnerable to the katana's blade.
"Very good my child, very good in deed, you have mastered a difficult jutsu and should be commended." Master Ryoku responded as he pushed the blade of the katana away from his throat. Takai was bewildered and simply looked down at the sword in her hand wondering how this had happened. Takai realized that her strategy, which was planned out from the moment she sensed danger, had unfolded just as she had planned. It was her strategy that had made her victorious over this assault but what of the blade? The katana seemed to respond to her will, how could this be? This was not her sword it was a casualty of the battle she had with the Ninja. This was his weapon, how could it respond to her inner will? Her head pounded as she tried to understand what had just happened to her. While she contemplated these thoughts the Master's voice overpowered her silent contemplation.
"You have learned the secret of the sword! " "It is the desire of the sword to serve you and defend you with all its might."
Silence hung on the face of Takai as she listened intently to her Master.
"Now that you have unlocked the secret of the sword you must learn to master it and control and utilize the power that comes from within." The master said, extending his hand to lift his pupil from off the ground. Takai dumbfounded listened as the Master explained to her the secret of the sword.
"The sword that you hold has chosen you as its master.
This katana has inscribed your name upon its blade.
This katana will unfold its power to you and only you."
"IT IS FOR YOU TO KNOW THE SECRET OF THE SWORD!"
Thief in Our Midst
Master Ryoku understood that he and his pupils had been stagnant for far too long, the time had come for them to move on. Remaining in one place beyond more than a day was a dangerous proposition. Takai did not have the skills for a direct attack from a large force of battle hardened warriors. Almost sensing the thoughts of Master Ryoku Takai began to pack her few possessions and prepared for travel. Kuroguma sat in bewilderment as his companions began to prepare for travel. He thought this would be a good opportunity to mark the surrounding trees with his scent when he caught the attention of Master Ryoku.
"Kuroguma you must not give away our position, stop that, now!" The old sage scolded.
"We should strive to be phantoms to those that know us and to those who do not."
"It is to our advantage to leave minimal clues for those that might seek our harm."
"It is time that we move onward to the village of Midoru."
"Midoru is half a day's journey if we depart now we will arrive by sun fall."
"Takai you will balance a stone on the edge of the katana and Kuroguma you will drag this stone behind you."
The old sage piped out as his two traveling companions exhibited looks of unhappiness on their faces contemplating their exercises for the journey ahead. With all their belongings in tow the trio attempted to abolish all signs of their encampment. Finally feeling they had done as much as they could to disguise their presence the trio set out for Midoru. The weather was damp and cold, so cold that as they exhaled each breathe became a vaporized cloud of smoke which disappeared back into the thick mist that hung in the air. Takai walked with her katana horizontally extended in front of her while she balanced a stone on the tip of the blade with her eyes squinted due to the thick mist. She had difficulty walking down the road as she tripped and stumbled while trying to balance her stone on the tip of her sword. Frustration painted upon her face she tried hard not to display emotion as she looked for a comfortable stride. Kuroguma displayed the same look of frustration upon his face as Takai, as he tugged and grunted wishing the large stone was a pebble. The road became a large mud bog as the air grew damp with moisture making it more difficult for the two to carry out their training. Master Ryoku looked on, almost taking delight in their misfortune but assured that the training will help his two young pupils. The hours seemed to drag on with such difficulty, almost as difficult as Kuroguma's stone in the mud, to the point that one hour seemed to be two. The landscape slowly changed and Takai realized that they had begun to enter mountainous terrain. The damp air became more frigid and crisp and the chill could be felt on the tips of their fingers, toes, and tip of the nose. Master Ryoku looked as if he recognized the surrounding terrain and ordered the two to be alert, attempt to stay hidden, and remain quiet. Walking up to the village post that marked the entrance of the village of Midoru, Master Ryoku paused for a moment as he laid his hand upon the post and grieved a sigh of grief. At this site Takai took the katana and swung it down releasing Kuroguma from his burden never taking her eyes off her Master.
"Master have we arrived, you appeared distressed is there anything I can do?"
Takai looked on as the Master removed his hand from the post and began to walk up the road into the village. Walking up a small hill, the roofs of wood huts became visible in the distance. Clearing the hill, the rest of the village became visible and Takai took notice of a young boy playing the flute and begging for money. Across the road an elderly blind man sat and requested aid from patrons that passed by. The Master walked quietly in the direction of the blind man and before he could alert the elderly gentleman, the gentleman spoke to the master signifying he was aware of his presence.
"Well Master you are a quiet one indeed but not so quiet as to disguise your footstep. Who do you have with you, a smelly mongrel and an equally smelly young lady that are as loud as a cart full of manure?" The old blind man laughed as he extended a bowl entreating the Master for monetary recompense. Takai and Kuroguma looked in astonishment at the blind man and quickly looked to the Master for an explanation.
"Young lady you need to be the wind, the wind can be felt upon the skin but we often wonder of its origin. No one is sure when the wind will blow nor can one be certain of how hard it will blow. We are never certain of what the wind looks like but we are sure that it has blown from its deeds."
Grabbing Takai's hand the blind man looked into her direction and said,
"Be the wind!"
Dropping some coins into the blind man's bowl the Master asked where he might find lodging and supplies. The blind man pointed his cane up the road and thanked the Master for his generosity. The trio quickly trotted up the road scanning the huts for a supply shop. The huts appeared aged and blended into the mountainous terrain giving the village a rustic charm. The Master looked around and focused on a hut that bore a sign Akindo's and with familiarity Ryoku burst through the door of Akindo's. Takai and Kuroguma fast on Ryoku's heels burst in to see a large, bald, and scary man behind a counter drinking out of a huge glass.
"Well Master Ryoku what brings you here?"
"Akindo what are you doing in this village?"
"The Takokujin attacked my village in search of your last pupil destroying everything in their path."
"Having no where to go I wound up here in Midoru."
"I was able to keep my regular inventory, what can I do you for?"
Akindo greedily responded.
Ryoku called to Takai and summoned her to the counter. Without haste the young lady stood next to Ryoku inquisitive.
"I need you to set her up with raiment and the equipment best suited for her new attire."
Ryoku stated with authority.
"I have just the thing for her and the accessories to go along with it, is their anything else you will be in need of?"
"We will need a place to lodge for the night and a hearty meal after we clean up."
With this response, Ryoku followed Akindo to the back of the store where Akindo opened a secret passage behind a large shelf. Following closely behind, Takai and Kuroguma came upon a room with beds, a table, chairs, and a wood burning stove. Akindo asked the trio to be seated as he opened a door leading to a storage closet. Sitting in a nice soft chair Takai could feel the warmth of the air reach her frozen limbs and she detected a smell that delighted her nostrils. Kuroguma sniffed about the room perceiving the scents that had been deposited months prior to their arrival and one particular odor troubled him. Ryoku had taken residence in another soft chair, keeping his eyes fixed upon the closet door where Akindo had disappeared into. Ryoku's face confirmed his bodies comfort to its new surroundings and the pigment had returned to give color to his complexion. The sound of Akindo rummaging around in the closet came to a halt as he shouted.
"Yes, here it is, just what I was looking for!"
Akindo appeared from the closet with two boxes of equal size, the boxes were large enough to cover his war torn face and large girth. Akindo walked toward the table that lay in the center of the room and reaching forward he placed the boxes on the table. Removing the lid from the first box expelled a cloud of dust as the lid to the box hit the floor. White rice paper peered out from within the box as Akindo gasped at his discovery.
"Yes, this will suit her just fine!"
Akindo exclaimed in excitement. Reaching into the box he began to pull out a deep black, finely woven, red striped garment of high quality. Takai looked on in anticipation waiting to see the whole garment. Raising the article of clothing to his chin Akindo released the attire allowing it to unwrap itself by gravity. What lay before him was a black, tightly woven, silk body suit, with red stripes from the side of the shoulders down to the wrists before each hand. The same red stripe appeared on the side of the hip down to the ankles, the quality of the garment was exceptional and evident to Takai. Ryoku looked at Takai and said,
"This is your battle suit which shall be worn beneath this black komono."
Akindo tossed the article to Takai and reached into the box and produced the black komono the Master referred to. While tossing the komono to Takai Master Ryoku informed her that he had a few more items to give to her but it was time for her to clean up. Akindo led Takai into a separate room that served as a bath house with an outhouse in the distance. Takai had a young servant girl help her get ready for a nice warm bath. Climbing into the warm pool of water Takai inadvertently let out a scream of delight which attracted the attention of the Master. Kicking in the door and leaping to the floor while rolling back up onto his feet ready for attack Ryoku found himself standing in front of a shocked but definitely naked Takai.
"You dirty old pervert get out of here!"
"I can't believe you would come in here while I am naked, get out!"
"Oh I am sorry, I am very sorry my dear!"
Ryoku embarrassedly responded. Covering his eyes and slowly turning away Ryoku exited the room. It took a moment for Takai to regain her comfort level before she settled into the warm water and found pleasure in her bath. Kuroguma sheepishly approached Takai desiring to settle in the warm bath with her looking up at her for a positive response. Takai let Kuroguma sit near the tub for a while before allowing him to enter the tub and wash away the dust of their travels. Leaving the warm water of the bath was a difficult decision but the resolution was made easier by the hunger that grew within the two weary travelers.
Donning her new battle suit Takai exited the bath with some in-trepidation. She was still uneasy since Ryoku had seen her undressed and she could not bring herself to look him in the eyes. Ryoku hoped to make this awkward moment a little easier by producing the second box and placing it onto the table. Opening the box Ryoku produced shiny, metallic weapons of various forms. The Master laid the weapons before Takai watching her expressions as she glared at each new weapon he removed from the box. Takai was familiar with a few of the weapons but some were new to her. Master Ryoku looked at Takai and cleared his throat and began to speak,
"We will eat dinner first and then we shall discuss the new weapons", looking at Takai Ryoku said,
"Agreed, I am very hungry and if you hand me a new weapon I might be tempted to use it on the old depraved man that saw me naked in the bath."
Takai replied half jokingly.
"I thought you were in danger, my only thought was to see to your safety!"
The Sage sheepishly grunted.
"Next time you get overly protective make sure I am not in the bath house first, you dirty old man!"
Takai looking Ryoku right in the eyes shouted,
"Now what's for dinner?"
After removing the weapons from the table Akindo brought a large pot full of soup and placed it on the table along with a wok full of meat and a steamer that contained rice. Akindo called to the young servant girl that waited on Takai in the bath house and the two of them sat with their new guest. Takai appeared to have been out in the wilderness for far too long and immediately she reached for the wok full of meat only to be swatted by Ryoku's staff.
"It is impolite to eat without an invitation from our host."
He scolded Takai.
"It is also impolite to bust in on a young women taking a bath but it looks as if we have overlooked those civilities as well.
Takai brazenly replied.
"Please my guest, I know you must be famished help yourselves."
Akindo quickly interjected.
"This is my adopted daughter Hana, she and I are what is left of our village after the Takokujin finished destroying everything."
"I was out collecting more supplies for my shop when the Takokujin attacked our village, so I missed the slaughter of my clan."
When I came upon my village it appeared all was destroyed and I found myself feeling hopeless."
"Sitting in ruble, praying for vengeance, Hana appears and comforts me."
"I could not believe that this young child had the strength to bring hope into my lifeafter all the atrocities she witnessed and the death of her own family and kin."
Akindo tearfully spoke.
Akindo's account was something that Takai understood all to well. She reflected on her incident with the Takokujin clan and the destruction of her village. Feelings of remorse, guilt, and hopelessness had overwhelmed her as she reflected and tears streamed down her face. This had not gone unnoticed and her fellow patrons did everything in hopes of not drawing attention to that fact.
"I see that my experience is something we two have in common?"
Akindo cut through the silence.
"Yes, it is something that we share and like you I found salvation in my friend Kuroguma."
He and I are what have been left of my village."
Takai sorrowfully replied.
"Let's not allow sorrowful memories to destroy our appetites."
Akindo replied while delving out portions of meat to his guest.
"I have learned that not all hope is lost and Hana and I have come to make a new start in this little village of Midoru."
"Now that I have seen the face of Master Ryoku and of his new pupils I know my faith is well placed."
Akindo said smiling.
"I have seen the Takokujin, I have looked into their eyes, and they haunt my sleep it will be good to sleep in peace again."
Hana unexpectedly chimed in.
Master Ryoku upon hearing this looked at Akindo with deep concern. Desiring not to alarm anyone Ryoku continued to eat his meal without drawing attention to his concern. Kuroguma lay near the stove on a pillow chewing on several different bones with an expression of delight written upon his fury little face. It appeared as if Takai had only been with Ryoku for only a few days but in reality it had been three months since the destruction of her village and since she first met Ryoku. Takai contemplated about how the time could just slip by her so fast and she was caught unaware. She refused to recall the time she spent trying to put her emotions in order once again. This is what caused Master Ryoku the most difficulty in her training and he knew it would not be easy for the young lady but it was a necessity. Looking at Hana and Akindo, Takai was reminded of the time she had vested in her new found hope. She glanced over to check on Kuroguma and noticed how much larger the pup had looked sprawled out on his pillow. Kuroguma had grown and she failed to mark the time, she remembered how close the two of them had become and bear in mind that this did not just happen overnight. Leaving the bath house donning her new suit and komono, Takai looked into a mirror and remembered seeing her reflection. Her reflection was that of an older, wiser, and stronger woman a direct contrast from the girl left in the destroyed village who sought after hope. Whatever the reason, Takai had come to realize that she could not allow her past to interfere with her future.
Master Ryoku had great concern after listening to Hana's recount of the destruction of her village. If she had seen the Sensei of the Takokujin it would not be long before she would be hunted down and executed. Ryoku looked over to Akindo making him aware that he wished to speak to him. This was not a subject that the youths were ready to hear or understand so Ryoku focused on the weapons. After their meal had ended and the table was cleared Ryoku laid the weapons back on the table for Takai and Hana to examine. The two girls immediately were drawn to the shiny metallic objects almost like moths to the flame. Ryoku seized this opportunity to speak privately to Akindo.
"How long has it been since the destruction of your village?"
Ryoku asked with great concern.
"I would say nearly a year has passed since that day, why?"
"Hana is in great danger, I am surprised she has not come to harm already."
"The Takokujin will seek to eliminate her, she is in mortal danger, and we must act quickly."
"I can have her accompany Takai, Kuroguma, and I, does she have any special training?"
Master Ryoku asked.
"Yes, she is very skilled with ugh, well, well I think I will let her demonstrate."
"Hana can you please perform your butterfly dance for our guest?'
Akindo proudly asked the little girl.
Akindo was very proud of his adopted daughter and his love for her was that of a proud father. Hana looked to be nine or ten years old, she had small features, very delicate for a servant girl. The members of the house gathered together in the living quarters and Akindo had moved the table from the center of the room. The guest and Akindo now lined the north wall of the hut near the stove awaiting Hana's performance. The little girl stepped into the center of the room and bowed to the directions of the compass keeping her head facing the floor at her last bow. The light from the candles and stove obscured her face and shadowed her small frame onto the floor of the room in a southward direction. Hana stay motionless with her right arm extended into the air and her left arm deliberately pointed downward toward the wooden floor. Her legs were tucked tightly together and in a surprisingly smooth motion her body began to move forward. She stepped in short deliberate half steps, her legs bent slightly at the knees resembling a forward horse stance while her arms simultaneously changed positions and producing what appeared to be a two long ribbons in each hand. The ribbons were different in colors and moved through the air with concise position. Takai blinked her eyes and could imagine the little girl using the ribbons as a shield to deflect any sword attack. Hana stepped to the left her left arm moving in unison with her bodies movement the ribbon a half second behind mimicked her motion until she thrust her arm downward striking the floor. The sound of metal curled through the room and in a brief moment a second blade appeared in Hana's right hand mimicking a block from an attack. Hana quickly spun her body to the right her blades extended cut through the air with grace and deadly accuracy. Her breathing was steady and actuated her body's posture and strikes. This was one deadly butterfly dance and Hana was not a novice with the blades she grasped in her hands. Akindo turned his body to face Master Ryoku signifying the demonstration was completed and the two of them continued to talk.
"As you can see Master she is very skilled in the double broadswords, I have done what I can to help in her training but her skills are far beyond my ability."
Akindo proudly pronounced.
"Yes, she is exceptionally talented and I see no reason not to commence her training immediately, if she is willing."
Master Ryoku responded.
Looking in the direction of Hana, Takai and Kuroguma, the Master looked on to see the two girls petting and playing with Kuroguma. Taking on another pupil could prove to be an asset but also a burden. Darkness had fallen and the time to regenerate the mind and body was at hand. Ryoku told the girls that it was time to get some much needed rest for the journey ahead demanded it. The girls complied with little or no negative connotations. Hana led Takai into her room that contained a soft feather mattress. Takai was exited to sleep in comfort for the night and soon the two girls fell fast asleep. Kuroguma had taken position at the door of the room watching over the girls but also looking after the Master. With a wide yawn the pup laid his head down and closed his eyes but placed his ears high atop his head. The Master looked on and chuckled at his pupil, he was proud to see the growth in Kuroguma's character.
The two gentlemen sat at the table that was now placed back in its original position in the middle of the room. The two men leaned their heads in toward one another as not to disturb the sleeping girls and Kuroguma.
"Master I know it is a long and difficult road ahead but I have no choice, I must allow Hana to accompany you and prepare herself under your guidance."
Akindo tearfully blurted out.
"Akindo, my old friend, I promise you that I will look after her with every skill at my disposal and treat her as if she is one of my own."
Ryoku replied hoping to give solace to his dear friend Akindo.
With that, the two older men had fallen to sleep. Ryoku had rolled out his bedroll next to Kuroguma on a wall near the door where the two girls slept. Akindo had put the four cushioned chairs together and used them as a bed he was fast asleep, snoring loudly.
Night had passed and morning had dawned, the Master stirred from his sleep arose as soon as visible light creaked into the chamber of the room.
Looking toward Akindo, Ryoku found him already up cooking their morning meal. The smell of pork permeated the room into the chamber where the girls laid sleeping. Near the door leading out to the village Master Ryoku had spotted packages ready for travel. He knew his friend had already prepared for the morning's actions and what was to transpire. The girls were aroused by the smell that permeated their sleeping quarters and quickly rose from slumber and washed for the day's events. Akindo turned around from cooking at the stove to find his table set and ready to receive his scrumptious meal. With a smile Akindo laid the ham on the table and turned to retrieve the eggs but Ryoku set him at the seat of honor and asked that Akindo allow Ryoku to serve him. With agreement the other three had finished the eggs, brought bread, and goat's milk. Akindo was seated and Master Ryoku had motioned to the girls to stand as the Master gave honor and thanks to his host for his hospitality. Around the table each person felt obliged to thank Akindo for his generosity and Kuroguma was no exception. The pup came and rubbed against Akindo's leg thanking him as the large man placed a bowl of meat down for the pup and softly whispered, "Your welcome boy."
Breakfast had ended and Akindo knew he could not delay the quartet from their path. He decided to ask Hana to accompany him into the garden which lay outside near the bath house. Taking her by the hand Akindo began his awful choir hoping not to loose courage.
"Hana I have loved you as my own and I have pride like no other father but for your safety, I must send you with Master Ryoku and his pupils."
Akindo blurted out quickly.
"I understand Master;
I will never forget your kindness and I want you to know that some day I will return to you to care for you as you have for me."
Hana tearfully responded.
The two of them grasped onto each other and embraced. Streaming tears flowed down the face of Hana and Akindo quickly wiped away the signs that indicated he had been crying. He wanted to demonstrate that he had mastered his emotions. Half an hour had passed and the two of them, still embraced, felt that half hour was only a minute. They knew, that perhaps, this might be the last time they shared each others company. Ryoku interrupted their embraces to announce that the time for their departure had arrived. Akindo walked the new group to the road and to the village post. Tearfully he waived his final farewell and Hana turned to recompense his gesture. The thick mist in the air helped disguise Hana's tears as the quartet headed out of the village and back upon the road.
Walking northeast for hours through the mountainous terrain was all the more difficult with the fully loaded down packs and supplies that Akindo had provided them with. Master Ryoku led them off the road and into the forest to a clearing to make camp. The pine trees provided a perfect covering to detract the dew filled air from the camper's bodies. Camp appeared to be set up quickly and soon Ryoku was off to hunt down dinner. Ryoku wanted to save the provisions Akindo supplied until he was forced to use them; so hunting was the best alternative. Returning triumphant, Ryoku produced two rabbits, three fish, and a fowl. This should be enough for this evening and the morning he thought. Dinner had finished and the time for slumber beckoned to the weary travelers and soon they were fast asleep.
Deep sleep had encompassed the quartet and despite struggles to maintain alertness the group of four entered a euphoric slumber. Quietly articles of the quartet vanished as the lay in deep slumber. There was a thief in their midst and for some reason the group could not respond. The thief remained cautious and never stepped from among the shadows; he utilized the trees as the source of attack. The thief had managed to free the group of their newly acquired supplies and was soon drawn to their weapons. Takai made the unfortunate mistake to leave the katana exposed and the blade was irresistible to the depraved burglar. Hanging down from a tree limb the crook lowered his torso in order to reach out and seize Takai's prized possession. Grasping the hilt of the sword the robber reached down to alleviate Takai of her sword when Takai was startled to consciousness. The robber desiring to remain hidden crept back into the shadows hoping Takai would lay back and fall asleep again. Takai immediately new something was amiss and remained vigil to her post. A noise caught Takai's attention and she drew her attention toward the fire to see a small stone bounce off a rock. She immediately sounded off waking her companions they leapt to their feet in her defense. Ryoku leaned down to pick up the stone that Takai pointed out and examined it closely. The stone was not a stone but a pallet that was a sleeping agent. The fire was the catalyst and would activate the sleeping potion rendering the unsuspecting victims helpless. Ryoku knew that somebody had come to harm them so he armed himself and leapt up into the trees in order to defend his pupils. Soon he was out of site and Takai had taken a defensive posture and looked about their encampment. Hana stood motionless and Takai wondered why she refused to arm herself. Suddenly a crackle from a tree rang out and a dark figure fell before Hana with weapon drawn in hand. Takai was too far to draw the attacker away from Hana and Kuroguma had run into the forest to sniff him out but was sent on a wild goose chase. Hana must defend herself, the attacker swung, with what appeared to be a bow, at her and she calmly produced one of her broadswords. Clanging to meet the bow the sword smacked against the side of the bow and Hana stepped into the blow to kick into the chest of her assailant. Falling back two or three steps the assailant began to step forward swinging the bow in a figure eight. Hana quickly sidestepped her assailant clanging the bow with the sword in her left hand and as her body swung around she produced the sword in her right hand toward her assailants head. The dark figure quickly blocked each strike in tandem and used the bow to propel himself over the top of Hana and landed behind her. Takai had approached cautiously trying not to interfere with Hana's calculated attacks. Looking at one another it was unspoken as the two of them attacked in unison. Takai cart wheeled toward the assailant while Hana ran in right behind Takai's flipping body ready to strike any blow sent to harm Takai. Landing on her feet in front of the assailant Takai ducked allowing Hana to fly over her bent body landing a kick to the head. The assailant fell back and attempted to regain balance but Takai in bent position kicked at the feet of the assailant sending the culprit falling back onto his ass. Before the bandit realized his faulty move three swords pressed about his body, the assailant had been captured. At this moment Master Ryoku leapt from the surrounding trees and darted upon the prisoner. Kuroguma had taken position and he now pinned the assailant down, standing atop of the chest, growling furiously at the attacker. Master Ryoku reached down and removed the mask from the assailants face to reveal a young boy. Takai immediately recognized the assailant.
"It is the boy from the village that begged for money and played the flute!"
Takai said in surprise.
"You are very clever for such a young man and utilizing these sleeping pellets in order to rob us was very intelligent.
"Now it is my turn!"
The Master grabbed the adolescent by the scruff and dragged him toward the fire. He took the pellet that the boy had used and mixed it with some herb and water and forced the boy to drink. Ryoku knew that the ingredients in the pellet are also used in a potion used for a truth serum and soon he could begin interrogation. Feeling the effects of the Master's concoction the young assailant began to waiver under the spell of the drink.
"Who sent you and what is it that you want?"
The Master quickly asked.
A New Companion
Master Ryoku asked for binding and proceeded to tie the hands of the assailant. He was an adolescent about fourteen or fifteen, thin, and quick. Takai stared at his eyes and noticed he had a very different facial construction. Takai quickly accessed the memory banks in her brain and found a file containing a similar situation in which she had met someone in her past with the same facial features as the boy. When Takai was a young girl, about the age of seven, she accompanied her father to the coastal village to purchase supplies for the village. She remembered that she had encountered many diverse people but one in particular.
It was the man that had sold the supplies to her father, a Master Ho. Takai recalled that Master Ho was of Chinese descent and the boy shared his same features. Takai surmised that the boy must be Chinese.
Master Ryoku had already deducted the boy's ancestry and bore it in mind but his main concern was interrogation. He must utilize the truth serum before the effects would become useless. Ryoku took the binding and bound each hand of the boy and pulled him over to two large trees. Placing his staff upright Master Ryoku leapt on top of the staff and used his left leg and foot to brace himself against the tree and pulling the boys arm and binding with him. He flung the binding around the tree like a lasso and tied it. Swinging his body one-hundred and eighty degrees he placed his left foot unto the opposite tree trunk and pulled the boys other hand and binding up and around this tree trunk. The boy now hung between the two trees suspended about three or four feet from the ground. The little thief kicked and wiggled but to no avail. Ryoku now took more binding and bound his feet and legs to the tree trunks also. Takai looked over and found the boys staff resting on the ground and picked it up and tossed it to Master Ryoku. Hana looked on with a scowling face perhaps trying to identify the young assailant. Kuroguma had made his way over to the tree and began to jump and bite at the immobilized boy. Ryoku now peered over the weapon Takai had tossed him. His faced illustrated the signs of surprise and admiration. He now turned to face the boy and begin his questioning.
"Who are you?'
The Master said waiting for a reply.
"I am Hito of the Midoru village and I am a thief by trade."
The boy screamed out.
"Your name is not Hito and you do not hail from the Midoru village, who are you?"
Ryoku impatiently replied in an angry undertone.
"You are correct I am not a native of Midoru, I arrived at the village when I was about four and provided for myself by stealing."
The boy grunted attempting to bear his weight from the binding on his hands.
"I saw you in the village begging as you played the flute and I noticed you are of Chinese descent do not tire us any further with your lies!'
Takai shouted at the boy as Ryoku pondered the data he had collected about this stranger.
"Yes I am from China and my real name is Qin Chan, my parents were killed when I was three."
"I was brought to these lands by a trader who was a friend to my father."
"I was left at the port and when I saw a man with a cart full of supplies I followed him to Midoru."
"Since that time, I have provided for myself by stealing and begging."
"Since there are very few people to beg from I relied on stealing hence my name Hito."
Hito painfully responded and Ryoku considered that it was not his hands that caused the pain.
"Release him, he is speaking the truth."
The Master demanded.
"You are not going to believe his sob story, are you?"
"A little, boo hoo hoo my parents were killed and I was orphaned, and you go soft on me Master!"
"I am not buying your manure today buddy!"
Takai impetuously responded at the Master's request.
Takai began to walk over to Hito as if to torture the captive boy. When she was close enough to see Hito's face their eyes met and locked. Takai noticed a genuine look of honesty coupled with hurt and pain but most of all a feeling of loneliness exuded from Hito's eyes. Hito first looked at Takai's figure before locking in on her eyes. He was pleasantly surprised at what he observed but he was locked into her eyes and began to wonder. He knew Takai was not from this region and that she was very angry and trusted no one. His heart ached for her because he knew what it was to be alone and that this situation had recently been thrust upon Takai. The two of them remained locked in gaze until Master Ryoku's voice pierce their locked gaze.
"I said to release him!"
And with that Master Ryoku produced a sword from the flute that he held within his hand and swiped at the bonds that tied Hito to the trees. Falling from the trees he landed safely on his feet with Takai extending her katana at his throat.
"This is brilliant and of high quality, where did you come by it?"
Ryoku softly spoke with the inquisitiveness of a child.
"I made this weapon, music comforts me and makes me feel safe so what better way to create a weapon that will do the same."
Hito replied with a tone that confirmed his feeling of pride at the Master's inquiry.
"Tell me Hito, what is the one thing you desire from this life?'
Ryoku responded while his eyes were trained upon Hito ready to measure his response.
"If I must have only one thing in this life I would like to be part of a family again."
The young thief responded, with shaking and crackling in his tone and remorse and sorrow in his voice. He spoke the truth and Ryoku new that he would be a great asset to his small band of pupils. Meanwhile Kuroguma had stayed close by keeping a watchful eye on this little thief. Kuroguma was not overly suspicious of Hito but he knew that Hito could be very deceptive. He decided to keep his distance until he could be sure that Hito was trustworthy and he ignored Hito's calls and gestures of friendliness.
Hana looked on bewildered at what she observed; she pondered Ryoku's ability to reason and silently disapproved. Often Hana would display a look or air of superiority and she wanted to hide this character from the rest of her group. She longed to be liked and accepted by those around her. Hana remembered that it was a feeling that she had carried all of her young life. She plastered on a fake smile and pretended to be at peace with Ryoku's decision but silently she disapproved. She walked over to the fire and began to place more timber on the flames and the fire leapt up in response. The surrounding campsite was now more visible and the glowing eyes of Kuroguma could be seen just at the fringe of the camp near Takai's bedroll.
The clan gathered around the fire and began to roast some rabbits and wild game birds that Ryoku had managed to capture right before the commotion with Hito. Takai had gathered some water from a nearby stream and placed the teapot filled with water near the fire in preparation for tea. Each member looked at the others and without word the quiet bond was formed. These five souls had shared a common trait, a trait that would forge a strong bond between all of them. Every one of them had all experienced loneliness and it was this experience that drove each of them to be part of a family.
Master Ryoku desiring to solidify the relationship between every member of his group thought that conversation would help to ease the awkwardness that each person was feeling and he turned to his left and said,
"Hito to my left is our new friend Hana and on my right is Takai; she is my dearest friend and eldest pupil…
Barking echoed from the darkest part of the camp and slowly Kuroguma emerged looking at Ryoku.
"Oh I am very rude, how could I forget you my dear friend Kuroguma, he is not only my dear friend but he is my protector and wise counsel, may I present Kuroguma.
Ryoku bowed and presented Kuroguma to Hito and Kuroguma just furled his upper lip, displayed his teeth, and growled at the introduction. He then walked around Hito to Takai turning in right-handed circles once or twice before lowering his body to the ground and lying next to Takai and he commenced eating his dinner.
"So Hito tell me did you have formal training when constructing your weapon?"
Ryoku snuck in.
"No I have no formal training in any profession; I am just attempting to survive life out on the streets."
"I had collected the bamboo from scrap after the construction of a hut in my village. I often spent lonely nights in the cold so I decided that perhaps a flute would occupy my thoughts from the cold and hunger I experienced."
"The sword came as an after thought when some fellow villagers that had been drinking thought it would be amusing to attack me for sport. I had to protect myself in any way I could after the beating I took from those three idiots, so I decided to construct a sword. The police would imprison me if they found I had a sword so I decided that I must conceal my weapon and came up with this design."
"What do you mean the police would imprison you, for what, because you protected yourself?"
"Well yes, you see I was not considered a citizen nor even human for that matter, when men from the village would become intoxicated they often wanted to use me for sport."
"If anything in the village came up missing I would immediately be guilty and not being able to find the missing objects on my person or in my possession the villagers would just beat me but for some of them a beating wasn't enough."
"In time I learned to take things without drawing attention to myself"
The boy shamefully responded.
"Why didn't you just get a job or work for money?"
Takai inquisitively questioned.
"This is not something I am proud of; it is something I had to do to survive."
"When I was younger, about five or six, I did work, I worked my ass off but do you think they paid me the value of my service?"
"No, they would just give me scraps of food that would not be sufficient for even a dog to consume."
"I worked so dam hard that I was killing myself, I was so malnourished and often became sick."
"One day I realized, when I was so sick I could not move, I finally understood that these people did not care about me and that I would have to start taking better care of myself, no matter what I had to do, if I was going to survive."
Hito tearfully responded.
"Tell me Hito, what do you know about your family?"
Master Ryoku inquisitively asked.
"My parents where dignitaries in the land of China, I am not sure what position they held nor what province we lived in, I only remember that my father was well liked among many people."
"My mother was delicate, beautiful, and strong, she had finely dark black hair, kind of like Takai's."
"My father was strong, bold, and kind, he would always be willing to help those who could not help themselves, he always believed in people."
"I remember that I may have had a sister or perhaps a cousin that lived with us, I can't be to sure. I am not sure what happened to her the day my family was attacked or if she even survived the attack."
Hito's voice strained under the duress of his memories as he responded it became more obvious. Ryoku was able to detect the change in Hito and decided that perhaps it would be an opportune time to change the subject of their conversation. Perhaps Ryoku should formally invite the young man to train under his tutelage and travel with them. Yes he would ask the boy to be part of their group.
"Well Hito, I would like to know if you would be interested in joining our group."
68Qin Chan means Prince of the Moon Takai means the next world
Hito means BanditRyoku means strength/power
Midoru means middleKuroguma means black bear