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05/20/01: Arashi-No Kenji (Prologue and Chapter One)
by Eric The Bard

PROLOGUE: Awakening

Smoke the fills eyes, stings the nose. There is a weight upon me. I swim back to consciousness and horror, as I realize the bodies upon me are that of dear families and friends. Heat.... my home is on fire!

I heave, choking back bile, screaming in hate and rage at the ones who have done this. My eyes burn, blinking back tears, as I seek about, seeing myself surrounded by the dead. Two soldiers, laughing, tearing the clothes from a mute young girl, silent with terror!

Before me, a blade. Curves as beautiful as a woman's body, blade as blue as the summer sky, hilt gold like the sun, thrust into the earth.

I make my decision.

Charging, running silently, I grasp the hilt on the run, snarling silently as I raise the glowing blade. As I pass, I slide it through the neck of one. I expect resistance, but meet none. His head comes clean off his body, blood spraying me and the young girl I come to save. The second holds her before him, cowering, using the child as a shield. I draw back, then. .I know the blade will not harm the innocent. I thrust forth, through the child, through the enemy. She screams, he gurgles, and dies, and I withdraw the blade. She is unharmed, and I am the victor.

I hold the blade before me, marveling at its beauty, and words come to me. I slide my hand along its edge, cutting a shallow red line, and speak.

"Blade to blood. Blood to heart. Heart to soul. Soul to blade."

The sword flashes, glowing brightly, and I grow aware of it, of the myriad worlds, of all the possibilities and powers within this blade and my own soul.

My blade is my Soul.

I stand over my kills, breathing quietly. Instinctively, I place Soul over my shoulder, as if in a scabbard, and it vanishes. I know it will be there if I reach for it. I feel its humming in my heart, my spirit.

My Soul.

I brush blood from my brow, not mine, the crimson staining on my hand. I have killed before, but the guilt remains always.  The knowledge that though my cause was just, I have still taken a life... I shake my head. The girl must be tended to. I bend over her, ensuring she is not injured, in body at least. No wounds are visible. No bones seem broken. She is bruised, yes, and battered, but nothing seems permanent.

Standing, I seek about, searching with still-burning eyes for survivors. I see none, and now it is not smoke that blinds my eyes, but tears. I fall to my knees, weeping brokenly .All has been taken from me. All! Taking hold of my garments, I rip them, shredding them, screaming my grief to the heedless gods above, berating Fate and all that manipulates the lives of ordinary, powerless mortals.

I do not know how long I grieve. Eventually, the tears stop, as they must, as must all things, and I rise to my feet. I wend my way to my burned home, discovering my chest unharmed by the dying fires. Taking the key from about my neck, I unlock it and clothe myself in a soft shirt, loose breeches, and boots that rise to mid-calf. I tie a scrap of cloth about my forehead. White; the color of death.

I then begin the work of gathering the bodies, tears dried to dust, none left for any lost souls. Muscles hardened from years of labor in fields and home soon begin to burn, aching from exhaustion. The bodies of the villagers I gather into one pile. The bodies of the soldiers who died as a separate one. One I intend to leave rot in the fields, so the soldiers may do some good as their souls descend to hell.  As I bend to retrieve the body of another villager, two slim hands appear. I look up to see the young girl, eyes bright with tears, voice mute. Together, we finish the task.

She steps back as I begin prayers, to commend the souls of my fellow villagers to heaven. She lights a pitch-torch, and with it, I set the corpses ablaze. I look back at the girl. She is not so much younger than my score of years; perhaps fourteen, and slim. Her eyes harden as she looks to the soldiers’ bodies, and my heart cringes to see such an expression on her face. I turn to stare at the unburning pile. I make my decision.

"Leave them," I say, voice hoarsened, roughened by my earlier grief. "They shall not pollute our fields." She nods, once. Laying a hand on her shoulder,  I turn her to face me, and embrace her.  As she buries her face in my shoulder she begins to cry, deep, racking sobs that seem to tear from her thin chest. Her body trembles, and I embrace her carefully. In her sobs, words become clear.

"Th-they beat me…and…and th-they t-t-tried t-to…"

"Shh," I whisper, stroking her hair. "You are safe."

Our village was not a small one, and I did not know her name. She needs her name, just now, to remind her of who she is, and what she wishes to be. But my name no longer seems appropriate. My life is over; a new path leads away from here, and I shall not pass it by. Thus for a new life, I must have a new name. At that moment, thunder pealed across the sky, and rain began to fall, soft and cool. I looked up, blinking, as it washed me clean of soot, of dust, of blood, of everything tying me to this life. She looked up as well, and then we stared into each other’s eyes. "What is your name?" I ask softly, and somehow, she understands.

"Ichijo. Arashi-no Ichijo."

First daughter of the storm. I nod; she had been the first to try and fight the soldiers. I take a breath. I make my decision.

"Then I am Kenji. Arashi-no Kenji. And my blade is yours to command." The second son of the same storm, the one that destroyed our village, and the other that rages above us even now. Standing, taking her hand into mine, eyes seeking in the intensifying rain, I find a house with a roof still relatively intact. Exhaustion crashes through me like a tidal wave, muscles burning, and I stagger with her aid and lay in the soft, cool shadow of the burned-out barn. We sleep there, curled for mutual comfort, siblings in a war we did not yet know the extent of.
 

CHAPTER 1: Departure

I awoke to her shaking my shoulder. Blinking, I sat up. She was dressed in a long robe, belted about the middle. She had taken a dagger from one of the soldiers, and this was belted about her waist. She had chopped her hair off short with the blade.

Rolling to my feet, I rested on one knee as I tugged my boots tight, then sought around for a thong or strips of cloth. Ichijo’s voice cut in, sharp, cold. "What are you doing? We must follow the army. We must avenge our village!"

I smiled at her passion. Brushing my hair back from my eyes as I retied my headband, I asked, "Who has been telling you tales, that you think suicide is the best way to avenge death?" Finding a discarded horse blanket, I cut pieces with a knife. Pulling my breeches down to cover my boots, I folded the cuffs, and tied the strips around the outside, securing them to the boot. I cut more strips. "We’ll be walking through high grasses. Tie your breeches as I did mine; it will keep insects and such from getting into your boots, from biting your skin, and causing itching. Some cause disease."

She took the strips, bending to obey. "What mean you, suicide?" she asked, looking at me curiously.

I shrugged. "I was a soldier, before. A scout. If we try and follow that army, their scouts will find us. And they will kill us." I stood, stamping in my boots to ensure I had tied tight enough.

She brushed hair out of her eyes and stood, checking her boots the same. "But your sword! You can fight."

I shook my head. "Possibly. And they can call reinforcements. They can attack us from all sides. I am only a mortal. And I do not wish to test the abilities of Soul that way." I blinked. The name had slipped from my lips without thought, without conscious urging. She stared at me.

"Soul? Your blade has a name?" Her eyes, brown as mine, were unreadable.

"Yes….I…" I shook my head. "Come on. We need to get moving. That army was likely only an advance force. We will go east; they went north, I think. We should be safe."

She paled somewhat. "You think this is an invasion?" Her hand crept to her mouth, and to my eyes she was an innocent girl again. Rage rose within me that such a young girl should suffer from this event. I controlled it, with effort. "I do not know what to think," I said softly. "Best to expect the worst. They were in uniforms. That bespeaks an organized force." As I spoke, I left the barn, and she hurried after. My eyes kept to the road as I circled to the south. I bent to examine the beaten tracks.

"They came from the south. Many men. Walking in ranks, in file. More than that, I cannot tell." I swatted a fly that landed on my neck. "Come on. We’d better get going." I stood and turned, to see her with her arms crossed.

"You would run away?" Her eyes were hard, her slim form nearly vibrating with anger. I sighed.

"I would for now, as there isn’t much we can do. We are only two. They are an entire army, far as we know. Not only that, they are merely an army. Following orders. Our vengeance is best served on the source of those orders."

She laughed bitterly. "And you say trailing an army is suicidal!" She flung an arm out, her voice filled with derision. "A lord, such as sent that army, will be well guarded. You were a soldier; I was a pickpocket. Believe you me, following that army will be safer."

I shook my head, adjusting my clothing, which had twisted in my sleep. "No. It won’t. Besides, would you follow behind as they slaughter another village?" I cracked my neck with two swift twists of my head; she jumped a little with a sick look on her face. I took a perverse pleasure from that. "No. We have little time." I walked over to the stack of rotting soldiers. Corruption had begun to set in. The wet air and flies had done their work in the wake of crows that hopped around, flying away from my footsteps with accusatory caws. I picked up a shed feather and slipped it into my pocket. I cannot say why I did so.  It seemed the right thing to do at the time.

Examining the bodies, hushing Ichijo as she fretted over the delay, I found what I sought, and ripped it from the uniform. A badge; a mark of their master. A tiger, mouth open, fangs bared, in silhouette. I bounced it on my palm, then showed it to Ichijo, whose mouth was tight. "The mark of the lord we seek," I said simply, handing it to her.

Ichijo shook her head, short hair swinging. "I do not recognize it."

"Nor I," I said thoughtfully.  "Perhaps we shall find that answer to the south. We’ll head east, first, for a few days. Then turn southwest. We’d better move; it’s already later than I like."

"On foot?" protested Ichijo sharply as I walked past her, slipping the patch into my pocket as well.

"Do you see horses?" I asked casually as I kept walking.

Making a frustrated sound, she followed trying to catch up. I set a pace that she could keep, though I fretted at the slow travel. I had learned to travel quickly on foot, steps long and light; she had learned to run swiftly, and to use the cityscape to her advantage. I had no doubt I would in time learn her lessons. But until then, I’d continue teaching her mine.

The day passed quickly; we traveled over the grasses easily, heading for the ridge of mountains far to the east. I had chosen this direction mostly to keep the setting sun from our eyes; the mountains would protect us from the rising. Around midday, my ears caught the sound of hoofbeats. I grasped Ichijo’s arm and pulled her into the waist-high grass, ducking down to hide.

"What is it?" she hissed, eyes fearful..

"Hoofbeats," I said. "We may be able to ride."

She stared at me openly. "What if they are friendly?"

"Then they will understand." I say smoothly, drawing Soul and killing the glow. The blade turned a sullen dark blue-gray.

Ichijo’s lips went tight, but as the horsemen neared, I saw there were four, and that they all wore the tiger badge. "I don’t think they’ll understand, Kenji," she said softly.

"What a shame," I replied with vast insincerity. Ichijo smirked, and the riders advanced.

As the first passed us, I leapt from the grass, spinning full-circle to cut deeply into his back from behind. The blade caught in his spine, and I used that to jerk him from the stirrups. Screaming, the horse ran, only to have Ichijo grab the reins and jerk sideways, stopping it short. She mounted and rode off. I lost track of her actions as I pulled my Soul from the spine of the dead man and removed his head.

The other three charged forward, unable to halt their mounts quickly enough; I had readied my blade as they wheeled about and charged. Though it was dishonorable, as the first came close, I unleashed Soul’s full power and dropped low, cutting the second rider’s horse out from under him. The animal shrieked, and I leapt back from the animal’s falling body, Soul glowing a bright blue. The rider leapt from his saddle. He was not of my village’s people; his skin was darker, eyes slanted down, heavily built. He attacked with a heavy, curved scimitar; I parried, my smaller, lighter blade much faster, and slashed, the point cutting through his throat at the very edge of my reach. He fell, gurgling, and I finished him, putting Soul through his chest.

The third screamed and fell as Ichijo flashed past him; the girth of his saddle had been cut, and Ichijo leaned from her saddle to grasp the reins. As the fourth charged me, he stiffened and fell from his saddle, Ichijo’s knife in his throat. I killed the third quickly, then arched an eyebrow at Ichijo. "Nice throw," I said admiringly.

"Not really," she said, breathing hard as she brought the three horses to me. "I aimed for his heart."

I chuckled and took the reins. The injured horse I put to mercy, then examined Soul. All the blood had vaporized from the blade. Fascinating. Placing it across my back, I mounted up. The unmounted horse, the one Ichijo had cut the girth-strap from, we let go.

"Well," I said, smiling. "Shall we go?"

We rode hard, until the sun set behind us.

And so begins the epic of Arashi-No Kenji! Next month, chapters two and three!