En route to Edo, a young ronin is waylaid by some bandits...
/ tabi -- 1/
The wind was brisk. Even with his arm folded into the warmth of his kimono, he could feel the cold biting at his flesh. Aki-onna had already lost her tenuous grip and the land now belonged to winter. It would snow soon.
Eriku Edward paused at the top of a hill and glanced around. The winter sky was bleak, the clouds a slate gray. Bare trees lined the horizon, their skeletal hands grasping towards the sky. The road he had been traveling was mostly deserted. A few farmers had passed him going the opposite direction recently, but with the exception of the palanquin that had passed him earlier he had seen no other souls on the road.
Not for the last time he wished he had heeded the advice at the last shiki and purchased a warm straw cloak for his travels. The mountain people knew the weather far better than he did and he was ashamed. He lived in the lower hills once and knew the weather very well, it was his own stubborn pride that had overridden common sense yet again.
He didn't even have the proper common sense to have a hat. No wonder Kaji made fun of him so often. He really was dense. And, at the moment, he was very cold. Standing alone on the apex of a hill wasn't help much, so certain that he was not being followed, Edward continued down the road.
The sakura had just started to bloom when he had taken leave of Kaji-taishou and company. Hakori-sama had given the unit free reign to complete their duties as they saw fit and Kaji knew how to get into touch with him if he was needed. He had not heard from the group and had not yet seen any of Joushiki's hawks circling overhead. Whether that meant that the special unit was languishing under a lack of missions or Kaji had just chosen not to contact him Edward really couldn't tell. Regardless, it meant that he could continue on his journey without interruption.
He glanced at the sky as he walked. The last lead he had panned out, his line of inquiry led straight to a dead man. That did him little good, there was no way of finding the criminal Donyoku unless he showed himself. The brigand was a shrewd one, and knew that Edward would not be pursuing him with the same fervor he had shown when the beast still held his /daisho/.
With the twin blades at his side again, Edward felt whole. He glanced reflexively at his right hand, before making a fist and letting it drop to his side. As whole as he could ever feel, anymore.
Resolving not to think on that, Edward instead remembered how Donyoku had flung the swords at him, bleeding from a hundred wounds and still not even staggering. Edward could not comprehend the sheer willpower that must have kept Donyoku on his feet at that point, but his next attack with his arm-blade had sliced through the tender skin of the man's forearm and revealed something ... black. Something decidedly not human. "ObakÃ©mono!" Edward had snarled, forced backwards with unearthly strength.
The dark-haired ... creature ... had laughed then, showing teeth that looked too sharp to be natural. "You don't know the half of it, kid," he had hissed out through those unnatural teeth, before dashing away and vanishing into the forest. Although Edward had followed a strong and reliable blood trail, to his astonishment the trail slowed, and then stopped, It was as if the beast had healed as he walked!
There was no explanation for such a creature. It wasn't the only one of its kind Edward had run across, either. There was a great, gluttonous beast that he had fought outside a small village in the Mino providence. The villagers fearfully called it Ogui. It could eat through anything, he watched it consume not only human flesh, but wood and stone as well. He had fought the beast off of a mountain, and watched it wail as it fell into a yawning abyss. He hoped it would be the last he saw of that monster.
In that same village Edward had met a woman named Yokubou. He had run across her several times, it seemed she was following the Nakasendo road as he was. She knew of the beast of Ogui, and knew of what it was. She had called it a 'false human', some gaijin word he didn't particularaly like the sound of.
He didn't like the sound of it because he had heard it before. Edward had heard the word pass through his accursed father's lips, so he knew there had to be some connection between his father and the damned creation. That revelation had driven him back towards the village of his birth, and to the caves outside of his sensei's residence. It was there he had hidden all the texts and scrolls of value when his mother passed on. His home was his no longer, he had burned the building to the ground, and since the last time he had passed through some other poor family had taken the land. The only things he cared about, the graves of his family and the cave where he had hidden the foreign texts, were untouched.
Yokubou had offered to attend him, she knew of the gaijin language and promised to be of great assistance in his search. He had refused her, though, something about the woman didn't sit well with him. After parting company with her he went the opposite way he intended and by two ri down the road found her following him. It took him the better part of a month and several misadventures to finally rid himself of the nuisance. He figured her a suri, a pickpocket who had decided that Edward had some sort of treasure-trove hidden away and needed to attend to him.
Since that time he had yet to return to the village. From the looks of the sky he wouldn't return before the next snowfall, so he had decided to put off his return until the spring. Snow would make getting to the cave all the more treacherous and make it just as easy for some miscreant to follow him and steal the books. They were useless to most, unless they read the multiple gaijin languages that the books were printed in.
Lost completely in thought, Edward didn't see the group gathered by a grove of trees until he was almost in the midst of them. Coming back to himself abruptly, he glanced at them, his eyes narrowing. An unsavory lot, most of them ronin, and some still wearing the crest of a dishonored master. For the life of him Edward could not remember the former daimyo's name but had seen the crest among bandits and brigands since the daimyo had committed seppuku at the Shogun's request several months prior.
Sensing several of the thugs stepping on to the road behind him, Edward stopped walking. Their leader stood further up the road, the only member of their band to still wear both of his swords. Edward didn't move nor did he relax his pose. His forearm rested on the hilt of his katana through his kimono, and his right arm hung loose at his side.
"Something I can help you with?" Edward asked mildly as several of the thugs began circling like the carrion crows they were.
The ronin said nothing but some cackled at his words. Edward frowned at them as their leader stepped onto the road. Edward adjusted his stance but only slightly, the man stood almost a full head taller than himself. He raised his chin and stared defiantly into the other man's face. "I don't want any trouble," he said calmly.
"If you hand over your purse, there won't be any," the leader said, his tone matching Edward's. Several of the thugs in Edward's peripheral vision started to move into combative stances. "At least ... not for us."
The metallic tang of a blade being drawn from its saya came from Edward's right, so he stepped smartly towards the sound as everyone around him started moving. The first blade came at him while his left arm shot back through the sleeve and grasped the saya of his katana just below the tsuba. His right arm came up instinctively to block the blow, and to his attacker's complete shock, the blade rebounded against the tough metal with a very solid and very metallic clang.
While this development surprised his attackers, it was something Edward was used to. He flung the offending blade away as he drew his own katana and cut the first of his attackers down.
"Get him!" The bandit leader yelled as Edward moved swiftly to his left, taking out the second and the third bandits with ease. "He's in league with that bitch! KILL HIM!"
Those words caught Edward's attention and almost cost him dearly for it. He barely avoided a rusted katana, losing some of his golden bangs to the older blade. As he backpedaled to get a clear swing at his current opponent, one who was coming up on his right side grew a shaft out of his throat.
Edward jerked in surprise as the body fell towards him, dancing out of the way and still managing to block another attack as he did so. He slew that opponent with a downward stroke and glanced back in the direction the arrow had come from. A single figure on horseback was charging down the path in the direction Edward had come from. He didn't have time to observe any more as two other bandits dove for him. The first grew another barbed shaft, and the second fell quickly to Edward's sword. He turned smoothly, anticipating another attack from the remaining bandits, but the three survivors and their leader were already high-tailing it into the trees. Edward let out a confused grunt and let his blade drop. He shook his head, straightened, and fished inside one sleeve until he came up with the soft cloth he used to clean off his blade.
As he was wiping the blood from his katana, the figure on horseback arrived. He glanced up at the person, alert and ready for an attack. They were clothed entirely in black, in what Edward would guess was a shinobi's outfit. He had not had any dealings personally with ninja, but Kaji had spoken of them before. "I thank you for your assistance, but this was not your fight."
"On the contrary, samurai, it was not /your fight/." The voice that came from the heavily shrouded figure was gruff, but definitely female. She had lowered her tone of voice and was trying to make herself sound older than she was. Edward quirked a smile and sheathed his sword, the late afternoon sun catching on the blade and the armor on his forearm.
He could hear the intake of breath from the figure and frowned. "You're the one Hokori calls Hagane."
Edward glanced up, his eyes narrowing and his grip on the hilt of his sword tightening, but he was not quick enough. Her blade was drawn and already level with his eyes. "Speak quickly, Hagane. What are you doing in these parts?"
"Passing through," Edward said truthfully. "I am en route to Edo, I am searching for a man, a gakusha by the name of Eriku."
"Never heard of him," the woman said dismissively. "You fought the beasts known as Ogui and Donyoku. Did you kill them?"
"I do not know." Edward straightened; his right hand still on the hilt of his katana. "Do you wish to throw silly questions at me all night, girl? Who are you and what is your business here?"
"You do not know?" Her tone was incredulous. "How do you not know whether you have slain someone? Do you not know if the bandits around you lie dead or merely wounded?"
"You are no official, and I am done with your questions," Edward turned around, tucking his left arm back into his kimono to keep it warm. He started to pick his way over the bodies. "I am going to report this attack to the proper authorities when I get to the next shiki."
She spurred her horse around him and blocked his path. Edward stopped and frowned. This woman was beginning to get on his nerves. "I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that," she said, reining her horse in quickly.
He hated to have to fall back on this, but this woman left him no choice in the matter. "I am on official business from Hakori-sama. If you won't step aside-"
"Your business is neither official nor important," the woman said smartly. "We need to know everything you know of the beasts name Ogui and Donyoku. We can have this conversation out here, or you can come with me - peacefully - to neutral ground."
Edward took a step backward as he considered these options and sighed. He didn't need anymore pointless fights. It looked as if he would be even later to Edo than he previously thought...
Kaji Roi sat before a low table, a gaijin book open before him. A single candle lit the room, and it cast flickering shadows over the pages full of foreign script. Slowly, reverently, Kaji turned the page to reveal more of the flowing script.
The foreigners were so strange. They bound their books oddly and read them backwards. On top of that, they liked to write horizontally. It was odd and uncomfortable to read in that manner, if he could decipher the words at all.
He didn't know how Hagane could read the script so fluently, let alone understand it. For quite some time he had harbored the suspicion that the boy could not actually read the foreign script but was making it up as he went along. However, one of the scholars who attended Hokori-sama confirmed that Hagane understood at least one of the foreign languages enough to translate it fluently into Japanese.
There was a quiet shuffle from outside the room, and Kaji glanced up as the shoji slid quietly aside. Taka entered the room without permission and slid the rice-paper door shut as quietly as she had opened it. She bowed once, very low, before making her report.
"Joushiki and Soudou have left for Edo as you specified," Taka said, seated upright on her knees. She wore her dark yukata and her long, light hair was unbound. "They expect to be in the city within a week if weather is good."
Kaji nodded. "Any word from Hagane?"
Taka shook her head. "None. Hearsay is that he defeated some sort of obakÃ©mono in Mino, but there was no proof to that tale."
"Hm." Kaji closed the book and frowned. "That boy has his head in the clouds. Why has he not yet returned to Kyoto?"
"He has many unfinished tasks, /taishou/. He will not set foot in Kyoto unless his karma leads him here ... or unless you summon him." She bowed again. "Would you have me loose the hawks?"
Kaji's glance wandered over the shoji as he thought. His long-dormant plans were slowly taking shape before him. The members of his unit, his band of ronin had integrated well with the other vassals in Hakori-sama's castle. He and Joushiki in fact entertained the positions of personal bodyguards to Hakori-sama. They were convenient positions to have, he had worked hard to maneuver himself up that far. Hakori watched him like a hawk, though ... he knew that Kaji commanded more loyalty from those ronin than he himself did.
"No," Kaji said simply. "Hagane's role is not yet clear to me. I have no use for his presence."
Taka bowed again, then rose to leave. Kaji watched her move quietly, then as the shoji slid closed he sighed again.
Hokori had not done anything remotely suspicious in months. The man was a perfect example of loyalty to his shogun, as well as loyal to his emperor. This was beginning to grate on Koji's nerves, because he knew that Hokori was employed in at least one conspiracy to remove the shogun from power. He had been on the roof of the building, same as Taka and three other shinobi when the men pledged to Hokori-sama to undermine the Shogun's rule!
There was not one piece of damning concrete evidence to back him up. He could approach the court of the shogun and present the fact that he had been present as evidence, but the only result of that would be the order to commit seppuku for dishonoring his lord with ridiculous accusations. He couldn't ask Taka to back him up, because that would cost her life as well, and would accomplish just as much as if he went alone. There was the vain hope of such an accusation throwing enough dirt on Hokori's honor that the shogun might ask for his suicide as well, but the hope was slim.
Besides, Kaji had taken an oath to lay the head of Hokori on the grave of his former master. He would much rather be alive to fulfill that oath.
What of Hagane, though? Kaji considered the book that sat before him. If the young samurai knew that Kaji had absconded with this particular book ... the fit he would throw would probably make the tantrums he had whenever Kaji referred to him as 'chibiko' pale in comparison. This book in particular meant something to Hagane, and to have left it in some moldy cave... Kaji flipped through the pages slowly, frowning at the obscure, foreign text. There were diagrams, illustrations of people tending fires and strange things he barely knew of. There were pictures of the red rock that Hokori-sama was so interested in, detailed illustrations that his scholars would kill to get their hands on. What a lowly samurai from some obscure village was doing with a book like this, Kaji didn't know.
Kaji knew that Hagane had inherited the books, but why he studied 'that accursed science' he wasn't sure. Hagane abhorred anything that had to do with his father. However, the foreign science was apparently very useful. He had seen Hagane use it to transform the metal arm that had earned him the name 'Hagane' to begin with. He had used the arm as a weapon very often, and refused to wield any sword but his own. Kaji knew that some brigand, the leader of the same group that had destroyed his sword-arm and killed his younger sibling, had stolen Hagane's daisho. If he could unlock the same secrets that Hagane had, maybe he could use the foreign science as well.
The possibilities were endless, could he in fact unlock the secrets in the text. Kaji had no way of reading the foreign script without summoning one of Hokori-sama's scholars or asking Hagane himself, so that was out of the question. With a disgruntled sigh, Kaji Roi leaned forwards and blew out the lone candle lighting the room.
The solid click of the go stone against the board echoed in the quiet room. A beautiful woman, a geisha, sat alone at the go board, a fan in one hand, and the other hovering over the bowl full of white stones. She smiled, the fan wavering slightly in her grasp as she observed the already-set stones on her board.
"Shiai o ... hajimeru."
tabi -- 1 -- owari
Author's Note and Glossary: Hello, if you're reading this you made it through the first chapter of this monstro-story, and I commend you. Or maybe you've skimmed down, trying to figure out what the hell all this crap is.This story is set, as you might have noticed, in feudal Japan. My knowledge of such an era is not anywhere near complete and there are bound to be lots of historical inaccuracy, never mind the glaring difficulties I'll have with geography. I'll try to be a vague as possible since, you know, I've never actually BEEN to Japan. So, bear with me, okay?
/Aki-onna/: a spirit of Fall; literally "Autumn-woman"
/chibiko/: 'small child'
/daimyo/: the lord of a province
/daisho/: the sword set held by a samurai consisting of a katana and a wakizashi
/Nakasendo Road/: The other main road from Edo to Kyoto, it passes through more mountainous terrain than Tokaido Road.
/obakÃ©mono/: monster, demon
/ri/: A unit of distance, it equals about 2.4 miles.
/ronin/: masterless samurai
/saya/: Sword sheath
"Shiai o hajimeru" - "The game has started."
/shiki/: a way-station along a main road with an inn and some places to rest.
/shoji/: rice-paper door
/taishou/: captain, leader
/tsuba/: Sword hilt