The sun was already high in the sky by the time Kenji was ready to bid farewell to his home. After bathing and ridding himself of the demon’s foul stench, Kenji spent the rest of the morning in preparation for the trip to Amatsu Village. He’d never been to another village before. Without protective runes and barriers, the wilderness between villages was fraught with dangers; from wild spirit beasts to roaming bandits. As such, wandering past the orchards was expressly forbidden and Kenji had never travelled more than a few miles from him home. But now he was set to travel much farther than that.
The trip was to take only a few days by river, but Kenji packed for a much longer journey. He stuffed a leather satchel with two sets of clothing, writing implements and a bundle of glyph scripts. As he looked around his small bedroom, it was a bit sad to realize that he had no other possessions to pack other than that. While the house was filled with tomes of ancient writings and instructions regarding the Han rebirthing arts, those all belong to his father. A new goal set within his mind. If he might be travelling to Amatsu Village for good, he would make more of himself there than he had here.
A sickness opened up in the pit of his stomach as he dwelled on it—the fact that he could perhaps be leaving Han Village for good. No one had said as much, of course. What he’d overheard through eavesdropping only hinted at it and he thus couldn’t confirm it either way. But it still troubled him that the demon may have truly been seeking him and as a result he was being sent on this journey.
He and Shinoto hadn’t had opportunity to talk about that yet or anything they’d overheard for that matter. After she’d finished dressing Olja, Chief Wu told her that she was joining them and then she’d rushed off home to tell her family and prepare for the trip as well.
Maybe he was simply over reacting to what he’d heard.
After all, his father didn’t seem to make much fuss over him going. No parting last words or gifts. It was no different than if he were simply tasked with pruning a tree in one of the far orchards. Perhaps moving him was only temporary, as a precautionary measure.
That thought eased his anxiety some—that and the fact that he would be travelling with two of his closest friends. Kenji smiled as he recalled the way Shinoto’s eyes lit up when Chief Wu told her the news and the warm embrace she’d given him afterwards.
“We’re starting our adventure early,” she’d said. “Next stop…the unknown.”
So like her, he thought. Still so eager to see the outside world, no matter the circumstances. But besides Waru, there would be another traveling with them as well—the true, or at least official reason for their heading to Amastsu.
Kenji studied the strange Xjian woman still asleep on the living room floor. Shinoto had removed her heavy armor and furs and dressed her in a simple robe—although on her massive frame it looked little more than a tunic.
Such an odd woman, Kenji thought. A giant with golden hair.
But whoever this Olja woman was, she if anyone would know the truth behind what had happened here—more so even than the elders who were so adamant to rush her to Amatsu to be restored.
Only when that happened, would they all get the answers they’d need.
* * *
Kenji met with Waru outside the house and together, with the wheelbarrow, they set about getting supplies. It was still hard to think of Waru as some kind of general and Kenji almost had the urge to probe him further about his history, but he had to keep hidden what he’d overheard.
The small jetty to the river was closer to his home than to the village square and thus they ventured there first to check on the small sloop that would take them up river. It was shallow bottomed and could fit six, but the Xjian woman would easily take most of the space.
“Hopefully the Qi stones still work,” Waru said patting the small wooden box at the back of the boat. Attached to it was an oar that floating lazily in the water behind it. The device would save them much work rowing upstream, but neither of them could test it. They would have to wait for Shinoto to come to see if the rune-covered stones within the box would cause the oar to row by itself once she channeled it with her Qi.
The Qi stone arts were always fascinating to Kenji. Like the rebirthing ropes, rare and expensive elements were required to produce them—a secret of the forging arts within the Souzau region to the west. This small box alone was worth perhaps a hundred gold, but he’d heard stories of even greater contraptions making use of them; like ships that could actually fly like a wind walking master.
To see a Qi stone capable of that would be a marvel indeed.
After checking the sail and the rest of the boat for seaworthiness they departed the jetty, passing by his home before heading towards town. They passed by other homes along the way. Most were farms, growing vegetables or rice, like the small plot next to his home, now budding with spring carrots.
As expected, no one was working the field at the moment. As per Chief Wu’s orders, they had perhaps all reported to Shiro’s father, Master Yushiro to be conscripted into the militia. When Kenji reached the village square he confirmed that that was indeed the case.
The spot where Shinoto’s ceremony had taken place had been transformed into a dojo. At least fifty villagers, a quarter of the population were gathered there, all clad in tight fitting robes fit for combat rather than farming. Master Yushiro stood before them, demonstrating a martial technique. Kenji stopped for a moment to watch him. It wasn’t often one was exposed to the mystic arts, and not withstanding his encounter with Olja, seeing a mystic artist in true form was like beholding magic itself.
Master Yushiro first recited from a small tome in his hand. It was perhaps one of many he had received while attending the mystic schools to become a Soul Master, one able to conjure energies directly from the doma and use it as destructive force.
While the instructions were not complicated, they involved opening certain meridians within the body in specific degrees and orders, something Kenji still could not hope to do. Finishing with the instructions, Master Yushiro then turned to face a wooden dummy that was carved in the shape of a man.
He released a forceful yell, snapping his palm towards it. A wave of blue energy pulsed from his hand and struck the dummy some thirty feet away, knocking it over with a bang!
“Force of the Palm is a very simple but potentially powerful technique,” Master Yushiro said, addressing the militia once more. “It is one of the few techniques allowed to be shared outside the mystic schools and must be used only for self-defense. This is especially true for those who are rebirthed or who have reached eight tier. The stronger one’s doma, the stronger this technique can become. At fifth dan, it can sunder the trunk of a hundred year old tree.”
The crowd of practitioners whispered in awe at hearing that. Kenji himself was impressed and was reminded of the powerful kick Olja had used to send the spider-demon crashing through not one but two trees. The mystic arts were powerful indeed.
“Don’t be so impressed,” Waru muttered. “There’s more to fighting than fancy Qi techniques and gimmicks.”
Had he not known who he truly was, Kenji would have dismissed the old man’s slur as just another one of Waru’s drunken banters. But now knowing he was a general, or had been, Kenji marveled at what he must have done to obtain such a high rank and without the advantage of rebirthing or Qi. Kenji studied the old man as he hobbled away towards the general store.
Looks could certainly be deceiving.
* * *
Kenji heard the shouts even before he arrived.
“There is no reason for this, Chief Wu!”
Ben Fai stood outside the store addressing the Chief. Next to him was Shinoto’s mother, Yuna. Like Ben Fai, she appeared in her thirties with short cut hair and a radiant smile, but at the moment she wore a look of distress as she clung to her husband’s arm. Shinoto sat on the step of the storefront, head buried in her arms crying, while her older brother, Chet Fai gave Kenji a scowl as he and Waru approached.
“Speak of the devil himself.” Chet Fai spat upon the ground.
Shinoto looked up and gave Kenji a frown through her tears.
“Quiet,” Ben Fai chided his son before turning back to the Chief. “There are many other women who can travel to look after the Xjian woman. There is no reason to send my daughter.”
“But I want to go!” Shinoto blurted out. “Please father!”
Ben Fai scowled. “This matter does not concern you, child! Be silent.”
Chief Wu looked on impassively, his ten year old features unmarred by even a crease of concern. “You are right, Ben Fai. It could be any woman indeed. So why not her?”
The muscles in Ben Fai’s neck tensed. “You know why.”
A long silence drew out and Chief Wu’s eyes drifted towards Kenji.
The heat of embarrassment flushes his skin red and his face burned. Why did Shinoto’s father hate him so? Had the chief told him about the demon?
“The chief made his decision, Ben Fai,” Waru said. “Why won’t you respect it?”
“You stay out of this, Waru.” Ben Fai eyed the old man with contempt.
“I’m already a part of it,” Waru said indignantly. “I helped make the decision.”
Ben Fai’s eyes grew wide. “You what?”
“Shinoto wants to join one of the mystic schools, doesn’t she?” Waru continued. “What better way for her to understand her competition, than to visit another village?”
Shinoto looked up, hopeful at that.
Ben Fai grimaced, perhaps sensing the logic. “If that is the case, then send my son as well.”
Kenji’s heart froze within his chest.
“He too wishes to become a mystic artist,” Ben Fai said. “He would benefit from the trip as well. Chet Fai would be far more suitable to accompany his younger sister.”
“More suitable than who?” Waru said with a laugh. “A broken down old nag like me?”
Waru’s attempt at levity lightened the mood as well as deflected the attention away from himself. He’d have to thank him later for that. Good old, Waru…
The chief smiled as he pondered it for a moment before finally nodding. “Very well. Chet Fai will accompany his sister.”
Kenji’s heart sank further as Chet Fai gave him a leering grin.
“Make preparations quickly,” Chief Wu said. “We need to get that warrior to Amatsu Village as quickly as possible.”