No one said a word as they clambered aboard the sloop and launched from the jetty and into the night. Adrenaline and fear flowed thick in Kenji’s veins as he manned one of the side oars and began rowing upstream opposite Waru. His heart sped, expecting at any moment for the Tsu warriors to come running down the path.
Chet Fai and Shinoto busied themselves around the Qi stone box, both sitting opposite it in lotus position. Pressing their palms to the contraption, they channeling their Qi and with a faint glow the box began swaying the oar attached to it back and forth, steadily increasing their speed.
Water splashed noisily against the haul as they powered upriver. Only after they had rowed steadily for over an hour, with the fires of Han village well out of view did they finally take a rest.
Kenji helped Waru set the sail and then Shinoto and Chet Fai took turns powering the Qi stones. The silence continued, until Shinoto began weeping softly at the back of the boat. The sound was heartbreaking, but Kenji couldn’t think of anything to do or say to comfort her—the horror of what had happened still fresh within his own mind.
The reality of it sat like a cold lump of emptiness in the pit of his stomach.
A chill that wouldn’t go away.
My father is dead…they’re all dead
They remained like that for most of the night, each of them dealing with their grief and shock in stunned silence. Perhaps they were all too scared to speak. As if talking about it would only make it more real and solidify the pain.
Kenji took turns at the bow with Waru, guiding the sloop by lantern light. By the time the first hints of morning came, they were exhausted. Finding a sandy river bank, they beached the sloop and began to offload.
“We should have put in enough distance by now,” Waru said, grabbing a sack filled with provisions. “We should rest until noon and then set out again.”
“Do you think they’ll come for us?” Shinoto asked.
Waru gave Kenji a quick glance. “We should perhaps assume so, yes.”
Kenji shifted with unease. Waru had been gracious with his last statement. The old man perhaps knew full well that those men and even the demon had come because of him. And he perhaps knew the reason why as well. Kenji wanted the answer himself but was afraid, of not only where the answer might lead, but also about how it would make Shinoto and even Chet Fai feel. How would they react knowing their parents and everyone in the village had died because of him?
Still, if he did somehow cause all this…they all needed to know why.
After lifting Olja out of the boat and onto the riverbank, they made a small camp and set a cooking pot to boil dried fish and rice. It was a somber meal. A breakfast of sorrows. When they had finished, Kenji finally spoke.
“We need to talk about what happened,” he said. “And why it happened too.”
“She’s why it happened,” Chet Fai said, glaring down at Olja. “They obviously came because of her. She brought that demon and those men.”
Chet Fai didn’t know the full story like he and Shinoto did, and he could almost wish for it to remain that way. But they’d lost everything now. Knowing the truth would be imperative to their survival.
“I don’t know why we’re even bothering to carry her still.” Chet Fai continued to stare at the Xjian woman, contempt in his eyes. “We should dump her in the damn river.”
“Hey, it wasn’t her,” Shinoto said. “If anything, the four of us are all alive now thanks to this woman. If she hadn’t given that warning about the Tsu, we never would have prepared the boat to leave.”
That was true, Kenji supposed. But there was someone else they owed a debt to as well.
“My father also,” Kenji added, staring into the flames. “If not for what he did….”
Even now Kenji could see him, knowingly accepting his fate as he used the last of his strength to send him back through time for a second chance. The love of his parting words saddened and comforted him both.
“I had no idea the Han techniques could be used in such a way,” Shinoto said.
Kenji nodded. “Neither did I.”
It made him wonder what other possibilities lay buried within the Han arts. Was it a technique Xian Lu always knew existed? Or was it something he had developed himself? Or perhaps even on the spot…a talisman hastily drawn in his own blood to save his son.
“Waru,” Chet Fai said. “Do you have any idea who those men were?”
“Hard to say.” The old man stoked the fire. “They had the markings of the Tsu military. This much I know. But they didn’t seem soldiers to me. At least…not anymore.”
“No,” Shinoto said bitterly. “They weren’t soldiers. They were savages.”
“Where were our soldiers?” Chet Fai said. “Why weren’t they there to protect us?”
Waru seemed to ponder on that a moment but then shrugged. “How men like that got past the great wall, I do not know.”
“But why did they come in the first place?” Chet Fai said. “If not for this woman, then what? Were they seeking to steal our techniques? They destroyed everything. It makes no sense. Even bandits would not be so stupid as to do that.”
Kenji shared a glance with Shinoto as guilt rose into his stomach. Although he still didn’t know why they’d come exactly, he knew what they were after. He had to let them know. “When the demon attacked me, the Xjian woman said that—”
“You can’t trust what she said,” Waru said. “She may have helped in warning us, but she may have only been doing so to save her own skin. From what I saw, those men were at least ascended to the 8th or 9th dan. And she couldn’t fight them on her own.” Waru then looked down at Olja, still unconscious and snoring heavily. “The Xjian and Tsu kingdoms share a border, but they are not allies. Chet Fai could be right. This woman could have involved us in some foreign quarrel here.”
“We’d better get rest now,” Waru said, cutting him off him again. “Shinoto and Chet Fai, you sleep for a few hours while Kenji and I take watch. You’ll need to replenish your Qi to keep the boat going. The current will only get stronger as the river narrows, and we’ll need you both channeling the stones.”
Both Shinoto and Chet Fai nodded.
Waru then looked to Kenji. “Help me set up the tent.”
They unpacked bed rolls and pitched one of the tents as the sun rose in the sky. The river was straight and wide where they had anchored and gave a clear view downstream for at least half a mile. If the Tsu had pursued them, they would at least have amble time to spot them and flee. The surrounding forest was thick and wild, rife with bamboo and fern.
Kenji and Waru sat upon the boat, facing both the river and the forest, keeping a wary eye out for danger from either side. Within minutes both Shinoto and Chet Fai were snoring within the tent, succumbing to the stress of the ordeal perhaps.
Kenji felt the pull of sleep as well, but he sensed Waru had arranged this to give them a chance to talk in private and he couldn’t let the opportunity pass.
“I have a confession to make,” Kenji said.
Waru grunted. “Huh?”
“Shinoto and I listened in on your meeting with the elders.”
“Did you now?” Waru didn’t seem shocked in the slightest. “How much did you hear?”
“Enough to know that the demon might have truly come because of me…and those men too.” He then looked to Waru. “Are you really a general?”
The old man laughed. “Heard that too, huh?”
Kenji smiled. “It was hard to believe at first, but when I saw you fighting in the square…”
He trailed off then…not wanting to relive the moment of Waru’s demise, but the old man merely laughed again. “I hope I did my training justice. But yes, I commanded men in war. A long time ago now.”
“My father said some things before he sent me back.” Kenji tried to recall the words exactly. “He said those men had come for me because of ‘what’ I am. Do you know what he meant?”
Kenji waited nervously for the answer as Waru blew out a long sigh.
“I need wine,” he said and withdrew his favorite bottle from his robes. He took a swig and then pushed the bottle to Kenji. “Trust me, you’ll probably need it after hearing this.”
Kenji took the bottle as his heartbeat sped with both dread and anticipation. He drank and the bitterness of the rice wine stung his throat on the way down. “Ack!”
Waru chuckled. “You’ll grow to like it. Just be careful not too much… or you’ll end up a bum like me.”
A pause followed as Kenji passed him back the bottle and Waru took another pull.
“I wanted only you to hear this, Kenji,” he said. “What I’m about to tell you is something for only you to share…if you choose. And I would not do so loosely. Not even with Shinoto.”
That caused his heart to beat even faster.
“I don’t know everything, but I’ll tell you as much as I do.” Waru then paused for a long time as if trying to piece together the words in the right order. “Your father and I…We always knew that this day might eventually come. If you want to blame anyone…blame us, not yourself. We grew soft and complacent. It was only a matter of time before they might find out where you were and come looking for you again.”
“Again? What are you talking about? What am I to these people? What do they want from me? And that demon…Why did it come for me?”
“It is as your father said…” Waru finally turned to face him. “It’s because of what you are Kenji. Or perhaps…who you were.”
Kenji’s throat tightened as his father’s words repeated in his ears. “Then who or what am I?”
Waru paused once more, his eyes shifting, as if not wanting to tell him.
“You are part of a sundered soul, Kenji,” he eventually said. “Do you understand what that means?”
Kenji shook his head, fear creeping into his veins.
“It means that you were once a man so powerful, so close to true immortality, that in order to defeat you, your soul had to be split in two.”
Defeat me? Immortal? Split in two? “What are you talking about?”
“Kenji, you are not a boy and you are not a dullard like me…far from it. A thousand year rope was used to rebirth you and then your doma was sealed…”
Kenji felt for the scare below his navel. “Sealed?”
“They feared that if you could ever use it, you could rise in power and become the terror you once were.”
His stomach lurched. Fear seized him as his heart hammered inside his chest. “Waru…What does that mean? What was I? Who was I?”
The old man released a long breath.
“You are the living embodiment of one of the greatest mystic warriors to ever live, Kenji. But also…one of the most bloodthirsty and ruthless.”
His stomach fell through the floor. “What?”
“Those men that attacked the village. They were once your followers.”
His heart raced as his mind spun, his stomach sick. “No… No, I refuse to believe that!”
“I’m sorry, lad, but it’s true,” Waru said almost remorsefully. “Your true name is not Kenji… It is Li Wan Fu.”
“Li Wan Fu….?” The name sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it. But it didn’t resonate with him either. It certainly wasn’t him. “No, that’s not me.”
“It is,” Waru said. “You were the leader of the great imperial rebellion, Kenji.”
His heart stopped as the name finally slipped into place.
“You were the legendary mystic warrior… known as the Bloody Duke.”