Kenji’s skin grew numb as a cold chill curled around his spine. His heart pounded as if with fright. Was his entire life a fraud? Was he truly someone else? He couldn’t believe it.
“The Bloody Duke…?”
Kenji knew the stories—the legendary mystic warrior who nearly defeated the emperor and conquered the entire Zhou region. But they were tales told to children to get them to behave. ‘Do your chores or the Bloody Duke will return to punish you!’
He still couldn’t fathom it. His stomach grew sick at the thought. He looked down upon his hands. Hands that were now, perhaps not his own. This couldn’t be right. “What does this means, Waru? How can I be someone else? How can I be him?”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of this burden, Kenji. Your father…may the heavens take him…was keen to never tell you this truth.”
Kenji recalled Xian Lu’s last words to him. Even then he’d only given a hint. “But why? Why keep something like this from me?”
Waru shrugged. “Perhaps he would have told you eventually. But my thoughts are he hoped that it would simply never matter.”
“Never matter? How?”
“You were always just Kenji to him, lad…and to me as well, for that matter. Who you were was not important.”
At the moment, Kenji didn’t know who or what he was. The irony of it all came like a cruel joke. His entire life he’d pined to ascend in tier, to be rebirthed like those in his village, like Shinoto. But in truth, he was already rebirthed…and as an immortal warrior, not a dullard child.
“I still can’t believe it…” Kenji shook his head. “If I’m so different then why don’t I feel different? Where are my memories, if this is true? If I was the Bloody Duke then shouldn’t I remember something?”
“Quiet down,” Waru said raising a finger to his lips. “You don’t want to wake them.”
Kenji paused at that and waited until he could hear the snoring of Shinoto and Chet Fai again before he continued. “When one is rebirthed we retain our memories, don’t we? If I really am the Bloody Duke, then where are mine?”
Waru shrugged and took another sip of wine. “This is where my answers become only guesses, lad. I don’t know much about the dark arts that were used to do it, but when they brought you to the village, your soul was already sundered by the emperor. It was 18 years ago, but I can remember it as clear as yesterday…” Waru then leaned back, his eyes staring into the sky as he recalled the memories from long past. “They had you in a cage. Like an animal. And for good reason too. I’d seen the Bloody Duke only once on the battlefield. Or a glimpse of him anyway. He cut down an entire platoon of my men with a single stroke of his blade. Five years later, when I saw him…or you…whichever … in that cage, he hadn’t aged a day. But it was as if his mind was gone. I asked one of the sages what’d been done to you and she told me that they’d separated your mind and spirit from your body. But your body was that of an 80th dan mystic warrior.”
Kenji’s heart froze. “80th?”
“So they say…” Waru belched. “She said they tried to kill you many times…but even as a mindless animal, unable to use any kind of skill or ability at all, you were impossible to harm. And so they brought you to us.”
Kenji nodded, already following the logic. “To be rebirthed as a child…”
There was a reason why no mystic warrior would willingly undergo a rebirth. While it would condense one’s Qi, it would come at the price of losing all of one’s physical progression. Ascension through the dans wasn’t simply a matter of gaining knowledge and increases one’s doma. To increase in dan was to be literally be reborn again in a new and stronger body.
“Why didn’t they simply kill me then? As an infant?”
Waru’s eyebrows rose. “You were always a quick one, Kenji. You can thank your father for that.”
“Xian Lu convinced the emperor to allow you to live…to see if you would grow to be the same man… an enemy of the empire. Or if you could be raised to be useful to the throne.”
“Useful?” Kenji didn’t like that word.
“Like it or not, lad. You’re alive today because the emperor at the time saw you as a potential weapon. Although it’s sealed… your doma has the rebirthed Qi of an 80th Dan Mystic Warrior. You’re like a newly dwarfed century tree, Kenji. If you ever progressed again through the tiers, trained in the mystic arts, you could potentially become the most powerful mystic warrior that ever walked the earth.”
Kenji’s heart jumped at the thought of that, fear and wonder both. He rubbed the scar on his navel as he considered what lay dormant beneath. Is such power truly locked away inside of me?
“I see that look in your eye,” Waru said with a laugh. “I wonder if I’ve made a mistake in telling you this much.”
“I just… I just can’t believe it.”
“Trust me, it’s what saved your life a second time. Your father convinced them to allow him to raise you as his son. I suppose they considered a normal education in the mystic arts to be of too much risk. The peaceful life of an artisan instead would be far more easy to control and reveal any traces of your past life or desires.”
“So I was… just some kind of an experiment then?” A sudden indignation lit inside him as the words pierced his heart. “Was that all I was to my father?”
“Hey, don’t think so ill of him. Xian Lu loved you, lad. Or grew to anyway. He wasn’t one equipped to show it, but he did.”
Kenji’s throat tightened. Those words felt more true than any he’d heard tonight, his father’s last words to him especially. Xian Lu gave his all, to give him not just a second chance at life…but perhaps a third.
Thank you again, father…
“But for what it’s worth, yes…” Waru sighed as he continued. “I suppose you were an experiment of sorts. To the state at least… But I’ve watched you grow, Kenji. Very closely at first. But as I told you… in these last few years, we grew complacent. Because we knew you were not him. At least not in spirit.”
“So what am I then?”
Waru shrugged. “Just Kenji.”
Kenji fumed inwardly, but then his own ambivalence perplexed him. One moment he was in disbelief and horror at learning that he might be the Bloody Duke, and now he was incensed that he might not be truly him after all. “This is all very confusing.”
“I know it is, lad. It’s why we sought to never tell you. For a time we believed even the emperor had forgotten all about you. But it seems the Tsu have not.”
“How did they know where to find me?” Kenji asked. “And who else in the village knows about me?”
“Only myself and the elders,” Waru said.
“Not Ben Fai?”
Waru chuckled. “I’m afraid that loathing was simply a matter of station. You were but a dullard to him. One his daughter was infatuated with.”
That caused him to reflect on Shinoto again. By the heavens, how this changed things now. If he were honest, his entire reason for chasing rebirth was to prove himself to both the village and her father. But neither existed anymore. And now, he’d already been rebirthed. He wasn’t behind Shinoto in advancement… he was 17 years and 80 dans ahead.
80 dans…by the heavens… “How old was I?”
“The Duke… how old was he? You said they used a thousand year rope, right?” Kenji then rushed to look inside his pack and produced the small spool of golden rope. “Was this it? Is this father used to rebirth me?”
Waru furrowed his brow as he looked upon it. “Perhaps so… where did you get this?”
“I found it hidden in the workshop. Was he truly so old then? A thousand years?”
Kenji’s heart sped at the thought that he could not only be so powerful, but an ancient immortal as well. Just the idea of it was chilling.
Waru shook his head again. “Perhaps only your father would know for certain. The stories say the Bloody Duke was not native to these lands… He came from the west, settling in the Tsu region before starting his conquest.”
Kenji’s head was spinning now. He looked to the Xjian woman, Olja. She was the missing piece here. “What do you make of her? She seemed to know who I was… or that I was special at least. She knew that the demon had come after me. But why?”
“Ah the demon…” Waru shifted on his rear. “Your father said that the demon you described is what’s known as a Bloodskull type. They are dark summons from the nether world, used to track things. With the Tsu so close behind it and especially now seeing that witch, they might have been the one’s that summoned it in order to find you.”
Kenji’s stomach grew cold. “So I am responsible then…”
Waru opened his mouth as if to take back what he’d said, but then simply closed it again.
“It’s alright,” Kenji said. “If I’m truly who you say I am… then perhaps my legacy lives on with me still.”
“Hey, don’t ever think like that,” Waru said. “I’ve known you your whole life, lad. You are not the monster I saw slay a hundred men with a single stroke. You have a good heart, Kenji. Your own heart. I believe Li Wan Fu was judged by the heavens for his sins, and you are the karmic rebirth of his atonement.”
Kenji chuckled. “Now you sound like an old soothsayer.”
Waru laughed. “Perhaps I am! But know this… No man can choose what fate has dealt him, but he can choose how to deal with his fate.”
“I was wrong… not a soothsayer… a damn poet. And not a good one.”
Waru merely laughed again.
“So what do we do now?” Kenji asked. “These Tsu men want me for what I am.” That thought then triggered something else. “And they don’t even need me alive, apparently.”
“What do you mean?”
“Before my father sent me back, the one with the claws told me so… before he killed me.”
Waru grimaced. “I don’t know… Who knows what those dark arts call for? Perhaps they don’t need you alive to possess your doma. The witch that was with them was perhaps the one who summoned the demon too. And if so, they’re all very powerful indeed.”
“Did my father know all this?” Kenji asked.
“That the village would be attacked because of me? Is that why he made me come with you on this journey to heal the Xjian woman?”
Waru sighed. “Looking back… perhaps he suspected...or feared it a possibility. But I don’t think any of us expected something like this so soon. Like I said, how men that powerful and even the demon got through the wall is beyond me. It makes me fear what’s happening in the north.”
Kenji had learned of the history of the Great Wall as all Zhou children had; constructed over a thousand years ago by the great Zhou Emperor Zi Zjan Wi during the height of the third dynasty. It was built to defend from the barbarian hordes and giant spirit beats to the north, the places they now called Tsu and Xjian. But Kenji had never considered it much beyond that.
“Have you even been to the wall?”
Waru nodded. “A few times. Hells, if you travel north far enough you’ll run into it sooner or later.”
“What’s it like?”
“Taller than a hundred year old tree in most places and covered in protective runes. And what’s not covered in runes is covered by soldiers and cannons.” He jerked his chin at Olja. “Seeing people like her and those Tsu crawl through… I wonder just how badly the war is going on the frontier.”
Kenji thought again at how quickly those men and that witch burned Han village and everyone in it. As much as his newfound inner strength placed him with potential, he was still a dullard with no true skill of his own. Even Waru, as skilled as he was with a spear was no match for them in the end. As his father said, getting Olja to Amatsu and reviving her, would be their best protection against them.
“Will we be safe in Amatsu?”
“Of course!” Waru said slapping his leg. “They’re a much bigger village and they have a sect of the mystic schools there. The chief sent word ahead by sparrow. They’ll be on the alert. Trust me, lad. There will be a dozen 20th dan warriors waiting at the ready.” He made the proclamation with a hearty laugh and Kenji could tell he was exaggerating to put his mind at ease. Even with a sect of a mystic school, an artisan village would be lucky to have even a 15th dan.
“We just need to reach there,” Waru said. “We’ll be safe.”
“What about her?” Kenji asked, again looking to the Xjian woman. “My father said that she would be our only hope for protection. What dan do you think she is?”
“Eh…I’m not sure…” Waru rubbed his head. “She’s powerful for certain. But she could be a liability too.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t know what she knows. For her to know that demon was tracking you, she had to know something. And if she does, we don’t want her blabbing her mouth to everyone else in that village. As I said, this is your secret to keep now, Kenji. The Bloody Duke was both feared and hated in these lands. It would not do you good for people to know that that’s who you truly are.”
A shiver ran through him at the thought of that. He’d have to reconsider the whole idea of being open with this. He especially wasn’t going to tell someone like Chet Fai. But where did that leave him with Shinoto?
“The chief had given me a letter to give us discretion when vising the healing schools. But I’ve blasted lost it now?”
“Was that what was in the chest you went back for?”
“Aye, it was.”
Kenji smiled. “Don’t be upset. Your forgetfulness saved your life the second time around.”
Waru drank. “I suppose… the wheels of fate are confusing.”
“Perhaps you can speak to the chief when we reach Amatsu Village,” Kenji said. “Explain we need privacy.”
“Me?” Waru shook his head. “The people in that village don’t know me. I’d just be an old drunk to them. It’s why I needed that letter. You’d be better off speaking to them than me.”
“You were the son of an elder, Kenji. You know what that makes you now? You’re the highest ranking member of the Han clan…or what’s left of it.”
Kenji’s mind froze for what seemed the umpteenth time this morning. Another stark revelation. “But Chet Fai is older than me, right? Even if I’m rebirthed and some mystic warrior they wouldn’t know—”
“Ben Fai was a shopkeeper not an elder. And you were trained by your father in the sacred Han arts. You’re special in more ways than one Kenji. Keeping yourself alive is more important than you think.”
A heaviness weighed on his chest as took it all in. He was indeed the sole remnant of the Han arts. Survival for him didn’t mean just survival for him anymore…an entire school of knowledge now depended on his existence.
Another tree would never be rebirthed, unless he or someone he taught did it.
Kenji glanced down river, once again fearing those Tsu warriors showing up at any moment. “We should head out soon then…”
“We will,” Waru said. “But try to get some rest first. I’ll keep watch. You have some hard rowing ahead of you to get us further upstream, lad.”
Waru laughed to lighten the mood, but for Kenji there could be no such thing.
Hard rowing ahead indeed…
He’d just become the most hated man in the entire Zhou Empire and last Chief of the Han clan.