Sleep evaded Kenji as he lay within the tent next to Waru. The old man snored soundly, perhaps already drunk from his wine. Kenji envied him. Although his body was tired, his mind was restless. Thoughts of who he was, or who he had been collided with the horrors of seeing his entire village and father killed. It was a turmoil of anguish and grief, layered with pain.
Everyone had died because of him and yet he still didn’t fully understand why. Why had they come for him? And why did they want him dead?
He supposed only Olja would be able to tell him that.
Kenji sat up and stared out of the tent to where the Xjian woman rested next to the fire. A sleeping giant. He prayed she would have the answers he needed. Glimpsing further out of the tent he saw Shinoto and Chet Fai still standing watch on the sloop. He had purposefully avoided speaking to either of them earlier when they had changed shifts; feigning weariness to dodge any probing questions. But now, in his solitude, he perhaps had far more questions of his own than either of them could ask.
Who was this Bloody Duke? And who was he for that matter? The thoughts frustrated him.
He watched as Chet Fai went through a routine of basic forms while balancing on the edge of the boat. Kenji had to admit, he was quite skillful, performing the various stances and Qi channeling exercises with both precision and grace.
Perhaps he had the right idea. He needed to do something to get his mind off of all of this. Reaching for the pack he had retrieved from the boat, he rummaged through the tomes he had secured from his homestead. He opened one of the books on the Han Arts first, but after reading just a few pages he found he already knew much of what lay inside. He decided to read the history of the Tsu Wars next. Perhaps there would be some knowledge about the Bloody Duke there. It was still strange to even consider that he was a person other than who he thought himself to be. And a person he knew almost nothing about, at that. It was like finding out he’d been adopted and his entire life a lie.
Although sadly…that seemed to be exactly the case—a life lived as a lie.
He paged through the tome of dense script. It was like nothing he’d ever read before, seeming more like a record for battles and historical events dating back nearly a century. Even the language used formal script and there were some characters he didn’t recognize. For what he could understand of it, there were mentions of specific battle and tactics. Strategy. Losses and skirmishes. He paged further into the book to see if he could perhaps glimpse his new namesake, but he could find no reference to the Bloody Duke or Li Wan Fu.
Li Wan Fu… no that doesn’t sound like me at all…
Putting the history book to the side, he was about to read the book of spirit beasts next, but his hand brushed against the journal his father had written. Knowing what he did now, an overwhelming sense of curiosity gripped him. Could his father have written something about him within it?
Opening the tome, Kenji found the writing inside disorganized and haphazard, more of a notebook than a journal. But upon the first page, he saw something that immediately caught his attention.
Alternative Applications of Traditional Han Techniques by Xian Lu Han.
He immediately thought back to the spell his father had used to send him back through time. Had Xian Lu indeed been researching his own variation of the mystic arts? A sense of excitement filled him as he leafed through the book. The notes were scattered and Kenji had to flip back and forth through the pages, but slowly he began to piece together the scattered thoughts of his father. The entire concept seemed to stem from the idea that the rope techniques could be used in more creative ways; employing both regression and advancement to achieve new effects besides simply concentrating Qi.
“The varying degrees of the ropes can be thought of like a doma. Its years in length, like stored Qi. It can be expended minutely or all at once and in many forms. Likewise, a second’s worth of black rope is able to affect more material and to a greater degree than a second’s worth of off white. If time is held as the constant, as opposed to the object it affects, then the power of the effect itself becomes the variable.” –Xian Lu Han.
He pondered that a moment. Quite a different way to look at rebirthing indeed.
Kenji read several more of his father’s theories. Some combined the elements of time with those of more common elements, such as a tool for restoration that combined the elements of metal and water to remove rust. There was even a theory to reverse the seasons within the bounds of a rope, to produce summer heat in the winter or winder cold in summer.
Before he knew it, Kenji was immersed in the wild imaginations of his father. Xian Li was more brilliant that he’d ever known. The more he read the more his own ideas began to spark. Just how much could the simple principle of time manipulation be applied? Having no doma, Kenji had never considered the arts beyond what they were purposed for, using only what his father had taught him from the traditional Han tomes…but now.
Kenji touched the scar on his stomach. He indeed had a doma…and perhaps one more powerful than any chief of the Han could ever hope to produce. Yet it was still sealed away, but what if he could break that seal? If he could tap into his doma, what possibilities could he unlock?
“What are you reading?”
Shinoto’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts. The small girl stood just outside the tent, peeking through at him. His heart leapt with excitement to see her, eager to share what he’d just read.
Kenji gave her a smile and she returned it weakly. He had avoided talking with her before, but perhaps he needed to put aside his own thoughts and feelings now. Despite him wanting to hide the terrible secret Waru had told him, Shinoto was still his closest friend, and she was suffering a loss as painful as he was—perhaps even more so. He at least had had the opportunity to say goodbye.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
She tilted her head to the side as her countenance dropped. “Not good. It’s still all hard to believe. Like a nightmare. Or something I wish was only a nightmare. I keep seeing them…you know? And now they’re gone. It’s so…final.”
Kenji nodded, thinking of the fact that he’d never hear his father’s voice again. He looked down at the book. He at least had this; a part of his father to carry with him. Shinoto didn’t have anything like that. “I’m sorry, Shinoto. I know that must have been terrible for you to endure. It does feel like a nightmare that won’t end. ”
Shinoto’s throat flexed in a swallow as her eyes grew glossy, but she didn’t say anything else. Perhaps it best he not dwell on this further. He raised the book.
“Oh, you asked about this, yes?”
“Yes.” Her eyes brightened a little with the change in subject. “What is it? You seemed enthralled.”
“It’s something my father wrote. He was researching further uses of the Han arts.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Lots of things… He had ideas on how to use the Han arts in new ways.”
She joined him inside the tent as be began to explain some of what he’d read. Slowly he saw the sparkle return to her eyes, filled with intrigue and wonder. Perhaps she needed something to keep her mind off of things too.
“Hey, I’ve got something for you,” he said and rummaged in his pack again. He found the tome he was looking for and handed it to her. “This was master Yushiro’s. He knew you had dreams of becoming a Soul Master…So I think of anyone, he would have wanted you to have it.”
She received the book with a look of awe on her face. “A tome of Soul Mastery.”
Kenji nodded. “First through fourth dan.”
“But it’s forbidden to have something like this without being a student of the mystic schools,” she said.
“Well…” Kenji leaned back with a grin. “Maybe if they see you with it, they’ll have to let you join.”
For the first time in forever Shinoto laughed and it warmed his soul to hear her mirth again.
“Thank you, Kenji!” She hugged him briefly. “This was very thoughtful of you and a wonderful gift.”
He returned the hug and then with a grin that suited her new age, Shinoto opened the book, eyes wide with eagerness and excitement. She scanned through the first few pages, filled with instructional texts and diagrams. She then closed the book and looked at him.
“I’m going to work hard to make him proud, Kenji.” She then clasped the book in her hands and offering a prayer towards the heavens. “Thank you, Master Yushiro…I will honor you and your mystic arts.”
“Hey, what are you two doing in there?” Chet Fai’s head appeared from the side of the tent.
“Nothing,” Kenji said. “I was just giving Shinoto—”
“It’s near noon. We need to get going. Those Tsu could already be on their way up river to find us.”
Shinoto’s eyes dropped into melancholy again. “He’s right. We should go. I need to dress the warrior’s wounds first though. You mind putting her in the tent, Kenji?”
“Sure,” he said. “Let me wake Waru.”
After spending a few minutes rousing the old man, the two of them hefted Olja into the tent and then Shinoto went to work bandaging her wound with fresh cloth. Kenji turned his back to the tent to not stare, but was curious to know of her condition.
“Does it look any worse?” he asked.
“It’s hard to tell from yesterday,” Shinoto said from behind him. “It doesn’t look good, but no worse I don’t think.”
“Best we get the boat ready,” Waru said heading towards the sloop. “We should hopefully reach before nightfall. She’ll get all the help she needs then. The Amatsu arts can work wonders. Or so they say.”
Waru then went to fix the sail, while he and Chet Fai broke down the camp.
“The Han arts won’t save us, you know,” Chet Fai’s said to him as they gathered up the cooking implements.
Kenji gave the ten year old Chet Fai a perplexed stare. “What do you mean?”
“I heard what you were saying to Shinoto, about your father and the Han arts. They were all worthless in the end.”
Kenji’s stomach tightened. “What did you just say?”
“Hey.” Chet Fai met his gaze. “Don’t mistake me. I wasn’t dishonoring your father—heavens take him. I just meant that we’ll need real power to protect ourselves now.” He then paused a moment and glanced to the side awkwardly. “Thank you giving Shinoto Yushiro’s manual. I didn’t think to do that. It lifted her spirits, I think.”
Kenji was taken aback. Never in a thousand years would he imagine Chet Fai thanking him for anything. “It’s no matter. I know it was always her dream. Yushiro would be pleased.”
“It’ll have to become more than a dream now. We’ll both need to advance in power in order to take revenge.”
Chet Fai blinked at him. “Don’t tell me you’re that much of a coward, Kenji. Our parents were killed before our eyes! Our home destroyed. What do we have left besides vengeance and retribution? Those Tsu barbarians must pay!”
The fury in his eyes was unmistakable, but Kenji found the same lacking within his own spirit. He mourned for his village and his father, but he didn’t feel the call for vengeance. Perhaps because, in his own mind, the reason those men had come and killed everyone was ultimately because of him.
No it wasn’t vengeance he felt…it was guilt.
Chet Fai scoffed at him. “Perhaps you’re younger than you even seem.”
The statement seemed ironic coming from a ten year old boy.
“When we reach Amatsu, I’m joining the mystic schools,” he said. “Shinoto and I, both. I don’t care what they tell us. Those Tsu bastards will pay for what they did. Even if it takes me a decade to train, I’ll see all of them dead by my own hand.” He then looked towards the tent. “And that goes for whoever brought this on us as well. Even if it turns out to be that Xjian woman…I’ll make sure I kill her too.”
Kenji didn’t say anything to that, but a hard lump formed in his throat.
Chet Fai wasn’t looking for a response anyway, it seemed. After starting at the tent a moment more, he grabbed a sack full of provisions and headed towards the boat.
* * *
The trip up river went swiftly. With daylight to guide them and a strong breeze to fill the sail, they made good headway against the gentle flow of the river. With the wind doing most of the work, they had time to relax a bit and once again found other things to keep their minds occupied. Kenji took to reading the book about spirit beasts while Shinoto studied the Soul Mastery tome. She sat towards the aft, reading and channeling. Every so often she would rise to practice a stance or two and then immediately dive into the book again.
Waru and Chet Fai busied themselves with martial kata, using the oars as mock spears. Hours passed and Kenji once again found himself transported by the endless characters on the well-worn pages.
Spirit beasts were more common than he imagined; partially because most were nearly indistinguishable from their normal kin. But the book noted telltale signs to look for to tell them apart. An extra tail or eye, but those were the more obvious traits. Variations in color and size were also signs that an animal had spiritual energy surging through its veins. Then there were whole species that were naturally considered spirit animals without ascending through some unusual means or extreme age. These included things such as tree sprites or kodamas which often inhabited ancient forests. Many of the dark species too were considered spirit animals, like the river dwelling Kapas which resembled a cross between a frog and a turtle. Such creatures drew energies from the dark Qi of the spirit realm and were considered corrupted, often malevolent in their temperament and dangerous to approach.
There were three whole chapters devoted to such creatures. Some were remnants of greater spirit beasts that had died, becoming vengeful spirits and demons that could bring even the dead back to life. Others gave life to things which normally had none, creating golems of earth and precious stones. Kenji found it all fascinating, especially as it was specific to their present region within the bowl of the Artisan valley, which was protected by the surrounding mountains to the east and west, the sea to the far south and the Great Wall to the north. Towards the end of the book he found something even more fascinating.
There were chapters upon chapters of recipes making use of the creatures the book described. Using the materials of Spirit Beasts to create pills and potions was one way to absorb their strength, but literally consuming them was also an option, if one found a chef with enough skill. And now Kenji had found the knowledge to do just that. A soup made with dragon’s tongue, or dumplings stuffed with blue, crab-beetle roe. There was a variety of herbs and plants mentioned as well, each well documented in both description and application.
Despite the exotic ingredients, the recipes for various fried noodles and steamed bao had his stomach rumbling and by the time he was ready to take a break from the book he was read to have something to eat. He suggested they all take a break then and set about fixing the provisions.
They sat within the center of the boat, eating the cold leftover rice from the morning along with pickled vegetables and more dried fish. It wasn’t the food he’d been imagining, but it sated his hunger all the same.
They talked as they ate, speaking of nothing in general. No one spoke of the village right away, perhaps all weary of speaking of it, but eventually Shinoto raised the question.
“Why do you think the Tsu came?” she asked. “And the demon as well?”
Kenji’s stomach tightened as she glanced between himself and Waru, no doubt hinting that they needed to now know the truth they’d only glimpsed before. Luckily Waru answered ahead of him.
“The warrior here will know,” he said. “But we shouldn’t dwell on that now. The important thing is that we’re here and alive. As cruelly as the fates have dealt us, we have been dealt mercy as well. Let us be thankful for what we have left.”
“Well said, Waru…” Kenji bowed in thanks to him for hiding his secret yet again.
“Yes, that’s true.” Shinoto said with a nod. “Let us be thankful.”
With that, they all bowed in reverence, save for Chet Fai who scowled. “There’s nothing to be thankful for. I believe in karma not fate. And I will be its instrument.”
He moved to the back of the boat then, turning his back as he stared off into the forest, watching it slowly pass by.
Shinoto shook her head at her older brother. “I’m sorry…I don’t know to think of him at times …”
“We all deal with loss differently,” Waru said and then withdrew his bottle. “Case and point…”
Kenji and Shinoto chuckled as the old man took a swig.
“How do you even have any left?” Kenji asked.
“I bet it’s enchanted,” Shinoto said with a grin. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a whole barrel tucked away inside that bottle.”
Waru pointed at her with a snap of his fingers. “I like how you think, young lady.”
They all laughed then. Even Chet Fai, still at a distance cracked a smile.
“Hey,” Kenji called to him, reaching into his pack. “A present to start you on your journey, Chet Fai.”
Kenji threw one of the miniature oranges to him and the boy caught it one handed. He started back at him perplexed for a moment, but then once he saw what was in his hand, his eyes grew wide. “Where did you get this?”
“I salvaged what I could from what was left of the last harvest.” He then handed the other orange to Shinoto. “Only you two can make use of these. Karma or not, we would be better off the stronger we are.”
“How much do you have?” Chet Fai asked.
Kenji checked the bag. “Three pears left.”
“Give them to me.”
Kenji stared back at him. “What?”
“I’m already orange tier and close to ascending. I could reach first dan and maybe even second with those. Hand them over.”
“Chet Fai!” Shinoto stood. “Those belong to Kenji. You should be grateful that he shared.”
“Shared?” He scoffed at her. “I’m the oldest and strongest of us here. It only makes sense that the strongest should get the lion’s share. You’re only an Off White, what good would it do you? Besides you two are still just kids. You can’t make proper decisions. Give me the damn, pears.”
“A kid he may be, yes,” Waru said with a sideways glance. “But Kenji is also the son of an elder, Chet Fai.”
“So?” Chet Fai said. “What’s that matter?”
“It means he’s your better,” Shinoto said.
Chet Fai smirked with a laugh. “That’s ridiculous.”
“It’d be wise of you to honor your clan, Chet Fai.” Waru’s voice became suddenly grave. “Show respect. Like it or not, Kenji is your elder now.”
Kenji could feel Chet Fair’s resentment from across the boat. He stood and a pulse of Qi came from him. “An un-tiered could never rule our clan…and for that matter…there is no Han clan anymore. Kenji, give me those pears. Or I’ll simply take them from you.”
“I see,” Waru said as he sipped from his bottle. “You choose the path of force. Not unlike those who sacked our village. Will this be your path now, Master Chet Fai?”
“You shut your mouth, you old drunk! I choose whatever path I want.” He then leveled his eyes at Kenji. “I said hand them over!”
“How dare you talk to Waru like that?” Shinoto yelled. “Apologize!”
“Stay out of this, Shinoto!”
Anger stirred as Chet Fai and Shinoto began to quarrel, filling Kenji’s heart with rage. He wanted to punch him again. Yet, as much as he wanted to, he probably still couldn’t beat Chet Fai in a fight either. Even with the rebirthed doma of an 80th dan mystic warrior, he was nothing with it blocked. He would need more than mere strength to deal with someone like Chet Fai.
He reached into the sack and withdrew the three pears. “Hey!”
They stopped bickering at his shout and Chet Fai glared at him with hatred in his eyes.
Taking one of the pears Kenji held it between his thumb and forefinger for Chet Fai to see. “You are right, Chet Fai. You do deserve more. Shinoto already has a rebirthed apple. The orange has now given her two. You’ll have one more pear to make it equal. As neither Waru nor I can use them, the last two will go to the Xjian woman.”
Chet Fai stalked forward. “What? You dare—!”
But his words stopped short as Kenji held the pear over the side of the boat. “Or I could simply drop your portion into the river. Your choice.”
Chet Fai’s Qi flared as he glowered at him, but he didn’t do anything else. “What in the hells do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m choosing to split it equally among us,” Kenji said. “Or would you rather me use your logic and give it to the strongest of us, since you say that makes the most sense?”
“Of course it does! Making the strongest stronger is far better than making the weak less weak.”
“Very well,” Kenji said and then glanced down at Olja. “I’ll give all three of these to her then.”
Chet Fai’s mouth fell open, but he had no words to fight with.
“She is the strongest of us here.”
Perhaps it was the confidence of knowing that he was if fact the strongest on the boat. Or that he was a mystic warrior of legend. But Kenji had no fear of what this little boy could possibly do to him now. His stare remained placid yet constant and eventually, Chet Fai backed away in shame.
Waru let out a small chuckle as he turned his back and took another sip of wine. “Well done, Kenji,” he whispered.
But it wouldn’t be enough to leave things like this. He was simply proving a point. If he was truly the leader of what was left of the Han now, he would have to make his authority known.
“Lucky for you, Chet Fai, I don’t believe in your logic. As I decreed before, this will be shared equally.”
Kenji then tossed the single pear to Chet Fai and the boy caught it with a scowl on his face. Chet Fai slunk to the back of the boat fuming. He remained silent as he wolfed down both the orange and the pear and immediately began channeling. It would perhaps take days to absorb the concentrated Qi of the fruit, but with the fervor and pace Chet Fai assumed, it looked as if he intended to channel it within an hour.
He was incensed; embarrassed at being shown up by someone he considered a dullard and frustrated that his own rule was used again him, to keep him from getting what he wanted. Kenji would be a fool to think that such an act would go unpunished. Chet Fai was vengeful and calculating. Just like when he’d struck him before, it’d be only a matter of time before he found some way to spitefully get him back.
This was going to be a long trip indeed.