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Assisted

by
Harris Tobias
Peaceful Intent--Stories of human/Alien Interaction

by
Harris Tobias
Louisville's Silent Guardians

by
Michele Dutcher
THE MUTED SHOUT OF THE GRAY TOWER

by
James Gardner

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The Fall of Akui, part 1.

by

Steven Bell



Winter held the land in its firm grasp. Wet snow flew through the air, driven by the wind. The white flakes made a slight hissing sound as they spattered against the ground. A small group of five shapes trudged along a game trail. Snow crusted the broad conical shape of their sugegasas, the straw hats favored by local peasants, and it clung to thick fur cloaks.

At the fore of the line was a lean figure. Cream-colored fur that mixed with brown patches became speckled with the wet flakes. From under the brim of his hat, green eyes swept the landscape in each direction while whiskers quivered sensing the air. Katana and wakizashi hilts jutted out at an angle from the gap in the front of his traveling cloak.

Stepping into his sandal tracks with care were three monks of varying ages and gender. A rail thin monk led the other two. He wore a long wispy beard that would have run down to his belt except for the gusts of wind that blew it over his shoulder. It tickled the pink nose of the female behind him. She was steel gray with dark glasses covering opaque eyes. Her gnarled paw gripped a stout wooden cane made from the wood of an oak tree. Stained a deep blue were several curious glyphs, carved deep into the wood.

The last monk went barefoot, wearing a much lighter covering. He was a full head shorter than the bearded one, but more muscular. Brown, black and white all mixed forming distinctive patterns in his coat. Gray eyes mirrored the skies above that cast soggy precipitation down at the party.

Bringing up the rear was the largest member. Wide tufts of ginger and cream fur sprayed out either side of his sugegasa running parallel with long white whiskers. Golden eyes flicked left and right as he turned his head to scan behind them. A very well worn tsuka stuck out of his cloak suggesting that another samurai brought up the rear.

Beneath a steel colored sky, they marched toward a darker gray blur at the crest of a hill. Ahead, off to the left of them a large shape reminiscent of an arm lay immersed in the snow. Black branches of maple trees reached out, groping, twisted and bare. The three monks muttered counter spells to push back the reaching trees. The lead warrior reached into his cloak making ready to draw his katana.

“Stay your hand, Yuuki. There’s nothing to be gained from drawing Claw against such paltry conjurations,” the first monk said.

“As you say, Master Bo,” answered the warrior taking his hand away.

The blind monk spoke, her voice dry and humorless: “Yuuki, you and Kahji move forward and scout ahead. Bo, Uragiru and I will prepare for our attack. Our work this evening is vital. Lack of preparation would be our downfall.”

“Yes, Madame Nan, it shall be as you say,” Kahji, the smallest, answered while stepping forward to join Yuuki.

Peering into the gloom Kahji blinked his eyes several times. He thrust his chin toward a spot where the trees were not so close together.

“Looks like a good enough start for us,” Kahji said. He wiped melting snow from his fur. “Twice cursed muck,” he muttered flinging the droplets away.

Yuuki strode forward on quiet feet. Kahji half-trotted after him to keep up. The cold air inside the tree line was still. Less snow reached the ground catching instead on the branches above their heads. Yuuki’s fur ruffled and his whiskers quivered at the stirring breeze. Something unnatural rode the currents swirling around them.

He and Kahji exchanged a glance before moving apart, creeping through the woods. With careful steps, the pair progressed further into the darkness imposed by more and more branches that wove together forming a thick canopy overhead.

Yuuki pushed the condescending tone in Madame Nan’s voice out of his mind. “Lord Osito selected me to lead this quest against the growing malice inside the forest and defend the Kyoto Province. Of all the members of the Shining Light Order, he chose me,” Yuuki said to himself.

His Honor mandated that he clear the negative thoughts from his mind. They were not becoming of him, and he still had to lead Kahji into the forest. He would need to be decisive amongst such a group of strong willed individuals. Yuuki caught Kahji’s eye and signaled that they should move apart in a sweeping pattern. Bit by bit the pair separated and faded into the falling snow.

-----------

Master Bo knelt in the wet snow unmindful of the damp soaking through his rough trousers. His focus was on a small mortar and pestle. Into it he placed several dried herbs, a few drops of a red gel, a splash of rice wine. Glancing around illicitly, Bo took a hasty swallow from a flask for himself. Once more into the maw, he thought.

“A nip will not impair you, but see to it that is all you take,” admonished Nan.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much you see,” muttered Bo.

“Though my sight is gone, I am not without other senses even in this weather. You prepare the potions whilst I meditate. I shall seek the true path to Akui.”

“Yes, Madame,” Bo replied. He motioned Uragiru closer: “Now is the time to be attentive, Daimyo. We will be vulnerable for a time. Watch over us.”

“As you say, Master,” answered the warrior bowing low. He gripped the katana while peering out into the gathering gloom.

Bo contemplated his pestle carved from a simple stone a half century ago. The potions he needed to create would fortify everyone against the onslaught that was sure to come. He had been in this situation before and if they survived tonight, he would be again. Oaths and Honor, the cornerstone of every foolish venture it seemed to him.

Nan drew her wrap closer, sinking down into the snow. A gentle rumbling sound soon came from within. Bo returned to his mortar. He added some more ingredients then after a short while Bo began filling small vials with a clear red liquid. As he completed each one, he slotted it into a belt. Squinting into the snow Bo peered toward the horizon. He could not discern the sun. The yellow orb was just a brighter patch in the gray clouds, hovering just above the horizon.

“Master, I thought I heard something… close by,” Uragiru said.

Bo nodded. “Check it out if you feel you must, but hurry back. I feel that we will soon be leaving to enter the woods once Kahji and Yuuki return with their report.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“I will return as swiftly as possible, Master Bo,” agreed Uragiru.

He darted forward through the wind and snow, one paw gripping his weapon to steady it against his hip. The skinny branches snagged on his heavy cloak, tugging at it. In his mind’s eye Uragiru saw an image he wished he could blot out. Urging his legs to move faster he wove in-between the trees and their limbs. A gray oleaginous mist seeped out of the snow on the ground to coil about his ankles. Frost bloomed on the butterscotch colored fur that gaps in his leggings exposed as he approached the forest.

-----------

The forest grew still. A few random flakes managed to drift all the way down to the ground through the branches overhead. Yuuki looked in both directions. Black trunks obstructed the view beyond a few dozen feet. Behind him, Yuuki had left a trail of footprints in the damp snow. Deciding that the brief exposure to the cold would be worth it, Yuuki took off his hat and scratched his ears. Twisting each one, he listened for any hint of sound. No small animals, birds or any other living thing stirred in the woods. Even Kahji was out of earshot.

Yuuki pulled his sugegasa back on shivering as another wind cut through his shaggy wrap. Gingerly he lifted a foot placing it forward. Step by tenuous step he proceeded further into the claustrophobic confines of the woods. Occasionally he would pause to listen for any telltale sounds. How he wished he were back in Kyoto with Mariko and Yuushi. Family, though, would have to wait. Duty and Honor demanded it.

Needling winds hit him from different directions without warning. The snow started sticking to him and freezing in ever-growing clumps. Seconds ticked by while more ice clung to his shoulders, arms and legs. Pulling with a mighty effort, he freed himself of the ground, surging ahead. Tendrils of an oily black substance exploded out from under the snow. They seized his ankles, lashing his feet in place. A gale wind smashed Yuuki in the face. He raised his arms to shield his eyes.

“Yuuki, hold on!” called Kahji, who appeared at the edge of the clearing.

Drawing his Ki from within, Kahji exhaled with a great shout unleashing a massive wave of Spiritual energy. The wave crashed over Yuuki blasting the vines and ice away. For a brief moment, the winds surrounding Yuuki dropped off allowing him to sprint to Kahji’s side.

“Thank you, Master,” he panted.

“Think nothing of it. The evil is getting stronger the further inward we travel. I lack sufficient strength to carry us much further into the maw of Akui. We should return for the others,” Kahji said.

“I agree. I have seen nothing and heard even less in this dark place,” replied Yuuki. “I fear that I am leading us in the wrong direction.”

“The nature of an Evil Spirit is to sow confusion and doubt. They steal the very life from the air around them, suppressing everything else. Not a sound, joyful emotion or even a cleansing breath can escape. All stifled by the crushing defeat of the vile presence,” explained Kahji.

The pair doubled back the way they had come. Supporting each other in the face of the wind Yuuki found Kahji like a moving rock, solid and steadfast in his course. They plunged through the wet, sloppy snow. Halfway back to the edge of the forest a pair of wild boars lurched out of some scrub bushes. Their beady little eyes glowed red and steam hissed from the snow where black coils of saliva dripped.

“’Ware! They are possessed,” hissed Yuuki.

“I can see that, I have eyes,” retorted Kahji.

“You go fetch the others… Get them on their way. I’ll catch up with you,” ordered Yuuki drawing his katana and wakizashi. “Claw and Fang will make short work of these. Get going,” he urged.

“As you see fit, warrior. Do not do anything needlessly,” called Kahji beginning to jog away from the fight.

“Hai,” Yuuki said as he set himself to meet the boars’ charge.

Preparing for the charge Yuuki entertained the desire to have Uragiru at his side. Trained together since they were kittens there was a bond between the two as strong as steel. Something was out of place with Uragiru. He was withdrawn, almost sullen during the trek out to this forest. Yuuki resolved to ask his friend about this at the next opportunity.

Claw, the katana was out in front while Fang pointed diagonally away from them. The matched swords came from ore mined deep underneath Fuji-san. A monk, long ago, risked much to obtain the metal. One of the Crane Prophecies forewarned of a time of great need for enchanted weapons. This pair was the last set known to exist.

With squeals of rage the pair charged across the slight gap. Both blades radiated a silvery light fed by Yuuki’s own Ki. His was the Warrior’s Ki that focused on battle. The swords were ancient weapons imbued with the ability to draw and focus Ki from a very specific bloodline.

The dark brown pigs charged across the field at Yuuki. Their trotters flung bits of mud and snow up in the air behind them as they came at him. The beasts lowered their thick heads dipping their yellowed tusks to cut through the air, missing Yuuki’s legs by a narrow margin. He sprang to one side, bringing Claw down and splitting the thick neck of the boar on his right.

The headless body continued on, plowing up the fresh snow staining the white slush gray. Its mate spun around sliding and scrabbling for purchase. Yuuki leapt forward striking the beast with both blades. A pair of horizontal cuts welled open along the boar’s ribcage. Instead of blood coming out of the wounds, a black ichor seeped in thick lines. With no hesitation, the boar spun after Yuuki. The warrior jumped back fending off the tusks with Fang as he looked for an opportunity to strike.

The boar circled warily, flinching away from the silver glowing weapons. It grunted at Yuuki, tossing its mane and pawing the ground. Yuuki lunged, swinging Claw. The boar jerked its head away but a portion of tusk came away after the blade passed. Yuuki brought his foot down on a patch of unseen ice, losing his balance. He landed on his right shoulder, feeling the joint grind against its socket. Claw fell into the snow just as the boar pivoted for another charge. Malevolent red eyes honed in on Yuuuki as he tried to rise up. The boar lowered his head and dug into the snow-coated dirt with its trotters, launching itself into a full speed charge.

-----------

The trees were silent sentinels watching over Kahji. Moving through the wind and whipping snow the monk maintained a steady pace. The cold did not bother him overly much. During his search for enlightenment, he spent one thousand days running. After passing through such an ordeal, the freezing temperatures did not trouble him. Here the opportunity to put into use that which he practiced and studied for so long was a welcome challenge.

The possessed animals were a sign that Akui was aware of their presence. Whether or not it meant he was aware of their precise location, Kahji was unsure. In the desolate forest, nothing escaped Akui’s notice. A thorny vine shot out of a plump bush nearby. He barely managed to duck under it. The tip skittered across the bark of a tree close by sending chips flying everywhere. Kahji quickened his pace leaving the vine behind in a few seconds.

The sound of Yuuki fighting the boars had faded into the background. Kahji moved with confidence, his strides growing longer, more confident. His ears flattened close to his head while he leaned forward ever so slightly. Unthinking he shifted into a distance running form out of long ingrained habit. Trees loomed out of the white haze causing him to dodge wildly first one way and then another. Branches clutched at his cloak. A low hanging one clipped off his hat. Concealing a smile Kahji drew energy from the surroundings while pumping his arms faster.

Out of the corner of his eye, a shadow darted among some trees. Turning his head Kahji saw nothing. It might be a simple trick of the eye, he thought. It cannot be much further, Kahji thought. The flakes that were present before seemed to triple in volume in the blink of an eye. With the wind gusting snow all around sight deteriorated to mere inches from his nose. Continuing to run headlong through the trees Kahji reached out with his Ki trying to sense the other monks.

A slight rustle reached Kahji’s ear. He skidded to a halt throwing up small waves of wet slush. Kahji tilted his head, twitching each ear in every direction. The woods were silent. Kahji still could not see or hear anything. Normally the small animals were about making all manner of minor noises. Something had disturbed the wood, though. The veil of snow slowed and parted revealing black coils weaving across the floor toward him.

Kahji braced his feet against the mushy earth while drawing in a deep breath. He focused a burst of Spiritual energy allowing it to burst from his open palms. A silver sphere flew across the short distance colliding with the snake-like wisps. Silver and black mixed with a crackling sound. Little bits of stray Ki flew out in a shower forcing the tendrils to shrink away.

Kahji coughed unexpectedly. He blinked twice looking down at the ground. Spattered all around were spots of red. Strange, he wondered, where did they come from? He noticed a hand’s-breadth of sword blade jutting out of his chest. The warmth in his extremities retreated making his knees buckle. Kahji pitched forward landing face first in the snow. The lack of sensation registered with Kahji as his vision grew dim.

“I need to reach Nan,” Kahji thought. “She’s a skilled healer.” His energy fled in waves taking the warmth from his limbs and then his torso.

“I’m so tired. I must get to her. I’ve run so much for so long to not try.” Numb limbs refused to respond to his wishes.

Footsteps drew closer to Kahji’s head. Pushed almost gingerly his head rolled to the right. His new perspective revealed only a blurry shape hovering over him. The shape backed away and retreated into the gathering gloom.

Kahji managed to lift the corners of his mouth in a smile. “At last I’ll get to see the Spirits’ dwellings,” he thought as the darkness closed over him.

-----------

“Kahji is slain!” cried Uragiru.

“How is this possible?” demanded Bo fumbling with his ingredients with fingers that were numb. His normally composed face went slack for a moment. Nan bit her lip. For some reason it never ceased to affect her when the future played out as expected.

“I do not know Sensei, I saw him just beyond the edge of the trees. He bore a sword wound on his back,” explained Uragiru.

His gold eyes were round globes glistening in the dying light. Bo grunted and heaved himself to his feet.

“Take us to him. Perhaps Nan can do something for Kahji before it is too late,”

“But Master, something dragged him off!”

“Our time is at hand,” Bo said.

“Bo, is that wise?” inquired Nan, “What of Yuuki?”

“We cannot wait. Night is falling, with it our chances of success.” He added in a quiet voice, “What if Kahji is dead by Yuuki’s hand?”

“Then we will be lost,” Nan snapped back. “For without Claw and Fang we are as nothing to Akui.” She had foreseen the loss of Kahji but a sashitome, a prohibition of an Oracle, prevented her from mentioning it. Being able to plumb the depths of the unknown future was necessary, although a heavy obligation. Nan felt dread seeping into her bones.

“Where is Yuuki?” asked Uragiru.

“He has not returned yet from the forest. Did you not see him?” Nan asked.

“I saw nothing of him. What if Akui has possessed him?”

“Regardless,” said Bo sweeping his supplies back into a pouch, “we have a job to do. It’s time to do it. Uragiru you take the lead, I will assist Nan.”

Bo took Nan by the arm and helped her to her feet. They readjusted their cloaks while moving toward the edge of the forest. Nan pointed at a large maple tree, which was devoid of leaves.

“We should enter by that tree. I will guide us.”

“No disrespect, Madame, but how will you do that?” inquired Uragiru. He paused unsure of the next words he ought to say. Nan’s frown deepened.

“What I mean is you cannot see. How will you know where to turn?” he finished.

“Hah! It will take more than a working pair of eyes to get us to Akui. I am a seer. As such I am attuned the Spirits’ whims. They will show me the way. We each have a role to play in this venture.”

They reached the large tree. Nan ran her hand over the snow and ice that crusted the bark. She hummed softly to herself. After a brief moment, she turned to face deeper into the trees indicating a course that veered just off to the right. Uragiru taking the lead moved in the direction shown.

For a time the only sound was that of their feet breaking through the thin crust of ice over the snow. A heavy wind crashed into Uragiru dousing him with fine flakes of snow that coated his fur. Daubing at his eyes with the back of his paw, he shook his head to fling the rest of the slush off. Curling his lips to bare his fangs at the wind and snow did little to alleviate the conditions.

“How much further?” griped Uragiru.

“Patience, young one. We will be there soon enough,” said Master Bo.

The trees opened up revealing a small clearing. A creek fed a pond at one end before coursing out of the other. Over the middle of the water, a stone bridge arched glistening with a fresh coating of ice. For once snow was not falling and the wind was still. Uragiru sidled into the clearing with a hand on the hilt of his katana.

Bo led Nan forward to the bridge. She placed her hand on one of the bridge’s pillars, which was in the shape of a coiled dragon. Tilting her head as though listening for something hard to hear, she sensed the Threads of Fate coursing over the water.

“We are on the correct path. Across this water lies the way to Akui’s tethering point. We must steel ourselves against what comes next. Bo, hand out the first draught.”

Bo stroked his beard regarding Nan for a moment. Then he shrugged pulling a flask out of his cloak. Uragiru reached for it in anticipation, but Bo slapped his paw away.

“This isn’t it, yeh gawpy kit. This is my ‘special’ draught. Here,” with a flick of his other wrist a shimmering vial danced across the air to Uragiru.

A violet colored liquid swirled around inside of the glass. Unhesitating Uragiru uncorked it, swallowing it down in one long gulp. Looking at Master Bo, Uragiru saw a glimmer just at the surface of his fur. Uragiru blinked but the sheen surrounding Bo did not go away. The long beard of Master Bo shook with mirth.

“Must be workin’ the way yer eyes just bugged out.” He took a belt of whatever liquid was sloshing inside of the flask, recapped the vessel before tucking it away. “Get back on point. Me an’ Madame will be right behind yeh.”

“What does this potion do?” asked Uragiru.

“It allows you to see what is not there. Anything, everything. Sometimes the thin air,” Madame Nan answered.

She cackled to herself as she laid her hand on Master Bo’s arm. The mysteries of the unknown were hers to discover. It was something the sighted could not understand.

Uragiru shaking his head started out over the bridge.

-----------

Pearlescent white mist hung like a vast curtain across the horizon. Kahji peered into it trying to discern anything of substance ahead of him. Somewhere, he could not be sure if it was to the side or behind him, a drum boomed four times. As the fourth beat faded from hearing the mist split in twain and moved aside. Revealed was a large open plain of swaying bright green grass.

Sunlight played tag with the ground using the clouds to create dark fingers to probe the land. Over Kahji’s right shoulder a clear blue lake glimmered promises of cool waters and fat fish. A rustic wooden shrine painted the exact color of sunset stood atop a swell of land just ahead of him. The kanji symbols for Chikyuu made from dirt, sticks and a few stones spelled out whose shrine this was. A moment later, the ground heaved beneath his feet just as the ground by the shrine split wide open.

Erupting out of the chasm a large four-sided block rose. It was very wide at the base tapering off the higher one looked. A ring of clouds floated around the lower half of the midsection. Arms extruded from the sides and a waterfall broke out where the left breast ought to have been. Along its back, a lush green forest sprouted, releasing hundreds of birds into the air.

A thunderous crack heralded the appearance of an oblong boulder, easily five times the size of Kahji. A long beard with mustache dripped off the face, reminding him in a rather inexplicable way of Master Bo. Kahji was quite certain that this was not he.

A gentle voice spoke in Kahji’s ear. “Approach me, child,” it urged.

Kahji jogged the distance to the shrine and base of Chikyuu, the Earth Spirit. He genuflected at the shrine’s entranceway.

“Honorable Chikyuu, I have no offering to bring you today.”

“That is quite all right, another time perhaps? I must ask you for something.”

“Me? What could I possibly have that you would need?”

A low chuckled rolled down the front slope of Chikyuu. “Kahji, you were one of the finest Tendai monks. Most learned and one of the few to complete the Quest for Enlightenment. I have need of your service.”

“What service can I provide in such a state as I am in now?” asked Kahji.

“You can serve as that of my emissary. There are times when we Spirits need to communicate with each other and find our messages blocked. You understand how we are tethered to a particular location?” asked the massive Chikyuu.

Kahji inclined his head, “You are bound to a fixed region in this world by a shrine, consecrated ground or will of followers.”

“Exactly. We are constrained by the tether. It makes communication with others challenging. This is quite useful when we require a certain level of discretion. The fewer prying eyes and listening ears that might discern the content of our words can often mean the difference of success or failure in our little dramas. It would be useful for such times to have someone unencumbered by the limitations of a Spirit.”

Kahji bowed deeply. “Mighty Chikyuu, I am most honored, but is it wise to rush into a decision such as this? I have only crossed over to your realm mere moments ago.”

Chikyuu laughed with the sound of continental plates shifting against one another. “I have deliberated on this choice for several of your centuries. Our definitions of hasty are similar though our definitions of time are not. You are my choice.”

“Just like that? No testing or quest to win this position? Legend teaches us that such things are necessary to validate the candidates. There are supposed to be others, long lines of volunteers that need to be vetted.”

“Just you, just like that. Still, you may have a point. Others may question your abilities. Answer me this, of all my sons which is most favored?”

“Fuji-San is,” Kahji answered without hesitation.

“And why is that?”

“Because the mountain that is his home is said to be immortal and most highly regarded. Attributes which bring much honor to any father,” answered Kahji.

“Excellent. You are correct. Let me be clear though. Your choice in this is whether or not you are a willing participant. I can compel you into action. My preference is that you give me your service freely.”

“I understand. What would you have me do?” inquired Kahji.

“The Shining Light monks that are travelling to confront Akui, the quest on which you perished, must succeed in a very specific manner. My presence or that of another Spirit would certain draw notice from my cousin. Yet there is information that the others of your group must have in order to complete their task.”

“You wish me to carry word to Master Bo and Madame Nan?” said Kahji, somewhat puzzled. “I thought they knew everything.”

“They know many things. However, there is a new development. One that you may not be aware of given your, ahem, current situation. Akui is using someone to ensnare the Shining Light. If tricked even a little bit the outcome could very well be disastrous for all.” Chikyuu paused for a contemplative minute. “An innocent life is at risk which must not be lost.”

Kahji nodded in agreement then hesitated, “Do you not mean many innocent lives? Akui is poised to engineer great strife across the land. The Kyoto district will be the first to fall if he remains unchecked.”

“I meant the singular. There is one life, which is of importance. Sacrifice will be required of several and though it may appear to be failure it will not be.”

“What do you wish me to tell Master Bo?”

“I do not require you to carry a message to him. Come close that I may explain everything more fully,” invited Chikyuu.

Kahji moved closer to the patriarch Spirit prepared to listen. A large conifer sized finger jabbed into Kahji’s forehead. A blinding white light followed. Kahji found himself surrounded by noise, voices, the babbling of a brook over stones, the crashing waves against a sandy shore. All the sounds of nature poured in and throughout Kahji. He sagged forward into the giant hand that caught him as though catching a newborn kitten. A second later, he regained consciousness stirring against the cool stone.

Chikyuu beamed down at the monk. “Now you have the understanding you sought. Fear not, I merely tied the loose ends together in your mind, nothing more,” the Earth Spirit explained. “Being bound to this spot as Spirits are all bound somewhere, I cannot go forth. Therefore, you must represent me to the other Spirits and mortals. You have almost as much knowledge as I. Even connected to the earth as I am, I cannot sense everything. You can travel far though, that is what I need you to do.”

Chikyuu raised his massive hand in benediction: “Kahji, you will be my envoy in the worlds of mortals and Spirits beyond the confines of this shrine. You will go forth under my protection doing as I have instructed.”

Another enormous rumbling shook the ground and the Earth Spirit sank foot-by-foot back into the earth. Piercing black eyes fixed on Kahji as they went past. “Go, my messenger, carry my word.”

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