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The Fall of Akui, part 2.

by

Steven Bell



Yuuki rolled away from the charge, pushing himself up. He was on his hands and knees when the boar rammed into him. The wind rushed out of his lungs forcing him to gasp for breath. A tusk found his ribs, piercing him through the thick cloak. Warm blood seeped into his shirt, cooling in the frosty air. Blindly he flicked Fang toward the Boar not expecting much from the poorly executed blow. The wild pig shied away from the silver blade.

It bought Yuuki enough time to grope in the snow for his katana. His paw closed around the cloth-bound hilt of Claw. Staggering to his feet and turning to face the boar, Yuuki drove forward whirling the swords in an intricate pattern. The boar danced back, startled by the ferocious attack. In a few quick seconds Yuuki scored a number of cuts over the boar’s body. Pivoting to his left, Yuuki struck with both swords, thrusting them into the pig’s shoulder.

Squealing pitifully, the boar collapsed onto its side. Panting from the struggle, Yuuki opened his cloak enough to examine his wound. The tooth had cut him deep enough to expose muscle and tendon. He tore a strip of cloth from the hem of his cloak in order to bind the gash. Wrapping the cloth around himself, he pinched the wound together, enough to slow the bleeding. Readjusting his cloak about his shoulders Yuuki surveyed his surroundings again. Night was hastening its appearance. By now, the others would be on the move. Kahji should have met with the others in order to explain the lack of a path through the forest.

Yuuki turned to face the last direction Kahji had walked and he proceeded to plod ahead. The branches rattled like bones overhead but the wind did not bite at his fur as it once did. Looking at his hands Yuuki realized that he still carried Claw and Fang. Automatically he stooped to clean them in the snow before straightening up and continuing to walk into the wind.

A new howling rose over the trees. It was like the cry of a great bird in distress. Yuuki tightened his cloak about his throat with one hand. His straw hat pushed against his head when he lowered his chin. Out of the periphery of his vision, a luminescent shape moved on a course to intercept. His paw dropped to the hilt of Claw. While squinting into the foul weather he let out a gasp as the shape solidified into the recognizable figure of Kahji. Yuuki’s ears flattened against his head because there was no scent coming from the monk.

“Well at last I’ve found you.”

“Master Kahji, what has happened to you?” asked Yuuki.

“There have been changes…” began Kahji but then he seemed to change his mind. “ I need to get you to the others before it is too late. Follow me.”

“Wait. What happened?”

“I think it should be obvious, guh... We need to get moving, I’ll fill you in as we go.”

The ethereal figure of Kahji broke into a trot leaving Yuuki little choice. Clenching his teeth against the pain in his side Yuuki followed. For a minute, they ran in silence. Yuuki ignored the majority of the small limbs that pulled at him.

Kahji broke the silence before long: “You know that Akui is planning to slip his tether tonight. What you do not know is that he will be using a proxy. Once free he will rampage across the entire province. From there it will get a bit dicey, as it will upset the balance of Nature. The Spirits can’t allow that. He has everything he needs in place right now. You, Bo and Nan are all that stands in his way now.”

“I know all of this. Master Bo explained it all to me, even what I am supposed to do with Claw and Fang. I do not understand how you are here and yet not at the same time.”

“The Earth Spirit conceived of a plan to stop Akui. He accounted for every detail. He has a long-term plan because there is an innocent life at stake that you all must protect at any cost. Do not forget your oath to the Shining Light.”

“Yes, Master,” puffed Yuuki.

It was then Yuuki noticed the absence of wind or snow. It seemed as though he were in a bubble safe from the weather. They broke from the endless forest into a clearing that contained a pond and noisy stream. A bridge spanned the pond. There were tracks in the snow. There was the distinctive pattern of Madame Nan’s cane, the long, broad paw print of Uragiru and Master Bo’s tidy little prints. The group had passed through this very spot. The tracks dusted with new snow led Yuuki to conclude that he was close to the others. Yuuki redoubled his effort sprinting over the bridge.

At the end, he slid out of control for a second over an unseen patch of ice. Flailing his arms, he maintained his balance. Kahji skimmed over the water stirring faint ripples instead of sinking in over his head.

“Master Kahji if we cannot stop him tonight then what are we doing?”

“You warrior types would call it a delaying action,” was the reply.

“Is there nothing more you can say?” Yuuki asked.

“No. There are limitations on what information I can provide. The Earth Spirit is a hard taskmaster. Beware!”

“What is it?” demanded Yuuki.

“I sense evil afoot and coming this way.”

“What, more boars?”

“No, worse. Shadow Demons. They are insubstantial creatures that drain a person’s essence on contact. They are powerful minions of Akui. I cannot intervene in this fight. Beware! Here they come!”

From the tree line, four inky shapes emerged. They slithered across the snow leaving a trail of gray ash behind them mixed into the snow. Their yellow eyes honed in on Yuuki, and arms tipped with talon-like fingers grew out of the amorphous creatures. Their eyes bore into him while they moved, their shapes shifting to become silhouettes of the warrior. Claw and Fang flew out of their scabbards. Yuuki’s paws tingled as the blades vibrated, almost alive in his hands.

Dashing forward Yuuki dove straight through the center of the group, sweeping the swords in horizontal arcs. When the tips encountered the first demon light arced from the blade to the inky surface. The demon shrank back hissing. The left-most one struck at Yuuki its black claws catching his cloak. Where the demon touched the material it disintegrated as though age had taken it.

Swiftly he chopped down with Claw, severing the demon’s hand. It fell to the ground vanishing in a puff of ash. Without thinking, Yuuki flung Fang at short range into the chest of another shadow demon. The blade passed through the body but did not go all the way through. Cracks formed around the metal and the demon toppled over like the hand, bursting into a cloud of dust.

Yuuki did not pause but rolled in the opposite direction avoiding more outstretched hands. He came back to his feet slicing diagonally across the nearest demon. A great ash colored wound sprang across its chest, expanding from shoulder to hip before exploding into a fine cloud. Two demons remained. They moved in opposite directions circling around Yuuki. The one-handed demon shook out his wrist causing another hand to appear.

“Yer a bit sluggish on the riposte boy - I thought you were some kind of Samurai,” Kahji yelled to Yuuki.

Yuuki bared his fangs, “At least I had the good sense not to die,” he retorted.

He sprang forward at a full run in three steps. He dashed between the two creatures cutting left and right in two mighty blows. He slid to a halt several yards past the demons. They collapsed into loose piles of dirty gray powder with little fanfare, blown away by the uncaring wind.

Panting slightly Yuuki probed his ribs with a gentle hand. The makeshift bandage had come loose in the fight allowing the wound to bleed again. He gritted his teeth, gathered Fang, and cleaned both swords before sheathing them. He then pulled back his shirt in order to redress the gash left by the boar.

“Huh, maybe you are a better warrior than I gave you credit for. Let us get you to Madame Nan so she can close up that cut. You’ll need all of your strength before long.”

----------

“Wait here,” Uragiru said to Madame Nan and Master Bo. “I will scout the approach to see how we may best approach Akui.”

Moving low to the ground with the stealth of years of practice Uragiru moved further up the path. Bo and Nan stopped walking, taking in their surroundings. The forest was sparse here. The trees were more twisted and sickly than the edge of the woods.

“Is it wise to let Uragiru scout ahead?” Bo asked.

“He must do his duty. Do not be concerned about the Daimyo. Focus on helping me locate Yuuki. I need your Ki to strengthen mine.”

“As you wish,” said Bo.

He stroked his long beard for a moment with his eyes closed. Then he put his hand on Nan’s arm at the wrist. They both exhaled in slow measure letting their combined energies speed over the snow to the east, west and south. The Ki they released rippled out, like water disturbed by a thrown stone. Just like the water, their Ki swirled around the impression of Yuuki.

“He is moving this way, that much is certain,” Nan reported.

“Good, my unease was growing with the uncertainty of his status,” grumbled Bo.

“He is not alone,” Nan informed Bo.

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said, you besotted old fool. I sensed Kahji’s presence for a moment. Then it flickered.”

“There goes the last nerve. Dang, I’m gonna need another drink when this is all over. Uragiru said that he saw him slain.”

“I know that. You think I forgot? Let us take the patient course and see what unfolds. You had better give me that flask - I think I might need a drink too.”

Silently Bo handed his flask to Nan’s waiting paw. She took a rather unlady-like swig, coughed delicately and handed the container back to Bo.

“Not what I expected,” Nan observed.

“It usually isn’t,” Bo replied.

“I think we have a few minutes. You had better prepare a poultice for Yuuki. See if you can concoct a decent healing potion won’t you? Use some of my supplies. He’s wounded and has lost some blood.”

“Yes ma’am,” replied Bo getting out some ingredients.

Several minutes later as Nan predicted, Yuuki came jogging around the bend. His straw hat hung off its ribbon around his neck and he clutched his side. Bo beckoned to him. Steam puffed out of Yuuki’s nostrils when he came to a halt next to the two monks. He bowed to both.

“I am so pleased to have found you,” he began.

Nan cut him off. “Where is Kahji?” she snapped.

“Madame Nan, I do not know. He left me a minute ago just before I came within sight of you.”

“How is he? We have had conflicting reports on his well-being,” said Bo.

“Kahji?” replied Yuuki somewhat bewildered. “He serves the Earth Spirit as a messenger...” Yuuki trailed off.

“How did this come about?” Nan asked.

“I am not sure Madame. We separated in the woods when some boars attacked us. He was supposed to make his way back to you and report. I take it he did not make it.”

“We were informed that Kahji died of a sword wound. Would you care to comment on that?” Nan enquired.

“I cannot. He left my presence and did not reappear until after he had become a ghost.” He paused for a moment. “Are you asking me if I had something to do with Kahji’s death?”

“There are disturbing undercurrents everywhere. Little is actually clear at this time. Take no offense to my questions young man.”

Master Bo handed Yuuki the finished healing draught. “Drink this lad. It should set you right.”

Yuuki nodded his thanks quaffing the beverage. The aftertaste left hints of jasmine and lotus dancing around in his nose. The liquid suffused warmth throughout his body in a minute, the dull ache in his side faded along with the fog which clouded his mind. Peering under the bandage the wound looked as though weeks had gone by. Yuuki stretched out his arms.

“My thanks, Master. I feel better.”

“Good. Now is the time to prepare ourselves for the final confrontation. Nan please tell us what you see.”

“In my vision I see Akui perched over us expectantly. There will be no stealthy approach to him. We will not make any pretense then. He believes that he can bypass his tether to this place by taking possession of another’s body… This may be. We cannot let him succeed. Claw and Fang must find their target without fail. Remember the lessons we shared on our journey here, Yuuki. Spirits can influence people nearby, but the further away you are from them the weaker the control they can exert over you.”

“Kahji shared much of the same information with me during our travel here. There is another person involved that you might be unaware of - Akui has a hostage,” blurted Yuuki.

Nan and Bo frowned at each other. “This was not mentioned at any point. When did Akui gain this captive?” Bo inquired.

“I am unsure. Kahji would not or could not share that information. We must go now!”

“A moment longer,” cautioned Nan. “We ought not to proceed as unprepared as we are. Bo, the last round of elixirs, hand them out.”

Bo took out more vials from within his cloak. Each one received a good shake before he handed it to the recipient. They drank it down feeling strange warmth growing inside of them. Yuuki found himself with one additional potion. Bo motioned for Yuuki to drink it down. The liquid slithered down his throat. Cold gripped his esophagus and stomach as the potion touched each in turn.

“What you feel is the cold fire of honor, justice and courage. Yuuki, you must strike Akui down with your swords together. Do not hesitate. Aim true for there will be no second chance I imagine. Bo and I will only be able to hold him for a few moments,” urged Nan.

Yuuki nodded. He untied his sugegasa. A gust of wind flung his untethered hat back along the twisty little path. Then he shrugged out of his cloak and readjusted his swords. Bowing to the others Yuuki followed Uragiru’s paw prints. It was just a little way until he came upon the mouth of a glen.

----------

A stagnant brook trickled around ice coated rocks before winding its way deeper into the woods. Night had fallen and the moon and stars shone down on the floor of the valley. Everything glistened with permafrost in the pale moonlight. To Yuuki the forest was as bright as day: a combination of his natural night vision along with some aspect of the potions Bo administered. Nothing stirred in any direction or within earshot.

With the wet clinging snow, it was inevitable that his sandals made small squishing sounds. Nan and Bo crept several dozen paces behind him. Yuuki’s whiskers twitched as something unknown brushed against his face. Cold tendrils danced lightly over his cheeks before withdrawing. Just ahead vines draped out of the trees sweeping down low over the path. Gripping the hilt of Claw, Yuuki brushed past the dangling creepers, his face both calm and resolute.

Pale white moonlight glinted off the keen edge of a katana that leapt out at Yuuki’s head. He jerked his face back away from the blade while at the same time swinging his elbow back along the length. The hard bone crashed into the unseen opponent. Yuuki followed up with a sidekick, catching the assailant in the mid-section. Claw hissed as it left the scabbard. Yuuki turned to the left to face his opponent and found he was staring into Uragiru’s eyes.

“Uragiru are you mad?” Yuuki whispered. Claw poised rock steady in the air near Uragiru’s throat.

“I must do what I must,” he replied. His golden eyes lowered, unable to meet Yuuki’s.

Springing to his feet Uragiru launched an attack, beating aside Claw and forcing Yuuki to take several steps back. When the razor-like blade glided over Yuuki’s guard slicing a shallow cut across his cheek, he re-assessed Uragiru’s resolve. Still Yuuki could not prevent images of golden summer afternoons spent fishing with his friend from clouding his vision.

“Yuuki, finish this nonsense now!” urged Master Bo.

Uragiru leapt into the air away from Yuuki. He landed next to Master Bo, driving his stiffened hand into the old monk’s solar plexus. A knee followed but Bo deflected it with his forearm. Claw whistled bare inches from Uragiru’s ear as the wily cat dodged to one side. Several tears glistened in Uragiru’s eyes while he pressed his attack. Yuuki could see spots of black flecking Uragiru’s muzzle.

Yuuki gave several steps worth of ground, drawing his opponent away from the two older monks. He repelled another flurry of attacks before managing to fling Uragiru’s sword wide out of position. The momentary lapse gave Yuuki the barest amount of time to use his off-hand to draw Fang. The wakizashi whipped across Uragiru’s belly. The metal left behind a surgical cut, but that was not all.

Multicolored bands of energy jumped from the blade into Uragiru, illuminating his wound. The energy surged and coursed throughout Uragiru’s body. He doubled over falling into the muddy snow that their shuffling feet had churned up, steam wafting from his limbs.  

Yuuki stood poised over Uragiru, balancing his weight on the balls of his feet. Uragiru rolled onto his side. Reaching out he clutched the hem of Yuuki’s pants.

“I am lost forever because of my sins,” he gasped. “Save him, Yuuki. Do not let him suffer for my transgressions.”

Yuuki knelt down in the slush cradling Uragiru’s head and shoulders. “What do you mean, Neko-san?” he asked in a voice that broke with sorrow.

“He stole my son away from me: Akui has Cruicshasura.” Through tear stricken eyes Uragiru explained further: “Akui is frightened of your approach. That you might vanquish him is the most terrifying notion. Akui seeks to prevent this from happening. He needed someone to deceive the Shining Light and he found my son first.”

A black, pitch-like substance seeped out of Uragiru’s nose staining his muzzle. The light of his eyes grew dimmer with each passing second. “Do not fret, Yuuki. Kahji prepared…” Uragiru’s voice tapered off and he sagged against Yuuki.

Nan stepped forward, asking, “Boy, is there something coming out of Uragiru’s nose?” Worry edged her voice.

Choking on his emotions Yuuki replied, “Yes, a black oily substance.”

“The Corruption of Akui is leaving him. The Spirit possessed Uragiru and the taint is exiting the body. I think he will rest peacefully now. Such is the power of Claw and Fang. We must hurry now. Akui must sense we are near with the loss of his slave.”

“Nan are you prepared? We must unleash our Ki the moment we see the Spirit. Otherwise he will without a doubt slay the boy,” instructed Bo.

“I am as ready as you are,” she answered.

“A moment longer I beg of you,” said Yuuki.

Taking great care Yuuki folded his cloak placing it under Uragiru’s head. He stood upright nodding at both of the older monks.

“Let us see this to its end,” he said.

Nan took a firm grip on her cane and placed a hand on Bo’s shoulder. With steel in her voice Nan said: “Lead on old friend. It is time.”

Bo jerked his chin at Yuuki. They all moved quickly up the path that twisted and turned for dozens of yards. A brief straightaway opened up into a moon-dappled clearing. There, centered in the clearing, stood a rocky platform of sorts. Hewn from rough stone it was a meter and a half tall and three times as wide.

On the right side, a small child cowered. The Spirit’s inky tendrils twisted and writhed about him. In the middle of the rock, rising up to a height of seven feet was the cruel shape of Akui. The Spirit appeared swathed in a tattered black cloak with the hood drawn. Half concealed by the garment was a bone colored face with ocular sockets closed by rough stitching. Four eyes, two on either side, extended from under his cloak on thick rubbery stalks. Eyelids with long lashes blinked at the entrance of the Shining Light monks, then they narrowed reproachfully.

Bo took several broad steps to Nan’s left, focused his blue Ki, and flung a glowing sphere of energy straight into the monster’s chest. Nan pounded her cane on the frozen ground three times and unleashed a red orb of her Ki towards the same location. Both balls of energy sizzled and crackled merging into a purple mass that spread like wildfire over Akui’s form.

The tendrils of smoke tightened around the child Cruicshasura, forcing him to cry out in terror. Yuuki sprinted forward with Claw and Fang both alight with sapphire fire. As he neared the young one, a spear-like appendage flicked out from Akui’s body lancing across the back of Yuuki’s calf. A deep cut started to bleed forcing the warrior to stumble for a second before shifting his feet to a wider stance. Yuuki lunged the last few feet flicking Claw through the choking vine Akui had around Cruicshasura.

A sharp crack sounded followed by a small concussion. Cruicshasura rolled away bouncing off the platform to land in a pile of wet snow. Owlishly he blinked, looking around unsure of the turn of events. Yuuki fell over next to him clutching at his injured leg. Master Bo stood rock still with his eyes closed, his hands  together with palms touching. He repeated focusing mantras causing a tangible aura to spread around him and reach out to Akui. Likewise, Nan exerted enormous amounts of focused energy toward the Spirit.

Pathetic,” declared Akui.

“You are bound by the grace of the Earth Spirit,” Bo grunted between his clenched teeth. “Yuuki, now! Finish this!”

Yuuki attempted to stand up but found himself transfixed by Cruicshasura’s golden eyes. They were wide and luminous holding unspeakable questions and reflections of horror. Yuuki hesitated, captivated by the child. Lightning quick tentacles morphing into needle-like implements slammed into Yuuki’s back and thigh while other tentacles shot out at Nan and Bo finding their own soft targets.

Uragiru’s face sprang to Yuuki’s mind followed by that of Yuuki’s son. Innocence stood there, threatened by evil. Honor demanded him to act decisively. Raising his left arm abruptly, Yuuki severed the offshoots from Akui with Claw. Smoke erupted as the amorphous limbs fell away vanishing when they struck the stone platform. The wounded monks swayed back and forth, their auras starting to dim. Yuuki swiveled taking several staggering steps toward the malevolent Spirit. An eye spun to confront Yuuki rising up over him, and with unthinking defiance, Yuuki jabbed at the eye with Claw.

The tip poked through the thin membrane searing the insides of the eyeball, causing it to explode. The tentacle retreated with a jolt trailing the remnants of the eye and a disgusting smelling smoke wafted into the air. Akui trembled in his bonds. The blinded stalk retreated inside the ragged cloth. The dirty porcelain face turned toward its mouth forming a tight thin line.

Look at the hapless fish caught on a line. See how it jumps and wriggles?” Akui hissed.

Another tendril shot out piercing Yuuki’s left shoulder pulling him around. Fang fell to the stone floor with a clatter. The wound burned with incessant pain, and Yuuki could feel something starting to spread within it. Despair rushed into him on the heels of the poison.

On the ground Bo straightened up pushing his hands forward as though against a great weight. Akui moaned, as the purple light grew stronger.

Far too late!” cried Akui, “yes, you are! And too few to stop me.

“Fiend! I bind you in the name of Heaven and Earth, from great the Fuji to his father Chikyuu,” intoned Bo.

Weak-spirited priest of an unknown order, you cannot ensnare me so,” retorted Akui.

“In the name of the wind and ocean, the harmonies that surround us, and all living things - I bind you,” chanted Nan.

Blind seer, did your own fate not show itself? You are to be broken at my feet!

Akui hissed and seemed to explode as vines of his black presence shot out in all directions penetrating the monks. Those destined for Yuuki halted as if they had struck a solid wall.

“Now Yuuki, take the moment and strike Akui,” urged Kahji’s voice. His form manifested next to warrior nodding with encouragement.

Yuuki’s resolve instantly fortified itself. A swift cut from Claw freed his shoulder allowing Yuuki to stagger the last few steps to Akui. Upon reaching the spirit, Yuuki could smell the sickly sweet smell of corrupted flesh. Using both hands, he drove Claw's point first into Akui’s body between the junctions of the eyestalks.

A surge of energy illuminated his face as Claw sought the center of Akui. Blue lightning danced all around touching every rock, tree, monk, warrior and Spirit.

CHEATER!” screamed the Spirit in a voice that reached the Heavens.

The lancets exploded out of Akui’s body in a sphere, half-a-dozen tearing through the warrior’s torso, leg and neck. Yuuki pitched over the side dropping heavily onto the ground. As the warrior fell away, the monks pressed their strength to their final limits. The energy started to coalesce into solid shapes.

Twisted chains sprang out of the very rock, fastening onto Akui, binding him in place. Tendrils of energy flowed over Akui leaving a trail of glistening stone behind. In a short time a smooth shell without blemish hardened over the Spirit, muffling then silencing his screams of fury.

Bo and Nan sagged before collapsing.

Out of a snow drift tumbled Cruicshasura, rolling to a stop next to Nan. His large yellow eyes searched Nan’s face. Delicately he patted her cheek. The light touch was enough to rouse the old monk, and she moaned and touched her temple. Her hand took that of the small child giving it a warm, tender squeeze.

“Fear not little kitten. I yet remain among the living.”

“I as well,” Master Bo added in a weak voice. “Though I fear we have lost Yuuki.”

The pair of monks sat up checking themselves over. Bo surveyed the scene in the clearing. Absently he swigged a long drink from his flask.

“You aren’t fooling anyone with that you know,” said Kahji appearing next to the long bearded monk. “Everyone knows you keep Jasmine tea in there laced with a mild restorative.”

Bo grunted noncommittally. “More missives from the Spirits?” he asked.

“In a manner of speaking. Let us go a little way apart from the youth and Nan.”

Kahji led Bo a half dozen yards away from the rocky platform where the frozen image of Akui loomed over them.

“Chikyuu wishes for me to explain several things. First: Akui is not defeated. You have him trapped for the time being, because this is how it was supposed to turn out this time. You have not failed. Yuuki did not strike with both swords and I was not with you to add my Ki to the binding. The Earth Spirit knew how your actions would go tonight. He has put adjustments in motion.”

Kahji paused looking around, surveying the clearing as though thinking a great many thoughts.

“The Shining Light monks have lost three members tonight. You must start developing replacements. One for one. Two warriors and a monk. Maintaining symmetry is important to Chikyuu. Therefore, Claw and Fang pass on to Yuushi son of Yuuki. There is your first replacement. You must identify the others before starting to prepare them as soon as you can. You have only until the next unnatural winter.”

“When might that be?” inquired Bo.

“I cannot say. To a Spirit time flows at a very different rate. He said it would not be long. I am sure he was talking in relation to himself. “

“Did we have to lose so much tonight?”

“You should understand that set in motion tonight are events which will lead to the permanent defeat of Akui.” Kahji half-turned his face and then twitched his ears. “My master calls me. I must leave you and Nan now. Keep the Faith my old friend. All is as it should be.”

Kahji turned and loped off into the woods where he flickered from sight before long. Bo turned back to see Nan cradling the small boy in her arms. Approaching on careful feet, Bo could hear Nan humming a lullaby to Cruicshasura. Purring in his sleep the kitten nestled closer to Nan.

“We must make ready for the future,” he began.

Nan raised her face to Bo, “How can we do this?”

“We must because Akui just slumbers for an uncertain amount of time. We must prepare for his next coming. In the meantime our orphans will go to Lord Osito.”

“If we do that he will train them to be warriors. There will be no choice for them.”

“Correct. The Earth Spirit believes in balance and we must replace the two warriors lost tonight. I do not know who the replacement monk will be. You must try to divine who we need to find. For now let us prepare to turn our feet toward Lord Osito in order to deliver this child along with our report,” Master Bo said gently.

Nan bowed her head in agreement. She scooped up the small child tucking him into the folds of her travelling cloak. Bo collected Claw and Fang with great care setting the swords next to the platform. He regarded the still form of Yuuki nearby.

“I cannot leave our fallen brothers in such a state, lying on the cold ground exposed to the elements and scavengers.”

“I can make the journey Bo. I am not as frail as you may think.”

“Just as I am not quite as sloshed as you may think,” chortled Bo.

“The green tea elixir with hints of Jasmine and Lotus blossoms is an interesting choice. It speaks volumes about you. I will send word to the Order when I reach Lord Osito and settle the children in. I am not happy about it.”

“I know. I will perform a cleansing rite on this place and lay to rest our fallen. Then I shall start seeking Kahji’s replacement.”

“When I have the time and environment necessary, I will try to divine who we seek,” promised Nan. “What of the swords?”

“I will deliver them to Yuushi when he is both old enough and prepared for the responsibility,” answered Bo.

With the small child asleep in her cloak, Nan set off back down the trail. Her cane made a muted tapping sound in the snow. Blindness never seems to slow her down, thought Bo. He arranged Yuuki with careful deliberation in an honorable state of repose to the left of the stone outcrop. Uragiru, he set to the right. Dawn approached with her delicate fingers poking through the tree limbs before Bo returned with Kahji’s corpse.

While the sun crested the distant hills, melting snow in its path, Master Bo knelt at Kahji’s head to perform the rites of sanctification, cleansing and binding. His Ki burst forth in silvery blue showers of color. After a half hour of devotions and prayer, Bo stood up and bowed to all three of the fallen.

“Rest well, until you may be needed again.”

Master Bo collected the swords, took out his flask and taking a long draft from it started down the trail following Madame Nan’s tracks. Before long, the branches obscured him from sight of the stone dais. Because of that, he was unable to notice the beads of condensation forming on Akui’s entrapped form.

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