Author's Note: I thought I wouldn't update or upload any stories for a while, due to personal issues, but I had a long thought about it and I know that writing is not only a passion and a way of life for me, but it helps me when I have issues. So, without further ado, this is the final chapter of this story. I know, it's short, it probably leads a lot to be desired, but this was written a WHILE ago, and in time, I do plan on having more stories with these characters. Thanks for your time.
The two of them left the western gates of Kokou, riding on one of the steeds from the knighthood's stables. Hayato rode behind Zangan, one arm wrapped about the boy to keep him from falling off. Zangan felt crowded and uncomfortable, due to the heavy armor pressing down on him and Hayato's katana poking him in the side. He held onto his bokken, something that Hayato had made sure he had brought with them before they left the city.
The Hayabusa Highlands stretched from the great chasm in the east to the mountains in the far west. Not many people went in that direction, save the foolish ones who found a home in the small village of Balatro. The whole west was a hunting ground for wyverns, but the western mountains were called the home of the winged beasts, as their kind preferred high, hard to reach places. Hayato rode the main path for a short time only, before breaking away and heading north. They had journeyed only a short distance before he brought the horse to a complete halt and climbed off.
Zangan had a difficult time sliding off the horse, but he had no help from Hayato in the endeavor. The eleven year old, who had barely any experience at all on any beast of burden to begin with, fell off the saddle and landed hard on a collection of rocks that jabbed him in the side. He cried out and held his stomach as he staggered to his feet. "What are we doing out here, Captain?"
"Training," was his answer.
Zangan glared at him. "You said that-"
"I lied." Hayato looked down at him. "You'll find that many people do that, Zangan. Not just thieves or bandits, but everyone. Besides, this is not the sort of training you're used to. This is special training."
"Follow me." Hayato led the boy on foot for a while, not speaking a word. From time to time, Horus would fly overhead, his shadow crossing over them for a brief moment as he did. They climbed the rocky terrain, gaining height as they made their way further north. Zangan, who was having difficulty climbing without knocking things loose or scraping his body against jagged stones, was surprised to see that Hayato moved with relative ease, never complaining.
"Captain, where are we going?" the boy finally asked after they reached the top of their climb. "Tell me what we're doing out here!"
"So impatient. That is your problem." Hayato raised his arm, the one without the falconer glove, and pointed further north. "Do you know what lies ahead of us, Zangan?"
Panting from the climb, Zanga shook his head. "The same as everything else, I suppose? A dying wasteland of rock and weeds."
"You're correct, but you're also wrong."
"Ahead of us," Hayato repeated. "You know of the tribe of oni that live in the Highlands, correct?"
Zangan knew. Oh yes, he knew. It was one of those very creatures that nearly killed his father and put him out of work. "Yes. What about them?"
"The wyverns, though they have a firm hold on this land, live in the far west. The oni, on the other hand, live to the north of us. There is a city between us and the oni, it's called-"
"Yomi," Zangan stated.
Hayato nodded. "Glad to know you've been studying well up to this point. Yes, the fallen city of Yomi sits between most of human settlements in the Highlands and the tribe of oni."
"Are we going to the city? Or to the oni lands?" Zangan asked. He wouldn't admit it, but he was a little frightened. He knew that Yomi was called a haunted city, where the dead was said to roam freely looking for flesh to eat and blood to drink and he knew that the oni were a dangerous breed of creature. They had always given the Highlanders trouble in the past."
"No," Hayato assured. "I promised your parents that I would keep you out of danger to the best of my ability, so no, we are not going there."
"Then why am I out here? Isn't this a dangerous place to begin with?"
"To the best of my ability," Hayato repeated. "I brought you out here because I want you to learn the importance of the knighthood. You've been staying with us for a year now, Zangan. Tell me, what do you think we do?"
Zangan shrugged. "You follow orders of the Shiratora Clan and protect them-"
"No?" the boy frowned. "What do you mean no? That's what you all do, I've seen you do it. Every day, I see at least a half dozen of you guarding the nobles and-"
"That is not what we do. At least, that is not all of what we do, of what we are supposed to do."
"I don't understand."
Hayato opened his mouth to speak when a faint scream was heard from below. The two of them looked down to see small forms darting across the flat lands and a couple of large forms chasing after them. Zangan had only seen pictures of them through the books, but he had never seen an oni before in real life.
The oni were a brutish sort of creature. They were taller than men, usually twice as tall as anyone in the Highlands, and they were quite broad and had the strength of at least five men. They were a barbaric, bloodthirsty race of inhuman beastmen who often raided the Highlands in search for food, wealth, even something as simple as entertainment. Two of them were chasing after the forms and they were closing in.
"Damn it!" Hayato clenched his teeth. "I didn't want to get involved in something like this with you out here, Zangan, but I suppose there's not much of a choice." He reached down and threw the boy onto his back. "Hang on as tight as you can!"
With Zangan on his shoulders, Hayato descended as quickly as he could down the rocky hillside. Zangan kept his face pressed against Hayato, wanting to avoid getting hit in the eyes by flying debris. The knight made it down well enough, but as soon as he was on the flat earth once more, he pulled Zangan off of him.
"Stay here and don't move until I get back!" he ordered. Without waiting for a reply, the knight was off once more, running like a mad dog to the oni and their prey.
From his place, Zangan watched as Hayato came in between the prey and the predators. He had seen Hayato move in sparring matches, but he had never seen him in actual combat. Everything he had seen so far was nothing compared to what he was watching now. Katana out of it's scabbard, the steel blade gleaming in the sunlight, cut through the oni like a hot knife through butter. Foul blood of the creatures flew into the air, falling to the earth like some sort of unholy raindrops.
Even Horus injected himself into the battle fray. The falcon saved his friend from sure death, swooping from the sky and clawing at the eyes of the oni just before they managed to grab or crush him with their crude weapons. The battle was over before too long and before Zangan knew it, Hayato was coming back to him with the would be victims in tow.
The knight was splattered with the oni blood, but he did not seem to notice, nor did he seem to care. The people he had just saved were a small family of Inari, and the fox-people were more than grateful at the intervention. They were praising him and swearing life debts and other oaths to him by the time they regrouped.
"Think nothing of it, it was my pleasure," Hayato modestly, waving them away. You are free to come with us back to Kokou, we will escort you as soon as we get our horse." He turned to Zangan. "You weren't scared being alone for a time, were you, Zangan?"
The boy couldn't find words to speak. He shook his head, slowly, trying to fully comprehend what he had just seen.
"Good to know. Come now, the lesson's over. We're heading back."
That night, Hayato called Zangan to the sparring room for a private conversation. The two of them sat across from one another, each of them cleaned and groomed from the harrowing day. Hayato had discarded his armor, but he kept his sword with him; it lay on the floor at his side, just as Zangan's wooden sword sat next to his protege.
"Before I ask you the question again, Zangan, I want to explain to you what you've been going through this past year. You're still curious about why you've been doing this and what it goes for, aren't you?"
"Yes, Captain, I am," Zangan said honestly. He had the answer to Hayato's question, but not his own.
"Some of the answers are quite simple. You wonder why we run you ragged, doing chores and everything for us? It is because you are a trainee, a squire, a student. To the knighthood, you are the lowest ranking person here. To us, you are at the same level as a servant, you do all of that in order to learn respect."
"I've already known respect!"
"For your elders and such, yes, but there will be times when you would have to pay respect to those above you even if they are younger than you. It is important that you, as a swordsman, learn respect. Not just for people of different social status, but for people in general.
"The reason we have you try to maintain our weapons and armor is not just because you are the student, but it is also because that you learn something valuable from it. By constantly cleaning our equipment, you not only learn the different parts to a suit of armor, swords, bows, or spears, but you learn to take care of them. A warrior's weapon is considered sacred in many cultures, and we must show love and care for them. If we treat them right, they will serve us well and for a long time."
Zangan scratched the back of his neck, "That...makes sense..."
"The books you study it is so you know the geography, the history and the stories of our empire, of the knighthood. There have been wars, battles, threats, all sorts of things that have made a scar on this land of ours. Yomi, to the north? Stories say that that was once the capital of the west, until it was brought to ruin. The chasm in the east? Some say that that was formed at the same time our empire was created because the gods disapproved. You study, you not only learn the history about the empire that you call home, but you learn from the past to better yourself for the future.
"As for the physical training, you wonder why I didn't give you a real sword." Hayato nodded to the bokken. "That is because that you are not ready for that. We may use real swords in sparring, but we know self-control. Through your sparring and the use of a bokken, you learn the very basics of swordsmanship and how to handle yourself in battle. Once you've proven to us – no, to me – that you are capable of handling a real blade, that is when you'll be able to hold a katana in your hand.
"Any physical pain you go through, it is your body becoming stronger through your training. You are growing muscles from the regimen and you are gaining both speed and endurance from everything else you do here. The running around is not just because you are our errand boy, but it's to get your legs moving around town for other purposes besides thievery."
The training room went silent. Mentor and student sat there for a time, listening to the various sounds of the city that leaked through the walls beyond.
"I have answered your questions, Zangan. Do you have an answer for mine?"
"Then tell me."
Zangan looked straight into his teacher's eyes, humbled by what he had seen and heard this day. "The job...the duty of a knight is not just to protect the nobles of the kingdom. While it is part of the mission, it is not that entirely."
Hayato cocked an eyebrow. "Then what is it, my young friend?" he inquired.
"The duty of a knight is all about protection, but not just for one person. The duty of a knight is to protect all the innocent people of their land from danger. Whether they are nobles or commoners, the knights must protect them without discrimination. If they were to do so, they would not be knights, but they would be more along the lines of hired mercenaries who are loyal only to those with money, instead of those with only life."
Hayato was proud of his student. He smiled and nodded. "You have learned something that not many students learn until they are older. I knew I saw something in you when we first met, Zangan. That, and my duty to protect, are the reasons why I helped you."
"You said you saw potential in me."
"True, but I saw something else."
"What was it?"
"Hope, my dear boy!" Hayato said joyfully. "I saw in you not only the potential to become a great warrior, but the hope that you could become what this land needs! A warrior who cares for all instead of those with coin, a warrior who would put his life on the line for the innocent instead of just the guilt-ridden privileged. Zangan, you know what it is like, to be at the bottom rung of the ladder, to suffer for your right to live and you know what it is like to care for others who are less fortunate than you. You know how to show love and to show courage.
"Tell me, Zangan, what did you think of when you saw those Inari being attacked by the oni?"
Zangan was hesitant. "I...I thought of my father. I thought of my father, who was attacked not long ago, and then I thought about my mother and my friends, Hanna and Miku. I love them all, and yet I imagined them being killed by monsters or by those who hold evil in their hearts. I didn't want to see that!" Tears were forming in the corners of his eyes. "I never want to see that, I want to be able to protect them!"
Hayato nodded. "That is the desire of a true knight. However, there is a question." He grabbed his sword and stood up, looking down at the boy. "Do you have the will to go through the training? Do you think you have the strength to go through the trials I can give you, to not complain about injury and fatigue, so that you may one day become the strongest you can become in order to protect the ones you hold closest to your heart?"
Zangan wiped away his tears with his arm and nodded. "I do, Captain."
"Good. Very good. Now," Hayato pulled his katana free from the sheath and pointed it at his student, "let's get back to it, shall we?"
From that night on, Zangan put everything he had into his training. No matter what, he swore to himself, no matter what the pain his body would go through, no matter what the scars he would carry, he would become strong to protect those who needed it.
He would become a knight.