Chapter 1: The Task
I felt it in the atmosphere; that subtle, almost unnoticeable smell in the air resonating through my body. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and broke my concentration. Something was coming. Something that would change things drastically. Perhaps this is what Master always spoke of.
"One day, Shoden, you will have a task brought before you that will decide your fate. Prepare for that day so that you may conquer it with courage in your heart."
Yes, today definitely felt like the day he spoke of with such mysterious words. It wasn't just the chilling feeling in the air that made the day odd. It was little things that collectively contributed to the strange sensation of wrongness; waking up before dawn's first light, running out of the usual cabbage and rice that Master and I always had stocked, the shrine almost quivering with strange energies, the surrounding forests echoing with emptiness, the water from the stream colder than yesterday even though it was summer, and finally, the intensity of the waterfall I sat under as I meditated being heavier and prickling with something new. It was as though my entire world was reacting to the change that was coming in very small increments, and with each new subtlety I felt my chest well with excitement.
No! No, I couldn't let myself get carried away. Discipline, focus, and concentration where the key traits in becoming a warrior monk like Master. I had no room for excitement. Instead, I had to sit patiently beneath the waterfall with my fists pressed together, breathing evenly and calmly, and meditating until I felt the sun fall on my face. Master never tells me what I should be meditating on when I come here, other than trying to recall memories that were lost to me long ago, but perhaps with all of the changes in the atmosphere I could meditate on what is coming and if it's the task I've awaited for nearly 15 years.
Breathe in deeply, breathe out. Breathe in deeply, breathe out. Concentrate. Concentrate on the feeling permeating on the cool breeze. Concentrate on the heaviness of the water, on the prickling on my neck, on the forests around me. Concentrate on the thing that's changing.
At first there was nothing. Nothing but the calm forests and the warm sun beating down on the tops of the trees or sprinkling onto the soft soil like the shadows. It seemed as though, through my own perception, I could see nothing out of the ordinary. Then, there was a flash. A flash of white as pure as untrodden snow darting through the brush. In my mind's eye I could see the unusual color leaving an almost unnoticeable trail as it moved at incredible speeds. Where was it going? What was it, and what was it after? I couldn't tell. I had to try harder, to see more than just the glimpse of white. Any monk would be able to concentrate hard enough to see everything around them once they fell into a deep state of meditation like I did. I forced myself to fall deeper into my own consciousness, looking and searching for my own answers. When I did, I didn't see just pure white. There was a splash of violet, the same color of the flowers that grew in the fields at the base of the mountain. And bells. I heard bells jingling furiously as the thing moved. The sound was getting louder, coming closer as the white raced through the forest. Wait, it wasn't getting nearer in my subconscious. Even through the deafening rush of the water as it poured over me, the sound of the bells grew louder and louder. It was getting nearer in physical reality.
My eyes shot open just in time to see a tiny, almost elusive flash of that pure white from my mind. It cleared the riverbed effortlessly and disappeared once more into the thick tree line, blending into the vibrant summer greens of the forest. Whatever it was, it was heading straight for the shrine. Therein stood my dilemma. It wasn't my place to protect the shrine. Not yet, anyway. Master was more than capable, though he was an old man well past his prime who would rather play than practice. Still, the strangeness in the air resonated deep within me, and that pure white color wouldn't let me be. Perhaps, just this once, I should put my years of hard training to the test and protect Master, as well as our home.
I sprung from the giant, cool rock I sat on and hopped diligently from boulder to boulder until I reached the riverside. There I picked up my bo staff, gripping it tightly in both hands and getting a feel for it before I took off. The staff was long and slender, but made of wood as hard as steel and as light as a feather in a place that only Master and I knew of. In it was carved my name in the monk language, and on its middle was wrapped a red scrap of fabric. It was balanced, well-made, and had been with me since I was a child. It was the only weapon Master trained me to use, and it was the only thing I took true comfort in having. To me, this bo staff represented everything I've worked for, the distance I've come, and the things I would achieve. With that comforting thought, I swung it up twirled it in the air, the water from my arm whipping around with it, and took off running.
The ground was soft and cool beneath my bare feet as I sprinted down the familiar path, the water from the waterfall flying off of me, unable to keep up with my incredible speeds. All along the ground was strewn moss and soft dirt, and even the pebble or stick my heels may have fallen on didn't cause much of an impact. This forest knew me as well as I knew it, and it propelled me through its depths as though it, too, wanted me to reach the shrine quicker. As I ran I looked for any sign of the thing made of pure white. Anything telling me where it may have gone, what it was meant to do. There was no residue of energy left behind that I could feel, but still, my heart thudded with uneasiness. Reason said it was some sort of lost animal, but my other senses told me that it was something far more important than that.
Running at full speed with the cool summer air rushing through my lungs, I managed to crash through the brush in record time. Before I could storm into the shrine and fight whatever it was that I saw earlier, I had to take a moment to feel out my surroundings. A warrior never rushes into battle. They must take their time and plan their moves accordingly. With the naked eye I could see nothing out of place. Everything was as I had left it. The walkway was still clear of dirt from when I swept it this morning. The garden on the west side of the wrap around deck was in pristine condition. The pond was perfectly preserved, and the building itself was just as clean and spotless as it was a few hours ago after I wiped it down. Nothing was out of place, but still, the feeling in the air was wrong. What was this? And why did it make me feel… anxious?
There was a flash, just beyond the corner of the shrine. I caught just enough of a glimpse to see that snow white color and the spot of violet before it disappeared again, the tinkling of the bells following it closely. This time I had no choice. I had to sprint after it, to chase it down and figure out what it was. Without hesitation I burst into a full-fledged dash across the courtyard, determined to follow it. Now it wasn't about curiosity. Whatever this was, it managed to get passed the barriers Master had erected around our home and it had invaded our place of rest and worship.
I ran as fast as my legs would take me, using my bo staff and stabbing it into the ground so that I could propel myself around in a sharp angle without stopping once I reached the corner of the shrine. The flash of white wasn't as fast as before, I noticed. It slowed down enough for me to see it hop over the wooden rail and dart into the open door. This time, though, I saw something a bit different. It wasn't just the color, but the shape of it. It looked almost… human.
Without hesitation I followed the exact same path, nearly able to feel the warmth of its feet as my feet took the same steps. Effortlessly I threw myself over the wooden rail and rushed inside, panting and feeling my heart race with a new sort of feeling as sweat began to replace water droplets from before. It was close to the excitement from earlier, but it was different. A swirl of anxiety and adrenaline and something like competitiveness. I had but a moment to think that perhaps this is what hunting felt like before I caught a glimpse of the thing dart into the last room down the hall on the left. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that I needed to keep my same pace and follow it, and that's exactly what I did.
With a screeching halt I slid on the clean wooden floors, stopping just in time before I crashed my way into the thin wall. My eyes darted all over the room looking for the thing I was chasing as I raced inside, my bo staff ready to fight and my blood rushing with anticipation.
"There's nowhere to run!" I shouted into the room, staff pointing in every direction like an enforcement to my statement. "I saw you come in here! Come out and—"
"For the sake of the gods, boy, what are you so worked up about? And why are you covered in sweat?"
Despite the familiar voice sounding cracked and gentle with age, it sent chills throughout my body and stopped my heart dead in my chest. Slowly I lowered my bo staff and, for the first time since entering the shrine, noticed that myself and the thing I was chasing weren't alone. On the floor, sat on his knees on a sitting mat, was Master Yuu. He looked up at me with his barely visible squinted eyes and a calm but slightly threatening smile on his wrinkled face. The man looked old and wise to outsiders because of his clean shaven, flawless bald head and his long light grey beard. Master also looked like a man worthy of praise for the embroidered and colorful robes he wore around the shrine. To anyone else, he looked like a wealthy elder who was close to his end. To me, he looked like a man who could snap each bone in my body in two before I could get a word out, but who chose to toy with my mind beforehand instead. He may have looked harmless, but I've seen Master break a tree in half and shatter a boulder with a flick of his wrist. The man was certainly no gentle old senior. Master wasn't one to punish his student, but he had an awful love and sense of pride in the pranks he played. Sometimes his pranks were playful and mild. Other times they were so horribly embarrassing that I would almost prefer it if he would punish me with broken bones. Still, he sat with that playful grin on his face, looking up at me expectantly as I gauged whether or not this deserved punishment.
"I'm very sorry Master, I was following a—"
"That's enough, Shoden. Tell me about it another time. We have a guest," he interrupted, holding his hand out to lead my eyes to the person he was talking about.
I followed it with my gaze, my heart jumping back to life with the sudden realization that the reason Master hasn't let me apologize profusely to him yet was because he was trying to be polite. I still had to face his childish mischief once this was all over.
Across from Master sat an older woman on one of our sitting mats with a face that opposed Master's in every way. She wore a scowl and a look of complete dissatisfaction as her cold, icy blue eyes looked me up and down. Her hair was a dark, woody brown, but on either side of her head were thick streaks of white. It was all pulled back into an extravagant do that was held together with all sorts of pins and hair sticks. On top of her head was a strange headpiece that I'd never seen the women in the village down at the base of our mountain wear. But, come to think of it, her dark colored robes, her unusual jewelry, and the very peculiar way she wore it all seemed to be worlds away from what other women wore. And what's more, the air around her seemed… electrified.
"Observant, I see. A bright look in his eyes as well. But very rude," the older, strange woman said plainly.
"Please forgive him, Riviani. The boy is usually quite polite, but it seems today he's a bit distracted," Master cooed.
Again, that icy sensation swept through me from fear and a knowing sense of disappointment, and immediately I was reminded of what I was forgetting to do. Instantly I dropped my bo staff and fell to my knees, pressing my head and palms to the floor and connecting my thumbs and forefingers together in a proper, respectful bow for monks.
"For you to pick a student, let alone a child such as him… Really, Yuu, not even my magic could have perceived this," the woman named Riviani said coldly.
Magic? Was this woman a magic user? Well, that would certainly explain the strange clothes and the electricity in the air around her. The question was, what sort of magic user was she? Master rarely spoke of the supernatural arts, but when he did he would always say that there were all types of different magics wielded by all sorts of users. He also said that magic was not something that could be explained, only experienced. Perhaps it was this woman, then, that brought the change I felt in the air. Perhaps she was here to teach me of her magic. Though, in all honesty, I couldn't imagine what I would need that sort of knowledge for.
I sat patiently in my deep bow, as pupils should in front of masters, until Master Yuu excused me from it by making some joking remark about my seriousness and beckoned me to his side. There I sat with my back straight and my palms lying flat on my legs, my head bowed slightly in respect and my eyes cast to the floor. We didn't get visitors often, but I was adamant about courteousness when they did. I wanted everyone who knew Master to know that he made the right choice in picking me as his pupil. Sitting this way was only natural to me now.
"And where might be your young one, Riviani? I have yet to see her, though I suspect she has long been present," Master answered to the woman.
Through my downcast eyes I could see Riviani smile a crooked, unnatural smile—something she quite obviously wasn't used to, given her frown lines—and replied, "Mika. That's enough. You've done well in bringing the boy here. You may show yourself now."
The light tinkling of bells resonated throughout the room as a small burst of air pushed at all of us. I couldn't help it. I knew better than to defy my sense of duty to Master and stray from my pose, but those bells! They were the ones from the forest! I needed to see for myself what they were and where they came from. My eyes shot up, almost on their own, and found the thing that I had chased the whole way here.
She had pure, snow white hair that was cut oddly and yet somehow managed to frame her face in a charming sort of way. That was the first thing I noticed. The second thing I noticed was that this girl who sat directly in front of me was, by far, the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. Her skin looked soft and like it had been gently kissed by the sun, and her wide, round eyes seemed to emit a comforting glow of subtle joy that anyone could see, even if she wasn't smiling proudly. They were the strange, exotic color of pale silver and looked as though they could reflect nearly anything, like a mirror. She was small and impish in a way, that much I could gather from the carefree way she sat cross-legged with her small hands wrapped around her ankles. The girl looked almost childish in her posture, but she, too, had an electrifying air around her. Then, I noticed her clothes… or lack thereof. She had what looked to be a band made of violet with white markings wrapped around her chest, and on her arms were large sleeves that started between her shoulder and elbow and bowed out in a cascade of the same color fabric over her lap. Despite the way she sat, she only wore a thick strip of that same material around her waist and what looked to be an elongated loin cloth that hung between her legs. The girl wore violet slippers, but around her ankles were two sets of silver rings that jangled together. On her right arm she had an intricate and bizarre tattoo done with white ink, and on her left hip dangled a string of little copper bells. I don't know how long I sat staring at her, imprinting her image on my mind, but it seemed to be long enough to make her giggle.
"To look at a girl with such a lusty stare without even introducing yourself, you must have some unbeatable courage," she cheered, rocking side to side like a child who couldn't sit still.
"Wha-?" I said like an idiot before I realized what she was talking about. In a daze, I shook my head hard back and forth as though that would wipe the burning blush from my cheeks and almost shouted, "Ah! I—I'm sorry! Please forgive my insolence!"
Quickly I went to press my head down onto the floor so as to bow to the girl in apology, but Master's hand flew out and caught my face before it could touch the ground.
"As always, you are far too hasty, Shoden. Take a closer look. She is of the same age as you. Not only that, but she was certainly toying with your ego. How many times have I told you to relax?" Master asked soothingly.
"Eight hundred and forty three, Master," I replied earnestly, sitting up but keeping my hot face down in embarrassment.
"Efficient and disciplined, isn't he?" Riviani asked, sounding far more accepting of me than she was a few minutes ago. "You've trained him well, Yuu."
"You flatter me, Riviani, though I can't take your praise so easily. This child came to me this way. His efficiency and disciplined ways are habits I try to break him of. He is far too serious for a boy his age."
"Nonsense! All pupils must display such exquisite qualities such as his."
"Perhaps," Master answered, his voice sounding light with disagreement. "And what of Mika? Does your girl show the same discipline you so highly admire in my Shoden?"
The girl—Mika, I assumed her name was—and I sat quietly as our master's spoke about us like we were possessions or animals to be appraised. This wasn't unusual for Master Yuu. He would often have old friends over with their apprentices so that the elders could compare their students and see who the better master was. I have heard several times from several people similar things to what Riviani said: that it was unexpected for Master Yuu to pick a student. Just as some people choose not to marry or choose not to take over the family business, my master was a man who chose not to take on any pupils. In the warrior monk lifestyle, a master may only take on one apprentice in their lifetime. That way the master can devote all of his or her energy on training one single person and passing on all they know wholly and completely. There is no room for error when the master has a lifetime to pass on all of the knowledge of the warrior monk to a single student. I tried to speak to Master about this, tried to ask him if he never planned to have a pupil, why he chose me. To that he would usually just chuckle in his mysterious and carefree way and reply with something along the lines of, "That is a secret you'll have to answer on your own, Shoden."
"Mika lacks terribly in the ways of discipline," Master Riviani answered. "This is why I believe her carefree nature will be tamed by Shoden's self-control."
Again, for the second time today, my heart stopped in my chest. Even though Master Riviani said nothing definite, her words implied so many things that my mind couldn't keep up with its own race. Mika would be tamed by me? What could she mean by that? Was I to teach her discipline? Would she be living with Master and I for a time? Or worse… was this a… a marriage meeting? No. No, no, no, no. That couldn't be it. Monks don't marry! But I'm not a monk yet. I'm still training. No! Even still, Master would never pull such a heartless prank on me!
"Pffft! Ha ha ha! Look at his face! He looks dizzy already! Are you sure he can make this trek?" Mika burst out, nearly falling backwards in laughter.
Master Riviani sighed heavily in annoyance, then, in a fit of what I assumed was a lack of patience, threw her hand up, pinched her thumb and forefinger together, and pulled it in a quick short burst through the air. Simultaneously, the laughing girl's lips pressed themselves together unnaturally, muffling her giggles that were quickly being replaced by surprised cries.
"Ah, that's better," Master Riviani said. "I would ask your forgiveness on her behalf, but she does not seek such things. The girl is akin to a wild animal, as you will both come to know."
Master Yuu, watching from beside me like this was possibly the funniest thing he had seen all week, stifled a chuckle and said, "It is sure to be an entertaining feat. Now then. Shoden, are you prepared?"
"P—prepared for what, Master?" I asked nervously, my eyes still glued to Mika as she tried to claw her mouth open again.
"Your journey, of course! The task! You know, the one I told you about when you were a child."
"You mean, this is it? This is the day I've been training for?" I asked, the uncontrollable enthusiasm filling my stomach like boiling hot tea.
Master Yuu grinned big at me and said, "That's right. This is the day. Now take the girl and be on your way."
The happy smile on my face slowly melted into a frown of confusion. What did he mean 'take the girl and be on your way'? I looked at Mika, who sat crumpled in a tense and frustrated fashion with her arms knitted together across her chest, then back at Master, whose grin turned into a full-fledged smile promising all sorts of mischief and uncomfortable things.
"Master, please forgive me, but… I'm not sure what it is you want from me," I said carefully.
Master Riviani groaned, again in annoyance, and spoke up. "Yuu, your horrid sense of humor still hasn't changed in all the years you've spent in these quiet mountains. You could at least tell the boy what he's expected to do."
Master Yuu chuckled and waved his hand at her, like he was dismissing her completely true statement, and said, "Fine, fine! Ruining my fun, the both of you. Shoden, this year marks the Decade Meeting of Elders. As the law of the land states, every master must submit a report to the Council of Elders so that they can stay updated on who is doing what. Essentially, it's their way of making sure none of the masters are using their incredible powers for evil."
Master chuckled at that, as though he, himself was evil and that he was just fooling everyone. I looked at him quizzically, trying my best to understand why he found this funny, but like most of his jokes I gave up and waited for him to continue.
"This year, though, Riviani and I both find ourselves to be much too old for the journey. We are brittle, wretched beings, you see," he said, pouting dramatically.
"But, Master, you're the healthiest and most capable person I—" I tried.
Master slapped his hand over my mouth and said, "Hush now, Shoden, and do what your Master tells you!"
Unable to do much else, I simply nodded and kept my mouth shut.
"Good," he said, his smile returning. Master pulled out a scroll from his sleeve and handed it to me. "Take this and travel with Mika to the Council of Elders in Eddenbrook. And don't be late! You have three months to make it there."
Eddenbrook… Eddenbrook… why didn't that town sound familiar? Quietly I sat and tried to think over all of the towns and villages on and around the mountain, as those were the only places I've ever been, but nothing came to mind. Besides, it only took three days at most to make it to the base of the mountain. Why did I need so much time?
"He doesn't know where Eddenbrook is, Yuu. It's written all over his face," Master Riviani pointed out.
Master smiled playfully, tucking his hands into his sleeves as he said, "Ah, yes. Shoden has never been off the mountain."
Master Riviani exhaled sharply as though she, too, was fed up with Master's unusual wit and replied, "For a crazy old man, you are certainly cruel to your students. I would have at least expected him to have travelled to Sessa in the time he's spent here. His character is deceiving. It makes other expect him to have a sense of worldly knowledge. Very well, then. Mika, show them the map."
I had almost forgotten about the girl who sat impatiently beside her master. She was still quiet, with her lips folded together in an unbreakable bond, but the glint in her eyes made it clear that if she could speak, she would thrash out like a wild animal. Still, obediently, Mika raised her hand into the air and snapped her fingers. Instantly an orb burst forth from her palm, hovering just above it as the globe began to fill out with details like mountains, rivers, oceans, and other terrain. I watched in utter fascination, unable to comprehend how she was able to make such a thing happen. It was the first time I witnessed such intense and beautiful magic, and I wanted so badly for it to keep evolving in her hand. Instead, in a flash quicker than my eyes could comprehend, the globe shifted and expanded, focusing on one area closely. On it read the word 'Eddenbrook', and from Eddenbrook there was a little glowing trail that ran all the way from that town, through all sorts of different lands and landscapes, until it finally reached the shrine. I was so absorbed in the mechanics of the map Mika magically constructed that it took me more than a second to realize that this was actually the route we were expected to take. And, given the extreme distance the map covered, I could safely gather that this was nowhere near the villages I was used to.
"Wait, Master, are you saying that we have to travel from here—" I pointed to our shrine on Mika's map, "—to here?"
"My, what a clever boy you've turned out to be!" Master praised.
Slowly I could feel my heart turn to lead and drop into the pit of my stomach. It didn't take a master of any sort to figure out that this trek was close to forty times the distance there was between here and the furthest village from our shrine. Not only that, but most of the places the glowing line traveled through were places I've never heard of, let alone visited. There was no way all of the training I've put myself through could have prepared me for this.
"Master, I—I need more time to prepare!" I shouted as panic began to rise.
"Nonsense! You've trained hard in the ten years you've been here. Just stick to Mika and you should both make it there alive and in decent condition," Master replied in complete honesty. "But you're wasting time now, Shoden. You've only got three months! You must leave! Now!"
"But I haven't packed!" I cried desperately.
Out of nowhere—and when I say nowhere, I mean nowhere. It literally appeared from thin air—Master pulled out a sack as long as my arm that was stuffed to the brim. He carelessly tossed it to me and said, "You didn't have to."
I held the bag in my hands, turning it this way and that as I frantically tried to wrap my head around all of this.
"Where did you even pull this—"
"Shoden," Master interrupted, his voice deep and menacing and severe. I swallowed hard and looked up at the man, his usually teasing, squinted eyes parted in a strained effort to look on me with complete and total seriousness. "You are running out of time. Trust in yourself and the things that you've learned. Trust in the things that you will come to learn on this journey. And trust in my judgment. This is your task. Deliver this to the council, along with Mika, and you will earn your place here at the shrine as a monk. Do you understand?"
I sat completely still, my eyes wide with shock and my blood rushing in my ears. Then, carefully, I slung the bag strap over my chest, setting the bag in place on my back. This was my master, the man who took me in, gave me a name, and taught me everything he knew about being a warrior monk. I would not defy him, no matter how much I didn't understand. He trusted me to do this, so I would do it with honor and dignity. I would complete this task for him so that he would know that he didn't make a mistake in choosing me as his student. I wanted to make Master proud.
Just like before, I bowed deeply to him, pressing my head and palms on the wooden floor with my thumbs and forefingers touching.
"Good boy," Master said, his tone lighter and more sympathetic than before. "Now, I'll not tell you again. Leave this place, and only return once you've delivered that scroll."
With my head down and a small, triumphant smile of satisfaction hidden on my face, I answered, "Yes, Master."