01 February, 2012

Story: The Destiny of Kajiyama Shen

This is a free, complete short story I wrote. It concerns a young student of martial arts who seeks his destiny in a distant land...

Kajiyama Shen scrambled up the rock face and came to a halt before the cave opening. There was dust all over his gi, but he would not dared have come here wearing anything else.

"Hello?" Shen called out. His voice echoed in the cave, like a stone kami's mocking shriek. There was no answer. He looked back out over the Zhaigou Valley, the golden rice stalks swaying in the wind, the pillars of pale rock standing sentinel against any desecration. He had been challenged, and passed, to get here. But that had been only the beginning. What lay ahead, he could not guess.

He drew calming breaths, and went into the cave. The light faded, leaving him with only faint shadows to navigate by. Soon the cave was pitch black. Shen put his hand on the wall and crept along, his heart pounding, the memory of his master's words repeating in his mind.

Your training is complete, but your journey has only just begun. You must go to the Cave of Dire Wind in Zhaigou Valley, across the Barren Sea, and only there will your destiny be revealed to you.

Shen remembered, certain—hoping—that his master had not sent him to chase shadows. Maybe I was supposed to question him. No, that could not be it. Master Tsuyoshi had taught him, taken him in when all the other sensei had laughed and said that a scrawny little boy like Kajiyama Shen could never learn the art. He would not question his master.

Memories of his training floated in the darkness before him, but were dispelled when he barked his shin on a rock. He cursed and hopped back, trying to soothe his pain. And then he realized that he could see, by some flickering light ahead. Warm air rushed past him, a susurrating moan. He crept ahead, feeling with his toes and fingers, until the light grew and he could see where his feet would land.

The crackle of flames came to his ears just before he saw the enormous pyres, spaced around the edge of a vast chamber, thickening the air with smoke and making it almost unbearably hot. He sweated through his gi in seconds.

The chamber was like the inside of a temple, straight walls carved with mystical shapes, meeting at sharp angles. The smoke from the pyres climbed the walls into darkness, a tiny spot of light in the ceiling indicating a chimney. Shen realized his jaw hung open. He snapped it shut with a click and looked around. What fuels the pyres, I wonder?

"Hello?" he called out again.

"Hello, Kajiyama Shen," came a voice from all around him. He spun, trying to locate it. It was the sound of honey on a fire, of butterflies lost in the wind, of magic made real and death finally come. But he could see nothing.

"I—I am here to learn my destiny," Shen said, making himself sound braver than he felt.

"You should not have doubted Master Tsuyoshi," the voice said.

Shen gasped. "How do you know who my master is? How do you know my name?"

He heard metal tapping on stone. It made him think of his weapons training, when Master Tsuyoshi had shown how a spiked tetsubo could smash a rock, let alone an opponent. He looked up, and saw something glittering, slithering in the darkness. It coiled along the wall of the cave-temple, and then came past the pyres to perch on the dais at the far end.

The creature was enormous, fifty feet long or more, a long scaled body like a snake, but with four clawed legs. Its snout was long, its eyes old and penetrating. Its scales glittered orange with inner fire, and its claws shone like the silver moon.

"I am Furui Tatsu," the creature said. "I am here to guide you to your destiny."

Shen stood as tall as he could. "I am ready."

"That is for me to judge," Furui Tatsu said, and it was suddenly clouded by smoke. Shen squinted, only to see a man, dressed in gi as he was, approaching. Furui Tatsu had vanished.

Shen waited in first stance, until the man came close and stopped. Shen did not recognize him. "You are not worthy," the man said in a voice dripping with scorn. And he attacked.

Shen was surprised, but kept his guard. He blocked and counterattacked, backing in a wide circle around the temple floor, gauging his opponent as he had been taught, letting the man expend his energy in a flurry of blows while Shen conserved his own strength. He watched for weakness, for flaws. His heart beat with conviction.

When he had come back around to where he started, he stepped back slightly farther. The man was goaded into rushing toward him, and Shen twisted aside, dodging the man's fist by a hair, and struck.Chikaraishi, the Lifting Stone, cracked the man's rib and sent him flying. But before he landed he exploded into a cloud of smoke, and vanished.

Shen looked and saw that Furui Tatsu had reappeared. He could not tell if it was smiling or frowning, but it nodded. "You have mastered patience," the creature said. Shen felt its gaze on him, as if it could touch him with its eyes. "But you do not wonder why he attacked you."

Shen was about to object—It's part of a test, is it not?—when Furui Tatsu vanished into smoke again, and another human form stepped forward. Shen almost rubbed his eyes, for he recognized this man. It was Master Tsuyoshi.

"Master! How did you get here?"

"You disappoint me," said Master Tsuyoshi, and he leapt forward.

This time Shen could barely fend off the blows. He had sparred with Master Tsuyoshi more times than he could count, more days than he could remember. Never had his master been this fierce, this enraged. Tsuyoshi twisted like a serpent, avoiding every blow and hold Shen could muster, and striking Shen's arms, legs, chest, back. Shen nearly had to run just to stay out of his master's grasp.

Master, what have I done to anger you so? Shen thought. No true master would do this to his student! You are not my master!

Tsuyoshi vanished. Furui Tatsu gazed down at Shen once more. "You have learned to question your own senses. But you still feel pain from an obvious lie."

Shen wanted to shout at the creature that he did not understand, but Furui Tatsu's gaze pierced deep. Shen did not want to disappoint the creature as he had his master—No! That wasn't Master Tsuyoshi. It is just a test. He shook his head in anger. "What are you showing me, Furui Tatsu? I do not understand."

Furui Tatsu's mouth moved into something that might have been a smile, and the creature vanished into smoke again. This time, Shen was confused by the silhouette he saw walking toward him, and realized it was not any man he knew, but a woman—a beautiful woman, Princess Mayu, daughter of the shōgun. Shen had known her when they were children, when the shōgun would visit the teahouse Shen's mother had owned. The shōgun had loved that teahouse when he in turn had been a child, and came there often with his own family. Shen would play hide-and-seek with Mayu in the storage rooms and garden while the shōgun took tea and met with local officials.

Mayu had grown into a woman of transcendent beauty, renowned far and wide for the grace and honor she brought to her father's court. Shen had not seen her since he joined the dojo, except from afar, when she waved to the commoners from the palace balcony. But now, standing before him, Shen saw her face weathered by anger, the anaka of a mourning daughter painted on her face in ragged black lines. "I should never have consorted with you," she said. "My father is dead because I could not defend him, because you made me weak. No more!" And she drew a katana from a sheath at her back, and lunged for Shen.

He had no weapon at all, let alone the reach to get past her blade. She carved the air around him as he dodged and weaved and ducked, wishing he could shout No! It's not my fault! We were only children! The steel whispered past his ear, shaving hairs from his head, licking at his gi, leaving traces of red finer than any calligraphy where the sword's very tip kissed his skin.

Shen tried to dart left, dance right, get around her, but Mayu was too fast. He could only move away, until he felt the press of stone at his back. He saw the rage in Mayu's eyes, and knew there was only one way.

"Forgive me, Mayu," he said, falling to his knees and clasping his hands together.

Mayu's katana stopped an inch from his face. Her expression softened, and the anaka faded away. "It was not your fault," Mayu said, all her rancor gone. "We were only children."

Furui Tatsu watched Shen from the dais as Mayu dissipated into smoke. "You recognize when all is lost and it is time to give up the struggle," Furui Tatsu said. "But you still feel regret for that which is not your fault."

Shen stood up again. His cuts were gone, his gi undamaged. He sensed something still to come. "I am ready, Furui Tatsu."

The great creature reared up, and took a step forward, making the hall tremble. Shards of rock rained down from above, and the pyres flickered. Shen stood his ground as Furui Tatsu stomped closer, seeming to grow longer and larger the closer it came. Finally, Furui Tatsu towered over him, reaching to the ceiling. But the creature faded into smoke once more, and Shen saw a shape, a very familiar shape, walking toward him out of the smoke. He was not surprised when he found himself looking into a mirror, as Kajiyama Shen stood before Kajiyama Shen.

He looked into his own eyes, and knew what he must do. He stood in third stance, and waited.

"I am not worthy," the mirror Shen said, but his eyes clearly said You are not worthy. And he attacked.

Shen lowered his hands and let the first blows strike him. He tried to keep his feet, but as the mirror Shen's fists and feet struck him again and again, his strength waned and he collapsed to the ground. The mirror Shen attacked unabated, and Shen's world became pain, the anticipation nearly as bad as the strikes themselves.

Eternity came and went, and Shen breathed easy into the emptiness. His bones were all broken, his organs destroyed, his skin flayed, his spirit shattered. But he knew. He knew he had made the right choice.

A golden glow waxed within him. It grew and unfolded like a lotus, touching his fingernails, toes, wrists, shins, elbows, thighs, shoulders, groin, neck, chest, eye, heart, mind. All along, they were healed. He stood, and faced Furui Tatsu again.

Now the great dragon certainly smiled at him. "Your training has taught you much, but you have that rarest of gifts: the knowledge that you must not fight yourself. Return home. Your destiny lies before you."

Shen looked into the eye of Furui Tatsu, and saw his future: the joys, the pain, the struggles and triumphs and failures yet to come. He bowed to the dragon, and strode from the cave.

Master Tsuyoshi would be waiting.

Copyright © 2012 by Benjamin Clayborne. All rights reserved.

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