It was quiet down here in Numai. It was also relatively warm, a pleasant change from the mountain reaches of Sokenzan. The stranger blew on his hands compulsively anyway, his breath not misting over his hands as he rubbed them together.
Everything he saw seemed lurched, ramshackle. After the Yamabushi’s training, he was welcoming any kind of permanent establishment. Life on the mountainsides was just too… he dared not think it, even to himself. If life atop a mountainside with only four people to talk to wasn’t peacful enough, then what hope did he have of finding that which he sought down here.
Adjusting his cloak, he pushed one huge hand to the door. Life had not been kind to him recently; it was time to see how he could return the favour. As he opened the door, scents assuaged his senses, and he momentarily reeled back, steading himself with a hand in the doorframe, prompting a loud thump and the creak of strained wood.
The sound died down as the teahouse denizens looked up, drawn by his unconscious demonstration of power. He regarded the room, and it, silently, regarded and judged. He glanced around, trying to see who he should address. Time in relative isolation had left his social skills raw and numb – frozen over somewhere in the frost-capped peaks of Sokenzan.
There was a tense moment as human patrons regarded the newcomer, crouched in the doorway, his broad shoulders barely fitting in the frame, one hand slammed hard against it, wood splintering around his fingers. He could be one of those Takenuma Bleeders, blood-mages seeking a new victim. He could just be some brute from the ruins of Reito, after sacrifices for some dark patron. Or worse still, he could be something else, a wild element. The room held its breath as Kuon stood and raised his hand.
The room burst into laughter. This was Numai, not a schoolyard playground! Yet, here through the door walked a sheep into the den of wolves. And no normal sheep, either – a seven-foot tall sheep that wore the garb of a monk and introduced himself with an embarassed stammer! Even as the ogre stumbled into the room, hatchetmen and rogues began to size him up, estimating what exactly would be worth their while to claim from his body, and what could simply be sold with the rest of him…
Kuon walked to the bar, even as around him he heard the uneasy, dull absence of noise. Kuon was far too intimate with the subject to call it silence. No, he wondered… would he ever find real silence, down here in Numai?
Erayo regarded the ogre from his seat, cross-legged by the temple’s entrance and Kuon regarded him. The pair stood in complete silence, without even the wind disturbing that perfect moment. That Erayo had not been in the seemingly-empty monastery more than two months did not show in his unwavering arrogance, but neither did the ogre’s heartache at finding someone even here, in this supposed home of solitude. The moonfolk’s features were fine and dignified, and slightly wrinkled at the brutish appearance Kuon presented. In six months’ time, Kuon would know Erayo as well as anyone could – but for now, they regarded each others as strangers across a gulf of infinite understanding.
Erayo broke the silence. “What, ogre, are you doing here? Do you seek something?”
The dark-skinned ogre looked at Erayo as if he hadn’t just been staring at him, broken from the rapture of the complete silence. “… Yes. I’m not sure what, though. I… I think I want to be alone.”
Erayo tilted an ear. “Then you’ve not found it here, as you can see. This is the home of master Ishida, Ascendant of the Lands.”
The ogre paused, seemingly not listening. “Oh.” Another pause – he even seemed to be straining his ears for something, almost as if something had been lurking nearby and he’d just heard it scurry away. “Is the master available?”
Erayo smiled enigmatically. “You may attempt to meet the master.”
It wasn’t fair, really. Kuon nodded as the bartender produced a stone bottle, and the overly powerful scent of bad sake attacking his nose as he lifted the dish. Sensation battered him from all sides, but he had to resist his natural urge. This wasn’t Ishada’s – he couldn’t flee the room and dive head-long into the womb of a snowbank. No; the others had left, and he had failed in his ascension, so now, he had to return. He had to return. Return to the place from whence he came.
But where was that? He could hardly remember life before the temple of Ishida. There had been… something. There had been noise, and heat, and the breaking of rock as fire was flung. There was little sympathy for those ogres of Sokenzan, and life was short and brutal. Whatever it had brought him, he was unsure – but the black tattoos that ran up and down his arms spoke of his most recent turn of life. His quest, his search… and ultimately, his failure.
Why was he last? What had Rune-tail understood that he hadn’t? Their goals had been so close…
Rune-tail looked up at Kuon from beneath the waterfall at the ogre, now wearing black robes and chakral tattoos. Spring thaw was somehow even more calming up here on the mountainside, but it wasn’t calm that Kuon sought. Perhaps that was the distinction that kept the two from truly connecting. Life was, more and more, defined by aching silence, filled briefly with unuseful conversation.
“Have you met the master yet?” Rune-Tail asked, his inky eyes revealing nothing of his motivations. He, unlike Kuon, was not reluctant to break the silence; he cast his words into the air as a pebble into the stillness of a pond, with the knowledge that the silence was no more broken than the pond destroyed by his actions.
“I think I have.” Kuon finally replied, rumbling quietly. He fumbled slightly as he sat, adjusting his robes as the waterfall rent the air with its sound. “He asked me a question,” Kuon offered.
Rune-Tail did not question the strange contradiction; he knew his master to be inscrutable. “And what is that?”
“He asked me if I knew the Number of Peace. The Peace that I seek.”
Rune tail nodded, considering the question. It was in the kitsune’s nature to be helpful, despite the ogre’s own tendency to be withdrawn. Rune-Tail knew that Kuon had much to offer the world – he had much to offer life in that soul of his; even black and twisted as he w as, he was still beautiful because he lived.
“The number of Peace is as the number of grains of sand; every life, every blade of grass, and every breath of life; each speaks as a single life, and each one day, wishes to see peace, even if they do not truly know it yet.” Rune-Tail’s tone was more curious than definitive; he didn’t know for sure if this was the case, but he wished to see Kuon’s troubles eased.
Kuon gave Rune-Tail a flat look, flat with those… eyes of his.
“That’s ridiculous.” The ogre said, simply, lapsing into silence as the waterfall fell.
Why, after all, would the master have him seek to number that which could never be numbered?
Kuon sat up as the cheap sake was deposited before him. Slouching back in his chair, he could feel some old habits making themselves felt. He was slipping back and making himself less obvious, the hulking brute of a body that was his own – that damnable cage of flesh – making itself as small as it could, to not draw attention. All he wanted, all he’d ever wanted… was to be left alone.
Perhaps sufficient sake would dull the pain – make the world go away. Of course, Kuon couldn’t be sure his meager funds would cover him for that. But tonight was tonight, and tomorrow would bring its own tragedy and woe.
Up came the dish, and Kuon felt the liquid burning its way down his throat.
Sasaya and Kuon barely understood each other. Rune-Tail felt he had insight into the ogre, and Kuon felt that Rune Tail was pursuing a similar, but ultimately flawed, end. However, Sasaya… Sasaya was almost as prosaic and slow to act as the plants she tended.
“Seven.” Sasaya responded, after the longest of moments, her rake sculpting the pebbled stones of the garden into a curving pattern. “Peace comes in the form of Seven. Is seven not the number of Bushido?”
Kuon just snorted.
The Ogre had forgotten what the flat lands were like at night. His hands were shaking with the amount of alcohol that ran through his system, and the darkness that hovered between each building was a pleasant respite from the sense of sight, but that nagging survival instinct that had been bred in the mountains spoke to him of screaming, yawning danger in these places.
With a lurch, Kuon hammered his fist against a wall, steadying himself, and rubbed his hand over his eyes. He definitely did not wipe away tears. Certainly not tears of regret, of anguish, and of the sufferer whose pains will never cease. Kuon was here. Kuon was not Ascendant. His brothers had left him – Erayo seeing the ways of magic, Sasaya, the ways of the land, and Rune-Tail finding that peace of which he spoke, protecting everything he saw. Or so he thought – Kuon felt no assistance from him. And Homura…
Homura looked thoughtful, his expression terminally inscrutable. It was amazing, Kuon thought. Here, broken and battered, with his own blood staining his lips, Homura’s mind was full of wise thoughts. Homura had been the superior warrior, even if he was more impetuous, and more likely to sail into the way of danger.
Downstairs, the bellowing voice of Hidetsugu could be heard. “Come out, Ishida!” came the call. “Your Yamabushi are to be mine, as are Kumano’s, and as will be Kuroda’s! Your enlightenment can be saught after my vengeance is complete!”
Kuon strained closer to hear Homura over the ogre’s words. His hands frantically worked at tying off the knots that would protect Homura’s last fleeting moments of life. Hidetsugu’s magics were being stymied, and with every failed spell the ogre attempted to cast, Kuon could here the overjoyed laughter of Erayo. The moonfolk had reached his enlightenment – and Sasaya and Rune-tail were long gone. It was Homura, and Kuon here to protect the master, and Homura…
Homura was dying.
“Your number,” Homura said, putting his hand on Kuon’s shoulder, “Your number, my strange friend… is one. Every person is one life, one strength, and has the single ability to make for themselves the world they seek. Now…” Homura closed his eyes, his voice raspy with blood, “I have always valued your independence, Kuon… but please… let me lend my strength to yours.”
Kuon couldn’t remember what had happened after that. All that he knew was that he’d awoken, at the base of the mountain, while above him, on the mountainside, fire raged. Reports from those he could find spoke of a black-skinned dragon, raging and full of fire, driving the ogre from Ishida’s home, but there was no more Ishida to live there. Certainly not if he’d been at the mercy of the dragon.
Kuon shook himself as his eyes adjusted to the murk. And froze. Before him sat a man, clutching at his side, looking over Kuon with absolute shock. He bit his lip, and Kuon had time enough to register the smell of blood before the man spoke.
“Run away!” He yelled. “They’ll kill you too!” he gasped. Strange that he would offer advice that might save an ogre’s life. Perhaps not everyone in Takenuma was unhelpful. But still – he was close to death… just like Homura had been. Homura had ascended when he was close to death; perhaps that’s how it worked for humans. The ogre leaned close, hunkering down on one knee. He had to ask.
“How many is the number of-” Kuon began.
“Three!” the man screamed. And then the blade bit into Kuon’s shoulder.
Kuon whirled around, his motion violent enough to throw the man, still clutching his wakazashi tumbling behind him. Kicking one foot back, Kuon felt the sickening crunch as his near-ton body weight was applied to the body of a far more fragile human. Cracking his knuckles, the monk then turned to face his two compatriots.
Nezumi! A human with a pair of nezmi thugs. Made sense to Kuon – it’d explain why he hadn’t spotted them; even though he had no compunctions about touching or fighting the Nezumi, they were damnably quiet. Yet – as Kuon’s hands came up to defend himself, catching the chain in his hands and pulling forward, dragging the rat-man into a haymaker the likes of which would have killed a man three times his strength – his mind was elsewhere.
He might have been talking about his assailants. That was possible. Three of them, after all. But yet… three resonated with Kuon. The ramblings of those close to death may well be truth, after all. And here he was, and three echoed in his mind in ways that couldn’t be untrue. Three. The three masters whose Yamabushi were stolen. The three here. The three who gave up their lives to defeat Hidestugu. And…
Kuon stopped, his eyes widening, even as his fingers wrapped around the neck of the other ratling, the sound of vertebrae snapping being loud and ugly in the alleyway.
“I see…” was all he said.
And with that, Kuon was no more. When Boss’ men came through in the morning, they found four bodies – two ratlings, two humans. The rats and one of the humans had died in a fight, clearly. But the other human – he had a terrific wound in his side, and yet, all the signs showed he died of old age.
And inscribed on the wall behind him was a long, black, symbol. And everywhere around it, all that you can hear is silence. Inexorable, irresistible, absolute silence, as one finds in a grave.
In its slumber, the Genju of the realm rolled on its side. It had had many names – and now, one it would never wear again was Ishida, Master of the Realms.