land of the crane: shuudoushi kenjiro

Musashi's hand immediately went to the hilt of his katana, while Fukasu simply rolled over and groaned. Kakeru cleared his throat and sighed inwardly, "Define 'worthy opponents.'"

The kitsune[1] monk bowed slightly, and then said, "I am from the Temple of the Fire Monkey, and I have been wandering these lands looking to improve my skills by facing other warriors in combat."

Kakeru nodded, "Are you looking for lethal combat?"

Kenjiro frowned and looked uncomfortable, "No. Though the power of the Fire Monkey is extremely formidable, the members of our temple have vowed never to take a life intentionally."

That must be why I've never heard of it, Musashi thought as he relaxed his grip on his sword ever so slightly.

Takashi stared at the other monk while he and Kakeru spoke. He doesn't look that tough, he thought to himself, and I'd like to see how the Way of the Storm measures up against other styles. "Ok," he said, stepping forward, "I'll take you on."

"Thank you," Kenjiro said as he bowed deeply. Kakeru and Musashi looked at each other, shrugged, then hopped out of the cart, walked over to the grass by the side of the road, and took up positions at the opposite corners of a twenty-foot square.

Fukasu propped herself up in the back of the cart and watched as the two monks walked to the center of the improvised ring. "Go Takashi-san!" she yelled, then blushed slightly when he looked startled.

The two monks bowed to each other, then assumed fighting stances. Takashi held his fists at the level of his shoulders, and shifted his weight from foot to foot. His posture was deliberately straight as he tried to make himself appear as tall and imposing as possible. Kenjiro, by contrast, assumed a hunched posture, and moved erratically, bobbing and swaying, even as he stood in place.

After a moment, the fight began without a word. The kitsune monk sidestepped toward Takashi with a bouncing gait, his arms swinging wildly from side to side. Within a second, he had closed the distance to his opponent. He planted one foot firmly on the ground and let the momentum he had generated spin him around. As he spun, he released a powerful kick directly at Takashi's chest.

Takashi stepped back and twisted his torso out of the way. Then, realizing that Kenjiro had left his leg extended an instant too long, he wrapped an arm around the extended calf, trapping it against his ribs. Next, he stepped forward and buried the knuckles of his other hand deep into the exposed soft tissue of his opponent's inner thigh. Kenjiro grimaced as every muscle in his legs spasmed at once.

The kitsune monk summoned his inner will, forcing his ki to concentrate in his left arm. His first burst into flame, and he swung at his opponent's chest. Unfortunately, Takashi anticipated the blow, and twisted at the waist. Kenjiro's stunning attack struck him in the thick, tough lats, and dissipated harmlessly.

Takashi continued to twist, and, once he had his back to Kenjiro, crouched slightly and hooked his other arm under the fox monk's leg. He twisted, bent forward, and lifted all at the same time, which sent his opponent flying over his shoulder. When Kenjiro reached the apex of the throw, Takashi kicked his rear leg back and yanked downward. The kitsune monk didn't even have time to brace himself for the fall; he hit the ground face first.

Kakeru let out a low whistle, while Musashi grimaced. Fukasu threw her arms in the air and yelled, "Woohoo!" Even from her vantage point, it was obvious that Kenjiro was out cold. Takashi stood up and smiled, "Ha!"

After congratulating Takashi, Kakeru knelt down, placed his hand on the kitsune's chest, and uttered a life-giving prayer. Kenjiro coughed and gingerly rolled over onto his back, at which point Musashi extended his hand and helped the fallen monk to his feet; he remembered all too well what it felt like to be at the wrong end of Takashi's throws.

Over the next few hours, the four pilgrims and the wandering monk sat by the side of the road and shared some food, some sake, and what few exciting stories they had.

"Kenjiro-san, what other warriors have you faced?" Takashi asked after a few cups of sake.

"Sadly, not many. I began my pilgrimage only a few months ago, and have met only three warriors who were interested in fighting me, including you." He sipped at his cup of the sacred liquid, and then took a bite from the rice noodle and rabbit stew that he cooked for the rest of the group.

"Ah," Takashi nodded, "How many have you won?"

Kenjiro fell silent for a moment, then sighed, "None." He smiled wanly, "But I'm confident that I'm learning."

The group slurped at their stew for a moment before Kenjiro spoke again. "I did meet one very interesting monk from the Temple of the Silent Lake. He had a very defensive fighting style. I couldn't get in a single hit on him. But he was strange-looking."

Kakeru couldn't help but note the irony of a kitsune labeling someone as "strange-looking," so he asked the obvious question, "What made him strange-looking?"

"He was a human, but his hair was the color of straw, and his eyes like a sapphire. I've never seen anything like it before."

Musashi felt a sense of fraternity with the kitsune, since he was the only other person he knew who had been dropped on his head by Takashi. "Kenjiro-san," Musashi said, "Would you care to join our pilgrimage? I'm sure that you would be able to encounter a fair number of warriors against who you could test your skill."

Kenjiro slurped loudly from his bowl and chewed for a moment. "I am honored that you would ask me, Musashi-san, but I think my fate lies elsewhere."

Musashi nodded, and chewed on his own noodles. While he knew that the Itsutsu Shukumei[2] gave each person their own fate to fulfill, he couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed; he was fond of the wandering monk.

Before nightfall, Kenjiro bid the party farewell, and continued on his musha shugyo[3]. The group spent the next few days traveling; Kakeru, Musashi, and Fukasu tried to rest along the way, but each ended up being used by Takashi as a practice dummy.

On the afternoon of the 9th day of the 4th month of the year 337 of the Ito shogunate, the four travelers from Kurosawa crested a grassy hill only to see a creature that looked like a cross between a lobster and a squid, but nearly twenty feet from the end of its fluked tail to tips of its hooked tentacles, locked in combat with four other adventurers.

"Oni!" Takashi exclaimed.

[1] Kitsune, one of the playable backgrounds of the Land of the Crane, are a race of mischievous, shape-changing foxes.

[2] The five celestial dragons known as Itsutsu Shukumei are the guardians of fate. They determine the events that affect the lives of every living creature, and dispatch their spirit servants to affect these events.

When each living creature is born, the five fates create an urn, into which they place stones engraved with magical kanji, each of which represents an event that will occur in the creature's life.

[3] The musha shugyo, or "warrior's pilgrimage," is a Tsurukokan tradition whereby young warriors of all stripes leave their families and monasteries and travel the land, fighting in duels to hone their skills and promote the names of their martial schools or fighting styles.