land of the crane: musashi

Musashi couldn't help but grin as the ninja rushed toward him. Since he had been old enough to hold a bokutō [1], he had spent the better part of every day training for battle. Now he would finally be able to test himself for real: on the field of battle, rather than on the straw mats of the dojo.

The last time he had drawn his sword, his father had been watching from across the room. As the daimyō's general, his father expected nothing less than perfection from his son, and often observed his technique with an extremely critical eye.

"Musashi!" he roared, as his son drew his katana, "Your feet are out of alignment. How can you possibly generate the power to cut down your enemy with your body held like that?" He roughly rearranged his son's stance, and gestured to him to continue.

Musashi attempted the maneuver again, and this time his father nodded in approval. "Good," he growled, "You learn quickly, Musashi. You have the potential to be an even greater swordsman than your brother; perhaps even greater than I."

"Yes father," he said, bowing deeply. I will be the greatest swordsman of all, he thought to himself.

"Musashi, you know of the pilgrimage that our clan must make to Hizuru."

"Yes father."

"You remember that your brother, Hiro, made the pilgrimage to Tsuchitora[2] seven years ago."

"Yes father."

"You remember that he brought great honor to our clan," Akuma smiled.

"Yes father," Musashi said, knowing full well what was coming. As the son of the daimyō's general, it was inconceivable that he would not have been selected to lead the pilgrimage this year.

"You, Musashi, now have the opportunity to bring even greater honor to our clan, for you shall be among those that deliver our offering to the greatest of the spirit guardians."

"Thank you, father," Musashi said, bowing deeply yet once again.

His father bowed in return (though not as deeply), and turned to leave. When he reached the door, he stopped and turned back to his son. "Musashi," he said sternly.

"Yes father?"

"If you fail, do not bother to come back."

"I will not fail." It is not possible for me to fail, he thought.

Musashi recalled this conversation as he waited for the ninja to reach him. I will not fail. I will not fail. I will not fail. He repeated those words to himself as time itself slowed down. Each breath came deliberately and seemed to last minutes. He could feel his pulse reverberate throughout his body – a bloody metronome ticking off the rhythm of his life. The interval between the footsteps of his opponent became infinitely and unbearably long. Finally, the man drew within range of his blade, and every muscle in his body tensed.

At the last possible moment, in one smooth motion, he drew his katana and slashed open the belly of his attacker. Time returned to its normal flow, and as the lifeless body fell at his feet, he turned his gaze to the third ninja. This one, who had ordered the charge, stopped in her tracks. After a moment of hesitation, she turned and ran.

Only when she disappeared back into the shadows did Musashi relax. He wiped the blood off of his katana as he sheathed it, and then he turned his attention to his friends. Fukasu was already attending to Kakeru as the young shinkan healed his own wounds, so he moved the bodies of the two fallen ninja next to the fire.

After taking a few minutes to catch their breath, the three heroes burned the bodies. "Great spirits of fire," Kakeru intoned, "I command you to burn brightly." They watched as the flames consumed the remains of the two attackers, then, with the threat of the bodies spontaneously reanimating gone, decided to return to sleep.

This time, Kakeru and Fukasu rested while Musashi took watch. As the young samurai sat in seiza, intently watching the shadows, he replayed the earlier battle in his mind. He had been strong, he had survived, and he defended his friends - that much was true - but something felt incomplete. He had let one of the attackers escape, and that simply would not do.

I need to be stronger, he thought, I need to be much, much stronger.

[1] A wooden training sword. While it isn't designed to cut, it can still be deadly in the right hands.

[2] Tsuchitora, the Earth Tiger, guards the Eastern border of Tsurukoku.