Under any other circumstances, I might have looked upon my battle with that shadowed figure as a disgrace. But the creature refused to face me. Refused to fight back with any sense of honor. So the conflict is 'unfinished', and I could myself becoming more determined than ever to bring some resolution to it all. He will not evade me so easily. And if he is too shifty and false to look me in the eye and continue with a genuine assault...even with all of his superior abilities under the cover of darkness...then I will seek him out and finish it myself. This insult shall not pass.
I'm not afraid. Why is he?
I walked home with a burning rage filling my veins. The rain showered me down from above, the lightning giving me brief glimpses of the road that I needed to follow to get back to Zhao's house in the field. My enemies? I left their bodies to rot in the town square. Cut to pieces. Flesh disgraced. They deserved no further respect from me than that. Let the birds and the land scavengers devour what was left of them. They crossed the line in the sand...and they paid for it with their lives.
Perhaps it was the act of being forced into this position that angered me so much. Perhaps it was a pure killer instinct that possessed me, embracing my darkest emotions as I used my weapon to slice through them so mercilessly. Or...maybe...it was the glow of those eyes in the dark. The memory of my brother, Jiro...and the way that he looked at me just moments before I struck him down in self defense. I think that disturbed me much more than any other offense that I had to deal with during this storm. That creature...that demon...he was afflicted with the same evil essence that claimed my brother and murdered my family. And that means that he may have some understanding of it. A reason why.
I need to find him. I need to know what that reason was. And I will cut my way through an entire army of these Hooded Ones to find him. This, I vow.
I managed to catch sight of a burning lantern in Zhao's window as I approached the house. Soaking wet from the rain, my sword still stained with blood...I sheathed my weapon at last and attempted to calm myself down before getting to the door. It wasn't easy though. I felt corrupted by rage. It burned me from within. Nearly causing me to turn around and seek out these blood gods tonight instead of waiting until morning. Or at least until the storm passes us over. With every breath...my fury seemed to intensify. Never have I faced such a despicable creature. A murderous rogue that could no longer be seen as human. It needs to die. It DESERVES to die!!!
Calm. I needed calm. Remember my training. Anger blinds the just and unjust, just the same.
I took deep breaths, and walked towards the front door. I happened to see Tadashi's young face illuminated by the lantern as he looked out to see if I was coming back home. And then he snatched himself away to rush over and open the door for me ahead of time.
"TATSURO!!!" He hollered, immediately pushing himself forward to hug me tightly around the waist. He shut his eyes tight, almost as if he was about to start crying tears of joy over my safe return. "Grandfather told me that you were going to fight, and that I couldn't leave because of the storm! I was afraid that you could be hurt! The blood gods' vengeance is swift and deadly! I'm so glad that you came back! Did they run away? Have you chased them off for good?"
As much as Tadashi's affection and concern penetrated my strongest defenses and made me feel for him as his thin arms embraced me with all of the might that he could muster...I found myself cold to his expressions of joy and gratitude. The inner hatred inside seemed to make his boyish voice dull and inconsequential to what I knew that I'd have to prepare for in order to wipe this conflict clean and give the people of this village a way out. It was going to take anger. It was going to take blood. And there was nothing that I could do about that now.
Fate has spoken. Who am I not to answer its call?
Zhao walked into the room just as I was gently pushing Tadashi's hands away from me. Rejecting his affections as the anger in my heart continued to burn. Zhao could see it in my eyes. I know that he could. And he stepped in to dry Tadashi's eyes as he sent him off to bed. Tadashi protested defiantly at first, but Zhao told him, "Off you go now! Tatsuro will be here in the morning. You can talk then. Ok?"
"Go. Get some rest. The faster you go to sleep, the earlier you will wake. And will have more time to spend with Tatsuro when the sun rises."
Tadashi pouted about it, but he did as he was told. Even though I suspected that he would be eavesdropping from around the corner anyway. The boy was not the type to let things go so easily.
Before he could even speak, I said, "I know what you're going to say, Zhao...but I did what I had to do. There was no other way."
"So...you allow those who are misguided pressure you into committing the same sins you claim to be running from?" He asked.
"There was no other choice. I've already brought more pain and death to your village than necessary. If I don't fix it...they will slaughter more souls. More than you can imagine. Karma has already been set into motion, both theirs and mine. Only one of these will have a just outcome, Zhao. Surely, you must understand that."
Zhao sighed, and sat down at his dinner table after putting out two cups. One for him, and one for me. He filled them with rice wine and offered me a seat. One that I was hesitant to take, as I didn't want him to talk me out of my destined path...but ended up sitting across from him regardless. "I sense a lot of anger in you, Tatsuro. Not an anger over a current event or some wrong that has recently been done to you...but anger overall. One that never leaves you. It haunts you, every moment of every day, whether you realize it or not. This is what manipulates your actions. And it can ultimately become your downfall if you are not cautious enough to recognize which inner place your actions are coming from."
"Are you suggesting that I should have just stood back and watched the townspeople get savagely butchered when the enemies came looking for blood? I can't do that."
"No. And you shouldn't." He said.
"You told me that I shouldn't let my past regrets keep me from being who I am. Who I was meant to be." I said.
"Yes. Yes, I did."
"Then...what kind of nonsense is this? I can't both act and not act..."
But as Zhao took a shot of his drink and poured himself some more, he looked into my eyes with a fatherly gaze, and he said, "It's not about the act itself, Tatsuro. It's about the place where the act is coming from. Deep down, in your center...in the very core of your being...you need to constantly keep asking yourself why you do the things you do. And whether those acts are justified or not." He encouraged me to drink up, and poured me another cup as well. "Your soul...your karma...it's a very fragile thing. I know that you understand that. Once corrupted...there's no turning back. If you go out there to hunt these blood gods down for the wrong reasons...I can guarantee you that you will never find peace." He said. "Revenge is not an excuse to abandon your true spirit, Tatsuro. And whatever it is that you're looking for, concerning the death of your little brother...you won't find it on that mountain top. It isn't there. The healing salve that you are seeking is within you. Nowhere else."
I listened. I absorbed his wisdom and his grace. But I couldn't say that I agreed with his vision concerning this whole thing. I am a warrior. It's all I know. It's all that I was bred to believe in. And if I don't seek out these demons and destroy them as quickly as possible...then all of these good people are going to die. And they're going to die because of me...and my interference in the natural order of things. That hardly seems fair. I shouldn't have drawn my sword in the first place.
I started this. It is my sworn duty to finish it.
This is what I am.
"I think I should lay down. Collect my thoughts." I said. "Tomorrow is another day."
I doubt that I was hiding much from Zhao as he looked at me with a growing amount of concern. But at least I could feel some of the rage inside fading away as my muscles began to relax. He stood up from the table and grabbed me a few towels to dry off with. Making sure to tell me, "Always remember to keep your light, Tatsuro. It matters. More than you know."
I nodded, and accepted the towels as I walked back out into the downpour of rain and into the barn, trying to find a comfortable place to sleep where the roof wasn't leaking. There are few tortures more aggravating than having drops of rain water fall on your face while you're asleep.
I wasn't sure where I was mentally in that moment. Emotionally. I felt lost. As if I was trapped in a constant freefall with no way to stop or slow myself down. I know that I should be ashamed for some of the lives that I've taken, but I wasn't. My sword was already thirsty for more. Thinking about what Zhao said to me, I had to wonder...was my blood lust coming from a place of purity? Was I really doing this for the town and its people? For the safety of Zhao and Tadashi? Or was it for my own selfish gratification? I spent all of this time, wandering the lands, traveling from one village to another...hoping to escape my past demons and finally find a path to redemption. And now that I've seen a possible way to find some level of peace...an enemy that I can actually battle in a physical form...all I can feel is a need for vengeance. All I feel is rage. And I can't detach it from my current state of mind.
If I go out there and do this wicked thing...will it be done with good intent? Will it solve anything at all? Or will it only start the cycle of spilled blood again? It's hard to say.
So maddening...these stressful thoughts of mine.
I went to bed that evening with a heavy heart, and a troubled mind. I knew what I was capable of. It has to be done. Even if it means bringing further ruin to the name of Tatsuro Myoki in the generations to come long after I am dead and gone. Perhaps they'll never understand why I did what I did. Perhaps it's foolish of me to ask, or even expect, them to. But this what I do. It's what I am. Hopefully, someone in a distant time that I can't even fathom right now...will be able to come to grips with the idea of such a thing...and they will make good choices of their very own.
It's all that I can hope for.
I can't remember when I shut my eyes that evening. I only remember the calming sounds of falling rain as I drifted off to sleep. Only to be awakened by the emotional demons that haunted me so aggressively. Those eyes. Those glowing red, burning coals in my brother's face. A set of fangs. A hungry stirring within him. A swift lunge forward...and a quick flash of light as the moonlight gleamed across the immediate strike of my blade. Why, Jiro???
My eyes flew open as I felt a stirring beside me, a weight on my arm. It took me a moment to get my senses back in working order before I turned my head to see that young Tadashi had apparently crept out of his house from under his grandfather's watch and came to sleep, snugly, at my side in the barn.
I lay there still for a moment, hearing his soft breathing as he nuzzled himself even closer to me. But when I attempted to gently pull my arm from underneath his head, he whimpered softly and his arm and legs clung to me with even more desperation than before. It was almost as if he were scared to let me go. It reminded me of Jiro when he was Tadashi's age...or perhaps a bit younger. He never wanted to be apart from me for very long. Many a night I had to deal with the frustration of having him talk to me in the dark...staring up at the ceiling and refusing to let me sleep. I would often entertain him until he, himself, was too tired to go on any longer. And it was only then that I could find myself some peace.
It's strange how you can take these things for granted when they are so close within your reach. It is only when they are gone forever that you begin to recognize their true value.
Somehow...Tadashi helped to cal the rage within me during those quiet moments. While at the same time...making me more determined in my purpose. He seemed so vulnerable. Like a small pet that needed my protection. I hugged him close, using my free hand to pull the blanket up further up and over his shoulder, lightly petting his hair in order to soothe him into an ever deeper state of rest. His mind was unburdened. Free from the clutter of responsibility or duty to be anything more than an innocent child. It was a time of my life that I can no longer remember, no matter how hard I try. But one that had to be abandoned in order for me to leave childish pursuits behind me.
It's the only way to find your path in life, and discover the strength needed to walk it...even if it means hardship and regret later on.
I ended up remaining still for so long that I eventually drifted back off to sleep myself. This time, without the plague of nightmares and sore memories that I usually have to work to fend off. When I opened my eyes again, the storm had finally passed over the village, and the morning sun had risen to illuminate the fields for my morning chores.
It seemed a shame to wake Tadashi when he appeared to be so comfortable in my embrace...but I agreed to help Zhao with his daily work, and I couldn't go back on my promise now. "Hey...time to get up, little one." I said.
Again, a few whimpers and a slightly agitated series of wiggles that let me know he wasn't too happy about having his morning slumber stolen from him. "Huh...wha...?"
"It's morning, Tadashi. I have to get to my rounds for the day."
"Tatsuro?" He asked, looking around a bit confused. "Oh. I slept here all night?"
"Indeed you did." I grinned. "Quite comfortably, I must say."
He rubbed his eyes before sitting upright. "I was worried about you. You ran off into the storm. Grandfather said that I could not follow. What did you do?"
So much of it was a blur to me now. But I answered him honestly. "There was some...'trouble' last night. I had to go and take care of it."
"Trouble?" He asked, now fully awake, his dark brown eyes wide with concern. "Hooded Ones?"
I hesitated for a moment, but then nodded. "Yes."
"Did you...kill them all?"
Another hesitation. "Drawing blood...even from the worst of enemies...is nothing to be proud of. Certainly nothing to aspire to do in life." I said, but Tadashi gave me a confused look from me obviously not answering his question. "Some had to be lost. Yes. But only because my hand was forced. Do you understand."
"They will continue to come back. Again and again. Tatsuro, they won't stop until they overwhelm you..."
"Shhhh...I know. I do." I told him. "I was hoping to give them enough of a warning to keep them from assaulting this village and perhaps leave you and your people in peace...but that doesn't seem to be an option anymore."
A bit more excited now, he shuffled around to face me, sitting cross-legged beside me. "You're going after them, then?"
"I will bring enough of a fight to their front door to make my message a bit more clear this time...yes." I said, but lowered my eyes, as I felt I was encouraging him to appreciate such a wicked thing. "If I don't, I can't guarantee any safety for any of you. I brought this curse here...I can't run away from it now."
"Do you think you can stop them? For good?" He asked, hopefully.
Did I? I wasn't quite sure of that. But I nodded at him again...for comfort's sake. "I'll prepare myself for tonight. I will venture out to the mountains that you showed me, and I will seek these scavengers out, one by one, until we have reached an understanding that their actions will no longer be tolerated here. Not in the brightness of day or under the cover of darkness and rain. And then I will meet with these blood gods and tell them the same." I said. "And perhaps...they will finally give me some answers of my own. Answers to questions that I have been pondering for far too long now."
"Don't." Tadashi said, sadly. "The blood gods are not like the Hooded Ones. To challenge them is suicide. They cannot be beaten. Cannot be killed. Many have tried...and they have never come back from that mountain's peak. Don't go after them, Tatsuro. Just the lackeys that serve them. Ok?"
It was a strange shift in the boy's usual pressure for me to cut down anything and everything in my path. His constant samurai worship seemed to lose a great deal of its faith when it came to the possibility of me not returning home from such a battle with these creatures. But if fate chooses me to be the next victim of their thirst for blood...then so be it. If I am destined to die at their hands, then I will do so on my feet. And I will take as many of them with me as I can, so that when I meet my family in the afterlife...they will look upon me with honor and grace. And perhaps, I can be resurrected even stronger than before.
It's not about doing what is easy. It's about doing what is right.
"You should go back to the house and make sure that your grandfather doesn't find you missing and worry about you, little one." I said, standing up and getting ready to fulfill my daily duties. "We will talk later. When my work is done."
Another subtle pout crossed his thin lips, but Tadashi nodded, and he walked over to the barn door to put his shoes on to go back home. But not before looking back at me with a touch of fear in his eyes.
"I'm sorry that we are all such a burden to you, Tatsuro..." He said meekly.
I merely smiled and said, "The only burden would be for me to see a people in need...and choose to do nothing. I gained more learning that than I could ever learn hiding myself away from my own calling." I ruffled his hair lightly. "Go on now. And don't worry...something tells me that fate is with me on this day."
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