August 28, 2012

Lions

-Preamble-
BTW, I forgot to mention, I'd like to thank Theresa Milstein (check out her blog) and Khnoum for their support, Okurokami may never have gotten done if it weren't for their interest.
Now I can finally post other stories. 

Some of you may recognize this story as taking place in Terry Pratchett's Discworld, however, some things might strike you as unusual. That would be because it is actually set in the universe of the Discworld MUD

What are MUDs? Hmm... Without getting technical, MUDs are the ancestors of MMORPGs. Essentially, it's a text based game in which the players create a character and control them through text based commands as they explore the world, bake pies, slay creatures, learn musical instruments and whatever else the developers have thought of. TDTTOE. ; j

I've been mudding for a long time, and the only MUD I ever play at all anymore is the DW mud. I wrote a couple of stories for one of the player run in-game newspapers (the AM-Daily, the best newspaper on the disc!), and of course it is rife with DWmud jokes and references. For instance, about bows being useless: you can buy them in the game but they haven't been coded in yet so they don't do anything (as far as I know) except let you look cool when people take a gander at your visible equipment. 

I'm hoping it might still be entertaining to read, so here it is.
Now for the story.
---------------------------------
A lion... And sand. The stuff of nightmares.
I've been wandering in this desert for years, maybe even weeks! It's been nothing but lions! Skinny lions, fat lions, angry lions, lion cubs, prides of lions (see one pride, you've seen them all, they practically all the shame)... and they all fit in the generic category of hungry lions, at least until they meet me... You see, afterwards, they all permanently fall into the category of 'lions-that-were'.

Ok, I'm exaggerating, it hasn't just been lions: there have also been vultures, scorpions, and enough sand that I won't even be able to hear the word sandwich without shivering in disgust. Come to think of it, I think I might even have fought a desert wolf, or coyote or something last week... but it might have been a lion in disguise. My mind feels fuzzy, or perhaps sandy? I shouldn't be surprised, sand seems to be getting in everywhere else, why would my mind be any different?

Or maybe the sun is getting to me. I'm thirsty and banged up pretty bad, and I'm out of tea... For now, there are no lions in sight, they must be hiding under some dunes or something... I think I'll sit down a bit... and rest... I wonder if I'm dying?

Father told me I'd end up like this -it was more of a shout really, and it was cut off by the sound of me slamming the door hard enough to crack it as I left. Yes indeed, he told me I'd come to this end. Of course, he didn't specifically say anything about lions, it was more of a nonspecific lion-free forecasting of a sordid ending.

It all started with the town dance… We had fun, laughed, and danced together the entire evening. We did the same thing at the next dance as well, and the one after that. We started trying to find opportunities to see each other. It wasn't easy considering how far apart we lived from each other.
Just a small segment of the carriage routes in the mud, full map is here

Ye gods, it all sounds so banal in retrospect.

My father was, still is as far I know, a hunter and we lived in Slice. We weren't poverty-stricken but we had nothing to spare either. 

My dance partner claimed to come from "somewhere in the Sto Plains" but forgot to tell me that he was the offspring of some very minor baron in Sto Helit. Well, when his parents heard about our budding romance they quickly decreed that I wasn't good enough for him.

Pah... I'd spit if I had any moisture to spare.

Their title didn't change the fact of what they are: pretentious merchants, cabbage peddlers. What else is there in the Sto plains? Of course I only discovered all of this later...

It was a nice dream. We were going to run away to Ankh-Morpork and make it big setting up a business importing Lancre furs. This was going to be facilitated by the fact that I knew a good number of Hunters in Lancre through my father. Yeah well, that was a bust. When he didn't show up at the appointed time and place, I figured he had chickened out. Still, I wanted to make sure, so I paid him an unexpected little visit.

In retrospect, I wonder why I was so surprised at finding him in the arms of a pasty faced milk-maid cow-woman. I was introducing his rear end to my foot and giving him a free lesson in good manners when he had to gall to draw his puny “made in” Ankh-Morpork foil on me. Well that tore it, I drew my longsword, good Ogg-forged steel of course, and made confetti out of his toy sword and his fancy pants dancing moves. Didn't hurt him -much- but the cow woman was screaming her over-sized lungs off and I just knew the watch would turn up shortly. So I got one last good kick in on the good-looking foppish sap who had previously pretended to have been my paramour and made a discrete exit.

Well, from then on I took to the adventurer's life. I sold my useless bow in a general store, and hit the road. I met a few good people, a bunch of bad folk, and some people that were out of this world. Overall it wasn't an experience I enjoyed, in fact I had decided to forget...  which brings me to my current predicament: I got lost looking for the Klatchian foreign legion.

I don't remember when I ate last, and that's probably a good thing since it was probably raw lion. I'm wearing a lion pelt I found next to a dead hattite priest. All of my original clothes and armor have either  broken or fallen apart. My sword is so notched it feels more like a blunt instrument than a blade. In fact, every now and then, I get the distinct impression that I've gotten better at wielding blunt weapons. Maybe that's the heat delirium talking... Speaking of delirium... Is that a horse I hear?

Impossible...

Is that a... What is that?

A leopard print frog on the back of a horse?

A mirage, surely…

No, I can see it a bit clearer now, and I wish I didn't. It's a severely acned potbellied gangly young man wearing a leopard skin over his shoulders, a leopard skin loincloth, and a leopard print push up bra (no comment). For lack of a better word he can only be described as riding the horse... Though that is stretching the word. He seems to be barely hanging on and in grave danger of biting his tongue off.

Whoops, there he goes in a flying tangle of leopard clad stick-like limbs.

I should knock him out and take his horse before he spots me... Drat too late.

He picks himself up with surprising dignity considering his ludicrous appearance.

"Greetings, fellow barbarian! I am Deep Lover, mighty warrior." he said with an air of shaky self-importance.

Deep Lover? Seriously?
My doubts must have been obvious because he then admitted rather bashfully:
"Ok, ok... my name is Repo... Repo Leved. I just say I'm Deep Lover 'cuz a dwarf lothario told me it would help seductionate ladies of your gender, beggin' your pardon miss. At any rate it works as goodly as this here horse I'm testing... Pfeh. Now where did I put that scroll..." he trailed off into mumbling as he started digging around in a leopard print satchel.

What a curious character... But this could be my ticket out!

"You know, I'm actually better at this magicking stuff than at barbraining, as I call it. Haha... Course pa would never have me going off to learn it proper: I had to become a barbarian, just like him and his pappy before him... Oh well. Would you like to come  back with me to the winter camp? But where did I... It's simple really... All I need..." once again he trailed off into incoherence.

Whoever he is, he doesn't seem interested in my answer. He is reading from a scroll whilst holding a golden ring, capering, and moving his hands in a pattern that looks suspiciously like the Macarena. A flimsy looking plywood door pops into existence after he traces a rectangle in the air with his finger... A magical portal to somewhere else. I hope.

I am ready...
Or maybe I'm not.
I don't know what's coming but I'm looking forward to finding out.

August 23, 2012

Okurokami - Postscript


And there you have it, over a year and a half later. I apologize to anyone who had been left hanging, I know how unpleasant that can be. I hope you derive some entertainment from this very belated conclusion.

Happy reading.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760, 1849)
"Boy watching the mount Fuji"


Okurokami - part 18 (end)


The old man with the strange silver hair looked at her sadly and said, “That’s quite a story and I think you haven’t quite finished telling it. But before you go on, here have some chichi dango.” As he handed her a plate with the sweet treats on top of it.

Chichi Dango: a sweet confection made of
glutinous rice flour and coconut milk.
She bit into one and smiled, “These are great. Ingen would have loved them too.”
The old man’s ears perked up. “Speaking of him, did he die? And what did Magunojo-san ask of you?”
Takeko grinned wryly, “That lunatic? Of course not, it turned out that Teruro’s last attack did two things: one, it cut across Ingen's back leaving a giant scar, and two, it shattered Ingen’s sword. Last I heard, he donated most of the gold to the temple where he stayed until he had recovered from his wounds, and afterwards he went traveling on a quest to find a legendary sword as a replacement for his. I'm sure he's getting into whatever trouble he can find along the way.”  

Takeko finished off the last of the dango before continuing. “As for Teruro’s last request, well… Let’s just say that a high ranking official had little package next to his bed when he woke up a few days ago. One broken sword and one head. Had I not fulfilled my promise to finish his mission for him, I'm sure he would have come back from the dead to do it…”  Takeko shrugged. “And there you have it, that’s the whole tale.”

The silver haired man nodded, “So it is… So it is. I suppose it’s time we should get going. Are you coming?”

Takeko laughed because finally she understood what was so strange about the man, finally she understood many things.
---
The morning sun was well up in the sky. Cicadas had begun to sing. No one saw the two foxes leave the burnt out husk of a wayside eatery. One mature silver-furred fox, and one small vixen whose fur was like a mirror of night.
The two slipped away into the tangle of trees.

Okurokami - part 17


A frozen pall of ashen clouds robbed the world of its colors. A torn pale-grey body marooned amidst dark splashes. Utter stillness. The windless sky left the leaves unstirred.

As she surveyed the small clearing of the cave mouth, the blackened remains of a recent fire, and the ripped corpse… Takeko wondered if they had crossed the river Sanzu and had wandered into the realm of the dead where neither she nor the two living men by her side belonged.

Ingen approached the body and poked it, "Huh, this guy is still alive! Kinda..."

"In that case I shall interrogate him." Teruro said with a frown.

"You do that... While you do, I'm a gonna have myself a look around."
Japanese flint and striker
 Takeko watched Ingen relight the fire using his hiuchi ishii, grab a brand from the fire and head into the cave. Meanwhile Teruro set about interrogating the body. This much she had already seen. A sad tale quickly coming to its conclusion, one that ultimately had little meaning.  It was a brief dispassionate affair, a few short pointed questions, a flashing blade punctuated with a decapitated body.

Before the flash, the last whispered venomous words of the dead man, "Cur of your corrupt Tokugawa masters, at least I die having tried to fix our rotten world."

Teruro's movements were marked with clear respect as he bound the head in the cloth he had brought for that purpose. Though many would qualify the mystic's actions as immoral, Teruro understood the amoral nature of duty, indeed he had lived his entire life walking two overlapping paths, that of duty and that of the blade, neither of which ascribed to a standard definition of morality.

He frowned as he watched Ingen saunter out from the cave, a small weighty-looking cloth bundle tied to his scabbard that was brazenly slung over his shoulder.

Ingen chuckled "Wow, you need not frown so, oldster."
The frown deepened "I see you lost your backwaters accent in that cave."
With a shrug and grin Ingen replied "All things have their time."
"Indeed they do, and now is the time you will answer my questions. Who are you and what is that you are carrying?"
The grin widened "Ohoho, is this an interrogation? I reckon I'll be more fun than your previous subject." He said pointing to the wrapped head that Teruro had carefully put down out of the way.
"Answer the question." Teruro's body had subtly shifted its position and his hands seemed to casually rest near his belt, a subtle but certain threat.  
Somehow, Ingen's posture seemed to become even more relaxed, he laughed and pulled the small bundle of the end of his scabbard. He seemed to amuse himself by tossing the bundle up and down in left hand like a child's ball. "Well now... Me? I'm nobody."
He grinned and dropped the bundle in the grass by his feet, "And what was the other question?"

Takeko observed the two men, resignation and weariness stamped across her face. She knew that the events that had passed had all led inevitably to this point in time, she had seen it. She also knew that the outcome was open. She knew that Teruro’s mission was twofold: recover the stolen gold if possible, and the mystic’s head at all costs. Ingen’s motivation however was less clear, overtly he seemed motivated by greed, yet even his greed was ambiguous, seemingly affected. Ultimately, she wondered if he might not merely be in search of entertainment.   
Jodan stance
Teruro adopted the jodan (ascending/high) stance. His form was flawless. His fighting was that of a veteran craftsman, practiced to the point where it has become more than a second nature, to the point where it has become a part of his true nature. Not a movement wasted, nothing superfluous, an illustration of mastery.

Ingen’s stance, on the other hand, was unlike anything Teruro had seen before. He wouldn’t stand still he kept moving, and it looked almost as if he weren’t ready for combat, as if he just happened to be holding a sword, but for no specific purpose. It seemed sloppy to Teruro.

Although Ingen had taken care never to reveal the true form of his fighting style Takeko had already seen it, she knew that his fighting was instinctive and constantly changing, a reflection of his tremendous innate talent and exceptional physical abilities, his fighting was mercurial and ever shifting, he fought like the sea, unpredictable, wild and beautiful… a counter-point to Teruro’s jodan stance, which was an ideal of formal kenjutsu (sword fighting) made manifest, massive power that is quiescent before exploding into action, the stately power of a volcano with all of eruptive force.

Most duels end in a matter of seconds, but sometimes, when two fighters who have both reached the highest levels meet, the resultant battle is matched only by the superlative reality of epic tales, indeed such battles are the fodder from which such tales are derived.

Back and forth the battle went, the lives of both combatants crystallized in a single blazing point in time, and for them they existed out of time… But finally, both bloodied, battered, and exhausted, they paused. Abruptly the explosive and violent tension between the two men vanished, or perhaps merely transformed into something completely different. Ingen laughed brightly as he sheathed his blade.
“Partner, I gotta hand it to ya, this is everything I was hoping it would be. But I reckon it’s over. You can barely stand anymore.”
“Hmph… Neither can you. Come at me, and let’s finish this.”
“Well, I reckon I could do that… Or…” As he talked he had been positioning himself so that, abruptly his hand flashed down and he grabbed the bundle of gold at his feet. With a quick chuckle he bowed mockingly and made to run away.

But Teruro was ready, he dashed forward and sprang high in the air. His sword flashed and the sound of metal against metal rang in the clearing. Ingen’s blood splashed on the grass. A shiny piece of metal sprang up above them, spinning and catching the first glimmers of sunrise and looking strangely like a star, falling to earth next to Teruro’s feet.

Ingen roared in pain, but escaped nonetheless and vanished into the shade of the trees. Terruro stood alone in the clearing, still holding his now broken sword at the ready. Finally, with obvious difficulty, he picked up the broken piece of his sword and put both halves in his scabbard. Although Teruro was bleeding from several grievous wounds and his face was pale and drawn, he walked slowly and straight backed, to the edge of the clearing where Takeko stood.

“I die as I have lived, yet I cannot die in peace unless...”
Takeko sighed softly and answered the unasked question, “Of course.”
Teruro smiled wearily, “That is good, thank you.”
Finally, he sat down against the trunk of a tree and seemed to just fall asleep.

Years later wild white lilies would grow there, where Takeko buried the old warrior’s at the foot of the tree where he slept the final sleep. 

Okurokami - part 16

In the twilight of dawn in which two opposite worlds meet, the sparse woods lay quiet as if still uncertain whether to begin a new day or not. The dew-pearled grass and leaves have yet to come into their full colors with the half light of the early morning, and yet they are ripe with promise. Amongst them, a dirt road, hardly more than a path, makes it way down from a hill. 

Takeko, travelling alone, crests the hill and spies a small wayside eatery and tea house at the bottom.  She was surprised to see that their Noren  was already out, but not one to question a good thing she made her way down the path to the promise of a warm breakfast.
A noren: curtain set above the entry of shops and restaurants, often advertising their trade
"Hello young lady." The old man said as he stepped through entrance… As she returned his greeting, she wondered what it was about him that struck her. Perhaps it was the thick pony tie the man had tied his strange silver hair in? Or the brightness of the eyes in his age-lined face?

"You look like you need a rest, young miss. Have a seat and I'll get you some food and some tea."
"Uhm… Thank you." Takeko said as she sat down on the wooden bench in front of the small wooden building. No sooner had she taken the weight of her feet that the old man reappeared with tray laden with a large bowl of noodles and two cups of tea.

"That was quick!" She said as she took the tray from him. She eyeballed the noodles suspiciously, they had to be have been ready in advance, which meant they were yesterday's noodles… In other words they had to be soggy, also there was a pair of strange brown spongy looking squares on top. At any rate, it smelled delicious and was piping hot, judging from the steam wafting up from the bowl. She shrugged picked up her chopsticks, said "Itadakimasu" and experimentally slurped some noodles from clear soup. She paused for moment, chewed, and was amazed to find that the udon were perfect! They had that springy bounce that characterizes good noodles, and they had absorbed some of the rich yet subtle flavors from the clear broth. She then took a bite from one of the spongy squares. Her eyes widened as the rich sweet fried tofu flavor exploded into mouth. The old man chuckled as he sat down on the other bench and stretched his legs, "I knew you would like it."
"I do, it's delicious! What do you call this dish?"
"It's called kitsune-udon." He said giving her a wink. "Judging from the way you're going at it, you must not have had a good meal in a while… have you been travelling long?"
"Mphhu mphuu slrrrp." Takeko answered as she finished off her bowl. "Phouaaah, that was delicious. Yes, I have been travelling for a while, but it's a long story."
"Well, tell you what… it's a slow morning, I'll trade you some chichi dango for the story?"
Kitsune udon
 Under normal circumstances, Takeko would never even have considered retelling her tale to this strange man, no matter how kindly his seemed, but there was something about him, something she couldn't quite place, he inspired a feeling akin to nostalgia for something she couldn't remember... Perhaps she was merely lonely and emotionally weary. She sighed and nodded, in broad strokes, she started retelling the story of her life.

The unfortunate circumstances of her birth… The blind old warrior hermit… The quiet years in his grove spent learning bushido, reading his books, and tending to his twilight years… His death and the appearance of Teruro Magunojo in her life, quickly followed by that of Ingen. Their travels together as they trailed after Taizan Deshimaru. The twin evils he unleashed by attempting to bring a man's wife from the dead. Finally, she came to recent events and her retelling got more detailed. She had tried to avoid thinking about it, but somehow she felt that now, in the company of this old man was a time to reflect over those events. If only as a form of homage to those involved.

Okurokami - part 15


   Wisps of clouds crossed the night sky as wan moonlight fell upon the mountain’s flank. A small pyre danced shadows in the mouth of a sacred cave, a long forgotten place of ancient power. The clean smell of burning pinewood soured as Taizan no Seimei fed the small flames with pages from the cursed foreign book he had gone to such pains to retrieve. The pages came alive, shriveling and hissing in vain attempts to escape their ashen demise.

   The mystic had been disappointed with the book: it had turned out to be the writings of a madman whose sole purpose was to bring ancient and uncontrollable evil into the world… He realized that it would be useless in bringing the corrupt Tokugawa government to its knees. Instead he had resolved to tax his powers to the limit and raise army of fallen warriors to fuel his revenge.

   It was time. Taizan touched the flames and they turned cold and brilliant green. The unnatural light was a beacon compelling wrathful spirits to return to the world. Its brilliance intensified the surrounding shadows and seemed to mute all sounds. Darker and darker the space around the mystic grew, til finally it seemed that the only thing keeping the oblivion from devouring him was the sharp sphere of silence and light emanating from the preternatural flames… Though there was nothing to be seen or heard, the obscurity was filled with a strong sense of mute malice. He knew this would be the time when he would the most be at risk, the moment when he would have to impose the strength of his will over that of the restless spirits, when he would have to dominate the hunger of the dead with his spiritual power, when the slightest mistake could cost him eternal torment.

   A sound tore through the silence… the sound of something that has lost the ability to recognize pleasure from pain, madness embodied in a tortured shriek of laughter that somehow conveyed infinite despair.

   The mystic’s absolute focus wavered for just a moment and the eerie green flame vanished. Darkness and silence. Absolute darkness and silence. Small specks of iridescent green lights appeared in pairs… They seemed distant and diffuse at first, but they came into focus as they swiftly and soundlessly moved forward, piercing the grand veil. The eyes, as he now saw them to be formed a ring a dozen or so paces away from him. A ring of eyes reflecting a light that was no longer there.

   A shadow crossed the baleful green gazes as it slowly circled in the darkness between the mystic and the ring glowing eyes.

“You said I could bring her back…” The accusation came from the darkness in a raspy sing-song voice that trailed into mirthless giggles.

Seconds passed, during which the mystic struggled to regain control.

“You were almost right…” the voice whispered close to his ear.

One by one the pairs of eyes closed.

A candle gutters, the tide crashes against the rocks, the tempest rages, and finally it dies.
The oblivion swallows all to the sound of vicious soul cutting laughter.
A vain scream is stilled in Stygian darkness.

A fading voice like a bitter memory riding an ill wind from over the Sanzu river,
“Almost was not enough.”