Nyugo cursed inwardly as he climbed the path from the Kirin Shrine to the cliffs above. It was a treacherous path, yet made more so with the freshly fallen snow that covered the layered ice underneath. The climb was an exhausting one, and he paused to rest. Placing his back to the side of the cliff he inhaled taking in deep breaths. Its icy sting burned his lungs. Once more Nyugo cursed, but this time it carried along with the wind.
Looking to the east he could see the glimmer of Lord Sun rise over the horizon. It gave him a sense of peace. A peace he has longed for but had little of since the war with the Phoenix Clan begun, a war with no end in sight… only more death and despair.
When it first began, he was like many young samurai, anxious for war. A chance he thought to prove himself on the field of battle. His people starved and the Phoenix dared to mock them.
He had fought bravely under the banner of General Junnosuke when the lands of Kirin Shrine were taken. It was a dark victory as the blood of many Phoenix and Dragon soiled the fertile fields.
The battle was not like what he expected. There was no honorable combat, just visceral confusion as blades clashed and fire rained down from the heavens. It was a hard fought battle over land the Dragon Clan direly needed, but it shattered Nyugo's illusions of glory of battle.
Glancing up he saw that he was near the end. Soon he should finish his task
and return to the warmth below.
* * * *
Tenryuu was well aware of the chilling wind that came from the east as it cut through his body. His naked tattooed torso shivering in response. Taking in deep breaths he pivoted his feet on the rocks, carefully checking his balance on the slick stones that protruded from the frozen creek.
"Do not let it distract you," he whispered to himself, "use the wind as a focus… concentrate."
Slowly he lowered his stance by placing more of his weight on the left leg. Inclining his right shoulder forward, his lean muscled frame knotted from the lack of movement cried in protest. Pivoting his hands they stood ready by his blades. The right hovered above his katana, Whispering Willow, while his left rested underneath his wakizashi.
His dark eyes observed the enclave on the side of the cliff. It was eroded from the water that would flow during the summer feeding the creek just below. Dangling from one of its precipices was a shard of ice, the subject of his focused gaze.
Tenryuu climbed the cliffs hours before dawn. A practice he started ever since the fall of the first snow weeks before. Each time he would fall into one of the five stances his master taught him. Over a period of agonizing hours he would seamlessly adjust to a new stance representing the elements. A process that continued until Lord Sun rose above the horizon.
He felt the early light's warmth rise from behind him. It was subtle but comforting. Slowly under the sun's intense glare, beads of water formed on the shard of ice. Deliberately the beads merged into other beads growing larger and larger until it dangled from the shard.
The young samurai relaxed as the thumping of his heart grew louder. He focused on the drop waiting to fall, tempting him, teasing him. In the previous days he had failed in his endeavor.
"No not failed," he thought to himself, "there is no failure, only an opportunity to learn."
At long last the drop of water broke free, and in that instant Tenryuu
struck. He stood still at the end of the strike, holding the position with his
blade stretched afar. With his head faced down and his long hair draped down he
took in a deep breath and sighed, "I did it master… I finally did
* * * *
Nyugo reached the top with his breaths heavy. It has been a long time since he had exerted himself so arduously. He placed his arms at his sides as he looked about. It was the first time he climbed up to Falcon's Eyes Cliff and the view reminded him of his home at Iron Mountain.
The view afforded him was very much like that of its namesake, a falcon. One could see miles abound and even the Tamori fortified shrine seemed somewhat diminished.
Nyugo sighed, as much as he loved his home he was not very fond of heights and as the view attested he was very high.
Glancing about he caught the source of his irritation. Tenryuu was standing on stones that protruded from frozen creek. His head hung low and his body shivering from the cold. His upper body was covered with numerous tattoos. Dragons mostly and some seemed strangely life like. At times Nyugo would swear he was one of the famed ise zumi.
"The boy is mad," he cursed under his breath as he saw the neatly folded haori on top of the rocks above the fresh layer of snow.
He briskly walked over to the dark green garment and grabbed it from its perch.
"Tenryuu! Have you taken leave of your senses?" Nyugo cried as he threw the haori.
Startled by the sudden sound the young samurai spun about. Dodging to the side, the haori flew past him. The violent turn cost him his balance as his foot slipped off the stone and he crashed into the creek. Underneath his weight the ice cracked and the frozen water began to drench him.
Seeing the sight of the young dragon frantically crawling from the creek filled Nyugo with hearty laughter that echoed in its enjoyment.
"It is a bit cold to be out swimming, neh?" laughed Nyugo.
"Actually I find the water to be quite inviting," stuttered Tenryuu, "you should join me."
"No, I think I shall pass. I would rather spend this time in a warm bed or beside a charming geisha recanting how great I am."
"I am afraid geisha are in short supply around here," smiled Tenryuu, "even more so those who can exaggerate as well as Scorpions."
"True, then I would settle for a warm bed," admitted the older samurai, "instead of this kami forsaken place. You know how much I hate heights."
"Did you not come from Iron Mountain? You should be use to great heights."
"Hai, I did live in Iron Mountain, but I stayed away from the edges. My karma is not so good and I do not wish to tempt the fates."
Tenryuu smiled. He liked Nyugo. The older samurai treated him well and made him laugh during these troubling times. It was a rare and valuable commodity.
"So what does bring you up here, Nyugo-san."
"We are expecting a contingent of Hitomi. They should arrive mid day and I volunteered us to make arrangements for their arrival."
"Truly you must be ill, Nyugo-san" teased Tenryuu, "you never volunteer for anything much less for work… ah there are women amongst our visitors, neh?"
Nyugo grunted, "There are suppose to be around six or seven so I heard… and yes one is a samurai-ko."
Tenryuu laughed as he donned on his haori and tied on his obi. He adjusted his two swords in the obi and placed a long tied up bundle across his back.
Nyugo leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "It is said she is a great beauty. Graceful as a swan and lethal with the way of death."
"And you wish to earn her favor? Beware Nyugo-san, the Hitomi are renowned for their passions and fascination with death. I would not play any of your games with one them."
"Perhaps, but if the rumor of Xien Ziyi's beauty is true, I would risk my soul to a ghastly fate."
Tenryuu blanched as he heard the name and Nyugo noticed his friend's discomfort.
"Tenryuu-san… is something wrong?"
"No… no… its just I have not heard that name in many years. "
"Then you know this person?"
Tenryuu shook his head. "The Xien Ziyi I knew would never become a Hitomi. She was a Tonbo, a poet, and a pacifist. She was at the massacre of Shiro Tonbo."
Nyugo placed a hand on the young samurai's shoulder. "I am sorry to bring up such sad memories. Come let us return to the Kirin Shrine. I have already made the preparations for their visit. All that is left to be done is give them the tour when they arrive."
Tenryuu nodded his head in agreement and paused as he saw his friend start towards the path.
"Nyugo-san, why are you going down that way?"
"It was the path I took up."
"There is an easier way. It will increase the journey somewhat, but it is safer."
"What?!" roared Nyugo, "You mean I risked mortal danger while an easier path existed?"
"No, that is the only way. I was just teasing you," Tenryuu laughed as he dashed avoiding Nyugo's charge.
The journey took them till midday to reach the Kirin Shrine. Tenryuu marveled at the earth fortification raised by the Tamori. It was a true testament to the power over the earth that the Dragon shugenja mastered since the defection of the Agasha.
"Your just in time Nyugo-sama," said the ashigaru as he rushed to meet them. "The Hitomi have just arrived. "
"Where are they?" demanded Nyugo.
"Right behind you," whispered a beautiful yet cold voice. "How have you been Sung Su?"
Tenryuu turned to face the Hitomi, shocked that they could sneak up on them so easily. There were six of them. Mostly shaven heads with dark tattoos. They all wore simple clothes that could not have protected them against the cold, yet they seemed unfazed by the weather.
Their dark eyes often unnerved those unaccustomed to their presence, but Tenryuu did not pay any attention to the men. His eyes fell to the beautiful woman amongst them. She moved gracefully towards him, wearing an elegant but simple kimono. Her eyes entrapped him, dark and void of emotions… cold.
"Xien Ziyi…" stammered the dumbfounded dragon.
To be Continued…