In the mountains, time mattered little. The wanderer had remained here for months without descending from the highest peaks. The temperature, the seclusion, the lengthy fasting, all of it allowed him to reach the state of mind necessary to make contact with his benefactor. Even now, deep in meditation, he could sense the great creature's spirit reaching out to answer him.
"Greetings, little one." It was a rich, melodious voice that echoed through his mind. No doubt it sounded differently to any who heard it. One might hear a beautiful piece of music, while another the mighty drums of war. To Mitsu, however, it simply was. "How does the day find you?"
"Well, great one." Despite that it was a spiritual communication, the wanderer was troubled, and spoke his thoughts aloud. "But my destiny weighs heavily upon me."
The voice chuffed in what might pass for laughter among the Great Dragons. "You would prefer to be ignorant of your fate, little one? Then you cannot be the one who approached me during the creation of the crater. That human was full of determination and curiosity."
"It is not that, my liege," the wanderer replied after a moment. "I do not fear death, nor even the consequences for myself should I fail. But I do not wish my kinsmen to suffer if I prove unable to accomplish the fate you have shown me." The man sat in silence for several minutes. "Each day," he confessed, "I grow older, one step closer to my death. And each day, he becomes stronger, darker, more powerful."
"Embrace your destiny," the voice said simply. "Trust in the fate that was chosen for you long before you were born."
Before he was able to respond, the wanderer's meditation was disrupted. His eyes fluttered open and he sensed the spirit of his patron recede from the mortal realm. Curious, he focused his senses to determine what had disturbed him.
There. Very faint, almost imperceptible. From below, in the mountain pass, there came the sounds of battle. Nodding to himself, the old man rose gracefully to his feet from the lotus position. The time for reflection was over.
Somewhere below him, his destiny was beginning.
* * *
The Lion had appeared from nowhere. Perhaps the whistling mountain winds had masked their approach, or perhaps they relied on their magic. Regardless of how they how they had done it, the Lion had caught the Dragon patrol completely unaware.
Rosanjin watched in horror as the young and untested soldiers in his command fell beneath the blades of the more seasoned Lion one by one. Those who fell died like samurai, and those who remained betrayed no fear or sorrow. Even in this darkest of moments, they made Rosanjin proud. Truly, they were Dragon.
"Mirumoto Rosanjin!" The commander of the Lion force had freed himself from the combat to seek out Rosanjin. The two locked eyes. Their men, recognizing a formal challenge was about to take place, parted before them. "I am Matsu Tejin. It was I who defeated Mirumoto Ukira upon the Dragon Heart Plain. As he was allowed to retreat, so too shall you be. No more of your men need die. Simply withdraw your men and allow these lands to be claimed by their rightful owners, the Lion."
Rosanjin ground his teeth at the thought. Ukira had withdrawn to bring vital intelligence back to Mirumoto Uso. Rosanjin had no such obligation. His duty was clear. He assumed a kenjutsu stance and saluted Tejin with his blade.
"No," he said simply.
Tejin nodded grimly. "Then you and your men will die. I would that it might be otherwise." He also took on a battle stance and prepared to charge his enemy.
From the cliff above the battle a hearty, robust laughter rang throughout the mountain pass. Rosanjin and Tejin both halted at the sound, as did their men. Rosanjin scanned the entire pass for the source of the laughter, but found nothing.
"I see little has changed since I was last involved in the ways of war." The voice came from above. Rosanjin gazed along the cliff walls before finally finding the source: a lone figure, casually crouched atop the cliff. The stranger seemed to be glad in the trappings of an ascetic, but it was difficult to tell for certain at this distance. "The color of your armor is different, but the actions are the same. Bluster and bravado, but no sense whatsoever." The mysterious figure shook his head and laughed again. "I had hoped the Empire might have found wisdom during my absence." Even in the shadows, Rosanjin could make out the man's grin. "But if not, then perhaps an old man like myself might still have value."
Now it was Matsu Tejin who gnashed his teeth. Pointing to the mysterious figure with his blade, he shouted "I will not suffer dishonor from a coward who hides among the rocks! Face me or be gone, like the beast you are!"
Rosanjin remained silent. The man's words from the cliff had sparked a memory within him, a forgotten tale of heroes from his childhood. Keeping a wary eye on the Lion, he stood his ground wordlessly. His men followed suit.
Tejin was not so patient. With a curt nod from their commander, half a dozen bushi quickly readied their bows and fired. Each shot was true.
But the target was no longer there. The man sprang upward from his crouch, allowing the arrows to fly through the space he had been occupying and shatter on the rock face behind it. The man's enormous leap brought him down upon the cliff face, where he sprang effortlessly from ledge to ledge, each one lower to the ground until he finally landed gracefully on the rock floor of the pass itself.
Rosanjin's spirit soared. The man's age was difficult to determine because of his shaved head and his muscular, athletic form. Tattoos covered nearly his entire torso, twining around his chest and arms, the most prominent of which was a great dragon. The man's eyes twinkled, somehow conveying both wisdom and cheer at the same time. The lopsided grin remained on his face.
"Togashi Mitsu-sama," Rosanjin murmured.
Tejin scoffed. "There is no such person. He is merely a legend for weak-minded Dragon children. I will prove it." He turned to his men. "Kill him," Tejin snarled.
Two Matsu bushi leapt at Mitsu instantly, both prepared to cut him down at their gunso's command. Mitsu side-stepped the first easily, catching the flat of the blade between his open hands. A casual twist of his arms and the katana was torn from the soldier's grasp, its hilt striking him squarely in the jaw before being casually tossed over Mitsu's shoulder to clatter upon the rocks well behind him. The second soldier launched a blindingly fast strike at the much older monk, only to find himself flying through the air as Mitsu caught his sword arm and threw him over his shoulder after the other soldier's blade.
The Lion were stunned by this new development. Rosanjin knew opportunity when he encountered it. "For the Dragon!" he shouted, charging the disoriented Matsu. His steel tasted the blood of two Lion before the shock of Mitsu's arrival wore off. The samurai under his command answered his cry, galvanized as they were by Mitsu's sudden appearance. Within seconds, the pass was filled with the sounds of battle and gasps of the dying.
The Dragon's advantage was short-lived. These Matsu were soldiers, each the veteran of a dozen skirmishes. The Mirumoto, however, were young, barely past their gempukku. Although well-trained, they could not stand for long against Tejin and his men. The Lion quickly retook control of the fighting as the young Dragon soldiers began to fall like wheat before the scythe.
"The lives of the young should not be squandered in battle," Rosanjin heard Mitsu say. The aged monk stood for a brief moment, assessing the skirmish, then moved like a wind across the pass. With each step, he disarmed or disabled a Lion warrior, yet never claimed their lives. Tejin, freeing his blade from between the armored plates of a dead Dragon soldier, saw the monk coming through the ranks and charge to meet him. He hefted his blade, prepared for the strike that would end Mitsu's life.
Mitsu's arm flashed out, impossibly fast, the tips of two fingers slipping easily between the plates of Tejin's armor and lightly touching the flesh beneath. Tejin's face twisted in pain as if he had been burned. His katana fell to the ground, clattering upon the stones as his arm dropped limply to his side. Tejin's off-hand darted to the hilt of his wakizashi, but a second strike from Mitsu knocked that blade away as well, sending it spinning lazily across the rocks.
Eyes ablaze with fury, Tejin fixed his gaze upon Mitsu. "Finish it," he snarled.
The old man shook his head. "You may not suffer a fool to live, but I will not consign a fool to death who has not first learned wisdom." He bowed slightly to the Lion warrior. "Go in peace, Tejin. We shall meet again."
Tejin glanced at the chaos of the pass, knowing that he could not overcome the Dragon now. "Pray we do not, old man." Wordlessly, he gathered his blades and led his men to the edge of the pass. At the last moment, he turned back as if to say something further. Seeing Mirumoto Rosanjin and Togashi Mitsu standing shoulder to shoulder with the few remaining bushi at the ready, he thought better of it. The battered Lion patrol and their crippled gunso left the pass as quietly as they had entered it.
Kneeling, Rosanjin bowed his head to Mitsu. "I am forever in your debt, great Mitsu-sama. I learned of your heroism as a child, and now you have us to victory."
For the first time since his sudden appearance, Mitsu's grin faded. "I would hardly call this a victory, Rosanjin." The monk gestured at the many fallen Dragon about the pass. "Whenever life is lost, there can be no victor. We have lost here, as surely as have the Lion. There is never victory in death."
Rosanjin sat silently, regarding the remaining men in his command. So few faces now, so many that he had trained since their gempukku lay dead on the ground. The enormity of the short conflict settled upon his soul heavily. "You speak the truth, Mitsu-sama. Often in war, wisdom is forgotten in favor of anger. It is necessary to be reminded of such things."
Mitsu nodded. "Death comes for each of us in turn, Rosanjin. To hasten its journey is madness. There is but a single soul in this world that is deserving of an early death." Mitsu gazed to the south. "And I shall see that it comes swiftly, else all Dragon pay the price."
Rosanjin furrowed his brow, following Mitsu's gaze to the lands beyond the Dragon mountains. "Who is this soul, Mitsu-sama?"
But Mitsu would say no more.