Rurouni Ryuo

by Tatsushu

There are so many different ways the sun can set each evening. Some days, it is abrupt, like a shutter being closed, with only a few short moments of colorful transition. Other days it rivals a rainbow for variety and lingers on the horizon like a kindly father waiting for the world to settle into slumber before extinguishing the light. Still others it seems that there is no sun at all, and the world despairs for its comfort.

Upon the ever frozen ice fields of the Barrier Range the glowing orb had chosen a deep crimson from its palette, drenching the landscape in a morbidly breathtaking blood red sheen. The sharp nanatuks thrust their peaks sharply skywards from the sea of winter snow, escaping the icy grip and catching the last light of the sun like outer tongues of flame. The red and orange seem to weave through the mountains in a macabre dance, the deadly beauty heralding the coming night and plunging temperatures.

As summer warmth fades to autumn chill in a land where winter comes early, wise creatures live by going to ground at night and conserving their strength for the freezing days. Better yet, they descend into the green valleys, where the evergreen trees stand sentinel, giving some protection from wind and snow, and leave the glaciers to their own slow meanderings. Any creature who comes this far into the mountains of perpetual snow is either lost, or desperate--or both.

With agonizing slowness the sun continued its descent into the western sky, as though it sensed some poor soul who still hoped in futility for its guiding and protecting light and the warmth that staves off the chill winds which howl like devils through the icy slopes. As the light slowly shifted, a line of darkness, like an open wound, could be seen in the mountains below. A rivulet of dark, dull red that wound its way through the mountains from the east, where the jealous range had already begun to obliterate the affront to its deadly nature. It was the only reminder left of an epic battle between the mountains and those who would trespass through them.

Pushing through the snows to the west, a winter warrior continued to head for the setting sun, though his joints were already stiff from the cold. Behind him he pulled a horse, wrapped in almost as much clothing and just as frozen. Together they struggled towards a pass, where the sun sat as though mocking the two travelers. "Catch me if you can!" it seemed to cry, ducking beneath the too-distant horizon.

Chill winds soon realized that their nemesis had left, and with released frustration they gathered, tearing at rock and traveler alike. Yet the two continued on, though now their stumbles were more frequent and with each one it took just that much longer to rise.

Winds ripped and tore at their clothing and blankets, and shards of ice cut through the strands in a slow but steady stream. Still, the leader seemed pushed by an inner power that stirred with a warmth to fight the cold, and from this power he brought forth a miracle as the two reached the jagged, rocky edge of the fields.

And it was here, where a hanging glacier looks down over the valley hundreds of feet below, that the ice field made one last attempt to snatch at the trespassers into its icy demesnes, increasing its freezing winds to willawaw strength. It was too late, however, for its quarry had escaped into the valley, and the mountains howled over their lost quarry. Finally, the wind relented as the transgressors escaped beneath the cover of the trees below, and the winds returned to their homes on the lonely fields of ice and snow.

In the valley, trees gave welcome shelter against the weapons of the mountains. A boulder the size of a small house sat in the middle of the forest, as though it had been some titan's plaything that had been left where it was dropped. On the leeward side of the boulder, light sparked then flared as a small fire was made of gathered wood. Though the smoke was black and thick, the warmth was welcome to both warrior and steed.

In the light of the fire, the warrior's eyes gleamed, seeming to reflect the flickering light, from beneath dark wrappings. The thick, fur-lined garments that had been purchased on the steppes before the trek onto the ice fields were now laid aside as he tended to his steed, trying to warm his flanks and sides with the fire. He pulled out two large, rolled up mats of some sort of grass, and laid them out on the frozen ground near the fire. As the horse stopped shivering, the warrior took a seated position before the fire, staring at it until he fell into a deep sleep.

Thoughts swam in the darkness as a form--SELF--tried slowly to identify itself. Pictures and words flowed temptingly close, rising from the darkness of oblivion. RYUO! The warrior studied this newest nugget of knowledge, rolling it around on a virtual tongue for dreaming ears to hear. With approval he accepted the name, and with a rush the world entered in.

Ryuo felt himself standing looking at a stone wall almost two meters away, light playing on its surface from some nearby flame. As the world slowly spun into place he realized that he was also bound to something, turning his head he saw it was a table. 'I wonder what a table's doing on the wall?' he wondered. Then his eyes and inner ear came to grips with one another and dropped him violently to the ground.

Head swooning from the sudden reality adjustment, Ryuo looked about some more. Upon one side of the room he saw his weapons and armor, tossed with seemingly no regard for them at all. Only his two swords were taken care of, lying on a stand on the table, near vials of some strange, multi-colored liquids.

He struggled briefly against the bonds, but they only seemed to draw tighter. As he pushed, they pulled, biting into his flesh. As he endeavored to free himself, a wizened form entered the room. He was a short man, with paper-thin skin, yellowed with age. His dark eyes fairly glowed with a mad gleam, and his wisps of hair seemed as those of a man long dead. Long, claw-like fingernails clicked together as he walked towards his newest guest.

"Ahh, I see you have awoken." said the withered man, templing his fingers, "You warriors are always so fun to watch; when you haven't killed yourselves out of honor, that is." The hoary individual chuckled at the last. "Now where was I... oh yes." The crooked figure moved to one of the tables as he talked, picking up various vials and adding their contents to bubbling flasks that were suspended over open flames. He ran one long finger over a page of archaic symbols as he continued.

"You know, I am truly glad we were able to capture you alive. Though you took quite a few of my men, I think it was worth the loss; you are definitely a prime specimen of your clan." Taking a flask and swirling it, Ryuo's captor paused a moment to watch the liquid settle.

"You will never win." spat Ryuo with a venomous hatred, "No matter how many deals with ogres and western demons you make." Ryuo's eyes glared with inner rage.

"Oh, I think that you overestimate your chances." the hunched figure said with confidence, "My allies have already begun their conquest, and any who do not side with them shall be destroyed." A wicked gleam flashed in the alchemist's eyes, "But worry not, soon you will no longer be a part of those mystical backward people of the northern island. My friends on the mainland have given me magic that I think will prove quite interesting. Of course, it is meant to work on dumb animals, but I will be most intrigued to see its affects on you." At the last, the mad mage began to cackle with unnecessary melodrama. As he stopped himself he realized that the form on the table was not moving, and his brow furrowed in puzzlement as he stepped closer to the still form, one vial still clutched in his claw-like hand.

Without warning, the prisoner's eyes snapped open, blazing as he issued a tremendous shout. The power of his shout caused the nearby flames to flicker as he drew on reserves of inner strength with techniques he had learned from some of the masters on the southern islands. He directed this energy into a quick outward snap of his arms and legs, which snapped the bolts holding the leather straps to the table. The designer had apparently not expected anyone to exert force in a horizontal direction, and once it was seen the flaw was easily exploited by someone with Ryuo's training.

As the alchemist backed up, a look of horror on his face, Ryuo rolled off of the table and onto the floor. He arose next to the wooden table where his swords stood. As he turned to face his captor, his right hand reached behind him and instinctively grabbed the shorter of the two swords, which he knew would be better for the tight quarters they were now in. With a powerful, practiced push through the balls of his feet, Ryuo sprung forward, sword sweeping out like the opening movement of a fan, seeking a revenge-price in blood.

Frantically, the mage tried to cast a quick spell, but Ryuo wasn't about to let him finish it. With blinding speed he thrust forwards, hoping to slice through the papery skin of his opponent and end this blight on the land. As the short sword sliced the air, the wave of the hamon along the edge gleaming in the torchlight, the mage swung up his arms in a pitiful attempt to defend himself.

The hand with the vial hit Ryuo just as the sword hit his adversary's cheek, just below the left eye. Pain in his hand caused him to pull his hand back, but the forward momentum of his lunge continued to slice the mage's face up to the top of his skull. A long line of red drove up along the side of the otherwise bloodless face. Clutching at his face he let loose with a howling stream of incomprehensible words, which tumbled from his mouth.

Without regard for the diabolic tirade, Ryuo involuntarily dropped the short sword, clutching his hand where the vial had spilled its contents upon him. He raised his head, and looked up in time to see the mage laughing. "You're too late!" he cried, and then he disappeared in an acrid puff of smoke. Then, darkness claimed him once more.

It was a high-pitched, inhuman shriek that woke Ryuo into a world of glaring brightness. His hand was already on the hilt of his long, curved blade before he realized it was his own. Pulling his hand away from the sword he examined it, covered as it was in thick, dark silk wrappings. He had no need--or desire--to remove the wrappings for he knew too well what horrors it would show. Calling to the spirits of this place he uttered one more curse onto the mad alchemist and his black arts.

If it weren't for that hand and the contents of the black vial that had cursed his being, Ryuo might yet be in his homeland. A vile vial--normally such a pun would have brought a laugh or smile to his downtrodden spirit, but this day it brought nothing but a derisive snort. As the outward change had continued, an inner change had begun to occur as well--this one caused by the dishonor that he felt at affliction. As Ryuo made a light breakfast for himself and Kaze, his fleet-footed steed, he thought back on that painful memory.

He had been in so much pain that he didn't notice anything as he hobbled towards freedom. He had taken enough time to arm himself with his ancestors' weapons and armor, which had been passed down to him from his father before him. His stricken hand had been wrapped in torn cloth wrappings to reduce the pain, and began his escape from whatever hellhole he was being kept in.

Ryuo had expected guards, and he slew the two at the entrance with ease, despite his weakened condition. A third jumped him in the hall, and he didn't even pause in his step as his short sword slashed upwards like a rising phoenix, cutting down the would-be assassin where he stood. He came to the end of the corridor, and flung open the door. Ryuo suspected that he was in some castle's dungeon and had hardly been prepared for the brightness of the world outside. When he had taken the time to look around he saw that the laboratory was little more than a hole dug into the side of a hill.

A dusting of snow reflected the bright light of the sun into his eyes as Ryuo paused in his remembrance to pack up the small camp. The air was noticeably warmer than the ice fields, and the snow was only a few centimeters thick here under the trees. In some places it had melted away and green blades of undergrowth were daring to peek out into the world. The scene before him reminded him of his home village, secluded deep in the mountains where nobody would accidentally stumble onto them and their secrets.

Occasionally members of his village would travel in disguise down to the other kingdoms. Sometimes this was done when one wanted to get out of the village for a few days, and other times it was for knowledge.

With his hand afflicted as it was, though, that was no longer an option. He could not hide the crippled limb--nor the rest as the curse had spread through his body--except through the extensive wrappings that he now wore constantly.

There was a time, however, and Ryuo had spent 18 long years studying under some of the best masters he could find. He had studied the arts of horse and bow, as well as the sword. He had learned how to focus his inner energies, and use the energy of his opponents against themselves. He had also learned how to sense an attack, even one that could not be seen.

None of this had saved him from being struck down by magic as he slept.

But Ryuo had easily escaped the small cave that constituted the mage's laboratory. Before leaving he made sure to destroy it completely, leaving nothing should his adversary return to continue his evil works. That done, he began the trek back to his home on foot.

Tears of grief came unbidden to Ryuo's eyes as he remembered the scene of his return. He had come too late, and where the village had once stood nestled in the quiet evergreens of the secluded mountain valley there was nothing more than a blasted crater surrounded by smoking ruins. The outlying buildings had sustained only minor damage, and it was there that he had found Kaze, trapped in a stable that had collapsed inwards. This had been strangely fortunate however, as the building seemed to have absorbed the brunt of whatever explosion had rocked this place.

Ryuo remembered every detail of his walk through the streets that day.

The street was black with soot and ash, and as he walked he saw ghosts, shadows that had somehow become permanently attached to the walls, though their owners were long gone. The smell of smoke still lingered in the air, and he had to cover his face as he approached the center of the village. As he neared the inner shrine that was the heart of the small village he could not begin to comprehend how any force had caused such destruction.

When he reached the site of the ancient shrine he saw that the houses were completely flattened, like a giant flower with wooden petals radiating from a central point. As he neared the center crater his joints stiffened with pain and sorrow.

Only a few red splinters remained of the torii that had once greeted petitioners to this holy place. The great gingko tree that had been the residence of the spirit of the local mountains had been completely obliterated, and now only a crater was left of the sacred shrine. Ryuo fell to his knees in the crater as he realized that the lifeblood of his clan and his reason for being had been taken from him.

As he bowed his head in silent surrender, a sound reached his ears. It was the sound of sobbing. Rising, Ryuo looked around to see if there was some survivor of this terrible holocaust. He saw him on the other side, a priest, dressed in the white robes of death, now stained and charred to a black ash, lay in the rubble, chanting mindlessly as he waved a charred branch through the air in a grotesque mockery of a blessing.

Quickly Ryuo had descended to the priest, who was babbling even more incoherently. Coming before the priest, he bowed reflexively before slowly raising his feet to face the priest.

It was then that Ryuo saw something that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life, for the priest's skin had been almost completely burned to a black crisp. Bubbles and blisters made him look monstrous, and the white puss around the bleary eyes told Ryuo that he was getting no answers from this once holy figure. As he rose, the priest stopped, as though confused that something had interrupted his worship. He looked blindly in Ryuo's direction, with a pleading stare.

Ryuo closed his eyes as the sharp metal of his sword swept cleanly through the priest's neck, severing it sharply at the shoulders. It was the only thing he could do to restore some honor to this wreck of a man.

Slumping to his knees beside the body of the venerable priest, Ryuo undid the ties that held his armor to him and placed it before him. He then withdrew his dagger from its sheath. Letting the last tear of sorrow flee to the ground, he raised the weapon high, prepared to plunge it downwards with a swift, smooth motion that would bring the blade into his lower chest cavity. He went over briefly in his mind the motions--the horizontal slash followed by a vertical one. Should he prove honorable, this would then remove the dagger, plunging it down a second time and pulling up to form a cross upon his chest.

As he contemplated his coming doom, a warmth seemed to fill him with a calm peace. A bright light broke before him and a radiant figure was standing there, her back to the distraught warrior. Ryuo could only watch as she went to the center of the crater and reached down into the earth. A dark, limp figure was pulled from the earth, looking like a burnt wooden doll. The woman in white passed a hand over her sister and turned.

It was then that her gaze seemed to come to rest on Ryuo, who felt a bolt of fear run through him. He could not see her eyes, but he knew she was looking at him. Ashamed he hurried to bring the blade down and finish the ritual, but his hand refused to move. Looking at it he saw the woman in white reaching down and taking the knife from him, dropping it to the ground. Ryuo had no idea how to take it as the woman left with the dead spirit, rising slowly towards the sky.

Watching her depart he saw a host of spirits watching as the goddess returned to the heavens from which she came. As she rose, Ryuo lost sight of her in the bright light of the noonday sun, and when he could see once more, the host was no longer there.

Ryuo spent the rest of the afternoon looking for survivors, but he found none. Some had apparently committed suicide--whole families were found that had taken their own lives rather than give in to their enemy. Others were no more than shadows on stone, their physical form having been stolen by some overwhelmingly destructive force. Weary and tired, he stopped at a meadow upstream from the devastation to rest and to eat what little food he had scavenged that appeared to be still edible. As he sat down he unwrapped the tattered silk cloth that still encased his hand. The pain had dulled, and he had not thought of it during the search for survivors.

Ryuo had been expecting burns or open sores, but he hadn't expected the sight before his eye: along the entire back of his hand some kind of change appeared to be taking place. Patches of pink skin and yellowed fur intermingled in a splash pattern. It wasn't difficult to divine the source of the malformation. As he studied the foreign tegument, he felt a pricking sensation as of pins and needles, and he wondered with horrid fascination what evil magicks were at work.

Quietly he rewrapped the arm, hoping against hope that a cure existed, somewhere.

With no survivors, or ties to the land, Ryuo suddenly found himself without purpose. Before taking his leave, he returned to the blackened wreckage of his village set up a small shrine to all the departed. He spent a day in mourning and purification before finally setting off for the outside world.

There had been little help for him in his homeland, though. His clan was not looked upon favorably by outsiders, and finding those he could trust was hard in and of itself. Of those, they could only determine that it was magic from the West, and Ryuo could find no power in his homeland to relieve him of his malediction. He even noticed that it was spreading up his arm, albeit slowly. The sages he consulted suggested that he might have been 'lucky' that he had been affected by so little; the magic was too weak to take him all at once, allowing him more time before the inevitable.

This last was something Ryuo scoffed at. It seemed only the warrior knew the truth, and he would take a short swift death over lingering pain and dishonor any day. Unfortunately, whenever he pulled out the dagger from its sheath, the image of the heavenly diva came unbidden to mind, breaking his resolve. Why had she not allowed him the honor of death with the rest of his clan? And so he now worked his way through the hills of this strange world, away from the comfortable bamboo hillsides and spirits of the land.

Across the sands of the great western deserts, where sand could swallow a person in minutes, he wandered. Past civilization and into the unknown wilderness he traveled, as he searched for what he truly believed was his only remaining hope for a cure: 'Metamoa-Jo.' Ryuo doubted its existence even as he battled the elements to find it.

None of the mages or priests of his homeland could help him; none that were still on the right side, that is. A powerful force from the west, 'Nasaji' was gathering them together, and the rumor wandered through the countryside like a plague that he had plans for the entire world.

This had been the alchemist's ally, Ryuo figured; it gave him a target to direct his rage, knowing that the alchemist himself was too weak to have done anything like this. Besides, everyone he talked to said that the magic that was slowly taking him over was unlike anything they had seen in the east. One merchant had commented that it looked like something she had seen far to the west. Maruko had described her journeys through the harsh mountains and over to the western kingdoms, where fruits and honey were bountiful, and the lands were ruled by enlightened kings who took care of their people and regularly patronized the arts.

In this place there is said to stand a Castle, where the mightiest mages in all the land have gathered under a great cavalry leader.

Their armies are as the swift rabbit, who flies through the grass, and royal dragons keep the clouds in line. It is said that all illnesses can be cured, and diseases are non-existent. It is a land of peace and harmony.

It was also his last hope. The cursed spell had worked its way up his arm and was beginning to go to work on his body. He had already started to wrap himself fully in cloth to hide his hideous appearance from the prying eyes of strangers, and he feared for his skills. His balance and perception had been thrown off, and dizzy spells came frequently, causing him to lose his balance and stumble. Such a misstep in a fight could prove fatal.

Riding carefully through the forest, Ryuo cursed Maruko for a tanuki faced liar. He had discovered at the edge of the Barrier Range that she could never have traveled the route she had claimed. Her stories were all picked up from others in taverns and bars, but the merchants who traveled the dangerous paths across the continent were loathe to disclose their own private trade routes with outsiders, lest their own businesses suffer. "Merchants," he scorned.

Ryuo spent several weeks on the western side of the Barrier Range, avoiding any settlements could. He subsisted mainly on what he had brought with him, augmented with the odd rabbit and deer he was able to pick up on his journey. Outside of the mountains, at a lower elevation, autumn was still working on this year's seasonal masterpiece. The snow had not yet crept this far down the mountains, and the trees were still donning their harvest foliage.

Wrapped in silk cloth, and protected by his elaborate armor, he appeared to be little more than a pile of flying cloth as he rushed through the scrub of the lowlands. Any who did spy him would have thought him an animated doll; though surely a well armed one. His armor was all but unknown in the west, held together be a rainbow of cords, so that it seemed to be more decorative than effective. Few westerners would immediately realize just how effective that armour could be.

Each tile was black lacquered leather, backed with silk and sewn together with silk and monkey gut to provide flexible comfort for the wearer. The helm was of similar construction, with a large brass crescent, like two gold horns, affixed to the front. It was held on by a large chinstrap that fit under an elaborate, demonic mask, which hid the warrior's face from sight and gave him an impersonal, frightening appearance.

The latter was becoming a problem as Ryuo's face had begun to change, and the eyeholes no longer allowed him the range of vision they had before. Still, he wore it both for protection and to prevent anyone from catching even the merest glimpse of his distorted visage.

For protection Ryuo also carried the traditional weapons of his station. The long bow--with a quiver of arrows--to begin the battle, and then a straight spear for entering the melee. For foot duels, or should the spear break or become useless, the curved pair of long and short sword hung, sheathed in their lacquered scabbards, which hung in turn from the dark blue sash that encircled his waist. A small yoroidoshi, or armour dagger, rested in its own sheath at his waist as a weapon of last resort. He regretted that he no longer had his father's nodachi--a large, two-handed great sword of similar style to his other single-bladed weapons--but it could not be found amongst the wreckage of his village. He realized it would have been awkward to carry, but still regretted its loss.

Armed thusly, Ryou found himself riding through the woods when he heard a sound up ahead. Slowly he brought Kaze to a quiet walk, inwardly grimacing with every treacherous leaf or branch that threatened to reveal his position. Glancing down into the gully he rode along, Ryuo saw five grotesque, humanoid shapes arguing in a foreign tongue. He watched them for a brief time, wondering at their strange language and green skin, before continuing discreetly onwards.

Half an hour past the encounter with the malicious-looking creatures, Ryuo realized that he and Kaze were discreetly being followed. He continued as though he was unaware, all the while searching for the hills to give him an opportunity to catch his would-be ambushes.

Coming out of the woods and into the open, Ryuo chose a small hillock, which was conveniently devoid of trees. Carefully he maneuvered towards the middle of the clearing, pulling two arrows and knocking them to his bow. Reaching his chosen destination he halted his steed and turned abruptly.

His training sensed the attackers' intentions before he could actually see them; by focusing his own life force he perceived the entire world around him, and then his mind was lost to the moment. With complete calm of mind he let two arrows fly into the bushes, where they found rest in two fleshy bodies. As realization dawned on them that their trap had been sprung, the green-skinned creatures charged out into the open. Ryuo recognized them as the beings from the gully; they must have followed him, and apparently had brought friends.

Ryuo dropped another two of the barbarous beasts before he shouldered his bow and brought forth the spear. With a nudge of his heels, Ryuo urged Kaze into battle, charging towards the unorganized foe. As one, horse and rider bore down on the hapless ouphes, spear flashing in the daylight as it sought to drink the warm blood of its enemies.

The spear was a flash of motion, circling and spinning around horse and rider like a whirlwind of deadly steel. Two heads went rolling and a third was skewered before a long pole swept him from his horse. He had seen it, but his body was unable to turn aside because of the changes that had been taking place. Leaning too far back in the saddle he had lost his purchase and fallen to the ground, rolling out with a sweep to the legs of the closest opponent.

With an upwards sweep his spear dug deep into the next enemy, the handle now awash with blood as he rose behind his eager weapon. With a flick of the wrist and a pivot of his body he turned and sliced laterally across a sword-wielding monstrosity that had been behind him, and then he thrust the butt of the spear into the bridge of a third attacker's nose, knocking him unconscious. However, as he struck, his hindmost foot slipped, and as he put his weight down to catch himself on a strange leg he fell to the ground.

As his knee planted itself onto the ground, a steel sword attempted to plant itself in his head, but it was caught by the spear and deflected. The blow proved fatal to the spear, however, which broke in twain, rendering it useless. He tossed it quickly to the ground as he regained his footing.

Ryuo rose with unexpected speed as he entered into the next incoming attack, a deadly swipe from a spiked club falling thankfully short behind him, as he grabbed the sword-wielder's wrist, circled, and threw him into another opponent. As the two were tangled he swept out his long sword in a long arc, chopping down the club-wielding beast who had been behind him, and swiveling to face the remaining foes.

A short spear leapt for his throat as he turned, and Ryuo quickly stepped to the side, and snapped his blade upwards. His wrist snapped and reversed the motion in mid-swing, catching the offending beast at the base of the neck with the back of his sword hard enough to launch into the ground. The unlucky creature's neck broke with an audible snap as its head hit the unforgiving earth.

Without thinking, Ryuo ducked to the left, and his rainbow-laced shoulder-guard deflected a blow aimed for his head. Unfortunately his new leg bent now in an unfamiliar direction, and the added energy of the strike caused him to stumble. As his defenses opened up a second time, a spiked club found its way into the meat of his lower leg. He howled in pain as he swept skywards with his sword, splitting the club's owner from bottom to top. Simultaneously he drew his short sword partly from its sheath to block an incoming attack from another assailant.

Pushing aside the pain, Ryuo quickly changed the sword's momentum and allowing it to strike back at his adversary. The blade opened an artery, creating a fountain of blood as its former host fell limply to the ground. The sword then turned outwards, as Ryuo turned, his hand arching above his head, blade angled downwards to avoid another incoming strike. His knee roared in agony, but at the moment there were more important things and Ryuo concentrated the agony into the far reaches of his mind. An unparried blow caught his right shoulder guard, but slid harmlessly off at a deflected angle. Ryuo brought the butt of the short sword into the green skinned stomach of his latest challenge, and then swept the creature's legs out with the long sword.

The ground was now thick with blood, some of it his own, Ryuo noticed.

His leg was bleeding from where the maille that covered his unprotected joints had been pierced, and he knew that he could only continue for a little while longer. Taking advantage of a brief lull in the fighting--mainly due to the newly discovered caution in his attackers--he called for his steed, who finished a kick to an aggravating belligerent before heeding his master's summons. With a slash at a luckless combatant, Ryuo threw himself into the saddle.

Seeing more of the strange warriors coming, he let forth a curse, and urged Kaze away from the battle.

Fleet of foot, Kaze quickly outran the soldiers. Heedless of what was ahead, Ryuo pushed his loyal steed and companion as fast as he could, blocking the pain. It wasn't until his poor friend could run no more that he stopped and dismounted. Taking some of the thick clothing and blankets he had used to get them over the mountains, Ryuo made impromptu bandages for his wounds. He used water to cleanse the wound, and hoped that the weapon had not been poisoned.

The encounter with the green, aggressive creatures made Ryuo even more eager than usual to avoid any contact with the inhabitants of this land. There were other monstrosities that he had to avoid, including a pair of giants and a giant, black, winged shadow. The latter had seemed to circle him for over an hour, and Ryuo had to settle down until evening before it gave up. Ryuo wondered what other unpleasant surprises awaited him in this strange, barbaric land.

As Ryuo rode through the landscape, where Autumn's colors were beginning to give way to the chill of Winter, he noticed signs of civilization, but they were not at all pleasant. Tepid farmland stretched out around cold stone fortresses, sitting like giant gargoyles in the middle of the vast ocean of scrubland. The surrounding villages seemed dull and depressing, as though the dark citadels at their hearts sapped them of all their strength and resources. Occasionally Ryuo would be forced to wait as an army of men would march by, their mismatched armor jangling. He noticed humans and the strange creatures from earlier were marching as one; he figured a reception by them would be as cold as the land. Ryuo only hoped that 'Metamoa' would be different.

Ryuo quickly came to see that this was hardly the paradise the storytellers claimed. Could a bastion of art and learning truly exist out here in the wretched Western world? By the time a month had past, Ryuo had resorted to stealing what he needed from the fields. He had done it before, when necessary, but there was no honor in it. He felt dirty--from the trip, from the deed, and from the land. He wondered what iron grip held this land in thrall The days dragged on and Ryuo wondered if he would ever reach the mythical castle he dreamt was his only salvation. The change was almost complete, and he was weak from lack of nutritious food in the past week. It was this weakened state which left him unable to sense the two giants lurking on the road ahead of him.

They weren't doing much, just sitting back and drinking, and that may have been why he hadn't noticed them. They seemed to just blend into the natural landscape, but as he neared they saw him and detached themselves from the green forest, evil grins planted firmly on their grotesque faces.

One of them spoke to the other in a strange language Ryuo couldn't understand, but the gestures were simple enough, as was the glint in their eyes.

Ryuo quickly drew his sword, knowing that he would not get out of this without a fight. The giants had already picked up their clubs--Ryuo had assumed before that they were felled logs, and only now saw that they had been specially chosen as weapons for these overly large brutes.

As Ryuo rushed towards the giants, hopping to catch them off guard, he considered his advantages. He was small, and creatures as big as these hated coming down to his level because it would throw off their center of balance. However, their clubs would easily counter that advantage.

Next was his speed, which he knew the giants wouldn't be able to match, though they definitely won when it came to maneuverability.

Thirdly, there was his training, and that was what would make all the difference.

As the first club passed, Ryuo calmly ducked his head, sword braced vertically in front of him. The tip cut easily into the unarmored flesh, and soon the first tree-swinging giant was on the ground trying to keep his intestines in place.

Ryuo barely had time to duck to the side as the next blow came, though. Instinctively his shoulder rose with the impact to deflect the blow, but the force still caused a bolt of pain to stab into his shoulder, and almost knocked him from his saddle. He had to use his leg muscles to pull himself back up.

Returning to a seated position, Ryuo used his extra momentum to lend force to his sword, which sang through the air, striking home in the giant's thigh as he passed by. Though not a killing blow, the creature roared in agony. The next attack from the lumbering beast was less well aimed, but Ryuo was still forced to stay out of the giant's unbelievably long reach.

As wooden death missed him by mere inches, Ryuo held his sword at the ready. Concentrating his spirit into the blade, he swept outwards--not at the giant, but at a thin sapling. The tree toppled behind him, entangling the monstrous hulk. As the great beast extracted itself, Ryuo calmly drew his bow, nocking two arrows as he wheeled Kaze around to face his remaining foe.

Two arrows sang through the air, the second finding its mark in the giant's unprotected throat. The titan gurgled as he fell face first to the ground.

With the fighting over, Ryuo turned his attention to his shoulder. He knew from past experience that drawing the bow had been too much, and it felt as though he may have pulled one of the muscles if not something more serious. Nothing to be done about it now, he would have to carry on as best he could with only one arm until it healed.

Looking around, Ryuo took stock of where he was. There wasn't so much a road as just a long clearing through the trees on either side. It seemed to be headed in the right direction, so he urged Kaze onwards, leaving the bodies of the two giants for the buzzards of this land.

As Ryuo continued onward another pang hit him, and this one wasn't from his shoulder. They had been coming on lately, and he knew it had something to do with the change he was going through. He wondered that it was taking so abominably long; not that he was complaining. "It must have been the dosage," he thought to himself, "It is not as strong as if I had been exposed to the flask."

Ryuo grunted at this last. Perhaps if he got to this Metamoa-jo before the change was complete, they could help him. He feared that if it ran its course, however, he would never be able to find his true self again. Even now he was feeling instincts, thoughts, and hungers that were not his own, and his skills and abilities suffered. He felt weak and exposed, maybe for the first time in his entire life.

Ryuo was mentally and physically exhausted when he made camp for the night. He chose a small patch of ground beneath the trees, far enough from the road to avoid prying eyes. He laid out his mat, which had grown worn over the month of travel, and tied Kaze to a nearby tree with enough lead to roam and graze on what little shrubbery and grasses could be found. A sparse bowl of rice was all he had for his meal this evening. Tired and hungry, he sat down, closed his eyes, and slept.

Ryuo was awoken in the night by footsteps nearby. Opening one eye he saw that everything was where he had left it, and nothing appeared out of place. He focused his mind; in that place where the soul blends with the universe he looked around, feeling for the life force of others. There was nothing other than the life of the forest.

Ryuo sat there for half an hour in a trance, trying vainly to detect even the slightest hint of what had awakened him. He silently cursed his warped perceptions; he wasn't sure how to interpret the world and his normally orderly universe was askew with different sights and sounds, but still he tried, listening to every leaf fall.

It wasn't so much a line of light as a line of feeling that suddenly came to him. The intention hovered in the air, about 20 meters to his right. It obviously meant harm, but the action was as yet too vague to determine just where and what it wanted to do. Slowly it focused, and just as it solidified Ryuo dodged to the side, an arrow was left piercing the mat where he had been sitting.

Suddenly the night was alive with sound as three humans and four of the green creatures appeared out of the undergrowth. One of the humans had a bow and was letting loose just as Ryuo stood. Without time to dodge, he drew the sword up in an arc that swept through the arrow's path, splitting it down the middle. He then grabbed a nearby stone and chucked it at the archer, hitting him square in the forehead.

There was movement now behind him as well, but he had no time for that. As yet he felt no intention from behind, but he remained aware as he faced the seven creatures before him. The humans were obviously trained to some small extent, for they were advancing on him with uniformed intent, rather than the rag-tag individualism of the smaller, green demons.

Happily, however, the demons that came with this troop were performing true to form giving him a chance to quickly dispatch all four. The first was hit with an upward strike, which descended like lightning on the next. Side-stepping the blow of the third he caught it at the base of the neck, then flipped his wrist and twisted his hips to send the fourth's head rolling onto the ground.

Ryuo's brief flurry of action, concentrated on the smaller threat, had the unfortunate side effect of allowing the three humans to take up position around him. He threw himself at the outermost one, but his first blow was parried, and when he tried to switch for a side strike to the head, his shoulder groaned in agony. The pain was only compounded when he failed to fully block the strike of his attacker, which bit into his other shoulder. Falling to the ground, Ryuo put his weight behind the sword to take the man out at the knees.

Unconsciously, a growl escaped his throat as Ryuo looked up at the sword he knew would bring his death. His mind was ready; it would be a welcome release from this torture.

But Fate apparently had other things in mind for Ryuo that day, for the warrior was suddenly distracted by a flowering red spot on his chest, caused by the arrow that had suddenly sprouted there. A look of disbelief crossed his face as his eyes glazed and he fell to the ground. The archer turned to the new threat, and Ryuo glanced as well, though he felt his own vision slowly giving into the dark.

His last view was blurred and colored with delusion, and he thought he saw his countrymen returning to carry him to the Pure Land.

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