Another year passed.
The day Kiyo and Daisuke’s lives would truly begin drew near. That day a metaphorical end to a Paladinian’s childhood, their entire future as marked disciples dependent on this basis. Until then, they continued in communal training. Their homely lives within Nippon nothing more than preparation for something greater.
Under the clan’s tight watch, Kiyo and Daisuke found it near impossible to venture past the walls into the valley. Not that they even intended to. That one night was enough to convince them to stray away from the world beyond. Adventure replace with a desire to remain within the realm of fortified safety but for each their own reasoning.
Fear entrenched Kiyo’s will to explore. His father’s instructions drilled into his mind to follow to the letter, Kiyo’s body broken to understand the gravity of the situation. Looking for an adventure warped into nothing more than his own potential demise.
On the other hand, Daisuke took the clan’s declaration as a need to strengthen himself. Their doctrine a means to build himself up for the next expedition. His desire to see the world overruled his concern for his health. As long as he could defend himself and Kiyo that was all he needed. His strength was their insurance of guaranteed survival, a safety net.
Throughout the year, the duo continued to meet up at the wall. It was the only sense of bliss and enjoyment they could grasp between their hectic lives. Daisuke caught up in combat training with his father, Botan, and Ayame to prepare himself for the tests ahead. Kiyo resumed his one on one sessions with his father, each new day harsher than the one before.
Yet some days Kiyo would find himself unable to make the trip. To go see his only friend. The day Kiyo’s potential was discovered was the day a switch went off in Ronin’s head. Kiyo’s life permanently changed; it was ruined.
Daisuke was left in the dark. Only able to make vague assumptions about what kept his friend from his side. Reduced to picking up clues from Kiyo’s limp, bruises, or wounds that sometimes peeked out from his robe Daisuke remained in the dark. So he remained quiet, he let it go on. But what else could he do? How do you help someone who won’t admit they need it?
Still, treading their separate paths, they carved their route to the inevitable. The road to their true training and indoctrination into the clan as a Sun Kissed Warrior was one paved in flesh and blood. That dream just a distant flag waving along the horizon. A finish line.
Their paths there incomparable.
Daisuke spent most days building stamina and strength with Ayame in the mornings, while evenings were focused on practicing different clansmen techniques. From bare knuckles to the proper usage of a paladinian kuai knife that allowed the wielder to reap the best benefit. A speedy costless kill.
The squeamish curly-haired freckled boy worked relentlessly to catch up to Kiyo, to unlock his inner potential and match him. He wanted to be the foundation they could fall upon, yet Daisuke only found himself in Kiyo’s shadow. Afraid of being left behind. Of losing his friend.
They trained out in the Nippon courtyard, an open space where many fathers took their sons to prepare for the year of the rising Sun. For when it was their time to go through the trials. Their time to find their place in society.
The smoothened rock surface was located in the dead center of the housing side of the village. It was an assortment of etched-out circles for duos to spar within. Anything was permitted within the circle as long as both parties left alive. One’s death was a sacred treasure to the paladinian people, not something to be lost so gracelessly.
This place was an attraction for most passersby who would take a few minutes to hours out of their day to watch the younger generationals go head-to-head. Whether it was warriors or marked kids, all were welcomed within the bounds of the law. Sweat and blood treasured adornments of a hard day's work that permeated through their pearly white training garments. And the Nippon training grounds were the best place to revere in it.
To better themselves.
To become the best.
To prove their worth.
“Again!” Botan shouted as he charged at his dual partner, his own son Daisuke.
Swords raised, the two closed the space between them. Two visceral slices cut through the air and met in the dead center of their blades. There was no room for error in training. One wrong move meant weakness and defiled the holy one who granted Paladinian’s such life. So they strived for greatness, they strived to improve themselves, and they strived for survival.
Spread nearly the size of two football fields, countless matches occurred at once. Each spaced out enough to not intrude on another. Alongside the massive cornerstone square rested a shooting range for those more adapted to throwing knives and bow work.
But all were still chasing after the honor of becoming a Sun Kissed Warrior. Gaining the title that held the weight of the future of the paladinian race, only those of the highest caliber were granted the liberty. Some partook in spars daily in the fickle hope to garner notice from a prominent squad leader. Their refined skills put on display to present their possible strength.
After a relentless year of training, he did it. Daisuke stood drenched in sweat and stared in wonder at his minuscule achievement. The little red smack from his practice dead wood sword. A beautiful stain on Botan’s skin. A cherished memory.
“I. . . did it,” Daisuke exclaimed as the sword's handle shook within his loose grasp.
He could only stare at the blade for a moment as he took in the realization. The growth of his strength, skills, and time spent preparing for the treacherous path ahead. A determiner for what his life would behold. If he would end up chained down to the struggles of Nippon or be free to explore and fight for his people.
That single strike a step in the direction of becoming something more.
A glimmer of hope shone in Daisuke’s eyes, face swamped in a heated ecstasy that calmed his aggravated nerves. His mind was encapsulated by his progression, able to achieve so much in so little time.
“Father, I hit—” Daisuke’s joy was cut short as Botan swiftly swung his blade toward Daisuke’s temple. Overcome with emotions, Daisuke couldn’t react fast enough as the wood elegantly sliced through the air.
Sent flying out of the circle, Daisuke came crashing down onto the weathered rock below.
I thought I hit him. Daisuke pondered as he glared up from the ground at his father with a bitter confusion creased across his face.
Botan strolled over to the edge of the circle, sword sheathed at his side, he knelt beside his collapsed son. Despite the harsh strike on Daisuke’s face, Botan was over the moon. Barely able to contain it, a crinkled-side-smirk was all he let slip.
“Hey! I wasn’t—” Daisuke blurted out as he shoved himself back off the ground onto his knees.
But Daisuke fell still. His actions were restricted as Botan raised his pointer and middle finger on his right hand. A simple gesture that sent Daisuke’s thoughts scrambling to the back of his mind. Words choked down, he bowed his head at Botan’s request to speak. Only those of higher authority were given the right to do. Breaking would only bring shame and neglect from those who bore witness to the altercation if it was to arrive.
With an abrupt sigh, Daisuke laid his sword down sideways in front of his knees. Prepared for another lecture he cleared his mind and hung his head forward. Knuckles pressed into the rigid carved earth, bits of cruddy rock scraped his bare skin. Botan nodded in understanding of his son’s instantaneous respect shown. Lowering his head, he leaned close to Daisuke, only a few inches apart.
Head to head, Botan stuck out his left arm and grabbed hold of Daisuke’s shoulder. He dug his grimy calloused fingers into Daisuke’s robe. Smears of dust and blood wiped onto it from the bare contact. Daisuke winced at the sting of surprise, not used to being this close to his father.
The two locked eyes, the few words said between them more impactful than Daisuke could ever learn to grasp. Botan’s crispy silver-greenish eyes gazed deep into Daisuke’s soul. This tight-knit bond was something beyond words. It was fatherly love.
“Never—-lose—-focus,” Botan uttered through gritted teeth.
Ow. Again? Daisuke thought with a sour face as he rubbed his left check. A hefty red imprint of his Dad’s hand was left behind.
Botan shoved Daisuke back and eased back to the opposite side of the circle. Hands gripped onto the hilt of the practice blade, he gazed at his son with a gleam in his eye. Full of admiration for Daisuke’s efforts, how far he had come in such a short time. It was great enough to relish in for a moment longer.
“Congrats Daisuke. My son. Know that I am truly proud of you.” Botan said proudly, a crease that could be taken as a smirk on his lips beneath his golden mustache.
Daisuke dropped his hands to his sides, the sting in his cheek seemingly whisked away by his father’s respect, his approval. A wide grin overlapped the dreary pout as he looked upon Botan. The training became worth it in the boy’s mind, the sweat dripping down his back and specks of blood in his mouth a small price to pay to get this far.
They both sat in the realization together as other duos commenced their fights around them. Smacks and crunches of wood with the occasional whizz of an airborne arrow. Background music to a special moment in their lives. One that neither would soon forget, one they would hold dear till the inevitable.
But that was enough time to think about it.
“But son, try a little to beat me,” Botan said bluntly out of the blue with an emotionless stare.
“What?” Daisuke muttered as he reeled back from the father-son bonding moment.
Is he serious?
“You heard me, now get up.”
Botan slid his legs into an aggressive Paladinian stance, feet spread wide apart with his sword angled diagonally across his chest. Both primed and read for an opening strike, for their duel to commence.
“Now . . . come at me.”
Daisuke sat for a few seconds and let the words turn the gears in his head, slow to react to his father’s command. His smile sunk beneath wrinkles of concentration, drops of sweat fresh on his brow beneath the high summer Sun. Its rays beamed down over all the active fighters, conditions intensified to draw out the best of every soul. A few puffs of an occasional cloud relinquished the Sun’s scorch from their skin.
Dazed and still grasping onto the moment now long gone, Daisuke knew what to do.
The boy wound his right hand around the wooden sword's hilt as he rose to his feet. Still a little lopsided from the blow, his chest puffed up as Daisuke heaved in a deep breath. A relaxer for what was about to kick off.
In a single simultaneous movement, Daisuke descended into a jagged cross stance. His right leg bent forward while the left planted onto the ground behind him. The hilt clutched within both his hands as its blade ran horizontally across his chest. It was a defensive-sided maneuver that he had practiced for days on end, able to seamlessly switch out into a push stance if needed. The ability to transition so seamlessly itself was a strenuous move for most rookie warriors. The A maneuver that was all but simple to set up, but when mastered could overpower any opponent. Well, it could if done right.
“Oh-ho-ho! So you have been practicing. Perfect. Now, come at me.” Botan repeated once more as he drew his training sword.
Daisuke reared a toothy smile across his beaten face, his primal fangs glistening in the sunlight. Mouth dried out, Daisuke sucked down saliva to quench his dire thirst, a constant cycle to stay conscious. To not just fall limp to the floor from dehydration.
Nothing could stop him now as he charged in toward Botan. Full of glee and warm enthusiasm to push forward. To win a match.
Blade raised high in the air, Daisuke made a risky lunge toward his father. Swiftly bringing it down and around in a circular motion as he tried to take Botan by surprise. Yet prepared for the assault, Botan fluently adjusted his stance to block the strike.
Their swords grinded together, chips of wood splintering off as they each held their ground. Both refused to budge, to give the other leeway, to lose. Daisuke’s thoughts raced as they clashed. Botan was right in his face with a loose smile, calm and collected. Only the teeniest bits of sweat trickled down from his forehead. Yet Daisuke smiled.
He figured it out.
He found an opening.
Botan couldn’t predict what came next. Daisuke relented his hold. The wage for control was given up without a second thought. Unable to resist, Botan stumbled forward as Daisuke sidestepped out of the cut line of his father’s blade. Spun around, Daisuke stood behind the unprotected back of his father. Free for the taking. For the win.
Joy spread ear to ear across Daisuke’s face.
He had found an opening.
He had won.
I win. I actually beat him. Daisuke thought as he swung his blade toward Botan’s back.
The tip nipped his robe, almost enough contact to be determined a win, a finishing move. Impossible to escape. Well, that’s what Daisuke believed.
Instantaneously, Botan flung his body back and rolled beneath Daisuke’s sword. A clean motion that captivated Daisuke as he lost focus of his position. Blindly admiring his father as he cut back and flipped over Daisuke entirely. The boy’s blade deflected and his body cast aside, Daisuke succumbed to the devastating power mid-spin.
Botan’s feet clapped against the concrete as he landed behind Daisuke. His blade’s tip aimed right at his son’s back, a direct mirror of what Daisuke had just attempted.
“You didn’t think it’d be that easy?” Botan chuckled proudly.
“N-n-n-o?” Daisuke muttered in a weak groan, his arms clutched tight against his chest as he watched his father’s blade slash through the air toward his stomach.
Botan buried the wooden blade into Daisuke’s belly and knocked the wind right out of his lungs. Daisuke took the blow in stride as his organs bashed against each other. It was like hitting a pinata, everything inside dispersed within seconds. Agony rippled across his body and stunned his nerves. Defenseless to the onslaught of moves Botan delivered one by one. He explained them all as Daisuke crumpled to the floor, a look of pure amazement plastered on his face.
Eyes glossy from a mix of bitter happiness and the swelter onslaught that rattled his body, Daisuke muscled out a meek smile through the heated embarrassment.
He didn’t win, but he was pleased with what he learned.
Never underestimate your opponent.
“Get up. Now.”
Kiyo sprawled out across the ground as his body quivered in agony. Hands posted on the woven firm boards that splintered his skin. Cuts and tears covered his mutilated body, tarnished by the hands of his father. Ronin.
The brute was a giant in the eyes of Nippon citizens. At almost eight feet tall, he towered over his enemies with a fierce yellow and green heterochromia stare. Bound by a bitter refusal to mend his past scars, his body was littered with countless gashes and stab wounds. All marks of a successful life for Paladinians. Rated as one of the clan’s best warriors, he never took in praise but abused his rank for the benefit of weaponry and personal desires.
But life wasn’t simple or easy for him. His lifestyle was ruled by one gaping hole in his heart. Stranded in grief from the passing of his wife, Miko.
A sweet and slender woman, her life came to an unfortunate early passing at the arrival of Kiyo into this treacherous world. For that reason alone Ronin resented the boy, nearly pushing him to the edge of death daily in training. Torn between grief and the violent outlet his role for Nippon provided. Yet when stuck in the village, Kiyo was the only one to use to escape his demented emotions, to ignore the truth.
At first, he refused to see the boy, to acknowledge that thing to be his own. Kiyo was declared abandoned and to be looked after by the priestess as he ran off to war. Another bloody battle to distract himself from the loss of his wife. The woman he was prepared to devote his entire future toward. Tears shed more on the battlefield than the blood of his enemies, a salty rain that soaked the soil.
Ronin came back reformed, mind altered by the clarity he found in others' deaths. Life was something he could bend at his own will, distort to his liking. With a little convincing from the priestess concerning Kiyo’s destined future, Ronin accepted the boy as his own. Kiyo’s life was one foretold to be filled with limitless potential and power that could move mountains and potentially save the clan, to save all Paladinians.
And for that, Ronin despised the boy. How could such a miserably born child hold such promise? What made him special?
In Ronin’s eyes, he was nothing more than an object of pure power. Something to make up for the loss of the one person he cared for, and for that he resented Kiyo. He hated his son with a passion, love absent from their bond.
“I said, get up.” Ronin spat at Kiyo, disgrace wetting Kiyo’s sunken face.
A blemish on his life, the one mark left behind by Miko.
No woman could erase her from his memory.
Her presence was still alive in their son.
Sparring in Ronin’s private garden, they stood at odds within the very center of their home. One given to such a prestigious figure in Nippon, secluded from the basic borders of the housing neighborhoods. A shrine-like structure that stretched and narrowed as it reached the sky.
The blood-stained dead wood household was built on shaved igneous rock from the crater, a sturdy foundation. Something the lower warriors looked upon with high regard, a representation of the owner's ranking within the clan.
Hallowed in the center, a bountiful garden of plants from beyond the rocky vastellies filled the empty space that basked in the Sun. Rare and unique flowers that one could only wish to see in their lifetime.
All of it was under Ronin’s ownership, yet he found peace in the wooden board platform that made up the sparring ring in the center of it all. The shaved wood was his stomping grounds.
Where Kiyo now lay defeated and broken.
“I was told that you recently showed your promise to be the one. The child of the prophecy.” Ronin muttered in a hollow tone as he walked around his tattered son.
A pure obsidian blade rested between his palms. The hand-carved rock was sharp enough to split a hair. A material rare and difficult to manufacture due to its location, in the heart of teratoma territory, it was gifted to only those deemed worthy. To warriors that ascended to levels worthy of a star in the heavens.
Ronin pressed the sword’s hilt on the dead wood boards, waiting for its use to punish Kiyo yet again for his failure. The child’s every move was in direct disobedience to Ronin’s wishes. Unable to draw out Kiyo’s foretold inner potential the boy only continued to suffer. Pain the method chosen to call the holy blessing’s name out into the sunlight.
Focused on Kiyo, Ronin pulled away his gaze to look at a flurry of broad bees that drifted in from above. Lured by the sweet aroma of flowers, they pollinated a cluster of white cosmos tulips. The swarm bounced from flower to flower. Bits of pollen swirled in the air as they scattered across the jagged vines that decorated the garden. The sight was mesmerizing to normal eyes, but Ronin remained pinned on the topic at hand.
“The High Priest. Even he believes it. Came down just to see you.”
Kiyo through excruciating agony that left his body shivering forced himself back up onto his knees. His hands remained planted on the floor as they supported his washed-out body, the smell of rust clung to his skin. Every inch of him was riddled with agony, yet he endured it.
“How did they find out?” Ronin boomed in with a vicious tone as he stomped on the platform.
His eyes were full of an agitated distaste for Kiyo, his son who refused to comply. He was forced to do these tribulations for what purpose? To prepare himself and achieve a potential boundless power he had no clue was even there, unsure if it was even achievable. Dread became attached to what was meant to be a blessing, seen as nothing more than a curse. His own home a hell on earth.
“I’m done,” Kiyo mumbled through his blood-encrusted lips.
“I’m done!” Kiyo yelled into the floor without hesitation.
Teeth clenched and face scrunched inward, Kiyo visibly shook as he remained ever so still. He braced for another swift kick to his ribs, a punishment for his defiance. Something in return for his misbehavior.
But it never came.
The air between them remained still, stagnant, and anxious. Uncertainty plagued Kiyo’s mind over what was to come. If he would spiral onto the ground and writhe in pain or be able to walk out freely. His mind split, fragmented in anticipation of his father’s jurisdiction.
But he already knew the answer.
“You want to leave. Then use it.” Ronin demanded as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Kiyo’s eyes glossed over, a mix of misery and regret in them as he knew he couldn’t deliver the results to his father. He hadn’t been able to produce more than a small flicker in his arm since that day. Each time it radiated through his veins it left his blood boiling. Body crippled to the point he ended up rolling on the ground in a fit of pure torture.
But it wasn’t his decsion to make as Ronin crept across the platform and bent down over his son. Mouth to ear, Ronin heaved out egregious breathes against the boy’s neck.
“I said . . . get up.”
Kiyo nodded and propelled himself back upright. Wobbly on his feet, he swayed side to side as he simmered into his opening stance. Dizzy from the countless blows to his back and chest, blood pumped throughout his body relentlessly. Scars hidden beneath his robes away from public eyes.
But he would endure it all just to get out.
Just to see Daisuke.
Just to feel what it was like to be happy.
Blood ran down Kiyo’s shirt as he revved back his right arm. Left hand holding it up, he gazed at the floor, gasping for air. His heart held on by a single feeble string, persistence was the only thing keeping him from blacking out again, from giving in.
“Show it to me. Now.”
The evening arrived as Daisuke and Ayame made rounds through the Nippon streets, a little conditioning to drive up his stamina. His baby fat was still visible in her vigilant eyes.
“Ayame, can we stop for today? Father beat my ass this morning.” Daisuke groaned as he hung his body forward, arms flopping over his knees.
Ayame smacked Daisuke on the top of his head with her blunt fist. Her face tugged down into a cute squeamish pout upset by his choice of words. Confused from pure exhaustion, Daisuke collapsed in a dried heap onto the ground. His descent was far from graceful as he plopped onto his back. Bits of gravel scattered in every direction beneath him like a mini explosion.
“Owwwww. What was that for?” Daisuke moaned from the ground.
“What did I say about saying Sunless words like that?” Ayame barked at Daisuke coldly.
“I know, I know. I’m just so tired.”
The two remained in silence for a minute as Daisuke regained his composure. Wheezing in and out, Daisuke heaved drawn-out slivers of toxic air. His nose filtered the crude breeze as it cycled into his lungs and shot out as a gaseous waste through his mouth. Other Paladinians passed them by with curious glares thrown their way.
Ayame took a look around and gazed at the setting glistening yellow sun. The dull sky splashed a lively simplistic orange, tinted green around the edges. A radiated glow to the oncoming night, the moon rising earlier than anticipated. Its presence was something that sent the people running inside. Its presence a direct opposition to their faith.
Amongst it all, a single question fluttered into Ayame’s mind. The obvious matter she managed to squeeze in every day from the beginning. Well, since she learned the truth about Kiyo.
“How was Kiyo?” Ayame questioned, trying to hide her interest behind clenched fists.
“Quiet. Well, quieter than usual.”
“Oh. . .”
The flow of night swooped into the conversation as dusk transitioned into the boundless night sky. An entire galaxy resided above them, new constellations that were unknown to man of the modern age. Stars that blew up and reformed over generations dotted this heavenly scenery with disheveled remnants of expanded stars from the past world.
All light in Nippon was whisked away by the call for sleep, the moon’s rise an indicator of their recession into slumber. Set to rise with the Sun, a foundational ritual commanded and followed religiously, all Paladinians tucked themselves to bed. The streets became empty as the duo stood there, Daisuke calming down as he regained his poise. Lungs still sore from his excessive panting, Daisuke gritted his teeth at every ache that rippled through his body. Ayame all the while waited patiently, taken aback by the stars above.
Lost in the countless sparkled beauties of the sea that brought on the night, a faint idea simmered into Ayame’s mind. Something that most Paladinians considered foreign or unruly, a breaker of bonds for the blood pact that connected a family household. But she couldn’t stop picturing his ruptured flesh, and clothes soaked in blood, yet he never cared. Or did he?
“Well, he should join us on the trip in two rotations.” She paused and bent down to Daisuke’s eye line as she tried to entice the idea. “You would get to keep each other company, could be fun.”
“The what?” Daisuke uttered amidst the confusion that creased his dusty face.
“Did Master Botan not tell you?”
“Tell me what?”