Legend of Seesar
Legend of Seesar
The notes of an exotic folk ballad could be heard in the courtyard of the historic Azumi Castle of Okinawa. The beautiful subtropical island overflowed with amazing sights that enticed both the eyes and ears. Hiroyuki and Keiko walked along the dirt path that lead into the ancient courtyard of Azumi Castle with a small group of tourists who had come to see the island. The tour guide stopped and began to elaborate on the Azumi royal family's history as traditional music from the days of old serenaded in the background. The sounds of the pounding taiko, complimented by the soft melodies of three-stringed sanshins set the backdrop for the tour guide's story. The courtyard looked as if it had been left untouched for centuries, but meticulously preserved at the same time. The tour guide related more of the intriguing lore of the Azumi royal family as they walked on.
They were standing in front the gate of a shrine when Keiko nudged Hiroyuki gently and pointed up to a curious statue. The brown clay statue depicted a lion-like beast that was proudly sitting up with a growling expression. Its mouth was open. Another one just like it, only with its mouth closed, stood parallel to it on the other side of the shrine's roof. The tour guide was about to move on, but Keiko spoke up when she saw she had the chance. "Excuse me, but what are those statues?" she asked. The tour guide's eyes lit up as he decided to stay in front of the shrine and retell the story behind the mysterious statues. He loved getting the opportunity to explain their rich history and this was one of those rare chances. "Those status are of the legendary Shisa, a guardian of this island. The open-mouthed Shisa is a female. It's left open to allow good fortune to enter the family's household. The male's mouth is closed to keep that good fortune inside the household. They work together in perfect harmony." the tour guide explained. Hiroyuki and Keiko grew more interested as the tour guide went on. "It all started long ago..." the guide began.
Chapter 1: The Black Dragon
The seaside town of Madanbashi Village in the Ryukyu region of Okinawa was often plagued by a horribly cruel dragon. It was covered in streamlined black scales with tufts of gray hair coming from the crest of its head. Long projections from the sides of its mouth formed flowing mustache-like whiskers. Its eyes were a golden hue and they stared into the sea dragon's victims with an insatiable hunger before he feasted on each one. It slithered through the air just as effortlessly as it moved in the water and was as quick as a bolt of lightning. It rose from the sea at its leisure and would attack and devour the villagers.
A young boy, Chiga-san, became afraid to venture outside of his home in fear of the serpent's wrath. He sat at the table alone inside his family's simple house while everyone else was outside getting ready for the upcoming celebration tomorrow. His father called out to him from the other room.
"Chiga-san, will you come with me to fish for tomorrow's matsuri festival?" the young boy's father asked.
As his father entered the room, Chiga-san nervously replied, "I can't father, I'm too scared. The dragon will rise from the sea and eat us both!"
The father hugged his son and comforted him.
"You will always be safe as long as I am here to protect you. Not even the dragon will harm you. Now, don't be afraid. Tomorrow is a time for celebration!" he assured him warmly.
Chiga-san began to feel less afraid of the beast now and he knew no matter how ferocious the monster was, he was no match for his greatest hero, his father. They gathered their nets and Chiga-san's father carried the small fishing boat towards the beach. As they reached the sand-covered walkway, they passed a large family who made decorations with chiming bells for the event. Everyone, even the family's youngest, shared the same joyful spirit. Kites flew from the doorframes of several houses along the wooden walkway that went down to the shore. The tide was low and the waves were barely able to crawl up the sandy shore near the village. Chigsa-san ran to catch up to his father, carrying an assortment of nets and fishing hooks. Chiga-san's father put the boat down into the moist sand and slid it further towards the sea. Chiga-san placed the nets inside the boat as his father pushed it into the shallow waves. Chiga-san got inside and for the first time in a long time, he was smiling. Chiga-san's father was filled with joy, seeing his son be so brave. Secretly, he was scared of the dragon himself, but he wanted his son to grow up to be strong and not to fear anything. The foamy waves washed up against the sides of the boat as Chiga-san's father pushed it deeper into the water and prepared to get inside. Before he was able to, in the distance he saw a bubbling formation. The tide began to grab hold of the boat, pulling it further out into the ocean's grasp. Chiga-san's father's grip on the boat was slipping from the force of the current and the boat left his hands. Chiga-san shouted for help as the boat sailed out beyond the safety of the shore and his father. An arching shape rose to the surface and dove back under the waves again. It surfaced and dove down again only closer this time. Chiga-san's father jumped into the water and swam in quick pursuit of the wayward boat as it drifted closer to the thing that was swimming towards the shore. Chiga-san's father then recognized what the monster was as its black scales made themselves apparent. His worst fears were realized as he saw the demon rising above the waves and opening its mouth. Chiga-san was frozen with fear as the boat seemed to be making a bee-line for the monster's jaws. The dragon's malicious yellow eyes narrowed in anticipation of the small morsel that awaited it.
Chiga-san's father pressed on with super-human speed, reaching the boat. His arm wrenched inside the boat, fishing for anything he could use to defend his only born. The sea serpent rose higher, looking to crash down and swallow them both whole, but Chiga-san's father wouldn't have it. He retrieved a spear and threw it into the beast's flesh. The spear found its place in the skin of the black dragon, but it didn't slow down or damage the foul creature in the least. Chiga-san's father desperately grabbed his son and swam back towards the coast. The strong currents fought his every effort, but with his son's life in such peril, as well as his own, they made no difference. The dragon came down on the boat, smashing it to pieces and then it chased the two back to the shore. Carrying his son in his arms, Chiga-san's father ran from the wet sand onto the dunes, not casting a single look back at the danger he knew was breathing down both of their backs. Chiga-san could see the horrible beast looming over them like a tidal wave. The dragon's shadow poured over them like an eclipse. It even looked like it was bigger on this day than any of the previous times it had attacked the village. The dragon leaped from the sea, taking to the air. Its long form snaked through the air as it scouted the fleeing villagers, wondering which ones to make a meal out of. Chiga-san's father brought his son into the house where his mother was.
"The dragon is back!" she cried.
Her husband quickly told her, "I know. We must run to a safe place outside the village now. Leave everything here."
His wife had no qualms with what he said and the three of them immediately evacuated. The hills were said to be a safe place to stay in times of trouble. Chiga-san did not take his eyes off the village as he saw the hovering dragon fly through the meager houses that dotted the beach, shredding them to pieces and subsequently swooping down on unsuspecting villagers. A few of their neighbors joined them on the hill as they watched the dragon rampage. They were powerless against the dragon's rampage and to make matters worse, they were subjected to this creature's tormenting day in and day out. Chiga-san wished there was something he could do to bring a stop to it somehow, but that seemed to be only a far-fetched dream. The dragon's rage had caused a lantern to knock over and the village began to catch fire. The straw houses easily drew flames and many were reduced to ash in mere minutes before their very eyes. The black dragon twisted the length of its body in the air and curled its head back. The razor sharp teeth of the beast separated and the dragon spewed a hot blast of flames over the village, adding to the raging inferno.
The king of Okinawa was deeply saddened at the sight of the terrible destruction.
"All hope is not lost." came his voice from behind the group of families that managed to reach the refuge of the hills.
Chiga-san's family turned around to see the ruler and his subjects standing there with great concern. The king was a good man and even a village as small and insignificant as this mattered to him. The king pulled a dull-colored brown statue from the large sleeves of his purple embroidered robe. He came over to the boy and kneeled down.
"When I journeyed to China I was given this as a gift." he explained.
He placed the statue in Chiga-san's open hands.
"Take this and tie a rope to the end of it. Set it on the beach tomorrow and it will keep the dragon from harming your village." the king kindly told him.
Chiga-san's father was doubtful and scoffed at the idea. "How is that piece of rock supposed to protect us against that abomination?"
The king stayed patient.
"It has been the legendary guardian of our family for many years, a faithful protector called the Shisa." he replied.
Chiga-san examined the statue in his hands. It was in the form of an animal that looked like a cross between a lion and a dog. It's snarling face was intimidating and even sent a chill down Chiga-san's spine. The statue was in a bowing position in respect to the king.
The king reminded them once again, "Don't forget, put the statue of the Shisa on the sea shore and you will be safe."
He bid them farewell as he and his subjects left on their pampered white horses. The villagers gathered around Chiga-san and the statue curiously. The statue gave off a strange vibe that, oddly enough, did make them feel secure. Chiga-san took the statue into his hands and tied the rope around his arm as he and his family walked back to their house.
That night, the villagers went back to their homes, salvaging whatever they could find in the wreckage. Houses lay in smoking embers. Irreplaceable family items that had been passed down through the generations were forever lost in the destruction. The half of Chiga-san's house that faced the ocean was completely gone. The villagers banded together, many of them taking in other families to provide shelter for the night. Though tightly packed together, the homes welcomed all who were downtrodden from the village. Some people decided to stay up and keep a careful vigil through the night. They took shifts while others would go to bed in the cramped quarters of the houses that had taken multiple families in. Many would go hungry tonight. Bright torches lined the wooden walks that were between the neighboring houses. The ones who dedicated themselves to watch made sure to keep their smoldering flames burning. Chiga-san's family was lucky. They still had a place to sleep tonight. Under the moonlight, the boy placed the statue on the sand and tied the rope to the remaining portion of their house. He looked down at the statue with doubt, but a strange feeling came over him. The face of the mysterious Shisa stared into his soul, promising goodwill. Chiga-san was frightened by the strength of the feeling and told himself it was only silly. Somewhere in the back of his mind he truly did believe they would be protected. He left the guardian dog statue alone on the beach and climbed into bed. The statue kept its eyes forward in its diligent watch.
Early the next morning, the waves crashed against the sea. The dragon had returned. The villagers stood alert, looking out to see the dragon approaching. It seemed even more enraged than the day prior, if that was even possible. Chiga-san looked at the statue tensely. It sat alone on the beach facing the water. Several villagers ran down the dunes and huddled close to the statue. The scaly dragon salivated at the sight of the villagers and dove through the waves towards them. Chiga-san ran from where his parents stood, down to the Shisa statue on the beach.
"Chiga-san! Come back!" yelled his mother, but the boy didn't listen.
The fiendish black dragon opened its mouth as it sprang from the ocean, eager to devour the humble villagers, but it stood still in mid-motion when its eyes met the Shisa's. The serpentine devil's slithering body danced as his fixated eyes did not stray from the statue's unmoving gaze. Suddenly the ground began to rumble as the statue shook violently. The villagers cowered and retreated back to the dunes. Chiga-san did not move, nearly hypnotized by the spectacle. His mother's voice pleaded for him to escape. At the sound of her voice, he dashed up the beach as he saw the statue break open. From the shattered carving came a real version of the noble lion-like creature. It was the size of the dragon! The living, breathing Shisa roared loudly at the terrible beast, striking fear into the very depths of its blackened heart. Its eyes stared into the dragon's with disdain for the lowly, predatory creature. A green gem housed on the Shisa's forehead shined in the sun's light. The dragon slinked backwards, intimidated. The Shisa stood on all fours and growled loud enough that he could be heard from the furthest hills outside the seaside town. The dragon now began to tremble as the Shisa sprang at the serpent, tackling it into the sea. They dove beneath the waves and disappeared. A turbulent foam showed signs of the epic struggle happening below and then came the deep groan of the dragon. The villagers watched, but saw no sign of the Shisa.
"Was he killed?" asked an elderly man who stood over Chiga-san's shoulder.
Chiga-san squinted to see into the ocean, but found nothing. He hoped the old man was wrong. Much murmuring went by as the ocean was still. To the surprise of everyone, a geyser shot up from the water and the Shisa rose from the depths, wrestling with the dragon that was tightly coiled around its body. He let out one last bone-shaking roar as both he and the dragon vanished under the sea again.
"Look at that!" shouted one of the villagers as he pointed to the location where the monsters had been fighting.
A mysterious island had appeared where the monsters were only moments ago out of nowhere. Chiga-san desperately searched the ocean for the lion-dog guardian.
"SHIIII--SAAA!!" he cried, but he never appeared.
Tears began to spring in his eyes as he looked for the lion creature. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Chiga-san saw the statue on the beach, fully restored! He ran down to it and picked it up. There was not a single crack or blemish on it!
Other nearby villages began to hear the tales of the Shisa and decided to carve their own statues for protection. The Shisa was revered as a symbol of protection and good luck. The original Shisa statue was kept safely on the top of the gate of the shrine of the Azumi royal family, who restored the village after the dragon's calamity had ravaged it. The king declared that as long as the Shisa statues were there, the villagers would be kept safe. Years passed by and the village saw no danger. Chiga-san grew up and became a brave warrior, inspired by the Shisa's courage. He even wrote a song in dedication to the guardian and gave the lyrics to the head of the Azumi family. The ballad was kept as a royal Azumi tradition, with each generation being taught its verses. With peace prevailing, the Shisa was never seen again for over one hundred years.
Chapter 2: A Young Hero
Azumi Castle and the beautiful shores that were in front of it became the home to a group of martial artists who practiced the discipline of Ryukyu karate. The art originated from Okinawa and its students trained faithfully in its ways. The sensei was grateful for the Azumi family's generosity of letting them practice in front of their shrine and he also took great pride in it. He urged his students never to take this honor for granted. Sensei Wataba directed the students in kata exercises. One student, Aoki, followed along as his best friend, Kouji, tried to keep up next to him. Aoki was dressed in a traditional gi with his long black hair tied back so it would be kept out of his face. Aoki was a youthful and energetic, but humble young adult. Sensei Wataba always seemed to think of him as a disappointment however, even though Aoki tried very hard in whatever he did. The out-of-shape Kouji panted as he went through a few weak kicking motions until the exercise finally came to an end. All the students bowed and Sensei Wataba left them to allow for their own personal time.
As the sensei departed, Aoki saw a beautiful young woman dressed in an exquisitely fancy kimono with bright colors of orange with gold outlines and a blue sash across her waist. She wore a headdress that was bright blue and lined with gold. Her face was a physical mirror of the purity that resided inside her. Aoki was captivated by the girl's beauty as she bowed to the sensei who came inside the castle. Kouji noticed Aoki staring and a big grin came across his face.
"Hey, Aoki. You like that girl, don't you? Why don't you talk to her?" he said, nudging Aoki in the ribs.
"I-I can't. What if she doesn't like me?" Aoki shyly answered.
"Come on!" Kouji told him and grabbed him, dragging him over to the Azumi princess.
The princess turned to see the short, fat man bringing Aoki in front of her.
"Uh, hi-" Aoki nervously said.
"Go ahead, talk to her!" Kouji whispered.
The Azumi princess giggled.
"My name is Aoki-" he managed to get out.
He suddenly was cut off when the sound of fierce yelling came from the beach. To their horror, the trio saw a boat land on the shore as a group of hostile warriors jumped on shore and attacked the students. Kouji hid behind a wall in the castle. Aoki quickly tried to move the princess to safety. On the beach several students fought hand to hand with the attackers and successfully warded them off. Just then however, from the boat stepped a fearsome armored swordsman. He surveyed the Azumi Castle and immediately spotted the princess. He gave a loud and frightening warcry and charged directly for her. Aoki was frozen with fear. He was unarmed, how was he supposed to protect the princess? Aoki was faced with no other alternative, he took his attack stance as the swordsman charged forward. The princess suddenly cried out in a mysterious song. Aoki's ears perked up at the unusual tune.
"Shisa! Shisa! Shi-sa!" the princess belted out with her hands clasped together towards the sky.
The swordsman raised his sword, ready to cut down Aoki and proceed through the princess next. Aoki's life began to flash before his very eyes as he saw the razor-sharp blade chopping down in agonizingly slow motion in front of him. The hills suddenly trembled from a loud roar. The swordsman quaked where he stood as the princess was overtaken by joy. Aoki looked up in shock to see the giant face of the fabled Shisa!
"King Seesar!" the princess cried excitedly.
The attackers on the beach fled back to the boat as King Seesar chased them. An icy chill dripped down the swordsman's spine as he dropped his blade and ran for the boat as well, but his armor slowed his progress. King Seesar smashed the boat, drowning the warriors inside, and then snarled and stomped after the swordsman. The panicking swordsman made a break for a path that went up towards the hills, but he was no match for King Seesar's superior speed. With a deafening roar, Seesar stomped on the swordsman, sending his soul into oblivion. Crouching down on all fours, the Shisa howled and then thundered off into the hills again. Aoki was stunned at what he had just witnessed.
Kouji shook him and asked, "Aoki? Aoki! Are you alright? You were almost killed back there!".
The princess' father came down the steps of the Castle courtyard and ran to his daughter.
"Are you alright Naomi?" he asked the princess, who was standing next to Aoki and Kouji.
He then cast an angry look towards Aoki.
"Who are you? What are you doing here? Get away from my daughter!" he shouted at him.
Just then Sensei Wataba dusted off his dark brown gi and came up to Aoki.
He spoke with a stern voice, "Aoki, why weren't you there fighting on the beach with the rest of us?"
Aoki brought his head down, ashamed.
"Yeah, why WEREN'T you down there helping your friends?" Princess Naomi's father chimed in.
"Hey, he was the one who saved the princess! You should be thankful!" Kouji interjected, defending his friend.
The words fell on deaf ears however.
"Under no circumstances should one abandon his allies in battle." Sensei Wataba chastised Aoki.
The princess' father whacked Aoki on the head with his cane.
"See! You bum!" he shouted at him.
Sensei Wataba then walked back to the beach with Aoki and Kouji following. The princess watched as Aoki left.
"Hmph. There just aren't any REAL men nowdays. You certainly are not going to end up with someone like that!" Mr. Azumi told her.
With that they went inside the castle.
Chapter 3: The Rigorous Tests
Aoki continued to train. Everyday he vowed to push himself harder until he could win Sensei Wataba's approval. Aoki poured himself completely into his extra efforts, first doubling, then trippling his usual routine. The sun beat down on his bronze skin as he trained without rest daily. Kouji began to worry about him. He came up to his friend, hesitating before interrupting him.
"Hey Aoki, don't you think you should give it a rest?" he asked as Aoki went through several flowing kicking motions.
"No, I can't. I must train harder and become stronger." Aoki replied as he swept the sweat from his face.
He thought of the princess. Another reason he was training so intensely was for her approval as well as her father's. He wanted to be recognized as a real man. Kouji sighed and layed on his cot as Aoki kept training. He worked through the night until his body was sore. When he could do no more, he rested on his cot, falling asleep in seconds. The next morning Aoki walked through the village. The sounds of birds chirping and the gentle breeze swept through his ears and gave way to the hustle and bustle of people as he came closer to the market. Stands were set up with all manner of items for sale. Trinkets and embroidered cloth, weapons, and squid being hung out to dry on racks were all some of the sights in the busy market. Aoki shopped through some of the rare items at one particular seller's stall. 'Maybe I can get Princess Naomi a present.' he thought. Later Aoki returned to Azumi Castle. He bought a beautiful sparkling gold necklace with an oval-shaped ruby. Later, he came closer to the gate and was about to turn the corner when he ran into Mr. Azumi.
"What are you doing here?" asked the old man.
Aoki forgot about the necklace and asked him outright, "I'd like to court your daughter, sir. If... that's alright with you...?", his voice getting higher and becoming more of a question at the end of the statement.
The man looked him over and scoffed.
He replied, "Well, you don't look very strong. My daughter can't have a weak husband."
He looked down to the beach.
"See that boulder over there? If you can run to there and back in two minutes... I'll think about it." he bargained.
Aoki saw the rock and was certain he could do it. He primed himself and set the box down, ready to run.
"I'm ready." he said.
The old man waited and then told him, "Go!".
Aoki broke into a fast sprint on the sand. He raced forward with all the speed his legs would allow. 'Hmm... Ut oh, he might actually do it.' thought Mr. Azumi as he watched. Aoki saw the boulder coming up and had nearly reached it. He stretched out his arm to touch it and then bounded back in the other direction. Kouji came down and watched Aoki, cheering him on.
"Come, on you can do it!" he called out to his friend.
In response Mr. Azumi thought, 'Shut up, no he can't!'. Aoki halted once he got back to the castle, panting. Mr. Azumi leaned forward on his cane and looked down at him with a smile.
"Did I..do..it?" Aoki said between breaths.
"You missed it by JUST a few seconds." Mr. Azumi slyly said.
He turned and headed back inside.
"Better luck next time." he called out as he closed the door.
A few moments later, Mr. Azumi's laughter could be heard from outside. Kouji came to Aoki. "Hey, that was fast. Looks like that training did do you some good afterall." Aoki looked at him with disappointment. "Yeah, but not good enough."
The next day Sensei Wataba started their training exercises earlier than usual. Aoki was tired from overworking himself lately and Kouji was still lagging behind as usual. Sensei Wataba watched them and came over to them.
"You're slacking Aoki." he told him with a frown.
He then looked to Kouji, who was having trouble keeping up.
"I see some of your bad influence must have rubbed off on him." Wataba remarked towards Kouji about Aoki.
'If only he knew' Aoki thought as he recalled the long hours where he sacrificed many nights of sleep to train. Sensei Wataba called for a break and the students were allowed to rest. Aoki returned to his room and immediately went to sleep on his cot.
He began to have a strange dream. There was no sky, only a black background with the canyons of Okinawa as a backdrop, as many images came and went into the horizon of this void overhead. Colorful masks and costumed men dressed up like monsters. Lastly, he saw the Shisa surrounded by men wearing black gi's with wide, dark hakama pants and Tengu masks who danced around the lion god. Strangely, King Seesar seemed to be helpless in defending himself against them. Everything faded away as Kouji shook him awake. He overslept without realizing it.
"Aoki, wake up! They're sparring down on the beach!" Kouji informed Aoki.
Aoki groggily got up and followed Kouji down to the shore where the students were sitting lined up to watch the rest of them spar one on one. Sensei Wataba judged them. As Aoki and Kouji were on the way there, they saw the princess and Mr. Azumi.
"Hey, young man! I've decided to give you another chance." Mr. Azumi called out to Aoki.
They looked down at the sparring match and then back to Mr. Azumi. Kouji stopped him.
"Come on, you know he's just toying with you. He's just trying to make a joke of you. It's not worth it." Kouji told him.
"No, this time I know I can do it." Aoki responded.
They came up to Mr. Azumi and Princess Naomi. Mr. Azumi saw Aoki coming and waved him over to hasten him.
"Alright, this time I want you to get something very valuable for me." Mr. Azumi said.
He pointed out to a tall, thin column of rock that was in the sea.
"On top of there. Go and bring it back to me and then we'll see about my daughter." Mr. Azumi finished.
Aoki eyed the tall rock spire and could vaguely see something on top of it, but couldn't make out what it was.
"Aoki..." Kouji started, but Aoki ignored him and ran down to the water and dove in.
He swam towards the rock as the students began to shift their attention from the match to Aoki. Low waves splashed against his face as he came closer to the rock and looked up. He grabbed hold of the base of the rock just above the crystal clear water and pulled himself up to climb. Sensei Wataba's eyes caught sight of Aoki and wondered what kind of a stunt he was trying to pull. Aoki took hold of an outcrop and climbed higher. Back near the castle, the princess was confused.
"But there's nothing up there." she told Mr. Azumi.
"Shhh! Shh! That's the joke." he whispered, shushing her.
Aoki was just about to grab another place to climb when a humongous wave smacked him from his right and knocked him down. The students laughed as he splashed into the water. Aoki was still determined however, and got back up. He started to climb again, but the water made the rock slippery and he slid back into the ocean.
Mr. Azumi chuckled and told the princess, "Let's go inside now.", dismissing Aoki.
The young warrior didn't give up and clambered up the rock. He was nearly at the top when he could feel something there. It felt like leaves or grass. He lifted himself up to see. It was an empty bird's nest. Aoki gave a quizzical look at it. 'Why would he ever want this? Oh well, he said it was valuable to him for some reason. Maybe it's sentimental.' he thought and grabbed the nest. He dropped down, holding the nest high above the water so it wouldn't get damaged. Not a single drop of water touched it as he valiantly swam back to shore. Cheers came from the students as he returned and headed for the castle. He came to the door and knocked.
"Who is it?" came the grumpy voice of Mr. Azumi.
He opened the door to see a soaked Aoki holding the pristine bird's nest.
"What is this?" he asked.
"The thing you wanted me to retrieve. I've gotten it." Aoki replied.
Mr. Azumi answered back angrily, "Why would I want this ratty old useless thing!?"
He whacked Aoki with his cane again and shut the door in his face. Aoki trudged through the courtyard of the castle and sat down on a bench. Kouji could see the pain on Aoki's face and sat down next to him.
"Aoki, don't waste your time. She's not worth it." he told him once again.
Aoki felt as if he could complete another test, but he began to believe what Kouji was saying.
"You've been doing all this crazy stuff for nothing and it's wearing you out. Even just training was hard for you today." Kouji went on.
Aoki looked sarcastically back at him on the words of the last sentence.
"Well for me of course it's always hard, but you know." said Kouji.
Aoki admitted Kouji was right. He needed balance. That was what the discipline was all about. That night Aoki got some much needed rest. It was the most relaxing sleep he had in ages.
Chapter 4: the Tengumen strike!
As Aoki slept, shady acts were going on at Azumi Castle. A low, mysterious humming chant hovered through the village as a group of men in black gi's with hakamas passed along the creaking wooden walkways between the seaside community's houses. They wore frightening red Tengu masks, some with long white beards attached to them. The masks depicted grumpy, long nosed mountain demons from folk tales dating long into the past. The brightly lit torches on the walkway were silently put out one by one by the Tengumen as they approached the castle. In the courtyard, only the crackling flames of the torches and the song of a stray cricket could be heard. Soon the Tengumen came into the courtyard, chanting softly. They formed a half-circle and all of them gazed upwards to the Shisa statue above the gate. The light from the torches flickered over the brown carving's face. From out of the crescent of Tengumen came a black bearded man wearing a large colorful mask with bull horns. He gazed at the statue and simply nodded. The mysterious Tengumen knew what to do. Moments later they left the courtyard, chanting still and the torches of the courtyard had all been left smoking. The now pitch-dark courtyard was missing something very precious.
The next morning Azumi Castle was turned upside down. Mr. Azumi refused to calm down as he explained to Sensei Wataba's karate students what happened.
"No, I will not trust you! The statue is missing and it could only have been one of you!" Mr. Azumi accused them.
The students were the ones who resided closest to the castle and spent the most time around it aside from Mr. Azumi and his daughter. Sensei Wataba tried to ease his tension.
"We would never take the Shisa statue, or anything else that didn't belong to us for that matter." Sensei Wataba replied, keeping his composure.
The ornery Mr. Azumi eyed Aoki.
"You... I'll bet it was you trying to get revenge on me!" spat Mr. Azumi, condemning Aoki.
Aoki lifted his hands in surrender, shaking his head and denying the accusation as Mr. Azumi's cane loomed closer, ready to hit him again. Aoki then noticed something on the ground.
"Hey, look!" he said, pointing to the mark on the ground.
It was directly in front of the gate where the statue was kept. At first no one could make it out, but one of Wataba's students recognized it.
"A bull!" the disciple exclaimed.
Sensei Wataba's face turned gravely serious just as Mr. Azumi's did.
"Oh no, do you know what this means? The Aku Sang-ok cult of Ishigaki Island has taken our guardian!" Mr. Azumi exclaimed to them.
"Who?" Aoki questioned.
Mr. Azumi explained further. "Years ago a man named Shin Gon Jo was banished from the island of Okinawa. He formed his own cult afterwards centered around a giant bull-like creature. His followers all wear Tengu masks to frighten anyone who dares trespass on their mountain hideout."
"Where are they camped?" Sensei Wataba asked.
"Mount Omotodake." Mr. Azumi replied.
He was clearly devastated by the loss of the statue.
Wataba then assured him, "We will go and bring back the statue of King Seesar."
Aoki interjected, "No wait! I'll go."
Sensei Wataba looked at him doubtfully.
"Please give me this chance to prove myself." Aoki requested.
Wataba thought long and hard. Though this was a fine opportunity for Aoki to test his mettle, it was far too dangerous to risk the student's life.
"I will not fail." Aoki promised.
Wataba's face did not change. He placed his hands firmly on Aoki's shoulders and spoke.
"You know what a journey like this entails, don't you?" he said with concern in his voice.
"And you're fully prepared to risk the possibility of not coming back?" Wataba asked.
"I will return." Aoki answered.
Wataba nodded his head in acknowledgment.
"You are a brave man." he returned.
He turned to address his students.
"His courage is admirable. Learn from this lesson."
The princess grew worried. Aoki saw her from the corner of his eye and went over to her. He could see that she was very worried.
"May good fortune follow you." Princess Naomi told him as he came near her.
Aoki searched his pockets, which were empty. He then removed his headband to give to her.
"Take this to remember me by." The princess accepted the gift and smiled. Seeing her smile brought a smile to Aoki's face as well.
"I'll be back. Don't lose it!"
he said to her as he and the students left the courtyard. Everyone murmured to each other about whether Aoki's move was brave or foolish. Kouji seemed the most concerned.
"Hey, why'd you do that? You could be killed you know!" he told him.
Then a thought hit Kouji. "Hey, are you doing this just to impress the princess?" Kouji inquired with suspicion.
Aoki tried to hide his embarrassment.
"Well, that's part of the reason. I also have to prove that I'm courageous enough to Sensei Wataba." he explained.
"Well getting yourself killed isn't going to prove anything except that you've got rocks in your head!" Kouji said, making a knocking motion against his skull.
Aoki's mind couldn't be changed. Sensei Wataba prepared special equipment for Aoki to bring on his quest. There were barrels of food and weapons, along with a boat for him to travel to the island with.
"We wish you good luck." Wataba told him as the students lined up behind him bowed.
Kouji was watching as his best friend was about to climb in the boat. He couldn't take it any longer.
"Wait! I must go too." he told Wataba.
Aoki was surprised by his friend's split-second decision and asked, "Why?".
Kouji answered him with his usual smart alec sense of humor intact. "To watch you make a complete fool of yourself and turn back."
Later they were all set to shove off from the clear shore of Okinawa. Aoki and Kouji were both supplied with extra food and weapons and the anxiety of the dangerous adventure was beginning to grow. At the same time though, there was a feeling of excitement. Sensei Wataba and the students wished them well again and waved goodbye one last time as the princess ran down to the beach and waved to Aoki. Aoki waved back and could see Mr. Azumi in the background, scowling at him. Kouji rowed the boat further out into the water over the awe-inspiring palette of coral reefs by the coast. Their journey had finally started.
Chapter 5: Sailing to Ishigaki Island: Attack of Akki Sakanah, the Devil Fish!
To the southwest of Okinawa's main island was Ishigaki Island in the Okinawan chain. Of all the mountains in the region, Mt. Omotodake was the tallest. It would be a perilous trek, but Aoki was confident he could get the statue back. Kouji and Aoki switched off rowing and their days soon became a routine: they would switch every hour rowing the boat until noon, eat, then begin again until dinner. Two days had passed during the long journey so far. Kouji stopped and wiped the sweat from his temple.
"Hey, I don't know about you, but being out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by water with no land in sight keeps telling me that this was a bad idea." Kouji told Aoki as he took an egg from the barrel of food.
"We'll make it to the island as long as we don't give up." replied Aoki.
Kouji munched on the egg and then retorted, "Yeah, but say we make it to the island and get killed by the Tengumen. Or wild animals. Or What if the boat springs a leak and we end up drowning before we even get there?"
Aoki shook his head. "Stop worrying. We'll be just fine."
A few minutes went by and they continued eating. The sky began to turn a dark gray as clouds quickly blew by above them.
"You know, if you come back after all this and marry the princess, you'll be royalty. Just imagine it: King Aoki." joked Kouji.
"Don't forget to give me a place in the kingdom." Kouji added.
They continued to laugh until the boat began to rock from the waves. The tossing waves started to get more violent. The sky began to darken as they both heard a booming thunder in the distance that froze them in their seats.
"We better get moving again." Kouji said and sealed the food supply and grabbed the oars.
Aoki stood up in the boat, looking out in the distance.
"What is it? What do you see?" Kouji asked and turned around.
A black shape protruded from the surface of the waves, answering his question. It swam in a straight line with them and seemed to be moving closer.
"Steer away from it!" Aoki cried, as Kouji was doing just that.
The terrifying thing still seemed to be on a crash course with them. It plunged below the dark waves and disappeared. Both Aoki and Kouji were relieved. Just then, a long appendage with a light at the end of it rose above the water's surface. The creature was still headed for them!
The form's entire body began to surface, revealing first long, dagger-like teeth from the deformed mouth of a giant angler fish! It opened it's jaws, ready to swallow the boat whole, when Aoki grabbed a bow from the box of weapons they had been supplied with and aligned an arrow with it. Kouji was at first in the way of the arrow and he curled up into a ball. "Aoki what are you doing?!" he shouted before Aoki turned and rose the bow, aiming for the fish's uvula. He released the arrow, which soared into the mouth of the hell-spawned fish. The arrow skewered through the dangling appendage inside its mouth and it squealed in pain. Blood spurted from the sides of its now closed mouth between its monstrous teeth as it went back under the water. The monster's blood flowed around the boat as it dove under it. Aoki grabbed the oars and paddled as fast as he could to get away from the aquatic tormentor. Kouji looked back just as Akki Sakanah, the angler, surfaced again in a rage. It leaped into the air and came down like a whale. The waves splashed at the boat, pushing it forward with force. The monstrous fish rose again and chomped with its jaws, going on a straight course for the boat. Kouji took the bow into his hands. He had never even touched a bow in his life, which added to his nervousness. Aoki continued to row faster to escape as Akki Sakanah bore down on them. Kouji closed his eyes and shot the arrow at the fish. It squeaked in intense agony. Kouji opened his eyes to see that he had shot the angler right in the eye!
"Looks like mama was right when she said 'you'll put your eye out'!" Kouji shouted out to the sea monster, taunting it.
Aoki could finally see something in the distance. Land at last! The sight of the island revitalized him and made him row even faster. Akki Sakanah picked up the chase once again, more enfuriated than ever before. Kouji panicked and tried to scramble for another arrow, but accidentally knocked the rest of the arrows into the water. They disappeared under the waves, never to be seen again. Kouji tried to grab for a few of them, but couldn't reach them before they sank. He threw the bow in the water in anger and desperately looked for another weapon. Akki Sakanah sped up and bumped the boat, pushing it forward. Aoki almost lost one of the oars and took a much firmer grip as he ground his teeth together. Kouji fell over and was now staring face to ugly face with the angler fish. He screamed in terror and without thinking, grabbed the barrel of food. He threw it at the monster, splintering it into shards. It slowed down Akki Sakanah by only a small margin.
Aoki saw the desperate move and yelled at Kouji, "Take the oars!" and went to the back of the boat.
He scooped up a long sword from the box of weaponry and held it at the ready. Akki Sakanah was closing in. Aoki stared tensely, waiting for him to get closer as the wind and rain came down upon him.
"Come on, come on..." he muttered.
When the demon's mouth unhinged, Aoki jammed the sword between the eyes of Akki Sakanah just under the bioluminescent stalk protruding from its head. Blood and a slimey mustard-brown-colored fluid squirted from the break in Akki Sakanah's rubbery skin. Lightning lit up the sky right after the deadly strike as the fish gave a soul-shaking cry. It breached out of the water, seemingly to continue after them, and sank like a stone into the cold depths. Showering rain poured down furiously as thunder rumbled directly over them. The wind blew rain droplets into Aoki's eyes as he tried to look ahead. Both Aoki and Kouji then felt a shaking in the core of their stomachs from the thunder. Lightning struck once again over the haunting scene. The danger of Akki Sakanah was vanquished and now in front of them stood the terrifying Ishigaki Island. The black outline of the island was only lit up by the frightful lightning strikes that crackled above the area. They were ready to land.
Chapter 6: Landing on Ishigaki Island- the decadent town of Tempai-Sui
The boat came closer to the unwelcoming jagged shores of Ishigaki Island. The small boat was rocked forcibly by a strong wave. Kouji tried to row further, but they appeared to be sandbarred.
"It's useless now. We'll have to make it to the shore ourselves." Aoki said.
He took the remaining weapons, a pair of short swords, with him and jumped onto the rock that was inches below the water level. Kouji abandoned the boat as a huge wave crashed over it, sending it into a rocky jetti. They ran down the narrow strip of rock back to the island's shore. A rolling thunder shook the very earth they stood on and Kouji looked back to see another wave come down and utterly destroy the boat. Aoki jumped from the jetti to the wet sand. The waves washed over where he stood, rising up to his knees. Water filled his boots as he trudged through the pounding waves on the shore. Kouji jumped down to the beach and ran for higher ground. The wind howled and blew at them with great force as they came from the beach further inland. The first sight that met them was what appeared to be a village that was battered by the typhoon. Parts of some houses were still standing, but the village had been demolished for the most part.
"Let's go to that one for shelter." Aoki told Kouji, pointing to the house that seemed to have the most of its structure intact.
It was one of the few that actually had a roof left. They waited inside for what felt like hours for the storm to die down. It was cold and damp. The rain leaked through the thatched roof and the gaping hole in the wall above them didn't help keep the rain out either. Kouji looked at Aoki without saying anything and then finally spoke.
"Well, look at it this way. We had food, and we have shelter and clothing, we've got everything we need." Kouji said optimistically.
Aoki gave a look back that was less than cheerful. His mind began to drift to wondering how they would ever get off the island now. They were now trapped on the island with the notoriously cruel Tengumen, which neither of the two had even seen before. This thought made Aoki even more unsettled. When the rain ceased, they decided to move on. The muddy path that cut through the overgrown jungle eventually showed signs of civilization ahead. The sky turned a lighter shade of gray and the air grew thicker and muggy. Aoki hacked at the ferns in his way with his sword and they came to an area with grass that came up to their shoulders. The land was now dry. The two adventuring warriors made their way through the reeds until there was a clearing. Coming out of the grass, Aoki and Kouji could see a city below them from the hill they were standing on. It had brightly colored flags lining its main street and hundreds of people moving about. They could see shops and houses, along with what looked like high class restaurants. A tall pagoda was to the far side of the town. The weathered travelers entered the town and walked down the main street. The smiling faces of traditional dancers greeted them.
"Welcome to Tempai-sui!" they cheerfully welcomed them.
This was nothing like what Aoki and Kouji expected from the imfamously horrible island. As they continued down the street salesmen offered free samples of exotic foods to them and everyone they came across said hello to them. The sun shined brightly in the sky now. The sounds of music and clapping came from further down the road. This town seemed like the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate themselves after the three day journey on the sea.
Aoki and Kouji continued down the road where they were immersed in bright flashy displays of merchantry and a fun-filled atmosphere. Nearly every stand seller tried to get their attention or tried to offer them a special deal and the two were greeted by a traveling caravan of dancers. The performers started their impressive display in the center of the road with a synchronized dance. The women in bright red patterned kimonos spun as the men circled them, wearing brightly colored dragon heads for masks. A bottomlessly deep drum was beating to their movements as the dancers all jumped at once and bowed for the audience to finish their routine. Applause erupted from the gathered crowd on the sides of the road as the band broke up and traveled further down.
"Hey, you know I might get to like this town." Kouji said.
Aoki felt the same way, but at the same time in the back of his mind something wasn't right. First of all what was this lively town doing on such a terribly fabled island? There were no signs of the Tengumen anywhere yet. It seemed as if they mistakenly came to the wrong place. Down the road, people crowded around a felt cloth table as a man wearing a blue kimono stood on a platform. He called out numbers as the people waited, and then cheers came out occasionally when their number was picked in the raffle. Further along there was a sumo wrestling contest being held outside. There was so much to see and do all at the same time. Kouji looked at it all in awe. Aoki looked at himself. His clothes were dirty and they hadn't eaten since the interrupted meal during the boat trip.
"Let's get some fresh clothes and eat before we do any more sight-seeing." he said, pointing to a restaurant that had two broad wine-red doors framed with green outlines at the top of its steps.
The pair came inside and they were welcomed by a geisha. She bowed and showed them to a table. Aoki and Kouji sat down on the plush pillows that were on the floor and waited for the woman to come back. Bottles of sake rested on the table. Kouji went to reach for one.
"Don't mind if I do." he said as he went to grab it, but Aoki slapped his hand away.
"Don't be an idiot." he said.
The waitress came in and Aoki looked up, thinking they looked like fools. The woman read them a variety of choices, all of them sounding delicious and many of them were dishes they had never heard of. Aoki ordered an intricately placed shrimp dish along with nori seaweed, while Kouji went for tonkatsu fried pork with miso soup. Aoki and Kouji started to talk about what they were going to do next when a curtain parted and the shades were dimmed. Miniature candles were lit near the small stage of a bunraku puppet show. A flowing octave of notes glided across a shamisen to open the show. The play started and it didn't take long to figure out that it was a comedy. Other tables near Aoki and Kouji's erupted with laughter as the show went on. The two travelers ate their food and enjoyed the show, but something began to bother Aoki. He looked to the other tables to see empty glasses of sake piled high and some customers falling over on each other with drunk laughter. He looked to his right and saw the same scene. A porcelain glass broke and Aoki and Kouji turned to the sound. They saw that everyone else in the restaurant was insanely drunk! The geishas acted as if nothing was out of place. They only calmly cleaned up some of the mess.
"Come on, let's get out of here." said Aoki.
Kouji nodded and they got to the front to pay.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" the smiling geisha asked them.
"Uh, yes." Aoki nervously replied.
They paid and exited the restaurant.
"What a crazy place." said Kouji as they went down the steps of the restaurant.
Before they could even move down the street, a wagon stopped before them. It had high, flowery curtains concealing lavish merchandise. An odd man wearing gold-rimmed glasses jumped down from the carriage holding a fancy hand-crafted bottle in each hand.
"Would you like to buy anything?" he asked with a grin.
Aoki turned his offer down and they continued down the road. They needed to find a clothes shop and a place to rest. One building on the road to their left had racks of clothes outside. They peered at them for a few seconds and two beautiful ladies asked them if there was anything they could help them with. Aoki looked at the expensive-looking clothes and then turned back to the women.
"What's the cheapest thing you have?" he inquired.
"Cheap? We do not sell cheap clothing here. Why, we have only the best!" the lady said proudly.
She grabbed Aoki's hand and directed him to a special rack.
"These would look nice on you." she said as she brought out a shirt and some pants.
Kouji was smiling ear to ear as the woman attending to him offered to give him a fancy set of clothes for a special low price.
"Hey, I don't know about you but I like this place. We're being treated like kings!" he said. "And the girls are cute!" he whispered, nudging Aoki in the arm.
Aoki couldn't argue with Kouji. It seemed the entire town had been very cordial to them and they were only strangers. The woman saw that they seemed to be satisfied with their clothing choices and brought them inside.
"Our hotel has world-class service. Will you be staying the night?" the girl asked as she appeared behind the desk.
Aoki was surprised. Not only was this a clothes shop, but a hotel where they catered to your every whim!
"We might as well." Aoki said in agreement.
"Good then." she replied. "Will you be needing any...special services with your rooms?" she asked.
Aoki and Kouji were shocked at her words.
"Uh, no thanks." Aoki told them.
With that, they paid and the hostess took them up to a room and left.
That night they could hear a wild party going on next door. A domino game saw mounds of cash changing hands quickly, with some players going from being enormously wealthy to broke within seconds. Wild hooting and screaming came from the room. The seedy town was showing its true colors now. Aoki's thoughts began to drift to the faraway Azumi princess. He wondered what she could be doing and if she kept his headband in memory of him. He began to miss the placid shores of Okinawa. A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts and Kouji answered it. It was a geisha who was holding a bamboo tray of sake bottles. She gave Kouji two of them and informed him that all the hotel guests were invited to a party with dancing girls. Kouji nodded excitedly and the servant woman smiled and went to the next room.
He brought the sake bottles back and said to Aoki, "Hey, let's go see the dancing girls downstairs!".
Aoki looked him with disappointment.
"Have you fallen into this town's lifestyle too? We have a job to do, have you forgotten about that?" he chided him.
"Why don't you lighten up? Ever since we got into this town you've been nothing but a stick in the mud!" Kouji returned.
Aoki ignored him and kept his temper at bay. He knew at least he hadn't lost his own focus. The princess and the state of the Azumi household with the statue gone was now constantly on his mind. Kouji sighed.
"Well, I'm going downstairs to have some fun... unlike you. Goodnight." he said as he brought the bottles of sake with him downstairs.
Aoki dismissed his ignorance and went to sleep.
As he began to dream, Aoki saw the crystal clear water wash upon the shores of the beach near Azumi Castle. Princess Naomi sang a beautiful song as Aoki watched from afar. He started to come closer when the beach, the castle, and everything that was so familiar faded and he instead was surrounded by laughter. A group of people from the restaurant surrounded him. 'Are they laughing at me?' he wondered. Their creepy grinning faces hid the people's true motives as Aoki began to feel as if he were in danger. The door in front of him slid to the side. It was a doorway to a hall. He entered, leaving the laughing crowd behind, and there in front of him stood a geisha who was holding a fan. Around her appeared plates of fatty foods and pitchers of sake.
"Come, indulge." she said, batting her long eyelashes at him suggestively.
Aoki looked around, trying to find the Azumi princess, but she was nowhere to be found. There seemed to be no exit to the room. Suddenly his limbs were held fast by a spider's web. He saw the laughing crowd pour into the room and a giant spider crawled towards him from the ceiling.
"Nooo!" Aoki cried as he looked up into its eyes, which were filled with malice.
He tried to move his arms, but the web held him as if he were bound in shackles. The spider hissed from its upside-down position and jumped towards him. Aoki was shot from the dream back to reality just before the spider reached him. He heard laughter from next door that sounded exactly like from the dream. The deja vu feeling confused him. Then he remembered Kouji. Downstairs in the room where the rowdy party was happening, Kouji sat passed out with sake bottles scattered everywhere. The dancing girls were giving him a massage as the rest of the drunken guests were babbling nonsense to each other and laughing.
Aoki came down the single stair into the room and shouted to his friend. "Kouji!"
He coughed from the heavy veil of opium smoke that clouded the room. He ran to the dazed Kouji.
"Come on, we've got to get out of here!" he exclaimed.
One of the dancing girls sat Aoki down on a pillow in front of the table and passed him a drink. "Enjoy yourself." she told Aoki.
Aoki pushed the alcoholic beverage aside. Kouji began to wake up and saw Aoki through blurred eyes.
"Get up, Kouji!" Aoki begged him, but the drinks had already done their work.
Instead of staying idle, he carried his groggy friend out of the room. Aoki went down the hall to the entrance. Once outside, he carried him to a merchant's cart. Aoki shoved the silk cloths that were set up on top of it away and put Kouji in the cart. Aoki pushed the cart through the empty streets of Tempai-Sui. Lanterns lit the way down the road as he saw a lonely path leading outside the village. Ferns grew over most of the sides of the trail, which seemed to fade into the grass. 'It doesn't look like many people have taken this way.' he thought. Then after thinking of the strong vice of pleasure and excess the town was, he knew why. The path went up a small hill where Aoki rested. There was no moon in the sky. The only light was from the torch-lit town he could see below. He soon realized he felt more exhausted than he thought. A bright display of fireworks began to explode over the town as streaming rainbows blotched the moonless firmament. The town looked appealing, but Aoki decided to press on and find another place to rest. He walked on, leaving the town far behind. Soon there was nothing left to light the way forward, but Aoki kept his pace up. He went on until he could not walk another step. He dropped to his knees and then fell forward onto the ground. Instead of grass or grungy dirt like he expected, he discovered it was a soft bed of flowers he was resting in. The comfortable field made him instantly fall asleep as the early hours of the morning marched on.
Chapter 7: Run from Akki Karasu and Akki Kumo!
The refreshing wet dew caused Aoki to wake up. The dim light from the rising sun revealed the field of flowers he had slept in during the night. It stretched far and wide across the land in front of him. They were colorful and flowed with beauty. A softly colored blue petaled flower stood out among the rest. Aoki came to it and kneeled down to pick it. The flower had the texture of velvet and was shaped like a small bell. He had never seen a flower like it. He decided to bring it back with him when the trip was over to give to Naomi. A cool breeze blew as Aoki could feel the dew's refreshing condensation being carried with it. In the dark hours of the early morning he saw that the path was no longer there, but there were purplish-blue shaded mountains in the distance. Perhaps one of them was Mount Omotodake. Kouji then woke up inside the cart. His back ached from the rigid lumber he spent the night on. He sneezed from the dew that dripped into his nose. He rubbed his eyes and got up.
"Hey, what happened?" he asked, breaking the silence of the morn.
He had a feeling of sickness in his stomach and his head ached.
"It's best that you forget it." Aoki answered him, and they got up and moved on in the direction of the mountains.
The top branches of a massive cherry blossom tree peeked over the ground as the two climbed a rolling hill. Once they reached the top, a sight of awe greeted them. A serene lake with a single island in the center of it where the cherry tree was nestled was before them. A gentle waterfall splashed pure, cold water from a spring that tumbled into the lake. Kouji ran to the lake's edge and looked in the water's reflection. He cupped his hands and washed his face with the cool, refreshing water. Aoki looked to the island and could see someone sitting under its protective branches with their back to them.
"What is it? What do you see?" inquired Kouji.
Aoki waded into the water further to get a better look. As he came closer he could hear the notes of a flute being played. Kouji waded in after him as Aoki began to swim through the shallow lake to the land form. The song was soothing and it complimented the beautiful scenery around them perfectly. It felt as if Aoki and Kouji were in another world. Aoki came out from the water onto the island under the shade of the cherry blossom tree blanketed by the navy blue sky. The musician stopped playing and swung her head around to the surprised warrior. She quickly hid her face at the sight of Aoki and put away her flute.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know anyone was here." she apologized with a tone of shame in her gentle voice.
Aoki was baffled by her embarrassment.
"But that song- it was... beautiful." he told her.
The girl's eyes widened in bewilderment.
Joy filled her face and then she timidly said, "No one's ever told me that before."
Kouji approached the island and came ashore.
"You should play for people more often." Aoki suggested, smiling.
"I've practiced here every morning." she confessed. "Am I really good?" she asked with a shade of doubt as she blushed.
"Yes!" answered both Aoki and Kouji, showing their approval of her playing.
"You should find a way off of this island, somewhere far away, and show people your skill." suggested Kouji.
The girl lit up and took out her flute once more. She sat crosslegged on the soft grass and began to play again. Aoki and Kouji listened to her play, mesmerized by the peaceful music. At the end of the piece, the girl opened her eyes and Kouji clapped for her.
"Thank you! You're right, I need to go somewhere where other people can appreciate my music too!" she told them excitedly.
She stood up and gave both Kouji and Aoki hugs and thanked them again. Aoki then saw that she had a wooden boat that was painted red sitting on the other side of the island.
"Can you take us to shore?" he asked.
"Of course! Anything for you both!" she replied gladly.
The trio rowed to the opposite side of the lake, where the sandy shore gave way to a drooping hillside. The way ahead gradually dipped into a low valley with a sprawling field of corn. The girl thanked them again as the two young men got out of the boat and she began to paddle back to the other side of the lake.
Aoki and Kouji watched her go and then looked ahead. They gave each other the same serious expression and then nodded, knowing what the task at hand was. They ran to the corn field and Aoki brought out his sword to cut his way through the agrarian area. Skeletal dead trees stood hunched over in the area of the corn field and the sound of crows could be heard in these early morning hours. The sky above them turned a blazen, orange-red color. Aoki sliced through a patch of corn stalks as Kouji sifted his way through the cleared path after him. Kouji sniffed the air. He could smell the pungent odor of smoke.
"Something's burning up ahead." he alerted Aoki.
Several farmers working the fields in these hours just after dawn fled in terror, screaming in the distance. Their sound was too quiet for Aoki and Kouji to hear, but both of them had a feeling of dread at the sight of the black smoke rose above them. Suddenly a loud screech sent a shock through their ears. Behind them a humongous crow flapped its great wings, cawing loudly. Kouji yelled in terror as Akki Kasaru, the demon crow, stared at him hungrily with its red glowing eyes. The jet black shadow swooped down after them. Aoki desperately tried to move forward, but was pulled to the ground by his friend Kouji. Akki Kasaru barely missed the warrior. As Aoki crawled on the ground to move ahead, he could feel the heat of the flaming corn stalks getting nearer. Smoke snaked around them and they could see the corn field more clearly now from the fire's amber light. Akki Kasaru circled around the field with a deep guttural caw escaping its throat. It scoured the ground for any sign of the tasty victims.
Aoki was met with a wall of fire as the burning stalks tumbled in front of him. Kouji and hescrambled up and ran to find another way to escape this maze. Akki Kasaru spotted them and ripped through the sky down to his targets. Kouji ducked, but Aoki did not get down in time to avoid the divebomb. The black razor-sharp talons of the crow sliced through the flesh of his back. Aoki winced in pain and after a few seconds of delayed pain reaction, he screamed from the agony as stripes of blood stung his back. The excruciating wound felt as if burning salt had just been poured into it. The rolling flames pushed the pain further as lines of crimson slid down his back. Akki Kasaru circled around and swept down for another pass at them. Kouji pushed his friend out of the way and fell backwards, just narrowly missing a strike from the bird's talons. Aoki was too hurt to fight and he had dropped his sword. Kouji flared with rage and courage welled up inside of him. He took the sword and stood courageously in front of the dark avian foe. The embers painted orange tints of light on its feathery body as Akki Kasaru flapped its wings above the burning crop field. Kouji lifted the sword up, challenging the crow to come to him.
"You coward!" he yelled with fire in his eyes.
The bird almost seemed to display a feeling of insult and dove for the portly man. Kouji lashed out with his sword as Akki Kasaru's massive talons opened, ready for the kill. Devastating wounds were dished out to both parties and both fell backwards to the ground. Kouji had stuck the sword in the belly of the crow and Akki Kasaru's talons did not miss their mark. Kouji's entire upper body and face was cut badly from the attack. Aoki crawled to his wounded companion.
"Kouji? Kouji! Are you alright?" he cried.
Kouji was motionless. Aoki looked up at the black bird, and upon turning back, he saw that Kouji was still breathing which brought relief. Akki Kasaru gave a distorted screeching sound that pierced the sky as the blazes consumed its body. It flapped its flaming wings, rising once more in front of them before collapsing again to the ground in the burning crops. Black feathers swirled through the air like a mid-winter snowfall over the corn field. The fallen fowl's corpse vanished in the all-consuming flames. Only the bones of the avian creature remained, which soon turned into nothing more than a dark purple haze of smoke. Aoki and Kouji fled as fast as they could to escape the inferno.
Aoki and Kouji were out of the fields, but still in the valley between the great mountains that were on both sides of them. Ahead of them there was a dusty gray trail that dipped down further into the valley and rose back up on the other side. It was overshadowed by the mountain on the far side of the path. It was bound to be Mt. Omotodake. The travelers followed the simply-set path that was before them. As the trail came to its lowest point, a vast shadow cast over the pair. Aoki could see long, needle-like projections reaching out from the sides of the shadow. There were eight of them all together. The realization hit him just seconds before he turned around to look. A giant spider, Akki Kumo, the devil guardian of the valley, loomed over them. It hissed sinisterly and it scuttled down towards them. Aoki and Kouji ran with all the energy they had left in their bodies to the end of the uphill trail. The creeping arachnid scaled the hill with ease. At the top of the trail, a marshy area was unveiled. Its stench reached their nostrils as they saw the muddy hurtle that stood in their way of escaping this dangerous monster. The now tired Aoki and Kouji crashed into a wall of hopelessness as they saw the daunting obstacle. Akki Kumo rose from the side of the hill and any thought of giving up disappeared from their minds.
Running on nothing but pure adrenaline, the duo stomped through the marsh in flight of the wicked spider. The eight-legged menace sprayed thick entangling strands of webbing after them, attempting to trap them. Kouji felt the tangling sticky substance hold his leg in place in the water. He worked to get free, but the web was too strong. Aoki turned around to see his friend's plight and in a graceful slashing motion, cut the web. Akki Kumo picked up the chase as its greatly dwarfed prey came to the end of the marsh. They jumped out of the murky water and ran across the short stretch of grass that was ahead of them, nearly spent and still hurting from their previous wounds from Akki Kasaru. The mountain was much closer now, but with nothing to slow down Akki Kumo and both men quickly running out of energy, it looked as if they would not make it there to worry about it. Kouji dropped to the ground. He could not run another step. Aoki soon collapsed also, his legs aching. He tried to will himself to go on, but there was nothing left physically to execute his wishes. He looked up as the monstrous arachnid's mandibles swung open, ready to snatch Kouji up in a single bite. Kouji screamed in fear as the demonic spider sprayed webbing onto him, securing him to the ground to prevent him from escape. He wouldn't have been able to even if not for the webbing. Akki Kumo salivated longingly at the helpless human that would soon sustain him after months of no food. A lone arrow sailed across the air, penetrating the exoskeleton of the spider just below its jaws. It shrieked in pain as another arrow lodged itself between its head and abdomen. The downed Aoki could barely make out a figure, not far in the distance, holding a bamboo yumi bow and leveling it towards the spider. A third arrow met its mark, severing two of Akki Kumo's legs. The Kyudo archer walked closer, firing arrows as he advanced in a tremendous show of skill. Each of the pointed projectiles hit Akki Kumo, bringing the arachnid terror to the ground. Akki Kumo rolled over on its round, black cherry-colored abdomen. The wretched creature writhed and squirmed with a disgusting crumpling sound, but any movement it attempted was futile. It stopped stirring and its legs began to shrivel up as it layed on its back. It ceased to move and all was silent. The mysterious saviour approached the men.
Chapter 8: The return of Chiga-san
Aoki wasn't sure at first whether he was saving them or if he was only trying to kill the demon his own safety. He tried to clench his fingers around his sword, but he did not have the strength to do it. The old man came closer and extended his hand down to Aoki. The young adult was surprised to see a friendly face hidden behind the thin white beard of the archer. The elderly warrior wore a hat made of goatskin and a padded leather vest of armor, along with a belt filled with various objects. A quiver rested on his back. He helped Aoki up and took out a mysterious pouch. He produced a small vial and administered a special medicine to the fallen fighter. He walked over to Kouji and did the same. Miraculously, Aoki and Kouji's scathing wounds were healed completely and their vigor returned to them in a matter of seconds.
"Thank you sir." said Aoki gratefully.
Kouji asked, "Who are you?".
The old man put the pouch of medicine away and slung his bow over his back.
"My name is Chiga-san. I've come from far away to return honor to my family." the old man related.
Aoki and Kouji's eyes widened.
"Chiga-san? The legendary warrior!" they exclaimed in unison.
Chiga-san smiled and realized he had fellow Okinawans in his midst.
"I see you're from Okinawa as well, unless of course the tales have traveled even to the reaches of this dark place." he said.
He faced towards the mountain and went on. "I was named after my great ancestor, Chiga-san, the one who was presented with the famous Shisa statue. The statue has gone missing and I've traveled all this way to return it to its rightful place and restore honor to my family's name."
Kouji then added in excitedly, "That's what we're here for too! We can work together to get it back!"
Chiga-san nodded. Before they could get too excited he wisely warned them not to think their journey would be easy.
"Not so fast." he said. Before they could get discouraged however, Chiga-san added, "On the top of Mt. Omotodake is the camp of the Tengumen." he said, pointing to the mountain where dark gray clouds were gathered around its crown.
It seemed to be a darker shade now that they were closer to it and it cast a shadow over them that extended to the dry corpse of Akki Kumo. Chiga-san began to walk as he talked to them and Aoki and Kouji picked up the pace to catch up to him.
"The Tengumen are not to be taken lightly. They are crafty and they keep a keen watch over this domain. We must stay alert and be ready for any tricks they might try to use to capture or kill us." he explained.
They walked on until they reached the base of Mt. Omotodake. It's soil was composed of ashes mixed with a fine, powdery dirt. The spiraling pathway was guided by crude torches that were stuck in the ground by the sides of the road. The closer they got, the more fear filled Aoki and Kouji. Chiga-san seemed unaffected, but behind the mask of fearlessness, he himself was secretly afraid of the traps the Tengumen no doubt set for them.
The trio continued to climb the mountain trail. As they progressed further, the dwindling plant-life began to become less and less frequent. The earth was a dark brown color, with burning cinders littering the sides of the road occasionally. The trail began to give way to rock rather than soil as they came to what looked like a group of houses. They were simple home built out of wood, and they appeared to be abandoned. As Chiga-san, Aoki, and Kouji passed through the small outpost they looked at their surroundings, checking for any traps or the Tengumen themselves. Little did they know that from the seemingly empty houses watched the preening eyes of the Tengumen. The threesome walked up the next curving ramp-like road that neared the top. Anticipation and anxiety coursed through them as they knew that with each step they were coming upon the camp of the Tengumen. As they rounded the corner of the pathway, they were surprised to be met with a cave entrance. Cautiously they proceeded. Chiga-san grabbed one of the torches from outside the entrance for light to guide them. They listened intently for signs of danger and they could hear a low chanting sound coming from the other side of the narrow moss-lined cave. The warriors could feel the passage moving down and the flickering light of torches became evident at the end of the tunnel. They exited the cave to find themselves on a lower portion of land with a bamboo forest. Chiga-san was now lost. He only knew that the Tengumen were based on the mountain, but he never heard tales of this place. Maybe it was because no one had ever gotten this far and returned alive. Aoki clutched his sword as they came closer to the dark forest. The sky was still dark and the mountain cave behind them concealed any sign of the sun beginning to rise. Chiga-san wedged the torch in the ground just before the bamboo forest and they ventured inside.
There were hundreds of thin stalks of bamboo around them and the canopy formed by the sprouts from the trees completely covered the sky from their vision. A jade fog rolled between the trunks of the bamboo trees. The only sounds were the rustling of leaves with each of their steps and the chirping songs of crickets. A lone egret began to make its call in the early hours of the morning light. Aoki's eyes darted from side to side as they could hear the ominous, low-sounding chant of the Tengumen once more. Chiga-san disappeared from sight and soon Kouji also vanished. Aoki was left alone in the silent forest as he drew his sword. The tension mounted. A Tenguman crept up behind Aoki without a single sound. With Aoki's training however, he did not need to hear his opponent coming. He swept the sword behind him, slashing the enemy as more Tengumen slid down the trunks of the bamboo trees, surrounding him. They hummed as they circled the warrior, who stood strong. He refused to be afraid. The sinister masks of the Tengumen beckoned fear to rise out of his heart, but Aoki suppressed it, fighting with all of his will. Finally the Tengumen sprang to attack him. Aoki slashed upwards across one of the Tengumen's faces, cutting straight through his mask. He rolled to the ground and diced through the side of the ribcage of one of the Tengumen. One to his side then kicked him to the ground and pounced to attack. Aoki rolled out of the way of the aerial stomp and answered him with a high sidekick. He was outnumbered, but Aoki still stood his ground. The Tengumen started to gang up on him as he backed away, holding his sword in front of him defensively. Without warning, a Tengumen grabbed him from behind in a trapping full-nelson hold. Aoki was locked into place as the remaining Tengumen started with their attack. His sword was soon knocked out of his hands as the animalistic cult followers initiated a brutal beating on the young fighter. They ravaged him with punches to his solar plexus and battered his face savagely. The emotionless Tenguman who held him released the vice-like grip and let him slide to the ground. Just as the Tengumen prepared to perform a dreadful stomping ritual on the fallen Aoki, an arrow pierced the chest of the Tenguman who held Aoki. Chiga-san charged through the woods with his bow, aligning another arrow in it as he ran. The Tengumen spread out as Chiga-san chased them down. One of the Tengumen ran into Kouji, who punched the cult follower in the face. The two allies sought out their repayment for their friend's wounds as Aoki lay prone on the leaf-covered ground. Chiga-san threw a straight kick to one of the occult fighters, sending him back into a bamboo shoot and then shot a dagger through his stomach. Kouji's hand to hand battling skills were surprisingly much more fine tuned than they had ever been. The loyal fighter soon downed several of the heathen henchmen with relative ease. With the Tengumen defeated, Chiga-san approached Aoki. Kouji ran to join him, but fell through a veil of leaves that covered a pit in the ground. It was a trap set by the evil bull worshipers.
"What was that?" asked Aoki after hearing the voice.
They couldn't see Kouji from where they were, but moved in the direction of the sound.
A lone Tenguman stood looking down at Kouji, who was in the pit of dried leaves. The Tenguman gave a deep, creepy-sounding chortle and poured a wooden bucket of lantern oil into the pit. He ran off to get the materials to ignite a fire. Kouji wiped some of the oil from his face. He cried for help again.
"There!" Chiga-san directed through the bamboo reeds.
They ran to the source of the sound to find Kouji inside the pit. Kouji looked up, relieved to see help finally arrive.
"Chiga-san, do you have a rope?" Kouji asked quickly, knowing the Tenguman would be back shortly, and probably with help. The well-prepared warrior searched his equipment and took out a short but sturdy rope. Kouji stretched out his arms and reached for it while Aoki grabbed the frayed rope and pulled with Chiga-san's help to bring Kouji up.
"Thank you, I thought I was going to die!" Kouji told them, panting.
The end of the bamboo forest drew near and what looked like a fortress stood in their midst.
"There! That's it." whispered Chiga-san.
They stayed concealed by the forest's greenery as they scouted out the building. The doors were guarded by two Tengumen whose haunting masked faces were illuminated by the twin torches at the fortress' tall gates.
"We'll need a plan if we're ever going to get inside there." Aoki said grimly to the others.
Chapter 9: Majin Toul, guardian of the statue of Seesar
Aoki and Kouji back-tracked some of their steps to the bamboo forest. Chiga-san waited patiently for them to come back as he watched the gates carefully. Minutes later, two Tengumen came up from behind Chiga-san and surprised him. He jumped in terror as the Tengumen removed their masks.
"Shh! It's us!" Kouji told him, calming him down.
Chiga-san looked at the pair in their preposterous Tenguman disguises and tried as hard as he could to keep from laughing. Kouji put his mask back on and turned to his right, accidentally whacking Aoki in the face with the long nose of the crimson mask.
"Hey, watch it!" Aoki said under his breath.
"A thousand pardons." apologized Kouji.
Aoki shook his head and put his mask on. They came to the gate as Chiga-san took out his bow. The gatekeepers stopped Aoki and Kouji and one of them sleepily asked for the password. Not having a clue what the password was, the two looked at each other and in unison, attacked one of the men. Before the other could help him, he was shot down by a well-placed arrow, courtesy of Chiga-san. The unconscious Tenguman the other two fighters attacked fell in front of Aoki and Kouji as Chiga-san ran up to the gates. They cracked the doors open slightly and gave a quick look inside. Chiga-san caught up to them.
"Alright, let's go." signaled Aoki.
Within the fortress walls, a courtyard was the site of a ritual dance of the cult. Three Tengumen were dancing around the flaming body of a sacrificial animal. Aoki, Kouji, and Chiga-san edged around the side of the courtyard and quietly slipped into a door that was on the far left wall of the courtyard before they could be spotted. Thankfully, the room wasn't occupied. Only a few simple wooden tables and clay pots on shelves that lined the walls surrounded them. They hastily bolted the door shut and Aoki and Kouji took off their masks.
"We need to find out where the statue is being kept." Aoki whispered.
"Shin Gon Jo is the leader of the Ak Sang-ok cult. He must have the statue in his throne room, somewhere in this fortress." Chiga-san informed Aoki and Kouji.
Rather than pass through the main courtyard again, the trio decided to find the throne room by working their way through the inside of the fortress from where they were. They climbed a staircase from the room, leading to an empty hallway. The sparsely decorated walls were painted a beige color that resembled the sands of a desert. Halfway down the hallway was a pedestal with a pearl-white sculpture depicting a prideful bull. At the end of the hall was a door to their left and to their right was a continuation of the hallway that angled around the structure of the fortress. The hallway looked more promising, so they made it their choice. The hall stretched around the back wall of the fortress, and the periodic windows along the left wall showed the forest outside. There was no time for sight-seeing however, as they came to a tall door. Aoki reached for the doorknob, but Chiga-san stopped him.
"We can't just burst in there, we need to think this through."
The three contemplated their assault tactic when Kouji got an idea and a smile crossed his face.
Shin Gon Jo sat on his throne, playing with a small doll made of iron. It was bipedal like a human, but had the face of a bull. Scaly armor plated the shoulders of the little figurine. The door suddenly opened and Aoki and Kouji came in, dragging Chiga-san by his arms. Shin Gon Jo was surprised by the two Tengumen's abrupt entrance and quickly put the doll away.
"Knock before you enter!" he shouted at them in a deep, bellowing voice.
The burly black bearded man before them was dressed in dark clothes with heavy iron shoulder pads and gauntlets of iron on his wrists. Next to his throne rested a colorful mask with bull horns protruding from the sides of it.
"Speak, state your business." said Shin.
"W-we found this intruder trying to invade our fortress. How should we deal with him?" Aoki asked.
All three of the adventurers searched the room for the statue as he spoke. Shin scratched his chin and pondered what type of cruel punishment would most appropriately suit the criminal. Kouji saw the statue resting on a shelf just above the throne. He motioned to Aoki subtly, who nodded slightly in return. Chiga-san reached behind his back for his bow when Aoki and Kouji released his arms. Shin rose from his throne and slapped the bow away with his massive hand.
"Traitors!" he yelled as Aoki sprang for the statue.
Shin grabbed him in mid-jump and tossed him into the wall, knocking his mask off. Chiga-san took out his dagger and went to stab the stocky cult leader. Kouji discarded his mask and took advantage of the distraction to climb onto the throne and retrieve the statue. From the door the three Okinawans came in burst a group of Tengumen. Aoki brawled with the first attacker and defenestrated another one of the cult members closest to the door as Shin wrested the dagger from Chiga-san's hand. He kicked it to the far side of the room and headbutted the venerable warrior, sending him to the floor. Kouji clutched the statue to his chest and ducked to avoid the Tengumen that rushed to swarm him. Aoki cleared the doorway and waved Kouji over. Kouji tucked his head down and bolted for the door as Chiga-san saw his friends making their exit. He broke off the losing battle with Shin Gon Jo and quickly replaced his dropped yumi bow on his back, taking his leave as well. Enraged, Shin screamed at the Tengumen to chase after them. The Ak Sang-ok leader scooped Chiga-san's dagger from off the floor and carried it with him downstairs. Aoki jumped down a flight of stairs as his friends caught up to him. The warriors dashed through the hallways of the fortress, trying to make it back to the main courtyard and the gate to escape. Hordes of Tengumen flooded from the fortress' inner nooks and crannies in blazing pursuit. A gong sounded from the upper level of the wall surrounding the courtyard as Kouji, followed by the others pushed through the door to the outside and stood in the empty courtyard. The Tengumen crowded from the upper levels, shouting down at them and throwing spears down at the men. Shin thundered through one of the doors in the courtyard just in time to see them sprinting out of the gates to the bamboo forest. Shin Gon Jo ground his teeth and stabbed the dagger into the forehead of the statue of a samurai that was in the courtyard. The steel blade grinded through the sculpted rock as he twisted the blade and a paper-thin stream of blood dripped down the statue's face.
Aoki, Kouji, and Chiga-san tore through the bamboo forest towards the cave. Aoki cast a sudden look back to see a towering fireball rise from the fortress. He looked straight ahead and kept running on. When he took a glance back again, a gigantic samurai made of stone stood just outside the fortress' gates. The 40 foot tall Majin Toul held his sword pointed to the very heavens themselves as he stomped after them. The others looked back to see Majin Toul cut down a line of bamboo trees with ease and they picked up their speed. The Tengumen followed after Majin Toul as he crushed the trees of the forest. As the Okinawan warriors dashed into the cave that cut through the mountain, Chiga-san knocked over the torches at its mouth to leave a wall of fire, sealing them off from their pursuers. They ran up the ramp to come out on the other side where the mountain trail spiraled down. The Tengumen reached the blocked cave with dismay. Shin parted the crowd and came to the front.
"Do not let this pitiful barrier stop you!" he shouted as Majin Toul climbed around the side of the mountain.
The three intrepid warriors retraced their earlier steps backwards down the road, when Majin Toul's face appeared around the side of the mountain. Kouji's eyes widened with shock and he wanted to say something, but the graven samurai's cold gaze choked the words right out of his throat. Kouji almost tripped over a rock in his path, but Chiga-san caught him, preventing the statue from breaking. The mountain paths were easily bypassed by Majin Toul as he walked down them like a staircase. Aoki reached the abandoned village first and beckoned his friends to keep up. Majin Toul swung his sword back and threw the great stone weapon like a javelin at them. Fortunately the throw was not accurate enough and it lodged itself in the rocky earth behind them. Majin Toul was only mildly frustrated and after holding his open palm out, the sword freed itself from the ground and levitated back into his grasp. Chiga-san turned around as he ran and shot an arrow at Majin Toul. The arrow bounced off of his solid rock face uselessly.
Ever the comedian, Kouji wisecracked, "You sure showed him!".
Chiga-san simply looked at him, flabbergasted at his joking in this dire situation. Every step of Majin Toul's rocked the ground they stood on as Aoki, Kouji, and Chiga-san ran through the abandoned outpost. Kouji pointed to one of the houses.
"In there!" he exclaimed.
The others did not need to be told twice. They ran in through the back door as Majin Toul scowled down at them. He tossed his sword once again at them, destroying the house. Aoki, Kouji, and Chiga-san scampered out the front door just seconds before the long-neglected structure was transformed into splinters. The stone apparition retrieved his sword as Aoki, Chiga-san, and Kouji came close to the bottom of the mountain path. All three of them were now fatigued and there seemed to be no stopping the carved colossus. From across the sky came a blinding light. It swept down to meet the native Okinawans and they were suddenly whisked away on the mystical wings of a golden Phoenix. Its dreamy light caused the men to squint as the ground disappeared from their view. Chiga-san and Aoki looked around them as Kouji was huddled down, holding on to the statue tightly. They could see the stars that dotted the pastel purplish-blue sky. It looked like heaven to them. A soothing feeling came over them all as a sparkling dust washed over them. Aoki felt revitalized, but at the same time sleepy. Before they realized what was happening, they were all unconscious as the Phoenix blazed its trail through the sky at the speed of light. Shin Gon Jo, his followers, and Majin Toul stared into the distance as the Phoenix disappeared from their sight. Shin cursed repeatedly and kicked the dirt. Frustration burned inside of him and he whipped out the doll of the iron bull. He held Chiga-san's dagger up and gave a sinister cackle that echoed through the deepest and darkest recesses of the valley of Mt. Omotodake.
Chapter 10: Battle of the Golems
On the back of the Phoenix, the Okinawans floated in an airy, dream-like state as blinding flashes of light passed them by. A thin trail of flames followed the mystical bird as it scorched across the sky. Within minutes the sun came into view and the familiar sights of Okinawa's beaches could be seen below. The Phoenix slowed down enough for them to see Azumi Castle. Aoki couldn't believe his eyes. After all the trials of the long journey they were back home again. Home sweet home. It felt unreal to Aoki. Sensei Wataba and his students were training on the beach when they saw the white glowing bird of fire descend. They dropped everything and ran to the spot where the Phoenix looked to be landing. Mr. Azumi and the princess shielded their eyes as the elegant Phoenix landed on the sandy shore. The Phoenix's delicate wings moved gently up and down as its riders dismounted. Aoki looked up to Azumi Castle where Princess Naomi was. His eyes moved down to her hand. She held the headband he gave her tightly as joy overcame her at the sight of Aoki. Aoki ran up to meet her as Kouji and Chiga-san handled the statue with care. The karate students crowded around the two as Aoki reached the Azumi princess.
"You kept it!" Aoki exclaimed happily.
"Of course. It didn't leave my sight!" she replied as they embraced.
Mr. Azumi, who was standing behind them, cleared his throat and they quickly ended the hug and parted. Before Mr. Azumi could speak, Kouji brought the statue and presented it to him. The karate students and Chiga-san followed him.
"Unbelievable! It's still in one piece, not a scratch on it!" he said, amazed by their feat of courage.
The Phoenix rocketed into the sky, arcing high into the clouds with a trail of fire following it. Everyone looked up in awe at the graceful bird as it disappeared into the sunrise. Chiga-san approached the head of the royal family and Mr. Azumi stopped in his tracks as the familiar face registered in his mind.
"...You! I've known that face ever since you were a young boy! Chiga-san!" he exclaimed.
Chiga-san bowed and shook Mr. Azumi's hand.
"It's a great honor to return home again." the Kyudo master said. He looked over to the beach at the celebrating karate students. "My family's name has been restored at last." he said with a feeling of closure.
Aoki looked to Princess Naomi.
"How did you know I would come back?" he asked.
"I kept hope the entire time that you would bring back the statue alive. There is one other thing though." she added. "I'm not only the next member in the Azumi line to take the throne, but I'm also a prophetess. I saw that it would come to pass already."
Mr. Azumi snuck up behind Aoki and whispered in his ear, "And she told me she also doesn't see you in her future either."
"Daddy!" responded an upset Princess Naomi.
Mr. Azumi faded into the background again as Kouji came up to his friend and the princess. "This calls for a celebration! We should set up a feast and invite everyone! The whole village can come!" he announced excitedly. Mr. Azumi climbed a wooden ladder to place the statue on top of the shrine's gate. Sensei Wataba came up to Aoki. Aoki humbly bowed. The sensei's serious expression did not change and Aoki felt as if he hadn't even noticed all he had accomplished.
"Aoki-" Wataba started, but he was cut off by cries of terror from the students on the beach.
The hopeful warriors ran from a pool of black liquid that grew wider and wider in the sand near the lapping waves. From the pool rose Shin Gon Jo, wearing his bull mask, and the rest of the clan of Ak Sang-ok. All of the fierce Tengumen held kendo sticks fashioned from strong bamboo with sharpened points. Shin stepped out of the pool, which shrank down and disappeared from sight. He pointed to the Shisa statue that rested on the gate of Azumi Castle.
"I want the statue!" he announced.
Sensei Wataba showed no signs of fear and was the first to stand in their way. He walked to face Shin and blocked him from going any further.
"You will not pass as long as I am alive." he vowed.
Wataba's students ran to join him, forming a wall between the Ak Sang-ok cult and Azumi Castle. Aoki and Kouji stayed by the princess and Mr. Azumi, guarding them. Shin gave a deep laugh at the resistance, who all took the horse stance.
Shin taunted them. "I will smash that statue to a thousand fragments before your own eyes- but first..."
Shin took the dagger in his right hand and the iron bull doll in the other. He made a laceration across his left index finger and allowed the blood to drip down onto the mouth of the magic doll. The black bull's lips were stained with crimson as Shin grinned madly and threw the doll to the hills. Wataba was puzzled by the move until a loud booming sound came from where the iron doll had landed. Over the rooftops of the nearby village rose the fanged face of the iron bull in living form. Shin's smile was gushing with anticipation.
"Pulgasari! Carry out my wishes and erase the Azumi family from this plane of existence!" the cult leader shouted to his new towering servant.
The giant bipedal bull crashed through the seaside homes with ease, on a crash course for the castle itself. The students couldn't believe what they were seeing.
"How can anyone stop that thing?" one of them asked.
Mr. Azumi and Princess Naomi looked at each other and nodded. Naomi ran to face the island that came into existence the day King Seesar fought the black dragon. She dropped to her knees and sang a song that was beyond familiar to the ears of Chiga-san. He had been taught the old ballad by his parents when he was young. The melody was written by the original Chiga-san. It was the summoning song of King Seesar. Shin sneered at the girl and ordered the Tengumen to attack her. The Tengumen descended on her like a pack of ravenous wolves. Aoki was the first to intercept them as the rest of Wataba's students rushed to help. The young princess sang as the battle between Sensei Wataba's karate students and the Tengumen thrashed around her:
Ko yai you domo
Tobari mo kiru
Asa wa hi tama
Samete hoshi no
Watashi no Shisa
Hoshi no hama mede matte iru no
Shisa chikara tsuyoku
Aoi kora yu o koete
Hoho no namida
Watashi no mune ne
Moette iru, moette iru,
Shisa! Shisa! Shisa!
Kiru aku, Shisa!........
Though physically drowned out by the sounds of the grunts and yells of battle around her, her notes still reached out to the sleeping beast as they bounced off the waves and sailed across the clear sea. Though the ancient creature could not be seen, Naomi had faith that the Shisa could hear her voice. No sign of King Seesar was visible as she continued to sing. Her pure, melodic voice cried out for help from the protector of her family for so many generations. Aoki elbowed a Tenguman in the face and connected with a strike to another's face. He blinked and saw Princess Naomi singing as if the grueling fight that surrounded her was not even taking place.
"Takeshi! Kenji! Maasaki! Keep them away from her!" directed Wataba in his authoritive voice.
The three students rushed to the task, bringing the fight away from Princess Naomi. A Tenguman raised his pointed kendo stick above Naomi from behind, ready to stab her, when Kouji tackled him out of the way. Pulgasari rampaged through the small village with nothing to stand in his way. Shin looked up at the iron demon with satisfaction as he came closer to the castle.
Naomi stood up, finishing the last lines of her song. "Shisa! Shisa! Shisa! ....kiru aku...Shii-sa!"
She stared out into the distance where the island was as the battlefield around her was cleared away. From the eyes of the statue above Azumi Castle's gate shot twin beams of light, soaring over the warring forces on the beach and reaching for the island. A tall, dark smoke cloud erupted from the impact, forming what looked like a black mountain. The eyes of everyone turned to the cloud as a trembling roar heralded the arrival of King Seesar. No one could see anything but the billowing cloud rising from the island. Suddenly the golem guardian aggressively jumped forward out of the smoke and splashed into the ocean waves, swimming for the shore. The bewildered Tengumen didn't know whether to retreat or carry on the fight. Shin turned to the sight of King Seesar with fear. The beast's roar attracted Pulgasari's attention as well. The iron bull snorted and scratched the ground with its hoof, eager to destroy the lion-dog.
Shin took notice and officially decreed the deed to be done. "Pulgasari, I command you to extinguish this hound!"
Pulgasari gladly complied and turned towards the sea. Aoki took Princess Naomi to safety off the beach as Kouji ran in fright from the mystical guardian monster that approached the beach. Upon the sight of the approaching Pulgasari, he ran back in the direction of King Seesar! Sensei Wataba ran down and brought Kouji up to the castle, where the students watched as the two titans were about to clash. The Tengumen cowered in awe at the sight of the legendary generations-old Shisa. King Seesar landed on the shore and his floppy dog-like ears perked up. His thick golden fur was dripping wet from the salty sea. Pulgasari lowered his head to brandish his horns in response to the lion-dog's challenge.
The two golems charged for each other, meeting head-on with thunderous impact. Pulgasari headbutted King Seesar, rattling his skull and sending him reeling backwards. Stunned by the move, Seesar was left vulnerable to a kick from the iron destroyer. Seesar crushed several houses next to a mountain as he landed from the kick of seismic force. The iron bull walked up to the downed Shisa and clenched his head in a single huge fist. He lifted him until they were eye to eye and then in a violent flash, slammed his cranium into the side of the mountain, face-first. Pulgasari grunted in what resembled a laugh at his brutalization of the so-called great King Seesar. Pulgasari's horns glistened in the rays of the climbing red sun as his hoof dug into the ground, ready to charge the Shisa once again. King Seesar slowly rose, crouched on all fours, and shot his head up to see the incoming powerhouse. He spryly leaped into the air, clearing the bull, whose horns stuck firmly into the side of the small mountain. Seesar rolled as he landed and dashed back towards Pulgasari, taking advantage of his enemy's awkward situation as Shin growled with rage. He turned to the Tengumen, who had become spectators to the epic battle.
"Do not sit idly, lay waste to the Azumi family!" he commanded.
The Tengumen were instantly met by Wataba's disciples once again before they could attack. Pulgasari took multiple hits from Seesar as he stayed helplessly stuck from the miscalculated charge. Finally he had had enough. His fists smashed into the rock, pounding it to dust and freeing his horns. He turned and swung his right fist at King Seesar, who scouted the move and ducked. Pulgasari clenched his long, sharp teeth and tried for another strike which King Seesar sidestepped. The agile guardian roared in a taunting manner, beckoning him to try once more. Just as Pulgasari reached back with his fist, Seesar jumped and shot an aggressive flying kick to the iron bull's skull. Pulgasari spun in midair and landed face first into the earth with quaking force.
Aoki protected Princess Naomi with the help of his friends as the Tengumen aimed to off the royal prophetess. Mr. Azumi ran inside the castle for safety as Sensei Wataba covered his exit. Two students joined their master as they prevented the Tengumen from following him. After throwing a hook kick to one of the Tengumen, Aoki glanced to see Mr. Azumi and shouted to the princess,
"Quick, go inside where it's safe!".
He continued to fend off the dark-hearted warriors. She had no qualms with his plea and scurried inside to join her father. A Tenguman thrusted his kendo stick towards Kouji, just missing him by inches. Kouji retaliated with a firm straight punch to the masked man. Chiga-san ran face to face with a Tenguman. The dark fighter froze as Chiga-san drew his second dagger. With a lightning-quick movement, the masked combatant produced a decorated tube from the long sleeve of his gi. He shot his arm up, aiming the tube for Chiga-san, who awaited the mysterious attack. A swirling ribbon fired from the tube and coiled around his body. Chiga-san could hardly move in the tight confines of the trick, but his dagger hand was still free, even if it had a short range of movement. As the Tenguman walked closer to prey on his nigh-incapacitated enemy, Chiga-san slashed through the ribbon to free the rest of his arm and dove forward with a stab to the gut of the Tenguman. He worked as efficiently as possible to free himself from the rest of his bonds before more of the men could attack him. Aoki struck fast and hard against a Tenguman that appeared out of thin air to surprise him. The wild brawl continued as Pulgasari gored King Seesar and lifted him up in the air. The bull ran with the Shisa precariously balanced on its horn and abruptly stopped, leaving him to fly and slam back-first into a mountain. Seesar whinnied as the force of the impact knocked the wind out of him. The great rockslide tumbled down and buried Seesar as his eyes began to close. The last images he saw were of Pulgasari advancing towards him as the rocks rained down.
Inside the castle, Princess Naomi found her father, who was relieved to see that she was safe and sound. They heard the roar of King Seesar. It was an outcry of suffering. The two ran to the window to see Pulgasari stomping towards the downed beast.
"We must do something to help him!" Naomi cried. Mr.
Azumi lit up when an idea bubbled in his mind.
"The statue! We can send aid to King Seesar!" he told her. He ran to the door and ushered her outside. "Follow me!" the old man beckoned.
They ran to the shrine's gate as vital seconds ticked by.
Mr. Azumi stopped in front of the statue and instructed Naomi. "You must sing to it, tell it that King Seesar needs help!".
Naomi was put on the spot and had no idea what words to say, but stayed collected and let her voice carry out the request.
"Send your aid! King Seesar!" she sang and the statue's eyes glowed red.
Crimson beams of energy flared from the statue's eyes to the jewel on King Seesar's forehead. They made contact with the sparkling gem and Seesar was given the burst of energy to angle his head up. The bolts streamed from his eyes, seering through the air, and then blasted Pulgasari with sparks showering from his bumpy metal hide. A smooth melded mark was left where the rays hit. Pulgasari grew enraged at the sight of the permanent damage and smoke flared from his nostrils. Seesar's claws dug into the ground as he mustered the strength to get up. Pulgasari stepped back in fear as he saw the golem monster return to battle, shaking off the stone rubble. His claws flashed in front of him, assuming an attack stance. Pulgasari regained his ground and prepared to attack once again. Another bolt of energy shot into the giant emerald on King Seesar's forehead and flowed out of his eyes. This time the blast hit Pulgasari's eyes, blinding him. The burning pain sent Pulgasari in a maddening retreat as King Seesar pursued him through the hills.
Shin Gon Jo ran to the castle, heading for the statue. If his followers couldn't destroy the sacred symbol, he would do it personally. He found Princess Naomi and Mr. Azumi standing in front of the gate, alone and helpless. Wickedness seethed from Shin as he prepared to use his knowledge of dark magic to make them suffer immeasurably. He stretched out his hands and opened his wretched mouth, but no words could be produced. An arrow struck him in the back. Shin gagged and foamy saliva percolated from his mouth as his eyes rolled up into the back of his head. The dark magi fell face-forward onto the ground. Before the Azumi family stood Chiga-san, holding his bow. His last remaining arrow was not wasted. He sighed with relief at the death of the Ak Sang-ok founder and hung up his favored weapon. Meanwhile at the front of the castle, Sensei Wataba struck down the Tengumen that swarmed him systematically, dropping them one by one. Aoki looked in awe at his master before snapping back to reality when a Tenguman thrusted his sword to his chest. His right arm snaked around the kendo stick and he jumped over the weapon, connecting with a kick to the Tenguman in the mid-air maneuver. Takeshi supported Aoki, who had defeated a large number of the cult worshipers. The last remaining Tengumen were dwindling.
The tide of the titanic struggle between King Seesar and Pulgasari had turned yet again. Pulgasari left Seesar stranded on an oceanside cliff with nowhere left to go. Seesar stepped back as the overbearing bull refused to stop approaching. Rocks crumbled beneath him as Seesar neared the edge hanging over the deep ocean waters below. Pulgasari stomped emphatically, rumbling the ground. The very end of the precipice cracked off and toppled into the water in pieces. Pulgasari grinned and his hoof pounded the ground, sliding back in the dirt. King Seesar knew the signal for this favorite move of Pulgasari's. With nowhere to run, he would not miss this time. The bipedal bull stampeded towards the legendary Shisa to end his legacy. The cliffside trembled and threatened to give way under the stress. The ever-resourceful Seesar pounced into the air and pushed off of Pulgasari's shoulders, springing him back onto safe ground. It was far too late for Pulgasari however, as the cliff disintegrated, leaving the devil to fall into the ocean. Seesar grunted down to the fiend, who tried futilely to flail his arms in an attempt to swim, but he was far too heavy. The dead weight sank him as bubbles escaped his mouth. Pulgasari vanished into the depths, never to be seen again.
Aoki tossed the last Tenguman into the pile of defeated rouges. The students were exhausted. Even the experienced Sensei Wataba had not been in such a battle in his time. Princess Naomi ran to the fatigued Aoki. The exhaustion caused him to collapse, but Naomi caught him and hugged him. Aoki struggled to get up and brought his arms around her. Kouji walked back to Azumi castle with Kenji and Maasaki to join the others. Sensei Wataba came up to Aoki. He bowed in respect to his pupil. Aoki was puzzled and pleasantly surprised at the same time.
"You have shown yourself to be a true warrior, and a real man today, Aoki."
Aoki humbly bowed in honor at the comment of praise. Sensei Wataba smiled as a deep pride ran through his heart for Aoki. Mr. Azumi scrambled to join them, using his cane to support himself as he walked. Aoki's face turned to a disheartened expression as he saw Mr. Azumi come closer. He lifted his cane off the ground. Aoki braced for another hit to the head. Mr. Azumi caught him off guard by instead hugging him!
"You truly have become a real hero, my boy." said the old man.
"You mean- you're not going to hit me?" Aoki meekly asked, expecting to be whacked at any second now.
"Why, no! In fact I want you to marry my daughter! ...So I can yell at you all the time!" he joked.
Laughter burst out of the surrounding crowd of friends as King Seesar's howl sounded in the distance. The sun shined brightly in the sky now over the Shisa's island. The ancient Shisa disappeared into the depths of his cave and a tower of smoke rose as tumbling rocks sealed his lair shut. The guardian could once more rest undisturbed since the evil had been purged. The paradise of Okinawa was now safe.
"Since that day it has been said that whenever trouble should arise on the shores of Okinawa, King Seesar will be ready and waiting to return to defend his people." The tour guide finished. The horizon was now a beautiful collage of color. The story had everyone on the edge of their seats and no one realized how much time had passed. Hiroyuki and Keiko looked up again at the statue and began to feel as if some way, somehow, the old tale might have had some truth to it.
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Last edited by Shin lvl2 Goji; April 23rd, 2006 at 11:38 PM.