III—Student and Master

 

A gentle breeze drifted over the countryside, making the trees gently sway leaf-adorned limbs in its wake. Though the surrounding forest was still lush and verdant, the slight chill in the air heralded the coming winter. Soon the leaves would turn colors and fall to the ground, a ruddy rainbow littering the woodland floor. High above, the whistles and calls of birds gave the forest something of a relaxing melody.

The Imperial road wound lazily along the ground. Having been created long ago next to the path of a bubbling stream, it beckoned the travelers onward, ever closer to the east and the ancient great wall that lay far toward the lands of the rising sun. Behind them, the ribbon of interlocked paving stones snaked upward along the stream bank, heading toward the first of many passes that eventually lead to the capital of Aizkaur, the Northern Province.

Steel-lined hooves clop-clopped sedately along the ancient stones that formed the well-maintained and well-patrolled roadway. Though most roads, tracks and trails often developed ruts or their quality changed with the seasons, and they were patrolled only as the local lord saw fit, travelers could always rely upon the Imperial roads to be passable and safe. The four great princes saw to it that the Imperial law held sway over the roads maintained by the Empress's treasury.

Sadness and apprehension gradually gave way to a sense of wonder and a growing excitement. From his high perch—he was snugly nestled between the padded front riser of the ornate saddle and the silk-enveloped thighs of the argent-haired warrior—Kara gazed out at a world far larger than he'd ever imagined. Never before allowed past the grounds and fields closest to the farmhouse, everything he saw now with his wondering, wide-eyed gaze was new. Kara had decided within the first few moments of doing so that it was also really fun to ride on a horse. Everything looked so different in a pleasurably scary way from up so high.

Behind the gawking redhead, Arjuna kept his focus on both keeping Azani on the pathway of paving stones and scanning with all his senses for any hint of possible danger. Though five years had passed, the Kaykolom were still determined to wipe the last of the Fox from the face of the earth. During the few times the platinum blond swordsman had ventured beyond his overlord's estates without taking care to let his journeys pass unnoticed, assassins had attempted to put an end to Arjuna. Needless to say, since none of the incidents were the place and time for his death, the four attempts on his life had ended with the would-be assassin's blood seeping into the ground.

However, the times Arjuna had traveled to check up on Kara's progress, the Fox swordsman had been especially careful to conceal his tracks from prying eyes. It wouldn't do for the Raven to discover yet that another Lopayzom still walked the earth.

Though certain the two of them journeyed unseen by unfriendly agents, the thought of anything harming the orange-maned boy seated before him made Arjuna's stunningly handsome face take on an expression of frozen anger. There would be time enough in the future for the risk of death to haunt the boy. For now, the jade-eyed warrior was determined to protect his kinsman at any cost. His verdant gaze drifted down only to find the child staring back up at him, a questioning look in large, honey-hued eyes. "Yes, little one?" Arjuna queried, a pale eyebrow lifting in curiosity.

"I was just thinkin'," Kara responded, "I dunno even what to call you."

The solemn and perturbed expression on the boy's slightly chubby face was absolutely adorable. The noble-blooded warrior chuckled softly, deep jade eyes glimmering with amusement. "Well, you may call me Master Arjuna."

"Master?" the orange-maned child repeated, frowning. "You mean I'm gonna be your servant?"

"Not at all," the elegant swordsman answered. "You are now my student. It's my duty to teach you."

"Oh," Kara said, his expression instantly brightening. "Well, that's different."

The two of them fell silent; for a long while the only sounds heard were the steady drum of Azani's steel-shod hooves upon the interlocked, ancient stones and the distant babble of the mountain stream. Arjuna remained on the alert and Kara stared out at the dense forest surrounding them.

It was the child's soft voice that finally spoke first. "Where are we going, Master Arjuna?"

"I'm taking you to my lord's castle," the argent-maned swordsman replied.

"There a lot of people there?"

Arjuna softly chuckled. "Yes, there's lots there. My lord has a number of people who work for him."

"Are there more fox-people there too, then? Will I get to see more of my real family?" the orange-maned boy asked, his voice taking on an excited tone.

A soft sigh broke the awkward quiet the boy's questions had prompted. Arjuna shifted his hold on the leather reins to his right hand alone, then gently patted the child riding before him on the top of his shaggy-haired head. "No, I fear not, little one."

Kara twisted around, staring up at his new teacher. "Why not? Did something bad happen?"

"Yes," the verdant-eyed nobleman responded, a feeling of sadness washing over him at the crestfallen expression on the boy's face. "Something bad happened. A group of people got angry at the fox-people and hurt them."

"Maybe some got away?" Kara ventured, speaking the words slowly. The idea that there were no other fox-people made him shudder in dread.

Arjuna sighed again. Figures the perceptive boy would force my thoughts to these . . . "I wish some had, but as far as my lord and I have been able to determine, there are no others left. It's just you and me, little one."

Another awkward silence surrounded the pair of Fox-blooded travelers for a long moment before Kara spoke again. "I know," he said, voice taking on a hopeful tone, "I can look for them too. I mean, I just have to see if there's anyone I can imagine as a fox while we ride around."

The noble warrior's thin lips twitched into a faint frown. "Karavasu . . ."

"Ara?"

"Look deep within yourself. Listen to your heart. Do you really feel there are more of us out there?" Arjuna asked. The silver-maned swordsman had long done that very same thing, reaching out to the spirit world, hoping for any sign there were other survivors hidden away. And always, he could only sense that there were none.

A chill-edged wind blew through the ancient woodlands; a sibilant hiss surrounded the travelers as the breeze made silver and orange locks dance and leaves quiver in its wake. Kara closed his eyes, concentrating on his feelings. Certainly there were more fox-people out there. There had to be.

But all that came to him was an empty silence. Suddenly cold and a bit frightened, the boy shuddered and hugged himself, glad that there was at least the warm comfort of his new teacher there behind him. The world suddenly seemed a scary, hostile place—and lonely as well.

Arjuna's frown deepened as he sensed the melancholy that dampened the child's normally exuberant presence. He had wanted to wait for the redhead to be older before explaining the state of their clan, but he also didn't wish to lie to the boy. Wrapping his left arm around his kinsman, the jade-eyed warrior gave Kara a momentary hug.

"Master Arjuna?"

"Yes?"

"Those people . . . Would they want to hurt me too, because I feel like a fox?" Kara asked, soft voice worried.

The noble-blooded swordsman mentally cursed, then sighed. "They're still very mad at all us fox-people, so yes, if they knew about you, they'd want to hurt you too. But that's why I'm taking you to my lord's castle. Those people wouldn't do anything to make my lord angry at them."

"So we'll be safe there?"

"Yes, very safe," Arjuna replied, thankful to be able to answer one question in a way that wouldn't further frighten the boy.

"That's good," Kara said, feeling somewhat better at knowing that. At least his new teacher was determined to keep anything bad from happening. The redheaded boy knew that as sure as he had known something different would happen today. "But why are those people so mad at us?"

"They think we did something very bad a long time ago. We didn't, Kara, but they didn't believe us when we told them the truth. And so they became so angry, they wanted to hurt us in return."

"That's not fair, though," Kara said, indignant. "If we didn't do it—"

"I know," Arjuna interrupted, "but there's one thing you must always remember, Kara. No matter how much we may want it to be, life isn't always fair."

"Too bad," the orange-haired boy murmured.

 

The golden sun slowly made its way across the sky toward the distant western horizon. What rays that broke through the dense canopy of ancient trees slanted more and more to the east as the pair of Fox-blooded males continued on their way. In order to turn their minds to more pleasant thoughts, Arjuna had begun to tell the boy the things the verdant-eyed warrior had heard when he was a child. Mostly stories of long ago and legendary heroes, the words spoken by Arjuna also gave Kara some insight into the five kingdoms that were now united into a single realm under the rulership of the Empress, who was a direct descendant from the shining Goddess Who stared down upon the world from the bright disk of the sun.

Kara had listened, totally captivated, as he heard about how once animals and humans were the same, until the Sun Goddess determined that the clans should become civilized. Those who refused to stay within the Goddess's illumination lost their powers and reason, becoming the forefathers of the animals now scurrying about the earth, while those who followed the Goddess's new way were the ancestors of humanity. Those chosen by the Goddess to become civilized had been Her favorites; there were many other animals that had never seen the light of the Goddess's illumination. Kara had smiled at that story, since he now knew why he could always imagine any person he saw as some type of specific animal.

Brave and loyal warriors rushed to do their lords' bidding, often saving many a noble woman in distress, in the mental images that danced through Kara's mind at his teacher's words. Behind those words, the redheaded boy also sensed the high esteem in which his teacher—and society—held such qualities; the silver-haired swordsman's aura betrayed the emotions brought about by the actions recounted in the tales, becoming brighter at those actions that pleased Arjuna and dimming when the swordsman related something of which he disapproved. Sure, some of the legends were ones Kara's auntie and unca had told him around the hearth right before bedtime, but many more were as new to the orange-maned child as the world surrounding him.

"And so they lived happily ever after in the elegant castle given to them by their very pleased lord," Arjuna said, his rich baritone voice concluding yet another legend. Glancing about—even spinning tales as he was, the verdant-eyed swordsman remained alert to any potential danger—Arjuna noted that the shadows were deepening into the darkness of night. He had expected to spend this first night out in the wilderness. At least the remaining nights would find them close enough to villages to seek lodging with the people living there. "Hmm," the noble murmured to himself, dark jade gaze scanning over their immediate surroundings.

"What is it, Master?" Kara asked, glancing up at the man. Wondering if there was some sudden danger, the boy looked about as well, amber eyes wide. But nothing out there made him feel like there would be trouble.

"It will be full dark soon, and not enough moonlight to risk continuing to travel," Arjuna explained. "Besides, we both need a meal and some sleep."

The redhead nodded. Come to think of it, he was getting very tired, and his muscles were aching a bit from being on horseback for so long.

The silver-maned warrior urged Azani off the old road toward the trees lining the path between the interlocked paving stones and the brook that continued to run along the valley's floor. Finding a suitable area clear of underbrush next to the stream, Arjuna ordered his dappled gray stallion to halt. Gracefully dismounting, the Lopayzom swordsman then lead his horse by the reins over to a juvenile willow drooping over the churning surface of the mountain stream. "Stay up on Azani for now," he commanded the boy as the noble's nimble hands lashed the reins to the graceful tree's smooth-barked trunk.

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to find us something fresh to eat," the tall warrior replied. Glancing up at the boy, he added, "I don't feel anything out there that would harm us, so it should be safe enough to leave you here with Azani. But stay alert, and keep looking for anything that feels like it wants to hurt you. If you sense something like that, run and hide."

Kara gravely nodded, agreeing to do just that. But his teacher was right; there wasn't anything out there that had a hostile feel to it.

"Good boy." Arjuna smiled up at his young kinsman. "And don't worry. I'll be right back." With those encouraging words, the pale-haired warrior turned and crossed the creek.

Large honey-hued eyes stared after the tall man until Arjuna disappeared into the darkening forest. Swallowing nervously, Kara then glanced around, small hands clutching the front riser of the noble's ornate saddle. He felt safe enough at the moment, but it sure was scary being suddenly all alone in the middle of a forest he'd never before seen. And he sorely missed Unca Aizu's gruff but loving presence and Auntie Ami's soft words and comforting hug. The boy shuddered, feeling so very little and alone.

No, this won't do at all, Kara decided while fighting back the fear and sadness. He wasn't a coward. He was a Fox, destined by clan to be a great swordsman one day like all those heroes that had come before mentioned so proudly by Master Arjuna. Though he could only feel a hollow emptiness when searching for the feel of other Fox clan-members in the world, he could sense the spirits of his ancestors out there, watching. I won't make them angry. I'll make them happy to know I'm one of them, Kara thought while doing his best to ignore his fright and loneliness.

Luckily it wasn't too long before the child could sense the argent aura that was his teacher returning to their makeshift camp. Kara visibly relaxed the moment his amber gaze laid sight of the tall swordsman; the boy grinned and waved as his new teacher stepped back over the bubbling creek.

Arjuna greeted the child with a smile of his own before setting down the brace of hares next to the edge of the stream. The rabbits' cooked meat would make a fitting supplement to the travel rations packed away in the saddlebags attached to Azani's expensive tack. However, dressing anything in preparation to cooking was always something of a mess. Standing at his full height, the nobleman pulled free the bottom of his silk shirts from where they had been tucked into the waist of his loose-fitting, silken pants. A quick tug here and there with nimble fingers and the ties at the bottoms of the shirts came free; Arjuna then shrugged off the garments, the silk sliding easily down his fair-hued skin. Gathering up the two shirts, the now bare-chested swordsman walked over to where Kara sat astride the gray stallion's back. "Here. Hold onto these for me."

Kara eagerly nodded, then bundled up the elegantly printed silk in his little embrace. As his new mentor walked away, the child noticed that Arjuna's gracefully muscular form wasn't completely without blemish. Faint scars could be seen here and there, mostly along the tops of his shoulders.

Sensing the boy's curiosity, the silver-haired warrior paused for a moment in his return to the stream's edge and the two dead hares waiting there. "Even the best of swordsmen don't always come out of a conflict unhurt," Arjuna explained, rich baritone voice low. Then he continued on preparing the rabbits.

Removing the slim dagger from its usually hidden leather wrist sheath strapped onto his left forearm, the verdant-eyed noble made quick work out of stripping the pair of carcasses of their feet, heads and fur. While the paws and heads were dropped into a hole in the earth Arjuna had dug there next to him before cutting up the rabbits, the furry skins were carefully set aside. A useful commodity, rabbit—and other—fur was used for the trims of noble costumes and to help make winter garb warmer. Just as quickly and efficiently the animals were gutted, the internal organs joining the other offal in the hole while the silver-haired swordsman rinsed the carcasses out in the cold, clear water of the stream. Leaning back on his haunches, Arjuna then proceeded in stripping the meat off the bones, the sharp silver blade of his dagger slicing easily through the muscle. Each piece cut was set onto the skin side of one of the rabbit furs; the pile of meat was a sizable amount by the time the skeletons joined the offal in the hole. Murmuring a prayer of thanks to the spirits of the butchered hares—one that wished tem a peaceful journey to the spirit realm and a swift return to the earth—the green-eyed warrior reverently covered over the hole then washed his hands and dagger in the stream. He dried the clear water off with a couple of shakes and a quick wipe on the knees of his loosely fitting pants. After slipping the small, sharp knife back into its leather wrist sheath, the Fox-blooded nobleman gathered up the fur and meat.

Arjuna walked back over to his magnificent stallion then glanced up at the boy. "Trade you," the pale-maned swordsman said, balancing the results of his hunt with one hand while reaching up for his fine silken shirts with the other.

The exchange was quickly made. Kara blinked, staring down at the rabbit remains draped across the flat palms of his hands while Arjuna shook out his still layered garments and then slipped back into them. First one triangular flap, then the other, was wrapped around the tall warrior's middle; he swiftly secured the ties together in the back and then tucked the whole hem back under the waistline of his pants. Settled into his clothing, Arjuna undid the tassel-ended, thin, twisted-cord ties that held shut the saddlebag to Azani's left. Amber eyes wade in curiosity, Kara watched as his new teacher pulled out something large, flat and square.

It looked like a slab of colorless stone, surfaces worked into a smooth polish. "What's that?" the orange-maned child queried, the rabbit skins and meat still balanced in his little palms.

"A heatstone," Arjuna replied, turning and scanning the forest floor of the small clearing.

"A . . . heatstone?" Kara repeated, unsure he'd heard correctly.

"Yes," the argent-haired swordsman affirmed. Finding a good, flat spot, Arjuna began pushing aside, with a sandaled foot, the layer of detritus covering the bare earth. "It holds oja--spirit energy—and releases it as heat," he further explained. "The more energy you put into it, the hotter the stone gets."

"Oo," the boy said in wonder.

Satisfied with his task, Arjuna set the heatstone down to the side of the cleared ground. He could sense the child's intense curiosity—a honey-hued gaze remained glued to his form—and the tall swordsman faintly smiled as he walked about and collected water-worn stones suitable for his impromptu cooking pit. Returning to the site, the verdant-eyed man laid the rocks down in a single layer upon the bare dirt. The heatstone was then placed over the rock foundation.

The tall warrior strode back over to his dappled gray mount. He lifted the orange-haired boy from the saddle and set him on the ground; Kara gulped and did his best to not spill the strips of meat as he suddenly became airborne. As the child stepped back, relieved, Arjuna flipped up the leather flap of the still open saddlebag and pulled out a few more things which included a small, shallow pan, a little velvet pouch and a tie-wrapped bundle of cloth. "Go ahead and set the rabbit down by the heatstone," the warrior said while walking over to the cooking pit.

"Okay." Kara did as he was told, then gratefully sat down on the solid earth. Sure, it was exciting being up on a horse, but there was something comforting about feeling solid earth under him. Amber eyes focused on the slab of colorless stone. Curiosity getting the better of him, Kara reached out and touched the heatstone.

It was cool, like any other rock would be. But even as he stared at it quizzically, he felt . . . something, like his fingertip going cold and slightly numb.

Sensing the boy's golden aura unexpectedly dim, Arjuna softly hissed and sat down next to Kara. Dropping his armful onto the ground, the Fox-blooded noble reached over and pulled the boy's hand away from the heatstone. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked, startled, his baritone voice harsh. Golden energy faintly tinged the heatstone; somehow the boy had managed to trip the reaction without even trying.

Kara pulled his hand out of his teacher's much warmer grasp, startled both by the continuing numbness in his fingers and the man's seemingly angry tone. "I wasn't doing anything," the redhead protested, staring up at the warrior. "I only wanted to see if it was warm."

Arjuna sighed and shook his head, turning his attention back to preparing their meal. "You need to be more careful, Kara," he admonished. "Until you learn control over your powers, you need to really watch it."

"What was I doing?" Frowning at the numbness, the child rubbed his hand against his pants. At least the tingling was starting to disappear.

"You were letting the stone suck in your energy," Arjuna answered, untying and unwrapping the cloth bundle to reveal a number of rice paper wrapped things and wooden eating sticks. Pulling out a pair of the slim, dark wood sticks, the silver-haired man then lightly touched the heatstone with the fingers of his free hand. "Normally anyone, even an Avatar like yourself, can touch a heatstone and nothing happens."

"An Avatar?" Kara asked, puzzled.

"When someone can sense auras and the flow of oja, they're called an Avatar. Most people can't do even that, but the more talented Avatars can actually control oja to make things happen. Non-Avatars often call what Avatars do 'magic', though true magic involves an actual ceremony to channel the energy."

"Oh . . ." Kara paused, then tilted his orange-haired head to the side. "You mean most people can't imagine other people as animals or see colors around other people?"

"Not like you do," Arjuna said, feeling the heatstone respond to his mental command. "Only a few will ever really know what it's like to do what you can." He lifted his hand from the colorless surface of the stone, forcing into it the energy needed to heat up. "And since you are also an Avatar able to make spirit energy do what you want, it's important you learn to control what you do, or someone's going to end up getting hurt."

The boy gulped. Hurting people was wrong, even if it was unintentional. "I don't want to be bad."

"That's why you're coming with me," Arjuna murmured, his baritone voice reassuring. "Now Kara, watch me and pay attention to how the energy flows."

Amber eyes blinked. Before the child's fascinated stare, fog-like wisps of energy seemed to unravel from the soft glow of silver light around the hand poised over the heatstone. The slab of colorless rock seemed to greedily suck up the glowing wisps. Only . . . the longer he watched, the more certain Kara became that he had been initially wrong. The heatstone didn't want the spirit energy in it, but his teacher was pushing the silvery tendrils into the stone and not letting the energy back out. "Oh," the boy finally murmured. "I get it."

Arjuna paused a moment in feeding energy to the colorless rock and glanced at his new student. "You get what?"

"The heatstone. It doesn't like spirit energy, and it wants to push it out, but you're not letting it do that." Kara tilted his shaggy-haired head slightly to the side. "That's probably why it gets warm then. You're letting it get rid of the energy it doesn't like."

"Very good," the silver-haired swordsman said with a faint smile. "Now, when I told you what a heatstone was, what did you expect it to do?"

Kara's little face took on an expression of serious thought. After a short moment, he frowned, looking unhappy at himself. "I thought the stone would eat up spirit energy, not spit it out."

"And so, when you touched the stone, your oja did just as you expected. That is why you need to be wary of your actions," Arjuna said. "Now," he added, turning his attention back to the now-glowing heatstone, "not only does such a stone spit the energy back out, you can tell it at what level."

"Ara?" Intrigued, the redhead scooted closer, honey-colored gaze focused on the heatstone now glimmering with captured silver energy.

"There are different levels of heat, from the low glow of a dying coal to the inferno of a bonfire. What I do to control the level is to imagine the light inside the stone forming the image of the amount of fire I want. As soon as I feel the energy under my hand match my mental image, then I let the stone go. It'll get rid of the energy at the set level." As he spoke, the Fox-blooded noble made the mental adjustments with the ease of one long practiced in the art.

Kara continued to stare, concentrating on just feeling how the energy interacted between his teacher and the stone. He sensed the moment of Arjuna's release of control as a momentary equilibrium followed by the silver light slowly rising out of the flat surface. Blinking, the boy sat back and thought about what he'd seen as his mentor dropped the pan on top of the stone, poured a bit of water out of his drinking pouch into the pan and then shook the rabbit meat off the top skin and into the pan as well.

As the tall swordsman briskly pushed the cooking meat around the bottom of the pan with the pair of eating sticks, he asked, "Kara, can you ever remember a time when you couldn't see what clan people were or colors around people?"

The boy slowly shook his head in a negative gesture. "I've always been able to see that, Master Arjuna."

"So it's something that's 'just is' to you . . . " Perhaps that is the very reason why he seems to do much on an instinctive level, thought Arjuna, still stirring the meat. He shook his head at in wonder at the sheer potential of the boy, then glanced momentarily at his young charge. "I think that it being 'just is' is the key. You've just accepted that those powers are the way it is without thinking about them. So when you touched a stone thinking it would suck off your energy, your powers shaped themselves to do exactly that, because you thought that's just how it would be."

"So what should I do to keep from accidentally hurting someone?" Kara asked. It had never before occurred to him that he could do anything to cause someone harm, but he was beginning to see that there was more to all this than seeing the special animals within people or knowing their emotions.

The meat was cooked all the way through. Raising his free hand over the pan, Arjuna forced the heatstone to stop the reaction, bottling up the remaining energy within it. Laying the sticks carefully against the side of the pan, the verdant-eyed warrior handed the boy a pair of eating sticks and two of the rice-paper bundles. "Learn control. That's the only way you will ever keep your Avatar abilities from accidentally doing anything. And for you, I think the first step in learning control is to just think about spirit energy—where it comes from, where it flows to, how it reacts with other things." As the boy solemnly nodded, Arjuna smiled. "But for right now, let's eat. I don't know about you, but I'm quite hungry."

Kara chuckled, then turned his attention to the food. He really was hungry and the cooked rabbit smelled pretty good. Unwrapping one of the fist-sized bundles, the boy discovered that it was a ball of rice stuck together with honey and spiced with ground cinnamon and nutmeg, all wrapped in a steamed cabbage leaf. And after a long ride on horseback into a strange, new world, the food seemed even better than usual.

Arjuna continued to silently watch the boy in the deepening shadows of the twilight while he ate. Once again the swordsman began to wonder just who the child's parents had really been; so far, his research into that over the past five years had drawn mostly blanks. There were a few possibilities, but nothing certain—especially since many Lopayzom had simply disappeared, never to be seen again and their deaths only recorded by the Raven assassins who claimed to have killed them. He shook his head slightly, then gazed off toward the northwest. Perhaps he should have gone to the remains of the destroyed village and said a prayer to those who had gone before on the fifth anniversary of their slaughter. Arjuna had to admit he felt a twinge of guilt for not going there first. But the past cannot be changed, he reminded himself, his dark jade gaze turning to rest once more upon the boy seated there next to him. Only the future can be planned.

The two Fox clansmen fell into a comfortable silence. Arjuna's thoughts remained on memories of the past and what hope there was for the future while Kara thought about all he'd seen and heard since leaving the isolated farmhouse. As the silver-haired man cleaned the pan in the stream and then packed almost everything up, Kara wrapped his arms around his knees and stared up at the sky. Through the dark leaves of the canopy, he could see patches of ever deepening blue; a few faint stars peeked out here and there—and he wondered how Aizu and Ami were, and if they missed him as much as he missed them.

Arjuna walked over to where his gray stallion remained tethered. Replacing the packages into the saddlebag and cinching the flap closed, the tall warrior then unlaced the ties holding the bedroll against the back of the saddle. He felt amber eyes upon him again as he located a suitable place and flipped the bedding out to lie relatively flat against the ground. "Nothing fancy, I'm afraid, and we're going to have to share, but it's only for tonight," Arjuna said. "The rest of the trip will find us at towns come nightfall."

"But what about wild animals or bad people?" Kara asked, eyes huge at the idea of sleeping out in the open, in a deep, dark forest.

Arjuna faintly smiled and held up the little velvet pouch he'd pulled out of the saddlebag before their dinner. "There are advantages to being an Avatar. Now, take off your shoes and crawl into bed. I want to be going soon after the sun rises, so let's sleep while we can."

The shaggy-haired boy nodded, then did as his teacher commanded while Arjuna shook out the familiar objects from their velvet home into the waiting palm of his free hand. They tumbled out one at a time—small, smooth, polished gems each etched with a symbol—and twinkled faintly in what light remained. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Arjuna prepared himself for the well-known ritual. "Pay attention, Kara. This is true magic."

His teacher's words took Kara by surprise. Sitting up on the bedding, legs covered by the blankets, he kept his eyes on Arjuna as the silver-haired man stood just off to the side of the unwrapped bedroll. The swordsman took a step to the east, eyes focused upon the golden amber inscribed with an iris. Normally speaking the words within his mind, Arjuna chose to voice them aloud for the benefit of his student. "Hail to thee, Lord of the East, Master of the Rising Sun. I call on you, perfection of Mind and Air. Come protect this space from all who would wish or do harm." Lifting his hand toward the sky, Arjuna felt the swirling golden energy of Air bring the amber stone to life. He then lowered his hand to rest against his chest, stones still balanced upon his palm, and bowed in thanks to the East.

A step back, a turn to the right, and Arjuna took a step now toward the south. "Hail to thee, Lord of the South, Master of the Noontime Sun. I call on you, perfection of Spirit and Fire. Come protect this space from all who would wish or do harm." The smooth ruby inscribed with a chrysanthemum began to glow with a ruddy light as it was infused with the energy of the Element Fire.

Sitting in mute awe in the bed, Kara could only blink, stunned. Whatever his teacher was calling on, it was huge. Never before had the boy sensed so much spirit energy react to something. Even now, it seemed to him that the darkening woods to the east were entwined with a yellow energy that felt like a cool breeze while the south now was full of wisps of red energy and a faint sensation of heat.

Arjuna turned his attention to the west, where the last rays of the setting sun could be seen reflected off clouds high above the canopy of the ancient forest. Focusing now on the sapphire etched with the image of a wisteria flower, he solemnly intoned the ritual's words, "Hail to thee, Lord of the West, Master of the Setting Sun. I call on you, perfection of Heart and Water. Come protect this space from all who would wish or do harm."

To the watching boy, the scent of water suddenly hung in the air, tendrils of blue energy crawling from where the sun's last rays faintly glowed to snake along the ground and around the ancient tree trunks of the woods to the west. An azure glow bloomed into life in the tall swordsman's grasp, joining the golden and ruby lights already there and illuminating the area around Arjuna's hand.

The silver-maned warrior once again reverently bowed in gratitude for the primal essence of the Element answering his mystic call. He stepped back, then paused before making the turn to the right that would face him to the north. Something was out there, something his expanded senses caught as he reached from the western horizon and swung his awareness northward. Inwardly frowning, he pushed the feeling aside; he needed to remain focused on the ritual or all his work would be wasted and he would be forced to start over. His attention remaining firmly on the North, he sent out his call to that Elemental essence. "Hail to thee, Lord of the North, Master of the Midnight Sun. I call on you, perfection of Body and Earth. Come protect this space from all who would wish or do harm." Arjuna then raised his palm to the sky, waiting for the North's energy to infuse the poppy-inscribed emerald lying dark next to its now glowing companions.

Kara blinked. It felt almost like the earth itself was trembling as the very forest seemed to react to the silver-haired warrior's words. The tall, ancient trees seemed to bend toward the insignificantly small figure daring to call on their power as swirls of deep green spirit energy rose from the ground. They were surrounded now, at the center of attention of four immense auras unlike anything the boy had ever sensed before. Instinctively huddling up, Kara pulled the blankets close to himself.

The warding stones now empowered, Arjuna turned and glanced down at the child, curious as to his reaction. Noting how scared the orange-haired child seemed, the tall swordsman frowned. "What's the matter, Kara?"

"Those things. They're scary," Kara murmured, glancing about nervously, his amber eyes huge. "They're so big and staring right at us."

Arjuna blinked, startled. Does he mean the Masters of the Quarters? Realizing that the boy must be referring to the Elemental essences awoken to infuse the four gems in his hand, the jade-eyed man faintly smiled. "If you're talking about the Guardians of North, South, East and West, they're not here to hurt us. Rather the opposite in fact."

"Won't they get mad if you make them wait and wait?"

The swordsman softly chuckled. "I suppose they could, but I've never heard of them doing so," Arjuna answered as he walked toward the east a few paces. "Remember what I said about control? This is spirit energy used through a ritual, with the Guardians' permission. I know everything will be fine, since I've done this many times before, but I bet something like this can seem scary if you feel like you have no control." He carefully set the glimmering amber down on the ground, marking the easternmost point of the area to be protected, then stood and paced off to the south.

Kara's honey-hued gaze remained focused on his teacher. As far as the boy could tell, Arjuna certainly didn't seem frightened of the four enormous auras still watching and waiting around them. Taking some courage in that, Kara allowed himself to relax, though he kept the blanket bundled up around his small form.

One by one Arjuna set down the warding stones, defining the area of their protection. Again, as he walked from west to north, he felt something far out in the forest that put him on edge—something he couldn't quite pin down but still made him wary. A thoughtful expression on his stunningly handsome face as he returned to the center of his marked-out ward—he now stood just to the side of the bedroll—the argent-maned warrior decided to take no chances. Steel whispered against wood as Arjuna drew out his gracefully-curved long sword.

Amber eyes blinked in surprise. "Ara?"

Arjuna softly chuckled at the boy's startled murmur. "It's okay. I'm just going to be extra careful tonight because you're traveling with me." Resting the razor-sharp point of his sword on the ground, the jade-eyed noble continued, "Normally, I would just tell the stones to make the shield once I've placed them at the limits of what I want protected. That's enough to keep most things out, but if someone was very determined, they could break it. I want you to be able to sleep perfectly safe, so I'm adding something to the ceremony I don't always do." Steel faintly glimmered in what little light illuminated the area as Arjuna lifted his sword. Point now skyward, he focused his dark jade gaze on the blunt edge of the blade.

Like thousands of times before, Arjuna slipped into that special state of stillness and utter focus that lay at the heart of his sword-art. From here, he could act and react with lightning speed and awesome power, his natural grace and awareness boosted many times over by his control of oja—though for now, he was intent on calling upon one of the sword-art's more mystic techniques. The single-edged blade seemed to take on a life of its own, white light glowing from deep within the steel and illuminating Arjuna's handsome visage.

Quite simply, this would be a variation on Heaven's Shield, the focused spirit energy barrier that had helped him survive many a battle. Only here he would need to tie that sword-art to the shield that would be created by the waiting warding stones. Holding the energy contained within the glowing sword, Arjuna then thrust the blade skyward while siphoning off the energy from the quartet of glowing gems.

Glancing about, Kara continued to watch in fascination as thin beams of yellow, red, blue and green light burst from the ground—probably from those pretty, shining stones Arjuna had set around them—and wrapped themselves around the shining white light coming from within the tall warrior's graceful sword. It was obvious the colored energy was being pulled from the stones in equal measure from all four, but Kara couldn't exactly sense from where all the white light was coming. Something shifted then in the boy's senses. The moment there seemed to be a perfect harmony between the five auras manipulated by Arjuna, the tall swordsman suddenly reversed the blade and plunged the point of the sword into the ground with a short shout.

Bright light burst forth from the sword in a silent explosion. Kara shut his eyes, instinctively turning away and shielding his face with a hand. He felt the burst of power wash over him, then stop, almost as if it was suddenly frozen by something. Opening his eyes, he noticed a gleaming dome surrounding them, its energy feeling fiercely protective. "Oh," he said in wonder.

Arjuna left his sword embedded in the ground. As long as it stayed there as the center of the ward, the dome would remain in existence guarding the area between the four glimmering gemstones. "Can you still feel the Guardians around us now?" he asked while kicking off his sandals.

The redhead tilted his head, searching what he felt. At last he shook his head in the negative. "No, Master Arjuna. In fact, I can't sense anything past the shield."

"Good. That means nothing can get in or out until I break the ward." Sitting down on the unwrapped bedroll next to the boy, he faintly smiled. "And if you could feel past the ward, you'd find that the Guardians aren't exactly paying attention to us any more."

"That's good. They were really scary."

Arjuna softly chuckled.

 

Darkness engulfed the land, further softening the remains of destruction around her. A night-time breeze eddied through the once-burned village green making both the new grass that had grown there and long, raven-black strands of hair dance in its wake. A slender, pale hand reached up and brushed her stray hair out of her face as she turned and gazed at the mass grave in the center of the green.

Five years had passed since that fateful night, since she had stood to the side of the village's center and watched, her pale green gaze taking in the sights of her chieftain's final revenge and her keen mind recorded the details in her memory. Now the forest was swiftly reclaiming the patch of land cleared by people; new growth covered the ground that once ran red with blood and then was burnt by the following inferno.

The willowy woman sighed, then walked over to the grass-covered pile of earth that marked the mass grave dug by the Dragon army. They had placed a pair of guardian fox statues—one to either side of the mound—and the black-haired woman found that a touching gesture indeed. She reached out and lightly stroked one of the statue's pointed stone ears, her expression melancholy. Of all the bloodshed that had taken place in the Raven's name during the height of the feud with the Lopayzom, this was the incident that preyed most upon her conscience. The Fox that had remained had been women, children, elderly and farmers—most not even of the noble lines but rather the very common, down-to-earth folk who worked the land to support themselves and the families that had various amounts of the royal Fox blood. At the time, only one warrior remained, and her chieftain had made sure the one remaining Lopayzom noble had not been around before ordering the final annihilation of the clan.

She had tried to talk her chieftain out of it, but in the end he would not soften his stubborn heart. And so she had come, to record for posterity not only the Kaykolom’s final victory but also their shame in slaughtering innocent non-combatants. Of the Fox there, only one had tried to make a stand—a woman with flame-red hair and a sword-art that would put most warriors to shame. But the Raven had been too many. All the Fox had done was delay the inevitable.

The Kaykolom woman's pale hand continued to stroke the stone statue's ear. She'd waited here all day; anniversaries had always been something important to him. That he hadn't come here truly surprised her. He'd always snuck off to this area of the realm near the anniversary of this village's destruction, but never before had she tried to confirm his business here until now. And now his aura's stopped, she thought. Glancing up to the star-strewn sky, she guessed that he had decided to camp for the night. For a while, she'd sensed him going further east. If he was truly stopping for the night, then he probably had no intention of visiting this place after all.

But if not here, then where? she wondered. If it's not to honor the spirits of those who died here, why does he come to this area every year? Try as she might, she could think of nothing else that would bring him to this remote borderland between the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Thoroughly puzzled, she stared at the fox statue. "Now I'm curious . . . " she murmured to herself.

But first she would wait until she was certain he would be asleep.

 

The stillness of the night held dominion over the ancient woodland; occasional breezes made the leaves whisper secrets from long ago and the songs of insects added their own wisdom. Next to the softly babbling brook, the glimmering white dome remained resolute against anything that would harm that which lay within.

From the deep pools of darkness entwined around the forest floor, a shadow detached itself and skulked over toward that semicircle of silver energy. Stopping near it, the shadow faded away in a swirl of what appeared to be raven-black feathers. The mystic plumes faded into the darkness as the willowy woman gazed upon the dome with her pale green gaze. Slender, pale fingers reached carefully out toward the argent surface with the soft hiss of dark silk. So strong . . . Stronger than his usual wont, the woman thought, her pale eyes widening in surprise. Lifting her hand to rest against her petal-soft lips, the Kaykolom woman peered through the faintly glowing shell that blocked out her Avatar senses.

Noting the gleaming sword stabbed into the earth, she slightly frowned. So he had merged his sword-art with the warding shield. He was confident enough in his skills to not bother with such elaborateness on his own behalf. So why . . . ? she wondered, pale green gaze wandering down to the mass of fine bedding and the pool of long silver hair faintly reflecting the long sword's glow. Her expression momentarily took on a pained tone; how she missed the feel of that argent silk, even after so long. Then her gaze fell upon a large tuft of orange huddled there next to the sleeping Fox warrior.

Large pale green eyes grew wider in wonder. Softly gasping, the Raven woman took a step back.

Something wasn't right. Though his Avatar senses were contained by the very shield he'd erected, he'd been too long a warrior to not have some sense of potential danger. Deep jade eyes opened as the feeling that something lurked about pulled Arjuna from his sleep. He saw nothing beyond the protective sheen of his ward, especially since Kara's bushy-haired head was in the way of the swordsman's line of sight. Shaking off his somnolence, Arjuna raised himself up on his left elbow, verdant gaze focused beyond the glow of the shield.

He awoke. She should retreat before he realized she was here, but she found herself frozen in place at the sight of the warrior lifting himself up to a semi-reclined posture. Long strands of silver flowed like a waterfall around his face; the soft bedclothes slid off his gracefully muscular form to lie in a rumpled mess at his narrow waist. Time had been kind to his appearance. As magnificent as ever, she thought, her desire to see him again stronger then her need for secrecy.

Beyond the shield, a form resolved itself before his deep jade gaze. Slender, clad in a long silk gown of deep grey shading to black—a pattern of maple tree branches in pearl grey decorated the shoulders, hem and the bottoms of the pockets of her long sleeves—a woman stared back at him with pale green eyes. Long, straight, raven-dark hair flowed around her in the soft night breeze; a bow lay slung across her willowy form, string hugging her across the chest, and a solid wooden sword made of oak was thrust through the pearl grey sash tied about her waist.

Rage and protectiveness both welled up within Arjuna's heart the moment he realized at whom he was staring, the emotion burning away the remaining sleepiness from his mind. "Chaiya," the argent-hared man hissed. What in the nine hells is she doing here?

"Arjunayazu . . ." the Raven woman replied, saddened at hearing the hostility in his baritone voice.

"I suppose it was you I sensed out there."

Chaiya gestured to the ward separating them. "To prompt you to such caution? Sadly . . ." Her soft voice trailed off. Uncertain what to say, the willowy woman could only sigh.

"Why are you here?" Arjuna snapped.

"To see why you are always here this time of year," Chaiya replied.

The Lopayzom warrior hissed in a breath. All these years, he had been certain to be careful that his travel here was in secret. "How many more of you carrion-eaters know about my journeys?"

A pale hand was raised in a gesture of placation. "I'm the only one aware of this yearly trip of yours, Arjuna."

"And you haven't gone running and telling your precious chieftain about it yet?" Arjuna snorted in derision. "I find that hard to believe."

"This is the first time I have decided to confirm what I had suspected. You know I am not bound to report mere speculation." Chaiya gently shook her head in the negative. "Arjuna, please. I truly only wanted to see you once more."

The Fox-blooded warrior's eyes narrowed in rage. "Why? You made your choice long ago." Sensing the boy next to him beginning to stir, Arjuna lowered his right hand to rest protectively on the child's shoulder. Stay sleeping, little one. Wary of bringing the younger clan-member to the attention of the Raven Herald standing just outside the protective dome, Arjuna lowered his voice as well. "Just be thankful I am a man of honor, despite the slander I've heard regarding the lack of respect my clan is believed to possess, or I'd break this ward and cut you down to keep you from reporting back to your lord."

How it hurt, to feel the brunt of his righteous anger when there should have been something far different in his voice and posture. And yet, they both knew that the choice that had been made was the only right one. "Though my lord has made us enemies, I would never fear you." Chaiya faintly smiled, though it was a smile tinged with pain and regret. "Nor would I betray you."

"I'm supposed to believe that?"

"I still have you in my heart, Arjuna," Chaiya replied. Lifting her hand, she rested her graceful fingertips against the bowstring nestled against her silk-enshrouded cleavage. "The Raven will not hear of this—or the child—directly from me." Noting the momentary surprise that marred Arjuna's angry expression and then the fierceness of his protective fury, Chaiya lowered her hand to point at the still sleeping redhead. "I had wondered why you didn't come to the ruins, but I know now that it was not the dead that brought you here year after year, but the living. What bloodline is the young one?"

"I owe nothing to the enemy," Arjuna growled.

Pale green eyes closed for a moment. Though it had been seven years since they had parted ways, seven years since she had last held him in her arms and felt his heat and strength against her slender form, the thought that the child was of his get pained her heart. And yet . . . Though her Avatar senses were blocked by the barrier between them, she somehow felt that the little one was of another descent.

Noting the stricken expression on the Raven Herald's pretty face, Arjuna sighed. Though it had been long since they were last in accord, he found he wasn't quite completely immune to what they had once had between them. "No, Chaiya, he's not of my body. I have none." Frowning slightly as the black-haired woman looked about to ask another question, Arjuna interrupted any potential query, "Nor have I given my heart to another, even after this time." His baritone voice shifted to a snarl. "I've been too busy trying to stay alive to bother inflicting this war of ours upon an innocent person. You know as well as I that the moment I attempt to actually have a normal life and family, the lady in question would become a target of your precious lord."

Chaiya winced and looked away. He was right, and she knew it. The order to destroy the remaining non-combatants of the Fox had shown her the depths to which her beloved chieftain would sink in order to achieve what he considered justice. "Would it be my choosing, Arjuna, you'd be free to pursue that. And to raise the boy without the threat of destruction hanging over you."

"It's not your choice. It's Iryasitru's. All you can do is run back to him and tell him of the boy and my journey home."

A tear fell down one pale cheek as Chaiya glanced back at the silver-haired warrior. "The boy is not an immanent threat to the Raven, and you remain the same danger you ever were. There's nothing here to merit an immediate report. For the spirits of the fallen, and for you, I shall not report this directly."

"What of your duty?" Arjuna asked, voice wary and angry both.

Chaiya stepped back, stretching out her slender arms. "My duty is to record and report, to warn the Raven of threats and to keep in my heart the history of the clan. To tell those in the Raven's employ to watch for you upholds my duty while keeping my word to you. Of course, it will take me days to travel back home . . ." As she raised her arms, a swirl of dark feathers appeared around her, obscuring her willowy form. Shadow engulfed her, making her disappear from the swordsman's deep jade gaze.

Arjuna remained reclining there for a long moment, staring at where he'd last seen the dark-haired Raven Herald. Even after he was certain she had departed, he laid there for hours, staring up at the star-studded sky beyond the canopy of the ancient forest. Though, finally, despite all the worries and memories, sleep came to him again.

 

 

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