Paradise.

 

By Linc

(Hello, how are you?)

 

Book I

 “Letter in Hand”

 

 

Chapter One

‘Good Bye’

 

 

 

I thought I could change the world…

 

 

 

            “Attention! Attention please!” the man tapped his glass with his ring to bring order to the room. Everyone stopped his or her eating, drinking, and talking to see what the man had to say.

            “Now,” he set down his glass and absently smoothed out his orange and red hakama. “I’m glad everyone is having a good time—“

            “Grand time!”

            “Smashing, really!”

            “I’m drunk!”

            “—but let’s not forget why we’re all here,” the bald man barely concealed a grin under his gray mustache.

            “The food!”

            “The drink!”

            “My mom made me!”

            “I’m still drunk!”

            “QUIET; this isn’t an auction house!” the man cleared his throat as order was restored. No, next time there would be no wine. That or he wouldn’t invite the town drunk. Oh hell, who was he kidding? Everyone deserved to be at this party.

            “Stand up, my boy!” the old warrior slapped a young man on the shoulder who seemed to be drifting off, despite the commotion. “This fine, energetic, brave young man is why we’re here!”

            There was a loud cheer within the solemn-temple-turned-party-house as he gave a shy wave. He scooted out from under his friend’s blue-haired head. The friend had passed out earlier, and didn’t seem to be inclined to move and fell to the couch without waking.

            Maroshi,” the temple master continued, slapping the young man's back, “you’ve made us proud! We had out doubts, the warriors and I—“

            There was a cheer from the warrior’s table.

            “—the teachers had bad premonitions—“

            A painful groan was heard from their table, sure signs of a past with little alcohol and a hangover tomorrow.

            “—but once you set your mind to becoming the strongest in Icetai, there was no stopping ya!” The fellow playfully punched Maroshi in the jaw amidst yells of admiration and catcalls.

            “So it’s time,” he added, with a serious tone, “that I admit my defeat.” The room grew silent. Maroshi stared at his former master. “A week ago, to this very day, Maroshi and I sparred. And I lost.”

            The temple grew still, save a few gasps and the crickets in the night. Maroshi’s face grew red with embarrassment.

            “So, the rumors were true,” someone muttered.

            The master took in a deep breath. “As some of you know, it was my wishes, as I proclaimed on the first day I opened this Temple of Tiger, that I shall… Give away the most prized possession of my family the day I was first defeated by a student."

            The guests and faculty all murmured in surprise and disbelief. The sword had been in the family for ages.

            “Then again, the master has no sons,” a man thought out loud.

            Maroshi’s like a son to ‘im,” his wife added.

            “He deserves it more than anyone,” the man agreed.

            The master walked up to the grand fireplace, which had not been lit on this summer’s night. There were many weapons on the wall hanging off golden nails. Nunchuku, scimitar, pike, axe… Weapons of masters and teachers long past. But there in the middle was the katana.

            The sheath was dark blue with a silver tiger outlined at the top. Its tail trailed all the way to the bottom, were it was tipped in silver with a red stone on either side. The hilt was white with black cris-crosses and a tip to match the bottom sheath. The blade Maroshi had only seen once. It was made of a metal long forgotten how to be tamed, and it gleamed a dull blue. Right below the hilt, etched into the dull part of the metal was an eye on either side. They were said to be the eyes of Tiger, the god of honor.

            The master gently took down the beauty and balanced it in his worn hands. His sandals could be heard easily clacking against marble as he made his way back to Maroshi. All was still.

            The warrior kissed the tip of the hilt, and with a look of pride in his gray eyes, handed it to the young man. “It’s yours, Maroshi.”

            Before he even said the man’s name, the temple erupted in cheers and screams of delight. Maroshi took the sword in his tan hands and bowed as low as he could. “Thank you, master.”

            “Think nothing of it!” The warrior seemed to return to himself and pounded Maroshi’s back so hard he nearly fell. He yelled over the hoots and hollers, “This will help you in the tournament much more than that old bronze katana! Leave it here with us, to remember you by!”

            “Anything,” Maroshi smiled gratefully. “Anything.”

 

 

            Maroshi was a good-looking young man with a bright future ahead of him. At age twenty-five at about 5 feet and 11 inches, he was relatively tall for people in this area. His long black hair was tied back, but for some reason the right side of his bangs hadn’t gotten long enough to reach the ponytail. The young warrior had long since given up and now let them fall freely over his right amber eye. His master had disapproved of it, but it hadn’t made a difference after all.

Now his clothing, that pissed the master off. Maroshi had grown to like the old-style clothing that most people only wore for special occasions—like tonight. He found them easier to move in than armor or leather anyway. The light blue shirt had a black dragon on the back, and was held closed by a darker blue sash that matched his billowy pants. Add to that, Maroshi stitched heavy chains around the wrists of his shirt and ankles of his pants for weighted training like the teachers suggested. He had been given a pair of sandals and navy blue socks that old samurai were said to wear in the legends as a joke for his nineteenth birthday.

He never owned another pair of shoes again.

After making sure his blue-haired friend’s servants had safely fetched the comatose boy (his mother would have a fit when he got back), Maroshi decided to skip out of the party. After being stopped five times by several different girls for petty conversation, and once again by his semi-drunk ex-master to know if Maroshi remembered where he ‘parked his cow’, the young man made it out the back door.

Inside, he felt guilty for leaving the party. It had been thrown for him after all, by all his friends and the town-folk who caught word of his invitation to a tournament. But he’d been there for hours on end, and really just wanted some sleep. Maroshi smiled slightly to himself; they’d understand. If not, they’d be too drunk to remember.

Maroshi turned the corner and headed for St. Clare’s Orphanage. Home sweet home. He’d really miss it.

As he got closer to the white building, he could make out someone sitting on the ledge above the first floor. She dangled her feet over ‘Clare’ on the wooden sign that hung above the entrance and sat gazing at the stars that threatened to disappear in a few hours.

“Sister Jane?” Maroshi called out, careful not to wake any of the children asleep on the second floor. He tiptoed through the front yard, jumping over the gate in case it squeaked.

The blonde woman started, crystal-blue eyes blinking in the dark. She recognized the voice anyway. “Maroshi? Goodness, what are you doing back? You should be at the party, silly boy!”

Maroshi smiled a lop-sided grin. “It wasn’t any fun without you, Sister. May I join you?”

“Certainly,” Sister Jane chuckled and tucked a short strand of hair back behind her headband. “But when you go up the stairs inside, make sure to—“

Maroshi jumped from the ground up to the second story with no sweat. Sister Jane paled visibly in the dim light as he took a seat to her right. “Maroshi!” She hit him in the shoulder. “You’ll break your neck.”

“Hey, ow,” he pouted. “This way’s quicker than going inside, sneaking upstairs, climbing out the window, making sure the little kids don’t see…”

“But it’s much safer,” the forty-year-old woman sighed. “Then again, I keep forgetting you’re not a kid anymore. It seems like yesterday when they first brought you to the orphanage. Oh, you were such a scruffy little thing! The man told me you stole from vendors in the city, swore, threw stones at cats, and even spit on his shoe when he tried to catch you stealing an apple from his cart! Scruffy, rude, violent…”

“I am sitting right here you know,” Maroshi frowned.

“Oh, I’m just telling the truth,” Sister Jane swung her stocking-clad legs a little, making the black dress-uniform swish a bit and her brown shoes rattle the sign. “I remember when I asked you for your name… You told it to me. I asked about your parents, your home, who you lived with until you came to town…” Sister Jane sighed sadly. “You said you didn’t know.”

“I didn’t lie to you,” Maroshi continued to stare at the stars. “I never knew anything but my first name and my age.”

“I know,” Sister Jane pat his hand the way you would a puppy’s head. “You changed after you started to go to the temple. Other children wanted to go to school or even begin little odd jobs. But you told me you wanted to be a samurai.” The woman smiled sadly in sweet remembrance. “I couldn’t say no to a will like yours.”

“Thank you,” Maroshi murmured. “For doing that for me. None of the other adults thought I could turn out this way.”

“Twenty years since I met you Maroshi. That’s a very long time indeed.” She turned and Maroshi saw that warm, comforting, ‘every-thing-will-be-ok-if-you-believe’ smile grace Sister Jane’s lips. “And I never lost faith in you. Not a single day! And I won’t start now.”

Maroshi returned the smile. “Neither will I.”

 

 

Maroshi tossed the covers off his body. It would be dawn in a few hours, and he’d have to get up and say goodbye to the children in the St. Clare’s Orphanage. But something was still nagging him… something about that letter… that tournament…

Disgruntled, he flipped on the gas lantern and grabbed the envelope. This would be the last time he read the damn thing.

            He hoped.

            The envelope was standard paper from any-old tree. ‘Maroshi’ had been written in delicate form on the front with a seal that could be pressed and re-pressed and never fail to secure the envelope. The seal was green wax; a type no one could identify for him. A wolf’s head sat in the middle of it; the person’s insignia, no doubt.

            The only strange thing was how it had been delivered to him. A month ago, Maroshi awoke to tapping on the window. The sun was barely up when he went to open the window and see what the matter was. There, in the flower box, sat a fat squirrel with the darn thing in his mouth.

            “Uh… hi?” Maroshi blinked.

            The squirrel blinked back.

            Maroshi had tried to purge the sleep from his veins with a few pinches, but still the gray creature sat. Suddenly, it dropped the envelop in the posies, ran down the rain gutter, into the fence row behind St. Clare’s, and was never seen again.

            Maroshi hadn’t told anyone that part.

            But the letter itself was just as peculiar. Sister Jane, his master, and even his friends had thought just as much after reading it. Normally, he’d have thrown it out, but his master informed him that his friend working over at the Temple of Rabbit heard of a similar letter. It seemed it was bonefied after all.

            But it was still weird.

           

            Dear Maroshi,

 

            Congratulations. You have been selected to participate in a team tournament to be held three months from this day. Please arrive at that time with any desired weapons, spells, or potions you may need to do battle. EVERYTHING is allowed.

            The location is near Mt. Yukito at the stadium. If you do not arrive on the exact day three months from today, you are disqualified and your team will be short one person. Your team of five has already been selected.

            Servants are allowed, but it is recommended you come alone. Do us all a favor and leave any family behind.

            You may or may not return.

 

            Regards.

 

                                    -B.

 

            P.S. - Be wary in your travels.

           

 

            Maroshi sighed. Whoever wrote this needed some penmanship skills. He sealed the parchment back in its envelope, and crawled into bed.

 

            Maroshiiiii!”

            “Why do you hafta go?”

            “Please don’t leave Maroshi!”

            “He’s going to fight bad guys, stupid!”

            “Who’s gonna tell us stories about the sam’rai?”

            “An’ save us from Sissy Jane’s cooking?”

            “I’ll have you know my cooking is healthy and nutritious!” Sister Jane frowned and shifted her weight uneasily. The children had gotten up early to see Maroshi off for his trip. They really loved the silly boy…

            “Hey, it’s her cooking that got me so strong!” Maroshi winked to the children. “So I can dooo… this!” He snatched up an unsuspecting six-year-old and flung her into the air. She squealed with delight as he caught her and set her back on the bricks.

            Sister Jane pretended not to see.

            Maroshi glanced up at the sun. It was almost noon. With a heavy sigh, he pat his last head, slapped his last hand, and gave his last hug.

            The children watched quietly as he opened the wooden gate and shut it behind him. Any child who turned around would see Sister Jane dabbing at her eyes with a shaky hand. The group watched their best friend leave...

            “Hey, Maroshi!”

            “Hmm?” Maroshi turned around to see the little girl he had tossed staring at him with intent hazel eyes. Her brown pigtails quivered in the breeze as she tried not to step on any flowers, but still look over the tall white fence.

            “What did you name it?” she asked.

            Maroshi blinked.

            “The sword! What did you name it!” She rolled her eyes. She loved him dearly, but sometimes he could be stupid like a five-year-old.

            “Yeah,” another girl ran up to the fence. “Didn’t sam’rai used to name their kat’na’s?”

            Maroshi pondered this as the rest of the children met the fence. “I suppose they did…It doesn’t have a name, not that I know of.” He looked back to Sister Jane who only shook her head. She had never heard the master call it anything significant.

            “Then name it!”

            “Okay… How about… The St. Clare?”

 

            Maroshi waved to the children in the distance then finally turned his back on the orphanage. There was a blacksmith’s shop, a tailor, a few residences on his right, and then a corn farm on his left. After that, the road would lead him out of the suburbs and into the countryside that was full of fields. Eventually, if the map was correct, the highway would take him through a forest… then a town… more forest…

            Maroshi sighed and kicked a pebble off the dirt road. He didn’t think it would be this quiet! Then again, not many people came up this road to Icetai. They took the road at the north part that led directly into the city. No one wanted to see the farms that lined the south road. How boring, they all said. Maroshi was inclined to agree…

            He looked up into the sky where a cloud or two could be seen rolling by. Then again, the people who did come up the south road had rather odd tales to tell. It seems the woods were something of a danger, but it was the only clear way to Mt. Yukito. No, he didn’t want anyone coming with him who might have gotten hurt.

            Maroshi continued walking and nodded affirmatively. It was no sense to drag others into his own problems and put their lives in dan

            “YOU BASTARD!!!”

            A rock the size of an apricot hit the back of Maroshi’s head. Had he not been so lost in thought, he would have sensed it and blocked the missile. But fortune was not on his side as stars danced around his head.

            Owowow…” Maroshi tenderly rubbed his scalp and turned around. He knew that voice.

            It was River Bluefate.

            And he looked ticked.

            Royal ticked.

            “What did I do!?!” Maroshi whined as his blue-haired friend stomped up the road to meet him. River was a little sweaty and out of breath, a sure sign he had been running.

            “What did you do!?!” His temper wasn’t affected at all. “You left without me, that’s what you did!”

            “Eh?” Maroshi ceased massaging his injury to take a good look at his friend. River’s spiky blue hair was the same, his bangs covered a set of very angry brown eyes, and he had the same orange-with-thin-vertical-black-stripes yukata on. He still had on those odd wooden sandals with the black straps that looked like someone glued two thin strips of wood to the bottom of a foot-sized piece. And he had a large iron bowl slung over his back.

            “Uh… Why do you have a pot on your back?”

            “First off, it’s called an Ooshi Bowl, ok?” River frowned and put and irritated hand on his hip. “Second, it’s because I’m commin’ with you, moron!”

            Maroshi swallowed. If he didn’t do this tactfully, one of them would end up hurt. Most likely himself. “River…”

            “Yes, Maroshi?” The nineteen-year-old raised an eyebrow and adjusted the leather strap on his right shoulder.

            “You can’t come with me,” Maroshi said sternly, putting his foot down.

            The young warrior was ready for anything. River was about the third strongest in Icetai, but Maroshi was stronger if it came down to a fistfight. Maroshi could knock him out and leave River back at his mother’s mansion in the city. There was a family traveling up the road towards them from the southern fields, but he could explain his violence later.

            He was ready for anything.

            “You hate me, don’t you!?” River bawled and put his hands over his eyes, tears seeping through the fingers.

            Ready for anything. Except that.

            “Uh, um… Er,” Maroshi panicked. The family was practically right behind them on their route for Icetai, and was staring at the two young men on the side of the road.

            “No! Don’t explain yourself!” River choked. “M-mother told me… I-I’d never be good e-enough for… for you!”

            Maroshi didn’t like the way River pathetically spat ‘you’. The family’s wagon had stopped to watch, and even the horses seemed embarrassed for him.

            “Knock it off River,” Maroshi said between clenched teeth as his face felt warmer and warmer.

            “Oh!” River looked up defiantly. “So now you’re going to beat me, is that it!?”

            Maroshi’s jaw fell open.

            The mother muttered something Maroshi didn’t want to hear. It looked like the children were getting upset too. He really wished the mother would snap the reigns and get the heck out of there.

            “I’m not going to be used, Maroshi!” River screamed his name so the family could hear it perfectly.

            “Oh, for the love of…” Maroshi slapped his forehead. “What is it going to take for you to quit it?” he muttered.

            “Promise I can come with,” River whispered before yelling, “I knew I should have taken that job in the red-light district instead!”

            The mother looked horrified and slapped her hands over her toddler’s ears.

            “Fine! You can come!” Maroshi knew when he had lost. Now was one of those times.

            “Six-two!” River’s tears stopped like clockwork and he tackled Maroshi to the ground. He hugged the warrior until Maroshi was sure his spine would pop.

            “More like six-three,” he muttered and rose from the ground, River still clinging to him for all he was worth.

            “Mommy,” the toddler asked, “are all the people in Icetai gay?”

            The mother sighed and snapped the reigns, “No, honey. He’s just an openly gay samurai. Let’s get going.”

            Maroshi’s jaw dropped again and his eyes bulged as the wagon continued down the road. He really hoped they were just passing through Icetai, and wouldn’t stop to tell anyone about this… event…

            River touched his index finger thoughtfully to his lips and began heading south. “Wow. It looks like you already have a nickname, Mar.”

            Maroshi turned around rapidly and stalked after his ex-friend. “You…!”

            “You should have just let me come,” River continued at a leisurely pace, “and I wouldn’t have had to pull that stunt.”

            “That was a little much,” the black-haired youth fell into step with River, hand absentmindedly on his katana.

            “Whatever. And the score’s still six-two,” River yawned.

            Was it really six times he had let River beat him at something this month? Maroshi sighed. The sun would set soon, and he could already see the tops of forest oaks looming ahead.

 

            The people who told tales of ghosts, goblins, and other strange creatures were full of it. Maroshi had decided that once he set foot in the forest. The trees were tall and strong and shaded the road from the sun’s heat. It was cooler still when you walked on the grass to the west or east. He was certain, had it been fall and the moon full, travel would be possible at night. Save a bend or two in the road, everything about the forest was nice and linear.

            Unfortunately, it was early summer, and the moon was only half full. As visibility faded, Maroshi ushered River to an eastern clearing to camp for the night. And hour later they had a small fire going and River was in a better mood.

            “So,” Maroshi settled his back against a more slender oak. “Why did you follow me?”

            River stopped muttering something about spices and chicken and looked up. “Well, after you showed me that letter I made up my mind.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “It said you ‘may or may not’ return,” River ran a hand through his spiky locks. “I figured if I went with you and we died fighting some dragon an’ shit it would be the same as if you had died with me back safe at home.”

            “Uh…”

            “Because I’d kill myself out of boredom! Do you know how many stairs Mother’s mansion has?”

            “No, not—“

            “8,322. D’ you know how I know?”

            “You’re crazy?”

            “I got bored that week you and the other orphans got to go on a beach trip with Jane!” River shuddered at the memory.

            “Some coincidence that was the only week your mother didn’t ground you,” Maroshi grinned.

            “Yeah, really,” River muttered and set up the Ooshi Bowl over the fire. “Now what do you want for supper?”

            Maroshi straightened and pulled a little wooden box from his blue shirt. “I have enough fish rolls to last a week. I can get some more in the next town too.”

            “Fish rolls, yummy,” River rolled his eyes. “That reminds me the other reason I came. You can’t cook for crap.”

            “I’ve had other things like training at the temple to worry about. Which you should have been doing too,” Maroshi retorted.

            “I’m through trainin’, Mar,” River sighed slightly. “There are other things that are more important than fighting.”

            River stared intently into the fire. For a brief second, Maroshi thought in that light his friend looked so much more mature than usual. Something about his eyes…

            River brightened up, his eyes dancing with merriment again. “So what’ll it be? Shrimp? Chicken? Shrimp? Stew? Shrimp?”

            “Chicken.”

            “Too bad. It’s my bowl, so we’re having shrimp,” River stuck out his tongue.

            Maroshi rolled his eyes. Yeah, River a mature human being. How’d that thought even enter his mind? “Incase you didn’t notice, we don’t have anything besides fish rolls and water.”

            River wagged his wooden spoon at Maroshi. “That’s where you’re wrong! Mother got me this Ooshi Bowl for my birthday.”

            “Real masculine, Riv’.”

            “I wasn’t trying to be. Anyway, as soon as I tap this spoon against the bowl, any ingredient appears at my will!” He tapped the iron bowl with a ‘clang!’ and Maroshi stared.  Poof! A puff of smoke came and went. There, in the center of the bowl, sat six jumbo shrimp.

            “See?” River wore a cat-like expression of smugness and he hit the bowl again. Poof! A globe of swirling water dumped onto the shrimp and began to sizzle.

            “That’s pretty neat,” Maroshi admitted. “I still want chicken though…”

            “Too bad,” River muttered and stirred the bowl’s contents. “Maybe tomorrow if you’re good.”

            “How does it do that?”

            River shrugged. “Magic.”

            “Ah. Why doesn’t it just give you a whole meal then? So you don’t have to cook.”

            “Because that defeats the purpose,” River speared a shrimp with a twig and handed it to his traveling companion. “And something about raw-ingredients only.”

            “Must have been a lazy magician,” Maroshi blew on the seafood.

            “You’re telling me,” River muttered and skewered his own dinner.

            The two chatted, argued, and ate the last of the shrimp. The fire was nothing more than dull embers when River’s nudging awakened Maroshi.

            “Your turn for watch,” he whispered.

            Maroshi nodded and yawned as River fell back against the tree and drifted off immediately.

            Dawn would come soon, he thought. The sky was turning a dull gray and the sun’s crimson light would touch it then. Until that time came, Maroshi drifted in and out of thought after thought. He had the distinct feeling they were being watched, but cast it aside.

            “It’s just that dream again,” he murmured. “Making me nervous, that’s all.”

            Maroshi vowed not to think about what he dreamt last night, lest it break his nerve. Every time it was the same thing. The tree, the woman... Maroshi shook his head.

            She was dead.

            That’s all there is to it.

 

            The pair walked down the road in silence. It was mid-morning already, later than Maroshi had planned on getting started. That was mostly River’s fault. He took a swing at Maroshi for waking him up at six. Maroshi had dodged it, but decided to let the temperamental teen sleep in a bit later anyway.

            Birds could be heard chirping, and a chipmunk darted out a log to catch its mate on the other side of the path. The sun streamed a steady gold through the leaves and not a wind was to be felt under the canopy. Maroshi inhaled the scent of the outdoors with pleasure. This was the life. Good surroundings, good health, good people…

            River cracked his knuckles.

            Maroshi winced. Relatively okay people…

            “That still makes you queasy, eh?” River threw the warrior a sideways glance.

            Maroshi shrugged and stepped over a rut in the road. Never give River an advantage. He learned that early on.

            River whistled in astonishment. “I figure you would have gotten over that years ago.”

            “I did.” Maroshi didn’t make eye contact. Instead he kept walking while studying the trees around him.

            “Oh, really? So this doesn’t bother you?” River cracked his thumb.

            “No.”

            “How about this?” River rolled his wrist with an astounding ‘pop’.

            Maroshi swallowed. “Nope.”

            “This?” River took off his sandal and pressed his toes into the ground. They all cracked at once.

            “No…” Maroshi gritted his teeth.

            “How about this!” River rolled his neck with a pop that echoed through the forest.

            “That’s just disturbing,” Maroshi muttered.

            “Oh yeah?” River, not about to be beaten, adjusted his Ooshi Bowl and prepared for the next round. “How about—…Mar?” He stopped.

            Maroshi stood perfectly still in the middle of the road. His left hand gripped the St. Clare and his right was balled into a fist. The warrior’s eyes became dangerously narrow, and the yellow orbs shone bright with anticipation.

            “Mar?” River’s own eyes narrowed and his fists clenched. He knew that look. He trained with Maroshi at the temple long enough to have memorized it.

            “The birds,” Maroshi said finally. “They’ve stopped singing.”

            River listened. Nothing could be heard. A chill breeze fluttered stray leaves to and fro in what couldn’t be mistaken for a good omen.

            “What direction?” River said as quietly as he could.

            “I’m not sure,” Maroshi’s eyes narrowed. For a minute, they stood back-to-back, waiting for something… Anything to give them a clue.

            Maroshi listened. And listened. And listened…

            ‘Snap.’

            His eyes widened. “West!” he shouted.

            River dove and rolled north while Maroshi sprung easily to the south of the road. Trees to the west splintered and shattered as a huge beast came to land with a roar where the two had just stood. Its massive green and tan body took up the width of the road and Maroshi lost sight of River.

            “River!” Maroshi yelled, but was cut off by the roar. The creature turned slowly to face the warrior who had already drawn his sword.

            Its eyes turned in two directions at once, like a chameleon, though it was anything but. It had a round head with a mouth that went horizontally from one side to the other with huge foot-long teeth sticking out vertically. Its giant foot took a step towards Maroshi, and he could see the drool burn a hole in the ground.

            River’s view wasn’t much better. The thing’s spiked tail seemed to have a mind of its own, and he had to jump over it more than once as it swished back and forth. With only his fists for weapons, River doubted he could hurt its leathery hide. He put himself on the defensive, and hoped Maroshi was having an easier time.

            “HYAH!” Maroshi charged as its tongue lashed out where he stood. The warrior jumped to a tree branch just in time, only to come back down. With a yell, Maroshi cut a vertical line through its forehead.

            Blood covered the St. Clare. The creature howled in pain and retracted its tongue. Maroshi was sure it would flee after a devastating gash to a tender area, but he was mistaken.

            The creature’s thin tongue licked the wound, leaving a trail of saliva behind.

            Ew,” Maroshi grimaced. After seeing what the drool did to the road, he was sure he’d won.

            But to his amazement, the wound began to heal. Slowly the gash closed itself as Maroshi watched in shock and horror. With a triumphant screech, the creature’s tongue shot out again, and Maroshi couldn’t dodge.

            The slimy thing curved and sent Maroshi into a tree sending the St. Clare to the other side of the path. He coughed as the wind was knocked out of him. He thought he heard River yell, but was too stunned to be sure. The tongue curled around his abdomen and slowly drew him towards the mouth. Maroshi groaned and tried to move, but the tree had knocked out his strength along with his breath.

           

 

Maroshi!” River had been in the middle of jumping to a tree limb when he saw it happen. The tongue wrapped around his friend, but before he could see what happened next (he had a pretty good idea anyway) he had to move. The tail snapped the limb like a twig and he leapt to the ground and landed in a crouch.

            Maroshi!” He yelled again. River was about to punch the crap out of the beast for all his worth.

            Suddenly, he felt a few drops of moisture land on his left cheek as a black streak came from the eastern side and stopped directly before him. River started. It was a man!

            From the back all River could see was his long black coat, matching boots, gloved hands, and medium length hair. And his giant scythe. The staff was a good eight feet tall, making the man about 6’2”. The blade, however, was another five feet and covered in blood.

            River glanced to the side and noticed the tail had been cut off. But it was so sudden, he, not even the monster, had noticed it!

            River looked back to the figure and narrowed his eyes in curiosity.

            Who was this guy?

            As if hearing River’s thoughts, the man glanced back. His eyes were red, the color of wine, River decided. And he looked older than either he or Maroshi. Actually… the man’s eyes were almost the same color as…

            “You have blood on your face,” he said.

            Blood.