Winter Blossoms

by Tatsushu

Drunken laughter accompanied a vulgar cacophony of grunts and snorts as a nearly naked, green Lutin danced gleefully around a campfire. His companions chortled at his antics, slapping each other on the backs and taking deep, long drinks from their mangy flasks of some vile, dark brown distillate. In all the noise, the few--mostly sober--camp guards didn't hear the twig snap as two figures detached themselves from the shadows and then slipped off into the night.

When they were far enough away that they were certain the revelers could not hear them, Robert turned to his companion, Heather. "Watch your step next time. I don't feel like becoming a Lutin pincushion, thank you very much."

"I'm sorry, I know I'm not as graceful as you, Sure-foot." Heather retorted, referring to the mountain goat-morph's latest attempt to prove his own dexterity along the Keep's parapets. Coe had not been too pleased with him. "Anyhow, I don't see what's got you so upset, anyway." Heather continued, "There were only five sober guards or so--the rest were so drunk that I doubt they could have hit a castle wall from twenty paces."

"I don't care--you know what they told us before coming out here. Any group larger than ten and we report their position unless it is some kind of an emergency. I don't think these will be going anywhere before sunrise, so let's high-tail it back to the Keep."

Heather simply nodded in answer. The two had been out in the field for a while, and she was definitely looking forward to getting back to the comfortable civilization of the Keep. Traveling back covered in the blood of green-skinned Lutins, while retaining a sort of barbaric appeal, would not have been too comfortable.

As the two Keepers disappeared into the forest once more, a shadow detached itself from the tree branches and dropped to the ground. Two eyes fairly glowed from beneath the silk cloth, following the two Westerners as they moved off to the south. A slender hand carefully rubbed the rune engraved stone in its palm.

George and Misha sat sharing a drink at the Deaf Mule when the door burst open and two travel-ridden ungulates entered the room. The mountain goat morph strode purposefully towards Misha and the Patrol Master, followed by an obviously wearied deer morph.

Robert saluted as he approached the table. George nodded back, but was obviously not pleased at being interrupted. "What is it?" he asked, the hint of a growl plainly evident.

"Sir, we spotted a group of Lutins to the north. It looks like a large hunting party--about fifteen or so." Robert reported.

"Harumph. So what's so special about that? More importantly, why does it call for you to interrupt my OFF-DUTY conversation to report this rather than going to the ON-DUTY officers?" George asked, glaring in obvious irritation.

The mountain goat morph seemed taken aback for a second, his composure broken, "Well, uh, I thought you'd want to know ASAP." he finally managed to get out. Behind him, Heater was smirking.

"And I would have, but it wouldn't have been your sorry, sweat-soaked butts that told me." George paused to let his scolding glare sink in before turning it onto the over-eager soldier's partner, "And what are you smiling at? Stand up straight soldier! Now, both of you go stow your gear and make a full, PROPER, report. Hut, hut!" George clapped his hands and the two soldiers almost fell over themselves as they double-timed their way away from the bar, the black-backed jackal's stern gaze following after them.

Misha kept a straight face until the soldiers were out the door and George had returned to his drink. Slowly he let a grin spread across his face. "You know, you don't have to tear everyone's head off just because they interrupted your drink."

George set his glass down, "They've got to learn some discipline. Can't have them bring every little Lutin sighting straight to me."

Misha raised a questioning brow, "But isn't that what you do, Patrol Master?"

"Confound it all, but that's not the point. It's a sad state we're in these days, what with the scraps we have to pick from." George responded with frustrated ire.

"We still have some of the best warriors around, even you've got to admit to that." Misha commented pointedly.

"Aye, and anytime I roster them for anything like a simple patrol you tell me they're on or just got back from some 'Save the Keep' mission with you and your Longs." Shot back George, bringing up a topic that had obviously been fuming in his mind for some time.

Misha grinned from beneath his raised cup, "I'll remember that. Next time the Lutin hordes come knocking I'll tell my men to just let them straight through." Misha finished his draught, draining it slowly and casually.

George's glare could have pierced steel.

"So," Misha continued, placing the now empty cup on the table and going on as though he hadn't noticed the icy stare, "Speaking of Lutins, what do you plan to do about this latest batch?"

George resigned his glare and turned his attention back to the glass in front of him. "It's only about fifteen or so," he answered with a shrug, "I'll send maybe four or five men out to take care of it. I hear the game's getting scarce further north, especially with winter rushing in, and the tribes are getting bolder, coming further into the valley in search of food. We'll have to send them a clear warning, lest they start actually molesting folks."

Misha nodded, "Who are you thinking of sending out."

George gave him a suspicious, sidelong glance, "Don't worry, they're none of your people; I know better than to try to schedule any of that crowd for a routine patrol like this, though any of you illustrious warriors are more than welcome to come along." A fur-covered hand waved in accent to the facetious remark, "Actually, I'm thinking of sending Guillame along as a scout, and maybe Toby, Laura, and Rose as well. Maybe I'll send that new warrior--Ro, or whatever his name is. This would be a good chance to see how he handles himself in the field."

Misha nodded again, "How is he, by the way?"

George gave a snort, "He can fight, that's for sure, and there's just something about him in that armour of his that gives me the creeps, especially that mask. As for his skills, well, I hear tell that you've seen those for yourself."

"Yes, but I'd be interested in seeing more." Misha answered truthfully, "What about communication problems?"

"We've had some people who can speak with him a bit going over the basic hand gestures. Other than that, he only knows a few words in any decent language." George explained.

"Hmmm, I think I might know something that will help with that." Offered Misha, the finely tuned gears of his mind turning like the well-oiled workings of his own clockwork creations.

"Eh? What's that?" Asked the Patrol Master.

Misha continued, apparently oblivious to the question, "In fact, I think it will come in very handy when I go with him on patrol. You _did_ say that any of us 'illustrious warriors' were welcome to come along. As you mentioned, this will be a good time to see him in action."

George just sighed, "Me and my big mouth. And just when I thought I might have a real warrior under my command again." George raised his cup to his lips in resignation, "And another one bites the dust."


The lion-morph's mouth filled with earth as he was ploughed headfirst into the soft ground. He struggled to get up, but it only caused sharp pains to lance through his arm. Eventually he gave up the struggle, slapping his free hand against the ground. A cheer went up from the spectators, and Ryuo released the helpless lion. Gil rose, spitting out dirt and dusting off his fur. Wiping his face he went over to where Rose was watching from the fence. "I almost had him, you know." he told her, rubbing his wrist.

"Of course," Rose agreed, sarcasm dripping from her lips, "Just remember, 'twas you that issued challenge."

"Aye, for a friendly match, and that's all it was. However, if I had but two more--ouch!" Gil yelped as Rose slapped him on his sore shoulder. He turned to see Ryuo approaching, a concerned look on his face.

"How?" he signed with the primitive hand language he had been taught.

"Good." Rose signed back, speaking as she did so. The various people who'd been working with Ryuo on the signs were hoping that maybe they could go from the hand gestures to full language if they could connect the sound and symbol together. Rose made a motion like wringing out a wet towel and pointed to Gil's arm. "How did you do that?" she asked, signing as much as she could.

Ryuo cocked his head to the side as he puzzled out what she was trying to say. "Follow" he signed, and motioned with an overturned hand. Rose was, at first, confused as to whether or not he wanted her to come to him or move away. She eventually figured out that he wanted her to join him out on the field. When they came to a place where there were no people too close, Ryuo motioned for her to stop.

Next, Ryuo made the motion of a punch. This wasn't a swing, but straight from the hip. He motioned for Rose to do the same, pointing at his chest. Rose tried to imitate the vulpine, but the punch was awkward compared to how she had been trained as a young boy. It seemed sufficient for Ryuo's purposes, however.

As Rose punched towards Ryuo's chest, the fox became a blur of motion, dodging to the side while at the same time deflecting her fist and then grabbing it. He stopped for a moment and held that position, allowing Rose to feel how she had been unbalanced by the sudden move. Next, he dipped her hand low towards the ground. Naturally, Rose tried to pull herself back up, and Ryuo used her movements to reverse the direction of her fall, twisting the wrist and causing the body to follow.

As she fell, Ryou pulled the arm at the joint, and the gender morph's entire body turned around so that she was now face down on the ground in the same position as Gil had been in only moments earlier. The only difference was, Rose wasn't resisting and thus there was no pain.

Carefully, Ryuo placed her hand at the small of her back, and then he stepped back, allowing her to stand and dust herself off. Once she was standing again, Ryuo motioned at her, "Now. You." He took up a stance with his fist cocked back and a fierce look in his eyes. Rose tried ineffectually to steel herself in a like manner.

At just that moment, teacher and pupil were interrupted by a loud, heraldic voice. "Oye! Oye!" it cried out for attention, "Message for Rose Nathaniel Crantz of the Keep Infantry! You and Ryuo are to outfit yourselves and report to the barracks as soon as possible." The messenger stopped only long enough to make get confirmation that Rose had heard the message, and then he was off again.

"Well, looks like pracitce is over." She turned to Ryuo, signing as she spoke, "We must stop. We. Go."

"Patrol?" Ryuo signed, his face adding a question mark to the statement.

"Maybe." Rose waggled her hand, "We shall go and see." Ryuo held up his hands as if to say something in response, but stopped, apparently unable to find the words. Carefully he made an outline around his body and pulled an imaginary bow.

"Yes. First, weapons, armour. Follow me." Rose replied. She then left the field, Ryuo following close behind. Back at the fence, Gil was issuing a challenge to another spectator. The large bull just nodded and strode out onto the field.

Situated in the Lower Keep, the barracks were mainly the place for the unmarried soldiers to quarter themselves and stow their gear if they didn't have other arrangements. There was a common room that most them used as a hangout during their free time. It wasn't quite the Deaf Mule, but there was definitely an air too it--like too much sweat and iron. It was most often the gathering spot for a patrol briefing, if there was one, although the final decision was left up to the officer in charge.

Rose and Ryuo arrived to find a handful of people already there. Guilliame was going through some dagger slashes, working the dexterity of his telve year old body. The metal fang made a series of deadly arcs through the air, and then finished in a playful manner with a toss into the air. Guilliame caught the dagger by its hilt and slid it smoothly into its sheath without even looking, offering a proud grin to the newcommers.

Meanwhile, over at a plain, wooden table Misha stood discussing something with a lightly armoured female primate-morph. He was writing something on a piece of slate, and his female partner was nodding her head in a thoughtful fashion. Laura Hrottsdottir considered the notes she was looking at carefully, considering the fox's proposal. Both of their heads turned up as they saw Rose and Ryuo.

"Wait. One minute." Misha signed to Ryuo. Turning and exchanging a few last words with Laura, Misha began a slight incantation.

After he had finished he looked at Ryuo and said, "There. Can you understand me?"

Ryuo was rather shocked. Although the grammar was horrid, the other fox was actually speaking to him in his own language. "What?" he replied in surprise, "As for me, don't understand. Where at you my humble language learned?"

Misha grimaced as he realized that his spells had some major flaws. Maybe he really should get one of the professional mages at the Keep to do something before they left; he doubted his own skills were adequate to the complex task of translating more than just the words. Misha sighed, _That's what you get for dabbling._ he told himself.

"What happened?" asked Laura. Her own mage sight was working so that she could see the magic at work, but that didn't allow her to understand Ryuo's half of the conversation. Misha explained how the grammar wasn't translating properly, and Laura nodded, "Wish I could be more help, but as I said before, those kinds of spells aren't exactly my strong suit." she apologized.

Ryuo just sat and listened, picking up the general gist of what Misha was saying, even if the words were all out of place.

At that moment, a sixth person wandered into the room. Tossing the bone he'd been gnawing into a nearby bucket, the talbot morph looked around at everyone, "Sorry I'm late." He said in a cheerful manner.

Misha turned to the new arrival. "Just take a seat, I guess we're all here." he began, dropping all thoughts on the spell for the time being and getting into the briefing itself. "This shouldn't be too difficult: we spotted a camp of Lutins to the north--a hunting party by the looks of it. About fifteen or so."

"Fifteen more ears for your belt? Is that why you're coming, Misha?" Toby interrupted.

Misha returned an almost feral smile, "Well, that's only if you folks can't beat me to it."

Taking a more serious tone, the fox continued, "The plan is fairly straight forward. Guilliame will take point--his eyes and ears and small size make him ideally suited for scouting out ahead. Plus, he's the most experienced of all of you." Misha made sure not to include Ryuo in his hand gesture there, "Laura's magic is there if we need it, and Rose, Toby, Ryuo, and myself are mostly just muscle. The targets were last spotted getting piss drunk up in the birch forest near Viper's Head. Are there any questions?" Misha finished, looking around the room.

"Yeah," piped up Toby, "What's the prize for the most Lutin's killed?" All the Keepers broke into laughter, and even Ryuo offered a nervous smile, although he clearly had no idea what was being said.

"Toby, if it's you, I'll buy you a free drink of your choice over at the Mule." offered Laura, "I think that's a safe enough wager."

Misha held up a hand to interrupt the camaraderie before Toby could offer a retort. "All right, let's settle down. You've all got another hour before we head out. Meet over by the north gate. If you need anything, you know where to get it. There will be something for you to eat on the trail ready when we get ready to leave."

Toby and Guilliame exchanged faces. Trail rations were not considered the best of foods.

"If there are no more questions?" Misha asked, glancing around the room. Seeing none, he went on, "Okay, let's move out. I expect to see all of your ugly faces at the north gate in one hour's time." With that, the briefing was over.

As they had time, Misha decided to spend it trying to talk to Ryuo. They were walking through the halls of the Keep, looking for someone who could cast a translation spell that might last the day. As they walked, Misha had coaxed Ryuo into letting him see the katana he wore, and marvelled at its craftsmanship. Together they tried to talk about soldiering in their parts of the world.

"My country in," Ryuo said, trying to match up the word order as best he could to the other fox's grammar, "As for flower blossom like. As for flower...brightly blooms but...quickly gone becomes."

Misha looked at Ryuo, confusion showing on his face. The language barrier was still too great, even with the aide of his spell, "We definitely need to get a better means of communication. Let's see if we can't get a better version than that second rate cantrip I concocted."

It was now Ryuo's turn to look confused at the flood of words, all out of order to his way of thinking. He cocked his head to the side inquisitively as Misha told him with accompanying hand signs, "Don't worry. Just follow me."

Misha and Ryuo eventually managed to track down one of the many mages residing at the Keep for a better translation spell so that the two could communicate more easily. It would only last the day, but that was all that was needed for this patrol--or so Misha hoped. Equipped with weapons and language, Ryuo and Misha arrived at the appointed gate to find Rose already waiting for them. The rest of the party joined them shortly, and checking to make sure everything was in order, the small force took off to the north.

Winter's chill was in the air, and it was beginning to bite through the armour and layers of padding that the soldiers wore. "It's not so bad as long as we keep moving." Guilliame offered, short puffs of steam accompanying his speech.

"'Specially if you're covered in fur to begin with." Toby added, freely frolicking in his lack of heavy clothes or armour. The canine preferred the freedom of light armour, and often wore less than his superiors recommended, trusting in the extra maneuverability over added protection.

"So you may say," commented Rose, her own cloak drawn tight around her. Rose had a full hauberk of maille, with a padded linen gambeson beneath. This was much in contrast with the relatively light brigandine armour of the overly-energetic talbot. "Yet soon the chill air shall bite even the fleas on your mangy hide. It looks as though the latest snowfall is here to stay." Rose added, nodding to the soft layer of ice that crunched beneath the soldiers' feet.

The banter continued as the soldiers moved along their way. Only Ryuo and Misha refrained from joining in with the banter. As the small group moved away from the fields that immediately surrounded the Keep, Misha cut it short. "Alright folks," he said, "We can talk about the weather later. For now, let's try to keep the chatter down--we wouldn't want our friends out there to leave before the party, would we?" There were smiles on the eager faces of the warriors at that last remark.

Misha grinned back, but couldn't help but notice what seemed like a complete lack of professionalism. From behind his amicable facade he wondered if perhaps George wasn't right that the Longs were taking a bit too many of the professional warriors away from the Regulars. Still, the Longs played a vital role in the Keep's military, and Misha could not think of how any of his men could be removed from their current jobs without opening up holes in the Keep's information and defenses that could allow a large force to possibly pass unnoticed into the valley. As it was, he considered the Longs to be understaffed.

Misha pushed such thoughts from his head as he sidled up to Ryuo. "From this point on, we are going to try to stay as quiet as possible." He explained in hushed tones. "We don't know how far the Lutins have traveled and we don't want to scare them away. Just keep near me if anything happens." He looked at Ryuo, who simply nodded in response.

With everyone silent, Misha almost wished that they would start talking again. Without the sound of their own voices to muffle their footsteps, Misha could hear every single crack of ice, and it grated along his ears. Of all of them, only Guilliame seemed to have any real ability at moving quietly. Even Ryuo's careful stride was painfully apparent to Misha's now highly trained sense of hearing. The leader of the famous Long Scouts realized, however, that scolding the Regulars would only lower morale. They were trying, and it would do no good to reprimand them here and now. Misha shrugged his shoulders and pulled his cloak a bit tighter around his body as a chill breeze sent an ominous shiver down his spine, continuing past into the slate grey, cloud-covered sky.

When they came near the last reported sighting, the group slowed, the patrol members using all of their senses to catch any hint of the Lutin party. Guilliame, as scout, moved ahead of the group, making his way quietly beneath the trees. Misha worried each time the form disappeared into the brush without a trace, but the young form would invariably appear once more to let them know that everything was alright. Next in the patrol was Toby, followed by Misha and Ryuo. Behind the lupines stood Laura, carrying an amethyst staff that was almost as tall as she was. Rose brought up the rear, her large shield held up and ready.

Slowly, the patrol advanced through the freezing woods, watching for Guilliame's young form or some sort of warning. They looked carefully for the telltale signs of recent activity, but their efforts went unrewarded. Misha frowned; something seemed out of place here. Perhaps they had come down into the wrong part of the valley. Carefully he looked up through a break in the trees.

Sure enough, the Viper's Head glared down at them, just as Heather and Robert had reported. Outlined against the grey sky, the massive granite formation looked down with a baleful gaze at the peaceful valley below. The stone protrusion had taken its name from its shape--like a viper's head, waiting to strike. Misha followed the contours of the natural landmark--the thin neck, leading out to a larger, diamond shaped head. The dark cave that made the black eye that looked out over a long snout that ended in two pits, above which sat a smaller formation which looked like--

"Everybody! Down!" Misha shouted, diving for cover behind a large cedar tree. The rest of the patrol tried to do likewise, but they had little or no idea where the threat was coming from. Lacking Misha's experience in the field, most of them were slow to react, and then it was only on the basest of instincts. Toby ducked behind a leafless bush, while Rose tried to grab Laura and knock her safely to the ground. As she did so, Rose tripped on an exposed root, falling face first into the snow. Laura tried to run, but her reactions were too slow. Suddenly, she was engulfed in flames.

As soon as the fireball hit, an arrow flew off in the opposite direction. Misha looked to see Ryuo kneeling on the ground and loosing a second shaft towards the enemy firecaster.

A billion questions raced through Misha's mind, but there was no time to devise answers. Rose was desperately trying to extinguish the flames that had engulfed the screaming Laura; Misha, however, could do nothing from where he stood behind the thick cedar. Suddenly, a volley of poorly aimed, yet plentiful, arrows caming raining down from the rock. Wooden death rained from the sky, forcing the Keeper's to stay put.

As Misha reached for his bow, arrows pelted the ground near his feet. As he nocked an arrow, Laura's screams were cut mercifully short as a wooden shaft blossomed from her charred temple. Realizing, now, the futility of any rescue, Rose also took shelter from the Lutins' weapons. Quickly, the Keepers began to recover from the unexpected ambush. Drawing their own bows, they began to return fire, but it was hurried, and horribly sloppy, Misha noticed.

Still, the screams of a few Lutins could be heard as they were struck. The lack of any more fireballs seemed to indicate that at least one of Ryuo's arrows had found their mark. Despite their initial panic, the Keepers seemed to be gaining the upper hand, with fewer and fewer arrows whistling down from the Viper's Head.

Then, without warning, the arrows stopped; Misha had to wonder what it meant.

The tense moment of peace was quickly broken as wood splintered and cracked. Through the underbrush, three ogres came crashing towards the remaining four warriors, followed by an uncountable horde of Lutins. Misha realized that this was not some simple hunting party. Letting loose his last arrow, Misha tossed down his bow and hefted his axe, letting its magic begin to take hold.

Ryuo turned towards the new threat crashing towards them just in time to see an arrow catch one of the large ogres in the chest. It bellowed in pain, but kept advancing, breaking off the shaft with a huge fist. Noticing the arrow's seeming inability to cause the creature serious harm, Ryuo set his bow down and drew his sword. The metal gleamed in the light that reflected off of the snow, and the hamon seemed to waver like ocean waves as he drew it from its black home and dropped it low and to the side.

A powerful kick of his legs and Ryuo was charging forward, engaging the first of the giant trio. A quick cut to the creature's wrist disabled its hands, and he finished it off with a sweep across its exposed abdomen. As he finished the sweeping cut, he turned to parry the blow of the next opponent, only to have it collapse as a dark axe chopped out on of its legs from beneath it. Ryuo spared Misha a dark grin.

As Ryuo danced through the horde of creatures, his mind turned to the teachings of his sensei, like some kind of meditative state:

Yaru koto ha yaru...

Ryuo parried and thrust, each blow guided and carefully calculated by muscles that had been trained so that swordwork was second nature to them now. Each cut, stab, and slash were executed without thought, unconsciously finding the chinks in each opponent's defense.

Yaru toki ni yaru...

A sword swung in as Ryuo danced to the side, letting it miss by a mere hairsbreadth of empty space as his own sword cleaved through the wielder's skull. Timing each move, he blended with the ever-changing chaos of battle, his sword an ever-moving extension of his own body.

Zettai ni yaru...

Sweeping down and around, Ryuo deflected his newest opponent's weapon high into the air. Spinning around like a blood-soaked ballerina, he danced into his target's dead zone, behind his shoulder. Grabbing the Lutin's neck with one hand he bulled the creature off-balance, throwing him into his companion's spear.

Tettei teki ni yaru...

A glancing blow to his shoulder guard spun Ryuo around to face the third ogre. Blocking a Lutin's ill-formed strike with his short side arm, Ryuo stabbed the annoyance and then raised both swords high. The ogre's eyes gleamed as it saw the rich target area left exposed by the bold maneuver, and swung a sapling-girthed club at the fox.

Shinnen de yaru...

A powerful shout issued forth from the demonic mask Ryuo wore as his short sword dashed forward, slicing the monster's wrist and halting the club's murderous sweep. The other blade came straight down--leveling at the creature's throat--and with a determined gaze, Ryuo leapt forward.

Zenin itchi yaru...

In panic, the ogre threw up its remaining hand to block, sacrificing a finger instead of its throat. Ryuo plowed into the creature, his momentum carrying him into the creature with a force that knocked it backwards. As it stepped back it reached its hulking, wounded arms around the four and a half foot tall bundle of iron and death before it. As its arms encircled Ryuo, they began to squeeze--and then, in a flash, they went limp. As the ogre fell backwards, Ryuo could see Toby pulling his sword out of the overgrown goblin's brainpan. Ryuo paused only a moment to meet Toby's gaze in wordless thanks before the killing continued.

Kihon doori ni yaru...

Again and again the sword fell in well-practiced motions. Ryuo continued to parry dodge, and cut his way through the enemies with deadly simple moves. Ryuo had no need for unnecessary flourishes, and each step took him only as far as he needed to go. It was minimal effort for maximum effect.

Kimeta koto ha yaru...

As the number of attackers dwindled, the chaos began to thin. Ryuo took on each opponent as an individual, though remaining ever aware of the large picture. Each movement of the sword was known to him before it struck, and he continued with determination. As another Lutin went down, Ryuo saw Misha clearing them away with his axe in a like fashion, each swing taking out a new opponent.

Genkai muyou de yaru...

There seemed no end to the katana's thirst for Lutin blood. The more sensible Lutins were already trying to escape the fray, realizing that the tide of battle had turned on them. With the three ogres down, morale was quickly disintegrating, and as each one lowered their guard, assuming they were safe and could run, Ryuo's own blade only chopped them down.

Nani ga nandemo yaru...

As the would-be ambushers fell back beneath sword and axe, reinforcements arrived. The Lutin's from the Viper's Head had rushed down the back side and were now coming out of the brush, bows at the ready. As fast as they could, the archers began to fire into the melee at the Keepers. Ryuo showed no sign of slowing under this new threat, however, dodging arrow and sword alike.

Rikutsu nuki de yaru...

As arrows flew by, Ryuo realized that the archers were fast becoming the larger threat to him and his companions. Analyzing the situation briefly, Ryuo jumped through a gap in the combat and charged the archers, heedless of the arrows they might send his way.

Inochi wo kakete yaru...

Hanging his own life by a thread, he risked the rain of wooden shafts to close the distance with the bowmen. One steel-tipped arrow caught his shoulder guard, but didn't pierce through the skin. Another deflected off of his helmet, shooting off into the woods.

Mokuhyou tassei made yaru...

Ryuo stopped for nothing until he was close enough to engage the archers, sending them fleeing from his steel claws of peaceful oblivion. Slicing through the body of one lightly armoured Lutin, he stepped lightly around it as he withdrew his sword from the limp flesh and allowed the corpse to act as a shield against the incoming arrows of the other archers.

Ima koso yaru...

As arrows whizzed past, Ryuo had to live in each moment, weaving without hesitation through the ranks of archers. Then, he cut through a fourth archer, Ryuo saw another figure, this one human, and already soaked in blood. His whithered hands gestured in the air with a surprising amount of speed for one in his condition as his mouth finished the occult words of some diabolic magic. Ryuo had no time to cross the space between him and the mage before a ball of flame issued from the caster's gnarled hands.

Yaru ki de yaru!

Like a dragon rising from the earth to the clouds, Ryuo swept upwards with his sword, a deep growl starting in his throat. Time seemed to slow as he gathered his energy, focusing it into a single point, and then extending it through the steel conduit that was his sword, all in less than a heartbeat. With the sword empowered with his energy he brought it down, extending himself through the blade with a mighty kiai that shook the leaves on the nearby trees.

The katana sliced through air like a magical weapon, seeming to cut into the fabric of the atmosphere itself. The force of the blow dissipated the fireball, and the firecaster was visibly struck, even though he had been standing several meters away. As he lay, unconscious, against a tree, two large gashes suddenly welled up, soaking through his robes as his animating spirit departed.

For a moment, the entire battle halted, unsure of what to think. Then the Lutins broke and ran, most of them dropping their weapons and anything else that could hinder their escape. Without archers or mage, the Lutins had no will to fight, and they scattered into the woods.

Ryuo wiped his sword clean before returning it gracefully to its scabbard, while Misha, Toby, and Rose finished off any Lutins that remained. As Ryuo walked back towards the Keepers, his face hidden behind his black mask, they all wondered just what power this mysterious swordsman held.

In the aftermath of the ambush, Misha was taking a head count. Rose was breathing hard, but seemed to be okay. Misha frowned as he noticed her relaxed guard; in as many fights as he'd been in he'd found that resting prematurely could often get one killed. "Where's Guilliame?" he asked, scanning the blood-soaked field but finding nobody.

A half-choked wretch answered him. "Ummm, I think he's over here." Toby called, a sick note in his voice.

Misha moved over to where the Talbot indicated. He didn'ts see anything until a splash of red hit a nearby bush. Glancing up, he saw the limp form of Guilliame hanging from a tree with a sharp, taught garrotte almost halfway through his neck. Misha turned away from the tiny, swollen face. "Cut him down," he ordered, "We'll take him and Laura back with us--at least we can give them a decent burial."

Misha stormed back to the field as the other Keepers hurried to follow his orders. As he came back into the clearing, Ryuo took one glance at him and then at the group carrying the small form behind him. Bowing his head in reverence for the dead, he lifted it just as Misha passed. "There's nothing to be done, is there." The question Ryuo asked was more of a statement than anything else.

"What do you mean by that?" Misha asked, his voice seething with anger for what had happened.

"The cherry blossom blooms bright," Ryuo gave by way of explanation, reaching up to a tree branch that still held some of its autumn foliage in the winter chill. "But now the cherry blossom has bloomed and fallen. No amount of trying will attach it to the tree once more."

Misha's mind went to Caroline and Craig and all of the other friends that he had lost to the Lutins. He thought back to that night where a true friend had been willing to go to almost any length to prevent his foolish rage. _Yes,_ Misha thought, _The harsh realities of war, combat, and leadership I have already learned too well._ Slowly, some of the unreasonable anger left him.

"We will take revenge for this," Misha said, his voice calm and cold.

"And that, too," Ryuo added, "Is how it must be."

The dark figure felt faintly regretful that he had been forced to silence the child. It had been unfortunate that he had chosen to look in the shinobi's direction. Fortunately, the goblins would surely be blamed for the Western child's death.

His search had finally been fruitful, however. After months of travel, he found the Inari warrior, just as his sources had said he would. The beast had somehow managed to find a cure for its curse; that would definitely pull a few beards back home, but that was none of his business.

Had it been his place to say, the shinobi might have wondered why this one Inari was so important. However, it was not his place.

Blending into the shadows, the black-clothed figure began the trek back to his lord, grateful that he could now leave the chill mountains behind.

Author's Notes

"Yaru koto ha yaru,
Yaru toki ni yaru,
Zettai ni yaru,
Tettei teki ni yaru,
Shinnen de yaru,
Zenin itchi yaru,
Kihon doori ni yaru,
Kimeta koto ha yaru,
Genkai muyou de yaru,
Nani ga nandemo yaru,
Inochi wo kakete yaru,
Mokuhyou tassei made yaru,
Ima koso yaru,
Yaru-ki de yaru!"
-The 15 points of a doing spirit

This is something I recieved from my sensei when I began to study kendo. It is about 'yaru-ki' which I can only think to translate as the literal 'doing spirit'. It talks about 15 points to keep in mind and I have tried to illustrate them during the fight as best I can. A shaky translation might be:

"Do the thing that is to be done,
Do when it is to be done,
Do with your entire being,
Do exhaustively,
Do with conviction,
Do in conformity with everyone,
Do in the basic way,
Do what has been decided,
Do without limits,
Do anything there is to do,
Do what is logical,
Do without fear for your life,
Do till the target is reached,
Do in the moment,
Do with a doing spirit."