When Crows Cawed

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


The first chapter of the novel. Enjoy!

Chapter 4 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: September 11, 2019

Reads: 4

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Submitted: September 11, 2019

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Three years ago—

 

Wooden swords clattered, and splinters rained down from the sky. Ebon wings flapped as figures swooped past one another. Blurred shadows in the shapes of men with wings clashed, their raucous cries audible even in this buzzing summer day.

A winged-warrior dove, his sword held in an overhead strike. Another winged-warrior cried as he parried, driving the first warrior away. Continuing from the parry, the second man held his blade like a spear and shot forward. There was a cry of protest as his opponent fumbled to block the lunge. The practice sword halted, then drew back a hairsbreadth from the man’s ribcage. Both warriors retreated, bowed to one another, then removed their protective headgear.

“That’s a good one. Much better than your last. I didn’t see a blasted thing coming, Murasa.” The defeated man brushed back the wet air that had plastered to his forehead. Despite the outcome, he was grinning. “I’m lucky you didn’t bruised my ribs.”

“Praising me for once? Hah! I choose not to be fooled, Zetsu” Murasa chuckled, wiping the sweat off his brows, “The last time we sparred you swatted me out of the sky.”

The swordsmen gradually descended down to the courtyard below. As they landed, fine dusts swirled up in a small cloud. Through the haze, Murasa could glimpse at least a dozen other warriors soaring down, each having finished up their practice sessions.

Murasa shrugged off his sweaty robe and replaced it with a fresh one. “I will to return to the hut first. Got something I have to do. How about you go on to the feast hall. Save me a seat, will you?” He glanced at Zetsu, who had just finished strapping on his nodachi.

“Sure you can made it back in time?” Zetsu clasped his hand on the hem of Murasa’s robe, his tone worried. “Last week, the elders were wretchedly pissed at a novice who arrived late, haven’t you heard? That poor tengu was grounded in the meditation chamber for two days and whipped a crows-soiled dozen times.”

“It’s going to be alright.”  Murasa added softly as he moved off, “I hope.”

Murasa turned to wave at his friend before turning to go, “Remember to save me a seat, Zetsu! I’ll be quick.”

With the light of the setting sun at his back, Murasa approached the living quarters. Around him was the buzzing of crickets, incessant and rhythmic in this especially humid summer. As he went forward, the dusty earth of the practice grounds slowly gave way to wide expanse of elaborate stone gardens. He strode across the obsidian stepping stones, anxious at the prospect of being late to the evening ritual.

Blame Zetsu for making me feel even more on edge. Murasa thought as his steps hurried up even more. I’ll be in deep blasted hell if I am late.

Not long after, he arrived before rows upon rows of uniformly-looking huts, framed by wooden beams and rice-paper panels. He made his way, half sprinting now, to the thirteenth hut at the western border of the complex.

Within the austere living space he shared with Zetsu, there were but two closets, all of their belongings stored within. A pair of bedrolls were laid upon the straw mats, and a small lamp sat in a corner of the rom. Murasa hurried to his closet, rummaging through the items there with some urgency.

 

His fingers rushed against a little velvet bag, and Murasa gazed down at it wistfully. He held up the faded charms bag with utmost care and reached into the pocket of his robes. From there, he removed a weathered silver ring, old but well-cared for.

Can’t believe I almost dropped it just now, Murasa recalled with a growing sense of alarm. His heart still pounded since the moment the ring threatened to slip from his robe. He had received a bruising cut from Zetsu as he winced. Afterwards, they had paused a moment for Murasa to adjust his robe, then they were off again.

 

With a sigh of relief, Murasa now stored the ring in the charms bag and hung it securely around his neck. He glanced at his parents’ ancestral shrine, laid just before his bedroll. It was a simple thing, a pair of death plaques and a burner with several stubs of smoking incense sticks jutting from it.

Father, Mother. I will take care of this heirloom. Don’t you worry.

Murasa’s eyes glinted with sadness. He felt a tight compression within his chest. What he wouldn’t give...

Murasa returned just as the other swordsmen were getting ready for the evening ritual. The vast dining hall spanned the entire length of the building, yet it was almost fully occupied by their fellow men and women of the order. In the ranks of tengus, genders were not a judging standard as much as skill, thus male and female swordsmen mingled in equal measure within. 

Paper lamps were hung both inside and outside of the hall, shining a soft white light against the night’s darkness. The walls that were not rice paper screens were hung with tapestries, and low tables arrayed with today’s dinner were spaced regularly along the matted floor.

“Bless the Tengu. I was thinking that you wouldn’t make it.” Zetsu made an audible sigh as Murasa entered the hall and sat at the table beside him. Today’s dinner was fried shrimps and raw fish, his favorites. Murasa noticed that Zetsu was fidgeting with his beaded bracelet, a habit of his when he got nervous.

 “Are the elders and Master Tengu here?” Murasa leaned closer to Zetsu and inquired in hushed tones. Around them, other swordsmen were busy readjusting the straps on their weapons, and fixing the appearance of their clothes, so that they would be less likely to be reprimanded.

Before Zetsu could answer, there was a soft sliding sound from the twin rice-paper doors. The three elders stepped into the dining hall. Following them was the lacquer-armored, regal form of Master Tengu. His eyes met Murasa’s as he glanced across the hall, and Master Tengu nodded in his direction with approval. Murasa nodded back more deeply, a feeling of pride and elation blossoming in his chest.

He noticed me. Murasa thought with a certain giddiness that almost had him broke out into a grin. Amongst the hundreds of tengus presented here, he noticed me before any of them. The realization deepened his respect even further for this man, both a father figure and a heroic commander to Murasa.

 “It’s crows-blasted foolishness why the elders wouldn’t let Master Tengu take over already.” Zetsu mumbled beside him, his brows furrowing into a frown.

“Shhhh. You are going to get us caned, Zetsu. Shut your blasted mouth for now, will you?” Murasa said to his friend in a severe tone. He quickly glanced around, trying to make sure that no one, especially the elders, had heard his friend’s particular complaint.

“Isn’t it true, Murasa? It’s time for those shriveled crows to step down.” Zetsu, who was normally easy-going and amiable, now spoke with a voice as hard as steel,

“Their archaic rules are going to get us killed one day. It’s time for a change.”  Zetsu stared disapprovingly at the elders, who were still being aided into their seats.  

“Better to replace them with someone experienced and was respected by all within our ranks.” His gaze swept to the armored form besides them. “Someone like the Master Tengu.”  

“That’s a little over the top, Zetsu.” Murasa warned, careful to keep his voice low lest they be overheard. “The elders are our teachers, soil the old crows,  despite the Master Tengu being our direct commander. Even the Master himself was taught by them once.” Both of them quieted down as the elders announced the start of the ritual.

In truth, no one would be gladder than Murasa should Master Tengu take command.

He saved my life and took me into the order. He avenged my parents. I will repay him with my life.

A senior apprentice brought out the materials necessary for the ritual. A handheld brass bell, a plain clay bowl, and a sharp-edged dagger.

Striking a rhythmic chime upon the bell, the elders commenced the opening process of the ritual. The novices, who were seated at the front most of the hall, moved out first. Since the novices were not allowed to carry edged weapons within the compound, they had to use the dagger placed there by the assistant.

One by one, the novices left their place and approached the seated elders. Each of them knelt before the elders, pricked their thumbs with the daggers, and let a drop of their blood dripped into the clay bowl. One Tengu returned to his seat and another rose up to replace him.

When it was the junior apprentices’ turn, Zetsu went first, followed by Murasa. He rose up, pricked his left thumb, then returned to his seat. After the junior apprentices were the senior apprentices, and finally the blademasters, situated furthest back at the end of the hall. The blood, along with food and water, would be placed at the nearby shrine as offerings to the Karasu Tengu deity.

Can’t blame Zetsu for saying what he though was right, Murasa pondered, the elders are sure a wretchedly superstitious lot. He didn’t say it aloud though, for fear of punishment. No one sane enjoyed having their blood drawn every day.

Murasa believed only in the strength of his blade and pairs of wings to help him overcome any foe. The blessings of gods and devils help no man in the killing field. Even if they were the gifted tengus. In war we died drenched in our soil and piss anyway.

After the last of the blademasters had been seated, the elders unrolled an ancient length of tapestry depicting a half human, half crow form of the Lord Karasu.

“Students and warriors of the Tengu order, swear yourselves before the holy Tensai drawing,” Elder Arashi said, his voice loud and strident despite his advancing years.

Every Tengu took up the words of the oath as one, until every corner of the hall shook with the combined might of their voices.

“We, tengus, warriors of heaven,

Swear to stand between mankind and its bane

Our loyalty lays neither with nations or kings,

But with the people.

Our blades strike not to kill,

But to protect

Our actions are that of compassion,

Lest we lose our hearts and become those we slay

Victory to mankind,

Death to the oni!”

 

The oath ended with a roar. The complete and utter silence that followed was almost deafening in comparison. With a final clang of the Elder’s bell, the tengus leapt at their dinner with ravenous speed.

After the dinner, each tengu and their hut mates had scattered to their respective hut within the living quarters. While Zetsu had fallen asleep beside him, Murasa was unable to close his eyes for the day. He stared up at the ceiling, an old worry plaguing him once more.

I’m going to have that dream again, aren’t I?  Murasa gritted his teeth, frustrated yet unable to come up with a solution. Of that night mother and father…

Ever since his parents had died, on that horrendous night all those years ago, nightmares had plagued him. It had been on and off, and with recent years things had improved. For the last few months, however, his dreams are coming back once more, and worse than ever.

Crows, but I’m tired, Murasa swore, his hands clenched into fists by his sides. I’m finally a tengu, after all these years. I won’t fail because of something like this.

With a sigh, Murasa closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep. Sleep came, followed by a tangle of dreams. That nightmarish day replayed before his eyes once more.

 

The screams came first, as always.

The hulking form of a giant towered before him. The scarlet monstrosity glared at him with eyes of glowing flames, its hideous fangs parted in a snarl.

He tried to back away with the short legs of a child, warm wetness spreading over his groin. Tattered remnants of a female dress still hung to the giant’s fang, stained crimson with blood and human flesh.

His father rushed before Murasa, armed with only a rusty sword. Despite that, father stood with such bravery and defiance that the boy’s eyes stung.

He tried to scream a warning, but no sound escaped his lips. He begged, he pleaded, he howled as the oni picked up father like a mere rag doll and slammed its jaw shut over his writhing form. Father’s screams died off, like mother’s before him. Blood and entrails spilled down the giant’s chin as it approached, shaking the earth with each step.

Murasa fell onto his side, the world reduced to a vertical slant of the advancing oni. He could glimpse crow feathers drifting down from the sky. Murasa felt the wetness of tears as they trickled down his face, then the world turned dark…

Murasa woke up with a scream.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Zetsu was worried for his friend. He had always been a light sleeper, so he had heard as Murasa groaned in his sleep. Zetsu’s eyelids fluttered open. He sat up groggily, trying to shake the sleep from his eyes, and pushed himself up from the mattress.

Zetsu padded over to Murasa who was sleeping. The hem of his night robe brushed against the mats and snagged some of the strands free. Murasa lay sprawled across the mattress, his face contorted in pain or horror.

Beneath Murasa’s prone form, his crow’s wings were half-folded awkwardly beneath him.

Crows, but he has extended his wings in sleep again. Zetsu sighed in exasperation. He had warned Murasa several times before, but the man doesn’t’t seem to be able to stop doing it. You are going to get wing-sprains.  

Zetsu knelt beside his friend and gently eased the wings back into Murasa’s back. There was a sheen of sweat glistening upon Murasa’s skin, and Zetsu’s brows creased into a frown.

Worry nagged at the back of Zetsu’s mind. During the practice session earlier, Murasa had faltered and failed to block many of his strikes. It was rather unusual of him, and despite Murasa swearing that he was fine, Zetsu still worried. He prayed that the next time his friend made a mistake, it wouldn’t be in the midst of a battlefield. Otherwise…

I wish there was something that I can do for you, my friend. Zetsu placed a hand upon his friend’s damp forehead. Murasa was his friend and his life-sworn tsuin-shirudo, his shield-brother. He still remembered the day when they first met.

They had only been kids back then. On that bustling summer day of the induction ceremony, Murasa was sitting apart from the crowd. On that day of the induction ceremony, spirits were high. The gathered orphans from war and other calamities were given a chance to become the kingdom’s most elite fighting force, the divine tengus. The crowd of dirty and ragged children were buzzing with excitement, a feeling Zetsu doesn’t feel at all as he stood amongst them.

 Zetsu had felt like an outcast amidst a sea of faces he barely knew, until that moment. When he had glanced across the courtyard and found a boy who had seemed as lonely as he was. He had been anxious at first, moving with unsure steps, not sure how the boy would react. But as he sat beside him, the boy slipped into an awkward smile, and Zetsu found himself grinning back.

He listened to Murasa’s story, and for the first time, saw the sorrow behind his smiles. Zetsu had always been an orphan. He couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to have parents, have a family, only to have them torn away in such a horrifying manner.

“I don’t have a family either.” Zetsu had said in a determined tone, “How about I become your friend, Murasa? Friends are like family anyway, or so that I’ve heard.”

A light of hope came to life in Murasa’s eyes, “Really? Will you be my friend, together forever?” There was hope— so much hope— in that simple question.

“We will be together forever. I promise.” Zetsu had never intended to keep a promise that strongly until then in his life, and not ever since.

That year, on Zetsu’s birthday, Murasa had given him a beaded bracelet he had made himself. Zetsu saw Murasa’s hands, bruised from the effort of a small child to make such a complicated thing. He had heard Murasa being up all night preparing this gift, and Zetsu’s eyes watered.

The bracelet had been his dearest possession since, a gift he had always kept close at hand, no matter where his missions would take him. It was Murasa’s precious gift to him, after all, and Zetsu meant to cherish it for as long as he lived.

Since then, they had studied together, dined together, practiced together, and gone about doing mischief together. They had drunk each other’s blood and become life-sworn brothers, the tsuin-shirudo. They had fought alongside and risked their lives for one another, gone through victory and defeat, and still emerged grinning.

The first time Zetsu had drank liquor, it had been with Murasa, and they had a fun night stumbling through the streets of the capital, singing their heart’s contents. It hadn’t been fun afterwards though, as they tried to sneak back into the compound before the curfew went up. Zetsu chuckled at those fond memories.

He yawned widely. It’s getting late. I should get some sleep too. Or I’m going to fell asleep during training again. As he padded back to his mattress, Zetsu stole a glance back at Murasa one last time. I will have to talk to him tomorrow, though. Get him to open up.

With that thought nagging at the back of his mind, Zetsu fell back into sleep.  

 


© Copyright 2019 S. K. Inkslinger. All rights reserved.

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