[STORY] Sou

  • 1 month ago

The Story of SOU: The wanderer who shattered the sky 

 

The dark blue sea, extending endlessly beneath the moonlight, mirrored the infinity of the night sky. Its waves flow towards a shore: crashing, returning, repeating.

There in that blue-black vastness was a large peninsula covered by thick fog... A place one could only sail to through the roughest of tides. Land routes into the peninsula were blocked off by the land itself, Geongon, a country where grand mountains broke through the clouds and graced the skies.

It was home to a private people. They rarely had visitors since they were shrouded in rumors as well as fog... the most popular one being that an actual god ruled their nation. It proved a difficult thing for many outsiders to believe.

'The people built a staircase to connect their lands with the sky... and the Son of Heaven came down them.' That old tale was told from generation to generation, by word of mouth and in writing.

After years of constant war among its regions, all armies of Geongon froze the moment that figure walked down those stairs… the 'Son of Heaven.' Someone had actually come down them. Weapons fell from hands as the people fell to their knees, first in shock and then in worship.

They came to believe that this figure and his subsequent ancestors were immortal. Rather than die, they believed the previous Son of Heaven would ascend back up the stairs, while his son would take his place here. This process continued for hundreds of years, and the now united land of Geongon started to prosper. Generation after generation, each under the governmental and divine rule of these gods.

Until recently.

It was whispered that the current Son of Heaven had lost his way, as well as the trust and love of his people. Geongon suffered under the harsh yoke of his dictatorship.

God or no, the people refused to be complacent. Their fury spread like wildfire across the land, igniting a rebel faction known as the Night Ravens. Even though the Son of Heaven and his guards would stop these usurpers, the growing anger of the populace would not abate, even under fear of death and damnation. At this point, it is said that there are only two types of people living here: those who served God and those who opposed him.

Upon a defended hillside, the magnificent 'Heaven's Palace' looms over its surroundings and fog. Its impressive architecture reflected the might of the liege. Its thick stone walls rose skyward. Its torch-lit spires rivaled the stars for dominance. Its arched doors and windows, once masterfully carved from wood, now seemed to mock those that dared to gaze upon the structure.

These nights, security was paramount. All palace guards were on high alert for any sign of intrusion. So far the moonlight was the only intruder that had been able to enter this scene, penetrating the mists and lighting up the emperor’s chambers. Yet despite this intimidating security, a rush of silent footsteps suddenly glided across the hardwood floors without making a creak. Seventeen shadows slipped into that room. These assassins were members of the Night Ravens, rebelling against the Son of Heaven's wicked rule. They had one objective: to end the god's life and prevent his dynastic line from ruling ever again.

The god-king only stood imperiously, looking down his nose at them.

"Ignorant fools. I am the Son of Heaven... and I am immortal." The ruler's voice, eerily thin and sharp, sent chills down their spines. Stepping into the moonlight revealed his startling appearance. He wore a strange mask, and his limbs seemed almost otherworldly beneath the folds of a voluminous robe.

"You are a demon!” shouted one of the Night Ravens. “How dare you speak of the heavens after treating the people the way you have? I doubt a true immortal would be hiding in his room like this!" With that, the seventeen assassins drew the kodachis from their belts in unison. None hesitated to rush at the Son of Heaven with murderous intent.

The liege effortlessly twisted his body. Grasping one incoming blade with his fingertips, he twisted his grip ever so slightly. With a sharp metallic sound the kodachi broke, causing the assassins to panic. The Son of Heaven's long, thin fingers moved like skittering insects as he grabbed one panicking rebel by the forehead.

"Arghh—!" The Night Raven cried out in agony as the fingers dug deeper and deeper into his head with supernatural strength and sharpness. By the end of the gruesome display, five holes punctured the assassin's skull as the rest of his body fell limp.

"That... T-That monster! For the people!"

Reminded of their purpose here, the remaining assassins unleashed a torrent of swift attacks. Each believed that one of them had to land their mark, even if all the others perished in the attempt, but their blades met only air. None were able to leave even a single scratch upon the Son of Heaven, who dodged each strike with preternatural ease. Lashing back with razor-sharp nails, he shred flesh to tatters before his victims could manage to scream. Their blood ran cold through the cracks in the hardwood floor, dripping down into Heaven’s Palace.

That was finally the moment that the leader of the Night Ravens, the man who had first shouted, realized his grave error. The Son of Heaven was far too powerful for them to ever handle on their own; they would need to enlist outside help. Unfortunately, some of the men under his command began to worry this monster was a god after all, fleeing the bedchamber. Those remaining had no choice but to retreat as well.

The Son of Heaven remained standing where he was, letting loose a ragged laugh instead of pursuing them. He knew that the horrors they would speak of would keep the other peasants in line.

Stealing away into the night, they still had to escape Heaven's Palace… which due to the commotion was now filled with guards on high alert. Torchlight flickered and danced about the halls, threatening to reveal their position. The assassins took to scaling the walls, felling those they could with as little notice as possible. They were like ravens themselves, spreading out of formation this way and that before returning to join the flock. With this tactic they were able to evade most of the god-king’s guards.

Yet waiting for them stood a lone shadow, arms crossed as he leaned against the final gate leading out. He scratched his cheek, placidly, as if trying to shoo away a bug that had long since left. The shadow then stepped into the moonlight, revealing himself as a palace guard. A short kodachi hung at his waist, while a long odachi was strapped to his back.

"Sou," one of the assassins cursed. This was surely the most notorious of the emperor’s men.

"I'm fond of fishing, myself. Do you fish?" Sou asked them calmly. "The trick is to cast your line in just the right spot. Someplace where they must come to you, eventually." He approached them with an easy gait, unbothered by the fact that he was one against many. "You kept me waiting even longer than I expected. I'm not impressed. Now, raise your blades."

Sou lowered his stance, reaching for the odachi slung on his back. What stories there were of this man all claimed he had unmatched skill and speed. Still, the Night Ravens figured that he couldn't be as strong as the Son of Heaven was, and the odds were in their favor. Three of them drew their weapons and rushed towards him.

The slightest metallic sound of a sword leaving its scabbard, and the glint of moonlight flashing in the darkened courtyard. Though subtle in the extreme, the effect may as well have been a shuddering blast of thunder and lightning. An instant later, as Sou sheathed his odachi once more, the assassins and their shattered blades fell to the ground like autumn leaves.

He gazed down at his fallen adversaries, but realized something was amiss.

"One's missing..."

That was when he heard the footsteps, running away.

He saw the shadow of the third assassin vanish into an alleyway and quickly chased after it. The path of fog grew dense and obscured his vision, making him lose all sense of direction. After several moments, he thought he must have spooked these particular fish. There was nothing for it; Sou turned about and tried to find his way back to the palace.

He immediately found himself surrounded by drawn blades. His enemies had used the weather to their advantage.

"We could not best the Son of Heaven, but have caught his strongest guard. You are Sou, yes? You must be, with a technique like that." The commanding voice came from down the alley, and as it got closer, the mists almost seemed to part for the speaker.

"I thank you for the compliment,” Sou said. “Am I right to assume that you lead these intruders?"

"That is correct. I am Shinma, leader of the Night Ravens… and now I hold your life in my hands, as well."

Sou knew a little about them, of course. A people’s uprising, they were the most dangerous threat to the Son of Heaven; one that had grown both large and reckless thanks to their charismatic leader. He was more familiar than most on just how reckless their ideals could make them. While there had been multiple attempts to eliminate these rebels, the royal military could never track the shadowy assailants down. Now, the very head of the rebellion was standing before Sou, within Heaven’s Palace itself. The Night Raven was nothing if not bold.

The question hanging in the air had to be asked.

"So you claim,” Sou began. “Well, as you have not ended my life yet, there must be something you seek from me."

"As wise as you are skilled," Shinma laughed, though there was no malice in his voice.

"And what is it that you seek?"

"As ever, I want the Son of Heaven's head.” Shinma replied bluntly. “I'll let you live, a hopefully long and happy life, if I could just have your oath that you'll do this deed for us. That sword arm of yours would prevail where we have failed."

“"You truly think me capable of such an act?” Shinma's answer was exactly what Sou assumed it would be, but he somehow found himself grinning, despite it all. “I suppose you should just kill me and get it over with."

Shinma stood in silent contemplation for a long while before he finally spoke again.

"You don't believe the Son of Heaven is truly a divine and rightful heir sent from above, do you?"

"No," Sou said frankly. "Seeking power, oppressing the weak, and acting like a fool are things that men do, not gods."

“Ah!” The rebel leader was quite impressed by his answer, and wondered what other views this warrior might hold. "It sounds as if we see eye to eye, Sou. Yet you would still allow his tyranny to continue? At the cost of your own life, ending right here?"

"A sword does not question its wielder," Sou shrugged. "The state of politics is not my concern. I am a guard, and this is my duty."

"Allow me to ask one last thing of you. You could just lie to me here and escape… simply not go through with that oath to kill your monarch. Yet you still tell me the truth? What good is duty if the cost is your life?"

He did not expect this question, and it showed plainly on his face. Shinma laughed again.

Sou often thought about an answer before giving it. An errant comment could cut deeper than a sword slice, and he had always prided himself on giving wise counsel. As if that didn't give him pause already, he knew that whatever he said next might well be his last words.

"Because anything else wouldn't be honorable."

Shinma burst into laughter at Sou's response. The jovial, boisterous sound echoed down the streets, flying in the face of the other guards actively searching for them. Sou was caught off guard again; unsure how this was going to play out, he could merely wait through the tense moment.

"Forgive me, I mean no disrespect,” Shinma eventually responded earnestly. “I am fortunate to find a man with a code, and a noble code at that. It's getting harder to find as these days grow darker. I see I'm not changing your mind tonight, but I'm sure we'll meet again, Sou." The Night Raven signaled for his men to sheathe their weapons, and they melted back into the shadows and fog as if they were never there.

That was Sou and Shinma's short but memorable first meeting.

 

Weeks turned to months, and the Son of Heaven continued his tyranny of the people. The fields extending far beyond Heaven's Palace were now blanketed in snow, smoke trailing up from white-capped homes hoping to fend off the chill.

After adding more firewood to get the temperature of the water just right, Sou carefully helped his aging mother place her feet into the wooden bucket so he could wash them. She gazed at her son with a satisfied smile.

"You are a kind boy, but you shouldn't worry about me. You still have years ahead of you. Don't plan on marrying again?"

Sou simply smiled in response to the question.

"My best days are behind me, Sou,” she attempted. “I only worry about how my son will get along if he's left all alone."

"You shouldn't worry so much,” he offered. “I've already managed for these last 10 years."

"No, son, you haven't. Their memories haunt you every day… Sooner or later, you'll have to let them go."

Sou smiled faintly, but fell silent once more. He recalled the image of his wife and young daughter, who died in the chaos of the streets during a massive peasant uprising a decade past. It all happened so suddenly, and he had no time to save them or even to say goodbye. He couldn’t make out their last words. Sou didn't show it outwardly—it wasn't his way—but he'd spent every day since in agony. Only thoughts of his mother kept him from attempting to join them in the afterlife. That was how he had lived ever since, his grief a sheath covering his heart.

As night descended it started to snow again, black sky and white frost sweeping over the land. Sou could hear the dogs in town quiet their barking as they settled down. Once he was sure that his mother was sleeping peacefully, her breathing not too troubled by her age, he quietly stepped outside as he knew he must. He was going to reach for his blades, since he knew some sort of visitor awaited him out there. Yet his mystery guest had not made a move yet, and Sou realized he and his mother must be safe for now. He finally saw the figure standing out there in the twilight, covered in quite a bit of snowfall. He must have been standing out there a while.

"Well, come on, then. Who is it?" Sou questioned aloud.

"Now he comes out. Finally! Out here all alone, with only the snow to keep me company... and it would appear to be giving me the cold shoulder," the figure joked. "Surely you remember me, Sou?”

The commanding voice belonged to none other than the leader of the Night Ravens, Shinma.

"Heh. How could I forget?"

"That's good," Shinma grinned, "but perhaps we could continue this inside?" Feeling quite at home, Shinma shook off the snow and walked into Sou's house.

Sou stared after him in awe for a moment. Though the rebel leader had an impossibly large bounty on his head, he simply strode in without a care in the world. The guard shook his head in disbelief, chuckling as he followed him inside.

"If you are here about that job you offered last time, you've wasted your time,: Sou warned. “As I've said, I guard the Son of Heaven. I could take your head right now, if I wanted."

"But you don't, so you won't. That wouldn't be ‘honorable,' I believe is how you once phrased it. All the better for me. A drink would serve me well. Something warm, to ward off this chill?"

"Ah." Sou went to the cabinet for a bottle of strong booze, along with two cups. As he got a kettle ready to heat it up, he still couldn't process how bold Shinma was. He had to admit there was something refreshing about his attitude, though. With how oppressive Geongon had felt lately, the rebel's good humor cut through the darkness like torchlight. Soon the sound of the two drinking, and appreciating the liquor, broke the silence of the room.

"Now that's a good drink,” Shinma said contentedly. “A pleasing aroma, too."

"Well, it's what a meager guard's pay can afford. You should probably ask your question already... so I can say 'no' again."

"Well, well!” the visitor laughed. “You're quite impatient. I thought you solitary swordsmen were the pinnacle of composure."

Sou smiled, but didn’t respond.

"Kill the Son of Heaven," the Night Raven asked.

Sou set down his drink with a deep sigh. Shinma still spoke of murder so casually.

"Why do you keep coming to me? Those burning embers of change belong to you and your followers. If it's so important to you, why not strive for it yourselves?"

"We've had enough attempts,” Shinma admitted. “You'd stop us... and even if we could evade you, the emperor himself is far stronger than I realized. I cannot achieve our purpose in conventional ways. Instead, I've been searching for just the right person to help us achieve the Great Cause."

Shinma's face became much more serious when he admitted that. Throughout their interactions, Sou had never seen this side of him before.

"You call it a Great Cause, but those are just elegant words for a murder.” Sou kept circling back to this point. “Don't you realize how pathetic of an excuse this all sounds like?"

The sharp comeback gave Shinma pause, who stroked his beard thoughtfully before continuing.

"I take your meaning, Sou. You could see it that way, too. I would be lying if I tried to convince you otherwise. There is good reason for the deed, though. As long as the Son of Heaven exists, the people of this land will suffer, if they don't merely die outright. My Great Cause is purely to prevent that. In these times, there can be nobility in such an act."

"We all die someday,” Sou answered darkly, “and we’ll always find cruelty somewhere. The best each of us can do is to live by our own code… and carve out our own bit of happiness in the process."

"Have you ever asked yourself how many lost lives are too many, Sou? How many must sacrifice simply to protect one life, like the Son of Heaven's? I do not say any of this lightly. Too many are making that sacrifice now, and some aren’t even given a choice. We all deserve better."

"Do we?” The talk and the lateness of the hour was causing the guard to become weary, as much as he enjoyed the rebel’s company. “All men die at least once, physically. Some die over and over in their soul. Some deaths feel heavier than the mountains themselves, yet some seem lighter than a feather. Those are the deaths of people that have lived rightly, and lived well, and were able to leave without the burden of regret."

Sou's answer, full of confidence and certainty, made Shinma fall speechless. During the pause, the guard refilled the rebel's cup. Shinma savored the warm drink as he searched for the words once again.

"I personally believe that you wander between our two philosophies, Sou... just as I wonder which side you will ultimately choose."

"I cannot answer such a question,” he answered flatly, automatically, as if he had rehearsed often.

Seeing Sou hesitate and refuse to answer, Shinma pressed on.

"Is it… because you have to take care of your mother?"

Sou just kept looking at Shinma. An awkward silence filled the room. The rebel leader quickly finished his drink and stood up.

"That was delicious. I thank you. It helped me warm up, too, so I should be heading out before it gets any later."

He said his farewells and quietly stepped into the night. Sou continued to stare at the spot his guest had just sat in with much on his mind. Despite only encountering him twice, Shinma had definitely left an impression. He was a natural leader, and Sou could understand why so many were eager to follow the leader of the Night Ravens.

 

 

Season followed season. Tighter security followed assassination attempt followed draconian rule. Constant rebel uprisings had pushed the Son of Heaven to the edge. There was no more room for doubt or inquiry; he would purge anyone who might be a threat, and then burn their village down to quell any dissent. Whatever evil he might have been capable of in the past paled in comparison to how he acted now.

Sou did not believe that the Son of Heaven was morally right in any way. He definitely didn't think he was some sort of god. Yet he was his guard; that was his life now, and the word meant something. It had to. Perhaps this, too, was another sort of season… Perhaps the next Son would once again be noble, and life would go back to normal. Sou could simply not toss his principles aside due to one bad man. There was an ethical code to any job, but especially the one that he had chosen. The honorable course would be to protect the god-king, even if he had no honor, just as the seasons continue change throughout the year. To do anything else would be somewhere between absurd and obscene, Sou was sure of that.

As the security became ever tighter in the Heaven's Palace, Sou became less and less able to look after his mother. The memory of her telling him that she would be fine, that he should just go to work and not worry about her, bothered him constantly. He could not stop thinking that she was sacrificing too much of herself for his own comfort.

After many weeks of being forced to be away from her, Sou was finally able to return home for the first time in a long time. His pace was quick, yet his worry made the familiar path feel much longer than usual. When he did arrive, something felt off. He found it so strange that he heard his mother… laughing.

As Sou opened the door, her saw her getting a piggyback ride from Shinma, both of them laughing in delight.

"See? What did I tell you, Mother? I told you he'd get home soon!"

The rebel gently lowered her down so she could hug her son. Sou had been so worried that she would be anxious, or lonely, or fallen victim to her age, but she was doing well.

"And what brings you here this time?" He could not take his eyes off Shinma as he tried to calculate the man’s intent.

"I knew that you hoped to visit your mother," the visitor admitted as he gazed longingly towards the cookpot. "That reminds me. I forgot that I was preparing dinner."

Shinma rushed over to the corner of the yard, adding more wood to the fire. When he lifted the lid, the delicious smell of beef soup traveled across the yard. Sou already knew where the rare meat must have come from, and he stared with his jaw agape.

"You didn't..." he uttered in shock, though he already knew that Shinma must have. This was taking things to far; they could all get into serious trouble for eating the Son of Heaven's private game. Still, it wasn't as if their ruler actually deserved it, and the look on his mother's face made the decision easy. Sou could only bow in gratitude.

"I'm indebted to you... My thanks."

"We all need to keep our strength up. Isn't that right, Mother?" Shinma laughed as he reached out for her hand, and she smiled in delight. "I thought she would get lonely with how busy the palace has kept you. For now, though, I should get going. I could never interrupt a pleasant meal and family time. You've been denied both for too long."

When Shinma tried to leave, both Sou and his mother urged him to stay. He politely waved them off, saying that he had urgent matters to attend to. He did, however, reassure her that he would visit often to help out around the house and keep her company. Though he never asked Sou the question aloud, it still hung there in the air as audaciously as if he had.

The rebel leader was a man of his word. As promised, he frequently visited Sou's mother while he was away protecting the Son of Heaven, bringing food and doing chores. She simply believed him to be a friend of her son, an illusion neither man was eager to dispel. She never once doubted the stranger's generosity or his character.

Yet all things have their season. The following spring, she could not continue her journey through life. She left peacefully, in her sleep. The funeral was small but followed the traditions. During it, Shinma stood by Sou’s side.

Sou didn't cry. He never did. This was tradition, too, but he was bolstered knowing that her time had been nearing and that her final days were happy ones.

He almost chuckled in spite of himself as he turned to see Shinma crying, without any sense of shame. The Night Raven definitely never seemed to be one for tradition. Still, this was finally the proof Sou hadn't fully realized he was looking for: Shinma's kindness wasn't just some act.

"Forgive me,” the rebel finally managed. “I cared for your mother as if she were my own. Yet even I didn't realize how much her death would affect me."

She was buried next to Sou's wife and daughter, whose graves were covered in Lamprocapnos flowers; blooming guests that promised to visit each spring. As Shinma asked himself if he should finally join his family, he decided to pose a question.

"These flowers are quite exceptional. Some call them 'Bleeding Hearts.' Do you know what they symbolize, Shinma?"

"Are you asking because you really don’t know?" He knew the guard had a way with analogies.

"Indulge me."

He saw that the guard was indeed serious, so he answered plainly.

"Very well. It symbolizes following another."

"Indeed they do. A flower that perfectly embodies loyal warriors." Their conversation eventually lead, of course, back to the Son of Heaven.

"Why?" Sou finally asked. "I need to know. Why do you want to kill him?"

"Because that is our Great Cause."

Though he didn't have all the specifics, Sou had a guess as to what Shinma meant. This Great Cause of his necessitated persuading others to join. It was a belief system that prioritized the happiness of the many over the suffering of the few, but in doing so, it had to normalize the sacrifices that those few had to make.

That was exactly why Sou didn't like it, and he was finally going to get that through Shinma’s thick head.

"Yes your Great Cause... Do you really think it's without fault?"

"Nothing in life could hope to be that kind,” Shinma sighed sadly. “Nothing fits so perfectly, and transition is always going to be a bit rough in places, at least momentarily. Part of our Great Cause is minimizing that as much as we can. The real tragedy is the suffering happening under the Son of Heaven. His rule is not honorable. He has interrupted the way things should be, and for his own gain alone."

"You sound like any other demagogue. Manipulating the masses with honeyed words, making them actually want to sacrifice themselves. For your own gain, alone. The Son of Heaven might be insidious, but at least he doesn't pretend to be otherwise." Sou never expressed what he was feeling, not outside his family… that were now all gone. He did not like to dwell on negative emotions. Yet the sorrow and fury seething beneath this statement would have been obvious to everyone, even though his voice remained soft and still, even though hiss face was completely impassive save the furious look in his eyes.

"I can understand where you're coming from, Sou. May I ask what led you to think this way?"

"These graves belong to my wife and my daughter,” he said, turning to them. “Ten years ago they died in a peasant uprising. It all happened so fast... They couldn't possibly realize what was starting to occur around them. My family found themselves stuck between those angry mobs... and they got trampled to death."

Shinma fell speechless.

"You killed my family, Shinma. You or someone like you. Working everyone into a frothing rage. These women paid the price for your ambitions. I'm sure they didn't realize innocent lives would be lost to further the 'Great Cause.' Those giving the orders, though? They should have known better. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Sou, I... My condolences to your family. I do not take sacrifice for granted, especially not when it is a sacrifice of the few for the many. Stopping that sort of wanton violence is exactly why we must press forward."

"And you're certain that all the people of our warring lands would be happier under your rule?"

"My...? What do—" Shinma started, his confusion turning to shock. "I do not seek the throne, Sou. I never did... and I fear that's what gotten us all into this mess, initially." The Night Raven rubbed his face in his hands, weary, as he tried to find the words. "Making right what has gone wrong. That is my Great Cause. That's also where my role ends. Once I free the land, it's not my place to govern it. That task must fall to others. The worthy."

Shinma's answer was drastically different from what Sou had expected. If Shinma meant it, that would certainly be a nice thought... but even if he did, it might not amount to more than the foolish dream of another would-be victim.

"If that's what you truly believe, Sou, then your concept of ‘justice’ is really just sympathy."

"Then how do you define justice?"

Shinma's sharp question made Sou search for the words.

"I would say that isn't a question for me. I would say that it's above me and that a sword does not question its wielder... but perhaps I simply don't wish to question it," Sou admitted to himself as much as Shinma. "Perhaps I'm afraid of change. Better the devil you know."

Shinma nodded.

"I understand. I was once in your shoes. How… How do you think the Sons of Heaven attained of such monstrous power? How could mere men become something like gods themselves?"

"I wouldn't know about that..."

"I do know. The secret has been passed down in the royal family for generations. There is a particular herb. Poisonous... yet if infused into the blood through secret methods, it transforms a mere mortal into something more—or less—than human. Now, a small, appropriate dosage would only strengthen one's body, make them healthier. That's not what the current Son of Heaven did, though. He used so much that the herb distorted his form... He started wearing a mask and robes to hide it but nothing fits easily on him any longer."

Sou was being told an impossible story. He could not help but wonder how the leader of the rebels would know the secrets of the royals.

"You're stealthy, Shinma, but even you couldn't simply pluck the secrets from Heaven's Palace. How could you possibly know of this?"

"Sou... that's my family. As a child, I was called the 'Heaven's Descent.' A pretentious title, I know."

The Heaven's Descent was what the people of Geongon called the heir apparent... the son of the Son of Heaven. Specifically, it referred to the child that would continue the legacy and become the next emperor. Within the palace walls, there was a years-long rumor that the previous Heaven's Descent had disappeared one day. Sou wasn't one for gossip; he'd heard of it, but never considered it true. Could Shinma have gotten hold of such a rumor?

"I have a younger brother,” Shinma continued. “We were close, but there was only one throne. He desperately wanted to sit on it, as desperately as I did not want to. The decision to forfeit my claim felt easy at the time. My brother was dubbed the new Heaven’s Descent, and crowned as the Son of Heaven shortly after."

"You were supposed to be the Son of Heaven... and now your brother is?"

"Yes."

The guard couldn’t even imagine what to say.

"I was so confident that he'd be an honorable ruler. Just and kind. He changed, Sou. I know not how it happened. That herb, perhaps? Some other influence? I'm at a loss. I didn't think I could change things, though. I wasn't the Heaven's Descent any longer and I couldn't even get into the palace to see him. Not in the normal ways, anyway. Everything just got so much worse each passing day until I couldn't take it anymore. I could hear the people's screams of sorrow. I realized change wasn't going to happen on its own. So I went to work... I developed the Great Cause. I formed the Night Raven rebellion. I caused all of this pain by walking away... I cannot do that again."

Sou chewed on that for a long while, gathering his thoughts. He kept circling back to one in particular.

"Do you think he knows the ringleader of the Night Ravens is his own estranged brother?"

"I think he must by this point, yes. He hasn't declared anything officially, which means he must wish to keep it as secret as I do. It's not as if many would believe my tale, anyway."

"It is difficult to believe. The leader of the rebellion was once the Heaven's Descent..."

Nodding, Shinma reached into the folds of his robe and handed Sou a dagger. It was in a humble leather sheath, terribly stitched together. Yet the handle of the dagger was decorated lavishly. This was no ordinary blade. Sou was certain once he saw the sigil.

"Shinma, this is the royal crest."

"I was young when I left. It was the only blade of any size I could wield at the time. We need to make a world where a child has no need to defend themselves."

"It would seem you've had a more eventful life than I realized, my friend."

"You are the first one that I've ever told this story too, Sou. Keep the dagger, as my gift to you."

"I cannot! You cannot ask this of me. This belongs to royalty... and it's the only proof of your true identity."

"I've never planned on revealing my true identity to anyone. There is no need to prove it."

Sou was silent a long moment before sliding the dagger from its humble sheath. The blade took in the sunlight, a gleaming edge that still looked sharp.

"I have never paid back any of your generosity,” Sou began. “I have never reciprocated, or in any way suggested that I would agree to your plans for regicide. So why have you persisted? You truly believe that I will join you?"

"Yes, I do. Perhaps not immediately, but when I can earn more of your trust. I walk the path needed to fix past mistakes. I also know that I cannot best my brother. I've seen the proof of that, now. It requires a better warrior, and one that can gain his trust enough to get near. They'll surely only have one chance. A single strike from a powerful sword technique. If only I knew somebody who could rise to such a challenge."

Sou smiled, despite himself. He exhaled a breath he felt he had been holding in since Shinma first asked that of him.

"It does make me wonder... Why didn't you kill me, then? That night at the palace?"

Shinma tilted his head.

"What an odd question. Shouldn't you phrase it as 'why did I chose you' instead? You always seem to have your own death on your mind."

There was nothing Sou could really say to that. Shinma was right.

"I have been searching for someone that shared the same cause that I do. Someone with both the right skillset for this daunting task, as well as their personal code. I was convinced this person was you after our first encounter."

"I still don't know what makes your Great Cause so great,” Sou shook his head. “I don't think anything will truly change for the better. Yet all know that a man pledges his life to the one who respects him... and I want to repay you for all your generosity."

"Sou...!" Shinma's smile was bittersweet. He had been thinking that it was still too early to persuade Sou, but here the guard was, presenting his sword in both hands in a display his respect and honor. He was pledging his service to him. Shinma, overwhelmed with emotion, reciprocated the gesture.

The warm spring breeze swayed the bleeding hearts.

 

Ever since that moment at the gravesite, the two men spent more time with each other than water and fish. They enjoyed fishing, drinking and chatting during the day, and plotting at night. As a bright moon gently lit Sou's yard, Shinma set down his drink to reminisce.

"You know, I had a daughter, as well."

"Had...?"

"I sent her far away, more than a decade ago. It was a night much like this, and I’m reminded of my failure. She was clenching that dagger's sheath, the original one it had come with. I couldn't bare take that away from her. I figured I needed to keep the dagger, just in case something came up, but the sheath would belong to her. Some father I am, sending her away... She must resent me so much."

Sou was not used to him acting to maudlin. Shinma always seemed like he was brimming with confidence.

"Why did you send her away?"

"She was a white swan... and that stands out far too much amongst the ravens."

A man of few words, many took Sou's silence for naivety. That could not be further from the truth. Older than many of his peers, Sou had accumulated a great deal of wisdom... often by keeping silent and listening instead. While he wanted to ask more, he knew that wasn't what Shinma needed right now. He also knew his friend to be a capable man. If there was a viable solution Shinma would have acted upon it himself, and long ago.

"If you need to hide a tree, use the forest instead of the beach."

Shinma looked at the warrior's placid expression in surprise before letting loose a big belly laugh. He struggled to speak for the next several moments.

"That's how you comfort a worried father? You and your analogies."

"They're words of wisdom," he smiled back.

"I thought I was convincing a warrior to kill, but I find myself burdened with a poet." Shinma kept laughing as he finished off his drink.

The two spoke casually for a long time. It was deep into the night when they finally turned their talk to the Great Cause.

"It may be prudent to move the date up. The Son of Heaven is now setting multiple villages on fire... but I think that is just the beginning of his newest cruelties and paranoias. According to my spies' intel, massive quantities of gunpower are being gathered near Heaven's Palace. If this is ever used on the people it would be a disaster to a scale never known by history."

"I am ready. Whenever you believe the time is right."

"The time won't be right till we solve the riddle of the Hundred Steps."

Sou let loose a groan. That was the crux of their whole problem. It was true that as one of the Son of Heaven's palace guards, he could get much closer to him physically than Shinma. Yet the ruler, in his increasing paranoia, had declared a new law that no one may step within one hundred paces of him. Any who did would be instantly slain by the military, be they an assassin or an unwitting courtier. Sou was fast, and his aim was true, but even he couldn't close that kind of distance in time. Even if he was somehow allowed closer by earning his favor, he still wouldn't be allowed to bring his swords with him.

It was evident that Sou would be killed before he could even get close. Perhaps hoping to return to his family... Sou didn't seem to mind.

"I pledge my life for the Son of Heaven's head. Though it may be reckless, if there's even a slight gap in his defense then my technique will not fail. I can achieve that Great Cause you so desire."

"We are at war. I am willing to risk your life, Sou—and mine, too—but not on a plan we'd never have a chance to pull off. I've been working on one idea, though."

"Hmph. Something bold, then. You'll find a way to shock me yet again, no doubt."

Shinma smiled, rubbing his neck awkwardly at Sou's question.

"I'm still finalizing the particulars. When things are ready you'll know, my friend."

"I'll be ready."

Shinma then contemplated the whole affair, in solitude, for a long time. Sou found that odd, as Shinma spent almost everyday discussing everything with him. But he respected his friend's need for privacy and did not interfere.

 

A week passed, like that. Sun had set and a deep darkness covered over the land. Pouring rain soaked a quiet world. As Sou focused on the sounds of wet footsteps from afar, an assassin of the Night Ravens delivered him a letter, along with a wooden box wrapped in layers of silk.

"And what is this?"

"A gift from Shinma. He mentioned that you would know what it is? All I know is that he called it an invitation; the answer to a riddle."

“Playful as ever,” Sou replied. He bid the messenger farewell and went back inside.

Layers of intricate knots were made with the delicate silk, and Sou united them as carefully as he did everything. He opened the wooden box and looked within. He pondered for a long time, eventually nodding slowly before closing the box and retying its silk.

Sou didn't cry. He never did.

He turned the candle light's towards the accompanying letter. It was definitely Shinma's handwriting. He read it carefully before folding it crisply and tucking it away in his pocket.

"Great Cause..."

Sou nodded slowly as he muttered in a deep but quiet voice. He took a drink from a nearby bottle. His course was set. The deepest of the night had passed, and so did the rain. When dawn broke, Sou finally stood. He left home and walked to Heaven's Palace with Shinma's invitation.

 

 

The Son of Heaven's stairway was a dark navy, color of the night sky.

He sat upon his thrown at the very top, wearing the mask that had almost become a part of him in recent years. This stairway was surrounded by numerous guards, courtiers, and servants... though none within one hundred paces of him. Sou entered this scene and proceeded forward at his own deliberate pace. Each time Sou passed by the servants, adorned with white makeup and red lips, they would practically chant in response.

"Royal guard. Ascend the stairway. Royal guard. Ascend the stairway."

Leaving the thin and sharp voices behind, Sou looked up from the base of the stairs. One of the servants approached and reached their two hands out. Sou handed over his swords. He didn't risk bringing Shinma's dagger, which proved wise because he was patted down regardless.

"Royal guard. Ascend the stairway."

At last, he could hear the Son of Heaven's voice, and he neared closer and closer to him. He took one step, two steps, three steps, and on and on for awhile. He stopped right before the Son of Heaven. His liege could not hide his excitement, not even behind a mask.

"Son of Heaven. I am your servant, Sou. I am at your service, as ever." Sou kneeled to display his respect, and the Son of Heaven raised his hand and pointed at the box with his long fingers.

"That is it, yes? This is the box I was told of?"

"Yes."

"Wondrous. Wondrous! Take it out. Take it out and show me!"

"..."

Sou unwrapped the silks and opened the box for the emperor. The Son of Heaven looked down in disbelief. He approached closer, almost not daring to dream.

Then he unleashed uncontrollable, hideous laughter as he squealed in joy.

"There can be no mistake. As I promised to all my guards long ago, the reward for so treasured a gift could only be the Yin Yang Swords. Take them with appreciation, wield them in my name, and all shall give you the respect my own treasures demand."

The Son of Heaven laid out the pair of swords covered in thick cloth, the Yin Yang Swords, in front of Sou. These were a royal treasure of great renown. Sou bowed graciously, securing the kodachi at his waist and the odachi on his back.

"I did only what had to be done. I am forever indebted to Your Grace." Sou kneeled even further, bowing his head all the more.

The Son of Heaven reached into the box with his thin, frighteningly long fingers, retrieving its contents to show his court assembled below.

"Behold! This is the end of the Night Ravens, who dared to mock the heaven and threaten God!"

The Son of Heaven was clutching someone's head.

Everyone began to cheer for their emperor, desperately trying to hide the terror in their voices.

An undercurrent of hopelessness could be heard in their cheers, as each in turn realized they had lost their only hope to ever stop the Son of Heaven. For the head belonged to Shinma. After analyzing the problem from every angle, he realized this was the only invitation he could provide; the only thing that could get Sou this close.

The Son of Heaven let out a sharp, tearing laughter that filled the quiet space. His monstrous new body could not contain his happiness.

The slightest metallic sound of a sword leaving its scabbard. The glint of sunlight flashing atop the heavenly stairs. The effect may as well have been a shuddering blast of thunder and lightning.

The Son of Heaven whipped around in an instant. Sou was already sheathing his new odachi, but he never broke eye contact with this supposed god.

Sou's eyes were usually dull in all the best ways. Familiar, wise from hard knock lessons, and kind where the skin would crinkle near the edges. In this moment they were rage incarnate, in stark contrast to his otherwise languid pose.

*thump*

Everyone in attendance watched in stunned silence. No one could find the words. The quiet reverence of the god king's hall held only the sound of something tumbling down the sacred steps, far louder than autumn leaves.

*thud*

The Son of Heaven's head had fallen, and his body resisted, but it gradually lost its balance and fell over as well.

Conversations with Shinma flashed before Sou's eyes, and this short moment almost felt like an eternity. Eventually, his reverie gave way to the commotion happening all around him. Those in attendance had finally found the words, and all expressed shock and dismay.

Sou picked up the Son of Heaven's severed head, mask and all. He held it out to the crowd assembled at the bottom of the stairs.

"Look."

His voice was not loud, but it was serious. The weight of it caused the room to quickly fall silent.

"The god-king we worshipped is merely a man, just like you and I."

He had defied God to his followers, right before their eyes. The knowledge did not shock the crowd as much as Sou had expected. Instead, he saw expressions so similar to his own. Many already knew this truth, but had just been afraid to say it aloud. Sou cleared his throat before continuing.

"He sought power. More than any man should have. To that end, he deceived the people. When his lies began to falter, he moved on to torture and death, hoping to scare you into silence. To cower you into compliance. He abandoned any sense of honor or decency."

Finally, he was able to answer the question he had been unable to for a long time.

"This… is Heaven's true will. This is what the Great Cause… means," he exclaimed, as surprised at that realization as his audience.

Sou released his hold, and the sovereign's severed head rolled roughly down the divine stairway. The courtiers and guards backed away from it as it came to a stop. They were still in shock from what they had witnessed. Fear began to pervade the grand hall... either of the Son of Heaven, or of the man who slayed him. Sou, the emperor 's guard—or whatever he was, now—descended the stairs at his own deliberate pace. If any of his fellow guards wanted to stop him, none were brave enough to actually attempt it.

"..."

Eventually, though, the captain of the guard's voice rang through the room.

"T-that man has murdered the Son of Heaven! Detain him!"

After a moment of hesitation, many of the guards readied their weapons and rushed up the stairs towards Sou. For his part, the samurai continued his casual stride. He did not prepare to draw his swords; he knew well enough what must happen next.

*SLAM!*

The very next moment, the gate to Heaven's Palace was broken down as countless angry peasants flooded the chamber. The people's rebellion had come, armed with weapons of their own. Their shouts soon blended into a blur to Sou. He simply walked out of the palace, the flood of rebels flowing around him as if he were a river rock. On that day, the Son of Heaven's flags were torn down from the palace.

News of this spread across the country quickly.

"Son of Heaven has ascended back to heaven!"

"What the hell do you mean 'ascended'? I heard he was decapitated!"

"Can a god even be decapitated? So he wasn't a god after all?"

"But who did the deed?"

"No idea..."

Truth danced with rumor, and outright lies turned to legend. In time, no one could parse the fact from the fiction.

"Heaven was wrathful, so sent a warrior to best this fake Son of Heaven!"

"I wish that samurai ruled our land himself!"

Sou's name was forgotten quickly, as was Shinma's. Instead, the story became about a lone, nameless warrior. In some tellings, it was a cold-blooded killer to be feared. In other versions, it was the true Son of Heaven, come to smite the wicked.

 

In the darkest of the night, the moon and the stars shone brightly in a cloudless night sky. A far different view than Geongon, the land of mist and fog, could ever provide. This sky was still beautiful, in its own way. The trees were different here, as well, but all seemed to part so as not to obstruct the starry view for the traveler. The rolling ridges looked spectacular in the moonlight, and the leaves of the trees swayed slightly with the breeze, picking out melodies as if they knew how to enjoy leisure. As the mountain's night was getting surrounded by the mystique and beauty, the crackle of a campfire accompanied the tune.

Sou quietly retrieved Shinma's last letter from his pocket. It was something he had already read, and Sou wasn't the type to retread old ground. Reading Shinma's letter helped him picture his old friend's voice, though, and he decided that one final time would do him good.

The look that must be on your face right now. The look that must be on mine!

I'm fortunate that only you're stuck looking at it. Knowing you, I'd wager you didn't cry. No tears for your old pal Shinma, eh? Did you hold a stoic samurai pose? I'd like to think that's how you handled it.

I am deeply sorry that I couldn't tell you of my plan, especially over these last few days. I hope it doesn't feel like I was lying to you. I was worried you might talk me out of it, or even physically stop me. I realized this was the only way to get you close enough to him, though. I knew that I would be a prize he would want to reward...to gloat over.

I'm sorry.

I had to spend the last week getting my affairs in order. While I was, though, I kept coming back to something you once told me.

You said that a man pledges his life to the one who respects him. You said that I respected you, and that you would pay me back for my generosity. But those were actually the same words that I hoped to say to you.

I have faith in you. I know you can see this through, so I face my death without fear or regret. We've all only got one chance at this. This is it. I know you can do it.

It made the decision pretty easy on my part, even though I'll miss drinking.

Damn, will I miss drinking!

Well... Perhaps it wasn't as easy a decision to come to as I'm pretending. I'm only human, right? Not some god-king.

I keep thinking about my daughter. Worrying how she's doing, somewhere out there... Choosing this means my giving up on ever finding her.

Yet we can't hold back any longer. My brother grows more powerful and monstrous with each passing day. This all started because of a mistake, my mistake, and it snowballed into a blizzard before I truly realized. I'm afraid that I can only do so much, though. Please... finish this task of ours.

For our Great Cause.

— Your friend, Shinma

Sou folded the letter for the final time, with a particularly careful hand, before setting it gently at the campfire's edge. It soon began to burn slowly, from the edges, before the ashes danced upward into the breeze. Sou watched carefully all the while.

"We did it. Fly back to heaven, Night Raven."

 

Years later. In the eastern realms of the western continent sat a small, idyllic village. Sheep grazed its green fields as the sun set, with flowers waving gently along the dusty road leading to the inn. Its wooden sign swayed gently in the breeze.

Just then, the door creaked open. A lone wanderer calmly brushed the hem of his dusty old robe, sitting down at the bar with practiced ease.

"Anything to drink for a parched traveler?"

"Sure, I've got— Oh! You're from the East! Those some are beautiful swords. Seems we get a lot of Eastern folk coming around these days." The owner kindly held out an old worn handkerchief, and the samurai used it to wipe the sweat from his face. Soon after, a wooden cup was brought out and filled with wheat wine. Sou took a sip and nodded in gratitude.

"Thank you."

"Which route did you take here? West, or maybe south? No, wait... I bet you braved the desert, right?"

"I could use some rest. Do you have an empty room?"

"Hmm, let me see..." The tavernkeeper adjusted his glasses, squinted as he looked over his ledger. He smiled as he realized something. "That's right. One room is available. It's the same one that another Easterner, a young maiden, left just this morning. What a coincidence!"

The room ending up being small and shabby, but it was more than adequate for a night's rest, and Sou was not a picky man. As the wanderer unpacked his things, he spotted a shiny object in the gap between the bed and the wall, and reached out to inspect it. It was an elaborate dagger sheath, emblazoned with a familiar crest.

"This is..."

"Hmm? A sheath? Oh shoot, that young lady must have forgotten it."

A strange smile on his lips, the wanderer fished through his bag to retrieve an old gift. He carefully pulled out Shinma's dagger, letting its poor leather case slide to the ground as he held it up to this new find. Not only was it the perfect size, but a sigil of a raven formed when the two were joined. Anyone could see that this was a pair.

"Huh... Another coincidence? Sir, do you happen to know that girl?"

"I was friends with her father. I'm sure he'd want me to see how she's faring."

Sou smiled.

He was able to get a little information about her from the innkeeper.

"She headed to a city at war with the Fomors..."

The girl's whereabouts, and news from the area, were quite interesting for a man who had been wandering for so long.

Early the next morning, the wanderer left the inn and set out with renewed purpose.

After walking for a while, the wanderer stopped and stood still. He looked up at the sky and reminisced the face of his old friend, who was now long gone.

"Perhaps it's now my turn to repay you. Keep my family company till I join you, Shinma. There's still much for me to do down here."

He tightened the cords securing the Yin Yang Swords, brushed off a stray bit of dust, and picked up where he had left off.