Saga of Hanzo: The Tale Of Earth
The Tale of Earth
The rock where Hanzo’s head had been only a second ago was exploded into a storm of stone shards by the force of the huge studded mallet Hanzo’s opponent bore. Hanzo had maneuvered his back to the stone, knowing all too well how dexterous his opponent’s tail could be. More than once Hanzo had seen the oni, Ishio, harry opponents with his maul, all the while maneuvering to get his tail behind the opponent in order to trip them up. Ishio, unlike most of the oni used by the Yamazaru, had orangebrown fur with a black face from which twinkled two amber-colored eyes.
Ishio recovered from his great swing impossibly quick, the oni’s great strength allowing him to wield his deadly truncheon as if it were a twig. The oni twirled it once before bringing it to rest upon his shoulder, seemingly choosing that moment to address an itch on his furry backside.
Hanzo, still crouched low from his evasion, slid his feet back against the rock he had been using to protect his back and shoved off, launching a counterattack against the oni with an onslaught of quickened sword strikes as the ninja flew through the air. The oni didn’t so much parry Hanzo’s sword swipes as use the flat of his mallet to bash at Hanzo’s blade. Hanzo felt his arm go a little numb from the strength of the blows. Out of the corner of his eye, Hanzo saw Ishio’s tail make a move to get behind him. Grasping his mallet below the head, Ishio begun thrusting towards the ninja with jabs from the studded bludgeon. Hanzo expected the oni would wait until he was leaping back from the thrust, then send his tail in to trip the ninja up.
Hanzo decided to bait the oni, letting Ishio think his tried and true tactic would get the better of Hanzo. As the next mallet thrust came, Hanzo turned himself sideways and took a strong side-lunging step towards the oni, getting inside of the reach of Ishio, and his tail. Hanzo’s plan seemed to work as the mallet shot past him. Hanzo, parallel to the haft on the maul, took a two handed grip on his sword, thrusting his blade straight out to his side toward Ishio, looking to strike the killing blow.
But there was a reason Hanzo had spent decades fighting with Ishio, as there were few in all of Kagejima that Hanzo thought were better fighters than himself. None knew how old Ishio was. Many Yamazaru legends say that it was Ishio who oversaw the formation of the mountain on which the very temple that the oni is caretaker of now sits. No matter how old, Ishio had spent many lifetimes on Kagejima, and nearly all that time was spent in combat.
As Hanzo’s blade rushed into the heaving rust-orange furred chest of the oni, Ishio dropped his mallet and sunk to the ground like a stone. Hanzo’s blade shot over the toppled oni, and the ninja saw Ishio plant his long hands on either side of his hulking form before shooting both feet forward, landing squarely in Hanzo’s chest. The oni’s feet slammed into Hanzo, the concussive blow causing the ninja to fly backward into the air. As Hanzo was careening backward through the air, he suddenly felt a firm tug around his ankle as the oni’s tail jerked the ninja back the other way, causing Hanzo to crash into the ground with a resounding thud. Winded and battered, Hanzo watched from the ground as Ishio flopped back down again, landing in a cross-legged sitting position. Ishio puffed his cheeks out, and then blew the air out loudly, showing the ninja his pink tongue.
Hanzo struggled to regain his breath and tried not let anger of the oni’s mocking cloud his mind. His ribs ached, and he wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of them were cracked. Hanzo had no delusions about victory, that was not the point. Now, as in every time they engaged in combat, Hanzo knew he must strike Ishio only once. That was the cost of the oni’s assistance, proving that you were worthy of his time and teaching. Hanzo had only ever tried to gain Ishio’s favor twice before, failing twice. However this time failure was not an option. The Moon Princess needed him to master earth, as he had mastered fire and water. He would not fail.
Regaining his feet, Hanzo evaluated the sitting oni, now busily scratching behind his ear with a foot. Ishio had not yet regained his mallet, nor did he look like he was in any hurry to do so. No matter how quickly Hanzo moved so far in this battle, Ishio seemed ready. The oni stood resolute like his mountain, never hurried, and delivered blow after blow with the strength of stone.
It was then that Hanzo decided what he must do. Dusting himself off, the ninja closed on Ishio, his blows measured and constant. Hanzo did not attempt to strike the oni, instead he forced the oni to deliver powerful blocks, keeping Hanzo’s blade at bay. On and on Hanzo pressed the assault, and although his tired arms tried to betray him, Hanzo kept attacking, his blade flashing sunlight around the temple grounds. Ishio seemed to be curious where this was going, and after making a few half-hearted attempts to regain his mallet, instead decided to begin raining down blows at Hanzo with his huge black fists. Hanzo waited for the first blow to come, slapping the arm of the oni wide with the flat of his sword. Ishio tried to make a grab at Hanzo with his other arm, and Hanzo snapped a kick into the oni’s long forearm. His arms spread wide, Hanzo fought the urge to leap inside of Ishio’s presumably beaten guard, and instead took a wide and powerful stance. Ishio brought his fists together to launch a mighty double-handed blow at Hanzo, and took a powerful lunging step straight ahead. Hanzo crossed his arms over head and struck just behind the oni’s upraised elbows as Ishio’s attack descended. Hanzo made the block, then from his wide squatting stance, launched the crown of his forehead up into Ishio, crashing the top of his head into the oni with a meaty clatter.
Hanzo, his vision blurred, felt a little woozy and tried to keep his feet. Ishio, for his part, looked down, eyes crossed, as if trying to see the spot on his black chin Hanzo had just split with his head. Suddenly, the oni collapsed to the ground in a bout of rich laughter that sounded like a voice echoing off the walls of a stone cavern. The oni rocked on his back and shoulders, grasping his toes with his palms, tears of mirth streaming from his amber eyes. Hanzo lowered himself to the ground as steadily as he could. The ninja found himself unable to keep from laughing at the spectacle of Ishio, and the oni’s delight at Hanzo’s actions.
Later, Hanzo sat upon the porch of the temple, his scrapes and bruises tended to by Ishio’s healing hand, and pawed through a strip of bark Ishio had loaded with baked fruits, berries, and a broad selection of bugs. Ishio picked at his own bark strip, delighting in the juicy fat grubs now baked to a golden brown. Ishio had wrapped a bandage around his chin, tying it behind his head, somehow looking equally comical and fierce.
“You have won my favor Hatori Hanzo,” Ishio broke the silence of the meal with a voice that rumbled like boulders rolling down a path. “That blow was well struck. What would you have of me?”
“I would master earth, as my lady commands,” Hanzo replied.
“Is that all?” Ishio smiled, pulling back his lips to show all of his teeth. “Earth will lend its secrets, but it is never truly mastered, for it is master. Earth is enduring, earth bears the weight of all who walk on Kagejima, and it was earth that rebelled from water, rising above water, to create this island on which we thrive. Earth is the first rebel, though its way is not that of rash action or quickness. It is the unyielding strength of being fortified by tons of rock , the shelter of this mountain, and the soil that rejuvenates these fragile plants when the harsh winter air and frozen water try to kill them. Earth seems static amidst the chaos of the other elements and the lives of the inhabitants of this isle. Yet is dynamic in its considered time, perpetual. Earth is the constant, the inevitability that there will be change. Do you understand of what I speak?”
“I think I understand,” Hanzo answered.
“Take time to know, not think, you understand,” Ishio spoke. “Earth does not hurry, for in the hurry of things mistakes are made. Make no mistakes before you attempt to master earth, Hanzo.”
“Not far from the temple is a cave,” Ishio said, rising. “A young Yamazaru is trapped within, lured there by a mujina, a badger yokai, that can take the form of beautiful girl only when outside its lair. His parents make their way up to the temple even now, I can feel their heavy hearts in their footsteps, their tears make tiny spots of mud upon my trail. They will be here soon, and they will make offerings to me to free their son. I would have you go retrieve him instead. And when you have freed him, let him stand outside the cave and pine for “her” who is within. When it attempts to come for him, do not let it out of the cave, but hold it within so that the youth can see the yokai for what it truly is. Do this, return to me, and then tell me what you know.”
As Hanzo returned to Ishio’s temple, the Yamazaru youth in tow, the ninja could not help but feel bad for the young man. Hanzo had found him within the cave in a natural hot spring. The boy said he was waiting for his love to join him. The mujina was burrowing into the cave floor a little deeper within as Hanzo had arrived, trying to create a larder in which it would store the boy’s body for gradual consumption after it had killed him. The boy proved decidedly difficult to encourage to leave. Eventually, Hanzo decided the only real way to retrieve him would be to render him unconscious and carry the boy out.
When outside the cave, Hanzo had tied him to a tree. The boy begun to call for his love and plead with Hanzo to let him return to her. As Ishio had said, the mujina heard this and grew angry. It raced to the entrance of the cave where it found Hanzo waiting. The hulking badger yokai stood twice as tall at the shoulder as Hanzo. Hanzo fought the beast at the cave mouth, giving no ground, so it could not transform and deceive the boy. The boy’s lovesick cries turned to shrieks of terror at the sight of the yokai. The mujina was fierce, but Hanzo was no stranger to battling the spirit entities of Kagejima. Just that day he had stood against one of the most powerful oni on the whole island. The ninja made short work of the beast and delivered the killing blow without sustaining any serious damage to himself.
It was dark by the time Hanzo and the boy arrived at Ishio’s temple. The boy’s family was at the temple, and as soon as they saw him they rushed to embrace him, paying Hanzo no mind. Hanzo preferred it that way. He was known as a traitor, and didn’t want any trouble from the hearty mountain people of clan Yamazaru. Slipping into the temple amidst the elation of the reunion, Hanzo sat down with Ishio, taking the cup of tea offered him by the oni’s huge black hand.
“What have you come to know?” The oni asked, picking his teeth with a shoot from a young bamboo tree.
Hanzo had thought about this question the entirety of the trip back to the temple. The ninja was quick to answer.
“Within the cave the boy sat in a hot spring content to wait for his love. His senses were dulled by his comfort, and he did not realize the danger he was in. He did not hear the burrowing mujina, nor did he smell the freshly turned clay and soil. Earth does provide shelter, but seldom comfort, for comfort is what makes us dull and slow. Earth would have us jagged as its stones, hard as its iron.”
“That is true,” Ishio spoke. “What else do you know?”
“The mujina could not deceive the boy within the cave,” Hanzo continued. “That is because earth’s way is not deception. Deception is to mislead perception of a thing, but earth cares not for perceptions of it, because earth simply is. Whether you praise a mountain for its beauty or curse it for a landslide, the mountain cares not. It will continue being a mountain long after the praiser and accuser are gone. That is the inevitable state of earth. It is not quick to change, and therefore must know itself in all things.”
“These things you know are good things, Hanzo,” Ishio said, crunching loudly on the shoot that had formerly been his dental tool. “I think earth will lend you some of its power.”
After some time spent in silence the oni removed a large blanket from a nearby cupboard and draped it over the top of its head, covering his entire body. After a short time, the blanket begun to rise and fall steadily.
Although Hanzo wanted nothing more than to spend more of his time at this secluded temple, with one of the few things on Kagejima that was unafraid to call him friend, the ninja knew there was much to do. Besides, traveling at night was always easier for Hanzo, with less chance of being noticed.
As Hanzo stepped quietly to the temple door, Ishio’s rich voice stopped him.
“You are wrong about one thing you know Hanzo,” the oni spoke from beneath the blanket, creating a scene that would seem ridiculous were it not Ishio. “Earth does provide comfort in one way. When you die, you return to the earth to rest. Should you know that comfort before we meet again, Hatori Hanzo, know that I will speak of you with favor. Slayer of yokai and rescuer of villagers. Hanzo of the Headbutt!,” Ishio began to laugh hysterically at his own joke, filling the small temple with the warm sound.
Hanzo smiled a final time before stepping out into the dark
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