You never take the right path through the woods, particularly after a blood moon. Nobody had ever told Eiko that, but he'd always known it. Or perhaps he'd heard it somewhere, rippling over the conversations in town.
Why then was the right path even there? Who kept it so clean, the encroaching bamboo, grasses, and ferns cut away?
Eiko had lived his first twenty years toying with these questions between the chores, between the training, between the days burned on in ordinary life. His town, forever besotted with the steady cadence time provided, took the seasons as they came and the years as they went, never playing a part in the wars, the politics, the culture shifting their country.
What did any of that matter so long as the town had food, had its festivals, and the occasional trade both of stories and stock with passing merchants?
Eiko, like his father and his mother, his sister and his brother, had walked the left path at the proper age. Then, the soft dirt kissed his sandaled feet while whistling birds gave song to his steps. At the path's end, he had found a stone temple not much larger than his home. Carved on either side of its single door were a falcon and a snake, both with inlaid gold gems for eyes.
The rite demanded entry, though Eiko had dotted his cheeks with orange dust made from crushed flower petals first. Another rite, another ritual followed. His black hair fell over his shoulders by this time, left to grow as the town's gods demanded. His robe, much like the one he wore tonight, had been woven by his sister. Then, it had been her first. Now, her fiftieth.
The snake and falcon watched Eiko as he passed through the doorway. A chill breeze nipped his neck. His parents, his siblings, his town told Eiko nothing of what to expect. He trembled for no reason except it seemed like he should. And yet, fear fell before anticipation's orange glow.
Like the petal dust on his cheeks, a fire burned within the temple's sole room, lit within a wide golden brazier holding center stage. Resting on a block behind it, sheathed in a green, shimmering case, sat the thing Eiko had come to retrieve, the blade he held in his hands now as he took the right path.
As Eiko walked the forbidden way, he kept his hands on sword's hilt, feeling the snakes carved into its solid form. His sister and brother, his father, had received the falcon's blessing. Eiko shared the snake with his mother, and with it, the murmurs of expectation. Where the falcon ought to bring the town to new heights, so the snake would find clever boons beneath their notice.
Eiko hadn't found anything quite so clever in the years since. Harvesting, crafting, singing at the season's turn had left him searching for a mark to make. Had led him towards the path not walked.
Beyond the fork, the trees grew straighter, their branches finding ways to evade nature's bending winds and rains. The birds found new songs as the morning grew late, filling the air with melodies Eiko had never heard. Falling leaves and flower petals danced in the wind, which shot up and under his wide hat, tousling his short-cropped hair. Even the sky above shifted to fresh-struck silver rather than the doldrum grey known this time of year.
The right path, after how much time Eiko could not say, reached low steps, gnarled stone with fine moss between the slats. Eiko walked up, keeping his sword grip tight. At their crest, he saw a stone temple much like the one he had seen years ago.
The falcon and the snake decorated this one as well, though instead of golden orbs, dark opals lay in their eyes. Long cracks ran through the sea-green stone, and lost rocks clustered at the temple's feet. The birds, now, had fallen silent. The air still.
"What do you seek?" said a voice behind him.
Eiko turned slow, seeing the speaker center on the path. Like Eiko, the man wore a woven robe, a short blade like Eiko's own hung over his shoulder. Unlike Eiko, the man's hands did not grip his weapon's hilt but hung loose at his sides.
"I don't know," Eiko replied. "A purpose?"
"You can find that here," the man said. "Though it may not be one you desire."
"That is for me to decide."
"Indeed." The man bowed his head, then straightened. "Let us see if you are worthy of us."
The man drew his sword, and Eiko matched him, the two squaring off before the temple. Though Eiko had no wish to fight the man, the place, the silence, the moment seemed to demand it. His hands, his legs, moved almost of their own accord, stepping forward into a cutting slash as Eiko's father had taught him.
The man countered, raising his blade to deflect the blow. Eiko saw the block and slid his blade along his enemy's, continuing forward into a kick at the other man's leg. A trick his brother had taught Eiko, laughing every time the younger one ended up in the dirt.
Not anticipating such a move, the man slipped when Eiko's kick connected, dropping to the forest floor. Freeing his blade, Eiko put its edge to the man's throat, much as his mother had told him. Ending a duel without taking the life kept his honor and saved his soul a killing's scar.
"Good," the man said, but not beneath his blade. Eiko glanced left and saw his foe standing before the temple, in the doorway.
Looking back, Eiko's blade held no defeated man beneath its point. Only air.
"Again," the man continued, this time the words coming from Eiko's right, back at the clearing's entrance.
Two of them now, one akin to the other. Eiko wanted to question how this was possible, but again the moment called to him, and the young man steadied himself. As his sister had told him, when Eiko had complained of bullies, he had to find a way to turn their advantage.
Eiko backed up as the men advanced, drawing their swords. At the clearing's edge, Eiko felt the trees at his back, close enough together to narrow their approach, forcing the two men to come together, limiting their options.
Holding his blade as if to defend, Eiko waited. Patience, his town had taught him, would give the chance to take opportunity. He waited, much as Eiko had during the years learning his swordplay, mastering the art of tending a garden and playing a tune for an eager crowd, for the men to make their mistake.
One went high, the other low, seeking to carve Eiko between them. The moment came when they shifted their weapons, preparing for an attack without expecting one against them. Eiko darted for the right one, the man's blade too low to catch Eiko's higher strike.
The young man, save for accidents, had not drawn blood. He drew none this time either. The blade struck only air, Eiko's target vanishing just as his sword would have found its mark. Without a stop, Eiko overbalanced, stumbling forward and saving his own life as the man's partner crashed his sword where Eiko had been.
"Well done," the man said as Eiko kept moving into the clearing's center. The man regarded his quarry. "It has been many years since one has taken the two."
At first, the man's words came from the one Eiko had left behind, but by the time the man had finished, two more figures stood. One blocked the path from the clearing, and the other stepped around the trees opposite the original.
His sister had imparted one more piece of advice about bullies: when faced with overwhelming numbers, run.
Eiko's feet carried him the only way he had left: into the ancient temple.
The dark entry gave way to a purple flame. Beyond it, on a raised stone, lay not a stone but a scroll, wrapped within a golden case. Eiko stopped before the fire, then turned back towards the clearing, waiting for the three men to follow him. Here, at least, he might trap them in the entry and force an easier fight.
None, though, followed. The fire crackled, that was all.
Perhaps the men waited for Eiko outside, perhaps they waited for Eiko to go to that scroll. When he picked it up to read, they would charge in, catching him off guard. For a long minute or maybe three, Eiko waited, even moving out of the doorway's sight to see if the men would run in after him.
Nothing changed. The fire crackled.
Eiko went to the scroll, keeping his blade drawn in his right hand. This way, at least, he would have some defense when the men came after him. With his left, Eiko reached and opened the scroll, pushing it along so it ran out along the stone.
Names lined its thin paper. Most, Eiko did not know. As he came closer and closer to the scroll's end, hundreds and thousands of names later, a few he began to recognize. Local stories of great warriors and greater heroes that had protected the town from bandits or roaming armies. Names that also, now, stood above restaurant mantels and woven into ceremonial robes.
At the very bottom of the scroll sat a blank space, with room for one more.
"Yours, should you wish it," said the man's voice.
"I do not belong with these names," Eiko said, turning to see the man, all one of him, standing in the room's doorway.
"Yet. But who can say what Eiko might do to earn such a place?" The man came closer, pointed to the last name on the scroll. Eiko knew it—one who had left the town to join a passing army and, in doing so, spared the town destruction. "I once stood as you did now."
There were questions, but when Eiko tried to ask them, the man smiled, shook his head, and pointed towards the exit.
"You'll find the answers as I did," the man said as Eiko left the temple and its opal carvings. "In the telling of your story."
Outside, the sky had returned to its dreary gray. The birds sang their soft songs. The wind rustled with quiet dignity.
And a legend took his first steps home.
Artwork by grandfailure
Story by A. R. Knight