Shike – Day 230 of 306

“Strike,” Yukio whispered, “and burn this house down.”

Many times Jebu had gone into a trance in battle and had killed without knowing what he was doing; later he was unable to remember how he had fought. This moment was not like that. Just as Yukio wanted to be aware of death, so Jebu refused to draw his mind away from his task. Never had he lived so utterly in the here and now. This room, his friend’s body, his sword, all seemed to glow with the same fire he had seen often in the depths of the Jewel of Life and Death. Still on his knees, Jebu raised his arms over his head and brought the sword down. The Zinja sword fell truly. Muratomo no Yukio was dead.

Jebu stood up quickly. He had not expected to feel this strange relief, this sense of lightness. For nearly twenty years he had fought beside his friend, feared for him, rejoiced in his victories, wept with him, worked to strengthen him, tried to protect him, planned for his future. Now Yukio’s life was ended, and Yukio’s servant was dismissed. For good or for evil, the terrible task was over. At the same time, he knew that without Yukio to give it meaning, life was impossible for him. He felt this lightness because he was empty inside, a hollow tree, dead and ready to fall before the first wind.

What were Yukio’s final words? “Strike, and burn this house down.” The command made Jebu think of the verses of the Lotus sutra: “In the Three Worlds there is no rest; it is even as a house that has taken fire.” He picked up the little oil lamp that burned on a table before Kwannon’s statue and tipped it, spilling a thin trail of burning oil along the polished wood floor to the plaster wall. The swirling orange flames leaped up, and the chapel was brightly lit. Jebu saw clearly the lavender and pale blue robes of Yukio and Mirusu and their children, the eight scrolls of the Lotus sutra spattered with blood, the sweet white face and pink cheeks of Kwannon. The goddess was the only living thing left in the room. A shame to let her be destroyed. Jebu picked Kwannon up and, cradling the heavy porcelain figure in his arms, climbed down the ladder to the first floor of Yukio’s quarters. I have only a few breaths of life left to me, he thought.

He emerged from the building to find himself staring into a ring of surprised Mongol faces. They expected me to commit seppuku in there with Yukio, Jebu realized. A strange sight I must look, in bloodstained black armour with arrows sticking out all over me, and instead of a weapon, I hold a statue of the goddess of mercy.

The blunt tip of an armour-piercing arrow struck the statue squarely. With a ringing sound the porcelain goddess vanished. His arms were empty and a thousand white shards lay at his feet. She was gone, irrevocably, just as Yukio was gone for ever. The devastating realization of the loss of Yukio struck him with the force of a spear thrust. He staggered backwards. Ignoring the arrows that bounced off or stuck in his armour, moving neither slowly nor hastily, he turned and went back into the burning building. His naginata was leaning against a wall where he had left it. As soon as he held it, he felt a sensation of enormous power coursing into his hands, through his arms and shoulders, spreading throughout his entire body, as if a superior being were taking him over. Not Kwannon, but Hachiman, the god revered by all the Muratomo. He came out of the house at a run, swinging the naginata in a circle, feeling it bite through leather armour and flesh and bone, hearing screams.

He gave himself over to the forms and movements of battle that he had been practising from the time he was old enough to stand upright. The warriors surrounding him fell back before the whirling blade. They were veterans enough to read the face of the giant advancing upon them; they had seen men possessed by battle madness before. They knew that no ordinary soldiers, no ordinary weapons, could bring down a man in that state. They were cautious, because this was the last enemy they had to finish. None wanted to die this close to victory.

A lucky blow of a battle-axe cut through the staff of Jebu’s naginata, and the Mongols shrieked in triumph as the blade clanged to the ground. Jebu drew the sword that had killed Yukio and rushed his opponents. They tripped over one another, trying to escape, and many fell to the sword that looked so small in the hands of the huge man who wielded it. Steadily, sword in one hand, naginata staff in the other, Jebu drove them back past the ruined palisade to the narrow path where their numbers were useless to them, forced as they were to come at him one at a time. One at a time, they died.

Jebu was aware that some had slipped past him and were behind him in the ruins of the fort. He glanced over his shoulder and saw them hurrying in and out of the blazing building where Yukio had died. They’re after Yukio’s head, he thought. He wanted to return to the fort and stop them, but he could not turn his back. What happened to Yukio’s head no longer mattered, anyway. Nothing mattered now. Jebu was beyond wanting or not wanting. He felt a peace and a bliss beyond comprehension. His mind was filled with a pure, endless white light that blotted out every individual thought or feeling. At the same time, the world around him, its sights and sounds, its feel and its smells, was more vivid than it had ever been at any time in his life. In the midst of the howling Mongols he was perfectly happy, incredibly happy. There would never be a better time for him to die.

He had become the Self. In battle he could make no mistake. He was his opponents, and he was the sword in his hand. Time stretched towards infinity. The Mongols attacked him ever so slowly, as if wading through water. It was no trouble at all to drive his sword past their clumsy defences. There was even time for him to say the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy for each opponent who joined the pile of bodies in the ravine. This was the state Jebu’s masters in the Order called ultimate insight, that ecstatic condition in which the individual achieved complete union with the Self and could see the universe through the eyes of the Self. A single instant of ultimate insight, he had been taught, was worth a hundred lifetimes of ordinary consciousness.

The Mongols were backing away from him now, not attacking, and only their restricted position prevented them from running in panic. Each knew this superhuman being was going to kill him. Jebu was almost to the bend in the path now. It was growing darker. In winter, night fell in these mountains at about the hour of the ape. If he lasted until darkness was total, there was actually a chance of his escaping. At night, in these mountains, it would be nearly impossible to track down a single man. The thought disappointed him. He no longer wanted to live.

The intrusion of desire into his mind was enough to bring him down from the peak of ultimate insight. It was an ordinary warrior, sad, wounded, tired, who rounded the outcropping shielding the main body of Arghun’s troops from him. Beyond the rock the path was empty. The roadway curved in a long, concave arc, and at the other end of that arc, shadowy in the twilight, a line of mounted bowmen stood up in their stirrups, eyes narrowed, arrows unwaveringly pointed at him. At the head of the line sat Arghun on a stocky black Mongol pony, his deep red cloak rippling in the wind.

“Kill me!” Jebu roared, and held his arms out wide.

His face hard and immobile, Arghun raised a gauntleted hand and brought it down in a sweeping motion. Bowstrings thrummed in unison, a deep musical note that echoed from the rock walls. Arrows whistled and shrieked across the ravine. His arms still outstretched as if to gather the arrows in, Jebu felt their impact all over his body. There was no pain, only uncountable numbing shocks. He saw Taniko looking at him with her bright eyes, just as he had seen her in the heart of the Jewel earlier today. His last thought was: the Jewel. I should have thrown it away. Now Arghun will get it. Then he lost consciousness as he began the long fall into darkness.

Comments

  1. ScottS-M Identiconcomment_author_IP, $comment->comment_author); }else{echo $gravatar_link;}}*/ ?>

    ScottS-M wrote:

    There’s quite a bit of book left. I wonder what he’s going to write about now. Taniko I guess.

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