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Non-Game Fiction
  Thursday, December 25, 2003 02:26 AM
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Monk of Shinsei Story by: chiasticslide
The final(?) in my series of classes inspired by the Legend of the Five Rings; a warrior monk on the road to enlightenment.

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Apparition by Crypto

The old man's words came back to me suddenly. I saw a shape flicker across the sky, blocking out the moon for a fraction of a second. I scrambled up from my sitting position and looked around. I wasn't completely surprised.

"She'll be there, in the marsh, alone, " he had warned.

I was crossing through the last bit of civilization before my destination in the swamps downstream. This village had been terrorized for years by a dark force rumored to dwell there. This man, if it was still a man, had survived generations of villagers and dozens of would-be heroes. It was so routine for me, I didn't even bother to remember his name. I just knew where he was.

"I know where you're going. And he has no name, you know, " the old man had started. He stepped across my path as I was heading out of the town square. He held out his walking stick to block me for a moment, then snatched it back when he seemed to suddenly need something to lean on. He drew a shallow breath and continued.

"Who needs a name when no one will speak it? He may have had one long ago, but it's long gone. He changed so much from that man…he may as well be dead," he said with a toothless grin. "Actually, he is dead."

I was confident that I could defeat this foe already, so I had little motivation to listen to the old man's tales. But I'd learned the hard way that little stories like this can add up to a very real truth. I squinted into the rising sun for a moment and unloaded my pack to the ground.

"He's dead, you say? Slain by the last mighty warrior to pass this way?" I asked.

"No, not dead that way. You know what I mean. He's been dead for centuries, but he's still causing trouble," he said.

I paused to consider his words and he spoke up again.

"That last warrior, though. He sure is dead!" the old man said with a dark chuckle.

"So he's a necromancer? A wraith? Vampire? Shade? Wight?" I asked, enumerating the various undead on my fingertips.

The old man shook his head to interrupt me and said, "None of those. He is still half a man, one who commands elemental magic in a way that no corpse can. But his soul is blackened. He is part of the darkness."

I heard the crackle of a tree branch snapping, pulling me from my reverie. The campfire had long since died. With the ground lit well by the moon, I could see a fair distance from the campsite. A few stunted trees, the usual swampy undergrowth, and some puddles, each one sporting a reflection of the moon. I held my breath for silence, but the constant din of toads croaking and night birds chirping made the instinctive effort pointless. I couldn't see any motion or hear any intruder.

"He made a Sacrifice. He paid the ultimate price," the old man said. He had neither the appearance nor the fervor of the usual village fool. He either believed what he was saying or was a good liar.

From that, I knew my foe's power came from the old gods. They reward sacrifice, but only if it's true. It costs nothing to spill the blood of a lamb or some hapless virgin. Disciples of the old ways scoffed at such wives' tales because they knew that a sacrifice had to be a Sacrifice. I'd seen them before, missing eyes, fingers, or entire limbs. The worst were those that appeared to be in perfect health, but had a haunted look about them. What had they given up? And for what?

"He gave up a future, a whole life. And not just his," the old man said. "He was married once, so long ago. She was lovely and faithful, strong at his side as he learned his mastery of fire and earth magic. Most would consider her to be perfect."

"So he left that behind to learn the black arts? Was his lust for power too great to be satisfied by elementals?" I asked. It wouldn't be the first time I've had to destroy such zealots.

The old man sighed and shifted his weight on the walking stick.

"No, you don't leave something like that. That's no Sacrifice. He sold it.. No matter how he studied and focused, he could never manipulate the forces of air and water. Most men can't, but he refused to accept it. As the story goes, he was convinced he could not grow without them.

"So he made a pact with the dark gods. He took his beautiful wife into the marshland one night. She was so full of joy and life because she loved him and she knew he loved her. He looked into her innocent eyes, the woman he could not live without, and slid the dagger between her ribs. As she clung to him in surprise, he knew she was the most valuable thing in the world to him, except for the power. And when the last breath escaped her, he returned to their tower, his tower to claim the reward," the old man finished.

The image of her eyes had stuck in my head. I noticed a silence descending on the area. One by one, the animals of the swamp seemed to simply disappear in the darkness. The gaps between the croaks were earlier filled with wings fluttering and birds chirping. Now the gaps were silence and the toads themselves seem to be slowly becoming mute.

I had no doubt that I could still prevail. The man's alliance with darkness was indeed powerful, but my conviction was stronger. It would be more difficult, but I would not be denied. I thanked the old man and began to move along, but he waved his stick in front of me again.

"It's not him that will vanquish you. It's her," he said prophetically.

"She lives on?" I asked incredulously.

"It's not a life any more than his. His crime was so dark, it stained the very soul of the land. Her spirit remains as a revenant, a tortured spirit anchored in place by that weighty history.

"She cannot escape this world while he still walks. Even if he is destroyed, she is so tightly bound by regret and hatred, she may never be released," he said pointedly.

"Very well, I will leave her to her misery and continue on to slay her tormentor. I have no qualms with the virtuous, " I stated simply. "She should be thankful that I undo his evil."

The old man shook his head at me again for that. "She doesn't want to be left alone. If she finds you, when she finds you, she will not understand. She won't want you to abandon her, no matter what you say.

"She will do anything in her power to make you stay. And the wounds she leaves will not ever close," he said and reached across his chest, tapping the skin above his heart.

The marsh was nothing but silence then as I pondered his words. It pounded in my ears after being kept awake by the cacophony of animal voices. I spun around, scanning the trees for any shadowy outline. The ground seemed to absorb the very sound of my footsteps. I fought to shake myself out of what seemed to be a dream, even as part of me knew it wasn't.

"She'll be there, in the marsh, alone. She is always searching, always trying to find out why," he said.

"If I have to fight her, then so be it. I will do what I must," I said, although I was already troubled by her innocence. "I've dealt with many such dark spirits. Their powers of suggestion and mind control hold no sway over me."

The old man indicated the crystal sword on my belt with his free hand.

"You have a good weapon there and you're strong. I have no doubts that you can emerge victorious if it comes to that," he said.

I felt a chill on my back and I knew she was there with me, looking at me. I stood paralyzed, suppressing the urge to turn around. I didn't want to see her face.

"But she is no banshee, no siren. She has no magic to twist your mind. All the power she has over you is your own sense of right and wrong. She seeks revenge, something I imagine you know a great deal about. So the question isn't whether you can defeat her," he said.

A hand touched my shoulder then, at first fleeting and then more insistent. The chill turned into a column of ice in my spine.

"It's whether you want to."

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