undefeated by the rain @stanzas
1

It rains the night her old life comes to an end.

Although the dry season provided endless opportunities for it, her father never fixed the leaky patch of roof. She whimpers in the dark as the sky empties grief and violent pouring. The dark pool in the middle of the floor mixes with the slow growing puddles of water, mixing into ink-blotted shapes.

A low growl in the darkness reminds her she’s not alone. Makomo rises onto trembling knees and throws wide the sliding door of her house, shivering as she runs desperately out into the streak of night and heavy rain. She runs until her feet bleed, caught on rough ground, and runs further still. She keeps running until she meets the next house over, calling out for help on her neighbor’s door. Her clothes cling to her skin, soaked in rain and tears.

A low growl in the darkness reminds her she’s not alone. Makomo rises onto trembling knees and throws wide the sliding door of her house, shivering as she runs desperately out into the streak of night and heavy rain. She runs until her feet bleed, caught on rough ground, and runs further still. She keeps running until she meets the next house over, calling out for help on her neighbor’s door. Her clothes cling to her skin, soaked in rain and tears.

There is no answer from the door. She is too afraid to enter alone. She stumbles her way along the side of the house, crawling on her hands and knees until she discovers a close family of aged and weather-beaten trees with a small crawl space between their intertwined trunks. A suitable hollow for her to hide away in.

Shivering, she bites her lips and contains the scream in her throat under a low whine. There’s sounds outside, as the rain lessens into mist and the wailing of winds die into uneasy quiet. Footsteps draw closer. She covers her eyes with her cold hands, streaking mud across her face.

There’s a pause. The footsteps stop right outside where she’s crawled into the forest hollow. A low breath. It sounds human, but -- that means little to her, after what she’s seen.

Her curiosity grows until she can’t help but pull her muddy hands away and blink into the twilight. She meets the gaze of a red-faced tengu staring her down with disquieting stillness. Inhaling sharply, she holds her fear in her throat. Her heart races in her ears, but the demon remains quiet and unmoving. When her breaths finally even out, she realizes it’s only a mask. The wearer remains utterly silent and still, as though anticipating her movement first.

One of his old weathered hands carefully extends out. Offering. Reaching. Waiting.

“It is safe now, child.” His voice carries the weight of an old song, though gruff, rumbling deep from his chest. “Come out. I will take you home.” He’s holding a sword in his other hand, and at her staring he promptly withdraws it. The blade slides with a solid quiet schink of metal.

“What was that?” Makomo asks, unsure of her own question. She does not leave the hollow.

The man slowly lowers himself to his knees. “What you saw tonight was a demon. It is gone now.” His voice is so firm and sure, she can’t help but accept his honesty. He says again, “Come, I will take you to your home.”

Her voice trembles, breaks. “I--I can’t. I can’t go back, my father is --” She shudders and shakes, but no new tears come. Every part of her feels wet and cold; but she has no more tears to give. She says, “I have no home anymore.”

“Ah,” the man murmurs, exhaling quietly into the cool air.

She shuts her eyes even though she knows it will not scrub away the flashes of memory behind her eyelids; her father’s hand splayed out on the floor, still and cold.

Her mother passed on two dry seasons before. There is no one. There is nobody to greet her at the empty house she lived in until tonight. She has no desire to go back. Why would she want to return to that place? Why relive the sight of blood and death still covering the floor? There’s nothing for her there. Only the body of the only person who cared whether she lived or died is already gone from her.

“Is there anyone else you can stay with?”

She says nothing.

The swordsman inclines his head and says, “If you do not have anywhere else to go, then follow me. I will take you to my home. You will be safe there.” His mask hides all expression from his face, but Makomo senses he might be smiling behind it. He unwraps his haori, warm and dry despite the earlier rain, and covers her shaking shoulders. It’s too dark to make out the design until light, but once unveiled displays an intricate white cloud and blue like the sky above her head.

At the swordsman’s house she meets Sabito, a boy two years her junior, who tells her stories about Urokodaki -- their sword master -- and runs underfoot with doubled energy. Sabito rarely smiles for someone so young. She learns he has no parents, no family, nowhere to go; I am like you, he says. Urokodaki often leaves in the evening to hunt at night. But he is always there by morning with fresh steamed rice, and sometimes something sweet if he passed into the village. It is nothing like her old life. Urokodaki is strict, but also patient and sometimes kind.

He never takes off his mask, and Makomo never asks why he wears it. Urokodaki says, “You are always welcome here, as long as you wish to stay. But if you decide to make your home elsewhere, take my blessing and be safe.”

Makomo decides to stay.

 


 

Sabito is younger, but that doesn’t deter him from asking to be taught sword forms in the slightest. “When you are older,” Urokodaki answers, firm. Sabito huffs but he doesn’t ask again. Not for a while, anyway.

Makomo doesn’t ask. Urokodaki keeps his gaze on her, the stove light dancing between the curves of his mask, and nothing more is said. The question keeps on in her mind, however, even after she slips away into her futon and dreams; of blood, of the glow of sharp teeth in the corner of her eye, of her father’s last rasping breaths succumbed into silence.

Makomo waits three days before she digs out the answer from deep within herself. Does she wish to fight? Not particularly. But she isn’t the first child to be orphaned by the demons of the night. She will certainly not be the last. Her motivation lies elsewhere; to protect, to save, to prevent such tragedy from ripping more childhoods away.

She bows her head, serious and determined from the bottom of her feet to the top of her head. “I want to learn. Please teach me.”

Urokodaki looks her over, searching for something in her face and posture and tells her, “You only pick up the sword if you intend to live by it. And that is your choice to make, and your choice alone.”

“I want to learn,” Makomo repeats. He looks at her for several moments, measured only in her heartbeats rushing through her ears, and then he nods as well.

One night after she’s learned the first steps for Breath of Water, tucked together side-by-side in their futons, Sabito pokes her awake and says, “Urokodaki-san didn’t want to teach us.”

“Yes,” Makomo replies, her voice matching his low tones. “I thought that might be.”

“That’s because the others haven’t returned,” Sabito whispers, suddenly solemn. “The other boy from last year -- you never met him, he was gone before you came. He left and never came back. And the others before us. They didn’t come back either. There’s some challenge they can’t pass. I think.” His face scrunches with concentration, as though trying to recall something else and failing. “They never make it back here.”

She hears the unspoken, they do not return because they are dead. She remembers the only other slayer she’s met, the one who passed through the month before Makomo made her request. The slayer asked to stay and rest the night after hunting down a demon in the village across the mountain. Urokodaki’s students are cursed, the slayer warned under low firelight. Her cheekbones made grave lines across her face, gaunt and ghost-like in the fire reflection. None have survived Final Selection in many years. It is better if you do not go. He has lost so many children already. He will not wish to lose you as well.

“Then we will be the first,” Sabito vows. “Promise me, Makomo-san. You must swear to come back. Swear you’ll come back from the mountain. And when it is my turn to go, I’ll return too.”

“Of course, Sabito-chan. I’ll come back.” A promise she won’t take lightly despite the lightness of her voice. Sabito wrinkles his nose at the diminutive. She can’t help but tease him. She never had a little brother, but Sabito is certainly hers in all but blood. Makomo pats his head, laughing under her breath at his irritated growling.

Urokodaki’s face, still masked, reveals nothing of what he heard of their hushed conversation. Makomo rises with the sun, takes her training sword with her deep into the mountainous forest side, and trains until her arms can no longer hold the sword. And then she picks it up, and trains more. Urokodaki never follows her, but sometimes she senses movement out of sight and knows he’s watching.

Finally, he parts with the shadowed trees and says, “You are ready.” There’s pride in his voice, but Makomo hears a hitch in his breath. The way someone holds back the urge to cry.

He carves a mask for good fortune, as he does for all of his children and for every student that came before her. Her mask bears blue flowers sprouted from the lower left cheek, cheerful closed eyes, and a smiling mouth. He wraps her in his blue and white cloud haori. Then, he holds her head between his hands and pats her head. It feels too formal -- too final, like he’s already braced for the worst.

Sabito takes her hand, eyes bright, and reminds her of their oath.

“I will come back,” she promises.

Makomo climbs Mount Fujikasane. She breathes in wisteria and the foreboding air of the challenge ahead. It rains every night of her trial, her breath forming clouds around her as she shivers beside trees, attention locked on the slightest of movements, and waits for dawn to break.

She lives. Barely. Obeying Sabito’s vow, she returns to Urokodaki’s cabin a week and a day after her departure. Sabito races out to meet her, hollering and shouting his joy with the pines as witness. Urokodaki follows, relief visible in his trembling hand upon her shoulder.

“You have returned,” he says, unnecessarily. His voice is low and weak; desperate hope has shaken him more than anything else.

“Yes,” she says, and smiles.

Within a year she takes the host of the new Water Pillar. She writes to Urokodaki and Sabito too and receives their sincere congratulations. Urokodaki’s letter entails pride. Sabito’s letter carries a challenge. He has two years before Urokodaki will consider him for Final Selection, despite his abilities and speed at which he has taken to Water Breathing. She knows Urokodaki’s hesitation is out of substantiated concern. He loves all of his children. He never wishes them harm, or the fate of so many of his other children upon Mount Fujikasane.

But Makomo returned bloodied and battle-worn, and defied the impossible. She knows Sabito will climb the mountain one day, and her heart races with sympathetic fear. She knows he is strong, that he fights well; but she can only hope he will climb back down the mountain, to Urokodaki’s cabin, and return alive.

Sometimes she pays a visit to Urokodaki’s old cabin when she’s between hunts. Sabito always runs to greet her, rapidly sharing everything she’s missed since she left and all sorts of stories. “There’s a bunch of children in the forest,” Sabito swears. “I heard them talking to me. They wear masks like Urokodaki-san, but they always run away before I can ask them anything. I think they’re ghosts.”

He asks to see her sword; solid blue steel with a curved bow hilt. Sabito grips the handle until his knuckles are white, swinging it slowly through the air as though swiping at invisible demons. Other times she visits an empty house; Sabito diligently trains off in the woods, and Urokodaki is away seeking solitude but never far from the mountain.

Makomo visits again in a cold summer, long after her letters have flown and replied. It’s the village on the other side of the mountain she seeks, but there is something in her chest that pulls her down the familiar pine fields and towards the mountainside. Her steps quicken, jumping and reaching over fallen trees until she slows at the dense foliage. Her dark purple haori falls back into place, unruffled and even; the surface of a lake calming after a ripple.

Deep in the forest she finds Sabito, who is doing a lot of things, and none of which include training. He’s laughing, belly-up, holding his sides with his arms and kicking his legs up into the air. Makomo’s ever-shallow smile widens.

She’s only heard his laughter twice; always unexpected and rare. But now he laughs, and laughs, and laughs like there’s nothing else he needs to be doing.

A stone's throw away from Sabito lies another boy on the ground, wearing the same cloud patterned haori. His hair is dark and long like Makomo’s, his face turned away so she can neither see his face nor he is aware of her arrival. He’s laughing too, quieter and softer, but his shoulders shake with it.

Another of Urokodaki’s lost children, Makomo guesses, if the blue-white cloud pattern says anything of where he belongs to. Dual emotions split her heart; happiness for Sabito, who finally has a friend his own age, who makes him laugh, who keeps him from being alone. Grief for this boy, who no doubt comes from the tragic loss of another family.

“Race you!” Sabito teases, already flopping back onto his hands and knees and scrambling into a determined run. He’s too caught up in his joy to notice her at all; his eyes slide over her shadow with no sign of recognition. Not that she meant to be noticed. Her dark haori and slayer uniform keep her well-hidden.

“Wh -- Sabito!” The other boy cries. “That’s not fair at all!” Sabito’s answering cackle echoes back as he races through the trees and down the path to Urokodaki’s cabin.

Makomo steps forward and comes to a stop in front of the boy. Despite her silent footsteps, he must feel her presence and turns to stare directly at her. Eyes wide, he stammers to his feet and gapes.

“Er...sorry, Urokodaki-san isn’t home right now,” the boy manages.

“That’s alright,” Makomo says. “I’ll wait for him to return. Do you know your way back?”

The boy’s shoulders droop. “No. And Sabito won’t wait for me either! He keeps leaving me out here until dark. But then he comes back to find me because he’s worried, even though he says he isn’t, and I still haven’t learned my way around the forest, but --”

Makomo holds up her hand to halt the tumble of rambling words from his mouth. “I will show you the path. Follow me.”

An infinite well of typhoon wind, always in motion, never stepping back -- Sabito is wild strength and near-reckless abandon. Giyuu is a shadow; a gentle breeze at night after rain. It doesn’t surprise her to hear he struggles with training. Breath of Water comes naturally to Sabito, while she struggled and languished for years -- like Giyuu struggles now.

Sabito seems unconcerned at his slow learning. “He’s already picked up half of the forms,” he says with a shrug. “I think that’s even faster than I learned. And Giyuu’s only been here since winter!”

Giyuu stares at her and her sword -- the sword most of all -- with barely concealed awe. “Can I…?” His hands are small, a child’s hands, but they eagerly grasp the hilt of her sword. He holds it up into the light, his mouth open and eyes smiling.

“We’re going to the Final Selection this year,” Sabito says confidently. “Both of us.”

“Perhaps.” Makomo says. “But that is Urokodaki-san’s decision to make.”

Sabito blows a raspberry at her, because he knows she hates it, and turns back to his friend. “Even if you don’t make it this year, there’s always next year. We’ll definitely be ready by then.” Makomo hides her smile behind her sleeve. There is the boy so desperate to take a running leap at challenges -- but he’s finally found something to tie him down.

“Will you come again?” Giyuu asks her, tugging on her dark sleeve as she leaves. “Please come visit again, Makomo-san.”

Makomo purses her mouth into a considering half-frown, half-smile. “It depends where I’m needed, but I’ll come back when the leaves are on the ground.” Sabito doesn’t pull her sleeve but he leans into her side like he would when he was smaller and barely meeting her shoulder. He’s grown taller, now -- his face less round, freckled, and patches of sunburn lingering under his eyes.

She pats his head, smiling as he scowls and wriggles away under her gentle attention. “You must tell me how your training is going, yes? Send your letters to my house -- I can read them when I return from hunting.”

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