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     Takasa Aiya gripped the Silencing Daggers, one under the chin in her left hand and the other still poised at her side. Each was a foot of honed silver embedded within a chiseled blue hilt slick with sweat and rain. She huffed. It had been three storms since anyone had been silenced with either blade, but tonight was not like most nights. Tonight she would wield them as she had in the past, strike down her enemies, and feed the earth with their blood. 

     “I can’t strike them all, not before my damn time limit is up,” she said. In preparation for tonight’s killing, she was failing.

     Takasa Koji stood cross-armed to her side in the training grounds. Beads of evening skywater dripped down his face and robes, illuminated by shielded lanterns dangling from stone posts throughout the courtyard. The air was cool, with an ominous breeze. Eight fish-headed wood totems, each ten feet high, gazed down at them in a circle. About two feet in diameter, they each stood equally spaced from each other, bearing slash marks in chaotic patterns. She could see judgment in her brother’s watchful eyes as Koji spoke those dreaded words for the dozenth time. 

     “Try again.”  

     She wanted to stop, to say it was pointless, that she’d been hacking and cutting for almost an hour with no progress. That Shozhu would come for their departure any moment now. But by now she had subjected herself to it, even if reluctantly. She was not one to give up, however humiliating.

     She wiped long strands of black hair from her face, sleeve adjusting to reveal the River tattoo on the side of her wrist. Three parallel flowing lines. Coming here had been a last minute decision on Koji’s part, with no time to prepare. Thus the two wore bright blue robes with billowed sleeves, custom of the Takasa household, ruling nobles of River province. 

The courtyard sprawled around them, walled in by pink leafed rausta trees and the looming Takasa estate. Their deity’s altar, a wide stream, burbled softly through the yard. Crickets chirped, and there was a damp-earthy scent, bending around gardens, wood benches, fountains. 

Aiya closed her eyes and altered her mind.

     When she opened them, a deep blue like the ocean had pooled over the usual dark brown of her irises, while her pupils made black islands. 

     With sudden energy, she burst from the ground and landed against the side of the pole in front of her, crouching on its surface. She pulled her dagger across it, then pushed off to one across from her.

     Landing with a smack against wet wood, her dagger sliced here too, cutting deep into the totem before gliding off its slick surface. Not a moment later she was gone, already landed to mark her third. As steel cut into the target, there bubbled that familiar sensation, an instant of uneasiness and fear coupled with a break in her focus. 

Then, she saw it.

     Aiya failed to shake the numbness from her body in time, pushing off the totem at only half her normal strength. She flew halfway across the training ring and toppled to the ground, hands clawing for grass as she rolled to a stop. She was glad for the cushioned fall provided by the soft field. Her strength, speed and durability faded. 

      A light drizzle fell from the dark sky, freshly coating her with dampness. The light blue silk robes adorning her were grass-stained and torn, likely beyond repair, but at this point she didn’t care. She could be bothered by nothing except for the frustration of her repeated failure. Her gaze moved to the towering totems. From this angle they appeared like predators who had finally succeeded in tiring out a rather tenacious prey.

     Koji appeared before her offering his hand. He was two years her senior, twenty and towering a full head above her when standing at her side. He kept his expression neutral and chose his next words carefully, steeling himself against the urge to reprimand her. But Aiya perceived the concern showing in his eyes as dark as the rolling clouds. When it came to training, specifically Aiya’s training, he was solicitous.

     His offered hand remained. “Is that all?”

     Aiya took it and got to her feet. Save the purling stream, the central courtyard felt quiet now. There was not even the soft rustling of leaves in the backdrop. Even the chilled air held still in anticipation, awaiting what fateful turn of events that would come. 

     “Try again,” Koji told her. 

     “It’s no use, I can’t align myself for long enough without—” 

     “Stop grumbling and get your ass back up there.”

     His tone was stern but his eyes were sincere. He hated seeing her beat down like this.

     “Easy for you to say,” she muttered. For him, maintaining alignment with the River deity was child’s play. She ought to have attained his adeptness years ago. She was a late bloomer, she mused, but that would have been putting it lightly. His anxiety for her own safety tonight was understandable, but that made it no less a burden on herself. Her face went hot with shame. Koji hadn’t been too hard on her up to now but she was sure his patience was thinning. After all, soon their lives might depend on their abilities. 

     Resigned, Aiya stood, arms hanging at her sides with eyes closed, her breaths becoming deep and rhythmic. 

     She concentrated on her deity.

     Her proximity to the “river” made it easy. There in the background, the gurgling stream  existed as an altar to the deity, the imitation of a river. It was no longer a necessary aid for her mediation, although it made slipping into this state of mind much easier, like the coalescence of water, leaving absent the mental strain of separating her mind from tangible reality.

     Tension released from her muscles and her mind softened, allowing her thoughts to flow freely before they settled on the one and only other thing in existence. The river engulfed her consciousness, not a mere thought of the physical land feature but of all its spiritual and metaphysical meaning which she had spent years pondering and studying. The river was strength, a natural substance molded into a force possessing its greatest potential. It freed itself from the natural prisons of water, the great mountains and the unyielding earth below them, and carved its path to the sea. It was speed and it was hungry power, drowning any land creature who dared overstep its boundaries. 

     But above all it was life. Through the river, civilizations arose and fell. It was clean drinking water, bathing water, a travel route and irrigation for crops. It was far more than gleaned the eyes at first glance, a deity whose glory lay incomprehensible. Incomprehensible, to a disorienting degree, was how it felt as Aiya gazed across the infinite well of power it offered, and could only fathom a small part of it. Above her flared spiritual orbs of light as numerous as the stars.

     She sunk deeper into the trance until she could hear every lap and current of the river, as if she was leaning over it with an ear above its surface, or as if she had become the surface. As all other senses dissipated and she was left floating, watching large waves of water run in her mind, she and the river having finally become one. The deity was as much a part of her as she was a part of it. She directed that sacred power inwards and felt a surge of energy and strength. Before even realizing she had opened her eyes, she was flying through the air, propelled by superhuman legs. 

     She landed on a totem, slashed it and swung herself to the next, curving the blade upwards as it slid off the wood. It was a sort of check mark pattern they always used. That made it more difficult as it took a bit longer to hit all the totems. She had chosen this strategy years ago for herself, without instruction from her master, Shozhu, before it caught on with her siblings. She would not give herself the easy way out, no matter the exhaustion and frustration. This she had sworn to herself. She hated failure, but she hated cheating herself far worse.

     And she was determined to get her ten marks this time. 

     She leaped from pole to pole, furiously slashing then moving onto a different target. At this speed, landing with any sort of balance was impossible, so upon reaching the small surface she immediately pushed off to avoid falling. A haze of water and splinters sprayed with each mark. 

      There was her sixth. A tie for her personal best. 

     She kept her mind with the flow of the river, running forcefully, hindered by nothing. She wouldn’t think of what was coming. That was the only way to prevent it.

     I’ve got this. It won’t happen this time, she thought. She was a blur, like the swift glide of a hornet stinging victim after victim. Seven. Eight. Raw power filled inward. She would accomplish her goal this time. And then she would do more. Her personal goal was fifteen marks. After all, she had trained for two years with her deity now. She could do at least that much. Ten marks came first. She still had yet to reach ten. 


     Her alignment with the deity wavered. An all too familiar fear bubbled up in its place, and despite her best efforts her concentration faltered for just a second. 

     A span of time just long enough for that malformed thing to bleed into her vision.

     Her eyes widened, and she saw it. That gross, decaying body, like a corpse dissolving at the bottom of a river. The sickly green-black color of peeling skin, the deformed jaw revealing rotting gums, devoid of any teeth. Its sunken features were always curled into a smile, ghastly and malicious, a wide taunting grin that possessed Aiya’s dreams as a child. Why she couldn’t force it away like the others, Aiya didn’t know. She only knew that it was there in front of her, arms spread out to catch her mid-flight, bobbing as if submerged under water. Her peripheral sunk into blackness and it became the only thing she could see. A wisp of breath barely escaped her lips as her stomach went plummeting down her abdomen. It was there, really there in front of her,  because she could smell its putrid odor, hear its ragged breaths, feel the tendrils of cold seeping from the tears in its skin. Blood turned to ice and left her body rigid. 

      It’s not real

      The thing never lost its effect on her. Lucidity came slowly gnawing at the fear that had briefly froze her in place. She had overcome this terror countless times. She wouldn’t let it continue to paralyze her. She cleared her mind, squeezing her eyes shut. It’s just an image, Aiya, conjured by a brain that can’t possibly comprehend the power of the river!  She opened them again. She would not look at the thing itself, much less its eyes. They were pure hatred. 

      She focused on the dark nothingness at the corners, bringing her thoughts back to the river. The river was all that mattered, all that really existed, and in it her fears did not exist. In it was complete power, peace and tranquility.

     Slowly, the blackness began to fade.

     It was already too late.

     She didn’t make it in time. As the figure vanished, a totem pole materialized in its place and caught her forehead. Hard. Her head smacked off of it and her body tumbled to the ground. She sat up feeling her forehead, groaning in pain. It had already started to swell. She knew she was being pathetic. All that determination had only led to another failure. 

     Koji appeared at her side. “It happened again?” 

     Aiya said coldly, “What do you think? I’ve been at this for an hour! We’ve been at this for years! I still can’t get myself under control.”

     “You’re near a breakthrough, I can feel it.” Koji replied. “You’re bound to figure it out eventually.”

     She scoffed. “Empress’ soul. For all the admiration Shozhu gives you, you sure are naive. I’m just not as good as you.”

     “Wrong. You’re surprisingly good for the short amount of time you have access to the power. You just need to extend your alignment longer.”

     “Well, shit, Koji, thanks for telling me something I didn’t know.” 

     She immediately regretted the harshness of her tone yet her rumbling frustration couldn’t be stopped. Not frustration, anger. It was her anger stewed from long years of disappointment. Koji insisted they train as much as possible in their last hour before they slipped through the Hebi Lord’s defenses, and massacred the traitorous clan. He knew she’d always had trouble staying aligned while exerting herself for more than thirty seconds, on a good day. 

     To keep alignment with a deity, which was the spiritual harmony for maintaining access to its power, the deity’s servant, its Ginju, had to overcome their own mind. Also known as their “lower selves”, as some put it. Once thought to be an interfering evil spirit, it was considered the mind’s natural defense against the effect one’s deity had on them. The mind, being unable to comprehend the deities, would dredge up some horrifying illusion in response. As to exactly why, no one knew. Most Ginju of the classical times, during the Hoju era and earlier, theorized that the mind comprehended the deities as an invasive threat. Something sinister and vastly powerful, too frightening to behold, like the evil gods of some Tarshan religions.

     But the deities weren’t gods, as gods didn’t exist. At least not in the way most thought of them. The deities made up the remnants of beings of the natural world. Great and mysterious, reserves of power attainable if one took the time to seek them out through meditation. Of course this was a secret reserved for only a select few of noble blood.  

     Suffice to say, all the River Ginju had overcome their mind’s shortcomings within the first few years. She, with hours of training and meditation everyday, still couldn’t hold onto the power for more than a half minute span. She was beyond clueless what was wrong with her. 

     “You need to remain calm, Aiya. Getting worked up only-”

     “Hinders my growth, I know Koji. Did you notice that repeatedly following your advice has gotten me nowhere?”

     “It works when you take it as a whole and not in pieces,” he said, sternness creeping into his voice. “You get angry every time you slip. Frustration like that interferes with your progress.”

     “Why don’t you just admit that I’m not where I need to be, that I’m disappointing? Everyone else does, I could handle it coming from you.”

“They don’t know what they’re talking about.” The words came out sharper than he expected, cutting away the next retort forming in Aiya’s mind. He let his shoulders relax and took a moment to gather himself.  “Don’t talk like that. You know I don’t see you like the others do. I…You and me, Aiya, we’re family for real. I won’t pull statements like that out of my ass for you if I don’t mean them. You’re…, I’m sorry for making us come out here tonight. I thought it might make a difference, but…damn, looks like our time’s up.”

     It wasn’t just the two of them anymore. She spun around to face an approaching Takasa Shozhu, his oversized noble robes trailing down the stone steps leading into the training circle. He was a heavy, pudgy man. He appeared strong, assured, possessing an upright posture and sagely beard combed to his chest.  There was, however, a slight limp to his step, some injury sustained in battle, likely caused by the deity’s weakening effect on his body over the long years.

     “I trust the two of you to be ready?” came his gruff voice, almost a growl. Everything from the man’s mouth sounded growling and hostile to Aiya.

     “Master Shozhu!” 

They hurried to bow.

     “We are clear and confident about tonight’s task, I hope.”

     “Of course, master,” said Aiya. Their time was up. Their mission tonight was simple but twofold: confront a noble traitor and kill him, as well as any hindrances, and to burn down the estate after the fact. 

     The River High Lord was understandably crossed. Imperial tax collectors from Rain came to bleed River dry, year by year. Commoners, naturally, carried the tax burden, namely those in the fishing trade as River’s largest industry. However, the past year presented a record low yield of fish, not helped by filthy mobs of protesting Kotonese fishermen. Suffice to say, profits were inadequate. 

Lord Arusuke would have nobles pay the difference. Lord Hebi Owa, a military land governor, vocalized his disdain for raised taxes. Considering his wealth and Jodai forces were nearly equal to half the Council of Judges together, Lord Arusuke decided the man had breathed long enough.

     “Remember,” Shozhu demanded, face serious, “You are to simply go in, massacre, set the entire place ablaze, and get out. Leave no one alive and nothing unburned. Return as soon as possible, and be sure to bring the weasel’s head back with you.”

     It was a nasty duty, where the adults would be silenced and the children left to be broiled on the inside. It was, however, necessary. Every province held three Ginju; unsuspecting nobles by day, powerful, supernatural forces like Wailstorms by night.  Sweeping and indiscriminating, creeping through households and over borders, keeping lower nobles in check while invisible in the background. Their use in politics and times of civil war was a gift given by the Empress to those she ordained to oversee her territory. A ferocious art taught to select children of ruling noble families, blessed by the Empress as newborns. 

What specific abilities they possessed were unknown. Few ever knew them personally, but all Erru knew of them. They knew the stories of well-guarded lords of the past, considered invulnerable one night and unrecognizable or headless the next, done in by what could only be Ginju, heard but seen only by their acts. They were thought of as beastly, Erru exaggerated to monstrous effect. 

     “Understood,” the two Ginju replied in unison.

     Tonight the rumors would prove true. There would be a monstrous display of might, and, come morning, they’d have another dead lord for the history books.

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