Thousand Roads's finger probed again at the arrow wound. It never ceased to itch, or burn, but it hurt worse when he pawed at it. It was a compulsion, a desire to see if this time, this time it would not sting. Normally, it would be the simplest of tasks to shunt this offending desire aside, to simply switch it off. But the days of late were long and pained, and fiddling with the open blood kept his mind occupied.
It was certainly better than thinking about what was going on around him.
His comrades argued and spat and shook their fists over the map, drawing red lines with blood to represent the enemy's movements, and black sigils to show their own troops. The coral-white tent walls flick and snapped in the warm breeze. It was spring, somewhere, where the air was not aflame. Normally he'd send novices out to count cherry blossoms and cart dirt from place to place, to see how long they would put up with it. The monk could not remember the last time he had seen a cherry tree. Frowning, he realized he could no longer recall the smell of the blossoms. A moment passed before his mind returned to the present, wrestling with half-alive thoughts of the past and trees he could only half-remember. Someone was yelling. It was Wu, novice-turned-general. He was yelling. Again.
"We'll hit them in the center, break their main line," Wu was saying, thrusting an ink-stained finger at a cluster of red squares. The map shivered in the outside wind. "Use the catapults here, send some rocks into them. Then charge."
There were vague murmurings of assent from the other assembled monks. The young ones were more vocal than the elders, as usual. They wanted to fight, to see the enemy fall before them. Those monks who had seen more summers were less optimistic, and kept their comments to themselves. Catapults or not, there was no way to break the Crimson Army here. There was nowhere to break it anywhere. How could the novices not see it?
Thousand Roads caught the eye of Running Thunder, the massive man leaning up against a tentpost. His friend clenched his fists around his gold-capped kukri, and shrugged. They had fought together for over a year, running and hiding from the Red Host. Both men knew nothing would change here. This was stalling, nothing more. Stalling until the burning coal-men forced them from the field, back into the woods.
"We don't have any rocks for the siege engines," one novice whined, arm wrapped up in a sling. "It's miles from the nearest boulders. You've brought them to bear with no ammunition?"
"Time was short," snapped Wu. "I did what I thought was best. We're all stretched thin."
"This was a terrible place to fight," someone else added, a short woman in the back. "It might have been possible to hold them off at the School of the Half-closed Eye to the south, but you didn't even bother to stop there for help. It has high walls, a central monastery - "
"We couldn't go there because then we would have been trapped," Wu replied, face reddening with anger. "We can't afford to get caught in one place with no possible retreat. At least here we can head into the forest if things go bad."
The woman snorted. "If things go bad, he says. Things will go badly, you fool. It is the Way."
"The Way? The Way is not clear to any man, or woman. You dare predict how the battle will fare?" This from a tall man in the back, lean and scarred across his chest. His face was hidden behind a thin black mask, his features cloaked in a midnight-grey bodysuit. Thousand Roads knew him to be one of the Hidden Clan, here to offer advice and his services to the monks. He had arrived in the night, unseen, appearing in the middle of the war council. His blades had been dripping with liquid heat and the blood of the enemy. No one had wanted to keep him from the talks.
"The Way is!" someone cried from the back, and the room devolved into yelling. One novice stood in front of the map, pointing wildly and screaming his advice. Another two had the ninja cornered, fists raised, tempers flaring. The master of stealth had his arms crossed and was saying nothing in reply. Elsewhere, novices squared off to duel, or meditate, or sling harsh words devoid of thought. Thousand Roads had seen it all before, and returned to investigating his arrow wound. The pain was comforting, somehow.
Running Thunder sighed and slipped his weapons into his belt. His face bore an expression of equal parts resignation and frustration. Thousand Roads wondered if his own face bore the same creases and lines as his friend's. He ran a finger down the hilt of Frozen Smoke and returned to watching the scene. It would devolve into anarchy before long. It always did.
His eyes traveled across the room, looking for signs of calm amidst the storm. They were few. Even Running Thunder was lifting two raging novices by their gi's and slamming them into one another. Aside from the shadow warrior and himself, no one was keeping their heads. Not a solitary monk was left who -
No. That wasn't quite true. A young woman strode heedlessly among the warring followers of the Way, carrying a basket overflowing with bandages, healing covers and ointments. She paused, here and there, pulling men out of the melee to inspect their wounds and deliver sharp slaps around their heads. Cowed, those inspected thus made their way out of the tent, back to their tasks. Thousand Roads smiled at the ministrations of Tender Field. She hadn't changed a bit despite the conflict. He was still smiling as she approached him; hurriedly, he tried to frown thoughtfully, and succeeded only in looking like he needed to use the bathhouse.
"How's that wound, Thousand Roads?" she murmured, leaning in close to inspect the offending hole. Her fingers probed carefully, firmly as warm energy danced from her fingertips. He started to reply, eyes accidentally roving over her kimono, the curves hidden beneath. She smiled, her eyes softening, and placed a finger under his chin.
"Pay attention," she scolded kindly, directing his head up to her eyes. "How's your wound?"
He blinked, and murmured, "It's fine, Tender Field. I will survive this too."
She shrugged, and dug around in her basket for a moment or so. "Of course. Your empathic powers are drained, then? You can't even manage a single arrowhead?" The young woman chuckled. "I am always taking care of you. Sometimes I think you come here just so I'll put my hands on you."
Thousand Roads' face turned red, and he looked away towards the squabbling monks. The ninja had a pile of moaning forms at his feet. His arms were still folded. "That...isn't proper, Tender Field," the monk stammered.
She chuckled again. "The world is coming to an end. I find myself caring less about the Way and more about...people. I am speaking my mind more and more these days." Her eyes found his, clear blue and sparkling. "Do you not come to me for healing more than the others?"
Of course he did. But it would not do for a monk of the way to say such things. He glanced away again, and she laughed, the sound strange against the clamor around her.
"I will stop teasing you. Let me see your wound, and I'll let you go on with your...meeting, here."
Tender Field's work was swift, her fingers sure. Soon a dark green cover lay against his stomach, soothing and cool against the pain. He smiled up at her, sad to see her go so soon. Some part of him wondered, on lonely nights upon The Road, what life with a woman might have been like. The thought always made his ribs hurt.
Apparently satisfied, she patted his cheek and made to stand. Her eyes turned sour as she cast them across the throng. It had devolved into full-bore chaos now; hardly anyone was speaking any more. She frowned.
"I wish just one of these would go right," she muttered, half to herself. "Just one council. If they would stop arguing and work together, we could still pull off a victory today, perhaps, if it was the Way. But this...I'm not sure this is any step on the Way anyone here needs to take." She shook her head, and lifted the basket back into her arms. Her eyes found his, suddenly cold and deep, and he saw a sigh escape between her lips. Three footsteps carried her back into the throng, administering, cursing, following her Way.
A moment or two later, and he found himself standing before the map, Frozen Smoke sheathed across his back. Rainfall in Spring, the black blade, was clenched in one fist. A downward cut, and the map of his world fell away into two curving halves.
The room fell silent.
"Enough." he said, quietly. "Enough. There is no time for this. Arguing amongst ourselves while the Host sits at our feet is folly. Keep this up, and there won't be an army by next summer."
He turned to face the furious Wu, who bled from a shattered nose into pale fingers. "You need rocks for the catapults," the monk remarked. "Use the road shrines we passed on the way here. The small gods have long fled, no doubt, off into the Wheel. Their homes are plentiful and strong. Make good use of them." Shock flew onto the general's face at the heresy, but Thousand Roads was already moving on.
Next, he looked to the angry woman, her knuckles skinned, her robes torn down one sleeve. "We make our stand here because the School of the Half-closed Eye is gone. I was there when it fell, along with Master Black Oak and Master Looks to the Dawn. Their heads decorate the walls. All the more reason to fight here, rather than in a stricken ruin of stone and blood."
A chorus of oaths and curses flew through the mob. "What happened...to the rest of them?" someone dared to ask. Someone slapped him across the back of his head, but it was too late.
"The novices of the School were fed to the goldworks an inch at a time." Thousand Roads' eyes found the speaker's, and narrowed. "It took three days. I hid in the thatch of the liveryhouse while I waited for an escape to present itself. The Host marched out of there wearing our brothers and sisters as earrings and bracelets."
The oaths grew more florid and darker; someone wept openly in the back of the tent. Running Thunder grew pale, and looked away.
"Why didn't you die with the rest of them?" a novice cried from the back, pushing forward to the front. His face was stricken with tears, teeth bared against the monk. "Why didn't you stop them there?"
"Because there were three of us!" Thousand Roads roared, spittle flying from his mouth. Rainfall in Spring materialized before him, blade stained brown and black. "Three! The novices there would not fight, so we tried to get them to safety! We knew it was hopeless going in! I hid to bring word of this to our forces here, you little fool! Where were you, if not there to help us?"
Before the shocked man could answer, the monk of the Way was in his face, voice deadly calm. "Were you at the School of the Sleeping Turtle, when it drowned in its own waters and the Crimson horde flowed over the walls? Were you in the forests, screaming for someone to save you while the leaves burned and assassins ate the bones of your friends? Did the ground shake before the coal-men's walk, while monks blazed into ash and monasteries fell to slag and gravel?" Thousand Roads peered closer at the quaking man's face. "No? Were you here, with the remnants of our people, preparing to fight and die at this empty field, while my friends fought and died to get you here?"
"I -" the man began.
"Shut up." Thousand Roads stepped away, back towards the broken map. With an effort, he sheathed his blade, and turned to face the assembly.
"This is the end," he said flatly. "The Masters are all gone to the Wheel, and we are not strong enough to break their army. We will bloody them here, and elsewhere, until we are too few to fight. Then we shall make our stands, and pass on to next life. This is the Way now."
The room's occupants stared. This was the suspected truth, of course, and one that each man and woman had tried to make peace with. But to hear it spoken so plainly, so openly, was incredible.
Some raised their voices to argue, but Thousand Roads raised his voice again.
"It is the Way! You can not argue this, not wisely! Prepare yourselves as best you can, but do not think any of us will make it through. Divest yourselves of that hope. It is insane, now, to wish to live."
Without waiting for a response, the monk of the Way strode through the crowd, back to his corner, and returned to a lotus position. The room fell into argument, many offering black stares at the loudmouth who had offered the death knell of his people. He closed his eyes, and took no notice.
Eventually, he became aware of a presence sitting next to him. Cracking one eye, near to shaking with rage and fleeting adrenaline, he beheld Tender Field regarding him. The expression she bore was of deep disappointment.
"That wasn't what I meant," she murmured, shaking her head. A strand of hair popped loose from the knot behind her ear, and drifted across her cheek. "I can't believe you said those things." The healer made to stand, offering him one more downward glance.
Thousand Roads' heart slammed into his chest. Not her, too. He made to stand, but she brushed his outstretched fingers away, backing away into the crowd. The monk made it two steps towards her before Wu's hands pressed into his chest.
"Thousand Roads has reached martial enlightenment!" he cried to the assemblage. Conversations guttered and died as everyone turned their gazes towards the speaker. Thousand Roads eyeballed the novice incredulously.
"What are you doing?" he hissed, but Wu kept on.
"He has seen the Way, in blood and fire though it may be! He has seen the Truth of Creation! It is a time of miracles!"
"Don't," Thousand Roads whispered harshly, eyes filling with anger and hard tears.
"As general of the Free Army, I am in my rights to proclaim him enlightened!" Wu cried, eyes ablaze. Thousand Roads tried to step away, but Wu gripped his sleeve tightly and would not let go.
"As general of the Free Army, I too proclaim him Master of the Way! All hail Thousand Roads, Master of the Way!" Wu roared and held the new master's sleeve high into the air. "The Masters are not gone! The Masters are with us still!"
As Wu's voice screamed across the tent, and the assembled novices raised their unknowing hands to applause, Thousand Road's heart stilled and turned cold. Tears coursed down his cheeks. To have such an honor, pursued for so many years, idly handed out by a fear-crazed novice was the height of insanity. Across the room, Running Thunder turned his head and closed his eyes. Tender Field drifted into the mob, and fell from sight. The yelling of the crowd pounded into his head.
The noise was so loud and so pervasive that no one heard the screams outside, or the sound of arrows in flight.
Perhaps fittingly, Wu was the first to die. The black-shafted arrow entered through his cheek and out the other, narrowly avoiding Thousand Road's eye. Flapping, screaming blood-flecked froth, Wu flailed at the wound with dumb amazement. Seconds later, another arrow found his skull with a dull click, and the light in his eyes went out.
The Master of the Way pushed the body aside, and drew his blades.
A flight of arrows descended upon the tent, the army, the trees and the field. Nothing was spared. Roaring, screaming monks either fled into the woods or back down the shattered road. Some died not knowing what had killed them. In seconds, the tents of the Free Army were borne low by the weight of missiles, fired from ten thousand bows snuck close during the arguments. In seconds, the army of monks devolved into complete panic.
Two arrows bore the dark-haired woman to the ground, pinning her into the dirt. She was trampled seconds later by the sandals and callused feet of those in flight. Running Thunder gathered up twelve spearmen and led a wild charge into the enemy skirmishers; he was never seen again. The ninja messenger dragged three injured novices to safety before a ricocheting arrowhead entered his left ear. His body turned to smoke and whispers as it fell to the ground.
As Thousand Roads swatted arrows out of the air and called out increasingly desperate orders, he saw Tender Field, body twisted by arrow wounds. Her lifeless eyes judged him from her sitting position, basket of herbs and bandages cascading down her front. Rainfall in Spring absently split another arrow in half, and hissed with rage. Frozen Smoke said nothing. Later, he would recall that as the moment he truly lost sight of the Way, and began to walk the path of War.
In seconds, whatever had survived the storm of arrows fled into the forest. Five hundred monks had been whittled down to barely fifty in the course of two minutes. It was to prove the most devastating and the shortest battle the monks would ever know.
Thousand Roads proved to be the last known Master of the Way. When he disappeared at the end of the war some months later, hardly anyone was left who could be bothered to care.