Darkness Gathers - Chapter 3

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Chapter 3

Kenko watched as the dark shape circling overhead was joined by another and then another a few minutes later, soon there were a half dozen of them soaring lazily on the thermals high above the weary band of Temple monks.  Looking back at his companions trailing behind, Kenko gave a tired smile to Aiko and Koji.  The two young initiates had proven themselves in the Hill-tribes village further up the mountain.  The “Battle for the Idols” as the children were calling it (and yes they were still children, despite their bravery) had been a skirmish really, between two small but determined forces desperate to influence the conduits – three loci of power that channelled Ki into the world. The cultists, followers of Yurei, had fought hard but had been pushed back by the monks of Ro-Kan and despite the loss of a conduit they had managed to preserve the flow of spirit energy maintaining the balance in the Jwar Isles.  Koji had locked the final conduit down so that it could never again be threatened by the monsters of the cult, while Aiko had aided the monks in the fight with her Ki, gifting them with her ‘blessings’, boosting their own abilities with spiritual power directly from the Kamis themselves.  Indeed it was her "blessing of the morning dew" that had healed  two of the three macaques that now ranged all around the troupe, scouting ahead and warning them of approaching danger.  The monkeys were part of 'Koji’s pack' as the other monks in the Temple had taken to calling them and he had been devastated when they had fallen in battle protecting Kenko. Fortunately Aiko had managed to heal their wounds and return them to Koji, further cementing their friendship. 
Behind the children was the ever present silver-backed gorilla known as the Guardian, bonded to Aiko somehow, the giant simian was never far from her side.   500lbs of furious muscle, Aiko's Guardian had turned the tide against the disgusting cultists, throwing the monsters around like ragdolls and literally tearing dark kami in half with his enormous strength.   The intelligent beast worked seamlessly with the little girl's blessings, causing his giant fists to burst into flames or heal horrendous wounds , run fleetfooted like the west wind or cause his already thick hide to toughen further protecting him from all but the most determined foe.  
Following behind the formidable gorilla, Master Akari accompanied by the minor Kami of the Eternal Earth he had summoned to aid the monks in their battle.  Master Akari leaned heavily on his cane as he made his way carefully along the broken trail.  Not that he needed a cane, Kenko mused to himself, the Tanuki Master was the most agile of them all, in battle he would speed across the field like a plummeting sparrow-hawk, grace and power in such a small, innocuous frame.  At the thought of sparrow-hawks, Kenko looked at the creatures circling above, they were definitely tracking the progress of the band of monks he thought with a weary sigh.
"Yes Kenko, the ancient ones have finally awoken and now look to punish all for the destruction of the conduit and the slaughter of their allies."  Master Akari once again had peered into Kenko's mind and pulled out his thoughts, or so it seemed to the young monk. "I presume they pursue the playthings of Yurei for their transgression" the Master added.
"and maybe us  too, Master?" Kenko enquired looking upward again. "they seem very interested in where we are headed." The monk realised he had stopped walking, the children and their animal companions had begun to get further away than was comfortable and he broke into a jog in an effort to catch up.  The mercurial Tanuki easily pacing the much, much younger man. "Where are we headed Master? This is not the way we came when we left the Temple" Kenko added not really expecting an answer from the secretive Yokai. 
"No it is not, student" The Master began, "We must make a brief pilgrimage to the 'Garden of the Six' and seek the wisdom of the Kami that dwell there" Akari paused as he heard the sharp intake of breath from his pupil.  "Yes it exists young Kenko and is not too far ahead in fact.  I fear though, that the Tengu have taken exception to our plan and seek to intervene."
As if in response to the Master's last statement a screeching cry split the air overhead followed by the terrified scream of Aiko.  Kenko sped up at the sound of his young charge's distress and sprinted down the rough path lined with sparse trees. Breaking through the thin line of foliage, that screened a rocky plateau he spied the initiates and their faithful companions standing in a rough circle in front of a pair of statues of the sacred Kami of the five fortunes - Rakki, four more statues dotted the area in a rough circle.  In response to the piercing shriek,  Aiko's Guardian voiced a huge roar of challenge that echoed around the rock 'Garden' and shook the leaves in the trees.   As Master Akari arrived, followed by the earth kami, the clearing was filled with the snap of enormous pinions as a half dozen Tengu landed gracefully among the rocks opposite. 
Master Akari stepped forward and addressed a wizened looking bird, covered almost completely in a hooded robe apart from the 10 foot wings that protruded from it's back.  "Ancient One, what brings a Shugenja and his bodyguard" the Tanuki's gesture taking in the armed and armoured bird men that surrounded the priestly Tengu "to the Garden of Six? You're presence is  interrupting our pilgrimage, we who merely seek the wisdom of the Kami" he added with a bow, accompanied by an impish smile from the corner of his sharp snout to Kenko.  
"You trespass Akari, this place is sacred to the Tengu as is this day, a fact you well know!" The grey feathered bird spat at the Temple Master. "This place is not for the likes of you and yours." The ancient Tengu's talon tipped hand indicated the band of monks in a vague sweep. "Take your pets and leave immediately!" With that a large Tengu stepped forward unsheathing a huge katana, the other smaller birds spreading out, drawing various weapons.
Akari bristled at the dismissive tone taken by the priestly bird man, his fur literally standing on end as he contemplated his next choice of words.  The Master was a being of peace, generally but the Tanuki side of his nature was temperamental at best.  "So be it old bird, it seems that we must agree to disagree" Akari shook his head in sorrow as he saw the way that this encounter must end "the balance must be preserved, your prayers will tip it too far in one direction.  Sanjakubo-san, you of all people must understand that night must follow day, it is the way of things" he added softly, knowing that it was not enough.
"Be quiet, capricious Tanuki! Do not presume to lecture me on the balance, be quiet and be gone!" With that the ancient looking priest waved his hand in dismissal and turned to his bodyguard, urging them forward.  The two blue feathered bushi disappeared into the scrub line almost immediately while Yari armed guards half ran/half flew forward toward the Gorinto statues that stood at the edges equidistant between the opposing warbands.  Sanjakubo raised his arms and with a talon drew mystical kanji in the air, a fierce wind screamed from the west coalescing into the rough shape of a man – a blessed kami of air! 
“Students, the Tengu would upset the balance with their misguided ritual, we must petition the Kamis for their aid in the coming days. Light alone cannot prevail, just as darkness must not gain prominence for the Jwar Isles to prosper.” Master Akari nodded at each of the gathered companions in turn, “pray at the statues, call out to the Blessed ones, beseech them to turn momentarily away from the ancient ones this one time and preserve the balance, for it is all” with that he scampered off, his paws a blur as he ran toward the far statue.  Koji and his pack, taking his cue headed out in their customary forward scouting position, scanning for the Tengu who had disappeared.  Aiko’s Guardian flanked by the rocky form of the earth Kami, looked around the clearing for the biggest threat to his tiny charge before heading off toward the huge samurai-Tengu. Aiko herself blew Ki-laden kisses toward her burly protector, manifesting into blazing kanji that settled gently into his fur. 
Kenko locked eyes with the bird priest Akari had named Sanjukabo, there would be the key to this fight he decided. If he could incapacitate the Shungenja then the ritual could not be completed.  Across the clearing the ancient Tengu understood the meaning of the young monk’s measured gaze and with another pass of the talons and more kanji drawn, the wizened priest gestured to Kenko, who stood stock still as he felt himself surrounded by a bitterly cold wind that sank into his muscles, freezing his tendons and reducing his movements to a virtual crawl. Kenko watched in horror as the others ran on ahead, while it took every ounce of concentration just to will his frozen body into some sort of motion. 
The speed of the Tengu was astonishing, with quick hopping steps bolstered by their flapping wings they swiftly gained the statues, looking to complete their rituals before the Ro-Kanese could intervene. Kenko watched as the Yari armed guards, began to place fetishes at the base of the Gorinto that flanked the clearing.  Desperate to intervene Kenko strained at the invisible bonds of icy wind that slowed his movements, without success.  Frustratingly he could only move at a gentle walking pace and soon fell behind.  Beside him, Koji focused his Ki, drawing in the spirit energy around him like a sponge before opening himself up to his friend Aiko allowing the gifted young Shungenja to utilise the energy to boost her own and bolster the blessings she had laid on her gorilla protector.  
Aiko's Guardian ran forward, flames from her kanji flickering over his fists and up his burly arms and with a ear shattering roar he piled into combat with a Tengu bushi that had nearly completed it's ritual.  Not intimidated in the least the avian warrior lifted it's yari and struck out at the gorilla piercing his thick hide and drawing a bloody line across his torso.  Instantly the second blessing that Aiko had gifted her Guardian blazed into life, following the arc of the gory wound and knitting flesh back together.  Distracted by the pain of the blow, the gorilla missed with his own attacks and both combatants stepped back from the fight, circling each other and looking for openings.  Without warning the Kami of the West Wind dropped in front of the giant simian, massive gusts of wind pouring from it's form to form a gale that drove the 500lb beast back away from his Tengu opponent.  With the gorilla reeling from the assault, the kami lunged forward picking up debris from the clearing floor and hurling them at the great ape.  Furious at the attack, the Guardian swung huge fists at the ethereal creature, swatting at the airy form and dispersing the creature somewhat, with a sigh the kami dissipated back into the ether.  
Two of the smaller simians of Koji's pack, copying their larger cousin leapt into melee with the bushi trying to distract and confuse the bird-man.  Shrieking their fury at the Tengu warrior, they circled him slapping and pawing at the stern soldier.  With a back handed strike of his yari, the bushi batted one of the macaques clear across the rocky ground leaving the poor creature crumpled in a heap several feet away.  It's packmate screamed it's anger at the grievous blow, redoubling it's efforts and scratching futilely at the avian fighters tough armour.  
Across the clearing, the Tengu priest drew more azure kanji in the air, the kanji grew brighter and brighter until with a loud crack that split the air, a bright lightning bolt leapt out of his talons striking the third monkey in its tiny chest, flinging it across the clearing.  Koji cried out in fear at seeing his precious companions wounded, glancing at Aiko he hoped that his friend could once again save them from death's grip.  Desperately wanting to check on his monkey brothers but knowing he had to complete their mission, he sprinted to the nearest statue and began to beseech the sacred kami for their intervention. 
Master Akari headed over to the far Gorinto, intent on carrying out his own prayers.  So intent in fact that even his fabled intuition failed to warn him of the danger as a Tengu scout burst from the nearby scrub, drawing it's bow and releasing a deadly shaft at the diminutive Tanuki.  With an astonishing dexterity the agile Master, turned at the sound of the bowstring being released and plucked the arrow from the air.   Dropping the spent missile to the floor, he altered his path and headed toward the threat of the yari armed bird that threatened the Guardian.   Chittering to himself, worried that they were being sidetracked from the mission, Akari broke into a jog hefting his staff in anticipation - this was not going to plan at all! 
The Guardian looked around, more and more birds were laying fetishes at the bases of statues and chanting their prayers.  This of course, meant not a great deal to the enormous beast despite his intelligence, but he did see the Tengu priest summoning the bolt of lightning that struck his smaller cousin.  Roaring in fury he charged the wizened Shungenja, swinging enormous fists and battering at the birdman who ducked and dodged the worst of them but clearly losing feathers as the enraged gorilla connected occasionally with his punishing blows.   Behind him the tall Tengu samurai drew his massive katana and with a prodigious  leap aided by his enormous wings dived into the fight, swinging the sword in a devastating blow that tore through the flesh of the 500lb silver-back, dropping the beast to the floor instantly.
The anguished cry of Aiko brought Akari's gaze over to the fallen giant, in time to see the young girl fling herself onto his massive body, tears of pure Ki rolling down her face and disappearing into the thick coarse hair that covered his back.  Behind him, Koji watched the girl's grief through his own tears for his brothers lying still on the clearing floor.  Further over still, Akari saw Kenko struggling in frustration against the invisible bonds that slowed his movements, helpless to aid his friends in the fight.  Enough he thought to himself, this battle was lost, the cost already too high for very little gain. With a surprisingly loud voice for the small yokai, he called out to the bird priest.
"Enough Sanjukabo, enough! Call off your warriors, we will leave this place now."  The fierce avian faces of the Tengu all turned to face the Temple Master, but they did not press their attacks against his students, giving Akari heart that the essentially good creatures would heed his plea. "Let us collect our fallen brothers and we will depart and not return, you have my word."  The words said with such grave dignity from the now sombre Tanuki stayed the Tengu priest's hand.  Signalling with a sweep of his hand the feathered bodyguard backed away a few paces from the still forms of the Ro-Kanese animals, allowing the monks to pick up the bodies of the small macaques.  Aiko's Ki tears had worked their miracle like healing power, slowing the blood from the awful wound caused by the Tengu samurai and closing the flesh.  With a soft grunt the gorilla lifted his enormous head to snuffle at the tear stained face of Aiko as she threw her small arms around his neck with delight and relief.  Weakly the giant simian got to his feet and followed the little girl as she led him away from the field of battle, placing kisses on the brows of Koji's packmates as she passed by.  With a nod to the ancient Tengu priest, the tanuki Master turned on his heels and followed the despondent monks as they retreated from the Garden of Six, his quick mind churning over plans to rectify this setback...