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 Post subject: Doubt [Story][Public]
PostPosted: Mon May 18, 2015 1:58 pm 
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Joined: Sep 22, 2013
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Doubt
by RuwinReborn
Status: Public :diamond:
Word Count: 9401


Jinsen had forgotten how much noise other people made.



Thinking back, it was likely that he was being unfair to most people. Kimberley certainly had a propensity for conversation. How she managed to carry on what - he assumed - was a meaningful discussion with only his occasional input was beyond him. He supposed it was her love of stories. She had a great many of them, though few were about her. Stories required an avid speaker and an avid listener. Kimberley was the former, and he was the latter.



But no, it was not her chatter that reminded Jinsen of noisiness. It was… practically everything else.



Kimberley spoke in her sleep. It was nonsensical, mostly. She also tossed and turned throughout the night, as though she could not get comfortable. When she awoke, there was a great rustling of clothes and bed things, followed by an unsubtle trek to find a suitable place to relieve herself. Then, there was talking and moving, shuffling and scraping. When she walked, her left foot dragged against the ground slightly at the heel. When she spoke, she gestured and the folds of her clothes rubbed at the creases. Her laugh was high and giddy when she found something truly amusing, and low and rough when she was laughing for someone else’s benefit.



During meditation, he could hear her breathe.



Jinsen had become so accustomed to being able to silence even the sound of his own heartbeat that the noises of another living person were… foreign to him. He wondered how other people lived like that, with all the noise. It tried his patience, though he prided himself in excellent control of his emotions. Kimberley did not do these things to spite him. If he asked, she would likely attempt to be more quiet, but he doubted sincerely that she would succeed. It was less her problem, and more his. And besides, as long as she was talking, they would be able to communicate more effectively. A useful trait, between master and student.



...Of course, he was also beginning to realize that, in Kimberley’s case, he had not gained a student so much as adopted a child.



But he did not want to think about that.



Instead, he opened his eyes.



Kimberley was several yards away, face smooth in serene focus as she went through the motions of the third Kata. Mastery of the second Kata had come quickly after the first, but that was to be expected. The first Kata was about concentration, but the second was about speed. Kimberley, so lively and energetic, had found the principle simple to understand. The third Kata, however, was about force. Direction. Truth, in a sense. But that was a philosophical discussion for later. As Jinsen observed Kimberley move through the third Kata, he saw she still performed it with all the force of a tame rabbit.



Jinsen sighed minutely.



At the moment, they were camped in a chilly forest clearing. Autumn crept through the trees, staining leaves brown, red, and orange and further dappling the noonday sky with great swathes of half-light. Kimberley complained about the cold, like clockwork, once every morning. To her credit, she also made a point of cooing about and commenting on the idyllic scenery about them, which pleased Jinsen. Forests during autumn, shedding their heavy summer blankets, were among his favorite places to visit in his travels, and they had been in this forest for the better part of a month now.



Jinsen did not really have the heart to tell Kimberley they had been traveling in circles for that same amount of time.



“Kimberley.” He spoke, and she stopped halfway through the Kata, her shoulders in a defensive hunch. He was sitting with his legs crossed, and motioned for her to approach, and, when she got close enough, motioned for her to sit. She seemed… resigned. He had no doubt that she knew she was performing the third Kata inadequately. Kimberley was remarkably self-aware. He had no reason to berate her for her faults. No, he had found that Kimberley responded more positively to demonstration or example.



He was deciding which to provide her with today, though he was curious why she seemed so… nervous. Perhaps, after all this time, she still feared he would scold her. He… was not sure how to change that.



Kimberley shifted uncomfortably, and he realized he had not spoken for several minutes. He wondered - though he was forced to do so briefly - at her remarkable patience with him. She seldom showed as much restraint with anyone else that they had interacted with.



“You told me on Kamigawa that you wanted to learn to defend yourself, and others.” He said finally, and Kimberley snapped to attention. Jinsen folded his hands in his lap. “What do you think that means?” He closed his eyes, and listened, and focused. The sound outside of his immediate surroundings fell away - Kimberley became a beacon of noise.



Her heartbeat sped up slightly. Her hair brushed against her neck as she glanced to one side, and her breathing hitched as she bit her lip. Tell-tale signs of nervousness, yes, and that was to be expected. Kimberley was concerned with answering correctly - even if there really was no correct answer. Her fingernails scratched against the fabric of her pants, and finally, she decided to reply.



“I think that means I…” A small pause, her voice wavering, then regaining strength. “...am able to stop them from being hurt. To stop myself from being hurt, by others.” Noble. There was a tremor of uncertainty or perhaps falsehood in her voice, as though she was not telling him the whole truth, or did not understand the truth herself. Maybe she was giving him the answer she thought he wanted. Maybe she had not truly understood the question.



“How will you stop them?” Jinsen barely heard his own voice, but Kimberley reacted to the the question by wetting her lips. Her knuckles dragged against her thighs as her fists curled into balls, the cloth on her shoulders moved as she looked down at her knees.



“I… I’d fight.” Kimberley’s voice shook briefly. “I’d…”



Her knucklebones creaked.



Jinsen opened his eyes, and the world exploded into color around Kimberley.



“Would you kill?” He asked, staring at the top of her bowed head. She did not respond. “...Kimberley.” She looked up at him, and he suddenly did not understand what she was feeling. Listening was always simpler, for him. Looking into Kimberley’s eyes made it… difficult. He pressed on. “Would you kill?”



“I don’t know.” She said, and looked away.



Jinsen nodded slowly.



“You’ve thought about this.” He observed. Kimberley was sharp, and the third Kata was simple. Once Kimberley had a blade of her own, the first Kata would translate into a basic stance. The second Kata was more of an exercise than an actual battle technique. The third Kata, however, was the first of four… aggressive techniques. The blade was drawn. The blade was swung in a perfect horizontal line. The blade was returned to its sheathe. The purpose was clear: to dispatch a foe efficiently, and without guile. He had explained it to Kimberley as he taught it to her.



She had been troubled then as well.



“Yeah…” Kimberley admitted, sighing. “I just, thought that when the time came for me to act, that I sort of…” She waved her hand vaguely in front of her. Jinsen remained perfectly still. “...would.” She huffed, and smiled slightly before glancing up at him. “That’s how it is in some of the stories I read, you know.”



“Authors are not often called upon to end the lives of others.” Jinsen pointed out, and Kimberley’s smile fell.



“...I guess not.” She shook her head. “How… how did you… how do you do it?”



Jinsen took a deep breath. This question he had expected, although he had expected it much sooner. It was a question he had been asked before, and a question he had posited to himself on many an occasion. Often, there were many other questions that went along with it: Is it right to kill? If so, when? Is it always wrong? Is it evil?



Can it be anything else?



Jinsen sighed. He did not have all the answers.



“I was prepared. I was trained. And when the time came…” He paused here pointedly, and Kimberley nodded. “...I made a decision. I cannot tell you it was a good decision, I can only tell you it was the right one. Never forget that, Kimberley. Death is never good, but it is not always wrong.”



She did not meet his eyes.



Several minutes passes as he allowed Kimberley time to think about what he had said. In the interim, he closed his eyes once more and enjoyed the crisp autumn air and the scent of the forest. He could see why the woman they had come to visit sequestered herself away here - it really was quite lovely.



Kimberley took a deep breath, and rubbed at her eyes before glancing up at him once more. “Alright. How do I… apply that? What you told me - how do I use it?” Jinsen smiled, pride swelling softly in his chest. Sometimes, he was genuinely impressed with how intelligent his student was. Or at least, how willing she was to learn.



“You have doubts.” He told her, and she nodded shortly. “There is no way around the Kata. There is no way under or over the Kata. There is the decision, and then there is the action.” He punctuated his last two statements with a horizontal and vertical chop.



“Actions have consequences.” Kimberley pointed out. “Shouldn’t those be considered?”



“Of course.” Jinsen acknowledged her wisdom with a bow of his head. “But there is a time for consideration, a time for decision, and a time for action. When you are beset by a foe, or someone requires your aid, do you consider the consequences of your actions beforehand? Perhaps. But in that time, you or your charge may come to harm. I can teach you how to act quickly, but first you must learn to act. No doubt. No hesitation.” He paused, and searched Kimberley’s face for some modicum of understanding. Her brow was furrowed in thought, and she was frowning slightly… concentrating, at least. Quickly, he stood, and offered his hand to his student. “Stand with me.”



Kimberley took his hand and did as she was told. Jinsen turned towards the sun, and beckoned for Kimberley to do the same.



“The third Kata.” He prompted, and she nodded. She closed her eyes, and with the sunlight illuminating her features, she assumed the starting position. Much like the first Kata, both hands began over her left hip - only because her right hand was predominant. However, in contrast to the tame and slow nature of the first Kata, the knees were bent and the stance wide. There were only two movements. The thrust and the sheathe. “Begin.” Jinsen ordered, and watched Kimberley closely.



Her form was nearly perfect. There were a few problems, but they would mostly work themselves out. Her arms and back were straight, and her posture never wavered. More impressively, her footwork held through the first and second motions. But there was no… strength behind it. At least, not enough. Her heart was in it, but not her mind.



“Again.” He murmured. And she did. The result was the same. Kimberley was frowning, and the tension in her cheeks suggested her teeth were clenched. “Again. There must be no doubt.” Kimberley began once more, and took a deep, agitated breath -



Her upper lip curled, ever so slightly, and her closed eyes creased around the edges. That-



Kimberley completed the third Kata as Jinsen heard the air leave her lung in ragged breath. The force of it shook Kimberley’s body. That… was well done. And yet…



Jinsen observed Kimberley silently for a long moment, until she opened her eyes and peeked at him.



“...Was that right? It felt…” Jinsen waved his hand to interrupt her, fearing what she might have to say. No, no, that was… That was not right, not at all. Something rough and rigid had straightened Kimberley’s spine, strengthened her arms.



“What were you thinking of?” Jinsen asked, keeping his face smooth to smother the plaintive concern he felt. It would not do for Kimberley to see him distressed.



“W-what do you mean?” She stammered, and Jinsen realized he may be looming over his student, so he took a step backwards.



“When you completed the Kata, what were you thinking of?” He repeated once more. Kimberley, for her part, only seemed further confused by the question. Whether or not this was false confusion remained to be seen.



“I just- I just did what you said. No doubt.” She told him. She told him, and by the Ancestor’s Road, he could never tell if she was lying. He never knew. Kimberley simply spoke and whether or not falsehood flowed from her lips was only something the Gods could tell, because Jinsen wanted to trust this caring young woman but he was not certain for how long she had been lying-



Jinsen steadied himself, and took a deep, deep breath.



“Very well.” He replied slowly. “I believe you. You performed admirably there. A hundred more like it and-” Jinsen did not clearly register the emotions that flashed across Kimberley’s face, but he saw her bite her lip and shake her head. Then, she interrupted him.



“It was my father!” She blurted out, and Jinsen heard the same rough and rigid breath chasing the words out of her throat that he had heard before. Immediately, he relaxed. “It was- I just thought if I could picture… could picture him as my enemy that I could, that I could…” She sucked in a shaky breath and stamped her foot angrily. Jinsen folded his arms, and gave her a little more space. “I don’t want to cry about this because it’s over and stupid and he’s gone-” She rubbed aggressively at her eyes, though it did not seem to stem the tears. “But- but- but…”



And with that, all coherency was lost and Jinsen was left with a sobbing young woman covering her face before him. He… was at a loss for words. Mostly. He remembered two, and they seemed to be the correct thing to say.



“I’m sorry.” He told Kimberley. She sobbed twice more, and sniffled, still covering her face.



“Sorry…” She mumbled thickly, and Jinsen assumed she was apologizing for breaking down. Understandable, if no reason to be apologetic. After all- “You’re sorry?” Jinsen felt his eyebrows raise a fraction at the tone in Kimberley’s voice, and suddenly she was looking up at him, face blotchy and wet and brow furrowed, angry- “You’re sorry! You killed him! You… Killed him in front of me and then just left!” Kimberley was shouting - ancestors, when was the last time he’d been shouted at? - and her shoulders were set and her feet wide, aggressive… But the tirade continued, growing louder. “You “decided” and then “acted” and all that high thinking left me, alone, with my father’s body! I was ten! I was ten!” And this word she screamed, all raw and wet and high. “And I looked for you for seven years, and I was by myself for seven years and you never knew! Never knew what you’d done or who it affected because it was all just an “action” to you? The world fell out from under my feet and- and- and you’re just sorry!”



Jinsen was not sure when he had gripped the hilt of his blade, but he felt his widened eyes stretch as the ragged edges of Kimberley’s accusation echoed into the forest. Now, truly, he was at a loss for words - and actions. He did not know what to say, or do.



Kimberley, as he had found she was often wont to do, made the decision for him.



She turned and ran sobbing into the forest.



Jinsen closed his eyes and listened until he could no longer hear her footsteps before he released his katana. His hand ached from how tightly he was holding it. He could feel the blood rushing into his fingers from where the circulation had been cut off. Slowly, he sat down, took a deep breath. He touched the tips of his fingers together. The forest around him was silent. The wildlife had been frightened away by Kimberley’s outburst, no doubt, though the breeze’s absence was unexplainable.



He reflected upon what had just happened.



Kimberley’s energetic and enthusiastic outlook on life had, at first, caught him off guard. Now, he was beginning to realize that her general attitude masked a far more troubled young woman. He might have noticed more quickly had her guise not been so persistent and… practiced. Seven years, indeed… When Kimberley had first found him, her story had revealed to him a wrong he had not known he had committed. Taking her under his wing had been a way to make it right. It appeared, however, that more than simply fulfilling Kimberley’s wish to follow in his footsteps was required of him. This thought caused him no small amount of concern - all his life, it had seemed more and more was required of him - but he breathed deeply and accepted this as truth. An apology had not worked, even though he was not certain what he had been apologizing for at the time. Reparations of a greater magnitude were in order.



He would have to put more effort into understanding this young woman. He could not restore her father - nor would he want to - but…



“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you frown, Al Vhelan.”



Ah, so that was why the breeze had stopped. Jinsen did not open his eyes to respond to the voice, even though he heard no other sounds.



“I have been experiencing a great deal of change lately.” Jinsen said. “Such upheaval brings strife. It is to be expected.”



“Ish mal benaris, Al Vhelan. You were never very good with women.”



“If you had revealed yourself sooner, it may have tempered her reaction.” Jinsen pointed out. “No doubt your presence incited her further.”



“And let that dark hate in her heart fester? No. I have freed the hatred from her chest. Now, it is in the air. Vil san don renahn. Do with it what you will.”



Jinsen sighed, and acknowledged this wisdom before opening his eyes. Before him floated what appeared to be a mask made of gleaming obsidian, in the shape of a fair-featured woman. Nothing supported it, but Jinsen had not expected her to manifest fully before him. Not yet, anyway.



“Thank you for the help, Ishna. I trust you know why I am here?” The mask smiled, the black stone moving with the liquid ease of flesh.



“I have been following your progress throughout my forest with interest, Al Vhelan. Your little spitfire lacks a great many things… But only one among these am I capable of providing.” The mask tilted to one side, as though confused. “She is not ready.”



“...I am aware.” Jinsen murmured.



“Not ready, no. But close. Are you aware of this as well?” Jinsen pondered that, and Ishna chuckled. “Ish mal festarim, Al Vhelan.” And with that, she vanished.



The breeze returned once more.



...It was time to locate Kimberley, it seemed. Before long, night would fall and she would undoubtedly be cold outside of the camp, and away from the fire.



***


Kimberley was tired of having emotions, and she wondered, vaguely, why they existed if only ever to exhaust her so thoroughly. She had never cried this much when she was on her own. There had been no need to! There still was no need to.



She wiped her face on her sleeve.



She had run - what a surprise, running from her problems - until she was out of breath and had no idea where she was. The forest around her seemed mostly unconcerned with her mad dashing about, though she had heard birds and animals scurrying away from her distressed weeping as she had done so. Ugh, she was being such a child about this. And she was not a child! Not anymore. She had to face this, she had to…



In her mind’s eye, her father’s blood pooled on the floor and she held the blade.



Kimberley buried her face into her knees.



She was curled up against a large tree, big enough for her to hide behind and hopefully, big enough to hide her from Jinsen until she could compose herself. She probably should not have shouted at him, but today had been one emotional trial after another. After all that trouble on Kamigawa, she was hoping her lessons would go more… smoothly. And it was not as though Kimberley did not know what she was getting into by studying with Jinsen! She knew what swords were for, she had seen them used.



She just… objected. To killing. For obvious and uncomfortable reasons. There was too much… anger in it. Too much hatred - or so she thought. Jinsen was gentle, and yet she was beginning to understand that he had done more killing than her father ever had, but with none of his madness.



How? How did someone so… at peace end lives so easily?



Maybe he really just did not care. Maybe Kimberley had been wrong about him.



He had looked like he was about to draw his katana, back at the clearing… Maybe…



Kimberley shook her head vigorously and slapped her cheeks. No, no, no! She was dwelling on the negative again. Jinsen loved his blade and he took care of it like it was his child. He had just grabbed onto it because she was screaming at him and it was a source of comfort! That is most likely what had happened, definitely. She should not have been screaming at him, she should have…



Oh, gods she was blaming herself again, this was just like before…



And so her thoughts circled, around and around, a cacophony of emotion that she could not even begin to sort out. She wished she could skip to the part where she had all of Jinsen’s poise and understanding. But maybe without all that… aloofness.



“Ish mal benaris, Kimberley Talon.”



Kimberley’s head shot up at the sound of the unfamiliar voice, and she found herself staring at something so strange that she forgot to shout. It was like a black mask, whose face was in the shape of a man. It stared at her with a severe expression, and all she could think to do was stare in shock. How… did it know her name?



“You had many things to say to the Lotus, youngling. Have I so easily robbed you of your voice?” The mask continued after Kimberley failed to respond, and she decided to close her open mouth with an audible click before shaking her head.



“I… Who are you?” She asked, scooting closer to the tree. This... spirit? This… person spoke of Jinsen as though it… he… was familiar with him. So… Most likely not so bad? If a little strange. The mask shifted slightly in the air, but mostly just continued to regard her severely. His brow was furrowed, and he was frowning.



“An adequate question. I am called Axos. I am the reason you are here.”



Oh. Oh!



“Jinsen told me we came here to meet with someone he knew.” She replied. “A swordsmith. Is… that you?” Axos bobbed in midair, and she thought maybe his frown lessened slightly.



“Yes and no.” Axos said. Which. Made no sense. “But I am not here to explain the specifics of my existence - there will be time for such things later. The Lotus will soon come to seek you out, and I wished to speak with you before that time.” Axos paused, and watched her expectantly. And, of course, severely.



“Alright.” She told Axos, and wiped at her face. At least he was doing a good job distracting her from thinking about her problems.



“Do not interrupt me.” Axos commanded, and Kimberley could only blink at the imperious decree. “You are volatile, crass, and often brazen and rude. This I know, this I have seen. The Lotus walks with much respect, and you, with little. Born of ignorance, perhaps, but ignorance is no excuse. Remember that, Kimberley Talon - Ignorance is absolutely not an excuse. You have just made a great many assumptions about the Lotus. You have accused him of a great many things, in your mind, and in your heart. Think, before you speak. Think, before you act.”



Here, Axos paused, and it seemed for a moment that the empty eyes of the mask were not focused upon her. Before she could respond to anything he had said, however, Axos spoke again.



“Ish mal festarim, youngling. Remember what I have said.”



And, without a sound, he just… vanished.



Kimberley stared at the spot where the floating mask had been just a moment ago.



...First Kymoko and now this guy. Jinsen had some really weird friends.



Speaking of Jinsen, she could hear him moving through the forest behind her, which meant he was actively making noise so she would know he was coming. That was certainly considerate of him - she had been spooked too often by his propensity for silence. She readjusted her clothes, and stood up. Alright, first she would apologize to Jinsen, and then… Axos said she had accused him. In her mind and in her heart? What did that mean?



She stepped out from behind the tree, squaring her shoulders, and faced the Eightfold Lotus.



He greeted her with a bow of his head, and no words. His hands were at his sides, and as usual, he was supernaturally still. Kimberley swallowed, and took the initiative.



“I’m sorry.” She told him, even though those were the words that had started all this. Fresh tears threatened to begin flowing again, but she took a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I…” She thought about offering an excuse, but she realized she did not have a good one. Axos had told her to think before she spoke. So… she thought, and decided against it. She closed her mouth and bowed her head.



“You are forgiven.” Jinsen told her plainly. “Sit with me, please.” And with less than a dozen words, Jinsen just… diffused all the tension she was feeling. All the worry, all the embarrassment, all the anger, just… gone. She admired that. She admired that very much.



Jinsen sat on the forest floor and motioned to a spot beside her. Once more, she sat beside the Eightfold Lotus. This felt… normal. Good. And she was just so relieved that he was not upset with her. She… was not certain Jinsen could even be upset, actually. Kimberley had never seen anything stronger than mild amusement on his face.



“You have a question for me.” He stated, and she glanced at him. His eyes were closed, of course, and she smiled slightly. He always did that, when they spoke. She did not know why.



“Who is Axos?” She asked. Jinsen was slow to answer, perhaps thinking about the question for a long moment, or perhaps he was unsure how to respond.



“Axos is a being of logic and intelligence. I have known him for a long time. Did you meet him?”



“Yes. He was…” Kimberley chose her next word carefully. “...severe.”



Jinsen smiled slightly.



“Axos is not one to speak or act lightly. He takes himself and his work very seriously, and so, should be taken seriously in turn. What did he tell you?”



“Well, first he said I was volatile and rude, which is a pretty volatile and rude thing to say, really.” She replied immediately. “And then he told me that…” Kimberley sighed. “...That I should think before I speak, which is not something I did very well just now.” Jinsen chuckled, but said nothing, so she continued. “He also was, um, listening to our argument I guess.” Jinsen did not react to this revelation, which meant he already knew, or did not care. Either way, the floor was still hers. “He told me that ignorance is no excuse and that, I… should not accuse you of things, in my mind and heart.”



“Is that what he told you?” Jinsen asked. “That you should not accuse me?”



Kimberley began to reply, but stopped herself. Think. What had he said, exactly?



“...No.” She amended slowly. “No, he said that I have accused you. Not…” She shook her head. What did that even mean? What… Oh, gods.



“And what have you accused me of, Kimberley?” Jinsen asked quietly, and Kimberley felt like she was going to cry all over again, because she did not want to say this. She did not - but maybe, that was why she should. Because - because she did not know. She did not know, what happened, all those years ago, when Jinsen had killed her father. She only knew what she saw, what she remembered.



“What happened?” Kimberley whispered, throat tight. “What happened, why did you kill him? Why?” And she never thought this would be important to her, but it was and she just did not know why. She felt tears on her cheeks again and wiped at them helplessly - but then, she felt a cool hand on her cheek, and it was much more soothing than the scratchy cloth of her sleeve. Jinsen wiped away the tears gently, and as she looked up at him, his eyes were closed.



“I had only recently arrived upon that world.” Jinsen told her, voice solemn, but calm and deep. She placed a hand on his wrist and leaned into his touch. “The city was filled with people, and I remember being uncomfortable. There were so many people. It was overwhelming. I stepped into a side alley to collect myself. I found him there.” Here he paused, because Kimberley was shaking and he shifted closer. She grabbed his other hand, and he continued. “He was removing something from someone he had just killed. I could smell the blood. He saw me watching and attempted to attack me with a knife. The alley was narrow - I could not draw my katana, and so I was forced to disarm him, but he ran into the crowd. I followed him as best I could, but I could not risk drawing my katana in such crowded streets. Eventually, he led me to his home. He locked the door behind him. The sound of the city was deafening. I forced the door open, and he was there. With another knife. I drew my katana, and cut him down.”



Yes, she remembered that part.



“I had regretted going to that world.” Jinsen told her. “I left immediately. Had I known you were there…” She looked up at him, and his eyes were open. Jinsen sighed deeply before looking away. “It is not something I can change now. I do what I know is right, as best I can.”



His version of the events sounded just like she had imagined - dispassionate, detached… It scared her, she found, like it had scared her earlier that day. It scared her that something so frightening, so life-changing, was nothing more than a footnote in Jinsen’s life. That her father, her tormentor, was nothing but another body left behind by the Lotus. She was scared because he spoke of everything this way - and later, would he speak of her like this as well? Would she be nothing more than another person, another body, spoken of in analytical monotone?



Then, Jinsen hugged her.



She was surprised. Kimberley was an affectionate and physical individual, but neither of those were words she would use to describe the Eightfold Lotus. Touch was kept at a minimum - usually for rectifying her stance during training. These thoughts and more filled her head as Jinsen enfolded her - he was so much taller than she was - and she returned the gesture, because what else could she do?



“I’m sorry if this is not comforting to you - but you must leave it behind.” He told her, and then, finally, she understood.



Direction. Jinsen had told her, over and over, that the third Kata was about force and direction. Forward direction - forward momentum, like the movement of the blade. Moving forward. Moving on, leaving the past in the past, facing the truth - all of it. He wanted to comfort her, but he would not lie. He would not coddle her, and she did not want to be coddled, she realized. She wanted so badly to be his equal, to make something of herself like he had, to be more than her father had ever thought she could be…



And she could.



But it had to be about her. Not her father, and not Jinsen.



“When you apologized earlier,” Kimberley mumbled into Jinsen’s shirt softly, “you weren’t apologizing for… killing him.” Jinsen rubbed a small circle on her back placidly.



“No, I was not.” He confirmed.



“You were sorry that I was… angry. Sorry that it had happened to me, but not that it had happened.”



“...Yes.” Jinsen confirmed again, softly. A memory of his porcelain-white hands, gripping the hilt of his blade so tightly that his knuckles turned blue, flashed into Kimberley’s mind.



“Would you kill me, if you had to? Just like that?”



Jinsen’s hand stopped moving on her back, and she thought his breath may have caught, but it was difficult to tell.



“Kimberley, if I believed that you would ever give me reason to harm you, I would never have agreed to teach you at all.” He explained solemnly. “You are like a budding flower, yet unblossomed - when you bloom, I cannot know what sort of petals you will reveal to the world. The soil you were planted in was infertile, yet you grew. The sunlight was thin, yet you grew. The water was scarce, yet you grew. You never stopped growing - I saw that. I see it still. With fallow soil, strong sunlight, and plentiful water, you will bloom into the beautiful lotus I know you can be. I promise you this.”



Kimberley buried her face in Jinsen’s chest, which vibrated as he spoke, thoroughly embarrassed. She did not know if it was sad, but this was the kindest thing anyone had ever said to her. It made her happy, truly and without reservation, so of course she responded immediately with humor.



“I didn’t know you did metaphors.” She teased, and Jinsen chuckled, low and soft.



“I cannot take credit for what I have said - I was told something much the same when I was younger, by my own Master.”



“Really?” Kimberley squirmed out of Jinsen’s embrace to regard him with impish interest. It was not often that he actively volunteered information about his past.



“Yes.” He told her simply, and, yes, there it was. The end of that particular line of questioning. Despite the mild disappointment, she felt… Good. Stuffy, and her eyes were a bit sore, but good. Peaceful.



Sometime during all of that talking, the sun had set, and it was cold. Jinsen had many admirable qualities, but he did not generate much in the way of body heat. She shivered.



“It’s cold.” She pointed out. “We should, um, go back. Before I catch something.” Because, honestly, she was almost positive Jinsen was incapable of falling ill. She had never once seen him sneeze.



He smiled at her, stood, and offered his hand to help her up.



“I have a feeling that will not be necessary.” He told her cryptically. “Stay close, and do not be alarmed.”



“What?” She asked, just before the world began collapsing all around her.



***


Jinsen waited patiently as his surroundings - such as they were - righted themselves. Kimberley clung to his arm tightly, and he felt her pulse press against her fingertips through the cloth of his sleeve. Quick, but not very quick. She was startled, maybe, but then, they had always been one of unnecessary dramatization.



When the illusion finally fell away, they were standing in a field of stars.



Kimberley shrieked, and Jinsen had the good sense to lean away as soon as she took a sharp intake of breath. Still, it was very loud.



Before them, floating (as they were - it felt as though he stood on solid ground but he knew from experience that looking down would simply reveal more empty spaces and distant, twinkling stars) was a tall, six-armed being. Two of these arms were folded, two open wide in welcome, and two clasped together in what appeared to be excitement. Their body was made of dark, obsidian stone, sculpted lovingly, androgynously, and with great attention to detail. Small slits, intentional, appeared periodically along their ribcage, outer thighs, forearms, and shoulders.



What had not doubt startled Kimberley was their lack of a neck, and the torrent of green flame that spilled forth from the hole in the top of the torso, and from the slits along the rest of their body. Three faces, masks, hovered a small distance above the body, centered in the middle of the fire, and the mask that faced them was terrible to behold. Great horns sprouted from the forehead, fanged teeth, clamped shut, unmoving. The chin, ears, and nose, were elongated, sharp, and the empty eye sockets regarded them with a terrible glare.



Kimberley had pressed herself close to him when she realized he was not attacking. Having been given a few short moment to observe, he assumed she was puzzling out what was going on, but he allowed himself a small smile at her confusion.



He had wondered how long Rukshan would keep up the illusion.



Jinsen bowed as best he could with Kimberley still attached to him. Rukshan did not speak much, and then, only in their strange tongue, but he addressed them anyway.



“I am honored, Rukshan. Your hospitality has been generous and well-received. As you know, I come seeking a favor of San-Ku-Nin.”



“Benaris, Al Vhelan. Choso ish maan ataxos. Ishna, jit.” Rukshan’s voice was rough, dark, and feral. Their mouth never moved. Jinsen was unfamiliar with much of what Rukshan was saying, however he had learned enough from Ishna to realize what would happen next.



The masks rotated, so quickly it seemed that Rukshan’s face had simply vanished and been replaced with Ishna’s smiling one. The fire that wreathed them turned dark crimson. The clasped together hands of the San-Ku-Nin clapped once, and Ishna laughed.



“I apologize for Rukshan, Al Vhelan - Kimberley Talon.” She turned her attention to his young charge, who had not taken her eyes of the San-Ku-Nin since they had arrived. “You are afraid. How can I make you more comfortable, Al Jinah?”



“I’m afraid of heights.” Kimberley squeaked immediately, and Jinsen blinked down at her. Truly? That was something she had never told him. Ishna, of course, laughed, and two of the arms moved in an intricate pattern as, around them, a floor formed of shining bronze, as far as the eye could see. Kimberley relaxed slightly. “And, um, where’s all our… stuff? How did we get here? What’s… going on, exactly?”



“Should I explain, or would you like to, Al Vhelan?”



“I will, Ishna. Thank you.” Jinsen said, and Ishna smiled, crimson flames dancing behind her eyes. She folded her six arms, and waited patiently. Jinsen turned to Kimberley, who was giving him a… look.



“This is just like Kymoko, isn’t it?” She said flatly, mouth a thin line. Jinsen smiled.



“There are similarities.” He admitted. “Kimberley, this is Ishna.” He motioned to the San-Ku-Nin, who hummed politely. Kimberley mimicked Jinsen’s earlier bow, though it was stiff. “You have already met Axos and Rukshan. Together, they are known as the San-Ku-Nin. I have known them for many years, though we have not spoken as often as I would like.”



“That is no fault of mine, Al Vhelan.” Ishna pointed out. “I am here - you are the one who leaves.”



“I have a wanderer’s soul.” Jinsen replied politely before returning his attention to Kimberley. She now seemed less tense, and more curious. That was good - Kimberley was at her best when she wanted to know something. “You see, Kimberley, the San-Ku-Nin are planeswalkers, like you and I. I am not privy to all their secrets, of course, but they are skilled, knowledgeable, and powerful. Where we are -” He gestured at the star-strewn sky above them. “- is both an illusion, and not. Rukshan maintains this small world, shaping it as they see fit. We have been visitors upon their world for a long time now, here only with their permission. I wished them to judge you for themselves… Though I suspect that they have done so, and favorably.”



In a flash, the flames around the San-Ku-Nin turned a flickering shade of azure, and Axos’ face replaced Ishna’s.



“You presume much, Al Vhelan.” Axos intoned sternly.



“But do I presume correctly?” Jinsen mused.



“The youngling fumbles in the dark, ignorant of our traditions, philosophies, and responsibilities. Already she has angered Rukshan.”



“What?” Kimberley exclaimed, equal parts indignation and reasonable fear. “I didn’t do anything!”



“Surely you exaggerate.” Jinsen said diplomatically, glancing at Kimberley. The flames changed crimson.



“I’m afraid not, Al Vhelan - but Rukshan’s temper does not cloud Rukshan’s judgement. And as you have guessed, the judgement has been… favorable.”



“If I accidentally anger one more of your friends…” Kimberley grumbled sullenly, and Jinsen had to admit that the notion was rather amusing. Such was her lot, he supposed.



“You are young, Al Jinah. I would be surprised if you did not anger Rukshan. Not even Al Vhelan escaped Rukshan’s ire, when first we met. The battle, as I recall, was terrible to behold.”



“And hard fought.” Jinsen conceded, and placed a hand on Kimberley’s shoulder. “I am honored Rukshan has shown such great restraint. It is a blessing I will hold closely the rest of my days.” The flames around Ishna’s mask took on an emerald hue for a bare moment, but the masks did not move. To Kimberley, he said, “You are a unique treasure, Kimberley. Few could sway Kymoko to mercy, and I have never seen any temper Rukshan’s savagery.” Kimberley blushed deeply and looked away.



“Must have one of those faces, I guess.” She muttered.



“It is not your face, but your heart, Al Jinah.” Ishna declared, and stepped forward. Kimberley tensed up for a moment, but Jinsen squeezed her shoulder softly, and she relaxed. The San-Ku-Nin approached, extending an arm and keeping the others still. Ishna knelt before Kimberley - though she still towered over the young woman - and placed a single, obsidian finger upon her chest. “You are not innocent, Kimberley Talon. But you are strong, and though you may doubt, remember this: Doubt is only the fire in which conviction is forged. Al Vhelan has come to us for a purpose, and I will see that purpose fulfilled.”



Kimberley swallowed audibly.



“Um.” She said. “What does “Al Vhelan” mean?” Jinsen noted that she pronounced the word with incorrect emphasis, but Ishna smiled all the same.



“A title your master has earned from us - a boon, if you will.” Ishna replied before the flames turned blue once more, and Axos was staring down at Kimberley. She blanched, and leaned towards Jinsen.



“Directly, “Al Vhelan” translates to “Honored One”. The Lotus has proven himself worthy of our respect and time, and so to him, it is freely given. You.” He jabbed Kimberley slightly with his finger, before recoiling the hand entirely. “Have yet to earn such. You are instead ‘Al Jinah’. Child. Youngling.”



The flames turned crimson once more, though Ishna was frowning as her mask appeared, and she stood.



“You are so harsh, Axos.”



“He tries to help, in his way.” Jinsen said. Kimberley shoved him slightly, muttering under her breath.



“Don’t take his side…”



Ishna’s smile returned, and she held her hand out to Jinsen.



“Come, Al Vhelan. I said I would see your purpose fulfilled, and I shall.” Jinsen breathed in deeply, and nodded, before reaching into his robes and searching for the familiar weight of Kymoko’s orb. The metal eye had been a gift from the all-seeing spirit, specifically for Ishna. Next to him, Kimberley bounced lightly on her heels in excitement.



“What, really? Right now? How-” Jinsen squeezed her shoulder once more as Ishna chuckled, taking several long steps away from them.



“Watch, Kimberley. All the San-Ku-Nin are capable of wonders, and Ishna is no exception. You’ll see.” Jinsen admonished, and Kimberley stilled herself and kept her attention raptly upon Ishna.



Ishna held the orb up to her face, examining it, but said nothing. Then, it began to hover, just a few inches from the palm of her hand. Backlit by the crimson flames, the orb was little more than a dark circle against the shining stone-flesh that was the San-Ku-Nin. Ishna brought up a second hand, lowering the first, and placed it, palm facing down, equally distant from the orb. She centered both hands over her chest, and then, the magic began.



He did not see the orb begin to rotate, but soon it elongated, flattened. Two more of Ishna’s arms came forward, and from these, plumes of molten metal spilled forth, spiraling and entwining about the orb, until all that was left was a homogenous orange glow. Four of her arms then proceeded to move about the metal, hovering over it, and it began to shape, elongate, sharpen, heat up, and then cool - all these things Ishna did with a look of serenity.



Her final two arms unfolded as the blade took shape, the molten metal suspended in the air before her. Yet, it was not complete. Seemingly from nothing - and perhaps it was - Ishna produced raw materials, and even as the glow of the metal faded, a hilt formed, a guard, a sheathe, all slotted into placed and masterfully tied off, silk, wood, and metal met, forming a beautiful katana that shone in the crimson light of Ishna’s flames. Jinsen saw a small eye inscribed into the metal of the blade, right before it flipped over, and was slid deftly into its crafted sheathe.



It was quite the sight to behold. He glanced at Kimberley, and smiled. She was amazed, it seemed, mouth parted slightly and eyes wide.



Ishna folded four of her arms, and in the other two rested the finished blade, crafted in a matter of moments.



“And so, I have made it, and your purpose is fulfilled.” Ishna stated. She approached Kimberley, and lowered the blade to her eye level. From here, he could see that the sheath was painted blue - dark blue, nearly black. “As you can imagine, Al Jinah, this katana is special, made just for you. Already I have seen what great potential lies within it - but remember this: Potential is no guarantee of greatness. You must learn how best to wield this. Though I can think of no finer man to teach you.” Gently, Kimberley reached up to take the blade from Ishna, who relinquished it with no further words.



“I…” She opened and closed her mouth once, and shook her head. “That was amazing, I… Thank you.” She bowed deeply. “Thank you.”



Ishna reached down and ruffled Kimberley’s hair affectionately, causing Kimberley to squeak in surprise.



“You are quite welcome, Al Jinah. Now!” Ishna clapped two of her hands. “You are hungry, and tired. I know this. Jin ados aris, Al Jinah.” She waved her hands, and a banquet appeared directly behind them, upon a polished bronze table, followed immediately by piles of plush cushions. “Eat, rest - You shall depart later, but first, you must sleep. I insist.” Kimberley turned around to behold the food that was laid out before her - much of which Jinsen could not identify, and then glanced excitedly up at him, clutching her newfound blade to her chest. He thought for a moment about chiding her, for that was no proper way to hold a katana, but… No, there had been enough learning today.



He nodded towards the table.



“They are very generous, Kimberley.” He commented, and she immediately bounded over to begin wantonly devouring what she had been offered. Jinsen sighed fondly and shook his head.



“...How did you find her, Al Vhelan?” Jinsen glanced to his side, noting that the flames had turned azure one more.



“She found me, Axos.” Jinsen replied. “Sometimes, I wonder if it was not fate that led her to me.”



“Perhaps.” Axos murmured. “Like all of our kind, she is certainly… unique.”



“You do not approve.” Jinsen noted drily.



“Your successor could have certainly been more acceptable, yes.” Axos folded two of his arms, and placed the tips of his fingers together for the others. The blue flames intensified, and Axos’ eyes narrowed. “...Ishna spoke of the potential of her blade. I will speak of the potential of her mind. She is crafty, Al Vhelan. Curious and cunning. She will learn much more from you than you ever intend to teach her.”



Jinsen only nodded. Yes, he certainly hoped so.



Without another word, Axos turned around and walked some distance away, before sitting cross-legged on the bronze floor. No doubt the San-Ku-Nin would commune with one another for several hours to come. He would take this opportunity to do as Kimberley was doing - eat, and then, rest.



Kimberley, understandably, was excited when he joined her at the table, and she talked steadily for the next half hour, asking him all sorts of questions about Ishna, Axos, and Rukshan. Eventually, however, the day caught up with her, and she curled onto the cushions. She was asleep within moments, peaceful, a small smile on her face and her katana next to her hand.



Jinsen smiled softly, and sat next to her. Today… Had been trying. Different. For now, it seemed it was over. He closed his eyes, and fell asleep to the sound of Kimberley’s breathing.



***


Kimberley was startled awake in the middle of the night by an emerald glow behind her eyelids. Her eyes opened slowly, and sleepily, and-



She was staring directly into the mask of Rukshan.



She let out a startled yelp, flailing sideways and onto her side as she scooted away quickly. The horned mask’s eyes followed her with interest. Rukshan had been crouched low, very low, with all eight limbs touching the floor like a spider. She looked around for Jinsen but - no, the table and the cushions and Jinsen, they were all gone. Oh, gods, what had happened while she slept?



Her hand bumped into something cool. Her katana. Her katana. She grabbed it and held on tightly, and it gave her courage.



“Wh-where is Jinsen?” She asked, and Rukshan’s mask turned slowly to one side, before snapping back into place. “What do you want?”



“A tiny bird trapped in a sootbound cage, tethered by hunger and fear and pain.” Rukshan muttered, dark and low. The mouth never moved, the teeth remaining clamped tightly shut. “But it reads the linings, learns the words, hears the stories. Is there not something more? Trapped, and the bird does not sing, bound by a larger Talon than her own.” Rukshan scuttled closer, and Kimberley flinched, but held her ground as well as she could while sitting down. “Hunger. Fear. Pain. Then, it ends in a flash of steel and a blooming Lotus. The cage sparks, breaks, and the bird is free. She looks for the stories, for the pictures that the words have made, and finds only hollow reflections of what her mind can make.”



“I don’t understand.” Kimberley whispered.



“No. You do not. Ishna is energy. Axos is knowledge. I am reality. Face me, little bird, for your stories alone cannot shield you. Hunger. Fear. Pain. The larger Talon chokes you still.”



“Why are you doing this?” She demanded, though it was quiet and desperate.



“Face me, little bird. I am here, I am now, I am…” And before her, Rukshan began to change, morphing, wreathed in green flame, he towered over her, and Kimberley bit back a scream of horror. “...The only one who loves you, starling. You could never get away from me.”



Before her stood her father, eyes aflame, grin mad and wide.



“No!” She shouted, leaping to her feet and bounding away. Her father chuckled. “You are dead! I saw you die!”



“No one can kill me, starling. I’m too strong, to smart. I told you this, whenever you asked silly questions.” And suddenly, Kimberley found herself believing him because, because she had never gone back. She had never checked, again! She had been free so why would she - Gods, was he here now? Was he-



“I saw you-”



“You saw nothing! Come here starling, come to papa, we’ve gotta keep you safe, keep you quiet…” And he took a step forward, reaching for her. Kimberley recoiled, and remembered the familiar weight in her hand. Her katana.



She shifted her hands on the blade, as she had seen Jinsen do so often. Right hand on the hilt, solid stance, left hand upon the sheath. Focus. Brow furrowed, she glared at the advancing form of her father, who had stopped.



“Come on now, starling, you’ll get in trouble…” He growled, that tone of anger that she remembered just a little too well, and her resolve nearly faltered, but… Her grip tightened on the blade.



“No. You are dead, and you need to stay dead.”



“You can’t be sure.” He chided, singsong.



“I am sure!” She shouted, and then took a deep breath. “I have no doubt.”



Her father cocked his head, then screamed, and lunged.



Kimberley shouted as well, and before she understood what she was doing, had drawn her blade, and thrust-



He impaled himself upon the tip of the Katana, eyes wide as he reached up to touch the blade in his chest. Kimberley’s arm shook with the force of the blow, and the weight of the blade.



“Do you hate me?” Her father whispered, and yes. Yes, she did. But she was done dwelling on it.



“You are dead.” She said quietly. “Stay that way.”



Suddenly, the weight on her blade was gone, and she fell forward slightly. Before her stood Rukshan once more, all six arms folded, face monstrous and inscrutable.



“Not a little bird, no. A bird of prey, who was caged. When set free, she does not return. Do not forget, little talon, but do not go back.”



Then, she woke up.



She sat up with a sharp intake of breath, and she felt Jinsen’s cool hand on her shoulder immediately. She was lying on the cushions, still, and… She glanced around, and saw the San-Ku-Nin, sitting far apart from them, glowing with the blue of Axos’ flame. A… dream. But it had been so vivid...



“Are you alright, Kimberley?” Jinsen asked, and… She thought about that question. She thought about it for a long moment as her breathing slowed.



“...Yeah.” She told him finally. “Yes. I feel fine. I feel… better.” Jinsen stared at her inscrutably, and then nodded.



“I am glad.” He said, and removed his hand from her shoulder. She lay back down on the cushions, staring at the star-strewn sky above them. Jinsen remained sitting beside her, and for a while, they said nothing. Kimberley idly placed her hand over her katana, and wondered if she would have to name it.



“Kimberley.” Jinsen broke the silence, and she glanced at him. His eyes were still closed. “I am proud of you.” She smiled, and looked back up at the stars once more.



“Thank you.” She said, closing her eyes. “I think I am too.” Jinsen hummed, and with that, Kimberley slipped asleep once more, convinced that when she awoke, the third Kata would be hers to master.



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