The Gauntlet (MtA Seeking, Minamoto)

Featured Characters: Minamoto Kiyoshi.
From the Perspective of: The Storyteller.


The face of Zen Dogen appears before Kiyoshi, looking grave yet somehow invigorated - a twinkle of dull light flashes in the calm serenity of his eyes, and he lifts his arm to beckon the monk from his place of physical study, pulling the air toward himself with a gentle sweeping motion. "I have something to show you," Dogen says, his mouth unmoving - the words pierce directly into the mind, avoiding such mundane necessities as speech to convey his meaning. The monastery fades into darkness, falling in a listless swirl to leave only the darkness of perceived space; distant stars and purple nebulas turn slowly around the pair of figures, monk and Dogen. When Dogen moves he steps sideways, revealing a small basin of water supported upon a solid oak pillar. Water fills the basin. "Look inside."

As the man appears, a smile forms on the monk's face, and then he bows respectfully to him. When beckoned, the monk follows without a thought. As the darkness appears, the monk just looks around until he is shown the basin. The monk carefully positions himself to be able to peer inside. He has taken his arms and placed them inside of the sleeves of his robes. Each hand holds the other's forearm.

The sensation of something within him - around the height of his sternum - pulls the monk's body firmly as though down into the shallow pool of water. He feels the rush of crisp water on his face that swiftly changes, losing the sensation of wetness for a dry version of the same chill. The blackness around him takes a different form as the feeling of being pulled begins to retreat; crystals of snow fall against his face, and as if from the sky an endless landscape snow-blanketed hills tumbles down around him. Underfoot the thick layer of icy white dust is untouched beyond where his feet currently disturb; the snow is pure and fresh. Great cherry trees are in full bloom despite the cold, their pink blossoms kissed by ice; their shadows loom dully, cast by the subtle light of the iron gray sky. To the distant south is the faint sound of the sea, lapping rhythmic against the yet unseen shoreline. The only other disturbance in the serene snowy landscape is a small cavern opening, visible upon the side of one of the larger hills. Icicles hang down, jutting dangerously sharp over the untraveled entrance. The monk's ears catch the distant sound of quick pattering footsteps, crunching through the snow.

The monk seems to struggle a bit as the pull of the water surrounds him, only a natural reaction though. As the scene of the snow comes forth, the monk wipes at his face to make sure there is nothing there. Be it damp or dry. He glances about the scene, his eyes stopping momentarily on the cave, until the steady crunch of the snow is noticed. He then turns to face the sound. The snow crunches under his feet as he turns.

Through the snow-dusted cherry trees runs a small child dressed in little but a coarse tunic and a pair of sandals. His stark black hair hangs long over his shoulders and his eyes are almost closed, shielding from the falling snowflakes. He rushes past the monk without seeming to see him, his breath creating hot puffs of condensation in the air. His footsteps immediately stop once he has passed by the monk, and should the monk turn around he is faced with a tall, beautiful woman with long black hair and red lips; her inhumanly pale skin makes her blend into the snowy landscape, and she is dressed in an ethereal white kimono. Only her face stands out against the snow. The child is climbing up into her waiting arms, which move to enclose him protectively. The woman - no doubt known to Kiyoshi from his childhood as the Yuki-onna - gazes coldly at the monk, her red lips parted and emitting no steam of breath. "Why have you come here?" she asks the monk, her voice multilayered, each layer a sweet, reverberating hum. The voice of Dogen emanates into the monk's mind, urging him to answer yet not providing what the answer ought be; his will implies that the answer is one only the monk can know.

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The monk turns watching the child as it runs past. Once noticing the child is protected from the cold he looks to the woman with a deep respectful bow to the pair, "I seek enlightenment. I seek to follow the steps of Buddha, and learn to respect all forms of life. To further understand the strength of my own will." The monk stands as still as possible given the snowy landscape, and him in a robe built more for the climate of Louisiana. His face holds a serene truth to his words.

The child coils against the spirit's body, burying his face in the white swathe of her clothing. Though nothing changes about the yuki-onna's coldly beautiful face, a sense of satisfaction grows to replace stilled malevolence. "Answer me these riddles three," her humming voice echoes, causing the leaves and little pink flowers on the nearby trees to tremble and loose the snow clinging to them. "Or linger here forevermore, a statue of flesh become ice." The red rosebud of her mouth puckers and exhales a thin breath of wind and snow, a breeze which moves to caress the side of the monk's neck and forces goosepimples to rise in his body's effort to protect him from the cold. Her dark almond-shaped eyes fall upon his face and stare without blinking; snowflakes drift inside and she doesn't seem to notice.

As the cold breath hits the monk's skin, he shivers but quickly tries to hold them back. The monk nods once showing that he is willing to accept the spirit's challenge. "Three riddles I will answer thee."

A generous, beautiful smile spreads across the spirit's red mouth, showing straight white teeth that would be perfect were they not pointed as a sharks. "Gold lies deep in the earth, yet its light shines bright in the sky." Deep inside her chest comes the sound of a faint hum. As her body sways gently from side to side the child's eyes close, apparently in sleep. "What does it mean?"

The monk cocks his head in deep thought. His eyes drop to the snow behind the woman. He stands there motionless for a moment before looking back to her. "Gold lies deep in the earth, yet its light shines bring in the sky." Again he falls silent in deep thought. "This is familiar to me, gold represents good deeds. The earth represents the fact that they may be hidden from others. And the sky represents something that benefits every living thing."

Under the monk's feet a few inches dissolve and melt from the source of a sudden heat; the moment he voices his response the spirit this occurs, and the warmth spreads up through his legs to his body. Though it does not fully dispel the chill, it is a welcome sensation of comfort in a place of unease. The spirit's throat makes a low-pitched noise of displeasure, and she moves into the next riddle without pause, her voice quicker and malicious. "If sand is poured in the donkey's ear, he will shake it out. If gold is poured into the donkey's ear, he will shake it out." From her lofty height she leans over the monk, unsmiling now. Her breath is like ice as she hisses, "What does it mean?"

The monk seems to bask in the warmth. The monk smiles broadly, "The ignorant cannot tell the difference between what is wholesome and unwholesome." The monk's demeanor has now shifted to more of a happiness then before. His face still holding the serene glare.

The sound of dripping water like the pattering of rain is heard from all around as the ice crusting the cherry trees begin to melt. The air itself feels warmer now, though as long as the yuki-anno remains so does the ultimate cold. The growl in her throat transforms into a piercing, shrilling cry; the sound alone makes the monk feel colder, despite the gradual rise in temperature. The child stirs slightly in her arms, yet does not awaken. For a moment she looks as though she might leap upon the monk; her slim body tightens with tension, ready to pounce. Instead she blurts out, "No suffering is self-caused. Nothing causes itself. If another is not self-made, how could suffering be caused by another?" Her red mouth spreads into an ape-like grimace of a smile. "Tell me, monk, what does it mean?"

The monk seems to go into thought once again, his eyes falling to the wet ground. He then shifts slightly on his feet as he then looks to the spirit, "It couldn't be caused to begin with. Things just happen for no conceivable reason."

The sun pierces through the slate grey sky, slowly melting the clouds. The snowy ground defrosts rapidly, leaving deep puddles at the valleys between the shallow hillsides. The snow witch whirls around, her white kimono whipping about her until all there appears to be is the rush of pale fabric; the swirling silk erupts into a quick cloud of chilled mist. The mist falls over the monk, cooling his skin - which is a rise in temperature considering the frigid feelings which came before it. He finds his feet secured upon moist grass. The low chirp of cicadas hums from the surrounding hills. It is now midday, and the sun is at the height of the sky. The monk feels the presence of Dogen lingering in the back of his mind, speaking a few calm words of support: "There is more to know, here." The distant sound of the sea still laps against the shore, and the cavern with it's black and looming, malevolent-seeming mouth is the same distance away. "Choose a direction."

The monk looks to the sea, and then to the cavern. He looks between the two for a short time before heading into the direction of the cave. Through his wordless thoughts, "The path with the most resistance, is the path to true enlightenment." He continues on towards the mouth of the cavern.

Through the cavern mouth lies a deep chamber down a flight of stone steps. At the deepest, darkest recess the chamber opens wide, home to a rock upon which a single knife lies. Coiled upon the floor in the lone beam of light which penetrates the rock ceiling through an eroding crack is a human-like figure with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, a long, thin neck and an enormously distended pot belly. His arms are snaked around his body and he rocks, back and forth, back and forth, muttering words through a dry, cracked throat.

Upon seeing the distorted figure, the monk stops. His arms still within the robes. He watches as the figure rocks muttering to itself. The monk's arm jut out from his body as he tries to read the thoughts of the being.

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"Want, want, want, want, want…" is the only thought which runs through the human-like being's mind, repeating itself with desperation and a ravenous hunger. Dogen speaks from his omnipresent hiding place within the monk's mind: "Do you recognize him?" His tone, though calmed, suggests that he should.

The monk's focus still upon the mind of the being, the monk simply shakes his head a couple times. His eyes fixated on the being.

With time enough gone by the creature rolls, emitting pained gurgles as his enormous belly growls. He rises to his feet and stalks around the cavern, his long, narrow limbs jerking through his movements. He notices the monk in the darkness at once, his bloodshot eyes piercing through the lack of light to find him simply because he is there. An emotion like joy erupts within his mind, evident to the monk observing him, yet no thoughts are attainable, if they exist at all. He jerks his body toward the monk, slathering his tongue across his lips. When he speaks his mind works in tandem - there is no thought deeper than the words themselves. "You… kind brother… kind, kind little brother…" Dogen is silent in the monk's mind, but there is absolutely no suggestion that this thing is indeed somehow the monk's brother. "We need food. Special food." His bony hands reach for the monk as if to grab his shoulders.

The monk cocks his head ever so slightly, almost as if he is in disbelief to what this could possibly be. His hands drop from under the robes as the hands reach out for his shoulder. A look of wonder across the monk's face.

The cavern mouth to the monk's back crashes closed, cutting off the only real source of light and leaving the lone crack in the ceiling to provide it's lonesome beam. The musty odor of the underground space is stifling now that the entrance - and exit - is blocked, and the sickly-sweet reek of rot becomes evident as well. "Food food food food food food food!" the creature demands, it's voice hoarse and shrill. The monk sees a vision blooming before the man-creature's mind: the dead bodies of humans being eaten through his impossibly small mouth, trying to sate a neverending hunger. The monk realizes through the creature's feelings and wordless thoughts that he can eat /only/ that. The ravenous thing shuffles for the rock where the knife sits and, victoriously, plucks it up in his fingertips. He then walks over to the monk and holds it toward him. The beam of light from the ceiling is soon accompanied by a second - the rock splits of its own accord, and the slanted glow falls upon three familiar faces; acquaintances, if not friends. A tall mohawked head stands out starkly against the dark rock backdrop, belonging to a sleeping Sirus; a pretty, pale face surrounded by a halo of champagne blonde hair lies beside him, a small smile on her lips as she peacefully slumbers. Beside her is a lesser acquaintance, yet still a face that is familiar: Deacon, the computer-whiz, slouched backward against the cave wall and utterly asleep. All are unclothed, innocent and sexless. "You have to choose, or make another choice. You cannot harm the gaki," Dogen murmurs into the monk's mind.

The monk quickly moves towards the sleeping group. He then closes his eyes for but a second, seeming to attempt to center himself. "I understand his hunger," the monk thinks to himself, but also to Dogen. Once more, he closes his eyes, this time for a bit longer. The monk then tries to prob through the mind of the beast again, but this time leaving thoughts. "I choose myself." Bending down to raise the pant leg of the robes he then implants another thought, "Give me the blade, I will feed you from myself." With that, the monk gives the beast the image of it handing the blade to the monk, the monk taking it, and cutting at the flesh of his leg and giving it to the beast.

The human-like creature takes the flesh and, bit by bit, devours it through the small hole of his mouth, straining in agony to eat quickly while the size of his throat prevents it. The sleeping figures on the ground one by one awaken, and when their eyes open they dissolve into nothingness, leaving the monk alone in the dark with the hungry thing. The human-beast whimpers softly to himself, unable to comprehend the idea of gratitude. He returns to the place he had been lying when the monk first descended the steps and coils himself into the corner, chewing and gnawing gently on the remainder of the monk's flesh. A sudden pour of light falls into the cavern chamber, accompanied by a salty rush of fresh sea air. The door is open.

The monk closes his eyes for but a moment to focus away the wound he has caused himself. Once completed, he stands moving towards the opening. "Good bye beast," the monk puts into it's head as he stops just before the opening, "Enjoy the one joy you have left," he completes the thought as he fully exits the chamber.

As the monk steps into the sunlight the cavern behind him crumbles and shudders, collapsing gently to enclose the miserable, starving creature. The hills are warm and the breeze fresh, carrying with it the faint odor of fish. "He was you, Kiyoshi Minamoto," Dogen murmurs calmly into the monk's conscious mind, "You, consumed by greed and overcome by selfishness." A few pebbles shoot up from the cavern as it collapses completely, making not a sound to mark that the hungry thing had ever lived. "We cannot act on our own behalf, or rebirth will find us gaki." There is an intone of appreciation for the monk's behavior in the cavern; clearly, he denied any negative expectations with aplomb. "There is more for you to find, here."

The monk looks to the crashing waves just out of sight. Knowing this is the path to take. He then speaks wordlessly to Dogen, "Not just me, but all who fall down that path. We must still show mercy to them, be it give a piece of our flesh, or end it's existence. Both paths for a beast like that is mercy." He continues on towards the beach.

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The shoreline is shaped like a horseshoe, more of a bay than a simple stretch of coast. It is now sundown, and the burning orange sun is sinking slowly behind waters that catch and reflect it's color in animate greens and blues. Ten market stalls lie upon the beach in a precarious place - where the water would be if the tide were up. Quiet men with solemn, good faces work at the stalls, chopping the heads from wriggling fish and using quick and skilled hands to prepare the flesh for sale. Where customers could possibly come from is anyone's best guess. Waiting for the monk upon a flat rock cuddled with seaweed is a young girl of about seven or eight years old. From the belly up she is a normal little japanese girl, but when he approaches she rises, making her fish-like lower body apparent. With mobility more like a snake with airy fins at the end of the tail, she is capable of movement without legs. Her body slithers toward the monk and, with a sad smile, takes his hand in her tiny warm one. "My father is trapped!" she whispers to him, her little hand squeezing urgently. "The fishermen caught him in their nets, and he cannot transform on land. They will cut off his head and never know what they have done, and they cannot speak nor hear!" She tries to tug him toward the market without force or strength as salty tears rise to moisten her large brown eyes.

The monk nods to the girl and then look out over the men chopping at the fish. The monk sends out a mental alert, to bring the attentions of them to the monk. He just sends out, "Wait!" and then watches to see what happens.

The eyes of the fishermen briefly rise, looking mechanically about themselves. Without further pause they go back to their work, picking fish from the vast nets of hundreds before chopping and slicing into sellable proportions. The little girl had turned her head to watch raptly, and looks more worried when the workers don't seem to understand the warning. "We have to find him."

The monk takes a deep breath, closing his eyes, and then releasing the grip of the girl. After a moment, his arms jut out and his eyes open again. The hands then come into his chest, right hand above the left. With this motion, he scans the fish for a pattern above the ordinary of the other fish.

Life/Prime scan results: Buried deep in the nets of fish is a pattern infinitely more complex and chaotic than the others. It's body wriggles wildly and its gills gape, straining for water. The little girl shifts upon her fish-like lower body, staring with large eyes from the monk to the market stalls. Her anxiety is tangible.

Once noticing the pattern, he runs towards the source of it. "I think I have found him. Wait for me." Searching and scanning as needed to find the specific one. He seems hurried, but not too hurried. Just enough to move each fish out of the way without any harm to them.

The particular fish is located after eleven seconds of pushing through the others, made difficult by the way the creatures move continuously, never ceasing to struggle as long as they still live. It looks no different than the others without the monk's special examination, and it wriggles in his grip.

The monk projects a peaceful thought to the fish, "Remain calm, your daughter has sent me to help you." The monk then looks to the edge of the nets and where they lay.

The fish, despite it's intricate pattern, appears to be just a fish in its current form, and its body cannot prevent itself from straining. It's round eyes dart to and fro and its gills gape painfully. Slowly but surely, the fish is suffocating. None of the fisherman seem aware of the monk's presence at this point in time - they continue to work.

The monk submerses the fish in the closest bit of water he can find away from the nets. Once the fish is submerged, he holds his hands just enough the fish does not sink to the bottom, but just under the surface to rebuild its strength so it can swim free.

The little girl slithers rapidly toward the shoreline and stands by the monk's side, looking down into the water, waiting and chewing on her bottom lip. The fish floats upon its side for a little while, supported under the surface of the sea by the monk's gentle hands. When a full minute has passed the small fish elongates swiftly, it's body shooting out not just in length but in girth as well. The monk is no longer able to keep his hands around it within a matter of seconds. Rising high over the water with a height four times as tall as the monk and towering over his daughter, the fish becomes a vast dragon, scales of brilliant blue and green shining in the last rays of sunset. Long bristled whiskers twitch as its head turns to look at the monk, and he leans down to butt the little girl upon the hand with his vast nose. She giggles and sings as the dragon turns, descending down into the sea. The last of him disappears into the water far away, suggesting that his size continued to grow as he departed.

The monk smiles broadly as he watches the pair swim off into the distance. He returns his wet hands into the sleeves of his robes. Each hand grabbing the other's forearm. Once they have went far below the surface that would be able to see, his eyes fall upon the setting sun.

The sun sinks completely beyond the horizon, leaving the shore in darkness. The little girl turns to look at the monk, taking both of his hands and facing him with her chin tilted up so she can meet his eyes. "How are the battles better won, Kiyoshi?" she asks in her small, childish voice.

The monk looks down to the girl with a broad smile, "Through sheer will and determination." The monk reaches over and gives the girl's shoulder a good assuring squeeze. "The will is the strongest weapon anyone can wield."

The girl smiles and pokes out her small, pink tongue; on the center is a single white pearl, which she reaches for and plucks into her fingertips. She presses the pearl into the monk's hand, and says, "Of Wisdom," nodding to the pearl and then to his mouth. The fishermen have begun to pack up and abandon their stalls for the night, and a comfortable, crisp ocean chill is in the air. The girl turns and slithers into the water, gone in moments, leaving the monk alone on the sand. Dogen's figure appears on the path, walking toward the monk. He stands before him with his arms buried in their opposite sleeves.

With the pearl still in hand the monk looks to Dogen with a broad smile. As he gets closer, the monk gives a deep respectful bow. He then looks to the small pearl in his hand examining it.

"Digest it," Dogen advises, nodding his head.

With one motion, the monk tilts his head back and drops the pearl into his mouth. He swallows hard to get the pearl down.

As soon as the pearl touches the monk's tongue it begins to dissolve; his mind erupts, exploding white and powerful energy that shocks his limbs and makes his hair stand on end. The universe opens before his eyes, and he and Dogen are floating in the great abyss of empty space once more. The sensation does not leave the monk, electrified further when Dogen reaches to grasp his shoulder, saying nothing. Then Dogen, too, dissolves. The blackness of space turns around the monk, dizzying and invigorating. A vision of a slim, young Buddha sits upon a flat rock surrounded by young men, their heads shaved and bodies limber. One of the boys asks of Buddha, "Are you the messiah?" to which he answers: "No." "Then are you a healer?" "No." Buddha replies. "Then what are you?" the student asks, exasperated. There is a pause, and Buddhia replies, "I am awake."

The monk finds himself seated in his monastery, body tingling with primal energy, a new force pulsing through his veins. Dogen's figure is seen slipping through the doors, gone.