The battlefield is thick with smoke and ash, the heavy scent of death smeared across the air like thoughtless men had wiped it there and disregarded it with their dying breaths – rot, bile, acrid caustic something mingling with blood-soaked mud, seeping into the dirt.
Carrion birds feast on the lifeless corpses of the dead, tearing sinew from bone.
His stomach twists at how he envies them.
And here is his prize – a fallen general, a dirtied blade, caked over with the rusted gore of those he slaughtered.
What is he looking for out here? Retribution?
The corpses are silent. They do not help him, and he burns, they took everything from-
-there is a blade to his cheek, the sharp edge digging in hard enough to split skin, he can feel the blood dripping down his face, staining his scarf further.
What’s the matter, stray? Nothing left to lose?
He will not dignify that with a response. He reaches out and grips the looming, gray-haired stranger’s blade, hard enough to dig the sharp edge of the katana into his palm, spilling blood, locking eyes. He will not humor this man. If he’s going to cut him down, he better hurry up and goddamn do it already.
The man does not.
Instead, he stares him down in the Ashina sunset with big blinking eyes, still relaxed, like this is some kind of fucking game to him, like-
Well, would you look at that. Fascinating.
Will you join me, starving wolf?
-like he understands.
And he reaches into his robes, and pulls out a small ball of rice, wrapped in wax paper, and tosses it to him.
It tastes like the blood on his hands, of iron and metal. It is astoundingly delicious.
The coup was messy business for everyone, and what little patience his mother tries to foster in him is lost when plague rips through the village at breakneck pace. There is no meaning to it, no method to its contagion – the physicians were quickly overwhelmed trying to quarantine the infected.
There is no cure. There is barely sufficient supply to treat symptoms, what with the war effort.
He watches his mother cough blood for days, pieces of messy tissue, stained with a deep yellow, alone in a home with a woman gasping out her death rattle.
And then, nothing.
Why did he not die, with her?
Left alone, he resorts to crawling the still-blistering battlefields for scraps of salvage – food if he’s lucky, something to eat – to sell to anyone he can.
Ashina is bruised, beaten, poisoned.
A general finds him, coughing from hunger and smoke inhalation over the bloody mess of a man one day, heavy rain coming down in droves around the both of them, and he nearly cries as he’s dragged off by the back of his shirt.
His last words will be vindictive, then. Fuck you all. Diseased bastards. Look what you’ve done to Ashina.
Boy, didn’t your mother ever tell you the battlefield’s no place for a child?
My mother’s dead.
The general’s eyes soften, with a hint of something he’s seen in a couple men’s faces before, but can’t quite place – intrigue, perhaps?
You have a tenacity about you. What would you say to preserving Ashina instead?
I don’t want to be a soldier.
Not as just any common soldier, no, boy – but as family. There’s a passion in you for this land. We could use that.
Lightning flashes as the storm grows stronger, and he feels a building rage, how dare-
He tosses something at the boy – rice.
It tastes sweet, like home.
There is no food. The fires that came – they burnt everything: the fields, the trees, the farms, the people, she can still smell the flesh cooking, the ash on the air.
It makes her mouth water even as it sickens her.
A little farther ahead, just outside what was once the tree line, a hobbling mass of a creature slowly continues its trek. Hunched over, it grips the scabbed-over stump of its left shoulder, shrieking thick, low obscenities that she can’t quite make out.
Some wounded monkey that survived the flames.
If it’s wounded, she might kill it.
The thought crosses her mind briefly and she has to force it back down with disgust, because she knows the weeks of getting by on mere scraps at best have weakened her, and she’s not thinking rationally.
The monkey is probably hungry too. Best to continue following it and let it lead her to food.
A twig, brittle from the wildfires, breaks in two under her bare foot.
The monkey’s head whips around towards her at a speed she didn’t know was possible, and oh, he looks angry. For a moment, she can almost see the hatred burning in his eyes, can feel it in his glare, but after a breath it passes, and he just shakes his head and turns away.
She stares at him, indignant. She will not starve alone.
He has not killed her yet, and if he will, then at least it will be over.
Anything, anything, would be better than this ache in her belly, this painful burning-
The figure huffs, and then she realizes what he’s clutching
-he’s holding rice, a half-eaten ball of it, sticking to his dirty fingers, where did he even find it among the dead and the dying, a monkey, it has to be a miracle.
She holds out her hand, crying.
She has never wanted anything more in her life.
The orangutan, hard-eyed, softens and tosses her a piece.
It tastes like food, and she has never been so grateful for second chances.
The Divine Heir’s birth is a gritty and miraculous affair. His mother, exhausted by a complicated labor and war-depleted resources, bleeds out on the birthing bed. The boy cries and wails, and the midwife lays him at his mother’s breast for a moment, allowing him a goodbye.
She sits back up in a flurry of sakura petals and screams.
The news spreads rapidly, and the boy changes hands countless times before his first revolution around the sun.
What becomes of his father, Kuro never knows. He has heard of his mother, and has since released her from his pact. He prays she has found peace, and fears she has not.
He is seven when it happens.
The clashing of spears against armor. The air grows hazy around him, swirling with smoke and mist – the beams of the old temple he has taken shelter in have caught fire, and he knows he needs to run, but-
There are butterflies. A woman, he knows her, he cannot make out a face, there is too much smoke and there should not be so many moths – his lungs are heavy with panic-
-and she flies away, and he is alone and terrified, bawling in the burning temple, the moths eating away at him, he wants his mother, his uncle, his-
The illusion shattered, Wolf tells him to run, to do what must be done, to spare him the sight of bloodshed that he himself was never spared, so he curls up on the stairs, flinching at the sound of metal against metal, kunai sinking into soft flesh, Wolf’s pained noises, the Lady Butterfly’s manic laughter.
Eventually, the cut of a blade, and then the sounds fade to the slow crackle of a burning building and the blood pounding in his ears.
Glad you’re alive, boy.
He gasps, turning to his left to see a hulking, bloodied figure. The other Hirata shinobi, a heavily wounded Owl, limps towards him clutching a wound partway down his chest.
Are they still at it, in there?
He shakes his head. He’s scared to go see, scared what he might find.
Stay here. I’ll go see who won, and clean up after my son if need be.
Owl returns several moments later, the wound on his front freshly bloodied from the exertion, clutching his sword.
He’d have got her. Part of the temple collapsed on him, from the fire. Finished her off, just to be sure.
He gives Kuro a meaningful look – calculated, beady eyes glinting in the firelight – as he slumps back against the wood paneling of the hallway.
You’ve got one minute, boy, to say your goodbyes before he kicks it. Make them count.
The meaning is clear, Wolf is dying, dying for him, he didn’t want any of this, he doesn’t want to use his blood, but-
His head aches from the smoke and the illusions and something winding deep in his gut begins to understand why people kill for this, for what he can do, and the thought almost shocks him out of it altogether, but he can’t just throw what Wolf just did for him away like that.
He doesn’t want to be alone again.
He won’t know. He won’t tell him. Just once.
Loyal wolf, take my blood and live again.
He drags Wolf’s burnt, bloodied body up the stairs and through a broken window, all the way to the tree line by the river. Digging him out of the fire is tricky and painful to say the least, but it does not leave a tangible scar. He will survive. Wolf’s killed most of the bandits around the central building complex, and the thoughtfulness of that almost has him weeping, because he could have run, Wolf never once thought of himself.
He does not think of the Owl, and his matted, bloodied feathers, burning in the temple. He mutters a soft prayer to the gods, and hopes he finds his rest along with his uncle.
Wolf does not remember anything of the attack, once he recovers several hours later.
He hands Kuro a piece of jasmine candy, biting into a piece of the same, and tells him firmly to keep his head down while he scouts around to see who’s survived, still burnt and limping.
It is floral and sweet, but the flavor is lost in the sudden drain of color, a gray patch across the skin of Wolf’s face. He will pass it off as a burn for the next three years, none the wiser.
She does not remember what it was like to live among family on Mount Kongo.
She does, unfortunately, remember what it was like to live among friends.
She does not regret her friends, but the memories hurt, ache like the pain of the changes forced upon them, the clawing in her stomach and the crawling through her veins, the overwhelming gnawing of grief.
There was solidarity, in sharing their burdens with each other. Memories of home, of families now dead or worse, the fear of the unknown, the discomfort, the spasms, convulsions, were they the next to die?
They’d watched their friends fall victim to the parasites of the rejuvenating waters. Some were eaten alive by the brood, incapable of serving as hosts. Others, well, the monks simply got the balance incorrect.
And they suffered dearly for it.
Twitching piles of meat, if they were lucky. She tries not to think about the ones who were not.
She thinks of her parents. She thinks of the monks cutting them down, the way her father expelled blood the same way her body convulses, vomiting partially congealed eggs, when one hit him in the sternum.
She thinks of the true Divine Child they mention, and feels a visceral, burning rage.
Nothing is worth this.
The other children all die off, some rapidly, others lingering. The worst are those who survive the incubation along with her, but, well…
The monks take blood, periodically. One points to the small translucent granules within her own, rinsing it before her.
They gleam with an unnatural radiance.
Satisfied with their success, the monks cut open all the others, the ones whose blood is consistently empty, to examine where they went awry.
There is a feast that night. Her blood is harvested, spilled from her palms, then rinsed. The monks gather and eat from the palms of her hands as she weeps.
What is this?
It is like rice. A divine, life-giving rice. And you have become divine in your own right.
A divine child, of the rejuvenating waters.
She tries a piece. It tastes of salt, of blood. It is sickening.
And yet, with each bite, with each cry of joy from the monks, each tear, she cannot help but smile.
She is alive. She will live, for all of them. They cannot kill her now, for rice is precious.