Thirty: Its a very long ways to the School of the Southern Winds, on foot, up a mountain. Get Da’s book of maps he keeps for the caravan to Eto and find one of the area to take with me.

“Chiro? Are you listening? You were gazing off into space. For the third time. In an hour,” Tram grumbled. “You’re supposed to help me organize the inventory.”

“Sorry. Distracted. What was that, Tram?”

xxxx

Thirty three: I’m gonna need food and water and clothes. Blanket. I’ll have to leave a lot of my stuff behind… I can’t carry it all. Maybe only a few books. I can take the blanket from my bed and roll it up. Something warm to wear? Is it colder up there? Maybe bread? Will that go hard? It’ll be a few days… a compass, I definitely need one of those. Da has one on the table with- here!

It was the dead of night, and Chiro sat in her father’s study, making a painstaking copy of a page in a book with one ear pricked for movement (everyone SHOULD be asleep, but there was always a chance). Rummaging around in a drawer yielded results. She slipped that into her pocket. I’ll put it with the rest when I get to my room. Ten days past seeing the monks, the loose floorboard under her bed had accumulated a steady trickle of items she would need for her trip.

xxxx

Forty. I… need to write a note. I can’t just leave with NO warning, even if they don’t believe me. They’re still Mum and Da. I hope- I hope they aren’t too mad. Or sad. I don’t want them to cry or be unhappy. But I have to do this. I have to, to be a monk. If they won’t help me, then I have to do it on my own, and I will.

This would be the hardest part. Paper and ink sat before her, but what to say?

“Gods,” Chiro muttered, and yawned. She was tired. This was exhausting. But if she went off half-cocked again- no. Better to do it right and thorough, no matter what.

With a deep breath, she started to write.

Dear Mum and Da….

xxxx

Eleven days after her life changed, Chiro cinched her blanket onto the backpack. The burrow was quiet; dawn was hours away. Putting a note that she wasn’t feeling well and locking her door while squeezing out the skylight window would buy her time to get away before people started looking for her.

Three days. Maybe four, if I have to go slow. I an do that. I have the map, the compass, the sun, food, water, my blanket, spare clothes, a sweater and scarf if it gets cold, all the rest…

Definitely NOT crying a little, she placed the folded letter onto her desk. It didn’t say where she was going, because then they’d go up there and drag her back, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances.

It still hurt. It still hurt a surprising amount. For a moment, she quavered.

Would it be so bad, to be just… a Jerbani ratfolk? Did she really need this?

Yes, something in her said, into the quiet where her soul was.

Chiro shouldered her bag, clambered onto her chair, opened the skylight, and heaved herself over the edge. To her left, the living room skylight still glowed with the warm cheer of a banked fire, promising safety and security and the love of her family. To the right, the mountain loomed, a great black jagged tooth of the unknown against the starry sky.

She turned away from her home, and slipped out, into the night.

xxxx

The first thing she learned was that dawn on the mountains was breathtaking. The second thing was that she should have worn extra socks.

It was a long climb, for someone barely past a foot tall. Not exactly difficult, per se; the road up the mountain wasn’t exactly well traveled, but there were no washouts, and the potholes weren’t that deep, easily skirted. It was, however, a little steeper than she thought, and given that she was still sore in places (her ear was particularly slow to heal) it hurt a bit.

Alpine flora blocked the village from view, now, as the road turned to more of a path and edged upwards.The trees were green and scraggy, but got fuller and greener as she went further, fueled by snowmelt. Then they stopped at the line where the whitecapped top began. Curiously she sniffed one tree and smiled- they didn’t have pines in the foothills, but the smell invigorated her. She broke off a small branch and then dropped it as something got all gummy in her fur. “Ack! Gross!”

Chiro broke out her food (the same stuff the caravan ate on the way to Eto, with an extra half wheel of hard cheese, because she did like cheese) around noon, and her scarf as the sun began to dip. Nobody was coming up the path behind her; she’d hear them long before they did, which spoke well for her escape.

A twinge of guilt panged her. She tried to ignore it.

A short while later, Chiro saw a spot off the side of the road that made her stop. The roots of a bit old pine had created a little hollow, shielded from the weather and almost from view of the road as well. “Looks like a good place to stop,” she said to herself. Out came the blanket and food. She contemplated a fire; there was already a nip in the air. But there wasn’t a lot of wood around, only the green stuff from the trees. So she ate cold and wrapped herself in the blanket, using her backpack as a little pillow.

She slept like dead and woke very sore. Her mood darkened when she realized there would be no nice hot baths here until she reached the school. Muttering, Chiro ate a cold breakfast and tried to psyche herself up for the day’s walk. The sunrise was glorious again, though, and obliterated her complaints. It was worth sore feet and stiff muscles to see the mountains painted in gold and pink dawn, with the stars still out and clouds casting angel rays along her path.

The mountains got harsher as she went up, but they also acquired a strange beauty to them, too, one she had never seen before. Ratfolk were industrious: if you weren’t doing something, chances are you ought to be, unless it was mealtime or after the day’s work was finished. But- there’s a beauty in the quiet places, and I never saw it before. Too busy moving and doing to really look.

Her breath came in cloudy puffs, and she added the scarf immediately when she changed clothes, shivering. Then she was off again.

You know, I thought I’d be bored out of my mind on the way up here, but I’m not, really. It’s… peaceful, but interesting, not boring at all. Sort of harsh but also very pretty. Oh look, an eagle!

She ducked under a tree, just in case; eagles could and would make off with kits if they were unguarded out in the open. But it lazily circled her position and flew off into the distance, screaming its reign over the skies.

At lunch, she debated on eating the rest of the cheese (nobody was there to tell her she couldn’t, after all!) and regretfully decided to only eat half. Walking was hungrier work than she thought.

She wasn’t as lucky with her choice of shelter the second night. Higher now, it was actually pretty cold, and the wind blew through her blanket, leaving her to shiver. Eventually she put on all three sets of clothes she brought, including socks, and moved behind a bush, which helped a little. Still, sleep didn’t come easily, and she woke cold.

Moving will get me warm. Brrr. It ought to be better in the afternoon, right?

She ate ravenously for breakfast, and, to her horror, spilled her bag of dried fruit into the dirt. So much for lunch. Oh well… I’ll just have to make it to the School as soon as I can. I bet they have really good food there.

She also discovered that, as she slept, no less than four blisters formed on her small feet.

Lovely. It’s a good thing I brought extra socks.. ow, ow, ow. Ow! Crap. Ow. Ok. I can still make it before dark. Just gonna… walk gentle. If I was home I would have bandages, but I’m not, and I didn’t think to bring any. I’ll do better next time.

Very slowly, and a little painfully, she set off again, wearing two shirts and pants and all her socks and the scarf. She did warm up a little, which was a blessing. This morning dawned with a light mist; if it was colder, there would have been frost on the ground. As it was, it just made things a little wet and slippery, though it added an ethereal quality to the road as it shrouded her and her path in a silvery cloak.

I wonder what they’re like, the monks. I wonder what he’s like. The Old Man. I never even got his name, cause I’m dumb, though I was a little distracted at the time… Surely he’ll take me, right? He had a dwarf. And anything anyone else can do I will learn to do. Will I learn to fight right away or will I need to do other stuff first? How does punching the ground make a rock wall?

…I hope Mum’s okay. And Da. And everyone.

But I can’t waste time worrying about that. They’ll be ok without me and I will visit after I’ve learned to monk well enough to impress them.

However, her feet hindered her progress. By afternoon she felt like she had fallen behind, and she had no more food, either. If she had to spend another night outdoors in the cold- well, it wouldn’t kill her, but it would be very uncomfortable.

A clattering behind her sudden drew her from her thoughts. Chiro looked to the side and bolted for cover behind a big juniper tree, peeking through the branches.

Is that-?

No, not from Burrowtown. Looks like one of the rare carts that goes up to the school straight from Eto. I remember Da saying something about imports from really far away? Maybe that’s what this is.

Drawn by oxen, the cart had a man in a large floppy hat and common clothes sitting in the front, and a covered area with boxes and supplies and things in the back. Then her eyes widened.

If I can sneak onboard, I won’t have to walk the rest of the way!

That did it. Chiro waited for it to almost pass her by, then bolted despite her blisters and leaped for the back of the wagon. She barely made it, grabbing on by her fingers and hauling herself up and over the edge painfully, before she collapsed, wheezing and grinning.

Ha! With this, I’ll be there before dark! I am super smart- ouch! …This wagon is jouncy. But! Beats walking by myself. Now, I’ll just… ah ha! This box is half full. Gonna open- mmmf- the lid- and slip inside.

She did, and almost yelped when the lid shut on her long tail before she muffled herself. Stupid box… What’s that smell? Leaves? It smells nice. Is this a big box of tea? I think so! Not any tea I’ve ever had. I wonder what it tastes like. Maybe I can ask for some later.

…Mmm. Soft, too.

The rocking motion of the cart eased a little from jarring to almost soothing, and Chiro, as tired as she was, drifted off to sleep in the box of tea.

The kit woke when another box shifted position and fell on top of hers with a loud clatter. For a moment, she was confused- then she remembered. Oh right! the wagon, cause I am a genius. We must be almost there! Have we stopped? I can hear voices…

“-glad to see you, Mr. Melaku! We’re getting low on tea!” A young boy’s voice, a little joking, but sincere.

“Ah, well, always happy to help you lot, Saito. Good business, good business, easy drive once I get into the mountains. Is Master Gouken around?” That sounded like the driver, polite but curious. “Need him t’ sign me invoice.”

“I’ll go find him. I think he’s with the senior students at the moment. Please, wait here.” A noise, like bare feet running off. Chiro stretched and tried to stand.

And promptly banged her head as the lid refused to open.

Oh, no! The box fell on top of the crate! I’m stuck! Crap, crap, crap. Okay. Just- just be cool. They’ll bring this stuff into the Temple and I’ll get out then and explain. Yeah. It’s okay.

Chiro swallowed against her sudden nerves and pressed an ear to the cracks in the box, listening. There was a faint sound like a gong ringing in the distance, cries of birds in the air, and the faint howl of wind as it swept though the buildings. Very faintly, she could hear distant, rhythmic KAI!s ringing out.

I wish I could SEE!

“Mr. Melaku,” said a deep voice, and Chiro started because she hadn’t heard his footsteps at all approaching, but she knew that voice. The Old Man! He’s here!

“Master Gouken. Good t’ see ye again. Got yer delivery, right on schedule. Need help unloading? An’ I’ll be needin’ your signature, as well.” Faint scratching noises, then a crackle of parchment.

Master Gouken. The old man is Master Gouken.

“No need. I brought some volunteers. Thank you, Mr. Melaku.” Now Chiro heard more feet, at least three, and felt the cart shift. Peeking though the crack, she could see the edge of someone’s robe. Students?

“Very well then. I’ll just go get me ox some water, before we turn ’round.” Mr. Melaku’s steps were not silent, and Chiro could hear him move away as someone grabbed the boxes in front of her.

Suddenly, she had reservations. Explaining to one person she could do, but four or five… what if they were mad?

Surely not. It’s just tea. Right?

And I did not come all this way to just- just give up, either- whoa!

Someone grabbed her box and lifted. Chiro almost fell over, and barely stopped herself from yelping.

“Heavy one,” her bearer muttered, and set her down, presumably on the ground. “Master, this one is marked for you.”

What?

“Ah, good.” Now the voice was tinged with pleasure. “Let me check it, to see if it survived the journey south unscathed.”

Oh no-!

Chiro only had a moment of pure horror before the lid creaked open, and there was Master Gouken, staring at her in surprise. She did the only thing she could think of.

She bolted to her feet and looked up at him and said, “My name is Chiro! Please teach me to be a monk!”

Master Gouken and the others gave pause for only a moment, but it felt like an eternity. With his right eye suddenly going wide and a very deep and somewhat confused “HMMM?!” he sat his ruined tea box down gently.

Chiro swallowed and scrambled out of the box to stand on her own two feet. The temple was all around her but she only spared it a glance before she looked up, very far up, and said, in a voice that quavered only a little, “My- my name is Chiro. I want to be trained as a monk! …Please.”

Saito went to say something but was swiftly stopped with Goukens massive hand in front of his face. “Saito, finish unloading the cart. I will have words with this… Chiro.” With a quiet nod, Saito grabbed three boxes and hurried off back inside. Gouken looked over the young ratfolk and then asked. “Can you walk?”

“Yep!” There was no way she would admit that her feet hurt. “Just a few blisters.” Keeping her limp determinedly small, she follows behind him, taking three steps for every one of his.

With a nod, Gouken helped the youngster out of the cart and over to the nearby well. “Have a seat.” With a fluid motion, Gouken sat down and pat the seat next to him. “You must be one of the young ones from Burrotown, correct?”

Chiro sat with a little sigh of relief. She tucked her tail around her politely as she did. “Yessir- Master Gouken,” she corrected. “I, I’m, I don’t know if you remember, but I was in the cave, when you were fighting the lizards- basilisks.”

“I am not your master, young Chiro.” Looking down at the youngster, Gouken saw his words might have done more harm than good. “But for now, sir will suffice. I do remember saving a child there, but it was quite dark. I am glad to see you in better spirits.”

Chiro’s ears flattened a little at the words, but perked up hopefully when he said he remembered. “I am! My cuts’re almost all healed, even the one on my ear. It was real dark, and you even had your eyes closed most of the time you were fighting and it was just-” She cut herself off before she could ramble. “…Anyways. I’d like to be a monk, please.”

Trying to coax more information out of the youngster, Gouken looked hard at her. “Tell me then, what is a monk to you?”

Chiro straightened. “Monks are people who usually train to fight with their hands and feet and stuff as well as with other weapons,” she said, as if reciting something, “and I guess make rock walls and stuff too? They live in temples and monasteries and train most of their whole lives, and they usually follow Irori, who was a monk that achieved perfection and became a god. …I think,” she added, cause that part was a little vague. “And they have a whole bunch of rules they follow, but I couldn’t… actually find what they were. Um.” Now that she thought about it, despite the reading she’d done, she didn’t really know a whole lot beyond the very bare basics. There wasn’t a lot of information out there; most of what she had was inferenced from hearing her own clan talk about the school as well as what little bits she gleaned from books.

Master Gouken nodded as he listened. Eventually he stood up and moved in front of Chiro. “Your words ring partially true. We do train body, mind, and spirit to be the best we can. It is a monks goal to seek out personal perfection… To be the best you possible. This is not a goal or a task. It is your life. You strive every day to be a little better. Though we do fight, it is NEVER our first option. If you are forced to fight, then fight. But never seek one out.”

Chiro listened, her big green eyes intent on these words. This is not a goal or a task. It is your life.

Like rocks tossed into a still pond, they left ripples in her soul. It’s a forever commitment.

“Like you came to help, but you don’t- it’s not like city guards, who always look for trouble, Da says.”

Gouken silently sighed. “That is an agreement the previous master made with your village’s previous elder. We work together so that we can both thrive. It is quite difficult to live in these mountains.”

Chiro nodded. “It works out really well for everyone! Or, at least, we think so, anyways. Are- that was the one before you, right?” She was talking to the right guy, right?

Gouken again nodded. “It does work. But, I must know. Do your parents know you are here?”

Chiro- froze. Only briefly, she considered lying… and then slumped. “…Well, they- they know I’m… somewhere,” she mumbled. “I… I tried to- to talk to them, but they s-said they, they said I- I was too small, and that ratfolk don’t live long enough to learn it properly, and they… so, um. I just, I just did this by myself. I made lists, I outlined my reasons like Mum does, but they didn’t listen. So- um. No. Not… really.”

Gouken rubbed the top of his head and he stood up from his crouch. “Then we have no choice. We are going back to Burrowtown. I fear that this could stifle our agreement.”

Chiro did groan. “No! You- please? They’ll never let me come back! I’ll never be a monk if you bring me back!” She stood on the stone bench, imploring.

Gouken looked sternly and held his hand out as he did to Saito. “Enough! I will not shame my fathers work for one persons desires! If you do not return to Burrowtown with me, than their is no place here for you either. I will speak to your parents on your behalf, but I promise nothing.”

Her ears flattened again at that. Chiro swallowed her sigh. “Yessir. I- I understand.” She was so screwed. But- “That’s- that’s fair… Are we leaving now?”

Goukens stern expression slightly loosened up. “Not quite yet. If we are going to go back, then we need to get you patched up… and fed.”

Her stomach growled, very loudly, right that second, and Chiro blushed. “Um. I… I actually appreciate that. I, I ran out of food this morning. Dropped my dried fruit in the dirt like an idiot,” she muttered. She wanted to deny the need for being patched up, but she had the feeling that lying to Master Gouken would be A Very Bad Idea. “…All I really have are blisters, otherwise.”

Gouken offered his hand to the young rat and then turned to face the cart. “Saito! If you are done trying to listen in, than take our guest to the kitchen. She will require two shares.” A fumbling of boxes later, and a small human boy appeared from behind the cart. “Y-yes master!” The boy hurried over and gave a quick bow to Chiro, his bald head reflected the sun. “Nice to meet you.”

Chiro blinked- she hadn’t noticed. She smiled, at first hesitant but then growing stronger. “Um. Hi! I’m Chiro. Uh. I guess you know that. Did you shave your head? Is that a monk thing?” she asked.

Saito hesitated and responded. “Yeah… I shaved it because I didn’t want it to get pulled in a match again. Wanna go eat? I bet dinner is just starting to be made!”

Chiro grinned wider. “Yeah!” She hops down- and immediately winced. Blisters! Ow, ow, ow… “What do monks eat?” she asked curiously.

Saito looked down at her, unsure at Chiro’s condition. “Uh… we eat rice mostly. On holidays we have other stuff. But its good on its own!”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had rice. Let’s go!” She only limped a little, trailing after him. She probably came up to his knees; the image is a little comical. Now, she looked around, taking in the temple. Since I probably won’t see it again… “…Wow. You could get really lost here. This place is big!”

“Nah… its pretty cramped. The rooms are small and usually have three people.” Saito helped Chiro get up the three sets of stairs to get to the kitchen. “But, Its kind of nice to see everyone! We all do the same training, so we can compare ideas and exercises.”

Chiro perked up at the word training. “What kind of training do you do?” she asked eagerly, as she winced and climbed up the stairs. “It’s way bigger than the burrowhome.” She had a bit of trouble with them, but she managed, with his help.

“Well, from what Master Gouken says, we are learning the basics here. If students come from any of the other three schools, they are in a separate class. But we mostly do workouts for all the muscles and meditate… oh and read.”

“Wait, three schools? There’s more? Meditate? What do you read?” She has about nine thousand questions as they reach the kitchens.

Saito sat Chiro down at the shortest table in the eating room. A moment later, he came out of the kitchen with three bowls of hot rice and tea. “We read history and some religious texts. A lot of students also follow different gods, so we have a few different books on hand for that.”

The chair, unfortunately, was too low, so she ended up sitting on the table. The rice was different and chewy and a bit hard to eat, but good! And filling, and she was starving and ate very quickly. The tea was fragrant and hot enough to burn her tongue, which made her yelp, and set it back to cool. “Irori right? That’s the monk one. I read about it. Does that mean you don’t have to follow him if you don’t?”

Saito shook his head as he chomped through his rice. “Nope! You don’t have to worship a god if you don’t want to!”

He paused, then added, “Irori is the god of perfection though… I do pray to him the most. I… when I read his teachings… it just makes sense… you know?”

“I… I kinda wanna.” Chiro admitted, swallowing. “We, I mean, ratfolk, we aren’t… we don’t have any, any patrons or anything. We offer to everyone cause that’s good business. But Irori used to be mortal. Which… I dunno, that’s kinda cool,” she said, bashfully.

Saito nodded excitedly. “I know! Its amazing to think that a god was once mortal!” As Saito was about to go into detail, Master Gouken stepped into the hall, bandages and herbs in hand.

Setting the supplies down, Gouken observed the two. “I trust you two are getting along?”

Chiro grinned widely. “Yeah! I’m learning a bit about Irori!”

Gouken turned to Saito and gave him a slight glare. “Do not encourage her… yet. We don’t know if she will be joining us or not. Finish your bowl and go read young Saito.” With a dejected look, Saito sighed, “Yes Master Gouken…” With that, he took his dishes and waved goodbye.

Gouken then leaned down and began to tend and bandage Chiros feet. “Saito is a good boy, but he gets too excited.” Snuggly fitting the bandages, Gouken looked at Chiro, “Try walking now.”

Chiro did, and blinked. “Oh wow! That’s lots better! Thanks! I guess you must know how to treat blisters really well then, huh?” She wiggled her toes. “That makes sense.” There was a lump in her throat at his previous words, but she ignored it as best she could. She would not get discouraged before they told her flat out she couldn’t do it.

“Healing has never been my gift, but I have several students who are much more capable.” Taking a moment to assess Chiro’s movements, Gouken felt satisfied with the results. “This will do until we get you home.”

“Wait, you can actually heal? Like, magic? Or is it more like the rock wall thing?” Chiro asked curiously.

Gouken stopped a moment and considered Chiro’s words. ” You speak of Jorg Ironhand’s technique. Yes, a few monks can heal their own wounds and even the injuries of others. Jorg though is a different case. His dwarven heritage has left him with a key understanding of the earth and stone. In this case, I was referring to mundane healing.”

Chiro’s eyes widened as she listened. “Whoa. That is cool. Okay. Well, thank you either way. So- you take anyone? If, um, if everything else matches up?” she asked shyly.

As they left the eating room, Gouken shook his head. “Not everyone. Their is an interview and a trial period before joining us officially. During the period, we watch and see if the person in question has what it takes.”

But not race. Race doesn’t matter. That was good, right? Right. “Oh, okay. I see.” She kept pace much easier now, a very brisk walk for each of his strides, her much longer tail out behind her. “Are- do you need to pack, or? Are we walking? Are we taking a cart?”

Gouken patted his belt pouch. “I have everything I need here. As for the journey, we will be going with the cart owner for a part of the journey. At the crossroads, we will head to Burrowtown.”

“The cart is much quicker than walking,” Chiro said happily, glad to be off her feet. “And this way I won’t have to climb on my hands and feet and stuff when things get steep. Or- I guess not climb since we will be going down, huh! I’ll be sure to keep my tail inside. Hirtu once had a wagon roll over his tail and now it’s all kinky.”

Just don’t think about it. You’re not home yet. Maybe.. Maybe he will change his mind. If she didn’t think about her mother’s reaction, she would be ok. Chiro shoved away incipient nerves.

Soon, the cart and two left the monastery. Going down hill was much simpler than up. Gouken kept a watch on the road and sky, knowing that some predators were in the area.

Chiro watched the monastery fade away with a pang. So much for that… maybe we can talk to Mum together though. It wasn’t a no, never, right?

Now she could see the path that she missed before, being in a box. Or rather, she could have, but her height made things difficult. After a moment, Chiro stood on the seat fearlessly, jouncing of the wagon aside. The temples flags flapped in the wind as they faded from view. “…You’re the Master, right M- sir?” She asked as she looked around. Her tail twitched, helping her keep her balance, along with one hand on the canvas of the wagon top.

“Of like, everyone at the school?”

Gouken nodded. “I am the Master of the School of the South Wind. Their are three other schools with their own masters.”

“Are they here too? I only saw the one.” Chiro looked around curiously.

“No. The other three schools are in far away lands. We have small schools in four different places instead of one large one.”

“Ooohhh. Why? Is someone in charge of all of you? Do you all study the same stuff?” On the seat, she had less height difference between them, thankfully, and she fully intended on learning as much as she could while she could. “Do you ever visit one another?”

“To spread our style of teaching. We do have a Grand Master, and she is also the Master of the Northern School. On rare occasion, all the masters meet to discuss how to improve our teaching and to learn the status of the other schools. The Grand Master has said that we must keep our minds open to new and different styles. It is best to learn what works for yourself, and to know what someone else may have.”

Chiro listened, that intense all-ears-perked look about her. “She sounds like she knows what she’s doing. What’s meditating? Saito mentioned it but I’ve never heard of it before- oh look, another eagle!”

Sure enough, lazily circling high above was another mountain eagle. Chiro shifted a bit closer to Master Gouken, but otherwise didn’t seem afraid in the slightest. “We never see them around the burrow.”

Keeping one eye on the eagle, Gouken continued his explanation. “Meditation is the technique monks use to calm their emotions and achieve mental clarity. It is essential for growth of the spirit and helps the mind.”

Chiro considered. “I don’t think we have anything like that. Nothing I’ve ever heard. Ratfolk stay busy, most of the time. If you’re not doing something chances are you oughta be. But… what is it? Is it a book you read or…?”

The eagle screamed overhead, jarring and primal, making Chiros hair stand on end. “Oh wow.”

“Try to stay still. I believe the eagle is trying to figure out if you are prey or not. But to explain mediation is a little difficult. You choose something to focus on… An object, or place for example. You devote all your attention to your focus, emptying your thoughts and trying to reach a state of mental and emotional calm.”

“Yeah, they made off with a kit the year before last…” She almost scooted closer but decided to be still, instead. “They’ll take on an adult, sometimes, when it’s lean, but kits are usually in real danger. I wonder how that works- emptying your mind. Huh.” Chiro had clearly never heard of such a thing but now she wanted to know. “….Could you show me? I mean,” she added hastily, “when the eagle leaves. I don’t think an eagle would try to hunt me if I’m with you.”

Taking advantage of the situation, Gouken reached into his pouch. “You can try now.” Taking a small pendant from his pouch, Gouken handed it to Chiro. It was small and very worn, but the symbol of an open hand still was visible in the center. “This pendant was a gift from my father. It is the symbol of Irori, god of perfection and knowledge. Try to focus all of your attention on it. How it feels, the pits and scuffs on the surface. And when your vision focuses just on it, stop thinking.”

Chiro took it with wide eyes. The worn stone hand was still visible, despite everything. “Yessir,” she said, very quietly, and sat on the bench next to him, closing her eyes. The eagle was entirely removed from her thoughts.

The worn stone was smooth, not by nature but by wear. I wonder how many hands have handled this.

“Alright.”

She closed her eyes.

Focus all of your attention on it.

There was a lot. She could hear the cart, her breathing, his, the creak of wheels and canvas. There was the smell of ox and man and mountain and dust kicked up by their passage. But she frowned and tried to consider the stone. Smooth. Leather thong around it is old and rough. The pits and scuffs, one chipped edge worn smoother now. Okay.

Chiro tried to keep the image of the stone in her mind. Every time she thought maybe she had it,. the cart bucked, or an ox farted, or something rustled the bushes and knocked her out of the peace she could almost feel but not quite touch. Eventually, though, she began to hear her own heartbeat along with everything else, and felt her breathing steady a little, very distantly. Things kind of softened and sharpened at all once, there but not important, discarded after being acknoweldged. It was sleepy and not sleepy at all, very still, focusing on the-

The cart hit a rock and lurched. Chiro yelped and nearly fell off the seat of the cart.

Master Gouken took the brief reprieve from questions to bolster his resolve. As Chiro yelped, he held her in place to keep her from getting any further injuries. “I will want that back eventually…”

“Oh! Sorry, here, I, sorry.” She shook herself to dispell the… whatever that was, the meditation, away and handed it back to him. “Thanks for catching me.” Stupid rock in the road. “I think I maybe felt it a little. It definitely wasn’t sleep, for sure, but it wasn’t just…. sitting and doing nothing either. Sort of like daydreaming but different. More… clean.”

Gouken looked a little surprised. “That is not a bad description. You can try again before bed.”

Chiro perked up considerably and grinned, a bit mischievous and a little bit crooked. “Mum would say I definitely had practice at that! Thank you! I’d like to. Can I use anything to do it with or do I need a special necklace like that? Is it an Irori only thing, since that is in the symbol of Irori? I think it is, at least, it’s worn, but I think I recognize it.”

Gouken sighed to himself. “No, you can use anything or nothing at all.”

“Okay!” Good to know. Chiro settled on the bench again next to him, watching the scenery roll by for a moment.

As the evening drew to a close, Gouken thanked the merchant for his service and the two went separate ways. Chiro waved, after apologizing sheepishly for the little ruse, and trotted to catch up. Her feet hurt, but it was a mild ache, not the same pain it had been earlier. She looked around. “Camp here for the night?” the young ratfolk asked.

Gouken looked around and inspected the terrain. “Yes. We will have to find a secluded spot.”

Reaching into his pouch, Gouken produced a small object that was wrapped in wax paper. Removing the paper, a bright flash of light illuminated the area. “Over there. A group of trees. Lets camp there.”

“Whoa! What is that?” Chiro bounces up to see a bit better, but couldn’t make it out. Dang. “Is that magic? Is that a monk thing? What are we having for dinner?” She moved to the clearing as she spoke, looking around. Nice and level, not a lot of rocks- perfect.

Gouken placed his hand softly on Chiros head and gently put her back on the ground. “Its a stone with a simple light spell. Humans cant see very well in the dark, and its lighter than a torch.”

“Oh! Right, I forgot, sorry. That’s really neat. Do you want me to look for wood? Are we having a fire? I couldn’t find a lot of wood last time but that wasn’t here, so maybe it will be different.” A pause, as Chiro set down her bag and began to take out her blanket and bedroll. “Is that why you had your eyes closed in the cave? Because you couldn’t see in the dark anyways and you knew basilisks turned things to stone with their eyes? But how could you fight them if you couldn’t see?”

Gouken nodded. “Wood will be helpful. I have tinder of my own. So find as much as you can, but stay close.” Moving over to the tree, Gouken inspected the branches to see which would be suitable for removal.

Chiro hesitated fidgeting -he didn’t answer the question!- but sighed a little and nodded. She stuck to the ground, picking up fallen sticks and putting them in her arms. A particularly large branch caught her eye as she did. Ah HA! Setting down the sticks, she went and tried to grab the end and lug it into the clearing. That took a bit of doing, but, huffing and puffing, Chiro slowly dragged the branch back to the center. There! Now… Quickly she made a pile of the sticks and began to break off smaller branches from the fallen one, stacking them all neatly by size. Breaking the branch itself required some creativity: she ended up using a rock as an anvil and jumping on it to snap it in half, then each half again, making lengths as long as she was tall. These she also stacked by where the fire would be.

She made sure to keep Gouken in sight. There were worse things than eagles in the mountains.

Soon, dark indigo began to take over the sky, a blanket of stars appearing in it like candles in one giant window. Chiro smiles reflexively at the sight.

“Got some! Do we need more? Is this enough?”

Hopping down from the tree, Gouken held several dead branches in his hand. He inspected the pile and gave a quiet nod. Taking all of the dead branches and arranging them in a stout square, gouken reached into his belt pouch for his flint and tinder. “Earlier you asked about the basilisk. Yes, we had our eyes closed to keep ourselves safe. We relied on Jorgs’ vision to get us there and we chose not to use torches so we did not hamper the escape of any survivors.”

“But how could you- you see to punch and stuff?” Chiro watched him as he worked, making notes. His stack was much neater than the haphazard pile she had tried to make on the way up. And she was cold, now; she got out her scarf again, and grabbed her blanket too. The sooner he got the fire going the better.

Gouken finished his work on the fire and lit it. The flames were low and very well contained. Reaching again into his pouch, he produced two simple rice balls and placed them on a flat stone right next to the fire. “I admit, I couldn’t. The darkness had me at a total disadvantage. I used my own techniques to give myself a brief flash of light and then used defense to draw in the creature. If I could detect it at close range with smell and sound, I had a better chance.”

Chiro listened, wide eyed again. The enormity of his trust in himself and his skills and his other monks, to do that…. wow. “I remember. You moved all… whirly-twirly, and it slid off you. Like water on an oily rock. Is that more rice?” She asked curiously. Wrapping the blanket around her shoulder, she scooted closer to the flames as the moon rose.

Gouken placed his hands into his defensive stance. “I have learned the Crane Style of martial arts. Its meant to maximize defense while giving you opportunity to find a weakness in your opponents. The rice will be ready soon… have patience.”

Chiro thought back. “It looked almost like a bird, kinda- wingbeats and fast jabs like they do with the beak when they’re hunting mud lizards at the creek.” And all his attacks were counterattacks, now that she thought about it, though what they were exactly was beyond her. He was way too fast to see anything except the general movements.

“Are there other styles?” Ahhhh. Nice warm fire. Chiro snuggled further under her blanket. It was rather comical, given her size, and she tucked her tail inside as well.

“Yes. Several in fact.” Gouken looked down and inspected the rice balls. “They are ready. Beware though, they are hot.”

“What a-“ Chiro stopped, remembering. Patience. Visibly reigning in her curiosity, she turned instead to the rice balls with interest and perked ears. “Oh good! I’m hungry.” She used her scarf to shield her hand; even then it required a bit of juggling before it cooled, steaming into the night air. Now the stars were on full display above them, with a luminescent silvery moon. After a few cautious nibbles, she took a bite, and chewed happily. “Mmmm.”

Gouken took his dinner and ate quietly. The popping of the campfire echoed off the stone walls of the pass. After eating, Gouken then stretched and looked to the young ratling. “You were going to ask me something?”

The silence was killing her as she ate- she tried not to squirm. But eventually, Chiro managed to wrestle herself under control. After that, she noticed the way the sparks rose into the night sky, brighter than fireflies, and the way the wind smelled like pines and snow, and how the moonlight dappled the ground as it streamed through the trees. The rice was good, filling, and not bland at all; there was something in the center, kinda spicy. Gouken sat as solid and eternal and inscrutable as the mountain itself next to her. I wonder if the stars look the same all over the world. I never thought about it, but… I’d like to see, someday.

She was looking up at the sky when his words snapped her attention back to him.

“Yes! What styles are there? If there’s more… defense ones are there offense ones too? Are they all based on animals? How many do you know or teach?”

“That is a question that may not have an answer. Styles are made by individuals, and not all are willing to give out what they know. Several styles focus on offense, defense, and others are more situational. We have a few at our school, but we focus primarily on the basics.” Gouken looked up at the starry sky and then yawned. “It grows late. Lets rest for now.”

Chiro listened quietly, nodding. She swallowed her sigh when he said he was tired- she didn’t feel tired, but then, she really should sleep. “Yessir,” she said, and went to move her bedroll and blanket closer to the fire. “Thanks. Yknow, for talking and stuff.”

The night was quiet. The only disturbances were the occasional gusts of wind and the sounds of the natural world. At first light, Gouken awoke and began doing his morning routine to get ready for the remainder of the journey ahead.

Chiro woke to the morning sun, and stretched, yawning, before she remembered where she was and sat up abruptly. Cool dew glistened off the grass in the dawn, and there, facing a sharp drop down the mountain looking over the edge, was Master Gouken. With his back to her he seemed like part of the Pillars themselves. He looked like he was meditating.

After a moment, unsure, she poked up the fire for tea, glancing at him every few minutes. Finally, getting her courage together, she poured two cups and steeled herself. Chiro padded over silently and placed the cup in arms reach of him, if he wanted- then, surprised at her own daring, she sat too. Not next to him, she gave him plenty of space, but still besides him, watching the sun rise.

With a glance at him, Chiro mimicked his posture, looked around, picked up a random rock by her foot, and closed her eyes.

Silent as stone, Master Gouken continued his meditation. After an hour, he breathed out, and stood back up. “Come Chiro, its time to move.”

Chiro struggled to find that place again, but there was no rush. The morning sun and Master Gouken’s steady breathing eventually settled her nerves enough to find that strange clean place of almost-daydreaming, but not quite, and she held it for about twenty whole minutes before he spoke. She blinked, shaking herself as the words took a moment to register. “Oh! Right! Sure! I just gotta roll my bedroll up and grab my blanket-“ She popped up with the effortless energy of the young and dashed off to do just that. “Oh and I made tea! I didn’t wanna interrupt you though, but it’s there, if you want,” she called as she broke camp.

Gouken looked down at the simple fare and had it all in one drink. “Thank you. For now, we will go at a hurried pace. Your feet should have healed enough to make good time back to Burrowtown.”

“Yeah!” And then her excitement faltered, because… home. And she would be grounded. For like, ever. Briefly Chiro’s ears drooped. Then she shook herself and set her jaw. No. No whining. She’d accept the consequences of her actions with the same stubbornness she did the risks and rigors of becoming a monk.

“My feet feel great, honestly. Whatever you did worked wonders.” And she bounced up next to him, stretching with only a little wince.

“I will pass thanks onto Rida the next time I see her. She made the remedy and bandages herself.” With that, the journey back to Burrowtown was a quick one. Going down hill combined with the quick pace led the two back with little or no trouble. Taking a brief rest near the entrance to the town, Gouken stopped.

Chiro tried not to drag her feet, bracing herself mentally. Still, she couldn’t help but sigh as she saw Burrowtown come into view. I will not cry, and I will not whine, so help me gods, I will absolutely not. It didn’t help that she saw the sentry and winced.

“Wh- uh,” said Tram, blinking at the approaching human, with Chiro in tow. Then he started. “CHIRO? You little-! Gods, where have you BEEN? D’you know the worry you caused Mum-?” He started forward, probably to grab her by the ear or something similar, but stopped himself, because there was still Gouken to consider. “Uh, sir, who- wait, you’re… one of the monks, from the school, right? What’s going on?”

“…Master Gouken, this is, uh, my older brother. Tram,” Chiro said.

Gouken looked at the exchange of the two carefully. With a bow, Gouken looked down at Tram with a friendly voice, but a serious expression.”Well met. I am Gouken, Master of the School of the South. I was hoping to return your sister to your parents. I also would like to have words with them regarding this… situation.”

Chiro visibly drooped again. Tram’s eyes widened. “Yeah, I’d say you bet- I mean, right this way, sir,” he corrected himself hastily. Tram gave Chiro a Look, one she stubbornly met with a bit of a glare, and then turned to lead them through Burrowtown to the cleverly positioned-so-as-to-be-almost-unnoticable-from-the-road little staircase that led five feet down before it opened into a entryway and a door. He pushed through without knocking. Chiro withdrew smaller into herself with every step.

“MUM! CHIRO’S HOME! THE MASTER OF THE MONK SCHOOL BROUGHT HER BACK!” he yelled in. There was a sharp noise of surprise and a clatter.

What?” said Dhaza, as she came around the corner and stopped dead in surprise. “Master Gou- Chiro!”

Chiro sighed, and walked forward. “….Hi, Mum.” Her mother hugged her fiercely, which Chiro, after a moment, returned awkwardly. “Um. Sorry.”

“You and I will talk later, young lady.” A wince, but she didn’t flinch from it, just nodded, a bit morose. “Well,” Dhaza said, looking from Chiro to Gouken, “I expect there is a tale to be telling here, am I correct, Master Gouken?”

Gouken nodded. “I will tell you everything I know, but I do request we speak in private.” Turning to Chiro, Gouken produced the medallion from his pouch again. “Hold this until I return for it. Think of it as a promise of sorts.”

Chiro, taken off guard, blinked and nodded. “Uh- y-yessir.” Tram shuffled her off, presumably to her room. Dhaza watched them go.

-and shock. The memory ends, fragments here. Only later would Chiro be called in to speak with her mother and Master Gouken both. The words “trial period” were the happiest she’d ever heard, stern as they came from the master monk, and the next day she went back up the mountain… this time, to stay.

Author Cael
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Game: Pathfinder
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