The Birth Of A Master
When Steffen Crow arrived in Japan, when he stepped off the plane and into the heart of Osaka city, firstly he sought shelter amid the hustle and bustle. But he quickly discovered that here he was gaijin, and not always welcome in the establishments of this much longed-for land. After being ommitted from five separate rest stops, the young Crow found a somewhat friendly vendor willing to serve him a single cup of cooked rice, and then he searched desperately for a safe place to sleep, eventually settling for a hollow under a stone bridge near a river that flowed with the strength of a sizeable torrent.
It was as he was closing his eyes for a merciful period of slumber that he was roused to waking by the voices of a trio of strangers, notably male. He couldn't understand what the men were saying - he had no proper grasp of their language - but he knew as sure as the sun will rise that they harboured him no good will. Then, amid several snatches of their foreign dalect one of the aggressors said clearly, "Lookie here! A troll fit for this bridge!" which hit Steffen like the smell of a succulent fish to the nose of a starving ryōshi. One of these men spoke English! At first he said nothing, kept his wonderment to himself. To have encountered someone that spoke his own language was highly fortunate, even in such a situation as this, and he recognised this immediately as only one who was desperately alone in a foreign country could.
His elation lasted mere moments. The lead pickpocket pulled a small dagger, almost a dirk, and quickly began weaving threats in the air between Crow and himself. These men weren't chasing coin tonight, though: Steffen could tell by the laughter of the other two that they were seeking sport. Well, he'd had enough of this land and its people's hostility! Alert as the hare, he lowered himself into a subtle stance and calmed his mind and breath with an effort of will. Then Steffen spoke, mostly to provoke further talk from the individual that - he fervently hoped - would understand him, but also to distract his assailants. "Please, I am no more than a harmless stranger. If it is money you want, I'll give you what I have. Just don't hurt me." He was vigilant, though, despite his words. Ready for combat.
Smiling silently, the knife-wielder advanced until - once the man was within close quarters - Crow loosed a shout that echoed off the stone bridge looming above them. A moment's stunned stupor cost the pick-pocket his life. Crow's left hand flew out, disarming his assailant with a twist of the wrist, and then with his right he delivered an equally swift chop to the side of the man's neck. Finally, his foe rendered unconscious, Steffen half-rolled and then threw the man behind him, propelling him with his right leg into the river.
The expletive surprised Crow and confirmed that the English-speaking thief was capable of communicating with him, but he was given little time to ponder the stranger's use of his native language: the second thief, younger than the one drowning in the water, uttered a wordless cry and then began shouting in Japanese. When he he finished he said something - still in Japanese - to his comrade without taking his eyes off Crow. Within moments the third man translated what his partner had just shouted.
"He says that at first you may have had the element of surprise! But that was his uncle you just killed and he hopes you have made preparations for death!"
Steffen shrugged at this, said, "He looked like he needed a drink." Which was met with a short burst of laughter from the interpreter, quickly stifled.
After Steffen's quip the third man spoke again - presumably translating once more - then the second thief cried out "Shinu!", which really needed no explanation for Crow, and charged. At first glance he did not appear armed but right before he came within reach, Steffen noticed that he had something clenched in his left hand; a very short stick, a baton that was not quite a baton. Very well. He would be a dead man momentarily, concealed weapon or otherwise. Steffen was certain of it.
But the thief was cunning! He leveled a kick for Crow's head, clearly a feint, and then, when Crow ducked and went to grasp his ankle the man pulled his leg out of range - as expected - and repeated the strike, as swift as the mamushi. Steffen stepped quickly back, then forward, anticipating that the second kick would fall short of the mark on his retreat and that he would be free to retaliate on his return to form. Not so. The strike was a double feint. He evaded the kick, but as Steffen went to cripple the other with a strike to the thigh, the second kick did not arrive. The thief's weapon - Crow had thought of it as a bladeless hilt - crashed into his underjaw instead before it was ripped forward, brutally dislocating his jaw. The pain was excruciating; exquisite - but Crow knew if he didn't keep his wits about him, if he blacked out now, he would die. He recalled something Karl Foster had said to him perhaps twelve months ago: "Never strike a blow in desperation, Steffen. If you're desperate, you're done for." But Crow was so close to dying as to make no difference. Instead of blacking out, he intentionally plummeted to the ground, as quickly as possible, and with a painful thud tried to trip his aggressor. The attempt failed, but then he struck upward frantically with his feet. His left foot met flesh, catching his aggressor squarely in the groin and dropping him to the ground. Steffen didn't waste his opportunity. Mindful of his screaming mouth and jawbone, he wrestled the weapon that had done him so much damage out of the other's grip and then drove it in a stabbing motion into his assailant's genitals once, twice, three and four times. He took the short stick and crushed his opponent's face, his throat, his sternum-
"Whoa, Westerner! Whoa! He's dead - it's over!"
When Crow looked up the last third of the attacking party took a step backwards, like an unwelcome guest that had stumbled upon a ghoul feasting on a mutilated corpse. Steffen was prepared to fight, and most likely die, but it seemed the remaining thief had other plans.
"You fight well, Westerner. Indeed! And- Well, I am now as you might say 'in the shit' because of you. Two of my father's men dead, just like that. What am I going to tell him?"
Steffen said nothing, his jaw forbid discourse, but he was thinking, Just like that? and, Your father's men? He had many questions, more than he could hold in his mind at one time, but the first thing he forced through his considerable discomfort was, "Who are you?" The effort made him shriek mutely. The pain-! But the thief responded readily.
"I am called Murushi. Tatsuo Murushi. And how are you called?"
Knowing he had at this point little to lose, Crow responded with another wince, "I'm Steffen Crow."
"I see. My apologies. I can see your wound hinders conversation-"
"-But follow me even so, if you will, Steffen Crow. I have a proposition for you."
Steffen considered his immediate situation and came to the conclusion that he had little choice, little control, over where this fell night might take him. He sensed, too, that the peculiar figure before him, this Tatsuo Murushi, was like a prognosticator of his own immediate future in the city of Osaka - though whether for good or ill Crow could not ascertain at this time. Crow was hungry, tired, scared - and if Tatsuo meant him any harm it couldn't be any more dangerous than trying to find food and a place to sleep safely on his own with a near-broken jaw. Also, what were the chances of finding another who could speak his language by the time he starved to death or worse? Cautious, but also curious, Crow followed the stranger, clambered out and away from the hollow, away from the stone bridge and ill-boding river and into the encroaching night of the town.
"Abide me closely, Westerner."
Murushi darted away through the darkness, took off at a run up winding alleyways and past crumbling storefronts and households, and Steffen followed. He was again struck with the sense that the man was worth latching onto; that his understanding of the streets was similar to that of his understanding of the nuances of life in Osaka, and that he, Crow, would be as lost in this society as he would be to the night if Murushi abandoned him.
While they traversed the path to whatever Tatsuo Murushi's destination was the man filled Steffen in on more of his comings and goings.
"My father is a well-known businessman in this area of the city and his reach is... formidable. He has quite the reputation," he went on boastfully. "A large part of his clientele is white, and so an adequate grasp of English is good for business - which is the why and the how of our conversing now. He has taught me many things, my father, grooming me to take over from all that is his... but that is not important right now. As for his line of work, it is, to cut to the chase," Murushi laughed. "Of the illegal sort." Steffen was about to ask him why he was telling him this and then, before he opened his mouth to articulate an agonising enquiry, Murushi said, "It's not like you're going to talk to anyone, Westerner. Not with that jaw looking the way it does. And besides, few here will understand your speech anyway. If you did talk, you and anyone you spoke to that might cause us trouble would not survive the night. Now, the men you fought off this evening were on what you might call a practice run. Father desired for them to be 'blooded' before he took them under his employ, and, well, that certainly didn't turn out the way we might have expected. So now we are down two and left with one... Ah, we're here."
The manor they'd arrived at was unlike anything Steffen Crow had ever laid eyes on. He'd read of Japan's culture in some of Karl's martial arts pamphlets and magazines, subscriptions that had made him long to visit the land of the rising sun - but this was the real deal. From the outside the house appeared the stereotypical Japanese minka, albeit rather large. The architecture was of the vernacular: wooden-framed with a roof that ascended in three tiers, comprised of tiled eaves that sloped downward to ward off wind, rain and the elements, and with a wide wooden veranda that circled the perimiter of the building. But when he was ushered inside by Tatsuo - "Remember to take your shoes off, Steffen. That is very important" - Crow was as impressed as though all of his innermost desires had been delivered to his proverbial doorstep. The Murushi clan must be rich - the sheer size of the place was terrific!
After trekking into the entrance hall - which was very similar in design to a huge mudroom back home - and after a brief hail from Tatsuo, the entryway "door" to the dwelling was slid open by what Steffen assumed to be a family servant. A breath-taking woman, at least in his mind, in a white kimono with deferentially downcast eyes, who led them through the house and upstairs to a large room. The room, like the rest of the house, was floored with soft mats and divided by opposing partitions on wooden rails, and hanging scrolls and aesthetic flower arrangements adorned all four walls. Within, a man that could only be Tatsuo's father was seated on the floor on a cushion beneath a short-legged table where tea was being poured by another kimono-clad servant. The father was an elderly yet well-muscled man, a broad chested figure sporting an imposing moustache and a head of jet black hair that swept up behind his ears like wings. All three of the men went down on their knees with their legs tucked underneath - Steffen did so because the others had - and then the father and Tatsuo began speaking rapidly in Japanese. The only thing that Steffen could interpret from their dialect was his own name. After some time, the older man spoke.
"It is pleasing to make your acquaintance, Steffen Crow. I am Michiya Murushi." The words were clear and articulate, spoken with the soft surety of a man accustomed to command, and reinforced with a slight bow of head and waist. "It is not my habit to take in guests at this late hour but my son, Tatsuo, tells me that you've had a rather interesting ordeal this night. Haru and Tsukasa, defeated on their first errand! And they caused you this injury, Steffen Crow? How?"
Before Crow could open his mouth to explain, Tatsuo interjected, "The yawara, father."
A moment of surprise, quickly schooled to stillness, crossed the senior Murushi's features. He said quietly to Tatsuo, "Silence." And then to Crow, "And you bested him? He must have made an error. Hmm. Unless you are a trained fighter?"
Crow told him, trying not to groan or gasp or grimace at each uttered syllable, that he'd only had some small training; that he'd never been graded, never even set foot in a dojo. That he'd trained under a practitioner of kung fu and had come here looking for another instructor upon his instructor's death - which was the truth, albeit with a few small omissions. After that Michiya Murushi halted Crow's speech with a gesture, and then rose and beckoned him to rise.
"I want you to strike me, as hard and as fast as you can. Using any punch or kick, any knee or jab of your choosing."
Steffen froze, threw a glance at Tatsuo, and his eyes were as wide and dilated as a brushtail possum's. Tatsuo, not laughing now, said in a firm voice, "Do it, Steffen. I would if I were you."
Still Crow balked at the idea. What the hell's going on here? Was he the butt of some cruel joke - 'mess with the gaijin's head' maybe? This man would probably snap his arm like kindling if he tried to punch him. Probably? Before he could spend another half-second fretting, though, Michiya Murushi quickly flicked one hand to the side of Steffen's face and then grabbed him by the throat with both thumbs, gripping the younger man's windpipe and cutting off his air supply instantly. Steffen reacted as soon as he reclaimed his wits, but he was markedly unnerved - the old man was as vicious as he was fast! He made a feeble attempt to mimic a technique Karl had taught him to fend off a stranglehold, punching up toward the older Murushi's head, purposely missing, and then curling his hand back around hoping to break the hold. That was the idea anyway. He moved as fast as he was able, but the older man spun to the side during his attempt and simultaneously both blocked the strike and swept Crow's feet from under him. Crow toppled to the matting below and Michiya Murushi followed him to the ground to deliver the final blow - he could see in the man's face that he meant death.
"No!" Crow cried out desperately. He hadn't paid much attention to the pain of his dislocated jaw all this time - he'd been too much in shock - but he did now. He was certain he was about to receive a blow that would make any agony he'd ever experienced seem like a night at the ballet.
A hammer-blow, swift and powerful, smashed into the ground near his head and then Michiya Murushi rolled backward, leapt lightly to his feet and took Steffen's shaking hands, pulled him up off the ground.
With the ghost of a smile flickering across his features, Michiya said, "My sincerest apologies, Steffen Crow. But it was necessary for me to gauge the extent of your abilities. You are clearly not shodan, however I am confident I will find a use for you." It could've been his imagination, but Crow was sure his smile widened just a bit at that last. "Now. You would be hungry and thirsty and tired. Tatsuo, my son, tells me that he found you under a bridge near the river - a wanderer in a land not your own, alone but not defenseless! I had plans for Tsukama and his nephew, but perhaps I can adjust those plans to include you." That last word was directed at Crow with a note of irrevocability, filling him with a queer apprehension. Then the older man said, "But now you may eat with us if you wish, and we will discuss-"
At this point, Steffen had held on long beyond the limits of his endurance. About to blackout from a cockail of bewilderment, pain, terror, and absolute exhaustion, he pointed to his dislocated jaw and croaked, "Who? What is the eat?" before he collapsed to the ground.
* * *
Steffen woke from tormented sleep gasping for air. The memory of flailing madly in a great black sea whilst nameless creatures circled the waters below him consumed his awareness, and he'd dreamt, too, of terror and asphyxiation, of being hanged from the gallows by an as-yet-unseen executioner. The dreams were fading with his return to consciousness, though, and he was now gulping for breath eagerly in the semi-dark. At first he didn't recollect where he was: he couldn't make out anything in the dimness and hadn't yet separated his wits from his subconscious imaginings. Too late he realised that someone had been preventing him from breathing. That someone was squatting directly behind him, so close he could hear the sound of their soft respiration. Panicked, moving by hostile instinct, he reached up behind him as subtly and as quickly as possible, hoping to deliver a jab to the throat of the threat. Again he was overmastered. The man behind him grasped his fingers easily with a crushing application, incapacitating Crow and at the same time talking rapidly in Japanese to someone else. After a spell of confusion, struggling and trying to shout, "Let me go! Please let me go!", Crow recognised Tatsuo and Michiya Murushi's voices: the men's foreign speech and accents were unmistakable, even if they weren't conversing in Crow's native tongue. He relaxed. A little.
"Ah! So you are awake, Steffen Crow," Michiya Murushi said. "That is good. Your injury and your ordeals have left you unconscious for some two hours, but now it is time for for the paying back of my time. I will try to get, as you Westerners might say 'straight to the point', yes? We are about to drug you. Opioids." Huh? "The hospitality of my home and my mercy comes at a price, and now your life is that price. Don't mistake: this will not be an overly onerous life - you will be provided food and shelter, but not coin," Michiya intoned like the death knell of all of Crow's days. "We will undislocate your jaw shortly, and, I am certain of this, painlessly. And when you awake for the second time you will be given food and water, and then some hours to recover before you are pitted against a range of other fighters of varying degrees of skill." Is this really happening? He felt a plummeting in the chasm of his stomach, a horror closing in on him like the maw of some subterranean predator. We are about to drug you, Murushi had said. And, Your life is that price. He'd been a fool to follow Tatsuo so blindly! He was no gladiator, he was just a stranger to this land - now these men were going to drug him up with God knew what narcotics and have him fight others, to the death no doubt! It sounded like the plot of one of the picture shows he and Karl Foster had attended some time ago. Then Michiya was continuing ominously, "You will be pitted against martial artists in..." he appeared to search for a word. "A gauntlet. First the white belt, then the yellow belt, then the orange belt, the green, the blue, and the brown. If you survive these encounters you will fight a black belt - and if you are to overcome all of these trials together you will be granted your freedom." What madness is this? Freedom? I wouldn't stand a chance against a black belt! Or even a brown belt! Steffen's lungs were pumping breath in and out as manically as his heart was beating to-and-fro - he was working himself into a panic. The sense of endangerment in the air was like a toxic miasma. Murushi, noting that Crow was beginning to hyperventilate, summoned his son over and again they reverted to Japanese, verbally doling out the young Crow's fate in an indistinguishable litany. Finally the elder Murushi said, "Now for the administering of the opium. if you put up a fight, or do not do exactly as you are instructed I will end your life. Tatsuo!"
The young Murushi approached Steffen slowly, the soft light revealing a solemnity in his features that Crow found difficult to interpet. Together they ushered Steffen onto what he thought of as a cushioned futon before handing him a long pipe - but, though they intructed him to relax, he could not stop shaking even if he wanted to. How could he have played such a bad hand so many times in one short life?
In the meantime Tatsuo lit what Crow had heard him call the 'spirit lamp', and then he was applying - a stick? - a long needle-like tool to what could only be the opiate that Michiya Murushi had mentioned. He held the long needle and the pasty drug over the flame of the lamp until it began to bubble - it was hard to tell in the dim light, but it looked like it was changing colour - before stretching it into several lines of string. Tatsuo waited for a few moments, presumably for the paste to set, then after a time Tatsuo rolled the paste into a small pea shape and pushed it into the bowl at the end of the pipe. Finally, he lit the end of the pipe and instructed Crow to breathe in, while his father intoned from behind simultaneously, "Inhale deeply, boy. If you purposely spill or waste anything I will snap your back like a spear." He extolled his orders like a tyrant, which didn't help stem Crow's terror, and then, still shaking, Crow complied, inhaling until his lungs were full.
After two minutes of Steffen inhaling the thick vapour, the older Murushi loosed his grip and stepped back, saying, "How do you feel, Steffen Crow?"
Crow smiled like a simpleton. I feel incredible, he thought. He'd gone from stark-terror to a peaceful and easy acceptance of his situation in seconds. He felt... light-headed. Like he was on an aeroplane that was not an aeroplane. Or an inert but at the same time still moving merry-go-round. His mouth was thick with the smoky saliva of the opiate's vapour and his teeth were singing a tune of strange vibrations. A smile swept across his face like a stroke of good fortune. Slowly, slowly, he turned to look behind him at Michiya, then his head swiveled in slow motion-back to Tatsuo. Tatsuo laughed. Steffen tittered.
The room - the thin walls and the matted floor beneath his feet - began pulsating. His breath slowed to the beat of the pulse, and he could actually feel the rotation of the Earth; he was one with the universe, one with the slow spin of the great sphere that accomodated all things on Earth. The Murushis were talking to each other again - in Japanese? English? - Crow couldn't tell, and it didn't bother him, he was too occupied with the fascinating penumbra that had sprung up, surrounding both men. Then Michiya Murushi walked toward him in slow motion, he was fairly certain it was Michiya, and while Crow stared at him in comical stupor the man gripped the back of his head and the bottom of his jaw and snapped his jawbone back into place. Crow blacked out instantly.
"Wake, Steffen! You must wake!"
Steffen opened his eyes slowly. They felt as heavy as lead balloons, and it took a mammoth effort for him to keep from shutting them. Then he took hold of where he was - it looked like an abandoned warehouse - realised that his hands were tied behind his back with thick rope. His feet were bound, too. What the-? Then he remembered what had happened to him. He'd been drugged-! A scream rose in his throat but was quickly stifled by the hands of the person that had woken him. When he realised that it was Tatsuo, he forced his body and mind to snap to attention.
"Steffen Crow!" the man whispered, removing the gag in Steffen's mouth. "It is I, Tatsuo Murushi. How do you feel?"
"What do you want?" Steffen said bitterly.How do I feel? Tatsuo was probably here to taunt him, or to untie his limbs so he could prepare him for the gauntlet Michiya Murushi had spoken of. He wasn't sure what was going to happen next, but he knew that Tatsuo wasn't a friend. At least he thought he wasn't.
"Don't you remember anything? Father wishes you to compete in a tournament you have no hope of winning. Everyone is talking about the gaijin fighter he has procured - I cannot say we've ever had a white man fight for us before. But I am here to offer you a choice! You are from America?"
A grin. "That is good."
Quickly Tatsuo untied his hands and feet, all the while speaking of his lust to visit the western world. "Father just wants to make money. To be powerful. Safe and comfortable and wealthy. Don't get me wrong, Steffen, he's a complex enough character; he's both dangerous and capable, and he's not a fool by any means. But all he sees is life on the island. But you know what I want, Steffen? I want to get out of here, travel the world, make a name for myself - do something that people will remember me for long after I'm dust."
Steffen wasn't sure why Tatsuo was telling him this, but he didn't complain. After his feet and hands were freed he began to breathe easier, and he listened to what his rescuer had to say with a keen ear.