The concept for this story came from a list of "unresolved issues" I had listed on one of my pages (which I had created to start working through all of the last bits of information in my universe that I wanted to). One of the unresolved issues was what happens to Elijah from Spindlerun: The Tale of Yajirobe, as well as all of the great samurai swords. Any reader of Spindlerun knows that Elijah's fate is left unclear at the end of that story, so I wanted to show a bit more of what he does afterwards. This story is an atypical take on a Spindlerun epilogue. This should come as no surprise to those who have read the collection, but it wasn't something I actively wanted to do when I created this story - coming up with epilogues for Spindlerun, Dragon Ball Z: In Requiem, and Dragon Ball Z: The Forgotten (three of my biggest, most expansive stories) - it's just how things turned out.
This story was set from a very early point. I believe as early as August 15, 2015, I had the idea for this story. I didn't do too much work on this one-shot until I'm a Candy Man was completed. For April 2016, I resolved to only do the first binary in The Heels of the Unknown, which was the spring binary. The next binary, the summer binary, is the one that Down the Well-Worn Road is a part of, and I focused entirely on that binary for May 2016. Cool Cat is of course the other story in the summer binary. However, I didn't even settle on Cool Cat being story #4 until January 11-12, 2016. That meant that I had to wait a while longer to develop some of the summer binary themes and cross-story references, whereas with both spring and winter, I didn't change any of those stories from August 15, 2015 to publication, so I had a firmer idea of where those binaries were going, tonally, thematically, and prose-wise (I won't get into the oft-changed, difficult autumn binary here, but that one was even harder to create than the summer binary). So while I had this story set from an early point, a lot about it was unknown until I started thinking about writing it after I'm a Candy Man was completed.
Despite those unknowns, the idea for this story was set from a pretty early point. The description I wrote for this one-shot on August 15, 2015 reads: "3. Elijah - Elijah looks for Makare's blade, noting what happened to the other 5 legendary tamahagane katanas that existed as well. He finds the blade in a bandit hideout being wielded by a bandit chief. Colonel Violet is present during this. Elijah meets several people with black eyes who spook him." So the second half of this story was the original concept (sans the black-eyed people part that I discarded). The first scene with Jakuto Masamune was added in to really allow Elijah to reflect on his past and on the Masamune Brothers' role in his development and his samurai school (which we only get a taste of in Spindlerun), as well as to allow me to delve into some mono no aware style prose. I was also able to expand on the history of samurai in the Dragon Ball universe in this story a lot. A subplot with them, the Makyans, and rest of society, is one of the most important cross-story bits of lore in The Heels of the Unknown, and it really is started in this story, as Down the Well-Worn Road is the first one-shot in this collection to take place on Earth.
Aspects of the samurai history, their slow fall and fading into irrelevancy, is one of the major themes of this binary in general, as is the concept of this "forgotten race" being on Earth too - the Makyans. I will note both things in the below endnotes, but do know that when I was conceptualizing this story in late April and early May 2016, I had these things in mind. The Makyan idea wasn't developed too much in this story, but I was at least aware of what I wanted to do with Cool Cat before I wrote this story, so there are a few passing references to them in the text below. Because I had all of May 2016 to work on the summer binary, I made sure to make sure these stories were tonally similar and dealt with similar issues. They are more plot-related with one another than A Shadow on the Wind and I'm a Candy Man are, for the spring binary.
Structurally, both Down the Well-Worn Road and Cool Cat have two scenes apiece, just like the first two one-shots. Their two scenes are more balanced than those in the spring binary (the spring binary stories start with a shorter scene and end with a longer scene - the two summer stories don't do that - they both have longer opening scenes than the two spring one-shots). This was not something I planned while writing them - it's just how it turned out. I also was able to focus on more of the actual tea ceremony stuff in this story, since this is the first one to take place on Earth. So the stuff with green tea, the way Jakuto's room is structured, and all that stuff was me having fun with some Japanese-style aesthetics of this collection.
寂 (jaku, or tranquility) is the tea ceremony virtue reserved primarily for the summer binary of The Heels of the Unknown. This idea of tranquility and trying to reach it is a big part of this story, not just for Elijah, but for Jakuto and the Samurai Bandit as well. I deal with this theme in this story, as well as in Cool Cat, more subtly than I dealt with harmony in A Shadow on the Wind. What became apparent to me by this story is that I liked dealing with these themes more subtly, so I followed what I started in I'm a Candy Man and continued on with that for the remainder of this one-shot collection.
I wrote the first scene of this story from 11:50 pm on May 15, 2016 until 1:19 am on May 16, 2016. I then edited the first scene from 1:58 pm on May 16, 2016 until 2:45 pm of the same day. I began working on the second scene at 4:27 pm of the same day, and finished it at 6:22 pm. I started editing the second scene at 8:04 pm, and I finished editing (and finished the entire story) at 9:23 pm, posting it to this wiki soon afterwards. I don't really remember writing this story, aside from the fact that the writing went relatively slowly, and this story was harder to write than the last one. But that's always the case with the serious stories - the comedies are far easier for me to write. I took some significant breaks between scenes and editing, just to gain a little distance from the story so that I could analyze what I was writing and make sure that it was what I wanted to not only spend my time creating, but something worthy of being put in my universe.
As with A Shadow on the Wind, this story does tie into various aspects of my universe, most notably with the Makyan/Samurai strife and stuff related to the Masamune Brothers and Colonel Violet. Indeed, this story had a chance to be my second story to not feature a canon character (Were It So Easy is, as of writing this commentary, the only story of mine to not feature any canon Dragon Ball characters), so adding in Colonel Violet and her stuff was something very important to me. I'll get into specifics in the below endnotes, related to that stuff.
This is the only story in The Heels of the Unknown that kept its original theme song. Along the Road (live) by Radical Face is an interesting song, and it alone was the reason for many of the song choices I made for this one-shot collection. By itself, it works really well for this pensive, "along the road" walk that Elijah goes down at the start of the second scene. It's a good song about isolation, the beauty of humanity, and the ghosts in one's mind. In essence, it's the perfect song for this story. It works on multiple levels with Elijah and the story as a whole, and very well could have been cued at the start of the second scene. This song being live is also important. I like this version of the song more than the studio version, so I decided to use it.
In the early formation of the theme songs for the eight stories, I decided that half of the songs should be live and half should be studio versions. My original goal was to make all of the serious stories have live theme songs and all of the comedies have studio songs. This of course changed when I changed both theme songs for the spring binary one-shots. I still tried to maintain half of the songs being live and half being studio versions, but I did not split them by serious or comedy stories. For example, I'm a Candy Man is the comedy story in the spring binary, and it has a live theme song, whereas this one is the serious story for the summer binary. As it turns out, three of the four live theme songs ended up with serious stories anyways, though.
Still, I do think it's interesting that "Along the Road" is the only theme song that survived to final publication. I think it says a lot about how "right" this song was from the beginning, and it also shows how I had a good idea of what this story would be about, thematically and tonally, months and months before I wrote it, which perhaps was not the case with any other story in The Heels of the Unknown.
Anyways, that's all I can think to share for this opening monologue, so onto the endnotes!
|Down the Well-Worn Road|
He was old, older than Elijah had remembered. Sitting in the cramped room, with only the light of the fire to illuminate the surroundings, the venerable swordsmith looked more like a mountain than a man. Deep creases lined his face; his fingers had become fat and stubby; his eyes were watery and glossy-blue; his flat face was stark, hairless, stern. He eyed the samurai acutely.
His nose burned; his face twitched. Elijah ran two fingers along his chin, feeling how long his beard had grown. Too long, he knew. It wasn’t supposed to get like this. In one fluid motion, he reached behind him and handed the swordsmith the blade. The scabbard was wrought of onyx and silver and jade and gold, interwoven in the delicate rich patterning the Masamune brothers were famous for. It felt odd giving the man this blade now. More than two decades ago, it had been the other way around.
Master Jakuto ran a shaking finger across the face of the scabbard. “Clearsight,” he murmured. “I never thought I’d live to see it again. Have you kept it in good condition?”
“I have used it only sparingly.”
“Good, good,” the man said, sighing. “A fine blade, this is. I remember when we forged it… all those years ago…” His eyes were brimming with tears. The room was getting smokey. Elijah’s beard itched. “Nine months it took. Twelve smiths… I worked on the forging of the metal itself, but others crafted the hilt, the edge, the scabbard…” He furrowed his brow. “I don’t remember any of their names. Strange, isn’t it? I should. I knew them, I know I did. They helped me forge one of the legendary samurai blades in this world…”
“It’s fine,” Elijah whispered. “They don’t matter anyways. I’m here to discuss something else.”
“When Clearsight was complete, I presented it to my brother,” Master Jakuto continued, ignoring Elijah, “and he – he didn’t even care! He didn’t have a swordsman’s eye! Ah, but he should’ve been able to appreciate the beauty of it, at least,” he shook his head.
“You know he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t in the business.”
“Of course, but still…” The words hung in the air, mixing with the smoke. Around them, on all sides, were stacks of papers and scrolls. Tables and chairs were covered in bits of metal, scabbards, and occasionally an unsheathed sword. None matched Elijah’s, the samurai knew. And none would, ever again. It was a mess. The bamboo floor was hard. The rug they were sitting on was as ancient as the man sitting before Elijah. On it, a dragon was locked in single combat with a tiger. Elijah remembered coming here as a child to get his sword and seeing that rug for the first time. The sight of it had tickled something inside him that day, something that still made him lightheaded when he thought about it. And here he was, in this room again.
The swordsmith set Elijah’s blade aside and grasped two bowls from the table, presenting them to his onlooker. “Sake,” he grunted, shaking the broad-faced, thin bowl with an ink-and-emerald patterning of a frog sitting on a lilypad. “Or tea.” He shook the other bowl, a roughly-made, broad-faced lump of white clay with a ragged image of a blushing hydrangea on its face. The bowl’s face was bent and its rim uneven, and Elijah reached for it.
“Green tea. Usucha-grade. Locally-made.”
Elijah brought the cup to his lips, feeling the warmth of vapor kiss him. He did not drink tea often. In fact, he avoided drinking it as much as he could. This was mere politeness. He knew what caffeine was, what it could do to a body. He had been instructed from an early age to avoid all poisons and drugs, to keep his body as healthy and formidable as possible. He was a samurai, a trained, disciplined warrior… or he was supposed to be. The samurai brought the bowl to his mouth and drank. He felt it at once, the adrenaline spreading through his body like corruption. He swallowed a second gulp. Master Jakuto had already downed his entire cup. The bowl with the lilypad sat empty on the table, surrounded by scrolls and sealing wax.
“There have been legendary blades throughout all of time, make no mistake. The ancient masters crafted some truly exquisite works of art. They’re all lost now. We had only stories and paintings to go off of. We used a wall scroll of the great golden blade of the legendary samurai general Ahakine as the basis for Clearsight, for example.”
Elijah sipped his tea. He clenched and unclenched his sword hand before scratching his nose. “How does Clearsight compare?”
“Oho, your katana is a fine blade, don’t get me wrong. I am proud of it. But it’s nothing compared to what our ancestors could accomplish. It’s not just the skill in the metalwork, no. Their swordsmanship, Elijah… The samurai in the legendary times were much better at making battle than we are. They transcended the barbarity of mortality… and created art. Poetry, I believe. When two great masters of the katana dueled, it was as if the world sang with them. Their elegance… not a move wasted… we cannot compare to them, today.”
Elijah felt heat rising in his cheeks. “I am the greatest living samurai,” he stated plainly. It was the simple truth. “Are you saying I could not match them?”
“It would be as if you were fighting against untrained children. You would never lose to them. And the masters of old… they would never lose to you.”
“I have trained my entire life, given everything I have to the samurai code of honor,” Elijah said, his voice rising. Suddenly, he felt like protecting his pride, felt like reminding this man that he was, in fact, worth something. “I think I’d be able to–”
“You wouldn’t, trust me.”
“Have you seen any of them fight?”
“No, they were dead hundreds of years before I was born.”
“I thought so.”
“Heh?!” the man laughed, reaching for the sake bottle and pouring himself another shot. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Elijah sipped his tea. “I have not come here to chat about how you think I am but a child playing with sticks compared to the samurai masters of old. I have come for more important business.”
“Yes, I assumed as much. You wouldn’t return to actually say goodbye to me, would you?”
Elijah stared at the man’s foggy blue eyes and blinked, feeling the smoke in his eyelids. “It’s not that, sir. I-I’m sorry if you wanted me to pay respects…”
“Oh, no. Don’t worry about me. I’m not dying,” the man replied, swallowing his sake and pouring a third glass. “Yet we samurai are a dying breed. Our kind cannot go on. You said you trained your last group recently… how many of them became samurai?”
“One.” The word hung heavily in the air. “I remember making more than one katana for your latest batch of students,” the man said unblinkingly.
Elijah nodded and bowed his head. He didn’t want to talk about that.
“Two generations,” Master Jakuto continued. “That’s how long I’d give it before the samurai are extinct.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic.”
“I’m not. I’m a realist. And the realist in me is thankful he got to be a part of the last generation of samurai, before we vanished into oblivion. Kami only knows how I’d make a living if I was born now.”
There were a few drops of tea left at the bottom of the bowl, but they were colored by the darkness of the rose-tinted ink. Elijah set the bowl on the table, hoping the man would think it empty, or better yet, not even notice it. “I am here for Makare’s blade,” Elijah said at last. “I was hoping you would know where it is.”
“The very same.”
“What happened to him?”
Elijah’s eyes flared with annoyance. “You know what happened. My only pupil who survived the samurai trials killed him in a duel.”
“That he did.” The swordsmith leaned back and scratched his chin, thinking. “Makare… he was special. Once in a lifetime kind of warrior. We made his blade like we made yours. It took twelve of us nine months of nonstop work. But his didn’t come out as good as yours. It was more brittle, sharper, and it didn’t feel quite as good in the hand as Clearsight did. Chill of Midnight he named it. An apt name… and a foolish name. I heard after we gave him the blade, he stripped it of its ornamentation.”
“He did. It looks like a normal katana now. He used it often. I’m sure its condition is poor.”
“The blade is just like its master, we used to say. One becomes the other, and the other becomes the one. Makare was feral and brutish, and his blade was bare and savage. I would think the two influenced one another, before the end. Before your student killed him. That is stunning, really. I can’t believe a mere student could kill a man of that calibre.”
“He’s dead. That cannot be changed. He fell from the way; he was not a samurai in the end.” Elijah phrased his words carefully, so as to not offend the old man. “But his blade remained. I should have taken it when I could have, but I didn’t. I don’t know what happened to it since then. I returned to where Makare died not a week ago, and found nothing. I was hoping you knew where it had gone, master.”
Master Jakuto looked at Elijah with a curious glance, then downed another shot of sake. “Do you remember Minamogi? He was a student in the same class as you and Makare.”
“He did not become a samurai like us.”
“Yeah, but he never gave up his hope of becoming a samurai after he washed out. He stole a katana, trained in our ways of combat, even captured and tortured one of my fellow smiths to learn the secrets of our kind. But he is no samurai. Like a painted flower, he was never the real thing.”
“All of this I already know,” replied the samurai.
Annoyance bloomed on Master Jakuto’s face. “Let me finish! As I was saying, Minamogi was a man who once had a dream of being a samurai. Like you, and many others, he held that desire deeply in his heart, until it consumed him. He obsessed over it, trying his best to become the warrior he dreamed he should have been. Yet unlike you, Elijah, he failed. You take for granted how easily you passed all of the tests, but for others, that was hardly the case. They worked their entire lives to become samurai, while you succeeded with indifference. That bred animosity, I’m sure.”
“I killed more than a few of them.”
“I am not surprised. But Minamogi is your target. He has the blade. I have known this for more than three months. My eyes are not so blind… not yet, anyways. He was careless and boasted of his new treasure, and word leaked out near these parts. I have known for a while now. It has left a bitter taste in my mouth, that a man not worthy of that blade now wields it.”
“Where is he?”
“In a cave, due east. At the base of the mountain. Don’t bother getting the name, half the locals don’t even know it. Just follow the road. You won’t miss it.”
“And you’re sure he has Makare’s blade?”
“I am sure he claims he has it. If he actually does… well, that is for you to decide, Elijah.”
Elijah stood suddenly. Master Jakuto took another gulp of sake and hissed out a sigh.
“He has guards. Some do not use swords, but guns. You would be wise to take the blade from him in the night, while everyone’s sleeping. I don’t think you can outduel all of them.”
The samurai snatched up Clearsight and slung it over his shoulder. He turned from the swordsmith. “If they are no true samurai, it will not be a problem.”
“They are men, Elijah,” Master Jakuto cautioned. “And men, especially when cornered, are vicious creatures.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you for the tea.”
Elijah cracked his neck and stepped out of the hovel, out into the fading light of the day. He would never be back here, he knew. He would never see the man who forged Clearsight again. Jakuto had made Elijah into who he was; he had melded the boy into the samurai, as he had melded the tamahagane steel into a deadly weapon. Yet, Elijah did not feel sorrow, nor did he feel joy.
Caffeine coursed through his veins. His heart was beating like it was on its last gasp.
The swings swayed in the wind, their rusty chains rattling across the dead earth. Weeds grew in cities, sprouting up between the holes in the metal floor of the merry-go-round. The tallest slide was worn and twisted, its plastic faded to a midnight blue; the shorter slide had long-since collapsed and been swallowed by foxtails. The sun fried the air from an angry orange sky. Elijah had not been out here more than a few minutes, and already he was beginning to sweat through his robes.
The heat felt nice in a way. The sun was beginning to fall behind the horizon, though, so he knew he didn’t have much more light. He made his way down the desolate road with great haste. There was no one else around; it was as if the samurai was wandering through a graveyard. Decaying cherry trees lined the road ahead, their branches twisted and reaching up towards the sky as if in prayer for water. Old cherry blossoms, pink and wilted, lay on the dirt path all around. There was no fruit.
The mountain was in the distance, sprouting up from horizon like the angry, crooked tooth of a slumbering giant. Red it was, and no trees grew upon it. A single cloud drifted overhead, mocking the heat. In his heart, Elijah wanted to make for the coast, to return to his home. But he had to press onwards. Wiping his brow, he lowered his shoulder, grabbed his scabbard, and began to run, his sandals clicking off the hard dirt ground with every step. A dust cloud formed behind him. He sprinted past the weeds and yellow grass, past the tumbleweeds and abandoned mattresses by the side of the road, past a leaning sign that said ‘Beware!’ and had a painted imp on its octagonal face, past a broken-down truck that looked as if it had been there for longer than Elijah had walked the Earth. He never saw another person. There had been a town here once, somewhere around here. Yet, as the samurai peered about, he didn’t even see abandoned buildings. It was as if he was running through the barren wilderness, in a place where man had never set foot before. But he had been down this road in the past, in the days before he had been a samurai. Elijah knew there had once been life here.
It did not take long for Elijah to reach the mountain. Covered in sweat and breathing hard, he stopped and stared, holding his sword hilt. He was strong for a man his age, but he was just a man. Already tired, he didn’t know if he had the strength to cut his way through a host of foes. The sun was setting; the air was cooling. The crickets were beginning to make music. A falcon was circling above, on the side of the mountain, searching for prey. Its screech echoed down to Elijah and gave him comfort.
There were several parked hovercars in front of the entrance to the cave. It was not hard to miss. The bandits were not hiding. They wouldn’t be expecting anyone to come out here looking for them. They had left no guards, no cameras, no gate. Their entrance was open for the world, in all of its hubris. The last thing they should expect would be a samurai sneaking in to kill them all. He grasped the hilt tighter, clenched his jaw, felt the caffeine in his veins, and ran into the darkness.
Soft as a cave spider Elijah moved. He didn’t know how many there were, how skilled they were. He couldn’t let them know he was here until he was sure he could defeat them. Ahead, he heard voices, and soon torchlight alerted him to where his quarry was. Crouching behind a column of stalagmites, Elijah saw two men in dark suits, their pistols holstered, their attention on a set of crates before them. They each had a strange insignia above the left breast of their uniforms – three rows of two blood-red tears descending diagonally away from their bodies on a black shield. Elijah slid his katana out of its scabbard silently. When he was sure the two were both preoccupied with their work, he darted forward and sliced their throats.
It was easy work. These were simple grunts, or guards perhaps. Their weapons were guns, not swords, however. And that worried Elijah. He stood a better chance against swordsmen. He looked over the crates the men were inspecting and found rows of dark bags with white powder in them. Moving onward, Elijah heard voices coming from another chamber. This time, when he entered, he saw a tall, unshaven man whom he instantly recognized as Minamogi chatting with a woman in a dark suit – the same kind as the two men Elijah had killed moments before – with short purple hair and a pistol in her hands.
“50,000,000 zeni,” she was saying. “That’s the new rate.
“It was 30,000,000 last time,” Minamogi observed coolly.
“Yeah, what’s changed?” one of his underlings asked. Elijah could see there were five other men in the room, all wearing light leather armor. They had short swords and scimitars sheathed by their sides. These were the bandits. Who they were dealing with, the people with the guns, Elijah did not know.
“That’s the new rate,” the woman repeated, her voice as firm as bamboo. “Take it or leave it. That’s what we’re offering.”
“We’ll pay 30,000,000.” Minamogi stated. “Not a zeni more.”
“I’m not interested.”
“You are.” Minamogi drew his blade and pointed it at the woman, holding the edge to her throat. Elijah saw the sheen of it in the torchlight. He recognized the tamahagane steel, and it took his breath away. “If you want to get out of this cave, you’ll take the 30,000,000.”
The woman looked uncomfortable, but not afraid. She had a pistol in her hand, but she chose not to point it at the not-quite-a-samurai. “Are you threatening me?” she laughed. “Really? After all we’ve been through?”
Minamogi was fuming, his eyes were bloodshot, and he was sweating profusely, Elijah could tell. “The snow’s mine. I’m not leaving here without it! Now, are you going to give it to us, or are we gonna have to take it?”
The woman whistled. No response came. Elijah was covered in a cold shiver. His heart was beating fast and hard. He swore, cursing himself for being so polite. He knew the woman was calling her two soldiers to come help her. They wouldn’t be coming. When they didn’t, a look of worry finally appeared on her face. She kept glancing at the tunnel where Elijah crouched, and he could see the desperation in her eyes.
“Calling for backup?” Minamogi laughed. “You want to kill us, don’t you?”
“N-no…” she swore.
One of the men clapped his hands and licked his lips. “I say slit her throat.”
“Cut her to pieces, boss!”
“Rip ‘er ta shreds!”
Minamogi lowered his blade. The purple-haired woman let out a sigh of relief and stepped away from the feral bandits, holding her pistol tight to her chest. “What’s wrong with you?!” she roared at the bandit chief, but he wasn’t looking at her. Beyond her, his eyes stared. “Hey, Minamogi!” The man wouldn’t reply. The woman spun around, to see what he was seeing, and that was when she first beheld Elijah, the former Daimyo of the Iboinoshishi Samurai School. Clearsight was in his hand. The woman’s eyes grew wide and she bolted off down a side tunnel.
“I looked for you in Makare’s army,” Elijah spoke softly, descending the rocky hill to the bandit’s den.
“I was not there,” Minamogi answered.
“You’d be dead if he had been!” one bandit sneered, brown-toothed and cocksure.
“Yet you have Makare’s blade,” Elijah noted. “Tell me, Minamogi, how the weapon of a great samurai lord came into your possession.”
“This is my blade! It has always been mine.”
“When we were children, you were expelled from the samurai academy because you couldn’t grip a katana properly. You cut bamboo unevenly. You were too wild.”
“They feared what they didn’t understand,” the man boasted. “I have grown to surpass anyone in that academy. I am the true samurai.”
“No,” spoke the samurai as he reached the group of six. “Don’t you understand, Minamogi? The samurai are all dead or gone. You’re just a ghost.”
Minamogi smirked. “Is that so? In that case, you have no hope of beating me.”
“That blade belongs to a samurai. It is not yours to disgrace.”
“But Elijah, I thought you said the samurai were dead.”
“Most of us are.”
Minamogi raised Makare’s katana and pointed it at Elijah. “And soon all of you will be.”
The bandits drew their blades and likewise pointed them at Elijah. A few moved around behind him until he was fully surrounded.
“No,” Elijah said sadly. “Soon I’ll be the only one left.”
They came at him like wolves, undisciplined and hungry. He parried their blows with grace and authority, quickly spinning around the three behind him, forcing all six in front of him. Elijah took out the first two bandits who charged him, cutting the first one across the windpipe and the spilling the second one’s belly out onto the rocky floor. Four charged him in unison, Minamogi urging his group on. Elijah quickly realized the tall man was his only threat. He slew one bandit who got a little too close, cutting his nose and much of his forehead off. Blood flew; men screamed and shouted and died.
They pressed Elijah up against a wall and spread out, Minamogi in the middle, his two remaining lackeys on either side. Elijah looked at his options and knew he had none. If he went right, Minamogi would slice him. If he went left, Minamogi would slice him. If he went for the bandit chief, the other two would take him from either side. He thought of the samurai lords of legend, the warriors who had inspired entire generations of samurai, including his. They had been true masters. They had been able to kill anyone they wanted. They were samurai; they could not be beaten. Master Jakuto thought Elijah was nothing compared to them. Well, if he died here, the old swordsmith would be right. Elijah felt his heart beating in his ears. He lunged forward.
The man on Elijah’s right did not expect this. The samurai came right at him. Yet before he hit the man, the samurai spun about, parried the bandit’s blow, grabbed the man by the shoulders, and threw him at Minamogi. The bandit chief was already swinging his blade forward when his underling came flying into it. Elijah rolled around the bigger man as he fumbled with his stuck sword, and easily slew the last remaining bandit in a quick exchange of steel that left the man without either of his hands and a gaping hole in his neck.
Elijah twirled his blade, shaking the blood off of it, and faced Minamogi again. This time it was the bandit whose back was to the wall. He grinned and scratched his beard, admiring Makare’s blade in the torchlight. “Nice and light,” he noted. “Suited for a quick strike.”
“It will cut anything,” Elijah replied. “But that kind of indiscriminate butchery was suited for its master, not you. You don’t understand how to use such a blade. You are no samurai.”
“Am I not?” Minamogi replied angrily. “And what exactly makes a samurai? If Makare was one, how am I not?!”
“Let me show you, sir.”
Elijah stepped forward, twirling Clearsight in a dizzying blur of silver. Minamogi tried to parry, but he could not. Elijah cut the man seven times across his chest, each one a light scratch, but deep enough to cause blood to well up under the bandit’s leather armor. Then, the samurai stepped back and lowered his blade into a defensive stance.
“Bastard! I’ll have your blade too!” Minamogi roared, feeling his wounds.
Elijah nodded somberly. “You will.”
Their blades met above the dead and dying bodies, parrying sparks and whistling through the air with such speed that a normal man would not be able to tell what was going on. Elijah had dueled against Makare many times. Clearsight had fought Chill of Midnight more than once; and never had it felt like this. Never had his foe been this clumsy and so out of his element. It felt wrong. Elijah felt like he was losing what he remembered of Makare, of their duels. He needed to end it. The showiness of it, the fun of battling, the feeling of being a samurai… it had all disappeared. Now he just wanted it to end. Minamogi thrust the blade forward and feigned slicing upwards before slicing downwards. Elijah saw that coming; the big man’s posture had given away his strategy long before he had enacted it. Elijah caught the blade with his own, and their hilts clashed, locking together. Then, he lowered his hilt and dropped it inwards towards Minamogi’s chest. Minamogi was now stuck – he could not slice down, and he could not break free. Elijah kicked the man’s feet out from under him.
Minamogi dropped Makare’s blade and fumbled at Elijah desperately, trying to take Clearsight from him, perhaps. But that would never happen. Clearsight had been with Elijah since he had been a boy… since he had been younger than even Yajirobe had when he had received his katana. Clearsight was part of Elijah, an extension of his arm. It would never be taken by a mere bandit.
And so it was not. Elijah knocked the man’s hands away, cutting them severely, and stabbed Minamogi in the heart. The big bandit coughed up blood and began to convulse. Elijah stood up and stepped away to watch his former schoolmate take his last breath. But Minamogi would not die so easily. He stumbled to his feet, clutching at his wound, and grabbed Makare’s blade. His hands were slick with blood. He was trembling. He was sweating. His beady eyes were bloodshot and wide as the purple-haired woman’s had been. He stared at Elijah with disgust, and charged. Elijah knew this was why Minamogi had never completed his training in the academy. He was too rash, too hasty, too overcome by emotion. Elijah sidestepped the bandit and snapped his blade back. He felt it connect with Minamogi’s neck before effortlessly slicing through his muscles and tendons and spinal cord.
With a dull thud, Minamogi’s body and detached head hit the floor.
Sighing and cracking his neck again, Elijah bent down to pick up Makare’s katana. He wiped the blood from it and held it up to his own. There was no comparison, he knew. His was better; it was more beautiful, more balanced, more nuanced in its sharpness. Makare’s was all brute force. He had tried to make it ugly, but it wasn’t. It was a legendary blade, a sword worthy of song and tale. Makare’s songs and tales were long finished, though. Elijah sheathed the sword in its plain scabbard and slung it over his shoulder.
He briefly considered taking Minamogi’s head with him, but stopped himself when he remembered that the man had not been a true samurai, or even that much of a challenge. It was amazing to Elijah how easily the tall man had gone down. The training Elijah had received in the academy after Minamogi’s dismissal must have been quite beneficial. Or maybe Elijah was just that much more talented than his peers. He didn’t know. He didn’t care. The samurai were all gone except him. There was no one else to appreciate his talent. Soon, he too would be gone, and only stories and legends of him would persist. Makare would exist as long as Chill of Midnight did. Perhaps Elijah would last just as long in his own sword.
He was wondering if Yajirobe would remember him, or tell anyone about him, when he heard footsteps coming from down the tunnel. There appeared the woman with the purple hair. In a moment, realization washed over her as she took in the carnage of the room – the bodies, the blood, and the one man who had survived it all. Then, she raised her pistol and shot him.
Three bullets hit: one ripped through his left shoulder, one grazed him just above that wound on the side of his neck, and the third took him in the lower stomach. Elijah’s blood spurted out. He groaned and dropped his swords, falling forward. The woman was already running back towards the cave’s entrance. He would not be able to catch her.
On his hands and knees, Elijah coughed up blood, feeling the waves of pain radiate around his wounds. He knew he had to get out of there soon if he wanted to survive. He tried to stand, but failed, falling over. His heart was beating like a mad rabbit. The pain was too much. He collapsed, and closed his eyes, feeling the blood trickling out of his body.
The last of the samurai he was, and just like so many before him, he was going to be finished by a gun. He was better than most samurai, the best of his generation, probably the the most skilled with a blade in hundreds of years, and yet even he could not deal with guns. The time of the samurai was over, he knew.
Makare had died. Naigo had died. Kumo had died. All of his childhood friends were dead; even most of the failed recruits from the academy were dead. All of his students were dead or disappeared, save for Yajirobe. Elijah let out a hard breath and moaned in pain.
Yajirobe was his legacy.
Elijah had trained the last samurai in the world. And then suddenly, his heartbeat faded, and Elijah felt at peace. A sense of numbness covered him, and he felt a sense of ease. For the first time in a long time, he felt tranquil.
Then the pain in his shoulder and belly roared up again. Yajirobe had known; the boy had seen it in Elijah’s face when he had returned from slaying Makare. He felt guilty for what he had done to Yajirobe, for what he had put the boy through, but he couldn’t help it. Things hadn’t gone as he had hoped, and to this day, he still felt a suffocating sense of loss over what had happened.
His heart was beating again, now with such force that it felt like it was about to burst from his rib cage. Elijah opened his eyes and stood up. He looked at the blades in front of him, remembering Makare. He thought of all they had been through, the trials, the blood and sweat and death, and knew he had been through worse. Was he just getting old? Tired? He didn’t know. He had almost given up and become like them.
Not anymore. Elijah stood. He felt weak, felt tired, but he wanted to live. He knew that. The samurai slung the katanas over his shoulder and stumbled out of the cave, ignoring the pain and chuckling to himself. “If only Makare could see me now,” he declared, “he’d wonder why it was me, not him, who lasted till the end.”
- Originally, The Heels of the Unknown was going to be titled in regards to the vague "long and winding road" concept, or this idea of traveling down an uncertain road. "As We Wind On Down The Road", "The Long and Winding Road", "The Road Goes Ever On", etc. were some of the previous names that I discarded. I decided to go with something similar for this story, as its theme song, "Along the Road" also mentions a journey down a road. This idea of drifting through life, focusing on character building more so than plot expansion (plot is character building in the public world, anyways), makes Down the Well-Worn Road a bit of a microcosm of this one-shot collection as a whole, so its name is apt.
- The hanging wall scroll chosen for this one-shot was one of the earliest ones I chose for any of the one-shots in The Heels of the Unknown. Dragons and Tigers are great symbolic animals for the warrior spirit of samurai.
- Jakuto's physical appearance is described in a way that relates it to Japanese aesthetics such as mono no aware. There's this deep sense of loss in the opening scene, a sort of melancholy that isn't totally sad. Jakuto can no longer operate as a swordsmith. He's too old; he's physically deteriorating in a heartbreaking way. Once, he had been one of the best swordsmiths in the world - now he's a shadow of a man who's already faded. His purpose in life was to make world-class katanas. He can't do that any more. He has no purpose in life, it seems. This is similar to Elijah's position in life. By this point in the timeline, the samurai are fading, and their purpose in society is waning along with their own lives and prosperity. They have become irrelevant and obsolete to modern society, but that doesn't mean that they don't have value - rather, the majority population of Earth, as well as the technical achievements of humans, have shifted focus away from people like samurai, or master-forged katanas, to more modern things. So both Jakuto and Elijah have been left behind and are relics of the past, to a degree.
- Elijah's sword is not named in Spindlerun, but I thought it deserved a name. All good swords have names, so I came up withe Clearsight. His sword is actually named on this page, albeit only in Japanese. I translated its name for the first time in this story. Its name is a reflection of Elijah's personality. As well, it's a related to his quote from Spindlerun about how he values awareness above all other mental abilities in a prospective student.
- "“I have used it only sparingly.”" - this is perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, since Elijah of course used his blade several times in Spindlerun, most notably against Makare in their super crazy duel.
- Jakuto's forgetfulness about his fellow swordsmiths' names is not just character development. Elijah saying they don't matter should clue in some readers that in fact they do matter.
- Elijah's katana was described as being highly ornate for a number of reasons: for one, I wanted something that looked cool and expensive; also, he's a Daimyo, so he deserves a fine blade; and of course, it just is more interesting if the blade looks cool. Makare stripped his blade of its gold and precious metals and all that stuff, so to create a contrast between his blade and Elijah's this early on was important, for that also shows a personality difference between the two. The shadow of Makare hangs heavily over Elijah in this story, even though Makare is long dead, killed at the hands of Yajirobe in chapter 6 of Spindlerun. This is definitely at least taking place several months later, so Elijah has had time to reflect on Makare's passing, and he's been able to grieve (or at least start grieving) his childhood friend.
- So an interesting thing that came out of this story is that the Masamune Brothers are revealed to not both be swordsmiths - Jakuto's brother isn't even in the business. I made this decision for Chasing Oblivion's sake, as I wanted Jakuto's brother (who is named Tonji) to be a major character in that story. He is a saké brewer instead. So this dichotomy between the brothers - one makes fine alcohol, while the other forges the best katanas in the world - was a cool one to develop, although I didn't reveal too much about Tonji in this story. The reward is there mainly for those who have read both this one-shot and Chasing Oblivion (chapter 1 of Chasing Oblivion, which features Tonji significantly, was written before I did the commentary for this one-shot).
- The smoke and incense in the air are aspects of a specific traditional type of tea ceremony. Notice how Elijah is having somewhat adverse reactions to them, although whenever he seems to want to feel an emotion, he instead is described as having a reaction to the air and smoke and burning smells in the air. Perhaps that is him deceiving himself. Aside from all of this being related to technical aspects of the Japanese tea ceremony, this also shows how numb Elijah is, and how closed-off emotionally he is. The devastation he feels over losing his greatest rival and childhood friend is definitely weighing down on him in a subtle, but powerful way.
- The rug on the floor is of course portraying the same image as this one-shot's hanging wall scroll. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing to have that be a major influence on Elijah becoming a samurai. It is weird to think about him being a kid though. He was once just like Yajirobe, unsure if he could become a samurai. and he came to Jakuto's forge, saw that rug, got Clearsight from the man, and knew then and there that he wanted to be a samurai.
- Jakuto's room being a mess and none of his swords matching Elijah's are two important insights into his character.
- A lot of Elijah's personality quirks are based on me, for he was based on me somewhat in Spindlerun. The way he brushes his fingers across his face, feeling how long his beard's gotten (and his general distaste of beards while also having one) and feeling lightheaded remembering the day he decided to become a samurai are two defining character-building moments in this story.
- It was fun to have an actual tea ceremony, of sorts, in this story. I knew by this point that Tonji would be a saké brewer, so it was fun to have Jakuto offer Elijah some saké, subtly hinting at his brother's business. Elijah, like myself, does not like alcohol, so he passes for green tea. However, he also doesn't like caffeine much at all and fears it to a degree, because it makes his heart hurt. This is the same for me. Elijah still picks the tea over the saké, though.
- The tea bowls are described like tea ceremony bowls would be - they are imperfect, yet beautiful, just like people. There are meanings behind the imperfect beauty of the tea bowls in that section, I'm sure. It is no accident that the tea bowl is more roughly-made than the saké bowl.
- Usucha-grade green tea is a type used in some tea ceremonies. There are two primary types of green tea used, and I actually mention the other type in a later story in this collection. We'll get to that commentary in that page's anthology though (I believe I mention the other type of tea in The Great Sushi-Eating Contest).
- It's interesting that Elijah considers caffeine to be a poison, but drinks it anyways just to be polite. How easily he compromises himself to not disappoint others.
- "“There have been legendary blades throughout all of time, make no mistake. The ancient masters crafted some truly exquisite works of art. They’re all lost now. We had only stories and paintings to go off of. We used a wall scroll of the great golden blade of the legendary samurai general Ahakine as the basis for Clearsight, for example.”" - this Jakuto quote is interesting to me. There's a lot going on in it. Notice how the old, old blades and bladesmiths have been forgotten, except for those in stories or paintings. That is basically what's happening again, only this time, the collective amnesia about samurai in society is more widespread and total. As well, notice that Clearsight was based on a wall scroll of another sword. Wall scrolls are of course tonally important in this one-shot collection (every one-shot has one, after all!) and to the Japanese tea ceremony in general. I believe I made up the name "Ahakine". If I didn't, he's one of the ancient famous Japanese swordsmen or swordsmiths, just like Masamune is. Either way, Ahakine may or may not make an appearance in Cool Cat. Keep your eyes sharp, and I'll bring it up when we get to that story's commentary.
- Elijah is focusing on these little physical tics he has, such as squeezing his hand, opening and closing it, like he's grasping onto a katana. Holding a sword, slicing with it, killing with it... that's all he knows. That's who he is. His physical tics were put in to enrich Elijah's personality and accurately portray what kind of person he is.
- Jakuto's speech about the beauty of ancient samurai doing battle is a reference to Kreia from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. In that game, there's a famous exchange between her and the protagonist where she reflects on how much more skilled ancient Sith Lords had been with the Force and lightsabers compared to the warriors who exist in contemporary times. These fond memories of the past are perhaps not accurate though. Kreia wasn't around when those ancient Sith Lords actually lived, and Jakuto wasn't alive when Ahakine supposedly lived. So he doesn't know. He's essentially just making something up for his own enjoyment, which greatly enrages Elijah, for if Jakuto was going to do something like that, he had no reason to insult Elijah at the same time. Yet he did, when he noted that Elijah couldn't possibly match the strength and skill of the ancient samurai masters. We don't actually know if he could or not, but the fact that Jakuto couldn't have known makes this a pointless argument to make. He's looking back at the past with rose-tinted glasses, and that is perhaps the most important thing to glean from that section - Jakuto's fondness of the past says a lot about him and his current state of being.
- Elijah could have really gone off on Jakuto, and he didn't let the old man get away with anything, but he holds back certainly. I think he does so out of respect. But he does defend his honor, showing another aspect of his personality. He drank the tea, willingly corrupting his body to not be rude, but he would never take such disrespect from Jakuto claiming that Elijah couldn't fight the samurai masters of old. After all, Elijah is the most skilled samurai of modern times - and it's not even really close. He knows how good he is; he's used to people knowing he's good and praising him for that. This needless humbling by Jakuto (which very well may not even be accurate) is not something Elijah will let slide like the tea.
- Jakuto flips the tables on Elijah by subtly implying that he doesn't have long to live. Elijah doesn't deal well with death - that is something apparent in Spindlerun at multiple points. But now here he suddenly realizes that this is the last time he'll see Jakuto, the man who forged Clearsight for him. That was a twist in the conversation to take the rest of the opening scene in a different direction plot-wise and tonally.
- The samurai Elijah and Jakuto are talking about (Elijah's last student) is Yajirobe.
- "Elijah nodded and bowed his head. He didn’t want to talk about that." - Elijah had expected Harotu and Brian to also become samurai in Spindlerun, but Harotu ran away and Brian died. Brian's death hit Elijah hard, harder than he wanted to admit in Spindlerun, and even here, months later, he's still depressed about losing his other students.
- "There were a few drops of tea left at the bottom of the bowl, but they were colored by the darkness of the rose-tinted ink." - I have no memory of writing this line. It's one of the best I've read in The Heels of the Unknown, though. Rich and evocative image right there with some interesting deeper meaning behind it.
- Notice how Elijah doesn't even want to talk about the possibility of the samurai going extinct (a weird word for Jakuto to use, I know), instead changing the subject to what he really wants to discuss. He's been too formal up to this point and let Jakuto ramble on too much. Now Elijah's gone for the jugular - he's ready to leave, so he needs to get the information he came for.
- "“That he did.” The swordsmith leaned back and scratched his chin, thinking. “Makare… he was special. Once in a lifetime kind of warrior. We made his blade like we made yours. It took twelve of us nine months of nonstop work. But his didn’t come out as good as yours. It was more brittle, sharper, and it didn’t feel quite as good in the hand as Clearsight did. Chill of Midnight he named it. An apt name… and a foolish name. I heard after we gave him the blade, he stripped it of its ornamentation.”" - it was fun to contrast Elijah and Makare in this paragraph. Notice how easily Jakuto praises Makare, where previously, he doubted Elijah's ability. This perhaps hints at Jakuto liking Makare more than Elijah and being disappointed at how they turned out. This paragraph also clarifies a few differences between Elijah and Makare. It's interesting, too, to note that I never showed Elijah's and Makare's samurai training when they were kids. All this lore about their pasts is being talked about as freely as the plot points of Spindlerun. but the difference is, these plot points exist only here. It's a cool little literary thing, but I'm not sure what it's technically called.
- "“The blade is just like its master, we used to say. One becomes the other, and the other becomes the one. Makare was feral and brutish, and his blade was bare and savage. I would think the two influenced one another, before the end. Before your student killed him. That is stunning, really. I can’t believe a mere student could kill a man of that calibre.”" - I was kindling the legend of Yajirobe a bit here. Also, again, Jakuto shows how much he liked Makare. As well, the thing about the blade being reflective of its master's personality is important for the greater themes of this story and its characterization of Makare and Elijah.
- Minamogi is a new character, but one I spent a significant amount of time creating. I wanted him to be as fleshed-out as possible. He's no Elijah or Makare, but he's a person too. He's not just fulfilling a role. He's the protagonist of his own life, so I had to approach his character creation very tenderly. It was nifty to be able to explain some of his backstory a bit in the first section, considering his role in the second section. I don't remember how I came up with his name, if it's based on an old samurai master or if it's just a creation of mine. Either way, his name fits the universe, and is consistent with the other character names, and does seem rather villainous to me, appearance-wise.
- "Like a painted flower, he was never the real thing." - an interesting line from Jakuto, considering the tea bowls he uses in this story.
- "Yet unlike you, Elijah, he failed. You take for granted how easily you passed all of the tests, but for others, that was hardly the case. They worked their entire lives to become samurai, while you succeeded with indifference. That bred animosity, I’m sure." - this point is really cool because it simultaneously characterizes Minamogi and Elijah. Elijah is definitely indifferent to a degree, to the point where it's unclear if he fully appreciates his own talents. I think, certainly, he doesn't understand how much of a harder time so many others - including Yajirobe and Makare - have had becoming samurai warriors. Since this story is written from Elijah's point-of-view, this is something he doesn't think about, and it is only brought to the readers' attention by another character.
- "“I killed more than a few of them.”" - notice that Elijah seems to say that with indifference. He doesn't care that people are jealous of him. He's powerful enough to kill any of them without it changing how he acts or lives.
- Elijah looks down on all non-samurai. He's an elitist at heart.
- "“They are men, Elijah,” Master Jakuto cautioned. “And men, especially when cornered, are vicious creatures.”" - really beautiful, meaningful line right here.
- "He would never be back here, he knew. He would never see the man who forged Clearsight again. Jakuto had made Elijah into who he was; he had melded the boy into the samurai, as he had melded the tamahagane steel into a deadly weapon. Yet, Elijah did not feel sorrow, nor did he feel joy." - I think this section is a good example of how Elijah is portrayed as being numb to the world. He's faced a lot of hardships and now he's in a very unfavorable position. The samurai are done; his people, his kind, his profession is fading away. It's an existential death as much as it is a real one for so many of the samurai. He has persisted because of his immeasurable talent. But at the same time, there's been a cost on him. There's a heavy feeling in his heart that he doesn't want to recognize, so all he feels is numbness in response to everything that has happened to him. That in itself introduces some of the bigger themes of this story, such as nihilism, isolation, and self-worth.
- "Caffeine coursed through his veins. His heart was beating like it was on its last gasp." - I really like this line. It shows how nervous he is while also showing the cost of him drinking the tea. Elijah may be a samurai master, but he's not in a good state-of-mind or being to go attack Minamogi. Since Elijah is stronger than Minamogi, that was the main way to build up the drama of their inevitable showdown. Maybe Elijah will lose because he's not taking his foe seriously and he's allowed his mental health to deteriorate.
- I had a very clear mental picture in my mind for the opening of the second scene. It was heavily based on the lyrics of this story's theme song.
- Death and decay in the landscape perhaps reflects Elijah's position in life as well as his mentality.
- The dying cherry trees and fallen cherry blossoms references mono no aware and was a specific callback to the cherry trees in Suicide Missionary, one of my favorite one-shots. The dramatic descriptions of everything colors the landscape as barren and dying and hopeless. This place may have once held promise, but it doesn't any longer. Same goes for the samurai in general. It's a pity there was no fruit though. Not all cherry trees fruit, but to see none fruiting is an alarming sign.
- Mount Fuji was the inspiration for the mountain in this story, though I focused on making it red-looking, whereas Mount Fuji is usually portrayed in painting as being white, on account of its snow. The red choice was more personal - red is related to anger and blood and vengeance and hate. All of those are good emotions to tonally color this second section.
- Notice also the heat in the second section. It is more pronounced, even though it's evening. This was mainly because this is a summer story. I wanted to add in a sense of seasonal variance for the various stories. Already, Down the Well-Worn Road is quite different from A Shadow on the Wind in that regard.
- We know very little of Elijah and his past. I maintained that even this story, revealing only a few useful tidbits. The fact that he used to live on the coast (and that he wants to return home) is one such example of some of his backstory being revealed.
- "He sprinted past the weeds and yellow grass, past the tumbleweeds and abandoned mattresses by the side of the road, past a leaning sign that said ‘Beware!’ and had a painted imp on its octagonal face, past a broken-down truck that looked as if it had been there for longer than Elijah had walked the Earth." - beyond this section being quite striking visually, it also has thematic value. Notice that Elijah is running past the ruins; he doesn't like them - he wants to get past them, to return to society. Additionally, the sign that says 'Beware' is a sign that is cautioning people about nearby Makyans. There haven't been Makyans around for a while, at least in large numbers, so that sign is very old, probably several hundred years old. This was a cool little easter egg that I put in, knowing that the Makyans would become important in the next story. I wanted to keep the fates of the Makyans and samurai closely-linked.
- People change. As society evolves and technology improves, roles, jobs, opinions, morality, and pretty much everything about people changes, even if it's only through slight changes. The old town that used to be there being totally gone - not even having ruins, but just these cursory, fleeting signs of society on the side of the road - was an important part of that idea. I could have put a ruin up beyond the road for Elijah to look at, but I didn't. The town had been there when Elijah had been a samurai (it's interesting to note that, privately, he doesn't consider himself a samurai anymore), but it's there no longer.
- The falcon circling over the mountain was first and foremost a callback to the eagle in Burning Man. Being a falcon and not an eagle isn't that much of a difference, although the fact that it's a bird of prey to begin with is indeed significant.
- Notice how Elijah is out-of-breath after running to the mountain. To balance his fight against Minamogi even more, I had him get tired from the run. This just makes recovering Makare's blade that much more difficult. The Elijah of years past might have turned back at this point, but we're never who we were, just who we are.
- "The last thing they should expect would be a samurai sneaking in to kill them all." - one could argue this is because samurai have basically disappeared from the world in general, not because Elijah was a sneaky sneakster.
- The organization the soldiers are a part of is one that will appear in Chasing Oblivion (they did not appear in chapter 1). I spent a while coming up with their insignia when I was writing that part, because I knew I would potentially be dealing with these guys in a significant way later on (of course, Chasing Oblivion takes place before this story, chronologically-speaking).
- So why are the samurai dying out? This perplexing question is answered rather simply: guns. Guns beat swords any day. That's all there is to it, pretty much. As time as gone on, guns have gotten cheaper and more common, and the samurai have become functionally obsolete.
- The drug Elijah finds is heroin, the same drug Colonel Violet indulges in with the mayor of South City in chapter 1 of Chasing Oblivion.
- It's quite lucky for Elijah that Minamogi's bandits don't have guns like Violet's soldiers. He would have probably died if they had guns and he challenged them. Also interesting to note are the huge sums of money they are paying for heroin. Kind of gives off the impression that Minamogi is part of more than just a local bandit gang. His dealings with Colonel Violet of the Red Ribbon Army hint that he's the leader of a large drug-trafficking business, and he's probably heavily involved in other illegal activities too. That's a lot of zeni either way.
- I am particularly proud of how Makare's blade is introduced in this story. Could have gone a lot of different ways with that, but the one I chose is ultimately the best way to show Elijah Makare's blade in my opinion.
- Minamogi is definitely going through heroin withdrawals. That's interesting too, because it shows he's not at full power, just like Elijah isn't. There isn't this last cataclysmic clash of two amazing warriors. They are two men just barely getting by, neither of them at full strength.
- Elijah is having a reaction to caffeine similar to me. I don't drink caffeine regularly, so on the rare occasion I do have it, it tends to affect my body severely.
- Minamogi's bandits were based on the Orcs from The Lord of the Rings.
- It's cool to see Violet unsure of herself. She's so calm and collected in the anime, that putting her in a situation like this was really fun. She's just a great character, so it's great fun to write for her at all. I definitely started the scene with her being her normal, arrogant, carefree self.
- Elijah essentially saves Violet from being killed by Minamogi. I'm pretty sure in his drug-withdrawal state, he would have killed her just to get all that heroin. But even as he is, he recognizes Elijah, and he understands the threat that man brings. When Elijah appears to interrupt the conversation, I still get goosebumps. It's a badass moment.
- Elijah's opening exchange with Minamogi is entirely based on my favorite moment from the A Song of Ice and Fire universe: Ned Stark's fever dream about the Tower of Joy.
- Makare's army was the one he used in Spindlerun. Any good reader would remember that they were led by Naigo, the Lord of Hunger, and every one of them died during the events of Spindlerun. Minamogi is a relic of the past; he probably should have been with them and died, but he wasn't. He instead became a bandit and forged an alliance with the Red Ribbon Army (or maybe just Colonel Violet and her own force). That kept him alive. His mistake, however, was stealing Makare's katana. That sent Elijah after him; had Minamogi not been so envious and enslaved to his desires, he might've been one of the few former samurai students to have survived, as clearly Elijah wouldn't have hunted him down otherwise.
- It was really fun coming up with Minamogi's backstory, especially when told from Elijah's biased point-of-view. It's interesting to note that he was too wild to be a samurai, that he couldn't grip a blade properly to cut through bamboo. That fact may be key later on.
- Minamogi is an interesting villain. He obsesses about being a samurai, about holding that title. Elijah doesn't care about the title as much - he has even thought about how he himself is not a samurai! But at the same time, Elijah is quick to point out that Minamogi's world view is perverted and wrong, which is interesting. Elijah may not care if he himself is a samurai, but he won't let Minamogi claim for one more second that he's one too. It's interesting because the samurai have pretty much all died or retired. You'd think Elijah would want to have as many samurai in the world as possible, that he wouldn't care if Minamogi claims he's one now, given the dearth of other samurai talent in the world. But he does. Elijah has a pride in his rank, in being a samurai. This is such a cool battle, because they are essentially the last two samurai in the world, or at least the only two we know of who are actively involved in being samurai (Yajirobe surely does not do much in that regard). And yet, here they are, preparing to fight. It's like thematic cannibalism. The samurai are so weak and few already, and yet perhaps the last two, if either of them even is a samurai, are about to fight to the death. And that idea that neither of them is actually still a samurai is another major theme (it could go either way) that was based on KOTOR 2. Elijah disdains Minamogi. He recognizes that the samurai have fallen, but he cannot let the reputation of all samurai be tarnished by one bandit wannabe.
- Elijah's fight against the bandits is based on the Tower of Joy scene from Game of Thrones, which first aired about a week before I wrote this story.
- The fight scene was meant to be very gory, as sword fights normally are. It's not like in the movies where one slice to the chest downs a foe. No, I wanted to be more accurate and more descriptive: stomachs are torn asunder, noses are cut off, throats are split open, etc. I wanted this fight to be visually horrifying and realistic at once. The realism of it is what's horrifying, not anything that I made up just to be shocking.
- Great moment when Elijah uses Jakuto's criticisms of him to beat Minamogi. That was some character building paying off for once!
- I'd forgotten a lot of the specifics of the fight before this re-read, but now that I have re-read it, it is definitely one of my favorite moments in this collection. Great fight scene overall - lots of tension and badass moments, and the descriptions were on-point.
- Minamogi not being able to use the samurai blade accurately is a sad moment. To Elijah, it confirms that Minamogi is not a samurai and that he is nowhere near Makare's level. This battle to Elijah was in many ways the final showdown he wanted against Makare. He never got to kill Makare - Yajirobe did. But Makare was Elijah's rival, since they were kids. When he died, things were left unresolved between him and Elijah. And now Elijah is realizing that killing Minamogi will not resolve his issues with Makare. He had hoped this fight would do just that, would heal all his mental wounds, but it won't. Life can be cruel like that. It is interesting that Elijah can even tell that Minamogi can't use Makare's blade to its potential. It somewhat confirms what Jakuto said earlier about newer generations of samurai not matching the previous generations in skill.
- Elijah's last few words to Minamogi are a reference to Ser Arthur Dayne's exchange with The Smiling Knight in A Song of Ice and Fire.
- Very unique moment when Elijah realizes he's forgetting what it feels like to fight against Makare when he fights Minamogi. Minamogi is spoiling his memories of his greatest rival. That is why Elijah then ends it quickly.
- The way Elijah takes out Minamogi was meant to show his impressive skill. He outclasses the wannabe samurai severely and shows his true skill. Without much effort, he effectively disarms the bigger man even when Minamogi is trying his hardest to kill Elijah. That is very impressive.
- Elijah's passion about the blade that has been with him longer than it hasn't brings a tear to my eye. He's had it since he was younger than Yajirobe. That's crazy. He must've been an absolute prodigy in his youth.
- It is traditional for samurai to cut off the head of their opponents (especially if their opponents are samurai), so it's interesting that Elijah did so here. He didn't respect Minamogi or anything like that, and I don't think he considered the man to be much competition. It's a strange move, perhaps one that shines a bit of light on Elijah's personality in a different way.
- "He had tried to make it ugly, but it wasn’t." - stunning line. I think this says a lot about Elijah's feelings about Makare in general.
- It's also sad to realize that Makare and Elijah will never fight again, that Makare's tale has already been told. Elijah realizes that his friend has become legend, just like Minamogi and the others. He's the only one still breathing, the only one whose story is not yet complete... at least from his generation. Yajirobe's still around too, thank kami, but he was never as serious a samurai as Elijah or even Makare or Brian or Kumo. There is a difference between Yajirobe and the others, even if he's a samurai too. The old way is fading and dying, and Elijah is the last living example of what that means.
- It is interesting to note that Elijah, while being so prodigious, is alone now. There's no one to appreciate his skill or talents.
- Violet shooting Elijah was meant to show how the time of the samurai has passed. Swordsmen just can't get by in a world of guns anymore. If she didn't have that gun, Violet wouldn't have stood a chance against Elijah. Yet she nearly killed him just because of technological advancements. Basically, Elijah's fate and fall are beyond his control, but that doesn't lessen the tragedy of his position.
- It is thematically important that Elijah drops his swords after getting shot.
- It's such a little thing, having Yajirobe be Elijah's legacy. He's not the flashiest Z Fighter, nor the strongest, nor the most memorable. But he saved the world, just like all the others, and he wouldn't have been there to cut off Vegeta's tail if it hadn't been for Elijah. That fact must not be forgotten. So even in Elijah's darkest moment, there is that ray of sunlight, that bit of relevancy for his being. His struggle has been existential at various points in this story, but there's a resolution to that. His legacy and he himself will live on through Yajirobe.
- "Elijah had trained the last samurai in the world. And then suddenly, his heartbeat faded, and Elijah felt at peace. A sense of numbness covered him, and he felt a sense of ease. For the first time in a long time, he felt tranquil." - I considered ending the story here, with Elijah's fate being left more unclear. But that wasn't the right spot to finish this story at, so I gave the readers a few more paragraphs.
- "Then the pain in his shoulder and belly roared up again. Yajirobe had known; the boy had seen it in Elijah’s face when he had returned from slaying Makare. He felt guilty for what he had done to Yajirobe, for what he had put the boy through, but he couldn’t help it. Things hadn’t gone as he had hoped, and to this day, he still felt a suffocating sense of loss over what had happened." - this is a very cool paragraph. It's referencing the end of Spindlerun where Yajirobe goes back to Elijah after slaying Makare. Yajirobe sees the bitter disappointment in his Daimyo's face that it was he, not Brian, who survived to kill Makare. Brian had been Elijah's favorite recruit, and now Elijah is feeling guilty that he had hurt Yajirobe by letting him know that. But there was nothing Elijah could have done. It's much harder to control grief than a sword, after all.
- Elijah ends this story with a bit of optimism, though I don't think it's all that optimistic an end. I think he's just laughing at how unbelievable things have turned out. He's resolved to live, which is something I resolved to do once, with his heart beating like a madman. I can see myself in this writing, in this character. It's quite strange. I know I wasn't high when I wrote this story, but it seems like it. Elijah deciding to live, however, is quite surprising, giving how his character developed through the story. I don't know what's left for him, or where he goes from here. And I mean that both as a writer and a reader. I probably will never show him again timeline-wise after this story. I think his character has now developed a full arc; Elijah - and by extension the Spindlerun characters - is done. Makare and Naigo both appear in Chasing Oblivion, but I doubt I'll show anybody after the events of this story save for Yajirobe, Korin, and Yamcha. This is as definitive an end to a character and a storyline as I've ever written on this site. Cool story, eh?
I really like this story. The subtle, burning sense of loss coupled with the characters and environment touched me deeply. The Japanese aesthetics are strongest in this story - no other The Heels of the Unknown one-shot quite matches this one in its Japanese aesthetics. There are so many vivid passages, and then there's the cool fight scene and the confrontation with Colonel Violet. As I re-read this story, I can definitely see all the decisions I made, all of the little things I did, and I believe this story is an extremely strong telling of an event. I'm not sure what - if anything - I could have done to make it better. I don't believe I could have written this as well even a year ago. This is an excellent story with excellent pacing, character development, a cool, original villain, and some badass fights. I love this story more than I thought I would. But that's, okay I guess! Better to like a story more than you thought you would than to like it not as much. This one definitely delivered in every aspect, but I think character-wise and prose-wise, this story was at its strongest. In those categories, it has few if any peers. Overall, I'd give Down the Well-Worn Road an S.
<---- Part 59
Part 61 ---->