Clint Robert Murphy

A LIFE JOURNEY

With the wind blowing her long black hair behind her and the spring sunshine beating down pleasantly on her back, Akira bent her body low, leaning into Akhal’s strong hot neck. “That’s it boy,” she whispered into his silky chestnut ears, “You can do it, let’s show them what we’ve got!”

In response to her gentle encouragement, the great warhorse bunched his muscles to bring forth an extra burst of speed. His hooves tearing up great clods of earth as he flowed like lightning up the familiar lane.

Laughing boisterously Akira allowed herself to become one with her mount. Riding like the wind itself. Aware that her mother and father rode closely at her heels, holding back just enough to give her and Akhal the lead, but not enough that she would question the win.

Cosmos, she loved her parents. Always pushing her, driving her, and doing their utmost to protect and support her. Her mother, tiny, like an exquisite porcelain doll, with an unexpected rod of iron in her soul. Her father, larger than life itself, menacing to the eye, and full of laughter. They were the very foundation of her character. It was from them and their unconditional love that she gained the courage to leap into the unknown, the insatiable drive for learning that could not be vanquished no matter how many books she devoured, the belief that she could do anything, be anything that she wanted to be. Yes, she loved them with every fiber of her being. Only two others came near to matching their place in her heart.

Following the train of her thoughts, Akira’s eyes shifted ahead to the end of the lane. Searching. Her gaze slid past the simple blacksmith’s cottage, over the carefully crafted chicken coop, past the stone smith building, and onto the livestock barn before sliding back around to the cottage. There. Her cousin, her best friend, the person she waited to see week after week to share her thoughts and feelings. Things she could share with no one else, not even her parents.

Her face broke into an enormous smile, her striking violet eyes softening as she contemplated the boy before her. Caiden. Even from a distance she could see the love that shone from his eyes, the look of utter devotion and adoration that he wore whenever he saw her. She knew that he saw her as his only friend, the only light in his long week, but she often wondered if he truly understood how much he meant to her.

Week in and week out, she trudged through the daily routine. Days spent with her tutor, learning the proper etiquette for the future wife of a first son. Taking lessons in history, mathematics, art and poetry in hopeful preparation for life at the Academy. Her early evenings filled with martial arts training and strategic planning with either her mother or father, or both.

If she were truthful, the training and learning were not bad. It was being a girl, and not just any girl. The daughter of two of the village’s leading citizens, well known for their past leadership in the First Lord’s army. Always expected to do the right things, say the right things, and wear the right things. The pressure was sometimes more than she could bear. Especially when the local boys and girls ran around with their wooden training swords, playing pranks on local business owners, roughhousing in the street. Teasing and taunting her, instinctively realizing how badly she wanted to throw propriety to the wind and join them and knowing that it wasn’t possible.

Not here. Never here. Here she could throw caution to the wind. Run through the forest with her cousin hard on her heels, battle hidden enemies in the clearing, and climb the trees with abandon.   Here she could be Akira, the brave and valiant warrior. Daughter of the Red Death.

Returning at the end of the day, skin burnished by a day in the sun, hair unkempt and falling messily around her shoulders, with clothes stained and torn she knew she would not be met with the looks of disapproval that constantly followed her through the village. Instead, strong arms, built from years of working a forge, would scoop her up and spin her around, deep appreciative laughter floating through the air. Only when she was thoroughly dizzy and breathless would he release her to step back and nod approvingly. uncle Trom, her second father and one of her greatest supporters.

Then he was there. Standing beside Caiden, waiting for her to dismount, knowing she needed no assistance as she swung her leg across Akhal’s back to jump agilely to the ground.

Her favorite day of the week was about to begin.

***

 Too quickly her father came to the end of his story. He always left them verging on the edge of the great battle. As though he didn’t want to remember the events that had occurred after he dropped his remaining axe to watch the Golden General battle his sworn enemy, his brother. One day, she promised herself, one day she would convince him to relent, to share the full battle with her. She knew she’d have to proceed cautiously, in that one day her parents had lost those they had loved the most.

 Sighing softly, she followed her father out of the barn, watching as he pulled Caiden along with him, his big hand wrapped protectively around the boy’s neck and shoulders.

 It was time for lunch. The most formal part of the day and the only thing she did not look forward to on these precious visits. As was their custom, both she and her mother had spent the previous evening preparing the delicacies that they would serve carefully, course after course, while Trom, Shymon, and Caiden shared village news. No matter how she argued, this was one duty her mother would not let her out of. It was quite simply an expectation.

 So it was, a scant half hour later, Akira found herself dressed in her formal attire. Narrow silk skirt hugging her legs, hand-embroidered tunic falling to mid-thigh, belted around the waist with golden braided cord, dainty, impractical slippers squeezed painfully onto her tiny feet. Walking slowly, carefully, to the low wooden table to serve the first course. A clear rich broth filled with a delectable variety of mushrooms and pieces of tofu. The delicious smell wafted under her nose, making her stomach growl with intense hunger. Her mother’s cooking was well renowned throughout the village.

 Kneeling, she bowed her head respectfully to the men, taking great care to ladle the soup into her uncle’s bowl first, then her father’s, and Caiden’s, before serving her mother and then herself. The men seated cross-legged on silk cushions around the low table, the women kneeling, resting on the balls of their feet, prepared to serve the next course when the need arose.

 After waiting for uncle Trom to bow his head and utter the customary blessing, Akira took her first spoonful of soup. Its rich earthy flavor filling her stomach, soothing her hunger and feeding her soul as only her mother’s cooking could. Even as she sipped slowly at the broth, she kept her eyes on the men’s bowls. Her mother would expect her to serve the next course before the last spoonful was consumed.

 As quickly as her restrictive clothing would allow, she rose from her knees, moving to the countertop where the next course sat ready and waiting. As she carefully loaded the small bowls of steamed and cooled verdant spinach coated with rich nutty dressing onto the serving tray, she kept half an ear on the conversation at the table.

 She listened as her father filled Trom in on the latest events in the village. Talking about this trial or that, the latest prank pulled by the village boys, the death of Mrs. Talhi. Trom in turn sharing the orders he was working on in the forge, weighing in with his opinion on a case or two, and sharing his worries about the constant heat and the possibility of drought. Such boring, mundane talk. Why couldn’t they just once talk about something exciting and adventurous?

 Once more returning to the table she carefully placed the salad course in front of the men before removing the empty bowls to the tray and returning with them to the counter. Thus, it continued. Course after course. Moist succulent whitefish spiced with fragrant herbs, served over long grain rice. Flavorful fruit salad, filled with ripe rich mango, slices of succulent mandarin, and juicy lychee nuts.

 Finally, all that remained was the closing of the meal and the formal pouring of the tea. As uncle Trom uttered the finishing blessing Akira turned her attention to the grinding of the tea. Using mortar and pestle, she carefully ground the leaves into a rich green paste. Releasing the natural aromas. Placing small daubs of paste in each cup she poured the steaming water from the kettle, careful not to spill a drop. Conscious that her mother was watching every move, storing away every error to revisit later in the privacy of their home. Slowly, cautiously, she stirred each cup blending the paste and water into a hot fragrant beverage, the perfect way to ease digestion after such a rich meal.

***

“You poured well today daughter.”  Praise from her mother made Akira’s heart swell with love and a deep fierce pride, although she still did not quite understand why these weekly meals with family were much more formal than their normal afternoon routine.

Resting her hand gently on her daughter’s shoulder Irial reminded Akira of her next responsibility, a knowing smile on her face. “You must change and join your uncle, father, and cousin in the yard for practice. Then you will be free to go about your day. I know how very much you look forward to it.”

Needing no more encouragement to escape the kitchen and the dreaded dishes, Akira slipped off behind the dressing screen to don her practice attire. Soft black linen pants, wide at the cuff and loose along the leg replaced the restrictive skirt. An undershirt, also of linen, was worn under a belted jacket with three-quarter sleeves, designed to allow for free and easy arm movement. Finally, leather slippers, supple from years of wear took the place of formal flats, allowing pinched toes to stretch and flex.

With a nod of respect to her mother who would remain behind to clean up the remains of their meal, Akira dashed out the door, eager to begin the increasingly complex forms and patterns her father and uncle had set for them so that she might quickly escape into the woods with Caiden.

She found all three waiting for her in the yard, sitting cross-legged in preparation for opening meditation. Quickly, she assumed lotus position, rushing to clear her mind of all worldly concerns and center her focus. Breathing in slowly and deeply through her diaphragm, filling her lungs with the warm summer air and the positive energy of the sun, before slowly releasing it along with all fear, stress, and anxiety. Allowing herself to feel each slow beat of her heart, becoming one with its pulse, until her mind emptied, and she found herself softly chanting her favorite mantra, “Om Mani, Padme Hum.” The jewel is the lotus.

Opening her eyes, she saw everything in the clearing with perfect clarity. Each blade of grass distinct from the other. The robins flitting from tree to tree, their song bright and melodic. Now she was ready.

Without conscious thought, she dropped comfortably into Horse Stance and began her punching patterns, as her father and uncle looked on. Dragon Palm, Tiger Claw, Sword Finger. Akira worked her way through all the hand forms, moving flawlessly from one to the other.

Next came the kicking attacks and defence patterns. The back of her fist thrust downward as she moved into Cosmos Strikes Drum before stepping back to Cut Bamboo with Sword Hand. The movements an ever-changing dance, an ebb and flow. Her muscles stretching, torqueing, and straining as she moved into the more difficult full body techniques, Dragonfly Spreads Its Wings and Monkey Crouches in Tree. Responding automatically to a corrective touch from her father or uncle, the slightest move of an arm here, a foot there.

They were finished the first portion of their routine. Akira coming back to the present in the blink of an eye. Sweat coursing down her temples, suddenly aware of her heavy, deep breaths.

She glanced to the side, checking on her cousin. This practice, as hard as it was for her, was always that much harder for him. It was almost as though her uncle was determined to barrel beyond his obvious physical limitations. Like he believed that Caiden’s impairments were merely a case of mind over matter. That the boy could do anything, even when it caused him obvious physical pain and mental stress.

Yet, she knew her uncle loved Caiden. Loved him as deeply and powerfully as her parents loved her, maybe more if that were possible. Sometimes, always when Caiden was otherwise preoccupied, she would see the most vulnerable look cross her uncle’s face. A look that announced to any who saw it, that his heart walked outside his body. That it beat in the hands of the boy who was his son. The look was always fleeting, sometimes so quick it made her question whether or not she had imagined it. But it had happened enough over the years that she knew it was not a mere flight of fancy.

Still he pushed. Hiding his love behind a gruff stern exterior. Ever and always the harsh taskmaster, the demanding teacher. She sometimes wondered if her cousin, himself, was aware of the deep love and pride his father had for him. How could he be, if Trom worked so hard to keep it hidden?

“You did well children,” Trom’s voice broke through her thoughts, bringing her back to the present. “Now we must move on to Wing Chun.”

Rolling hands. This was one of Akira’s favorite activities, apart from free time of course. She smiled as she took her position across from her cousin. His eyes twinkling. Slowly they raised their hands, one moving to attack, the other moving to parry. Hands rolling back and forth from an offensive strike, to a defensive strike in a constant flow of motion. Dragon Scoops water reversing into Dove Lands Softly, switching now into Tiger Lashes Tail. Their movements picking up speed, as each sought to use momentum to their advantage, pushing the other’s hand aside and trying to knock the other off-balance.

Akira’s focus was momentarily lost as she glimpsed her mother emerging from the house, smiling widely.

Caiden, never one to let an opportunity to beat his cousin sail by, quickly moved into Dragon Shoots Fire, both hands sweeping in from the right with tremendous speed and force, causing her to overcompensate and stumble. He immediately followed with Snake Coils Around Prey, stretching out his leg to catch her sure foot from behind while simultaneously using his arms to push her backward, toppling her to the ground.

From her prone position in the grass Akira watched with curiosity as Irial walked quickly to her husband beckoning him to lean down so she could whisper in his ear. He glanced at the boy and girl, nodding solemnly, before catching Trom’s eye. Giving a jerk of his head, both men turned and headed off toward the barn.

She automatically peeked up to see if Caiden was paying attention. Her cousin stood above her smiling broadly over the fact that he had managed to best her, in the haze of victory he hadn’t noticed the strange interaction. Usually, the two men provide a matter-of-fact critique of their Wing Chun, specifically pointing out areas for improvement before moving on to the closing meditation sequence. But not today? They hadn’t even seemed to notice Caiden’s victory, or her lack of focus. Something strange was going on.

Loud voices drew her eyes once more toward the worn building that served as both barn and dojo. She could see her father and Trom gesturing, their voices rising in obvious disagreement over something. What could be happening? The two men hardly ever disagreed, often seeming like two halves of a whole in their thoughts and actions. Today, however, was a different story. Whatever was happening, her uncle appeared to want no part of it whatsoever.

“W-wuh-what do you think they’re discussing?”

Her cousin’s soft voice at her ear caused her to startle, looking sideways. “I don’t really know. Can you ever remember seeing anything like this?”

Before Caiden could answer the two men turned and began walking toward them.

“Akira.”  Her father and uncle stood in front of the barn; a single silk wrapped bundle lying on the ground behind them. “Come kneel before us child,” her father spoke formally, his face an impassive mask that gave no hint of what was to come. Akira moved from her cousin’s side, kneeling in front of her uncle and father.

Behind her she could sense the return of her cousin’s breathing pattern to its regular cadence; a quick glance allowing her to see that his face bore a reflection of the same curiosity she felt must be pasted across her own. What could they be planning? What was in the bundle? Squinting to the side she tried to get a hint from her mother’s expression, but the tiny woman stood as stoic and silent as the men. Her hands clasped formally in front of her.

“All three of us have been discussing your progress. Your patterns and movements are almost perfect, and your rolling hands have improved dramatically,” Trom began. “You have shown commitment to your training, and maturity in your thinking,” Shymon continued. “And for that, child, we have a gift for you.” Finished Irial as she leaned down to lift the bundle, passing it to her daughter before returning to her husband’s side.

Glancing quickly at the adults standing above her, Akira turned her attention to the bundle in her hands. Excited fingers fumbled with knotted cord, struggling to untie that which would not have normally presented any challenge. Silk sliding back to reveal the beautiful curve of a hand-crafted bow. Strong and supple, made from a strangely lustrous opalescent material that was neither wood nor metal, it lay there calling to her, demanding that she pick it up. Carefully, she reached down, her hand caressing the woven silk handgrip, the mysterious material of the haft with its intricate elemental carvings the like of which she’d never seen, plucking at the taut drawstring and listening to its soft twang as she released it. Looking to the left, she noticed the quiver filled with arrows crafted from the same material as the bow, their strange blades honed to a precise and deadly tip. Cosmos, how badly she wanted to notch an arrow and let fly.

Her mother’s hand brushed softly along her face, drawing her attention from the precious gift in front of her. A bow. The weapon she had always longed for. One she had not been expecting for some time yet. “You’re growing daughter; it seems that only yesterday you were a babe in my arms. Now look at you, and all you can do. You are well on your way to becoming a fine young lady, a daughter any woman would be proud to call her own.”  The wistfulness in her mother’s voice caused Akira’s eyes to blur with tears. Growing up was hard, while part of her longed for this there was still a part of her that wished she were small enough to curl up in her mother’s lap without a care in the world. To escape the inextricable pressure that marked her daily life.

“Thank you, mama, it’s what I have always wanted. I’ll always be your little girl, no matter how big I get,” Akira smiled at her mother, not really sure whether she was reassuring her mother or herself.

“Harrumph, well, enough of that teary stuff now.” Her father broke in, “When we go home, we’ll teach you how to train the bow to your call. For now, you can leave it here with us and head off to enjoy the rest of the day with your cousin.”

Knowing gruffness was her father’s way of masking his own emotion, Akira sprang to her feet and launched herself at him in a flying hug. Laughing he caught her up and spun her around.              

The perfect moment came crashing down around her as she caught a fleeting glimpse of her cousin’s face. Disappointment and crushing hurt shone from his eyes before he shuttered them. Always careful and considerate to put her first, he hid his pain lest it take away from her enjoyment of the precious gift. She saw it.

As her father placed her on her feet, Akira felt a hot swell of anger course through her body. A red flush rose up her cheeks as she shot a look of pure animosity toward her uncle . How could you? She challenged him silently, her back straight, her gaze unflinching as she stared into the icy depths of his fathomless eyes.

“Daughter, there is much you do not understand. Do not stare at your uncle so, it is rude and disrespectful. You are neither. Take your cousin and go, I am sure you both could use some time to yourselves.”  Her mother’s softly spoken words and gentle hand upon her arm brought Akira back to herself. This time she flushed with embarrassment instead of anger, her mother was right. Caiden needed her.

Turning away from her uncle, she grabbed the boy’s hand and pulled him to his feet, running to the beckoning forest at the edge of the clearing. Giving in to the overwhelming pull of imagination and adventure that had been calling to them all day.

***

 “Ak-Akira, w-wuh-what are you doing back th-there? W-we have to h-h-hurry or we’re going to m-miss it,” her cousin whispered urgently from ahead of her. Cursing softly under her breath, Akira struggled to keep her head low while using her arms to pull her body forward to the edge of the forest.

 Free at last, they had set off for a day of fun, running into the trees with their parents looking on. Once they were sure that they were out of sight they had turned right, quickly circling around to the back of the clearing they had just left. Now, here they were shimmying on their stomachs to the place where the trees thinned out, leading into the tall grasses that would keep them hidden from sight.

With a last heave, Akira managed to wedge herself up beside her cousin. With his usual uncanny instinct, Caiden had chosen the best vantage point for observing the action in the clearing.

Through the narrow opening Akira could see both men kneeling in the center of the clearing. Their heads bowed as they sought their focus, training swords and axes laid carefully beside them. Finished, both rose gracefully to their feet, Trom with blunted swords grasped in each hand, and Shymon, with his dulled axes. Squaring off they inclined their heads, a show of respect before assuming first position, weapons poised for action.

Akira marveled, as she always did, over the physical differences in the two men. The dark-haired blacksmith, muscled from hours at the forge, facing off against the tall, stocky red-haired magistrate. It was quite the pairing. But nothing compared to what she knew would come next.

Swords spinning and flashing, Trom went on the offensive. Moving with startling speed, he pressed in on Shymon. Flowing quickly from Dragon Soars Along the Coast to the aggressive Tiger Preys, he became a blur of motion. Shymon, not to be outdone, met the onslaught with his own weapons. Parrying first one stroke, and then the other with ease.

The combatants broke apart, circling each other warily, looking for the opening they needed to strike. Shymon’s deep laugh rang out across the clearing, “Well blacksmith, it would appear you haven’t lost too much of your edge. I may have broken a sweat!”

“I’m just getting started,” Trom replied with a grin of his own, “Let’s dance!”

Once more, the men moved toward one another. Swords spinning, striking high. Axes swinging low. Each attempting to find a weakness. Their movements fluid as each sought to use the other’s momentum to their advantage.

Shymon’s training axe flashed in, Serpent Strikes, streaking toward Trom’s knee, causing the blacksmith to jump backward. The big man charged in, eager to press his advantage, intending to use his sheer size to box his smaller friend into the narrow opening between the trees and the barn where his movements would be sorely restricted. Surprise registered on his face as Trom whirled using Frog Dances in the Rushes to duck quickly under Shymon’s upraised arm before bringing his own sword painfully across his friend’s back with a resounding crack that echoed clearly across the clearing to where the children lay watching in wonder.

“Akira!” 

Her cousin’s voice reluctantly drew her attention from the events in the field. “What?” Akira struggled to keep the annoyance out of her voice, knowing how sensitive Caiden could be when he thought she was upset with him. What could possibly be so important that he would distract me from this?

“I h-have something I want to shuh-show you, if we don’t leave now, we’ll be l-l-late for supper and you know how Aunt Irial is when we’re l-l-late.”  Caiden whispered, his tone apologetic, his eyes pleading with her to understand.

Sighing loudly, she turned away from the mock battle taking place in the clearing. “The things I do for you,” she whispered to her grinning cousin, “Alright let’s go!  You know me, I’m always up for an adventure.”

***

More than an hour later, she was seriously questioning her willingness to follow him as she stumbled over yet another rock. “Caiden, what are we doing?”  Her hair had long since come undone from its careful bun, sweat was coursing down her back, and her legs ached as they climbed steadily upward from the forest floor.

“Not m-m-much longer,” her cousin panted as he grabbed a branch and hauled himself forward along the narrow tree filled path.

If you could call it a path, Akira thought to herself. Really it was much more like a rarely used animal trail. Littered with roots and rocks, edged with brambles waiting to catch your hair and clothing, and marked by places of unstable terrain. The adventure had turned into more of a challenge than she had thought. Or signed on for, she muttered silently.

“Caiden, I…” Akira’s voice trailed off as her cousin turned to stare at her, a knowing look in his sharp sapphire eyes.

“Y-yes, Akira?”

Without any real awareness of what she was doing or why, she raised her hand gesturing impatiently for him to be quiet. Not wanting the slightest sound to disrupt the magic of the moment.

It was like nothing she had ever felt before. Nothing she had ever been able to imagine in her wildest dreams. She began with her eyes: taking in the mist glistening through the glade, pierced by shafts of pure golden sunlight, the strong flow of water cascading violently, tumultuously over the edge of the cliff. She followed with her ears; her heart pounding from the climb, pulsing wildly in time with the resounding crashing crescendo of the water tumbling onto the rocks below. She felt with the very depths of her being something strong and wild building within her, filling her with immutable strength. It called to her, sang her name, and danced within her. The water.

“There’s m-more.”

Disbelievingly, she turned her gaze onto her cousin, her eyes searching his face. How could there possibly be more than this stunning force pulsating within her?

“F-f-follow me.”

Caiden strode to the side of the cliff face before stepping off the precipice and disappearing.

“Caiden!” Akira screamed, thinking her cousin had fallen to his death on the rocks below.

“I’m here…” his voice echoed up at her eerily.

Gathering the courage she needed to face her hidden fear of heights Akira slowly and cautiously edged herself toward the spot where her cousin had recently vanished. You can do this, she whispered softly to herself, making her way ever nearer to the edge. Finally, she reached the point where she could lean over and look down, fighting a wave of vertigo as she did so.

Her cousin’s face beamed up at her from where he stood on the ledge below, his hands upraised and encouraging. “C-come on d-d-down, you can do it. Just lie down, t-turn yourself around, and drop down to me. I’ll catch you. T-ttt-trust me.”

A few heart-wrenching moments later, Akira found herself standing with her back against the cliff wall.

“Okay, this next part is a little bit tricky. You’re going to have to www…watch your step. The water makes the path a bit slippery. Don’t want you f-fuh-falling.” Caiden finished with a casual wink, fully aware of the secret fear she tried hard to keep hidden.

With an unusual show of confidence and agility, he turned and walked toward the north side of the cliff where the shelf narrowed alarmingly. Smiling at her, he placed his back to the wall and began to shuffle along the narrow strip of rock. Heading toward the crashing fall of water and disappearing behind it.

Seriously? Does he really expect me to do this? Akira asked herself, knowing full well that the answer was a resounding yes. With a sigh, she followed her cousin’s footsteps, moving quickly before her brain could dissuade her from the folly of what she was about to do.

What seemed like hours later, although in reality it was only a few minutes, Akira found herself ensconced in a large limestone cave. Carved painstakingly by thousands of years’ worth of dripping water, the enormous cave echoed the churning crash of the falling water. Although it should have been dark, hidden behind the falls as it was, it shone with an eerie green luminescence. As though the limestone was lit from within by some ancient secret magic.

Here was the source of the energy she had felt within her a short while before. This place. The energy, for she could think of no other word to describe it, roared and pulsed within the confines of the cave, combined the fluid power of water with the overwhelming earthiness of the rock walls and the cool rushing mist blowing in from the opening. It was elemental and violent. It was beautiful. She knew at once it was theirs.

***

 “I knew you would understand,” Caiden whispered quietly as they sat cross-legged in the mouth of the cavern, staring at the solid wall of water cascading past them.

 It had taken her what seemed like ages to return to reality. Even now, speaking softly with her cousin, she could feel the susurrant whisper of the energy in the back of her mind, begging her to let it roam wildly and freely within her once more.

 “But…I mean, what is it? Do you think anyone else who passed through the glade would feel the same way?”

 “I c-can’t explain Akira. From the moment I found it I knew it was m-m-mine. Ours. To anyone else I think this place is j-juh-just what it appears to be on the surface, a simple glade leading up to a waterfall.” 

 Akira found herself nodding. Her cousin had just echoed the very thought she had had upon entering the great echoing cave.

 Caiden cleared his throat, glancing at her quickly. “I n-n-need you to promise me something.”

 “What?”

 “P-puh-promise you won’t tell my father the truth of where we were today. I d-don’t think he’d understand or approve of this place. Of my being here. I d-don’t know why, but something tells me that we need to keep this between the two of us. Please Akira?”  His eyes stared at her beseechingly.

 “I…” It felt strange, her cousin, usually quiet and obedient, asking her to lie to her uncle . Yet. “You can trust me Caiden, nobody will ever know of this place except for the two of us. I promise!”

 Smiling, he nodded his approval. “W-we’d better get back quickly. They’ll be waiting to have dinner and then you’ll have to be on your way again.”  Leaning down, he offered his hand, pulling her to her feet with a surprising show of strength.

“We will come again, won’t we?” she urged as they started off.

“Of c-c-course, now follow me. You’re going to l-luh-love this next part,” her cousin laughed as he moved forward to the lip of the cave, pointing to a wide branch pushing its way through the thick curtain of water. Raising his voice to be heard over the loud crescendo of falling water, Caiden shouted, “You have g-go to the very end of the branch and then dive out a good f-foot or more. Otherwise you’ll hit the shallows. D-d-don’t overthink it, the water in the pool below is so d-deep I’ve yet to come anywhere near the bottom. Just make sure you arc out.”

Taking her hand, he pulled her behind him through the water that crashed down painfully, and out into the soft sunlight of late afternoon. “J-just watch me, and do it exactly like this,” he uttered before raising his hands into a diving position. Bending his knees, he rose gracefully, his body arcing out high above the branch. In the light of the day, with the mist of the waterfall glistening around them, Akira’s eyes widened.

Her cousin was unbroken. His damp hair burnished a deep dark gold. His body well-muscled and supple as it contorted into a flawless dive. She blinked. The image was gone.

Giving her head a quick shake at her obvious flight of fancy, she forced herself to look over the edge of the branch. Watched as her cousin broke through the surface of the water. He looked up at her to give a quick thumbs up before setting off toward the water’s edge.

Cosmos, this has been quite the day, she thought to herself. She must have gotten a touch of heat stroke. Before her logical self could take over, Akira found herself following once more in her cousin’s footsteps, taking a deep breath before diving into the waiting pool below.

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