Chapter 1: Hajime
Dreams are the beginnings of great awakenings. As we lie in the cradle of our beds, we become stolen in the spirit, taken to another plane of existence. A place of sand and fog. You see it sometimes, in brief glimpses before sudden awakening. Not everyone has the capacity to exist between both worlds, but Jace was the exception. And in that mystic desert beyond the dream realm is where Sensei Hajime found him.
Jace was only 10 years old, round faced, sloppy, and still frightened by the dark. He would stare out of the crack in his bedroom door into the comfort of a light left on to ward off the darkness, until one night the hallway light blurred into a distant flame and the young boy had gone to a place where all had passed but few could stop. He had entered the Hollow Sands. It was then that the flame of the light he thought was in his hall came into focus and he could see the fire of a far off lantern and Jace felt the cold blue grains of the other world for the first time. Sensei Hajime had been there for years. Alone. Lost in the mystic desert. His robe caught in a steady stream of wind that waved the long fabric outstretched in the hills of wasteland.
“Hello.” the young boy called.
The red robe man grunted in Japanese, clenching his eyes tightly to prevent the disruption from breaking his meditation.
“Who are you?” Jace continued.
He sat, legs folded in the sand without a response.
The second night Jace returned the countenance of the red robe man had softened some. But still, the red robe man sat lonely on the rocks and sands, attempting to meditate.
The third night Jace returned the red robe man opened his eyes. He appeared displeased with the young American boy and chanted louder as though petitioning the gods to rid him of his company. The red robe man was cold and bitter at the unwanted distraction. Jace wandered around the ocean of blue sand and pondered his purpose in the strange place.
The fourth night Jace returned he saw the shrouded figure and once again approached. Although, this time it the boy was not met with a rude and indifferent man, but a subhuman monster. Long curled fingers stretched from scaly arms that connected to broad shoulders. The creature hissed through a muzzle, where sharp fangs could barely be seen through the gaps. Instinctually the round boy fled, slipping in the loose sands as he tried to escape. But the creature screeched out, “KREEEEEEEEEEEE!”
It was then that a handful of these lizard men rose up from beneath the desert. They were dressed in burnt and torn rags, distressed from what appeared to be a great battle. The boy crumbled and cried out as they encircled him. It was then that a loud *CRACK* rang out through the Hollow Sands as though thunder had split the sky. It was the red robe man, standing with a staff in hand, burning with a great presence. The man’s long red robe waved like a flag of war with the rumble of a storm and the pack of lizard men began to run.
The red robe man turned back to return from the place he came from. Jace followed him up the hill to find the red robe man sitting calmly in meditation, his staff beside him. This time, without saying a word, Jace sat with his legs crossed and began meditating as the red robe man did. The presence of the boy was felt in the air, and the red robe man couldn’t help but break his meditation to examine the sight. This weak and frightened child would be back night after night, and had no manner in which to protect himself. It was then that the red robe man had a realization that this boy wasn’t sent as a distraction but as a disciple. The red robe man stood, dusted himself off, and made his way to the boy who continued to sit with his hands in his lap.
“I am Sensei Hajime. Master of the Aiansutā (Iron Star) clan ” The red robe man proclaimed.
“Hello, I am Jace.”
“Do you know why you are here?” Hajime took the tone of a teacher.
Jace considered for a moment and shook his head confirming he didn’t know why he was there.
“You have been sent to me as a gift. I have been banished in this realm by the powerful warlock Tsu-Fang, leader of the Gōrudenkurō (Golden Claw) clan. Our clans have been at war for many years. In an attempt to settle the dispute I challenged Tsu-Fang to a battle. The encounter lasted many hours. His craft matching mine blow for blow, neither of us relenting. The battle had escalated until both of us were using the totality of our remaining strength. With my sword I pierced the warlock through his abdomen, drawing a river of blood. He fell to his knees, mumbling defeat in his own red pool. I had won. I approached to earn my victory in honor, raising my sword over his neck, when Tsu-Fang suddenly raised his hands and with an enchantment switched our bodies. The sword in my hand came down on the neck of my adversary and yet it was I who died in my enemy’s corpse, leaving my body and clan alive to under his control.”
“So this is where dead people go?” Jace puzzled.
“No. My body is still alive. Mind and body are bound by Spirit. This is the Hollow Sands, where minds pass between dreams. All who come are here but for a fleeting moment. With the exception of me…and now you. You have come nightly. You have been sent to me by the gods to be my sword. I will sharpen you and through you I will restore the victory and honor due to me and my clan.”
“I’m not sure about this. I don’t even know who you are or what any of this is. What were those things that tried to eat me?”
“They are the Eternal Blue, cursed souls that failed the great serpent Hydragas’ test. They fought and perished in pursuit of her blessing. A blessing you will need to earn to withstand the sorcery of Tsu-Fang.”
“I mean, I guess I can. Maybe… As long as it’s a dream.”
“It is not a dream. The Hollow Sands are a spiritual realm but are very real I assure you.”
“But I can’t be your weapon. I don’t know how to fight.”
“I will train you.”
“What good is training in a dream? I’m sorry, I mean spiritual realm. When I wake up I’ll be the same as I was.”
“No. Your mind is the barrier. Overcome it and your body will grow stronger too.” Sensei Hajime corrected.
“This all sounds too weird. I think I’m gonna go.”
“Let me see your arm first.” requested Sensei Hajime. Jace extended his left arm and Hajime closed his eyes with a deep breath before beginning an enchantment. Hajime’s finger began to glow red hot and with it he touched the boy's arm. The glow transferred from the red robe man to the boy, growing and curling in a circular star pattern, settling from a bright orange ember to a thick black burn. It took a moment for the pain to manifest but as Jace pulled his arm away in agony, he startled awake to find his brother, Theo, standing over him in the still dark room.
“You were having a bad dream.” Theo stated. Theo was a year younger than Jace, but far more headstrong and brave. Theo would often be awake through the majority of the night, taking watch over the house.
“I didn’t have a bad dream.” Jace said. “I had a weird dream. I was in that desert place again. And saw the red robe man too. This time he talked to me.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he wants to make me his sword to fight a Warlock.”
“Cool. Can I be a fighter too?” Theo lit with excitement.
“Don’t be silly. It’s just a dream.” Jace said, rubbing the tender spot on his left arm. The incidental touch brought a sharp pain, and that is when Jace found that the mark Sensei Hajime had burned into his spirit remained on his skin. It was a star. The sign of the Aiansutā clan. The two looked at the mark puzzled. “Maybe we can.” Jace retracted his doubt. “Maybe…”