Yakuzaverse/The Path of the Dragon

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"Hey, uh, excuse me..." It was the voice of an American male, of the sort one would associate with that one guy at the electronics store. Despite his large frame, standing taller than 90% of the street traffic, his "Lucky Star" T-shirt was a size too large for him, making it a bit tricky to identify that the khaki shorts he wore had cargo pockets. In contrast to his bulkier upper half, his legs were spindly like tree branches, terminating in black socks beneath sporty sandals. Up north, his honey-blonde hair was long enough to do up in a ragged pony-tail (it'd probably have looked more luxuriant if he'd bothered washing it), and his scraggly beard could probably do much the same if he'd let it grow for a couple more days. The guy smacked his head as if making a mistake. "Ah, damn, what am I thinking? You're another tourist like me, you probably wouldn't know..."

"That's about where you're wrong. I live here," I tell him, trying not to sound like I'm bragging. "People call me Ruby."

"You LIVE here? Wow!" He immediately reaches a hand out to shake. "I'm Anton. Mom always told me I'd never be able to live in Japan, and you might be the evidence I need to convince her otherwise! It's so cool to meet you!"

"...Sure. Okay." I don't leave him hanging, and opt to shake the hand. It's calloused in the way that I'd bet his other hand isn't, but at least I can be sure he's washed it recently. "You sounded like you needed help with something, though?"

"Yeah, that's right! I'm here on a pilgrimage of sorts. I'm following the path of the Dragon!" He makes it sound far more dramatic than it probably is. "By which I mean, I've made a list of landmarks and important places relevant to the life of the Dojima-no-lyuu."

"The Dojima-no-what?"

"The Dojima no...dyuu. Ryuu. Guh. I can't quite pronounce that. Been practicing for months and can't quite get it. It's confused a few locals already."

"Yeah, I can see why. Not used to that accent." Not that I can really talk there, as an American myself. "But I guess you're looking for directions to these places, right?"

"That's right! I feel that my only path to true enlightenment is to follow in the Dragon's footsteps. To go where he has gone, to do the things he has done."

"And this is a religious thing?"

"You could say that. But anyway, the list is here..." He pops up a to-do list on his cell phone. "First up...this is probably embarrassingly easy, but could you lead me to the Cabaret Grand?"

That doesn't ultimately take long. In fact the building is already in plain view of the main avenue; if the rest of Sotenbori Avenue wasn't glaring right in your eyes, it wouldn't be so easy to miss the giant "CABARET GRAND" sign at the end of the road.

"Wonderful!" Anton pumps a fist in celebration. "I regret I don't have money for the cover charge, but just seeing this grand facade fills me with joy."

I'm not so keen on it, myself. "I didn't ask on the way here, but what's the Grand have to do with this religious pilgrimage of yours?"

"Oh, I'm glad you asked." Just hearing him start his sentence that way makes me less glad I asked. "The Grand was the site of a mighty battle! For it was here that the Dragon met his equal, and threw a couple guys off a balcony in the process."

"That...doesn't sound like the path to enlightenment, to me. In fact it kinda sounds scary."

"I'm sure you'll change your tune once you've seen the rest. Up next, then, is a spot in which the Dragon was shown something absolutely earth-shattering. It is both a gathering place and a place of learning and understanding."

"So, what, a library?"

"A bridge."

"A bridge? Alright, now I'm all mixed up, but there's gotta be more bridges than there are libraries in this part of town...and I'm guessing you don't mean the Bishamon."

I hike Anton over to the Iwao Bridge. He spends a minute or so getting his bearings (to be fair, it's a BIG bridge), and finally faces north and stares at the gigantic TV screen that adorns one nearby building. "Oh ho, wonderful!"

"Y'know, I figured a guy like you wouldn't be so impressed about a big screen."

"Oh, ye of little faith!" He can't suppress a laugh. "Of course it's not the screen itself I'm so interested in, as what the Dragon saw in it - he witnessed an act so terrible that it came to define his exploits from that day onward. When the man who was his equal made his declaration of war, in blood."

"This is sounding less like a holy thing and more like some action flick."

"I guarantee you the path of the Dragon still holds merit. It's just, uh, maybe a bit more intense than what regular people would call a pilgrimage. But when you think about it, aren't a lot of religions founded on great battles?"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Anton, but I don't remember Jesus kicking ass and taking names."

"Ah, but that's where you've neglected to see the bigger picture. I won't go into the details, though, since we don't have the time. I must find the third location!"

He sure isn't staying in these places for very long. "Yeah, okay. What's next?"

"The Osakan Castle," he declares. "Wherein the Dragon fought for his life through foes and traps alike!"

"...Yeah, I don't think you're gonna find that around here. I mean, there's a castle if you ride the train a ways, but I don't think there's...foes or traps there, or anything like that."

"He also fought tigers! Bare-handed!"

"And you're SURE this guy was real and not, like, a video game character?"

"Moving right along, I suppose I'd better ask about the last place. I'm looking for the scene of a great performance."

"Well, I already took you to the Grand, so you probably don't mean that." Putting propriety aside, I idly glance through my phone as he's waxing poetic.

"Of a stage built atop the detritus, the figure that successfully transcended mere stardom atop it! I seek...Ashitaba Park."

"You're gonna be disappointed, bud, there hasn't been a stage there in a few years." I slip the phone back in my pocket before he notices my inattention. "But what's all that about performance? Was the Dragon secretly some kind of karaoke king?"

"I don't doubt that he was, my good lady," he starts, driving a shudder down my spine as I remember how much I hate being called a lady. "But this stage was famous for hosting a popular idoru."

"Idoru? ...Clearly you mean IDOL, right?"

"Yes, of course."

"You know there's not much point using the English loan-words when you can already speak English, right? Makes you sound like you're trying too hard." I have to scratch a sudden itch on the back of my neck. "But I'm confused. ...again. I thought you were following this...path of the Dragon, or whatever. So why the sudden obsession with an idol?"

"Oh, she was no mere idol, I assure you. For this idol was none other than the Ward of the Dragon!"

The Ward of the... I can't contain myself. "This sounds like some gritty fantasy novel bull crap now, I swear. But I know what you mean," I add quickly, before he can "um, actually" his way into another overwrought explanation. "Well, we're here. It's a park. What were you expecting?"

Anton is beaming like he's 13 and just met a Playboy centerfold. "It's amazing." His eyes scope out the entirety of the park, from the barely-living grass killed by decades of foot traffic, to the lonely little ramen vendor on the corner, to the stray cats sitting around the last phone booth in town. "She sang here. I can feel the energy in the air."

"Okay, but like, from what I've been told, they haven't had concerts in this park since 2012."

"You've done me a great service today," Anton says as enthusiastically as ever. "In fact, I was planning to ask you to show me one more place, but I'm pretty sure this is it over here." He approaches the entrance to one of the corner buildings; it has no sign indicating that it's anything in particular. There are no lights on, except on the second floor, and a window is open and pouring out wisps of cigarette smoke. "Wow. It's just like..." Anton wanders in. This isn't good. My vision remains locked on the lit, smoky window...and within seconds of him disappearing up the stairs, I see Anton's face pop out the window, upside-down. He isn't screaming - it almost sounds like he's celebrating - but it's pretty clear someone's trying to shove him out.

I can't believe I've let myself get sucked into this, but I don't like seeing out-of-towners stepping afoul of the local yakuza, so without thinking, I bolt up the same stairs and fly through the wide-open door, whose only regalia is a taped-on paper reading, "Shibasaki Office."

A few stringy-looking guys in cheap suits point their cigarettes at me as they stand from their gently-used casting couch. "Oi, the fuck's with all these foreigners just walking right in? You his girlfriend or some shit?"

I suppress the desire to cringe at the thought. "No, I was showing this man around town and he seems to have gotten the wrong idea." The two guys at the window pull Anton back inside. He's out of breath, but not hurt. He still looks like he was actually enjoying that. The fuckin' weirdo.

An older-looking fellow in a silky-looking shirt speaks up without looking at either of us. "Nah, guys, I heard of this before. Kids'll strap a camera to their face and go bother us businessmen, and post it all for the guys at Nico Nico. Well, I ain't into that."

"Well, me either, but isn't there some way I could apologize for his overconfidence, and we can leave you alone and not come back?" I don't feel like I'm making much headway.

The older guy isn't impressed. He gives me the kind of glare that means he's out for blood. "No." I'm surprised that he didn't scream it at me. It's almost scarier this way.

I carefully, subtly shift my weight into a fighting stance; the four underlings - the two at the couch, and the two at the window - take whatever blunt instruments they have at hand, as their apparent superior takes a tanto out of his belt. Five guys in total, all between me and Anton. There's no way I can take them in a standing fight - not with my frame. On instinct, I grab the doorknob and slam it shut as hard as I can, at precisely the moment one of the men tries to swing a baton at me. The metal door catches his wrist in the jamb, forcing him to drop the baton on the floor, which I kick down the stairs. I struggle to hold the door shut for as long as I can, but the combined might of two other guys yanks it open, nearly pulling me into the office with it. I do my best to use that momentum to tuck-and-roll into the room, but don't quite execute the roll the right way and land on my face. It doesn't take me long to get back up, but it takes about as much for someone to swing a chair at the floor where my head used to be.

I can't keep the fight up with all the blunt-trauma flying around, but the majority of the room is now standing behind me, by the door, while Anton remains slumped against the windowsill, grinning like an idiot. I yell at him. "Anton! Get your ass up, we're going out!" He stands up quickly as I, in a fit of total desperation, tackle him right out the second floor window.

Shit feels like it's running in slow-motion as our feet leave the ground. I pivot a little in the air and see, through the open window, the silk-shirted man wearing an expression of total shock - even he can't believe what I've just done. I hear two very intense heartbeats. Anton's must be working overtime on a body like his. It feels like several long seconds before we land on something - a well placed awning, I'd suppose, because the impact doesn't hurt nearly as much as it should, but I hear a very distinct screaming sound from beneath us. The ground gives way to another ground, and only upon looking back up do I realize we've crashed into the ramen stand, and its longsuffering proprietor.

I hop to my feet, feeling as if I've pulled something. A glance up at the window we came from indicates nobody plans on chasing us, since all five of the yakuza from the office are piled up at the window, seemingly taking bets on whether we've survived the fall. "Ugh...I either need to lay off the drinking, or START the drinking." I shake the last bit of dizziness and check that my two fall-mates are okay. Anton is flat on his back and laughing as if he wants to do that again. The ramen man hasn't even taken a scratch (how is it Japanese senior citizens are near-immortal?), but the roof of his ramen stand could use replacing. I spin in his direction and prostrate myself before him. "My greatest and humblest apologies for the damage caused to your business," I try to say. I probably stumble over the pronunciation of it in a few places, but it's the most elaborate apology I can think of under this kind of duress.

The ramen man catches his breath. "Don't worry about it," he declares with a wave of his hand. "Needed a new roof anyway."

Satisfied that I didn't need to buck out for an impromptu repair bill, or pay any apology money to angry yakuza, I help Anton back up. "That was fucking intense, you okay?"

"I LOVE IT!" he shouts to the sky. "I've seen enlightenment along the Path of the Dragon!"

"You've seen a near-death experience and a really ill-advised stunt, buddy. You're probably in shock. I should find you a place to lie down."

"No, there's no time, I've got a train to catch!" Not once did I see him check the time, but oh well, I'll believe him. "Now that I've completed this chapter of the Path of the Dragon, I must move forward along the Path, to see the things that could have been."

"I give up. What now?"

"My sources tell me...Okinawa. The beaches of Okinawa."

"I mean, sure, Okinawa's great for tourists like you, but dare I ask what you're going to find down there?"

"I know not, but wherever I go, I hope I shall find a guide nearly as talented as you! Ah, but first, I should compensate you." He reaches into one of his cargo pockets and retrieves a wad of bills, which he meticulously counts before handing me a sizeable chunk of it. "50,000 yen should cover your services today, I'd think."

"You sure you don't need that to buy your train ticket?"

"Fare thee well, for I am off!" He ignores the question and takes off running to the nearest taxi stand. I don't think I'll ever understand how people like him can have that much money, and yet so little awareness of the world around them. If I ever saw him again, I'd half-expect him to be carrying a body pillow with a dragon on it, or something.