The sun sparkled on a crystal blue ocean, while the gulls wheeled in giddy circles through the azure sky. Above her, the wind strained at the ribbed black sail of the Mantis kobune, and the air kami teased and tugged at her hair, wrapping its white threads around the blade that she bore on her back. Asahina Ayame loved the beauty of the sea, and had often watched the sun set over the bay from her father's home in Otosan Uchi. It was easy to let the winds carry away her worries on a day such as this one.
It did not do her well to think of Otosan Uchi. When the Mantis kobune had left the harbor north of the city, the sun had barely painted a slim red streak across the eastern sky. But though the captain had tried to give the city wide berth, the sun had risen and they were close enough when the passed to watch it crawl slowly along the horizon. Otosan Uchi lurked like a giant toad on the edge of the brightening sea, while a morning fog, typical of the season, had settled about it. The fog spilled down in lazy waves across the surface of the ocean. It was strange not to see the fishing boats out, but the city was very quiet. Ayame felt no desire to go near. Her father might have delved into her fears; he was a superstitious man, given to the study of omens. She had no idea what the omens would have said about her situation now. Her father had died years before, just after the Coup. She was rather glad she didn't know.
Ameterasu continued her ascent and the day brightened The crowded shoreline gave way to smaller fishing villages. The coastline had turned to the green rolling slopes, and terraced hillsides marking the eastern edge of the Doji plains when the ship ship took anchor for the night. Rather than be crammed into the tiny cabin with Izuko and Eiko, Ayame was glad to spend the night under the stars. The journey resumed at dawn.
The kobune traveled south as the white Doji cliffs slowly rose from those green hills a mile or two west of them. Through the morning, the seagulls began to flock in ever greater numbers along the coastline and in the sky above, wheeling and shrieking. It was just after noon when Koshi's spyglass first spotted the reason: a body floating in the surf by the rocky beach. First just one body, then a few more. A smokey haze rose from the cliff tops above, though its source was hidden by a small cape. The magistrates gathered on deck as the kobune rounded the cape and one of the most spectacular views in the empire came into sight.
The gleaming white Doji cliffs were crowned with the towering beauty of Kuyden Doji, its blue slate roofs and glistening white walls radiant in the afternoon sunshine, bedecked in a delicate robe of red maple and golden ginkgo. Beautiful. But now, despoiled. Here, a tower crumbled as though struck by some gigantic club. There, whitewashed walls scorched black with ash. A body dangling from a chiming rain chain. Flying creatures, far larger than seagulls, diving at the grounds, plucking scraps to devour. The spyglass revealed with cold clarity that horrors had happened here. And, as the kobune traveled further south, the sound of metal on metal, the screech of horns and the hammering rhythm of the taiko drummers, revealed that the horrors were continuing.
From the deck, the magistrates could see that a pitched battle was happening right at the cliff's edge high above. Rains of arrows would spill over the cliff-edge to the sea. Backbanners and flags of blue and white showed that a large force of Crane samurai were being driven back, step by step, towards the cliff edge. The Mantis sailors paused, slack-jawed, at the sight of a large ogre snatching up a silver-armored samurai and fling him into the ocean.
Sensei shook his head. "They will all die," he said sadly. He then turned to the Captain and gestured towards the deeper ocean. "There is nothing we can do here. Raise the sail and move to deeper water."
Ayame's eyes widened with fear and she ran to Sensei's side. "Please, Sensei! No! The water here is deep; there is no shoreline. Even if the battle is lost, the Crane samurai will drown if no ships come to help them!"
Sensei laid a hand on Ayame's shoulder. "You don't understand. This is the wrong place. This battle is lost, and we will lose precious time if we delay here. It puts many things at risk. Maybe everything."
One of the Mantis sailors sucked in his breath, and Ayame glanced over her shoulder to see fifteen Crane soldiers get knocked from the edge of the cliff and into the frothing ocean below.
Sensei looked resolute. The kobune captain gave a signal to his first mate, who began to sharply order his men back to their posts.
Ayame, tears in her eyes, knelt before Sensei, bowing herself before him in most humble supplication. "Please...I beg you. I know you have the authority to leave, and I know you have reasons. But there must be another way. There must be something we could do. I could not bear to let them die, knowing we had done nothing."
Sensei looked sternly down at the humbled shugenja. But his voice seemed less certain than before. "I...Perhaps there could have been. But there cannot now. Not with you here. The others are less risk. But you are here."
Ayame pressed her forehead to the floor. "Please," she begged. "I will do whatever you say. I will even leave completely, if you could but save a few. I swear."
The man they called Sensei looked distinctly uncomfortable, but found himself unable to deny Ayame's fervent plea. "Very well. But you must keep your word." He turned to the Captain. "Signal your men to move closer, and send the message out for any other ships in the area to come. We will catch who we can from the ocean."
The Captain laughed, shouting to his crew to take oar, making a jest about fishing for birds.
Sensei turned and looked grimly at Ayame as she stood. "We will sail as close as we can and rescue from the sea whom we can. This is what you must do, and you must not fail. You must return, now, to your cabin. You must take the sword. You may make no sound nor cast no spell nor lift the slightest finger to help this rescue, and your companions must breathe no word about you. Do you understand?"
Ayame let go a breathe she didn't know she was holding. "Hai, Sensei. Thank you so much for your mercy."
The other magistrates watched as she went to the tiny cabin, while Sensei just rubbed his forehead with his hands and sighed.
Ayame remained in the cabin, silent, as the kobune reached the Crane soldiers being driven off the cliffs, knowing her magic could have saved more. She whispered prayers to the kami as Sensei offered a monk's blessing for the dead, as those who did not survive were lowered back into the sea again. She held the blade of the Crane clan champion across her lap and listened as Crane bushi packed the decks, dangerously overburdening the sturdy Mantis vessel. She overheard them speak of Hoturi and the legions of the Shadowlands he had brought to Kuyden Doji, killing every man, woman, and child within.
And Ayame wept bitter tears as she knelt, ear pressed against the cabin wall, listening to the distressed breathing and gasps of pain as Sensei stitched closed the wounds of the suffering man in the cabin next to her own. Izuko had brought her the name when she came with food for the imprisoned Asahina. It was Doji Kuwanan, son of Satsume. All that remained of her Champion's line.
The creaking ship was mostly quiet on the third morning in the hours just before dawn. Izuko and Eiko slept, but Ayame was growing desperate to escape the stifling cabin. Praying that all were asleep, she tiptoed to the door for just a breath of fresh air. She cracked the door slightly and froze.
There, standing before the door of her cabin, was a stocky man wrapped in a simple under-kimono, the kind that would be worn under armor. Daidoji tattoos marked his arms. A daisho was tucked in his obi. His face was masked with a heavy black cloth; only his fierce black eyes visible. He swayed with the rocking of the ship, which, combined with his natural power and grace, gave Ayame the impression that this man was very much like a great, dangerous snake. Fortunately, he was not looking towards her, but into the door of the cabin next to hers.
"You should not get up. You are still badly hurt." The serpent's voice was the sound of stone dragged on stone. It was not an easy voice to disobey.
There was the scrape as of a table shifting, and a muffled thump from the cabin next door. She could hear the sound of a shoulder bumping into the door as someone in the cabin next to hers leaned against the doorframe.
"I have to. The men...need to see me. They need to know I'm alive." This man's voice was taut with pain, but it brooked no argument. It had to be Kuwanan. Though his words shook from grief and weariness, what surprised Ayame most was how young the Crane Lord sounded. Young...and bitter.
"As you wish," the serpent growled.
Ayame could hear Kuwanan taking a few deep breaths to steady himself after the effort of rising from his bed. "Where...where is he going strike next, Uji-san?"
Through the tiny crack, Ayame saw the serpent, who must be none other than Daidoji Uji, shrug. "He passed up better targets to strike Kuyden Kakita, then Kuyden Doji. His goal cannot be to hold territory or win glory. He has bypassed fat villages and rich mines. He does not seek fodder for his beasts or wealth. What remains is his hatred as his only goal. He wants to destroy the essence of the clan. He looks to destroy the Crane." Ayame covered her mouth with her hands, hardly daring to breathe as Uji's rasp continued. "He will go to Shinden Asahina."
Kuwanan coughed roughly. "All the artisans and courtiers from the Academy and Otosan Uchi that did not die at Kuyden Doji have fled there. There are artifacts, sacred treasures. Who knows what he could do with that power? Of course he would go there."
Uji said nothing.
The hacking, wet coughs strengthened and Ayame could hear Kuwanan doubling over with pain as they threatened to overwhelm him, though Uji made no move towards him. She ached to call the healing kami to the Crane lord's aid, but, obedient to Sensei and her promise, did nothing. When Kuwanan had recovered, his voice was haggard. "Do you think we can hold it? That there is the slightest chance.?"
"No." Uji's voice was the sound of an executioner's blade across a whetstone. He did not move, his dark eyes glittering as he watched Kuwanan steadily.
Ayame could hear two more slight coughs, and then movement. She watched through the narrow crack as Kuwanan stepped forward. He was a young man, stocky and strong, his head bald and clean, his bare torso wrapped heavily in bandages. "I didn't think so." He clenched his fists at his sides. "We can't hold the Fields of the Morning Sun. Trying to defend the temple will burn out all our resources, every bushi we have left. Even the attempt is useless, the stuff of lost families wiped out forever. Sad songs with bad endings." Kuwanan straightened, thrusting his jaw up proudly, eyes bearing down on Uji with an expression of defiance. "We are going to do it anyway. Tell the captain to set us ashore at the port nearest to Shinden Asahina."
Uji did not answer, but gave an ever so slight nod of assent.
Kuwanan returned the nod with fierce certainty, and, stepping past Uji, climbed the ladder up to the deck.
Uji's black eyes followed Kuwanan as he passed, but as he turned to go after him, he stopped and looked back. His gaze fell upon the cracked-open doorway, directly at Ayame who was peeking at him through that crack. He hesitated, saying nothing, and Ayame held her breath. Finally, Daidoji Uji turned and climbed the ladder after his lord.
Ayame threw herself onto her futon roll and refused to move from there until the Crane lord and the rescued soldiers had been set ashore near Shinden Asahina and the ship was again underway, sailing on towards the Yasuki provinces.
The kobune set the group of magistrates ashore in a sleepy fishing village. The Mantis captain accepted the koku from Sensei with a smile. He offered to return to take them to more civilized lands on his return trip, but Sensei waved him on his way. They would not be travelling again by sea.
A few rice balls and a bottle of the local sake later, and the group was walking inland towards the next village. Finally, Hiruma Izuko's impatience got the best of her. "All right, Sensei. We have travelled halfway across the Empire. We hid that sword from the best man I can think of to wield it. Where are you going?"
"A geisha house." Sensei answered drily. He trudged on ahead of them, leaning on his staff and provided no further explanation.
Mirumoto Kenuchio scowled. Though he had been able to hide similar questions, he too was growing impatient. He might only be one minor magistrate, but he was a solid swordsman and there were armies slaughtering heimen that needed to be fought. Yet here they were travelling to a geisha house in Onnetagu's end of nowhere instead of helping defend the Fields of the Morning Sun, or fighting with Toturi's army, or even rousing the Dragon, which he longed to do. "Thank you for the lesson in duty, Sensei," he muttered under his breath.
Sensei stopped and turned to face the magistrates. He seemed to be studying each of their faces carefully before he answered. "You're right. I claimed the title of Sensei, but I haven't taught very much, have I? Secrets and silence have their place. They protect against the spying ear. They preserve honor. But there's a time when that must be put aside. I think that time has come."
He slowed his walk to allow the others to gather around them as he spoke.
"I said we are going to a geisha house. And that is true. But it is a very special geisha house. It has no customers. Its geisha come from all across the Empire, from the highest and wealthiest palaces to the poorest seaports. But all of the occupants there have one thing in common." He paused to make sure the magistrates were listening. "All those staying at this geisha house have suffered. Terribly. Some mortals, even samurai, can when they choose, turn themselves into beasts. They rip away by force that which must only be given freely. They wound and destroy that which they cannot steal. They violate the Celestial Order to break the spirit and will, for their own pleasures, or from their own anger, or some other selfish end. Who could say why a monster does these things?
"If a geisha finds herself the victim of such a one, too often, she takes her own life, unable to rebuild her spirit or find her place after what has been done. Most keepers of the geisha houses, whether they belong to a clan or to the yakuza, see that the strongest, those who are able, are granted a marriage to a good man, or given a quiet job far from the suffering she experienced. They are, if the fortunes are kind, permitted to live out their remaining days in relative peace."
Hiruma Izuko nodded. The fates described by Sensei were not unfamiliar to her; samurai who had suffered too terribly in the lands over the Wall but did not carry the Taint were often treated with similar terms.
Sensei continued. "But there are those in between, unable to start a new life, too fierce to end their old life, who do not know how to heal. They cannot move forward, and cannot escape the past and the wrong that has been done to them. All here live in a willow world, a half life, where dreaming is easier than waking. This house belongs to them. You must remember that."
The village of their destination was in sight. It looked gloomy, especially with Sensei's 'lesson' and a heavily overcast gray sky. They could see the geisha house below them. It seemed non-descript, but pleasant enough. Someone had clearly taken the time to try to coax some flowers to grow in its small courtyard, at least. Sensei stopped and turned a last time to the group.
"I received a message from one who knows the willow world well, that the one we seek is here. I can only hope it is true. But say nothing unless I give you leave. Come."
The geisha house looked more worn as they approached. The entranceway was guarded by a huge man, tall but with muscles that had given way to fat -- clearly a eunuch. Resting on his shoulder was a well-made naginata. Beside him sat a slender, handsome boy whose eyes were wrapped with a black cloth. Blind.
The boy greeted them. "The House of the Nightingale is not taking guests today."
Sensei leaned forward, grasping the boy's hand and laying it on his cheek. "I know well the ways of the willow world, my friend. You know me and why I have come."
The boy ran his fingers across Sensei's face thoughtfully. "Yes, I know you. You may enter. You must leave your blades here. But you may come."
They again set aside their weapons, except for Ayame's burden. The eunuch said nothing, but stepped aside to allow them to pass.
A middle-aged woman met the group of magistrates at the door and led them inside. Some of the women in the geisha house tittered and spun away. Others looked up at them with blank eyes as they passed. "You mind yourself, now," their guide scolded. "It's not right. Everyone should just leave him alone. He's /our/ guest, always a gentleman, and the girls all like him, even the ones sworn off men. He can stay as long as he likes as far as I am concerned. There's nothing out there that's any good anyway....wars and oni and everything."
Sensei offered some mollifying words.
The matron reached a closed shoji. "I still think he's best off staying here."
Sensei sighed. "I know." With a last warning glance towards his magistrates, he slid open the screen.
The room was clearly the finest this small geisha house had to offer. Threadbare silks hung the walls, and ikebana brightened the two side alcoves. Seated amidst a pile of pillows and silks was a man who looked towards Sensei and the others with eyes that seemed to see nothing.
Beside him there were two women lounging to either side, while a third, little older than a child, slept wrapped in silks on a futon near the man's feet. One of the women was wary as she watched them enter, her dark eyes filled with fear and suspicion even though she said nothing. Her gaudy kimono hung loosely about her, but Kenuchio could see that the right sleeve was empty...one of this woman's arms had been cut off at some time in the past, and yet she had survived. It was impossible to see the expression on the face of the other, for while her body was beautiful and lithe, clearly belonging to some noble line of geisha by her graceful bearing and perfect hands, her face had been dissolved into molten flesh. One eye had melted shut, while the other peered lidless through the twisted mass of scars. Only acid flung into the face could do such damage. A ripple of anger on her behalf caused Kenuchio's swordhand to twitch.
The man was between thirty and thirty-five years old. His long white hair streamed unbound across the shoulders of his silver-gray kimono. The kimono was open, revealing a thin chest that displayed every rib. His skin, that had once been tanned, now was pale, like after a long illness. His face, if gaunt, was still blindingly handsome, but it seemed affectless. Face, chest, and arms were pocked with mysterious scars. In many ways, he looked completely unfamiliar, but Kenuchio recognized him. He'd seen him from afar, but met him personally only once. A young Crane commander with laughing eyes and casual grace, willing to toss aside all formality to personally lead a group of low-ranked misfits to Akodo Toturi in the middle of the battle to retake Otosan Uchi during the Scorpion Clan Coup. The laughter was gone.
"Leave me." The man's greeting was little more than a whisper. The scarred woman drew protectively closer to the man.
Sensei shook his head and took a step forward. "I cannot, Doji Hoturi-sama. We have our roles to play and I have come to you now to call the Thunder from your soul. I know why you walk this willow world. I know what was done to you. But the time has come to take up your sword and reclaim your name and your honor. There has come an evil to the world such as has not been seen since ancient times, and I swear to you, if you do not stand against it, the Empire will fall."
"You are looking for another man. The one you want is not here. The Empire needs nothing from me. Leave." Hotui's voice was flat and without emotion.
Moto Koshi sniffed the air. "Not tainted. There's no Shadowlands stench about him."
Matsumoto Eiko tossed a thin strip of paper up into the air and watched it flutter to the ground. "There's no evil magic or bindings on him," she answered Koshi nervously, keeping her voice soft though it was clear Hoturi had heard everything. He didn't seem to care.
Sensei tried a second time. "If you act now, you can stand with us on the Fields of the Morning Sun. You can defeat that which has been stripped from you and build yourself anew. And if you do that, you will save your clan. Does that mean nothing to you?"
A hint of anger tainted Hoturi's voice. "My clan is already destroyed, Monk. By me, and well you know it. Let someone else sweep up the bones."
The girl who had been sleeping on the floor opened her eyes and looked at the group with confusion.
Sensei's voice shook with urgency, "It is not dead. The Empire is not dead yet! You have power, Hoturi." He gestured Asahina Ayame forward. "See? Here! You have only to grasp it."
Ayame took a trembling step forward and carefully removed the non-descript wrappings from the Ancestral Blade of the Crane, letting them fall to the ground. The beautiful lacquered saya seemed to glow with inner fire in her hands. She knelt before Hoturi and offered the blade to him.
Hoturi's eyes widened at the sight, but he made no move to take it. His voice darkened further. "It's a sword. And one I am no longer worthy to bear. Do not tempt me with it! Take it away and leave or I swear I'll....!" He almost made as if to stand, but then fell back. His voice trailed off into a bare whisper. "Useless. I am nothing. No more. Go."
A long silence stretched as Hoturi and Sensei glared at each other. Finally Sensei glanced around at the other magistrates and seemed o crumble in about himself, falling again into the role of the humblest of monks. "Very well, Doji Hoturi-sama. The blood of Doji and Kakita flows through your veins, and I am but your humble servant.. I shall not pursue you further. I will go. I only ask that you listen to these samurai as they take their leave. They have come very far and sacrificed much to reach you and call you home. " Sensei bowed his head in supplication.
The woman with the acid-scarred face touched Hoturi's arm, while the one-handed woman whispered something soft and encouraging in the Crane Lord's ear.
Hoturi said nothing, but did not refuse the request. Sensei gestured at Ayame, then bowed and backed out of the room.
Ayame timidly rose and came forward, her eyes downcast. "I...am glad you are alive, My Lord. I am glad that the good that is in you is still alive. We...were afraid it wasn't so." She swallowed, then knelt to lay the sword across Hoturi's lap. The man made no move to take or touch the blade, but he didn't shove it away either. "I'm sorry. I can't take this sword any further. I am Asahina...I was never supposed carry a blade. I was a flower of the court. I was never supposed to see a battlefield. But so many things have happened that weren't supposed to." She laid her hand gently on Hoturi's own hand, blushing at her impertinence. "I need to go, though. I may not be able to do much on the battlefield. But the Crane need me. My clan needs me. I'll do anything I can do, for as long as I can, for my family."
Hoturi stared blankly at her and did not respond. She bowed very deeply and moved out of the room.
Moto Koshi stepped forward, taking a respectful bow. But he straightened. "I am still learning the ways of the Empire and their differences with my people. In my clan, my father is a chieftain. His band of warriors is small, but they are his own, his family and his responsibility. He would rather crawl on his hands and knees to die with them in battle than allow them to fight without him. " He shook his head. "I presumed such was the way of all leaders." He bowed and took his leave. Hoturi did not move, though he glared after him as he left.
Matsumoto Eiko followed her, saying simply, "If you are afraid that the evil spell left its trace in you, it hasn't. It was a vile and terrible thing, I can tell. But you aren't bound by it." She bowed quickly and left.
Hiruma Izuko bowed in perfunctory way on her way out. "Even if you were one of the Damned," she said tartly, "You'd be redeemed in death on the battlefield. I had friends who joined the Damned, and I respected them for it." She turned crisply on her heel and marched out.
That left Mirumoto Kenuchio alone with Hoturi and the women around him. The swordsman had come so far and been so helpless to fulfill his most basic duty: to protect the people of the Empire from evil. And this man, who wore the face of the one who slaughtered so many at the Kakita Academy, refused to answer the call. Kenuchio was ashamed to imagine what Kakita Hideyoshi would have thought of his Clan Daimyo now.
He stepped forward, his voice low and menacing. The women froze. "There was a man, a kenshinzen, at the Kakita Academy named Kakita Hideyoshi. He was my friend. He was witty, intelligent, handsome. He could have done anything he wished. But all he wanted, everything he wanted, was to be a single blade for the Crane clan. The best swordsman he could possibly be. He spent every day, even the day he died, living for that. That was joy enough."
Hoturi didn't answer.
Kenuchio focused intently on the pulse beating in Hoturi's throat. " It would shame Hideyoshi to know what you have become. You have all that he had and far more. But you call it nothing. If you truly are nothing, then you are right. You are danger to us all and I know my duty." With that, he struck forward like lightning with both palms, a pressing strike to the heart. It was one of Kaze-do's most lethal waza, and one that will kill an unarmored man in the space between heartbeats.
Faster than blinking, Hoturi drew the Ancestral Sword of the Crane five inches from the sheath, just enough to block Kenuchio's blow with the tsuka and tsuba of the katana. For a single second, they were frozen together, while a crystal chime seemed to shake the whole building with the purity of its tone. Kenuchio stepped back while Hoturi stayed frozen, his grip holding the blade's tsuka with Kakita Toshimoko's own expertise.
The women gasped and cringed away.
Kenuchio's voice was filled with sorrow, anger expended, as he filled the silent void. "So...you are a swordsman still. Isn't that enough?"
He silently backed out of the room, leaving Hoturi in the silks and shadows of the willow world.
Kenuchio found the other magistrates sitting on the side of the road a few hundred yards from the geisha house. Sensei's head was bowed and his eyes were hidden under the green hood he wore. The others looked equally lost and dejected. He sank down next to Ayame.
"I suppose that's it," offered Izuko.
"Shinden Asahina then?" Koshi sounded calm, but Kenuchio could hear the disappointment.
Ayame rubbed her eyes with her sleeve.
But the man they'd been told to follow didn't move, so they waited.
Kenuchio couldn't tell what caused Sensei to look up sharply, but he turned to look in the same direction. The door to the geisha house had opened. Wearing a broad-brimmed iron jingasa that masked his features, a samurai dressed in ronin armor of brown and gray emerged, appeared to speak to the eunuch and blind boy who guarded the doors, and took the eunuch's naginata. He walked towards them, head down, and stopped as he drew close.
Sensei and the other magistrates rose to meet him.
The samurai looked up, and the magistrates met the black eyes of Doji Hoturi. He gave them a small nod of his head, and said, "One more sword for my family...is enough."
The Battle of Asahina Fields
It is a journey of some weeks by foot from the village near the coast in southern Yasuki lands to Shinden Asahina. Since they were still in Crab lands, it was important to avoid most inns and villages, even if the land was mostly free of patrols. Doji Hoturi kept to himself the first few days, brooding silently and only allowing Sensei to lead him away to talk a few times. But within a day or two he awkwardly asked to take on some of the camp chores, and the magistrates did not feel like they could refuse. They welcomed him to join them at the fire, and soon he fell into the daily patterns of their journeying that they had experienced so far.
He insisted on being treated as a bushi of equal rank, and would not allow any to defer to him. If any of the magistrates slipped, he would either politely ignore them, or say simply that they were speaking of a man that was gone now, or that the Lord of the Crane was Doji Kuwanan. By the end of the first week, he asked the bushi if he might be allowed to practice his kata with them, which, of course, they freely granted. They could see from the way he moved that Doji Hoturi still bore the damage of his past torture, but each day of traveling and training, he grew in strength, and his technique was flawless. He refused to fight with or even draw Shukujo however, using only the naginata he bore. Moto Koshi asked why, one evening. "This sword is not for me," he answered. "It is for the Lord of the Crane." He would not speak more of it.
They were ambushed by bandits near the end of the second week. Active scouting and avoiding the roads had avoided earlier groups of Obsidian Crab, but this group claimed the narrow mouth of a wooded valley and were able to set an ambush. The magistrates and Doji Hoturi, however, were able to easily dispatch them. Breathing heavily with the exertion following their victory, Hoturi allowed himself the first smile they had seen since they had met him again. That night, once they'd tracked down the bandit's shelter and were able to replenish their supplies from the stolen loot, they sat around a cookfire sharing stories of past bandit raids that had been driven off. Hoturi told an tale of traveling with Toshimoko in his younger years that left the magistrates laughing. Hoturi smiled a second time.
There is a simplicity and rhythm to living off the land and traveling with good people, and if wounds can't be forgotten, there is healing in it.
It was they who set the ambush when the group encountered a patrol of Obsidian Crabs deeper in Crane Lands. Hiruma Izuko greeted the patrol, confronting them on their netsuke. They attacked immediately, and she bolted, drawing them into an ambush by the other magistrates. Doji Hoturi unconsciously took command, and Ayame and Kenuchio shared a private smile as the Crane gave the order to strike. When the battle was over, all pretended Hoturi had remained silent, and they continued as equals as before. The Obsidian Crab were a stark reminder of battles lost, as were the traces they began to encounter. Though most of the bodies had been burned by the faithful eta, there was no hiding the damaged buildings and broken arrows that littered the countryside.
Near the southern border of Asahina lands, they encountered another Crab patrol. Izuko again confronted them, asking after their netsuke. Though the Crab were initially hostile, when they realized she was Jade Crab they welcomed her gladly. The other magistrates emerged to greet them. The patrol members recognized the magistrates. Especially Izuko…they were among those Crab who had fought beside them at Beidan Pass and who had traveled to Shinden Asahina with Hida Sukune. Doji Hoturi and Sensei kept their faces down and did not speak, and the Jade Crab did not seem to recognize them. The Jade Crab offered to escort the group back to the Fields of the Morning Sun and one ran ahead to report. On Sensei’s assent, the magistrates agreed.
The Fields of the Morning Sun were beautiful, broad-open plains, now tall with rice that would soon be turning from green to gold. The temple itself was nestled at the opening of a U-shaped valley. A river with a waterfall cascaded behind it, then braided across the plains before it bringing water and life.
But the plains had changed since Ayame last traveled that way. Long rows of pointed spikes dominated the landscape, cutting across the fields. Wide areas of earth were trampled. And hundreds and hundreds of straw archery targets had been prepared. No one was firing at the targets, however; even the farmers seemed absent from the fields. Only flat-eyed guards watched them as they approached the temples. Doji Hoturi kept his jingasa low as they passed.
When they reached the temple doors, they heard a stirring. Two dozen hardened Daidoji warriors lined up to either side of the road, carrying yari. When they looked up, they could see high on the walls of the temple a row of archers, their bows trained down upon them. They stopped immediately.
The temple doors opened. Nine more men emerged from the temple. Four were bushi in heavy armor. Two were shugenja, whom Ayame did not know. And, protected between them, were the faces of men they recognized: Doji Kuwanan, Daidoji Uji, and the leader of the Asahina, Asahina Tomo. The magistrates bowed deeply to honor the Champion of the Crane.
Kuwanan ignored Sensei and the magistrates, a thunderhead of fury animating every gesture. He marched straight past to stand face to face with Doji Hoturi. Hoturi went down to his knees before Kuwanan, head down in a gesture of supplication.
"Hoturi!" Kuwanan growled. "What manner of deceit are you trying now, to come here like this? Or are you here just to mock us? You will pay dearly for it."
Hoturi removed his jingasa and laid it on the ground at his feet; it was no longer necessary. "I know you cannot forgive me for the things that have happened. I would not ask you to. All I can do is swear to you that the monstrous creation that bears my face was stolen from me using vile magic and my own weakness. It is not the man you see before you, though I am responsible for it. I have come here only to offer all that I have left to give: my swordarm for your battles, and this blade that I bear." He carefully removed the sheathed Shukujo from his obi and offered to Kuwanan the ancestral sword of the Crane. "You are the Champion of the Crane, little brother. You were the one here to fight for it."
Daidoji Uji's eyes were hooded, staring intently at Hoturi, though the daimyo's expression was hidden by his mask. Asahina Tomo stroked his beard thoughtfully. But bitterness and anger burned in Doji Kuwanan's heart as he saw the gleaming blue of the sword of his grandfather held up before him. He snatched the blade from Hoturi's outstretched hands and ripped off the saya, casting it aside. Neither magistrate nor yojimbo nor daimyo dared break the silence...all were frozen. With an incoherent roar of grief and loss, Doji Kuwanan lashed out with the blade at his kneeling brother. The swordtip traced a narrow line of blood across Hoturi's arm and chest, but Hoturi did not move or flinch. Kuwanan raised the blade for the down stroke that would remove the kneeling samurai's head...and stopped. Despite everything, he did not want to kill his brother.
Kuwanan's whole body trembled...love, hate, grief, joy, all at war within him, though he kept his face hardened. Daidoji Uji stepped forward and grabbed the wrist of Kuwanan's sword arm.
"Wait," he hissed.
Kuwanan slowly lowered Shukujo to his side when Uji released him. Uji stooped and picked up the discarded saya. He then carefully, reverently, took the ancestral sword from Kuwanan's grasp. Kuwanan released it to him. Uji wiped the blade clean and resheathed it. He offered it across his wrist to Hoturi.
"Draw it," whispered the old Asahina. "Draw it and we shall know."
Hoturi stared into his brother's eyes as he drew the ancient blade. A chime rippled through the air, causing the bells in the Temple to ring a thousand answering notes.
Smoke rose in columns over the horizon from the broad plains of the Morning Sun, more columns than Kenuchio could count. The attack will come any moment now. "What do you make of their plans?" He paced restlessly. From this vantage point, he could see the battlefield that was to be laid out before him. The main road. The hidden traps. The arcs across which the arrows would fly. If it were a narrower valley, it would be easier. If it were closer to the sea, perhaps. But he could see before him a fight long and bloody, no matter how ingenious the battle plans.
Hiruma Izuko followed his gaze, her fingers wrapped around her yumi. "You should trust Sukune-sama. He is one of the most brilliant strategists in the Empire. The plan is sound. Perhaps if Doji Kuwanan had not spent every minute since he arrived here training ashigaru, turning them into archers, promising the best a place as ji-samurai in the Asahina family...it would be impossible. But now the Asahina have hundreds and hundreds of trained archers. With this many, the Crane can hold the left and right central flanks. And Daidoji Uji-sama has pitted the sides of the valley out of reach of the arrows with traps."
Kenuchio scowled. "Any competent leader can find ways around the traps and the arrows. There are so many of them”
“Oni and undead....not the brightest strategists " Izuko's lips curled in a small grin.
“But two armies? The False Hoturi, the undead, and Scorpion strike from the north. And Hida Yakamo and the Obsidian Crab and their oni strike from the south. To come together at the same time like this…they must have some alliance."
“Or they both have something they both want very much. Right here. As long as their leadership remains fixed and focused on the center point, the rest don’t have the brains to deal with the archers and traps.”
"The center point. Doji Hoturi. Hida Sukune. The handful of heavy infantry remaining. And us." Kenuchio's voice was even. He wasn't sure whether he felt excited about the prospect of fighting the commanders of the two armies that were bearing down on him, or appalled.
Izuko’s voice turned serious. “It’s not the forces we know about that trouble me.”
“What does?” Kenuchio cocked his head. He knew there was something wrong with the battle plan; maybe Izuko had found it.
The Crab looked out over the deceptively peaceful plains. “The earthquake. The war between Hitomi and the Unicorn. An unexpected traitor. There are other traitors out there, Kenuchio. We’ve confirmed this. This battlefield is the hinge point on which the fate of at least two clans is decided. If Yakamo wins, all resistance within the Crab will be crushed out. The Crab will follow the oni and fight on the side of Jigoku for certain. The uncommitted would commit, for there would be no other path for them. And if this False Hoturi wins…here lies everything that is left of the bushi of the Crane, and almost all its rulership. There won’t even be a Crane clan any more after this.” She hesitated. “Is there a better place where a single act of treason, perhaps from a hidden, but powerful, shugenja like the one that cast that Earthquake spell, could cause more harm to the Empire?”
Slowly, the Dragon nodded his head. “You’re right. It’s too fragile. We have to march with Hoturi. We’re too distinct. But maybe Ayame could keep watch specifically for a traitor. She’ll have to miss the rest of the battle….” He didn’t mention how privately happy he was to keep the Asahina away from the front lines.
Izuko grinned. “I think she knows how to wait.”
“I’ve come with tokens from the Asahina, Lord Hoturi.” Asahina Ayame bowed and kept her eyes down as she waited to be permitted entrance.
Doji Hoturi gestured for her to come in with a small sigh. “No more fellow adventurer travelling the outskirts of Mori, I suppose, Ayame-san?” He did not reject the title. He had dressed in the armor provided for him…blue silk and bright steel, of decent quality associated with rank. Hoturi was fastening on the arm guards. He still looked thin and wan, like the ronin he had been as they had travelled together. But now, he was clearly, unmistakably, Crane. Unmistakably Doji Hoturi.
He had to make a tempting target for the False Hoturi.
Ayame entered, carrying a basket before her filled with feathers. “No, Hoturi-sama. I’m afraid not. But those travels were…fun.”
She set down the basket beside her and lifted out a single white feather held on by a thick strand of silk thread. “The Asahina fetishists have been creating these since the fall of Kuyden Kakita. They tell me each feather will prevent a small amount of damage from befalling you.”
Hoturi nodded as he finished lacing on the arm guard. “At least my enemy won’t have the blessings of the Asahina with him, whatever other gifts Jigoku has offered him. If only it is enough.”
Ayame tied the first feather to the bottom of Hoturi’s left sode. “I know that you will defeat him, Hoturi-sama.” She picked the second from the basket and tied it beside the first.
“How? How do you know, Ayame-san?” The daimyo’s voice was grim, still heavy with a weight of self-disgust.
The Asahina tied on another feather. “You’ve already fought the hardest battles. You fought for your soul, and won. Now, you only fight for your life. The smaller the prize, the easier the battle. You will be victorious.”
“Death as light as a feather,” Hoturi smiles wryly. “True enough. Thank you for the reminder.”
Ayame smiled softly and continued tying on the feathers. Her face showed only pure confidence, but in her heart she was praying for this man as fervently as she had ever prayed for anyone in her entire life.
Moto Koshi held his face firmly impassive as an ashigaru archer fell beside him, pierced through with an arrow as long as he was tall. The hissing winds of the Asahina caused the Crane archers' arrows to fly further than any he had ever known, but an ogre-pulled bow could match the range.
These were only the first volleys, a battery of tests between the armies that stood with only the open valley floor between them. The patch of green covered by the arc of the arrows' flight was the only green nearby. Beyond that range, the land was black with the forces arrayed before them, kept at bay, barely, by the will of their commanders. Undead. Oni. Goblins. Humans, both tainted and fallen, or dangerously misguided. Black now. Red soon.
Koshi could hear Doji Kuwanan shout for a cease fire. The Crane Lord tried not to let the grave injuries he still bore color the tone of his voice. The command carried down the wall. A young Asahina shugenja standing nearby began to read from a scroll in a quiet voice. When he was done, he gestured to the man standing next to Koshi. Time to begin the play.
Doji Hoturi returned the nod, and stepped up onto the edge of the high temple wall.
"I demand to speak to the one who leads you!" the Crane beside Koshi called out, and the power of the Asahina's spell carried his voice clear across the battlefield, shaking the very stones with its power. "I demand to speak to Hoturi!"
There was a rumbling from within the ranks arrayed before them, a bubble of movement that rippled across that tainted sea. A man emerged from the darkness, dressed in the brilliant silver and blue of the ancestral armor of the Crane, his white hair flowing behind him on the unseen dance of the kasen. Koshi could see him through his spyglass, could make out the mocking smile on his face. The figure amidst the tainted troops said something in response, but the voice did not carry over the distance.
The Doji Hoturi who stood at his side was not dissuaded. He continued. "There. We see each other now!" Hoturi shouted. "You remember me, don't you? You know I was tortured. You know how you despise my weakness!" He gestured at the False Hoturi with the naginata he carried. "But you should know that I know you also! The emptiness. The sense of incompleteness. That you will never be enough. Do you know why, Hoturi? Because I hold that part of your power. I am the part of you that is missing. You will never be able to win back that power unless you kill me. You do want to kill me, don't you, Hoturi?"
Koshi watched the False Hoturi's face carefully through the spyglass. The dark reflection of the man speaking suddenly leaned forward, with far more attention, and listened as the true Hoturi spoke. "I thought you said there was no connection left between that False Hoturi and Doji Hoturi," the Moto muttered to Matsumoto Eiko, who stood just behind him,
"There's not," the woman answered in a whisper. "He knows because he speaks of himself."
The true Doji Hoturi laughed, and the laughter was a rumbling across the whole valley. "As you can see, I no longer lead the Crane. You have taken everything from me. There is nothing...nothing...stopping me from taking my life right at this moment. And then, you will /never/ have the power that you lack. You will never get to kill me."
The spyglass revealed the False Hoturi's anger. The leader of the forces of Jigoku rode forward a short ways, though his words were still beyond Koshi's hearing.
The samurai speaking with a voice of thunder beside him continued. "But I won't. If you hold your forces back, and face me fairly in a duel, you could defeat me. I could defeat you. Otherwise, I kill myself the moment this battle begins. If you agree, ride out with the colors of parley within an hour and we shall meet in honorable combat."
His last words echoed through the nearby hills as the Crane Lord stepped down from the edge to prepare for the duel. Koshi watched through the spyglass as the False Hoturi withdrew. By the expression on his face, Koshi did not doubt they would be meeting each other soon.
The stench of the bodies of the enemy grew as the group walked slowly forward through the green, sheltered by the space defined in the sky by the arc of the Asahina ashigaru archers and the flag of parley that they bore. At their lead was Doji Hoturi. His armor was steel and blue silk, the sode trimmed with white feathers. The sword at his side, saya and tsuka, was wrapped with narrow strips of plain black silk. He carried his naginata over his shoulder. He wore no kabuto...his long white hair streaming behind him, his face visible to all. His back banners clearly marked his loyalties.
Just behind him, acting as Hoturi's second and the next piece of bait to lure the eyes of the enemy, walked Hida Sukune. His armor was laced with the black of rebellion, but clearly of fine Crab make in heavy iron gray. Every inch of him was wrapped with white bandages, but wisps of black smoke rose faintly between the seams as a visible manifestation of the taint within. Behind the bandages, there was no mistaking his dark, intelligent brown eyes. His back banners rippled in the hot wind. He walked with a clarity of purpose, and despite the vile smell of taint that remained with him, Koshi felt the serenity and stillness of the man, as though he had determined the true course of his mysterious destiny and was going to meet it.
Closely at Sukune's side walked Kuni Ren, Hiruma Izuko's good friend from the Wall, and, Koshi knew, Hida Sukune's lover. They had spent much time with her during the Battle at Beidan Pass. Armor covered her shoulders and peeked out in places from under her black robes, and her head was bowed under an iron gray jingasa. Her face was painted with the white, black, and red of the Kuni, and both served to keep her expression completely masked from the Moto. He could not begin to tell what she was feeling.
Moto Koshi, his face concealed behind a new mempo made of solid stone, marched behind the three with his fellow magistrates: Mirumoto Kenuchio, Matsumoto Eiko, and Hiruma Izuko. And behind them, a full twenty mixed Hida and Daidoji Heavy Infantry...an honor guard to ensure their safe passage towards the duel.
Across from them, the False Hoturi led, a beautiful but warped mirror of the wan Crane that led them. On seeing who was acting as the true Doji Hoturi's second in the duel, another stirring erupted in the forces of the enemy, this time to the south, among the oni and goblins. The advance halted, and a towering presence joined the False Hoturi's retinue. Hida Yakamo. The man seemed the size of a mountain, his face shielded by his heavy kabuto. Muscle rippled across his mighty right arm, while his left was completely overwhelmed by a huge oni claw.
They were accompanied by an honor guard of similar size, twelve Scorpion in scowling mempos, faceless in their hate, standing close to the False Hoturi, and twelve mighty Crab warriors standing with Yakamo. While the Scorpion showed unity of purpose, the Crab seemed restless, uncertain, and hesitant. They refused to go near the Scorpion, guarding only their champion, and Koshi could see the weariness of a long and uncertain war in a world turned upside down in their eyes.
The two forces walked into the middle of the green space before the gates of Shinden Asahina under the flags of parley.
While Hida Yakamo and Hida Sukune hung back, each acknowledging the other with a tight nod, the False Hoturi and the true Doji Hoturi continued on to meet in the middle.
The False Hoturi's voice was cultured and smug. "You are even more pathetic-looking than I expected." Koshi had to admit that the leader of the enemy seemed...perfect. The priceless armor gleamed. Healthy, powerful, rested.
The man who had journeyed with Koshi did not rise to the bait, instead stepping back and setting his stance. "And yet, you will never be enough without me," the Crane said. He passed his naginata to Matsumoto Eiko. "Let us begin."
The bushi gave the pair a wide berth, forming a circle around the central fight, while both armies waited for the moment where void and motion become one. The False Hoturi assumed his stance with perfect confidence.
The two came together in a blur of motion as a single, clear chime rang across the battlefield when a nondescript blade in a black-wrapped saya was drawn and set the temple bells to ringing once again.
Emptiness. The Void. Asahina Ayame closed her eyes to the cries and violence around her. She blocked out the harsh commands and the sounds of frightened breathing. She focused only on the beating of her own heart and her own breath, allowing the air to flow into her and from her.
Senses first. She poured those into the void until all else was blocked out.
Then emotion. The worry she felt for Doji Hoturi, for Mirumoto Kenuchio, for her fellow magistrates, for the success of Hida Sukune's plan. Poured into the void.
Her own doubts. Her own fears. They followed into the emptiness.
She felt the ancient obi of the Asahina settle its weight firmly around her, and she welcomed its embrace, shutting out every other sensation.
Then, in the darkness of her mind's eye, she could see the obi flowing before her like a road out onto the battlefield. She began to walk along it. Though it spun further, she reached a place where she knew the battlefield lay around her, were she but to open her eyes.
It was that moment she made her call out to the Air Kami.
"Come!" she called to them. "There will be one that is different here. Powerful, likely shugenja, but loyal to none of these leaders. I do not know the name or the face, but I know the intent. The intent is treason and chaos. To strike a quick hammer blow to change everything. Air kami, let us play! Find him for me, and we will see who can strike first!"
He could hear their rippling laughter from across the battlefield. The obi had far extended her range, and the air kami had accepted her game.
'It will cost dearly if no traitor comes. And then I won't be able to help at all in this battle.'' Ayame shoved the tiny bubble of doubt into the void quickly before the air kami sensed it.
"I can wait." she said to the searching winds. "I can wait and I am ready."
The head of the False Hoturi rolled to land at Hiruma Izuko's feet, and she jerked the Crab banner she bore away so it would not touch the thing. Body and head slowly melted into a thick black slime that seeped into the grass below.
Doji Hoturi stood with the Ancestral Sword of the Crane extended, caught in perfect strike that brought him to Victory. 'The False one underestimated him,' Izuko thought with satisfaction, but there was not long to linger on it. There was no way that the honorless dogs that made up the False Hoturi's army would simply surrender now their general was gone, though any Scorpion who were still sane might deem it wise to retreat.
The calm voice of Hida Sukune broke the frozen moment. "Yakamo-kun...Brother. Can we end this in a duel now, too? End this bloodshed? End this war? Surely you see that you fight at the side of oni and undead, necromancers and Scorpions? This is not who we are! This is not the way of the Crab."
Hida Yakamo...almost...hesitated. But his response was a roar of rage. "I know my duty! I know how to obey my Lord and Father! You are the traitor, Sukune. Your treason makes us weak, forces us into this shame! If we were unified behind our father we would have already been victorious!"
There was to be no duel between them. With a great cry, Hida Yakamo bore down with the mighty oni claw upon the group of Crane and Jade Crab, and all were forced to fight for their lives. Swords and tetsubos clashed around them as Sukune pulled back from the onslaught. Izuko knew that the Crab strategist was still far too wounded to lift a sword; the offer of a duel had been a bluff Sukune had known his brother would refuse.
Hoturi slowly turned to face the oni-tainted Crab in Hida Sukune's place, but Izuko could see already the exhaustion draining the strength from the weakened Crane's pale features. But before she could say anything, Mirumoto Kenuchio stepped forward. "Hoturi-sama...you have earned enough glory on this battlefield. Please grant others the chance to earn their place as samurai."
The Crane hesitated for just a second, then nodded and darted past him to support the Daidoji and Jade Crab that fought behind them.
The four magistrates quickly drew together in a line between Hida Sukune and the charging Hida Yakamo. Yakamo roared, preparing to throw them aside as he had every other similar unworthy that had faced him in battle. But, from the right side, Matsumoto Eiko tossed one of her prayer strips up towards the mighty warrior. Moto Koshi stepped forward to meet the half-oni head on. The prayer strip seemed to do nothing, and certainly did not prevent the oni claw from gripping Koshi around the waist. But instead of the claw severing him in two, the stone mempo the Moto wore shattered and broke. Instantaneously, the Moto turned into a statue of solid stone, both hands gripping the claw fast. The prayer strip had weakened the claw just enough that it could not sever the stone. The claw, for one instant, was stuck in the statue's grip. Darting in from the right side, still holding the Crab banner, Hiruma Izuko threw a simple gemstone at the furious Crab warrior. There was a flash of brilliant sunlight, blinding Yakamo for a moment.
And, spinning around from behind, Mirumoto Kenuchio struck with both of his blades, exactly at the point of Yakamo's arm where the oni- claw met human flesh. The jade tokens that dangled from both swords shattered as he struck, just for that moment reinforcing both swords with the power of jade.
The claw was severed from the arm, falling to the ground at Moto Koshi's feet. Hida Yakamo howled with rage, confusion, and pain, while Hida Sukune looked calmly on like a man who has seen the results of his strategies come together. "Yakamo-kun....you are needed. I will help you find yourself again." Sukune's voice was serene, even tender. "Now, Ren-chan." He reached out to take her hand.
Tears streaking her white facepaint, the Kuni took his hand and chanted. The very air around her trembled with the power of her building spell. With a burst of jade light, she poured power and prayer into the target of her spell...Hida Sukune. The corrupted samurai froze in place, entombed in a statue of pure jade, his hand still held in hers. More and more power poured into him, turning armor and wrappings, flesh and bone, each piece into solid stone.
The instant the spell reached his cold fingertips, Kuni Ren drew her wakizashi and used it to strike at the elbow of the man she loved. The arm broke free, still gripped in her own fingers. She darted forward and slammed the stump of the jade arm against the stump of Hida Yakamo's arm that had been left from cutting free the oni claw.
The magics that had originally caused the claw to become bound to Hida Yakamo's originally untainted flesh reached out and fused with the...almost...living jade hand that was set upon it, and the two fused into one. A light of reason returned to Yakamo's eyes, and he lifted his other hand to his head, shaking it to clear it. He looked around the battlefield, the forces of Obsidian and Jade Crab fighting around him, and the jade statue of his brother standing before him. It took a moment of hesitation, but the leader of the Obsidian Crab shouted across the battlefield. "Retreat! All loyal Crab! Retreat! Retreat"
The Obsidian Crab, hearing their leader's cry, immediately passed the call down the line, pulling back from the fighting and drawing behind the armies of the Shadowlands. They began their retreat from the field.
Hiruma Izuko, her sunstone fetish expended, watched Moto Koshi slowly turn from stone into flesh, and hurried to assist him. The Obsidian Crab, retreating, left her free to do so.
Two leaders down. Now they had only to survive the wrath of the undead and oni that filled the Fields of the Morning Sun.
Getting back into the temple suddenly sounded like a very good idea indeed.
The din was unbearable. The screams of the living, the dying, the undead, all blended in a horrific cacophony, mixed with the hum of flying arrows, and the roars of Jigoku-driven monsters. This deep in her meditation, however, the sound washed across Asahina Ayame like a hot breeze. The ancient obi she wore glimmered with twinkling light all its own, but, though her eyes were open, the shugenja could see nothing but the movements of the air spirits.
One of those spirits finally came dancing before her eyes, laughing and gesturing that he had won the game; that she should follow him. With the vision of her mind's eye and carried by the strength of her meditation and the powers of the obi, she raced after the kami to see who he had found. 'There.' A tall, lean older man with a cruel face, he stood apart even though he was hidden in the middle of the the armies that surrounded him. Neither undead or oni, Scorpion or Crab dared draw near. Not to a man who wore the robes of the High Inquisitor of the Phoenix clan. Not to Asako Monoro.
He held up a scroll, focused on the power of the spell he was building, relying on his anonymity in the masses while he prepared the deadly devastation of stone that he hoped to use to bring the valley walls down upon the traps the Daidoji sabateurs had prepared. The spell would likely crumble at least one edge of the walls, prematurely activate the traps, and grant the oni free access to the temple. In her mind’s eye, Ayame could see him beginning to chant.
“Not if I get there first.”
The Crane shugenja let the power that had been building in her, the half-complete prayer she had been preparing all day, fill her senses. With a final cry to the kami of air and void, she lashed out with her power, slicing in a single strike at the Asako traitor. The blow struck deep, and was completely by surprise. It severed the connection between the Phoenix and the elements, disrupting the spell and tearing away his connection to the kami.
The blow would not kill him. Ayame had been taught the spell by Asahina Tomo himself, and her daimyo would never permit her to use her powers in that fashion. But it would be many days before the Phoenix would be able to cast another spell.
Ayame slumped with exhaustion. Around her, the blood of one of the archers pooled near where she sat in mediation, and arrows flew overhead as the undead ranks advanced. Arrows sizzling with jade-green light sprang from the ashigarus’ bows, while other shugenja up and down the wall cast their enchantments of support for those that lined the wall.
She had no power left for fighting. But as she heard the first explosion of firework-propelled jade powder as an oni stumbled into a Daidoji trap, she knew that the plan had paid off. She had done her part.
A Flash of Lightening
The battle of Asahina Fields had been on a dry, hot day of mid-Autumn, unnatural in all ways. But cold descended quickly in the days following the battle, and hung on to dog their weary steps as they travelled northwards towards Otosan Uchi.
Mirumoto Kenuchio tried his best to ignore the chill, choosing instead to pour over the end of the battle if only to better prepare him for the battles to come. Once he had struck the claw from Hida Yakamo, and Kuni Ren had replaced it, it seemed like the battle only intensified. But in truth, the defeat of the armies of the Shadowlands was already in hand.
About a third of the enemy forces quit the field when Hida Yakamo called for the retreat, those Scorpion and Crab whose souls were not yet lost to the madness of the Shadowlands taint. Still, the undead forces that had followed the False Hoturi pressed closely about them, and it was hard fighting as they withdrew back towards the temple. The enchanted arrows of the Asahina's ashigaru archers provided fair cover, the sky black and green with jade. There was a rumbling, and then the sound of explosions to either side of the valley as the oni moved towards the temple out of the range of the majority of the archers. However, they met the traps of the Daidoji. The sound of fireworks...and the explosions of something far, far stronger than fireworks...filled the air and Kenuchio could catch glimpses from the corner of his eye of oni being ripped apart in balls of fire. Other oni, pressing forward through the ashes of the previous oni, would fall into pits filled with jade-tipped spears, or, if they were clever enough to move around, found themselves engaged with hidden forces of Daidoji saboteurs or caught in unleashed oil and flame or the jade strikes of the few Jade Crab Kuni who remained other than Kuni Ren.
Even so, the numbers of the enemy had been overwhelming. Though they had made it back to Shinden Asahina, the traps had become overwhelmed and the arrows were running out when a mighty shout arose from behind the army of the enemy. It was then that Mirumoto Kenuchio could see the might of the Crab unleashed as Hida Yakamo returned to the battlefield with the forces of the Obsidian Crab behind him. The light of the Jade Hand could be seen even from the walls of Shinden Asahina and it seemed to be with a strange joy that the Obsidian Crab struck at the remaining undead and oni on the field. The backbone of the two tainted armies shattered before the might of Hida Yakamo's forces, and their remaining generals called for a retreat.
Shinden Asahina was free.
Mirumoto Kenuchio could remember slumping to the ground with exhaustion, remember having his wounds tended by an equally exhausted young Asahina, having a cup of water pressed into his hands.
Later, he remembered a blur of meetings, treaties and negotiations between this new Hida Yakamo, the bearer of the Jade Hand, and Doji Hoturi, Doji Kuwanan, and Daidoji Uji. And Sensei, always acting as the diplomat, soothing wounds of honor, pouring salve on rough words. Creating peace between them.
There was little for the magistrates to do, but all had suffered wounds and exhaustion in the battle so they were grateful for the respite.
It was maybe not quite enough time for them to fully recover from their wounds. Kenuchio's still ached. But winter was approaching quickly, and the evil may have retreated but still flooded the Empire from every side. The Emperor had cancelled Winter Court, but if ever there was a time the clans needed to gather and speak, this was it. So now they marched, through the growing autumn chill, towards Kuyden Doji, to free it from any lingering Shadowlands presence, if that were possible, and to treat and plan the next move to save the Empire. The days were long, the nights cold, and there was a weary despair settling in around the Dragon that needed to be fought.
Three hundred Crane soldiers had survived the battle in the Fields of the Morning Sun sufficiently to make the march north, and their troops were led by Doji Hoturi. Daidoji Uji acted as his second in command, while the still injured Doji Kuwanan remained behind in Shinden Asahina until he was able to make the trip north with any additional troops he was able to gather. Each day, the Crane commanders sent riders scouring the villages for any magistrates or bushi that had become cut off and isolated by the battles that had torn the Crane lands apart. Their numbers had grown to five hundred, and they hoped for more before they made Kuyden Doji. Other riders had ridden to the coast to recruit mercenaries and Mantis, opening the Crane treasuries for any aid they could make against the darkness.
Behind the small Crane army marched the larger forces of the Crab. The army was led by Hida Yakamo, but many of his senior advisors, Kenuchio knew, were now dead, executed for the roles they played in pushing the Crab towards a path of darkness and overcome, when taking the test of jade, with the taint. Now Jade Crab and Obsidian Crab eyed each other warily, carefully monitoring for all signs of corruption. Those fallen to the taint not shugenja and deemed still loyal to Hida were kept in a separate unit deep within the Crab ranks and closely monitored by the loyal Kuni. They marched in silence, and seemed eager to die. Kenuchio did not linger near.
The cold wind sent Crane and Crab banners cracking fiercely taut, but also leached out more of his warmth and strength. He found himself worrying about Asahina Ayame and how she might be holding up, and remembering the words of Kaktia Hideyoshi.
Kenuchio looked forward to the fires tonight.
It was an hour before sunset when they reached the outskirts of the open fields around Kuyden Doji. Once the beauty of these lands had been referred to as the Fantastic Gardens of the Doji, but they had been trampled by the forces of the Lion and Doji Hoturi, and now were little more than bowed trees and shattered teahouses buried under an early snow. 'The snow is a blessing of the water kami,' thought Asahina Ayame 'It hides the scars of the lands and lets us recall the memory of beauty.'
The shugenja hurried closer to the hooded ronin who led them, walking side by side with Doji Hoturi. In the march north from Shinden Asahina, the magistrates had seen less and less of him. He was always deep in consultation with Doji Hoturi or Hida Yakamo. Even though he was never without a kindly word, he offered few straight answers. By now, though, she was used to it. Besides, she was so tired, she didn't even have the energy to ask.
The Crane Champion, or acting Champion, raised his hand to call a halt and the signal ran down the line. By now, the Crane banners had managed to gather about seven hundred samurai to their cause, and the Crab, no longer separated by the barriers of Obsidian and Jade, had gathered about two thousand, though there were rumored to be at least two thousand more here with the forces that had remained with Hida Kisada after his failed attack on Otosan Uchi. As Hoturi sent runners ahead to determine a place to camp, Ayame moved aside to stand with her fellow magistrates while Hida Yakamo came forward from the Crab forces to join them.
Shyly, she slipped her icy hand into the hand of Mirumoto Kenuchio. It was all she dared do; but they'd grown closer over the last month, and with death so close it seemed like she should seize the moments she could. She felt his warm fingers close around hers. Hoturi, Sensei, and Yakamo stepped forward to the red torii arch to enter the gardens.
A figure that seemed far too large to have been hiding beside the torii arch, stepped out in front of them, startling Ayame. The man who met them was even larger and more muscular than Hida Yakamo. He wore armor of gold lacquered with green, and a mighty kabuto on his head. Covering his face completely, all save his eyes, was a featureless mempo. The helm cast even his eyes in darkness, but they shone with golden light from behind that mighty mask. They held an intensity that made Ayame tremble.
Mirumoto Kenuchio immediately released her hand and dropped to one knee, while the others around her, including the acting Champions and Sensei, bowed deeply. Ayame, of course, did likewise.
Sensei straightened from his bow, and Ayame was surprised to detect a note of familiarity and cheer in his voice.
"Togashi Yokune-dono. Please may I introduce Hida Yakamo-sama of the reunited Crab Clan, and Doji Hoturi-sama, of the Crane." He bowed again.
The mighty armored figure bowed in return to the three men who stood before him. When all had straightened, his rumbling, deep voice seemed to resonate in the very stones beneath their feet.
"Shinsei. Thunders. I greet you."
The figure, the one called Togashi Yokune, then looked past the ronin, the Crab, and the Crane. Ayame could feel his eyes sweep across her and her fellow magistrates, towards the southwestern horizon.
His voice rumbled again, and it seemed to rattle the shugenja's bones. "A flash of lightning. All is in readiness. It is time. Follow me."
Ayame straightened and shared a glance with her fellow magistrates, a thousand questions pouring into her head at once, and, perhaps, two answers.
They followed Togashi Yokuni in silence as he led the armies of the Crane and Crab towards an area of encampment. No one dared say a word.
The bowl of hot soup with seaweed and fish was a welcome change after the pickled vegetables and cold rice so common to their forced march, and Hiruma Izuko was going to make the most of it. She found a place to settle by the Crane Champion's fire; she was probably unworthy by rank, but their service to Sensei...Shinsei...and Doji Hoturi... had earned them the spot for one last day, at least.
She wondered if she'd be sent to join the rest of the Light Infantry in the Crab forces. Or perhaps Toshimoko was here? There were troops enough. The entire area was lit with campfires as far as the eye could see. Kenuchio had already left to visit his father.
Doji Hoturi was sitting quietly nearby and eating his own soup with his back turned away from her, ignoring the Magistrates and everyone else to be alone in his thoughts. He'd left the House of the Nightingale behind but the Willow World was still in him, even after the Battle of Asahina Fields, and the Magistrates respected him enough to allow him his peace and privacy. The politics for him would begin soon enough, with the formal meetings of the Clan Champions and Generals beginning tomorrow.
Izuko shook her head. "I don't even care about the politics and the discussions they're having tomorrow. As long as they point out a direction and hand me a bow, I'll be content at this rate." Beside her, Moto Koshi nodded in agreement
"You don't care about politics, Hiruma-san? How very Crab of you," A sweet voice said softly beside her, and she pulled away in surprise. She'd never even seen the speaker approach, though the voice was familiar.
Her eyes met another's...a pair of familiar brown eyes with an expression hidden behind a soft pink scarf. Izuko could bet, however, the expression was a smirk. "Mai!"
The young Yakuza they had known in Otosan Uchi nodded and straightened to give the Hiruma and Moto a bow. Other than the scarf, she was dressed in a lightweight black armor. A pair of sai were tucked into her obi. as was one other thing that had never been there before...a beautiful, black-lacquered wakizashi. "Izuko-san," Mai offered cordially. "I am so glad you are alive and I would love to catch up on all the latest gossip, but I'm afraid there is something I must do first. Please excuse me."
Izuko and Koshi followed the young woman with their eyes, and from the opposite side of the fire, Ayame also realized who had approached and watched her silently.
Mai did not flinch but held her head up proudly as she walked straight up to Doji Hoturi. When she drew near she coughed politely.
Doji Hoturi turned to face her. His eyes narrowed questioningly, and then he smiled. "Akiyoshi-san! I had hoped to see you again. I take it your return to join the army of ronin being built by Toturi-san was successful. Does that mean he is here now?"
Moto Koshi raised his eyebrow questioningly, but Izuko just shook her head silently.
Mai bowed to the Crane Lord. "I am surprised you remember so much, Hoturi-sama, considering. We traveled far together to escape to the House of the Nightingale, but you were not in a position to understand complex matters. But now you must know. And, I hope, come to accept my sincere apology."
Hoturi frowned, a puzzled crease forming between his black eyes as he studied Mai. His face grew hard as he studied the woman before him carefully. "Go on, Akiyoshi-san." He set down his empty bowl of soup and stood to face her.
Mai straightened to look Hoturi in the eye. "I have never lied to you, not once. However, not is all as you think. I am not the ronin Akiyoshi. I never gave you my name, though you remember correctly that Akiyoshi is what others called me. Such is the name of a skilled actress who wears my face while performing as a geisha for the Emperor. For myself, considering my clan is exiled, I certainly could be considered ronin. My brothers were killed during the Scorpion Clan Coup, while my father died shortly before. And when I left you, I did go to join Toturi's Army, as I said I would.." She gestured at the magistrates nearby, including Izuko. "I have also never lied to these magistrates, though they know me far differently. When they lived in Otosan Uchi, they knew me as a crime lord, the leader of the Red Cloud Yakuza, by the name of Mai. And that is my true name and one of my roles, but it also is not all. For my name is Bayushi Mai and I am the true Champion of the Scorpion Clan."
The magistrates and the Crane Champion all grew very still, watching the young woman. The silence stretched between them, Mai smiling pleasantly the whole time, until Doji Hoturi spoke again. His on hid all expression and his voice was flat when he spoke. "I thought the Champion of the Scorpion was Bayushi Shoju." he said softly. "The Scorpion were disbanded. Only the Empress remains. Bayushi Kachiko."
Mai bowed deeply, the expression in the dark eyes above her pink scarf calmly sympathetic. "Yes. Very few even within the clan know of the secret of human masks. Bayushi Kachiko has been my mask, as Bayushi Shoju served as my father's. It is...difficult...when your mask decides it is not content to be only a mask, but decides to act out of its own will."
Hoturi frowned, and gestured at Mai to continue. The magistrates looked at each other.
Mai just looked amused. "The Scorpion can be justifiably accused of many things, Hoturi-san. But foolishness should not be one of them. Each Scorpion wears an outer face," she gestures at her scarf, "and an inner face. The outer face can be disposed of. Changed. Removed at need. It is the acknowledgement that we wear many faces and play many parts. But certain people themselves act as the outer face of the whole clan. As such, they are public, held up to public scrutiny, and requiring...at times...public removal. But in a world of changing faces, public and private, the inner face must retain the blood so the blood cannot be lost. The inner face expresses the heart. The inner face must provide the conscience and speak unquestioned truth. The direct descendants of Bayushi, then, have long worn human masks, to be the public faces of the clan, while secretly directing the clan from within."
The young woman coolly scanned the group of magistrates and Hoturi. Her expression seemed calm, but Izuko could tell from the way she looked at her that anyone who chose to mention this in public would likely end up dead very promptly.
Mai's gaze switched back to Hoturi. "Shoju's treason was not first against the Emperor. It was first against my father. He wished to be real. He convinced himself he deserved to be so, that my father's authority was a lie, a plot against him. My father and brothers died when I was only a child, but I was hidden away, protected by the faction of the Scorpion that knew the truth. When he was killed, Kachiko, now inheriting her role as a mask for me, knew it likely that I existed, but not where. I have...made things clear to her since then."
She stepped back, and gave a full bow of apology to Doji Hoturi. "I am still responsible for the actions of my clan. Bayushi Kachiko used my clan against you to extract personal vengeance for the death of the son you share. The Scorpion's loyalty, however distasteful the other clans may find it, should always be to the Empire, not to our own ambition, or our own revenge. I am here to offer my apologies, Doji Hoturi. And this."
She held something out to the Crane Champion. Izuko, mind reeling at what Mai's words implied, dragged her eyes from the two faces to that which Mai held in her hands...a long braid of dark brown hair, tied at either end with a blue ribbon.
Doji Hoturi's face was as pale as the snow as he accepted the braid Mai pressed into his hands. He did not answer her, instead just staring down at it.
Mai straightened. "And that is enough apologizing." Her voice was tart, even cheery. "The past won't resolve the future. Bayushi Kachiko probably has words for you, but she knows where her loyalty lies now. The prophecy Shoju was pursuing was not incorrect after all. The last Hantei fell with the last Akodo. Now it is time to put to rest another beast that wears another's face. "
She started to turn and walk away, a strut in her step, but just as she was about to leave the circle of firelight, she turned back to look at the magistrates' perfectly frozen faces. "Ha! Such control. These samurai do not even blink. And they say we wear masks."
She disappeared into the shadows.
The Dragon encampment was the strangest of all in the blossoming tent city that had come to surround the wreck that was Kuyden Doji this Winter Court. For moving in and out amongst the tents from an encampment just beyond the garden borders, were great, shadowy, slithering shapes in the darkness. Things, creatures, with the body of a man or woman and the tail of a giant snake of inconceivable size. They made Mirumoto Kenuchio shudder to look upon them, but he kept his tongue still and any thoughts firmly locked in his head. These beings, strangely enough, were the allies of his clan, and he did not dare to question or challenge that alliance. The Empire had enough enemies as is.
But it was not to come gawk at the naga that Kenuchio had come to the Dragon encampment this evening.
Once they had arrived, he put out an inquiry to determine which families of the Dragon were encamped on the Doji plains. He learned his father was here. Tonight, he was going to go speak to him.
"Sssssssumimasssssssssssen, Dragon-sssan." The voice was a sibilant hiss.
Kenuchio jumped back.
Before him, stretching out like a log across the path before him, a long round body. And rising from the shadows of the tents next to him, the body of a man who seemed impossibly tall. His skin was glistening and naked, save for the do and sode he wore, and the glittering scales across his skin. The being bowed at the...waist? and moved his tail aside, clearing the path for Kenuchio.
Kenuchio was flustered, but returned the bow. "It is nothing, Naga-san."
The naga straightened, and slithered on its way with a nod of acknowledgement.
Kenuchio struggled to find his center again, and then hurried on to his father's tent.
Mirumoto Iyeasu was a grim man with a hawklike nose and long, gray hair tied up in a cue. He had served as a member of the Mirumoto House Guard for many years, and was now committed to defending the current brother and sister who led the family. To Kenuchio's eyes, he seemed just as remote as the snowy peaks of the mountains he had grown up in....in other words, no different at this moment than he had been the day Kenuchio had left to report to the capital on his Champion's orders so many years before.
The guards who had let him let the tent flap fall, leaving the pair their privacy.
Kenuchio bowed. "Otosama," he offered politely. "It is good to see you again."
From behind his writing desk, his father returned the bow, though the reserve that had always been there remained. "And you, also. I heard you fought honorably at the Battle of Beidan Pass. You have my congratulations."
Mirumoto Kenuchio bowed again. "Thank you, Father. How is Mother?"
"She is well. She was pleased to receive your letter regarding the request to marry." The older Dragon kept his voice perfectly neutral, and Kenuchio felt a pang of nervousness regarding the letter he had sent so long before. "She believes that it is about time you moved on to consider such things."
"Hai, Otosama. I had hoped there would be the opportunity to speak with you this winter about that. Asahina Ayame is beautiful, talented, and courageous. Her father served in the Ministry of Calligraphy and Seals before his death and she is of noble family. I would be honored to have her as a wife."
Iyeasu eyed his son up and down. "So you said." He frowned. "Despite the scandalous behavior of the Crane clan in the last year, we did not dismiss the request out of hand. Perhaps, under some circumstances, it could have been considered beneficial. But an Asahina is truly useless in a time of war, and the Dragon have no need of one. Her rank is high enough with her father's role in the ministry that the Doji might require you to marry into their clan, and then the skills you have spent a lifetime refining would indeed be useless. Unless you plan sitting around composing poetry all day?" Iyeasu's tone was withering. "You could, perhaps, curry favor for the Dragon in court. But what court? Things have changed, Kenuchio-san. This match does not serve the clan."
Kenuchio thought he could hear a buzzing in his ears as his head grew light with raw disbelief. All that had happened, all that Ayame and he had been through together, her courage and grace in the face of death, and his own father said she did not bring enough to the Dragon Clan? His voice was tight, and to his ears he felt a child again. "But mother said...you said she was pleased..."
The older Mirumoto held up his hand to cut the younger off. "Kenuchio-kun. Your mother was pleased that marriage entered your considerations. You have grown much in the last few years. We have received a very promising and honorable offer for your marriage. It will mean leaving the clan, but with it comes the promise of the renewal of old alliances, turning an enemy into a friend for our future battles. The one who made the offer is one the Dragon, and specifically the Mirumoto, owe a large debt to, one that we are required to repay."
Kenuchio closed his eyes against the roaring in his ears. "And who am I to wed?" He sounded distant to himself.
"A young woman, kuge of the Hidden Scorpion Clan. A number of years younger than you, but pretty. It was you she has chosen, and it was for you she sought out Lord Togashi. He has approved it. "
Iyeasu nodded once, sharply. "Good. I knew you would understand. When Bayushi Mai-sama returned Hitomi-sama to us, and replaced her missing hand with that magical artifact, there was no way the Mirumoto could allow our debt to go unpaid. We all must make small sacrifices in service of the clan. I am sure you will see that the arrangements are properly made before spring."
Kenichio felt sick, but there was nothing to say. "Hai, Otosan." He bowed before leaving as fast as he could. How would he ever tell Ayame?
Moto Koshi rolled the word around in his head, trying to get used to the sound. Shinsei and the Seven Thunders.
The Day of Thunder.
The end of the world.
Shinsei had told the magistrates to wait for him, and so they had waited. The front hall of Kuyden Doji was mostly intact, save for where once the heavy door that had blocked entrance had been. The door and the area around it were torn loose, allowing snow to drift in. The door that led to the main chamber, on the other hand, was firmly shut against them. A few times, they’d been asked to bring food or paper or sake. But other than that, there was nothing to do except wait.
“Let me pass!” The man’s voice was thunderous. The magistrates all jumped to attention as an intimidating figure pushed his way past the door guards into the entrance hall, followed by eight armed bushi.
It took Koshi a moment to register the leader’s mons. He was very tall, dressed in a green kimono with a broad shouldered kataginu that made him look even larger than he was. He had a severe, weather-beaten face, green eyes, and long black hair heavily seeded with gray. After a moment, Koshi recognized the mons as marking him as a member of the minor Mantis clan. But he showed no modesty normally associated with members of the minor clans as he forced his way forward, and with the deference showed him by the others that followed him, he had to be a leader of significant rank. Likely the clan daimyo, the one known as Yoritomo.
The magistrates bowed, and Moto Koshi stepped forward. “My apologies, Yoritomo-sama. The clan champions have requested privacy within for their deliberations. But I would be happy to insure that a message is carried to them so they can meet with you as soon as they break.”
A low rumbling started to build in the Mantis Daimyo’s throat. He was not interested in waiting any longer and certainly was not interested in being thwarted by this Unicorn magistrate. He took a menacing step forward, and a thousand options flashed before Koshi’s eyes, each leading to an enormous and ugly political incident. Fortunately, he was saved when Shinsei opened the door within.
“Yoritomo-sama. You are welcome. Please forgive these magistrates; they are doing their duty well, but were not informed you would be attending.”
Yoritomo sighed, a sound more of frustration than weariness, and followed Shinsei inside. The door shut behind them.
The eight other Mantis stepped out to join the other guards on the main entrance, leaving the magistrates in the entrance hall again.
Several hours later, Yoritomo left the meeting looking smugly satisfied. He did not even acknowledge the magistrates as he disappeared into the darkening gardens with his bushi.
Another two hours passed and it was late in the evening when those in the room finally emerged.
Doji Hoturi, looking tired and pale after the long day of deliberations.
Hida Yakamo, the Jade Hand glowing with an inner light in the shadows.
Bayushi Mai, a smirk of dark humor in her warm brown eyes.
Togashi Yokuni, golden eyes glittering behind the mempo he still wore.
Those they had sceen very recently. But there were others they knew, but it had been long since they had seen them.
Otaku Kamoko, looking glorious and defiant in her white and purple armor, grown only more beautiful since they’d seen her in her camp in the Moto lands.
Toturi the Black, his kimono worn and fraying, gray streaking his temples, aged a lifetime since the Scorpion Clan Coup when they had presented him the Sword of the Hantei.
Mirumoto Hitomi, her missing hand now replaced, they could see, with a hand formed of crystalline darkness, a derisive sneer the magistrates' only reward for their protection during the Battle of Beidan Pass.
Kakita Toshimoko, clad in the armor of the Emerald Champion, who did not hesitate to give them a wink and a smile as he sauntered past.
And two others they had not met.
Isawa Tadaka, emerged, his face masked by his broad-rimmed hat and the black cloths he’d bound around his face and hands. Moto Koshi could smell the stench of taint upon him, could see his glowing green eyes and the black fire about him. It would be enough to challenge, but he was not alone. Shiba Ujimitsu, the Phoenix Clan champion, looking calm and assured, walked by his side. Shinsei had made clear that the Phoenix were to be accepted, even trusted, despite what had happened to Isawa Natsune. The magistrates in this had to follow their orders and hope the monk knew what he was doing.
The magistrates waited until the various dignitaries dispersed. Finally Shinsei emerged alone.
The Hooded Ronin spoke with one of the door guards, and beckoned the magistrates into the room the Champions and Thunders had so recently left. The room was littered with sake bottles and maps and books of prophesy and the Tao, but Shinsei ignored all to lead them towards the fire. Rice and vegetables were brought then the servants were dismissed. The man they had known and traveled with for so long accepted his rice, then looked at them with a smile.
“You have been very patient, but I think you have more than earned answers. Please go ahead and ask all your questions. I will have no more secrets here.
Izuko was direct. “You are Shinsei, correct? The Shinsei?”
The man they had followed nodded. “His descendant, indeed. Come into the world again when the time was right for me to do so.”
Kenuchio cut in. “Then they,” he gestured at those who had just left. “Are the Seven Thunders, and the Day of Thunder is coming. Fu Leng is loose in the world.”
Shinsei nodded again. “The Seven and a few others. Fu Leng is loose in the world. But in this room were those who have the wherewithal to defeat him. And he will be defeated.”
Ayame was more hesitant. “Fu Leng has replaced the Emperor, hasn’t he? That is why he was doing the things he has done.”
The Hooded Ronin looked down into the flames. “Sadly, yes. It was partially, perhaps, due to the deeds of Bayushi Kachiko. It was partially the weight of prophecy. Primarily though, it was the endless nature of the challenge between Tengoku and Jigoku that led the Empire to this moment. All that was Hantei is gone from the Emperor. Only Fu Leng remains.”
Ayame nodded, withdrawing into herself.
But Koshi had little patience now, at the end, for the prophecies of the age. He wanted direct answers. “We are in this room. You sought us out too. What role do we play in all of this?”
Shinsei smiled again, pleased with the question. “Yes. You have touched so many of these events. Preceded them. Followed them. That little flash on the horizon. The pebble by which the avalanche is begun. You are called, yes. Just as much as they. But you are not the same.”
The magistrates drew forward to listen. Shinsei continued.
“There never were just the Thunders. The Thunders are heroes of the age. They will be the ones remembered, the foundation upon which the next age rests. But what if the next age is a dark one? It still would rest on the legend and will of the Thunders. The Dark Thunders. Traitors. Murderers. Foes wholly sworn to evil. Foes who, just as those before us in this room, would do anything to ensure their victory.”
The teacher smiled. “But evil does not understand the greatest strengths of bushido. Evil grounds itself in selfishness. In a thousand selfish decisions that steer towards their end. But Good grounds itself in selflessness, and therefore has the power of creation, making a whole that is greater than the sum of all of its parts. Just that tiny bit more, that small contribution offered without personal gain, made for the good of all…that is the advantage Good has over Evil. While Jigoku can raise fanatics to act as dark mirrors to the Seven Thunders, it is blind to the thousand of little decisions and sacrifices that, bound together, will stop those Dark Thunders.”
He turned to each one of the magistrates in turn. “A group of samurai, seemingly selected at random from the wideness of Ningen-do. United only by the sacrifice within their hearts. You, my friends, are the flash of lightening that precedes the Thunder. You will be the hand of Tengoku to strike at the Dark Thunders before they can prevent the chosen seven from reaching Fu Leng, the avatar of Jigoku. You will light the way. The Thunders arise as the avatars of Tengoku. You stand for the mortal man.”
The Day of Thunder
The battle raged around them, but the magistrates followed the orders Shinsei had given and took no part, doing what they could to stay away from the thrust and parry of the forces on the field save when such forces came to directly intercept them. It rarely did. They carried no banner, their armor, as it had been since Western Hub Village, was indistinguishable from any other minor bushi on the field. A squad of goblins, quickly cut down, and a few air spells to ward off any intercepting arrows as they moved towards the walls of Otosan Uchi. The armies of the Empire pressed forward.
The gates, though. Fortified by timber as thick across as a man, hauled into place with the power of ogres, there was no way that even the siege engines of the Kaiu or the spells of the shugenja would not prevail against its might. Not that any could close on those gates anyway. For in command of the outer wall of Otosan Uchi was an insane man who rained fire and death upon all those who drew near. The Master of Fire, Isawa Tsuke.
Warriors burned, engineers burned. And Tsuke stood on the battlements laughing.
The closer the magistrates drew to the walls, the harder it was to avoid the flames and the more intense the fighting became. There had reached a stalemate as the armies were trapped before the walls and the flames of Isawa Tsuke.
The armies of the Phoenix, led by Isawa Tadaka and Shiba Ujimitsu, were the forces able to close the furthest on Tsuke’s fiery hellscape, strengthened by their gifts. Great boulders tore through the sky towards the Master of Fire, but he knocked them away with his flames easily. The magistrates had to shelter their eyes from the heat and flames, not daring to approach further. They could barely see the flash of red and gold that was Shiba Ujimitsu…somehow…leap from the ground to the top of the battlements at the maddened shugenja’s side, and plunge a katana into Tsuke’s fiery robes.
Isawa Tsuke exploded. The nearest section of outer wall of Otosan Uchi was devastated in the eruption of power and flame, coming crumbling to the ground where every previous siege engine and ram had failed. The magistrates could not see the body of Ujimitsu as he came tumbling to the ground, blinded as they were from the glare. The armies surged forward to capture the breach and enter the outer city. In a momentary break from the fighting, the magistrates heard a bright clarion call of a woman’s voice cry out to the Phoenix army “Shiba Arises!” The Phoenix troops roared their Utz and charged forward.
The magistrates slipped in behind the front of the charge, finding themselves in the familiar haunts of the Toyotomi district of Otosan Uchi. There was fighting all around them, but the mission they have been given by Shinsei was clear. And here, in this district, they knew every alley and basement.
The streets, however familiar they might have been once, were in another sense completely alien to them now. An oozing green mist seeped from the cracks between the buildings. The daily bustle of carts and shops and the turnings of small lives had come to a complete stop. The air was scented with the breath of death. The familiar corner of the papershop, the fishmonger, all empty now. The samurai ducked in and around the knots of fighting, traversing the back streets, making their way deeper and deeper into the city. Further in and across, through parts of other districts now, less certain, towards their destination. The South Wall of Otosan Uchi. The place where their story began.
Their orders from Shinsei were clear. They alone, of all the people in the empire, had traversed successfully the South Wall. The Thunders, while mighty, suffered terrible flaws. Their flaws gave them strength. But the South Wall, the only wall that allowed the outflow of water through it to go down to the sea, and therefore, the only wall with passages below it to allow effluent to escape, had been built by the Crane. Its enchantments created the most severe challenges to both will and honor. The magistrates had survived the passage out. The more serious test was returning.
The fighting was still near the outer wall as they approached the south wall of the inner city. They found the hidden doorway that led down into the stormwater drainage, granting passage for the water back to the ocean. Fortunately, the area was mostly empty; the true strength of the tainted followers of the Emperor, of Fu Leng, were fighting at the gate. They'd only faced a few goblin patrols so far. Moto Koshi pulled up the hidden trap door and, one at a time, they lowered themselves down.
A thin channel of water trickled past their feet. Although they expected this dark place to be filled with the greenish fog that swathed the city, this close to the sacred wall, all taint of evil recoiled. Still, as they approached the underpinnings of the wall itself, glowing white mist arose around and between them, muffling sound, dividing sight, separating them. The challenges of the south wall were to be faced alone.
Mirumoto Kenuchio lost track of the others, gone in the white mists. But, emerging from the uncertainty before him a shadowed figure stepped. As it drew close to him, he could see its face, the mirror of his own. The figure drew katana and wakizashi, again, the mirror to his own. He did likewise.
The figure only voiced these words, “Turn back, or die.”
Kenuchio shook his head. “I cannot.”
The figure paused. “I see your failures. I know all that you have done. You have not even told her, have you? Your dishonor will destroy you.” It plunged forward to attack.
The moments seemed to last forever, and it was possible than none of them could fully describe the battles each of them made against their own worst selves in the darkness under the South Wall. However, finally, each of them pushed through the mist to reach the stormdrains on the other side. They rested, not speaking, though Kenuchio felt Ayame’s eyes watching him and could see the wounded expression that haunted them. Once the magistrates had recovered enough, they continued until they could reach the point they originally entered the drains as they were escaping with the sword of the Hantei.
The inner city was not deserted, but most of the forces of Fu Leng had been emptied onto the plains or into the city. The green mist returned and, while vile, it helped to shelter them from all eyes. When a pack of curious bakemono stumbled upon them, they were dispatched quickly enough. Ayame raised her hands in healing again.
“I need to get something,” Matsumoto Eiko said after the latest fight. “We will not survive like this.” She led them away from the gates and up to the Shrine of the Seven Fortunes, one of the holiest places in Rokugan.
Though the city was fast becoming defiled, the Shrine of the Seven Fortunes had not faltered, at least not yet. Its purity shone and the green mists recoiled from it. Eiko hurried the others along and headed straight for the doors.
The temple itself was empty of the tainted, samurai, or monks, and Eiko opened the doors without trouble. Eerie quiet pervaded the sacred space. Each of the seven great shrines opened onto the central courtyard, and, lying in the center of the courtyard, a large, cracked bell.
Eiko led them past the bell directly to the Shrine to the fortune Bishamon, where he stood in all his stately glory, an ancient naginata in one hand, and a castle in the other. She knelt before the statue, closed her eyes, and pressed her face to the ground. Unwilling to not share her full reverence for the Fortune, the other samurai did the same.
“Great Bishamon, Fortune of Strength,” Eiko intoned, “The time has come for the Empire to stand and fight the greatest evil it has known in a thousand years. My name is Matsumoto Eiko, servant of the Celestial Dragons, born of the line of Matsumoto, and guardian of the city. Lord Bishamon, please grant to me my family’s birthright, so that the Thunders may fulfill their destiny and we may do what we must.”
With that prayer, she stood, stepped forward, and firmly lay her hand on the shaft of Bishamon’s great naginata, and suddenly, though no one exactly saw when it had been released, the naginata was free, and Eiko was holding it in her hands. She looked at it with a small, satisfied smile, and bowed again. “I thank you, Lord Bishamon, and promise to return this to you when today’s fighting is done.”
Then she turned to the others. “This is not for fighting,” she explained. “It is to give the chance for strength to be victorious. So my family has guarded and served for many centuries, since long before the days of Ichuban.”
The others nodded, and Koshi grunted. “Let’s go. We need to be by the gate before the drums begin.”
They made their way to a small Seppun guardhouse near the wall, fortunately near the gates, that had been left deserted. As the day’s fighting continued, they could do nothing,¬ save for Hiruma Izuko who slipped out of the guardhouse to determine exactly what forces held the gate itself. After about two hours, the sound of taiko drums began, its sacred rhythm driving lesser tainted creatures away, warning all that the battle had grown near.
It was the cue that they should strike.
The magistrate’s strike on the two ogres that guarded the gate mechanism was swift and silent, for Asahina Ayame had cast a spell that would prevent all sound from traveling further from the gates. Izuko and Koshi’s initial arrows wounded the ogres before they could see what was facing them, and Eiko and Kenuchio closed swiftly to defeat them. As soon as the ogres were felled, they ran to the gate mechanism and began to turn the heavy wheel that opened the gates just enough to allow Shinsei and the seven Thunders to pass.
Bayushi winked at Mirumoto Kenuchio as she entered. Asahina Ayame turned away, hiding her expression. Doji Hoturi gave the magistrates a weary nod. Shinsei favored them with a smile, a crow sitting on his shoulder. “Well done,” he offered. “Only one more task for you to fulfill.” Once the Thunders were rested, the magistrates followed the Thunders up the road to the Imperial Palace.
Nothing challenged them on the road to the palace. What could dare? They reached the barred great doors to the Imperial Palace.
As if they sensed the approach of the Thunders, the great doors slowly swung open. Standing at the doors, still holding the mechanism that pulled them open, was the most staggeringly beautiful woman the magistrates had ever seen. Hair the color of a raven’s wing cascaded like silk across her perfect shoulders. Her kimono of scarlet and gold matched the red of her lacy mask and the ruby hue of her enticing lips. Her eyes were pools of midnight and promises, but were darkened with the colors of grief and long suffering. Every samurai in the Empire knew her name: Bayushi Kachiko. The Empress.
The Empress lifted her head, and her eyes met the black eyes of Doji Hoturi. The magistrates could not see the private expressions shared between the two at that moment, but they did see the beautiful woman kneel before the Crane Champion.
“Forgive me,” she said quietly.
Doji Hoturi closed his eyes as he chose to allow her words to reach him, though the magistrates knew, better than any other here, perhaps, the depth of pain that this woman had caused him. He reached out to her and offered his hand. “Arise, My Lady. We must move forward.”
Bayushi Kachiko took the offered hand and stood, but she frowned at Hoturi’s response. She picked up her lantern, turned back to the group of Thunders, and said, “Follow me.”
The palace was a maze of shadowed halls but all was echoing silence. Kachiko led the way swiftly through the darkness until she emerged under the pillared veranda that surrounded an interior courtyard garden. A familiar figure emerged out of the shadows.
“He is in the Throne Room. Togashi challenges him now.” Bayushi Mai said simply. “No others have joined yet, but a summons has gone out. There are sounds in the palace. It will be a matter of moments before he is joined.” She pointed to the large doors on the other side of the garden. “The throneroom is just beyond. “
Mai then turned to Kachiko. “You should go and hide yourself. You are not trained in combat. You can do nothing here.”
Kachiko’s eyes blazed, but she bowed to the fifteen-year-old girl.
Shinsei turned to the magistrates who had come with him. His eyes were kind and sad, knowing well that his next words may consign them to their deaths. “Matsumoto Eiko. Moto Koshi. Hiruma Izuko. Mirumoto Kenuchio. Asahina Ayame. You are to wait here. The Dark Thunders are moments behind us. It is your task to delay them. Defeat them if you are able. Let no enemy pass that door.” He gave them a bow. “This is your time.”
They returned the bow to Shinsei and the Thunders, but nothing else needed to be said. It needed to be done, though an icy lance of fear struck Hiruma Izuko’s heart. She, at least, had not forgotten that at least half the enemies were shugenja. The magistrates took up a position in the inner courtyard, ready to defend the doors to the throneroom with their lives.
From within the Throneroom, they could hear the sounds of words spoken in a strange, hissing language, the crashing and swirling and rumbling of some great combat. Hida Yakamo pulled open the door to enter, and the other Thunders followed in after him. Shinsei entered last, leaving the magistrates alone in the courtyard with Bayushi Kachiko.
The woman waited in the courtyard with them for a moment or two, just long enough for the Thunders to begin their engagement with their enemy. She turned to the magistrates directly and looked at them with eyes full of burning contempt…and guilt. “You may stay if you wish,” she answered, chin lifted with pride. “I have debts I will repay. And I will earn Hoturi’s forgiveness before I will allow him to die.”
Moto Koshi stepped aside to allow the Empress to pass through the doors. They fell shut behind her.
The magistrates shared a look between each other as they were left alone in the courtyard.
“The Dark Thunders,” said Asahina Ayame. “If they see us, they could simply go another way in. Or through a wall. We saw the Kitsu turn himself into bees. They could even summon an oni.”
Matsumoto Eiko nodded. “The naginata and the power of Bishamon will act against them, and maho will not work near it. But we must be faster than they.
Mirumoto Kenuchio gestured to the garden. “Perhaps they won’t expect to be met. They have chosen to wait until the battle is well joined, so they are confident in their lord. They have no reason to believe we would be here.”
The samurai scattered themselves across the garden, waiting in ambush. The garden seemed empty except for the four standing lanterns that marked the path to the Throne Room.
They did not need to wait long.
A high-pitched nasal laughter preceded them. “When we’re done, I want the Unicorn. So pretty…so very pretty.” It came from a spry, unpleasant-looking man they recognized: the Kitsu shugenja they had fought for the soul of Matsu’s first husband. Kitsu Bashu.
A deep pitched grunt. “No so pretty when I’m finished with her.” The man who went with those words was a hulking tower of a man, with his face painted in white and black. He carried over his shoulder a massive weapon, like an iron staff with blades on either end. They didn’t recognize him, but Koshi remembered his father’s description: Kuni Genru.
A woman laughed nervously. “I still think we must be careful. Isawa Tadaka is a powerful shugenja.” She wore the colors of an Iuchi shugenja, her long hair threaded through with gray. Around her neck, she carried twin strings of round yellow gourds, like giant prayer beads crossing her chest. “He will never expect my polvara, but we should be quiet and not attract the attention of the Thunders until we strike.” Iuchi Kyoru.
A man clad in black, a mask over his face, chortled quietly. “Besides,” he said barely above a whisper. “The Crane is much prettier.” With the mask, they could only guess that his identity was Bayushi Joro.
“Enough! I may need to associate with you for the good of our lord, but I am not required to listen to your blasphemous prattle.” THAT one many in the Empire, including the magistrates,would have recognized, at least by his mons. Asako Monoro, Head Inquisitor of the Phoenix. Ayame felt a familiar chill.
The next who entered the small inner garden they also recognized, as the Agasha courtier who had led Hitomi so far astray in her attacks on Unicorn Lands. “No need to fight...we simply are here to serve the Dark Lord. Though...I sense a presence in this courtyard....” Agasha Sano.
The last of the seven did not speak, but immediately fell into stance, resting his hand palm-up on the grip of his katana. His long white hair hung around him. Daidoji Hitsuo.
Asahina Ayame didn’t wait; she knew her role. From her position hiding in the shadows on the far edge of the garden, she immediately cast the spell that she had prepared. An explosion of wind surrounded the entire garden in a circular wall of wind, trapping the magistrates and the Dark Thunders in the confines of the garden. It would not last against a concerted effort to dispel it, but for the moment, it kept the Dark Thunders trapped within. Her hope was to at least buy time for the Thunders by prevent the Dark Thunders from getting past or leaving.
Some kind fortune was with them, for the winds whipped so fiercely that they knocked over one of the standing lanterns that had been lighting the courtyard, turning the whirlwind, momentarily, into a circle of fire. The fire licked out at the Dark Thunders that had been startled in the courtyard, and lashed out at them. A tongue of flame touched Iuchi Kyoru. She screamed and pulled away, but it was too late. The polvara that tainted her clothes and the gourds she carried hungrily seized the flame and exploded, sending a great fireball throughout the courtyard. The Kitsu and the Agasha stumbled in the blast.
The other Magistrates took no time at all in attacking, leaping out from hiding to strike out at their attackers. Asako Monoro immediately tried to pull away from the attackers to give himself the space to cast a spell, but Hiruma Izuko darted from the shadows and struck, burying her blade in his chest. He fell to his knees, bleeding heavily.
Matsumoto Eiko dove at Bayushi Joro, the purity of Bishamon’s naginata cutting through the strands of Shadow he tried to summon about himself. Once struck by the blow, the Scorpion found himself unable to draw on the dark magics of the Shadow Brands.
Mirumoto Kenuchio leapt in front of the Daidoji, ready to block him from striking at his companions, and certain that any man trained by in the Kakita school could not be caught flat-footed by their ambush. The Crane eyed the others arrayed against his fellows and then gave Kenuchio a resigned nod and fell into a dueling stance, making a gesture of challenge.
The Mirumoto was torn. He knew the Daidoji was just stalling for time and taking one of the fastest bushi out of the melee, but in his heart he knew that his honor would not allow him to refuse the challenge of the duel. The world fell away as he embraced the Void.
The Kuni was unslowed though he had to turn to face the attackers. He readied the large two-bladed sword he carried and turned to face his attackers. Moto Koshi made the first strike at him, a telling wound, but there was no doubt the power of Earth was with the mighty shugenja.
There was a burst of noise, barely audible over the swirling winds, as the door to the throneroom burst open and the body of Otaku Kamoko was hurled out. But the body did not reach past the wall of winds Ayame had constructed. Slowly, painfully, the Unicorn Battlemaiden crawled back towards the throneroom as the battle raged. But the magistrates were engaged with their own battle and could not help her.
In a well-practiced dance, Izuko traded partners with the Matsumoto, closing on the Scorpion, while Eiko whirled away to slash with her naginata at the Kitsu. The Lion shugenja was swift, but not faster than Eiko’s naginata, and found his maho-fueled magic unreachable thanks to the power of Bishamon’s blade. He drew his wakizashi and lashed out.
The Agasha recovered quickly and directly attacked Asahina Ayame with a powerful spell, having determined the source of the whirlwind that surrounded him. But Ayame had prepared the spell she had used to good effect at the Asahina temples, casting quickly to strip the Agasha from the power to commune with the Kami. He was staggered, but continued to chase after her, finding in her the key to continuing to the throne room.
The Daidoji and the Mirumoto’s duel began in a flurry. He felt the wakizashi chime against his opponent’s sword. Kenuchio could feel the Crane slip around his guard, and then he had a flash of recognition. This was the maneuver Kakita Hideyoshi had used back at the Academy to defeat him. The memory of that fight came back in a flash, as did all the time he had spent afterwards to counter the move. He twisted his wrist up just so, and lunged, his katana plunging deep into the duelist’s chest.
Thank you, Hideyoshi. You were part of this story.
The Kuni swung a mighty blow at the Moto, and the Moto fell back, wounded. But still, he was able to get a second strike in of his own against his opponent before he was hit, and the Kuni was beginning to show a little weakness.
Now wounded, Koshi moved on to attack Ayame’s opponent, he Agasha, while Kenuchio closed on the Kuni. Izuko and Bayushio Joro sparred, but without his magic and with her skill, she was able to master him in such toe-to-tow fighting. Eiko quickly dispatched the Kitsu with only a small wound, and then closed with Kuni Genru, who was already engaged with Kenuchio. Genru was having a difficult time hitting the Mirumoto, but was unable to cast spells under their persistant attacks. Koshi caught his second wind and was able to prevent Agasha Sano from closing with Ayame, and Ayame turned herself to healing his wounds while they fought. The dance of the battle continued until only the Kuni was left standing, but even he was unable to hold against their combined might. The Dark Thunders were brought down. Izuko felt no compunction about finishing off the fallen Dark Thunders who still lived; it was more honor for them to die than be tried.
The wind died, and it was only then that they could hear silence from the chamber within.
Heavily wounded, limping, the magistrates stumbled to the door to the throneroom to find out if Shinsei and the Thunders lived.
The days that followed were a whirl. Toturi was proclaimed Emperor. The bodies of Togashi, Doji Hoturi, and Isawa Tadaka were given honorable funerals. The magistrates found themselves mourning Hoturi in particular, remembering the months they had traveled with him. They hoped that in his final moments he had found the peace he sought. At least Bayushi Kachiko seemed to have some sort of peace and the forgiveness she was seeking, though she did not acknowledge them. Bayushi Mai had slipped out of the throneroom before the armies had reached the throneroom, leaving all the glory and consequence, for good or ill, upon the Shosuro actress. Many years later the twinned sai buried in the eyes of Fu Leng were described as Kachiko’s jade hairpins, something which probably would have amused Mai greatly. Shinsei privately thanked them for all they had done and then left, a crow on his shoulder. They never saw him again.
They found themselves at a loss. The glory of the Thunders, the victory, all had completely passed them by, and they drifted on the tides of the events in Otosan Uchi, waiting to be recalled. Kakita Toshimoko personally honored them, but he too was mourning the death of Doji Hoturi and it was hard for him to think beyond that great loss.
In the end, each was released to their clans. Hiruma Izuko was granted permission by Hida Yakamo to continue to remain as a leader among the Emerald Magistrates, along with Matsumoto Eiko. Ikoma Nejii continued to lead in the Legion of Two Thousand serving Akodo Toturi. Moto Koshi eventually returned to the lands of his father to take his father’s place as leader of his father’s men. Mirumoto Kenuchio, in accordance with his father’s will, and after several interrupted attempts to change his will, married the “high-ranking Scorpion maiden”, Bayushi Mai, and served her loyally if unhappily, while she, in turn, respected his honor while enjoying her small victories. Asahina Ayame became an Asahina Temple maiden, and spent many years becoming the greatest expert in the Empire on the nature of the walls of Otosan Uchi.
There were other stories, sadder stories, but they are not told here.
Such stories are ones for a different age.