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.