By Shawn Carman
All praise the glorious Hantei XXXIX in the 13th year of his magnanimous reign! All who dare stand against his word shall know the true meaning of suffering!
- Miya Satoshi, Imperial Herald, 1136 by the Isawa Calendar, the Fourteenth Year of the Glorious Reign of Hantei XXXIX
* * * * *
Once, the feeling of cold steel slicing into the flesh of his enemies had brought him comfort. It was the fulfillment of his duty, the culmination of the honorable life he had lived: death in the service of one’s lord. Once, his blade had tasted the blood of the Crane, the Unicorn, even the hardy Crab for the glory of the Emperor.
Now, peasants and children were his enemies. He felt no satisfaction at their deaths. There was no glory in his actions. His service to his lord brought him no honor. Indeed, he could freely admit that his lord had no honor, nor any concern for the very concept.
Matsu Masutaro served the Hantei Emperor, the 39th of his line, the mortal vassal of the dark god Fu Leng. When he began his service to the Emperor, it had been an honorable duty to a mortal man. In time, the Hantei’s possession came to light, and Masutaro had realized the enormity of the vows he had taken. The so-called Day of Thunder had brought a crisis of faith: were Masutaro’s vows to the Emperor still valid, even when it was in betrayal of the Empire? Masutaro was not certain. Torn, he had considered seppuku to avoid the possibility of dishonor.
When Ikoma Ujiaki cut down the traitor Tsanuri, swearing his eternal allegiance to the Emperor, Masutaro had seen the true path. Ujiaki had always been an honorable man, and Masutaro had followed him into many uncertain battles only to emerge victorious. Surely such a man could not be mistaken. In his passion for duty, Masutaro had renewed his vow of eternal, unwavering allegiance to the Emperor.
Eight years had passed.
Two years ago, Masutaro had met Ujiaki again for the first time since the Day of Thunder. The man he once knew as a just and honorable samurai was barely recognizable. He had not aged. His eyes now glowed with an unholy power. The aura of unease that radiated from his person bespoke an evil creature, not an honorable man.
Masutaro knew then that he had made a terrible mistake. Better to have died honorably alongside Ikoma Tsanuri than to serve such a hideous master. But his vow had been made, and he could not break it lest he become as base and vile a creature as the one he served, as the ones he fought beside.
As if on cue, there was a high-pitched chittering from Masutaro’s left. He glanced to the side and grimaced. The goblins that stood alongside him in the front lines were despicable creatures, little more than instinct and vulgarity given form. One of the pathetic creatures had apparently stabbed another with its crude spear, killing it instantly. If that were not bad enough, now a half dozen other of the creatures were busily stabbing their dead brother with their spears and shrieking wildly in amusement.
Masutaro snarled in disgust at the wretched beasts. One of them turned to face him. Without fear, it approached and gave a short jab with its spear as if to attack Masutaro. A single, fluid motion with the samurai’s katana ended any such notion the little creature might have, sending its head bouncing across the blackened field.
“You!” The barked command echoed across the front line. Masutaro pretended not to hear, casually cleaning the blood from his blade with a practiced flick of the wrist and returning it neatly to its saya. He turned back to face the front and waited. Shortly, a foul stench permeated the air. For Masutaro to notice such a thing amid the wretched carnage that surrounded them meant the stench must be considerable. An onikage, the undead steeds of Fu Leng’s chosen, galloped into view. The foul, rotten Moto that sat astride it fixed Masutaro with a single, pus-filled eye. “No squabbling in line! Hold your position!”
Masutaro said nothing. Two years ago, he had taken the traditional Lion vow of the deathseeker, swearing to purge the dishonor he had brought upon his ancestors with his false loyalty to the corrupted Emperor. As a deathseeker, he was placed on the front lines of the Obsidian Legion, the elite fighting forces of Fu Leng. The Legion, while filled with the finest warriors of the Emperor’s armies, often made use of expendable shock troops on the front lines, such as the detestable goblins. They were ridiculous, useless beasts that often killed one another more than the enemy. That any of them ever survived was a miracle, or perhaps a curse.
Unfortunately, the opposite was true for Masutaro. No matter how great the danger or overwhelming the numbers, he somehow survived until the Legion arrived and decimated their foes. The death he sought was forever denied him. Two years as a deathseeker. . . . it was unacceptable. Despite his determination to resist the siren call of the Taint, Masutaro wondered if the streaks of black that crisscrossed his flesh somehow enabled him to survive when he should die.
The lost Lion had little time for such idle speculation, however, for at that moment the attack was sounded. On instinct, Masutaro charged forward, quickly outpacing the puny goblins that strode alongside him. All doubt and consideration melted away. A thick red haze settled over his vision and a terrible war cry that was partly a scream for help issued forth from his throat as he descended into the valley
* * * * *
“Ryosei,” Yoshun said carefully, “I think you should give serious thought to reconsidering this course of action.”
The young shugenja set her jaw and stared the older monk directly in the eye. “I will do no such thing.”
Yoshun shook his head. “I warned you that this would happen. The Emperor will not tolerate your disobedience. We should have fled when Yoritomo asked us to”
“I cannot abandon the forests,” she responded curtly. “Nor will I clear-cut them to provide lumber for the Obsidian Legions. If Ujiaki wishes to frighten me into capitulating, he will find that the Fox Clan is prepared for battle.”
“Do you realize that’s what he wants?” Yoshun asked, clearly exasperated. “He does not need the wood. He only demands it because he knows these forests are sacred. He is an evil god, Ryosei, and you have angered him.”
“The Fox will not flee.”
The monk’s head dropped in surrender. “Then you are a fool, Ryosei.” He gestured toward the fields that lay outside Kyuden Kitsune. “I will take all who would follow me and go to the Mantis Islands. Yoritomo’s invitation was more than generous, and I would gladly serve him rather that perish in battle against an undefeatable foe.”
Ryosei regarded him with a shocked expression. “You would abandon us? Abandon me? Now, of all times?”
“I swore to protect you, Ryosei, but I cannot protect you from yourself. I will not abandon those who know a lost cause when they see it. I am sorry, little silver fox, but I will not die here with you for no reason other than foolish pride.”
Ryosei sneered. “The spirits of the forest ”
“Have already fled to their own realm,” Yoshun interrupted. “They see the fate that awaits. How long has it been since you saw a kitsune in Kitsune Mori?”
Ryosei’s jaw clenched in anger. She struggled for the words to express her outrage. “I never believed the day would come when you would betray me.”
Sadness filled the monk’s eyes. “And I never believed I would see the day when you would condemn innocents to death because of your arrogance.”
A mixture of pain and anger warred on Ryosei’s face. She opened her mouth to respond, a vicious insult forming on her lips, but she was not given the opportunity to speak it. A distant scream broke the tense silence between the two, ending their discussion instantly. Wordlessly, the two bolted out of the chamber and through the wide doors leading out to the courtyard of Kyuden Kitsune. Smoke clouded the horizon. A handful of peasants were running as fast as they could from the edge of the forest across the fields surrounding the castle.
Just behind the peasants, the first wave of the Obsidian Legion appeared, charging at an unnatural speed like a poisonous wave washing over and corrupting a pristine white beach. Arrows rained from the woods behind the charging samurai, striking the peasants down before they could reach the castle.
“By the Fortunes!” breathed an incredulous Ryosei. “How did they arrive so quickly?”
“Death always arrives sooner than expected,” croaked a mournful Yoshun.
* * * * *
His inhuman bloodlust at least partially sated, Masutaro had managed to regain some measure of control. As always, the memory of the atrocities he committed while lost in the throes of his red battle rage haunted his conscious mind and robbed him of the desire for further bloodshed. In this instance, the battle was far more than a mere skirmish. The Emperor had commanded the extermination of the Fox Clan, and Masutaro must obey.
The outskirts of the Fox lands held nothing but peasant farms and the occasional samurai outpost. They had been overrun before they even realized the Legion was near. Once the initial shock was over, there was always resistance. Masutaro never failed to appreciate the strength of the peasants of Rokugan. The men would stand against the noxious hordes of the Obsidian Legion with little more than a simple spear in order to buy enough time for their wives and children to escape. It was a tactic that rarely succeeded, but the men fought with every ounce of the courage and spirit Masutaro once respected in his fellow Lion. Masutaro considered it an honor to face such valiant men on the field of battle; he merely wished that the circumstances were more honorable.
The peasant warriors had fallen, as they always must. Now the Legion faced the true might of the Fox Clan. Masutaro topped the hill alongside the other few deathseekers in his Legion. Below them, Kyuden Kitsune lay waiting. He could feel the familiar sensation along the nape of his neck, the tingling that meant magic was being summoned. The legendary shugenja of the Fox were summoning their spirits to repel the Legion. A wall of vines erupted from the earth itself, rising to hold back the Legions.
Once, this sensation might have given Masutaro hope that his quest would at long last be fulfilled, that the power of the Fox would kill him. Now, however, he knew better. From somewhere behind him, blasts of sickly green energy poured forth from the Diseased Ones, the maho-tsukai who served the Obsidian Legion. They were not particularly discriminating, however, and while most of their foul magic did indeed lay waste to Kitsune wall, some of the deathseekers and goblins were caught in the blasts as well.
Masutaro was spared such a fate, of course.
The Lion warrior surged forward, eager to engage his foes. The others alongside him fell on the Fox vanguard like wolves upon a fresh kill, ripping through them with a terrible enthusiasm that could chill even the most stalwart soul. Masutaro struck down a ashigaru, shattering his spear and beheading his with a single strike. He could have been no more than fourteen, he reflected in some dim part of his soul that was still human. He pushed onward, breaking through the line and forcing his way into the rear echelons of the Fox forces, mercilessly lashing out at everything that moved.
In moments, a blood-drenched Masutaro found himself charging through the last few ranks toward the force’s apparent leaders, a young raven-haired shugenja and a thick-bodied male monk. The shugenja, obviously Ryosei, daimyo of the Fox, saw him and began summoning the energy for a spell. Masutaro charged, but the monk neatly stepped between then and crippled his sword arm with a deft kick to the shoulder. Howling, Masutaro’s left arm darted out and seized the monk by the throat. Before the monk could free himself, Masutaro swung forward and crashed his helm into the man’s face. The crunching sound that reached his ears assured him that the threat the old man posed was over. The man’s grip on his arm went slack. With a dazed look, the monk fell to the earth and did not rise.
Masutaro commanded his sword arm to ignore the pain and raised his katana high. He staggered toward the shugenja, struggling to free himself from the dead monk’s grasp. The shugenja finished her incantation and a fiery inferno leapt from her hands to engulf Masutaro. The pain was overwhelming, but he could feel the blackened streaks coursing through his flesh, drinking in the energy and dispelling the force of the spell.
The deathseeker emerged from the giant wall of flame, his flesh seared and crackling from the heat. With a single two-handed strike, he buried his sword in the woman’s chest.
“Why?” the Fox maiden whispered, falling to her knees. “Why did you do this?”
“I do not know,” Masutaro said, his eyes fixing on hers. “All I want is to die.”
“Then I hope. . . you find what you seek, Lion dog.” Ryosei sneered and spat blood in his face. Her eyes closed. Her body slid off the sword and lay atop the monk’s.
Matsu Masutaro closed his eyes, trying to shut out the screams of the dying and the cackle of the monsters that fought beside him.