Toku’s Last Ride
By Shawn Carman
“There is no region denied the magnificent Emperor’s rule. The depths of the Naga’s forest, the hidden cities of the sea, the barbarian camps of the northern mountains. . . all are blessed by the merciful rule of Fu Leng.”
- Miya Satoshi, Imperial Herald, 1139 by the Isawa Calendar, the Seventeenth Year of the Glorious Reign of Hantei XXXIX
* * * * *
In retrospect, stopping in the forest was a poor choice. Toku had been scouting the northern reaches of the Crab lands for weeks now, searching for any sign of resistance to the Dark Emperor’s rule. It was a dangerous task, for the former Crab provinces were second only to Otosan Uchi in terms of Fu Leng’s control. After Yori and Amoro fell to the Taint, the rest of the Crab were not far behind. The token resistance many Crab put up against the Taint on the Day of Thunder crumbled rapidly once Fu Leng took the throne.
Toku had desperately hoped the mission Toturi had given him would disprove all the rumors of the oni lord’s stranglehold on the populace of those lands. It had not. He had discovered that many Crab lords had defied the Dark Lord. Those who were not wise enough to follow Hida Yakamo into hiding were devoured by the Maw, who reigned supreme in Kyuden Hida, the castle that once bore the demon’s own skull on its gates. Now the skeletons of Hida Kisada, Hiruma Yoshi, Kuni Utagu, and Kaiu Utsu hung there.
Dejected but not deterred, Toku continued his mission by heading north. He was to skirt through Shinomen Mori and investigate rumors of Fu Leng’s forces building a fortress in the ruins of the Naga cities, then continue north to the Unicorn lands and deliver messages to a number of Toturi’s old allies in that region. Also, Kaede had asked him to search for a particular samurai and invite him to join Toturi’s Army. It was not a glamorous mission, nor a prestigious one. It was not even a particularly important mission. But it needed to be done, and Toturi trusted Toku to fulfill his mission. He vowed not to fail, no matter the circumstances.
At the beginning of his mission, Toku had chosen to ride at night and sleep during the day. It didn’t take long for him to discover this was a bad idea. During the day, he could easily pass for a wandering ronin or an aimless peasant. At night, however, he was immediately suspected by all he encountered, and there were many things in the night far better suited to speed and combat than he. So he had switched to traveling in the day. There had been a few close calls, but most of the time Toku had been able to convince his enemies that he was a harmless wanderer. A few times he had been recognized and was forced to flee, each time convinced that his steed would never outrun his foes. Once, he had killed some sort of half-ogre beast that roared at him in a language he didn’t quite understand. He had been too sore to move for nearly two days afterwards.
He had his steed to thank for his survival. It was not as fast as his old horse, the Otaku steed that had died on the Day of Thunder, but it seemed to have a sense for danger. Toku had discovered it at the edge of a battlefield where some ronin had died in battle with four ogres, slaying them all. The name on the man’s blade was Sanzo. Toku had given the stranger a fitting burial and rode off on his horse.
It was early afternoon when Toku entered the great Shinomen forest. He had seen no Shadowlands beasts, although his instincts led him away from parts of the forest where the wildlife began to grow quiet. He spent the day skirting around the edge, trying to find any trace of activity. Again, to his dismay, he found nothing. Not that he longed to face oni or Obsidian Legionnaires, of course. He merely wanted to fulfill his mission. Bringing back a report that he found nothing did not seem an effective means of doing that.
Although he could have reached the Unicorn lands by midnight, Toku chose to rest after his evening meal. He was not tired, but he worried that his horse Musha might be showing signs of fatigue. In the grand scheme of things, the horse was unimportant to the mission, but she had served Toku loyally. He would not injure her if it could be avoided.
Toku never heard the bandits approach. After only a few years of living on the Mantis Islands, it seemed his hunter’s instincts had diminished substantially. One moment, Toku was sitting by his meager fire warming a piece of dried fish in order to quell the stale flavor. The next, he was tackled from behind and sent rolling across the camp, wrestling with an unknown assailant. His first thought was that if this was one of Fu Leng’s creatures, he would almost certainly die. Immediately on the hells of that, he decided that anything that reeked so badly of sake and bad hygiene must be a human. Obsidian Magistrates, for all their faults, were vain about their personal appearance.
Toku held his enemy close, preventing any weapon strikes from penetrating his defenses. lacking any weapons or leverage of his own, he decided to use his head, just as the Mantis sailors had taught him. Three sharp blows with his forehead and hi opponent rolled away limply.
Leaping to his feet, Toku realized he was hopelessly outnumbered. There were half a dozen armored men encircling the perimeter of his camp. They wore mismatched armor and wielded shoddy, improvised weapons. One was a Nezumi. “Hello there,” he said amiably. “I’m afraid I don’t have enough fish to go around. I don’t suppose you might be interested in some rice balls?”
One of the bandits stepped forward confidently. Toku’s eyes widened in surprise, and despite himself a grin split his face. He was not the tallest of men by any means, but even he stood a full head taller than this “bandit,” who couldn’t be more than twelve years old.
“I am Razor Wind, master swordsman of the Shinomen forest!” the boy proclaimed loudly, brandishing his katana. Toku noticed several of the bandits looked exasperated. “I demand your surrender, or you will be cut down in the name of the Forest Killers!”
Toku could not resist. After so many years of fear and oppression, this was a welcome respite. He chuckled. “Razor Wind?” he asked. “Did you give yourself that nickname?”
“What?” the bandit asked, his face turning beet red.
Several of the bandits laughed, but the boy was clearly not amused. he took a step forward, clutching his blade tightly. “Say that again,” he said, his voice suddenly deeper and very intense, “and you’ll not live to hear the laughter.”
Toku’s smile disappeared. The boy’s threat seemed real enough, but it was something else that stopped him, something in the boy’s eyes. Something familiar. “I’m. . . I apologize, Razor Wind-san,” he said with a respectful nod. “I surrender, of course.”
Razor Wind adopted a very smug expression and turned to face the other bandits. ‘You see!’ he said. “I knew it!”
“Think what you like, little man,” one of the other bandits responded. “You’ll have to prove how great your ‘destiny’ is some other time.” He turned his attention to Toku. “You’re not one of the Emperor’s beasts, so we have no reason to kill you. Don’t do anything foolish and you will live.”
Toku nodded. He was familiar with men such as these. They would not kill him if he did not resist. Rather, they would try to add any ronin they encountered to their ranks in order to bolster the group’s chances for survival. It was essential for their continued prosperity, now more than ever. They would keep him with them for a few days, allowing him to see how their operation worked. Then they would give him a chance to prove his loyalty. If he succeeded, he would become a member of their band. If he failed, he would be killed. Neither was an acceptable fate. It mattered little, however, because he would be long gone by the time their test came about.
The bandits had him gather his things and pack up Musha’s bags. They took his weapons, allowing him to retain his other possessions. bandits were inherently lazy, he had long since discovered, and would carry nothing when there was someone else to carry it for them. Still, he had to admit they seemed more organized than most. The most interesting thing, of course, was the boy. There was something eerily familiar about him. During the walk through the forest to the bandits’ hideout, Toku inquired about him to one of the other bandits.
“Bah,” the bandit replied. “He’s just some orphan our leader took a shine to. If you ask me, we should have gotten rid of him long ago. He’s a nuisance. Got a real big head.” After a moment’s consideration, he added, “I will admit, though, he’s got a real gift for the sword. So I guess he earns his keep.”
Toku spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in silence, trying not to be noticed. The Forest Killers seemed content to allow him to observe quietly, apparently taking his silence for fear or perhaps consideration. Truthfully, he was only thinking about the boy who called himself Razor Wind. He had an idea that he knew something about his origins. If it was true, then he was the samurai Kaede had told him to find. It would be an incredible coincidence to stumble across him, but that was to be expected of Oracles. He might have once called it luck, but Toku didn’t believe there was any luck but bad luck these days.
Later that night, Toku found Razor Wind by the campfire, cleaning his weapons. “Your technique is very impressive,” he told the boy, sitting down across the fire from him. “it reminds me of another fighting style I saw once, but I can’t really remember where.”
“It’s my own style,” the boy replied. “I developed it on my own. It just sort of comes to me naturally, but it’s all mine.”
Toku frowned and scratched his chin. “One of the others told me you were an orphan.”
Razor Wind stopped and fixed Toku with that same cold stare. “My mother is dead. My father too, I suppose. What business of that is yours?”
The ronin shrugged. “I was only curious,” he said. “I’m an orphan too.” He gazed down at the fire. “My parents died in a. . . during a famine many years ago.” He had almost told the boy bandits killed his parents, which would not have been a wise decision.
The boy returned to his blades, continuing to sharpen them. “My mother was a geisha,” he added later. “I know my father was a samurai.”
“My parents were peasants,” Toku said with a laugh.
“And yet you carry a katana,” the boy said seriously. ‘How is that possible?”
“It just sort of happened,” Toku said. “it seemed like a good idea at first. I found myself too wrapped up in the Clan War to set the sword aside. I may not be a true samurai, but people need my help.”
“So you pretend to be a samurai? You defy your place in the Celestial Order?” the boy asked.
Toku nodded. “I suppose I do,” he said.
“But you are a peasant,” the boy said. “You are nothing.”
“Maybe you are right,” Toku said. “I would feel guilty about it, but I don’t have time. There is too much work to do.”
The boy laughed. “You sound like my mother,” he said. “She was always so energetic, so eager to help people. . . ” The boy trailed off, staring at the fire.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Toku said, reading the boy’s meaning from the sorrow in his eyes.
“She died in an attack by one of the ashura,” he said. “The Emperor’s tax collectors thought the village was holding out.”
“I share your pain,” Toku said. “I have lost too many friends since the Day of Thunder.”
The boy stood up. “It was a long time ago. I don’t think about it anymore. Now I look out for myself. I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me.” He glared at Toku. “Tomorrow, when we raid the village, then you’ll see how impressive I really am.” With that, Razor Wind stormed off into the camp and disappeared into one of the many tents.
Toku leaned back on the log and rested his back against the tree. He had heard enough to confirm what he suspected. Perhaps fate was not so abstract that he could not have met this particular boy here in the woods. Now he must decide how to use this information. It would not be easy, and if he failed it could mean disaster.
He had sworn he would not fail.
* * * * *
The light of the early morning sun cast a sickly light over the village. The skies were blackened by the smoke and Taint that wracked the Empire. Toku doubted that they would ever be truly blue again.
The Forest Killers lay in hiding for nearly an hour. When the reached the hills overlooking the village they had planned to raid, they had discovered a squadron of the Emperor’s Obsidian Legion was already there. Most of the bandits had deserted immediately, but a small number stayed to see if the village would still be a viable target once the Legion left. No sense in raiding a village that had already been looted, after all.
The spectacle unfolding before them was going badly. It was difficult for Toku to sit idly by and watch. The leader of the squadron, which numbered about a dozen, had already killed two villagers. He wondered if the Legionnaire was seeking taxes, information, or had simply ordered the attack to simply enjoy the carnage.
Toku glanced toward Razor Wind, who crouched on his left. The boy regarded the spectacle in the village intently, but quickly adopted a disinterested look when he noticed Toku looking at him. His message was clear: this is not my problem.
The mission Toturi and Kaede had given Toku was a simple one. Now it had become far more complicated. If there had been any hope in him that Razor Wind would be changed by the scene before them, it was now gone. This boy was not the hero Kaede hoped he would be. There was only one recourse, and it would require one thing that Toku had always known would be his to give one day.
“Your mother’s name,” he whispered to the boy. “it was Hatsuko, wasn’t it?”
“What?” blurted out Razor Wind. “How did you know that?”
“Because your father told me of her.” Toku reached over and casually removed his katana from the shocked boy’s obi. “I wish that I could have known her, and I am sorry that she was taken from you when you were so young.”
“My father?” hissed the boy. “How can you know who my father is?”
“You share the same eyes, Kaneka,” Toku answered. “I have never met another with the same eyes as Akodo Toturi. They see into a man’s soul and examine all that he is, and all that he ever will be. And you share the same fighting style. He once told me that his style was more instinct than training, albeit instinct honed by the teachings of the great masters, Suana and Akodo Kage.”
“My father was the Black Lion?”
“Yes.” Toku stared directly into the boy’s eyes. “His camp is in the Mantis Isles, near the City of Lightning.”
The boy reeled. “How did you know my name?”
“The Oracle of Thunder told me,” Toku said.
“My father. . . ” Kaneka said, staring numbly at the ground.
“Akodo Toturi is the finest man I have ever known,” Toku said. “He taught me the value of one man’s life in the grand scheme of the world. Knowing that one man is important makes it even more important that we preserve every life we can. The Dark Emperor must be defeated.” He rose to a half-crouch as he said this, eying the village below.
“What are you doing?” Kaneka demanded in hushed tones.
“I intend to buy time for the villagers to escape,” Toku answered in a very calm voice.
“You cannot fight the Legion,” Kaneka said. “They’ll kill you.”
“I am not an important man, all things considered,” Toku said. “But some of them might well be.” He gestured to a group of children huddled near the center of the village. The patrol had dismounted and was beginning to attack the villagers. Screams rose up from the valley. “Remember this day, Akodo Kaneka,” Toku said. “Remember that one man can make a difference in the lives of many, and that one man can achieve great things.” He looked sorrowful for a moment. “Will you fight beside me?” he asked.
Kaneka shook his head fearfully.
“Then watch,” Toku said with a smile. “Tell your father I died well and that I can never repay him for all he gave.” With those final words, Toku leapt from his hiding place and charged wordlessly down the hill into the village.
Akodo Kaneka watched as the ronin attacked the Legionnaires. Outnumbered a dozen to one, Toku never faltered. He attacked with a ferocity that Kaneka had never before seen, felling two of his foes before they even realized he was among them. They struck him again and again, inflicting terrible wounds, but he never stopped. He fought until the last ounce of strength fled his body. With his dying breath, Toku laughed. Leaning on his sword as he knelt, Toku pulled off his helmet, threw it at the nearest man defiantly, and died.
“No!” screamed Kaneka, leaping to his feet. he could no longer stand aside in fear. “You dogs!” he pointed at the other four remaining bandits and lifted his sword high. “Come with me! We will fight the Legions and die like samurai!”
To his surprise, the ragtag bandits cheered in reply. Kaneka charged from his hiding place, and they followed.
The eight surviving Legionnaires looked up as Kaneka and his band charged. Leaving Toku’s body in the street, they ran forward to meet his attack. As the bandits and Legionnaires collided, Kaneka could see the remaining villagers fleeing from the other side of the village.
“Face me!” the boy shouted, cutting down the leader and turning to face the next. “I am Akodo Kaneka! Face me and die!” He swung his sword again, cutting down another man with a single blow. At his side, one of the other bandits fell. Another leapt over the fallen man, defending him ferociously with his spear, stabbing one Legionnaire deeply in the throat.
The remaining Legionnaires faltered. For the first time, Kaneka saw fear in the eyes of Fu Leng’s soldiers.
“For Rokugan!” he shouted, and charged again.