A Good Death
By Rich Wulf
“The sight of seventeen ashura descending upon the City of Lightning even as the Maw, the Obsidian Champion, and Ikoma Ujiaki led their forces into the city was the the most beautiful thing I have ever had the honor to witness.”
- Miya Satoshi, Imperial Herald, 1144 by the Isawa Calendar, the Twenty-Second Year of the Glorious Reign of Hantei XXXIX
* * * * *
Kaede stood at the height of the cliffs, watching the restless sea. The first wave of vessels had already departed the islands and disappeared into the fog. The clouds moved swiftly through the sky overhead, gathering for a storm. Her sense of the Void, long since atrophied, was still strong enough to sense the coming storm.
“Mommy, is Ichiro going to be all right?” said the little boy at her side. Even at five years old, he was always so serious, so severe. She wondered how different he might be, had he been born into a gentler world.
“Your brother will be fine, Jiro,” Kaede said, smiling down at her son. “Yoritomo himself captains the ship that takes him back to the mainland. You trust the Son of Storms, don’t you?”
“No,” the boy said with a frown. “He scares me.”
“Then he’ll scare the Legions away, too,” Kaede said.
Jiro looked unconvinced. “Maybe,” he said, looking back out at the sea.
Kaede felt a sudden thickening in the elements, a sudden swirl in the spirits above her. She knew that Osaku and the rest of the most powerful shugenja were on the far side of the island, guarding the fleet as they continued the evacuation. This could mean only one thing.
“Do you remember what we talked about, Jiro-kun?” she said, looking down at Jiro.
Jiro looked at his mother a final time, nodded, and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. Kaede looked up just as the air rippled, revealing three hovering figures. The first was a withered skeleton of a man surrounded with crackling flame. He was accompanied by a thin man with flesh covered in jagged stitches and a dried husk of a corpse in the kimono of a Scorpion.
“Tsuke,” Kaede said, scowling up into the eyes of her corrupted cousin. “Ujimitsu should have been more thorough when he killed you.”
“Konichiwa, cousin,” Tsuke said as he landed before her, singing the grass in a large circle. “I have missed you.”
“I thought there were four of you,” Kaede said.
“Master Okura is otherwise engaged,” Tsuke said with a grim smile. “It seems a fleet of refugees were found attempting to escape across the seas. The Master of Water has taken the opportunity to show the Mantis who truly rules the sea.”
“That was a handsome child,” Kuni Yori said, clasping his hands as he landed gently on the ground. “Is he your son? The son of Toturi and an Oracle? How extraordinary.”
“Why don’t you go fetch him, Yori?” Yogo Junzo said, still hovering in mid-air. “The Oracle cannot stop you, so long as you do not attack her first.”
“Stay away from him!” Kaede shouted. She punched the air, creating a huge fist of fire that slammed the Master of Earth. Yori stumbled backwards with a yelp, his robes consumed in flame.
“What?” Junzo exclaimed in surprise. “What does this mean?”
“This is what it means,” Tsuke said, pointing a finger at Kaede.
The clouds parted and a jet black column of flame boiled down from the heavens, enveloping Kaede. It was all that she could do to summon a wall of air kami to deflect the blast. Tsuke stepped through the flame, punching her hard across the jaw. Her concentration faltered, and the flames rolled over her. The pain was incredible, but soon faded. Kaede collapsed on the earth, skin blistered and boiled. She looked up through the haze of blood and pain to see Tsuke standing over her.
“It burns!” Yori cried from somewhere. “It burns!”
“Douse yourself, idiot,” Tsuke snapped. “Junzo, go retrieve that brat before he runs too far.” The Master of Air nodded and departed, hovering on the wind.
“Still alive, cousin?” Tsuke asked, kneeling by Kaede’s side.
“You. . . failed. . . ” Kaede whispered through burnt and cracked lips.
“That depends on how you define failure,” Tsuke said evenly. “I know that you are no longer the Oracle. I know that you must have passed the power to someone else. There may be a new Oracle of Thunder in Rokugan, cousin, but know this. When I find him, the pain that you feel will seem like nothing. You think that you have bought time but you have won nothing but delicious torment for whatever fool you gave the power. Know, as you die, that I am not disappointed that you are no longer the Oracle. It just makes it easier for me to kill you. Like I killed your brother and sister.” Tsuke looked down at one hand, smiled at the nimbus of green fire that surrounded the fingers, and slowly pressed his palm into Kaede’s face.
As the life slowly burned out of her, Kaede felt surprisingly little pain. Instead, she felt sadness. Sadness that she would never stand at Toturi’s side again. Sadness that she would never know what names her children chose at their gempukku. Sadness that she would never live to see the day the shadow lifted from Rokugan. . .
* * * * *
Ichiro stood on one foot with his arms held out to either side. His eyes were closed. His long white hair billowed on the wind, but he did not waver as he balanced on the bow of the Stormrider.
“Um. . . should he be doing that?” Matsuo asked, looking up from the tiller with a worried expression.
“He can do what he likes,” said Yoritomo. The Mantis Champion’s eyes were fixed on the horizon behind them.
“What do we tell Toturi if his son falls overboard?” Matsuo asked.
“If we live through this and ever see Toturi again, I’ll worry about it,” Yoritomo said.
“Ichiro, be careful,” Matsuo called out.
“My name is Sezaru,” the child said. He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Or it will be.”
“That kid is strange,” Matsuo said.
“Everyone is strange,” Yoritomo said.
Matsuo nodded and returned his attention to the sky. It looked like a storm was coming. If the fleet went right into that, like it looked like they were going to, none of them would come out alive. If they had any brains in their heads, they would turn back into port while they had a chance. Of course, that presented altogether different problems.
“They’re coming,” Toturi’s son said, looking back over one shoulder. His eyes glowed a strange silver color.
“Battle stations!” Yoritomo roared. The crew began scrambling about the deck and drawing out weapons.
Matsuo looked surprised. “But he’s just a -”
“Battle Stations!” Yoritomo roared a second time, directly in Matsuo’s face.
“Yes, my lord!” Matsuo said, grabbing the tiller with both hands.
An instant later, the ship to their left exploded. A column of water erupted directly through the deck, shooting ninety feet in the air. As the water dropped again, Matsuo glimpsed a portly man hovering in midair, crackling energy swirling about his body. An ashura hovered on either side, their mouths open in a strange, ghostly song. One ashura flew toward a ship, severing its mast with a single swing of its katana. The other drew his bow and began firing arrows with lightning speed. A sailor nearby was struck by one and fell to the deck vomiting. Okura pointed at another ship and clasped his hands. The water made a similar motion, enveloping the kobune and swallowing it into the ocean.
“Damn you, Okura,” Yoritomo said with a scowl.
“Fortunes!” Matsuo swore as a great swell pitched their ship. “How do we fight this? They’ll destroy us all!”
“We are not done yet,” Yoritomo said. “You there!” he shouted. “Child.”
“Sezaru,” the boy corrected. He was still balancing perfectly on the ship’s prow, despite the chaotic bouncing of the kobune.
“Do you truly call upon the Dragon of Thunder?” he asked.
“I do,” the child said.
“Then I call upon her now,” Yoritomo said, drawing twin kama from his armor. “In the name of my ancestor Osano-Wo, I call upon her love for him! I call upon her to save her children, the Mantis, when we need her the most!”
Sezaru looked back at Yoritomo. “Are you prepared to pay her price?” he asked.
“I am,” Yoritomo said, raising his weapons high.
Lightning arced from the heavens, striking the Son of Storms. The electricity crackled from his kama, and for a moment he was lifted from the air by the power. Matsuo shielded his eyes and swore again, certain that Yoritomo was dead.
“There!” Kitsu shouted, pointing at the Stormrider. “The Son of Storms is there!” The two ashura turned and began to fly toward the ship.
Yoritomo shouted in fury and hurled his kama. The hovering shugenja was over two hundred yards away, and yet the kama flew straight and true. It struck Okura in the center of the chest. The Dark Master of Water looked down with a curious expression, then fell in the sea with a plop. The two ashura paused, looking at one another uncertainly.
“YORITOMO!” the Mantis shouted. Lightning struck the Son of Storms again, and the kama returned to his hand.
The ashura swooped toward the ship, shrieking in fury. Yoritomo let both kama fly at once, each one striking one of the twisted samurai in the face. The monstrous creatures screamed and exploded in twin balls of flame, shaking the deck of the Stormrider.
“Matsuo. . . ” Yoritomo whispered, falling to one knee. “Lead the fleet. . . to safety.”
“I will, my lord!” Matsuo shouted over the din of the storm.
Yoritomo collapsed on the deck.
“Honor his sacrifice,” Sezaru said, returning his attention to the sea.
Seppun Matsuo led the remaining ships deeper into the storm.
* * * * *
Toturi shook his head as he watched Toshi no Inazuma burn. Once, the City of Lightning had been one of the wonders of the Empire. Now, like so many of the Empire’s other wonders, it had been destroyed. He could see the spectral figures of the ashura hovering about the spires of the Temple of Osano-Wo from here, raining their arrows of corruption down upon the city. Around him, ninety other men and women huddled in a ragged band. Samurai, peasants, eta, all were equal now. All were survivors.
“There is nothing we could do to save the city,” Uji whispered as his side.
“This is my fault,” Toturi said, hollow eyes staring at the chaos. “If I had not unified the survivors against Fu Leng. . . ”
“He would have destroyed the city anyway,” Uji said. “You cannot blame yourself for this,Toturi. Think about how much worse this would be if you had never stood against him. We must keep moving, for your sake and the sake of your child.”
“Just a bit longer,” Toturi said.
“Kaede is dead, Toturi,” Uji said bluntly. “The Dark Masters hung her corpse from the spires.”
Toturi said nothing.
“I am sorry, Toturi,” Uji said. “Your wife and son are dead. You must accept it.”
“I know,” Toturi said, “but we must wait a bit longer.”
Toturi squeezed his daughter’s hand. She looked back up at him bravely. She had stopped crying long ago; Tsudao had always been the strongest of his children.
A sudden rustling in the underbrush caused the ring of samurai surrounding Toturi and Uji to turn in alarm. Spears were pointed, bows drawn instantly. A single woman stumbled into the small clearing. Her once fine robes hung in tatters. Her beautiful face was smeared with blood and grime. She fell to her hands and knees, gasping as she tried to gather the breath to report.
“Osaku!” Hakumei shouted, running to her side. Toturi took her hand, helping her to her feet.
“The second fleet has been destroyed, Toturi-sama,” she said, bowing her head in shame.
“How did the Legions sail past the Sea Spider?” Uji hissed.
“It was Ishada, a former Mantis, who helped the Shadowlands fleet find their way. He attacked me personally.” She smiled grimly. “He will bother us no more.”
“You did your best, Osaku,” Toturi said, resting one hand on her shoulder. “You saw my son to safety. I could not have asked for more.”
“How will we escape the island?” a young Lion asked, his voice shaking. “If we cannot get away, the Maw will scour the island until no life remains.”
“There is still a way,” Toturi said.
Uji raised an eyebrow. “I know that look,” he said. “You’ve been holding out on us, old man.”
“The second wave of ships was a distraction,” Toturi said. “I never intended for the rest of us to escape that way. I am sorry, Osaku, to have abused your trust so.”
“Get us off of this doomed island and all is forgiven!” Osaku said quickly. “What is your plan?”
“A trading ship waits in a hidden cove at the far side of the island,” Toturi said. “A Unicorn by the name of Moto Kumari has made arrangements to take us from the island.”
“I know the cove you speak of,” Uji said. “I often train my saboteurs there.”
“But how will we escape?” Hakumei asked. “The Obsidian Legions will scour the waves for any ships returning to Rokugan.”
“We will not return to Rokugan,” Toturi said. “The ship is an Ivory Kingdoms vessel, bound for its homeland. From there, we will rest, recover, and plan our next move.”
“When did you plan to tell us this?” Uji asked,
“As soon as Osaku arrived,” Toturi said. “You,” he pointed to a Crab samurai. “Carry Osaku. We cannot afford to leave her behind. If any of you become separated, do not wait for the others. Find Uji, Hakumei, or myself. Any of us can lead you to the cove.”
The samurai nodded, and the group moved off quickly, following Toturi. They ran through the woods at a breakneck pace, hurrying toward the hidden cove. The sounds of destruction grew louder behind them as the Legions continued to destroy the City of Lightning. Toturi clasped the hand of his daughter tightly, not letting her go for an instant. He had already lost his wife and sons; he would not lose Tsudao as well.
They were so close now. They were almost free. Soon, they would be in a land where the Dark Lord did not reign, a land where they would have the chance to gather a true army and free the Empire. They were so close.
Not close enough.
The forest broke, and the survivors ran into an open plain. There, waiting for them, stood a band of Obsidian Legionnaires. They outnumbered the survivors three to one. At the head of the group stood Hoturi the Heartless, an arrogant smile spread across his features. The Legionnaires pointed their bows at the refugees, prepared to mow them down.
“Toturi, old friend,” Hoturi said in a mocking voice. “Always with the last-minute escape, the daring contingency plan. Did you think that I, who know you better than any, would overlook your unerring capacity to triumph in the midst of adversity? I knew you would try something like this. Whatever your plan may be, it is done now. The Dark Lord demands your blood.”
Toturi looked down at Tsudao. The little girl looked back up at her father bravely. Toturi released her hand. he looked up, his eyes meeting those of Uji’s student. “Hakumei,” he whispered. “Whatever happens, keep my daughter safe.”
“I will,” Hakumei said, taking Tsudao’s hand.
“Hoturi!” Toturi said, stepping forward. “You were an honorable man once. Do you consider your Toturi?”
“No game, Hoturi,” Toturi said. “A duel. I will give you my blood, as Fu Leng desires, but you must give these people time to escape.”
“Agreed,” Hoturi said with a shrug. “These others are nothing. Who cares if they live or die? It is your head that Fu Leng desires, Thunder.” He turned to his Legions. “Give them twenty minutes,” he shouted, smiling at Toturi. “Then pursue.”
“Keep them safe, Uji,” Toturi said. “Set sail as soon as you arrive. I will not be returning.”
The last Crane nodded, shouted to the others, and ran. The tattered refugees followed as quickly as they were able.
Hoturi and Toturi rounded on one another, slowly advancing. Toturi’s hand rested on his katana. Hoturi’s was outstretched above the hilt as if presenting a gift, the traditional Kakita style. It looked as if he were proudly displaying the wound the Dark Lord gave him.
“Go now, my Legions!” Hoturi shouted with a sinister cackle. “Kill them all in the name of our Dark Lord!” The Obsidian Legions cheered.
All was chaos about them as the Legions rushed past them into the forest. In the center, Hoturi was an ocean of calm. The undead Crane laughed brightly and drew his sword before Toturi could even clench his fingers. He turned in a wide arc, finishing with his back to the Lion. Toturi sat heavily on the earth, a deep gash separating his chest plate, his right hand severed at the wrist.
“You. . . promised to give them time,” Toturi said, wincing in pain.
“Don’t be naive, Toturi,” Hoturi said in an annoyed tone. “After all you have seen since the Day of Thunder, one more act of depraved dishonor should hardly surprise you.”
“Sir, there is a problem,” said a samurai in the armor of an Obsidian Legionnaire, walking up on Hoturi’s left. “May I speak to you for a moment?”
The Crane sighed. “I’m killing the Lion Thunder. Can this wait?”
“I’m afraid it can’t.” the samurai said, walking closer.
“And why is that?” Hoturi asked, turning to face him.
“Because that is my father!” the samurai said, slashing at Hoturi with his sword.
Hoturi stumbled backward, gasping as the samurai sliced him across the throat. His hand flew to the wound as he retreated from the samurai. The Legionnaire threw aside his helmet, revealing a face which mirrored Toturi’s as a much younger man.
“Kaneka,” Toturi said, clutching his hand to his chest.
“I came as quickly as I could, father,” Kaneka said, both hands gripping his sword as he circled with the Obsidian Champion. “The legions were so eager to attack the islands, they hardly noticed an extra samurai on their ships.”
“You disguised yourself as a Tainted samurai,” Hoturi said with a hoarse chuckle. “You are indeed your father’s son. We shall be good friends once the Masters are done reanimating your corpse.”
“Run, Kaneka,” Toturi said weakly. “You cannot defeat Hoturi.”
“I will not leave you behind, father,” Kaneka said. “I will not let then turn you into a monster like him.”
“Don’t be silly,” Hoturi said, leaning against a tree with an arrogant sneer. “There are no other monsters like me.”
“Wrong again,” snarled a voice from above.
Daidoji Uji leapt from the tree, tackling Hoturi. The two Crane rolled across the ground. Uji repeatedly kneeing and punching Hoturi as the other Crane shouted in surprise and fury. Finally Hoturi simply stood, pried Uji from him with one hand, and hurled him across the field.
“Now this is just getting ridiculous,” Hoturi shrieked, snatching his katana from where it had fallen. “I am the Obsidian Champion, right hand of the Emperor! Just what is it that any of you think you can do to harm me?”
“This,” Uji whispered, hurling a shuriken at Hoturi.
The silver blade flew true on its course, striking the vial of ashura’s blood Uji had shoved into Hoturi’s chest cavity.
Hoturi the Heartless exploded in a cloud of black flame, and was no more.
* * * * *
“He found you,” Toturi whispered weakly. “Toku found you.”
Kaneka could say nothing. He only nodded at his father, clasping his hand in his own.
“Kaede saw you. . . ” Toturi whispered. “She said that you would save us.”
Kaneka bowed his head, unable to meet his father’s eyes.
“You must promise,” Toturi said. “You must promise that you will not abandon them. The people of Rokugan need a leader. They must not lose hope. . . ”
“I promise, father,” Kaneka said. “I promise I will not abandon them.”
Toturi nodded. He smiled a final time at his eldest son and died.
“We have to get out of here,” Uji whispered.
Kaneka rose and nodded. “To the ship?”
“If Kumari is smart, he’s already gone,” Uji said. “There’s another way. A small ship, large enough for two. It’s already loaded with supplies.”
Kaneka looked at the Crane curiously. “Were you planning to escape on your own?”
“Only if it came to that,” the Crane said. “Always have a back-up plan, boy. You’ll never regret it. Now let’s get out of here.”
“I won’t leave my father,” Kaneka said.
“Good thinking,” Uji said, lifting Toturi’s legs. “The last thing we need is an undead Toturi hunting us. Grab his arms, boy.”
Kaneka did as Uji bade, and the two samurai fled. Soon they arrived at the hidden cove where Uji’s ship was hidden. As Uji checked over the last of the supplies, Kaneka built a pyre around his father’s body. Uji nodded to Kaneka, giving him the signal to light the fire. The Legions were on the far side of the island. By the time they found Toturi’s grave his body would be too far gone to be of any use, and the ship would be gone.
“I will not abandon them,” Kaneka whispered, touching the torch to the pyre.
The son of Toturi quietly made his way to the ship. Then, together with the last Crane, rowed swiftly out to sea.