“Strange,” Kaimetsu-Uo said. “I think that I have finally learned that which I came to hear, though I did not hear the tale I sought.”
“I would not have you disappointed, my friend,” Unmei said. “Now listen to a tale of your Empire’s greatest heroes.”
Day of Thunder
by Rich Wulf
Hida Atarasi stood at the edge of a jagged cliff and looked out into the Shadowlands. The earth was cracked and blasted, clean of all vegetation save a handful of twisted, thorny weeds. A thin river of oily black water meandered through the wasteland, bubbling with unhealthy gases and the quick, furtive movements of creatures better left unseen. The sky swirled with inky black clouds, casting the land in an eerie half-light that was neither day nor night.
“These lands were beautiful, once,” he said in a low voice. “I remember scouting this area with Hiruma. This was a forest. We caught a fish from that river, the finest I have ever tasted in my life… This place is dead now. Fu Leng has murdered it, Shosuro.”
“You heard me approach?” the Scorpion said, clearly impressed as she stepped out of the shadows. “Not many men can do that.”
Atarasi smiled at her. “One does not survive long in a war such as this without learning how to read the shadows,” he said.
“How long have you known I was there?” Shosuro asked.
“You said nothing?”
“You seemed at peace. I felt it would be rude to interrupt,” he said.
Shosuro studied his face. There was no mockery in Atarasi’s words, just his usual grim sincerity. “Then why did you speak to me just now?” she asked.
“Because of all of us you seemed the most likely to understand what we have lost,” Atarasi said, looking out at the Shadowlands again. “Both of our clans have suffered in this war. Even if we win here, these lands will never be the same. Win or lose, this is the Crab’s future.”
“You shouldn’t dwell on such things, Atarasi,” Shosuro said. “Doubt can kill a man more swiftly than a sword.”
“I know that,” he said with a bitter smile. “I have seen it happen often enough. I try to be like my father. Hida is never afraid. He never makes mistakes. I try to be like him but how can I? I think sometimes my human blood is too strong.” Atarasi clasped his hands together before him, eyes focused on his trembling fingers.
“I have no words to reassure you, Atarasi,” Shosuro said. “I don’t think words would help.”
“Then I hope the battle comes soon, Shosuro,” Atarasi said. “In battle there is no doubt. It is the times in between that may kill me.”
Shosuro nodded, looking around them carefully. “Especially in such a place as this. I cannot help the feeling that we are watched, that we are being followed. I will be glad when this is done.”
“My father taught me that strength is the only commodity that increases when shared,” Atarasi said. “Shinsei believes we are the greatest warriors in the Empire. Perhaps he is right, then perhaps we will be victorious.”
“I am not used to sharing strength,” Shosuro replied. “I have always fought alone.”
“In the end, we are all alone,” Atarasi answered, “but until then perhaps we can still make some difference.”
A lone god stood at the edge of the Shadowlands and wondered if he was about to make a terrible mistake.
All his life, Shiba had served. He had honored his father and mother even when his father devoured him and his mother abandoned him. He had obeyed his brother’s commands and helped him establish his empire. He had even cast aside his pride to kneel before Isawa so his tribe might see the wisdom of standing united.
Shiba had always understood that humility was the truest form of courage. To cast aside one’s own desires for the good of all was difficult, but he had always brought himself to do it. Even Shiba had his limits. He would gladly give up his life, his honor, all that he had for this Empire he and the others had founded…
But he could not let the Thunders die.
The others were assured that Shinsei’s claims were true, that only the Thunders could defeat Fu Leng, but Shiba was not so sure. Shinsei was a wise man, but he was not infallible. What if he was wrong? What if they could not defeat Fu Leng?
Shiba stared at the gleaming blade of Ofushikai, the incredible sword his wife had made for him. They were not his people, these mortals, but he had come to love them. He knew each of his brothers and sisters had as well, each in their own way.
“Any but the Thunders who stand before Fu Leng will be ground beneath the wheels of destiny,” Shinsei had said.
So be it, then. Shiba sheathed his blade and entered the Shadowlands.
“You should extinguish that fire, Phoenix,” Matsu said, marching back into the camp with her usual surly frown.
Isawa huddled against a large stone, not looking up from his scroll as the Lion approached. “Why?” he replied.
“Are you a fool?” Matsu said with a sneer. “Fu Leng’s servants will see the smoke.”
“I have spoken to the smoke,” Isawa said with a sigh. “We will not be seen. Leave me alone.”
Matsu stared at him for while, uncertain whether to believe him. “Arrogant Phoenix,” she whispered.
Isawa looked up at her placidly. “Do you need something from me?”
Matsu sighed, turned, and stormed off across the camp.
“She is very angry.”
Isawa looked up, startled at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. He realized to his surprise that Otaku was sitting on the other side of the small fire. He had never heard the young Ki-Rin speak. “It is her way,” Isawa replied, looking to his scrolls again. “Matsu is a killer, ever vigilant for any sign of weakness in ally or enemy. Though she may be unpleasant company, we are fortunate to have her with us.”
“Are those spell scrolls?” Otaku asked.
Isawa nodded. “We use these in Gisei Toshi, to purify the bodies and souls of the dead and bind them to the walls so that they might defend the city forever,” he replied. “Shiba and his samurai have promised to protect my tribe now, so such measures will no longer be needed. I brought them because they remind me of my sister. Reading them brings me focus, and I need focus most of all right now. The battle we will soon face is impossible. By all accounts Fu Leng is immortal, and I must find a way to defeat that.”
“Why not use your scrolls against him?” Otaku asked. “If they can bind the souls of the dead, could they not bind Fu Leng’s soul as well?”
“It is not that simple, Otaku-chan,” Isawa said with a chuckle. “You see, the spiritual alignment inherent in the souls of the dead is different than that of living beings. They are more strongly connected to the realms beyond our own than this one, giving a skilled shugenja some ability to manipulate their place in this realm.”
“Is it not the same with Fu Leng?” she asked. “He was born in the Celestial Heavens and wields the power of Jigoku. Are those not realms outside our own?”
Isawa opened his mouth to offer a quick rebuttal, then stopped. Possibilities began quickly forming in his mind. It would be difficult, requiring an unusual application of the scrolls, but certainly possible. His jaw dropped open and he stared blankly at Otaku. After another moment’s consideration he shook his head in denial. “No, it would never work. He would be bound, but still alive.”
“Shinsei never said we must kill Fu Leng,” she answered. “Only defeat him.”
Isawa gave a tight smile and shook his head, but could offer no argument. A slow realization came over him. This girl, this Ki-Rin girl who had not spoken and whom he had thought very little of since her arrival, may very well have shown him how to defeat the Dark God.
“By the Fortunes, Otaku, you have saved us all,” Isawa breathed, digging through his scroll bag. “This will take time and preparation, but it may work. I must study these thoroughly to find the proper pattern.”
“Can I help?” she asked.
“My scrolls are complex, beyond the comprehension of.” Isawa stopped himself and looked at Otaku with a respectful smile. “Yes,” he said. “I think that perhaps you might help.”
“Again,” Mirumoto commanded.
Konishiko nodded and drew her brother’s sword, moving from one complex kata into the next.
“No. Too much weight on your leading foot. You have no balance. An enemy will exploit that,” he said sharply. “And your counterstrike is too slow no form or control. Control the blade; do not chop with it. It is a katana, not a tetsubo.”
Konishiko gave Mirumoto a frustrated look and began again. “I defeated Matsu, Mirumoto-sama,” she said.
“You did not defeat Matsu, you disarmed her,” Mirumoto corrected her. “Matsu saw you as a child, not an enemy. Had she truly meant to kill you, you would have perished.”
“My brother’s soul guides me,” she said, holding the blade high again. “I will be fine.”
Mirumoto nodded, bowing deeply to Konishiko. Konishiko returned the gesture.
“Kill me if you can,” he said.
Konishiko’s eyes widened in surprise. Mirumoto lunged at her, not drawing his swords. She swung at him with her brother’s blade. Mirumoto slapped at the flat of the blade, twisting it in her hands, then kicked her in the stomach. She fell back on the earth. He landed with one knee on her chest and one foot on her sword arm, hand clutching her throat.
“Now are you so confident in your abilities?” Mirumoto asked. “Fu Leng will not see you as a child.”
Konishiko glared up at him, then closed her eyes in humiliation. Mirumoto rose and helped her to her feet.
“How is it possible?” she whispered, sheathing her katana. “My brother’s soul guides me.”
“Yasurugi may dwell within you, but so does Konishiko,” Mirumoto said, “and Konishiko is inexperienced. One day you may be a fine warrior, Doji-san, but that day has not yet come. You are reckless, inexperienced. I must teach you focus in the short time we have.”
Konishiko glared at him, her face burning with embarrassment. “Father tells me that your techniques are inferior. His technique is superior to yours.”
“I regret I do not have the opportunity to test the truth of that against him,” Mirumoto answered. “You respect your father, and that is admirable. But I am here and he is not.” Mirumoto drew his swords and fell into a kenjutsu stance. “If you wish to survive, you will learn from me.”
The young Crane watched the old Dragon in tense silence for a long moment, then brought her sword to the ready. “I will learn,” she said, “but my father’s way.”
Mirumoto nodded, sheathing his wakizashi and shifting to a one-handed stance.
“Let us begin.”
Shinsei entered the cavern alone, only a small lantern guiding his path. The crow sat upon his shoulder, peering about furtively as it huddled near its master’s neck. All within was silent, save the distant sound of dripping water. The Little Teacher moved forward slowly, cautiously, giving those that he knew waited within the chance to see him.
“I am here,” he said, though his words were in a strange, clipped language unlike that of humans. “I keep-keep my promise.”
A tall, inhuman creature stepped out from among the rocks. It resembled a large humanoid rat, though its fur was uneven and marred with countless scars. It was a Nezumi, one of the creatures that had ruled the Shadowlands before the fall of Fu Leng. “So you have,” the creature replied. “Scouts say that human farmers leave-leave rice in the fields for us.”
“I tell-tell them to do it for good luck, Chieftain A’tck,” Shinsei said, “to chase bakemono away.”
“Then you tell no lie, crow-man,” A’tck replied. “My hunters kill-kill bakemono wherever we find them. Your rice save many Nezumi from Tomorrow.”
“I am glad to help,” Shinsei said. “Now help-help me.”
“I honor our bargain,” A’tck said, “but I do not think this help you. More likely kill you.” The Nezumi reached into the pouch at its waist and drew out a tightly rolled piece of hide, handing it to Shinsei. “Heaven fall there. That is where our city stand, before Tomorrow swallow it away.”
Shinsei unrolled the map, trying not to think about what the Nezumi might have made it out of. The details were precise and carefully drawn, leading to a place named Heaven’s Grave. That was the center of Fu Leng’s power. That would be where they would find him.
“You go to fight the dark god?” A’tck asked, his black eyes wide.
Shinsei nodded. “I must.”
“A’tck understand the pull of must,’” the Nezumi answered. “A’tck wish you well. Tomorrow comes for us all, crow-man. Best we can do is leave a strong Name, and hope we are remembered.” The Nezumi executed a stiff bow, mimicking the Rokugani custom. “You are a hero among Nezumi, crow-man. Many starving pups survive this winter because of you. Nezumi remember you, always.”
Shinsei smiled, touched by the Nezumi’s sincere gratitude. He returned A’tck’s bow, then turned and continued on his way, tucking the map into his robes.
In the darkness, far from the others, Lady Matsu knelt alone. She closed her eyes in meditation, preparing for the battle ahead. She thought of those at home her beloved husband, her lord Akodo, her comrades in the Lion’s Pride. She had left them all behind without saying goodbye. Matsu had no taste for goodbyes. They only inspired fear that those she loved might be lost, desire to remain beside them, and regret for leaving them behind.
Fear, desire, regret. These things were sins, not the way of the samurai.
She knew she would never return to Rokugan.
The Lady of Lions hid her face in her hands. She had never feared death. She had welcomed it with open arms, the glory of battle, the reward of a true warrior. Win or lose, this would be a hero’s death, a death like none other. Yet she had not imagined it would be like this.
She had hoped to die among the Lion, among those who had become her friends and family since she had turned her back on her tribe. Her kin had been savage bandits once, wretches who had not understood the true purpose of battle. They killed for the sake of killing and nothing more. Once, she had felt the same. She indulged her naked bloodlust, slaughtering any who dared oppose her. She had even loved the son of one of the greatest raider chieftains and looked forward to a long life of pillage and murder by his side.
One day she realized how meaningless her life had become, and left her tribe. She lived many years alone in a small village, teaching all those who would learn how to use the sword and spear to defend themselves from those like her former comrades. When she met Lord Akodo she discounted him as another like the rest a killer using the strength of his sword to justify his actions. In time he proved himself, and Matsu understood the true meaning of honor. She knew her destiny was to stand among the Lion.
She had hoped to die with them, and she had never looked back.
Matsu wiped her cheeks, ignoring the tears that fell. Such behavior was not becoming of a samurai. Emotion was for lesser creatures.
“If this must be my end, so be it,” Matsu whispered into the night air. “I will bring Fu Leng such an end that the Empire will sing of it for one thousand years. In my sword, the wind. In my heart, courage. In my eyes, death. Let the Shadowlands remember my name and fear all those who bear it.”
“I am Matsu.”
The Seven Thunders and Shinsei stood at the crest of a large hill, looking down into the valley below. Before them a vast, gaping pit coughed oily smoke into the sky. Around the edges of the pit stood the ruins of a mighty Nezumi city, now a crumbling memory. All manner of ghoulish creatures danced about the edges of the pit, cavorting wildly even as they turned to devour one another. The earth seemed to be slowly draining into the pit, sucked inexorably into Fu Leng’s realm.
“The air tastes strange here,” Atarasi said. “I feel ill just breathing it.”
“Some sort of corruption, a taint in the very land,” Isawa answered. “I have sensed it as well. My magic protects us for now, but I fear it will grow worse. If this pit remains, future travelers in these lands had best be cautious.”
“The Nezumi maps said we would find Fu Leng here,” Shinsei said, looking at the chaos below with wide eyes. “I expected nothing like this. How will we find him?”
“There,” Otaku said, surprising everyone once again with her melodious voice. She pointed at a large structure of obsidian, almost indiscernible from the surrounding lands. “That is where Shinjo found her brother. That is Fu Leng’s keep.”
“Then let us move swiftly and with subtlety,” Isawa said. He moved his hands in a complex gesture, weaving smoke and mist around Shinsei and the Thunders, hiding them from sight. “Shosuro, lead the way.”
The eight heroes cautiously picked a path across the jagged ground, making their way toward the obsidian keep. Shosuro’s cunning and Isawa’s magic guided them safely through the hordes, and they drew no attention as they darted past deadly beasts spawned by a realm beyond reason. Soon enough, they stood before the keep’s heavy stone gates.
“This path is too obvious,” Matsu said sharply. “We must find another way inside.”
“Strategy?” Mirumoto replied, surprised. “From you, Matsu?”
“Do not mock me, Dragon.” Her tone was dangerous. “I came all this way to kill Fu Leng, not throw my life away.”
“Fair enough,” Mirumoto answered with a grin.
Shinsei looked up to Mirumoto, a determined look on his wizened face. “Dragon, you are the most experienced of us,” he whispered. “When we find the Dark Lord, he must not escape.”
With that, the black gates ground open. A loud, guttural roar echoed from behind them. They turned to see an impossibly large creature rise from the pit, a beast of shifting flesh and pointed bone. It looked down upon them with seven baleful red eyes, melting immediately to be replaced with a single green orb, melting again as its shape changed a third time. It lurched across the broken earth toward them.
“The First Oni,” Shinsei said, drawing a horrified breath. “Into the keep!”
The Thunders quickly complied, moving into Fu Leng’s keep only as the gates closed behind them. The eight found themselves in a massive chamber of dark stone, sparsely illuminated by the pale green fires of lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
“Trapped,” Konishiko said. “Fu Leng knew we would come.”
Shinsei nodded. “Fu Leng has always known he would face the Thunders, though he did not know who you were or when you would come. He has avoided this conflict for as long as possible, building his strength. Now that we are here, it seems he intends to face us himself.”
“Or perhaps not,” Mirumoto said. He drew his sword as dozens of samurai in obsidian armor stepped into the chamber around them.
“No,” Isawa said, drawing his scrolls from his pouch. “Fu Leng is here. I can sense him.”
“Human warriors?” Matsu asked. “I did not think living humans marched in Fu Leng’s army.”
The leader of the samurai laughed deeply behind his fearsome scowling mempo. “Why would you think such a thing, Matsu-chan?” the man demanded. “Did not our glorious Emperor demand that all mortal men bend knee before the Kami? We merely follow Hantei’s command, little Matsu.” The man reached up and removed his mempo. His face was pale and gaunt now and his eyes burned with a sinister green light, but he was familiar to her.
“Mutsuhito,” Matsu whispered, recognizing the face of the man she had once loved.
“You made your choice, Matsu-chan,” he replied. “Bow to me and I will kill you swiftly, in honor of the love we once had for one another.”
“I make you the same offer,” she replied, drawing her blade.
Mutsuhito replaced his mask and held up a gauntleted fist, signaling his warriors to attack. They fell forward in a rush, swarming toward the Thunders, screaming Fu Leng’s name. Isawa clapped his hands together and shouted a word of magic, filling the chamber with a brilliant flash of light. The corrupted samurai staggered, stunned by the brilliance. Mirumoto flew into them, spinning with both swords drawn, cutting down four at a sweep. Konishiko darted behind, her brother’s sword cutting a path through those Mirumoto left behind. Matsu headed directly for Mutsuhito, blades locking as he met her in single combat.
“We cannot allow them to delay us!” Shinsei shouted above the chaos. “We must find their master!”
Atarasi nodded, throwing a heavy shoulder into the nearest group of warriors and charging directly through. Otaku, Isawa, and Shinsei followed. Shosuro had vanished somewhere in the chaos; they continued on.
Mutsuhito shoved Matsu away and slashed at her. She rolled with the push, trying to move outside his range before the inevitable strike. His blade traced a path across her midsection, leaving a trail of blood. She winced in pain.
“Fu Leng has granted me the power of Jigoku,” Mutsuhito said. “You chose the weaker path, Matsu.”
As he charged toward her, she remembered her life before, a life of murder and vice, a life of shame. Her only true regret was that her tribe had continued their crimes after she left them. A Lion did not leave enemies behind.
With a defiant cry Matsu surged to her feet, slashing the air with her sword as she moved. The blade connected with Mutsuhito’s, shearing it in two and passing across his body without slowing in speed. The former bandit fell to his knees, gathering the strength to hurl his broken sword with all his Jigoku-spawned strength. Matsu stepped aside swiftly, but the weapon was not aimed at her.
“Defeat my god now, harlot,” he whispered as he died.
The Phoenix Thunder fell, Mutsuhito’s broken sword buried in his back.
“There are too many!” Atarasi shouted. “Keep running!”
The Crab Thunder lifted a heavy statue in the likeness of the Dark God, hurling it down the stairs at the advancing obsidian samurai. The Seven Thunders retreated through the halls of Fu Leng’s keep, Fu Leng’s minions hounding their steps. For every one Mirumoto or Konishiko cut down, three more seemed to appear. They fled through the chambers of the keep, barring the doors as best they could. The keep itself seemed to defy them, with even rooms they had visited before seeming to shift as they entered them again. None among them had the slightest idea how to return the way they had come, and none had seen Shosuro since they entered.
Climbing up the stairs into a large shrine, Konishiko quickly closed the trapdoor at the top. Matsu and Otaku seized a stone altar and moved it over the door.
“The Scorpion has abandoned us,” Matsu said, spitting on the floor.
Mirumoto eased Isawa to the floor, looking at the Phoenix with concern.
“Isawa?” he said. “Are you all right?”
“Not for much longer,” the Phoenix said. “Not that it matters. Give me my scrolls. I must begin the ritual.”
Konishiko dropped the heavy satchel from her shoulder, handing it to Isawa.
“Begin the ritual?” Otaku asked. “Fu Leng is not here.”
“He is close,” Isawa replied. “In the end he must face us himself. Some destinies cannot be defied. When I begin the ritual, he will come.”
“You should use your magic to heal yourself, Isawa,” Shinsei said.
“My wounds are unimportant,” the Phoenix said. “I need all my magic, all my concentration to bind Fu Leng to the twelve scrolls.” Isawa gathered his scrolls and began casting. After a few moments, Isawa sealed the first scroll and cast it aside. Inky blackness crawled across the pure white parchment.
“Fu Leng will come to stop me now,” Isawa said. “Do not let him escape.”
A thunderous sound echoed through the halls of Fu Leng’s keep. The shadows deepened around them as Isawa chanted. The Thunders readied their weapons, watching every window and door for any sign of Fu Leng’s arrival.
Isawa sealed the second scroll, casting it aside.
Then he was simply there, a tall figure in velvet robes so dark a violet they were nearly black, face covered in a porcelain mask. With a single kick he sent Shinsei crashing into the wall and turned to stand over Isawa, obsidian katana held up for a strike. Otaku moved swiftly, interposing herself between the Dark God and his target. Fu Leng swore as his blade buried itself deep in Otaku’s body.
She smiled, spit blood upon his mask, and died.
Isawa sealed the third scroll.
Atarasi seized Fu Leng by the shoulders, hurling the Kami toward the wall with all his might. Fu Leng ceased moving in midair and turned, striking the Crab across the face with a savage backhand. Atarasi staggered backwards and Fu Leng gestured, binding the Crab to the wall with strangling chains.
Isawa sealed the fourth scroll.
Then Konishiko and Matsu were there, striking at the Dark God as one. Their swords cleaved through his body, causing him to crumble in a fountain of blood.
Isawa sealed the fifth scroll.
The Dark God rose again, black fire erupting around him as his wounds sealed. He seized Matsu’s sword in his bare hand, melting the steel between his fingers. With a gesture he sent the stone altar flying toward Konishiko.
Isawa sealed the sixth scroll.
The trap door opened and obsidian samurai boiled into the chamber, fanning out to attack the Thunders. Mirumoto hurled himself into their midst, swords flying.
Isawa sealed the seventh scroll.
Matsu drew her tanto and hurled it at Fu Leng. He slapped it from the air and advanced on her. She darted a swift kick toward his ankles and twisted, throwing him to the floor. Fu Leng bellowed with rage and embraced her, consuming the Lady of Lions in the black flames that erupted from his body. She did not give him the satisfaction of a scream.
Isawa sealed the eighth scroll.
Mirumoto grimaced as a sword sliced him across the back but fought on, forcing Fu Leng’s minions away from the Phoenix Thunder. Konishiko appeared at her side; somehow she had forced the heavy stone altar off of her body. For a moment, Mirumoto thought he saw an image beside her, a ghostly samurai fighting by her side. She fought savagely, using the techniques both her father and Mirumoto had taught her, charging into the stairwell.
“Close the door behind me!” she shouted.
Mirumoto did not hesitate. She looked up at him with clear blue eyes as the trap door fell, sealing Konishiko beneath with the rest of Fu Leng’s minions. As the Dragon turned to fight those who had already passed through, he prayed that Konishiko’s brother would protect her.
Isawa sealed the ninth scroll.
Fu Leng rose, hurling Matsu’s blackened corpse aside. Mirumoto turned to face the Dark God as the last of his minions fell.
Isawa sealed the tenth scroll.
Atarasi choked helplessly as he tore at the chains binding his throat and body, trying desperately to break their grip so he could help his comrades. The room began to grow dark; he feared that his strength had at last failed him. Then he saw Shosuro’s face appear from the shadows, and his chains loosen.
“Matsu thought you had abandoned us,” Atarasi said, snatching up his tetsubo.
“I was finding a way out,” she replied.
The two of them charged as one, attacking the Dark God from behind. Fu Leng turned and lashed out at Shosuro, knocking her limp to the floor.
Isawa sealed the eleventh scroll.
Fu Leng’s eyes widened as the aura of black fire around him began to weaken. A savage roar resounded around them, the roof of the keep tearing away. The First Oni loomed over them, acid dripping from its obscene jaws. Fu Leng moved swiftly toward a gaping hole in the wall, seeking to distance himself from Isawa’s spell. Mirumoto and Atarasi interposed themselves between the Dark God and his escape. Swords and tetsubo met with black fire as they fought Fu Leng desperately. A savage roar sounded, and the First Oni’s claw snatched Mirumoto from the battle.
Isawa sealed the final scroll.
Fu Leng vanished as swiftly as he had appeared, and the darkness that had accompanied him seemed to dissipate as well. Even so, the First Oni still loomed above the broken keep. Atarasi dodged a massive claw and hurried to Isawa’s side, safe under what remained of the roof. Shosuro knelt there as well, carrying the unconscious Shinsei.
“The battle is not yet won, Atarasi,” Isawa said. “If the scrolls are opened, Fu Leng will awaken once more. They must be taken from here. Or all of this… will be for nothing.” Isawa said no more. The Phoenix Thunder closed his eyes and lay still upon the floor.
The First Oni roared again, a roar of tormented pain as it searched vainly for its master. Atarasi looked to Shosuro. “You are swifter than I am,” he said. “Take them, and take Shinsei. I will give you your chance.”
“Atarasi, don’t do this,” Shosuro said. “Too many have died.”
“I do not know the way out,” he said between clenched teeth. “Many more will die if we fail here today! Go!”
The Crab Thunder crammed Isawa’s blackened scrolls into the satchel and shoved them toward Shosuro, then ran back into the center of the chamber. He lifted his tetsubo high and let loose a laugh that echoed into the heavens. “Spawn of Jigoku!” he cried. “I am Atarasi, son of Hida, strongest of all the gods! I have killed your master! Face me if you dare!”
The roar that echoed in reply was unlike any Shosuro ever heard before. There was no doubt what fate awaited Atarasi, but the Crab did not care, defiant till the last. Shosuro seized the Little Teacher and the twelve black scrolls and hurried out of the keep.
It seemed as if it had been days since Shosuro had escaped Fu Leng’s keep, but time was impossible to measure in the Shadowlands. Shinsei had been silent since their escape, obviously troubled deeply by the deaths of the other Thunders. The First Oni hunted them relentlessly. They had not slept; they could not risk it. Exhaustion was beginning to wear upon her. Sometimes, Shosuro imagined she heard a whisper, a voice begging for her attention. She always pushed the hallucination away, but each day it grew more urgent, more real.
“They come for you, my child,” it said to her. “Fu Leng’s demon can sense its master. It will never stop hunting the scrolls.”
Shosuro ignored the voice and pressed on; her mood was sour enough without an imaginary voice darkening it further.
“You must find a way to destroy it,” it continued. “Or the Day of Thunder is not yet won.”
She slowed her pace, allowing Shinsei to walk ahead. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you?”
“I am Nothing,” it replied. “I only wish to help. There is one near who can aid you, but I want something in return.” Shosuro imagined she saw a flicker of movement around her, a tiny shadow swirling at the edge of her vision. Each time she turned to look at it, it was gone.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Friendship,” the shadow said, a tone of malicious glee in its voice. “I just want an ally.”
Shinsei looked back at her, his face etched with concern. Another demonic roar echoed across the ravine, closer this time. The Little Teacher looked away with a worried frown and hurried his pace. Shosuro looked up; twin spires of jagged rock surrounded the ravine. Small shapes seemed to fly around the peaks of each spire.
“They are close now. You will not escape this time.”
“They are coming,” Shinsei said, mirroring the shadow’s words.
“Take the scrolls, Shinsei,” Shosuro said. “They must survive and so must you. I will ensure your escape.”
“Not this time, Shosuro,” Shinsei said, turning in a slow circle as he readied his staff. “We can run no further.”
A line of misshapen creatures crested the ravine on both sides, an army of demons screaming their master’s name. They approached no further, content simply to surround Shinsei and the last Thunder. After a few moments, the ravine darkened. The First Oni had arrived.
“Make your choice, Shosuro,” the shadow said.
Shiba had been searching the Shadowlands for days without success. This place was treacherous, unfathomable. Each time he thought he had found the trail it vanished, or it twisted back on itself, or some terrible beast rose up to distract him from his quest with battle. None had yet appeared that could stand against the Kami’s skill with the blade, but he was beginning to grow tired. He feared that he was too late, that the Thunders had already been defeated.
A flicker of movement in the corner of Shiba’s awareness drew his attention. He looked in that direction, but saw nothing. Irritated, he moved on, but soon the sensation came again. He looked that way a second time. This time he saw a shape on the distant horizon, an impossibly large figure looming through the Shadowlands mists, standing between two jagged spires of rock.
Shiba hurried toward the scene. The demon stood amid a host of its kin, about to attack a pair of figures in the ravine below.
Shinsei and Shosuro stood battered but defiant, against all odds. Fu Leng’s minions prepared to destroy them.
A brilliant sound of ringing steel echoed as Shiba drew Ofushikai from its sheath. The oni horde turned, and fear blossomed in their inhuman eyes as they realized they now faced their master’s brother.
“My life for the Phoenix and Rokugan!” Shiba shouted, and charged to meet his destiny.
In the shadows of the jungle path, Kaimetsu-Uo stared at the earth with a thoughtful expression. “There is much you have told me that I have not heard before,” he said quietly. “There is much you have told me that is different than the way I have been told.”
“A story is a living thing, and tales grow and change as all living things do,” Unmei said. “Who can say what is the truth and what is not? But this is the way Hida told it to me, if that helps you.”
“How could Hida have told you all of those stories?” Kaimetsu-Uo asked. “There are many parts he could not have witnessed.”
Unmei smiled broadly, but did not answer.
“I suppose it does not matter,” Kaimetsu-Uo said. “I still learned much from your stories. I had always thought the Kami somehow different than us.”
“They are,” the koumori said. “Quite different.”
“But also the same,” the young samurai countered. “They founded the Empire because the people needed leadership. They created the clans because there were duties that needed to be undertaken. The dawn of the empire is not a tale of Kami or even a tale of mortals. In the end there is no difference. It is simply a tale of heroes.”
“That much is true,” Unmei answered. “Had there been no Kami, Kakita, Matsu, Mirumoto and the others likely would have been heroes still, and Mutsuhito a villain. But what would Shosuro have been? And what sort of land would this be without Genji or Atarasi, those who were both god and mortal? None can say.”
“It is not one’s destiny that makes one great, but how one chooses to embrace it,” Kaimetsu-Uo said. “I thought my destiny was to lead the Crab Clan, but such was not to be. I resented my father… but no longer. He has merely given me leave to find my own path.”
The young warrior looked down at the earth again. A large mantis sat on the edge of a log. It walked alone in a hostile jungle, but held its claws high, ready to challenge any who would oppose it.
“You have done me a great favor this day, Unmei-sama,” Kaimetsu-Uo said, rising to his feet. Already a plan formed in his mind. “One day, perhaps I will tell you my legend so you may offer it to another.”
“I look forward to that,” Unmei said, grinning as the samurai made his way back to his kin.