*Blood Dawn, Part IV:
*By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf
The Burning Sands&
“So if I am to fight Iuchiban, tell me what I must do,” Katamari said, lifting up the steel mask in one hand. “You have hinted that I can defeat him, creature, but you have told me no specifics.”
“Meat wishes Adisabah to tell it how to kill Iuchiban?” the raskhasa chuckled. “If Adisabah knew that, Iuchiban would be dead. The answer is not here,” the rakshasa tapped one temple. “Neither is the answer there,” it gestured toward the mask. “The Doomseeker must seek the truth, though we betide you when you find it. The Doomseeker is called the Doomseeker for a reason.”
“You speak like a Dragon,” Katamari replied with a sneer. “You have my thanks for rescuing me from Iuchiban’s Tomb, but if you have nothing further useful to offer, I ask that you return me to Rokugan.”
“Nothing useful?” Adisabah chuckled, picking between two sharp teeth with the end of its pipe. “Meat wishes information. It has information. Adisabah cannot tell meat what the jailer is, but can tell how jailer became Iuchiban.”
Katamari set the mask back on the floor, folded his arms, and waited patiently. If the rakshasa wished to tell his stories, there seemed to be no other choice but to wait.
“Iuchiban is not a real name,” Adisabah said. “Men like Iuchiban hide their names away so that others cannot gain power over them. But these names can be found by the wise& Iuchiban was Jama, once. Hantei Jama, brother of the Emperor.”
Katamari frowned. “Iuchiban, Fu Leng, the Steel Chrysanthemum,” he said. “It seemed the Hantei line was cursed with evil.”
“Not evil,” Adisabah said. “Merely power. There were nine and thirty Hantei Emperors, and countless more Imperial relations such as Jama. Gather nine and thirty souls in a room, see if you can find three who will wield power with justice. Your Hantei dynasty was better than most mortals can ask for, Adisabah thinks.”
“Perhaps,” Katamari replied, “but continue the story.”
“Between six and seven centuries ago, there was a mighty Hantei,” the rakshasa continued. “In his youth, this Emperor fell ill and for a few days, it seemed as if his brother, Jama, would take the throne. Favors and luxuries were heaped upon Jama, even beyond those normally reserved only for a prince of the Empire. Jama tasted power, and found it to his liking, but that power was stolen away when his brother survived. This elder Hantei ruled the land of Rokugan, but his was not a good rule. His was a time of peace, and times of peace are always boring for samurai. Jama had no difficulty finding others like himself wicked men who resented the peace his brother had brought.”
The rakshasa pondered for a moment. “If the boy had died, what then I wonder? Would the Empire have been a better place if Jama had been given what he desired? Would he have become indolent and lazy, never forced by hardship to grow in strength? Or would he remain Iuchiban no matter what occurred? Would his ambition and lust for destruction have shone through and tainted his destiny? Adisabah thinks perhaps the latter. Adisabah thinks the Emperor did a great deed for his Empire that day merely by just surviving. This Hantei was, Adisabah thinks, one of your Empire’s greatest heroes.”
“Just because he did not die,” Katamari replied.
Adisabah laughed. “Sometimes, meat, that is the hardest thing to do.”
The wooden door rattled once suddenly, jarred by some tremendous impact. A second blow struck seconds later, shaking dust from between the boards and raining it upon the dirt floor of the darkened room. With the third blow, the ancient wood shattered. Light poured into the shadows, and several green-armored samurai rushed into the room, each wielding two swords in the Niten style. Six filed in with lightning grace, splitting down the middle and moving along both walls to fill the room. Each searched the room eagerly for signs of any enemy, but the room was empty.
A seventh man strode into the room, an iron tessen in his hand. He wore no helm; his long white hair was pulled back into a somewhat unkempt knot on the back of his head. His armor was old, but obviously well-cared for. His eyes were alert, his lips twisted in a disdainful sneer. He peered about the room, carefully noting the arrangement of the items within. “Touch nothing,” he barked. He pointed to the first two men to enter the room. “You and you, stay with me. The rest of you fall back until Iweko-sama can assess the situation.”
At his command, four of the men carefully pulled back, their eyes intently scanning the walls and floors as they departed. The two who remained looked to the older man for orders, but he merely held out his hand, palm down. They both nodded and stood their ground.
The chamber had been dug out from the earth, with dirt walls and floors. The ceiling was wooden, braced with wooden support beams. Under other circumstances, there would probably be a considerable clamor from the tea house that stood above the chamber, but now it was silent. The patrons above were being quietly escorted to the magistrate’s headquarters to await questioning.
Lengths of parchment were scattered throughout the chamber, each covered with indecipherable symbols. Glass containers sat on shelves along the walls, some empty and stained, others filled with dark fluids. The old samurai sneered in disgust and revulsion, but made no effort to investigate.
The sound of armor creaking came from the doorway. Two figures ducked through the low door and entered the room. One was a young woman with long black hair, clad in a green and gold kimono. Her eyes instantly locked upon the parchments on the wall, and she moved to study them carefully. The other was an older man with a clean shaven head. His kimono was a deep brown, the back emblazoned with the symbol of a dragon and a wolf. His hand rested comfortably on the hilt of his blade. The waiting samurai bowed deeply to the lady, showing her all the respect a lord of the Dragon Clan deserved.
“Definitely a Bloodspeaker cell, Governor,” the young daimyo said, studying one of the scrolls attached to the wall. “I am sure the Kuni may find this interesting from an academic perspective, but I think it has been abandoned too long to yield any clues as to their current whereabouts.”
“I feared this would happen, Shokan-sama,” he said, scratching the back of his neck.
The Dragon samurai sighed. “How often have I told you not to call me sama, Saigorei?”
The ronin shrugged, as if unconcerned with the question. He looked about at the chamber once more, anger evident on his face. “The Bloodspeakers seem to have spies everywhere. We can hardly move against them without them knowing well in advance.”
“Then we must learn to move more swiftly,” Shokan said. “Do you see anything else, Iweko?”
The young Kitsuki said nothing at first, carefully looking all throughout the chamber. She carefully looked at each of the parchments, lifting them delicately with a chopstick to examine the other side. She examined the glass containers without touching them, wiping away the dust with a cloth. She even studied the surface of the beams that supported the ceiling. Finally, she stood in the center of the room and folded her arms in his sleeves. “Tell me again how you discovered this place, Saigorei-san.”
Saigorei nodded. “Members of the Wolf Legion found a body in the woods while patrolling near the Phoenix border,” he explained. “One of my men recognized him as a resident of the city, and they arranged for the body to be transported back. At Shokan-sama’s direction, we investigated the matter. The dead man’s family reported that he had only recently begun attending this tea house. Upon further investigation, we discovered a handful of odd disappearances or deaths from patrons of the same house over the past ten years. The connection was always subtle, but apparent if one chose to look deeply enough.”
Iweko nodded. “And the Kitsuki records have no mention of bodies or anything of that nature discovered in this place before?”
“No,” Saigorei confirmed. “There have been unexplained deaths due to strange illness, and men who have just disappeared, many of whom were travelers, assumed to have moved on at the time. There was nothing to tie the victims together save their patronage here. This was the first local victim to die unexpectedly, thus it drew attention.”
Shokan scowled. “This place could have gone undiscovered for another ten years. Fortunate for us that the Bloodspeakers made this error”
“No,” Iweko said firmly. “Forgive me, my lord, but this was no error.”
Shokan frowned. “Explain, please.”
Iweko gestured to the room at large. “This room has been abandoned for at least three weeks, several days before the body was found. The parchments hanging on the wall are no older than that, although there were parchments hanging in those positions long before that. They were replaced with these when the room was abandoned.” She looked back to his lord and inclined his head respectfully. “The Bloodspeakers made a purposeful, calculated error. Whoever was here wanted you to find this room. Further, I think it was no coincidence that this mystery happened to occur at the same time I chose to visit Heibeisu.”
“Why?” demanded Saigorei. “If there are men and women practicing blood magic in Heibeisu, why would they permit us to learn of it when they know that we will never stop hunting them?”
“Arrogance, perhaps,” Iweko said, glancing about the room, “or a distraction while they compose darker schemes elsewhere.”
“They should have remained under their rock,” Saigorei insisted vehemently. “They will not escape the Wolf Legion.”
Shokan withdrew a folded fan from his obi and tapped it against his chin thoughtfully. “When do you reveal your hand to an enemy, Saigorei?”
“Never,” the ronin replied confidently.
Shokan smiled slightly. “When does a poor commander tip their hand to an enemy?”
The old ronin considered the matter. “Immediately before a new attack. I have seen inexperienced generals do such things in a failed attempt to make their opponents doubt themselves, or to gloat.” He shook his head. “It is a waste of energy, and leads to failure when the enemy is competent enough to see through the facade.”
“Then let us hope this is much the same,” Iweko said. “I charge you to continue the investigation, Saigorei-san. Take half the Dragon bushi who accompanied us and scour the village for clues. I must take what we have and report to Rosanjin-sama immediately. If this is the precursor to an attack of some sort, then my duty is clear.” He turned to the Shokan. “I would be pleased if you would accompany me as well, Shokan-sama. I would feel safer with your swords at my side.”
Shoken bowed curtly, acknowledging the Kitsuki’s faith in him. “I wish you the best of luck, Saigorei-san,” he said as they turned to leave. “Though I hope you will not need luck.”
Iweko departed the chamber and Shokan followed, turning only at the door of the chamber. “I have been charged with caring for this city, my friends. I will not have this poison among our people. Once this investigation is finished, fill this chamber with dirt and have the tea house destroyed. This lot shall stand empty until we discover those who created it.”
“As you wish, my lord,” Saigorei said with another bow.
The governor of Heibeisu nodded, his features suddenly very tired and saddened. He stepped through the door and back into the light without another word.
Shiro Mirumoto was not among the Empire’s most beautiful castles. The words best used when describing it were functional’ or perhaps utilitarian.’ A great Crane poet, upon traveling to the remote castle, once called it “the least impressive reward for the most difficult mountain climb in all of Rokugan.” Since that time, few have disagreed with the famous Doji’s assessment, even among the Mirumoto.
To Mirumoto Rosanjin, the castle was home. He had never found it uninviting, but then he was rarely able to stay and enjoy it for more than a few weeks at a time. His frequent duties on behalf of his lord Togashi Satsu, his duties at the Emperor’s court, his supervision of the Dragon armies, and the seemingly endless string of tasks that were required in governing the clan’s largest family called him away for long periods of time regardless of the season.
As Rosanjin stood in the castle’s meager audience chamber, he looked at the katana that rested upon the wall in a place of honor above the daimyo’s seat. The blade had been carried by Rosanjin’s predecessor – Mirumoto Uso – murdered years ago by an as yet unknown assassin. Rosanjin’s first duty as Mirumoto daimyo had been given to him by Satsu: find the assassin. Years later, he had still discovered nothing. The assassin had appeared, murdered Uso, and disappeared into the night. The weight of failure grew greater with each passing day.
“Rosanjin-sama?” called out a voice. Rosanjin turned back to the others assembled in the chamber. Kitsuki Tadashi was looking at him expectantly. “Forgive me, my lord, but we must finish the discussion if I am to make my appointment at the coast.”
The daimyo nodded and privately wondered how Uso had always managed to seem so calm and centered. Rosanjin had no head for politics his soul yearned for the battlefield. “Yes, the coast. My apologies, Tadashi. I had forgotten your commitment to the Ningyo.”
“Yes, my lord,” the Kitsuki courtier smiled. “Our trade with them thus far has proven very interesting, and I suspect our discussions have reached the stage where we can finally discover more information on their mystical practices. It would be a great boon to our limited trade along the coast. If we fail to meet at our annual appointment, however, I cannot predict how the Ningyo king might perceive it.”
“Of course,” Rosanjin said with a wave. “Let us proceed.”
“As you wish,” Tadashi said with a respectful nod. “We were just about to discuss the overtures made by our friend Bayushi Kaukatsu. His offer to train one of our number among his personal students would be an incredible honor and would provide us with a greatly skilled representative to use in court.”
“And it would allow one of his students to join us here,” Rosanjin added. “The Scorpion are our allies, of course, but I have reservations about admitting Kaukatsu’s students unrestricted access to our home. Kaukatsu’s ambition is great, perhaps greater than his dedication to the Dragon.”
“Kaukatsu-sama has ever been our advocate and ally in court,” Tadashi insisted. “If nothing else, he is a loyal Scorpion. If Sunetra commands him to treat us as allies, we can expect his full cooperation.”
Rosanjin nodded and glanced to the others standing quietly to the side. “Tsuge?”
The surly Mirumoto frowned. “Kaukatsu carries no katana, but he is far more dangerous than any foe I’ve ever faced.” He shook his head slightly, then added, “Save one, I suppose. In any event, I believe he would perceive open trust as a sign of weakness. We should proceed with caution, whatever your decision.”
“Bah,” a voice came from the shadows along the wall. “He is weak.”
Rosanjin raised his eyebrows curiously. “Vedau?”
The massive tattooed form of Hitomi Vedau stepped into the fading afternoon light. He noisily took a bite of a rice ball while seeming to consider his words, wiping the crumbs from his fine green kimono with a thick hand. “Kaukatsu depends on others to fulfill his promises and make good on his threats. He has only what power others give him.”
Tadashi closed his eyes for a brief moment, as if pained. “It is not so simple as you imagine, Vedau-san. He is the Imperial Chancellor.”
The massive monk snorted in disgust. “The world is a simple place. It is men like Kaukatsu who pretend it is complicated, so that they will have a place.” He regarded his rice ball intently. The rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, sending a low vibration throughout the castle walls. “The Chancellor is nothing. The Chancellor’s yojimbo& now that is a man to fear.”
“Kwanchai?” Tadashi exclaimed in exasperation. “He’s a maniac.”
Vedau only tapped a tattoo of a moon on his shoulder. “I see the Fortunes’ will. Kwanchai cannot die. Not until the world is done with him.”
“Enough,” Rosanjin said wearily. “This accomplishes nothing. We will accept Kaukatsu’s offer. Such a practice served us well in repairing our relations with the Crab. It shall draw us even closer to our Scorpion allies. But we must be cautious nonetheless.”
“A wise decision,” Tadashi said, clearly pleased.
Rosanjin smiled wryly. “Your approval removes a great burden from my shoulders, my friend.” Seeing the courtier’s face fall, he shook his head. “Forgive my levity, Tadashi. There are other matters weighing on my mind.” He smiled. “Take your leave and honor our commitment to the Ningyo. All else can wait until your return.”
The courtier bowed and turned to leave. Vedau and Tsuge both bowed and followed, leaving Rosanjin alone.
An elderly servant appeared by the doorway and waited quietly for his lord’s acknowledgement. “Lady Kitsuki Iweko and Governor Mirumoto Shokan of Heibeisu await your attention, my lord,” the old man said.
“Lady Iweko,” Rosanjin said, rising to greet the young daimyo with a reserved bow, a bow between equals.
“Rosanjin-san,” Iweko replied demurely.
“And Shokan!” Rosanjin laughed suddenly. “Good to see you, my old friend. It has been too long.”
“It has,” Shokan said with a bow. “I only regret that such dire circumstances brought us here.”
Rosanjin’s smile disappeared. “Dire circumstances?”
“Hai, Rosanjin-san,” Iweko replied. “We discovered an abandoned Bloodspeaker lair, hidden beneath a teahouse in Heibeisu. There was evidence of blood magic throughout the chamber. A number of murders and disappearances seem to be connected to this teahouse.”
“Find those responsible,” Rosanjin said simply. “The Dragon Clan offers no mercy to Bloodspeakers. Shokan, I leave this in your hands.” Again, thunder pealed outside the castle.
“Of course, my lord,” Shokan replied. “But that is not all. We believe these heretics wished us to discover their lair, my lord.”
Rosanjin opened his mouth to reply, and thunder pealed again this time so loud that the daimyo was forced to wait for the sound to recede. A curious expression crossed his features. “Did you hear screams outside?” he asked softly.
The doors to the audience chamber burst inward. A pair of samurai raced in, their swords drawn. “My lord Rosanjin-sama! The sky is raining blood!”
More screams, much louder and more vigorous this time, came from the courtyard. The clash of steel on stone could be heard, and peals of manic, maddened laughter.
No one had seen Rosanjin draw his swords, but now he held one in each hand. A slow scowl spread across his features. “Who is attacking my castle?” he asked, his voice a low growl.
“Our own kinsmen,” one guard said, his face pale. “The Mirumoto turn upon each other.”
The Rain of Blood took a terrible toll on the Dragon. In every city and village, men and women fell to the corrupting touch of the blood rain. Consumed by their sins, they fell to madness, despair, and violence. Yet still there was hope.
The samurai of the Dragon Clan learned one lesson at an early age strength grows from balance. Acceptance of one’s faults is a virtue, so long as one strives always to overcome them. The strongest Dragon samurai did not fall to the Rain of Blood. The mystic order of ise zumi appeared to be entirely immune, the magic of their tattoos proving greater than Iuchiban’s maho. Under the leadership of Mirumoto Rosanjin, those who were corrupted were purged from Shiro Mirumoto before the rains had ceased to fall. The samurai of the Dragon scoured the mountains, destroying their weaker brethren or chasing them from their lands. For ten days the lands of the Dragon remained a war zone. Mirumoto bushi left no stone unturned, hunting every corrupted soul.
Then the Emperor arrived.
Emperor Toturi III entered the Mirumoto audience chamber with little fanfare, his impending arrival only having been announced a few short hours before his procession appeared at the mountain’s base. His regal green robes were in sharp contrast to the stark surroundings, although he seemed quite comfortable in the austere halls. His features were blank as he addressed the kneeling Dragon. “Mirumoto Rosanjin,” the Emperor said, his liquid voice echoing easily through the large hall. “Is your lord Togashi Satsu in attendance?”
“Satsu?” Rosanjin replied surprised by the suggestion that the Dragon Champion might be in his home.
“I am here,” answered Togashi Satsu’s voice. The tall, muscular figure of the Dragon Champion knelt before the Emperor. He did not enter the room it was merely as if he had always been there. “I apologize, my Emperor,” Satsu said. “I came as soon as I heard of your arrival.”
Rosanjin quietly wondered how his lord could possibly have heard and arrived so quickly, but had long since learned not to question the mystery that was Satsu.
“Rise, my friends,” the Emperor said. “I have arrived at this late hour because a pressing question has plagued me of late these past few days, and I can think of no counsel I would sooner have than that of the Dragon.”
“Whatever wisdom we have is yours, Son of Heaven,” Satsu said.
“I am much relieved to hear that,” the Emperor said. “I have been reflecting on history a great deal lately, assessing the service that each clan provides their Emperor. As I recall, your grandfather’s duty was to guard the Empire from that which we could not comprehend. He served in this duty for over a thousand years.”
“It is so, my lord,” Satsu agreed.
“He saw the future?” the Emperor asked.
“Not as such,” Satsu said. “He saw the past, and understood the patterns which inevitably resulted. The more he altered those patterns, the less reliable the result. Thus when he acted, it was with subtlety, lest his visions of the future be blinded forever.”
“Yet he saw the Day of Thunder,” the Emperor replied. “He knew the last Hantei would become the vessel of Fu Leng, and prepared the Thunders to fight him.”
“He did, my lord.”
“Tell me, Satsu-san,” the Emperor continued. “Do you share your grandfather’s vision?”
Satsu nodded. “His soul guides me still.”
Toturi III looked directly at Togashi Satsu, fixing his gaze with his single eye. His expression was grave, with a hint of anger. “Then tell me, Lord Dragon, why you could not protect my Empire from the Rain of Blood?”
Satsu lowered his head. “I cannot protect you from what I cannot see.”
“Satsu,” the Emperor said coldly. “I am not a man who thinks highly of magic and mysticism, but things have their uses. If your prophecy cannot prevent countless servants of the Empire from losing their souls to the darkness, then what good is it?”
“As I said, Your Highness, my power is not prophecy,” Satsu replied. “I see patterns formed by events of the past, by the dance of the elements. When these things fall into disharmony& there is only chaos.”
“The Phoenix believe that the Bloodspeakers are responsible for this,” the Emperor replied. “They tell me that only Iuchiban could release a spell of this magnitude.”
“Then now I understand why I could not see,” Satsu replied. “Fu Leng was a god bound to the fabric of the cosmos. His actions, though ruinous, could be predicted. Iuchiban’s power comes from some other source. I cannot see with accuracy nor could my grandfather.”
The Emperor’s face grew troubled. “Sezaru told me that I might find such an answer here,” he replied. “Yet the secret histories record that it was a Dragon, Yamatsu, who defeated Iuchiban once before using your grandfather’s tattoo magic.”
Satsu’s eyes shone golden. “Though the Dragon cannot see, that does not mean the Dragon cannot fight,” he replied.
The Emperor frowned. “Is that all the reassurance you can offer?”
“I can offer you this reassurance, Your Highness,” Rosanjin said impulsively, keeping his head respectfully bowed. “The armies of the Dragon are still strong. Less of our samurai fell to the rain than any clan, save perhaps the Phoenix. While chaos consumes the Unicorn, Dragon, and Crane and the Crab hold the Wall, our armies stand ready. Let us be your sword, Toturi-sama. Let us seek out those who have fallen to the blood rain, and cleanse the Empire in your name.”
“Words of reassurance are well and good,” the Emperor replied, “but cold steel is sometimes better. You have offered me both, Mirumoto Rosanjin. Ride forth and destroy our enemies with my blessing.”