Blood for Blood
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Asako provinces, month of the Rooster, year 1168
She moved easily among her true children, reaching out to caress one occasionally, or to offer water to another. It was the only true pleasure she took from life, the only real indulgence. All else, she did for a greater cause. As it should be. Still, she did make time to walk her gardens at least once per day. Even now, as summer began to give way to fall, when she had all her plants moved within the confines of the building she had constructed purely to shield them from the cold winter months, she relished the sense of nature that she gained from moving among the plants.
There was a stirring sound from the doorway. She glanced over her shoulder with an expression of mild irritation, and saw the servant standing there pale in abject terror. “I believe I have explained that I am not to be disturbed while within my garden,” she said softly.
“Forgive me, my lady,” the man rasped. “There is a guest here to see you.”
“He will wait,” she answered mildly, “both for my time in the garden to be completed, and for your punishment to be enacted.”
The man swayed as if he might collapse, but he did not shrink away. “It is one of the Masters, my lady. Asako Bairei-sama.”
Asako Kinuye turned back to the door suddenly, her expression suddenly flat and mirthless. “Do the others know?” she demanded.
“I sent Nobume to tell the others as soon as I was well outside of Bairei-sama’s hearing,” he said. “I& I apologize if that was presumptuous, but I thought.”
“No,” she said quickly. “You were right to do so, and you were right to come to find me. Bairei is the last person that should be allowed idle time here. There will be no punishment.”
Relief washed over the man in a visible wave. “What would you have me do, my lady?”
Kinuye stopped and thought for a moment. “Prepare tea,” she finally said. “A Haimaato province blend, if there is any.” She smiled. “I believe it is his favorite.”
“Forgive me for keeping you waiting, Bairei-sama.”
Asako Bairei turned from the calligraphy artwork he was admiring to smile warmly at his hostess. “Kinuye-chan,” he said. “It is wonderful to see you. I was hoping for the.” his voice trailed off. “Sama?”
“Of course,” she said, gesturing to the distinctive mon on the lapel of his kimono. “You are now the Master of Water, are you not? I feel even worse now for having taken so long to respond to your last letter.”
“Correspondence can only carry so many years,” Bairei said with a chuckle. “Eventually, one needs to see one’s friends face to face, so that the bond between them is not lost. And of course, my unexpected appointment changes nothing between us, I hope.”
“No, of course not,” she answered. “I am glad to see you, Bairei-kun, but I must admit to being surprised. I don’t recall you ever visiting without sending word in advance. You are always welcome, but I hope this visit does not indicate some sort of crisis on behalf of the Council.”
“I am afraid it does,” Bairei said grimly. “I have come to seek your counsel.”
“The Mantis?” she asked.
“No, that conflict appears to be truly at an end, at least for the foreseeable future. There are occasional skirmishes among our more& boisterous elements near the coast, but nothing of any substance, thankfully.”
“I am glad to hear that,” Kinuye said with a sigh of relief. “A dreadful war.”
“Without question,” Bairei agreed. “A divisive one, as well, and perhaps unnecessary.”
“Unnecessary?” Kinuye beckoned for the servant at the door to enter with the tea. “War is regrettable no matter the cause, but was a Black Scroll not found among the possessions of a Mantis vessel? That is what caused the war.” She took up the tray and began to pour two cups, then stopped suddenly, fixing Bairei with a curious stare. “Are you suggesting that it was a deception?” she said in a soft whisper. “That the war was for nothing?”
“As I said, perhaps,” he answered. “There is little we can know for certain.”
“But you do not believe it,” she pressed.
“No,” he confirmed. “I do not believe the Mantis are responsible.”
Kinuye returned the pot to its place on the tray, then folded her hands in her lap. “What does this mean?”
“I do not know,” Bairei admitted. “Not yet. But I soon will.”
“However I can help, you have but to ask.”
The Master of Water raised one eyebrow and smiled. “Perhaps you can answer the one question you’ve always avoided?”
Kinuye laughed suddenly. “That hardly seems important.”
“Knowledge is always important,” Bairei chuckled. “You and I are of an age, and yet you seem decades younger. You have the talents of a shugenja, but received training as a member of the henshin order. I have to admit, I have always found your talents a perplexing enigma.”
“I am a henshin,” she said, resuming the pouring of the tea. “We speak to the elements. Shugenja do much the same, simply in a different manner. Is it so difficult to believe that the two are more similar than anyone realizes?”
“It is not difficult, no,” Bairei said. “It just strikes me as odd because no one in the clan’s history seems to be able to do what you can do, and as you know I find such anomalies fascinating.”
“I am anomalous, am I?” she said with a smile. “How very flattering!”
“I meant no insult.”
She waved his comment away. “I know, old friend. I am merely enjoying a rare moment of discomfort from a man I rarely see perplexed.” She sipped at her cup. “Years ago, I shared a riddle with a particularly powerful kami of the wind. As my favor, on a whim, I asked to always look as I feel. I am more surprised than anyone that the effect has lingered as long as it has. Others may think me immodest, but in reality it was merely a moment of capriciousness rather than self-absorption.”
“Intriguing,” Bairei said, sampling the tea. “This is magnificent, by the way. An Agasha blend?”
“Of course,” she replied. “I keep some on hand in the event of such visits.”
“Now it is I who am flattered,” he said with a smile. “Tell me about the City of Tears, Kinuye.”
The monk paused with the cup halfway to her lips, the slowly lowered it back to the tray. “The City of Tears?” she asked, her expression bewildered. “I am afraid I do not understand.”
“Tell me what you know,” Bairei insisted.
“You know as much as I do.”
The Master of Water held up a hand. “Indulge me. Please.”
Kinuye frowned. “If I must,” she finally said. “The City of Tears was one of five cities that crossed over from Yomi during the Battle at Oblivion’s Gate. The spirits dwelling there died in a battle with the Goju, the minions sent by the Lying Darkness to destroy it. The city appeared as little more than a tomb. It is my understanding that the Elemental Masters received a vision of some sort, one that indicated the city was destroyed as it crossed over.”
“That is my understanding as well,” Bairei confirmed.
“But that was not the case. The city appeared deep within the forest, and was discovered sometime later. It was rebuilt, and various refugees from different battles settled there in hope of finding a new home. Unfortunately, the city seems to remember the battle that nearly destroyed it, and those who dwell there are eventually infected with a sort of inescapable sorrow. So the Council declared the city sacred and ordered those within it to vacate it immediately. Only a small order of monks is permitted to dwell there. They tend to the city’s needs, keeping it from being overrun by the forest.”
“All correct, and all exactly in keeping with what the Isawa records hold on the city,” Bairei said with a smile. It was a sad smile, however. “I must admit, though, that I expected such perfect synchronicity. You are, after all the principle author of those entries, are you not?”
Kinuye’s expression grew more drawn. “I do not understand your implication, Bairei, but I do not believe I like it.”
“Are Mirabu’s men still alive?” Bairei asked.
An expression of shock flickered across Kinuye’s features, but was almost immediately replaced by a moment of exasperation and then, finally, a somewhat condescending smirk. “It is so rare that you ask a question to which you do not already know the answer, Bairei. Can you not guess this one?”
Bairei shook his head sadly. “Why? Why would you do this?”
“I have done exactly this manner of thing my entire life,” she answered with disdain. “I have done what must be done in order for the Phoenix to survive, to flourish. For all your gifts, Bairei, you are ultimately a bookish weakling. With men such as you and that pitiable fool Nakamuro guiding the Council, the Phoenix need strength such as mine more than ever.” She shook her head. “I weep for your weakness, Bairei. I am curious, however.”
“It was regrettably obvious,” Bairei said. “You were among those who first investigated the city after it was rediscovered all those years ago. Yours was the firsthand account that was entered into the Isawa records. The others who participated in the initial surveys are either dead or students of yours. You are the abbot of the order tasked with tending to the city, a task you convinced the Asako leaders was necessary. You are intimately tied to the city in every way. There was little other conclusion to be drawn.”
“A weak foundation upon which to base so grandiose a conclusion,” Kinuye answered. “Still, that has always been your talent. To see beyond the perceptions of others. You could have been majestic, old friend. You could have been a true Chosen Phoenix.”
“It is over, Kinuye,” Bairei said quietly.
“It certainly is,” she retorted. “The tea should be taking effect now.”
Bairei looked at her, then at his cup, and attempted to stand. It was a clumsy, lumbering attempt that rattled the table and left him swaying on his feet. “Surrender and accept the Council’s judgment,” he slurred. “I have no wish for violence.”
“Of course you don’t,” she sneered. “Enter.”
Two men in brilliant robes entered the chamber. Kinuye turned to them. “We must ensure that he is not discovered. Find out what route he took to reach this place, and whom, if anyone, he spoke to along the way. We will have to.”
“My lady!” one of the men screamed, and slammed into her with his full weight, knocking her to the ground. Even as he did so, a shimmering bo of water shattered against his chest. The impact did not appear significant, no more perhaps than a cup of water thrown against a man’s chest. The sound, however, was one of a great wave breaking on the rocks, and the man was hurled back across the room with such force that the wooden wall shattered when he struck it.
“How?” Kinuye demanded.
“You are a gifted gardener,” Bairei said. “I have been taking a number of curatives herbs for days during my travels here. I thought it best to be prepared.” Another shimmering bo had appeared in his hand. Although it looked like wood, the grain on the surface swirled and mixed like water. “Please, surrender now.”
“Seiga, see to the others.” Kinuye turned to face her former friend. “Perhaps I misjudged you, Bairei. Does that soft, flimsy exterior hide steel somewhere beneath? Perhaps we will see.” Her face changed, becoming radiantly sinister, her features twisting and drawing to reflect her true age. “Now you will appreciate the enormity of your folly!”
“We shall see,” Bairei said sadly. Even as Kinuye summoned a rolling wave of sickly green fire, the Master of Water summoned an eruption of water and steam from the hot springs far below Kinuye’s home, tearing through stone and wood to explode into the room. The two met with a thunderous hiss and thick, choking cloud of smoke.
Within moments, the brilliance from the battle was visible throughout the night sky for a mile.
Kyuden Isawa, six hours later
The audience chamber of Kyuden Isawa was far smaller than one might expect for a palace of such size. The Isawa were an ancient and prestigious line, and had no shortage of guests who wished to call upon them for any number of reasons. The Isawa, however, rarely had time for such activities, regarding them as frivolities that distracted from what was clearly more important work elsewhere. The majority of guests in the Phoenix lands were directed to the more hospitable Asako or to the diplomatic headquarters in the city of Nikesake to the south. At any given time other than during winter court, there were fewer than a dozen guests in the Isawa family estate, and thus the audience chamber rarely saw heavy use.
The intricate wooden doors swung open suddenly, and a strange pair entered. One was a tiny woman clad in brilliant orange and yellow. The other was a man almost literally twice her size, and both bore a dark expression. The woman cast about the chamber, looking for something. “Where is he?” she asked.
A young man with long, flowing black hair stepped forward. “Be at ease, Ochiai-san. Ningen is tending to him.”
Isawa Ochiai nodded. “I need to see him,” the Master of Fire insisted.
“No,” Isawa Emori said firmly. “That would be& unnecessary.”
“That is not your decision,” the massive man rumbled.
“Masakazu,” Ochiai said, holding up a hand to silence her yojimbo. “I wish to see him, Emori. I am strong enough to handle the sight of his wounds, however terrible they may be.”
“I do not doubt that,” the Master of Earth replied. “Not in the least. However, yours is a compassionate heart, and we need your leadership now. We cannot afford for you to be distracted by your empathy for his suffering, or worse, allow your anger to influence you. If you made a decision to act against our enemies in haste, it would haunt you for the rest of your days. You know this.”
Ochiai frowned and looked down. She paused, but nodded. “Very well,” she said. “How serious are his wounds?”
“They are& significant,” Emori answered.
“Not so much as they appear.” Shiba Ningen appeared from the side chamber, wiping his hands with a damp cloth and handing it almost unconsciously to a servant. “His influence with the water kami is strong indeed. He is healing already, although it will be some time before he is himself once more.”
Ochiai was visibly relieved. “What happened?”
Emori shook his head. “It is hard to say. As you know, he departed a short time ago to speak to an old acquaintance regarding the City of Tears. Thus far we do not know what has happened.”
“Something terrible,” Ningen said. “I can sense the aftermath to the north, in the Asako lands.”
“I was here when he arrived,” Emori said. “He confirmed that Asako Kinuye is involved in some way.”
“Is she dead?” Ochiai asked.
“Unlikely,” Ningen answered. “She has always been something of an enigma. Strangely inscrutable, even to me. I assumed it was a function of her training with the henshin, but perhaps I have been mistaken. Still, if she had perished, I feel confident I could sense it. I have not.”
“If Bairei’s suspicions were correct, then Kinuye may well have withdrawn to the City of Tears. If that is in fact the stronghold of the traitors in our midst, then she is surely their leader.” Ochiai frowned. “We must move at once, or we risk losing them forever.”
“I will go,” Ningen said. “I will end this.”
“No,” Ochiai said at once. “You alone can tend to Bairei’s wounds.”
“What?” Ningen demanded. “Do not be ridiculous. I am no healer.”
“No, but if he faced a Bloodspeaker in battle, then there may yet be a threat that has not manifested. You alone can perceive it and combat it before it becomes an irreversible condition.”
Ningen frowned, but inclined his head in deference. “As you wish.”
“I will go,” Emori said.
“I lead the Council,” Ochiai said. “It is my place.”
“You are the spirit of the Phoenix,” Emori said. “You have vowed never to take a life. I have made no such vow. I will accompany the Shiba.”
“And what will you do if you find our foes, Emori?” Ningen asked.
The Master of Earth smiled. “I will see to it that the City of Tears becomes a tomb.”
Outside the City of Tears, three days later
All in all, it was impressive the size force that the Shiba could muster and march at a moment’s notice. Shiba Mirabu had quickly organized an entire legion and placed it under the command of one Shiba Tsukimi, a veteran of the Battle of Gisei Toshi and the War of Fire and Thunder. Her bearing was that of a consummate warrior, and Emori had placed his trust in her instinctively. It did not hurt that she was also scandalously attractive, but the Master of Earth was not fool enough to attempt to seduce her. A man could be seriously injured in that way, he imagined.
Before he had left Kyuden Isawa, Ochiai had pulled him aside and instructed him to be cautious. “Of course,” he had casually replied. “I cannot afford to be wounded. Scars would hardly aid me in courting you, after all.”
“Stop it,” she had admonished, her tone severe. “Why must you always play the fool?”
He raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that I am merely playing?”
In retrospect, it had not been his most charming rebuttal, but he had been genuinely surprised to see anything approaching real concern from her. Still, that was not something he could afford to dwell on right now. The City of Tears was nearby, and the increasing sense of nausea he had felt as they approached was not a good sign. “Tsukimi-san,” he called out.
The commander turned to regard him impassively. “Yes?”
“Bring your men to a halt, and assume a defensive formation.”
The Shiba officer was clearly irritated at the notion of following an Isawa’s commands in battle, but did as he instructed without hesitation. As her men took their positions, Emori scanned the forest and the city that laid in the distance. He called on the kami to aid him in perceiving his foe, and after a moment he saw the constant flickering of deep shadows among the trees and outer buildings. Shadows that moved despite the bright sunlight.
“Goju,” Emori whispered. The city had been besieged by the spirits decades ago, and the Phoenix had believed them destroyed. Perhaps they had been, and the Bloodspeakers had somehow summoned them again, but he found it much more likely that the damnable cultists had bound the creatures to their will and hidden them away somehow. And now, they were being unleashed upon the Phoenix. “Tsukimi, are your men trained in yarijutsu?”
“Of course,” she answered at once. “Why?”
Emori did not respond, but knelt and placed both hands on the forest floor. He closed his eyes and concentrated, summoning every ounce of power. He reached deep, deep within the earth in search of his prize. When he found it, he pulled it toward him, shaping it and twisting it to suit his needs.
There was a rumbling, and a great outcropping of crystal erupted from the ground immediately in front of the Shiba formation. They did not waver, but looked back to Tsukimi, who in turn looked at Emori with a puzzled expression. “The thin spikes,” he said, pointing to the outcropping. “The front line will need them. Hurry!”
Tsukimi barked an order and the Shiba moved at once. The spines were broken off and wielded as spears, if odd spears. They held them at the ready, and thus were prepared when, only moments later, a reckless wave of shadowy opponents emerged from the city and forest and rushed toward them in an ungainly swarm. The spirits wailed in a terrible cacophony that seemed to gnaw at one’s eyes and ears, but again the Shiba did not waver. As the resurrected Goju washed over them, they counterattacked with Emori’s impromptu weapons, enacting a terrible toll on their attackers. Emori grinned fiercely to see it.
A sudden explosion of black strangely-hued elemental fire from the city leapt into the air and t hen rained down on the Shiba ranks. Emori could hear screams as an entire squadron of men were seared to bone by the profane energy. The Master of Earth snarled and threw his hands up, summoning the power of the earth kami to counteract their foul kansen counterparts. He was delighted to find the spirits so willing. “Tsukimi!” he roared. “I can hold their maho in check, but not for very long! And I can do almost nothing in the meantime! It will be up to you and your men to finish this as fast as you can!”
Unbelievably, the woman smiled. “Rest assured, Master Emori, the strain of your task will be shorter than you imagined.” She turned and shouted for the Shiba to charge, and they answered her order with a fearsome battle cry of their own.
Emori grinned fiercely as the Shiba rushed forward. As Master of Earth, he could feel the Taint like a thorn in his side. It was an offense to everything he was, everything he believed, and he would see it crushed from the Phoenix ranks if it cost him his very life.
Isawa Emori’s will was unwavering as the Shiba fell upon the Bloodspeakers.
Isawa Seiga grimaced as sat down in the house’s meager central chamber. He paid little attention to the corpses of its previous occupants; his chosen lifestyle had long since rendered him immune to the horror of death. He gingerly tested the bandage that covered his arm and shoulder, wincing at the discomfort. With his uninjured arm, he lifted a bowl of rice and ate quickly, surprised to discover how hungry he was.
“Your arm will heal soon enough,” Kinuye’s voice said, drifting in from the other room. “Leave the dressing be.”
“Yes, my lady,” Seiga said reflexively. He swallowed a mouthful of rice. “What would you have us do now, Kinuye-sama?”
“Our work is not yet finished,” she answered. “We must conduct a few more attacks here and there, allow our less important assets to be destroyed. Otherwise they will never believe their victory is genuine.”
“We will be staying, then,” he said.
“Only for a short time,” Kinuye answered, emerging from the adjoining room. She wiped what appeared to be bloody soil from her hands. “Only long enough for them to be certain we are dead. The Phoenix Clan to which I am loyal no longer exists, and I will waste no more of my time in this tomb, with the souls of the dead that feign at being alive.”
“What tremendous good fortune,” a new voice said suddenly. Seiga was on his feet in an instant, tearing at the bandage on his arm and muttering an incantation to bring the kansen. From nowhere, a hand jutted out from the shadows and seized his throat, crushing the breath from it. He floundered, attempting to draw a breath and flailing at his unseen assailant. Another hand reached out and seized the wounded arm, wrenching it at a terrible angle with an audible snapping sound.
“Enough,” Kinuye ordered. “Release my vassal at once.”
“If you insist.” Seiga was deposited on the floor ungraciously, gasping desperately for breath and trying to move his shattered arm. “I meant no offense. I am a tremendous admirer of your work, lady. If you are abandoning your anachronistic interest in this northern wasteland, then I would be delighted to offer you the opportunity to continue your work alongside me.”
“Interesting,” Kinuye mused. “And with whom exactly would I be working?”
A muscular form, emblazoned with sinister markings, appeared from the shadows. “How rude of me,” he said with an unholy smile. “I am Kokujin, lady Kinuye. Some call me the Dark Prophet. I had hoped you might call me& a friend.”
Kinuye smiled in return. “Perhaps,” she said. “Won’t you join me? We can discuss your offer as we walk through my admittedly limited garden. I hope to expand it soon.”
Kokujin’s smile grew broader. “But of course.”