By Rusty Priske, Brian Yoon, & Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Shosuro Toson took one last look over the parchment that lay before him. Concern was etched across his face and he rubbed the bridge of his nose, marked with a ridge from where his mask sat a little tightly. He preferred the way it fit, as it reminded him at all times of the duty that the mask brought with it.
Toson picked up the paper and held it briefly above a candle perched on the table. In a moment it was ash. The Scorpion retrieved another piece of paper that he folded into a makeshift envelope. He then carefully swept every mark of the now destroyed paper into the envelope, sealed it, and placed it into a small box beneath the table.
Toson turned his head slightly, as if listening to something. He then retrieved his mask and carefully donned it, smoothing the long hair down the back of his head. When he finished he stood quietly, looking at the sliding door to the chamber.
In mere seconds there was a light scratching on the door. “Enter.”
The door slid open and Shosuro Mikado stepped through, sliding the door closed behind her. She took a few steps into the chamber and bowed, deeply. Toson returned the bow, but only as a sight inclination of his body.
“I have an assignment for you, Mikado-san.”
Mikado bowed again. “I am as ever at your service, Toson-sama.”
“Some time ago, prior to the difficulty with the god-beast, a small group of Scorpion, led by Soshi Idaurin, engaged with one of the Destroyers. All were slain, including the Destroyer. You are to investigate the incident and follow what you find, wherever it leads.”
Mikado tried to read her daimyo, but as always, it was impossible. “Certainly, Toson-sama, but as always, information is both a tool and a goal. I am certain that I could uncover everything I need to know, as my training in such matters has been quite thorough. However, we could save some time. Is there information that is already known? My investigation will be more efficient if I do not repeat previous efforts.”
Toson was accustomed to Mikado’s manner of speech so he said nothing for a moment before saying a single word. “Ask.”
Mikado nodded. “You said they were killed by a Destroyer, who also died. It is the norm of late that the death of these beasts is a desired goal in of itself. Also, it seems that these Destroyers also think the same of us. The fact that these parties fought, resulting in their ends, should not surprise anyone, which tells me there is something missing in the narration of the event.”
“The attack may not have been a random encounter. One of the things I need you to investigate is whether the Destroyer was actually seeking out Idaurin’s group.”
Mikado thought for a moment before unleashing more verbiage. “Then there needs to be a reason why you would suspect such a thing. For all of her skills and strengths, Idaurin on her own was no specific threat to the cause of Kali-ma or the Destroyers. If it were her skills with the kami that the Destroyer was targeting, then it would have been another, someone like Yogo Reiko for example, who should be considered the greater threat. Still, it was a group – not just Idaurin – that was attacked. Who else was in her group?”
“That information will be provided, but perhaps I can take us forward a few steps. I believe that they were targeted due to an item in their possession. It was being transported under my orders and I wish to discover if the Destroyers knew they had it. I need to know if we have an information leak or if the Destroyers were able to sense the item somehow.”
Mikado nodded and thought again. Then she said, “And what was this item?”
Toson shook his head. “That information will not be available to you. In addition, if you are able to uncover what the item is, I need you to report to me how you found out. This is not information that should be available.”
Mikado frowned slightly. “Understanding motivations without knowing what the target of those motivations is can be difficult, but not impossible. Is there a way for me to examine the item without its nature being revealed?”
Toson shook his head. “That is the second part of your assignment. The item vanished from the site of the attack. You are to find out who took it. You should not attempt to apprehend the party, not should you attempt to retrieve the item. Just confirm where it is and report back.”
“An attack with no survivors somehow still has someone claim the spoils of the attack. Possibilities are that there was a survivor who was previously unknown to you, someone observed the conflict, or someone came on site following the attack. If it is the latter then we need to know if that person or persons came on the site intentionally or through coincidence.”
“There is no coincidence.”
Mikado nods. “Just so. Might I visit the site? Or might I view the others items recovered from the site?”
Toson smiled underneath the mask. “You sound like a Kitsuki.”
“Your rebuke is duly noted. With no witnesses there can be no testimony. I do not ask for evidence. I only ask for an indication of the path I need to travel. Might I offer one more observation, Toson-sama?”
“While I appreciate the confidence you have shown, it seems that this task is important. Why only me? Why not a magistrate?”
“That will be all, Mikado-san. If you have any further requirements, address them directly to me.”
* * *
Shosuro Mikado sat in the center of the items recovered from the attack site. She spread them out around her so she could see them all individually, though she would sometimes move them around so she could see certain combinations of them at certain times. She ran her fingers across certain items, turning them over and back. At times she even seemed to be listening to them, as if they had secret messages to convey.
Finally she leaned down and pressed her face against a scrap of cloth from the site. She recognized it as belonging to Bayushi Minoru – one of the slain.
She sat up and pondered for a second. A look of surprise crossed her features before she spoke a single name, quietly.
* * * * * * * * * *
“There is nothing we can do for the moment,” Matsu Misato said quietly. She placed a hand on the damning characters on her scroll. “The numbers are simply against us and we cannot rely on a frontal assault to destroy that entire force.”
“This is madness,” Ikoma Toruken snarled. He placed his hands behind his head and began to pace in place. The room quieted down. Matsu Misato placed her scroll down back onto the table, and Matsu Mikura leaned back against the wall and studied the Ikoma. Toruken stopped in place and took a deep breath. After a moment, he nodded and looked up at the shireikan.
“Forgive me. I spoke out of place.” Ikoma Toruken continued.
Misato simply looked away, choosing to leave his emotional outburst. “Most of our forces are stationed elsewhere. The bulk of our forces are with Shigetoshi-sama, fighting the Destroyer advance in the south. Another large regiment travels with the Shogun, as backup for his dealings.”
“No one said that being the Right Hand of the Emperor is an easy task,” Matsu Mikura quipped. “If it were, the Crane Clan would have manipulated their way into the position centuries ago.”
The joke drew a chuckle from Misato, but Toruken simply looked uncomfortable at the digs against their current allies. “So what can we do?” he asked, bringing the conversation back on topic.
“There is very little we can do,” Misato replied. “The messengers are already on their way to the other castles.”
“Good,” Toruken replied. “I continue to overstep my bounds, Misato-sama, but when can we expect reinforcements?”
“If the size of the incursion is as big as you say, it will be some time before we have enough force to destroy them outright. Winter is coming,” Misato said. “There is nothing more I want than to destroy them in fire and blood, but there is no point in throwing lives away.”
“The season will slow these creatures down, but it won’t stop their march,” Toruken murmured. “They will continue to ravage the countryside for as long as they remain unchecked.”
Matsu Mikura smiled brightly and stepped forward. “I have the perfect solution in mind.”
* * *
The night breeze washed over the village, biting sharply into her exposed face. Mikura did not care. Her chapped lips curled into a feral smile as she grasped the grip of her spear in anticipation. The bulk of the units stationed at the castle had marched forward under Misato’s orders, leaving only a fragment at home. The army waited upwind of Aichi behind a dense line of trees for the upcoming assault, and Mikura stood at its head.
She had spent last year among the Mantis. It had been a frustrating series of answering with diplomatic platitudes, covering her emotions and biting her tongue. It was a relief to be back with her Clan and a comfort to be finally doing what she loved. The fact that she may very well die in the attempt only heightened her appreciation of the moment. The urge to enter combat was nearly overwhelming, but Mikura only fidgeted in place. The Matsu yearning for righteous battle within her was tempered by an equally fierce devotion to duty. She would begin to fight only at a time of her commander’s choosing.
“Mikura-san,” her commander called. Her voice was barely above a whisper. Mikura looked up and quickly ran to her commander’s side.
“Toruken-san’s signal will come when the time is right,” Misato continued in the same tone. “Stop fretting. The ashigaru will get nervous.”
“I’m sorry, Misato-sama,” Mikura replied and bowed her head. “I will keep my emotions in check.”
A small smile crossed Misato’s lips. “I understand how you feel, Mikura. Even I can feel the anticipation in the air. Taking the field against the enemy will raise morale, even if it means we must deal with these abominations. The boost is exactly what we need right now. If these numbers are correct, we have a long, difficult war ahead of us.”
Mikura bowed once more and took her place among her sisters. Time passed slowly. The chill had robbed her of all feeling in her face, and she was idly wondering if her opponents were hindered by the weather when the sound of a humming bulb shattered the night calm. The arrow flew into the air from the direction of the village, and the entire army watched it with the eagerness of a predator hovering over the den of its prey.
Misato jumped onto her steed with one fluid motion and pulled her yumi into her hands. “The time is now!” she bellowed. She spurred her horse forward and flew toward the nearby village.
Mikura released a battle shout at the top of her lungs and rushed forward behind her commander. She caught sight of the enemy forces swarming the village. Her breath caught in her throat and her eyes widened. As one, the front line slowed to a shocked walk. The Lion had known what they would face but the reality was shocking. The undead creatures were everywhere. They were rotting, evil, and the antithesis of everything she held dear. The zombies seemed to stretch far beyond the village, far outnumbering the Lion who had taken the field. Their slow, inexorable march seemed menacing under the moonlight.
Toruken and his Wardens sped toward the approaching Lion army, easily outpacing the zombies behind them. As they reached the front lines, they slowed their steeds and turned to face the enemy. “Form up lines and prepare the charge!” Toruken yelled. “These mindless creatures have split away from the rest of their army! We can defeat them! For the honor of the Lion Clan!”
A rain of arrows flew above the Lion’s heads as if to punctuate his words. Misato and her group of archers immediately reached for a second volley. They were few, as Matsu doctrine taught samurai to crush their foes hand-to-hand, but the tactical benefit was immeasurable. Already the undead at the front of the procession were riddled with arrows and were falling to the ground.
Mikura’s fingers turned white as she squeezed the handle of her spear. She lowered the blade to face the Tainted creatures. She released her breath and let out an earsplitting kiai.
She charged, and her sisters charged with her.
* * * * * * * * * *
Despite that the thick tent and the small fire that was kept burning, the piercing cold of the harsh winter season filled the interior of the chamber. Utaku Yu-Pan struggled not to notice, but she could not suppress the periodic shivers that wracked her frame and threatened to ruin her letter. She set the brush aside and held her writing hand nearer to the flame for a moment, then picked up the brush and resumed. Fatigue gnawed at her, as it had for days, weeks, months so long she honestly could no longer recall the feeling of being without exhaustions. The characters seemed to swim before her eyes, and Yu-Pan reached for the lantern to bring it closer.
She understood why even as her head turned reflexively toward the lantern. Her left arm reached out toward it, but fell sickeningly short. The arm below the elbow simply was not there. There was merely a stump, wrapped tightly in bandages that had been treated with some herbal remedy the shugenja had prepared earlier in the day.
Yu-Pan stared at her arm, what remained of it, for a moment, then her features twisted into a mask of anger even as her eyes swam with tears that she refused to allow to fall. She leapt forward and smashed the lantern with her half-arm, sending it flying across the tent where it could very well start a fire. Yu-Pan found it difficult to care.
The lantern never landed. It was plucked from the air by impossibly deft fingers, then set carefully upon another table. “Despair ill becomes you, daughter of Utaku.”
Yu-Pan stared blankly at the other woman for a moment. “I have heard of your random appearances throughout the camp,” she said finally. “Do you find it difficult to balance inspiring and unsettling? I would imagine so. And regardless, what do you know of despair? What does any celestial being know if it? What have you lost that makes you so wise?”
Matsu Benika lifted her hand and stared at the jade there almost absently. “There are things that I have lost,” she said softly. “Perhaps more than you think.”
“Yes, by all means, preach to me of your losses,” Yu-Pan snarled. “Reassure me that the burden you carry is terrible indeed.”
“That is not the purpose of my presence here,” Benika said.
“Enlighten me, then,” Yu-Pan said darkly.
“You are a leader of men, perhaps the highest ranking woman in the entire Empire’s military. You have suffered a terrible loss, no one will question that. It is now, in the weeks and months following such grievous injury, that your measure will be taken by those who look to you for leadership. What message will you send them?”
Yu-Pan stared at her incredulously. “You came here to question my leadership? To doubt the face I set before my men? And why? Because I grew angry and threw a lantern?”
Benika hesitated. “It seemed prudent to ensure”
“Do you visit Benjiro every time he breaks something?” she demanded. “No, I suppose not. Otherwise you would be there all the time.”
“There are many differences between you and Hida Benjiro,” Benika said. “I think you understand that very well.”
“To be held to a different standard than a man,” Yu-Pan said with a derisive sneer. “I would have expected better than that of you, of all people.”
“You may twist my words to serve whatever purpose you wish,” Benika said, “but in your heart you understand their truth.” She paused. “I can assist you with the loss of your arm, if that is your wish.”
Yu-Pan looked up sharply. “What do you mean?”
“I am blessed by the Jade Sun, and to some extent I am permitted to share that blessing with others who are worthy. You are worthy. I can share the blessing with you to alleviate your loss, if that is what you wish.” She paused. “There are costs.”
Yu-Pan sat quietly for several minutes. “Do you remember the one time we met, before all this? It was during the Khan’s march, somewhere in the Ikoma provinces, I think.” She shook her head. “Despite the cold and the confusion, you danced across the battlefield with those big cats of yours like something out of a play. You were a nightmare made flesh, laughing and killing everything in your path. You were so full of life.” She tilted her head to the side. “Are you the same woman?”
Benika hesitated. “I do not know.”
“Then the answer is no,” Yu-Pan said sharply. “I am sworn to serve the Empress and my Khan, and I will do so without reservation or regret. If I accept your blessing, will I be forced to hold something in reserve? Will I be able to commit myself fully without concern for whatever laws govern your behavior? I will do no such thing. Power I might gain, but at the cost of my duty?” She shook her head. “Never.”
Benika smiled slightly. “Very good, then. I will bid you good night.”