Gift Freely Given
by Shawn Carman
Tsuruchi Okame stepped easily from the deck of the kobune onto the dock, grateful for the feel of solid ground beneath his feet once more. He had long ago become accustomed to the rigors of travel by sea, but though he could endure it he would never truly feel comfortable with it. The Yoritomo seemed perfectly at home upon the sea, but in Okame’s eyes the vessels they used were exceedingly fragile, like eggshells cast into a stream.
“Every time we leave the sea,” a gruff voice behind Okame spoke, “you look as if you will kiss the ground and thank the kami for your safe return. But I suppose I should expect as much from one so young.” Okame turned to face a much older man clad in the red robes of the Moshi family, a well-worn scroll satchel hanging naturally from one hip. The young bounty hunter arched an eyebrow.
“Perhaps,” he retorted, “I am simply young enough to remember that I am still alive.”
The shugenja snorted. “Crawling through the forests of the Empire in search of long-forgotten fugitives? I am not so certain that qualifies as a fulfilling life, Okame-san. Why you and I have been paired together I cannot imagine, but I am certain it is a punishment for some heinous crime I committed in a past life.”
Okame grinned broadly. Moshi Gohiro was most cantankerous and complaint-prone individual he had ever encountered, yet somehow the two had become great friends. Not that the old shugenja would ever admit such a thing, of course. He seemed to communicate entirely through gruff complaints. Still, there was no denying that the two made an effective team.
Together, they had spent over a month combing the Empire with the seemingly impossible task of locating a single ronin based on an account of his exploits at the Battle of Oblivion’s Gate. Somehow, they pulled it off. And now, as per their assignment, they returned with him to the Islands of Silk and Spice.
Close behind Gohiro, the old ronin Tsodai departed the kobune. Though even older than Gohiro, Tsodai was almost the complete opposite of the Moshi. The wave man had spoken barely a single word the entire journey, consenting to accompany Okame for reasons the young hunter could not begin to understand. Upon locating the ronin, Okame’s instructions had simply been to hand over a sealed scroll and await a response. The ronin had taken the scroll in slowly, thought for a time, then nodded. “I am to accompany you to your lord,” was all he had said. Okame had not heard him speak since.
Okame turned to his two companions. “Come,” he said. “We must make ourselves presentable before going before Komori-sama:”
It watched from the shadows as the three men left the docks and walked toward one of the nicer inns within the port town. So long it had lurked in this pitiful cesspool of a town, desperately seeking a suitable soul. The men here were rugged, independent, and completely devoid of any true substance.
But these three! So much conflict within them! So many desires and regrets! They would be of great use to it. With them, perhaps it could find that which so far eluded it. Somewhere on this island was a soul in pain, divided against itself. Settozai could sense it, but not locate it. Now, perhaps, the means by which it would find the truth behind the power arrived. Planting the seeds would be so easy.
Unseen by mortal eyes, it moved through the shadows in pursuit of the three travelers
With a hot bath and clean clothes, Okame felt the stress of the long voyage melt away. He was refreshed, fulfilled in the completion of another assignment. Already, his mind turned to the next challenge. Would Komori have another impossible quarry for him to seek out? He could only hope. The soul of a samurai thrived on challenge set by one’s lord.
With a slight frown, Okame regarded the wakizashi that set upon the stand in his chamber. When abroad, he often chose not to wear the blade. In his mind, he was not truly a member of the Mantis Clan. He had been born and would ever remain a Wasp. And like his first lord Tsuruchi, long since retired, a true Wasp did not believe in the status imparted by a piece of steel.
A man’s actions were the only measure that mattered.
Sighing, Okame took the blade and roughly placed it in his obi. When dealing with the Yoritomo, it was best to keep up appearances. Even, it seemed, when one’s lord was as eccentric as his own happened to be. With the distasteful weight of the blade upon his hip, Okame carefully unfolded a ribbon of black silk. Upon the ribbon, woven intricately with overlapping strands of yellow silk, was the mon of the Wasp Clan. Carefully, reverently, he tied the ribbon around his left arm, the arm with which he drew his bow. So long as he wore it, he would never accept that his glorious clan had all but disappeared within the Mantis.
He was born a Wasp. He would die as one.
Properly attired, prepared in mind and body, Tsuruchi Okame left his chambers to collect his companions and go before his lord.
Surprisingly, it was Tsodai who spoke first. “Yoritomo Komori lives here?” he asked, failing to keep the incredulity from his voice.
“Indeed he does,” answered Gohiro curtly. “There is no accounting for taste, I suppose.”
The three men stood before a stark monastery that overlooked the ocean. It stood well outside the city, taking nearly half the day to reach by horse. It was built upon the western coast of the island, the side most often ravaged by the great storms that the seas so often spawned. The order of monks that constructed the temple, however, were devotees of Osano-Wo. Despite the countless storms, the building remained after all others along this stretch of the coast had fallen. In time, the monastery became the lone structure for miles in every direction. The monks seemed to prefer it that way.
As he approached the gate, Okame saw two of the monastery~s brothers emerge from the door within the gate itself. Each bowed very low, a gesture of respect that Okame returned. “Tell lord Komori-sama that Tsuruchi Okame and Moshi Gohiro beg an audience with him.”
“Komori is aware of your arrival,” one stated flatly. “He awaits within.”
As they entered the monastery, Okame reflected, not for the first time, that this was an exceptionally odd arrangement. Yoritomo Komori had been one of Aramasu’s chief advisors, perhaps the most important shugenja in the entire Mantis Clan. When Aramasu died, assassinated by the treacherous Scorpion Clan, Komori had immediately shaved his head and entered the monastery. Yet somehow, he continued to contact a small handful of samurai in his service and task them to perform assignments in his name. It was an unorthodox practice, yet Okame believed the oaths he had sworn still held true. So long as Komori required his service, he would provide it.
Komori sat within a large chamber, barren of all but the most ascetic trappings of a monk. He seemed deep in meditation, a thin line of incense-fueled smoke wafting around the dais upon which he sat. His gaunt features possessed a severity that was once well known in the court of the Mantis Clan. Now, Komori seemed troubled rather than serene, driven rather than enlightened. Okame had never known him to appear otherwise.
The aging Mantis shugenja opened his eyes as Okame and his companions approached. “Okame-san, Gohiro-san. Shall I assume this man you bring to me is the one I seek? Is this Tsodai?”
Okame knelt as was fitting. “It is, my lord.”
Komori nodded. “You serve me loyally and well, Tsuruchi Okame and Moshi Gohiro. Each of your families shall be made aware of the glory and honor you bring before to the Mantis in their names. Now, if you please, I would speak with Tsodai alone.”
Gohiro nodded in assent, rising wordlessly to depart the chamber. But Okame found himself unable to leave. “Komori-sama,” he said, startled to discover himself voicing his concerns, “might I ask why you set such a task before us? What purpose does this man serve to one such as you?”
An ominous silence followed. Komori’s brow furrowed, and Gohiro seemed aghast. “It is unseemly for a samurai to question his lord, Okame.” The edge to Komori’s words was sharp, one that brooked no further discussion. “You are excused until I send for you once more.” Nodding mutely, Okame stifled the other questions burning in his mind and exited the chamber dutifully behind Gohiro.
The moment the doors closed, the elder shugenja spun to face Okame. “Have you taken leave of your senses? What wee you thinking? There are many ways to describe Komori, but tolerant is not one I would use easily! ”
The young Wasp shook his head slowly. “Are you not curious, Gohiro? This is the third such individual we have tracked down on Komori’s behalf. Three wave men, all aged and nearly impossible to locate. Yet he spares no expense to find them, only to send them on their way after a mysterious conference. Do you not yearn to know the truth?”
“No!” Gohiro hissed. “And neither should you! I have seen odd behavior from you before, Okame, but this… this is madness.” The shugenja leaned back suddenly, regarding Okame with great scrutiny. “Are you well? Have you taken the fever again? These damnable jungles can often have that effect, even on those as young and sturdy as yourself.”
“Do not be ridiculous,” Okame scoffed. “I merely wish to know for what purpose I spend my days ‘crawling through the forests of the Empire,’ as you say.”
Shaking his head, Gohiro opened his mouth to reply, but the opportunity was lost. With a loud groan of ancient wood, the doors to Komori’s chamber swung open. Tsodai strode out, a perplexed look on his face. He looked from one to the other wordlessly before looking at a scroll he held in his hands, clenched tightly in one fist. “I thank you both for bringing me here. Your lord has offered me a sizable sum to undertake a mission for him in the far western reaches of the Unicorn lands. I must leave immediately.” He looked up to them both once more, bowing quickly. “You have my thanks.”
Watching the old wave man disappear down the monastery hallway, Okame turned to Gohiro. “Do you not find that strange? Do you not wish to know what is going on here?”
“Yes,” admitted Gohiro, staring intently at his friend. “I do.”
Night descended upon the island. Lady Moon hung halfway across the sky, her light shining brightly upon the Mantis lands. Okame sat upon that tatami mat in his chambers back in the inn. He was to leave in the morning, bound for Rokugan once more. It seemed Komori had one more charge to be located, and only he and Gohiro were to be trusted with the task.
But Okame could not undertake another such mission. Not without answers. All three of them men he brought before Komori had departed almost immediately for the most distant and inhospitable regions of the Empire. Why? For what purpose? Did Komori send them away to protect them from something? To protect himself? He could not leave the islands without an answer.
Okame slipped silently from his room, down the hallway and out into the street. A lifetime of hunting fugitives gave him the gift of stealth, even though it was supposedly beneath a true samurai. Slipping past the sentries at the town’s edge was simple; they were taught to watch for creatures emerging from the jungle, not those exiting the town. Once inside the jungle, he gained ground much faster, moving through the dense brush like a predator.
“That is far enough, Okame.” Despite shattering the night’s silence, the voice was even, calm. Instinctively, – the hunter pulled his knife from his obi, whirling to face whatever foe dared face him. What he saw surprised him.
“Gohiro? What are you doing here?”
The old man shook his head. “I believe that is a question you should answer. I had planned to follow you and discover what has possessed your mind, but I would soon lose you in this place.” He waved his hand about absently. “So if I cannot follow you, I must stop you.”
“No!” insisted Okame, a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Don’t you understand? Komori is using information that I gathered for him! It is mine! I have earned his confidence! But if he will not give it to me, then I will take it!”
“Listen to yourself, Okame!” Gohiro pleaded with him. “You are not yourself! You sound like…” Understanding dawned in the old shugenja’s eyes as his voice trailed off. “You sound like a mercenary and a thief. How others judge the Mantis.” Gohiro quickly glanced about, as if scanning the underbrush for something.
Okame growled like an animal. “I am a not a Mantis, I am a Wasp! I will take what I deserve. And since you stand in my way, you must die!” He leapt suddenly across the space between the two men, lashing out savagely with his knife. A hastily-summoned gust of air knocked him away before he could pin Gohiro beneath him, but not before his blade tasted flesh. Okame grinned savagely.
The dazed shugenja pulled his hands away from his abdomen, both wet with blood. A faint smile crossed his lips. “I… did not think… the hold on you was strong enough. It… it is my own fault. Curse me for a fool.” He fell to his knees his life draining away. “Okame,” he rasped. “I have something for you.”
The bloodthirsty Wasp crept closer to the dying Gohiro, his curiosity overwhelming him. “What is it?” When he was within reach, the old man’s hand darted out and seized Okame’s wrist, smearing it with blood.
“I give my life freely,” whispered Gohiro, “to free you from the beast’s grasp. The spirit of larceny that has taken your soul can only steal; it cannot accept what is freely given.”
The words sent a jolt through Okame’s body. Every muscle seemed to try and tear itself from his bones~ He screamed in agony… ~
His scream was answered. Something deep within the shadows of the jungle shrieked in pain. Okame turned to look toward the source of the sound. In the darkness, he could see only glimpses of it. It was green, the color of diseased plants, and it stank like rotten flesh. There were great spikes covering it. Was the thing wearing armor? He could not tell. It was like something from a horrible nightmare made flesh. It shrieked again, a sound that made Okame’s soul ache with pain. It lunged toward Okame, swinging two great arms covered in spikes and crooked blades. Okame quickly rolled backwards, disappearing into the shadows of the forest. The thing paused only a moment, glancing about in confusion, unable to locate the Wasp.
And then it was gone.
Okame stood alone in the jungle. His mind was clear once again. “Gohiro,” he whispered. He ran to his friend’s side. The old man was still alive, his lips flecked with blood. Okame opened his mouth, but no words would come. Nothing he could say would wipe away the shame of what he had done to the old man.
“Say nothing,” Gohiro said, his voice barely a whisper. “You know what you must do, Tsuruchi Okame. You must hunt the hunters. You must redeem the unredeemable.”
Moshi Gohiro closed his eyes and breathed his last.
Okame rose from where he lay in the jungle. Komori must know what had happened, even if it meant Okame’s dismissal from his service. It was his duty to report this event. With one last look at Gohiro, Okame made a solemn oath.
“I will find the beast that made me do this, Gohiro,” he whispered. “I will avenge your death, my friend.” His fingers brushed the yellow and black ribbon tied about his arm. “I swear it.”
The young Wasp disappeared into the night.