Prelude to Darkness, Part Two: Omen
By Rich Wulf
The Present Day. . .
Omen knelt in the center of the darkened alley and drew the short red-bladed spear he wore at his belt. Closing his eyes, the tainted Crab began to meditate on the blade, drawing on the techniques he had learned to resist the Taint.
“Just a few days more,” he whispered. “Just a few days more, and it will all have been worth it. . . ”
After several minutes, he felt the throbbing in his head subside. The strange greasy feeling creeping across his pallid skin lessened. He did not feel well, but he felt normal enough to function again. It seemed the blade was getting weaker the longer he stayed here, but he could not leave yet. He had too much yet to do, too much yet to learn. At least now he had another contact on the outside. The Fox did not trust him, but she would listen to him. He took small solace in that as he stepped back into the streets of the City of the Lost.
“Out of my way, fool!”
Omen darted aside as an enormous cart rolled past, drawn by two huge armored Tsuno. The horned demons moved as swiftly as horses, pulling the cart through the streets at breakneck speed. Omen noticed that not everyone moved out of the way in time, and that the Tsuno did not seem to care. A young peasant lay groaning in the street nearby, one leg crushed by the cart’s wheel. Omen showed no pity as he stepped over the maimed man.
There was no room for mercy in the City of the Lost.
No one who lived here deserved any.
The wake of destruction left by the Tsuno cart led toward the docks. Already headed that way, Omen followed. A great bay of oily black water spread across the southern end of the city. A fleet of ships of gaijin design waited at the docks. The ships were hideous to look upon; their hulls were crusted with blood and slime. The sails were a sickly off white. Omen suspected they were stitched together from human skin. Skeletal sailors crawled about in the rigging, eagerly preparing the ships for departure.
Omen could see the Tsuno cart at the end of the docks. The two creatures had pulled away the tarp that covered it and were stacking large crates on the dock. They most likely contained weapons and supplies for the coming attack. Omen watched the docks carefully, counting troops and crates in his head.
“A beautiful sight, eh, Omen?” said a tall man as he swaggered up the docks. The man was at least a foot taller than Omen. His skin had long since decayed, leaving only exposed bone and muscle. Despite his horrid appearance, he wore a rich silken kimono and wore a shining steel sword of gaijin design across his back.
“Captain Garen,” Omen said. “The fleet is preparing for a journey?”
“Journey?” Garen replied. “More like destiny. I’ve been waiting seven centuries for another chance at this, and now it’s finally time. . . ”
“You sail with Tsuno now?” Omen asked. “I thought that they did not like the undead.”
“They like what Daigotsu tells them to like,” the undead captain chuckled. “I have to say, Crab, in all the years I’ve sailed the Seas of Shadow I’ve never seen a leader quite like him.”
“The Empire doesn’t stand a chance,” Omen said, smiling as much as his withered flesh would allow.
“A strange road, isn’t it?” Garen asked.
“Eh?” Omen looked at the captain curiously.
“I mean I figured from early on in life that I’d be damned,” he said with a maniacal laugh, “but I never imagined that it would be like this.”
“Ah,” Omen said, continuing to count sailors and ships.
“So what’s your story, Omen?” the captain asked. “How did you end up here?”
Omen looked at Garen. “I am the son of the Jade Champion, Kuni Utagu,” he said. “I am a spy for the Kuni witch hunters.”
Garen stared at Omen with empty eye sockets, then burst out laughing. “No, really,” he said. “What’s your story?”
“I was no one important,” the shugenja replied.
* * * * *
Two Years Ago. . .
“This way,” the little Ratling said, gesturing quickly with one paw as it peered around the rock ahead. Its ears were pressed flat against its bald head. Red eyes bulged in its pink, hairless face. “Quiet-quiet!” The creature vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
“Can we really trust that thing?” Kuni Kiyoshi asked, grunting painfully as he peered over the lip of the rock ledge.
“So long as we pay him well, yes,” Hida Hio said, squatting at the edge of the cliff and grinning down at Kiyoshi. The samurai extended one hand. “Need some help?” Kiyoshi scowled and waved him away, hauling himself over the edge with an exhausted groan.
“Give me a moment,” Kiyoshi said. He staggered to his feet and leaned against the rock wall as he caught his breath. He wiped one hand across his forehead, leaving a stain of white and red across his sleeve. Kiyoshi winced; Shigeaki had warned him not to wear his ceremonial makeup in the Shadowlands.
“Are you all right?” Hida Hio asked, grinning his irritating persistent grin.
“I will be fine,” Kiyoshi hissed. “When we find Mohai, I will be better.”
“You look terrible,” Hio said. “I thought witch hunters were invincible.”
“This is only my first mission, remember?” Kiyoshi replied. “I am only half invincible.”
“Better than nothing!” Hio said cheerfully. “Now let us see if N-kithith has found the trail of our Bloodspeaker!”
Kiyoshi nodded wearily and followed, clumsily setting one foot in front of the other as he stumbled behind Hio. He could not believe the mental and physical toll this journey had taken on him so far. This was his first true mission in the Shadowlands, and while he had known from the beginning it would not be easy he had no true inkling how difficult it would be. The land drained the life out of everything and everyone in it. The terrain fought against those who tried to cross it. Every mile of progress was a battle won. Under the best of circumstances, with all the time in the world, the journey would have been dreadful.
Under the current circumstances, Kiyoshi was surprised he was still walking. For months he had been tracking Mohai, the infamous Bloodspeaker, without any aid from his brethren among the Witch Hunters. Kiyoshi could not ask for help; this battle was his and his alone. He had only sought Hida Hio’s aid because he knew to venture into the Shadowlands without a scout was tantamount to suicide, and Hio was one of the few scouts willing to venture this deep. Hio was his guide and his link to the local Ratling tribes, nothing more. He knew nothing of the man they pursued.
If Hio had known who Mohai was, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to come along. During the War of Spirits, the Bloodspeaker had eradicated an entire army of Mirumoto samurai with his dark magic. He was one of only two tsukai who had faced Kiyoshi’s father and escaped with his life. Kiyoshi should have sent for help; he kept telling himself that he didn’t have time. Mohai had stolen a magical golden box from the temple of the Asahina family, and by chance Kiyoshi had stumbled upon the crime. Whatever that box’s contents were, he had to be stopped before Mohai could deliver it to his mistress, Shahai.
The fact that such a victory would allow him to prove himself superior to Shigeaki and finally gain his father’s favor barely factored in Kiyoshi’s mind. At least, that was what he kept telling himself.
“Are you listening to me?” Hio whispered harshly.
“Eh?” Kiyoshi blinked, snapping back into the present. He cursed himself for his weakness. He could not afford to be distracted so deep in enemy territory. “Hai,” he said, nodding at Hio, “we are following the Ratling?”
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right?” Hio asked, studying the witch hunter nervously.
“I’m fine,” Kiyoshi said with a sneer.
“If you say so,” Hio answered. “I hear that shugenja sometimes hear voices out here. If you hear any, just ignore them, okay?”
“Do not worry about that,” Kiyoshi said. “I am tsukai sagasu. I am trained to resist the Taint.”
“Good,” Hio said. He didn’t seem convinced. “This way.”
The two Crab continued around the bend in the rocky pass, climbing slowly up. Kiyoshi forced himself to continue. He could not surrender to his body’s weakness. So long as the will remained strong, all else would follow. That was what his father had taught him.
After several minutes, Kiyoshi realized that Hio had stopped in the path before him, head tilted slowly to one side.
“Do you hear that?” Hio whispered.
“Hear what?” Kiyoshi replied.
“The chanting. . . ” Hio said.
A sudden sound of rocks scattering echoed in the path before them. Kiyoshi reached for his scroll case and prepared to release a spell, when the tiny form of N-kithith scurried toward them. The creature’s huge red eyes were even larger than normal.
“N-kithith, what is the matter?” Hio asked.
The Ratling did not even pause, but continued scurrying right past them.
Hio and Kiyoshi exchanged glances.
“What do you suppose he saw?” Kiyoshi asked.
“I don’t know,” Hio said, “but when a Ratling runs away I’m inclined to trust his judgment. Come on.” Hio turned and ran after the Ratling at full speed, making surprisingly little sound as he escaped.
“Bah,” Kiyoshi whispered, sneering after the fleeing samurai. “I am no coward.” The witch hunter continued cautiously along the path, trying not to make a sound. He heard the sound of hoof-beats rapidly approaching, and quickly crouched in the shadows behind a large boulder. Six riders galloped past, each garbed in full armor and mounted on onikage demon steeds. Kiyoshi was fortunate they had not seen him. Creeping forward once more, he peered around the bend where N-kithith had appeared. He found himself looking down from the peak of a great mountain, overlooking a deep valley below. The sight within the valley chilled him to the core of his soul.
* * * * *
One week later. . .
“A city in the Shadowlands?” Kuni Utagu said. The Jade Champion’s ancient face was fixed into a deep frown. His jet black eyes bored into the floor. “Are you certain that you saw this?”
“Yes, father,” Kiyoshi replied. The young witch hunter knelt before the Jade Champion, his bandaged hands pressed on the floor before him. To his left, Hida Hio also knelt before Utagu.
“You mean you saw some huts,” said Shigeaki, seated at Utagu’s right hand. “Perhaps a gathering of Lost? A small army of Tainted nomads at best?”
“No,” Kiyoshi shook his head. “That is not what I saw. This was at least half the size of Otosan Uchi, and still under construction. Ogres, oni, men, and even some of those strange creatures called Tsuno walked the streets.”
“Impossible,” Utagu said. “Such creatures could never unite without destroying one another.”
“I state only what I saw,” Kiyoshi said.
“And can you corroborate this, Hida Hio?” Utagu said, turning to the samurai.
“I. . . ah. . . no,” Hio said. “I did not see the city, but I am sure Kiyoshi-san would not lie.” Hio smiled nervously.
“I know Kiyoshi would not lie,” Utagu said. “But the Shadowlands is a place of deception. Did you or did you not see the city?”
“I did not, Utagu-sama,” Hio said.
“I see,” Utagu replied, returning his attention to Kiyoshi. “So we have only your testimony, Kiyoshi? Are you certain this was not a hallucination? Did you enter the city? Did you return with any evidence of its existence?”
“It was too well patrolled for me to dare approach too closely,” Kiyoshi said. “However, if you would let me lead a contingent of witch hunters into the Shadowlands, I promise I can bring you proof.”
Utagu sighed. “I will take your report under advisement, Kiyoshi,” he said. “Now leave me. I have much work to do.”
Kiyoshi opened his mouth to protest, but his words were forgotten in the face of his father’s glare. He rose, bowed a final time, and left the chamber. He felt numb and disconnected as he walked through the halls of Utagu’s tower. What he had seen in the Shadowlands was real, and they had not believed him. Why had they not believed him? Kiyoshi collapsed on a stone bench in the garden and buried his face in his hands.
“It can’t be true, you know,” said Shigeaki’s voice.
Kiyoshi looked up. “Shigeaki,” he said. “You must believe me. . . ”
“Must I?” Shigeaki chuckled. “The one true weakness of the Shadowlands is its lack of harmony. If the forces of darkness could unite as you say they have, we would stand little chance against them.”
“That is why you must listen to me, Shigeaki!” Kiyoshi said.
“Kiyoshi,” Shigeaki said with a sigh, “this is the fifth time in a year that you struck out on your own, without reporting your whereabouts or intents to us. Why did you choose to pursue Mohai on your own? Did you really think you stood a chance against him? Utagu-sama is worried about you. Being a witch hunter is not about personal glory, you know. You seem to have forgotten about that.”
“No I haven’t!” Kiyoshi retorted. “The city in the Shadowlands-”
“Is another desperate attempt for attention,” Shigeaki finished. “If you put half as much effort into your studies as you put into gaining your father’s attention, perhaps I would not be his favored pupil.”
“You don’t believe me?” Kiyoshi said.
“Why should I?” Shigeaki asked. “You do not behave like a witch hunter. Some day your arrogance will lead us all to danger, Kiyoshi. Utagu sees this. If you continue as you have been, there will be no place for you among us.”
“You would cast me out?” Kiyoshi replied, stunned.
“I would not wish to,” Shigeaki said. “Utagu’s son or not, consider this a warning. Remain focused, or leave. There is no other choice.”
Shigeaki turned and left, leaving Kiyoshi alone with his thoughts.
“It was real,” Kiyoshi whispered. “I will prove it.”
* * * * *
Kiyoshi screamed as the arrow was drawn from his side. Hida Hio winced as he glanced at its barbed obsidian tip. “Who did this?” Hio demanded, tossing the arrow aside as if it were a live snake.
“Bad people,” N-kithith replied with a blank stare. “Found him that way, long-long run. Him luck-lucky he bring lots of jade. Had to carry him whole way here. Long way. Big long way. Still, he walk far with arrow in belly. Very tough-tough, like Crippled Bone Nezumi!”
“You will be well rewarded, N-kithith,” Hio said, nodding to the Ratling as he knelt to inspect the wound. “Many shinies will be yours.”
“Good!” the Ratling said, baring its teeth in a wide smile. “Not forget you said that! You think I forget but I won’t.”
“The archers were Crab bushi. . . ” Kiyoshi whispered, staring up at the sky. “Tainted Crab. . . I knew one of them. . . her name was Modegi. . . ”
“Just be still,” Hio said. “I need to bandage your wound.
“Am I. . . alive?” Kiyoshi whispered.
“Barely,” Hio said. “What were you doing out here alone?”
Kiyoshi smiled weakly and reached into his robe. He drew out several long green stalks and dropped them on the earth.
“What?” Hio looked at the plants, confused.
“Rice,” Kiyoshi said. “Tainted rice. Such a plant could never survive out here without someone to tend it. Farms mean civilization. . . I had meant to bring it back as proof…”
“Was he followed?” Hio asked the Ratling.
“Was,” Ratling said. “By six mean-dark samurai. Then him summon big-big green jade spell. Turn mean-dark samurai into dust.” The Ratling gestured wildly with its pink paws, clearly impressed by the display of magic that Hio had unfortunately missed.
“Give me my scrolls,” Kiyoshi said, reaching weakly for the satchel laying on the earth nearby. “I must purify myself before Taint can set in.”
Hio nodded, reaching for the bag. His hand froze on the bag, his eyes locked on Kiyoshi’s wound.
“What?” the witch hunter asked.
“Nothing,” Hio said a bit too quickly. “It is nothing. Can you walk? N-kithith says that there is a Ratling tribe is not far from here. The shaman there can tend you.”
Kiyoshi frowned. Pushing Hio away he pushed his kimono, wincing as the silk pulled away from the wound. The witch hunter gasped. His torso was covered in a spiderweb of black veins, stretching from the place where the arrow had struck.
“Ew,” N-kithith said, taking several steps back and twitching its tail.
“I am Tainted,” Kiyoshi said, staring at his arms and body in horror.
“Come with me,” Hio said, “we must see the shaman. Something may yet be done.”
Kiyoshi nodded weakly. Hio helped him to his feet, taking his fallen scroll satchel as they staggered off across the blasted plain. Kiyoshi stumbled forward weakly, his mind and body in too much shock to do anything other than merely be led.
* * * * *
Kiyoshi sat at the edge of the campfire’s light. As dim as it was, the glare seemed to burn his eyes. He knew that was a sign of the Taint rapidly spreading through his body. He could feel its oily presence just beneath his skin, flowing and mixing with his blood, seeping into his soul. The wound from the arrow had been healed by the Ratling shaman’s magic, but nothing could heal the Taint.
He held a short spear in one hand, its blade a curving shard of red metal. The blade had been a gift from the shaman. By concentrating on it, Kiyoshi could feel the Taint recede within himself. The blade would not cure his condition, but it would slow his descent into madness. The blade was neither jade nor crystal; Kiyoshi did not have the slightest clue how it functioned.
“I’m sorry, Kiyoshi,” Hio said, sitting on a stone nearby.
“Sorry?” Kiyoshi said. “Why are you sorry?”
“I should have followed you instead of running away that day you found the city,” he said. “If both of us had testified, Utagu might have believed you. You are Tainted now, and my cowardice is to blame.”
“Nonsense,” Kiyoshi said sharply. “I was the fool who returned alone. I should have known better. Shigeaki was right about me.”
“How is your wound?” Hio asked, clearly trying to change the subject.
“Gone,” Kiyoshi said. “Ratling magic is impressive. There isn’t even a scar.”
Hio nodded. “The shaman of this tribe is very powerful, almost legendary. I’ve heard that he can conjure a storm out of a clear day. In another story he cursed a thief who stole his flute. The thief lived on, but no one remembered him anymore. He came home and found that his wife was his neighbor’s wife now, and his children did not remember him.”
“Bizarre,” Kiyoshi said. “If no one remembered him, how did it become a story?”
“Don’t ask me,” Hio shrugged. “Maybe the shaman bragged about it?”
Kiyoshi looked up with a start. Something approached. The witch hunter could smell the blood in its veins before he saw movement or heard sound; another sign that the Taint was slowly turning him into something monstrous. He looked up as a Ratling stepped into the firelight. The creature was taller than any man Kiyoshi had ever seen. Its coarse fur was tan, shot through with gray. Fetishes of feather, bead, and bone dangled from its ears, limbs, and body, tinkling like wind chimes as it drew near.
“Shaman-sama,” Kiyoshi said, nodding to the shaman.
“Te’tik’kir,” the shaman said, placing a long fingered hand on his chest to indicate himself. “Nameseeker of Crippled Bone Tribe.”
“Te’tik’kir,” Kiyoshi said, pronouncing the difficult name slowly. “I wish to thank you for healing my wound, and for the gift of the spear.”
“Arrow wound healed,” the shaman said, sitting on a nearby stone. “But you have greater wound still.”
“The Taint?” Kiyoshi said. “It cannot be cured, but there are treatments. My order brews a special tea that can minimize the symptoms for a time.”
“No,” the Ratling said. “Taint is nothing. I speak of scar to soul, scar to Name.”
“My name?” Kiyoshi asked.
“Name is a very important concept to the Ratlings,” Hio explained. “It means not just your actual name, but your sense of self, your identity, everything you’ve ever done. It’s like your soul, your past, and your future all in one.”
“Name not so simple,” Te’tik’kir said in an irritated voice, “but Hio-san’s words are good enough.”
“Thank you, Nameseeker,” Hio said with a grin.
Te’tik’kir sniffed disdainfully and turned to Kiyoshi again. “Name is scarred,” he said. “Kind of scar can only be given by someone you love. I would guess. . . packmate? Littermate perhaps? Brother?”
Kiyoshi stared at the Ratling. “Not my brother,” he said in shock. “Like a brother. My father had two students, Shigeaki and me. I think if father had the choice, he would have preferred Shigeaki as his son.”
“Te’tik’kir think-think it was something like that,” the Ratling said in an amused voice. “Blades of family, blades of friends, they cut deepest.”
“I think my feud with Shigeaki is the least of my concerns right now,” Kiyoshi said, looking away into the darkness.
“Is not so!” Te’tik’kir said vehemently. “All things come from Name!” The Ratling rose from his stone, looming over Kiyoshi with paws balled into fists. The witch hunter recoiled in the face of the massive Ratling, certain that the thing was about to kill him.
“Nameseeker!” Hio cried, grabbing Te’tik’kir’s arm. “He meant no offense!”
The shaman’s rodentine features calmed; his shoulders relaxed as he stepped away from Kiyoshi. “Apologies,” Te’tik’kir said in a rough voice.” The Ratling seated himself on a stone again, smoothing long fingers over his vest of bones.
“It is I who should apologize,” Kiyoshi said. “I am your guest here. If I said something to offend you. . . ”
“Will tell story now,” Te’tik’kir said suddenly. “Kiyoshi will listen-listen well, or Kiyoshi will leave. Yes?”
“All right,” Kiyoshi said, not sure what choice he had. He was beginning to develop the uneasy feeling that Te’tik’kir was not entirely sane.
“Long ago all Ratling tribes are one,” Te’tik’kir said. “Strong. Powerful. We rule all the lands.”
“You rule all of the lands?” Kiyoshi asked, confused.
“Oh,” Hio cut in, “Nezumi tend to speak about the past as if it were the present.”
Te’tik’kir shot Hio an irritated look. “Crabs make no sense,” he snapped. “Stop interrupting!”
“I’m sorry, shaman-sama,” Hio said with a grin.
Te’tik’kir continued. “After Terrible Day when Heaven falls, Ratling break into many tribes. Tattered Ear. Third Whisker. Green-Green-White. Crippled Bone.” Te’tik’kir gestured with one paw to indicate his own tribe. “Many tribes. No longer one. Long time later, I become shaman, I learn of the One Tribe from Rememberers. I decide that perhaps time come to lead tribes together once more, stand strong, help One Tribe take back the land you call Shadowlands from the beasts of Heaven’s Grave. Things not work out like I hoped.”
“What happened?” Kiyoshi asked.
“Tribe not want me to be chief,” the Ratling said with a shrug. “Tribe choose my friend Mat’tck instead. Mat’tck is brave warrior. Powerful chief. Good friend. Popular with everyone. Tribe not understand me, not like me, not want me for chief. I try to tell myself that tribe knows best, that I am not jealous, not bitter, not angry. I have torn a scar across my Name and I am too stupid to see!” The Ratling drew one long nail across his chest in a slicing motion. “Like you.”
Kiyoshi said nothing, but only gripped the strange spear and stared at the shaman.
“I am convinced that Crippled Bone will seek allies if we move north,” Te’tik’kir continued. “So in one foolish moment I use Name magic to strengthen enemies of Crippled Bone Tribe. I underestimate our enemies, and they surround tribe. No escape. I watch as Mat’tck leads the greatest warriors of Crippled Bone into battle with Dark Oracle of Earth. I watch Mat’tck die. I watch warriors die. All the time, I can do nothing. I know it is my Name that bring-bring this death. I leap into combat with Dark Oracle of Earth, eager to die and wipe out my cursed Name forever. Tomorrow has other plans; I kill-kill Dark Oracle of Earth.”
“You killed a Dark Oracle?” Kiyoshi replied, surprised.
“Only one,” the Ratling shrugged. “Jigoku just make another one. Mat’tck and others will never come back.”
“I think I get the point,” Kiyoshi said, “but it is a lesson learned too late. The witch hunters will never listen to me, no matter what proof I bring them.”
“I will go to this city,” Hio said fiercely. “I will see it with my own eyes and report to Utagu.”
“No,” Kiyoshi said.
“What?” Hio replied. “Why not?”
“Tell me, Hio,” Kiyoshi said, “Have you ever seen an oni in Kyuden Hida?”
“What?” Hio replied. “Of course not. There are magical wards everywhere, and shugenja trained to detect the Taint. An oni would be foolish to enter.”
“Because our magic seeks the Taint,” Kiyoshi said. “Just as I presume the magic of the Lost seeks out purity. They can probably sense jade as well. That is how they found me. I stood out like candle in a dark room. Why do you think the Ratlings never discovered the city and reported its existence to us?”
“Scouts who go that way stop coming back,” Te’tik’kir said. “Crippled Bone not send scouts that way any more.”
“But I could go,” Kiyoshi said, looking at his spear. “With this spear, I won’t need jade, and since I am Tainted, I will blend in among them. I can walk right into their city.”
“But you are Kuni Utagu’s son,” Hio said. “They will recognize you in an instant.”
“Perhaps not,” Te’tik’kir said quietly.
* * * * *
Hio sat before the fire, chewing on a piece of meat one of the Ratlings had given him. He wasn’t quite sure what it was. He supposed he really didn’t want to know. He just concentrated on chewing while he tried to remember why he had come this way.
“Losing your touch, Hio,” he mumbled. “Talking to yourself, too. Not a good sign in the Shadowlands. I think maybe it’s time to take a few days off.”
At the other side of the fire, the shaman’s tent opened. A short man in dark blue robes stepped out, carrying a short spear. His skin was slightly pallid, and his eyes glowed with a faint green light.
“Fortunes!” Hio swore, leaping to his feet and drawing his katana.
“Wait!” Te’tik’kir commanded, emerging from the tent beside the Tainted man. “This is not enemy!”
“He’s Tainted!” Hio shouted, pointing his blade at the man. The man stared back with an eerie, sad statement.
“He is not enemy!” Te’tik’kir snapped, stepping between Hio and the stranger.
“I will go now,” the man said. “I am sorry to have troubled you, Hio.”
The man turned and departed, in no particular hurry despite Hio’s threats. Hio backed away from the shaman respectfully, never taking his eyes off the Tainted stranger. After the man had gone, Te’tik’kir sat down by the fire, warming his paws with a sigh. Hio sat down beside the shaman, eyes wide with suspicion.
“Who was that man?” Hio demanded.
“You did not know him?” Te’tik’kir asked. The corner of his mouth quirked up in an odd grin.
“Should I have?” Hio asked.
“Perhaps not,” Te’tik’kir said. “Tell me, Hio-san, what bring-bring you to Crippled Bone Tribe?”
“It’s odd that you ask,” he said. “I can’t really remember.”
“Probably not important, then,” the shaman said. “Hio-san, did you ever hear story of thief who steal my flute? Steal my flute, I steal his name. Nobody remember him, not even family. When he go home, he find out his best friend now have his name, his wife, his life, and he nothing more than memory that no one else remember.”
“Of course I remember that,” Hio said. “It’s one of the greatest Ratling stories I’ve ever heard, though I’ve always wondered who could have told the tale if nobody remembered the thief.”
“Maybe I brag about it?” Te’tik’kir said with a small smile. “Tell me something, Hio-san. Do you know Crab named Kuni Kiyoshi?”
Hio thought for a moment. “The name sounds familiar,” he said. “Kiyoshi is Kuni Utagu’s student, I think. I saw him once at Kyuden Hida.”
“Are Utagu and Kiyoshi close?” Te’tik’kir asked.
“I guess they are,” Hio said, confused by the sudden turn of conversation. “Utagu doesn’t have any children, so I suppose Kiyoshi is like a son to him. Why do you ask?”
“Because man you just saw is Kuni Kiyoshi?” Te’tik’kir asked. “I steal the name, set it free, let it find a soul who deserves it, one who deserves to be favored by Utagu. Man you saw now has no name, goes out to earn his own. Man you know as Kuni Kiyoshi, remember as Kuni Kiyoshi, once be someone else.”
Hida Hio chewed thoughtfully. “That’s not quite as good as the other story,” he said. “It’s kind of strange.”
“I agree,” Te’tik’kir nodded. “But give this story time. . . not have ending yet.”
* * * * *
The man that had been Kuni Kiyoshi picked his way through the rugged mountains above the City of the Lost. He used his spear to probe the ground ahead as he climbed through the perpetual gloom. As he paused to catch his breath, he wondered if what had become of his former name. Had it vanished entirely? Did another Crab wear it now? The shaman had said that either was possible.
The sound of hooves on stone behind him drew his attention. Glancing back, he saw a samurai mounted on an onikage, watching him with piercing red eyes. He realized with quiet horror that this was Hiruma Modegi the Lost samurai who had wounded him before.
This was the final test. This would determine whether the Ratling’s curse had been worth it.
“Who are you?” she asked, studying him intently. “What are you doing here?”
“Is it not obvious?” he replied. “I am Tainted. My clan would not have me, so I came here.”
“What is your name?” she asked.
As she spoke, a red star burned across the sky behind her – a dark omen. Perhaps in this case that was a good sign.
“I have no name,” the man said, “but call me Omen.”
“Whatever,” she said in a bored voice. “Follow me. . . ”