By Rich Wulf
Daigotsu watched the fingers of his right hand clench and then open once more, a thoughtful expression painted on his elegant features.
“Does it suit you?” Omoni asked eagerly, hunched by the side of Daigotsu’s throne.
“It does not feel the same,” Daigotsu said sadly. “It feels… dead.”
“There will be some loss of sensation,” Omoni said, bowing his head. “After several months, it may decay and need to be replaced. Even yet, this one should serve you well in the meantime! I used only the best materials, harvested from the dead nobles of the Imperial City. You can hardly see the stitching! It is one of my finest works, my lord.”
“No doubt of that,” Daigotsu nodded, looking at the back of his new hand with an earnest expression. “You have outdone yourself, old friend.”
“Arigato, my lord,” Omoni said, voice tinged with pride.
“No need to be formal, Omoni,” Daigotsu said with a small chuckle. “We have known one another too long for that. You are the closest thing I have to family.”
Omoni nodded quietly, then raised his eyes to meet Daigotsu’s. “They killed Kyoden,” he said. The submissive flesh sculptor’s tone was edged with uncharacteristic anger.
“Kyoden knew the price of war all too well,” Daigotsu said softly. “I shall visit with the Shadow Dragon and see if Kyoden’s lost soul can still be restored, but even if he returns I fear that he, like this new arm, will not be the man he once was. Ironic that he should die in defending the Hantei Line, the same line his Yotsu brothers and sisters swore that they would protect. At least one son of Yotsu Yatoshin has fulfilled his destiny. At least he died well, to a worthy opponent. Kyoden would be proud of his own death. I will seek no vengeance.”
Omoni stared at Daigotsu silently.
The Dark Lord chuckled. “You have no sense of humor, Omoni-san,” he said. “Have you faith in me? I have already dispatched the Onisu. Each has a simple mission. With Otosan Uchi gone, the Four Winds begin to fortify their new bases of operations. Infiltrate the homes of the Four Winds, and kill one samurai. If they will take the life of our adopted brother, I shall have eight in return.”
“I know the Onisu,” Omoni said. “I was there when you, Nintai, and Shokansuru created them. They will not stop at one samurai. They will feast on slaughter until all of them are destroyed in turn.”
Daigotsu looked at Omoni evenly.
* * * * *
Hoshi Ichiyo looked down at his map then glanced pensively at the winding mountain path. He held one hand out to display the crumbling ruins that stood before them. “Here it is, my lord,” he said, “Just as the Wolf requested. Strange. Lord Uso said that he sent a detachment of Dragon samurai ahead to greet us. They should have met us by now.”
“This is our reward?” Miya Gensaiken asked in an irritated voice. He pushed past Toturi Koshei and looked about the clearing with a disappointed scowl. “This is what the Dragon give us for what we have given them?”
Ichiyo looked flustered as the courtier stormed past him, glaring at the broken castle. “The Dragon were prepared to offer Lord Sezaru a great deal more in return for the supplies he gave them. All that he requested was the loyalty of our clan and the ruins of Kyuden Tonbo. Mirumoto Uso was more than happy to comply. If the Wolf requires more…”
Miya Gensaiken sighed dramatically. “Who am I to countermand my Lord’s requests?” he asked with a dramatic wave of one hand. “Merely an advisor. Merely the one who advised Lord Sezaru to aid your clan to begin with!” Gensaiken glared at the young monk.
Ichiyo looked genuinely afraid. He was unused to dealing with temperamental courtiers. “I am merely a guide, Gensaiken-sama,” he said fearfully. “I do not have Lord Uso’s ear.”
“No, but you have mine,” Gensaiken snapped. “You would do well to remember the debt you owe Toturi Sezaru, for I will not forget. Return to the Order of Hoshi. Tell them that we are not satisfied with the gift that has been given us. Tell your fellow monks to report at once to aid Lord Sezaru in the repairs of the castle.”
“Yes, Gensaiken-sama,” Hoshi Ichiyo said. The monk bowed as deeply as he could, then hurried away down the mountain path.
“That was unnecessary, Gensaiken,” Toturi Koshei said coldly. “You should show more respect to the monks.”
“Why?” Gensaiken asked. “Shinsei may have saved our Empire, but the monks have done nothing for us since. They are insects feeding off the Little Teacher’s corpse and I will not endure them. Now. Let us inspect the Wolf’s new home. I, for one, have never been here before.”
Koshei said nothing. He had grown accustomed to Gensaiken’s bitter nature. It seemed that Sezaru appreciated the courtier’s advice, if only for a contrasting opinion. Who was he to question his lord? He signaled to the six Seppun miharu that followed and they moved forward down the mountain path, toward the wreckage that had once been the proud home of the Dragonfly clan.
“You and your brothers were certainly thorough, Koshei-san” Gensaiken mused, peering down at a grinning skull by the side of the road. “Did you slaughter the children too?”
“Watch your tongue, Gensaiken,” Koshei said. “I do not wish to speak of such things.”
“Ah, of course,” Gensaiken replied in an amused voice. “I do not wish to insult you, Koshei. By the Fortunes, you might harbor a grudge… and then your grandchildren might kill mine the way your Lion killed the Dragonfly.”
Koshei looked back at Gensaiken angrily. The courtier raised his eyebrows in feigned shock. He had positioned himself between two Imperial Guardsmen, who know watched Koshei carefully.
“I am not a Lion,” Koshei said, his voice thick with emotion. “I left my clan because of… because of this,” he gestured at the broken castle.
“And so you sought Toturi Sezaru,” Gensaiken said. “A man with the blood of the Emperor and the wisdom of a priest. Do you seek enlightenment or forgiveness, Koshei?”
Koshei ignored the courtier’s taunts. “Where are the Dragon?” Koshei said. “If Uso said that they would be here, they should be here. I do not like this.”
“Perhaps the ghosts of the Tonbo returned for vengeance?” Gensaiken mused.
Koshei sneered. He gestured to the miharu to follow and stepped through the gates of Kyuden Tonbo. The sight within made all seven men halt in shock. The shattered stones were painted with fresh blood. The bodies of a dozen Dragon samurai were strewn about, their corpses broken and mangled. The nearest lay on his back, lifeless eyes staring into Koshei’s with an expression of unspeakable terror.
“You,” Koshei said, turning to one of the men. “Take Gensaiken and leave this place. Report to Lord Sezaru at once.”
The guardsman nodded and quickly darted back through the gates. Koshei returned his attention to the carnage before him. This could have been no bandit attack, for only the bodies of Dragon remained. Tsuno perhaps? They were known to carry away their dead. Koshei could not imagine any force attacking a group of trained Mirumoto and not suffering some losses.
“Perhaps they were defeated from within, Akodo,” whispered a feminine voice. The sound trailed off into laughter.
Koshei drew his sword in a flash. The six guardsmen did the same. “If you are responsible for this murder, step forward and beg forgiveness!” Koshei demanded. “I promise you my steel is gentler than my master’s magic, and he will be here soon!”
“I do not fear the Wolf,” the voice replied. “You are the one who intrigues me… the one who defeated Yokubo.” A woman’s figure appeared before Toturi Koshei, weaving itself from wisps of dust and smoke, but it was clear this creature was no mortal woman. Its figure was lithe and graceful, concealed beneath overlapping plates of green and silver armor. Each plate bore the image of a human face, carved in expressions of despair. It bore no weapons, though its armor was covered in fierce metal spikes. It smiled gently as it stepped toward Toturi Koshei.
“Keep your distance, woman,” Koshei said, leveling his sword at its chest. “If you are one of the Onisu, you shall find that I am prepared to face you.”
The strange woman smirked and stood still, one hand resting upon its hip. “You are strong, samurai,” it said. “I can see into your heart and memories. There is no desire there. No fear, no hatred, no betrayal. Against any of my brethren you might prove a fearsome foe. But here, in this place, you have no power against me. I am Kanashimi, the Nightmare of Regret. The spirits of the Dragonfly you murdered cry out for justice, son of Akodo. I shall serve it to them with your blood.”
Koshei’s eyes narrowed. He leapt at the Onisu, his brilliant katana flashing in a single perfect stroke. Kanashimi reached out almost lazily, catching the sword in one hand and twisting. The weapon exploded in Koshei’s hands, peppering him with broken steel. Koshei winced in pain and staggered back as the Onisu punched him solidly in the chest. Through a bloody haze, Koshei watched the Seppun guardsmen attack Kanashimi. It laughed as they attacked, tearing them apart with its bare hands. It tore one man’s arm from the socket and used it as a club, bludgeoning the others. In moments, they were all dead. It looked down at Koshei with an exuberant smile. Its silver armor was now covered with blood. Its fist was still buried deeply in the skull of the last guardsman.
“The Dragon watch but never act,” Kanashimi said. “They watch, but do not execute. Their greatest sin is regret for action left undone, but there are other forms of regret.” The dead Seppun slid from its hand with a wet slap. “You still remember the face of every Tonbo you killed, every brave Dragonfly who died for the sins of an ancestor long dead. You have made me strong, Toturi Koshei. Ironically, I almost… regret… having to kill you.”
The Onisu advanced toward Koshei. Its metal-clad feet made disgusting sticking sounds in the remains of the fallen. Koshei struggled to stand, but the shards of his own shattered katana had wounded him terribly. His left leg was almost useless, and a burning pain filled his abdomen. Kanashimi stood over the former Akodo, reaching for his face with a gentle smile.
The sound of footsteps behind them drew the Onisu’s attention. A large man had stepped into the chamber, his face hidden behind the elaborate wrap of a sohei. He carried a large ono in one hand. In the other he held a string of dead rabbits.
“I leave for two days,” the man said in a rough voice, “and now my home is a mess.”
“Who are you?” Kanashimi screamed, a note of panic in its voice. “Why do you come here?”
The man dropped his game on the ground and pulled his veil away. His head was shaven, like a monk’s. His face was hard and weathered. He looked at Kanashimi with an angry frown. “I train here, beast,” he said. “The silence suits me and the ghosts of the dead are excellent company. Just as you, I think shall be excellent practice.” The large monk fell into a fighting stance, holding the haft of his axe in both hands.
“You are Kaelung, the fallen Hoshi,” Kanashimi said with a triumphant cackle. “The one who was sent to hunt Kokujin and turned his back on his order. Surely you regret your choice.”
The Onisu lunged at Kaelung.
The monk swung his axe once, and knocked Kanashimi’s head from its shoulders.
“You know nothing of the choices I have made,” Kaelung said quietly.
The monk dropped his axe on the ground and turned to Koshei. He drew several bandages and packets of herbs from the satchel at his hip. He tended Koshei’s wounds quickly and expertly. He seized the shards of the broken katana and tore them from Koshei’s wounds without hesitation. Kaelung’s bedside manner was not gentle, but in moments Koshei’s injuries were bound. He would live. Koshei noticed a strange tattoo on the inside of the monk’s wrist. It seemed familiar, somehow, but Koshei could not place the memory.
“Thank you, my friend,” Koshei said, sitting up against the stone wall.
“I do not expect or require your thanks, samurai,” Kaelung said. “I protect the weak. Today, you were weak. One day, I shall be weak, and another will protect me. That is the way of things.” Kaelung fetched his axe and the rabbits from the floor where he had dropped them, and turned back toward the gates. He paused only for a moment to pick up the Onisu’s head as well.
“You should remain here, Kaelung-san,” Koshei said. “There is a place for you in the service of Toturi Sezaru.”
“So be it,” Koshei said. “You have done a good thing here today, Kaelung.”
Kaelung said nothing. With a final nod, the monk left, leaving Koshei alone with the fallen.
* * * * *
It had taken time to clean the debris of the Great Sea Spider from Kyuden Seppun, but the task was now complete. The white walls of the palace shone as brightly as they ever did. A small city of tents had risen around the Kyuden to house the legions of samurai that followed Toturi Tsudao. In some places, peasant builders had already begun to build more permanent structures.
Toturi Tsudao’s proclamation was clear – she now considered herself Empress. To those who followed her, the claim was legitimate enough. The home of Seppun, the first woman to swear fealty to the first Emperor, would be her capitol. The builders were already making plans. Within two years, Kyuden Seppun would be a city as grand as Otosan Uchi.
The First Legion drew its ranks from every Great Clan, but the vast majority of samurai gathered here today wore the bright blue of the Crane and the fiery orange of the Phoenix. It was no secret that Yasuki Hachi and Shiba Aikune had both been instrumental in routing the Horde. Doji Kurohito, Champion of the Crane, had wasted no time in seizing the opportunity to offer an alliance to the Phoenix. Here, under the watchful eye of Toturi Tsudao, the two clans could meet without fear of attack from their enemies.
Outside of the tense meetings between Doji Kurohito’s staff and the leaders of the Phoenix, many Phoenix and Crane samurai had formed friendships here in the two weeks since the attack on Otosan Uchi. In a small sake house at the southern end of the Seppun estates, a group of Crane and Phoenix laughed as they told tales of their past.
“So tell me more of your Champion, Mirabu-san,” Doji Okakura said. The cocky young Crane chewed on a small cake and kicked his feet onto the table.
“My champion?” Mirabu asked curiously. “Of whom do you speak?”
“Shiba Aikune,” Okakura said.
“Ah,” Mirabu nodded. “Aikune is not our clan champion, and he does not claim to be. He is simply our family’s daimyo, and I am proud to call him my friend.”
“There is nothing simple about Shiba Aikune,” Daidoji Megumi said, sipping her tea, eyes closed. “Rumor has it he defeated an army of Matsu alone.”
“You of all people should know that rumor can be an unreliable source of information,” Mirabu said. “I heard a rumor that you were blind.”
Megumi tilted her head slightly. “You do not believe I am blind?”
“You move with the agility and grace of your clan’s namesake,” Mirabu said. “I hardly think you need little Naora.” Mirabu smiled warmly at the six year old peasant who led Megumi about.
“Well, I see that at least one rumor about the Phoenix is true,” Megumi replied with a small smile. “The Brothers of Heaven’s Wing are insufferable lechers, one and all.”
“Come now, I take offense at that,” Shiba Unasagi replied with feigned offense. “Perhaps I can convince you that our hearts are noble and pure. I have plans to attend a kabuki in South Hub Village. Would you care to accompany, Megumi-san?”
Okakura laughed out loud. “Watch your step, Unasagi,” he said. “Megumi is betrothed, and her Horiuchi husband-to-be takes offense easily.”
“I can handle myself against a Horiuchi,” Unasagi replied proudly.
“But can you handle yourself against Megumi?” Okakura asked. “If you insult her betrothed, it will be she who takes offense. She has already won fourteen duels, ten to the death. She has matched blades with the Mirumoto and the Kakita and triumphed. She was named for the Fortune of Heroic Guidance, and I can tell you that she has guided her share of heroes to the bright fields of Yomi.”
“Take Okakura’s advice. I think you will live longer if you keep your sword sheathed in my presence,” Megumi added playfully.
Unasagi blinked. Mirabu and Okakura snickered at his expense. Unasagi opened his mouth to make a clever reply, but a chorus of screams from outside drowned out his words. In an instant, all four samurai were on their feet, blades drawn. When they emerged from the teahouse, a terrible sight waited for them. The buildings all about had erupted in flames. Dozens of wounded and dying samurai, Crane, Phoenix, Seppun, and Legionnaires lay scattered about in the street. In the midst of the carnage stood two inhuman figures. One was almost skeletal, swathed in rich red robes. Its face was covered with grotesque spikes. The other was massive, covered in thick armor plates. Wings covered in black silken hairs spread from its back.
“I recognize that creature,” Shiba Mirabu said, holding his blade low and stepping out before the others. “That is Hakai, the demon that attacked the Test of the Jade Champion.”
“Greetings,” Hakai said, its monstrous face twisting into a smile as it bowed to Mirabu. “I remember you, Phoenix. Run now, and fetch your master. Shiba Aikune has something that I want.”
“Unasagi, find Lord Aikune,” Mirabu commanded. “We will hold them off here as best we can.”
Unasagi nodded obediently and hurried off down the street, glancing back once before he disappeared into an alley.
“You will ‘hold them off,’ will you?” Hakai asked in a bored voice. “Do you have no memory of Kyuden Nio? Do you not recall what I did there? The Jade Champion could not stop me. What can you hope to do?”
“All that we can,” Doji Okakura replied. He and Megumi stood on either side of Mirabu, prepared for battle.
“Yokubo, deal with them,” Hakai said pertly.
The larger Onisu lunged toward the three samurai, reaching out for them with its strange silken wings. Mirabu slashed at the tendrils but could not stop them from seizing him about the wrist and throat. Megumi was also seized about the waist and slammed against the wall of the sake house. Okakura fell into an agile backwards roll, dodging back through the doors, away from the combat.
“Your friend flees,” Yokubo said in a savage voice. “He desires his life, and I do not blame him. His desire makes me stronger. You Crane all want something, it seems.” It lifted Megumi by her throat, drawing her close to its own metal face, seizing her swords and tossing them aside. Its inky black eyes stared into her own, sightless and pale. “You… you are blind but you do not wish for sight…” The Onisu chuckled. “You wish to be healed, but only so that your children will not be blind as you are, as your father was. I can give you this, little Crane. Do you desire it?”
Megumi said nothing, only closed her eyes in pain. She clawed at the Onisu with bare hands; her attacks did nothing.
“Cease toying with them, Yokubo!” Hakai roared. “Kill them and let us be done with it!”
“Enough!” Shiba Mirabu shouted. He drew his wakizashi with his free hand and slashed at the tendrils that entangled him. Yokubo shrieked in pain and pushed Megumi into Mirabu’s path. The samurai stopped his blade short mere inches from her back. Mirabu swore under his breath. In that moment of hesitation, he knew that he was undone. The creature would bind him, disarm him, and kill him.
But such was not to be. With a deft movement, Megumi seized Yokubo’s shoulder in one hand and Mirabu’s wakizashi in the other. She pulled the demon close just as she pulled the blade home, piercing her own body and stabbing deep into the Onisu’s torso. Yokubo shrieked in pain, dropping Megumi and staggering backward. Mirabu did not hesitate. He threw all of his power, all of his focus, into a single strike and cleaved the Onisu of Desire from shoulder to hip. The creature’s shrieking stopped immediately. Its bisected corpse toppled to the ground.
“Fool!” Hakai snarled. A burst of force erupted from the Onisu of Destruction, hurling Mirabu through the wall of the sake house. The Shiba collapsed among the wood and splinters, pain surging through his body as the Onisu’s maho coursed through his body. When he looked up, the Onisu stood over him. Its hands were balled into fists, shaking in rage. It no longer looked as calm and certain as it once did. It seemed almost smaller, somehow.
“I cannot abide self-sacrifice,” Hakai growled, kicking Mirabu solidly in the stomach. “Death is meant to be hollow, pointless. There is no purpose. There is no redemption. Why do you samurai always fail to understand that?”
Mirabu looked up at Hakai without fear. “Show me, then, if you still have the power.”
Hakai’s eyes narrowed. “Idiot. The Crane’s foolish selflessness has weakened me, but I still have power enough to deal with you.” Hakai’s fists erupted in black flame. He pointed one hand at Shiba Mirabu, unleashing a black bolt of energy.
Doji Okakura leapt into the path of the ray, seizing Shiba Mirabu and rolling aside. The black ray eradicated all in its path, narrowly missing the two samurai.
“Again with the foolish altruism,” Hakai said, his voice weary. “You make me ill. How pointless is this? I can see your deaths, both of you. Crane, you will fall by the hand of a trusted friend in less than a year. Phoenix, your death is longer in coming but no less treacherous. You will be slain by Shiba Aikune and remembered as a traitor. Why put off the inevitable? I can kill you both now and wipe your dark fates away.”
“You lie,” Mirabu said, his voice hollow.
Hakai smiled. “Do I?”
Okakura shook his head and glared back at Hakai defiantly. “No,” he said. “If you claim that you can change our fate than so can we! Our destiny is our own to make!”
The Onisu’s iron gaze faltered slightly. “Your will to live is quite annoying,” it said. It held one hand out to fire another bolt of darkness, but the power would not come.
“It grows weaker,” Mirabu said. “We can defeat it after all.”
“We shall see, boy,” Hakai said. “Fight me, then. Kill me here today if you can.”
Mirabu seized his katana and charged. The sword rang harmlessly off of Hakai’s flesh. The Onisu seized the Phoenix by the collar and obi, lifted him above its head, and hurled him through the far wall. It turned to Okakura, dark eyes amused.
“Attack me, and fall as he did,” Hakai said, “or flee and give into hopelessness. Either path suits me.”
Okakura’s face became grim with determination. He ran at the Onisu, who grabbed his sword in both hands. With a sharp twist, it tore Okakura’s blade away and seized him by the throat.
“You have determination in abundance, Crane, I grant you that,” Hakai snarled, “but you need more than that to kill an Onisu. Power is required as well.”
“Then be thankful that I am here,” said a smooth voice from behind Hakai. “I believe you sent for me.”
Hakai looked back over one shoulder. A tall samurai in bright orange armor stood in the shattered doorway of the sake house. He held a flaming sword in one hand.
“Aikune,” Hakai said with malicious glee. “How pleased I am to see you. A fellow force of destruction. I feed from your very presence.”
“Then you’d best feed quickly,” Aikune said. He swung his sword in a quick arc. Claws of flame extended from the blade, seizing Hakai about the chest. With a grotesque ripping sound the power of the Last Wish tore Hakai’s chest open, revealing the pulsing organs within. Okakura did not hesitate. Drawing his dagger from his obi, he plunged it into the Onisu’s heart.
The Onisu turned slowly, looking into Okakura’s eyes. “Well played, Crane,” Hakai whispered. “But your victory is temporary. Death cannot die; I shall return. When your fate comes to pass, the last face you will see will be mine.”
In an instant, Hakai’s body became ash and was whipped away by the wind. Okakura fell to the ground, gasping for breath.
“Let him return,” Shiba Mirabu said, “We will be ready.” The Phoenix limped painfully to Aikune’s side.
“I hope you are right?” Okakura said. “How is Megumi?”
Mirabu looked around curiously. “She is gone,” he said, surprised. “She was here, only a moment ago. With her wounds, she could not have gone far…”
* * * * *
In an alley not far from the combat, Daidoji Megumi crouched in the shadows. She cupped the wound on her stomach with one hand. Her hand was stained with blood, her own red blood mixed with the black ichor of the Onisu. Already the wound had healed and she could feel herself growing stronger. The power of the Taint suffused her; it was slowly changing her. What she would become in the end, she had no idea.
Even from here, she could hear the three men in the sake house discussing her whereabouts. Her senses were growing sharper, even sharper than before. She would need to leave soon, before they discovered what had happened to her.
Better that they thought her dead.
Megumi rose and disappeared into the shadows.