By Rich Wulf
Eight years ago. . .
“I am sorry that I must be the one to bear you this news,” Hida Rohiteki said, her voice grim. “Your mother wished to be the one to tell you, but you know that this war requires her presence on the front lines.”
Kuon said nothing. He preferred to let his brother do the speaking. Kuroda was better at it anyway; he was more like Father, with a cunning mind and a quick wit. On cue, Kuroda nodded and stepped forward. “Thank you, Rohiteki-sama,” Kuroda said in a quiet voice. Though his expression was calm and controlled, Kuon could tell that his brother’s grief reflected his own. Perhaps it was even greater. It was no secret that Kuroda was his father’s son while Kuon was his mother’s.
“Who did this?” Kuon asked in a quiet voice. “Who is our father’s killer?”
“We do not know,” Rohiteki said. “Yasamura-sama slew the enemy general and had routed the spirit armies. The Battle of Drowned Honor was all but won when he was struck in the throat by an arrow. He died immediately, though his leadership allowed us to seize Ryoko Owari from the Hantei’s army.”
“We do not even know the name of my father’s killer?” Kuon said, fighting back the slow rage he could feel building inside. ” How can we avenge our father if we do not know who slew him?”
“We fight on,” Kuroda said, looking at Kuon with a sad smile. “Father would have wanted that. Vengeance is not the way of the Crab. Vengeance interferes with duty. Without duty, there is nothing.” Kuroda gestured toward the Shadowlands. “Would you step away from the Wall and leave the Empire to its fate so that you can bury your blade in father’s killer?”
Kuon shrugged. “I am just one samurai, Kuroda. The Wall will not fall without me.”
“All of us are ‘just one samurai,’ brother,” Kuroda said patiently, “but when we stand together, we are the Crab.”
Kuon locked eyes with his brother for a long moment then finally nodded. He could feel the rage begin to burn away, as it always did in the face of his brother’s wisdom.
“You are right, Kuroda,” he said in a sorrowful voice. “You are right.”
Rohiteki quietly departed, leaving the twins alone with their grief.
* * * * *
The Present Day
Hida Kuon sat in the shadows of a massive watchtower, staring out at the countless fires that lined the Kaiu Wall. Only three days ago, the forces of the Dark Lord controlled this tower. Now it belonged to the Crab once more, though the price had been great. He rolled a wooden figurine between his fingers and chewed his lower lip, contemplating the battle to come. At the sound of footsteps, he glanced up, dark eyes glittering in the torchlight.
“Lord Kuon,” whispered a soft voice.
A slim figure stepped forward, clad in light armor scarred and scorched from today’s battle. Even here, well behind Crab lines, she carried a long-handled axe in one hand.
“Konichiwa, Reiha-san,” Kuon said.
Hida Reiha looked at Kuon thoughtfully. “Kiyoshi said that you had left your tent. The guards did not know where you had gone, and they were becoming worried. I. . . I knew you would come here.”
“My brother died here,” Kuon said quietly. He clasped the wooden figurine in his fist. “In the tunnels below this tower.”
“I did not think you were one to dwell upon the past,” Reiha said. “Your brother’s soul watches over us from Yomi. Honor him, and fight on.”
“Kuroda,” Kuon said sadly. He looked at Reiha with a faint smile. “He was always fond of you, you know. I can hardly blame him. You have the strength of a Crab and the grace of a Crane. Steel wrapped in silk, a flower growing in the heart of the Shadowlands.”
Reiha looked slightly embarrassed. “I thank you, my lord, but poetry does not become you.”
“True enough, but I see no reason not to be honest,” Kuon said. “Come tomorrow, we may be dead. The plans have been laid, the weapons prepared. All that is left is the waiting – -we should enjoy ourselves while we can.”
Reiha grinned. “Good to see you acting more like yourself,” she said with a small laugh. “I will tell the others that you are all right.” She turned and walked back the way she came, pausing to look back over her shoulder. “I will see you at the camp, Lord Kuon.”
Kuon smiled and bowed to her, but his smile faded as soon as she was lost from sight. His shoulders slumped as he leaned against the wall of the watchtower, a tormented look spreading across his features. He looked down at the rough figurine in his hand. It was carved quite clumsily, only vaguely resembling Fukurokujin, the Fortune of Wisdom. The figurine was badly worn, with one hand broken off and deep scratches on the face. Even yet, Kuon knew it at a glance. He had given the same figurine to his brother over one year ago, shortly before they had departed for Winter Court. After retaking the watchtower he had found it in a shrine on the top floor. The meaning was clear.
Kuroda was alive – and he rode with the Shadowlands.
“I do not envy the decision you must make, Kuon,” whispered a sinuous voice.
Kuon’s tetsubo appeared in his hand in a flash. He stood with the weapon held high over one shoulder as a thin samurai appeared from nothing. His armor was a deep blood red and his face was painted with the colors of a berserker. Kuon could see the stones of the Wall through his feet, and the torchlights behind him shone through his armor.
“Lower your weapon,” the samurai said, “I mean no harm.” He extended one hand toward Kuon. The man’s fingers were covered with blood.
“Who are you?” Kuon growled in a low voice, keeping his tetsubo ready. He felt that he should attack, or at least call for help, but some instinct told him to be patient.
“I am your uncle, Kuon,” the man said. “I am Sukune.”
“The kagemusha,” Kuon said, eyes narrowing. “The Shadow Samurai.”
“Your mother told you about me,” Sukune replied.
“She told me that you weren’t a shiryo but you came back from the dead anyway,” Kuon said. “To me that makes you little better than a yokai, or one of the Steel Chrysanthemum’s spirits. What do you want from me?”
“Stubborn, aren’t you?” Sukune asked, his tone mildly surprised. “You are surely your mother’s son. you are done turning your misdirected anger against me I would like to help. Look into your heart, boy, you know I am who I claim to be.”
“I see,” Kuon said, lowering his tetsubo. “I. . . am sorry.”
Sukune nodded slowly. “Good,” he said. “It is as you fear. Your brother Kuroda now fights in the Legions of Daigotsu. He has become one of the Lost, though his soul is not beyond redemption.”
“He can be saved?” Kuon asked.
“Not his body but perhaps his soul,” Sukune replied. “His will is too strong. He rebels against the Dark Lord, undermining the effectiveness of his armies here.”
Kuon laughed ruefully. “So he let me take back the towers?” he asked, shaking his head bitterly. “When the day comes that the Horde must let us win the Crab have truly failed.”
“You do not see your own strength, Kuon,” Sukune said. “It is precisely because of your bond with your twin that Daigotsu has been unable to fully corrupt him. It was a combination of the strength of Kuroda’s love for you and the strength of your armies that allowed you to take back the Wall. Kuroda may have given you an opportunity, but you were the one to seize it, and I commend you, nephew.”
“Daigotsu is no fool,” Kuon said. “Even if he had not realized Kuroda would be so difficult to corrupt, he must know by now.”
Sukune nodded. “When you face Kuroda again, he will show no such weakness. Daigotsu has turned his efforts into transforming your brother into a creature of darkness.”
“Is there any way to save him?” Kuon asked.
“There is only one way that Kuroda will ever be freed to find the fields of Yomi,” Sukune answered. “Your brother must be slain by one with whom he shares a strong bond. One whom he loves, and loves him in return.”
“So it must be me,” Kuon said. He paused for a moment. “Or Reiha.”
“Do you believe she could bring herself to do the deed?” Sukune asked.
“No,” Kuon said immediately. “She could not kill Kuroda, no matter what became of him. It must be me.”
“Then hold forth Yuruginai, the Celestial Sword of the Crab,” Sukune said.
Kuon set his tetsubo aside and drew the katana from his belt.
“You have never wielded this sword,” Sukune said, extending one hand toward the shimmering surface of the blade.
“I do not feel that I am worthy of it,” Kuon said quietly.
Sukune smiled. “Self-doubt can be a powerful enemy. Conquer that, and all else will seem minimal in comparison.” The kagemusha clasped his fingers around the blade. A golden light suffused the weapon. “I have placed a blessing on this star-filled steel that will allow you to pierce Kyofu’s defenses. All else is in your hands. Be strong, nephew, the destiny of the Crab lies in your hands.”
“Thank you, uncle,” Kuon said, eyes fixed upon the shimmering blade.
There was no response. When Kuon looked up, Sukune was gone.
* * * * *
The camp was still dark as Hida Kuon strode into the tent where his advisors had gathered. Hida Hitoshi stood in the far left corner, chewing thoughtfully on a handful of dried fruit. Hiruma Todori, Kaiu Umasu, and Hida Sakamoto sat in a circle around the low table where the map of the Wall had been laid, speaking in low voices as they laid out the plan of attack. Mirumoto Hyosuke, the young samurai the Dragon had exchanged for Hitoshi’s cousin, Hogai, watched the lieutenants with wide, curious eyes. Iuchi Hari, emissary of the Unicorn, paced the room with a nervous energy, arms folded behind his back. Hida Rohiteki and Kuni Kiyoshi sat in the far left corner, eyes closed in meditation as they communed with the kami. Hida Sunao, a comrade of Kuon’s father, sat dozing just beside the door. The old samurai sat up with a start and yawned mightily as he realized the Crab Champion had entered.
“Sleep well?” Kuon asked, clapping the old samurai on the shoulder with a chuckle.
Sunao grumbled something inarticulate in response. Kuon heard something about “too early.”
“Come now, Sunao, haven’t you lived long enough?” Hitoshi asked with a wry smile.
“With all due respect, Sunao has a good point,” Hida Sakamoto said. The young officer rose quickly, running one hand through his short, thinning hair. “We have been laying siege for three days without any noticeable gains. The men are exhausted. Mustering this early hardly helps morale. We should at least wait until sunrise.”
“Agreed,” Sunao grumbled. “There’s time enough to die in the afternoon!”
“You may yet get your wish,” Kuon said. “If our shugenja are not yet prepared, we will have to postpone the attack until tomorrow.”
“We are ready,” Hida Rohiteki said, opening her eyes slowly.
“This ritual was not easy,” added Kiyoshi. The Witch Hunter’s face was painted in garish makeup, his unruly hair tied in long braids. “The kami are disturbed since the attack on Otosan Uchi. There has been some profound shift in the balance of the elements.”
“I have not sensed its like since Oblivion’s Gate opened,” Rohiteki said. “Evil portents.”
“So long as the spell works,” Kuon said. “Umasu, where do our forces stand to the east?”
The Kaiu daimyo’s face was grim. “A messenger just last night reported that we were pushed back once again. My son set Kaiu Shiro ablaze rather than let it fall into the hands of the Horde. If we cannot take back the Wall soon, Daigotsu will continue to extend his grasp into our lands.”
Kuon nodded. “As I thought. We must retake the Wall soon, or never. Hari-san, where do the Baraunghar stand?”
The swarthy Unicorn smiled and toyed with an amulet tied around his wrist. “General Lixue waits at the southern front. Our cavalry is eager to sharpen their blades on the bones of the Lost. When you are prepared to move, her armies will attack in perfect synchronicity.”
“She is nearly two days away,” Hyosuke said. “How quickly can you send word?”
Hari gave the Dragon a pained look.
Todori laughed. “Never ask a Unicorn ‘how quick,’ especially an Iuchi. It’s just insulting.”
“Todori-san,” Kuon said, sitting across from the Hiruma. “It is good to see you. I did not expect to find you here.”
“Lord Masagaro sent me,” Todori said, quickly looking at the table.
“What is the status of Hiruma Castle?” Kuon asked.
Todori did not answer for a moment. When he finally met the Crab Lord’s eyes, his face was grim. Kuon could see the pain and exhaustion in the scout’s eyes. “We are under siege,” he said. “The Oni Lord, Shikibu, has turned his attentions to the castle. Lord Masagaro fears we cannot hold out for much longer.”
The tent fell silent as all eyes turned to the Hiruma.
“What?” Hyosuke exclaimed. “Todori-san, why did you not tell us sooner?”
Todori looked evenly at Kuon. “Because my lord commanded that this information be given only to Lord Kuon. He asked me to procure a promise, my lord.”
“Ask, and it is his,” Kuon said forcefully. “By my mother’s sword I swear it.”
“That you promise not to aid us,” Todori said.
“What?” Hitoshi roared, spitting a cherry pit on the ground. “Ridiculous! We would not abandon the Hiruma! My armies will march there this very day! We will fight back the Oni Lord’s horde!”
“Yes,” Todori said, looking back at Hitoshi, “but without your forces here, the Wall would be lost. My family knows its duty.”
“Damn you, Hiruma!” Hitoshi said, hands balled into fists.
“This is madness, Todori,” Umasu said. “We will not abandon your family.”
“Lord Masagaro has already made his decision,” Todori said, “and Lord Kuon has given his promise.”
“Damn you, Hiruma!” Hitoshi repeated, his face dark red in anger. “Let us help you!”
“No,” Kuon said in a commanding voice. He stood, forcing all those in the tent to look up toward him. “Todori is right. Shikibu attacks Hiruma Castle because we lost the Wall. He hopes to distract us. If we abandon the Wall to save them, tomorrow they will take another castle, another village. The Horde must be pushed back from the Wall, here and now.”
“We cannot abandon the Hiruma, Lord Kuon,” Hida Sunao said.
“We will not,” Kuon said. He turned to Iuchi Hari. “Hari-san. What of the magic you use to communicate with Lixue. Can it be used to contact others?”
“Of course,” Hari said.
“Then send word to Friendly Traveler Village. Tell Yasuki Jinn-Kuen that Hiruma Castle is in danger. Tell him to arrange to send a unit of troops, as swiftly as he can.”
“Your word is my command, Lord Kuon,” Hari said with a graceful bow.
“My lord, Jinn-Kuen is no warrior,” Hitoshi said. “He is a bureaucrat, managing our recovery of the Yasuki lands. He has only a few courtiers and merchants at his disposal. The rest have been withdrawn for this assault. We have no troops in Friendly Traveler Village.”
Kuon nodded. “But the Crane do.”
Sakamoto nodded quickly. “This is true!” he said. “My intelligence reports indicate that Daidoji Rekai herself recently relocated to the village with a unit of Iron Warriors in order to keep closer tabs on the Shogun from the safety of the truce that protects the village. They would almost certainly be able to save Hiruma Castle.”
A slow smile of hope spread across Hiruma Todori’s face.
“You would beg the Crane for aid, after what they have done to us?” Hitoshi asked, surprised.
Kuon glared down at the smaller man and nodded. “Without hesitation,” he said. “Would you turn them away and let the Hiruma die?”
“The Crane are the enemy as surely as the Shadowlands!” Hitoshi shouted.
“Your priorities are flawed, Hitoshi,” Kuon said in a dangerous voice.
“They murdered your mother, Kuon!” Hitoshi snapped.
A loud crack echoed through the tent. In an instant, Hida Hitoshi lay flat on his back. Kuon massaged the knuckles of his right hand. “My mother died honorably,” Kuon said fiercely. “You will speak no more of her, Hitoshi. The Horde is our real enemy. Do not force me to remind you again.”
Hitoshi looked up at Kuon, his face filled with shame. “I am sorry, my Lord,” he said with true regret. “I was foolish.”
“You were angry,” Kuon said, extending his hand to help Hitoshi to his feet. “Anger is a weapon. Do not set it aside; save it for the beasts that have taken the Wall. It is time to go to war.”
* * * * *
Kuon stalked across the Wall. The chaos parted as he strode for the base of the tower. The Crab stepped aside to let him pass; the Horde simply moved away in terror. His tetsubo dripped blood and ichor from those who had not moved aside quickly enough. A Lost samurai was daring enough to charge the Crab Lord. A single blow from his tetsubo left the Tainted samurai’s head buried in his ribcage. The Lost warrior fell dead with a thud. Kuon kicked his body over the side of the wall and continued toward the next tower.
Overhead, the sun had not yet fully risen. An eerie darkness covered the wall, broken only by an orange haze in the east. The fires of the stolen watchtower still burned brightly, and at the base their commander stood. Kuon was almost disappointed when he saw the leader of the forces here was not his brother. Instead it was a nine-foot tall ogre wielding a jagged tree trunk in one hand.
From tales of the battles on the Wall, Kuon recognized the creature as Kayobun, overlord of the free ogres. The massive creature stood over the fallen form of Mirumoto Hyosuke, who stared up at the ogre with a cool, detached calm. Kuon noted that three other ogres lay dead on the ground nearby. The Dragon had done well before Kayobun had crippled him.
“You are a long way from home, Dragon,” the ogre said in a deep voice. “Will your soul be able to find its way home once I kill you?” The creature lifted its club.
ement. “I was hoping that I might find you here. We have much to discuss.”
“I have little to say to you, Ogre,” Kuon said, advancing slowly toward the ogre.
“I think that Daigotsu chose poorly,” the ogre said. “You are stronger than your brother, and more clever than he gave you credit. You have done what he could not. You have retaken three towers, and by the time the sun rises, you shall have four.”
“Five,” Kuon corrected. “The Unicorn and the Kaiu attack from the south.”
“Well done,” Kayobun said with a nod. “I salute you, Hida Kuon. If you will listen to my proposal, I will let your Dragon pet live. I shattered his leg, but it will heal.” Kayobun gestured at Hyosuke.
“Speak,” Kuon said, stopping ten feet from the beast.
“Your Crab will win the day but the greatest test lies in the last tower, the strongest and most fortified of the six we took. I think you know who awaits you there, yes?” The ogre grinned, displaying a mouth full of sharp, white teeth. “Your bushi will pay a heavy price in blood fighting your way there. But perhaps we need not fight. I command the loyalty of we ogres, and you have proven yourself strong. We ogres wish to join you, Hida Kuon.”
“Why would you betray Daigotsu?” Kuon asked.
“He has restored Fu Leng. The Dark Father cursed my people with stupidity, treated us like animals,” Kayobun hissed. “After a thousand years we have only begun to break the curse. I will not return to servitude!”
“Well then,” Kuon said. “I accept your offer on one condition.”
“Speak,” Kayobun said.
“Leap off the side of the Kaiu Wall,” the Crab Lord said with a sharp nod. “If you survive the two hundred foot drop, we’ll talk.”
A slow scowl spread across the ogre’s face. “You mock me, Hida Kuon. You should take my offer seriously.”
“No,” Kuon said. “I will make no deals with the Shadowlands.”
The ogre roared and lifted its club, prepared to slaughter the wounded Hyosuke. Kuon was darted forward, laying his tetsubo into the side of the ogre’s leg with a sickening crunch. Kayobun fell against the wall of the watchtower. Reaching out with one hand, the ogre seized Kuon’s throat in its thick fingers. Kuon grabbed its thumb in one hand and twisted it with a snap. Kayobun shrieked in agony, a shriek that cut off suddenly as Kuon shattered the ogre overlord’s skull with his tetsubo. A savage cheer arose from the Crab troops when they saw the enemy leader fall. The other ogres began to retreat as swiftly as they were able. The Hiruma and Hida bushi battered down the gates of the tower, charging in with a defiant cry as they took it back in the name of the Crab. Kuon turned to Hyosuke.
“How badly are you injured, Mirumoto-san?” Kuon asked.
“It is broken,” Hyosuke said, looking down at his twisted left leg, “but give me back my swords and put me in front of the watchtower. I will guard the doors with the last ounce of my strength, Lord Kuon.”
Kuon gathered Hyosuke’s swords from where they had fallen, scattered out of the young Dragon’s reach, and returned them. “Good luck, Dragon,” Kuon said.
Hyosuke nodded fiercely.
“We will not fail!” Kuon shouted, pointing at the next tower with his tetsubo.
The Crab shouted triumphantly and followed him onward.
* * * * *
The armies of the Crab and Unicorn now surrounded what was often called the Fifth Watchtower on both sides. Lixue’s troops had been equally successful in the south, and now this tower was now the only one still controlled by the Horde. Kuon knew the fight would not be easy. The Fifth Watchtower stood closest to Hiruma Castle, a former stronghold of the Horde. Thus it was the most fortified of all the watchtowers. The siege engines of the Kaiu rolled forward inexorably, ready to destroy their greatest creation. The armies of Lost, ogres, and bakemono fought back savagely. With every step the Crab took, another brother or sister fell.
Kuon’s eyes scanned the armies of the Lost, looking for any signs of his brother. He could see none. Either Kuroda was not among his enemies, or he waited within the tower itself.
“The sun rises, my Lord,” Kuni Kiyoshi said, eyes on the eastern sky. The Witch Hunter’s voice was excited, almost eager.
“Now?” Rohiteki asked, standing to the Crab Lord’s right.
“Now,” Kuon said grimly.
Rohiteki made a quick, graceful gesture. In response an aura of swirling fire kami suffused her body, illuminating the area all about. “Look well!” she shouted, her voice echoing across the Wall. “Look upon the wall that guards the Empire from Darkness! Look upon the corruption that has suffused it! We call now upon the power of those who once fought the darkness beside us, we beg your aid in this, our most desperate hour! We call upon those who once bore the name of the Crab!”
Behind Rohiteki, Kiyoshi and the other assembled shugenja began to chant. In the east, the sky grew brighter.
“We call upon Osano-Wo, the Thunderer!” Rohiteki shouted. Above, lightning crackled in the clear sky. “We call upon the Hida, the Soul of the Mountain!” Beneath their feet, the stones of the Kaiu Wall began to vibrate gently. “We call upon Kisada, Fortune of Persistence!” The flames in the torches all about flared brightly, burning with a pure white light. “We call upon Yakamo! We call upon Lord Sun to burn away your blasphemous shadow with the pure light of day!”
The sun appeared fully over the horizon, but the light was unlike any Kuon had ever seen before. It was pure white, so pure that it hurt his eyes to look at it even indirectly. Thunder rumbled overhead, and the earth began to rumble. Rohiteki clapped her hands sharply and joined the others in chanting.
Jade fire rained down from the sky. Where it struck the Crab, it suffused them with strength and energy. Where it struck the Horde, it burned. The soldiers of the Lost screamed.
“Charge!” Kuon roared, pointing his tetsubo at the final watchtower.
As one, the armies of the Crab and Unicorn attacked the Fifth Watchtower. Hida Kuon forged his way to the head of the army, hewing about with his tetsubo. Three Lost fell with each swing. Kuon’s brilliant armor shone with the green fire of Lord Sun, and his eyes were full of death. Hitoshi and Reiha appeared at his side, forming an unstoppable wedge that bore directly for the gates of the Fifth Watchtower.
When the gates were in sight, the armies of the Lost parted before Kuon. A single warrior stepped forth, clad in armor of deepest midnight. His eyes burned like twin coals. Of all those in the Horde, he alone did not seem to be affected by the fire from the heavens. Kuon knew him at once.
“Kuroda,” Kuon whispered. “So it is true.”
“No,” Reiha said, eyes wide. “I saw you die.”
“You abandoned me, Reiha-chan,” Kuroda said, drawing his obsidian katana with a dull hiss. “Just as Kuon abandoned me when he charged off to fight the Crane. All of you were weak. You failed me, Kuon, and you failed the Kaiu Wall. You do not deserve to be Crab!”
“We are weak?” Hitoshi retorted. “Look at yourself, Kuroda! You once fought the Horde, now you lead them!”
“Do not answer his jibes, Hitoshi,” Kuon said, silencing his lieutenant with an open hand. “This is not my brother. This is just a demon that wears his skin.”
“If I am a demon, then so are you, Kuon,” Kuroda replied. “Fear burns at the heart of every Crab. Rather than let it shackle me, I use it as a weapon. I am fear! I am Kyofu!”
Kuroda extended one hand, opening it slowly. Kuon felt a wave of panic well up in his heart. His tetsubo fell from his hands, toppling noisily on the stones. All around him, he could see the Crab begin to withdraw, looks of terror painted upon their faces.
“You Crab brag of your connection to the Heavens,” Kuroda shouted, “but you are not the only one with allies in Heaven, and for every action there must be a balance. I call upon the power of the Ninth Kami! I call upon Fu Leng! Extend your hand and punish Lord Sun’s children for what they have done here!”
The green fire of the heavens ceased to fall. A beam of utter darkness descended from above, eclipsing the Fifth Watchtower. Kuon watched helplessly as the slate grey stones of the tower turned shiny black.
“Let fear wash over you, comfort you, protect you,” Kuroda said in a mocking voice. “Let it guide you to a safe, dark, place and hide there. The Wall is ours, Crab. You are no longer needed.”
“No,” Kuon said, drawing his sword. It shone faintly with the blessing of Hida Sukune. Kuon felt the false fear Kuroda had inspired begin to fade. He lifted his blade and charged.
Kuroda’s eyes narrowed when he realized what had happened. He deflected Kuon’s attack easily. “You never practiced enough with a sword, little brother,” Kuroda said, slashing at Kuon’s chest. The Crab Lord dodged away. “You know I was always your better.”
“I will not surrender,” Kuon hissed, catching his brother’s blade on his own. Sparks erupted from both weapons as the twins stood locked in combat. “I will free you, brother.”
“Strange,” Kuroda replied. “I was going to say the same thing.” Kuroda gave a fierce shove, his strength enhanced by the demon that possessed him. Kuon fell backward, sprawling across the stones. Kuroda advanced, sword raised high. Kuon looked into Kuroda’s eyes. There was no remorse there, no honor, nothing left but the Onisu. For a moment, Kuon felt he would give in to despair.
“To your feet, my lord!” came a sharp cry. “This battle is not yet done!”
Hida Hitoshi charged past Kuon, interposing himself in front of Kuroda. Reiha appeared at his side, extending one hand to help Kuon to his feet. The Crab had rallied, inspired by Kuon’s example. Already they were charging into the ranks of the Lost once more.
Kuroda advanced slowly toward the three samurai, ignoring the chaos all around them. “Come then, if you must,” he said. “I am an Onisu, a nightmare given flesh. What can mere samurai do against me?”
“All of us are just samurai, brother,” Kuon said, “but when we stand together, we are the Crab.”
Kuroda paused. At the sound of his own words, fear flickered in the Tainted samurai’s eyes. Turning quickly, Kuroda ran and leapt over the edge of the Kaiu Wall. Kuon charged after him, stopping only as Hitoshi and Reiha seized his shoulders. A spectral steed formed beneath Kuroda in mid-air, bearing him aloft as he galloped away to the west.
“We will find him, Kuon,” Reiha whispered. “We will make that demon pay for what he has done to your brother.”
Kuon only nodded.