To Live By the Sword
by Shawn Carman
It was difficult not to love Toturi Tsudao. Not love of the sort one found in Kakita romantic poems, of course. That would be completely inappropriate. She was exquisitely beautiful, yes, but a true samurai kept such feelings under control. Duty and loyalty were all that mattered, and it was in that regard that Tsudao gained the respect, admiration, and even love of those under her command.
Doji Jotaro watched the woman known as the Sword move among her troops, checking the readiness of her men and making preparations to break camp. Many in the Empire believed her nickname came as a result of her long years of service to the Imperial Legions. That was part of it, but not all. Her devotion, her honorable nature, and her brilliant leadership had earned her the nickname when she was yet a teen, fresh from her gempukku. It was the comparison of her innate nature to that of the samurai ideal that made the term so appropriate.
“Pining again, Crane?” The tone of the voice was pleasant enough, but there was a demeaning edge to the words. Frowning, Jotaro turned to face what was becoming an all too familiar adversary.
“I would think you would have found something else to occupy your time, Paneki-san,” Jotaro said pleasantly. “While I certainly enjoy our conversation, I find it hard to believe there is not something more pressing for you to do. After all, you have been here longer.”
Bayushi Paneki, a member of Toturi Tsudao’s command staff with a reputation as a hero of the Empire. Since Jotaro had arrived in the First Legion, the Scorpion had treated him with nothing but disdain and disrespect. For the past week, the man had needled him whenever possible, always skirting the edge of insult but never actually crossing over. For whatever reason, the abrasive samurai had decided that it was in the best interests of his clan to keep a close eye on Jotaro. Not that Jotaro had anything to hide, of course, but it was still annoying. Paneki had intimated that Tsudao had asked him to perform this duty, but Jotaro strongly doubted that. Tsudao had granted Jotaro this position for his valor in the Crane’s conflict against Akodo Kaneka. Jotaro had gladly accepted the post: it was the Sword’s way of stating clearly to her half brother that she did not appreciate his ill-advised attempts to create peace in the Empire by making war with the Crane Clan.
“I do indeed have many responsibilities,” Paneki added with a smile, “Fortunately, I am efficient enough that I am left with a fair amount of free time.”
“That is fortunate,” Jotaro muttered under his breath.
“Tell me, Crane,” the young bushi continued, “do you watch Tsudao because you admire her beauty, or because you are jealous of it?”
Jotaro sighed. “I never thought about it,” he said. “Tell me, Paneki. Are you so deliberately insulting to me because my clan offended you in the past, or are you merely another fool who belittles the Crane because it amuses you to tear down your betters?” Jotaro locked gazes with Paneki, his ice blue eyes fixing on Paneki’s dark brown ones.
Paneki stared evenly back at Jotaro, the corner of his mouth slowly curving into a smile. His right hand trailed toward the sword tucked behind his obi. Jotaro matched the move so quickly that it seemed as if it had been on the hilt of his blade all along. His facial expression had never changed. Paneki’s hand stopped in mid-movement.
“Be certain,” Jotaro whispered.
“Be certain yourself,” Paneki said with a chuckle. “If you had been studying me as carefully as I have been studying you, you would know by now that I am left handed.”
Jotaro sneered in irritation, moving his hand away from the hilt.
Paneki nodded, smiled, and scratched his chin. “That is quite a temper you have there, Crane,” he said, turning his back and walking a way. For a moment, before he turned, there seemed to be a note of respect in his voice.
Jotaro sighed again. This would be a lengthy campaign.
* * * * *
“Have we received word from Otosan Uchi yet, Dejiko? ”
“No, Tsudao-sama,” the Lion samurai-ko replied. “We have not.”
Tsudao frowned. She had sent word to the capital nearly two weeks ago. With the speed of the Unicorn under her command, it was ample time for the message to have been received and a response to have been sent. If she could not get the information she needed, her entire command would suffer for it. “Unfortunately, we do not have the time to continue waiting. We must pursue the Tsuno now or we risk losing them.” She glanced around the camp. “Where is Jotaro?”
“Here, my lady.” The Crane sidled up to the pair of samurai-ko easily, his immaculate features at once charming and subservient. “What is your order?”
Tsudao grimaced. It was not an easy command to give. “I need scouts to check the perimeter of the forest.” She gestured to the south, where the vast Shinomen Mori loomed. “Tell them to be on their guard, however. We have no idea how many of the Tsuno there are, or even where they are.”
“At once, my lady,” Jotaro responded crisply. “Shall I employ standard scout units?”
A pained look came upon Tsudao’s face. “No,” she replied, her discomfort evident. “Five man squads will undoubtedly alert the Tsuno to our presence, if they remain. ”
Jotaro was silent for a moment. “Individual scouting pattern, Tsudao-sama?”
“Yes. Send the best we have. If they are alone, they may avoid the Tsuno’s detection.”
“And if they are seen, we only lose one man,” Paneki said from the corner of the tent. Jotaro’s eyes flicked to the Scorpion with a start. He had not noticed him standing there.
“I will note the specific scouts and the areas that they have been sent to detail, my lady,” Jotaro said. “If they do not return we will at least have an idea of the Tsuno’s location.”
“A keen observation,” Paneki nodded. “Your tactical mind is as sharp as your temper, Crane.”
Jotaro glared quietly at the Scorpion. Tsudao looked from Paneki to Jotaro, one eyebrow raised. “Is there a problem here, honored sirs?”
“No, Lady Sword,” Jotaro said stiffly. “No problem. Thank you for the compliment, Paneki-sama.”
Paneki tilted his head slightly. “I can help you find the troops you will need, Jotaro.”
Tsudao nodded. Jotaro bowed again and left to gather the scouts the Legion would need. She noticed that Dejiko looked after the Crane curiously. “Is something amiss, Dejiko?”
“I know you too well, Dejiko. You do not trust Paneki. Or is it Jotaro? You think he is too inexperienced?”
“No, it is not that, not at all,” the Lion samurai-ko seemed flummoxed by the question. “It is just… Jotaro represents everything that I was raised to believe made the Crane weak. Paneki represents everything I have been taught to hate and distrust in the Scorpion. And yet, I have found myself coming to respect both of them.”
“We are all soldiers,” said Tsudao. “If we cannot respect one another, then we will die at the hands of our enemies.” She allowed the comment to hang in the air for a moment, weighing upon each of them. “Come now,” she finally added. “Camp breaks in less than an hour, and we have not yet spoken to the fourth and fifth squadron commanders.”
* * * * *
The forest was nearly silent. Toturi Miyako had spent much of her childhood creeping quietly through the woodlands near her home, and she had never known one to be so quiet and so still. She had never been to the great Shinomen Mori, of course, and she had heard that Naga had frightened off most of the wildlife, but surely this was not normal. The Naga temples were another day’s travel inside the perimeter. Could the serpent-men’s influence extend so far? Miyako doubted it. No, something else had surely frightened away the wildlife.
A flash of color among the bushes up ahead caused the Monkey samurai-ko to halt in her tracks, her hand clutching the hilt of her katana. She remained motionless for several minutes, waiting to see if something was up ahead. When nothing happened, she very slowly began to inch her way forward. Although the distance between her and her destination could be measured in mere feet, it took her more than a few minutes to reach it, so quiet and so cautious was her advance.
Lying crushed and twisted on the forest floor was the body of a Unicorn samurai. His face was contorted in a grimace of pure agony, and Miyako had no doubt that his grievous wounds had been inflicted before his death, not after. His shattered hand still clutched to the cold steel of his gaijin blade, and although the weapon itself was broken, there was the stain of crimson upon it. It was not human blood.
Miyako frowned. This was one of the signs she had been told to look for. Clearly, the Tsuno were in the forest, or at least they had been. This man had been dead for several days. Assuming the foul beasts continued moving, they could have reached the southern border of the forest and be on their way to the Crab provinces by now. Perhaps they would return to the Wall and their master? Or perhaps they came from somewhere else entirely. There was much about the Tsuno that was as yet unknown.
Despite the Unicorn’s corpse, Miyako’s mission was clear. She had been assigned to travel nearly two full days into the forest and gather the information Tsudao needed. By the time the entire Legion was ready to enter the forest, she would be back, hopefully with an idea of the Tsuno’s movements within the gigantic woodlands. She whispered a brief prayer for the Unicorn’s soul to reach Yomi without difficulty and quickly began moving once more.
A few hours later, Miyako had begun to wonder if her questions regarding the Tsuno had not been correct. She had not seen anything out of the ordinary since leaving the Unicorn’s corpse. With the sheer numbers the Tsuno had used to attack the Lion lands, it seemed almost unthinkable that they could disappear so completely.
She was still wondering if they might have left for the Crab lands when the beast leapt from the shadows.
* * * * *
Tsudao sat at her table in her command tent, regarding the map of the Shinomen Mori with a concerned expression. The depths of the forest had never been fully explored, despite her father’s close relationship with the Naga that dwelled within it. Leading her forces into the forest was a dangerous gambit, but not one that she felt she could ignore. The Tsuno had disappeared into the forest; Tokei had revealed that much. Now the First Legion must follow.
She sighed and covered her face with her hands. The past months had been the most taxing of her life. She had barely enough time to grieve over the loss of her parents before the Empire seemed to explode. Between the constant bickering with her brothers, the attacks on Otosan Uchi, the Kaiu Wall, and the Lion lands, not to mention the war between the Phoenix and the Dragon, the destruction of the Dragonfly, and that unpleasant business with Junnosuke, Tsudao sometimes felt as though she were living in some surreal dream. Sometimes she thought she should assume the throne as Paneki encouraged her to do. But no, if the throne were rightfully hers then her mother would have said as much before she disappeared. All she could do now was try to hold the Empire together while everyone else tore it apart.
Tsudao shook her head and focused on the map. That was no way to think. Regardless of what else was going on, it was her duty as the commander of the First Legion to protect and defend the people of Rokugan. The Tsuno had appeared from nowhere and struck a terrible blow against the Lion. If they were allowed to escape unhindered, who knows where they might appear next? No, it could not be permitted. She would not allow it.
Still, sometimes she only wanted to rest. She might be Toturi’s daughter, true enough, but she was only human, and felt the weight of her responsibilities keenly. Fortunately, she had extremely talented and competent lieutenants serving under her. Dejiko and Miyako. Paneki and Jotaro. Tokei. A wide variety of personalities, all very different, yet all served the Legion to the best of their ability. Without them to rely upon Tsudao’s job would prove impossible.
“You are far too hard on yourself, daughter of Toturi,” came an unexpected voice from the shadows inside the tent.
Tsudao was in motion instantly. She leapt from her sitting position, her kimono rustling softly with the sudden, graceful movement. She came to a kneeling position next to the stand where her sword rested. With a single, fluid movement, she drew the blade and spun in the direction of the mysterious voice. There was no fear or surprise in her eyes.
A low chuckle came from the shadows. “Now, now, that’s not polite! You did send for me, after all.” The figure stepped into the light.
Toturi Tsudao gasped.
* * * * *
Miyako refused to give up, but she had begun to wonder if this could be her final stand. She had dodged the first Tsuno for nearly half an hour before finally losing it in the woods. Or at least she thought she had lost it. She was moving as fast as she could back toward the perimeter of the forest. Over the past few miles, however, she had begun to suspect the creature had gotten ahead of her somehow. It was nothing she could confirm, but there was a cold dread in the pit of her stomach. Her father had taught her to trust that feeling.
A terrible roar split the air, confirming her suspicions. The gigantic form of the Tsuno blotted out the fading evening light as it leapt from the bushes to swing its gigantic spear in her direction. The Monkey samurai-ko rolled away from the strike and lashed out with her yari. The tip of her weapon glanced harmlessly off of the beast’s armor. Its strike, however, shattered a young tree completely. It compensated quickly, backhanding her with one thick forearm even as its weapon cleaved the wood.
Miyako rolled backward, her helmet lost. Her head rang from the creature’s attack. She could afford no mistakes in this battle. The Tsuno was larger, stronger, possibly faster. One strike from that spear would mean instant death.
“Filthy animal!” the monster roared in harshly accented Rokugani. Its breath reeked of rotten meat and foul earth. It Fixed her with strange red-gold eyes. “I will make a drum from your flesh!”
“Die!” cried Miyako. She hurled her spear at the Tsuno’s face and used the moment’s distraction to draw her twin swords. She assumed a dueling pose and waited, balancing atop a fallen log.
The Tsuno laughed at her stance though it watched her warily. It was a booming, terrible noise that echoed throughout the forest for miles. He lunged at her, his bade crashing down in an overhead swing that would have split stone with its force.
Miyako shifted her weight, allowing the log to roll and throw her to one side. The Tsuno’s blade missed her by mere inches. She spun as she fell, letting her strike flow through the entire movement and gather as much speed and force as possible.
Just as the Tsuno began to recover from its overextended attack, Miyako’s blade sliced neatly through its leg at the knee. She threw her wakizashi, burying the blade in its lower abdomen. The creature howled in pain and toppled backward. Miyako hit the ground and sprung forward again, burying her katana in its throat before it could gather its wits.
The young Monkey slumped to her knees beside the corpse, exhausted beyond anything she had ever experienced. She had defeated the Tsuno because it was overconfident. Still, it was larger, faster and far stronger than any human she had ever encountered, and it displayed an impressive intelligence. How could they hope to defeat such an opponent?
Another roar sounded from deep inside the forest far to the south. The doubt cast from her mind, Miyako suddenly found that she had energy left after all. She rose and continued her desperate flight from the Shinomen.
* * * * *
Kitsu Dejiko ran through the camp. After a full day’s march to get the Legion near the Shinomen’s border, he had looked forward to a restful night. The summons to Tsudao’s tent changed that. Whatever the reason, Dejiko feared the worst. Tsudao had summoned her officers in the dead of the night once before, years ago. That had been to tell them they were halting maneuvers immediately to engage a force of Yabanjin barbarians invading the northern Phoenix provinces.
Dejiko reached Tsudao’s tent to find a heavy guard posted. Jotaro and Paneki were already here. Dejiko stepped in quickly, the guards bowing low before her, and was immediately taken aback by what she saw. Tsudao and her chief lieutenants were standing around the edge of the tent. She saw Toturi Miyako standing near Tsudao. One side of the woman’s face was badly bruised, but she was very much alive. In the middle, a man sat on a mat sipping tea. A pleasant smile graced his weathered features, and he inclined his head respectfully as Dejiko entered.
“Ah, a Kitsu. How surprising to see you here,” said Naka Tokei, the Grand Master of the Elements.
Dejiko immediately knelt before Tokei, struggling to find the words for such a surprise. Finally, she simply said “Greetings, Tokei-sama. It is an honor to have you with us.”
“Rise, daughter of Kitsu,” Tokei said cheerfully. “It is far too late in the evening for such niceties.”
“Tokei-sama,” Tsudao began now that all her lieutenants were present, “I did not expect you to come in person. When I sent my messengers, I merely hoped for your advice regarding these Tsuno. You have traveled the Spirit Realms at length, and I thought perhaps you might know something that would aid me in finding them.”
Tokei’s smile faded, and a sad look appeared in its place. He set his tea aside and rose to walk about the room, his hands clasped in his sleeves. “I do indeed know much of these beasts, Tsudao-san,” he said gravely. “And that is why I have come. If you hope to catch them, you must know some of their secrets.”
“Only some?” inquired Dejiko.
“Yes,” responded Tokei. “Not even I am privy to the dark past of the Tsuno, but there are things I have learned. The Tsuno move from place to place in the blink of an eye, as some of you have surmised. They simply move through the Spirit Realms in places where they touch the mortal realm most closely.” He pulled a second mat closer to the one upon which he had been sitting and returned to his seat. He gestured to the other mat and looked at Tsudao expectantly.
Wordlessly, Tsudao sat and mirrored Tokei’s meditative pose. “Allow your mind to wander freely,” Tokei said in a low, soothing voice. “Let it drift, as if you were about to sleep.”
The two sat motionless for several long minutes. Dejiko had begun to wonder if anything would happen at all when suddenly Tsudao gasped. “Are those. . . ”
“Yes,” Tokei answered. “What you feel are the spirits of the sleeping Naga.”
The Sword’s brow furrowed in concentration. “What are…” her voice quavered in anger. “The Tsuno have taken the Naga cities.” Her head moved slightly back and forth as she spoke, as if she were looking for something. “What are they doing?”
“Using rituals the Empire has never seen. What can you see?”
“A portal… there’s some sort of portal. And inside it, there are visions. I cannot make them out. But there’s something strange about them, something…” Tsudao was caught up in her visions now, making no sense.
“Look closer,” Tokei urged.
“The portal, they’re entering it,” Tsudao whispered. “I can see everything that surrounds them. There is a mist, and moving shapes. It seems so familiar to me… almost like a…” her eyes opened and she sat up suddenly. “A dream!”
Tokei only nodded. “Yes, very good. Your spirit is strong, like the goddess you emulate.”
Tsudao climbed shakily to her feet. “They move in dreams.”
Tokei nodded. “They have a ritual that allows them to enter Yume-do through the places where concentrations of nightmares are strong. They are torturing the sleeping Naga, and using their pain to transport themselves across Rokugan.”
Tsudao placed her hands on her blade, drawing strength from its solidity in the confusing discussion. Tsudao did not like fighting magic; that was her brother Sezaru’s domain. “Tokei-sama, how can we defeat creatures that can move through dreams?”
“And if they can move through Yume-do,” added Dejiko, “what other realms are open to them?”
“Toshigoku, the Realm of Slaughter – a realm with many strong connections to the Lion provinces. Jigoku. Perhaps others. These things are not given to me to foresee,” Tokei said simply.
The tent was silent as the officers within considered what they had learned. “This changes nothing,” Tsudao said, the strength back in her voice. “The Tsuno will be hunted down, and we will end the threat they pose. We possess knowledge now, and in time we will find a way to use that as a weapon. Return to your tents, all of you. We march at dawn.”
Tokei smiled once more. “You are your father’s daughter,” he said softly. “there is no mistaking it.”