By Shawn Carman & Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The day had dawned bright and fine, a promise of the full glories of the coming spring. The villagers had eaten their breakfasts and hurried out to field and garden to make ready for the early planting, praising the Fortunes that had kept the cold northern wind quiet today. Shiba Jinzaburo enjoyed a later, more leisured breakfasthe had no vegetables to sowand sat on the eastern porch of the village’s tea house, sipping tea and enjoying the warm sunlight. Life as Road’s End Village’s magistrate was every bit as boring as he had been told, but it did have its compensations.
Jinzaburo had finished his first pot and was debating if it was too early to call for a second when he heard the yelling. “Shiba-sama! Shiba-sama!” Aki, the village headman, rounded the corner of the building at a run and flung himself on the ground before the startled samurai. “Shiba-sama, I beg you to come and look! The woodcutters have fled here, saying that they have seen strange soldiers in the forest! And there is smoke on the northern horizon, as if from a great burning!”
Strange soldiers. Burning. The words rang in Jinzaburo’s head as he stared at the kneeling peasant. A runner had come to the village the week before, bearing word of the attack on the Dragon lands, but it had never occurred to him that the Phoenix lands might be next. Of course, he reflected, his sensei had always said he was stupid, so perhaps he should have expected to be surprised. “Call the people of the village,” he found himself saying. “Have them gather warm clothes, food for traveling, as much of their seed stores as they can carry. We will evacuate the village.” Aki looked up with tears in his eyeshe, like all the other people in the village had been born herebut he did not object. He bowed silently and departed.
Jinzaburo swallowed, wishing he had some tea to combat the dryness in his mouth, and then he got up. He would have to put on his armor, for all that it would be worthless, and that would take a long time to do alone. Maybe long enough for his hands to stop shaking. Coward, his sensei would have said, but happily his sensei was far, far away. A small blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. He slid open the teahouse door and started for the magistrate’s office. He was half-way across the main room before he noticed the monks.
They both wore the robes favored by ascetics of the Asako family, but there the similarities ended. One man was tall and thin, with a narrow, mournful face. His companion was at least a foot shorter and as round as a dumpling, with fat cheeks that puffed up into his eyes. Jinzaburo was disconcerted to find that they were both staring at him with fixed attention. “Excuse me, Grandfathers,” he said, “but now is not a good time for a pilgrimage here. War is coming.”
“All time is in the favor of the Heavens; soon or late it moves to fulfill the wishes of the Gods,” the tall monk said. The shorter monk turned to give him a withering look, then turned back to Jinzaburo. “We’re only here to talk to you,” he said.
“Me?” Jinzaburo said.
“The hour of the Shiba is at hand, when heros will arise from that family and stand forth to defend the Empire,” the tall monk said. The short monk rolled his eyes. “There’s help coming to deal with the main army,” he said, ” but you will have to take care of the patrol yourself. A naginata will be useful.”
“Army?” Jinzaburo said. He wanted to believe that the two were madmen, or a pair of Togashi pulling a particularly elaborate practical joke, but he couldn’t. There was something disturbingly real about them, as if they were somehow more real than the teahouse itself.
The tall monk opened his mouth but this time the short one was faster. “The Army of Fire,” he said. “Its soldiers are fearsome, but they can be stopped. You can stop them.”
Jinzaburo found himself staring at the floor. “I am sorry, Grandfather, but I can’t,” he said quietly. “I was the worst student in my dojo. My sensei said I was incapable of learning.”
“Your sensei was the most miserable excuse for a teacher I’ve seen in my entire life,” the short monk said. “He couldn’t have taught Kakita Toshimoko how to bed a whore! He got a nice appointment through political connections, not because he could teach.”
Jinzaburo gawked at him. It was well-known in the dojo, but never talked about to outsiders. “How did you know that?”
“There are no secrets to those who have walked the Path to its end,” the tall monk said. “Destiny is as an open scroll to us.”
“What he said.” The short monk folded his arms over his chest and gave the Shiba a glare. “This is Phoenix land. This is the Empress’s land. Are you going to stand and let it be overrun without a fight?”
“I” Jinzaburo paused. For a moment he felt real, as real as the two monks, and everything fell into place. “No,” he said. “I am not.”
“Good boy,” the short monk said approvingly. He and the tall monk both held out their hands in a gesture of benediction. “Carry the Fortunes, my child,” the tall one said, and then they both dissolved into a golden glow and vanished.
Jinzaburo dropped to floor and bowed down, then he leaped to his feet and went to go put on his armor.
“He believed us,” a voice said.
“Of course,” a second voice replied. “We were telling the truth, after all.”
To the north of the village’s fields a stream wandered through the woods, and at a point where it had slowed and broadened enough to create a small marsh a bridge had been built for the convenience of the woodcutters. Jinzaburo knelt near one end of the bridge, weapons at hand, waiting. If the patrol followed the woodcutters’ path to the village, and there was little reason for them not to, this would be the best place to meet them. One more time he checked the tension of the bowstring, saw to it that his beloved naginata was within easy reach. And then the enemy was there, coming down the path and breaking into a run as the Yobanjin raiders caught sight of him.
Jinzaburo drew and released, and the leading raider stumbled and went down. The men behind him did not check or alter their path, and so it was that when his body erupted in flame two more were caught by it and immolated themselves in turn. Jinzaburo loosed several more arrows but claimed only one more kill, and then the range was too short. He cast aside the bow and swept up his naginata as the first Yobanjin ran on to the bridge.
The fight was short. The bridge prevented the remaining five raiders from using their numbers against Jinzaburo, and their heavy ringed swords could not match the speed and precision of his naginata. Jinzaburo killed the last one by slicing off his head and then executing a spinning kick to push the corpse into the marsh before it erupted. He stood alone on the bridge, breathing heavily and reveling in the feeling of having survived a death-fight. Slowly he started to grin, imagining the look on his sensei’s face when he heard of thisand then he shrieked in surprise as something gripped his ankle. Looking down Jinzaburo saw a bloody, marsh-slimed Yobanjin with a sword in one hand and his ankle in the other. Acting on instinct Jinzaburo drove the point of naginata into the other man’s neck, and realized to his horror that he was now pinned by a death grip.
Shiba Ningen knelt, eyes closed, at the edge of the village’s westernmost field. The Army of Fire was now close enough that he could catch whiffs of the burning smell that accomponied them, but he had been tracking them in the Void for much longer. As his mind hung suspended in lusterous darkness his body heard the crackle of feet marching through dead grass and the jangle of gear, and then for a short time silence as if those marching had paused at the sight of a lone man meditating in the middle of an empty field.
Ningen had come intending many things, but as he studied spirits of the raiders he felt his intentions fade. They had all the hatred and fury of the attackers at Kyuden Isawa, but in this moment of silence Ningen heard something that he had missed before. Deep in the heart of every man here was a core of inconsolable grief that wondered what had happened to their family, their tribe, themselves.
As the army charged forward Ningen took a deep, shaky breath and reaching out with all of his skill in the Void he gathered all the spirits together, holding all of them in his mind.
“Flowers,” he said.
When he opened his eyes the field in front of him was carpeted with blossoms. The bell-like flowers hung down from short, thin stems, and they were white: the color of death and grief. As the breeze moved through them they seemed to bow and nod to Ningen, and he rose to his feet and gravely bowed back to them.
Shiba Jinzaburo watched slack-jawed at Ningen’s actions. He had hobbled back to the village as a fast as his wrenched ankle would take him, ignoring the pain of his burns, only to hear from the villagers that the Master of Void himself had come to defend Road’s End. He’d had the local healer quickly wrap the ankle and made his way here, ready to offer whatever aid he could. Now Jinzaburo could only stare and wonder what a man with that kind of power could possibly need him for.
Ningen turned away and began the walk back to the village, weariness showing in every step. At the third step he stumbled slightly, staggered, and began to fall. He tried to put out an arm to break his fall but the right arm would not bear him and Ningen fell heavily into the dirt.
“Master Ningen!” Jinzaburo shouted, and ran as fast as he could manage to where the Master lay. With shaking hands he turned Ningen over and blanched at what he saw. Ningen’s right eye was half-closed, but his left was darting around as if in confusion. Saliva was dripping from the right corner of his mouth, and he was making vague, incoherent sounds. “Master Ningen?” Jinzaburo said, uncertain. “Master, what is wrong?”
“Thee-tha,” Ningen said. “Thee-tha!”
“I don’t understand,” Jinzaburo said. Not knowing what else to do he gently hugged the other man, as if he were a child. “Don’t worry, Master Ningen. I’ll take you back to the village and send runners to find a shugenja to aid you. Don’t worry.” Ningen relaxed against him, whether in trust or simple unconsciousness Jinzaburo did not know.
Carefully Jinzaburo stood up and lifted Ningen off the ground. Gritting his teeth he took a step on his bad ankle and smiled when the expected pain did not show. It hurt, but no more than he could bear. He marched quickly back the village, bearing the stricken master, and he did not see the two monks who walked beside him, lending him their strength.
* * *
Fire blazed all around the perimeter of Kyuden Isawa, and portions of the palace itself burned as well. The ranks of the Army of Fire seemed without end, but the bodies of their fallen clogged the plains around the palace and made it more difficult to approach. The Shiba guardians fought on, heedless of the danger to themselves and the staggering losses they had sustained. Despite that it was midday, the sky was so blotted by smoke that it seemed no brighter than dusk.
Shiba Ikokawa ripped her blade free of another raider and cast about for another opponent. Finding none, she wiped sweat and blood from her brow with the sleeve of her ruined kimono. She had abandoned counting the number of foes she had slain when she reached three dozen. She looked for the others who had been fighting alongside her for hours. None of her unit remained alive, but inexplicably, she had found allies in three guests of the palace who had refused to evacuate alongside their kinsmen.
Yasuki Kowaru appeared at Ikokawa’s side, and tossed a bloodied stone to the ground near the corpse of her foe. “I cannot say much for Phoenix masonry,” he grunted, “but the quality of your stone is good enough.”
“Where is your steel?” Ikokawa asked.
“Lost it when one of the walls fell in,” Kowaru grunted. “Nearly killed me. Had to bash in the idiot’s skull with a rock instead.” He shrugged. “A Crab makes do.”
The Phoenix rolled her eyes at the relentless stoicism of the Crab, but was grateful to see him still alive. “Where is Itoru?”
Kowaru shook his head. “Your kinsman was an excellent yojimbo, the equal of any Hiruma I have known, but he did not survive the last attack. I am sorry.”
Ikokawa nodded. “It is how he would have wished to die.”
A black-and-crimson clad wraith appeared out of the smoke, supporting a larger figure on her shoulder. “No disrespect intended to the dead, but only a fool wishes to die.” She carefully sat the wounded man down. “A group of eight broke into the courtyard. We took them all save three, who retreated. The overrun of the courtyard is imminent. We cannot remain here.”
The Phoenix shook her head. “I cannot abandon my position.”
The Unicorn on the ground stirred. “I am certain& your superiors& would find your pointless sacrifice& very meaningful.”
“Be silent, Tairu!” Ikokawa barked. “You are welcome to keep any thoughts you have regarding my duty to yourself!”
Utaku Tariu coughed slightly and struggled to his feet, wincing and favoring his left arm noticeably. “I apologize if I have offended you, but I fail to see the point in sacrificing yourself in the vain attempt to hold ground that is going to be overrun regardless of what you do.” He looked at the Scorpion. “I would wager Chaiko harbors similar feelings.”
The Shosuro bowed her head slightly and returned to inspecting the array of short knives that were strapped to her wrists. “I have no opinion I wish to share.”
“We have to fall back,” Kowaru agreed. When Ikokawa looked at him incredulously, she shrugged. “I do not run from a fight easily, but I understand that if we stay, we will die, and there will be fewer samurai remaining to defend your home. Is that what you want?”
Ikokawa clenched her teeth and considered a response, but ultimately there was little she could say. “Very well,” she rasped. “Let us move farther into the towers and see if there are others we can join.” She halted for a moment and looked at the Unicorn. “Your two friends?”
Tairu shook his head. “Let us go,” he said simply.
The four samurai moved quickly and quietly as they crept farther into the smoldering center of Kyuden Isawa, carefully watching for any signs of defenders or other raiders that might have gained entry. There was little for them to encounter, it seemed. There was an unusual sound, something different from the normal din of battle, and Ikokawa gestured for the others to hold their position while she investigated it. She was mentally preparing the words to a prayer when she crept around the corner and then stared mutely at what she was seeing. “Master Bairei?”
The Master of Water was kneeling at the base of one of the towers. There were five chests sitting in a circle around him, all of them open, and twice that many scroll satchels, also open and stuffed almost to bursting with various scrolls and other items that appeared to have been taken from the palace. Bairei’s face was drenched with sweat and he looked completely exhausted. He did not notice her at first, instead concentrating on a scroll he had withdrawn from one of the chests. After muttering to himself for a moment, he withdrew a scroll from one of the satchels and, with an exquisitely pained expression, cast it aside and replaced it with the one he was holding. Then he resumed looking at the chests. “Master Bairei!” Ikokawa called again.
Bairei looked up in surprise. “Yes?”
Ikokawa rushed to his side. “What are you doing here, Bairei-sama? You should not be in the open like this!”
Bairei ran a hand through his soot-stained hair and grimaced. “These are all incredibly valuable!” he said, although Ikokawa was not certain that he was speaking to her. “How can I choose which ones to try and take with me? I cannot save them all!”
“What is all this about?” Kowaru said as the trio of other samurai approached.
The Master of Water looked at them in confusion. “What are you doing here?”
Tairu raised an eyebrow. “I have not found Phoenix insight to be quite what it is reputed to be,” he admitted.
“You should not be here,” Bairei said sternly. “If you die here, the Phoenix will be shamed.”
“We are not dead yet,” Chaiko said softly. “What are these things, Isawa-sama?”
“Incredible treasures,” Bairei said mournfully. “I have saved all that I can, but there is no one left to evacuate these precious scrolls. The thought of their destruction is unbearable to me.” He wiped a hand across his face, leaving trails of ash on his features, then he looked up suddenly. “You must take them!”
“What?” Kowaru said.
“You must take them!” Bairei nearly shouted. “You must save yourselves in order to preserve the honor of the Phoenix, and in the process you can save more of these than I could carry myself!”
“A Crab does not.”
“Enough platitudes!” Ikokawa barked. “Save these items at Bairei’s request and your clan will gain the gratitude of the Phoenix Clan. Is that something your lord would wish you to throw away so easily? Is your death in defense of a lost cause worth more?” The Phoenix blinked in surprise at her own words, then looked down sorrowfully. “Please, just take them and go. Do not die here.”
“We would be honored to fulfill your request,” Chaiko said, bowing. “I am certain my imminently practical comrades would agree, would you not?”
“Of course,” Tairu said with a bow. Kowaru frowned, but nodded silently in assent.
“Take them, please,” Bairei entreated. “All you can carry.”
Tairu grabbed two of the satchels. “My comrades and I concealed our horses a short distance to the south. With any luck, they may still be there. The Yobanjin are too focused on the palace to go searching outside the perimeter.”
Kowaru grunted as he lifted one of the chests in its entirety. “I feel like an old fool, running like this.”
Chaiko strapped two of the bags to her back and another around her waist, then drew one of her throwing knives in each hand. “If it makes you feel any better, old man, I am sure that there will be plenty of enemies between us and escape.”
The Yasuki glowered at the Scorpion. “Maybe a little better,” he muttered.
* * *
Asako Kanta was pleased to discover the relative warmth of the lands outside Kyuden Bayushi. Despite the lateness of the month, it would still be relatively cold in the Phoenix lands. Throughout most of the Empire, however, winter was over. The Winter Court of the Empress had been held over weeks after its normal ending date, simply because the Empress wished to keep her court close at hand during the time of strife in the north. Kanta longed to return home, but realistically he realized there was very little he could accomplish there. He was of more use to his clan here, in the high-pressure environment of Winter Court, where he might achieve something, anything, that would aid his clan in the battle for their homeland.
The young courtier looked again at the scrap of paper in his hands. He had discovered it in his chambers the previous evening. It was a discreet invitation to receive a gift, but one that could not be presented in court. He was to come alone, the invitation said, in order to receive it from the anonymous author. Under normal circumstances, Kanta would never have even entertained the thought of accepting such a ridiculous invitation. His clan had few enemies, however, and he could scarcely imagine why anyone would wish him harm. What’s more, the note had further stated that the gift was something that might aid the Phoenix. In Kanta’s mind, that was all that needed to be said. He would gladly risk his life for something such as that.
The voice was harsh and utterly without warmth. The sound of it, coming as it did from the forest to Kanta’s right, filled him with a momentary rush of fear such that he knew he had been deceived, and that his death was imminent. At the least, he hoped he would face it without shaming his ancestors.
“You reek of fear,” the man said again, his disdain obvious. “Are you that weak?”
Kanta steeled himself and turned to face the other man. “I am strong enough to go to my ancestors without shame.”
The speaker was a monk, a sohei by his dress, and little of his features could be discerned other than his eyes. His gaze, however, was absolutely withering, and Kanta felt his very soul wither at the man’s stare. “Perhaps you are, and perhaps you are not,” the monk said. “We will not discover that today, however. I have another purpose.”
There was a glimmer of hope in Kanta’s spirit. “So you are the one I was told to meet, then? You sent me the letter?”
“I sent no letter,” the monk said. “One of my lord’s other vassals sent the letter. I am simply here to fulfill its promise.” He turned and signaled to the woods. At his command, several dozen men emerged. By their look, they were ashigaru, and Kanta noted that many of them were quite thin. They carried a series of heavy crates, chests, and other containers among them, setting them on the ground and withdrawing again. “These are for your clan. They are a gift.”
“A gift?” Kanta raised an eyebrow. “What do they contain?”
The monk went to one and kicked it open with his foot. The chest was filled with scrolls, many of which bore signs of fire damage, and others simply in poor condition as a result of age. “Texts,” he answered. “Hundreds of them. All different sorts.”
“Where did these come from?”
“Otosan Uchi,” the monk answered. “They were recovered from the ruins there over the course of several years. Some of it may have value. Much of it is useless, I am certain. Regardless, it is for your clan. Perhaps something within might aid in recovering your losses.”
Kanta shook his head. “This is too great a gift. I could not.”
The monk held up one hand. “I care nothing for your ridiculous social rituals,” he said. “I am leaving. If you do not want them, the elements will take them.” He threw something to the Phoenix. “This is for you.”
Kanta unrolled the scrap of parchment the monk had thrown him and frowned, trying to determine what possible meaning the symbol there might have.
“Much of it was fairly unimportant,” Kanta was telling the court attendants excitedly, “but some of it has incredible value! Historical texts, treatises on every possible subject, works we thought lost forever!” He smiled broadly. “Cataloguing them will take several days yet, but the past day has been a very exciting one!”
Doji Ayano smiled. “I am so pleased that your clan could be given such a gift, Kanta-san. Who better to receive it?”
“Perhaps a better question might be, who better to bestow it?” A Scorpion stepped forward to regard Kanta curiously. His mask was cloth and extended from his lower face down to his chest. “Do you not find this entire affair somewhat curious, Kanta-san? Somewhat& convenient?”
The Phoenix frowned. “I do not follow your meaning, Shosuro-san.”
“Please, call me Takuro,” the courtier said, his voice devoid of all warmth. “Might you know the identity of those who bestowed this gift upon you?”
Kanta smiled slightly. “The letter that was left to me did not indicate its author, no. I would surely have thanked them graciously for their assistance if it had.”
“Of course you would have,” Takuro said. “But the man who delivered this gift to you. He left you no keepsake? No souvenir of his passing, save for the texts?” The Scorpion glared balefully at the Phoenix. “Nothing at all?”
“He did,” Kanta answered plainly. “I did not consider it the business of the court, but if it pleases the Chancellor?” He glanced at the silent Bayushi Hisoka, who favored him with a nod. Kanta withdrew the parchment from his obi and held it aloft. There were gasps at its insignia.
It was the mon of the Spider Clan.
“So the enigmatic ronin who dared call themselves a clan, and who have been so silent in the past few months, offered this gift,” Takuro said. “You are of course aware of the allegations regarding the Spider?”
“”I am aware that many have speculated about the Spider, but no testimony has been brought forth,” Kanta said, matching Takuro’s glare. “I do not know that I understand your point, Takuro-san.”
“My point is that these texts are a poisoned flower,” Takuro said. “The Spider cannot be trusted. These texts doubtless contain maho and all manner of blasphemy, intended to be clutched to the Phoenix Clan’s chest and used as a means of sowing corruption and discord in their ranks.” There were many murmurs and gasps throughout the chamber at the allegation. “I demand that the Scorpion be granted the right to review these texts for signs of such things!”
Kanta’s face grew flush with anger. “Chancellor?”
Hisoka glanced at both men only briefly. “Your ardor for the purity of the Phoenix is quite admirable, Takuro-san, even if allegations of maho are extremely atypical for a setting such as this, and would require considerable censure if proven untrue” he said in his soft, melodic voice. “I must wonder, however, if you have pursued this line of reasoning with your Champion before bringing it to court?”
“I was made aware of the Spider’s involvement only a few moments ago,” Takuro said. “Unfortunately lord Paneki is not on the premises at the moment or of course I would have spoken to him first.”
“And of course it did not occur to you to speak to the Chancellor regarding this matter, before presenting such accusations to the court,” Hisoka said, his tone somewhat reproving. “Perhaps you should speak to the matter, Minami-san?”
Moshi Minami stepped from the crowd. “If it is your will, Chancellor.” She looked at Takuro evenly. “At the Phoenix’s request, I had my attendants examine the texts as they were being catalogued. I know it is what my lord Kuni Daigo would wish, were the Jade Champion in attendance. Thus far there has been no indication of any inappropriate content among the recovered scrolls.”
“There are experts among the Yogo family,” Takuro began.
“Who I am certain would agree with the findings made by the agents of the Jade Champion,” Hisoka cut him off. “And I am equally certain that Lord Paneki would agree that any attempt by the Scorpion to question the authority of the Jade Champion’s agents would be unwelcome in his home, much less in any court overseen by this Imperial Chancellor. Would you agree, Takuro-san?”
The Scorpion bowed. “I would, Chancellor. My apologies.”
Ide Eien stepped forward from the crowd. “It is a simple matter for our current trying times to turn frustration against one another,” the Unicorn said. “I myself have been guilty of such a thing, much like our comrade Takuro. If I may, it would be my wish to offer an apology to the Phoenix.”
Kanta bowed slightly. “That is not necessary.”
“It is,” Eien insisted. He gestured, and one of his attendants stepped forward with a tray. “My friend, this is a tea set that has been in the possession of the Unicorn Clan since before their departure from the Empire, in the days of the Ki-Rin. It was a gift made to Iuchi by the lady Asako, said by some to have been crafted by her very hands. It is among our most sacred treasures, but in light of the losses sustained by your people, both my lord Iuchi Katamari and I agree that the Phoenix should hold such things close by, to remind them of the greatness of their people.”
Kanta’s breath caught in his throat. “I cannot accept this,” he said. “This is simply too valuable a treasure.”
“Of course,” Eien said, “and that is why it must be with the family who created it.”
“This was a gift,” Kanta countered. “It should remain with your people.”
“And now it is a gift again,” Eien said with a smile. “Please accept it.”
Kanta bowed deeply. “I am honored to accept.”
Many pressed forward to observe the ancient artifact of Phoenix history, and Kanta soon was busy pointing out the various indications of its craftsmanship and history. Eien bowed humbly and thanked many who congratulated him. As he left the chamber, he walked near Yortiomo Sachina. “Well done,” the Mantis said in a low voice, smiling.
Eien nodded respectfully. “Do not think,” he said, his voice just above a whisper, “that simply because I have mended our relationship with the Phoenix, that your debt to me is paid.” His smile broadened. “The Mantis would never have been able to forge a closer relationship with your traditional enemies without my assistance, as you may recall.”
“I have not forgotten your favor,” Sachina said. “In due time, you will benefit from your staged accusations just as much as have the Mantis.”
* * *
Shinjo Zieko tightened the grip she held on the long, curved knife held close to her side, breathing slowly through her mouth as she clung to the shadows. It seemed ridiculous to be so still and silent in such a chaotic environment, but she would not allow her discipline to fail. The city around her was in chaos, the air thick with the sounds of screaming and the smell of smoke. Zieko told herself that it was the smoke that made her eyes water so badly, and not the thought of such a precious treasure of the Empire being destroyed wantonly by its enemies.
Fukurokujin Seido was one of the most sacred sites in the whole of the Dragon provinces. The Fortune of Wisdom’s principle shrine was not particularly large or elaborate, not when compared to the massive shrines devoted to other members of the Seven Fortunes. In particular, the Fortune of Wealth, Daikoku, had shrines that were veritable palaces, some so lavish that they were ostentatious even by Zieko’s standards, which were quite liberal. Fukurokujin Seido, by contrast, was quite simple in its construction, albeit sturdier than most, hewn from the mountains themselves. It was the nature of the pilgrimages that were conducted here that lent it its grandeur, however; each visitor was expected to leave something of importance behind after offering their prayers to the Fortune of Wisdom, and in doing so ensure that his blessings would be many. Sculptures, paintings, poems, and every other conceivable manner of personal treasure filled the shrine itself and numerous outbuildings. It was one of the greatest repositories of beauty in the Empire.
Now it was burning to the ground.
Zieko stepped out of the shadows and darted to an adjacent building like a phantom, pausing only for the briefest moment to slice a lone raider’s throat with her blade. She had reentered the shadows and was moving through the city before the fountain of blood from the man’s neck finished staining the ground. Zieko knelt in the tight alley between two buildings and carefully evaluated the primary shrine, resisting the urge to swear as she did so.
The burning shrine was surrounded by raiders, many of whom were cheering the carnage they had unleashed. Others, the Unicorn officer noted, seemed to be observing it with something like remorse, and not for the first time, Zieko wondered how many of the Yobanjin had been forced to serve the Dark Oracle against their will. It mattered very little for now, however, because three of the ones that she and her men had taken to calling “Belchers” in their reports were present.
The “Belchers” were incredibly large men, larger even than most Crab that Zieko had seen in her time. They were both muscular and fat, and they had a strange look to them, something that none of her men had been able to specifically identify. To Zieko’s eye, they looked like men that had been modeled from clay, but were slightly imperfect. The features, their limbs, the proportions& everything was slightly off somehow, and it made them extremely difficult to look at. What’s more, they clearly carried the Dark Oracle’s blessings, for their flesh was constantly reddened by the heat they generated, and they were able to belch forth gouts of flame that seemed to melt almost anything, much like legends of the tattooed monks of the Dragon Clan that she had heard as a child. Zieko and her men had encountered one on his own during their scouting, and had killed it with archery fire. The man had exploded so fiercely that it had temporarily blinded two of the men who had been looking at it, and it had burned everything within twenty feet to ash. They had avoided the Belchers ever since.
Zieko clenched her teeth. She had ordered her men hold position outside of town while she attempted to rescue something, anything, from the devastation. Her second in command had called her a damned fool, but he would wait. He was a good man, a friend since childhood, and he had grown accustomed to her eccentric behavior. Her parents had loved the temple, and she had been raised in part within them. She could not stand to see something so sacred destroyed without a trace, but now there seemed to be nothing she could do. Looking around in desperation, her eyes happened across a magistrate’s station. It was as yet undisturbed, and through the open doorway, Zieko could see what appeared to be a small shrine. She had never seen a shrine inside a magistrate’s station before, but then the Dragon were peculiar individuals.
Her mouth a thin, grim line, Zieko crept toward the magistrate’s station. She was going to save something from this town, no matter what.
The smoke was clogging the sky by the time Zieko emerged from the city to rejoin her men in the crags above. They looked at her expectantly, but she shook her head. “There was nothing I could do,” she said. “You were right.”
“Enough of that, gunso,” her second in command said. He pointed at the bag. “What did you save? And how many did you kill?”
“Just some items from a shrine in the magistrate’s station,” she answered. “They appear to be the belongings of a samurai, perhaps an ancestor.” She paused for a moment. “I killed six.”
The Utaku nodded. “Good enough for me, gunso. Shall we?”
“Do you hear that?” one of men interrupted. “Is that& is that thunder?”
“No,” Zieko said, looking to the west through the smoke. “Do you not recognize the lullaby of a Unicorn? That is cavalry.”
The others peered through the gloom, trying to make out anything through the smoke. “Dragon,” one of them finally said. “By the Fortunes. There must be thousands of them.”
Zieko pointed to the town. “They hear them coming. They know what comes for them.” She pointed to the men. “Collapse this pass. Do whatever you have to do, but do not let these filth escape.” She looked down to the raiders attempting to flee the village. “Let them face their final moments like men, not animals.”
* * *
The court was even more in an uproar today than usual, Ayano reflected. News had arrived regarding the battle at Fukurokujin Seido, and while the destruction of the Yobanjin there was welcome news, the loss of such a blessed site was another great blow to the members of the court. What’s more, given the curse of Bishamon that had been levied against the Scorpion some years previously, many now worried about the potential aftermath of failing to protect the Fortune of Wisdom’s greatest shrine. Hopefully, Ayano reflected, she and her fellow Crane might be able to spare the Dragon and others that same potential disaster.
“Lords and ladies, my friends,” she began with a deep bow, speaking on behalf of her delegation for the first time, “it is my great pleasure to present to the court one of our clan’s most august personages. Asahina Mihoko is one of our most venerable sages, and her counsel was sought by Asahina Sekawa many times, even after his ascension to the positions of Jade Champion and Keeper of the Five Rings. It is our hope, our humble offering to the court, that she may be able to offer some words of comfort in this time of trial and anxiety.”
The incredibly wizened form of an ancient Crane priestess stepped forward from the ranks of their delegation. “You will forgive me, I hope, if I do not bow despite so flattering an introduction,” she said to the assembled courtiers, “but my age has created certain infirmities that are quite difficult to overcome.”
A member of the assembled courtiers, Bayushi Kurumi, stepped forward and offered a bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mihoko-sama. If I may ask, have you visited Fukurokujin Seido in the past, grandmother-sama?”
Mihoko laughed at the term of address. It was a surprisingly bright sound. “I have visited the shrine every year of my life up to and including last summer, little Scorpion. It is a wondrous place, and I weep for its loss. But I know without question that Fukurokujin is a caring and benevolent Fortune, and I do not fear his wrath even in the aftermath of its destruction. I feel it would be his will, if any mortal could know it, to rebuild with an eye toward greater defense, and continue in the manner that has pleased him so greatly over the centuries.”
Kitsuki Berii, the lord of the Kitsuki manner nodded in agreement. “It pleases those of us among the Dragon very much to hear such wise counsel,” he said. “We can only hope that the true will of Fukurokujin could be known by one who clearly bears his blessings.”
Mihoko laughed again. “Many believe I bear the blessings of Jurojin as well, given my age, but I feel that I have been blessed by Fukurokujin many times during my lifetime. I only hope that I am not presumptuous in saying so.”
“I sense only sincerity in you, Mihoko-san,” Berii said with a smile. “I would ask you a question related to another matter, if I may?”
“Of course,” Mihoko said. “I would be delighted to be of service in whatever capacity I can.”
“We have word that the Yobanjin may be traversing the Dragon Heart Plain,” Berii said, referring to the reports from Kyuden Isawa. “We all know the dangers of that place. We have heard the rumors, the stories, and we know from history what can be awakened there. Is it wise then, Mihoko-sama, in your opinion, to allow such danger to persist.”
Mihoko shook her head. “I do not believe that it is.”
Berii bowed slightly. “Then I hope that the Dragon can count upon the support of the Crane when we petition the Divine Empress for the right to end the threat of Shiro Chuda once and for all.”
* * *
The Dragon Heart Plain was one of the vastest plains in the Empire, and without question the emptiest. There was an unnatural stillness about it, a quiet that was more than the absence of wildlife. Iuchi Umeko had read of the plain often in her studies, but she had never experienced it firsthand before three days ago. Her appointment with the scouting groups that the Khan had dispatched to the northern mountains had led her here, and she was grateful to have seen it. There was something about it, something about the stillness, that spoke to her spirit.
Umeka’s attempt at meditation was disrupted by the familiar sound of hoof beats approaching. She opened her eyes as the other members of her group readied their weapons, then visibly relaxed as they recognized the incoming scout. Umeka’s moment of relief was brief, however; it was obvious that something had disturbed the rider. No Unicorn would push their steed so hard without very good reason. “Break camp!” the man shouted as he pulled to a stop. “Ready the horses at once!”
Moto Xiao stepped forward, a hard glint to his eye. “Stand down, hohei,” he ordered. “I give the commands here.”
The outrider leapt nimbly down and bowed quickly. “Forgive me, commander, I did not mean to be presumptuous, but& we must leave at once!”
“Cease your prattling and speak,” Xiao barked. “What have you seen?”
The scout took a moment to catch his breath, then bowed his head. “There was a line of smoke to the northeast, commander. I rode farther north to investigate. The smoke is the result of a large group of Yobanjin blazing a trail through the Phoenix forest. They emerged into the plain and are moving south.” He shook his head. “They move so quickly. I do not understand how they achieve such speeds.”
“The Dark Oracle’s blessings are not limited to sheer destruction,” Umeka offered. “Although obviously that is his preferred means of reinforcing his vassals.”
The scout frowned. “I could not say for certain, Xiao-sama. I would estimate at least three hundred.”
“Bah!” Xiao scoffed. “Too many for our meager eight to combat, even with the priestess’ help.” He shook his head. “Make ready to leave at once,” he ordered. “You have five minutes to collect your things.”
“What is south of here?”
Xiao turned to Umeka with a slightly annoyed expression. “What?”
She smiled. “What is south of here?”
“What difference does it make?”
Umeka’s smile wavered slightly. “I understand your frustration, commander..”
“Do you?” he said, making no effort to conceal the sneer.
“Yes.” Her polite tone was gone now, and steel filled her expression as well as her voice. “Before my commission was lost, I was a taisa in the Baraunghar. I survived the march through the Lion lands and the battle at Toshi Ranbo. So yes, I know very much how it feels to be in a position like this.”
“The Baraunghar?” Xiao blinked a moment. “Forgive me, I thought you were just another nave priestess. I would never disrespect a veteran of the Khan’s march.”
She held up her hand. “As I said, I understand your frustration, commander. Now, if you please, what is south of here? Your patrol routes have very carefully avoided a large region to the south, and I feel an ominous presence there.”
Xiao nodded. “Shiro Chuda,” he said. “The ruins of the Snake Clan lands. They yet stand after centuries. Attempts have been made to destroy them in the past, but too many dark things lurk there. Foul spirits have been awakened each time. There has been enough death that the attempts were abandoned.”
“What will happen,” Umeka wondered, “if the Yobanjin reach it?”
The commander stopped and licked his lips. “I do not know.”
“I do,” Umeka said. “And it cannot be permitted. You know this.”
Xiao shook his head. “We cannot stop them. Not alone. And there is no one to assist us.”
“We cannot stop them,” Umeka agreed. “But I may be able to.”
Xiao and his men were gone. Umeka remained. She stood alone on the plains, the Yobanjin approaching rapidly from the north, and the lingering, ominous presence she had felt to the south still loitering around the edges of her perception.
Umeka did not wish to die. She did not think any sane person did, but neither did she fear it. She had once, of course. That was before the Empire’s obsession with enlightenment from many years ago, during which she had been fortunate enough to have a brief few days to study alongside the Keepers of the Elements, gaining much insight into the true nature of the universe in the process. Others called her enlightened, but Umeka did not think that was true. She was simply more perceptive than some, and perhaps a bit more knowledgeable.
The Yobanjin drew ever closer, moving with that preternatural speed that made them so overwhelmingly dangerous. Umeka had studied with the Moto for a time since the Baraunghar had been all but destroyed. She understood the precepts of the Lords of Death, but she had never been an adherent. At least, not until this moment. Now she understood. She could purchase the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, and the price was not at all unreasonable. What’s more, because of her time with the Keepers, she understood that giving herself to the kami in exchange for their cooperation would elicit their favor in a manner far beyond anything she had ever accomplished in life.
It was all so simple, so perfectly interrelated. It was destiny. Of that there could be no doubt whatsoever. And when she reached the next world, when she was judged for her deeds in this one, would the Lords of Death look upon her with favor for her actions? She could not know for certain, but she hoped that they would. She hoped that she could see her parents again in the fields of Yomi, and ride with her friend Lixue once more.
The Yobanjin were almost upon her now. She threw wide her arms and looked at the heavens, smiling in radiant joy. “Welcome, my friends,” she said. “Take me among you, if it pleases you.”
Umeka felt a stirring in her soul and knew that it was the end. She closed her eyes and fell. The heavens parted in response to her gift, and ten bolts of lightning leapt down from the clouds to strike the enemy’s ranks. True to her wish, each bolt struck one of the largest among the Yobanjin, eliciting a massive series of fireballs that consumed the ranks almost in their entirety.
The funeral pyre for Iuchi Umeka was greater than any Unicorn since the death of Moto Chagatai.
* * *
The primary audience chamber of Kyuden Isawa was in ruins. One of the walls had collapsed entirely, causing the ceiling to sag badly and exposing the room to the corridors beyond. Smoke had filled the air for miles around the castle for hours. The sounds of battle were louder now, and the shouts of the wounded could be heard from the courtyard below the northern wall.
The hulking form of Masakazu appeared in the corridor. Snarling, he kicked aside the stone blocks that partially barred the path between the hallway and the chamber, then waved his hand to clear the air. “Do not trouble yourself, my friend,” Ochiai’s weakened voice said. The little Master of Fire waved her hand and a thermal wind tore through the chamber, temporarily dispelling the smoke. “We shall have a moment’s respite, at least.”
Asako Bairei entered the room, one hand held to his head. He bore a scroll satchel on his hip that was filled to bursting with scrolls, the ends of their cases poking out in every direction. “Lady Ochiai, are you well?”
“Well enough,” she answered. “And you?”
“In my haste I fear I struck my head, but it is not serious,” Bairei said.
“How much of the library have you managed to evacuate?”
His smile was the most sorrowful thing that Ochiai had ever seen. “Not enough, my lady,” he said.
Two more forms entered from the corridor. Isawa Mitsuko was supported by Emori, whose hair had been burned on his right side, and a sheet of dried blood covered part of his face. Mitsuko appeared barely able to walk. “The collapse of the western defense is imminent, Lady Ochiai,” Emori said.
“The palace is lost,” Ochiai said. “There is nothing that can stop that now.”
“No,” Bairei said. “No, we cannot abandon hope!”
“I have no desire to see my home destroyed,” Ochiai said. “I am simply trying to be a realist. The Shiba have fought longer and harder than anyone could ever have expected. But they cannot shape destiny with will alone. They cannot win. We must flee while there are lives yet to be saved.”
“I will not abandon the libraries!” Bairei shouted. “The work of centuries will be lost forever! How many great men, men like Ningen, have given their lives just as he did to create what we are about to cast away?”
“Ningen,” Mitsuko croaked. “Ningen is alive.”
The others turned to her. “What?”
“I felt him call to me, a short time ago. He is weak. Badly injured. But he lives. For a short time, at least.”
Ochiai glanced at Mitsuko and Emori, as if evaluating their wounds, then turned to Bairei. “You must go to him.”
“Me?” Bairei said. “Why must it be me?”
“Look at them,” Ochiai demanded. “Do you think they are in any condition to help Ningen?” She silenced the protests of both with a sharp gesture. “Ningen may be dying, Bairei. Is that what you want? Is the value of what those who are already dead have achieved greater than the possibility of what one who still lives might yet achieve?”
“No, of course not,” Bairei said at once. “Forgive me, my lady. I am& ashamed. I will go him at once. I will save our friend.” He turned to leave, then looked back. “I hope that I will lose no more friends today. Be safe, each of you.”
Ochiai bowed, and Bairei departed. She turned to the others. “You should organize as many as you can and then flee. I will hold the enemy as long as possible.”
“No,” Emori said.
Ochiai looked at him curiously. “Are you disobeying a command?”
“This council has not voted,” Emori said. “I will not permit you to remain behind to do this without a vote.”
“I am the most suitable candidate,” she insisted.
“I do not deny that you may be the most powerful,” Emori said, “but you cannot reasonably expect fire to end the threat these men pose. And, if I may, your hesitancy to kill will limit your effectiveness. Either you will show them mercy, or you will be riddled with guilt and your leadership will suffer. I find this unacceptable.”
“I agree,” Mitsuko said weakly. “It must be Emori.”
Ochiai was silent for a moment. “I could instruct Masakazu to remove you by force,” she said.
“He is welcome to try,” Emori said without flinching.
“Eh,” Masakazu said. He pointed to Mitsuko. “If you want me to take on that one, I am going to need a drink first.”
The Lady of Fire was quiet for several minutes. Finally, she nodded. “If you wish this burden, then I will gladly relinquish it. I do not wish to see you dead.”
“Dead?” Emori laughed. “I have no intention of dying. I have to live long enough to see your husband perish tragically in battle and claim your affection for myself.”
Ochiai smiled wryly and shook her head. “How long do you require?”
“Sound the retreat,” Emori said, assuming the lotus position in the floor. “In five minutes, anyone within one hundred feet of this castle is going to be crushed to death by the earth itself.”
“Carry the Fortunes, Emori.”
“Carry them?” Emori said with a smile. “I am summoning them to visit their vengeance upon the unworthy.”
Ochiai and Masakazu left the audience chamber, shouting for others to flee to the south. The Master of Air lapsed into unconsciousness in the big man’s arms and Ochiai lifted herself into the sky to sound the alarm. Even as her feet left the ground, she could feel it beginning to quake.
The death throes of Kyuden Isawa had begun.
South African Kotei Winners:
Military: Mark-Anthony Fouche
Political: Marie Wessels
Netherlands Kotei Winners:
Military: Lukas Voglsang
Political: Vincent Degee
Tacoma Kotei Winners:
Military: Leon Phillips
Political: Ryan Reid
Ottawa Kotei Winners:
Military: Aaron Boyhan
Political: David Winner
Kotei: Kyuden Isawa
Save the Artifacts! [Action]
Battle/Open: Attach a target Item in your discard pile to your target Personality, paying 2 less Gold if you are a Unicorn Clan player. If this attached a card and you control an Artisan, gain 2 Honor.
Kotei: Road’s End Village
Shiba XXX [Personality]
Samurai Duelist Yojimbo
XXX has +1F/+1C while you control a Shugenja.
Iaijutsu Battle: Bow XXX or one of your Rings: Bow a target unit with fewer cards in it than XXX’s Chi.
Kotei: Ruins of Shiro Chuda
Block the Way [Spell]
Reaction: Before the resolution of an action, bow this Shugenja unless he is Cavalry, and destroy this card: Negate all movement to the current battlefield from the action. Permanently give the performing Shugenja *Shadowlands*.
Kotei: Fukurokujin Seido
Unicorn Gunso [Follower]
Open: Transfer your target attachment to your target Personality.