The saga of a brave Hida warrior and his life of duty on behalf of the Crab Clan.
The Life of a Warrior
By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
Month of the Tiger, 1173
Hida Demopen knew his life would end here.
The last few moments slowed to a crawl. His grip on the tetsubo tightened as the weapon sped faster and faster toward its target. Its target was an ugly face of grey and brown, peppered with ivory bone protrusions that erupted out from random spots. The jade studs of his tetsubo sizzled into the skin on contact and the monster screamed in indignant pain. The weapon splintered and shattered into a thousand pieces even as it crushed its target.
The monster struck out at the same time. Its impossibly long arm raked out with its dozen claws. Demopen felt the creature swipe across his stomach as if the armor plates weren’t there. The pain didn’t stop as the claws continued down his body and ripped through his right leg from joint to toe.
Monster and samurai crumpled to the ground together.
Life sped up again, and he could feel his ragged breath catching in his throat. The pain tore through him with every breath, drowning out nearly everything in his mind. He could feel his insides beginning to seep out of his armor.
After years of fighting hardened, elite Destroyers, it would be a normal oni that would spell his demise.
“Don’t worry,” a young voice suddenly interrupted his morbid thoughts. “I will slice your head when you die. You won’t threaten your comrades.”
He opened his eyes. They focused on a young boy of seven, kneeling beside his head. The baby-faced boy did not pay any mind to the demon’s fallen body beside him. His surprisingly kind eyes were focused on the fallen warrior. He held a sharp wakizashi in one hand, and cradled Demopen’s head with the other.
“I’ve done it before,” the boy continued. “I don’t like it, but it’s better than… what would happen otherwise.”
Demopen struggled to speak, but nothing came out.
“I don’t know why you are here by yourself,” the boy said. “It’s hell beyond our castle walls, and it’s not much better inside. I’m sorry if you came to help us.”
“He is not alone,” Kuni Shikehime said.
The boy looked up calmly and simply stepped aside when the shugenja approached.
“He is a foolish commander who travels forward with the scouts, when all of his advisors tell him to stay with the command group,” Shikehime said. Demopen tried to tell her of his burning desire to save the Hiruma, but once again his voice failed him.
“There is a bright side,” she continued. “If it were a year earlier, there would be no point in trying to save you from the corruption.” Her hands placed firmly on his chest as she checked on his wounds. She frowned.
“Help me, boy,” she said. The boy approached and obediently pulled out charms and items to sacrifice to the kami. Demopen slipped in and out of consciousness as the Kuni shugenja worked feverishly to keep him alive. More and more Kuni shugenja joined the efforts.
Demopen opened his eyes and saw the boy’s face inches from his own. “What’s your name?” he murmured.
“Hiruma Ichiro,” the boy answered promptly. “I’m going to take the name of Tensin if I survive to my gempukku.”
“Keep silent, Demopen-sama,” Shikehime said.
He ignored her. “Are the Hiruma alive?”
The boy nodded. “They ignored us for a long time. They simply moved past us. Father said they were looking for something north of us. Iwata-san kept us alive, because he never abandoned us. A few months ago, though, the monster started to go crazy. They threw themselves against each other, and against us. Father says we won’t have enough food in two weeks, then we’ll make a run for the northern Crab lands. I don’t think we’ll make it through, though—”
The boy kept talking. It was dire news, but Demopen felt relief wash over him. He had arrived in time.
* * * * *
Month of the Tiger, 1175
He could see the shape of two samurai in the middle of the tent. He made slow progress toward the meeting. The shugenja’s blessing had healed the worst of the wounds he suffered during that march toward Hiruma Castle, but he feared he would keep the limp with him for the rest of his days. He entered the tent, and the servants effortlessly melted from his path. He bowed deeply and froze when he raised his head.
“Welcome, Hida Demopen,” Kaiu Iemasa said. He turned to gesture to the other warrior in the tent, but she needed no introduction. Bayushi Miyako nodded in acknowledgement and turned back to the maps spread out before her.
“Iemasa-sama, Bayushi-sama, I apologize for my tardiness,” Demopen said. He gestured to his leg, but Iemasa waved the apology away.
“Tell me of your progress in the Lion lands,” the Kaiu daimyo ordered. The Scorpion Clan Champion’s head rose and her undivided attention fell upon the newcomer.
Demopen stared directly forward and dared not sneak a glance at the Scorpion Champion. “The Crab and Scorpion forces under my command met with Matsu Fumiyo-san in the southern Lion lands several months ago. Our combined might scoured the Lion lands and destroyed every last remnant of the undead creatures within the northern lands. On our return, both Crab and Scorpion units have taken station around the pit.”
“Did you destroy the leader of the hordes?” Iemasa asked.
Demopen shook his head and noticed that Miyako seemed unsurprised at the news. Perhaps he had not been the first to return from the Lion lands, after all.
“We found no trace of the Disgrace, as it is known,” Demopen said. He knew it was imprudent to mention the name in front of Bayushi Miyako, but he was too tired to mince words. She did not seem to react.
“Your accomplishments have reached Reiha-sama herself,” Iemasa said casually, as if he were speaking of the weather. “She has decided to keep you in these lands, since you are already accustomed to fighting in this terrain.”
“I understand,” Demopen answered on reflex. “What are my duties?”
Bayushi Miyako entered the conversation for the first time. “Protect my lands, Demopen, so Iemasa-san can finish construction of the Scorpion Wall.”
Month of the Hare, 1176
He knew he didn’t belong here, in the greatest of the restored Scorpion courts. He tugged on one of the pleats in his hakama and lightly rubbed his fingers on the soft fabric. How long had it been since he had last worn such delicate clothing? It all seemed hazy. It had been his cousin’s wedding to… someone. What was her name?
He frowned. What was his cousin’s name? Perhaps the fatigue was catching up to him in his time of reprieve, he mused. And the best cure for that would be…
“Demopen-san! How fortunate you were able to make it.”
He had not expected a courtier’s voice to sound so gruff, but Yasuki Tenzo was a Crab forged from their toughest stock. Demopen turned to face his host. Tenzo was built like a warrior, but that was not uncommon among the courtiers of the Crab. He had served as an ambassador and liaison for a decade, bringing fame and respect to his Clan.
Few outside the Clan knew about his dark heritage. His father, Yasuki Nokatsu, had been a powerful warrior and dedicated taskmaster before his transformation into the Dark Oracle of Earth. Nokatsu had terrorized the Empire for decades before he was finally destroyed by the Phoenix. The Crab had tested the boy for months before they realized that the son shared none of his father’s connection to the evil realm. Tenzo had proven his worth many times over since the start of his career.
“Fortune has nothing to do with it,” Demopen said defensively. “Benjiro-sama threatened to reassign me permanently to Shiro Doji if I continued to ignore your letters.”
“Good,” Tenzo replied promptly. “Now you know there are worse alternatives should you continue to be stubborn.”
Demopen ignored the banter and looked down at himself. “I feel like a fop.”
“You should feel like a fop clad in the latest fashions. You fit right in here with the best of the representatives of the Great Clans,” the courtier replied.
“Am I supposed to feel comforted by that thought?” Demopen said, shaking his head. Tenzo laughed, and Demopen thought unkindly that the sound resembled an asthmatic dog’s bark. The courtier turned and began to walk away without a second glance in his direction. Demopen hurried to match the man’s pace. They entered the well maintained gardens and made their ways through the route, their sandals softly scuffing the stone pathway.
“Tell me, have you given thought to your life away from the battlefield?” Tenzo asked without turning to face him.
“No. How could I think of anything but the battlefield, when the Empire is so clearly suffering?” Demopen elaborated.
Tenzo bowed and threw a roguish grin at a pair of Crane as they scooted out of their way. They giggled and hid their faces behind fluttering fans. He turned back to his companion after they passed by. They were now standing alone in a secluded corner of the gardens. The Scorpion had crafted the garden well. The pair could stare out at the winding path and see those approaching, but could not be overheard by anyone except those standing closest to them.
“I applaud you for your noble sentiment,” he said, “but you are no longer a young bushi with everything to prove. You no longer have the luxury of such simple ideals.”
Demopen bristled. “Are you suggesting that I’m just posturing? I mean everything I said.”
Tenzo stopped and turned to face him, a frown pasted across his face. He raised a palm to the younger man’s chest. “Let down your guard, Demopen. I am not your enemy and I am not trying to engineer your doom.”
A moment passed between the pair as they stared at each other. The Yasuki’s steely gaze did not relent, and it was the commander who finally backed down. He turned away and looked at the immaculately kept trees. The cherry trees held no blossoms yet at the turn of the year, but their hosts had managed to make them look attractive and welcoming.
“I apologize,” Demopen finally said. “I’m not comfortable here. I guess I am just overcompensating.”
Tenzo shrugged. “You are doing better than most. Many young bushi seem to take the dangers of court for granted, and it is better to be wary than reckless when diving into courtly affairs. Still, you don’t need to take that stance with me. I am here to help you.”
“If you truly want to help me, let me know what I can do to wrap this meeting up. I want to help you and go back to my camp,” the Hida said.
Tenzo laughed, and the comparison to a dog only strengthened in Demopen’s mind. His amusement immediately disappeared at Tenzo’s next words. “As you please. I want to offer you a bride. You will see her today.”
The commander’s face fell. “I’ve had this discussion several times before with the Yasuki matchmakers back home. I’m needed on the battlefield. I don’t have the time right now.”
The Yasuki raised an eyebrow and tilted his head to the side. “I apologize if I somehow gave you the impression that you have a choice in the matter.”
Demopen’s hands clenched into fists by reflex, and he slowly flexed them loose. “Thank you for your offer, but there must be better candidates for your… help. I am very comfortable with my life.”
Tenzo barked again. “You want to avoid change because you are comfortable? Your reputation made me believe you were a brave warrior. I didn’t expect to meet a coward.”
Demopen ignored the insult for the weak goading it was. “Why are we meeting here, then, instead of returning to the Crab lands?”
There was no answer, and the truth slowly dawned on him. His jaw dropped. “You want me to marry a Scorpion?”
“You’ve championed them before to Benjiro-sama,” Tenzo answered. “You called them brave warriors and noble comrades. Was it all just an affectation?”
“There is a difference between fighting alongside their bushi on the battlefield and accepting the serpent into my own home,” Demopen said morosely.
“Don’t be absurd,” the Yasuki snapped. “You are well aware of the situation. Jigoku is strengthening its grip in the center of the empire. They have little experience and even less expertise in defending their lands against this threat, but they will not accept help from outsiders. They must accept our help if Rokugan is to survive, and the only way they will do that is if they consider the source to be family.”
“Then you should arrange the marriage of someone important to their Clan,” the bushi protested.
“You are important, fool!” Tenzo said. “You are the celebrated commander who led men on the front lines of the Destroyer War for nearly the entire war. You fought your way toHirumaCastle and rescued our beleaguered companions before they starved to death in their fortress. You are defending the heart of the Empire from the reach of corruption.”
A smile rose to the courtier’s face. “I suppose it helps that I have been singing your praises in court for months to prepare for this event.”
The Hida remained silent for several moments as the thoughts tumbled together. His companion simply waited and watched intently. Finally he admitted defeat. “Who is she?”
“Bayushi Naruhi, daughter of Bayushi Nanu and Bayushi Oruko,” Tenzo replied promptly. “Her father was a famous swordsman and sensei in his day. Her younger brother Toshimo just entered the Bitter Lies Swordsman school. More importantly, she is distantly related to the royal Bayushi bloodline. There she is now.”
Demopen looked across the garden and spotted the group. She was surrounded by several servants as she made her way slowly down the path. She stopped at one of the cherry trees and admired its natural beauty. She turned to her companion and said something. When the servant replied, she laughed. The sound floated across the garden and a memory came to him unbidden. He was a young man out of gempukku traveling through the Twilight Mountains. He remembered the purity of the waterfall and the way his breath fogged in the pristine mountain morning.
“You’ve arranged this well,” Demopen murmured.
“This is what I do, after all,” the Yasuki replied. “What do you think of her? I hear she’s very beautiful. You will not be disappointed.”
“Hard to tell with her mask,” Demopen muttered.
She looked up. Their eyes met. “Naruhi,” he said, testing the shape of the word in his mouth.
* * * * *
Month of the Horse, 1176
It was a small affair. His parents had long since passed and his sisters had all perished in the numerous wars of recent years. Only Yasuki Tenzo represented his connections to the Crab Clan. Bayushi Naruhi’s party was only slightly larger. Her parents waited in the wings, and her smiling brother knelt beside them.
He approached the shrine toward the waiting shugenja. He could feel her warmth beside him, but he did not dare turn his head. Every few steps, he could see the white of her kimono out of the corner of his eye. His gait was only slightly marred by the limp that had never left him, but she matched his pace perfectly.
In a flash, they were standing in front of the Soshi. He knelt slowly and bowed his head as the shugenja chanted prayers of purification to the kami. The words flowed past him. He was trembling slightly. It was soon his turn. He stood and recited the words he had memorized, all the while staring forward at the shrine.
“I will be your husband,” he said clumsily, almost tripping over the words. “I will provide for you and our family. I will honor you and accept you into my home.” His words continued, then he knelt again.
He was offered a small cup of sake and he welcomed the slight burning in his throat. A larger cup was placed in his hand, and he took three more sips of the purified sake. He took the final cup, the largest yet, and placed it to his lips. He could not help but sneak a glance at Naruhi. She looked composed, delicate – perfect. He took three more sips and his part was done.
The Soshi placed a branch of a cherry blossom tree on the ground and began to whisper to the kami once more. It slowly burnt as an offering to the kami. Demopen watched the embers until they finally disappeared.
The couple stood and separated, walking toward their respective parties. Yasuki Tenzo stepped forward and bowed to the young man.
“Congratulations,” Tenzo said. “Your family would have been overjoyed.”
Demopen bowed back. “Thank you, Tenzo-san.”
The two men turned back without a further word to face the bride’s family as the final portion of the ceremony began. Naruhi stood in front of her husband in her wedding kimono as the shrine maidens approached her. The maidens helped unfasten the outermost layer of her clothes and took the pieces away, folded carefully in their hands. The dress of white slowly unraveled to reveal the red kimono beneath. Her former life with her parents and her family was over, and she would begin anew by his side.
Cherry blossoms slowly drifted to the ground around her, framing her for his memory. Everyone watched as he walked forward and stopped inches from her. There was only one more thing to do. She was wearing red now, except for her mask. The elaborate visor covered the top of her face down to her nose. It was a white Scorpion, beautifully crafted with tiny dark blue gems dotted along the side. She tilted her face upwards in implicit approval.
His fingers trembled as they grasped the sides of her mask. It unfastened easily in his hands, and he lifted the mask away from her face. It would be the last time she would wear a mask.
Her eyes shined brightly with hope.
She was beautiful.
“Demopen-sama,” Naruhi said softly. It was the first thing she had ever said to him.
He could not help but smile.
Month of the Serpent, 1189
He woke up in the dead of night and his hands immediately reached for the katana by his bedside. He pushed himself upright and scanned the room for what it was that had roused him from his slumber. He felt his wife stir awake beside him but he ignored the movement and focused.
Perhaps in his youth, he might have heard the signs of distress a few seconds earlier. He finally heard it after another beat. The sound of a distant scream reached him, then the sounds of chanting.
He bolted to his feet and ran out of the bedroom without bothering to dress. His feet slipped into his sandals on reflex and he rushed as fast as he could in the direction of the sounds. His estate was one of the closest to the Scorpion Wall, and he would be one of the first to arrive from the outside should the unthinkable happen. Devastation ran through his mind and he only quickened his pace, ignoring the shooting pain that rose from his leg. He knew it wasn’t the brightest idea to rush forward towards demons without armor, but it was his Wall.
He turned the corner and met mayhem.
The Haruno no Oni dropped the bisected remains of a Hida warrior to the ground. It was easily ten feet tall, covered head to toe with large red plates of impenetrable armor. The giant lowered to its haunches and began to devour the remains of the bodies piled around him. It dug into the stomach of some Shiba warrior lying beside it with gusto. The rest of the Phoenix associates were strewn around the meal. They never had a chance.
Demopen drew his katana and let the sheath fall to the ground. “Monster!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. He was an older man, but fire still burned within him. “Come feast on feistier prey!”
The oni looked up and grinned, showing all of its teeth in its extended mouth. It crouched lower on its legs and leapt forward, impossibly fast for its huge size. Demopen gritted his teeth and readied to dodge at the last moment. He could not win in a direct fight, but the Haruno no Oni was known for its brute strength rather than its finesse. He could dodge its telegraphed attacks until help arrived.
The Haruno no Oni had not finished its leap before a dozen arrows of red and blue peppered the unarmored joints between its shoulders. It crashed to the ground at Demopen’s feet. He did not hesitate. He placed one sandal on the creature’s armored head and made a quick slice at the thing’s neck. Scorching blood splattered on his naked legs. He stepped back from the corpse and lowered to the ground. He spread dirt over the affected leg to wipe it away. The skin underneath was already begin to blister from the heat.
He looked up to see the sentries gathering at the point of intrusion.
“Demopen-sama, are you unharmed?” Hida Fujita asked. He sheathed his blade and motioned the others forward. Twenty warriors, Crab and Scorpion, rushed forward to tend to the broken section of the Wall.
The warning bells began to toll into the night.
* * * * *
“You are certain you wish to take this path?” Fujita asked. The large commander leaned against the entrance with his arms crossed. He watched without helping as Demopen limped to and fro in the room.
“Yes. My superiors have already granted me permission,” Demopen answered. He picked up a scroll and turned it from side to side until he found his signature scrawl. He gestured a servant closer and placed the parchment in the boy’s hands.
“Take this to Hiruma Tensin’s residence and let the guards know to expect his arrival later tonight,” he ordered. The servant bowed quickly and rushed to fulfill his master’s final demands. Fujita did not move from his domineering position in the entrance, and the servant deftly squeezed past the warrior with a deep bow and a swift turn.
“Are you going back to the Crab lands or staying here?” Fujita asked without giving the boy any notice.
“Neither,” Demopen answered. “There is a shrine to Fukurokujin in the Dragon Clan provinces.”
Fujita laughed, though there was no trace of amusement in the sound. “That is a peculiar destination for a Crab. You’ve devoted your life to fighting.”
“All the easier for me to leave my samurai life behind,” Demopen answered. “I will devote my new life to knowledge.”
“You stubborn old fool,” Fujita said. “Does this have anything to do with the attack that happened last week?”
Demopen stopped and pursed his lips. He considered holding back, but after a lifetime of speaking his mind why should he start now?
“I managed that section of the Scorpion Wall,” he said slowly. “I made sure the defenses were perfect. How did they fall so easily? How did the Haruno make it past the defenses, traps, and the moving sentries without any alarms triggering? It isn’t a very devious demon.”
Fujita frowned. “What are you implying, Demopen?”
“I live to serve,” Demopen said. “I will serve as long as my superiors and I hold the same ideals and goals. If there was something else that occurred that night, no one informed me of the operations.”
“But—” Fujita started to say.
“Do not bother telling me it was all just a lapse in our defenses,” Demopen interrupted. “I cannot believe it.”
“You did not do anything wrong,” Fujita said. “You are one of the best commanders we have on the Scorpion Wall. We will need your strength in the days to come.”
“No Fujita, you are wrong,” he answered. “The death of the Inquisitor is on my hands. With my retirement, the blemish our Clan might gather for the negligent deaths of our visitors will disappear. I have not lived these many years in the Scorpion lands without learning the rules of the game. With this, I will serve one more purpose to the Crab.”
* * * * *
Month of the Tiger, 1192
Tsubaru finished sweeping the grounds of the monastery and made his way back to the main building. The limp had never left him, but he was in no particular hurry. He enjoyed the smell of the mountain air and the feel of the breeze on his face. It reminded him of his childhood, and the purity of that memory still brought him pleasure.
He placed his broom in the corner of the room for the next acolyte to use and made his way through the library. He had gotten lost more than once in the expansive room, but the maze of scrolls and shelves were second nature to him now. He found her exactly where he expected. She knelt in a secluded corner of the room, with dozens of scrolls laid open around her.
“Rin,” Tsubaru said with a tinge of fondness his voice. He settled onto a cross legged position beside her and looked at the clutter around his former wife. “You can only read one at a time. You should pace yourself.”
For once, Rin did not smile at Tsubaru’s gentle admonitions. She gestured to the writings placed directly in front of her. “I was cleaning the storehouses below the secondary shrine and found these. They were bound and hidden under some pilgrim’s ugly statue of an ox creature. At least, I think it was an ox. It was hard to tell.”
“And you couldn’t let secret remain secrets. Once a Scorpion…” Tsubaru teased.
Rin raised her chin defiantly. “We are devoted to Wisdom and pray for his guidance. We can’t possibly do that and ignore some text because they were banned by fallible men.”
Tsubaru smiled. His once demure wife had shed her shyness once she had entered the monastery. He thought he preferred her this way. “What are they?” he asked instead. He leaned over and grabbed the scroll. The snippet of the text seemed to promote a creed of philosophy.
“I’ve never heard of it before,” Rin admitted. “From what I gather, it is an interpretation of the Tao that was never accepted by the rest of the Brotherhood or the Empire.”
Tsubaru continued to scan the text for a few more moments before he placed the scroll back down.
“Perhaps these texts were banned because they were insufferably boring,” Tsubaru said.
Rin did not bother answering. She turned back to her texts.
Tsubaru rose. “I will leave you to your curiosity, Rin,” he said lightly, “but I doubt the philosophy of Fudoism will ever amount to anything.”