Trials of Destiny, Part I
Authored by Jim Pinto
Transcribed by Mishka
“Neither brooding nor worry shall change our fate.
We do what we do because we must.
We are drawn to it.
We are drawn to destiny like the moth to the flame.
Like the guilty to sin.”
– Asako Yurito
A Samurai’s Duty
I stood on a low, imperfect hill as the battle roared below me. Samurai slaying samurai. Men of honor killing men of shadow. The struggle of courage versus the drive for evil. Never before had I seen such a thing. Never again would I witness such courage. The Unicorn charged into the Crab line to break those who would do harm to the Phoenix.
Officially, there was no support from the Unicorn Clan. We would have been standing alone on this field were it not for the stalwart Moto. They had convinced their kin that a small skirmish with corrupted elements of the Crab would serve the clan well. The promise of battle was more than enough for them.
At first glance, one would not think so few samurai could stand long against the undead and their tainted leaders – nor would one imagine these samurai as heroes. They did not have the stature of Kisada or the charm of Hoturi. They lacked the whimsy of Kachiko or the guile of Toturi. They were left-overs, samurai that would be forgotten by history; sons and daughters of a lapsed memory. Yet they fought as if all the heavens were at their back.
A clattering column of skeletons, flesh eaten away by their own foul comrades, moved to flank the Moto. But the men without fear stood their ground, readied their pikes, and held firm against their oncoming death. I watched and could do nothing. These brave Unicorn, willingly sacrificing their lives for our cause. Unwanted, forsaken men fighting for the sake of us all. They were braver than I… braver than any.
I wondered for a moment, why we were so cursed. What had we done? What did our ancestors do to shame us so? What act could pronounce such a curse upon us that destiny was laughing at us through our own blood? Through our own dishonor.
I did not think long on it. Three battle maidens fell under the might of a single blow from the Oni no Yakamo. I roused from my torpor. It seemed only a matter of time…
I am six.
I am safe.
My father presented me to my Asako sensei – the man I would grow to admire and emulate. He was greater than my father; greater than our lord. I remember his countenance, his funny walk, and his shoulder hunched over from carrying the weight of the world’s secrets. His whispers would remain familiar to all of his students, long after our lessons were over. His life ended shortly before my gempukku ceremony. Asako Suhitaka. Our beloved sensei.
A painful ceremony. Young men carrying banners. Red kanji scrawled across white billowing purity. Our parents never understood the pain and pride so mixed that day, as our limbs and spirits trembled. When it came time to speak of him, a poet from the Shiba stood and said a few words about a man he never knew. Asako Suhitaka was more than a man to us. He was perfect and unblemished and humble.
I would never forget him.
They were toe to toe now. Otaku Natsuko and her battle maidens fought head-on against that worthless, forsaken demon, but it gave no ground. Many of their horses lie dead, but the fight continued. Slipping in the carnage of their own frailty, the samurai-ko fought without steed or strength against an impossible foe. It was only the might of the Moto fanatics, charging up behind the Otaku, that finally subdued the beast. Those same Moto fell, in turn, to the force of the Crab berserkers, frenzied, mercilessly attacking a tired, disorganized and over-committed army.
On the left flank, more Moto committed the undead once again to the earth and turned to face the Berserkers, while the last of the Heavy Lancers forced the corrupted Hiruma to turn and rout from the field. Both were poised to fight the blood-soaked Berserkers.
Tension. Thick and settled – like a thousand raw eggs resting at the pit of a swollen, bloated stomach as the smell of rotting fish fills the air.
Whispers on the Wind
It is a month ago. I am a shugenja.
I am safe.
The council of Masters had convened. I was ushered forth to hear news of an important matter. An ancient evil, rekindling a danger to the empire, was resting in the Phoenix lands – the ancient Anvil that Iuchiban used to forge the Bloodswords. It had to be destroyed. I was placed in command of those responsible for its destruction. I was given good men, the best of men, to transport the gnawing taint from the home of the Isawa deep into the Shadowlands to the bane of Fu Leng – to Amaterasu’s Furnace.
Amaterasu’s Furnace… it is like no other place we know. A great crack in the earth descending for miles, at the bottom a molten lake boils and surges. Surrounding the crack, fissures vent billowing clouds of steam hot enough to scald flesh from bone in seconds. The intensity of the crag’s heat could consume most anything… melting it away to nothing.
It is thought that no thing living or unliving can survive the chasm or the heat that surrounds its mouth. Even the abominations of the Shadowlands avoid that place. Touched by the sun so many years ago, Amaterasu’s purity is a stain upon the Dark Lord’s realm.
Somewhere inside I felt a tinge of fear, but I swallowed it down. I welcomed this death like any other.
The council knew that the secret of the Anvil was safe with me. Only I among the escort knew the true origin, the true meaning, the true destiny of this twisted, tainted metal. Like Suhitaka before me, I felt I would die with these secrets.
How wrong I was.
To the River
I can see the future, if only briefly. The moment before the strike. The second before the cut. The rush of air slapping against the skin just before the hardened edge of metal tears the flesh and bone of a once-living thing. These are the moments that I can see with absolute clarity.
Shiba Gojiko, my yojimbo crumbled like a tiny doll house. The stinging scream of a cub howling for his mother escaped my lips as she fell in front of me. Gojiko had been my trusted ally for many years – so many years… Dying like that, then, there, in that awful place, was a joke before all the fortunes and a testament to the worthlessness of flesh.
Where she stood, a demonic, twisted thing remained. Being face to face with that thing, that abomination, was not a destiny I deserved.
That any of us deserved.
Fire erupted from my hands. The sky turned red and yellow and finally smoky black as the tainted minions before me were consumed by Osano-Wo’s fury. Exhausted, I fell to the ground. The world, and all of its weight, ground me into the earth.
In the distance I could see the Moto trampling the remains of the Crab and crossing a tainted river into the Shadowlands. I never saw men with nothing to gain fight so hard to lose everything.
It is two weeks ago. I am merely a shugenja.
I am safe.
Desperate journeys always start with that pensive first step – ignorant and trusting. Isawa Sakuno and I were sitting and talking. We were smiling and telling stories.
He ruined the mood.
“The men are beginning to talk. There are rumors about this anvil. The superstitions of the peasantry have infested my ranks, and I cannot have that. Inquisitors do not shrink from danger or death – I ask that you explain our mission to me. If I believe that the truth is overwhelming, then I will create a story to tell my men.” Sakuno was stern and resolute.
“Sakuno-sama. Please, understand that the secret of this anvil is well known to you. That it still exists is the true testament to the courage of secrets.” I was waiting for a glimpse of understanding in his face, before giving him the answer.
“You are being cryptic, Asako. Do not.” He was not going to help me make him understand…
“Sakuno-sama, you have dedicated your life to the destruction of the maho-tsukai. You lead Inquisitors bent on hunting out and eradicating maho. How can you not know? It lies mere yards away.”
“So now you insult me!” He leapt to his feet, only great restraint kept his hand from leaping to his sword. He looked down at me, anger burning in his eyes, then he spun about and started to leave. Must I lose this friend?
“It is Iuchiban’s anvil.”
He stopped, still looking away. Slowly he turned around, his eyes narrowing to slits. I could see his pupils grow small and focused. He remained silent. That made the telling easier.
“I, too, was surprised to learn this. But, yes, it is Iuchiban’s anvil. The very anvil upon which the bloodswords were forged – swords which emboldened a bloody attack upon the capital of Rokugan.” My voice began to rise without my permission.
“500 years ago, Iuchiban and all of his secrets were buried away in a forgotten tomb. The hunt to destroy maho began. The Clans killed the bloodspeakers and all of their followers – all who had soiled their souls for power. Our Clan sought to destroy everything that the Iuchiban had touched; however, the Anvil could not be destroyed.
“For fear that it would fall into the wrong hands, only a few were allowed to know the secret resting place of the anvil. My family shouldered this burden.”
I could see him growing more angry with each utterance. For the first time in a long while, the fear inside me was settling and fading.
“How could..?” I did not let him finish.
“We are Asako. It is our duty to protect the ears of weakness from dark secrets. What good would come of others knowing what you now know? Your duty is to the Empire, not your indignation. We all do what we must to ensure the safety of the Empire. I admire your courage, Sakuno, but do not let your anger supplant your duty. You are the Anvil’s escort. This anvil will be destroyed in Amaterasu’s Furnace – you and I, we will see to it.”
He was silent. Whether he was speechless from lack of anything to say or unfocused rage which he could not expressed was irrelevant. He was silent and attentive.
“Scouts tell us that a Crab army is rising to stop us. Tomorrow I must ride ahead to seek help from the Unicorn Clan. I expect that you will lead the expedition in my place. Now go to your men and tell them whatever lies you must.”
“Hai.” Sakuno bowed and returned to his men. His pride would be bruised for some time but I didn’t care. I felt a tinge of guilt for losing my temper and raising my voice to my friend, but I didn’t have time to be gentle, either. There was something to be said for directness, in any form, and I hoped that it would serve me with the sons of the Ki-Rin. I retired for the night, and dreamed…
Gojiko woke me the next morning. “My lord, it is time to go.”