Pawns of Prophecy
Amaterasu’s blessed protection waned as Seppun Ishikawa and his men crested the latest in a seemingly endless series of rises along the Lion-Scorpion border. The terrain throughout the Spine of the World Mountains was rugged, but Ishikawa was sure the Scorpion had chosen this endless stretch on purpose. Who in their right mind would move to attack a force sequestered in such a remote and inhospitable locale?
The sound of rapid hoof-beats roused Ishikawa from his surroundings and back to the business at hand. From within the treeline to the left, the party’s scout — Chui Ryuki —approached. “Ishikawa-san, the keep is only two li from here, hidden within a shallow vale.”
“Excellent,” Ishikawa responded, signaling for his troops to halt behind him. “We shall break for camp here, then take the keep just before dawn.”
“Are you sure it is wise,” Matsu Reiko countered, “sleeping so near the enemy?”
Ishikawa considered his second for a long moment, choosing his words carefully. Since breaking from Imperial service and branching out on their own, Ishikawa and his men had grown in unexpected ways. There were many weeks after Beiden Pass when they served no lord, growing to depend upon one another more than upon faith or duty. Even with their recent fealty to the Crane, they had not completely returned to their former mindset.
It was as if Ishikawa’s regiment existed outside Rokugan.
Ishikawa could not predict their reaction to a schism within their command. If he directly opposed Reiko in their presence, fear and isolation might prompt one or more of them to his cause. Acquiescence, on the other hand, could very well breed resentment among his troops — a weakness they could not afford in the coming months.
Strength and purity in their mission, that was the key. Ishikawa brought himself to bear as fully before his second as he could without startling his mount, and calmly spoke so that all the men could hear him. “I have slept beneath the very nose of our enemy every day since this began. The Scorpion are as pervasive as they are cunning, and we cannot afford the luxury of solitude when facing them. ‘Fortune favors the bold.’ So will the Fortunes favor us.”
The conflict settled, Ishikawa ordered his men to settle in for the night. They were many li from the nearest traveled road, Doro Ichido Kakasu, and none save the inhabitants of the keep would know they were coming. Perhaps, tomorrow, they would have the chance to piece together some of the puzzle that had been eluding them since their resignation from Imperial service. Perhaps, finally, Seppun Ishikawa’s crusade to unveil the Scorpion conspiracy to poison the Emperor and secure control of Rokugan would come to an end…
Pre-dawn, before even the crows were watchful of the world. Bayushi Mokuyei stormed the deep halls of his hidden fortress. His hands clenched involuntarily with the realization that he had been discovered.
And we were so very close… The thoughts rumbled uncomfortably through his mind, crushing dreams and noble ambition. How could this have happened? he wondered, already suspecting the truth but refusing to accept it.
The highest tower in the keep was only four stories above the treeline, and not useful for safeguarding the Scorpion border (that duty had long since been relegated to its sister fortress, the Hidden Watch Keep, which laid at the very edge of Lion controlled lands). But Mokuyei’s “guest” found the tower a refreshing place to work referring to the horrible draft within as “invigorating”.
Mokuyei burst into the tower chamber, looking immediately to the podium-like structure below an open window — the one Asako Kensei favored. The Henshin shugenja was slumped over his work, blood pooling around his legs and staining his kimono. His neck had been turned around, so that he faced the room’s only door behind him, yet the look on his face was serene.
Kensei had never seen the attack coming…
Mokuyei leapt to the opposite edge of the chamber, scanning his surroundings for intruders. His mind leapt with possibilities. The Shadow? Perhaps they had learned of Kensei’s work, and decided to silence him. The ninja? The Scorpion may have discovered that their abandoned fortress was occupied, and retaliated. The Dragon? The Yasuki? In his heart, Mokuyei already knew the truth – that the Kolat were cutting their losses. His fear and frustration indicated that this was coming, but he had refused it until now.
From the shadows behind the open door, a familiar face stepped out into the room. Shinjo Yokatsu – daimyo of his family and one of the most powerful men in Rokugan.
And the man who had originally endorsed Mokuyei’s ambitious enterprise.
Bayushi Mokuyei didn’t need to ask why the Kolat Master was here — or why he had murdered Asako Kensei. His very presence spoke volumes. Months before, the Kolat had “commandeered” this keep and secreted Kensei here to study a scroll they had procured. He was to compare it to his own researches into the elusive Path of Man. The Kolat had never told either Kensei or Mokuyei where the scroll came from, but the contents were indisputable – prophecies about the imperial bloodline and the fate of Rokugan, many of which had already come to pass. Now, when Kensei was so close to completing his work the Kolat (or perhaps merely Yokatsu?) had determined it all a failure.
“Why?” Bayushi Mokuyei could think of nothing more elaborate to ask.
Shinjo Yokatsu approached the Scorpion junshi, stepping into the moonlit shadow of Kensei’s corpse. “Because your services have become a liability,” he answered, careful to keep his eyes fixed deep within Mokuyei’s own.
“No… why did you begin any of this… if you were only going to destroy it?”
Yokatsu smiled, his thin lips cracking in the morning chill. “Idle tasks for nervous minds,” he whispered, “but now a threat more important than your research looms near.”
Mokuyei blinked in confusion, trying to assimilate this new information through the haze of fear and desperation in his mind. Yokatsu, mindless of his minion’s obvious emotions, continued. “We have a thorn in our side – a man who has stumbled onto our operations in the course of another investigation. An affirmation of his suspicions is needed – one that only your work can provide.”
“The Celestial Pattern… the Path…” Mokuyei staggered back in amazement.
“Irrelevant” Yokatsu decreed. “Seppun Ishikawa has become far too prevalent a threat to our organization. He cannot be silenced. So he must be… redirected.”
“You’re going to give him the prophecy?” Now Mokuyei was unbelieving. How could the Kolat even consider offering the ancient prophecy of the Hantei to an enemy?
Yokatsu smiled carefully, a calculated maneuver intended to strip Mokuyei of both resistance and clouding thoughts. If Yokatsu could not rely upon the man’s honor to ensure his compliance, he would shame him into accepting his role. “Your sacrifice will serve a greater purpose, Mokuyei. Not only will Ishikawa’s energies be directed toward our enemies, the Scorpion, but – in time – he may be the tool we need to help end the very reign of the Hantei.”
Mokuyei had been a Kolat since childhood, and rarely had doubts about their intentions, but something in this twisted logic frightened him. Overthrow the Emperor? Was it even possible?
Then a horrible realization seeped into his mind…
“The work is not the only thing you’re sacrificing today…”
Yokatsu’s smile remained as he watched Mokuyei for signs of weakness. It was possible he could snap, taking his own life before the illusion of Ishikawa’s victory was complete. Moments later, however, when it was apparent that Mokuyei’s honor outweighed his fear, anger, and personal will, Yokatsu answered. His words were simple and precise, intended to provide a sense of antiseptic closure to Mokuyei’s life. There would be no mistaking his role in this gambit.
“Take what remains of your personal guard, and engage Ishikawa’s men at the gate. Be sure to make it appear convincing.”
After Mokuyei was gone, Yokatsu took up a watchful position at the window above Kensei’s body. He waited for Ishikawa’s resourceful scout to appear below, and then raised a bow to his side.
“To make it appear convincing…”
Ishikawa and his men were some two hundred feet away when the whistling bolt struck Chui Ryuko, tearing him from his horse and plunging him into the brush. The scout’s horse reared and galloped into the light forest, gone before the others arrived on the scene. Ishikawa leapt from his mount, skidding into the ground for several feet before coming to rest beside Ryuko’s convulsing form.
The arrow had come from a steep angle, and cut deep into Ryuko’s chest, only a few inches visible above his sternum. Already, the scout was coughing blood and growing cold. Ishikawa knew that there was no hope for him.
Matsu Reiko hopped down from her own mount, approaching Ishikawa as closely as she could without dishonoring him. “His death is honorable,” she spoke carefully. “Remember our mission.”
From where he laid in a growing pool of his own blood, Ryuko nodded, spattering out incomprehensible words. Ishikawa knew that they were right — that the answers to the puzzle were close.
It would be rewarding tearing them from Scorpion hands…
“We find the scroll, and level this place to the last stone.”
Otosan Uchi. The pride of the Emerald Empire. Bathed in the golden light of Amaterasu’s gaze and protected by the most powerful elements ever captured by mortal will. The Imperial Capital was constructed as the Emperor’s last, best defense. Nothing was supposed to be able to penetrate its awesome might.
Nothing… save prophecy.
Ishikawa questioned his role for the thousandth time, looking to Matsu Reiko for guidance as they moved through the city disguised as part of the Tortoise emergency crews.
With the Crab attacking from the north and the Seppun coordinating the defense, Ishikawa needed to ensure that he wasn’t recognized en route to the Scorpion Embassy. From there, he would enter the most difficult stage of his journey – returning to the ranks of his enemy, the Scorpion.
Full circle. After two years, Seppun Ishikawa was returning home to the Imperial Palace — to offer himself in service to Bayushi Kachiko and her cause. The prophecy within the scroll they had recovered at Heavens Crossroads was clear: the Emperor would be corrupted from within, and fall – to the Deceivers.
The Scorpion already knew their place in the Celestial Order – that they must do what no others were capable of. They had to kill the Emperor. Now it was Ishikawa’s turn to accept his calling. As Seppun, his duty was ultimately to the Empire, no matter what course that took.
“These are dangerous times we live in, Reiko-sama – when men can decide the late of
“My lord, supporting the Scorpion is not our choice… it is foretold.” Reiko felt her own words resounding through her. “We are merely pawns of prophecy.”
Ishikawa returned his attention to weaving through the scattering chaos at the gates into the Hito District, leaving Reiko to her own inner doubts…
…and the small crystal tear clutched tightly in her palm.