This (rather lengthy) series of vignettes incorporates the results of all Kotei tournaments held during the month of April!
The Age of Exploration, Part 2
By Shawn Carman, Seth Mason, and Robert Denton
The great heavenly serpent wound through the sky like the wind itself, which was only just, for the wind was part of it, as was fire, stone, and water. It was all things, as were the true servants of the Celestial Heavens. It had none of the curious quality of nothingness that was also present in the souls of mortals, and it desired none of this, for it regarded it as an impurity more so than anything else.
Impurity. When the great serpent had dwelled among its kind in the Celestial Heavens, the notion of impurity was merely that: a concept, nothing more. When Tsai-tsu had answered his lord dragon’s command to dwell in the mortal realm and serve the little humans for a time, a mere generation or so at most, it had gleefully accepted. Such appointments were a novelty, after all, and there was no loss of purity for spending a meager amount of time in Rokugan. No other portion of the spirit realms had such a careful, if imperfect, reflection of the Heavens themselves, after all.
The Dragon Clan’s involvement in this region of the physical world called the Colonies was something altogether unexpected. The air here was strange, almost fetid, and the spirits that dwelled within the realm were both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It was most infuriating. It was as if they were the same manner of spirit, the raw entities of the elements themselves, but borne not of the Elemental Dragons and owing them no allegiance. The concept was offensive on a level Tsai-tsu had never conceived before. Even more infuriatingly inconceivably, the wake of those mortals who forged into the area seemed to give rise to more recognizable and traditional spirits.
The land beneath Tsai-tsu was a vast stretch of dense jungle, far from the frontier and not yet penetrated by the men who called themselves explorers. The pungent, physical scents of it assailed him, and then suddenly there was something completely different. Where the land smelled of lush growth, coursing water, and thick, black soil, there was suddenly the smell of construction, of men, and of metal. There were blessedly few of such accursed places in the Colonies, and Tsai-tsu found it curious to discover one so far away from all the others. This one smelled differently, somehow… as if seasoned differently.
Tsai-tsu wound through the skies, wrapping itself and concealing itself from the eyes of mortals, its curiosity piqued. There were powerful enchantments, a sort with which the spirit was unfamiliar with, concealing this place from even its eyes, but now that it knew it was there, it could peer through the cloak and see the truth.
Mortals, the spirit thought to itself. Not samurai, not even peasants, but others. The sort that had once called this place home. Interesting. Tsai-tsu had believed such creatures were all but extinct, but he could see dozens, perhaps hundreds. This was a village, a town, an entire settlement of survivors.
Truly, they were magnificent.
Asako Kaitoko had not seen anything quite like them her entire time in the Colonies, and that was something that caused her both to appreciate their beauty and grow concerned over their potential ramifications. Their appearance was pleasing, but what they represented could be far less so.
The inquisitor ran one long-nailed hand along the smooth, aged stone of the titanic pillars she had discovered overgrown in the jungle. They appeared to have been reclaimed by nature, as had virtually the whole of the Colonies, but the architecture was something altogether different from what she had studied as the vanished culture of the Ivory Kingdoms. This was either a building constructed in a manner completely different from anything else in the entire nation, or it had been constructed by someone other than the Kingdom natives.
The concept was not altogether unfamiliar to Kaitoko. In fact, she had chosen this very region for that purpose. Much like the Shinomen Mori that had concealed the Naga race from Rokugan for more than a thousand years, this particular region had been a dense jungle even before the coming of the Destroyer, and Kaitoko had reasoned that there might be similar secrets hidden within. She could do nothing about the threat of the Dark Naga, stationed as she was so far from the Empire, but perhaps she could ensure that there was nothing similar waiting to assail thePhoenixin this new land.
Something moved in the brush amid the towering pillars. Kaitoko looked over her shoulder toward the noise, keenly aware of the sensation that she was being watched. She was aware, but not fearful, for fear was for those that an inquisitor hunted, not an inquisitor.
Putting aside the thoughts of being watched for a moment, Kaitoko returned her attention to the pillars themselves. They were majestic and yet ominous. Perhaps that was why the evoked memories of Isawa Tadaka, the second Phoenix Thunder. He had been a great man, brilliant and wise, but foolish at the same time. His attempts to save the clan had ultimately corrupted him, and led to his death at the hands of Fu Leng. Such a shame. Had he been pure, he would doubtless have lived, and perhaps taken the throne in the place of the great Toturi I. Who knows what greatness could have come of a dynasty born of the Phoenix Clan?
There was another rustle, and one answering it on the opposite side. There were multiple sets of eyes upon her, multiple creatures watching her. Not simple beasts, these; no, they were something altogether different. Something hidden, secret… something dangerous.
Kaitoko summoned the wind to her. Sakonoko, she whispered through the air. There may be more danger than anticipated. Warn the yojimbo, and move from this region at once. There was a sense of acknowledgement, borne by the winds, and she felt reassured that they were properly warned. She would not have their blood on her hands.
There was a giggle from somewhere in the caravan, and Hiruma Moritoki stifled the urge to groan at the sound of it. Yasuki Dokansuto was an elder and venerable representative from the noble house of the Yasuki, and as such he had been afforded command of this expedition into the unexplored regions of the Colonies in search of new resources for the clan to claim. He was also, as near as Moritoki could tell, either senile and demented or perhaps simply demented and pretending at senility. The former seemed more likely but the latter could not be entirely ruled out. Moritoki had known men in his day who feigned at the edges of madness in order to excuse behaviors they would otherwise have been punished for. Perhaps the venerable merchant lord had simply grown weary of bowing and scraping and had chosen this instead? He could not be certain. All he did know with absolute certainty is that Dokansuto had made more money for the clan during his lifetime than Moritoki, his future children, and his future grandchildren would ever see in their combined lifetimes. So he did not groan.
“Stop!” Dokansuto called out, bringing the caravan to a halt. The older man stared about, looking very satisfied. “This is a lovely grove,” he observed. “I give it… three tanuki!”
Moritoki sighed. The old man had some sort of nonsensical system by which he evaluated things on a scale of tanuki. It had something to do with Dokansuto’s favorite sake house in the Mantis Islands, but he was unsure of the specifics. “As you say, my lord.”
Dokansuto seemed pleased, but as he looked about, his smiled faded. “What is that?” he demanded, pointing.
Moritoki followed his finger and frowned. “That… is a tree, my lord.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the old man said, his voice suddenly lucid and sharp. “The grains are wrong, and the color variation is too significant. Something is quite odd about it.”
Moritoki looked again, and was shocked to see that the old man was correct; he had simply not looked closely enough. “My apologies, my lord,” he said. “Shall I investigate?”
Moritoki nodded and walked to the tree, carefully running his hand along it. It was masterfully crafted, but it was a hidden door, and it was very old. The tree had aged and the door had not been maintained, or it would be absolutely impossible to detect unless you knew where to look for it. He took his knife and worked it under the edge, then managed to force the door open. He peered into the darkness, his eyes adjusting. “There is a ladder down, my lord,” he called out. “It appears to be some sort of hidden storehouse!”
“Wonderful!” roared Dokansuto. “Seven tanuki!”
Kaiu Nakano was not a young man, but he felt young in his heart. Not since he had been far, far younger, when the Empire had begun to rebuild in the aftermath of the devastating Destroyer War, had he felt such excitement and joy in life. Now, as then, the opportunities for creation were astounding. During those days, he had been part of the greatest rebuilding effort the Empire had ever known, taking rubble from the war and recreating the great treasures and fastnesses of the clan. He had personally been involved in the redesign of Kyuden Hida, and to this day precious little else had filled him with that same sensation of overwhelming pride. Perhaps only his grandchildren filled him with the same emotions.
Nakano smiled at the thought. His grandchildren were doubtless eagerly awaiting his return back at the Second City. Little Kichiro, the smallest of the four, most of all. The two shared a bond of some sort, were kindred spirits of a kind most never knew. A priest had once speculated that perhaps their souls had been brothers in another life, but Nakano cared little about such things. He only wished to complete this grand adventure and return victorious to little Kempy.
Kempy. Nakano chuckled. When the boy was born, his brother and his cousins had just started talking. They were unable to say Kichiro, and one of them had started calling him Kempy. The name stuck, which Nakano was sure would be something unpleasant when the boy was older, but for now, he was content to be called Kempy. And he had promised Kempy he would bring him back something exciting from the frontier.
“Lord Nakano,” one of the scouts called out. “We’ve found something.”
Nakano urged his horse forward, pushing thoughts of family from his mind. His wife called him a sentimental old fool, and she was likely correct. Now was not the time for such things. “What is it?” he asked eagerly.
The Hiruma pointed to a trio of his kinsmen, gathered around the corpse of an elephant. Nakano felt his enthusiasm ebb at the sight of it. “I see,” he said. “What is exceptional about this?”
“It’s a bull,” the scout replied. “Very healthy, by the looks of it. No sign of illness, starvation, or any injuries. It appears to have dropped dead on the spot, for no reason we can readily discern.”
“Oh,” Nakano said. “Well, that is interesting, isn’t it? Let’s have a look.” He scanned the rock outcropping against which the corpse was laying quickly. “Why would the beast rub itself against this?” he asked.
“Elephants do that sometimes,” the scout replied. “They have very thick skin, and it can be difficult to scratch an itch.”
Nakano stepped closer and examined the rock. It was the size of a man, and strangely colored. “The tip is broken,” he said, gesturing. “See how the tip’s edges are still sharp?”
The scout frowned and stooped to the corpse again. “There was a scratch, but nothing sufficient to cause death.” He rooted a bit, then gestured at a cut on the thing’s hide, no wider than a man’s hand. The scout’s frown grew more severe. “Wait, there’s something in the wound.” He drew a knife and probed a bit, extracting a small bit of sharp white stone. “Odd,” he said, reaching for it.
“Do not touch it!” Nakano commanded. He gestured to the top of the stone. “It is the tip of this stone, which is actually a tooth.”
“A tooth!” one of the scouts exclaimed. “Fortunes!”
“Some venom remained, it appears,” Nakano observed, but he was not really thinking about it. Kempy was going to have a wonderful trophy after all.
Bayushi Irezu was perfectly concealed among the rocks. He exulted in the majesty of the experience, for this was unlike anything he had yet experienced in his lifetime. The others at the dojo would likely attribute this to another of his demented stories, but it would not matter. All that mattered was that it was real, and in this moment, he was living the greatest thrill of his existence.
The flock of birds he was observing were massive, larger by far than any bird he had ever seen in his lifetime. He had heard stories of a breed of hawk that lived in the mountains north of Rokugan, known among Phoenix scholars as the greater northern hawk. Irezu wondered if these creatures were related, perhaps another breed, but there was no way for a warrior like himself to know such things other than just a wild guess. What he did know was that they were larger even than the largest Unicorn horses, and looked as though they could carry off animals like goats or deer for dinner.
As Irezu watched, one of the larger of the specimens delivered what appeared to be very painful strikes toward some of the others with its beak, shrieking at them in a very dominating fashion. It occurred to Irezu that their behavior was more like a pack of wolves than a flock of birds. Or maybe not. He was not sure; he did not know a great deal about bird flocks, honestly. It was not something that had ever come up.
One of the hawks began shrieking in a more shrill, alarming manner. It appeared that the thing had seen him. He was well concealed, so the hawk must have eyes like… oh… well, yes, that made sense.
The largest one came at him at once, puffing up its feathers and shrieking. Many of the others took to the air, but this one did not appear to be afraid. It tore at the stones around him with its talons, gouging the stone and leaving white marks. Irezu considered shrinking back into the stones and waiting for it to leave, but decided that was a terribly boring way to live his life, and chose another option instead. He drew his blade, still in its saya, and jumped out, hitting the bird directly between the eyes with the blunted force of the blade.
The bird recoiled in surprise, and Irezu laughed. He had nothing better in mind, so he began shouting inarticulately at the bird, trying to match the tone of dominance that the beast had used with the others before. He continued striking it in the head with his saya all the while, laughing and screaming at it as he did so.
In only a matter of seconds, it seemed that the bird had had more than enough. It spread its wings and leapt into the air, but Irezu did not feel like climbing back down the mountain, so he simply leapt onto the thing’s back and held on for dear life, laughing hysterically.
Katagi walked towards the dark stone temple carefully. Behind him, twenty warriors of the Dragon Clan moved with him, all aware that any shadow or area blocked from sight could be their doom. Was it not the way of the Dragon to boldly dive into the unknown for the Empire? That was the question the Mirumoto gunso had asked his men – eighteen bushi and two Tamori yamabushi who had been placed under his command to explore this region.
“This is the place the Spider were forbidden,” one of the priests confirmed quietly. “I can feel the restless spirits here.”
The young kensai nodded wordlessly to the man. He knew that the Dragon had ordered their Spider charges away from this ruin when it was found, as it nearly pulsated with dark energy. Like some cursed stone spirit with a low, drumming heartbeat. Places like this, the Empress had agreed with the Dragon, were best left out of the Spider’s hands if it could be helped.
To the rest of the Dragon, nothing seemed to change, but Katagi immediately drew his blades. The men knew their commander well enough to follow his head, but two of them were too late. Strange horrors materialized in the air, and reached with their spectral hands through two bushi who collapsed to the ground immediately, the life seeming to drain out of them in seconds until they were reduced to desiccated husks.
“Form up!” Katagi said in his deep voice as three more such blasphemous things arose.
His unit, well-trained under his eye for the past three months, fell into a three-sided formation, Katagi at one point at the Tamori at the other two. The bushi attacked with discipline, but their weapons slid through the apparitions uselessly. “The temple,” one of the shugenja said, his eyes closed in prayed and concentration, “they’re connected to something in the temple.
“Hold!” Katagi bellowed now, and he broke away from his men, arcing his blades in wide sweeps through the spirits. Behind him, he heard the familiar sound of a gout of flame as the other Tamori swept fire from his hands, presumably at the attackers. They would buy him time to find the source of the problem.
He bolted through the vegetation, striking and dodging away from the ghosts as several chased him. He was simply too quick for them, and as he ran up the stairs, more spirits rose from the stones, moaning softly.
At the top of the stairs in the outer pavilion of the temple, he found it. A wicked looking, curved weapon buried in the chest of a nearly-skeletal corpse. The victim had been killed and pinned, his blood now staining what could only be some holy statue – an obvious sign of desecration to the grounds.
He had prepared for this possibility, knowing of the cultists that remained. With a yell, he ripped free the weapon with one hand, and smashed a bottle one of the shugenja had given him against the statue. It would supposedly disrupt the foul magic that the Dragon had barely come to understand, but was native to the former Kingdoms.
With a howl, the spirits vanished, as if they were smoke blown away in a windstorm. Katagi turned to assess his men, and let out a sigh. Three remained. What was worse, he suddenly realized, was that the surviving shugenja stared at the weapon in Katagi’s hand with open fear.
“You should not have touched that,” he whispered.
Utaku Mai surveyed the oddly flat, wide land around the fortress to the south. “You are certain this is the place?” she asked her karo.
The young Shinjo scout nodded, “Yes, Mai-sama. From what we can gather, it was a former outpost for soldiers or patrolling scouts. Some manner of military encampment.”
“Why have we not found it before?”
“It’s difficult to say, my lady. Most travel through this area has stayed close to the river or along the Ki-Rin Path to the west. The previous man assigned to root out the problem had not considered that the raiders would-“
Mai cut the scout off with a quick gesture with two fingers. “He was not equal to the task, which is why I am here now. The Imperial Explorers have done a great deal to map out this region and provide guidance for others, but the Imperial Legions are still the wrath of the Empress’ law even in these far lands.” Behind her, a small unit of horsemen and archers waited. She pointed down to the area. “Below us is where the raiders attacking the southern routes have been hiding. None of them are to survive, am I clear?”
There was a ripple of quiet, resolved agreement from her soldiers, and Mai looked back at the outpost. They surely knew she was coming. The great green banners of the Imperial Legions flapped behind her, highlighting the small plain of purple of her own Clan. Given her rank in the Empress’ service, Mai was able to request her very own detachment from the Legions, and she needed horses. Good horses, and good men and women riding them – it just happened that the best were all Unicorn.
With a moment’s consideration, she drew her great lance. “None survive,” she repeated, and charged.
The arrows came first, as she knew they would. She rode at the forefront of her unit, and the enemy tried in vain to strike her down. She knew her steed well enough that the slightest nudge of her knee or arm made him veer left or right just enough to make precise fire against her impossible. But still the arrows came.
She looked back at the soldiers following her, seeing that roughly half of the mounts charged on command but with no riders. Turning back to the fortification, she smiled fiercely. She needed good soldiers, and good horses.
But not necessarily together.
With the bandits focused on the spectacle Mai had made of herself and her men on the ridge overlooking the plain, none of the filth had bothered to look for the others creeping through the tall grass. They were close enough now that they leapt up from their low crawl, and stormed the low outer walls of the outpost.
An hour later, with nearly no casualties, Mai unfurled the banner of the Imperial Legions over the side of the second story of the building. The bandits were executed, and the Empress and Unicorn now controlled a strategically vital hold on the path between the Second City and Twin Forks City.
Kitsu Sorano awoke suspended between the worlds of wakefulness and sleep. A gossamer haze of incense smoke and sleep blurred the tent’s interior into a clumsy array of edgeless midnight shapes. Outside, the windy murmur of the plains battered her tent.
She sat up. Her nighttime nakajuban offered no defense from the icy wind, but she ignored it for now. She’d slept outside often in her youth, and now, in the autumn of her life, it didn’t bother her. She pulled aside her dark curtains of hair, exposing her eyes. She saw the nighttime shades coil from a single band of moonlight invading her quarters. She adjusted to the gloom, and the formless layers of dark began to take the shapes of her meager possessions.
In that surreal moment of cloudy perception, Sorano saw the ethereal form of a noble Lion warrior. He glowed with moonlight, watching the plains outside. But as the rest of the world came slowly into focus, he faded away, merely a trick of the curling smoke and the rustle of the tent-flap entrance.
Or so one younger would have thought and simply gone back to sleep. But Sorano was an experienced sodan-senzo, half-blooded in her family line. In that blurring of Yume-do and the physical world, in the time of rising from dream, an ancestor was manifested and then gone. Perhaps he’d come to tell her something. Sorano looked where the apparition was staring, the parched grasslands of the Empty Plains.
Then she was outside. The wind billowed her meager nakajuban as her steps took her from the explorers’ camp. She walked in bare feet, wandering the grounds beyond the tents, feeling for some manner of guidance. For hours the night battled her wakefulness, the cold buffeting her skin. Her eyes saw only the swaying plains, her mind sensing no presence but her churning heart.
Yet she continued, searching for whatever brought the spirit here. Some might have thought her mad, but to abandon now would be to doubt the spirit’s existence. She would not insult him in that way.
Just as she considered rest, her gut seized her. She trusted the feeling, immediately casting about. A short distance away, the wind moved a blade of wild grass by a fraction, revealing a sliver of sapphire blue. Victorious, Sorano smiled.
It was a strange bauble, upon closer inspection, beetle-shaped and polished. Moonlight carved deep grooves into the vibrant blue stone. A chain of pale metal hung loosely around it. She knew it was old, for the chain was tarnished, but the bright stone appeared new.
It was then that she noticed something out of place. Around her, the plains churned with the wind, and Lion-banners fluttered in the distance. Yet she felt nothing. Her robes and hair were still, her skin warm.
She released the amulet. Wind collided with her frame, howling in her ears, stinging her skin. Once more she scooped up the bauble. Silence. The wind rustled only the plains around her.
She stared at the amulet, making a curious smile. “You are no mere bauble, are you?” she said.
When an answer came, her eyes widened. The voice was in her mind, yet it rumbled formless across the plains for miles. No, the djinn replied, I am not.
Not for the first time, Shinjo Tae-hyun was enormously grateful for the simple herbalism skills he had learned long ago when he had been in preparation for the Topaz Championship. They were skills that had remained with him despite the many years that had passed since that day, and he had used them with great frequency. He did not doubt that they had saved his life on at least one occasion, and it seemed as though today might be another such instance.
The poultice he had made from the herbs he had gathered stung at first when applied to his injuries, but the sensation passed quickly, and a blessed coolness washed over the wounds in only a matter of seconds. He breathed easier. The damage to his armor could not be as easily repaired, no matter how much or little he had practiced his meager armor-smithing skills. In many ways, the Topaz Championship had set the tone for his entire life, as it had awakened within him a love of many different arts, most of which he had practiced throughout his lifetime. He was known as a master of none of them, but they had served him well time and time again, and he had no regrets.
His wounds addressed, Tae-hyun turned his attention to the ruin in which he had sought solace from the beast that had separated him from the rest of his patrol. He had heard its distant roars, and felt certain that the creature was dead, most likely at the hands of his kinsmen. He needed to search for them, but the ruin beckoned, and his curiosity was almost overwhelming. Besides, it had been a quest for hidden treasures that had sent them into the wilderness in the first place, so leaving it behind made no sense whatsoever. And Tae-hyun was far too long in the tooth to not be sensible. That was a young man’s game.
As he crept through the ruins, it was easy for Tae-hyun to imagine that the ruin had once been a library, but it stretched much farther than any library he had ever seen, even the largest of those found within the Imperial City. It seemed to stretch onward for an eternity. Almost everything he found was hopelessly ruined, mere scraps of paper that had long since succumbed to age and decay, but here and there he discovered collapsed walls that had shielded small numbers of books form the ravages of the ages. Who knew what wonders they might contain? Tae-hyun was no scholar, but he savored the idea all the same.
There was the sound of stone on stone, and Tae-hyun froze at once, his hunter’s instincts taking over. He could not draw his blade without risking sound, so he removed the short blade he kept in his boot for just such an occasion, feeling its familiar, comforting weight in his hand.
A grip like stone seized his shoulder. “Hello, there,” a boisterous voice said.
Tamori Kazushige smiled as he held the Unicorn by the shoulder. “I had not thought to find anyone so far removed from civilization,” he said, smiling broadly. “I am pleased to…”
The old Unicorn moved with a speed the priest could not have anticipated. The blade in his hand reversed, and the man struck Kazushige across the face with the metal bar with surprising force, knocking him backwards and sending him sprawling onto the cracked and ruined stones of the ruined library’s ancient floor. He stared at the sky for a precious few seconds, then sat up and spat blood onto the ground. “That was hardly necessary,” he observed.
“No one touches me,” the old Unicorn growled. He brandished the blade, this time edge first. “You would do well to remember that.”
“And you would do well to remember that I can break that blade and your bones as well,” Kazushige said darkly, then smiled. “But we have no need for such unpleasantries, do we? I offered insult, albeit unintended, and you have reminded me of my manners. Shall we call the matter closed?”
The old Unicorn frowned. “You are an odd one, even for a Dragon.” But he put his blade away.
“You are not the first to say so,” Kazushige said. “Not all my family are boiling fonts of hatred, you know.”
“Right,” the Unicorn said. “Just the really important ones.”
Kazushige repressed the urge to scowl. “I am Tamori Kazushige, scion of the earth,” he said. “And you are?”
“Shinjo Tae-hyun,” he answered. “What are you doing here?”
“I would think that was a fairly straightforward affair,” Kazushige answered. “I seek hidden lore in the name of my clan.”
“Then we have a problem,” Tae-hyun said. “I seek the same, and I will not relinquish my claim easily.”
“I see no reason we must stand at odds,” the priest replied casually. “I am perfectly happy to share with you anything I discover during the course of normal exploration. Are you unwilling to do the same?”
Tae-hyun frowned. “I suppose that would be acceptable.” Kazushige could tell that he was considering the state of their clans, which was somewhat tenuous in the wake of the strained betrothal between their Champions. Doubtless he, like Kazushige himself, did not want to take any actions to exacerbate the situation. “I know very little of gaijin culture regardless, so if you can help me discern what might be important, that would benefit us both, I suppose.”
“I am hardly an authority, but I have been in the Colonies for many years. I would be happy to assist as best I am able!” Kazushige smiled broadly, unaware that his teeth were still slightly discolored from the blow to the face he had suffered a few moments earlier.
Tae-hyun grimaced at the sight, but sighed. “As you say, friend Dragon. Shall we? There is quite a bit to investigate, I fear.”
“I know,” Kazushige said. “Imagine what we will discover together!”
Shiba Sansesuke keenly felt every scrape and bruise as he threw every bit of his strength into forcing the stone door closed, and there were a great many scrapes and bruises to feel. The door moved, inch by inch, painfully slow. The howls of the beasts were growing steadily nearer, and the panic at the though that they would reach him before the door was closed gave his limbs newfound strength. With a grunt of effort and a searing pain in his ribs that indicated something more serious than a scrape or bruise might be wrong, the door finally closed with a resounding thud.
For a moment, it was absolutely black, and the only sound was Sansesuke’s exhausted panting and the now muffled sounds of his pursuers. Then there was a flare of light from his charge, and he glanced at the handful of fire that danced in Isawa Sakonoko’s palm. “We have to hurry,” Sansesuke rasped to the priest. “We need to find another way out. If I could move that door, they will have no difficulty doing the same.”
“No,” Sakonoko said, “I think not.” His voice was strangely distant.
Sansesuke stared at him in disbelief. “Did you see what those things did? They tore Taikeru in half! Literally!”
“This is a vault,” Sakonoko said. “It is designed to be sealed from the inside. Unless those things have superior knowledge of architecture, they cannot open the door once it is closed.”
The yojimbo stared at the door doubtfully. “Vault?” he asked. “Why do you say that?”
Sakonoko gestured toward the wall opposite the door. For the first time, Sansesuke noticed the wealth of items carefully interred in the recessed compartments along the wall. There were some weapons among them, a few books, many pieces of finery, and a number of things Sansesuke could not immediately identify. “These are marked with warnings that only members of the kshatriga may touch them,” Sakonoko said. “These are the treasures of the samurai of the Ivory Kingdoms.”
Sansesuke was about to ask another question when Sakonoko fell to the ground. His question forgotten, the yojimbo rushed to his side. The old priest had not been in good health for many years, but this seemed something altogether different. “My lord!” he cried. “What is it?”
Sakonoko smiled, but it was pained. “It seems the beasts have accomplished what time could not,” he said, and pulled away his cloak to reveal a terrible wound in his side. It was in the distinctive three-clawed shape of the beasts outside. “I think… I shall stay here forever.”
“I have failed you!” Sansesuke cried. “Forgive me, my lord!”
“My forgiveness is not required,” Sakonoko said. “I knew this day would come. I saw a glimpse of it on the day that the Wish died.”
Sansesuke stared. “What?”
“I was there when Isawa’s Last Wish was destroyed. I was a young man, no more than a child. A fragment was embedded in my arm.” He gestured at an old scar. “I have borne it ever since. And I knew that I would die in this place, the moment we saw it when we were in flight.” He smiled. His teeth were stained red. “You will live, Sansesuke. Take word of this place back to the Phoenix.”
And then he was gone.
“Further,” the gruff Mantis barked in the language of the former Ivory Kingdoms. He shoved the man in tattered clothes onward along the coast. If you asked Yoritomo Kanaye, he would not say he was a mean or violent person. He was just having an extremely bad day and saw no reason to deny the urge to take it out on one of the reasons for it. And, truth be told, he was exceptionally good at taking things out on others when it needed to be done.
The gaijin grumbled as he nearly tripped over his own feet, but said nothing intelligible. Kanaye looked back down the coast to where the bits of his small kobune had washed up some hours ago. Despite his sour mood, the Mantis could at least appreciate that it was a clear, beautiful day along one of the most breathtaking, endless beaches he had ever seen. It was almost worth being betrayed and nearly drowned in order to enjoy the walk.
“You idiots think you can kill a Mantis on the sea?” he growled, shoving the gaijin again.
“Just kill me,” the other man pleaded, dropping to his knees, gasping for breath. “You are a demon. You must be to have survived the wreck and the sea. I am only a man.”
Kanaye grabbed the man by the arm and forced him back on to his feet. “I am no demon,” he said lowly, looking would-be assassin in the eyes. “But I will put you in a world of such pain that you will wish for the comparatively polite company of something from the darkest pits of Jigoku if you don’t take me to where you are hiding your vessels.” With that, he pushed the man ahead once again.
“Besides, your people destroyed my ship,” he punctuated his words with a backhand strike to the gaijin’s shoulder. “You owe me a replacement,” another strike on the back of the man’s head, “plus something more for my trouble. If you were going to attack a Mantis kobune for its goods, you should have been smarter and actually found one that was a trade vessel.” Another strike to the man’s shoulder. “Not the personal patrolling boat of the currently most enraged man on this whole coast!” He raised his hand to strike again, and leaned in close to his prisoner, who just blubbered and moaned at this point.
“What? WHAT!?” Kanaye said, thoroughly enjoying the man’s abject terror.
“There, demon,” the gaijin replied, pointing a shaky hand at a place where the beach gave way to a cliff face of moderate height. It took Kanaye a moment, but then he saw it. Because of the dark, damp rock face of the cliff, it was nearly impossible to see if you didn’t know it was there. An opening, and one obviously wide enough for a decently sized ship to fit through.
“The cove is where we hide,” the man whispered, “but it is guarded by-“
Kanaye struck the gaijin in the temple with his elbow and watched him crumple to the ground. “I don’t care if it’s guarded by some previously unknown Fortune of Whirling Death,” the Mantis said to no one particular as he pulled his kama free from where they had been secured to his back. “I am going in there and killing anything between me and a boat,” he continued, stalking up the beach. “And then I’m going back to the Landing and getting a drink. Or four. And then I’m bringing back a whole boat of my people to finish off the rest of you people and claim this ridiculously useful hidden cove.”
It was, it turned out, not that bad of a day at all for Yoritomo Kanaye.
Bayushi Kohaku took a sip of water, the first he had allowed himself in several hours. He held it in his mouth and savored the sensation before swallowing it, giving his body some much needed moisture. He had been in the wilderness quite a long time, much longer than he had originally anticipated, and his rations were in exceedingly short supply. He had passed several freshwater streams in the past week, but had chosen to avoid them for fear of contracting some unknown local ailment. Without rain, he would have no choice but to take the risk in the near future, however; he simply could not survive a great deal longer on what he had remaining. Food, thankfully, was a much simpler matter, which made his trek easier than some he had endured previously.
Weeks ago, Kohaku had discovered a hidden tower in the wilderness. It was something of an enigma, apparently concealed by some manner of supernatural power, although he had not yet determined exactly what the source of that power was. Neither had he discovered whether or not the tower’s original occupant was still in the area. No, all he knew for certain was that there was a motley group of warriors, the majority of them bearing attire from a culture Kohaku did not recognize, that were making regular trips to the tower. And now, after some cautious exploration and careful tracking, the Scorpion warrior had managed to trail one of the groups back to their headquarters.
The term “headquarters” was something of a misnomer, however. Judging by the size and state of the area, Kohaku assumed it was a former fortification from the previous Ivory Kingdoms, one that had endured the generation of overgrowth relatively well and which the soldiers had returned at least partially to functionality. The place had the look of a long-term bivouac, and based on the disparate weapons and armor the soldiers were wearing, combined with the common symbol he saw painted on them, he assumed that they were some sort of mercenary force. Initially he had spent some time wondering what manner of work they could possibly be performing in this region, perhaps a recovery or something of the sort, but the iconography of the tower he had discovered seemed to be replicated here throughout the bivouac, and even on some of the men. Were they some manner of religious group? A cult, perhaps? He was not sure yet. He needed more time to formulate a proper theory, and then perhaps he could find out something of substance.
Kohaku smiled as he touched the weapon at his hip, and ran his fingers across the small glass vials that he kept safely cushioned in his obi. He would enjoy taking the measure of these men, when the time came. He suspected he would enjoy it a great deal.