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One man will kill his master . . . .

The ronin rested at the edge of the gate, the immortal stone strangely warm against his sweating flesh. The stone gave him strength and kept him from sleep. He could not remember when he had eaten last, but no hunger ached in his belly. The flesh of the arch sustained him. If he attempted to step away, the ninja gathered and Ginawa felt his strength begin to fail. Only here could he survive . . . but for what purpose? To what end? In the darkness below, the Shadow-beasts writhed, afraid to come near him.

He had already slaughtered uncountable numbers of their kind.

Only a few hours ago, just as he thought they would overwhelm him, they had retreated in confusion as if something had called them away for a greater purpose. Ginawa tipped another dreg of his sake bottle into his mouth, relishing the sweet taste and the burn in his belly. Although he didn't know from where the bottle had come, he asked no questions. Jigoku's blessing or the ninja's curse - what did it matter? He was dead anyway. He scowled. If he was to die, he'd as well die a drunk.

His lord was dead. The ninja whose actions had brought about his murder so long ago - dead.

What was left for him now?

Ginawa looked out over the shifting terrain that lay beyond the gate to Jigoku, seeing faces in the mist. They flashed, one by one, and the ronin tried to make out their shape. Some were forms of the living; others, images of the dead. Ginawa saw Hiroru, his white gi shining in some distant sunlight, with blood on his sword and tears in his eyes. A laughing Togashi slid down the blade of his brother's katana, relishing the pain and agony of an honorable death. Another pass of mist and cloud, and Shizue's face appeared, more real. Blood stained her kimono, but her lips curved in a soft smile of victory and accomplishment. Was she dead? So many wasted lives. There was Yoritomo Tsuyu. And Agetoki, you old fool.

Even the Imperial Advisor, Yoshi. Stupid Crane, the ronin thought, to be killed without even going near a battlefield.

The mist began to clear, the faces within howling as blood drained from the claws of the ninja and into the wide river that flowed beyond Jigoku's field. Each stroke of the Goju's attack on Jigoku tore away more ancestors, draining their vitality and erasing them from the memory of the Empire.

A thousand stories, lost.

Ginawa drew another drink from the flask, peering down at the gathering darkness. There was nothing he could do about the Shadow; he had done what he had come to do. The Goju's strength rested on both sides of the gate now. Each ninja that entered passed well beyond the ronin's reach. Their empty eyes and faceless smiles turned away as if they did not notice him. The Shadow tore at the ancient stone and drew blood from the ground in the land of the dead, but if any of its kind approached Ginawa, he invariably destroyed them. They had reached an agreement, the Shadow and the ronin: he didn't provoke it, and it didn't care if he drank himself into a stupor. He would be dead soon enough.

Simply put, they ignored each other.

A horn sounded. His imagination.

Another swig, and Ginawa spat foul breath upon the ground.

A second horn. This one closer to the city. Shadows began to swirl, and from far away, the ronin could hear the beat of marching legions, weary from a race through the Shadowlands - but not yet defeated.

He stood, leaning on the arch for support, and then saw something that chilled the burning within his belly, turning the sake in his veins to steel. A thousand samurai marched down the broken road toward the ancient city, parting through the mountains, covered by the magic of Phoenix shugenja and Scorpion guile.

An army - but so pitifully small that it had no hope of conquering the gate, much less of defeating the Shadow that guarded the city.

"Go back," Ginawa snarled quietly, as if his voice would fail before the words could come. Still the army marched toward the high, arched walls of the city of Shadow. "Go back!" he shouted this time, hurling his sake bottle uselessly toward the marching legions. The Darkness within the city began to move, forming into huge creatures of Shadow, improbable limbs reaching toward a bloody sky. The Goju gathered within Volturnum's walls, laughing at the band of refuse that had come from the Empire it soon would claim.

"Fools." Ginawa's voice was rough from days of screaming. "All of you. Fools to think that you can come here . . . and ever leave again." He sank to the edge of the arch, the bloodsword at his side throbbing softly in its red saya, as if hungry.

A third call from the horn sounded, shaking the sky with its distant thunder.

This time, he could hear its echo from beyond the Arch of the Dead.

Another army had begun to gather, spun from mist and half-forgotten lives, filling the valleys of Jigoku with the banners of the seven Great Clans. Their faces were firm, ghostlike, resolute.

Ginawa staggered back a step, his hand instinctively reaching for his bloodsword's hilt. Generals long dead raised their red fans, and shouts unheard in a thousand years echoed from the mountains of Jigoku. Where they stood, their katanas passing through the Darkness that had begun to conquer the land of the dead, the Shadow began to fall back.

It was an army of the dead, led by three men whose souls shone as brightly as stars.

Doji Hoturi, the spear of his grandfather in his hand as he reached to draw an ancient Crane katana.

Isawa Tadaka, face unblemished by the Taint, his magic clean and purified by the honor of death.

And one more. As Ginawa recognized the face of the spirit-general, he felt his own soul crawl.

Toturi.

Leading the armies of the ancestors on the far side of Jigoku's gate, Toturi stood proud, his soul no longer corrupted by Goju's touch. Raising his fan in salute, his katana bloodied by the Shadow's black heart, the Emperor screamed a battle cry, and thousands of samurai - the ancestors of Rokugan - shouted in response.

The Emperor fought on Jigoku's fields.

Toturi . . . was dead.

The ninja rallied swiftly, using their immense numbers to overwhelm the samurai that streamed down through the hills of Volturnum, and dedicating huge beasts of Darkness - things that may once have been human - to slaughter those on Jigoku's fields. Caught at his vantage point between the two battles, Ginawa tore his sword from its sheath and readied himself for the inevitable.

If the Emperor was dead, the Empire would surely follow.

A laugh shook the heavens, and a dark form towered above the ninja on Volturnum's fields. "You cannot win, mortals," it whispered pervasively, and the sound was acidic and raw. "I am Goju, born of the tears of the Sun and the body of the Earth. I am the unnamed, the first of my kind. You are as ants beneath me, children who do not yet know their place." Bubbling laughter ricocheted through the mountains of Jigoku's shifting plain and tore the rocks from the mountains that surrounded Volturnum's high, arched walls.

Courageously, the samurai threw themselves at their enemy . . . but they began to fall.

Then the Darkness was broken.

A light grew above the armies in Jigoku, tearing apart the sky with its sudden blaze. For a moment, Ginawa thought that it was the spirit of Amaterasu herself, dead and consigned to her fate in the land of the ancestors. But then a form began to materialize. Male, its mighty arms reached out to encompass the world below as easily as a mother might hold her child.

The face was the same as that of the man beneath the arch - Ryoshun, Kami of Spirits and the Dead. The tenth child of the Sun and the Moon. "Go back, Goju," he rumbled, burning the Shadow from the shifting plain as the armies beneath him roared and charged once more. "I cannot defeat you, but in this place I am master of all."

"You may be master," hissed Goju, "but you will be master of a faceless land."

The Darkness streamed out of Jigoku, tearing at the arch with withered hands as it went. Bloody rips shredded Ginawa's clothing as the swift shadows raced by, pulling down Oblivion's Gate.

As it fell, the archway faded and Jigoku blurred. Ginawa staggered back. Beneath scrabbling, pulling claws, the passage to the land of the dead began to seal forever.

"Toturi-sama!" the ronin howled above the raging wind, reaching out across the gate as the Darkness began to close between them. "Give me your hand!" . . . .

. . . The other will save him.


 

 

 

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Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!