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The Storming of Morikage Castle - Part 1 of 3

Forest Shadow City stands within a deep wood, hidden in a twisting valley to the far north of the Empire. The site of an ancient curse between the Dragon and the Phoenix, Rokugan's two most spiritual houses, Morikage Castle stands in ruins, surrounded by a city that is covered in vines and memories. Long ago, tales tell, a bride from the Dragon Clan was scorned by her Shiba husband-to-be. Her mother, the Oracle of Air, placed a curse upon the palace so that no man could live in peace there, ever again. The curse has kept the palace empty for over three hundred years. Or so the legends say.

In the fields of the Isawa lands, two ronin followed their guide deeper into the woods, murmuring angrily as the trail twisted through bramble and growth.

"This Hito," Ginawa cursed, spitting on the ground as their guide left them behind for the third time, "You sure he knows where the Emperor is hidden?"

"He says he does," Hiroru steadied his prancing steed, "And he knows as much about Toturi as I, or you, do. If he's lying, he's doing a good job."

"If he's lying, he's a dead man."

Far away, in the haunted woodlands of Morikage castle, empty laughter echoed through the blackened trees. In the rolling lands of the Crane, famine raises its terrible head. Heimin die by the score, and even the wealthiest families hoard their koku, desperate to feed their children. Together, the artisans, the courtiers and the assembled daimyo of the Crane struggle to keep themselves alive. And to the east, their two great armies raise their spears in civil war. It is a time of growing hatred. Kakita Ariteko lifted the cool water to the man's forehead, hearing him cry out in pain and anguish. Her face was pale, her eyes dim and gray from the suffering which surrounded her. "Rest, rest, Doji-san," she whispered, hearing the noises of wailing from the hallway. "The castle is safe. Your children have been taken to Kyuden Seppun. All is well." The man's eyes rolled back into his head from plague and fatigue. Within moments, he was dead. Ariteko sighed, leaving behind the trappings of medicine and the soothing herbs. Another, soon enough, would need them. As the maid silently slid open the doors to the chamber, allowing her mistress to pass, a shadow crossed the chamber. In the hallway, a voice spoke softly. "Kakita-sama?" Ariteko turned, her weary hand brushing aside a twisted lock of hair.

"Yes?" The man bowed. "My name is Doji Adoka, mistress. May we speak?"

"Of course," Ariteko bowed. Blood-stained hands beneath long silk sleeves. "Tell me, Ariteko-san, what do you think of these wars?"

"Wars are for samurai." The origami mistress sighed. "The famine and disease that destroys our lands - these are my provinces. I would not presume to know the ways of noble bushi. If they fight their war, and I fight mine, then the Crane will survive."

"And can you ever claim victory against these opponents, my lady?"

"Victory can only bring hatred. Defeat brings suffering. A wise man seeks neither victory, nor defeat."

"The words of the Tao?"

"The words of Akodo." Ariteko turned to look down at the little man, aware now that their conversation had led them to strange hallways in the unfamiliar castle. "What is your purpose here, Adoka? Are your father's lands not far to the north?

"My purpose, my lady," Adoka smiled, drawing a black-stained tanto from his loose robes, "Is only what you would expect. To serve my master."

"Adoka..." Ariteko opened her mouth to scream, but she was too late. The blackness, and the blood, covered all.

"You cannot save her, Dorai," Kage whispered from the hidden chamber as Ariteko passed in conversation with the Bloodspeaker. "The wheel of time must turn. As your apprenticeship passes, you will learn this... and much more." Asahina Dorai shuddered, pulling his eyes from the scrimshaw peephole.

"Master, I... I do not understand."

"You will," Kage smiled, his pale fingers lacing together, "You will, in time." In the palace of the missing Emperor, arguments screamed out from side to side, deafening Takuan's patience. Hogosha again, and this time the Mantis had set their sights on the lands of the Dragonfly.

"Those lands are undefended! Their peasants starve..."

"All the peasants are starving, Hogosha," Ide Tadaji cried out. "Unless the Crane can feed us all, we will all die this season."

"The Crane themselves die," and unidentified voice cried out, "And still, they fight amongst themselves!" Another voice, "The Lion march upon the Crab!"

"And the Unicorn battle the Lion," a weary Kitsu bellowed. "What should be done? The Emperor's law has failed, and the Throne stands empty. And in his absence, with this drought and fickle nature's wrath, we all shall starve."

"No one has to die, Kitsu." A strange voice from the open doors of the Throne room, and many courtiers turned from their private arguments to see the source. Beside Takuan on the raised dais, Kakita Yoshi lifted his fan to his face, to cover his surprise. A strangely tattooed man stood alone in the doorway, bereft of the guards and banners that normally accompanied an ambassador to the Emperor's court. His eyes glowed yellow in the dimming light, and the bright ink upon his flesh twisted into riddles. "I am Kobai, of Hitomi-sama," he bowed once, formally and crisply, and Takuan faintly lowered his head.

"The Dragon have food for all - stored grains and rice, awaiting a bitter time such as this. It would be our pleasure to help the clans of Rokugan, and save the Emperor's people." Sinewy and patient, he approached the throne. "Nine hundred koku for the Crab, to whom we owe brotherhood and the safety of all the lands of the Empire. Four hundred for the Unicorn, whose arrogance feeds their steeds. Six for the Crane, who have sent us allies in this time of trouble, and ten hundred again for the Phoenix, cousins of our blood."

"Your claims are well-met," Takuan nodded, "And we shall gladly take this offering, in the name of the Emperor." Kobai smiled, pleased that his trap had been set so neatly. "Ah, then, great one, you will be willing to send your men to escort this store of food to the people of the land. For while we are willing to send it, we lack the army to move such a massive offering." Takuan nodded. "Ready my personal guard, Toku-san." The Captain of the guard bowed. "Tell them to send their horses at all haste, to the lands of the Dragon."

"To Kyuden Hitomi, my lord." Kobai corrected gently. Through the Naga armies. Yoshi whispered to his Regent, "We fight for the Dragon, and take their food to feed our peasants, or we starve. Hitomi's offer is that simple." Takuan nodded, and it was done. Morikage stood, cold and alone, in the bitter winds of the mountain woodlands. A group of traveling peasants, weary from their trek, now hung in the trees by their entrails, the wind pressing their swaying bodies from side to side. Side to side...and the creaking of the branches sounded like a sharpening stone against the blade of fate.

"We will not be turned aside." Matsu Ketsui lifted a hand and ran it through her short red hair. Beside her, a Lion commander stood, looking down the pass at the Unicorn.

"You say that we must cross here, my lady?" His voice was soft, weary.

"Yes, Buto-san, and if you had not been drinking so heavily last night, perhaps you would have entered this pass with the clarity of mind to send scouts ahead." Her scorn, and her fondness, were clear. "Go on, brother," she laughed. "Ten Unicorn against fifteen Lion. You are a fool, but a well-matched one. Go and tell the Otaku that they must stand aside, and we shall be on our way to the forests of the Phoenix. The Unicorn stood their ground, bloodied and weary. Ten men stood where once two sets of troops had clashed, Unicorn against Unicorn. Yokatsu leaned, wearily, on his yari as the messengers brought him news of the approaching Lion.

"This day, Sanetama, I have been challenged by a daughter of my own clan."

"What Kamoko-san did was wrong, Master," Shinjo Sanetama knelt, touching his head to the ground at his lord's words. "You were right to refuse her duel. She is headstrong, stubborn and unwise to incite bloodshed among her own people."

"Her quest to free her mother's name has taken a toll upon her. And upon our people. Even today, I receive word from Otaku Tetsuko that the armies war with the Lion over matters of honor. And the Emperor is nowhere to be seen."

"This one lesson I have learned, above all else... I will not attack my brother." Sanetama quoted softly.

"The words of our Lady, Shinjo." Yokatsu sighed, looking to the south, where the ashes of Kamoko's passing blew in the wind. "I pray that she never sees what we have become."

"My lord?" A guardsman raced into the encampment, "The Lion come, and demand to pass."

"The Lion?"

"They bear the arms of the Matsu daimyo, my lord."

"Ketsui?" Yokatsu's surprise was plain on his broad-featured face. "I will face her. Tell her to come to me, and we shall speak." The guard bowed, and raced away.

"Is that wise, Yokatsu-sama?" Sanetama's fear laced his voice like opium in the kisses of a Scorpion. He bowed swiftly, ashamed. "I mean, yes, of course, Daimyo-sama. You will be obeyed."

"Wise enough, Sanetama-san. If anyone knows where the Lion Emperor has hidden himself, it is his own people." Yokatsu smiled again, and barked a short laugh. "If they go to visit him, then we shall follow, yes?" Kage. Old friend. I knew, one day, that our games would continue. You could not stay hidden forever.

"I cannot..." Xieng Chi whispered, as the monks looked down upon her. Above them, in the night, the heavens thundered and the mark of the Void shone in the stars.

"You must. It is your karma." Mitsu, the strange one with fire in his eyes.

"I must follow my Lady Tetsuko..."

"No, child." Hoshi's voice was plain, though only his spirit stood among them. "You must follow your heart. Kamoko will need you." When they were gone, Xieng Chi stood, the Armor of Earth wrapped about her like the hand of the Mother Sun. "Kamoko," Xieng Chi cried out, a battle-cry against the fortunes. "Together we shall defeat fate! The Thunders will not fall again!" To the north, she sped, to the forests of Morikage. Behind her, the battle had already begun as faint trails of dawn creased the sky. Tetsuko and the others... awash in mountains of blood. But for Xieng Chi, only one thought mattered. Kamoko must not die. Aramasu whispered to the shadows in the Mantis castle, and their secrets echoed in the corridors. "Come when the winds blow to the north of Isawa palace," Aramasu's brow furrowed with thought. "There is a place, a rock shaped like a woman's tearful pose. Meet us there, and you will be rewarded."

"Make no bargains that you cannot fulfill..." The Shadowwalker slid up the wall, avoiding the light of the faint candle.

"I am my father's son, am I not? Am I not a Bayushi?" "The pact..." The whisper echoed in the chamber, and for the first time, Aramasu wondered if the shadow had not come alone. "The ancient debt. Shosuro's Bargain."

"We remember. I remember. It is remembered." Faintly now. The echo of the voice pounded softly against Aramasu's mind, and as it slowly turned into footsteps, the shadows of the room faded and dimmed. "If we cannot take the Throne, then we must destroy it..." Yoritomo's voice. Aramasu stepped behind the silken tapestries of the Mantis court, as still as death and twice as silent.

"My Master," Tsuruchi's voice. "There are those who say your ambition leads you to ruin."

"Those are the voices of dead men, Tsuruchi."

"Yes, my lord."

"Take Yukue, and ten men. Send them to the north, to see if this spy's words are true." In Yoritomo's hands, a dagger spun in the light. "You say he brought this, as proof?"

"Yes, my lord. He said that there were more to be found there - that the Emperor had gone to free them." Tsuruchi's voice was disbelieving. then, in the light, the son of the Scorpion saw what Yoritomo held. An Akodo dagger. The shadow moved across the hall, and Aramasu's blood turned to ice.

"If the Emperor can be found, then we shall find him."

"And if some harm has come to him?"

"Then we shall not have to break the Emperor's law." Yoritomo's purpose was clear.

"Shosuro's Bargain..." Aramasu did not know if the whisper was his own. The Jade Throne would have a new master, yes. But not as Yoritomo would have it. To save his new alliance, Aramasu would have to destroy all that he desired... or be shadow-lost forever. Suru's smile was a cold as glass, and his eyes were bitter pearls. His reddened skin, awash with the blood of the man he had just drained, lay tight against his bones. A sickened smile crossed his features as he dropped the peasant to the ground.

"Amusing, are they not?" Yori's voice rasped from behind a cruel porcelain mask. "The poor fools. They may never know what they will gain, because they are so afraid of losing."

"Yori. Let me go."

"Such a request, Suru." Yori's voice was amused, openly disapproving. "You know I cannot do that. The Words require a special sort of man." The Burning Words again. Yori's obsession, his ultimate goal. It was whispered among the Oni that the Words were a destiny, seeking a soul to feed them, and free their path. Madness. The man was no better than Junzo, throwing legion after legion in search of a hooded man, and dying at the last to a horse's hooves. Pathetic. Yet Suru smiled, and bowed, and asked again. "Let me go to the woodlands to the north. They say that the Shadows hide there."

"Oh, the shadows. Yes." Yori chewed upon his lip, a small maggot scurrying to avoid the crush of rotted teeth. "Go, then, Suru." At last. "Yes, Lord. At last, the plan could be enacted. Once inside the woodlands, all would be revealed, the mask would be found, and Suru could finally be free of the shackles of Fu Leng's corruption...

"Oh, and Suru?" Yori moved past him, deeper into the ruins of Hiruma castle.

"Be sure to take an escort. I do not wish for you to be lost in the darkness, as your father was."

"Escort?" Outside the castle, the winds howled, and a horned creature rose from the ground. Her eyes burned with flame and hatred, and her blackened claws twisted the rock into dust. There is more to the soul of an Oni than any man can bear to see. Suru's mind tore, and his heart flooded with stolen blood as her gaze turned upon him.

"To Morikage, Kyoso-sama." Yes. Her voice was ice and chains. The bundle within his robe chilled his skin, but he stood unflinching until she turned away. She did not see his master's heart, she did not know his true cause. Toturi is mine.

"Yes, Lady." Suru stopped, unsure if he had used the correct mode of address, but when the Oni did not move again he continued. "You may have the Emperor. All I wish is the mask." There were no more words between them, but the foul stench of the Shadowlands wrapped tight around their bodies. Where they had once stood, only ash remained.

"Two hundred men, drawn from every corner of the Empire, my dear Tsukune-san. Oh, Tsukune-sama, my error. Forgive me." Kossori was a round woman, her kimono showing opulent curves adorned with rich gems and jewelry.

"As you wished, they are ronin, but many are trained in the ways of shugenja, and will no doubt serve you well." Ignoring the insult, the Champion of the Phoenix nodded. "Pay her." Three men stepped forward at the Champion's request, lifting the box of golden koku. Kossori tittered, a high-pitched laugh. "Oh, why, thank you, Tsukune, you are too generous." The koku was nothing. One tenth the cost of the men. Kossori had no need for money, no desire for more wealth - why take more when you have all that you could ever desire? Yet, after the proper ceremonies were held and refusals offered, Kossori had her attendants carry the box to her palanquin. The real price was in honor. The Phoenix indebted to the Seppun, and more, to Kossori's dreams of ambition and glory. Kossori's words of peace and prosperity fell on deaf ears, but Tsukune bore them all with patience. When she was done, the Phoenix escorted the wretched woman from the palace. Tsukune stood atop the battlements, looking out at the faint sails of boats on the horizon.

"They are coming, my lady." Tetsu's voice.

"I know, old friend. Gather Gensui, Katsuda, the others. Where do you believe they will land?"

"To the south of our palace, near the Morikage woodlands."

"Morikage? Why on earth would anyone go there?" Another voice joined them, this one strong in pride. "Because they believe that the Emperor is among the ghosts of the forest." Isawa Hochiu, Novice of Fire. Though still a young man, he had his father's bluntness, and his Master's eyes. "Let me go with them," his face was serious. "No harm will come to your men, Champion-sama. But I feel my father's tainted soul in this, and I fear that destiny will have its way. Only I can shield them from the darkness that once took our lands. Only I can face my father's lost spirit, and claim victory." Though no Master of Fire sat upon the Council, Hochiu had, of late, spoken for his school. After some thought, Tsukune nodded. "I pray to Isawa's fortunes that you are right, samurai-san. All of you.

"With so few men, we cannot afford to be wrong." The huu-mans had sat still, so still, for days. Like the dead, they rested on the edges of the forest, their hands touching and their heads bowed. Balash rattled his tail through the leaves, almost hoping to be caught, but no one moved. With a serpentine hiss, he slid back to his post, beside the others.

"They sit, they rest, the 'meditate'." He said scornfully, the liquid syllables flowing like water from a jug.

"Perhaps their Akasha calls them?" The young one. Cuffing Ralish, Balash snarled. "They have no Akasha. they are cut off from the Pale Eye and the Bright. What do you think we are fighting for?"

"But these are not the ones we fight. They do not smell of Foul." The child was impudent. "They all smell of Foul. The hilltop-warriors smell of treason and Foul. The Shadows and the Pale Eye fight again, and we must stop them." The Akasha moved between them, conveying all that was not said, and the Ralish nodded. Beside them, the Isha held up a hand, and a quiet thrumm from his bow said that all was not well. The men had moved. Hoshi, the one who smelled of Sky, stood, and the Firebreather and Stonecarryer - the 'Mitsu' and the 'Suana' - at last moved from their positions. Three days, nothing, and now this. Their words were strange, but they argued.

"Can we trust them?" The message was unspoken, but the Akasha moved with it. Isha shook his head. No.

"Shall we fight them?" Again, the Akasha said they were to wait, and wait they did, until the three argued themselves to silence. They had come with armor, and it had gone. They had left the mountains of the hilltop-warriors, and they had come here to sit. Huu-mans. Balash snorted softly. Their magic was unreasonable, touched with sky but lacking purity. They chose to fight. The message was understandable, carried across the Akasha by the movements of the huu-man hands. "Draw out their attacks, then crush them with your archers." Balash whispered, and Isha pulled an arrow from his bow. The man of fire breathed, once, and the trees lighted. Within seconds, the trees went from an inferno to a still ash - and nothing more burned. The stench of the Foul was all around them. Staggering back, the Naga felt movements in the shadows, hatred in the darkness. The enemy. The Destroyers of the Eye. The evil that plagues the land... Then, it was gone, and so were the men.

"A trap!" Isha cursed aloud, leaping toward the empty clearing. Where three men stood, only a single blackened tree remained, and the forest was dark and silent. The Akasha roared in their ears, screamed and howled in incomprehensible syllables, images of blood and despair. "We must find them!" Ralish whispered, his eyes tearing with blood.

"Then we must enter the forest, and face the Unmaker." They looked at one another, and Balash continued. "It is the only way. Without the Man who smells of Sky, we are all lost. We cannot leave him.

"We cannot let him die, or we are lost." Forest Shadow City still rests deep inside the woodlands of the Phoenix, its curse shrouding the trees and paths with mist. Long ago, the Dragon and the Phoenix fought there, and spells twisted the fabric of nature and time. The Oracle of Air, soul of the Dragon Spirit, placed a curse upon the palace that would hide it in shadow forever. Now, those shadows walk the land, and where they touch, nothing remains. It is not the corruption of the Shadowlands, that twists and beguiles with promises of power, beyond death. It is not the lure of maho, the strength of blood that offers immortality and wealth. It is the Nothing, the lie of forever. The Foul. The Shadow. The Unmaker.

And within its grasp, the Emperor awaits...

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