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The Secret of Morikage Castle, Part Two


In the shadow of the pines, a tremendous keep lies hidden, its parapets rotting with the moss and mold of generations. The worn stone listens wearily to the howl of the wind, as shadows pass from one patch of inky blackness to another. As its touch glides past a pillar of stone, the surface crumbles, passing away into the shadow of nothingness - another forgotten memory in the forest of Morikage.

**

Standing near before aunt's funeral pyre, Daidoji Sembi cursed the fortunes with a wild tongue, sake loosening his emotions and freeing his anger. "She had done no wrong!"

"Her battles are not ours to fight, Sembi." Uji hissed softly. The daimyo's voice was hoarse from command, his eyes narrow with hatred for all things Lion.

"Bloodspeakers!" Sembi fell to his knees. "Their occult murders are too freely done, that they would dare to wrong the house of the Crane. Uji-sama, we must strike back - we must fight them, kill them before they can bring their horrible dreams to pass."

"Dreams, Sembi?" Uji challenged. "What would you know of dreams?" The swarthy man's tightly-set face displayed no emotion at his lieutenant's wild outbursts, no concern or fear of Sembi's open wrath. "Ariteko died with honor. Because of her sacrifice, we can find these men who have filthied the palaces of the Crane - and we can destroy them. Once the Lion have been destroyed"

"The Lion." Sembi's laugh was rough, raucous like the caw of a crow. "Always the Lion."

"Yes, Sembi." Again, emotionless, but this time harsh and cruel. "Do not forget what they have done to us - and would do again, given the Emperor's word."

"I do not forget our ancient feud, Uji-sama. Nor do I forget what they once did the palace of the Doji." Its shattered hulk still stood above a rolling sea, waiting for a time of plenty to see it rebuilt once more. "But that was long ago."

Uji's eyes were not on Sembi, not on the pyre or the fields of dead rice that surrounded them. In the sky, he saw his ancestor's face, bearing the battle- flag of the Daidoji. Leading him to war. "What the Bloodspeakers do, we can avenge in time." The commander turned his back upon the smoke and waste of Ariteko's pyre. "But the Lion must answer in blood."

Sembi's sword was out, its cutting edge speeding toward his daimyo's throat with a lunging slash. It was barely worthy of a swordsman, Uji thought as he nimbly stepped aside. Two more incoherent slashes, and Sembi was on his knees, relieving his stomach of the massive amount of sake he had drunk before the funeral.

Uji stood, unafraid, watching.

"You disgrace yourself, Sembi-san, but you do so in the name of your aunt, and that is worthy."

"I will find those who have done this!"

"I know, Sembi." Uji turned away, his eyes dimming. "I know." Beneath his obi, the letter from Toshimoko-sama pressed, a heavy weight upon his soul. Secrets which a man was not meant to know burdened Uji's soul, and the young man weeping on the ground before him was only one more weight to bear.

"Toshimoko-sama," Uji thought bitterly as he turned away, "What do you think you will find, lost in the forest with the ghosts? What secrets can the dead tell you, that the living cannot?" The whisper of the wind above the palace spoke not at all, and the sea was silent, save for the sorrow of a samurai for his shattered clan.

**

Thum, thum, thum.

Thum, thum, thum.

Thum, thum, the drums of the Crab.

Thum, thum, they beat in frenzied cadence upon the wall, calling all samurai to war.

And in the Shadowlands, the armies of the Oni crashed like tides against Hiruma castle, driving out the last of Yakamo's men. Destroying the banners that waved upon the Dark Road of Jade, once the path to Hiruma lands, once green and blossoming but now devastated by the Taint of the Dark Lord's men.

And in the shadow of the wall, watching O-Ushi lead her company of Hida guardsmen into battle, shadow without a face laughed in glee. One hundred days had nearly came closer, almost one hundred days of messages and threats, all unanswered. The banners of the Lion waved on the horizon, and to the south, the Dark Road of Jade twined through armies of undead, to Hiruma castle.

"My Lady bids me go." A once-Unicorn messenger raced through the lines of the Crab, bearing another message for the Lion army. He would never arrive, nor ever return.

Some things are worth the death of a brother.

In the fields to the north, Tsanuri's armies marched inexorably toward the Crab Wall. Relentless, they journeyed onward, and no messenger came from their ranks. The Unicorn scouts that carried the words of the Crab on their quick- footed ponies either returned with words of hatred - or not at all, their bodies broken and torn by spears.

The Lion above, the Oni below, and still no word from Hiruma Palace. No sign of life beyond the swirling mass of undead corpses that walked in the destroyed wastes of the Shadowlands. O-Ushi's men had left only three days ago, led by a white ratling who claimed to know a way within the palace. Tsuru had asked her, once, formally, not to go - not to leave the Wall without its Champion but O-Ushi did not listen. As Tsuru rose to his feet and watched her go, he saw the light in Yasamura's eyes grow dim and hard.

"No man will harm her," Yasamura spoke softly as he readied his steed for war.

"I do not fear a man," Tsuru spat.

"Then do not fear at all, my friend." The husband of the Champion looked at his wife as she reached for her massive hammer. "I will be by her side."

"Would you kill her, when she rises in the Shadowlands?" Tsuru looked into the eyes of the son of Shinjo. "When you can say 'yes', then you will know what it means to be Crab."

Yasamura stepped lithely to his steed's high saddle, weighing the spear in his hand before he answered. "No, Tsuru. I would not be able to cut my wife down if she rose again from the ashes of that place. I would not be there." Tsuru's scorn was apparent, but Yasamura continued, "The answer is simple, uncle of my wife. If O-Ushi has fallen, know this: I will have already died."

For a long second, Hida Tsuru gauged the stone in the young man's spirit. Not a breath hung between them, no sound escaped. Then, Tsuru nodded, and Yasamura spurred his horse with a shout, racing to follow the march of the Hida Guard.

Thum, thum, and the Lion marched onward.

**

The forest groaned with the weight of spirits log since forgotten, and the wind raced through the paths of Morikage, seeking a way to escape the shadows there. Trees moaned, their bloodstained limbs like dripping fingers in the ever-night, and three monks knelt beside the flies and the filth.

With a pass of his hand, Hoshi blessed the spirits of the dead, wishing that the light of the uncaring moon was enough to see their faces. Hoping that it would not be. In the smoke, the sign of air bestrode the silence, drawing them onward into the maw of the wood.

Trees, fingers stained with blood, and a sharpening stone.

**

"Dorai, Dorai." Kage stood over his young pupil in the small hut. The river outside rushed through a silent Crane forest, and the shadow of the Crane palace loomed in the noonday sun. "You can do better than this, young one."

He would never be Hiroru.

Kage watched as Asahina Dorai practiced his meditations, inscribing letters upon the rice paper with a blackened brush. Blindfolded, Dorai attempted to repeat the letters Kage placed before him.

The trick of it was that Dorai was not allowed to see what Kage had written.

"Do not think of the paper, Dorai, or of me. Think only of your second mind. The mind which moves you. Think of the air around you, and let your thoughts be still." The brush moved restlessly across the paper.

Hiroru could have done it.

The technique was simple. The student needed no 'training', only the ability to quell his thoughts to the point that Kage could add his own meaning into Dorai's mind.

Once again, Kage pushed with his chi. Once again, Dorai's brush trembled and skittered across the page. Weary, Kage turned his eyes to the window.

And far away, Hiroru knew his master's thoughts.

**

Ketsui cuffed the man beside her with an impatient fist. "They're following us, you fool."

"Hai, Daimyo-sama," Turi bowed. The Unicorn scouts were indeed following Ketsui's band. "But there is little we can do, other than challenge them"

"Enough of challenges, Turi. We go to meet the Ikoma scout who says he has found a trace of the Emperor. If we cannot keep the Unicorn away, then they may interfere."

"You believe they are responsible for Lord Toturi's disappearance?"

"I do not disbelieve anything." Ketsui's eyes narrowed. "Find the Ikoma. Bring them to me. At least that way, the Shinjo can bite our dust for a hundred miles, and never know where we head."

Turi bowed sharply, placing his helmet on his head as he left the general's presence.

Okura was to meet us here, Turi thought. The meddling fool had thought to purge his Taint with obedience, but he had not even bothered to show his face.

It was a low time for the proud Lion, to turn to shadows and Oni for strength. Had the Clan Wars brought us this low, Turi wondered, or was it the loss of the Akodo?

As he raced into the mountain pass above Morikage forest, he looked back to see the banners of the Lion swallowed by the trailing vines and trees of that dark place. A small legion, no more than fifty men, stepped into the shadows and were gone.

As the rocky path cleared around him, he looked out over the wide valley of the Phoenix. A small group of Unicorn passed through a scarred cleft in the valley's mouth, following the path the Lion had led. The Shinjo were following us, Turi thought angrily. Ketsui was

Then another sight met his sharp eyes. Mantis banners, on the far side of the forest.

Someone had told them.

Someone

Mantis banners, and the Ikoma mon.

A trap, to slaughter the Matsu on their family's own swords? To free the last Akodo - the Emperor - lost in the woods of the traitorous Phoenix? As he watched, the Unicorn cleared the ravine, coming into sight of the forest. There was nothing he could do about the Mantis, or the Ikoma. He spurred his horse to the edge of the cliff, beating it with his hands and feet until the poor beast whinnied in frenzy. The thin shelf of rock and twined roots gave way beneath its pounding hooves, and a shelf of slate and gravel began to pour down the mountain's side.

At the last moment, Turi leapt backward, abandoning it to its fate.

The horse rolled, screaming, covered with rock and debris, beginning a terrible avalanche of granite and roots, small trees and at last, large bounders. Turi landed with a crack of bone against rock, and white light flashed behind his eyes. Crumpled on the ledge, he listened to the pounding of the falling stone until it faded beneath the warm sun. Something sticky trickled down his leg, but he clenched his fists into the swaying rock as if to stop the movement of the earth

"Lift him."

The voice was strange, oddly cultured. Flames licked around Turi's vision, and he groaned as gentle hands raised him to a flat surface. His leg moved, and he screamed in pain. The darkness came again.

A soothing voice chanted soft words, and the Lion lifted his head as peace raced through his veins. His leg, sore and injured, no longer trailed blood. His vision blurry, Turi looked up at the three figures that stood over him. One, a shugenja, drew his healing magic from the air, pressing the weight of the heavens against Turi. Healing his wounds.

The horse was gone, and a fresh scar of rock marked the side of the cliff where it had fallen. "You were very lucky." A man's voice, but not the same as the one that had healed his broken leg.

"Yes the horse was out of control. Mad." Turi could barely see, but the voice had an accent. Phoenix?

"It was lucky we came along, Lion. You might have lain there for days. Or worse."

Had the ruse worked? Were the Unicorn trapped in the pass? Turi's head began to clear. The Ikoma. He sat up, wincing as the tight skin of his leg protested with a burst of fresh pain.

The canyon, far below, was empty.

"You can walk, though barely, and we have no time to take you home." Now Turi recognized the voice. Shiba Tetsu, commander of the House Guard of the Phoenix. "You must come with us, into Morikage itself. Tetsu looked down at the mist that rose above the treetops, shielding the forest from prying eyes. "You will be needed. You are destined to contain a spirit that is trapped within that foul place. Isawa Kaede has told us this, as she foretold that we would find you here.."

The Emperor. Ketsui. They must be warned of the Ikoma's betrayal. "Of course I will come," Turi slowly stood, his newly-mended leg shaking with effort. The Phoenix nodded, and they passed into the forest's leafy gates together, beneath the last light of a dying sun.

**

The light faded, and was worn through by the darkness, falling to tattered ribbons by the path. "Stay here, Hachiman," Kamoko murmured, patting the huge horse once more before placing her hand on her mother's katana. With faint steps, she followed the Unicorn into the woods. He would have to turn, have to face here, here of all places.

Here, in the forest beneath the pass where her mother had died.

Her soul burned with vengeance, and the mists parted easily, allowing her passage through the dark twilight. A face emerged then vanished, nothing but the bark of a twisted tree. Another, but this time smooth and featureless, laughing at her.

Kamoko moved again, testing the resolve of the brush and the shadow.

It swirled around her. She felt a stab strike at her heart, not once, but twice, drawing her downward. The mud at her feet began to open, her feet sinking into the quicksand. As she leapt aside, she felt the earth shake, and a face lifted from the watery earth.

"Mother?" Kamoko whispered, falling to one knee as the spectre rose from the forest floor.

Its fingers reached for her in joy. "Daughter," it whispered, "Come to me."

"I found him, Mother," she began, her heart filled with unreasoning joy. It did not seem so strange, to see her mother's spirit, once silent, now walking across the forest floor toward her. "I found the man who drove you over the cliff's edge"

"That does not matter, now. Come closer, little one, and rest your head upon my knee." Her smile, perfect as memory, hid the laughter that echoed through the forest's empty paths.

Without a thought, Kamoko tried to rise, but the spear in her heart stabbed again. This time, her fingers turned black upon her saya, and she felt the jade about her throat begin to burn. "Mother? I"

The face blurred as mists rose around her, and Kamoko thought she heard her mother's formless face scream in fury and loss. Something called. An ancient and foreign tongue burned through her mind, and Kamoko felt her half-numb fingers tear off the necklace of jade.

Then the world became silent and dark.

**

In the mountains of the Dragon, a woman with a hand of black glass stood upon the parapets, watching as the thick smoke and faint dots of torch light grew closer to the walls. It would take the Naga weeks to arrive, yes, but weeks they had - and she did not.

Her fingers tapped the stone wall gently, ringing faintly with each touch.

"My Lady?" The call was soft, and at first it mingled with the whispers in her mind. A forest, wide and deep, and a secret that lay within. "My Lady?" Stronger now, and nearer, and the forest shattered in her thoughts. Lost.

Hitomi turned, and saw a man kneeling on the stone behind her, his head touching the ground in obeisance. A Kitsuki, and one she knew well. His hair was as black as her hand, untouched by gray. His face was that of a twenty summer man, though his eyes betrayed far more time had passed for him.

Kitsuki Kaagi. She thought more than spoke the words, but his eyes lifted from the ground and he looked up at her.

"My lady Hitomi-sama."

She moved, not with the grace of a seductress, but with the step of a goddess, commanding every syllable of air that stood between them. Her eyes, one green and one shining gold, took in every whisper of movement, every speck of dust, every star in the Celestial Heavens. Kaagi felt, rather than saw, her scrutiny, and he waited until it had passed.

"Hitomi-sama," he began again. "Kobai's message has returned. The Chancellor has agreed to your price, and sends men to your aid. Your ruse has worked. The Naga will be trapped."

She nodded, and they were silent again.

"Kaagi. Stay with me." Her voice was smooth and cold. Distant.

The stars passed slowly in the heavens, and the vision of an ancient forest returned to Hitomi's mind, sparking more whispers from the shadow of her obsidian hand. Kaagi noticed the faint trace of blood that seeped from her bound, fleshly arm. "You are hurt, my lady?"

Shadows beneath the trees. A man's scream, an arrow, lodged in an ancient birch tree. Things that had not happened yet. Anticipation. "Yes, Kaagi," she murmured, her gold silk kimono sliding effortlessly along the hard, uncompromising stone of her shoulder. "A Naga came to the wall last evening, and thought to assassinate me. An 'Isha', I believe. Kokujin has gone to catch him."

Kokujin catches many, my Lady, Kaagi thought, but did not say. Even yesterday, the Tattoo Hunter had brought one of Toturi's own guardsmen to the Chamber, laughing about the 'Captain of the Guard' who had gotten away.

Now that man served as loyally as the rest, convinced of Hitomi's purpose through blood and visions. His eyes, like the others, glowed with the gold of the heavens, the gold of the sun.

"I must go soon, Kaagi. You know that."

The crystal room echoed from the palace's depths.

"It calls you, doesn't it, my Lady?" The Kitsuki's eyes were shadowed. "The screams of the Goju whisper to you." My brother.

Your brother. Hitomi's lips curled, creasing the obsidian cracks. "Your brother was the first to go, Kaagi, but he was not the first to find them."

A pause, and the stars continued in their charted courses, following the laws of the heavens beneath the eye of a vengeful Moon. "My Lady?" Kaagi said. "How did you know to build the Chamber of Crystal? How did you know to contain the secrets of my," he shuddered, "My scrolls?"

A whisper in the night, carried by a silent shadow, "I only copied what had been done before, son of my clan. Only what I what Togashi had done, many hundreds of years ago. Seven hundred years." Her voice paused, and more visions sprang to her idle thoughts, Shaking them aside, she continued, "We captured the beast, and hid it behind crystalline walls, until it could be controlled. Your journal has unlocked the path."

"No" Kaagi whispered, but Hitomi's voice continued.

"Your journal has taught us how to contain her. How to control her, to purge her of the Darkness."

"It cannot be done." Kaagi hissed, his composure shattering. "I know. I know! Do not do this, Lady. Do not seek to control her, to destroy her. Your quest is the light, and the truth. I beg you, do not let them taint your path! No man can remove the Shadow from the soul, once it has begun to tear away who you are."

"Not by man, Kaagi," her smiling voice danced in his mind, pressing him to his knees on the cold stone parapet. "But it can be done by me."

**

The twists and turns of the mountain pass behind them, Ginawa spurred his horse deeper into the underbrush of the Isawa woodland. Behind him, Hiroru paused to look upward, watching the shadows play through the limbs of the trees as twilight approached.

"It isn't far" Their guide's voice. From a ledge above them, the Centipede bushi waved. "From up here, you can see it!"

"That rat-faced infant is leading us on a wild goose-chase," Ginawa snarled, spitting to clear his throat of dust and annoyance. After another wave, Hito vanished again behind the rock.

"I know." Hiroru's voice was calm, assured, but he fingered his horse's reins with a troubled grasp. "But what can be done? He knows something"

"So we take what we want from him, and move on."

Hiroru shook his head, the chameleon-like skin of his white gi shifting with each movement. "It won't be that easy."

"Damn easy, and damn this quest, Hiroru!" The filthy ronin jerked his horse's reins with enough force that the creature whinnied in surprised pain. "And damn you. For all your trust and all your questions, we're no closer to the Emperor now than we ever were."

The shadows pressed in closely against them, and Hiroru spun in his saddle, looking at the blackness that spilled from the setting sun. Even Ginawa paused in his anger, watching as the shadow of a rock slid down upon the gravel road, disappearing into the underbrush as the last rays of Amaterasu vanished beneath the horizon.

"Do you think so, my friend?" the white ninja whispered, but Ginawa's only reply was the soft hiss of wind upon his ancient blade.

**

There is a Unicorn in the forest.

The Oni's words hissed in Suru's mind, and his pale face turned away.

I will have this one, as well. She is a Thunder. She will be mine.

The Thunder. Suru's breath left his body in a ragged exhalation. The Oni Lord did not yet know of the Mask, or its guardian. As the forest rose around them, the mists began to creep across the sodden ground.

We are here.

Around them, the forest of Morikage grew, dark and stagnant. Shadows crowded around them eagerly, shutting out the dim light of the moon, and Suru took an involuntary step closer to the Kyoso.

Her red eyes turned toward him, and he feverishly stepped away. I've gone mad, he thought as she passed onward, toward the depths of the woodland. Shadows scaring me into the arms of an Oni Overlord. Madness.

Yet, as he clutched the still-bleeding heart of his Master, he realized that deep within his soul, somehow, he feared the shadows more. "Strike first and often.," Suru whispered to himself, chanting the litany of his Path.

Already, he could sense her - the image of the Ki-Rin swirled in his mind, and he could see the girl's face. Time to draw her near. With a whisper, Suru raised his hands into the air, sensing the blood of Shinjo in the darkened forest, drawing out her soul and replacing it with something darker. Somethingcruel.

Two?

Two souls?

His meditations interrupted, Suru desperately sought control, but the magic overwhelmed him. Two daughters of Shinjo surrounded him, but one did not claim the blood of the Unicorn. Unable to separate their bloodlines, Suru drew once more upon the Heart hidden within his robes, and called them both to his side.

Within moments, the brush began to stir. The wind swirled through the forest mists, and a thousand damned souls rose at the call of their long-silent Master. The Oni turned, its hair moving strangely in the faint wind, and its eyes burned with a hundred colors. A minute passed, three, seven, and Suru could barely stand the strain. Then, the veil of mist parted, and a faint rumble of thunder shook the sky.

Too late, dear Amaterasu, too late.

Otaku Kamoko, her hair filled with grasses and shrubs and her armor scratched and worn, stepped out from the forest. Her eyes held no comprehension of what she was doing here, no fear of the Oni or recognition of the faces that howled silently in the smoke that surrounded her. It led her to the still-beating heart, the dark heart of the Master, as Suru held it high above his head in Call.

She is tamed? She is Tainted?

The Oni's voice was amused.

"No." Suru felt the second presence approaching as Kamoko knelt. "Tainted only by my will, and tamed by my Master's heart. Turn back, Oni." Suru reached for the ritual knife at his belt, ready to chant the sacred words which would bind his Master's soul to hers.

Mine!

The Oni howled in fury. She raised her hand to bat away the heart, knocking Suru backwards, his concentration lost.

Another form lurched out of the mist, a woman with black-gold hair and strange, russet red armor. Suru felt the heart throb in his grasp, pulling away as if confused. "The second Unicorn?" Falling back, he felt the heart fall to his feet, and both women blinked, freed of their tainted dream.

"No!" screamed Kamoko, seeing the Kyoso looming above her.

"Bright fortunes" Xieng Chi cursed. One moment, she had been in Yoritomo's camp on the outskirts of this accursed forest, and now she was deep in the woods, surrounded by an Oni, a sorcerer, and the Thunder.

This was no place to spend the evening.

Suru leapt for the heart as the Kyoso no Oni raised its clawed hands to thrash at Kamoko. The Otaku, slow to recover, felt the claws sink deep into her shoulder, nearly forcing her to drop her mother's sword. Xieng Chi screamed, no weapon nearby, and leapt for the sorcerer's throat.

The Oni swung another bloodied claw, but this time Kamoko was awake and aware of the threat. Leaping to her feet, the Otaku daimyo thrust with her mother's sword, cutting the Oni's swing in half. "Jade!" Kamoko yelled. "We must have jade!" The Oni clawed at Xieng Chi with another hand, but its fingers scraped along the tough metal of the Armor of Earth, unable to slice the flesh beneath.

There is no jade here, mortal. All you will find is your death!

Again, the Oni swung, tendrils of power launching themselves from her fingertips and burning deeply into Kamoko's already wounded shoulder. her mother's sword bit deeply into a nearby tree, and black sap oozed from the wound like the blood of a thousand children.

With a terrible kiai yell, Xieng Chi kicked Suru backwards, impaling his leg on a broken tree limb. She pulled forth a thin finger of jade, thrusting it between the Oni's shoulder blades. Kamoko fell to her back, looking up at the Oni with wide eyes as it began to collapse into smoke, howling. A strange feeling overcame Kamoko, as if something horrible had just invaded her dreams. As the Oni vanished into nothingness, she could still see its blackened smile.

"Run, Otaku-sama! You have the soul of Thunder. They must not kill you!"

A finger of jade, defeat an Oni Overlord? Impossible.

"Run!"

Suru lifted himself from the tree trunk, pointing one horrible finger at Xieng Chi as she advanced, tearing Kamoko's sword from the tree. With the Unicorn's sword in her hand, Xieng Chi charged to battle the maho sorcerer again, yelling at the top of her lungs. She missed as his form splintered, reforming behind her and reaching again for the dark heart.

Run!

The forest closed around Kamoko as she leapt away, searching for the path that would lead her from the forest. Behind her, she heard a terrible snap, as if a tree limb had been broken in half by some tremendous force. Then, a shattered scream of pain, and no more.

**

"My dear Shahai," even the woman's voice was fat, deep and rich from too much spoiling. "Here is all that you could want, and more." Seppun Kossori stepped to the side of the lithe young Unicorn, her servants holding forth a beautifully made box of shining koku.

"Oh, no, Seppun-sama," Shahai replied, and her voice was smooth as polished jade. "I could not possibly accept such a gift. You are too generous, and I have done nothing to warrant it."

Seppun Kossori, though a distant niece to the Imperial Throne, straightened the imperial chrysanthemum on her obi. It was a dishonor to wear it, Shahai thought, blithely ignoring the implications, but there was no Hantei on the throne to tell Kossori 'no'.

And besides, thought Iuchi Shahai, a faint smile playing on her blood-red lips, what does one more 'heir to the throne' matter, when the Empire is no more?

"Oh, but the Iuchi's voice in council is so important in these difficult times. With the famine that plagues our lands, your people starve as much as any in the Empire." The unspoken threat resounded in Shahai's head as Kossori continued, "I know that the Dragon slighted your clan when they offered their rice to the Chancellor. It is so important, in these trying times, that we care for each other, and share our strengths,"

Strengths. Shahai almost laughed aloud. The woman had no idea what she spoke of. She thought that Shahai needed the money to pay for the care of her peasants, and to feed armies on the march. Armies could march as easily without food - and far more effectively, once one managed to igg of the stars came a murder in the Crane lands, and the rise of a new power.

Adoka.

"Kossori-sama, you think too highly of me. I am honored by your gift," Shahai's eye fell once more to the golden koku, coveting the gleam of riches that lay within the wooden box. "But, in the name of my family, who still mourns the sickness that has befallen my father, I cannot accept your noble offering."

"Oh, no, dear Shahai-san, you must. You must!" Kossori's attendants set the box upon the floor of the Iuchi palace, watching with narrowed eyes as the Unicorn was forced to accept their lady's bribe. "And when you next come to the palace of the Emperor, you will of course stay in the Seppun halls, with my family and I."

And lend my appearance to your cause, no doubt, Kossori? Shahai's face was passionless as she studied her options. "Of course, Kossori-sama. I'd be honored." With a bow, Shahai sealed the bargain and set the path of the future.

When Kossori's men left, Shahai let the golden coins trail from her fingers.

"Adoka was a fool, and he stepped ahead of our plan," she whispered, as her grandfather's skull raised into the air from behind the dais. "But we will make certain that the Crane do not send out their anger in vain, won't we, Sofu-san?" One gold coin rested on the tips of her fingers, shining in the light of the setting sun.

On its surface was imprinted the mon of the Phoenix.

**

Tsuruchi raced along the plains from the shoreline. The Mantis kobune captain had refused passage farther north than Toshi no Omoidoso. Storms, he claimed.

Storms, indeed.

Ten men, ten horses, all faces he knew. Tsuyu led them at Yoritomo's word, but Tsuruchi chafed at the restraint of his newfound alliance. These days, it seemed that Yoritomo commanded them all.

But the dagger burned in Tsuruchi's obi, reminder of the Akodo, who had betrayed their lord. Aramasu's voice rang in their ears as he watched them depart from the kobune.

Watch for shadows, he had said with a smile. Watch your backs.

The Wasp Lord looked at the racing darkness that paced his steed, a shadow blocked from the view of the sun. Always behind him, it never separated from his side. Watch your backs.

Before he could continue, Tsuruchi cried for a halt. Dusk was approaching, the forest was in sight, and their ponies were on the verge of collapse.

Yet the forest of Morikage was in sight. "Leave the ponies. Cut them free." Tsuruchi's order was uncompromising. "Bring what you can, leave the rest. There is no time for discussion."

Tsuyu nodded, stripping his weary pony of supplies and weapons. "Tsuruchi- san," he murmured when the others were too busy to notice. "I have heard that the armies of Yoritomo may meet us in the pass, on the other side of the forest. Is that true?"

Tsuruchi turned on his commander with an arrogant curse. "Do not question me as to our Lord's actions. They are not for us to decide."

Tsuyu bowed, apologizing hastily. It was not the man's fault. He was correct, Yoritomo had promised to meet them on the far side of the Phoenix lands, to prepare their march to Kyuden Isawa. Still, it was better that the men did not have hope in their hearts.

The haunted forest was no place for hope. It drowned it in its own shadow, cursed with chains of despair, and fed upon the souls of the unwary.

If the Emperor was there, the Empire was long ago lost.

Each man in Tsuruchi's unit looked to him for guidance as they stepped into the curtain of mist that shrouded the thick wood. The sun was quickly extinguished by the enclosing leaves and twisted vines. A shadowed path awaited them.

As they moved through the woods, the darkness grew more complete, and the faces of Tsuruchi's men seemed strange and distant. Smooth of emotion. Tsuruchi's bow, strung, hung empty in his hands. The path grated against his boots, but no sound escaped. Some strange trick of the forest, some play of light and sound made the world seem veiled by silence.

The shadows changed, and the unfamiliar steps of his men faded into nothing. Through a break in the trees, he saw his shirekan's face. It was smooth, emotionless featureless. Then, past another tree, and all seemed normal again. The man looked toward him, taking in his commander's stark white expression with a quizzical nod. Yet he knew he could trust these men. Aramasu had convinced him to had chosen his men personally, take only those most trusted.

At Aramasu's suggestion - a Scorpion's advice.

"Tsuyu," Tsuruchi hissed, and his voice sounded like a herd of horses. "Get the forces out. All of them. Now."

"What?"

"Do not disobey me!" Faint laughter sounded in the distance, a play of the echoes. Before Tsuyu could turn to give the command, a darkness so absolute that Tsuruchi could no longer see his hand before his eyes fell about them. Shadows descended upon them, deadly faces without features.

With shrieks of terror, Tsuruchi's men began to fall.

A warm, bloody wetness splashed upon the Wasp daimyo's arm, and his arrow leapt from his bow, vanishing into nothingness. The shadows parted, and Tsuruchi saw his lieutenant's face melt like wax above a fireplace, revealing the smoothness of an egg below. And somehow, he knew it was smiling.

All around him, through the curtain of trees and shadow, Tsuruchi saw his men changing. Some turned to smoke, others melted entirely, but the worst of all were the ones whose faces left them. The ones who turned upon their companions and dragged them into the madness of the woods. Had that been truly Tsuru, or some shapeshifter, wearing his face? Tsuruchi did not know.

The face of his own father replaced the shirekan's empty visage. "Son, why have you betrayed us? You should have died, as we did, when the palace fell to the Lion" A scream, this time his own, and another arrow sped through the shifting body of the beast-like thing that had his father's face.

Oni? No, these were worse than Oni. They had the faces of men, the souls of mortals, twisted into a nothingness that had stolen their minds. But worse Tsuruchi thought as he fled deeper into the woodland, was the knowledge - the deep, intimate understanding that a prey has of its predator. It had come for him, and it would continue to chase him so long as he stayed in the wood of Morikage. The darkness was not dead. The Shadow around him had moved.

The forest of Morikage was alive, and it was evil.

**

The Eyes of the Sky are above me.

I will save the world from its own fate.

The Bright and the Pale, shine before me.

I must turn, and turn again, and capture hate.

The litany rang in Balash's mind as the three struggled to fight off the minions of the Foul. Faceless darkness swallowed the One who Smelled of Sky, and the forest spun with the servants of the Unmaker.

The Akasha leapt within them, reaching from soul to soul with the visions of a thousand Naga warriors. Lives without end reached to support Balash's sword, and the purity of his own essence fused with that of the Whole. Beside him, without words, he could feel the whistling of the Isha's bowstring, the twisting strike of Ralish's magic pearls.

They were one, in the grasp of the Akashic mind.

Mentally, Balash heard the voice of his leader, the Qamar, far away in the hills of the Dragon. "Do not let them take the One who Smells of Sky!" He cried to the empty mountains, and the Balash heard him. Three Naga leapt like coiled springs, into the heart of the darkness, the face of the Shadow, beneath Morikage's trees.

Then, as the Shadow stripped them of identity with bolts of darkened soul, they vanished into the Foul. Three souls lost, never to return to the Akasha. In the hills of the Dragon, the Naga raised their voices in an eerie, keening wail.

Balash cut them down, seeing nothing but faceless, twisted forms beneath his shining blade. They dissipated into smoke, polluting the air with rank vapors that made his body ache to breathe, but still he fought.

"I am the Balash," He screamed into the Akasha, and knew his brother's minds, "And I will not be defeated - not by huu-man, not by the minions of the dark land, and not by the Unmaker himself." A roar from his brethren in the Dragon hills, and a scream of fury from the Ralish, as his pearls turned to greenish dust from the shinobi of the Shadow.

The image of a woman in armor, wounded and sick from the Taint, rang in Balash's mind. Someone had seen her? Here, or elsewhere? The Akasha thrummed with tension as a thousand souls warred to answer, and Balash lost the sight once more. A man with the face of his father leapt to pull his entrails from his side, but Balash coiled back, and the thing spun past.

The Pale Eye shone in the heavens somewhere above the trees, but the Naga could not see it. They watched as the Shadows fell back into the dark, leaving twisted trees and the stench of Foul.

"This, this is what sent us to the mountains of the Dragon," shouted the lone Isha who remained. "For this, we must fight, even as our brothers sought to purge the Foul from the Dragon Mountains! We must go onward, into its lair, and find the Sky-man. He can stop it, if he names it as his father did before."

The Balash nodded, and as the darkness slunk along mossy ground, the Naga followed. Five, now, where there were seventeen, and three lost forever to the True Mind. The Bright Eye would weep at the loss of three such souls, but the Shadow laughed in glee.

And ahead, through the treetops, the ancient roof of a ruined castle rustled through the mists and leafy boughs.

The Malekith's thoughts spoke volumes: a hunted woman, a wound with Taint, and a Thunder's soul which called to another. But the Taint which the woman bore was strange almost separate from her own soul, as if another mind hid within her own.

Balash looked at the Isha, and he nodded.

"Bring her." The Isha said. "If she can find the Lord-Emperor, then perhaps she can help us tell him of the Foul." And if she cannot, he thought to the Akasha, then she will be close enough to kill, if the need arises. With a lash of his tail, the Balash turned toward the rotting bulk that rose from the forest floor.

Though the castle was dark, a single light flickered in its depths. Both a warning and a challenge, it parted the veil of mist for a long moment. Then, as the Naga began to move, it vanished in the darkness.

**

Though the lights of Morikage were long ago extinguished by the Oracle's Curse, the spirits of the dead still roam there, unfettered by Jigoku's iron chains. Spells of hatred and remorse bind all those who would enter its forbidden depths, but within its depths, the greatest secret of all smiles, faceless, from the darkness.

The Shadows move of their own accord, and all is as they planned it. The Emperor, bound in ropes of nothing and chains of foxfire, kneels before their ancient bower. He looks up into a starless night, and sees the tracks of destiny. Empty of Sun and Moon and Empire, it is a future where Shadows roam and the insubstantial incarnation that is man fades into darkness and despair.

The Unmaker awaits. The Emperor's eyes have grown black with Shadow.

Soon, the Empire will have even forgotten what it was fighting for


Contents Copyright (C) 1997,98,99 by FIVE RINGS PUBLISHING GROUP, INC



 

 

 

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!