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The Storming of Morikage Castle - Part 3 of 3

To Seek a Dark Path

A thousand years ago, the world was young and new. Green grasses swayed beneath gentle trees, and the cool slope of hills rolled into massive forests. Man walked upon the earth, born from the blood and tears of the Sun and Moon, and creatures ran before them, delighting in the names they had been given. The Kami stood upon the soil, and fought their wars, and called the land their own.

But they were not the first to tread upon the firmament.

We were.

Balash's nostrils filled with the acrid scent of the Foul. A smell that tore at the fabric of things, it was unmistakable. Unforgettable. The Akasha boiled with hatred, and a long-forgotten memory surfaced, a life which passed over a thousand years ago.

Once, we stood beneath the Bright Eye's radiant gaze, and felt her warmth alone. She was our lover, a mother to the creatures of the world – the beloved lady of the People. Her eye was that of kindness. Her mate, the Pale Eye, was jealous of the things of the world, and he caused her to weep for his hatred of her beloved people. The Pale Eye, cold from anger and envy, watched as the People sang praises to the Bright, and so he hid his face in the Shadow. He gave no warmth to the People, no friendship or hope, and to his mate the Bright Eye, he gave pain.

As they walked across the land, prepared to give names to all, the Pale Eye lagged jealously behind. Alone, his eye was caught by a small slip of Shadow which hid beneath a rock and did not want a name. "Let us make a deal," the Pale Eye said to the Bright. "I will provide the names, and you will choose which creature to give them to." The Bright agreed – it seemed a fair agreement, and so they spread the Names among the world. Jealous of the love that the People had for the Bright Eye, the Pale chose not to show the hiding Shadow to his mate, to let it stay as it wished and be free. And when the Bright had used all the names he had given her, the Pale did not offer more – and the thing within the Shadow remained as it was, unnamed and unmade. After the Bright and the Pale stepped again into the Sky, the Shadow greedily used its power to feed upon the People. Pleased to avenge its father, the Pale Eye, it devoured the bodies of the People, twisted them beyond bone and scale.

It took them from the Akasha, and it made them nothing at all.

Yet among the people rose a hero. His name, at the time (if such things had names) was Qatol. He was a warrior, a dread-mind-hunter, bringer of food. The Qatol fought the darkness with weapons of steel and jade, but nothing drove it away. More died. More vanished into the Shadow, never to be seen again, their souls lost forever. The Bright Eye, weeping as her People died, could do nothing. She could not break the bargain with the Pale, and she had no other names to give. Angered, she sent her youngest son to steal a name from the Pale, but he fell to the earth with his brothers and sisters, defeated.

No name was ever given, and the Darkness that Walks still remained free.

The People, weary from the fight and the loss of Qatol, slept long. Yet in their dreaming they knew the Shadow's face, even as they knew its Foul scent. and when they awoke to a land filled with evil, they knew that the Foul was among them but where? In the Shadowlands? The terrors there were mortal – they could die. Though they were the enemies of the war once called the Burning of the Lands, they were not the creatures of the Foul. But in other places

Upon the mountains of the Dragon yes, there.

Beneath the forest of Morikage ah, yes.

And within the Emperor's eyes

Balash shook his head arrogantly, clearing his eyes of the visions and hatreds of the Akasha. As it quieted within him, the great Naga turned to look at the castle which rose above the ruined trees. The palace of Morikage crouched within the wood, a hulking wreck with vine-shrouded walls. Its windows, once bright with white paint, now seemed as shadowed eye-pits in the skull of the forest. Barren and empty. The light that once moved behind shuttered stone was gone, and a strange phosphorescent mist colored the tangled courtyards like the touch of a miserly hand, scattering the shadows across the walls.

Balash, Isha, and Malekish – the latter, carrying a woman's Tainted body as her mind hovered in a half-lucid dream. Behind them the black forest laughed, readying its mouth for the feast. The courtyard was thick with stench, and the Isha's quick mind parlayed, "There are others. Close by."

"Friend or foe?" Balash spoke without speaking, trusting in the Akasha to communicate his will. He looked about, noticing a movement in the brush here, a scrap of light there. Isha was correct. There were others in the forest.

The poor huu-man fools.

As he watched, a man staggered from the vine-twisted path, losing his footing and sprawling to the rocky ground, his bow broken and his armor torn, unlaced. Upon his helm, the once-shining symbol of the Mantis hung, though his half- empty quiver was marked with the mon of the wasp.

Two ready bows arched their backs toward him, arrows trembling. The Malekish placed himself between Otaku Kamoko, the injured Unicorn, and the Wasp samurai, fearful of what might happen. Balash's eyes narrowed, the ugly scent all around them, but he snarled, "Huu-man, look at us, and die well."

Tsuruchi turned, his eyes wide with fear. Not fear of death, or of their bows, Balash noticed instantly, but of the shadows in the forest. The man raised a hand and pointed behind him. "My men. All all gone. The forest." Desperate to make them believe his story, the man rose to his feet. "The forest ate them."

The Isha lowered his bow. "You have seen them? The creatures of the Foul? They follow you?" In his mind, he parlayed the image of the twisted creatures to the others, and the Malekish and the Balash began to look to the trees as well as the frightened man.

"Yes." The huu-man saw that the People understood. Tsuruchi stepped toward the Naga, and Balash's bow snapped back toward him. "They followed us into the forest. Some of them lost their faces. It was horrible. They fell, and I heard their screams." Tsuruchi's pale jaw tightened with anger, and he stepped forward. "We have to fight together, or we'll all die here. Uselessly." With anger, he swatted Isha's bow aside. At that, the Balash hissed angrily and sent an arrow screaming an inch past Tsuruchi's hand.

Tsuruchi turned toward the huge Naga. "Do you think I fear you, snake?" The words whispered in the darkness of the forest as Balash laced another arrow into the heart of the bow. "After what I've seen? Do you think I would care if you killed me?" His eyes were cold and hard, and they riveted into the Naga warrior's heart like arrows of their own. "I would prefer it to what those creatures did to my men."

"There is enough evil in this forest for all our people to fight." The Isha's voice was concerned, wary. "Perhaps we should not give it another reason to be pleased. Where we were three, we are now four."

"We are five." The Unicorn maiden, her face still smeared with drying mud, looked up from the Malekish's gentle grasp. "Though I have no skill with the bow, I can still help." Her face was hard, and though she still smelled of Oni-Taint, she was pure of Foul. "Xieng Chi gave her life" Kamoko closed her luminous eyes for a moment, remembering the scream she had heard as she retreated, " and I will not fail her sacrifice. My honor owes her that much."

Balash slowly lowered his bow, his eyes still locked with the cold black pupils of the Wasp. It was all he could do to nod agreement. This was no time for war.

"Can you use a bow, huu-man?" The Isha offered one he had taken from the fallen companions and cocked his head between the strange Unicorn and the new man.

The Wasp smiled grimly, threading a string through the proffered weapon with the ease of one born to it. "Try me."

As swiftly as darkness falls, the smell of the Foul began to move again, all around them, pressing in on them fiercely. "They come," the Isha's mind relayed, and he repeated it aloud for the huu-man. Within moments, the attack was on. Shadows, leaping from trees and crawling from beneath the concealing brush, hurtled toward them with slavering jaws. Their faces and bodies were deformed, twisted by darkness, their souls ripped away by the Shadow that held them. Tsuruchi saw his men again in their movements and armor, but saw nothing human in their eggshell-skulls.

This was not Shadowlands Taint, though Tsuruchi as he launched a Naga's crystal-pointed arrow at one of the beasts. This was something stranger – more deeply rooted in the minds and souls of the creatures. Perhaps they had once been human but now they were mindless, hovering on the edge of sanity, yet with a frightening clarity unifying them without speech. It was as if one dark mind led them all.

"Back!" the Isha cried, and Tsuruchi followed, helping Malekish carry the injured Unicorn maiden with them as they ran. Crystal arrows cut down many of the men, but there were more in the forest. As the Naga retreated within the haunted castle's still-standing wall, Tsuruchi saw one of the bodies begin twisting into smoke. it screamed, a high-pitched wail, as the bright crystal seemed to rupture whatever spell held its warped form together. As it collapsed into nothing, the others stepped back as if in momentary fear, and Tsuruchi saw a gout of flame explode from the eastern wall, many yards away. Something had happened, something which had caused the shadow-minions to pause.

"The man who smells of Sky is gone!" The Akasha whispered, and lifting his head to scent the forest, Balash knew it to be true. Somehow, the Dragon-monks had found a way out of the cursed forest, past the Foul. They were here, no more. The creatures were confused, burning and scorched, screaming in desperate pain. There was only a moment of hesitation before the creatures regrouped and came for them again, but this moment – this brief second – would be their salvation. The gates of the castle were open just enough to step inside, and stood tall and dark against the burning grove of Shadow. Inside was another darkness entirely – one of emptiness and anguish, but not peopled with these Foul beasts. Their choice: enter Morikage and seal themselves within its haunted walls, or stay here, and fight to the death, hoping morning came before their last arrow fired.

They had just enough time to slam the gate of the castle closed.

**********

In the fields of the Crab, a war-horn sounded, plaintive and sorrowful. The war had begun once more, and the men within lost Hiruma Castle wearily shouldered their tetsubo. Another rush of undead, another overwhelming flow of maho sorcery, and all would be lost. Resigned to their fate, the Hiruma stood their ground on the ruined walls, staring out at the Shadowlands grimly. A samurai's duty was always to their lord.

The world tore open with the screams of the Shadowlands horde, eager and ready for the last confrontation and certain of their victory. Even the bravest of the Ratlings had long ago left through muddy tunnels and scampering half-noticed through Horde lines. The samurai could not follow. Only three remained behind, claiming that they would guide the Hiruma out – if a press revealed a hole in the Horde lines.

Yasuki Nokatsu spat angrily. A hole was as likely as the moon falling from the sky. The skeletal men stretched from horizon to horizon, and no sign of Hida Yakamo or the reinforcements he had promised to bring.

Damn the Naga to the gates of Jigoku, and damn their false alliance.

In a flurry of movement, Nokatsu saw the ruined face of a man as his body rose into the air above the armies. "My brothers." The cadaverous voice of Kuni Yori, once a member of the Crab Clan, but now lost to death and darkness. "Leave this little fight, and come to greet us. You shall see, our battle has been for nothing. It is not the way of the Crab, to die so pitifully. Even your Lord knows this."

"Our Lord will return, sorcerer!" a voice from the Hiruma lines cried. "And when he does"

With a solid ‘thunk', something landed before the barricaded gates of Hiruma Castle. Something large, and wet with blood. It lay in the Tainted mud, its metal rusted and ruined.

Yakamo's helm.

"Your Lord," Yori sneered from above, "Is my prisoner. I command you, in his name, to open the gates and allow my servants passage. Your lives will be spared once you have been properly educated in the ways of the Dark Master."

The burbling, choking laughter of the undead hung in the smoke-filled air, a counterpoint to Yori's posturing and silken threats. One of the Hiruma, tormented by the vision of the empty helm, began to release a stream of broken arrows, rocks, and curses.

"Oh, your Lord is not dead yet. if you join me now," Yori continued, "You may even be able to serve with him again." His meaning was clear. Yakamo was to be sacrificed to the Dark One. The Crab stood silent against the roar of cheers from the zombie

"And if we promise to join you," the voice belonged to Hiruma Yoshi, the aged daimyo of the Hiruma. Though wounded, one leg all but ruined by the claws of a Tainted beast, he still had the ring of steel in his shout. "Will you take our lives in exchange for our lord? Will you free him, and take us?"

"Take the Hiruma?" Yori stood upon the foul air, amazed. He lifted one rotting hand to his porcelain mask, feeling the carved writing that scoured his empty skull. "A family, for one man's life"

"No, Yoshi!" Nokatsu grasped the old man's sleeve. "You cannot do this! Your men"

"My men serve me." The ancient daimyo's face showed no remorse, no compromise. "And if I ask it, they will do as I bid."

"You cannot ask it!"

"In the name of my Lord, I do. Would you not give your own life, for your lord? So, too, shall the Hiruma sacrifice theirs, for the son of Hida. Out of my way, Yasuki." The two stared at one another for a dark moment, and Nokatsu's hand brushed the tsuba of the sword on his belt. "Let me do this." Yoshi asked softly.

Nokatsu saw a deep sorrow in the daimyo's eyes, and something more. Fear.

"Without the son of Hida, where would the Crab be? Hiruma Palace is long ago lost. It is time for our family to be lost with it. It is time for us to die, old friend." Yoshi lifted the weapons from his side and offered them to Nokatsu. "Give these to my Lord."

"It will be done." It was all Nokatsu could do to speak the words. He stepped aside.

Yori's laughter was genuine, his minions curdling below him, treading the ground to mush beneath bone and blood-encrusted feet. "A family of warriors to serve my Master, all for one Lord." Treachery stood out in his motions, but Yoshi stepped forward, opening the gates enough to pass. Behind him, the Hiruma in the castle fell to their knees in obedience and horrified sorrow. Yoshi limped past them, his ruined leg dragging behind him, the gentle thumping of his makeshift crutch echoing against the palace's ancient walls.

With each thud of his crutch, another Hiruma fell to his knees.

Thum, thum, thum

A family, for a man.

Thum, thum, thum

The Hiruma, for the Hida.

Thum, thum, thum

"Take me, then, Yori." Yoshi's words shook, but his limping demeanor was stern. "Take me, and let Yakamo return to his people. But take me yourself, so I can spit into your face as I turn to the Taint." He stood before the palace, the gate open in his wake and the Hiruma kneeling as one in the courtyard, their tetsubo on the ground before them.

Yori sank to the ground, sneering behind his gleaming, cowled shroud. "All you need do is take my hand, Hiruma, and the bargain will be sealed, your soul lost. Then, I shall take your men." He reached out one long arm, skeletal bone beneath rotting flesh. "A pretty bargain. My Lord's soul will be pleased, even if he is forced to lose his prized toy."

"And Yakamo will be freed. Your word, for what it's worth."

"Of course." Yori hissed. "My word."

Yoshi reached out to touch the rotted hand, his fingertips brushing against squirming maggots and writhing maho-tendrils. Blood painted the bones of Yori's scarred and withered arm, dripping to the ground as the pact was made.

Faintly then, the horn sounded again, but this time not within the castle gates. The shadow at the top of Hiruma Valley moved, and the thundering sound of hooves resounded from the high cliffs of the Hiruma lands.

But it was not the Oni who came, nor was it more of Yori's men.

It was Yasamura's men, on Unicorn steeds, that flooded into the pass, and It was O-Ushi who sounded the call. With a heave, Yoshi tore the wrappings from his cane, bringing the solid jade base down upon the sorcerer's skull. A small creature, flying with tattered wings, darted to save its Master, and was crushed by the Hiruma's valiant blow. Thrown back by his minion's eager attempt to save his unlife, Yori howled in rage, and pointed a bone finger at the Hiruma daimyo.

Zombies plunged around them, lifting their rotted hands above them, tearing at Hiruma Yoshi's skin.

"Close the gate!" roared Yoshi, falling beneath the press. "The Hiruma must hold, until the Lady comes!" The bone fingers plunged beneath his ribcage, tore his leg from its socket, and poured his blood upon the ground, but still Yoshi struggled against them. "This is our one chance! Seize it!"

"Die!" Yori pointed, screaming with a disembodied jaw. "Die, damn you, Hiruma! DIE!"

Two men leapt to the gate, taking advantage of the pause gained by their daimyo's struggle. In a moment, the Crab would be here, and Hiruma Castle would be the site f the greatest battle the Hiruma had ever known. The parapets would be filled with armies, undead legions escaping the Hida's rush, and Hiruma men, weak and weary, struggling to live until the gates could be opened.

If the castle could be taken by the Crab, it would be.

If not, then they would all die here.

Together.

**********

Against the ruined castle's eastern wall, the fading mist brushed aside the shadow, piercing through the trees of the haunted wood. Three pale figures, two Phoenix and one Lion, staggered into the grove, pressing their backs against the cool stone of the wall. Though shattered by time and overgrown, the wall of the abandoned keep was a bastion of solidity in a world of changing shapes and horrifying ghosts. They had been attacked by translucent beasts, seen men die, repeating events of hundreds of years past, and been forced to travel through mist-shrouded battlefields, sodden with the tears of the cursed forest.

Now, Isawa Hoichu knelt by the wall, supported by his yojimbo, Shiba Tetsu, and an injured Matsu Turi. Two Phoenix and a Lion. Strange times had forced them together – strange times, and stranger visions.

His sword out, Tetsu stood between the two others and the forest. Sweat trickled down his brow and he watched warily as Turi helped Hoichu to his feet.

"The spirits are gone, Hoichu-sama," Tetsu murmured between gasping breaths.

"The jade did nothing?"

"Nothing."

Matsu Turi looked around suspiciously, aware of each breath of wind that moved the vines upon the wall. Every movement in the forest was a shadow, and shadows – as they had learned – were deadly. "Those ghosts were real," he began, "Torn from Jigoku. The Kitsu had spoken of such things, but they could not understand where they had gone. They thought that perhaps the souls of those ‘gone' had passed back into the Empire"

"Not those souls." Hoichu interrupted, his voice weak. "Those were not simply lost souls that never wished to go to Jigoku. Those were something else."

"You said that Kaede told you of a ‘shadow' covering Morikage Toshi." Turi whispered, his voice echoing in the cloying dampness. "Were these the creatures she spoke of?"

"Perhaps," mused Tetsu warily, shifting his weight from the balls of his feet. "And perhaps not. The Phoenix have always known that this cursed forest holds more than the souls of those who died within its green walls. But these twisted shadows seem different – more tangible. These men do not bear the faces of ancestors. They do not bear faces at all."

"Lost souls gather in this forest?" Turi asked.

The Phoenix yojimbo nodded, but it was Isawa Hoichu who spoke. "The souls of those who died without honor, or without need. Those dead spirits who cannot travel to Jigoku sometimes gather in the shadows, where living man does not journey. They claim it for their own, and spend eternity reliving their dishonor, trying to find a way to make it right again so that they may join their ancestors in Jigoku. Morikage Toshi is one of those places. Cursed three hundred years ago or more, the spirits come here because they cannot find peace. Morikage is a forest of dreams and visions, where those who have been denied peace must walk forever, reliving the events of their lives until they are no more than mist. Until they are given peace, or until they have been forgotten."

"That is why you have come here? To help those spirits rest?"

"Something has disturbed them," the shugenja continued. "Morikage has always been haunted by darkness, but now the shadow of the forest has become something more."

"The faceless ones," Tetsu whispered.

Hoichu nodded, and Turi felt a shudder run along his spine. Three of the spectral bandits had attacked them in the forest, killing the other Phoenix bushi. When they turned to fight him, their faces slid downwards, losing all consistency. They were as smooth as an egg. Yet somehow, within their motionless bags of skin, they were smiling "Those were not ghosts. They were men."

"Were," Hoichu said grimly.

Tetsu turned away again as a breeze shook the branches of the pine. "Something comes." A whisper of motion. A fragile swirling of mist. Was it ghost, banditor something worse.

Hoichu stood, pressing his back against the wall. "I know that essence."

No one moved. No one spoke. Turi's hands clasped the tsuba of his weapon, but the katana had already proved useless against the creatures they fought. As the branches parted, a long, wailing laugh shook the foundation of the broken wall. Someone stood atop the ancient parapets, a figure that glowed with ghostly fire. From the forest, ghostly samurai came in legions, parting to swing ghostly swords at ghostly enemies.

The grove had become a battlefield.

Tetsu and Turi stayed close to the wall, shielding Hoichu with their bodies, but the figures did not come close enough to strike. Their mon waved behind empty helmets, and their bodies seeped misted blood onto the field as they fell to one another's blades.

"I know this battle" Tetsu said, horrified. "This is Kyuden Isawa on the Day of Thunder."

"Kyuden Isawa?" Turi gasped. "Then that figure upon the wall is"

"Father." Hoichu pushed past them both, his hands reaching up toward the ghostly form. "My father. Isawa Tsuke. Destroying them all, even as he did four years ago." As he spoke, the white and blue foxfire spread from the mad shugenja's fingers, engulfing the Phoenix legions in smoke and flame.

Suddenly, Turi felt a burst of heat upon his face, and his hair singed from the close impact of flame The fire was real. It poured over the broken wall, through the mad ghost of Isawa Tsuke, and caught the trees in its heated grasp. Screaming from both the false and true flame, the spirit-samurai fell to their knees, their armor blackened and charred. "Go!" Hoichu cried, stepping before the two bushi as the flames grew nearer. "In this place, such visions can too easily become real. Go, Lion, reach the palace – discover where the Emperor has been taken, and save him. I must stay here." The mad cackling of Isawa Tsuke's laughter echoed eerily from the mist, and the screams of the ethereal samurai roared like a distant tide. "Go. When the dawn comes, you will be able to find your way out of the forest, if you make your way north. Go!"

Turi bowed and turned, understanding instinctively the command of a born leader. As he hurtled toward the gap in the wall, he saw samurai cut down by white blades, their mempo twisting with the vision, falling and rising into the mist. Behind him, the two Phoenix called a war-cry, raising their hands to silence the spirit of a madman.

"I must reach the inside of the palace. I must find Toturi. Kaede told them I would save a Lion's soul. The Emperor" Turi's thoughts flew as rapidly as his feet over twisted branches.

"Save a Lion's soul" As he stepped at last within the broken stone wall of the gardens surrounding Morikage's inner sanctum, all thoughts of the Emperor fled his mind. in a single instant, Turi felt his heart turn to stone and ice. To save a Lion's soul. Hoichu's words echoed in his mind:"those who have been denied peace must walk forever, reliving the events of their lives until they are given peace, or until they have been forgotten."

Her face moved him as nothing before. A bitter moon shone upon the ethereal visage, highlighting the brave cut of her jaw, the pale flow of her hair as she knelt and removed her helmet. Her hands, transparent in the moon's soft embrace, were sure, her features stone. She turned toward him as she reached for her ghostly wakizashi, empty eyes barren of life. Turi's mind froze, refused to see, refused to grasp the significance of the figure which knelt within the castle's ruined garden.

Tsuko.

"In Morikage, you will save a Lion's soul" whispered Hoichu's voice again. Her marble face was filled with sorrow, her hands held a shadow-image of the ancestral blade of his house. A blade lost since the Clan Wars. He did not know if she could see him, but she knelt very still beside a pond filled with mire and thickly woven vines. In her very carriage, her posture, her once- proud shoulders carried a burden that no mortal soul could hold and yet survive. Where her deep brown eyes had been, now there were only blackened relics, sunken in pain and shame. Turi fell to his knees in the mud and broken granite, unable even to bow. At last, looking upon the spectral image of Matsu Tsuko preparing again for her seppuku, he knew. Staring into her eyes, once Champion of the Lion Clan, the fallen Lady of Lions, Turi saw his destiny.

The Ikoma stood outside the forest, in alliance with the Mantis against clan and house.

The Kitsu summoned Oni to protect Matsu lands, blighting the honor of the clan.

The Akodo were dead.

And in the Shadowlands, once-noble Matsu still served the Dark Lord's cause.

"I will unite them, my Lady." Turi whispered to her translucent form, barely understanding his own words. "I will bring them together, no matter what the cost." Tsuko's regal face did not soften, did not change. Her empty eyes stared into his soul, and he felt his heart break with her sorrow. "I will finish what you have begun"

It would be enough.

It had to be.

**********

In her mind, Eisai saw the Lion run. He chased his own fear away from the ghostly battlefield, and knelt by the side of the Lady when her spirit called to his. But that was not enough. Eisai tried again, looking between the stars as Togashi had once taught her.

Hoshi.

Hoshi.

There he was.

Hoshi stood with Mitsu and Suana, surrounded by faceless minions of Shadow. Above them, he stood tall on six legs, his serpentine body wrapped about the men he sought to protect. The Naga were only a few hundred yards away, opening the gate to the castle, escaping the same attack. Fire roared from Mitsu's mouth, burning the shadows back. Their twisted faces singed as they screamed wordlessly, and a ghostly shadow on the castle wall laughed with glee. It poured freely, burning the shadows, illuminating the clearing outside the misty castle walls. The door of the castle slammed shut, and strange shadows danced around the iron-barred portal.

They would need her.

Eisai stepped out of the vision, unconcerned with time or space. She held her hand to Hoshi silently, and smiled.

"Eisai!" Suana yelled, spinning his bo staff and hurling a shadow-minion back. "Where did she come from?"

Mitsu laughed, a hollow, rich sound. "From wherever she wants to, my friend!" With another bellow, the flames burst forth again and curled over the high stone wall, driving back the Shadow. Again, Eisai stepped forward on the grassy floor of the forest, reaching her hand out to Hoshi. "The important question is, can she get us out!"

"But the Emperor!" Hoshi yelled, slashing at another twisted, faceless bushi with his immortal claws.

"We can do nothing for him now. The Shadow knew we were here, even before we arrived." Suana's wise council, even in the heat of battle, was like cool water on a summer day. Hoshi reached out, weary and hopeless, and took Eisai's hand. The three monks and the Child of the Sky froze, their features locked into a single moment of time.

And the world split in two.

Hoshi felt Eisai's warm hand in his, and caught one startling glimpse – of mountains, of shadow, and of Hitomi's sorrowing face.

Hitomi?

A light burned from the heavens, then all was darkness once more. The forest was empty; where the three monks had stood, the ground was dark. Only a single seared patch of earth remained to mark the way they had taken, and the Shadows around them howled in frustration. The light of a forgotten Sun had pierced the darkness of night, the children of Goju, and had torn their hearts in two. The Shadow retreated, wounded and frightened, and as the light faded, the laughter of an ancient kami was heard echoing in the darkness.

***********

"No, Dorai," Kage's voice. "Your training is still incomplete. Your oath to the Kolat is commendable, and your lessons have gone well, but there is still one more things you must do for me.

"Yes, Master." The student bowed, head lowered to the floor.

"You must die, Dorai."

Without flinching, the Crane reached for his wakizashi to fulfill his master's command. As Kage froze his body with a powerful chi command, he allowed himself a faint smile. This one had not taken long to break. It had been a pleasure, really, and one he rarely allowed himself, to train such a student. Dorai would be of great use to the Kolat, once no one remembered his name.

"No, no, Dorai. Not that way. We must fake your death, and then you will be free to serve us. No one must ever know that you still live."

"As you have done, Master?" the boy was quick.

"Yes, Dorai." Kage lifted a thin tanto to his lips, tasting the steel of the blade. "And I know the way. Come with me, and I will let you meet your future Master

if you are lucky, boy, I may even let him kill you."

In the wind, fallen leaves danced like geisha and torn bodies dried in their place, thrust upon withered branches. Hiroru, Kage thought. Hiroru.

***********

The mountains of the Dragon stand, silent, many li from the dark forest of Morikage. Their white-capped peaks stretch like fingers toward a heaven they cannot reach, endlessly pining for the touch of the sky. Alone, a castle rises as if made from the living rock, one more piece of stone within the mountain range. One stone, one clan.

And a terrible, bloody war.

Kokujin laughed, a wretched, hollow sound in the empty chamber of the Dragon, and the quiet click-clicking of Hitomi's obsidian hand against her ivory throne made a counterpoint to the eerie noise. "My Lady," he hissed, tattooed hand wiping tears of laughter from his reddened eyes, "Such tales are not to be believed. Do you listen to the ranting of the Naga horde at your gates? Or of their spawn, who now claims to serve you?" Kokujin pointed a shaking finger at the golden serpent that rested near the base of the Dragon Throne.

Her face did not change, nor did her fingers cease their obscene clicking, stone against stone. Near the foot of her throne, a Naga rose, his tattooed flesh coiling with anger. "Let me kill him, Lady Hitomi," the Kazaq snarled, reaching for his sword.

"Kill me?" Kokujin bellowed, filled with sudden anger. A black madness showed in his step as he coiled, prepared to spring toward the Naga's throat. "I made you. I gave you those scars you bear so proudly. Do not forget your place, heretic, or you will be cast back to your blighted race! Let them deal with your treachery. I"

Enough, Kokujin.

Her voice, without speaking, shook something deep within the roots of the tower. All heads in the room turned, unquestioningly obedient, to face her as she rose from her throne. Golden robes swirled around her, the silk shaping itself to the black stone of her right leg and arm. Red and black dragons coiled along the back of the haori, fought with tooth and claw upon the long kimono train, and a ring of scarlet, blood and fire, was the color of her under kimono, whispering beneath the golden silk as if her feet walked through flames.

I made Kazaq, Kokuijin. I made you all.

Her face was stone, both blackened by obsidian and flesh.

I built the Dragon from the ashes of Togashi's dreams. I have created the foundation for a new strength. All of this – all of you – are my own. Never forget that. Not from this day until the day your heart is torn from its chest, still-beating, by the children you have raised.

At her unexpected wrath, all the Dragons in the courtroom fell to their knees, the mountains reverberating with the strength of her soul. She walked among them in their silence, pausing to look down at first Kazaq, Kobai, Kokujin, Kagetora, then the Mirumoto – Bujun and Taki – who stood by the gilded door of the Champion's Hall.

I carry the four swords, Kokujin. Not you. Never forget that.

His envious eyes moved to the table by the throne, caressing Togashi's swords with jealous possession. As he lowered his head again in supplication to the command of the Dragon Clan Champion, the chill of destiny touched them all.

"We are not here to avoid our fate, but to face it with honor, and win through." Hitomi Kobai spoke in even tones, filling the deadly silence with his fervor. At his side, Kazaq and the others bowed, and Kobai continued. "The Emperor sends his men. They will arrive by dawn. They will not take Sleeping Mountain without a war. Every man among us would die, my Lady, if you but gave the command. Each of us fights only to serve you, and to aid your quest. The war we fight is a mortal one, but your battle is beyond the tasks of man."

A long pause, and Hitomi looked toward the open ceiling, the snow-capped peaks hovering above the silent palace. Her eyes beheld again the swollen wood within the Phoenix provinces, dark with shadow and hatred.

Morikage.

Hoshi's face lit her mind, and then that of Eisai. Shadows closed around them, and Hitomi felt great sorrow fill her thoughts. Almost forgetting her place in the throne room, she let her mind push into the vision, watching as Eisai took Hoshi's hand. Inside Hitomi's frozen heart, a voice stirred.

Togashi.

When Eisai asked, Hitomi moved them all to safety.

But it was not Hitomi, and yet it was

And the Shadow beneath the palace struggled to find a crack in its crystalline walls, howling hatred for all mankind. Hitomi raised a stone hand to her pale face, touching her forehead as if in pain.

"My Lady? Bujun asked, concerned, and all eyes turned to see the tear of blood that trickled down her cheek. All eyes, that is, save those of Kokujin. His gaze was for the Dragon swords alone, and lost upon no other. "My Lady," Bujun stepped toward her as she bowed her head, "Are you well?"

She nodded, raising her face again to the sky, where an errant slip of moon peered through the clouds. Her eyes were lost in contemplation of it, the ancient enemy, the keeper of secrets. Onnotengu, the Moon God, father of the kami. It was by his power that all the creatures of the Empire were made, and by his will, and the will of the Sun, that names were give to all things. All things, that is, save one.

It is not enough that we live beneath him. He will not rest until we are all destroyed. He must be stopped, or the world will be unmade forever. You are right, Kobai, my battle is no longer here. But I will not leave you in your final hour. When the Naga storm our walls, I will be with you. No force in the Heavens can change that fate.

"We will hold the walls, my Lady, against whatever force my people can bring." Kazaq'a voice was strangely accented from the language of his people, but his eyes glowed with a yellow fire that matched the others. "You will have your chance to fight the servant of the Pale Eye. You were right; it has rested beneath this palace for too long. When the People attack, we will be ready. I hear their whispers in the Akasha, though it turns itself from me. I will know their plan."

"And we will fight as one, my Lady Champion," Bujun spoke, falling to his knees as she turned toward them. "Though we lose the war, we will win you that chance."

In his memory, by her strength, for the Empire we will not fail.

************

"The box was Adoka's?"

The maid bowed again, frightened, her sweating forehead pressed close to the floor. "Hai, my Lord Daidoji-sama. It came for him by messenger only a few days ago. I was here, I was the one who brought the package to his door."

Uji stared at the wooden box, his deft eyes taking in each delicate carving. Where had it come from? The answer was carved into the long feathered flames that laced the sides. A Phoenix's feathers. The koku inside, as well – Phoenix. Each side of the golden coin was marked, one with the sign of the Emperor, and the other with the flames of the northern Phoenix Clan.

"There was no note? No sign? The messenger left no word?"

The maid pressed her forehead firmly to the floor, whispering rapidly, her words mere squeaks. "No, Uji-sama. Onlyonly that I was to tell Adoka that he was pleased."

"Pleased?" Roared Sembi, rising, but Uji's venomous glance cut him to his knees again.

"Enough, Sembi-san." Uji raised his hand thoughtfully. "So the Phoenix think to pay Adoka for his treachery? Good. Then we shall return it with our own. Sembi-san!"

"Hai, Uji-sama!"

"Take a battalion of men to meet with the Mantis. If they wish to take the Phoenix lands, then we shall make sure they know that their supplies this season will be plentiful." Sembi froze a moment before lowering his head respectfully. "I know, Sembi. You wished to take Phoenix blood yourself, in payment for your aunt's death, yes?"

"It is my right," the young samurai's voice was bitter, bloodstained and wry.

Uji stood, reaching instinctively for his yari. "This is the way of the Crane, brother. Do not forget it, as Kuwanan has. The Mantis will destroy Kyuden Shiba, and with that, our vengeance will be paid threefold." The Daidoji daimyo smiled bitterly behind his black masked mempo.

"There will be blood enough, Sembi, for all our vengeance."

"Hai, Uji-sama. Hai."

"A wise man seeks neither victory, not defeat, Sembi-san. But in our case, by encouraging the Mantis to fight these traitorous Phoenix, we shall be seeking both. no matter who wins, the Crane shall rule them all. As it has always been in the past, so shall it be in the future." Uji's dark voice was laced with threat and poison.

In the corridor, the maid smiled as she left them, fingers secretly touching the blood-stained rag beneath her belt. The maid, a lesser functionary in the palace, would never be accused of the death of the messenger, and hopefully, with the precautions she had taken, the man would never be found. It was enough to satisfy the Bloodspeakers. In the ancient war against the samurai class, Iuchiban's Hand had again struck a secret blow

**********

The palace of Morikage was bone silent, like an unopened tomb filled with tattered relics of a forgotten past. The ruins outside bore little memory of the palace's ancient grandeur, but within its massive stone stairwell, carvings depicted a very different ancestry. But now, where there had been the face of Shinsei, the ancient Thunders, and the Fortunes, only faces of blood and shadow leered.

Balash's keen senses chose the way for the Naga, and the Unicorn and Wasp followed. The woman seemed somehow less affected by her wound, Balash noticed – her step was keen, and her eyes bright. She lifted a thin torch from a shattered holder, relying on ingenuity and a small stone to bring fire for light. She raised the torch in her hand, looking ahead with deadly resolution. It was as if the scene was familiar to her, or at least, that she had done such a thing in another life. The huu-mans were strange creatures, but perhaps

The Balash shook his head violently. Such thoughts for a huu-man? Disastrous. Any mercy he would show them would be returned in the blood of his people; the Qamar knew as much. As did he. He set his shoulders as he pressed onward, navigating the difficult stairway with huge thrusts of his tail to propel him onward. Behind him, the Malekish and the Isha came more slowly, their thinner tails having less grasp of the difficult terrain.

Soon they came through a great hall, the ruined shoji-screen doors hanging limply in the half-darkness. It had been the scene of a great battle, and skeletons lay on the floor, mold-covered bones in wretched, scattered armor. Yet not a rat stirred, no creature moved to break the stillness of the scene. As the five moved through the bodies, the Mantis paused to kneel beside one of the less ruined helms. Blowing aside the dust and scraping the mold with a tanto, he whispered, "Crane."

"Not this one." Kamoko kicked a helm gently, hearing a thud as it rolled thickly to its side. "Lion. And not just Lion. Akodo."

"Akodo?" Tsuruchi's head snapped up. "But these corpses are less than two years old. They would have died just after Toturi took the throne. No one wore the Akodo mon at that time; the family was destroyed by the Last Hantei."

"Well, these men did."

In Tsuruchi's belt, the Akodo dagger settled disturbingly. Brought to his lord Yoritomo, by a spy from outside the clan, Tsuruchi had inherited the blade as a gift. ‘To help him find the Emperor,' Yoritomo had said. Staring at the empty skulls of the dead Akodo, it seemed as if the dagger's weight had increased tenfold. It moved something within him, some part of his mother's Lion soul, and he knew that his duty here was not done when the Emperor was found

The Naga continued on, undisturbed by the huu-mans chatter. The stench of the Foul was greater here, and the Akasha drove them on. The clamor of emotions, memories and visions racked the Isha's mind as sharply as the Unmaker's scent. The bits of armor did not concern them, nor did the bones scattered in death across the dusty tatami mats. Only the presence that lingered before them, and the whispers of the scurrying shadows drew their attention. Kamoko spun, aware of some skittering thing brushing against her boot-heel, but there was nothing save the darkness pooled beneath her torch.

Tsuruchi looked up when he heard his companion move. Silently, he reached for an arrow. Suddenly, cold fingers grasped his, pulling from the shadow. Without a sound, he leaped toward the torch and fired a swift wooden shaft. It cut through the air with the hiss of fear and threaded its way into the spot he had just been standing. with a thunk, it pierced the bone of a discorporate hand

and stuck emptily into the wood of a shoji screen within a pool of shadow.

Another darkness lingered in the wood-floored hallway, and the Naga raised their bows warningly, the crystal-tipped arrows shining in the dim torch light.

"I would not do that, if I were you." The voice was cold, mocking, and reassuringly human. As the Naga withdrew slightly, a thin man in black and gold stepped from the distant edge of the hallway. His leg was bloodied and scarlet stained his mud-covered robes. A long lock of red and black hair accentuated his porcelain features, and his red-tinged eyes rolled madly as he stepped toward the torch light. And in his arms, something moved.

The writhing samurai-ko was held close to his body, a bloody tanto at her throat. Her magnificent armor held no mon, but Otaku Kamoko knew her face instantly. "Ah, no, battle-maiden," Suru chided, seeing her reach for a tanto, "One move, and this one is no more than another spirit in this accursed forest. Are we understood?"

It would be easy for Balash to place an arrow through the girl and into the huu-man's flesh, but he doubted that such an action would please Malekish's Unicorn friend. Foolishness. Uncaring of the small drama being played out around them, Balash felt the Isha and Malekish turn again to the search of the surrounding palace, their heavy bodies sliding along the splintering wooden floors with cautious ease.

Kamoko nodded. "Give her to me, sorcerer, and I will not cause you harm." Her eyes slid along the man's bleeding leg as he took a limping step forward. "How long can you stand with such a wound? Even now, it must be festering. End this, free her, and you will live."

"A deal, Unicorn?" Jama Suru laughed, a deep belly-chuckle that bubbled from within a thousand souls. "Oh, no. I've seen too many of the Unicorn's ‘deals.' Even this one," he jerked Xieng Chi's head to one side, cutting her slightly as he spoke, "She wanted to make deals. So many bargains."

To the side, Tsuruchi reached slightly for another arrow, but something in the Bloodspeaker's eyes stopped him. He muttered a curse that devolved into a prayer to the Fortunes, and stepped back.

"There is something you want in this place, and something I want. I'll give you the girl, if you want her," another jerk, but still no cry from the bleeding battle-maiden, "But you'll make a trade with me first. no pacts, no deals."

"Let him kill me, Kamoko-sama," Xieng Chi muttered through teeth clenched with pain. "Make no bargains for my life. It is worth nothing to you."

"She is right, you know," Suru laughed again. "She's already sold her life to a far more dedicated cause than yours or mine, Lady Otaku-sama."

"Shut up, sorcerer their torsos high in expectation. "Something comes." He repeated to the assembled huu-mans, ignoring the tense scene. The Foul had increased in scent around them, and there was no time for pointless bickering. The shadows warred with one another to get closer, crowding the walls with darkness. Malekish slithered backward suddenly, flexing the tip of his tail where frost had grown. His green skin grew paler, and he looked back toward the open hallway longingly.

The Akasha roared, screamed and pointed the way. A thousand minds remembered the last battle, and a thousand souls in the Dragon mountains froze to watch as the scene unfolded.

"Do you wish to know the truth, little children of the Sun?" A voice whispered. "Do you seek to find answers in the night?" The shadows began to coalesce around them all, growing closer. The dim flickering of the torch seemed overwhelmed by the massive, impenetrable haze that thickened like blood on the walls. The speaker's shadow was huge, painted on the wall in darkness, and his voice laughed from behind the delicate, ancient paper screens that hid rooms within rooms in the castle's fragile paper maze.

"Here is your truth."

The shadow parted, tearing the shoji screens to ruin. Light from the torch suddenly became flood-bright, painting the scene in harsh, garish color. A man stood in the center of the room, shadow caressing his face and wrapped tenderly about his legs and hands. His face was twisted, corrupted by the Darkness, and yet he seemed so alive so real so amazingly present that all else seemed to fade around him. His smile, unseen, was felt as a cold shudder down Tsuruchi's spine, a dark tug in the heart of the sorcerer.

At his feet, in chains of dark iron, lay the Emperor.

Crystal arrows flew from Naga bows as if the speed of thought alone propelled them. Laughing, the Goju turned them aside as if they were wind. Fingers of shadow tore the shafts from the air, hurling them to the ground. "You cannot harm me, Naga. We know your ways. We remember them, from long ago. Oh yes, the Pale Eye has been our friend for eons, and he wishes your death as well as the fall of this sickening Empire. And so do we"

"Maybe we can't hurt you," Tsuruchi lowered his head warningly, taking only an instant longer to sight his arrow along the shaft. "But you aren't why we're here." His arrow only a second behind, Tsuruchi placed a steel tip within the Emperor's chains. A thunderous crack resounded, and the lock fell, pierced by samurai shaft.

A thousand shadows leapt from the walls toward them sprang from the figure's hands as his body erupted into shadow and smoke. Within seconds, he was no more than a voice and blackness. Their faces empty and pale, the shadows struck with claw and blackened katana, cutting the air as they writhed together. Soundlessly, they tore at flesh and bone, but Naga crystal flung them back to die in smoke and emptiness. One came toward Jama Suru, its open mouth twisted into a strange grimace, and he thrust Xieng Chi toward it, chanting malicious syllables and carving symbols into the air with his bloody tanto.

Kamoko charged. With no blade save her tanto, she leapt to the fallen Emperor's side and slashed at the shadows that attempted to repair the broken chains. More arrows launched, and more shadows fell, but more and more Goju separated from the pack, surrounding the small band. Kamoko screamed as her flesh tore from shadowy claws, and Suru's spell shattered a section of the floor. As the Goju fell through to the castle's distant foundation, Xieng Chi screamed and fell, grasping onto the fractured edge with all her strength.

"Xieng Chi!" Kamoko shouted to the younger battle-maiden, but the Balash was swifter. Reaching down with one powerful hand, he grasped the girl by her shoulder, lifting her to safety.

The Akasha whispered laughingly, but Balash stood firm. Huu-mans. They would surely die, if left to their own devices. Balash looked at the stunned Isha and nodded his head. Without speaking, he murmured in the Akashic mind, "Now we are seven."

"They fall back!" Tsuruchi yelled. "This is our chance!"

As the shadows fought against Naga crystal, Xieng Chi aided the injured Emperor to his feet. His eyes were bleary, blurred, and empty, his clothing torn and foul. Broken arrows littered the floor, their crystal points dulled, stained and broken. The Goju – or so they called themselves in their misted laughter, had withdrawn, taking their leader with them.

"Get him out," Kamoko commanded the younger girl. "Do whatever it takes, but get him out of this forest."

"She will never make it. And I do not have the arrows to guard her." Tsuruchi said, using his bow as a staff against the Shadows. The Naga fired arrows all around them, to ward away the creatures, but even their immense quivers had an end.

"I can get her out." The sorcerer whispered, holding up a bloodied hand. "I can lead them both out. But not all of you. Only three can go. Myself, and the girl, and your pitiful Emperor."

Tsuruchi and Kamoko tensed at the insult, but the continued movements on the walls stopped further arguments. Although the Shadow had retreated, it was not long until they returned. The Naga were cut in many places, Kamoko's shoulder had sprouted blood from her earlier wound, and Tsuruchi's right arm had been badly cut by a blow from a shadowy katana.

Xieng Chi's face became grim. "I am the least wounded. If anyone can get him out, it is me. I ask the right to do so, my Lady, in Shinjo's name."

"It seems you have no choice." The Wasp nodded.

"Another deal with the Unicorn." Suru laughed. "If I do this, Lady Otaku, do not think I do it our of loyalty to your Empire. I have no such false hope. Your honor is mine, daimyo of the Unicorn, and I will require a service of you one day. Do not forget it."

"I will not." Kamoko said through clenched teeth, holding her dislocated shoulder and trying to staunch the trickle of blood that flowed down her arm.

She raised her fist when Suru stepped toward her, but he only ran a single finger through the trickle where it passed over the lacing of her armor. "I will need your blood – the blood of a Thunder – to perform the task. Great souls have great strength. Yori knows that, as do I"

"Maho." Kamoko snarled.

"Is there another choice?"

Silently, Kamoko unthreaded the lace, handing the dripping silken cord to the sorcerer with distaste. "Take it."

"They return," The Isha murmured, repeating the Akasha's message. "Hurry. The northern road will lead you out safely – if you can reach it."

"One more thing, May Lady," Suru whispered in Kamoko's ear as Xieng Chi and the Naga helped the Emperor to the door. "I would care well for that shoulder wound. It seems that yours is not the only blood that stains it." With an enigmatic smile, he followed Xieng Chi to the stairwell, disdainfully glancing at her burden.

"I did not find my Master's mask," he whispered to himself as the torch light faded behind them, "But now I have been given something much more valuable"

**********

When the dawn came the following morning, the forest was empty of movement, empty of sound. Yokatsu's men found a badly wounded Xieng Chi, her weary steed carrying the Emperor's motionless form. Her armor, a gift from the Dragon, encased his body and shielded him from all harm.

The battle which was fought in the forest of Morikage was fierce, and though Kamoko and the Naga survived, they escaped the haunted wood only after being found by a patrol of Mantis, led by Yoritomo himself, who had entered the forest with their Ikoma allies to find what had occurred to their men.

Of Tsuruchi, no word has been found. He remained in Morikage castle alone as his allies escaped, holding the doorway from the onslaught of the Shadow with the last of the Naga arrows. He has not been seen since that day.

*********** Epilogue

Rain fell over the ruins of Kyuden Isawa as Moshi Hito walked warily through the wide, torn gates. The Phoenix city lay devastated around them, long ago burned by the madness of the Elemental Masters on the Day of Thunder.

"You say he is here?" Ginawa snarled, drawing his bloodsword and hearing a faint, bored hum from the blade. beside him, Matsu Hiroru swung his kusari- gama in a low circle, testing its weight and balance.

"Yes. Inside the palace. There are seven ronin in there, guarding him for the Phoenix."

"Only seven?" Hiroru's surprise was evident.

"Yes, seven. now hurry, or they'll hear us coming." The Moshi moved forward, his steps quick as he approached the gate.

"And how is it that you knew of this place, Hito-san?" Hiroru asked, placing one hand before Ginawa before the ronin could follow.

Hito paused, his hand reaching for the large oak door that led to into the broken-down palace. He smiled briefly, quizzically, as if it was not a question he had anticipated. "Why, I was told by a spy in the Phoenix Clan. I told you that, Hiroru-san. Why are you wasting our time?"

"Because you seem so certain of the number of ronin within the palace. Surely, your contact in the Phoenix could not have told you the precise number, not unless he had been here himself."

At this, Ginawa's eyes narrowed.

"No, no. Not at all. He sent me a message by bird. I received it yesterday." The Centipede's lies were seamless, touched by the sincerity of a courtier. It was enough to enrage Ginawa's anger, and as he yelled, his sword leapt into a full roar.

"Lies!" Ginawa yelled. "Lies, and treachery!"

Hito's sword was out, but his hand remained on the wood of the door, as if daring the two men to come closer. Suddenly, a shout echoed from the road below the palace, as a messenger raced toward Shiba lands.

"The Emperor! The Emperor has been found! He sits once more on the throne at Otosan Uchi! The Emperor has been found!" The messenger cried.

With dangerous anger in his eyes, Hiroru swung his kusari-gama in a full circle, preparing for the kill. Ginawa leapt first, his sword raging with blood and fury. But where he struck, the Moshi's body collapsed into shadow, racing along the wall as if a torch had passed close to a shifting cloud. Laughter echoed in the ravaged courtyard.

Lies, ronin, yes, but you were the fools who believed them

In front of Otosan Uchi's high walls, banners of jade and white were spread, the Chrysanthemum mon once more ruling the palace of the Emperor. The people of Rokugan rejoiced to see Toturi once more, and his cold face smiled down from beneath golden bowers.

Yet, by the open palace gates, a lone Phoenix Seer clutched his torn robes tightly about his mad form, whispering and crying out to the wind as if it alone could comfort him.

"Return, returned! Return, returned! Lost, lost lost!"

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



Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!