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Strike At Midnight: The Twenty-seven Days of Darkness

Day 1 - Kyuden Togashi

Deep in the heart of the Dragon mountains, the lady stirs. Her black hand glistens as she lifts her head to hear the song of the heavens. The time has come, the moon is dead, and all of Rokugan is covered by a blackness forged not by sun or moon but by man.

"Farewell, my children," she bids them, bowing reverently to the line of tattooed men and women that stand at her side. "You have served me well, and I will carry your honor to the heavens. Always remember that you are my favored people, and that my blood will forever be in your veins."

Beside her, two men step forward to follow. "No, honored ones," she whispers with a voice as sheer as glass. "On this final journey, I must walk alone . . . ."

-----

Day 2 - Shiro Mirumoto

The child's tiny hand, chubby and warm, reaches out to clutch a finger of black glass. Cooing softly, the child neither shirks from nor cries at the cold touch of obsidian. The mother smiles, her silent lips curling softly. The Mirumoto watch, unsure if Hitomi's journey would be to summon one of them forth . . . to call for death at her hands, as so many had died before.

For her quest, the Dragon had already sacrificed so much.

Did they dare to give more?

Hitomi smiles, the soft light of her golden eye illuminating the chamber of the Dragon Throne. "Be well, small one, for you bear a name that is larger than the world." Drawing her hand back, she is surprised by the child's tenacity and strength.

The infant kicks faintly, refusing to let go.

"Not simply Togashi, but Satsu as well," she smiles. The echoed rumble resounds through Hitomi's words, filled with the force of destiny. "If I have given the Dragon something, then let them remember me in this new life . . . this new beginning."

In an empty sky, the stars shine between the darkness of fate. Her first steps taken, Hitomi does not look back.

-----

Day 3 - Shrine of the Ki-rin

Releasing the golden bridle, she watches as the colt leaps and kicks, free to the air and the wind. "Find them," Hitomi whispers. "Bring them home."

The cold frost littering the ground burns away at the touch of the Ki-Rin's tiny hooves. Behind her, Hitomi hears a soft sound. A man kneels at the edge of the clearing, his skin chilled from the touch of the long night's passing.

"I beg a question, honored traveler," he says.

"Speak."

"How can a samurai regain what has been lost?" The enigma stands between them, and Hitomi looks back at the ronin's covered eye. His horse stands in the nearby woodlands, weary from long journeys and wasted days of revenge.

"By claiming the death that is his right," she says. "Either his own, or that of the one who has wronged him." The ancient words of bushido come easily to mind as the golden colt leaps toward the high heavens. Yakamo . . .

Dairya looks up, images of the Crane who took his eye passing quickly through his mind. He nods. "My quest has been for this. His words exiled the Scorpion; his blade took my eye."

Hitomi turns away and leaves his thoughts behind. For ten years, hers had been the path of revenge. Now she lives for her clan, and for the Empire.

Let another walk those dark shores.

-----

Day 4 - Shiro Aojiroi

Battered, the Phoenix gather in their palaces, far behind the lines of the Mantis. Shiba Tsukune stands on her balcony, looking down at the shugenja who carve glowing paths through air and water, claiming fragile victories over the legions of the Alliance.

"Here." A voice whispers behind her. "Here, in your lands, the battle will end and begin."

Tsukune spins, hand on her sword, but the words that escape her lips are not her own. "You come, at last, to complete your duty." Shiba's strength wells within her, and the Champion of the Phoenix once again feels dwarfed by the power of her soul.

The woman stands in the shadows, her obsidian hand sparkling with the light of a thousand stars. A golden eye gleams.

Tsukune speaks again, feeling Shiba's words. "Do you have the strength?"

"Behold the Kami, who must wonder at the power of mortal man." Hitomi's voice echoes faintly.

"The Age of Man ends in war and in death." Tsukune remembers Norikazu's parting words.

"A final death, but not mine," Hitomi says. "Mine will lift the heavens once more, and bring light where shadow falls. But I cannot take those steps alone. Let me see your eyes, and you will understand."

Tsukune moves forward in shadow and soon is lost in a golden stare.

-----

Day 5 - Mountains of Regret

Deep in the mountains above Otosan Uchi, she pauses and watches the red glow of a sunless sky fade into night. The cliffs around her turn red with blood, deepening into crimson as the darkness takes them.

"Amaterasu, where are you?" Hitomi asks, knowing the answer.

The mother has fled. Jigai, the traditional seppuku of the noble samurai lady, has taken her. Each star is a blade in the tanto that has been plunged into the throat of Amaterasu, torn open by her husband's treachery.

Did the Sun Goddess rest in Jigoku with her husband, or is there another land where immortal spirits go? Closing her eyes, Hitomi thinks of the dark land where the Shadow spins its lies. Everywhere, its power chokes the honor of the Jade Empire, drowning the Emperor and his court in blood and darkness.

Fire and Shadow. She cannot go there. Even the light of a new moon cannot penetrate the fire of dawning.

There will have to be another.

-----

Day 6 - Shiro Yogasha

Twelve men ride to the edge of their land, waiting with lifted banners for the traveler they know will arrive. Her journey, sped by destiny, carries her through the Empire even as word of her passing spreads through the land.

At their head, Seppun Toshiken, servant of Toturi and the Emerald Champion of Rokugan, rides a black steed. He waits until she has come within a few paces of his mount, and then bows slowly from the saddle. His men await her command, wondering if they will be called to follow her footsteps, but she is silent and her eyes are quiet.

She returns his bow from the road.

The men wait until she has stepped through them, and then form an honor guard behind. Their proud black banners wave, their mon displaying Toturi's colors. For a day they march through the lands of the Seppun, the heimin and samurai coming out of their houses to watch the lady pass. Through the land, their voices are silent, heads bowed in respect for her deeds.

As they reach the far border of the Emerald Champion's lands, Toshiken can be silent no more. "They say you know the future, as your Kami did before you. Tell me, how will I die, lady of the Dragon?" he says, haunted by the things he has seen in the eyes of his Emperor.

"With honor, Toshiken-sama." she replies. "Always by the side of honor."

He nods, and faint relief spreads across his stoic features. Then she speaks again.

"But first, Champion of the Emperor, you will have to atone for your sins with the blood of your family.

"I will follow my duty," he says.

"Then remember: a son's duty is not the same as one's duty to one's lord. One is a matter of honor, and the other, a matter of the soul. You must understand the cost of another person's honor." Her golden eye glows, and the serpents on her skin move faintly in the bloody light of the sunless sky. "Perhaps it will be enough to save your own."

-----

Day 7 - Otosan Uchi

The Emperor's city spreads before her, Unicorn banners waving from the guardposts of the broken towers. It is enough to see it once more. Hitomi does not look to the side as she steps through the suddenly silent streets. The bustling peasants scurry to fall at her feet.

Here, Shinsei has called them.

Her feet tread upon the dust of the ground, over the bustling river's wide banks, and through the great gates of the inner city. The armies of the Emperor, those who had turned to the side of the Empire before the Shadow could take their name, look at her as she passes. Their eyes are empty. Courage has not been enough to save their companions, their brothers-at-arms, their Lord. Perhaps one of them will be worthy to lift his or her eyes to the heavens . . . and understand. The city spreads wide around them, enfolding them in ancient arms.

Here, Togashi Yokuni has led them.

The empty throne of Jade rests upon its tall dais, covered with a sheet of gold and green. Her black hand shivers as she lifts the flag and draws it from the throne, letting the jade shine in the faint light of the morning. Even mighty Shinjo stands to one side, watching as the woman stands half in one world and half in another.

And here, he has died.

Hantei.

Fu Leng.

. . . Toturi. Where has the Shadow taken you? "The soul of the Empire rests in one man's heart." Hitomi turns in sorrow, and is gone.

-----

Day 8 - Kyuden Doji

With stone faces, Kuwanan's men stand guard over the seaside castle, their pikes lifted in iron hands. She does not see them. Hitomi sees only the pot of tea, and two cups, that rest in the road where their Champion kneels. He moves his pale hand, seemingly awkward without a sword or armor, and gently pours the cups full.

Behind these stone walls lives pain, but it is a pain that abates with each season, turning once more into the unity of respect and alliance.

A brother's hand. A cousin's blade.

Now their war is done.

Hitomi smiles, returning Kuwanan's bow as he offers her a pale cup of tea. He has learned the lessons of harsh war. His clan is safe . . . and their strength will be needed if the Shadow is to be destroyed. While others battle for victory, the Crane no longer see their role in the Empire as a death of vanity, or of pride.

It has become the rebirth of honor.

The tea is bittersweet and warm on her tongue.

If one of the Crane is chosen to serve beside her, it will be to bring peace in the heavens. That much she understands, but their strength has yet to be tested. Kuwanan smiles, and both bow once more as she rises to go. Hitomi bows, unwilling to break the silence of the simple tea ceremony. No words are needed.

-----

Day 9 - Kyuden Mantis

"Hail, Lady of the Dragon!" The sailors cheer from their wide-masted kobune as the sea spray mists her face with salt tears. "Ho, Hitomi-sama!" On the pier, a troop of Mantis guards stands, forming an aisle of steel and green-lacquered plate. The banner of the Mantis snaps above high-towered cliffs where the ocean tears at stone as it has for countless years.

She is so small, Yoritomo thinks, watching the woman step from the deck of the small traveling ship. So small . . . and yet something towers within her soul, the like of which no samurai has ever seen before. If it could be turned to war . . .

"Hitomi-sama," he says, bowing curtly. "What is your business here? We have no time for pleasantries. My men sail to reinforce the northern territories of the Mantis." With a waved hand, he points along the Phoenix coast. "And there is little time to make alliances."

"The allies you need are not the ones I bring you, Yoritomo-san," the lady of the Dragon says, her obsidian hand focused into a fist. "But there is something you must know, before I leave this land. Walk alone with me."

"And I should trust you?"

"You trust yourself. Is there any other in the land who can say as much?"

He laughs, and the sound is rich and full. For an hour, the two walk along the beach of the Mantis isles. No one knows what words are said, but when she leaves those lands, Yoritomo dismisses his samurai and stands alone on the beach for a night.

Just the Lord of the Mantis and the thunder of a coming storm.

No man's pawn.

-----

Day 10 - Kyuden Ashinagabachi

A forest of trees parts for the twisting road, and the black-garbed scouts rush ahead to bring word to their lord of her passing. All of Rokugan knows now that she has come, and her footsteps echo with rumor and with honor.

To be visited by her is a sign of destiny.

Tsuruchi, eyes narrowed, raises his bow, and the crystal arrow flies as if spurred by thought. Where it strikes, the tree shivers, and leaves fall from the topmost bough. "I have seen what you fight, Hitomi-san," he says curtly, lip curling in distaste as he indicates a new scar on his wide shoulder.

"You do not need to convince me that the threat of the Shadow must be defeated. Or that the Emperor must die."

"Morikage showed me how to fight them," he continues, placing another arrow in his string. "Hate taught me how to kill them."

"What has fear taught you?" Hitomi touches a shaft of crystal with fingers of black glass.

The second arrow speeds to its resting place, shattering on the shaft of the first. Tsuruchi lowers his bow slowly, staring into the heavens with an angry smile. "Fear breaks swords, Hitomi-sama. I am an archer." Tsuruchi slings his quiver over his shoulder and turns away. "I have no sword to break."

"We shall see," is all she reply she gives.

-----

Day 11 - Kitsune Mori

Kitsune flit from tree to bush, hiding behind the lowered branches and sniffing at the spiced air. Someone has come to the forest, and her passage has stirred them.

Ryosei and her men greet the visitor with hot sake, the finest tea that the forest can create. They kneel with her in the front gardens of Kyuden Kitsune, awaiting her words. Hitomi pauses, unsure in this place of Kami and of human, seeking the path between both.

"The Age of Man is ending," Ryosei begins.

Hitomi shakes her head. "I do not know that it ever existed."

After a pause, the Fox murmurs, "What else do you know, Hitomi-sama, that will show us where the Empire ends?"

"The darkness gathers in the south. Crystal injures it. Light destroys it. These I found beneath the palace. But something more?"

Her companion nods. "We must go to the south to defeat it."

"No." Hitomi sets down her cup with conviction. "Your place is not at Volturnum, Fox daimyo." Ryosei lowers her eyes, narrowing them in surprise and concern, but Hitomi continues. "Your task is to defeat the Shadow where it has stepped within the light. You will know your place when the Sun first rises above the horizon. You will strike then, or not at all."

Around them, the silver spirits of the kitsune howl in tribute, their cries seeking a moon that does not rise above the trees.

-----

Day 12 - Golden Sun Plain

The Plains of the Sun shine brightly beneath the blood-red sky, catching the scarlet light on hanging heads of golden grain. It is a peaceful place, a land of learning and scholarly pursuits, but it was once a battleground.

Now, the Asahina have restored their delicate peace, living in their libraries and uncovering the secrets of the stars. To them, she is more than an enigma. She is a source of unknown knowledge and a bastion of belief.

Tampako bows, his robes covering the slow stiffness in aged joints.

"Hitomi-sama," he whispers, hands clasped. "You are most welcome here."

She returns his formality, glancing beyond him in an unguarded moment to see the young woman at his side. Her name is Tsukiyoka, and although she carries no sword, the fires in her eyes burn like a winter's sun. Where Tampako is delicate, she is firm. His gentle hands are mimicked by her movements, but her motions are more assured, less hesitant. Something has changed in the halls of the Asahina?a change not wrought by Shadow or by the battle Hitomi prepares to fight.

Exchanging mild pleasantries with the daimyo, Hitomi walks through the library's arched doorways and listens to his tales of the carvings on the ancient walls. The other students, afraid of their visitor, turn their heads to the ground and look away. Their fear is apparent as they move restlessly in their pale blue robes. Yet they stand once more, and their eyes know strength as well as concern.

Behind all their peace and scholarship, the Asahina have learned the ways of war. They would never be the same. Hitomi glances again at the students, understanding their nature at last.

They would be the source of change.

-----

Day 13 - Mizu-Umi no Sakura Yuki

High above the Shinomen Forest, waterfalls cascade down to an icy lake. Their hiss hides her footsteps, their mist conceals her passage--until she steps forth at the edge of the wide tree line. An arrow sings and buries its head into the stone at her feet. Its message is clear.

She is not welcome in the Shinomen.

Another hiss, this time not of water or steam but of serpent's tongue. "Turn back, Betrayer." The deep voice resonates without source from the high limbs of pine and cedar. "Or the warriors of the Pale will find their revenge on you, despite the call of our Dashmar." There is hatred in this voice, and it rings with desire for the kill.

She does not know if this is the Balash but she hears his echo in the voice's whisper, carried on the Akasha's wind. "The Pale Onnotangu must die so that the new can rise," she says staunchly, her obsidian face impassive.

"What do you know of Pale and Bright? What do you know of the People's Mind?" Disgusted, the hiss turns darker. "Nothing." Three movements and three dark forms, their scales as black as ink, slide forth from the forest. Though their strangely curved swords hang in their sheaths, Hitomi knows their deadly strength is contained only by an unknown command.

"If you go," the Balash says, "We will not follow."

"If you do not," Hitomi murmurs, "then your revered Qatol will die once more. Think on that when you call me Betrayer?."

-----

Day 14 - Shiro Kuni

The Crab. Their high mountains hide the way to the far south, the darkness of the Shadowlands--and something more.

She has not approached Kyuden Hida. Even on the edge of immortality, Hitomi knows better than to tempt destiny's blade. Standing on the cliff's edge above the stone walls of Shiro Kuni, fortress of enchanters and of war, Hitomi catches a glimpse of a life that was denied her.

Still, the figure that walks along the arched stone bridges before the palace comes, not caring about decorum or posterity.

Hitomi watches, intrigued at his approach.

A staff of jade shines in his fist as he steps upon the cliffs, his wide black hakama fluttering in the stiff breeze. "So," he begins, with no thought of politics, "You come to us."

"I walk where fate leads me. The path is not one of my choosing."

"How lucky for you." Kuni Utagu's voice holds sarcasm but not hatred. It is more than she expected. He continues. "Leave our lands. Your question here has already been answered. If it is our duty to aid you, then one of the Hiruma will come."

Hitomi nods and opens her mouth to speak once more, but the Crab lifts a fist to point at the empty sky.

"Know this, Hitomi-sama. When you rise from earth to heaven, the Crab will be watching you. Do not think that our arrows cannot reach you in the sky. If we must, we will build a wall so high and so thick that even you cannot harm the Empire, and we will shoot at you from atop it until you fall screaming to the ground. Now, go." Gruff, he turns away, having no further words to give her.

For a moment, Hitomi smiles. "I believe you would, Crab. I believe you would."

-----

Day 15 - Twilight Mountains

In the dark and dread of the Twilight Mountains, spirits lift alien voices to worship a blood-covered sky. Writhing armies march to the south, their undead claws churning blackened mud to char and ash. But one horseman races through the rough mountain terrain, his onikage steed baring its fangs at each turn, hoping to find flesh to rend and tear. The rider does not care nor aim to stop his mount's bloodthirsty hunger. His glowing eyes hang in a fleshless skull, and tendons hang from fingers of bone and claw.

His name had once been Moto Tsume, and beside him had ridden his brother, Sada.

She watches impassively as he tears through the mountain passes, clearing the way for his armies to march. From atop a rise, she calls to him without voice, without sound, with eyes of gold and ice.

In a way, they are still Fu Leng and Togashi; still the darkest brother and the whispering son.

"We will not aid you." Tsume's cry is fierce, angered. "You will have to prove yourself worthy before you can ask for the favors our father once claimed." Hitomi nods, knowing that there is more to his hatred than the echo of a forgotten name. He could respect only strength, understand only fear or courage, and nothing else in the world of hunans could touch his putrid heart. There is only one answer she can give.

"Then get out of my way."

-----

Day 16 - Shinsei's Shrine

The land is empty, the temple lit by only a few flickering flames. Deep in the forest, near its heart, is a glade of yellow grass and an open shrine with no monks to tend it. It is a holy site, a place of dreams.

The light of the eternal candles shines like dark stars beneath the night's canopy, and where no monk should have been, a man walks from the shrine's heart toward Hitomi.

"Will you follow me?" She asks him, simply.

He smiles, and a black crow lands on the monk's broad shoulder. "A favor for a favor. For you followed, once, when you had nothing to gain by doing so. We know our purpose upon the land, and if we can bring you peace, our path will take us to your side." Almost recognizing the monk's smile, Hitomi pauses to contemplate his words. Then the sense of familiarity is gone, and the crow flies over an empty woodland beneath a moonless night.

-----

Day 17 - Shrine of Osano-Wo

Lightning crashes through the sky, and the thunder's echo is deafening. It rolls across the clouds and chases the darkness to the south, but does not cross the border to the far southern plains. Even the mighty Osano-Wo could not stop the conflict that is about to take place.

Her footsteps are silenced by the thunder's roar, falling unheard in the shrine of the Fortune of Storms.

There is nothing to be said here, no one to convince or to whom to explain her purpose. Nothing remains except the last shreds of her mortality, and she leaves them on the altar beside the thunder's roar.

-----

Day 18 - Ryoko Owari

"I'm sorry, Lady Hitomi-sama." The guardsman bows at the shining green gates of the Scorpion city. "But you cannot enter Ryoko Owari."

She stares at him, stoic and unafraid. "You would stand in my way?"

"No, great one." The guard bows again. "And when you have done as I ask, you may take my head to repay you for your trouble. But the walls of Ryoko Owari do not hold the one you seek. You must follow me, to the north. She is waiting there for you."

"How do you know what I seek, and what I do not wish to find?"

"Your forgiveness, my lady." The Bayushi smiles, lowering his hands to bow again. "But I am Scorpion."

The dark lady of the Dragon smiles. Perhaps he knows her path, after all.

-----

Day 19 - Yogo Shiro

The window is silent. Kachiko stirs, unfolding from her cushion to stare out at a blood-colored sky. Their discussion has been brief, terse. Filled with memories of a burning land and of an Empire that both know they will never see again. Memories of a time before the Shadow came.

Aramoro's dark form hovers uncertainly at the edge of her vision. Hitomi's footsteps retreat through the halls, and the sliding shhh of shoji screen announces her departure. They will never see one another again.

"A place without the moon," whispers Kachiko, lifting her hands to remove the ivory pins that bind her hair.

"My lady?" His voice is satin, soft and clear.

"If she calls for us, you must be sure that she is well attended."

"I will follow her." Unhesitating. "You have but to command it." His voice, lately, has been strained. Though it holds so much more than fidelity and loyalty, now it knows the pain of grief.

"No, Aramoro." The black locks fall in willowy strands across her shoulders, down her neck, and lightly into the hollow of her arched back. "Send another. Not yourself, and not Yojiro, for I will have need of you before the moon rises in the sky once more. Hisa, perhaps?."

He bows. "Your will, my lady." Soon, the lands of the Scorpion will be empty, and there will be nothing left for the Shadow to steal.

-----

Day 20 - Spine of the World Mountains

Deep beneath the mountains at the center of the Empire, the body of a Kami lies.

The collapsed mountains have regrown over its rotting corpse, and trees stand upon the shattered rocks as if the pass had never been.

This is the death-place of Akodo.

This was once the land of his people.

Hitomi steps through parched dirt, her hands clutching the high stone of the wall, clawing her way to the top of the Spine of the World.

She looks down over the Empire, and sees what the crow would see, above the clouds. From the wide plains of the Doji to the empty lakes of the southern lands, and far distant, to the northern mountains and southern blight.

It could not be so far, now, to the Celestial Heavens. One step, and the world would fall away.

-----

Day 21 - Mountain of the Seven Thunders

Blasted and torn apart by the Shadow, the temple stands in ruins. Even the monks that tend what is left of the once-magnificent gardens shudder at the cold rain, and pull their robes more tightly about them as she passes. The obsidian of her fist does not shine so brightly here, nor does her yellow eye glow as it once did.

This is not a place where pride is welcome, but a shrine to loss and grief.

Hizuka stands waiting at the shattered torii arch. He holds food and water in a carefully wrapped bundle, uncertain if she still needs such things. When she takes it, he bows happily.

"Will you need us to follow you?" Hitomi nods silently.

"There?is blood on our hands." Hizuka looks down. "We have lost our way."

"I know. That does not matter. I seek to cleanse the elements, and to bring a name to the Lost Ones. But I cannot stand alone, or my death will shame the Heavens."

He looks up, with sorrow in his troubled eyes. "You say you will clear the darkness from the sky, but I ask you this. Can you cleanse my soul?"

Hitomi says nothing, only places her hand in his and allows something to move within his burdened heart. Then the dark lady of the Dragon turns, walking back down the path and into the Lion lands.

-----

Day 22 - Kenson Gakka

The plains shake as a tentative rumble of earth shrugs away sleep and tears aching clefts in the ground. Earthquake. The word is common; the effects less so, this deep in the heart of the Empire.

Hitomi walks the iron paths of the Lion lands, her feet treading within the marks left by soldiers marching for battle. Beneath the high cliffs of the Ikoma lands, a small group of Lion meet with her, their orange banners flowing in the stiff wind.

"The Matsu have done their duty, and the Kitsu have failed in theirs." The old man rests upon a wooden stool at the edge of the battlefield. "Let the Ikoma serve you." Gunjin smiles toothlessly, his old mouth curving. "And we will show you that the Lion have honor, still."

-----

Day 23 - Heigen no Otaku

These are the plains of battle, the dark lands where the Unicorn charge against Lion lines. Where an oni as old as the Empire raises his metal fist and slaughters the pride of the Otaku, driving them from their horses and crushing them beneath Lion blood.

That price has been paid, yet still the echo of spectral hooves resounds through the Heigen no Otaku, and still the blood of the battle-maidens soils the empty ground. It is said that nothing will grow where brave hearts fell, and the Heigen no Otaku plains are bare indeed. Xieng Chi watches the still figure as it crosses the wide red expanse, her black steed churning the mud beneath impatient hooves.

She has seen her clan fall to the Kolat. Seen them struggle beneath a Kami's command, and watched as they were slaughtered by the defiant Lion. For her valor, the Kolat hunt her, and the Lion curse her name as a butcher of their people.

But that does not matter; she is Unicorn, still.

Hitomi turns across the plain and comes toward her as the Otaku daimyo raises her hand. "We will send our finest, Lady Dragon," Xieng Chi calls. "But you must forgive me if I do not attend you myself." Her smile is bright despite weariness, and her eyes shine with pride.

"The Otaku have suffered much," Hitomi says. "I would not take the last of their strength for my own battle."

"Then let the Ide serve you, Hitomi-sama." Xieng Chi's horse prances as she speaks. "Ashijun will gladly give his life to see the moon returned to the sky."

"He can come," Hitomi whispers. "But when it is time, I will choose my own second as destiny decrees."

Xieng Chi understands, and finally gives her fractious steed its head, turning once more toward the heart of Unicorn lands, leaving the cursed plain behind.

-----

Day 24 - Kyuden Tonbo

At the base of the Dragon mountains, the white banners of sorrow fly above a jewel-colored palace. Shining walls could not brighten the loss that they suffer, nor could they forget the damage that has been done by the Naga.

Why had the Naga attacked? To defeat the Shadow that rested within the walls of Kyuden Hitomi--once Kyuden Togashi, the oldest palace of the Dragon. Naga instinct served where the Empire's knowledge failed, but still the Dragonfly do not curse Hitomi for awakening Shosuro.

After all, it had only been a matter of time.

She stands at the edge of their practice field, watching as Mirumoto Sukune teaches a young bushi the method of Mirumoto's Niten. Here, men have died for her. They have struggled against the anger of an Empire when she used Togashi's knowledge to gain the secret of how to defeat the Shadow. When the Emperor himself had been turned, his face slipping to nothingness, these men had still sworn their allegiance.

How could she leave them now?

-----

Day 25 - Toshi no Aidanikawa

Shadows move, flicker, tearing open the boundaries between light and dark and fading them into nothing at all. Three men stand at the edge of the road, their faces empty of all features save their grinning smiles. Shark's teeth erupt from bloody gums, and flesh tears open into horrible smiles. These are the sons of shadow, the children of the night.

These are the ninja.

Hitomi is alone, her obsidian hand clenching into a fist about the hilt of her katana. "I know what you have done." The accusation is bitter.

They hiss in laughter, their long tongues flickering beneath the starlight. "We have done nothing more than set them against themselves." The face shifts, becomes Daidoji Uji, becomes Tsuruchi, Agasha Gennai, and Ikoma Tsanuri. It moves again, and other faces--less recognizable--flicker across its empty features. "We are the ones who lose the missives, who send the armies, who suggest the oni, and bring out the evil that hides behind the shining face of 'honor.' And you think that the pitiful sacrifice of your death can destroy us?"

"Destroy, Goju? Not as such." She smiles. "Nonetheless, your time is ending."

"Oh, no, Hitomi-chan." The thing swells into the form of her brother, and the lady of the Dragon screams in rage. "Our time has just begun. When you cry out in pain on the day of your seppuku, you will look up at your second?and there will be no face. Remember that, when you die in shame as your brother did."

Hitomi's sword moves faster than the sun's first rays, but it is too late, and she stands on the road alone.

-----

Day 26 - Exile's Road

The mountains of the Empire rise once more around her as the Unicorn lands fade into the territories of the Dragon. Within the mountains, there are no clear boundaries, no place to mark the land's edge between banners of green or purple. Yet in her heart, she knows the moment when she touches the first stones of her mountain home.

From these high peaks, a road winds north through icy cliffs and sheer terrain, shattered by a thousand years of exiles pacing out of the Empire and to their destiny. The Burning Sands lie somewhere beyond these mountains, as do the watery lands of the gaijin horde and the end of the Empire.

Others have bid farewell to Rokugan, crossed these hills and never returned.

Some, like the Scorpion, have come home once more.

As Hitomi watches the red sky fade into a stark, star-covered blackness, she wonders which of these travelers she would become.

-----

Day 27 - Shrine of the Three Sisters

Raising her arms to the heavens, Hitomi rests. Behind her, she hears them come; those who had been following. "You are too early," she whispers to the first without looking.

"You are too eager."

"You do not know the nature of your heart."

One by one, they turn away as the first light of an empty moon begins to bathe the Empire in its stark, uncompromising light.

Still, one remains behind the rest, to help her on her way.


 

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!