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Voices: The Final Days of Oblivion's Gate

by Ree Soesbee


"'Goju!' I scream, and my voice is never-ending 'I come for you!'" - Isawa Hochiu, Master of Fire

*****

The Five Masters stood outside the gate to Volturnum, their powerful magic holding back the Shadow's hordes. A legion of oni and beasts of the Taint slaughtered the armies outside the city; if the armies within were released, there would be no hope for the samurai of the Empire.

Isawa Hochiu stood beside the others, his fingers outstretched as wave after wave of fire streamed through the air. His faithful yojimbo had long since fallen, her black hair stained red against the pale sand of Volturnum's inner city. Hochiu watched as the Crane swept past, ignoring the dangers within the inner city to defend the Elemental Masters against the Shadowlands threat - ogres and trolls with terrible claws and crashing iron clubs. The Crane commander, his right arm bound and useless, ordered another charge under a wave of searing heat. With his command in their hearts, the Daidoji tore into the beasts with fierce yari and shimmering swords.

Nearby, Taeruko staggered and fell to her knees, the torrent of stone cascading and dying as she landed heavily on the ground. Beside her, Shiba Ningen reached to take her hand, his large brown eyes worried.

"I can stand," she panted, her hair shifting around her face with the caress of the wind.

"You are the Master of Earth," Ningen said. "You can do anything." The belief in his voice lit a fire within her eyes, and Taeruko shuddered to her feet. Leaning on Ningen's small shoulder, she screamed, and the rocks rose again at her command. On the battlefield below, the Hida called for victory, piercing the armies of the Shadowlands. The battle went poorly, despite the sacrifices of the Empire. Though the Dragon ise zumi had forged a path into the city gates and through the outer walls of Volturnum, the inner city - that which would have housed its nobility and the strength of its people - remained closed to the imperial armies. The fighting tore through the ruins and across the wide plain that had once been an outer city. Samurai dodged through ruined buildings that were now no more than foundations, and leapt from pillars that stood alone in what may once have been city streets.

The Five Masters stood before the inner gates to Volturnum, holding back the Shadow armies that remained inside. The minions of the Goju made little effort to flee the city, content in the strength of their position, while Ninube and the beasts of the Shadowlands fought to eradicate the armies of the Empire. If the soldiers of Rokugan could only seize hold of the outer city and the plains, perhaps they could launch an assault against the Goju still within the inner gates. Until then, it was the duty of the Elemental Masters to keep the inner city at bay and hold the great steel gate to Goju's domain closed.

The visions had plagued Hochiu since he set foot on this cursed plain. The lost souls of samurai flashed before him, telling the tales of how they died on the way to the Eternal City. Hochiu could not make them leave, and he could not ignore their words. Something about what they said triggered a rage within him, a fury that only flame quenched.

*****

I am Hiruma, of the line of the Crab scouts, and I know the Shadowlands better than anyone.

*****

Hochiu covered his eyes as the spirit rose before him. "Return to Jigoku,” he told it, but it hovered in the air above the ground with hands outstretched. Agasha Gennai stepped in front of the failing Master of Fire, stirring the winds into a tempest and hurling back the arrows of undead archers.

"Watch your back, boy!" Gennai said scathingly. "There is too much for me to do to take care of someone who should be my peer!”

He was right. Too young, too untrained . . . perhaps there was too much of his father left in him, Hochiu thought. Their meeting at Morikage had been brief, but he still remembered Isawa Tsuke's words. “You can never avoid your destiny . . . only cheat it for a time”. Hoichu labored to continue, pouring lightning and flames upon the city of Volturnum and defending himself with a white heat that burned arrows and melted the metal sword blades of those who dared approach him.

“This is what my father would have done at Otosan Uchi,” Hoichu thought to himself as he fought, “if he had lived long enough to find the path”.

The hillside shifted, and another legion of Shadow thrust themselves toward the gate, urgently seeking the way through toward the armies on the plain. The city stood on a tall hillside, its forgotten buildings crumbled and fallen. Below, on the wide terrain of the Shadowlands, a festering marsh bordered against a dry, dust-filled plain. The body of the Empire's armies fought there, with only a few brave legions forcing their way into the city, fighting the Goju minions with all of their strength until their faceless bodies fell before Oblivion's Gate.

"Where is Goju Adorai?" Taeruko called, desperate to find the Master of the Shadow. "He must be within the city somewhere. But why have we not felt his wrath? What labor keeps him from the battle?” None of the samurai who passed the Elemental Masters could answer - they had not seen the Lord of Darkness. He was somewhere within the city, most likely, tearing at the stone that bound Jigoku to the world. Once the gate had turned to Shadow, the lands of the dead would follow, and Rokugan's ancestors would be destroyed.

*****

I walked through the armies as they rose on this bloody dawn. I saw their eyes.

*****

The visions flashed before Hochiu's staring eyes, and he struggled to contain them. There was too much to do - a distraction could mean not only his own death, but also the deaths of the thousand samurai below in the plains. They had to contain the Shadow within the city, or the armies of the Empire would be lost.

Another legion, this time of brave Lion, passed through the gate that the Elemental Masters guarded. Their commander saluted the Master of Fire and gave his lieutenant the order to charge. Hochiu watched them move through the city streets, fighting against shadows that detached from buildings and moved of their own accord. He saw the Ikoma troops begin to fight among themselves as Goju shinobi magic infiltrated and corrupted their numbers.

"We have to help them," Hochiu said falteringly, unsure of how.

"It can't be done, cousin," Isawa Tomo murmured. His golden aura spread out from his pale skin, illuminating the hilltop. "If a larger group enters, the oni and their horde will defeat the armies on the plain. Fewer, and they have no hope of reaching the gate at all."

"Where is the gate? I will go, and we shall see if magic can help destroy the Goju's power."

"Deep within the city, there is a building whose walls curve upward like a giant seashell, cupping the empty sky within blackened fingers. In that coliseum, the arch rests. It is as large as a hundred humans, taller than any tree, and wider than ten horses side by side. It glows with a light unlike any other - but it is covered by the Darkness of the Shadow so that its light is hidden from us. You cannot possibly reach it. Even if you could fly, their servants would leap from the buildings to find you, and a single touch of their claws would strip you of your soul." Tomo's voice was sad, his face etched with grief. "I wish that I could let you go, but I cannot. I will not let you throw away your life on useless efforts. When the armies finish with the hordes on the plain, we will all enter the city at once."

"Even if they could . . . !" Hochiu shouted, tears filling his eyes as he pointed a cascade of fire down toward the enemies of the Empire. Oni singed and burned, screaming in anguish as their bodies exploded into white-hot flames. ". . . By then, it will be too late. We have to send someone - a troop of our finest yojimbo, or the Avalanche Guard - someone! Even now, the first Goju destroys the gate, slaughtering the spirits of Jigoku. How much longer can they stand?"

*****

I have never seen so many dead ....

*****

Another ghost, another vision, and Hochiu closed his eyes to the spirit's tale. "Tomo-san!" He shouted. "You have seen the gate. What must be done?"

"We can do nothing," another voice said. Isawa Hochiu at first mistook it for another vision. He opened his eyes to the darkness of the Shadowlands, and he saw light within the city of Shadow, spilling out from deep within its walls. He heard the screams of the Goju as a golden light seared them, turning their flowing skin to ash. The man beside Hochiu smiled, gesturing at the rising brilliance. "Nothing . . . for now." He was not a tall man, but he was elegant, his emerald green eyes shining strangely beneath a tattered jingasa. Pale, white hair flowed down around his shoulders, and, for a moment, Hochiu mistook the stranger for a Crane. But the man wore no mon. His features were strange as he smiled, his teeth slightly pointed and his eyes brilliant with an inner light. "Watch, Master of Fire, and you will see the beginning of all that will come to pass."

“What is that glow?" Taeruko shouted toward Gennai. The Shugenja of Air looked down on the city of Shadows from his high vantage, carried aloft by wind. Around him, ten Scorpion bushi hovered, his protection against the oni and dark kansen of the air. Their blades flashed, whirling through the wind, and the Master of Air replied, "An army comes from the center of the city. But it is an army like none other I have seen . . . "

The Bayushi warrior shouted, "My lord Agasha, the army is moving toward us. Shall I signal Saigorei-sama and ask for the armies below to advance?"

"No" Gennai suddenly smiled, looking more closely at the golden spirit leading the charge. "I do not think the general of the allied armies needs to fight this foe - but he will wish to be here when the gates to Volturnum are ours at last.

"Taeruko-san, raise a path from the city down to those on the field. Keep it clear of oni. Hochiu-san, suppress the Shadows within the gate. They fear your fire and the light it brings, and your will can drive them back long enough for these spirits to make it out of the city." Gennai raised his hands, and his voice filled the air, riding on wind with the echoes of thunder. As the others hurried to aid him, the Master of Air sent a gale sweeping through the Shadow city, clearing the streets. The Shadow within Volturnum's walls let out a cry of anger, unable to swarm upon the golden army and destroy them before they could escape.

The massive gates of Volturnum groaned, weight pressing against them as the Goju struggled to fight against the combined will of the Five Masters. Ningen stood his ground, his eyes clear and peaceful, and the metal gates simply did not move.

"Now, Ningen-san!" Gennai shouted from on high. "Open them!"

When he did, an army of golden spirits rode gleaming horses through the gates to the city of Shadow, their iron-shod hooves stirring up the stone and ground. A thousand samurai, bloodied from combat and shouting ancient battle cries of the Empire, raced past, and Hochiu stared at their stalwart faces.

Before them, pausing his charger to see that the last one made it through the city's wall, was the Emperor of all of Rokugan - Toturi the First. His skin bathed in a golden aura, he wore ancient armor and bore an unknown blade, lifting his battle standard with confidence. "To me!" he shouted, and the armies behind him roared in eagerness. "There is your enemy! There are your children, your children's sons, and the heart of the Empire. As you have sworn to me, so you have sworn to aid them."

His body was pure, his heart true, and Hochiu could see no trace of the shattered Emperor who had ruled Rokugan for the last three years. As he commanded them in great, ringing tones, the samurai who followed him cheered. The armies charged past the city gate, launching themselves from the hopeless battle in the city down toward the great plain where Shadow and Shadowlands alike fought to destroy the armies of the Empire. Perhaps, with these strange reinforcements, the tide of the battle would change.

When the first rank of spirit samurai met the enemy, a great shout went up from the allied armies of the Empire.

"My lord!" Hochiu cried, his eyes wide. "Can someone not continue the battle in Volturnum? What of the inner city?"

Toturi's eyes were grave, his face lined with concern. "Of those who came with me out of Oblivion's Gate," he said from atop his prancing spirit-steed, "more than half died fighting Adorai within the city's heart. The others became tainted the moment they set foot within the city. This place is filled with Fu Leng's diseased power - the Taint is as strong here as the Shadow, and we cannot fight both. The Empire cannot continue its battle with such losses. It was only because of your bravery, and that of the Elemental Masters," Toturi nodded to the others, "that we escaped the inner city to fight this day." As Ningen forced the steel gate to close behind the last of the spirit army, Toturi turned his great steed and followed the others into war.

*****

I know the demon hordes are not finished with us.
There is more to come, over the horizon, and we must plunge onward.

*****

"There must be a way," Hochiu thought to himself, continuing to battle while the armies of the Empire fought around him. "A way for someone to reach the gate - a way to defeat them. This battle is for nothing if we cannot find the key!"

"You are the key, Hochiu-san," a voice spoke softly, and Hochiu was amazed to hear it over the roar of his own flames. He turned to see the strange, white-haired samurai watching him.

"Who are you?" the Master of Fire asked.

"I have no name, Hochiu. None that you would understand."

Shouts rose from the battle below as the Naga fighters released another volley of deadly arrows. The wind coiled about the flying shafts, guiding them toward the Shadow creatures on the inner walls with unerring accuracy. Crystal flashed in scattered sunlight, piercing black bone and faceless flesh The pale samurai smiled, and the wind ceased.

"What are you . . . ?" Hochiu asked, but this time his question showed that he understood the creature that bowed politely before him.

"I am here to help you as my companions aid your armies. The inner city is well defended, and no one can reach the gate in time. Even now, Goju completes his ritual, and the stone of Oblivion's Gate turns black and dead. Soon, all of Jigoku will be the same."

"Toturi's armies could not survive the blasphemies within the inner city-how can we?" Hochiu's voice held little hope, but his face held an eagerness to try.

The man smiled. "No human can do it, Hochiu, you are correct. But I can."

Hochiu shook his head, restoring the fire from his hands with a quick word and a gesture. "I cannot go. There is too much to do here. Without me ...." Hochiu looked at the other Elemental Masters, hope dying on his features. "They need me."

"Yes, Hochiu, they do. But the Empire needs you more." The man's eyes were haunted by hidden fears, but he smiled a strangely sharpened grin. "Who else can go? Taeruko?"

The Master of Earth's voice floated through the air as if she were there to answer. "I cannot leave. Without me, the gate will fall and the Shadow will trap our armies below. The Earth's strength is needed here. Her stone protects us."

"Tomo?"

"I have been beyond the gate ...." Tomo answered, and Hochiu saw the man's face within the flames of his own sorcery. "And I am needed here. There are too many samurai who need me, fallen to the Taint and their own wounds. If I go, they will all die, and there will be no one left to fight for."

The pale samurai gestured, and the face within the flames changed again. "Or Gennai?"

Gennai did not answer, but Hochiu saw him commanding the Phoenix samurai from above, giving them insight to their opponents' movements, lifting them above the ground with his magic to protect them from the claws and Taint of their enemies. Without Gennai, the Phoenix would fall - and Shiba Tsukune's battle cry echoed in the vision. She needed him for his wisdom and his strength. Gennai could not go, not while she lived.

And Hochiu would not trade her life for his own.

"I will follow you," Hochiu said resolutely. "But I will need a yojimbo. If I am to die, then I will die as a Phoenix, fighting beside my family."

"Do not fear, shugenja." The creature smiled, his emerald eyes crinkling with a strange joy. "You will not be alone."

*****

Determination. We cannot falter; we cannot fail.

*****

"Away, spirits!" Hochiu screamed, burning the ground with fury. The ghost vanished, surprised by the Master of Fire's violence, but his words still echoed in Isawa Hochiu's mind.

"Let me help you," a voice called through the fire's blaze, and Hochiu felt strong hands lifting him from the ground. He had not even realized that he had fallen to his knees, so strong had his anger been. Looking up into the face of the samurai, he saw a distant beauty, all the more magnificent because of the blood and violence of their surroundings. "I am . . . Shiba Saiko," she said, faltering under his gaze. "A yojimbo to the shugenja known as Agasha Fukishi. But now my master is dead, and I fight to die."

"Then you fight with me," Hochiu said.

The pale samurai smiled. "Then we are prepared?"

Unseen, Shiba Ningen had approached the hillock. Now he slipped his hand into the hand of the pale stranger. "Are you taking away my cousin?" he asked innocently.

With swift sorrow, the man knelt before the small child, looking into the eyes of the Acolyte of Void. "You know that we must go."

Ningen nodded. "You are brave." He looked at the three companions, his eyes lingering on the Shiba yojimbo. "All of you."

Hochiu said, "You will tell the others that we have gone. Tell them that if we do not return, it was my greatest honor to fight beside them. Especially . . . Taeruko." Hochiu flushed lightly. "Give her . . . everything," he finished lamely, unable to say the words.

Ningen smiled. "Do not worry, Master of Fire. You will tell her yourself ' The young Void shugenja smiled once more at the pale samurai. "May I say goodbye to you?"

"Of course," said the man. Placing his arms around the boy, he drew Ningen into a hug. Ignoring protocol, the man and the boy whispered together for a few minutes, but whatever they said was lost in the wind that surrounded them. When he was done, the man stood and the boy bowed low. Then, without another word, Ningen continued toward the city's inner gates, readying his will to force them open once more.

"What did he tell you?" the yojimbo said, awed at such a display of affection.

The white-haired samurai looked after the boy with a downcast smile. "Only what I needed to hear: that I will not be forgotten." He started, rubbing his hands together in a sudden gesture of unease. "Come. The gates will only open for a moment, so that the Goju cannot escape to threaten the armies in the outer city."

Ningen placed his chubby hands on the gate's metal surface, whispering to it as his fingers traced the ancient scrollwork.

*****

All I ask is that you are brave enough to follow.

*****

Stepping back from the gate, Ningen continued to chant, and a black inky substance flowed over the steel doors. It was not the blackness of Shadow, but rather a void filled with stars. As the tremendous gates swung open of their own accord, the ink spread between them, a barrier of void against a city of blackness and foul shadows.

"Go now," the child whispered, and Hochiu began to step forward. The pale man in white caught his arm.

"Not that way," the samurai said, his features shifting. "Like this." His body began to elongate, the arms turning to wisps of smoke and the legs extending from his body into great haunches. Hochiu and Shiko stepped backwards, awed by the transformation as the white-haired samurai closed his eyes in exultation.

The body stretched impossibly, its color shifting, scales gathering on the man's skin.

When he was done, the man had vanished like a summer's sudden rain, and in his place rested a Dragon. The eyes, great, glowing emeralds of power and unfathomable wisdom, stared out from glittering scaled skin, and his claws extended in a gesture of peace.

"You will not walk, Master of Fire. You will ride, and your yojimbo with you. Only this way can you withstand the Taint of the city."

"I cannot ask you to do this ...."

"You have no choice. I will accept the burden of the Taint so that you may live to save the Empire. It is the way of things. It is our only option."

"Is it honorable to sacrifice an immortal Dragon so that mortals can live?" Hochiu breathed.

"Come with me, samurai," the Dragon roared, "if you wish to change the world."

After that, there was no argument.

*****

I look out at the oni's armies, and I see our death in their eyes.

*****

Volturnum's inner city sped beneath them, only a few feet away, as the Dragon's sinewy body twisted and turned through the coiled streets. Beneath arched parapets and high stone walls the great kami flew, its serpentine body shining light down upon buildings and stones that had seen nothing but shadow for a thousand years.

Yet as they passed, the Dragon's eternal light began to fade, drifting into nothingness as the Taint took its toll. "You must stop!" Hochiu yelled. "We can still return to the outer gates!" But the Dragon paid no heed. This was not a city that allowed second chances - it was not a place where failure was rewarded with anything but death. Though the Dragon felt its immortal soul recoil from the touch of the Taint, still it sped forward, bearing hope beneath the breath of silent winds.

At last, the great coliseum stood before them, arched and black with age and darkness. Its pillars, once gleaming and bright, now stood twisted and corrupted by the shinobi of the ninja. Their tall trunks shifted as though alive, moving with errant grace beneath a sky so dark that the light of the sun could not pierce it. Within the building, screams of anguish fought with cries of derision and foul laughter.

Landing before the ruined archway that led toward the light, the Dragon's form shifted abruptly, collapsing in upon itself until only the shell of the man remained. His white hair, once beautiful and long, had become gray and tattered, falling in thick clumps from green-tinged skin. He fought for breath in rasping pulls, his frame twisting with Taint, the bones of his legs breaking under the weight of his landing. Only the emerald eyes were unchanged.

"Hochiu," the Dragon of Air murmured. "Hurry. There is . . . Iittle time. He knows that you are here . . . he will be waiting for you, Hochiu . . . "

Stumbling back, the Master of Fire nodded. "Thank you. For everything."

"Remember . . ." the Dragon whispered once more, and then his body began to change, falling to ash and blowing in the wind that swept through Volturnum's most secret heart. A dragon, no longer of air, but of ash and shadow, slithered away down corridors of darkness, hiding from the light that had cursed it for its valor. Within seconds, the road was clear.

"We must hurry," Seiko's voice said, close by. Yet with hers, Hochiu could hear the presence of thousands of others, their fingers pressing against his skin as if to drag him into the building's dark corridors.

*****

I hear them. I remember.
The ogres fled. They had no choice but to be driven into the flames.
Do they curse me, still?

*****

Hochiu reached for his yojimbo's arm drawing his sword from its saya as she prepared her spear. "If Goju sees me, he will slaughter me without mercy. We won't be able to get close enough to use this." He held aloft a katana made of crystal, blessing the Scorpion who gave him the blade.

"Then he will have to see you where you are not."

The corridors were long and dark, with flashes of light spilling from the arena before them. Hochiu followed Seiko's dark figure through the darkness, trusting the bushi to guide him safely. Gradually, the darkness eased, and the shadows that had hung from the walls and pressed close against Hochiu's flesh fell back. "Stay here," Seiko whispered, and her voice sounded husky. The shadows covered her face as her fingers touched him lightly across the lips. "You will know when to strike."

The room that once held the gate was wide open, dead grass piercing broken stone. A broken bottle of sake rested against the gate's lower arch, and dark hoofprints covered the dirt of the massive audience chamber. Broken walls surrounded the room, with easily enough space to hold a thousand humans. Hochiu swallowed heavily, looked down at the gate, and saw shadows fluttering wildly through the chamber.

Something lived there - something of darkness and deception.

*****

I saw her today. They were far from my position, but I swear she felt my eyes follow her.

*****

Hochiu stepped out onto the ledge that led to Volturnum's gate, watching as the shadows that guarded the massive structure twisted toward him. "Goju!" he shouted, and his voice echoed through the massive audience chamber. "Face me!"

The shadows were approaching cautiously, their wide eyes dark within darkness. Hochiu laughed when he saw them move toward him. "I am the Master of Fire," he said arrogantly. "Do you believe that your claws can harm me, when I have already traveled so far?" For an instant, he raised his hand as if to pelt them with steaming lava and tongues of flame, but then stopped. "No," he said. "I will save my anger for Goju - whose black sorcery is worth my time - and not for you beasts who pretend to serve him. You are dogs, nothing more, and you do not even deserve my amusement."

"Well said, shugenja," said one of the shadows of the Gate as it detached itself, forming into a tall, thin male whose red eyes glowed beneath a thin jingasa. His hands faded into shadow, surrounded and caressed by his minions. He gave a soft whisper, and three of them leapt toward Hochiu.

The shugenja spun, cutting through them with the crystal blade of his yari, severing the darkness with light and watching as they recoiled in pain. Hochiu danced aside as whirling blades spun from the sorcerer's hands, their black edges dripping with Taint and poison.

He lunged. His staff caught one of the shadow-walkers in the leg, twisted, severing the limb, and hurled the beast into its fellows. Two vanished into darkness, while the third screamed in agony, its leg purified by the rich touch of the stone and fading into ash.

He dashed toward the infernal sorcerer, his spear held before him, but Goju faded into the darkness, reappearing at the end of the thin ledge. "Not yet, Master of Fire," Adorai said mockingly, releasing another torrent of black acid from his fingertips. It splashed upon the ground, nearly shattering the thin stone, and Hochiu leapt through the air to find footing on the coliseum floor before the thin parapet fell into a pit of shadow.

Meanwhile, Jigoku continued to seethe and burn, its plains destroyed by the black magic of the Goju. Hochiu saw the armies, led by Yoritomo and the Thunders, gather for one final assault against the ninja of the Shadow.

"You can do nothing to save them," Adorai said, using the Master of Fire's distraction to his advantage. He plunged one hand into the master's back, tearing at Hochiu's ribcage and digging his fingers into the shugenja's heart. "Watch them die, Phoenix, and then go to join them. Your death will be all the more sweet once I have stolen your hope."

"I . . . will always . . . have . . . hope," the shugenja gasped, dangling on the end of Goju's fist. He twisted, plunging his spear into the ninja's shoulder and forcing Goju to drop him before the sorcerer could retrieve the heart from within his ribs. Blood poured from the Phoenix's body, but he did not look up at the Goju who stood before him.

"Now . . " the wounded one whispered, reaching out her hand to someone in the shadows.

Before Goju could spin around to see who the Master of Fire summoned forth, the spirits of Jigoku clustered around his face, spending their spirits of golden glowing essence, dragging the sorcerer back with flashes of fire and light. All of the spirits, all of the voices that had clustered around the Master of Air revealed themselves in a single white light to the infernal sorcerer. Thousands of samurai who had died at the hands of the Shadow freed themselves of their dishonor by giving their souls in the final fight.

Beyond death, beyond dishonor, they struck at the Goju, driving him back from the impostor at his feet. He screamed, reaching taloned hands to clutch at the errant spirits of Jigoku, clawing and cursing them. One final voice whispered in Hochiu's ear as he stepped out from his hiding place at the edge of the coliseum floor, whispering its blessing before it gave its eternal soul at the Goju's hands.

*****

I am a healer, not a bushi. I do all I can to heal their wounds. But I cannot save them.

*****

"But I can," said Isawa Hochiu, echoing the spirit voice's sentiment as the crystal katana whistled toward Goju Adorai's neck. The sorcerer spun, facing the blade just before it seared through his neck. A final, agonizing scream tore the stones from their resting place. "Why?" he asked the Shosuro actress, looking down at her bruised face.

"Because when this began, we were nothing - your clan destroyed, mine exiled. Where we were both weak, now we are strong - together, as it was meant to be. We have redeemed ourselves, you and I, both Phoenix and Scorpion," Shiko said, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. Kneeling beside her, Hochiu removed her cloak and looked down at the terrible wound. "My father's father, when the Empire began, was Phoenix. I am his daughter, and my heart is true. Where he could not serve you, Isawa, I could. But now you must kill me . . . before the Shadow steals my soul."

"You have done more than redeem yourself, Scorpion," he said quietly, watching as the gate's golden light faded into nothingness. "You have given yourself - and your clan - new life. May you find your next rebirth in peace." Her death was quiet, unmarked by ceremony or hymns, and, when it was finished, Hochiu placed his cloak over her face, arranging the folds of silk so that it became a mask of his own making.

She would enter the underworld as a Scorpion should.

The darkness faded around Volturnum's great walls, and the sun burst through the clouds, shattering stone and shadow with their power. Rays of sunlight danced upon the earth around the ancient city, renewing the Empire's hope and driving back the beasts of the Shadowlands. “Forever will this city be sacred to us," the Sun spoke, his voice echoing through the Celestial Heavens. "Let it never more be seen in darkness. Not by day . . . "

"And never by night," replied the soft voice of Lady Moon.

*****

I am the Moon, and I am the Sun. I am all that the Empire has ever been or will be. I give you this gift because you are brave enough to remember. You are Akodo - born of duty, honor, and bravery. That will become your soul, now that you are free. And those who once were shall be Akodo once more, to teach their kin the ways of the Empire and give your honored house rebirth in a new age, a new Rokugan.

There will always be more stories - for those valiant enough to live them.


Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!