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Blessings and Curses
By Rich Wulf

Toturi Miyako reigned in her pony at the edge of the forest. Her breath caught at the sight of the sprawling palace that lay before her. The young Monkey gazed in wonder at the tall white spires and blue tiled rooftops.

"One of the most beautiful places in all of Rokugan," said a voice from nearby.

Though Miyako had ridden here alone, she glanced down with only mild surprise. After nearly two years of serving as student to the Grand Master of the Elements, one came to expect the unusual. "Master Tokei," Miyako said.

She bowed deeply from her saddle as the unkempt robed man emerged from the shadows of the forest. He leaned heavily on his kanji-covered staff and nodded his reply. His attention was fixed on the distant castle.

"The first and last time I saw Kyuden Kakita, it was in ashes," Tokei said with a sigh. "Hida Tsuru's forces burned it early in the Clan War. It does my heart good to see it as it was meant to be."

"Why are you here, Master Tokei?" Miyako asked bluntly.

Tokei raised one eyebrow and peered up at his student. "That's a rude question do demand of your teacher don't you think?"

"My teacher told me to never let etiquette stifle my curiosity," Miyako replied with a small grin. "He told me that the world is too wonderful and complex to master its mysteries by waiting for the right moment."

Tokei frowned thoughtfully. "You remind me too much of your father," he said, though his tone was playful. "I am here for the same reason that you are here."

Miyako swung one long leg over her saddle and hopped nimbly off her pony, taking its reins in one hand. "You are here because of Hoturi?" she asked.

Tokei looked at Miyako in surprise. "Hoturi?" he replied.

Miyako nodded. "Six days ago, a vision of the Crane Thunder appeared at the gates of Kyuden Kakita. He claimed that he would return in one week with a blessing that would help the Crane through these dark times. Lady Tsudao sent me to join the vigil at Kyuden Kakita."

"Strange that the spirit of a Thunder would return to Rokugan and I would not know of it," the Grand Master said. "No, I am afraid that I am here for much darker reasons. And so are you, though you may not realize it."

"What is happening, Tokei-sama?" Miyako asked.

Tokei looked out at the palace once more, his weathered face solemn. "There are some bonds that are more powerful than time," he answered. "Some bonds that extend even beyond death. Bonds of blood. Bonds of hatred. Bonds of friendship. What has your father told you of the man known as Dairya?"

"He was a ronin who fought with Toturi and my father during the Clan War," Miyako said. "He was a hero."

Tokei's lip curled into an enigmatic smile. "You could call him that," he replied. "Isawa Dairya was born to greatness, the son of the Master of Fire. It was expected that he would become Master of Fire himself one day. Such was not to be. Dairya committed an unspeakable crime, and was cast out of the Phoenix."

"Father never told me Dairya was a shugenja," Miyako said.

"Your father never knew," Tokei said. "Dairya's fate was worse than death. For his crime, the Phoenix stripped him of his magical gifts and cast him out as ronin. Where once Dairya knew the warmth and energy of Fire, now he knew only rage. He longed for some measure of the power he had lost, so he mastered the art of the sword. He became a duelist."

"A priest who became a duelist?" Miyako asked, surprised.

"It is not as unlikely as you may think," Tokei said. "The art of dueling is not unlike mastery of Fire. A swift, agile mind is required to command the kami of flame just as it is required to become a master swordsman. One must learn to think without thinking, or be destroyed in an instant. Dairya not only learned the way of the sword, but he excelled at it. Entirely self-trained, he devised a range of techniques that made him as fearsome as any Mirumoto Swordmaster or Kakita Kenshinzen, techniques that only Dairya ever knew. He traveled the Empire, independent of any lord or master, using the strength of his blade to build a new name. They called him a mercenary. They called him a killer. Few, in those days, would have called him a hero. He struck down all who dared challenge him, always riding away on the horse of the last man he killed. The only man who ever defeated him was Kakita Toshimoko, Master of the Kakita Dueling Academy."

"The Gray Crane," Miyako replied.

"A chance meeting," Tokei said, "Toshimoko took his eye but left him with his life. Dairya never forgave the insult. Few men have ever lived that contained such anger, such pure rage as Dairya."

"But my father speaks of Dairya with the greatest respect," Miyako said. "He says that Dairya was a hero."

"He was," Tokei replied. "Toturi had a way of doing that. He had a way of finding strength in others that they never knew they had. For a time, Toturi helped Dairya set aside his rage and use his talents for the good of the Empire as part of Toturi's Army." Tokei was silent for a long moment, consumed by memory. "How much do you know about the War Against the Shadow?" he finally asked.

"Only what my father has taught me," Miyako said. "The Goju tried to destroy the Empire and all the Spirit Realms, and Toturi stopped them."

Tokei smiled briefly. "A greatly simplified explanation, but that will do," he said. "The Goju were Toturi's opposite number in nearly every respect. While he helped others find their strength, the minions of Nothing gnawed at weakness. They enjoyed nothing so much as the downfall of a hero. At the Battle of Oblivion's Gate, they sank their fangs into Dairya. As he struck out against the armies of Shadow, they filled his mind with images of blood and murder, the darkest memories of his past. Finally, when he was nearly broken, the Goju arranged it so that Dairya faced Kakita Toshimoko again. But Toshimoko would not draw his sword. Dairya cut the Grey Crane down, and realized in that moment that he would never know if his technique was greater. In that moment of rage and frustration, the Goju consumed him."

"A strange story," Miyako said.

"It is not finished yet," Tokei replied. "Dairya is dead, but his spirit is still chained to this realm."

"He is undead?" Miyako asked.

"Not precisely," Tokei answered. "It is strange. . . I have never sensed anything quite like it. I think that perhaps there may be some remnant, some relic of Dairya that has been corrupted. That is what chains him here. His spirit is restless, consumed with anger, and he has somehow made his way to Kyuden Kakita."

"For what reason?" Miyako asked.

Tokei shrugged. "Any number of reasons. The Gray Crane's son lies on his deathbed. The Grey Crane's grandsons fight among themselves. The wife of Noritoshi, Master of the Academy, is with child. Any number of horrible things could come to pass. The time is ripe for vengeance, and it falls to Toturi's Army to see that it does not come to pass."

"I was never part of Toturi's Army," Miyako replied.

"Close enough," Tokei said with a small chuckle. "Go now, Miyako. Seek out Dairya. Find him before he finds a way to exact his vengeance."

Miyako frowned, confused. "You will not come with me?"

Tokei shook his head and watched the castle again. "I am afraid that not all of my predecessors are on the best of terms with the Kakita family," he said. "One hot tempered Naka once visited the palace and was angered to find the gates closed. He placed a curse on the gates so that any born within while they were closed would bring about the destruction of the castle if they ever touched steel."

"And that curse destroyed the castle during the Clan War?" Miyako asked.

Tokei nodded. "The Kakita are not the most forgiving family in Rokugan. I fear my presence would only cause discontent and chaos, which is not what they need right now. Better that I remain here until the danger has passed. Fear not, Miyako. I am watching. I am with you."

* * * * *

Miyako's father was a simple man, and the halls of the Vigilant Keep of the Monkey tended to reflect his simple tastes. Thus it was something of an adjustment when Miyako came to settle amid the luxury of Kyuden Seppun a few months ago. She had thought that there could be no place more beautiful, more opulent and luxurious than the castle Toturi Tsudao had chosen as her base of operations.

Looking around Kyuden Kakita now, Miyako saw that she had been wrong. The halls of the Kakita family were like nothing she had ever seen. Everywhere she turned, she saw some priceless work of sculpture or breathtaking kakemono painting. What struck her even more was that even though works of beauty surrounded her, all of it was arranged with taste and elegance. Nothing was out of place. Nothing was ostentatious. This was art as it was meant to be. She paused to consider an ink brush drawing of a wren perched on a tree branch. A handsome courtier with a peaked silk cap appeared by her shoulder, cleared his throat politely, and awaited her attention.

"Taisa Toturi Miyako of the First Legion," the man said, bowing as she turned to face him. He kept his face free of expression with a courtier's natural talent. "I am Kakita Atoshi, brother to Lord Noritoshi. We are deeply honored that the Empress would choose such a distinguished representative. I suppose the higher ranking officers were absorbed in other duties?"

Miyako looked at the man cautiously as she returned his bow. "My presence is no slight, Atoshi-san," Miyako said, fighting to keep the edge from her voice. "I am the heir to leadership of my clan and a highly decorated member of the First Legion."

Atoshi allowed himself a faint smile. "My apologies if you perceived any insult, as such was not intended," he said. "Your father is regarded as something of a legend, and Doji Nagori's tale of your valor against the Tsuno is quite popular in our court."

"I see," Miyako replied. She blushed slightly, surprised by the man's sincerity. Hoping to change the subject, she drew a carefully wrapped silken package from her obi. "The Empress has given me a gift for Lord Toshiken, a mixture of soothing herbs prepared by our Phoenix allies. May I take these to him?"

"That will not be possible," Atoshi said, eyes fixing on the floor. "Despite the promise of the Thunder's blessing, my father's health has taken a turn for the worse. The shugenja who attend him will allow no visitors save myself, my brother, and father's bodyguard, Reju."

"Of course," Miyako replied. "Then perhaps you could present it on my behalf?"

"I would not rob you of the opportunity to present it personally," Atoshi replied. "Surely my father's health will soon improve, and you can give it to him then."

"If his health improves, he will not need the herbs," Miyako said bluntly. She realized even as she spoke that Atoshi was playing a courtly game with her, refusing the gift twice before acceptance.

"Of course," Atoshi said coldly. He accepted the package in one hand, frowning down at it in some disdain. "My brother shall attend you presently." Atoshi turned and stalked away, clearly unimpressed by Miyako's reply.

"Some people never know when to stop playing games," mused a young samurai in a pale blue kimono.

"I suppose. . . " Miyako began, but the words trailed off. She had not recognized him at first without his armor. His face was leaner, his arms a bit thicker than when last she had seen him, but the mischievous grin and dark blue eyes were the same. Hachi wore his hair dark and loose in defiance of his clan's normal style.

"Yasuki Hachi," she said, bowing pertly.

"I see you have met Atoshi, master of the backhanded compliment," Hachi said. He bowed far too deeply to her, as he always did.

"You look well," Miyako said cautiously.

"And you are a poor liar, Monkey," Hachi replied. "I had thought that this visit would be a peaceful one, a rare chance to relax among my kin, but even here the Emerald Champion's work is never done."

"Is there trouble here?" Miyako asked.

"The usual trouble when you have too much family in too small a place," Hachi said with a sigh. "I suppose all clans experience this to some degree when they gather. The highest ranking samurai of the Crane have gathered to pay their respects to Toshiken and wait for the Thunder's blessing."

"Do you truly believe Hoturi will appear?" Miyako asked.

"I'd rather keep my opinions on the powers that be and their feelings toward us mortals to myself," Hachi replied. "All I can say is that the story has brought the Crane nobility out of the woodwork. I almost pray for a bandit attack or a Lion raid so that I can take a break from playing the mediator. I've spent the last few days breaking up squabbles between spoiled nobles, many of whom I had previously thought to be reasonable people."

"Really?" Miyako said, surprised.

Hachi nodded. "It's not their fault, really. We Crane are marvelous in a crisis. We're focused, united, together. But this isn't a crisis. It's just too many big heads in one place. Take my former daimyo, Daidoji Rekai. A born warrior. There's no one I'd rather have at my side in battle, but if I have to break up another fight over Lady Doji's Tears I may well hang the Emerald Armor on a tree and run for the Burning Sands."

Miyako laughed. "Lady Doji's Tears?"

Hachi nodded. "A priceless set of enchanted jade tears, many of which were lost during the Clan War. She apparently found two of the Tears during her visit to the Crab lands and wanted to give them to Toshiken. The legends say that the tears can purify any illness or corruption, so she hoped their purity would help him fight his illness. She was outraged when the shugenja would not allow her to present them personally, and simply will not let the matter die. But even that's nothing compared to Atoshi and Noritoshi."

"Noritoshi is the daimyo, isn't he?" Miyako asked.

"Since recently, yes," Hachi answered. "Atoshi was used to lording his superior political savvy over Noritoshi, then out of nowhere Kakita Kaiten dies naming Noritoshi his successor. Now Atoshi takes every opportunity to cut Noritoshi down in public, and I can tell it takes every ounce of Noritoshi's patience not to cut Atoshi down in a more literal fashion."

"Aren't they brothers?" Miyako asked.

"Cousins, actually," Hachi replied. "They call each other brothers only because they were raised together, and Toshiken asked it of them. Toshiken felt responsible for the death of Noritoshi's father, Ichiro, so he adopted Noritoshi just before the Battle of Oblivion's Gate."

"Why would Toshiken feel responsible for Ichiro's death?" Miyako asked.

Hachi looked at Miyako frankly. "Because Toshiken killed him."

"I see," Miyako said.

"In all fairness, Ichiro deserved it," Hachi said. "He tried to enroll Toshiken into a conspiracy to murder their father, Toshimoko. Apparently Toshiken was not as resentful toward their father as Ichiro had hoped."

"Interesting family," Miyako replied.

"Do not judge them too harshly," Hachi said. "Toshiken was, and is, a great man, but even a great man has dark days. It's been said that a Crane won't do anything unless he can excel at it beyond all others. Family squabbles are no exception."

A breathless bushi in the armor of an Emerald Magistrate rounded the corner, looked around desperately, and finally fixed on Hachi. He lunged forward, falling into a deep bow. "Hachi-sama," the magistrate said between gasps. "Nagori-san has sent me to bring you at once."

"What is the problem?" Hachi asked, looking at the man in annoyance.

"Lord Asahina Handen's party was attacked by bandits on the road, making off with several valuable scrolls," the magistrate said. "Nagori insisted that I inform you."

"Fortunes bless you, Nagori," Hachi said, brightening. "This is wonderful news."

"Sir?" the magistrate replied, confused. "Is this not a matter the local magistrates could deal with?"

"Don't question the Emerald Champion, magistrate," Hachi said smartly. "Rally the troops at once. I shall be with you shortly." The magistrate nodded and hurried away. Hachi looked at Miyako and winked. "Miyako-chan? Would you care to join me in a bit of invigorating violence?"

"No thank you," Miyako said, returning Hachi's infectious grin. "But I will try to keep the nobles from killing one another while you are away."

"I appreciate that," Hachi said, already heading off down the hall.

"Good luck," she called after him.

"I think you will need it more!" he replied over his shoulder.

* * * * *

The audience chamber was small, intimate, and dimly lit. There was only one low table with three chairs, one at the head and the other two arranged about it. A small man sat at the head of the table. He wore his hair dark, tied back into a traditional topknot. He looked young, barely past his gempukku, but his eyes showed great weariness. Miyako ducked her head as she followed Atoshi into the chamber. The man never looked up.

"Taisa Toturi Miyako," Atoshi said in his deep courtly voice, "I present to you my brother, Kakita Noritoshi, Master of the Kakita Dueling Academy, daimyo of the Kakita family."

Miyako bowed to Noritoshi, who nodded and gestured toward one of the seats. Miyako sat and sipped the cup of tea before her. Atoshi arranged his elaborate courtly dress and sat at the other side of the table. Thunder echoed outside. A storm had started a few hours ago, and showed no sings of relenting.

"If Hoturi truly chooses tonight to visit us, I hope he dresses for the weather," Atoshi said with a chuckle. Miyako laughed politely.

"Why were you surprised when you saw me, Miyako-chan?" Noritoshi asked, fixing his gaze upon her. Like many Crane, his eyes were an unsettling blue color.

Miyako looked up at Noritoshi curiously. She thought she had masked her surprise quite well, but she remembered that Noritoshi was a master duelist. The Kakita Kenshinzen were well used to using subtle cues to gauge their opponent's strategies and intentions. "I was surprised that I was granted this private audience," Miyako said. "There are many other visitors far more deserving than I."

"No," Noritoshi answered. "That is not what truly surprised you."

"Well," Miyako said after a short pause. "To be honest, I did not expect the master of the dueling academy to be so young."

"My brother's curse," Atoshi said over his cup. "He has the young face and innocent demeanor of his father."

Noritoshi's icy gaze flicked toward his brother meaningfully, then turned back to Miyako. "I invited you here after my brother told me of the generous gift you brought for my uncle," he said. "Give the Empress my thanks."

"I will," Miyako replied.

"Let us not forget our Phoenix allies as well, brother," Atoshi said tartly. "They were the ones who prepared the herbs."

"I am aware of that, Atoshi," Noritoshi replied, "but the Phoenix serve the Empress, thus it is she who must be honored first."

"Ah, of course," Atoshi replied, setting his cup down with a click. "In matters of etiquette I will defer to you, mighty daimyo."

"Thank you, Atoshi," Noritoshi said coldly, not rising to his brother's bait.

The table fell silent as a pair of servants arrived and served a light dinner of fish and cakes. Miyako looked at Atoshi carefully. She wondered if he might somehow be involved in the danger Tokei had sensed. There was certainly tension between the brothers, but with their family history that was only natural. Atoshi was constantly testing his brother, demanding that he live up to the legacy of his adopted father, Atoshi's true father. Even so, could their rivalry be something more? If Dairya's spirit sought vengeance against Toshimoko's heirs, what better way than to turn them against one another?

"So tell me, Miyako-chan," Atoshi said once the servants were gone. "How do the lands of the Kakita compare to your home at the Vigilant Keep?"

"To be honest, they do not compare at all," Miyako replied. "I mean no insult, but even after all my travels with the First Legion, I think I would prefer to live out my life at the Vigilant Keep of the Monkey."

"Truly?" Noritoshi replied, an intrigued tone in his voice. "And why is that?"

Miyako fixed her gaze on Atoshi. "Family," she said. "Family will always be there for me."

"How quaint," Atoshi said. He looked down at his fish, plucking up a piece with his chopsticks, "but I should expect such a humble statement from a woman with such humble origins."

"My father was the Captain of the Imperial Guard," Miyako replied, her tone grave. "My mother is the youngest sister of the Shosuro daimyo. Underestimate my parents at your own peril, Atoshi-san. The Monkey are humble by choice, not circumstance."

Noritoshi chuckled.

"I meant no offense, Miyako-chan," Atoshi said, expressionless.

"We all know exactly what you meant, brother," Noritoshi said. "Tell us more of your family, Miyako-chan."

"I have two younger brothers," Miyako replied. "Both of whom often seem to exist for no other reason that to cause me pain and embarrassment. The day before my gempukku, Kyoji stole my best kimono to use as a sashimono in a samurai game against Koto. It was in such a bad state when I found it that I had to wear my mother's gempukku kimono. Shosuro women are known for their daintiness, so it was something of a tight fit." Miyako frowned comically. "Not one of my most dignified moments."

"Did Kyoji survive?" Noritoshi asked with a laugh.

"Barely," Miyako said. "Before I found him, my father found me. He told me something that has stayed with me ever since. 'Family is the first duty. If I cannot stand beside my brother, I do not deserve to stand at all.'"

"A pretty sentiment," Atoshi replied, "but then Toku's family has not been through the same trials as ours."

"The quote was not originally my father's," Miyako replied. "Toturi learned it from his friend, Hoturi, who learned it from his teacher."

"Toshimoko," Noritoshi said. "Grandfather."

For once, Atoshi had nothing to say. Thunder resounded again from outside.

"Miyako-chan," Naka Tokei's voice spoke urgently in the back of her mind. "Are you safe?"

Miyako focused her mind. While she did not possess the magic required to project her thoughts as Tokei did, he had taught her to concentrate in such a manner that he could hear her thoughts from great distances. "I am safe in Kyuden Kakita," she replied.

"Dairya has arrived," he said urgently. "He has come for his vengeance."

"Are you certain?" Miyako answered. "I am with his grandsons, and there is no danger." Atoshi and Noritoshi both regarded her curiously, sensing the subtle change in her mood. Could she have been wrong? Was their constant bickering unrelated to Dairya at all?

"I have never been more certain," Tokei replied.

A defiant battle cry echoed through Kyuden Kakita.

* * * * *

Atoshi, Noritoshi, and Miyako moved toward the sounds of battle as quickly as they could. The nightingale floor squeaked noisily beneath their feet; what was normally a defense against assassins apparently had served little purpose against this attack. At the end of the hall they found a pair of Kakita guards slamming their shoulders futilely against the heavy wooden doors of Toshiken's chambers.

"Stand aside!" Noritoshi barked. He wound his long sleeves over his shoulders and drew his Kakita blade with a chime like pure crystal. The two guards moved quickly out of the way. Noritoshi swung the blade twice, so swiftly that it seemed as if he connected with nothing. A large triangle fell out of the barred doors and they swung gently open. A flash of lightning illuminated the room beyond.

A woman in a kimono of dark blue silk stood in the center of the chamber, katana clutched in one hand. Her other hand held a short club, topped with a grinning skull. Her eyes were dead, flat white. Her long black hair lightened toward white at the tips, as if it had been bleached but was quickly growing out. Toshiken's withered body lay on the floor near his bed. He had been cut from hip to shoulder but still clutched a brilliant katana in one hand - he had died fighting. Toshiken's bodyguard Reju knelt in a spreading pool of blood, clutching the stump of his right arm. The woman had been holding her sword over Reju's head prpared to finish him, but now turned her head slightly toward the door.

"The new Master is here," she whispered. "Here to challenge me." She kicked Reju solidly in the side, toppling him to the floor. She quickly sheathed her blade and turned to face Noritoshi. One hand was open above the hilt of her blade as if offering a gift, the style of a Kakita swordsman.

"Megumi," Noritoshi whispered. "I have missed our lessons together. I had assumed you were on a warrior pilgrimage."

"I was," she said. "I have learned a great deal, and I have not come alone."
Atoshi drew his sword and stepped forward beside Noritoshi, but Noritoshi seized his brother's shoulder. "No, Atoshi," he warned. "Take the guards, rally Rekai and the rest of the Daidoji. You will need them to stop her if I fail."

Atoshi looked at his brother dubiously. "She killed father," he hissed.

"And she will kill you to if you do not do as I say," Noritoshi replied. "Megumi was my finest student. As your daimyo, as your brother, I warn you not to challenge her."

Atoshi nodded and backed slowly down the hall. "You heard the daimyo's command," he shouted to the guards. "We must rally the Daidoji!" The two guards followed as swiftly as they could.

Miyako remained where she was in the hall behind Noritoshi, forgotten. The Kakita master stepped slowly into the room, sheathing his blade and mirroring Megumi's stance. All was silent around them save the rain on the roof and rumble of the storm.

"Why did you kill father?" Noritoshi demanded.

"I thought perhaps he was not as sick as he looked," Megumi replied. "I was wrong. Disappointing."

The thunder crashed. Megumi and Noritoshi lunged toward one another. Both duelists fell aside at the last moment, the first stroke meant only to test the speed of the other. Megumi's blade passed through the side of Noritoshi's kimono, barely scratching the flesh but leaving a trail of blood. Noritoshi's blade crossed Megumi's cheek. Her blood ran black.

"So you have been corrupted," Noritoshi said, spitting on the floor in disgust. "Do you serve Daigotsu? Did he send you to kill my father?"

"Not at all," Megumi replied. The lightning flashed again, and this time Miyako saw an outline of something around Megumi. Its shape was that of a large man wearing a metal patch over his left eye.

Dairya.

Miyako glanced around the bedchamber, her gaze finally fixing upon a small box near the bedside. It bore the Daidoji family mon.

Noritoshi and Megumi charged one another again, Kakita blades whistling as they sliced the air. This time Noritoshi's blade was struck aside; with a savage stroke Megumi cut her former teacher across the face. He staggered back, his face a mess of blood, but did not scream. He covered his eyes with one hand, grimacing in pain. He swung his sword feebly, missing Megumi by several feet.

"It seems you do not fight blind as well as I once did," Megumi said with a chuckle. "This is the legacy of Toshimoko?" she added, her voice now deep and masculine. "This is what defeated me?"

"No," Miyako shouted from behind her. "The Shadowlands defeated you!" Miyako ran toward Megumi with her sword raised.

Megumi turned calmly, easily, ready to cut Miyako down as soon as she drew near. At the last instant Miyako stopped and hurled a small chunk of stone at Megumi. The corrupted Kenshinzen easily swatted it from the air with her club. She shrieked in pain as the jade tear shattered and the air was filled with green light. The image of Dairya that hovered around her wavered and vanished. Finally only Megumi was left, gasping for breath, scowling in hatred at Miyako. The skull on the end of her club had exploded. She dropped the useless stub and lifted her sword to strike again.

Miyako opened her hand, revealing the second jade tear. Megumi took a step back.

"Do you think that you have won, Monkey?" Megumi asked with a laugh. The blind duelist turned and leaped out the window.

Miyako ran out and looked down. It was an impossible drop, but she could already see Megumi's blue kimono receding across the plains. Miyako turned to help Reju and Noritoshi bind their wounds. Reju had lost his right hand. Noritoshi's left eye had been badly injured. Both men would survive.

"How could Megumi be so strong?" Noritoshi asked, looking up at Miyako. "I have trained all my life to become the greatest of the Kenshinzen. If she can match my strength with the Taint, what hope do we have?"

"We will always have hope, Noritoshi," she said, pressing the jade tear into his hand. "Remember today, and grow stronger."

The storm began to recede, the rumble in the sky quieting. As the sound faded it was replaced with another - the sound of fitful crying from a room nearby.

"My wife," Noritoshi said, a hopeful look dawning on his face. "My child has been born. . . "

Strangely, Miyako could not help the feeling that something was very wrong.

It was then that she heard the sounds of battle from outside.

Miyako ran to another window and looked down. A small army of soldiers in jet-black armor lay siege to the walls of Kyuden Kakita. On a distant hillside, Miyako could see their commander mounted on a white stallion. She did not recognize him, but she had seen the mon on his sashimono in many of her father's books about the Clan War.

Doji Hoturi.

* * * * *

Miyako stood on the high crest of the same hill where she had seen Hoturi the previous evening. Tokei and Hachi stood beside her, their expressions grim. Atoshi was at the base of the hill, discussing strategy with Daidoji Rekai and a few of the other more military mind nobles. Noritoshi sat some distance away by himself. A thick bandage still covered his left eye; the wound had been beyond even Tokei's ability to heal completely.

The bodies of dozens of samurai lay about before the gates of Kyuden Kakita. Many wore the green armor of Emerald Magistrates or the blue armor of Crane samurai. The rest wore sinister jet-black armor.

"So the tales of Hoturi's return were false after all," Noritoshi said with a sigh.

"No, they were true enough," Hachi replied. "It just wasn't the right Hoturi."

"The False Hoturi?" Noritoshi snapped, looking over at them. "That is not possible. He died during the Clan War."

"The False Hoturi was never truly alive," Tokei replied. "He was a construct of dark magic, designed to break the spirits of the Crane Clan. Fu Leng could easily restore that magic if he chose."

"But why?" Miyako asked.

"The human soul is a battleground in this war," Tokei replied. "The Crane are a clan of indomitable spirit. If Fu Leng can break that spirit, he has won a great victory against the Empire."

"You sound like you knew this would happen, Naka?" Noritoshi asked.

"Of course he did," Hachi said with an exasperated look. "That's why he had me bring along an extra legion of troops and hide them in the woods. Did you really think I'd miss the Thunder's return to chase bandits? Give me a small bit of credit, Noritoshi-sama. The False Hoturi found greater resistance here than he expected. His troops have pulled back to regroup."

"But when he returns, will we be ready?" Atoshi called up from the bottom of the hill.

"Yes," Noritoshi said in a distant voice. "We will prepare. Fu Leng will not find the Crane easy prey." The Kakita daimyo slowly walked away down the hill. His brother looked after him with a concerned expression, following quickly behind.

"Will he be all right?" Miyako asked.

"Noritoshi's son was born last night, while the gates of the castle were closed," Hachi said. "The Kakita curse. The Master of the Kenshinzen's son will never touch steel."

"Oh," Miyako said softly. "That's terrible."

"I don't know about that," Hachi said. "Some days I think there are worse fates than to never be a warrior." The Emerald Champion bowed to them both and left, heading down the hill to speak to the Crane generals.

"So what of Dairya, then?" Miyako asked. "Was his spirit able to leave the Empire once I destroyed that thing Megumi was carrying?"

"He could leave, yes," Tokei said, "but he did not."

Miyako looked at Tokei in confusion.

"You must understand, Miyako," Tokei said. "Dairya was always a stubborn sort of man. After thirty years of serving as a pawn of evil, he is not the kind to return meekly to Yomi. He will want to stay. He will want to fight."

"So he is still here?" Miyako asked. "What can a spirit do to fight the Shadowlands?"

"Well, this is a dueling Academy, isn't it?" Tokei asked, looking down at the castle again. "Perhaps he will seek out a student. . . "

With that, the Grand Master of the Elements turned and walked back down the hillside. Miyako mounted her pony and followed.


 

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!