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Blood Dawn, Part II:
Son of Stone

By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf

The Burning Sands&

"How does one kill that defeat that which cannot die?"

"How does one slay that which is immortal?"

"How does one fight he who has planned your conquest since even before you were born?"

The rakshasa let the questions echo through the cave for long moments, then its feline face split in a toothy smile. "Adisabah commends you, meat," it said. "It half expected you to curse it for speaking in riddles."

Katamari shrugged. "You must have never spoken to a Shintao monk, if you expect me to be impressed with that," he replied. "I am still waiting for you to tell me what you know of Iuchiban."

"Iuchiban's tale is centuries old, and the origins of his power older still," Adisabah replied. "Such a tale cannot be told swiftly."

"Then begin with the Doomseeker," Katamari said, gesturing at the iron mask that lay on the floor between them. "I know that my kinsman, Karasu, called himself by that name once. That mask is similar to the one he wore. I did not think there was any significance beyond that."

"There is significance in all things, if one merely takes the time to find it," the rakshasa chuckled. "Your family wields a magic unique in Rokugan, or unique by your own perspective at any rate. You call it meishodo, a magic that draws upon the true names of all things, the names once used to create the universe. Yet that which can create can also destroy. This magic can be dangerous."

Katamari frowned at Adisabah impatiently.

The rakshasa sighed. "Meat knows all of this, of course, but this sets the stage for its story and Adisabah does so love to tell stories. Been some time, it has, since it has had an audience for stories."

"I suppose I am not going anywhere," Katamari said, looking about the remote cave and barren desert. "Tell me what you will, creature."

"That is more the spirit," the rakshasa said with a broad grin. "The words of meishodo bear great power, but also extract a price. The cosmos exists the way it does for a purpose - those who twist the words to defy that purpose anger the cosmos. The words have a life of their own - they find those who have failed, but are repentant. They charge them to put things right. They charge them to destroy that which cannot be destroyed - that which has sought life beyond death by twisting the power of the words. That is the power of the Doomseeker. You know of one Doomseeker - the one who came to put Kuni Yori in his place - but there have been others."

"And you believe I am this Doomseeker?" Katamari asked.

"Believe?" Adisabah replied. "Ha! Yes, Adisabah believes as it believes that stone is hard, as it believe that fire is hot. Adisabah will tell you more, more of the past and present, but this tale is not all Iuchiban's&"

The southern Unicorn provinces, the year 1150 by the Isawa calendar

The Crab warrior awoke and rose from his tatami mat without preamble. The sounds from outside his tent were those he had awoken to his entire life: the sound of men preparing for battle. He glanced to the racks on the eastern side of his tent where his armor and weapons lay waiting. He would need them soon.

There was a stirring from the mat behind him. The warrior stared down at the woman who sat up, wiping her eyes blearily. The tray she had carried when she brought him late last evening the night before lay on the ground next to her plain kimono. The bottles of sake lay empty and discarded beside the cups.

"We will break camp shortly," he said as he tied his kimono and stepped into his sandals. "You should return to the village now. This is no place for a serving girl." Though when he looked into her eyes there was none of the condescension typical of a samurai toward a servant. There was affection there, perhaps a note of regret. He quickly looked away. Now was not the time for emotion.

The young woman nodded mutely and reached for her things as the warrior turned to leave the tent. He stopped when he reached the entrance, hesitating. "I have been told my entire life that ones such as you are beneath me. That you are somehow less by the circumstance of your birth. I have been told instead to respect those who are not worthy of respect. My lord Hantei would tell me that I am unclean for loving you; time and again he has warned me that peasants are an uncouth and unworthy lot." He glanced over his shoulder at the woman. "For the first time in my life I know that he is wrong."

She looked up at him silently. She could find no words. Outside, Emperor Toturi's army lay in wait. They both knew he would not survive this day if he led the Steel Chrysanthemum's armies into battle.

"I cannot stay beside you, as much as I would wish to," he said sadly. "I cannot abandon my oaths, not now of all times. All I can do is warn you to get away from here, and swiftly. Beiden Pass will be stained with blood, and I would not have it be yours. Live a long and peaceful life, Hariko-chan. Such a thing is more than many of us can expect." He reached out and clasped her hands. She looked down as he pulled away, eyes wide as she looked at the pouch of golden coins he had given her. It was enough for a peasant like herself to survive a hundred lifetimes in comfort. Clasping the neck of the pouch was a simple netsuke - a Stone Crab clasping a brilliant emerald in its claws.

With a sad smile, Hida Tsuneo stepped out of the tent to command his troops.

----------------

Somewhere in the Shadowlands, the year 1158 by to the Isawa calendar

Jama Suru frowned in disgust and waited for the screams to stop. He looked disinterestedly at the frayed hem of his kimono as the arm jutting out of Tsuburu's gaping maw stopped spasmed, then disappeared into the beast's wide gullet. The obese demon's greasy black stomach continued to ripple and quake for several moments after, as if the creature's meal still struggled deep within.

"That was uncalled for, mighty Oni Lord," Suru said with a sigh. "Loyal and skilled attendants are difficult to find."

The Oni Lord's hideous face smiled down at Suru. His pudgy features creased an expression that could have been either amusement or hunger, causing the Bloodspeaker's confidence to falter somewhat. "How pitiful to depend on such weak, frail creatures to aid you. I rely on no one, save my children." Tsuburu glanced at the pair of morbidly obese spawn that were dragging a meal of dead ogres toward their creator. The foul creatures were the mirror image of their creator, and though smaller they were still as fat as three men. So fat and ungainly that they were unable to move, they drew upon dark magic to propel themselves. They faded from existence with a faint pop every few moments, only to reappear again closer to their morbidly obese father.

"And this is why I have sought you out, mighty Tsuburu," Suru replied. "Unlike many others who dwell in the Shadowlands, you have not thrown your lot in with Daigotsu. Powerful, independent forces in the Shadowlands such as yourself are rare."

Tsuburu rumbled with laughter that seemed to shake the entire cave. Suru smiled, but was not entirely certain whether the Oni Lord was laughing at his acquiescence or the notion that Suru considered his servants lesser beings. It was difficult to tell with creatures as alien as this one. "You think me a fool, Bloodspeaker?" it replied. "You think I have eyes only for the next meal that lies before me? You commend me for not allying with Daigotsu, when I know that you, yourself, have bent your knee to this new Dark Lord. You are either a traitor or a spy. Why should I trust any word you say? Answer quickly - I hunger still."

"We all do what we must to survive," Suru replied with a thin smile. "You speak of treachery, but what did you do to defend your sister, Kyoso? She was slain for defying this Dark Lord, returned to the pit of Jigoku. My allegiances are& complicated. Daigotsu is a means to an end. I serve a greater power still, but recognize there is less danger to my plans if I stand beside him, for a time."

"I will not serve Daigotsu!" Tsuburu roared. "My power is unmatched by any that walk the mortal realm! I will bow only to Fu Leng! I will never submit to another filthy human!"

"You might be surprised how closely my philosophies match your own then, Oni Lord," Suru replied. "The Bloodspeakers believe that power defines the cosmos. One such as yourself was born to rule. There will be a place for you when our time comes. All that I ask is that you perform certain favors for me& favors that will be repaid in full."

"What do you have that I could desire?" Tsuburu asked with a sneer. The Oni Lord edged closer to Suru, chewing the air with its rubbery lips.

"Meat, Tsuburu-sama," Suru hissed. "I know how difficult it has become for you to hunt, with Daigotsu's agents seeking you. I am his ally, I can move without suspicion. I can bring you goblins& ogres& even the tender flesh of samurai if you desire it. You will be well fed, and safe, until the time of the Dark Lord has passed."

Tsuburu paused, beady eyes widening as it considered the Bloodspeaker's offer. A fat, black tongue edged across its lips. "And what do you ask in return?"

Suru bowed. "We ask only a small favor. Our agents within the Witch Hunters have discovered that Yoritomo has a daughter, and that she bears the curse of the Shadowlands Taint. She would be a worthy ally of the Bloodspeakers, were she encouraged to embrace her corruption, but our influence in the Islands of Spice and Silk is not what it once was, and she is well guarded in a remote monastery. But your servitors& they can move between spaces in the blink of an eye." Suru smiled as one of Tsuburu's spawn faded into existence in the cave, then vanished again with a soft pop.

"I am not a subtle corruptor, Suru," Tsuburu replied. "You mistake me for Kyoso, or Akuma. I am a destroyer."

"This Daughter of Storms only needs the proper encouragement," Suru said. "Some token of corruption& something that will call to the shadows within her soul." Suru paused for a moment. "I was there when Hida Yakamo fell in the Shadowlands, many years ago. I hid his father's armor deep in a cave, where I knew it would be corrupted. The Armor of the Shadow Warrior, now a twisted Armor of Shadows. The perfect tool to turn Yoritomo's daughter to our cause. If you do this thing for us, Tsuburu, you will have your place among us when my master returns. This is not a difficult thing that I ask& and the rewards are great."

Tsuburu no Oni smiled.

----------------

Kyuden Hida, year 1164 by the Isawa calendar

Hida Kuon stood before the assemblage. Reiha, his wife, comrade, and military advisor stood at his right hand as she always did. Hida Rohiteki, his most trusted shugenja, stood to his left. Kuon's grandfather's niece, the Crab Champion had always thought of Rohiteki as his aunt - one of his most beloved teachers. Kuon's expression was one of irritation, though his wife's was bemused and Rohiteki was merely thoughtful. The petitioners before them were ronin, a band at least twenty strong. They had just returned from the Shadowlands, and the effect of that dark realm was evident in their appearance and demeanor.

The ronin's leader stepped forward. His shoulders were as broad as any other's, save for Kuon himself. He was young, barely past his gempukku, but his bearing was confident and proud. He hefted a large sack and tossed it to the floor near Kuon's feet. "I have claimed twenty goblin heads. You have declared a Twenty Goblin Winter, and my men and I have answered." He looked back over his shoulder and nodded, at which each ronin placed a similar sack on the floor. The ronin looked back to Kuon, his eyes fierce, almost accusatory.

"You have done well," Kuon said, ignoring the petulance for the moment. "In keeping with the practices of my ancestors, you will each be offered fealty to serve the Hida family." He nodded to the ronin leader. "I will place you upon the Wall, where you can continue to command your men. What is your name?"

The ronin drew his blade and saluted. The sun gleamed from a brilliant emerald on his obi, set in the claws of a stone crab. "I am Hida Isamu, son of Hida Tsuneo, the Stone Crab." A hush fell over the assembled samurai. "I am a true son of Hida, in name now as well as blood."

When Kuon answered, his voice had changed. It was deeper, and many among the assembled Crab recognized what that meant. "A true son of Hida never draws his blade when speaking to his lord unless there are enemies nearby," Kuon rumbled. "Sheath your blade, son of Tsuneo, or you will never know what it means to serve the Crab." Kuon did not reach for his own weapon, the jade hammer that rested by his feet. He only looked down at Isamu calmly, black eyes radiating silent menace.

Isamu showed no remorse, but moved to sheath his blade. He stopped just as the tip passed the saya's mouth and looked at Kuon. "You would deny the tradition of Twenty Goblin Winter and cast me out for drawing my blade?"

"No," Kuon answered. "I would kill you for your disrespect, but you would die a Crab. If you will be one of us, you will be bound by our traditions."

The two men stared at one another for a tense few seconds, then Isamu sheathed his blade and knelt. "Forgive me, my lord. I did not mean to offer insult." His tone suggested that he was unconcerned whether insult had been offered or not. Some of the former ronin who followed him grinned.

"Rise, Isamu," Kuon said evenly. "You and your men shall be given quarters. Your fealty shall be given in two days time, when we see if any others have returned with a bounty as fruitful as yours." The Champion returned to his wife's side at the head of the room as the ronin were escorted to the barracks. There was hardly a sound within the chamber.

Reiha leaned in close to whisper in her husband's ear. "A bold one, this Isamu. He shall bear watching."

"He is dangerous," Rohiteki said.

"I agree," Kuon replied. "I would send him beyond the Wall to find the City of the Lost just to be rid of him, but I think it would be even worse if he rose again to join Daigotsu's legions."

Seeing Kuon's irritation, a slight grin tugged at the corners of Reiha's mouth. "I like him," she said. "He reminds me of someone I know."

Kuon grunted in exasperation and said nothing, but waved for the next petitioner to step forward.

----------------

Shiro Hiruma, year 1165 by the Isawa calendar

Despite its enormous size, the troll moved with considerable speed. It waded through the ranks of the Lost, ignoring the Crab arrows that imbedded in its thick outer skin without truly damaging it. It reached the base of Shiro Hiruma's outer wall and lunged upward, digging its talons into the stone and scaling the wall quickly. The beast was on top in an instant, roaring and flailing wildly. One Crab warrior was not fast enough, and a gnarled fist the size of a barrel struck him fully in the chest. The man was dead long before his body was crushed against the wall. The troll, easily large enough to be mistaken for an ogre, cast about looking for more Crab samurai to kill.

A hammer came down upon its head with the force of thunder, crushing its life in an instant. The weapon withdrew, and then a second massive blow drove the gigantic body backwards, where it toppled from the wall to crush a half dozen of its allies below.

Hida Kuon lifted his hammer to the sky. He looked about at those samurai who defended the Hiruma's home, a castle that had been lost to the clan for centuries before being retaken a few short decades ago. He let the steel of his gaze rekindle the fires in theirs. "Rally to me, Crab! They shall not take this castle, not today or ever again!"

The Crab warriors shouted their decisive agreement. Waves of them rose to take the place of those who had fallen to the troll. They rained down flaming arrows on the enemies that attacked them, enemies that had appeared without warning and attacked with the dawn's first light.

"Kuon!" came a cry from the castle walls, and it echoed throughout the shiro. A thunderous, hopeful cry echoed from the Hiruma defenders as they realized that the Hida had come to aid them. The gates of Shiro Hiruma opened wide. Horsemen on squat ponies galloped forth with bows in hand. Their armor was scorched and battered, their faces exhausted, but there was strength there yet. They charged to meet Kuon's forces. Their leader, Todori, held up his tessen in salute. The fan was the symbol of the Hiruma general, but this man was not the Hiruma lord.

"Masagaro?" Kuon asked in a low voice.

Todori only shook his head slowly.

Kuon nodded and studied the regrouping Shadowlands forces. His keen eyes picked out a weakness in their left flank, where the bakemono were more occupied with fleeing the Crab than guarding the Lost cavalry. He pointed there and turned to face his men.

"Two hundred Lost for the life of Hiruma Masagaro!" he shouted. "Make them pay, children of Hida!"

The Crab roared as they charged forth, on foot and on horseback. Burning arrows scalded the air. Kuni magic tore the land asunder beneath their enemies' feet. The Horde, already in retreat, fell into a rout. Kuon and Todori remained where they were, surrounded by Kuon's command staff as they surveyed the end of the battle.

"You have done well, Todori," Kuon said. "By your messenger's reports, the castle was in far greater danger than this."

"It was, my lord," Todori said softly. "Even Masagaro was unprepared. He fell during the first wave. We were outnumbered seven to one, and their forces bore the banner of the Heartless."

Kuon frowned. "Iuchiban," he replied. "So Omen was right. He has returned."

Todori nodded. "We survived, but I fear we have your brother to thank for that."

"My brother?" Kuon asked sharply.

Todori looked at his Champion gravely. "When the battle was thickest, Daigotsu's legions rode to our aid. They were led by Kokujin, and your brother - Kuroda."

"My Lord!" Hida Isamu shouted triumphantly. The young samurai galloped toward Kuon, an oni's head spitted on the end of the spear. "We are victorious!"

"Not Kuroda," Kuon replied darkly, ignoring Isamu. "He is Kyofu now." His dark eyes scanned the battlefield, searching for any sign of his brother.

"Daigotsu's soldiers did not remain long," he replied. "Only long enough to turn the tide. We did not fight beside them, of course, merely stood aside and let them destroy one another. We Hiruma know better than to easily accept a gift from the Shadowlands. Even so, Kyofu did seek out one of our scouts. After saving his life, Kyofu gave him this." Todori removed a scroll from his obi and offered it to his lord.

"What does it contain?" Kuon asked as he accepted the parchment.

"A map to the current hiding place of Tsuburu no Oni, one of the last Oni Lords that still walks the mortal realm," Todori replied.

"Why would he give us such information?" Kuon asked.

"I think that much is obvious, Kuon-sama," said Hida Rohiteki. The old shugenja studied the map over Kuon's shoulder with a thoughtful expression. "A civil war rages in the Shadowlands. Kyofu and Tsuburu are on opposite sides. Kyofu hopes to use us against his enemy and try to earn our trust in one fell swoop."

"Or perhaps he seeks to trick us into an ambush," Kuon replied.

"If he wished the Crab to be defeated," Todori added softly. "All he had to do was stand aside seven days ago."

"I do not like this," Kuon said. "There is more going on here than we can see."

"Then send me and my men, Lord Kuon," Isamu said impulsively. "The blood of heroes flows through my veins. If Kyofu's word is true, I shall destroy this Oni Lord. If it rings false, then what have you lost?" Isamu looked at Kuon evenly, a smug smile painted on his broad features.

"You misjudge me, Isamu," Kuon replied grimly. "I do not cast duties onto soldiers and send them to their deaths like a Lion. I would not send any Crab into a battle I would not fight myself."

"I do not believe that is what Isamu means," Rohiteki added. "If Kyofu means to set a trap, then no doubt it is you he wishes to trap. You should not underestimate your brother's treachery, but neither should you waste the opportunity to destroy Tsuburu."

"Very well, then," Kuon replied. "I will remain here to help fortify the castle's defenses." He tossed the scroll to Isamu, who caught it with a smile. "Isamu, ride forth and determine the truth here. Take Rohiteki with you - you will find both her magic and wisdom indispensable."

"Of course, my lord," Isamu said, bowing from his saddle. "I shall bring glory and honor to the Crab."

Kuon frowned. "Honor is a fine thing, Isamu, but a Crab does not seek glory," he replied. "Only victory."

"Yes, my lord," Isamu replied.

----------------

Desperate and enraged, Tsuburu no Oni hurled itself at Isamu, hoping to crush him with its bulk. The Crab hurled himself aside, throwing his blade upward to stick ineffectively in the oni's outer layer of fat as it came down.

Then the beast hit the ground with an earth-shaking thud, driving the blade upward directly into its brain. And then all was quiet save for the thunder. Isamu and Rohiteki were the only survivors of those who had set out.

Rohiteki rose shakily from rocks. In truth, she had imagined they would all die. Now she looked down on a dead Oni Lord, one of the deadliest creatures in creation.

"So end the enemies of the Crab," Isamu said as he staggered to his feet. "So end my enemies."

"Do not be so certain, Isamu," Rohiteki replied. "There are measures that must be taken before an Oni Lord can truly be banished from this world. If we are not careful, some tsukai may yet return Tsuburu to Rokugan."

"Then I shall destroy the beast again," the son of the Stone Crab said with an arrogant sneer. Lightning crackled in the sky above, a prelude to a storm.

"Careful, Isamu-san," she replied. "Confidence can win battles, but arrogance can be a samurai's downfall in these lands."

"I am the Son of the Stone Crab," he said with a sneer. "By rights I should rule the Crab Clan. Arrogance is when one makes claims beyond their ability or right& If any Crab is arrogant, I am not he."

Rohiteki looked at Isamu cautiously. "You speak of Lord Kuon?"

Isamu shrugged, but his eyes were cold and angry. "I have as much right to rule this clan as he," he replied. "I am descended from Hida, but unlike him I have never failed to protect the Wall. Now that I have killed Tsuburu they will see. While he hid in Shiro Hiruma, I have defended the honor of the clan."

"Is that what you think?" Rohiteki asked, aghast. She felt a drop of warm rain strike her cheek, and brushed it away. "You think that if you were faced with the challenges Kuon has faced you would fare better? You think that you are more worthy because you have killed a bigger beast? He has watched his brother's soul dragged screaming into the Realm of Evil, yet still he fights."

"My father served an unworthy man, and was reviled for it," Isamu replied. "I will not share his fate."

Rohiteki looked away, shamed by the arrogant young Crab's words. A look of horror spread across her wizened features as she saw the back of her hand, now smeared with blood. More drops of rain struck the back of her neck. She looked up and watched with mute fear as blood rained from the sky.

Isamu clutched his tetsubo with both hands, looking around the open plain in alarm, as if he would strike down the storm. The young Crab's eyes widened and he fell to his knees with a scream, weapon tumbling from his hands. Rohiteki sensed it then, the dark magic that flowed through the storm, creeping into the young Crab's soul.

"I would send him beyond the Wall to find the City of the Lost just to be rid of him," the Crab Champion's words echoed in Rohiteki's mind, "but I think it would be even worse if he rose again to join Daigotsu's legions."

Hida Isamu had fallen to his knees in the rain. There were wisps of smoke rising from his skin wherever the blood touched it. "I will not fail, father!" he screamed, his eyes glazed. "I shall lead the Crab to glory!"

Rohiteki seized Isamu's hands in her own. The young samurai glanced up in surprise, his eyes clearing. His expression was one of surprise, then shame. Clearly he had not been in control of the words he had spoken.

Rohiteki began to whisper words of magic. A green glow spread from her hands over Isamu, covering him in a faint aura, protecting him from the rain. She looked about for some place to hide, some place to seek shelter from the storm. There was none.

Thunder rocked the sky again. Jagged red lightning pierced the clouds, tearing at the earth. Isamu clenched Rohiteki's hands in his own. His eyes were wide with an unaccustomed expression - fear.

"What is happening, Rohiteki-sama?" he cried out above the din of the storm.

"A storm of corruption," she replied between the lines of her steady prayer. "It draws out all that is wicked in mortal souls."

"Should you not protect yourself as well?" he cried.

"You are the one who is in danger here," she answered through gritted teeth.

The blood came down in torrents, pelting the two of them. Isamu's jade aura held firm, at first, but soon began to waver. The young Crab looked up to the sky as he felt the rain call to him. He felt the arrogance and pride within him call out in reply. He looked into Rohiteki's eyes.

"You cannot save me from this, Rohiteki-sama," he said in a steady voice. He reached for the tanto at his belt. "I am not strong enough to survive this."

"Foolish boy," Rohiteki snarled. The glow of jade flared around them both, though still weaker around Isamu. "Fight it!"

Isamu opened his mouth to argue, but fell silent. He only nodded in grim determination and held Rohiteki's hands tightly.

Another peal of thunder, this time so loud that Hida Isamu lost all sense of himself. When he awakened, the storm was over. He lay alone in the barren wastes, beside Tsuburu's corpse and the bodies of his fallen comrades. He quickly seized the finger of jade that hung around his throat and, with a determined scowl, slashed the sharp edge across the meat of his palm. His blood flowed, still red and pure. There was no pain beside the pain of the cut - he had not been corrupted. His soul was still his own.

It was then that he realized that Rohiteki was gone.

----------------

Hida Isamu knelt before Kuon at Kyuden Hida. Isamu held Rohiteki's wakizashi before him, offering it to his lord. "I have failed you, my lord. Your aunt has been lost because of my weakness. My pride& my anger& I will fall upon my own blade if that is what I must do to find forgiveness."

"Forgiveness is not the way of the Hida," Kuon said gruffly. "But neither is blame. Accept your failure, and let it strengthen you. Draw strength from those who understand, and never fail again." Kuon's black eyes fixed on Isamu, and at last the son of the Stone Crab understood the pain and the rage that he saw there.

Isamu rose from the floor and bowed crisply. "Ask me what you will, my lord, and I shall do it. I shall serve you with the same unfailing duty my father showed his master."

Kuon nodded. "That is all I can ask," he replied. "Now, let us see to our new decoration."

Isamu frowned. "Decoration?"

"Yes," Kuon smiled. "Tsuburu no Oni's skull has been purified by the Kuni. It shall hang alongside the Maw's over the entrance to Kyuden Hida, ensuring that neither beast shall return to Rokugan so long as the Crab survive." He looked at Isamu expectantly. "Will you join me, brother Hida?"

"I will," Isamu replied with pride.

----------------

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!