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Blood Dawn, Part VIII:
Shadows of Yesterday


By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf


"So tell me the truth, then, Adisabah," Katamari said. "Tell me how you met Iuchiban, and how he came to be what he is."

"So long it takes meat to arrive at the proper question," Adisabah said mirthfully.

"Will it take you longer to give me an answer?" Katamari asked.

"Perhaps," Adisabah replied. "This tale took a long time to weave. To take a short time to tell it would be an injustice to the subject, Adisabah thinks. And yet, this tale is woven over many centuries. Adisabah has such time, but does meat?"

"I do not want a story," Katamari replied. "I want the truth I want to know how to stop Iuchiban."

Adisabah sighed. "A bad listener always ruins the finest story," it replied. "Very well then, it shall tell only the parts that may find importance in the Doomseeker's quest. Many centuries ago there came to be a mortal named Hantei Jama, later Otomo Jama. This mortal, as Adisabah has said, was brother to the Emperor. This mortal, as Adisabah has said, was unhappy with his lot as the second son of the powerful Hantei Dynasty. He decided that his fortune would not be found within the borders of his brother's Empire, and decided to seek his destiny in the lands beyond.

"Now as meat knows in the land of Rokugan it is frowned to travel beyond the Empire's borders even more so in those days, for the clan of the Ki-Rin, who now bear the name Unicorn, had not returned. The mirror Hantei had given them to maintain contact with their homeland had gone dark most had assumed the worst. To venture beyond the northern mountains was to venture into the maw of death.

"Yet Otomo Jama was a persuasive man, and the Emperor did love his brother even if such love was only returned with silent hatred. What Jama asked for, he received. Jama was given a legion of Imperial Guardsman to guard him on this mission of diplomacy.' The Emperor expected to never see his brother again.

"And yet destiny conspires to thwart the expectations of the foolish. Otomo Jama led his party through the freezing mountains of the Yobanjin. He pressed onward into the searing deserts of the Ujik-hai, and there the sands devoured them. Blistering heat and swirling wind consumed his party, unprepared for the hardships they found. Finally, only four remained. The first was Jama Suru, a former vassal of the Shiba family who had pledged himself to Jama's service. The second was Asahina Yajinden, a Crane shugenja of minor note who had also become close friends with the Imperial Prince. The fourth was a young maiden named Doji Tsugiko." Adisabah looked at Katamari expectantly. "Meat has heard of these names?"

"Yajinden was Iuchiban's henchman, who we faced in the tomb," Katamari replied, "and Jama Suru I have heard of before. He is a powerful tsukai who served Yogo Junzo, Kuni Yori, and even Daigotsu. I had not realized the meaning of his family name before. I had always assumed it was some minor vassal family of no importance."

"Ha," Adisabah replied. "The smallest details have the greatest importance. Suru's true master is, and has always been, the jailer."

"The fourth name you mention is new to me," Katamari replied. "Who is this Tsugiko?"

"A young Crane," Adisabah said. "Well, at the time she was young, at any rate. She had been promised to Otomo Jama as a bride. For whatever reason, she found that she loved him. Mortal hearts can be strange, planting the seeds of trust and devotion in barren ground. At any rate, when all others perished, these four survived. Yajinden used his magic to sustain them, supplying sparse food, fresh water, and shelter from the fiery sun. Yet the further they traveled from Rokugan, the weaker his power became. Yajinden pleaded with Jama to turn back, to return to the Empire. Yet Jama was certain that all their difficulties were merely barriers placed in their way to hide the desert's true secrets. Foolish."

"Foolish?" Katamari replied. "Iuchiban found what he sought did he not?"

"Meat misunderstands Adisabah," the Rakshasa reply. "It does not accuse the jailer of foolishness for his curiosity& It accuses itself of curiosity for taking interest in these four doomed mortals, and granting them shelter in Adisabah's palace. It is there that this tale takes a turn&"

Six Months Ago&

The small shrine was virtually empty as the last rays of sunlight began to disappear over the horizon. It was rare for there to be visitors at this time of day; the failing light cast the holy site in a blood red hue that many considered an ill omen. The shrine's lone occupant smiled at the thought. Anyone who had truly sampled pain and death during their lifetime could worry over portents in something as beautiful as a sunset. The world held enough suffering without creating more.

The old man moved comfortably among the shrine's simple furnishings. He had not been serving at the shrine for a great length of time, but already he had come to think of it as his home. In his life as a samurai, he had never spared much thought for Tengen, the Fortune of Writing. Since his retirement, however, he embraced the beauty of the written word. There was so much more purpose in it than codes, ciphers, and clever misdirection. So much more indeed.

A slight rustling from the shrine's entrance drew the old man's attention. He turned with a smile. He enjoyed his times of solitude, but there was always time for pleasant conversation with other admirers of fine writing. His long gray hair hung in a neat topknot, cascading down his back. He had not shaven his head upon retirement an unusual act, but a small vanity grudgingly tolerated in the case of one who had once held so much importance. His face was lined with age and worry. His eyes, so deep a gray they were nearly black, were bright as a katana blade on the morning of battle. His movements showed no sign of age or infirmity, and the only sound of his movement was the whispering of his rough kimono on the cold stone floor. "Welcome friends," the man the Empire had once known as Bayushi Yojiro said warmly.

Two men stood in the doorway, both clad in black with their faces obscured by cloth masks. They each bowed to the old man, but one bowed far deeper than was necessary for an old monk. "Greetings, grandfather."

"Grandfather?" the old monk laughed. "Should I be honored or insulted? I have no children, much less grandchildren, but I must look older than I feel for you to call me such."

"I meant no offense," the man returned quietly.

"Of course, of course." The monk chuckled again, but the laugh did not reach his eyes. They glinted like cold metal in the night air. "How may I be of assistance to you, my brothers?"

"We bring greetings from an old associate who wishes to inquire after your well-being."

The old monk nodded. "I believe I know of whom you speak." He looked at both men carefully. "This is the time, then?"

"It is."

"I've been waiting." He folded his hands inside his sleeves. "If you've come expecting a fight, you will be disappointed. Those days are behind me. You'll find no sport in this."

The man bowed his head respectfully. "I expected as such, sama."

"I would know the name of my assassin," the monk said softly, "that I might pray for his forgiveness."

"I am Shosuro Aroru, sama," the assassin answered. "I am at once honored and shamed to be given this task." He looked to the second assassin, but the other man said nothing.

"May our ancestors watch over you, Aroru-san," the old man said. "You have their favor, for you only do your duty."

"Thank you, sama," Aroru said, his voice thick. He drew his weapon and stepped toward the old monk in the dying red light.

Kyuden Bayushi, the present

Bayushi Paneki walked among the assembled courtiers and representatives, smiling and nodding in greeting to many. It was rare, of late, that he had an opportunity to spend an extended amount of time at his family's ancestral estate. Business on behalf of Emperor Toturi III often kept him away for months at a time. That he had been given leave to pursue his family obligations during Winter Court was a great privilege, a show of gratitude for a job well done on behalf of his lord. The winter had yet been quite mild, but Paneki held no delusions that the winter storms would come, and soon. It mattered little, for he was doing that which he enjoyed most: serving the Mistress of Secrets.

Except that there had been very little pleasure to be had in such a duty for several months now. Bayushi Sunetra seemed hardly herself of late. Her old habits and routines had seemed somehow distracted. At the moment, she was to be greeting the Scorpion's assembled guests, yet there was no sign of her, nor any indication that she would arrive shortly. Paneki had done his best to quell any suspicion on behalf of Sunetra, assuring the other Scorpion representatives that any changes in her behavior were merely the result of their imagination. As clever as his excuses were, he could not stall forever they were Scorpion, after all.

Paneki smiled to the guests and excused himself from what would have doubtless been a thoroughly delightful conversation with the Suzume ambassador. He stepped quickly through the doorway that led to the high-ranking quarters. The guards bowed as he passed, but he only gave them a perfunctory nod. He wound through the corridors quickly until he arrived near Sunetra's private audience chambers.

Just as Paneki approached, the Scorpion Champion exited the private chambers escorted by several Bayushi guardsmen. Though she was a small woman her presence immediately commanded those around her. Sunetra was clad in her typical finery, but had none of her usual strength of presence. The make-up that covered her exquisite features was as detailed and ornate as ever, but her eyes were empty.

"Paneki-san," she said as he approached. "Are you not attending our guests?"

"I was, my lady," he said with a bow. "But they grow somewhat impatient. You were expected nearly an hour ago."

Mild surprise registered on her features. "Is the hour that late? I had not noticed."

"It is, Sunetra-sama," Paneki said. "May I have a word with you in private?"

The Champion nodded and waved to those following her, who bowed and stepped back to allow the two of them a modicum of privacy. Sunetra looked to Paneki expectantly. "What is it, Paneki-san?"

"My lady, please forgive me, but I must be direct." He glanced to the others to make certain they could not overhear them. "You have not been yourself. Something consumes you. All that truly know you can see it, but more importantly, those who do not who should not know you are beginning to see it as well."

"My business is my own," Sunetra said sharply.

"I do not question that," Paneki returned. "But this might affect both the family and the clan. If there is anything I might do to help, you have only to ask. If any man has offended you, or a situation has caused you distress, I shall do my utmost to remove the problem."

"You believe I cannot handle my own problems?" Sunetra asked archly.

"I believe as Scorpion Champion, you should utilize all tools, all weapons, at your disposal," Paneki replied smoothly.

"Then come with me," Sunetra said, "and I will explain to all."

Paneki nodded, falling into step behind Sunetra as she made her way to the court. She stepped before the assembled Scorpion representatives, gesturing for them to step forward. Sunetra gathered her thoughts in silence as they watched, then spoke in a commanding tone. "My fellow Scorpion, I have grim news for you," she said. "It has weighed heavily upon me for several months, but I have not found the words to share it with anyone, even my kinsmen." She looked down at the crimson and black marble. "Bayushi Yojiro is dead."

A startled murmur passed through the assembled guests. Shosuro Yudoka was the first to step forward. "How is this possible?" the old Shosuro daimyo demanded.

"This occurred some months ago," she replied. "He was murdered by unidentified assassins in the Temple of Tengen."

The assembled Scorpion officers looked to one another in surprise, but there were no exclamations of shock or grief. Other samurai might react to such news in that manner, but never the Scorpion. Paneki could see it in their eyes. Already, some were planning how they would find advantage in this news. Others were planning revenge.

"Who did this thing?" Yudoka demanded. One hand rested unconsciously on the hilt of his sword, as if he would strike down the former Champion's killer from here.

"I do not know," she replied. "I have my suspicions, but I have kept this information private, hoping to investigate the matter privately before revealing what has occurred, but the truth can be hidden no longer." She swept her silken overcoat backwards so that her daisho was revealed. "I will find them. I promise you this. And when I have found them, they will pray to the Fortunes for mercy."

The Scorpion were silent. There was no obvious reaction, but Paneki could tell that his lady had said the right thing, given the circumstances. How difficult it must be for her, he thought as he watched her leave the chamber. Sunetra was much like himself ambitious, ruthless, and capable of placing emotion aside when the situation demanded. She understood the power of perception, how to use an enemy's estimation of you as a weapon. She was everything he looked for in a leader, one of a few individuals he had met whom he truly feared. How strange, he thought, that she would be unable to find this assassin, or that she would allow such a failure to affect her in such a way. It was unlike her.

Or was it? Paneki hid the small smile that threatened to dawn across his placid features as the truth dawned upon him.

Shosuro Aroru scanned the streets carefully before stepping out of the alleyway. Even with a heavy cloak and jingasa obscuring his features, he was cautious. Though he had spent weeks masquerading as a drunken ronin so that no one in the town would give him a second glance, he did not relax his guard. There was an oppressive atmosphere throughout all of Beiden, and it weighed more heavily upon him every day he remained.

Aroru reached the sake house and stepped through the doorway. Just before he disappeared indoors, he glanced down the street and nodded almost imperceptibly to his partner, who was making his way toward the house from the other direction. Once inside the foul-smelling, smoky interior, Aroru made his way past the opium-addled fools scattered throughout and approached the kitchen. He tossed a handful of zeni to the man near the door, who bowed reflexively and offered him a bottle. Aroru took it and made for the stairway. The man behind him politely refused a bottle.

The upstairs was free from the thick smoke the common room contained, but the air was even more foul. It was a scent Aroru had become familiar with over the years. It was the stench of defeat and desperation, the smell of men and women who had allowed hardship and weakness to overcome them. It was a familiar smell, but not one Aroru had learned to ignore. He hated it, and the weakness that spawned it.

The assassin stepped into a room along the eastern wall. It was identical to all the others, but one he had paid for well in advance. It was paid for through another full week, in fact, but he had no intention of using it beyond today.

The room was not empty. Another figure stood near the window that looked out over the worst part of town. The stranger also wore a heavy cloak and hat, but there was little chance that a man of his stature would be dismissed as common rabble. "Aroru," the man said in a low voice. "Where is Masatoyo?"

"Behind me, sama," Aroru replied. Even as he said it, his partner slid the door open and closed swiftly behind him, joining the two men inside. Masatoyo bowed quickly, then assumed a position ready to strike down anyone who entered the room.

"Good," the stranger said simply. "What news?"

"We have found little, my lord," Aroru answered. "There are rumors that a group of prominent citizens within the city are maho-tsukai. We have discovered that they meet regularly in a rather unusual location. Whether or not they are in fact practicing maho, or if they are involved with the remnants of the Tower, we cannot say for certain."

"When will they meet again?"

"Today." Aroru glanced at Masatoyo, who nodded to the stranger in confirmation. "They are there now, my lord."

"Let us see, then, what evils they practice." The stranger rose, lifting his odd hooked staff from where it rested upon the floor. He and adjusted his cloak, allowing a glimpse of the many exotic tools and curved knives worn at his waist.

Aroru frowned. "Would you not rather wait until nightfall, Yudoka-sama?"

Shosuro Yudoka glanced at him in irritation. "We need no shadows to hide our approach. What do you think we are?" he asked with a crooked smile. "Ninja?"

Aroru blinked in surprise. "Ah& no. Of course not, my lord."

"Then we strike now," Yudoka said firmly. "Let us see what fools believe they can keep secrets from the Scorpion."

The building might once have been a warehouse, before years of abuse and disuse had reduced it to little more than a haphazard ruin. To the practiced eye, however, it was obviously sturdier than it appeared. Transients and the desperately poor might wander in seeking shelter, but no one who was native to the area would pay it any attention, having learned long ago to simply overlook it.

It was exactly the sort of place the Shadowed Tower might once have used as a stronghold. The Tower was broken now, but fragments still remained, scattered groups of hidden tsukai that once offered their power to the traitor, Bayushi Atsuki. Some of them hid still, though most Scorpion felt they were little threat to the clan. Shosuro Yudoka was not most Scorpion.' Enemies of the Scorpion could not be allowed to rest& not while they might yet have answers.

The sky was overcast in blood-red clouds, painting the entire district in a dim, pink light, the three Scorpion stood in a dark alleyway. Yudoka surveyed the building for several long moments before finally turning to the others and giving a single nod. Instantly, all three moved to the walls and scaled them, perching atop the building. A second nod from Yudoka and all three moved easily from the sloped roof to the roof of the warehouse next door.

Aroru balanced carefully on the balls of his feet, ready to spring at a moment's notice. His every sense was on alert, and he was acutely aware of everything around him. Masatoyo pointed to a section of the roof ahead of their current position. Aroru did not see anything out of the ordinary, but knew better than to question his old friend's instincts.

The three crept across the roof to a crude hatch that led to the interior. Many such buildings had similar hatches. Those with unsavory agendas would post a lookout on the roof to warn of the approach of rivals or the authorities. The moment the hatch opened, chanting could be heard drifting up from within. Yudoka looked to the other two men, his eyes glazed with a deadly calm. Aroru had seen the look in his eyes before. It typically preceded the death of his enemies.

Yudoka leapt down through the hatch, silently landing in a low squat, hooked staff held out behind him for balance. Aroru and Masatoyo followed. Within, there was a partial wall built to obscure what appeared to be rough sleeping quarters from a greater chamber beyond. The chanting grew louder by the minute. The sleeping quarters were filled with all manner of obscenities, the worst of which were strange symbols drawn upon the walls in what appeared to be blood. Yudoka drew the other two men's attention with a hand signal then pointed to a particularly large symbol on the wall. All of them had seen it before.

It was the chop of Iuchiban the Heartless. The seal of the Bloodspeakers. Whatever danger they faced here had grown beyond a forgotten Shadowed Tower cell.

Yudoka drew a long curved knife from his belt, ideal for fighting in close quarters. The daimyo gestured to the adjoining chamber and nodded once. Aroru drew his blade and took a deep breath. Within, a dozen cultists knelt around a circle drawn in blood. The disfigured remnants of their latest sacrifice lay to one side, discarded and forgotten. The fighting would be brief, but intense. He had met many warriors during his life that claimed to feel no fear of death. Shosuro Aroru would not hesitate to throw down his life for his family and clan, but the fear was always there. Anyone who claimed otherwise was a fool or a liar. Masatoyo silently nodded to Aroru, and the Scorpion drew confidence from that. He could not fail with such comrades as these at his side.

As one, the three warriors moved from the sleeping quarters into the main chamber. Three cultists were cut down before anyone realized the Scorpion had entered the chamber. The others reacted with incredible speed. A second target rolled away from Aroru's strike, his blade cutting only slightly through the meat of the cultist's forearm. Some tremendous force struck Aroru in the chest with the power of a horse's kick, and he was thrown backward into the wall with an impact that rattled his bones.

Aroru struggled to his feet as the lead cultist unleashed a blast of foul yellow energy at Yudoka. The old daimyo spun, catching the fire upon his cloak. As he spun, he leapt toward the cultist, disengaging his cloak with a snap and letting the flaming garment envelop the leader with a muffled scream.

Another cultist was on Aroru in a second, his wicked knife slicing dangerously close to his face. His cloth mask tore partially away and he felt a trickle of blood running down his cheek. He parried a second strike and buried his blade in the man's abdomen. The man gasped in surprise at his own death, then wrenched away and fell on Aroru's blade, pinning it beneath him.

The Scorpion swore and drew a second, shorter blade from his obi. More cultists were flooding into the room from hidden side chambers, more than they had expected. Masatoyo cut down another as he watched, but Yudoka was swarmed. Nearly half a dozen were pressing him against a wall, looking for a hole in his defenses as he spun his hooked staff in wide arcs. Aroru leapt to aid him while Masatoyo pressed toward the leader, who was disengaging himself from the flaming cloak.

"Fool!" the leader shouted through scorched lips. "No mere ninja can defeat us! Our destiny is unstoppable!"

Yudoka's staff stopped spinning abruptly. He fixed a cold, violent gaze upon the cult leader.

"He is mine," Masatoyo snarled. Yudoka nodded.

Masatoyo cut down two more cultists with a broad sweep of his katana, then narrowly avoided another blast of yellow fire from the leader. A second spell made Masatoyo's katana glow burning hot. He dropped it to one side and leaped at the tsukai with his bare hands.

"Damn you ninja," the man said, clawing at Masatoyo's face, tearing away his mask.

A long gray topknot spilled over Masatoyo's shoulders. His eyes, so deep a gray they were nearly black, fixed on the tsukai in hatred. "Fool," he said. "There are no such things as ninja."

With that, Masatoyo drew a knife from his obi and buried it in the leader's chest.

The cult leader fell to the floor. A final burst of energy erupted wildly from his body, shattering the roof, opening it to the sky. Rain poured into the chamber, but it was no rain that any of them had ever seen. It was thick and crimson, like the blood of the countless men he had killed in the name of the Scorpion.

The cult leader laughed darkly, blood bubbling from his lips. "The Rain of Blood is upon you! All of you shall feel the agony and despair of&"

The man cut off suddenly. Masatoyo stepped on his throat with an annoyed frown as he paused to catch his breath.

Aroru and Yudoka dispatched the last of the cultists, their will broken by their lord's defeat. Some almost seemed to die willingly, their faces rapturous at the blood that poured down upon them from the heavens. It was only after the final enemy fell that Aroru noticed the searing pain where a drop of the blood touched his skin.

He saw himself as a child, standing beside his father at his mother's funeral. His young face twisted with grief and pain, screaming and tearing at his clothes in an attempt to get closer to his mother's pyre. His father's eyes, full of grief and disgust at his son's weakness. Years later, his wife's funeral. His young, beautiful wife, dead at his hands& because she had betrayed the clan. Her Yogo blood could not be denied. His brother's death, freely given to preserve the secrets of the Scorpion& all because he had borne more than a passing resemblance to the Master of Secrets&

Aroru cried out in anguish, his skin smoking from the heat. Yudoka stood in the rain, unaffected by its power, eyes fixed on Aroru. He held his staff ready, waiting for any sign of weakness from Aroru.

"Use it, Aroru," Masatoyo said fiercely. "Do not let it use you."

Aroru's face fixed in a firm scowl. He pushed the fear, desire, and regret aside such was not the way of the Scorpion. Rising to his knees, he stepped out of the blood rain.

"Thank you," he gasped through the pain. "Thank you, Yojiro-sama."

"You're mistaken," the old warrior said, wiping his mask clean and placing it on his face once more. "My name is Masatoyo. Now let us find what the survivors can tell us about what has happened here."

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!