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Fires of the Hidden City
Part Five

By Rich Wulf

Iuchiban stood before the statue of Bishamon, looking up at the Fortune with a solemn, thoughtful gaze.

"Greetings, Fortune of Strength," the Bloodspeaker said in a quiet voice. "I hope that you can hear me."

The statue's eyes were fixed upon the Bloodspeaker, burning with hatred. Its right hand, the hand that once held a mighty spear, now clenched into an empty fist.

"Such hatred you and your kind hold for me," Iuchiban said to the statue. "I scarcely understand it. The forces of fate and destiny have conspired for centuries to undo all my works. Sworn enemies unite on the field of battle to destroy me. Historians labor to heap shame and disgrace upon my name." Iuchiban smoothed one hand over his elegant white kimono. "Yet I am still here, and many still choose to follow me. Are you jealous, perhaps, that for all the power you gods wield, neither you nor your followers can truly bring about my end?"

The statue remained silent stone.

"Or is it fear?" Iuchiban asked. "You hide in the Celestial Heavens, Bishamon, leaving your mortal children to do your fighting for you."

Iuchiban thought nothing of his blasphemy. He feared nothing from the Phoenix's pathetic gods. Let the Fortune of Strength fight, if he would. Iuchiban had already won. When last he rose, he had moved for years like a shadow, stealing the bodies and memories of others. He had learned of Gisei Toshi and Isawa's Last Wish, though he knew not where either lay hidden.

Isawa's Last Wish was a prize of incomparable value. A tool intended to bridge the gap between mortal and divine, it offered incredible power to the one who could master it. The power brought with it a price, offering tremendous punishments to those who acted out of selfishness. Iuchiban knew from experience that all prices could be circumvented if one planned carefully enough. In the end, the Last Wish was an innocent living being, created by blood magic. Who else that ever lived boasted command over blood magic to parallel his own? Who else but Iuchiban could so defile and corrupt the hearts of the innocent. All he required was a chance to study the Wish on his own terms, to gauge the depths of its power and its weakness. He had roused an army to march upon the Phoenix lands, to find and take what he desired. The clans had united to defeat and imprison him, never even realizing his true goal.

Though his body lay in chains for centuries, his power was not contained. Iuchiban yet had the power to influence others beyond his prison. Through the Oracle of Blood, he could issue commands to his followers. Through the eyes of other Bloodspeakers, he watched the Empire. In the dreams of those consumed by desire and ambition, Iuchiban's influence could take root.

During the War of Spirits, he found what he sought. He discovered a Shiba samurai by the name of Kanjiro, a guardian of the Last Wish who ventured forth to defend his homeland from the Steel Chrysanthemum's army. Kanjiro, sadly, was resolute and dedicated to his duty, a man of faith whose faith was rewarded with blessings from his ancestors. Iuchiban knew the time would swiftly be approaching when he would be free once more. There was little chance Kanjiro might be foolish enough to reveal the Last Wish's location to Iuchiban but Kanjiro had a son, who showed himself to be brash and tempestuous from an early age.

Shield that boy's ears from the guidance of his ancestors, twist events so that the living despised and ignored him, and that boy might do something desperate. Create a war between the Phoenix and Dragon, a war where that boy might prove himself, and that desperation was nearly guaranteed.

Iuchiban looked at the iron lantern that rested on one of the temple's many shelves, the Dark Covenant of Fire. The finest servants were sometimes those who did not even realize they served. Through centuries of searching, planning, and preparation he had engineered this moment a confrontation with the Last Wish in a place where the old blood magic was strong, a place where he could safely gauge its power. The Wish's power was great, but he had tasted its weakness. The Wish was but a child, unaware of its true nature or potential. Aikune had surprised and impressed him, but only enough to escape for a time. When next he found Aikune, the Wish would become his own.

If there was anything Iuchiban had learned over the centuries, it was that time was invariably on his side.

Sensing a presence behind him, Iuchiban peered over his shoulder. A thin man in black velvet robes awaited acknowledgment. His head was shaven in the manner of a monk, but the mad gleam in his eyes suggested a zeal that transcended simple piety.

"Migawari," Iuchiban said simply.

"Lord Iuchiban, four of the seven temples have fallen," Migawari reported. "Yet the Dragon and Phoenix defend the last three firmly, and we have lost communication with General Tadenori."

Iuchiban sneered up at the statue of Bishamon. The conquest of Gisei Toshi had never been a necessary part of his plan, but to hear that such a feeble assortment of opponents offered such resistance was upsetting.

It was time to take a more personal role in this battle.

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

Normally the wind in the high mountains would be fierce, frigid, and intolerable. At the height of one mountain, the wind was calm and serene, as if unwilling to disturb the two men at the peak. Nakamuro and Aikune had not seen another in years. Since their bitter argument following the death of Yaruko, the woman Nakamuro had loved and Aikune was to marry, each had avoided the other. Each had followed his own path.

Now their paths had crossed once more.

Nakamuro stood, arms folded across his thin chest, watching his old friend silently. Aikune sat upon a large stone, brow furrowed in concentration as he stared at nothing. His eyes were surrounded by deep black circles, as if he had not slept in several days. His hands shook as he clasped them together, trembling from the weakness Iuchiban had inflicted upon him. Occasionally he would whisper to no one, so quiet that Nakamuro could not hear, presumably speaking to the Last Wish. The Wish itself was barely visible as a wispy aura of white energy that surrounded Aikune, no longer the blazing red fire he had seen in the caverns underneath the City of Sacrifice. He did not wish to disturb Aikune's thoughts, but he could wait no longer.

"I must return to Gisei Toshi, Aikune," Nakamuro said, turning to look back in the direction of the city. "With or without you."

"I am sorry, Nakamuro," Aikune said in a low voice.

Nakamuro looked back at his old friend curiously.

"I am sorry for hating you," Aikune replied. "Yaruko's death was not your fault. You loved her as I did, but I know you would do nothing to shame us. I was a child, surrounded by enemies. I was a fool to turn away my only friend. If I had trusted you sooner, perhaps none of this might have happened."

"The fault was not entirely yours, Aikune," Nakamuro said. "I was angry as well. That is in the past. When it mattered most, we stood together. If you choose to return, I will stand beside you again."

"You would be better off without me," Aikune answered.

Nakamuro frowned.

"He came for me," Aikune answered. "He came for the Wish. We might have destroyed him if we acted swiftly but&" he shook his head angrily. "I'm a fool. It's only a matter of time before he finds me now. I've given him the means to control the most powerful magic in existence. The Wish can create mountains, reduce cities to ash, and that is only a fraction of its true power. If Iuchiban mastered it, he would become a god."

"Iuchiban has always had great power," Nakamuro answered. "He has been defeated before."

"Has he?" Aikune asked. "He always returns, each time worse than the last. If he takes the Wish from me, will we be able to stop him at all?"

"Iuchiban would use the Wish selfishly," Nakamuro said. "Such action has always led to its user's destruction."

"I do not think so, and neither does the Wish," Aikune said. "The Bloodspeaker knows too much about how the Wish functions. I think he could alter it, force it to grant him power without cost."

"If we do nothing," Nakamuro said, "then he has already won."

"The Wish believes that he has already won regardless," Aikune said. "He has found the Hidden City. No doubt he plunders its treasures as we speak. Our clan's greatest secrets are his now, and he will never stop hunting for us."

"Perhaps the Wish believes we have lost," Nakamuro said. "Do you agree?"

Aikune looked toward Gisei Toshi, his tired features fixed in a grim expression.

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

Isawa Sezaru stood on the road to Kyuden Isawa, a porcelain mask covering his face. The mark of the rising sun was emblazoned upon the forehead, a symbol of the power that flowed through his veins, power flowing from the blood of the Emperor as well as that of the Empire's greatest shugenja. The mask had been a gift from his mother's family, a symbol of the great hope they had placed upon him. He wore it only in battle, and now it was his honor to wear it in defense of his mother's home. As he saw the enemy finally draw into sight, he only hoped that his skills would be up to the task.

A mountain of flesh and stone rose from the forest, the shattered ruins of a village bristling from its back. An enormous maw roared at the sky, studded with teeth crafted of stone and steel. A massive fist pounded into the earth as it dragged itself forward, tearing the ground apart as it moved. The creature was as large as Kyuden Isawa itself and moved with incredible speed for something its size. Sezaru could smell the Taint upon the air even at this distance. Fear began to well up inside his soul, an unnatural fear he knew radiated from the oni's presence. He spoke the words of a simple spell, drawing upon the courage of his ancestors and letting that courage wash over the Phoenix army arranged behind him.

"By the Fortunes," Shiba Mirabu swore, paling at the sight of the enormous oni. "How could anything be so large?"

"According to Naka Tokei, this beast is in its infancy," Sezaru replied. "With each soul it devours it will grow larger, until the Kusatte Iru devours the entire world. It cannot die until its hunger has been sated."

Mirabu looked at Sezaru in blank astonishment. "I have seen many terrible things, Sezaru-sama, but this surpasses everything I have faced," Mirabu said. "Can we win this battle, Sezaru?"

Sezaru looked at Mirabu, eyes fierce behind his mask. "If this creature is truly destined to devour the world, we must face it eventually. Given the choice, I would be the first to give my life in defiance rather than the last trembling soul it consumes."

"So be it," Mirabu answered. "My army stands with you, Sezaru, as do I."

A wave of heat passed overhead, and both men looked up to see a tremendous serpentine dragon, hovering upon the wind. It looked down upon them with remarkably human eyes. "The Elemental Council and the Grand Master are prepared for the ritual, Sezaru-sama," the dragon said, "but they need time."

"Then let us waste no more, Lord Satsu," Sezaru replied.

"I am uncertain of this solution," Satsu said in a worried voice. "The ritual is very specific in its requirements."

"It is not your sacrifice to make, Satsu," Sezaru said. "Who are you to make that choice for another?"

"It is not easy to watch a friend die," Satsu replied.

"Nor is it easy to watch one's clan die," Sezaru answered. "Would you prefer that alternative? We must accept the solution the Grand Master has offered us."

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

Mirumoto Kenzo slashed at the wall of advancing undead with his twin blades. His throat was raw from shouting to his comrades, rallying the remaining Phoenix and Dragon defenders as they slowly gave ground before the advancing undead. The reality was swiftly becoming clear. The walls were breached, the city overrun. There would be no victory here.

A plume of flame from one of Tsukiro's potions enveloped the advancing zombie band, giving Kenzo a moment to regroup and study his surroundings. In the square below he could see that the Bloodspeakers had already overrun four of the temples. The gates of Fukurokujin's temple stood open. Black robed sorcerers emerged from the temple, bearing sacks and small wagons filled with stolen artifacts.

"They are looting the temples," Mareshi said, appearing by Kenzo's side.

"Then we must do the same," Kenzo said darkly.

Mareshi looked at Kenzo in confusion.

"We must empty the remaining temples," Kenzo said.

"You would loot our city, Dragon?" Shiba Marihito exclaimed, outraged. "You call yourself our allies when you would so brazenly betray us?"

"Then help us," Kenzo snapped in reply. "The Bloodspeakers came to pillage your city for these accursed treasures. We must deny them that victory if we can. Take all we can carry, and destroy the rest."

Marihito continued to glower at Kenzo, still obviously not trusting the Dragon's motives. He nodded finally, unable to deny Kenzo's logic. Kenzo quickly split the Dragon and Phoenix forces into squads, each dispatched to clean out one of the remaining temples. He led his own forces toward the temple of Benten, closest to the encroaching invaders. Mareshi charged beside him, swords in hand. Kenzo stepped through the doors of the temple and began shouting orders to the Phoenix defenders. They were as confused as Marihito at first, but quickly complied, stuffing whatever artifacts they could carry into scroll satchels and furoshiki sacks.

Kenzo turned to Mareshi, noticing a strangely distracted expression on his friend's face. "Is there a problem, Mareshi?" Kenzo asked.

"Something familiar about this place," Mareshi replied. "I feel almost as if I have been here before."

Kenzo did not pause to consider Mareshi's comment; there was simply too much to do. He looked to the nearest shelf, overburdened with artifacts. Some were recognizable: a small statue, a few swords, a skull, while others were bizarre and foreign objects Kenzo could not begin to describe. Each was tagged with a small descriptive scroll, all written in a cryptic Phoenix cipher. He was taking a great risk, he knew, meddling with unknown artifacts like this but better he risk his own life and soul than give these weapons to the enemy.

Even as he reached for the skull resting upon the nearest shelf, a cacophonous explosion erupted behind him. The heavy wooden temple doors erupted in a shower of splinters, hurling the guards that stood behind them into the walls. An enormous creature shambled inside, walking on six legs, its body a skinless mass of muscle and slick red blood. Its face was like a boar's, with a long snout capped with four long upturned tusks. It trampled another Phoenix samurai and buried its tusks in the chest of a Dragon, hurling him across the room with a gurgled scream.

Without hesitation, Kenzo drew his blades and charged at the creature. It slashed at him with his tusks but he parried with his katana, striking at the creature's throat with a fierce stab from his wakizashi. The creature's rubbery hide deflected the blade and it struck Kenzo in the chest with a heavy foot. The Dragon flew back into the shelf he had been studying a moment before, the forbidden artifacts of the Phoenix collapsing in chaotic heap around him. The creature ignored Kenzo, charging onward to tear into the other defenders.

Kenzo grunted in pain as he noticed a burning sensation in his chest. His armor had begun to melt away where the creature had touched it. He quickly stripped of his chest plate and cast it aside, noticing as he did so that his wakizashi's blade had also begun to crumble from contact with the demon's flesh. He needed something more to harm such a creature no mundane blade would do.

Desperate, Kenzo searched the refuse surrounding him for the blade he had seen a moment before. He grabbed one, a wakizashi, only fitting to replace his ruined sword. The blade shone a faint blue as he unsheathed it. Kenzo wondered what curse he had laid upon himself by taking up a sword stored in such a place, but pushed the thought aside as he leapt back into battle.

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

Shiba Tsukimi was no stranger to battle. Though she was still young, she had fought many battles against Yobanjin raiders and fought off bandit incursions in the Phoenix lands. What her enemies lacked in training and superior weaponry they made up for in cunning, and she had learned that a desperate enemy was the most dangerous sort. An opponent left with no other options but to fight might make sacrifices that you were not prepared to deal with.

The Bloodspeakers learned that lesson now.

Her katana slid effortlessly through the armor of an undead samurai, cutting him from hip to shoulder. Behind him, a black robed sorcerer held forth a scroll and began to speak words of magic. Tsukimi disrupted his focus with a kick to the chest and bashed him across the face with the hilt of her sword. He fell with a pathetic squeal, his ruined face a mess of blood and broken teeth. A bolt of pure white lightning struck the earth only a dozen feet away, sending several of the enemy flying. Tsukimi paid it no mind; she had fought beside Soun often enough to know his magic. The bolt had scattered the last of their enemy's defenses. A large man in the once golden armor of a Lion samurai stood before her, now blackened by fire. He looked down at Tsukimi with dead white eyes.

"Akodo Tadenori," she said, holding her blade with both hands, raised at shoulder height. Her soldiers formed in a phalanx around her, prepared to face the enemy general. "We have come to free your soul with the gift of death."

Tadenori seemed to sigh. He drew his katana slowly, and as he did so a sickly black smoke began to boil from his armor. The smoke became fire, until the ghastly general radiated an unholy aura of flame. "If only you could," he said in a tired voice.

He ran at Tsukimi, voice lifted in a monstrous roar. Asako Soun shouted to the kami, and a white lightning bolt struck the general in the midst of his charge. A brilliant explosion of white lightning and green fire washed over Tsukimi and the others, and when it cleared the general was gone.

"Well done, Soun," Tsukimi said, impressed.

"It was not me," Soun replied, his eyes wide. "There is some other magic at hand here. Some magic has taken Tadenori from the field."

"Iuchiban?" she asked.

"I do not think so," Soun said. "I sensed no corruption in the spell that intersected mine."

"A mystery, but a blessing all the same," Tsukimi replied. She gestured to the others, quickly signaling the retreat before Iuchiban discovered what had become of his general.

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

The Kusatte Iru had only the dimmest recollection of its existence. It knew not how it was summoned to this world, how long ago, or why it existed. It knew only its hunger. It devoured all in its path, adding everything that it destroyed to its being, growing larger and stronger as it devoured. When last it had risen, magic had placed it in a slumber. It was unable to move, unable to eat, but all the while the creature's hunger grew. Already a savage monster, it had been driven to greater depths of insanity.

Now it could taste the life, taste the magic, taste the souls within the human city that lay before it. They would be the first to feed its hunger. The demon lumbered forward, gouging earth and splitting trees with its massive fists and trunk-like legs. Armies of tiny creatures arranged themselves before the demon. It held no fear for them; they would only be fodder.

For a moment, the demon felt a strange twinge at the core of its twisted soul. The feeling was forgotten as balls of fire and stone erupted from the army below, launched by engines of war and mortal shugenja. They stung its flesh, causing it to turn on them with an enraged roar. It lifted a granite fist, smashing it into the nearest siege engine, flattening it and crushing the soldiers around it.

The demon felt another twinge, a sensation of drowsiness. It turned to find the source, but a flash of fire moved across its vision. A sinuous dragon soared past, leaving a trail of green flame in its wake. The Kusatte Iru grasped at it with a mighty fist but was too slow; the majestic creature soared nimbly aside. A mortal in bright red robes and a white mask soared into its field of vision, unleashing a plume of black energy in the demon's eyes. It shrieked and struck out at him as well. The mortal dodged aside, but not quickly enough. The demon's fingers clutched the end of the flying man's long white braid. The demon roared and drove its fist toward the ground. The man quickly cut his braid free with a long knife and dove clear barely in time to save himself.

The demon lumbered forward, stomping easily through the mortal armies, its thick legs tearing through the walls of the mortal city. It roared again as it lifted its arms to smash the towering spire, but stumbled slightly. The creature's head drooped and its body wavered. The Kusatte Iru looked up with a roar, realizing that the mortals were attempting to return it to sleep once more. It turned, demonic senses scouring the area for the source of the magic. It turned its eyes to the small grove beside the road to the city.

There.

The demon moved forward again, moving effortlessly through the army. A flurry of spells and siege attacks struck its flesh, tearing deep scars in its massive body. The dragon soared across its vision again, seeking to blind it with fire. The mortals knew it had sensed the truth, they sought to stop it. They were powerless. The Kusatte Iru moved with a relentless certainty, tearing the trees of the grove aside.

There, in the center, a circle of four shugenja knelt in prayer. The demon could smell the stench of elemental magic wafting from them Fire, Water, Void, and& Earth. The element which had drawn it into sleep centuries ago. The demon could feel the sleep coming upon it now. It could feel the earth sucking at its legs, pulling it into an eternal embrace. Yet the demon knew this ritual well if it was to return to its sleep then one must pay the price. The shugenja fled from the clearing, spirited away by their magic. Yet one remained the one that reeked of the power of Earth.

"Return to your slumber, monster," Isawa Taeruko shouted, completing the spell.

The Kusatte Iru drove one mighty fist into the ground, reducing the Grave of the Five Masters to a crater. With a final, mournful cry of hunger it sank into the earth and was seen no more.

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

Iuchiban stepped through the doors of Bishamon's temple, looking out at the ravaged city with an irritated frown. The Dragon and Phoenix soldiers now fled the city, many of them bearing loads of artifacts salvaged from the temples. Iuchiban's followers had already found a great deal of powerful items. Many of them would be useful in his future war against the Empire even if the Wish escaped his possession for the foreseeable future. Even so, it was the principle at hand. This victory was his. In escaping with their forbidden knowledge, they hoped to rob him of some small shred of that victory.

That was unacceptable.

Iuchiban drew upon his magic, lifting himself into the air. He drew upon the power of blood that suffused the city, bending it to his command. His body radiated with deep red energies. His eyes became orbs of solid black, portals to the deepest pits of Jigoku. He unleashed his fury upon the retreating samurai armies, reducing armored samurai to screaming heaps of boiled blood and melted steel. The temple of Hotei collapsed upon itself at a gesture. He gestured toward the vanguard of the retreating forces, prepared to collapse the mountains and block their escape.

He felt a familiar presence behind him. For once in his long life he was astonished. All of his planning had not prepared for this eventuality. He turned with a small smile to find Shiba Aikune waiting behind him, surrounded in the Last Wish's fiery aura.

"Come to surrender what is mine?" Iuchiban asked.

Aikune said nothing. The fire raged brighter around him, now sparkling with hints of white and black. The buildings below him began to catch aflame. Aikune closed his eyes, surrendering himself to the power. In an instant Iuchiban realized what was happening Aikune had found a way to defeat him.

Iuchiban's control of the wish was greater, but the Wish always displayed its greatest power when its wielder lost control.

Aikune exploded in a brilliant white flash of fire. Iuchiban desperately summoned his magic, surrounding himself with a shield of blood. The fires tore into his flesh regardless, leaving his once white robes now scorched and stained with soot. Iuchiban fell to the earth, exhausted and weakened by the attack. Where Gisei Toshi once stood was now a blasted crater, with the remnants of the samurai and Bloodspeaker armies retreating into the mountains. Iuchiban searched all about for any sign of Aikune or the Wish.

They were gone.

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

Isawa Nakamuro knelt in the ravaged earth near Kyuden Isawa. Carefully, gingerly, he patted soil around the roots of a small sapling. A small forest of young trees already surrounded the Master of Air.

"Like a phoenix from the flame," Shiba Ningen said, approaching his fellow master along the path. "What was destroyed is born anew."

"It was not my choice to conceal Gisei Toshi from you, Ningen," Nakamuro said in a sad, tired voice. "Sometimes even I do not understand the traditions of my family, and yet I abide by them."

"I understand," the Master of the Void replied in a sympathetic voice. "One cannot be a Shiba on a Council ruled by Isawa for so long and not come to comprehend your& eccentricities. If it softens the blow, I have long known about the city. I simply feared you might take insult if I revealed that fact."

"No insult taken," Nakamuro replied. "Tsukimi told me how you sent her to bolster our forces. You saved many lives, Ningen."

"Yet we lost many more," Ningen said, looking out at the small forest. "The Council is incomplete again."

"We brought this fate upon ourselves," Nakamuro answered. "Too much division. Too many secrets. Iuchiban did nothing to us that we would not have done to ourselves, given time."

"Iuchiban still lives," Ningen replied meaningfully. "If we mean to fight him, perhaps the time for secrets is past."

Nakamuro looked at Ningen with surprise.

"I am the Master of the Void, Nakamuro, and the Void's power is that of truth," he said. "Do you not find it odd that Aikune could so easily lose control of the Wish's power after spending so many years mastering it? The Last Wish has only consumed masters who are selfish or dishonorable. Aikune was neither. When I think upon the history of the Wish, I recall that it has destroyed cities and moved mountains. Could it not move a city?"

Nakamuro only looked at Ningen silently.

"No more secrets, Nakamuro," Ningen said. "We must fight this enemy together. What really happened at Gisei Toshi? Where has Aikune gone?"

Nakamuro spoke words of magic to summon air spirits to shield their conversation from being overheard, only to discover Ningen had already done the same. The two walked together through the Grove of the Five Masters. They spoke of Shiba Aikune and the true fate of the City of Sacrifice.

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!