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Penance, Part Two
By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf

Hiruma Todori shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. He was unaccustomed to riding. Though he had trained during his youth among the Unicorn, in his experiences since then horses were of little use in the Shadowlands. Actually, that was not completely true. They were quite useful in distracting oni while the rider fled, but that was a rather wasteful tactic that he discouraged among his scouts. Regardless, he had spent the past two weeks on horseback, perhaps more time than he had spent on horseback in the previous six months altogether. Sore did not quite seem descriptive enough.

Settling back into his saddle with a wince, Todori regarded the horizon with a troubled expression. He was a simple man, though his short tenure as daimyo of the Hiruma often placed him in complicated situations. He had never understood the need people seemed to have to name things more than once. Cities were a good example. Toshi Ranbo was known as the Imperial City, the Forbidden City, and Violence Behind Courtliness City. Ryoko Owari Toshi had at least a half dozen other names, including the City of Lies, the City of Stories, and Todori's personal favorite, a title used to his knowledge only among the Crab, That Reeking Scorpion Cesspool. People were not content to leave things simple, calling a place, thing, or person by a single name and leaving it at that. They had to be clever and place their own name upon something, to show some element of power or control over what they saw. In recent months, Todori had come to hear another such example, one that loomed before him even now.

Kaeru Toshi. The City of the Rich Frog. Captured City. And it's most recent appellation, granted only within the last few months, the City of War.

Once technically within the borders of Unicorn lands, Kaeru Toshi had become a thriving ronin city. It's nomadic Unicorn masters were generally disinterested in using the area as anything other than a training ground for their troops and the ronin governors did an excellent job of maintaining things in their absence. Placed directly between the lands of the Unicorn, Dragon, Scorpion, and Lion, Kaeru Toshi was always in danger of invasion. The cunning Kaeru family had always avoided that fate by placing themselves beneath the notice of the Great Clans, or by making their unique services as mercenaries, smugglers, and spies too useful to disrupt. In recent years, they had succeeded too well in letting their value be known, and the Ikoma of the Lion had adopted the family as vassals. The Unicorn seemed to take no offense at this appropriation of territory that was legally theirs, and for years made no claim to retake Kaeru Toshi until four months ago. The Unicorn and Lion Clans were now engaged in a brutal war over the surrounding area, with neither giving significant ground to the other, sometimes spending weeks appraising one another's strength before launching into combat once more.

Todori could not deny that the new name was appropriate.

The Crab warrior had moved through Seikitsu Pass days ago. The Unicorn guards had given his travel papers only the most cursory examination. Todori was known and well-liked in Unicorn lands, so even these remote guards knew him by reputation. He had spent an evening at their way station, during which he had learned much about the situation in Kaeru Toshi.

The smoke from the City of War was visible for nearly a day's travel in every direction. He had originally planned to circle around the city, but what the Unicorn guards had told him made him think again. A Dragon army had arrived near the city's northern edge. Rumors had conflicted as to why the Dragon were present or whose side they were on, but it mattered little to Todori. The High House of Light the object of his quest was a notoriously difficult place to locate. A Dragon's help would facilitate matters greatly. The right Mirumoto might even take the sword off his hands altogether. They were reputed to be knowledgeable in dealing with such cursed items.

Todori's hopes were high. Travel outside Crab lands was not to his liking, he had discovered, and he was eager to return home. He found it ironic. He had grown up on the fertile, lush plains of the Unicorn. The first time he had laid eyes on his true ancestral lands, blasted, bleak, and wasted, he had hated them. He had wanted nothing more than to find a way to escape, to find some other duty in the lands outside the Hiruma provinces while keeping his honor intact.

In the years since, he had changed. He had come to care for his homeland, wounded and desolate as it was. He knew every feature of the land. He knew every variety of plant that made its home in the barren soil. He knew every creature, though granted that was no great feat as few living things dared live in Hiruma lands other than the Hiruma themselves. He could read the weather simply by smelling the air. He had come to know the land's moods, like an old friend. Outside of the wastelands, he simply felt wrong. The smells were too overpowering. The sounds were out of place. The people were inattentive, careless. He found himself ready to leap into the shadows at the slightest noise. The experience overall was exhausting.

For years he had fought for the Empire's safety and now he no longer had a place there. His reflexes and instincts had been honed too sharply by proximity to the Shadowlands. There was no normal life for a man like him. Perhaps his entire family was doomed to such a fate. Should the Shadowlands be defeated and the Empire at last find peace, would the Hiruma find peace a prize too difficult to grasp?

These thoughts weighing heavily in his mind, Todori spurred his horse on toward the smoke and haze that clouded the northeastern sky.

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

His horse carefully tethered in a small grove nearly a mile to the south, Todori moved carefully across the plains south of the city. Even from here, he could hear the sounds of battle raging. The terrain was sparse, similar in many respects to the Plains Above Evil near his homeland, but he was confident that he could remain unseen. Thus far, he had been proven correct.

The fighting was small in scale, but every bit as heated as the conflicts Todori was accustomed to. It looked as though a full regiment of Utaku infantry had been attempting to circle around the city's southern edge, possibly to flank the Lion encampments east of the city. The Unicorn soldiers had encountered several heavy squadrons of Ikoma wardens, and now were in the unusual position of being counterattacked by cavalry. The Ikoma were outnumbered, but had speed, maneuverability, and the element of surprise. Neither side appeared ready to give any quarter. That much, at least, Todori could understand. From the horizon, the sound of hoofbeats heralded the arrival of a band of mounted samurai in heavy white armor, faces were painted a ghastly white. Todori recognized the Moto White Guard, as did the Ikoma. The Lion cavalry quickly withdrew behind their city walls as the Shinjo retreated to rendezvous with their reinforcements. All in all, it was a pointless battle, with both sides too evenly matched to claim victory.

There was a soft rustling sound from behind Todori. The Crab warrior cursed inwardly. His fascination with the battle had allowed someone to approach him, and now they had the advantage. Or at least the observer believed as much.

"Stand up," a harsh voice ordered. "Do not reach for your weapon."

Todori rose slowly, his hands held comfortably at his sides. He turned carefully, taking care not to make any sudden move that would alarm his opponent. "I am no enemy," he said gruffly, regarding the haggard-looking Unicorn scout intently.

"I will be the judge of that," the scout replied. His bow was held strangely, the line of the arrow held parallel to his face, in the Unicorn's unique manner of archery. "Lay your weapon on the ground and step away, Crab."

Todori's eyes narrowed. "I will not," he said. "I bring no trouble here. I have the necessary papers. I am Todori, Lord of the Hiruma, and I will not let you deter me from my mission."

"And I am the Righteous Emperor," the scout insisted with a sneer, "now drop your weapon or this arrow will pierce your heart."

The Crab warrior let his anger flow slightly, feeling the adrenaline give strength to his limbs. He fixed the scout with a fierce stare. "Be certain you aim true," he hissed through clenched teeth. "If I survive your first shot, you will not."

The scout's gaze wavered, and his hand shook slightly. "What was, er, what was your name again?" he asked nervously.

"I am Hiruma Todori, Lord of the Hiruma family, on a mission for Kuon, Master of the Wall," he said patiently. "I seek safe passage through the lands of our allies, the Unicorn, on my way to the Dragon lands." Todori slowly reached into his obi, drew out his travel papers, and tossed them at the Unicorn's feet.

The scout held his stance for a moment longer, clearly considering his options. Finally, he lowered his bow and picked up the papers, studying them. "I have never met a Crab," he confessed, studying Todori cautiously, "but you are no Lion. I& apologize, Todori-sama. It seems war can turn the most honorable men into paranoid beasts."

"So I have heard," Todori replied, taking back his papers. "Apology accepted." He offered his right hand to the Unicorn.

The scout looked at him in surprise, then accepted his hand and shook it. "You know our customs," he said.

"I spent the better part of my life at Far Runner Dojo, in Unicorn lands," Todori answered.

The Unicorn stepped back and bowed. "I am Shinjo Jinturi, a scout in service of Moto Kumari. I would be honored to escort you to Kumari-sama, lord Todori. He will provide you with an escort so you may pass safely through the war zone."

Todori bowed curtly. "You have my thanks," he said. "I have traveled far and am eager to return home."

The scout looked back to the battlefield, dark stains visible on the grass even from this distance. "You are not alone, Todori-sama," he said, his voice hollow and weary.

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

The Unicorn military camp reminded Todori of the many he had seen in his youth. The tents were large, but could be disassembled and moved at a moment's notice. The Unicorn called them yurts, and used them to move entire villages across their vast lands at a whim. While the layout of the camp was familiar, the mood was alien to him. Hiruma Todori had lived among the Shinjo, a congenial and humble family. These soldiers were mostly Moto, grim and hostile warriors. A ripple of silence passed through the camp as Todori appeared, and all eyes turned to watch him. He recognized many of the White Guardsmen he had seen in the earlier battle.

These were soldiers of the Khol, the Unicorn Clan's Army of the Center, the personal army of the dreaded Khan, Moto Chagatai. Todori had never met the Khan. Todori feared only one man northeast of the Wall, that being his Lord Kuon, but the Khan's reputation demanded respect.

"Is the Khan here?" Todori asked.

Jinturi chuckled. "No, not here," he replied. "This is only one of many camps. See?" He gestured to the north. Smoke from many campfires drifted upward at regular intervals along the horizon, stretching as far as he could see.

"We leave the Lion no unified target, while retaining the mobility to unify our camps into a single force at a moment's notice should the need arise," Jinturi said.

"With a good number of phantom camps, I see," Todori replied.

Jinturi looked at Todori in surprise.

Todori pointed to the smoke. "Too many campfires," he said. "Some are decoys in hopes of confusing the Lion as to your true numbers, or to draw them into attacking an enemy that is not there. A common tactic in my homeland. A man cannot survive without fire, but he can trick the enemy into attacking the wrong fire."

"I have no idea what you mean," Jinturi said flatly. He continued winding through the camp, and Todori followed him closely. Finally, they reached a moderately sized yurt near the camp's northwestern edge. Despite that it was indistinguishable from all the others, Jinturi glanced took a moment to straighten his armor and glance back at Todori before stepping through the entrance.

The tent's interior was illuminated by several metal lanterns of exotic gaijin manufacture. The center was dominated by a map table, carefully updated with small clay pieces denoting infantry and cavalry units moving in a confusing sea around the City of the Rich Frog. A handful of men stood around the table, discussing the movement of various pieces. When they saw Todori, they grew silent. Two moved to block the table from his view, but a sharp word from their commander caused them to part, allowing Jinturi and Todori to approach.

The man standing at head of the table stood out for his bizarre dress, including boots with curled toes and a long purple jacket embroidered with golden thread in strange patterns. Though his hair and beard were a sleek black, Todori could tell from his eyes and the lines on his face that he was an old man, unusual for a high ranking samurai. In Crab lands, old samurai were venerated simply for having survived so long, but would be encouraged to continue fighting the Shadowlands as long as they could hold a sword and stand upright. In the Empire, men of such age were usually relegated to court or the monastery, offering their advice and expertise to a younger generation. Apparently, the Moto shared the Crab's philosophy.

Jinturi took the travel papers Todori offered and stepped forward to share a brief word with the commander. The man glanced briefly at the scroll before taking it, but studied Todori more intently than the paper. He dismissed Jinturi with a nod and beckoned Todori forward with a gesture. "Welcome, Todori-sama," he said. "We are honored to have so prestigious as guest in our camp. I am Moto Kumari, Taisa of the Khol."

"Your officers do not share your views," Todori said. He refused to acknowledge the surly men standing on either side of him. The urge to strike out at those suspicious glares might be more than he could resist. "I had thought the Unicorn did not forget their friends so easily."

"War makes a man suspicious, Todori-sama," Kumari said with a sigh. "We see our enemies even where there are none. The Hiruma know that better than anyone, I imagine." He gestured toward Todori's chest, where a finger of jade hung on a string around his neck.

Todori frowned. "Fair enough."

"Now then ," the old man said. "What is the purpose of your visit?"

"I have business in the Dragon lands," Todori said simply.

"As your papers said," Kumari nodded, "but my clan is at war, and I must be cautious. I am authorized to act in the name of my Khan if I feel someone is a threat& or a spy. It would behoove you to be forthright with me, Hiruma-sama. I have a great deal of respect for your family. Any incident between us would be an act I would regret till the day I died, but I will not fail the Khan." His tone was only mildly apologetic.

"My business is my own," Todori said, a bit more harshly. He felt his face grow hot as he launched into his reply. "You say you are at war, and you must be cautious. My family is under siege every day of its existence. Every moment I stand here is another moment my home stands without its leader. Do you truly believe I would abandon my oath to fight the Shadowlands only to meddle in the Empire's petty squabbles?"

A stunned silence fell over the assembled officers. Some looked at Todori with barely restrained anger. Some cast their eyes to the floor in shame. Kumari only smiled.

"I only need a reason for your presence, Todori-sama," he said. "Something to tell my Khan. Your relationship with our clan grants you some measure of leniency but I cannot report that I allowed the passage of a foreign clan daimyo to the master of the Three Armies without a reason. Any reason."

Todori took a deep breath, bringing his temper back in check. "Very well," he said. "I have a gift for the Dragon Champion."

"Unfortunate," Kumari said, his expression turning somewhat distant. "I cannot let you pass, Todori-sama."

"What?" Todori snapped. "Why?"

"Consider my position," he said. "If I appeared at Shiro Hiruma with papers from my Khan, insisting that I be allowed passage to the Shadowlands to deliver a gift to the City of the Lost, would you would let me pass?"

Todori's expression grew stony. "I think there is a difference between Iuchiban and Togashi Satsu."

Kumari's eyebrows raised slightly. "Not to the Khan," he said.

"The Dragon are allied with the Lion?" Todori said.

The corner of the old Unicorn's mouth curled into a smile. "I wish it were so simple," he said. "Mirumoto Kei leads the Dragon armies to take the City of the Rich Frog for her own clan. She is an arrogant young woman, and does not recognize the power of the enemies she has made."

Todori could not believe what he had heard. "How is that possible?" he asked. "The Dragon never interfere in politics, never enter war unless attacked, and never seek to conquer lands outside their own."

Kumari shrugged. "The Dragon demanded parley, insisting that both Lion and Unicorn abandon their claim in the name of the Emperor." Kumari laughed. "The Khan refused to recognize their authority. Apparently the Lion felt the same, as shortly thereafter the Dragon began to launch a campaign against both sides."

Todori was silent, pondering the implications. The Dragon were friends to his own clan, often offering the support of their tattooed men or fostering their samurai to train upon the Wall. They were a mysterious clan, dedicated to intangible pursuits such as harmony and enlightenment. The idea of a Dragon general becoming involved in such a volatile conflict, challenging two of the greatest armies of the Empire was bewildering.

Of course, the more he reflected upon it, bewildering behavior was never fully out of character for a Dragon.

"Now," Kumari continued. "What do you carry for the Dragon Champion?"

Todori recalled the bundle tightly bound in his horse's bags outside. He doubted the Moto would search his belongings, but that would not be necessary. He felt additional weight beneath his obi, and knew that if he looked down, the cursed blade would be there. Not for the first time, he wondered if even the Dragon could free him of the damnable thing.

"I carry a cursed sword," he said. "The Dragon may be able to free me of it."

Kumari frowned. "The Kuni could not aid you?"

"This blade was crafted by Kokujin."

"The Madman," whispered one of the other officers. Another took several steps away from Todori. Kumari's eyes widened slightly, and Todori heard Jinturi voice a silent prayer.

"Kokujin," Kumari said quietly. "I tell my grandchildren stories about him to scare them into obedience."

"If any man can help me," Todori said darkly, "It is Togashi Satsu."

Kumari studied Todori intently for several minutes. The Crab warrior felt like a specimen on some Kuni's examination table, but refused to look away from the old man's eyes. Finally, the Unicorn nodded. "I believe you, Todori-sama. Who would lie about such a horrible burden? Jinturi will escort you to the northern front, where you can reach the Dragon lines without difficulty."

Todori bowed very slightly, then turned and left the tent to prepare his horse.

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

The Dragon front showed signs of heavy fighting. From what Todori could tell from talking with Jinturi and examining the terrain, it looked as if this region had been contested for some time. The Lion and Unicorn had been fighting over this particular area for weeks when the Dragon arrived. Fresh, rested, and completely unsuspected, the Dragon had quickly seized a large section of land immediately north of the city and continued to hold it, fending off skirmishes on both sides. The area was rugged and uneven, much like the Dragon homeland, giving them a decided advantage against both sides and a safe haven when retreat was in order.

Jinturi looked toward the Dragon troops, safely out of archery range, then looked at Todori. "I wish you good fortune," he said in a low voice. "May your homeland remain safe in your absence." He bowed deeply.

Todori returned the young Unicorn's gesture, finding his sincerity strangely comforting. As Jinturi departed and Todori turned to look at the Dragon ranks, he felt the burden of his cursed blade far more keenly. A patrol of ashigaru wearing brilliant green armor was already riding out to meet him. Todori held his travel papers in one hand, the other hand open to show he held no weapons. The leader dismounted, accepted his papers, examined them carefully, and returned them with an extremely deep bow.

"The Rikugunshokan will wish to see you, Todori-sama," the soldier said. "Please follow me."

Todori followed the soldiers without comment, carefully taking in his surroundings. He was surprised to discover a contingent of Lion in the Dragon encampment. Several had the look of courtiers, perhaps seeking answers to the Dragon's arrival or even an alliance against the Unicorn. It was obvious even as he rode into camp, however, that the attempt was going poorly.

"This is unacceptable, General Kei," the Ikoma ambassador said. Her voice was thick with anger. It was obvious she was struggling to control herself, and failing. "The annexation of Kaeru Toshi was done at the request of those who lived there at the time, and with the tacit approval of the Four Winds."

The ashigaru looked at Todori uncomfortably. "The Rikugunshokan will see you as soon as she is ready, I am sure," he said.

"Arigato," Todori said, nodding to the man. He hurried off in relief.

"There was no Emperor at that time, Kyuso-san," the general countered. Her demeanor was cool and even. She was very young for one of her rank, her features smooth and unmarred by age. Even so, her expression was calm and confident, her words assured. "The Righteous Emperor's subsequent indifference is sufficient proof that he did not regard your claim as worthy of support. Your inability to protect his lands from the Unicorn further weakens your position here." She regarded the Lion contingent with no trace of fear or unease. "Your presence, as well as that of the Unicorn, is blatant warmongering and is in contrast to the Emperor's desire for peace especially in light of the Rain of Blood. Where you have failed to maintain order in the Empire, the Dragon will bring justice. We shall begin with Kaeru Toshi."

The Lion ambassador was unimpressed. "Rationalizations, nothing more. This is an act of war that you and your clan will deeply regret." Ikoma Kyuso's yojimbo drew his sword and stepped forward, adopting the traditional stance of a kenjutsu duel.

"Stand down," Kei said flatly.

"I will not," the Lion insisted. "I am Akodo Tsuri, gunso of the Lion armies. My grandfather stood beside Toturi on the Day of Thunder. I have defeated Doji Hijime, Moto Tsingao, and Bayushi Rikio in personal combat, and claimed the lives of countless others on the field of battle. You have usurped the role of the Emperor's Right Hand, and in the name of my master I challenge you to a duel, Mirumoto Kei."

"Are you sure?" Kei asked, looking at Tsuri in disbelief.

The Ikoma laughed. "Are you truly so sincere in your desire for justice that you would draw blades with a Lion?" she asked. "Win or lose, Kei, your family will have made enemies of the Akodo. Consider your next move well."

"Tsuri will require permission from his lord, and from mine," Kei countered.

"I think not," Kyuso said. "Tsuri already has permission from Lord Nimuro. If you are a delegate of the Emperor's justice, as you claim to be, you need answer to no higher power. Defend his justice' now, or run scampering back to your mountains."

"I am ready to die, Dragon," Tsuri hissed.

Kei scowled and turned to face Tsuri. "I am Mirumoto Kei," the Dragon responded, drawing her blades with a bow. "That is all you need to know."

The two samurai faced each other, circling slowly. Each moved their blade in a slow series of fighting stances, carefully gauging the other's reaction in an attempt to locate a weakness. Todori remained silent, watching. The winner was obvious. Tsuri was much larger than Kei, but his movements were slower. Kei's steps were more instinctive, her swords moving as part of her own body. The Lion was a talented warrior, but he was not her match.

Finally, the Akodo lunged forward with an attack so fast it was little more than a blur. The Dragon was swifter. Kei blocked the strike with her wakizashi and made a devastating cross-cut with her katana, slicing open the armor covering Tsuri's body and biting deep into the flesh beneath. Tsuri staggered, slumping to one knee. Kei spun quickly, bringing both blades down in a single strike that severed the Akodo's head and sent a bright ribbon of blood across the afternoon sky. Kei flicked the blood from her blades effortlessly.

"You have just given the Lion armies a valuable weapon, General," the Ikoma said smugly. "You have made this war personal." The Ikoma bowed to Kei and knelt, offering her head. "Finish it," she continued.

"I will not kill you, Ikoma," Kei said.

"You slew my yojimbo," Kyuso answered. "I share his fate, or I live in dishonor. Kill me, or make an enemy of my family as well. I offer you this small mercy, that only one Lion family will seek your death till the end of your days."

Kei sighed, and drew her katana again.

"You should not have come here, Dragon," the Ikoma finished with a pleased smile.

"You may be right," she replied, and took Kyuso's head.

The other Lion bowed their heads respectfully. As one they turned away, showing their backs to Kei in shame. Some of the other Dragon reached for their swords, but Kei held out a hand, restraining them.

"No," she said. "There will be time enough for death tomorrow. Escort the Lion back to the city, along with the bodies."

"Nimuro-sama will come for you, General," one Lion said as he left. Kei said nothing.

Todori watched Mirumoto Kei sheath her blades, then looked to the blood slowly soaking in the earth. He had seen such things countless times before, and far worse. Yet, with the sword weighing heavily at his waist, it seemed somehow different. More sinister. More hopeless. Though the Dragon had won the duel, somehow she had lost much here today.

In his mind, Todori imagined he could hear Kokujin's dark laughter.

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Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!