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Fires of the Hidden City
Part Two

By Rich Wulf

Nakamuro looked up toward the presence he had sensed. A broad-shouldered man stood hovering in midair. White hair hung braided down his back. He wore black robes embroidered with images of cranes rending one another apart in flight. In his hand he held a blacksmith's hammer.

"Yajinden," Nakamuro whispered.

The hovering man smirked slightly.

"I am the Master of Air," Nakamuro shouted hoarsely as he drew out a scroll. "Begone from this place!"

"You are master of nothing," Yajinden replied. "Die."

Another thunderous blast of black fire hammered into the Master of Air. Nakamuro swung one hand out defensively and shouted a plea to the air kami. A wall of swirling wind wove itself before the Bloodspeaker's attack. The ball of flame reflected with a cacophonous explosion, arcing high over the mountains to land somewhere far beyond with a distant cough.

Yajinden's mouth curled into a faint smile. "Today's Elemental Council has some power at least," he said, hovering toward Nakamuro. "Interesting."

"Stay back, Bloodspeaker!" Nakamuro commanded.

Yajinden laughed. "What threat can you offer me, Master of Air?" Yajinden demanded. "Death? I am beyond death. Torture? I have suffered pain and humiliation beyond all imagining. There is no threat you can offer me that I will fear."

"You were warned," Nakamuro replied.

Yajinden moved closer, hovering past the pool of blood where Shiba Koseki had been slain. The stones beneath the Bloodspeaker began to shine with an angry red light, and a plume of fire erupted around him, searing his kimono and blackening his flesh. Yajinden shouted in pain and raised one fist, channeling a ball of white power around it as he gathered his strength. Nakamuro pointed one hand at the Bloodspeaker and cried to the heavens. A bolt of pure white lightning struck Yajinden in the chest, sending him past the wall and hurtling into the earth. It struck with an explosion of fire and snow. His iron hammer clattered on the wall where he had dropped it.

For several seconds, there was silence. A dozen Shiba archers and half that many Isawa shugenja appeared in formation around Nakamuro, eyes trained upon the crater the Bloodspeaker had left behind. Slowly, the figure of Yajinden rose from the steaming snow. He stepped forward through the haze, his kimono know burned and in shreds but otherwise unharmed. He fixed the Phoenix upon the wall with a scowl. A fury of fire, ice, lightning, stone, and arrows erupted from the walls, pummeling the Bloodspeaker.

Yajinden's iron hammer suddenly lifted itself from the wall and spun in midair, crushing the skulls of two of the nearest shugenja and sending an archer screaming over the side of the wall.

"Break off and disperse!" Nakamuro shouted, backing away from the whirling weapon.

The hammer turned in midair and soared down toward Yajinden, standing unharmed amid ravaged earth and melted snow, a broken arrow in one hand. He tossed the missile aside and snatched the hammer easily out of the air. He took a step toward Gisei Toshi, and the city walls pulsed an angry red in reply. Yajinden studied the walls with a careful, intrigued eye. He took a step back and looked up at Nakamuro again.

"We are not so different as you would believe, Master of Air!" he shouted. "I can smell the magic that echoes through this wall!"

"Do not dare compare yourself with us, animal," Nakamuro shouted in reply. The defenders swarmed to the wall, all looking down at Yajinden uncertainly, awaiting Nakamuro's command to attack.

"Animal," Yajinden replied. "Hm." He studied the walls for another long moment. "Children of Isawa!" Yajinden roared, his voice echoing through the valley. "I have tasted your power, and you have tasted mine. I have no doubt that the battle to come shall be legendary! We shall show no mercy, so that all of Rokugan might remember how gloriously the defenders of Gisei Toshi died! Make peace with your bloody deities, Master of Air. I will return."

With that, Yajinden lifted his hammer high, driving it down upon the earth. A cloud of dust and snow rose around him. When the wind carried the debris away, the Bloodspeaker was gone.

For a time before the battle, there was silence. As there always was. An uneasy calm fell over the City of Sacrifice.

Isawa Nakamuro knelt in prayer before the statue of Bishamon, a stone effigy of a warrior three times the height of a normal man. In one hand, Bishamon held a mighty spear. In the other, he held a small castle.

"If ever there were a time your city needed protection," Nakamuro whispered. "Now is the time. The Children of Isawa are prepared, mighty Bishamon. I beg you, grant us courage."

He looked up at the statue. For a moment, Nakamuro thought he saw its eyes fix upon him, but dismissed it as a trick of the light. A chill passed through the temple, a sensation Nakamuro knew well enough to recognize as no natural phenomenon.

"Beware, ghost," Nakamuro said. "If you are sent by the Bloodspeakers, know that this city is protected by powers beyond your comprehension."

"I know, Isawa Nakamuro," came the feminine reply. "I am one of them." A transparent figure resolved itself from the shadows. It was a young maiden, lustrous black hair falling loose over one shoulder. Her dark eyes shone with a mournful grey light. Her hands were covered with fresh blood, the palms slashed. Beneath the waist she faded into nothing. It was the woman he had seen before upon the wall, whom he had mistaken for Doji Akiko. He knew now that it was not her, though the resemblance was uncanny. "Blood has fallen on the stones of Gisei Toshi," she said, "and so I return."

"I know you now," Nakamuro said. "You are Ariminhime, sister of Isawa." The Master of Air bowed deeply to her. "Remembered among the most honored heroes of our clan. The histories recall that you died fighting Fu Leng's armies on the fields of Gisei Toshi, and that after your death Isawa beseeched you to remain and protect the city."

She smiled, though it struck Nakamuro as an expression of deep sadness. "I am remembered," she said in a hollow voice. "It may seem vain, but to know that I am remembered makes these centuries seem less lonely."

Nakamuro returned her smile. "You are not alone, grandmother," he said. "The blood of the Phoenix runs strong. We are prepared to protect your city."

She looked at him curiously. "Are you?" she asked.

Nakamuro looked away, finding he could not meet her eyes. "The Council has empowered me to do whatever is necessary to protect Gisei Toshi's secrets."

"Then where are the rest of them?" she asked.

Nakamuro looked up at her helplessly. "I am here," he said. "That will have to suffice."

Ariminhime frowned. She looked past him, toward the statue of Bishamon. "He stands beside you, Nakamuro," he said. "If you fail here today, it will not be because the gods were not beside you. Bishamon's strength roars in your veins. I can hear his cry. You are a man of peace& but you are no stranger to war."

"No," Nakamuro said. "I am not."

She looked at him, her eyes seeming to focus somehow beyond him. She reached out with one bloodied hand, fingers pausing near his chest. He did not flinch away, though he felt the frigid cold of her presence through his kimono. "A piece of your heart is missing," she said. "You fought for another, one whom was never yours to fight for. The enemy could not be defeated, and yet you fought."

"I did not fight hard enough," Nakamuro said grimly.

She looked more closely. "But I see another great battle etched upon your soul, a fight against an impossible foe& but this time you triumphed."

"In a matter of speaking," Nakamuro said. "Many good people in both our clan and the Dragon perished before the truth was found. The seeds of distrust are still buried deep, and that weighs heavily on me."

"You are a warrior, Nakamuro," Ariminhime continued, pulling her hand away, "but you are the rarest of warriors. You fight not for hatred, revenge, or a flawed sense of justice. You fight for love. If such a warrior is defeated, it shall never be because the gods failed to stand beside him. You are a hero, and I am proud to see such heroes still bear my brother's name."

"You flatter me, grandmother," he whispered, stunned by her sincerity. "I hope I can live up to your expectations."

She looked past him again, toward Bishamon's statue. "You pray to the Fortune of Strength," she said. "Do you know his story? Who he was before the Empire came to be? Who his brothers and sister were?"

"I confess I do not," Nakamuro replied. "None live who remember."

Ariminhime smiled. "It is one of the secrets this city hides," she said. "When the Kami fell from the sky they found a land of chaos, disorder. The humans worshipped dark and evil things, spirits that had been forsaken by the older races. The Kami drove these wicked gods away, uniting the human tribes as one, forging a new order and destroying those who would not abandon their evil patrons. When Emperor Hantei heard of a large tribe living in the northern mountains, practicing strange magic and worshipping powerful gods, he sent his brother, Shiba, to force this tribe to abandon their ways."
"That was the tribe of Isawa," Nakamuro said.

Ariminhime nodded. "The Isawa were masters of maho, blood magic. Such magic courses through everything my brother created, through the foundations of this city."

"But in those days, the blood magic was still good and pure," Nakamuro said. "Fu Leng had not yet corrupted it."

Ariminhime looked at him curiously. "Blood magic is the magic of violence and suffering," she said, holding up one hand to display the wound. "It may once have been free from connection to Jigoku but it was never good.' The Isawa understood that suffering is a necessary part of enlightenment, thus such magic was useful, with caution and moderation." She looked up at Bishamon again. "Here, under the protection of their ancient gods, maho was safe. Shiba saw this. He saw that the Isawa were noble and wise, that their Seven Fortunes were unlike the other wicked gods the mortals worshipped. He begged Hantei to stay his wrath, to beseech their mother Amaterasu to accept the Seven Fortunes among their pantheon and greet the Isawa as allies. She agreed, but only as long as the Seven Fortunes always watched over the children of Rokugan. In spreading themselves over so wide a populace, the Fortunes could no longer keep the blood magic free of Jigoku's touch as they once did."

"But the Isawa joined the Phoenix before the War Against Fu Leng ended," Nakamuro said. "Wouldn't Isawa have known the scrolls were no longer safe to use?"

Ariminhime looked at him again, her expression full of even deeper sadness than before. "He knew the risk," she said. "Yet there are some things that must be done, and to his credit his will was strong enough that his soul remained pure even as he died. Is this not a lesson that all Phoenix must learn, to risk all and give your life well? Is that not why the Council sent only one Master?"

Nakamuro was silent.

"You do not intend to protect the City of Sacrifice," she said. "You intend to destroy it, to bring down the mountains and bury its secrets forever."

"Only if I must," Nakamuro replied.

"Your plan is noble, but flawed," Ariminhime said. "Iuchiban has found this place despite centuries of effort to conceal his location. Pull the mountains down and you will only delay him finding what he seeks."

"What must I do then?" Nakamuro asked her.

"Trust in Shiba," she said, smiling at him again. "We Isawa take pride in our wisdom, but Shiba is wiser still, in his fashion. I have no doubt he will act to save the City of Sacrifice. Recognize his wisdom, Nakamuro, when it appears."

Nakamuro bowed his head to the ancient spirit. He opened his mouth to speak to her again, to ask her advice or blessing, but when he looked up she was gone. He glanced around, searching the temple for any sign. He noticed something different and looked up at the statue of Bishamon curiously. He noticed that the Fortune's enormous spear was now missing. At its feet lay an identical weapon, sized for a normal human to use.

Nakamuro took up the weapon with reverence, bowed to the Fortune of Strength, and marched out to defend the Hidden City.

The morning never came. When the sun should have risen, the skies remained resolutely black. Dark clouds churned overhead, heralding the arrival of the Bloodspeaker army. Nakamuro was the first upon the walls, Bishamon's spear in his hand, eyes alert on the horizon. He could sense the approaching army now; Yajinden was making no further attempt at concealing their approach. They marched from all sides. Nakamuro could smell the stench of the sickly magic that animated his undead soldiers even from here.

Beside him on the wall stood Shiba Marihito. Nakamuro saw that the young warrior's eyes were red-rimmed but resolute. He wore a scrap of red silk around one arm, a ribbon that Nakamuro recognized as once having belonged to Shiba Koseki.

Marihito did not look at Nakamuro, continuing to watch for Yajinden's armies. "Will we die, Master?" he asked, voice trembling slightly.

"You will stand beside Koseki again, my friend," Nakamuro answered, "but not today."

"I will see her soon, I think," Marihito said, looking at him sharply. "But will it matter? Will anyone care?"

Nakamuro looked away. He could not meet the eyes of a man who had watched his lover die for his sake only the day before.

Blue lightning shot through the sky. The walls glowed the color of blood in reply, the sign that Ariminhime and her fellow spirits now roused to protect their home. He looked back down at the plains. Hordes of shambling corpses now boiled through the narrow pass toward the castle. Angry red sparks now fired along the walls, as if the city itself were eager to leap into combat. Phoenix archers drew their bows, nervously preparing to face what for most of them would be the first battle in their lives. Already he could hear the moan of the walking dead, the clank of their armor. He could see many pennants snapping in the breeze, bearing no symbol but stained red with blood.

Nakamuro looked up at the heavy ice shelves above Gisei Toshi again. The walls of ice and snow had been cultivated by countless Masters of Water, a final line of defense should the city need to be destroyed. Nakamuro looked back at his troops and saw many of them glancing up at the shelf as well. They all knew why the ice walls existed. One could not live in Gisei Toshi all his life and not accept that fact.

The Master of Air knew what must be done. He grasped the spear in both hands and closed his eyes. "Bishamon," he whispered. "Grant me the strength to protect your home."

"We are with you," Ariminhime whispered. "We know what you plan. Do what must be done."

With that, Isawa Nakamuro leapt from the walls, summoning the spirits of the wind to bear him aloft. He soared above the City of Sacrifice, leaving a trail of crackling white sparks in his wake. Red-tipped arrows soared toward him, but they fell short or were knocked aside by his spirit guardians. Looking up at the ice walls, he summoned all of his magic.

"Now Ariminhime," he whispered as he pointed at the wall.

Bolts of pure white lightning tore through the black clouds overhead, striking the ice with the sound of angry thunder. The ice moaned and shifted, and tons of heavy debris began to roll down toward the city. The city walls blazed in reply, trembling with power. Nakamuro focused on that power, turning it against the avalanche. The mighty deluge of ice and stone fell backward, away from the valley, crumbling down among the mountains to crush the undead soldiers that marched in that direction. Nakamuro turned and repeated the process, forcing the other carefully constructed wall to collapse away from the city, taking a small portion of the Bloodspeaker army with it. After several minutes the clouds of dust and snow rolled away. Yajinden's army marched on, heedless of Nakamuro's act.

When Nakamuro alighted upon the walls again, the defenders of Gisei Toshi stared at him in fear and alarm. Many of them shouted and argued among themselves, terrified that they had lost the only chance they had to fulfill the city's promise of eternal secrecy. "Master Nakamuro, what have you done?" Shiba Marihito asked, looking at the broken ice walls in horror. "Now there is no way out."

"There is still one way out, son and daughters of the Phoenix!" Nakamuro shouted. Silence fell over the soldiers as they waited for his reply.

"VICTORY!" he cried, pointing Bishamon's spear toward the Phoenix armies. Thunder pealed overhead and, to his surprise, he heard the Phoenix shout at the Bloodspeakers in defiance. Many of them began to release spells and arrows upon the advancing Bloodspeaker armies, tearing into the front ranks. Nakamuro stood among his brethren, shouting his defiance to the heavens.

For three days, the defenders of Gisei Toshi had stood firm. The Bloodspeaker assault was relentless, consisting of both endless sieges by mobs of undead soldiers and aerial attacks by Bloodspeaker maho tsukai. The black clouds remained overhead. Though the lack of sunlight was demoralizing, Nakamuro did not wish to exhaust his shugenja wasting the energies to push the clouds away. The red glow that protected the walls shone strongly at first, but now flashed only intermittently among the most heated assaults. Nakamuro wondered if the spirits were growing weaker or if Yajinden himself was undermining their defenses somehow. He had not see Yajinden since the battle began. It stood to reason that he was hiding somewhere, saving his strength, gauging the city's weaknesses as he hurled his expendable undead troops against it.

Soon the true attack would come, and though the Phoenix fought bravely the Master of Air feared that they would be unprepared. There were too few of them, and the soldiers were too inexperienced. Yajinden had several lifetimes of wisdom to use against them; it was unlikely any of them would be prepared for the tactics he would use.

If only they had more time or more warriors, he cursed.

It was then, from the valley below, that Nakamuro heard the most unexpected battle cry.

"For Rokugan!"

Nakamuro leapt swiftly into the air, spirits bearing him to the far wall where the Bloodspeaker armies were thinnest. The undead troops had turned around, away from the wall, facing something to the rear, beyond the dim red light.

"Light the battlefield!" Nakamuro commanded.

Several huge balls of fire erupted from the shugenja stationed at the walls in reply, smashing into the undead armies with brilliant explosions. In the fire's radiance, Nakamuro could clearly see what approached. Shortly after his arrival in the Hidden City, Nakamuro had sensed the passage of what he believed was an Imperial Legion through the mountains, but the army had moved on. Now that army had returned, and though he saw many chrysanthemum banners among its ranks he realized it was not a true Imperial Legion at all. Nakamuro's hand moved to the netsuke at his waist. Was it possible?

"The Dragon Clan," said a young samurai beside him. "Aren't they our enemy?"

"Not today, Yobei," he replied. "All shugenja to the southern wall!"

The Phoenix quickly complied, lining the wall in orderly formation, some standing, some hovering on the wind behind shields of magical force. "Cover the Dragon's advance!"

Many of the soldiers looked at Nakamuro in surprise.

"For Rokugan!" Shiba Yobei shouted without hesitation, firing his bow at the undead. The others followed his example, harrying the undead as the Dragon legion made its way to the wall. As they approached, Nakamuro noticed a smattering of warriors from other clans marching among them, a mixed force of samurai fighting against the Bloodspeakers. Nakamuro concentrated deeply, drawing upon the deepest essence of his magic, then opened his eyes and said a brief prayer. Bolts of jagged lightning hammered the earth repeatedly before the gates. Swirling wind cast the Bloodspeaker troops aside for a few brief moments, clearing the way for the approaching army's final charge.

Nakamuro realized the gates could only stay open a few precious moments. As the last of the soldiers moved within, the gates began to draw closed. The Master of Air prepared to move down to the courtyard to make certain the city was secure. Just before he turned, he noticed a single soldier running back across the smoking battlefield. The boy wore light brown armor, the banner of the Monkey Clan flapping upon his back. Ahead of the boy, twenty Legionnaires had become pinned down by advancing undead.

"Hold the gates!" the boy shouted desperately.

"Hold the gates," Nakamuro repeated.

"Master Nakamuro, it isn't safe," said a shugenja.

"Make it safe," Nakamuro replied, summoning the last reserves of his will to send air spirits to shield the charging boy. "Protect their escape!"

A dozen samurai now followed the Monkey's example, shouting in defiance as they charged to rescue their comrades. Phoenix arrows and magic rained down around them, discouraging all pursuit. The surviving soldiers raggedly charged into the city of Gisei Toshi just as the walls closed with a resounding thud.

A cheer resounded through the city, a cheer of victory.

Only a small victory, but definitely a start.

During his time in the Imperial City, Isawa Nakamuro had only met the hero known as Toku a handful of times. He knew that the old samurai was once Captain of the Imperial Guard, and that he had returned from retirement twice now to serve the Toturi Dynasty. He had always thought of Toku as a charming but easily befuddled old man. Here, today, standing in the Temple of Bishamon at the heart of the hidden city, he seemed a different man entirely. Toku's armor was scarred with battle, his eyes intense as he listened to the situation at hand. Though the army that now joined them was composed mostly of Dragon samurai, it appeared that they had deferred to Toku's experience as a leader. Beside him stood the boy who had rescued the Legionnaires, his son, Toturi Kyoji, a samurai already well-set to follow his legendary father's example given the events Nakamuro had witnessed on the field earlier.

"This city's name is Gisei Toshi," Isawa Nakamuro explained. "The City of Sacrifice. It has remained hidden for centuries, the secret repository of the Phoenix Clan's darkest forbidden knowledge.

"What sort of forbidden knowledge?" asked Mirumoto Kenzo. The Dragon looked at Nakamuro with an eager intensity. He knew of Kenzo by reputation, one of the Mirumoto charged with seeking nemuranai deemed too dangerous to exist, to be destroyed in Tamori's Furnace.

"Magical artifacts that could neither be safely wielded nor safely destroyed," Nakamuro said, looking at the Dragon meaningfully. "Journals containing dark magic, written by such madmen as Yori, Akuma, and Yajinden. This place is the Isawa family's deepest secret, known only to our highest ranking shugenja."

"Yet I saw many guards outside," replied Saigorei, Toku's lieutenant. "Some of them wore Shiba standards."

Nakamuro nodded. "The samurai and peasants who dwell here have all sworn a vow they will live and die within these walls, never venturing forth, all to protect the secrets that sleep here."

"You are surprisingly forthcoming with secrets your clan has guarded for centuries," Kenzo said.

"We do not hide the truth for our own sake but for yours," Nakamuro replied, swiftly tiring of the Dragon's suspicion. He suspected Isawa Taeruko would be even more suspicious when she learned what he had revealed, but the time for secrecy was past. "If the Bloodspeakers had known of this place before& If they should gain access to that which lies hidden here&"

"A great deal of good your secrecy has done you, Phoenix," said Tamori Tsukiro, another of the Dragon contingent. "Now we are all trapped here, outnumbered, with little hope of reinforcements, in a city that does not exist."

"Fighting with each other gains nothing," Toku said in a quiet voice. The old general knelt in the corner of the temple, his eyes half closed in meditation. Nakamuro waited patiently, knowing better than to interrupt a seasoned warrior as he made his plans.

"And what I have told you is not the worst of it," Nakamuro said after a long pause. "The Bloodspeaker armies are led by a man named Yajinden. He is extraordinarily powerful, and as immortal as Iuchiban himself. He created many of the more dangerous items we house here."

"Then perhaps he has come seeking what was once his," Kyoji offered.

"That was my conclusion as well," Nakamuro said uncomfortably. "But those are not my true fear. Once he arrived here, he no doubt sensed the power of the Black Scrolls artifacts that once imprisoned the essence of the Dark Kami, Fu Leng. If the Bloodspeakers should obtain those, the Rain of Blood will be a fond memory compared to what comes after."

"So why not remove the Black Scrolls?" Toku asked.

Nakamuro sighed. "It is not as easy as you suggest," he replied. "I cannot use magic to remove the Scrolls from the city they radiate an aura of corruption and would likely tear my soul from my body were I to try. There are a few escape tunnels that could bear the scrolls to safety, but that is equally dangerous. Yajinden might sense that their power had left the city, and track it. It would be a suicide mission."

"Kyoji, you sent word to Toshi Ranbo that the Bloodspeakers marched on the Phoenix lands," Kenzo said. "How long before we might expect more troops to be dispatched?"

"We asked for no reinforcements," Kyoji said grimly. "It may take weeks& assuming they even find Gisei Toshi."

"How long will the city walls hold?" asked Doji Midoru, a pale Crane with what Nakamuro found a vaguely sinister look.

Nakamuro was silent for several moments. "By my estimates, three more days."

Toku looked at the Master of Air. "Nakamuro-sama," he said. "I would like a map of this area, if you please."

 

 

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Togashi will return!