Kaze no Shiro Kazenoshiro Banner



This section of Kaze no Shiro is no longer supported and is meant for archive purposes only. Please go back to main page.


 

 

Dawn of Battle (Hidden City: Rulebook Story)
by Rich Wulf

Failure.

The word haunted Tadenori's soul.

Images of Akodo Ijiasu falling in battle, cut down by the sword of a Moto White Guardsman, memories of Tadenori rushing forward to save the younger general, arriving too late. The battle was lost but the Moto paid in blood, slain by Tadenori's own hand... and that changed nothing.

"He is younger then you." Doji Midoru's words of long ago echoed in Tadenori's mind. "He is higher ranking then you. Yet other Lion look to you for leadership because of your experience. Your many victories over the Dragon eclipse his massacre at Kyuden Tonbo. How could he help but hate you?"

The foolish boy. He had charged out to prove himself against the Unicorn, to prove that his skill at leading the Lion was greater than Tadenori's. Tadenori has seen Ijiasu's mistake. Somewhere, deep inside, he knew that the boy was about to do something very foolhardy. Yet he had done nothing to stop him.

Could he have stopped Ijiasu? Doubtful. The brash bushi followed his own counsel. He had decided upon a frontal assault. He had underestimated Moto Chagatai, and even Tadenori's decades of experience would have been unlikely to sway him. Yet that was not important. What was important was that Tadenori had known that his arrogant kinsman was marching to his death.

He had done nothing.

The Lion closed his eyes as he knelt before the roadside shrine, seething with guilt and anger. He felt a turmoil deep within him, resentment toward Matsu Nimuro for entering a war that could have been avoided, irritation toward Ijiasu for being so arrogant and heedless, but most of all hatred for himself for daring to call himself a Lion.

Tadenori's hand tightened over the strange netsuke in his hand, the hard edges biting into his palm. He had found the amulet in a village ravaged by the Shadowlands Horde. The Crane had told him it was a relic created by the Fortune of Death, an instrument of power. Since the Reign of Blood, Akodo Tadenori had found it more difficult to focus. Sometimes, holding the amulet seemed to help.

Lately, it was helping less and less. The rage would wash over him, his skin would become wreathed in flames, and the killing would begin. Soon, he knew, what little humanity remained in him would be gone.

"Akodo, help me," Tadenori whispered to the shrine. "I deserve this punishment for what I did to Ijiasu, but my clan does not deserve this. Do not let me turn against them."

"Tadenori," called out a voice behind him. "We are ready."

Tadenori nodded curtly at the sound of the voice. He lifted his helmet from the earth, placing it upon his head and smoothing its bloodstained mane over his shoulders. Rising, he turned and bowed to the new master of his armies Yajinden.

The Bloodspeaker was a large man, dwarfing Tadenori, who was shorter than most. He wore no armor and carried no weapons save a blunt smith's hammer. His black silken robes where adorned with images of cranes in flight, turning as they soared to rend one another's throats and bellies with razor sharp beaks. His white hair was tied back in a careful topknot and braided down his back in a manner of an Asahina. His expression was grim and emotionless as he waited for Tadenori, watching him with pale blue eyes.

"You need not pray at this shrine, Tadenori-san," Yajinden said to the general. "Why pray to the gods? They will do nothing to aide us. Why pray to your ancestors? To die is failure. We need no help from failures... except for those who have already joined us." Yajinden turned and looked back at the Bloodspeaker army that had gathered in the mountains. Countless legions of shambling dead stood at attention, prepared for Tadenori's command. They wore the armor of every Great Clan, once mighty heroes who had perished during the Reign of Blood. They served Iuchiban now.

"So why do you pray, Lion?" Yajinden said, looking back at Tadenori. The Bloodspeaker's blue eyes were rimmed with suspicion.

Tadenori wanted to tell the truth to tell Yajinden that there was some vestige of his soul left. He wanted to confess that the Fortune of Death's amulet had helped him find some measure of freedom, that he continued to pray to Akodo hoping that he might die and rob the Bloodspeakers of an Akodo general. He wanted to confess, so that Yajinden could use his foul magic and purge him of the Lion that remained.

"I pray out of habit," Tadenori replied instead. "It helps me focus, and I must focus now if I am to lead us to victory."

"I see," Yajinden replied, seeming to believe him. "Are you prepared for battle?"

Tadenori scowled. "I am a Lion."

"Were a Lion," Yajinden corrected. "See that your troops are ready. Our master will be here soon."

"Iuchiban?" Tadenori replied, surprise. A small part of him recoiled in disgust at the sound of the name. The rest wanted to bow in obeisance at his mention. "He has taken an interest in our attack on the Phoenix?"

Yajinden nodded, a slight sneer of distaste flickering across his features. "One of my Bloodswords is hidden in this lands; I have known that much since I escaped the tomb," Yajinden said. "I had hoped to reclaim it, perhaps carve a swath of destruction across the Phoenix lands as I did so... but I have seen the place where it is hidden. It is well protected in a Hidden City walled all around with magic, I cannot reclaim it alone, even with these armies. There is great power in that city... and power is always of interest to Iuchiban."

"I will not fail him," Tadenori said, bowing deeply.

A loud cry erupted from across the Bloodspeaker camp. Raucous thunder followed, and a cloud of smoke rose over the undead army. Yajinden looked sharply in its direction, his face a mask of irritation. "Who dares?" he demanded. "Who could have found us here? How could they have slipped past our scouts?"

"The Phoenix," Tadenori said with calm certainty, as if that explained everything.

Yajinden sneered and hefted his hammer in one hand. He lifted into the air, borne by his twisted magic. "Rally your troops, Tadenori," he commanded. "When the master arrives we shall pile the corpses of these Phoenix at his feet."

"Hai, Yajinden-sama," Tadenori replied as the Bloodspeaker rode the wind toward the attack. Tadenori slid the tessen from his obi, the same steel fan he had used to command his troops since his first officer's commission. Its surface was pitted now, scarred with blood and corrosion. With revulsion, he found himself approving of the change.

I lose more of myself every moment, the Lion thought to himself. If I enter this battle, I will not return as myself. There will be nothing I can do.

But neither could he deny the song of blood that now reverberated through his veins.

Leaving the Fortune of Death's amulet on the small shrine's ledge, he charged into battle.

Shiba Tsukimi stormed from the Council of Masters, just barely restraining herself from slamming the shoji screen behind her. The fiery young samurai-ko snatched her swords from the guard who had held them for her while she attended the Council, and marched through the halls of Kyuden Isawa in angry silence. So occupied was she with her frustration and anger that she almost did not notice the tall robed man waiting for her in the center of the hall. She blinked in surprise and looked over her shoulder, toward the Council Chamber. Shiba Ningen, Master of the Void, had been seated in there wit the others only moments before.

Yet now he was here.

Tsukimi bowed deeply.

"You are angry, Tsukimi-chan," Ningen said.

"No, I am not," she said with a nervous laugh.

"That was not a question."

She met the Master of the Void's shining black eyes for a single moment, then wisely looked away. "I merely wish to return to my armies swiftly, so that we might find a way to combat this Bloodspeaker invasion."

"Yet it is difficult to defend yourself when you do not know the enemy's intent," Ningen said. "You think perhaps the Masters know something... they hide the true purpose of the Bloodspeaker attack from you."

Tsukimi shook her head quickly, unwilling to speak against the Five Masters.

"That was not a question either, Tsukimi-chan," he said. "To hide the truth from me is to hide a flame behind a linen curtain."

Tsukimi fell to her knew. "I am sorry, my lord." She said softly. "I do not wish to show the Council disrespect."

"You only wish to protect them, I know," Ningen said. "Such is your duty. As it is their duty to retain the sanctity of the Hidden City."

Tsukimi looked up at Ningen in surprise. "The Hidden City?" she asked.

"Gisei Toshi," Ningen replied.

"The City of Sacrifice? But it was destroyed hundreds of years ago. Even the ruins were lost to the mountains forever."

"Not lost, only hidden. It is a stronghold of magic, a repository of secrets too deadly for the Empire to know. It is there that the Isawa conduct their most dangerous experiments, far from any who might be threatened by the outcome. Until recently none knew of it save the Isawa... and me, for few secrets can be kept from the Void."

"And now Iuchiban has learned of this city?" Tsukimi asked.

Ningen nodded. "Many of Yajinden's artifacts lie in safe keeping there. They call to their masters now, and those masters come."

"I will ride to the Hidden City." Tsukimi rose to her feet. "I will protect the Phoenix."

"Have a care, Tsukimi-chan," Ningen said. "If I tell you where to find Gisei Toshi, the knowledge may damn you. The Isawa protect their secrets well."

Tsukimi bowed her head, but only for the moment. She met the Master of the Void's gaze squarely. "My life for the Phoenix," se said with firm resolve.

"Good," Ningen replied.

The soldiers of the Dragon had spent the last several months hunting those corrupted madmen left over from the Reign of Blood. They had been quite successful in their grim task, and had even gather a handful of willing samurai from other clans to help them in their crusade. Some where merely honorable men and women who merely wished to aid the Empire any way they could. Some had lost friends and family in the reign and wanted revenge on the Bloodspeakers.

And at least one was a legend.

"This way!" Toku shouted, gesturing wildly with his tessen. The soldiers rallied around the old general, forming a wedge against the ravening mob. Toku quickly scanned the attackers, found the weakness in their formation, and pointed.

"For the Righteous Emperor!" he cried. His unit moved forward with clinical accuracy, crushing the Shadowlands forces into the dirt. Within minutes, it was over.

Toku paused to catch his breath, leaning against a large tree as the weight of his armor began to press against his shoulders. He was no longer a young man. Each day he tried to push himself, just one more day for the Empire that he loved. One day, he knew, that strength would no longer come.

"Rest, Toku-sama," Mirumoto Mareshi said, hurrying to the old samurai's side. "The battle is done. Our enemies are defeated." Mareshi grasped Toku's arm with both of his, helping the general to sit upon the earth. Concern was reflected in the young Dragon's strange green eyes.

"Rest while you can, at any rate," added the gruff voice of Mirumoto Kenzo. Kenzo knelt among the bodies studying them carefully without touching them. "I think we will see more trouble soon."

"Oh?" Toku asked, looking at Kenzo with interest. Since his arrival, the old general had made no effort to hide his distaste for Kenzo's often ruthless tactics. He had also made no effort to hide his admiration for the Dragon's keen strategic mind.

"These did not fall during the Reign of Blood," Kenzo said. "These are mostly former Phoenix from the looks of their armor, and from what we know of the Reign very few Phoenix fell. They are not Lost. They are animated dead."

"Someone created these and merely left them to wonder the mountains?" Mareshi asked, looking at their fallen enemies with renewed disgust. "Why?"

"To delay us," Toku said.

"The Bloodspeakers have tired of us killing their would-be servants, no doubt," Kenzo said with a grim smile.

"I do not think so," Toku replied. "If the Bloodspeakers wished to destroy us they would confront us directly. They seek something else here."

"What would they seek in these barren mountains?" Mareshi asked. "Even the Phoenix build nothing here."

"We will soon see," Toku said. "Mareshi, search for tracks. We must find whoever killed these Phoenix and follow them."

"Hai," Mareshi said, hurrying off.

"Lord Toku," Doji Midoru said, stepping forward from the ranks of the soldiers with a concerned frown. "A moment?"

Toku nodded and gestured for the Crane to come forward.

"I found this," the Crane said, "in a shrine."

He held out one hand, displaying a strange amulet made of dark metal, or perhaps stone. It was difficult to tell.

"What is it?" Toku asked.

"It belonged to Akodo Tadenori," Midoru replied. "You know from the Lion reports that he stands among the fallen. I believe he leads the armies we seek."

"So the Bloodspeakers have an Akodo general," Toku whispered.

Midoru nodded. "No army led by an Akodo-trained general has ever been defeated," Midoru said.

Toku gave a crooked grin. "But you forget, Midoru; I was trained by Toturi himself," he replied. "Let us hope that is good enough."

He had gone through this ritual a thousand times. Always he prayed to his ancestors, but never did they answer. He went through the motions nonetheless. Such was tradition. Such was his ritual. Though far from home and forgotten, the young samurai could not abandon who he was.

If he were to do that, what would be left?

He knew the ritual was pointless, but to abandon it would be even more so.

And this time, for the first time, when he bowed his head he heard the voice of eternity within his soul.

At first he did not believe it. Perhaps the Wish had played a trick on him, hoping to make him feel less lonely by pretending to be the ancestral spirit. But no the Wish never did such things. If little else could be said about the wish, it was always honest. The young samurai bowed his head and focused upon the sound of the voice. It was faint, like a whisper heard across a crowded room... but he recognized it.

"Mother," he whispered.

He heard her call. He felt her pain. He sensed the danger that consumed his people. Many had forgotten him. Some still believed he was a monster, the doom of them all given form.

Yet they were in danger, and he could not abandon them.

"I will help them, mother," Shiba Aikune whispered, and rose to his feet.

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!