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Fires of the Hidden City
Part Three

By Rich Wulf

It was not unusual for those born of the house of Shiba to hear their ancestors. For some, the voices came only in times of urgency. For others, the voices came only when sought in devout prayer. Some were guided constantly, never alone but always accompanied by the heroes of the ages.

To one Shiba, the ancestors had never spoken at all.

Today, that had changed. The spirit of his mother had visited him, warning him of the danger that now approached the Phoenix Clan.

A single figure stood upon the highest peak of Tani Giza, the jagged range that separated Phoenix lands from Yobanjin territory.

For five years, Shiba Aikune had remained in exile. Most of the Empire believed that he had perished, unable to control the power of Isawa's Last Wish. Such was for the best. With the war between Dragon and Phoenix now over, there was no need for its power. He had retreated to the northern mountains, to contemplate the Wish's existence and perhaps find some measure of wisdom and control. Today the extent of that control would be tested. Aikune extended one hand, looking at the nimbus of fire that now surrounded his body.

"Are you ready?" he whispered to the Wish.

-No.-

The certainty of the response shocked Aikune. He knew better than to resist when the Wish warned him against something. He was silent for a long time. "Are you afraid?" he asked.

-Yes.-

"Why are you afraid?" he asked. "We have faced battle together before."

-Something is wrong.-

"Wrong?"

-Something is not right. I do not understand and I am afraid. I want to go back to our mountain.-

"We cannot abandon the Phoenix," Aikune said.

-I do not want to abandon them, Aikune. I am afraid. I wish I was a samurai. Samurai know no fear.-

Aikune smiled despite himself, amused by the Wish's sometimes childlike innocence. "To be samurai is not to live without fear," Aikune said, "but to live knowing that your fear cannot control you. Fear is a tool, it warns us when to use caution. Those without it are fools. Those who rise above it are heroes."

-I think I would like to be a hero, Aikune. How?-

"Find something worth fighting for," Aikune said. "Its worth will give you courage."

-I will try.-

"Then let us go help our kinsmen," he replied.

-I am still afraid. So that means we should be cautious?-

"Of course," Aikune answered.

Shiba Aikune closed his eyes and concentrated, letting his consciousness merge with that of Isawa's Last Wish even more so than usual. He became one with the magical construct, sharing its vast power. He focused that power outward, extending his senses across the landscape. Though he had used the Wish's power in this way many times before, he still gasped at the sensation of being in all places at once. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling everything as far as the horizon.

His senses expanded across the Phoenix lands, out across small villages, secluded temples, and proud castles. He felt a sense of joy, a warm pride, to see his cousins and be in their Empire again. He felt that sensation echo from the Wish. It, too, was happy to be home. The people of the Phoenix lands continued about their business, unaware of Aikune's awareness as it passed over them. Occasionally a shugenja would look about in confusion as Aikune's awareness covered him. An old monk sitting alone on a hilltop glanced up from his meditations and gave a small wave, drawing a chuckle from Aikune. Here and there, he could sense a flicker of energy as his senses moved over the landscape. Swirling motes of bubbling black magic emerged from the earth, flitting up eagerly as they sensed Aikune's presence.

For a moment, he was alarmed that he had triggered a Bloodspeaker trap, but the concern quickly faded. The motes resolved themselves into small, childlike creatures, composed purely of elemental magic. They were the Children of the Last Wish, guardians created by Asako Sagoten to watch over the Wish during its years of lonely solitude before Aikune had discovered it. During his exile, Aikune had left the children to protect the Phoenix Clan. Now they recognized his return and flocked eagerly to meet him.

"Aikune," one whispered.

"Wish," said another. In their odd tongue the two words sounded very much the same.

"There is danger, Aikune," said a third. "You should not be here."

"What has happened?" he asked them calmly.

"Danger," another repeated. "The City of Sacrifice will fall."

Aikune felt a curious sense of recognition at the name. The fires of the Wish flared around his body. "City of Sacrifice?" he answered. "There is no City of Sacrifice."

"Gisei Toshi will burn before the next sun rises," said another.

"Gisei Toshi?" Aikune said, confused. "Gisei Toshi burned centuries ago."

"The Hidden City will die," said another, "and with it dies the Phoenix Clan."

"I do not understand," Aikune said.

"Nothing can prevent this," sand another.

-NO!-

The fires of the Last Wish erupted around Aikune, burning a brilliant red tinged with a white so pure that it hurt his eyes to gaze upon it. He felt power surge through his body, power unlike he had ever felt before even when using the Wish to what he had thought was its fullest potential.

"What is happening?" he asked, startled by the suddenness of it.

-GISEI TOSHI.-

He had never heard such rage, such focused anger from the Wish. He could not help but be somewhat frightened. "There is no such city," he said.

"Gisei Toshi stands, Shiba Aikune," said one of the Children. "Iuchiban prepares his final attack as we speak. Your friend, Nakamuro, alone among the Council defies him."

"Nakamuro?" Aikune replied. Everything was happening so fast.

-WE MUST GO, AIKUNE. GO NOW. I WILL NOT LET THEM DESTROY THE PLACE WHERE FATHER CREATED ME.-

"Are you sure that you are ready?" Aikune asked.

-Yes.- The Wish's voice was calmer now. -I have found something worth fighting for.-

Mirumoto Kenzo sat upon the walls of Gisei Toshi, gaunt face fixed into a scowl. It was not the acrid smoke of burning corpses that disturbed the Dragon, nor the insane moans of the undead army that still gathered in the mountains around the City of Sacrifice. It was not the wound on his left shoulder - well bound and treated by a Phoenix healer - that seemed to concern him. His attention was not on the siege at all, but fixed upon the center of the city, where the seven temples stood.

"Five days, since Toku and the others left with the Black Scrolls," Mirumoto Mareshi said. Kenzo's lieutenant stood by the wall, carefully peering through an arrow slit. "Five days since we saw any sign of Yajinden leading the armies outside, and we did not expect to survive three. They must have succeeded, don't you think?"

"Of all our allies," Kenzo replied in a low voice, "Toku is the one I have never doubted."

"Kenzo-sama?" Mareshi said, looking at his friend curiously. His odd green eyes shone in the torchlight.

"What have they been hiding here, Mareshi?" Kenzo said.

Mareshi did not reply; he knew Kenzo did not expect an answer.

"Five years," Kenzo continued. "Five years they have played at peace, extended the hand of friendship to us. They promised to aid us, Nakamuro most of all. While we embarked on our quest to rid the Empire of corrupted artifacts like the one that started our war years ago& all the while they were hiding this." He gestured at the seven temples with a broad sweep of his arm. "A storehouse of the forbidden, simply waiting for a madman like Iuchiban to find it. Did they laugh at us, Mareshi? Did they watch us as we searched the Empire for that which might do it harm even as they hoarded deadly nemuranai in their temples? Did they snicker at our feeble effort?"

"Perhaps you should not judge the Phoenix so harshly, Kenzo-sama," Mareshi said. "Their ways are not our ways. Both of our clans have secrets, and I suspect the Phoenix would be just as greatly surprised were they to learn ours, and fail to understand the reasons for what we do just as easily."

"But the Empire will not suffer for our secrets," Kenzo said with a sneer.

"Are you so sure?" Mareshi asked, looking at his lord carefully. "You might ask Satsu how dangerous our secrets are."

Kenzo gave Mareshi and steady, unwavering look, indicating he was unwilling to discuss the matter further. He rose, and gestured for Mareshi to follow. The two Mirumoto made their way down from the wall, into the city itself. A half dozen Dragon samurai automatically fell into step. Allies or no, this was still a Phoenix city, and the Mirumoto were wary. They strode through the eerily silent city, ignoring the suspicious eyes of the Phoenix as they passed. They arrived finally at the Temple of Bishamon, where Shiba Marihito barred their path.

"I wish to speak to the Master of Air," Kenzo said, looking past the guard.

"We would prefer that you not enter the temples, Mirumoto-sama," Marihito replied sternly. "You may speak to the Master of Air when"

"What are you keeping in there?" Kenzo asked, looking at Marihito sharply. "We Dragon risk as much as you Phoenix in protecting this city, yet the temples are barred to us outside of war councils. The Black Scrolls have been sent away, but what else do you hide? Another Dark Covenant? I demand to know what you Phoenix hide in these temples that will damn us all when the Bloodspeakers finally breach the walls."

Marihito's face flushed. His jaw worked in wordless rage, hands balled into fists. Before he could reply, the doors of the temple opened. Isawa Nakamuro stood there, holding the Spear of Bishamon in one hand. His hair hung loose around his shoulders, his eyes dark and intense as he looked upon Kenzo and his samurai coolly.

"Mirumoto Kenzo," he said.

"Nakamuro-sama," Kenzo said respectfully, bowing to the Master. "I have many questions."

"Come inside," Nakamuro said, welcoming the Dragon into the temple. "We have nothing to hide from you."

"Mareshi, come," Kenzo said. "The rest of you, wait here." Kenzo followed the Master of Air inside with his lieutenant. The heavy doors closed behind them.

"Any word from the Council, Nakamuro-sama?" Mareshi asked.

"No," Nakamuro said. "Though we have seen no sign of Yajinden, his magic is still at work, preventing me from communing with my brethren."

"So we are still alone," Kenzo said.

Nakamuro looked at Kenzo solemnly. "This temple is where we hide the most dangerous of our artifacts, under Bishamon's watchful eye," he said as he led them through the temple. "If I have not told you what we keep here, it is not for the sake of secrecy, but for safety. You know much of nemuranai, Dragon. Surely you know that some of them have an intelligence of their own, and that intelligence is not always benevolent. Sometimes to simply know of them is enough for their influence to take hold."

Mareshi looked uncomfortably at his commander, then back at the Master of Air.

"I am well trained in dealing with such artifacts," Kenzo said. "Know that it is not arrogance, but confidence that leads me to reply that I know and accept the risks."

"Then I will show you what we hold here," Nakamuro said, "but I must show you something else first."

"Then lead on," Kenzo said.

"Before you see what I would show you, you must know something of the history of this place," Nakamuro said. "These are the oldest temples of the Fortunes in existence. Some would say that they are the Seven Fortunes' homes in the mortal plane. Each temple bears a large statue, an ancient representation of its Fortune. Since they were placed, each statue has faced to the east, to greet the rising sun."

"Not Bishamon," Mareshi replied quickly. "I remember from our earlier councils, Bishamon faces to the southwest. I found it odd that the Fortune had his back to the door of his temple."

Nakamuro nodded. "The day Fu Leng rose from the Festering Pit, the statue was found facing that direction, facing what would become the Shadowlands. It has faced that direction ever since, except a single day, when it faced toward the southeast."

"Toward Otosan Uchi," Kenzo said. "The Day of Thunder?"

"Yes," Nakamuro said. "This morning, I found this."

They stepped into the main room of the temple. The mighty statue of Bishamon now stood facing them.

Kenzo looked back the way they had come, then looked at the Master of Air. "It faces east," he said.

Nakamuro nodded. "Toward Kyuden Isawa," he said gravely. "Toward my home."

A traveler walked along the single road that led through the Phoenix village. The man rode no horse, carried no weapons save a knife, yet was obviously a samurai. He wore a kimono of pure white, long black topknot falling down his back. He walked with an unhurried, confident pace. He did not know the name of this place, nor did he truly care. Such details were irrelevant. He looked back the way he had come. On the horizon, the subtle glow of a larger city chased away the shadows of night.

Perfect.

He made his way to the shrine in the center of the temple. As he approached, the doors opened. A beautiful maiden in early middle age emerged, wearing the simple robes of a priestess. She knelt before him.

"Lord Iuchiban," she said. "You have been expected."

"The delay was unfortunate," Iuchiban replied. "I had much to attend to."
"Of course," she said, looking up at him with a slight smile. "I eagerly look forward to seeing the results, master."

"Speaking of results," Iuchiban replied, "I see no villagers, Kinuye."

"Everything has been prepared," she said, rising and gesturing toward the temple doors.

Iuchiban removed his shoes and stepped through the threshold of the temple. The interior was dark, so dark he could barely distinguish the huddled figures heaped in the corners. The floor was wet, sticky, and warm. The coppery smell of fresh blood filled his nostrils.

"The villagers fell ill of a mysterious ailment," Kinuye said, looking at her handiwork with a pleased smile. "They gathered here, in the Temple of Jurojin, to pray that their suffering would end. As a servant of the Fortunes, I answered their prayers."

"I find no humor in this, Kinuye," Iuchiban said, looking at her calmly. "Many enemies still arrange themselves against us. My power is great, but I have been defeated before. This time they are prepared, tempered by the Second Day of Thunder. To gloat now would be premature, do you not think so?"

Kinuye looked away quietly, admitting her error. A Bloodspeaker did not apologize.

"But such details are trivial, in light of your success," Iuchiban said. He drew a sharp knife from his obi and stepped toward the shrine at the rear of the temple. "The slaughter of this village has branded this place as a passage to the darkest of the Spirit Realms. Now it is a simple matter to bring our accomplice here." Iuchiban drew the blade across his palm, letting a drop of his own blood fall upon the small statue of Jurojin, Fortune of Longevity. Almost immediately, the earth beneath their feet began to tremble. The pools of blood on the floor shifted of their own accord, moving languidly across the stones.

"What is happening?" Kinuye asked.

Iuchiban looked at her dispassionately. "I have summoned a distraction," he said. "Something to attend to the Wolf and the remaining members of the Elemental Council so that I will not be disturbed in Gisei Toshi. When it sees Kyuden Isawa on the horizon, it will remember its hunger."

Kinuye looked at her master with growing excitement. "What is it?" she asked.

"Stay and see, if you wish," Iuchiban said, walking toward the door with an unhurried pace. "Though I intend not to be here when it arrives." With that, Iuchiban faded into the shadows, spirited away by his magic.

Kinuye's face paled. She ran from the temple as swiftly as she could, all curiosity brushed aside by the prospect of facing a creature that not even her master could control.

Shiba Tsukimi clambered atop a tall rock and looked around, swearing under her breath. In the dim pre-dawn light she could see nothing but blank, snowcapped mountains. That was all, except of course for the shivering army of Phoenix soldiers who followed her. All were veterans, soldiers who had fought beside in many battles against bandits and Yobanjin raiders over the last few years. They knew that what they did here was not by the Council's orders, but they all bore personal loyalty to her, and trusted her judgment.

She should have known better. Something like this was to be expected from the Master of the Void. She showed a bit of public defiance, demanding that the Council allow her greater freedom to hunt the Bloodspeakers plaguing their provinces, and had been denied out of hand. Then, conveniently, the Master of the Void appeared offering her information regarding a Bloodspeaker attack on a city thought destroyed for centuries.

How could she have been so gullible? Obviously the Council planned this, knew that she would defy orders for what she believed to be right and make a fool of herself. The worst part was that, now that the deed was done, her troops would no doubt be punished as well. Punished for nothing more than showing loyalty to a leader who did not deserve it.

Ironic, considering the true defiance was her own.

Such thoughts were unlike a Phoenix. Tsukimi took a deep breath of the chill night air and reminded herself that her duty was to obey the Council of Masters. Even if they ignored the Bloodspeaker threat that festered on their doorstep. Even if they fought among themselves more often than they came to any decision. Even if they went out of their way to undermine Lord Mirabu every time he made a good decision just to keep him the figurehead they wanted to be. She had always hoped that Ningen was a bit more reliable than the others, if only because he was a Shiba like herself, but it seemed even that was too much to ask.

Tsukimi swore and pushed such dishonorable thoughts aside. Her duty was to the Council. She had come here hoping to stop the Bloodspeakers, hoping to protect the Masters from their own foolishness. Instead, they had probably duped her, and she had wasted her time here. It was very disheartening, but she could not help but think that she deserved it. All that remained was to return to Kyuden Isawa and take the blame upon her own shoulders. Perhaps her men could be spared sharing her punishment.

"My honor is my life," she said with a sardonic grin. "My life for the Phoenix."

"Tsukimi-sama?" replied her second-in-command. He looked up at her, awaiting orders.

"Nothing, Toshiki," she replied grimly. "Just talking to myself again."

"Say anything interesting?" he asked.

"Only that a certain gunso believes he is a great deal more amusing than he is," she said, looking down at him coldly.

"I will be certain to keep an eye out for that one, then," he said, folding his arms across his chest seriously and scanning a careful eye over the troops. "I think I know the one you mean. I hear he's quite dashing, so he should stand out."

"I heard differently," Shiba Gyukudo said dryly, glancing up from where he was polishing his wakizashi nearby.

"This isn't the time for levity," Tsukimi said. "Stay alert."

Toshiki gave her a worried look. "Is there a problem, Tsukimi-sama?" he asked.

"Tetsuzo is coming," Gyukudo said, rising to his feet and quickly sheathing his sword.

The entire camp was suddenly alert; everyone knew Gyukudo's ears were the sharpest in the regiment. Soon the sound of approaching hoof beats grew clear enough for everyone to hear. A warrior in the dark orange armor of a Phoenix scout galloped toward the camp, bent low in his saddle. When he saw the fires of campsite he straightened. Tsukimi gasped when she saw him. Shiba Tetsuzo's face was covered in blood, his eyes white with terror. An arrow was lodged deep in his collarbone. Another was buried in his chest.

"Brothers of Shiba, to arms!" he shouted with his last breath.

With that, a dozen arrows flew from the darkness behind him and knocked Tetsuzo dead from his saddle.

"Aim!" Tsukimi shouted.

She drew her bow and fired an arrow just as the first of the undead riders emerged from the shadows, striking it in the skull. The arrow erupted with Isawa magic as it struck, and the creature fell screaming as blue fire erupted inside its chest. A flurry of arrows accompanied her own, bolstered by Phoenix magic. A bolt of white hot lightning also ravaged their ranks, summoned by Asako Soun, the regiment's finest shugenja. The first rank of undead riders collapsed, their foul steeds torn apart by the assault. The remaining few were split into small groups, confused by the precision and fury of the Phoenix attack.

"Charge!" Tsukimi shouted, pointing to the smallest isolated group and drawing her sword.

The Shiba worked quickly and methodically, surrounding the disorganized groups of undead one by one and destroying them. When the battle was done she quickly turned and surveyed her troops. None seemed to have fallen other than Tetsuzo. Soun and the other shugenja were already drawing upon their magic and training to treat the wounded. She knelt in the snow beside one of the fallen enemies, studying it from a distance with a careful eye. Gyukudo rushed to her side, eyes alert as he caught his breath.

"No sign of any more nearby, Tsukimi-sama," he said, "though they left a clear trail. Perhaps Tetsuzo found their army?"

"Then let us hurry," she said, staring into the vacant eye sockets of a long-dead Phoenix samurai. "Lest the defenders of Gisei Toshi share this fallen hero's fate."

Isawa Nakamuro stood upon the walls of the City of Sacrifice, studying the undead armies cautiously. A shield of air spirits swirled around him, protecting him both from mundane sight as well as the stray Bloodspeaker arrow. Since Toku's departure, the Bloodspeaker assaults had been random and disorganized, with little cohesive strategy behind them, but now the Bloodspeakers were forming into orderly ranks again. He could only assume that the previous chaos meant Toku had somehow removed Yajinden from the equation.

Nakamuro hoped that the legendary hero had also survived the confrontation, but he already knew that was unlikely. When the Black Scrolls had been hidden among their saddlebags, Toku had requested that Nakamuro not place one in his own bags, but to put them in his son's. The quiet confidence of the old samurai's words told the Master of Air that Toku already had a plan to defeat Yajinden, and that his own survival was not a concern. Their final meeting filled Nakamuro with a turbulent mix of emotions - sadness that such a great hero was riding off to meet his death and pride that he had helped to insure Toku's final victory.

"We will not fail now, General," he promised to the wind. He knew the spirits would carry his words to Toku, wherever he was now.

"They will attack soon," Kenzo said, appearing beside him on the wall. "They have a leader again."

"Prepare your men, Kenzo," Nakamuro said. The spirits shifted slightly, allowing Kenzo to see him clearly.

"We are always prepared," he replied stoically.

Nakamuro nodded. They waited several more minutes in tense silence, watching the undead legions form into orderly units beneath them, preparing ladders, siege towers, and archer rows. Nakamuro noted that they moved with greater precision and intelligence than before.

"Iuchiban is here," he said.

Kenzo looked down at the enemy carefully through an arrow slit. "I think that you are right, Master of Air," he said. "This will be difficult."

"Considering it took an alliance of all the Great Clans to defeat him twice before, I think that is an understatement, Kenzo-san," Nakamuro said.

"I will fight all the same," Kenzo replied. "If it makes any difference, I will be proud to die beside you, Master of Air even though you are a Phoenix."

Nakamuro looked down at Kenzo and laughed. "Likewise."

The Dragon moved away down the wall, shouting terse orders to his troops. Nakamuro concentrated on his magic, spreading his awareness into the wards that protected the city walls.

Nakamuro's soul suddenly filled with searing pain. The air spirits drew back in fear, releasing him to fall in a heap atop the wall. He quickly gathered himself, catching his breath and focusing again. Something was assaulting the magic that fueled the walls of Gisei Toshi, tearing it apart from the inside.

"Ariminhime!" he called out to the spirit of Isawa's sister. "Grandmother, can you hear me?"

Two words came in reply, echoing weakly from a cavern beneath Gisei Toshi.

"Help me."

Nakamuro stood upright, grasping Bishamon's spear in both hands. He felt the Fortune's strength rage through him, pure righteous anger at this assault upon his city. "Wazuka, Junichiro," he said, pointing to two nearby shugenja. "Follow me."

They nodded, looking to the Master of Air for guidance. He leapt into the air, carried by kami, and spun his spear in a wide arc. His magic pulled the spirits tighter about him, whipping them into a frenzy until he was surrounded with a shrieking aura of burning lighting. The halls of Gisei Toshi would take him to the cavern where Ariminhime was being attacked, but too slowly. Nakamuro cut a swift arc into the air and plummeted downward into the courtyard, searing through solid stone and carving his way into the bowels of the city, leaving a gleaming red tunnel bordered with molten stone in his wake. Wazuka and Junichiro followed a bit more gingerly, looking at the burning path Nakamuro had left behind with silent awe as the air spirits bore them gently downward.

The Master of Air landed in the cavern beneath the city, beside the small freshwater lake that provided the city's drinking water. The waters ran red now, and a figure composed of bubbling, murky blood rose from the depths. Its eyes burned with red energy. It clutched the spectral figure of Isawa Ariminhime by the throat with both hands.

"Release my ancestor, beast!" Nakamuro cried, pointing the spear at the thing. A needle thin torrent of screaming wind extended from the tip of the spear, ten feet long. He moved it in a swift arc, cutting the creature from shoulder to hip with ease but leaving Ariminhime unharmed. Its body toppled and melted back into the water. Ariminhime faded away, vanishing back into the walls. Nakamuro ran to the edge of the lake. He could still feel a powerful dark presence flowing through the waters, the same malevolent intelligence that had attacked Ariminhime. The two shugenja flanked him, scrolls in hand as they scanned the waters.

"You blaspheme this holy place with your presence," he hissed between clenched teeth. "Begone before the wrath of heaven falls upon you."

"Heaven?" a mocking voice echoed from the depths of the pool. "Heaven has no power over me, little firebird." The dark presence in the waters rolled outward, staining them a dark red. The surface began to boil, and the misshapen figure rose from the surface again.

"We shall see," Nakamuro said. He held one hand outward in a gesture against evil and began shouting a prayer to Bishamon. The two shugenja fell into his chant, and a wave of green energy rushed out from them, burning through the waters, causing the blood to boil and steam. The ghoulish figure shrieked and melted into nothing once more. For a time, all was silent in the cave, though the echoes of battle could now be heard overhead.

Then the voice returned, seeming closer now. "You Phoenix are hypocrites," it said. "You claim to be the voice of righteousness, the protectors of all that is holy. Yet this, the oldest and proudest of your cities, is like all things Phoenix. Gisei Toshi bears a façade of purity while rotten at the base. This city was built on blood, little firebird. Had you grasped the truth, had your tribe not set aside blood magic so as not to offend the Empire, you might still understand the magic that courses through the walls of your city, the same magic that denies my army its rightful conquest." There was another long silence, punctuated by the sounds of steel on steal and the screams of the dying overhead.

Suddenly, a thunderous explosion shook the caverns, throwing Nakamuro off his feet. The ceiling crumbled overhead, spilling stone upon them. A shield of air wrapped itself around Nakamuro, protecting him from the worst of the damage. He staggered to his feet again, brushing off the dust and stone that had covered him. Wazuka seemed unharmed as well, but Junichiro was nowhere to be seen beneath the rubble. A tall man now stood before him, dressed in a kimono of pure white. A black topknot fell down his back, and he held a curved knife in one hand. He looked at Nakamuro sadly.

"But you don't understand, little firebird," Iuchiban said. "Not as I do. Your walls are gone now."

Nakamuro shouted defiantly and called out to the heavens. A bolt of white lightning fired down from the sky, arcing down the tunnel Nakamuro had left behind and striking Iuchiban full in the chest. The Bloodspeaker staggered backward under the impact. Wazuka took advantage of his weakness, charging at him as a spell enveloped her wakizashi in brilliant flame. She swung the weapon at Iuchiban, burying the weapon in the side of his neck.

His head half severed from his body, Iuchiban looked up at her in annoyed pain. He buried his knife in her chest, and spoke a single word in a foreign tongue. Wazuka screamed as her body exploded in black fire. Iuchiban reared back and hurled her flaming, screaming body at Nakamuro. The Master of air rolled to one side, cursing in anger. Iuchiban ran toward him with impossible speed, backhanding the Master of Air across the face and sending him flying into the wall, Nakamuro felt a wet snap in his chest as he struck the stone and slid to the floor. He coughed painfully, spitting blood upon his kimono.

Half dazed, he looked up to see Iuchiban approaching purposefully, the wound on his neck already healed. Nakamuro desperately plucked Bishamon's spear from the ground nearby and flung it at the Bloodspeaker. Iuchiban's eyes narrowed in momentary concern as he stepped quickly out of the way. The spear clattered uselessly on the ground. Iuchiban stood over Nakamuro, dagger in hand, and frowned.

"Where did you send the Black Scrolls, little firebird?" Iuchiban asked in a toneless voice.

Nakamuro reached for his scrolls. Iuchiban reached out swiftly with one hand, seizing the Master of Air's forearm and crushing it in his fist.

"No more of that," he said with a snarl. "Where did you send them?"

"Kill me," Nakamuro said. "I won't tell you."

"Very well," Iuchiban said, flipping the dagger in his hand. He paused with the blade held over the Nakamuro, looking over his shoulder with a grim expression. The caverns suddenly glowed with a warm red glow, the glow of a brilliant flame.

Iuchiban straightened and moved away from Nakamuro so that he saw the source of the flame. Shiba Aikune now stood in the center of the cavern, katana in hand, surrounded with a brilliant aura of red flame.

"At last," Iuchiban said.

"Leave our city, Bloodspeaker," Aikune commanded.

"That is a powerful tool you command," Iuchiban said, moving slowly closer to Aikune, "but it will not protect you from me."

"Isawa's Last Wish has greater power than you imagine, Iuchiban," Aikune warned.

"Foolish Phoenix," Iuchiban said with a chuckle. "I was speaking to the Wish."

"This is useless," Hitomi Vedau snarled as he shoved a small sapling out of his way with a dry snap. "These trails loop around and upon themselves. We are almost to Kyuden Isawa and have found nothing!" Vedau glared all around him, arms folded across his thick chest. The big Dragon was clearly uncomfortable away from any healthy outlets for his violence, and was searching for any available avenue to amend that.

"The tracks are confusing," Hiruma Todori said. The old scout crouched low to the ground. "The Bloodspeakers are moving almost at random, between those sites of upturned earth we keep finding."

"What does it mean?" the Dragon demanded.

"I have a theory," Todori said. "The first time Iuchiban rose, he animated the corpses in the Imperial burial grounds, pitting the fallen heroes of Rokugan against the Imperial Guard. It was because of that battle that we cremate the dead, leaving madmen such as him few opportunities to create undead troops. The Bloodspeakers are a cult with a long history. It's my guess that over the centuries they've buried their sacrificial victims in places like the ones we've found&"

"Future soldiers," Vedau replied.

Todori nodded. "They are gathering an army. Or rather, they have gathered it already, from the age of these tracks." Todori said.

"So we are too late," Vedau growled.

"Perhaps," Todori said, looking at the ground bitterly. The scout's expression hardened slightly. He pressed one hand to the earth, tilting his head to listen.

"What are you doing?" Vedau asked.

"Quiet," Todori said, holding out one hand.

Vedau looked surprised. No one had ever dared command the massive tattooed Dragon to be silent before. His respect for the Hiruma daimyo increased.

"Run," Todori said, looking up at him.

"What?" Vedau asked.

Todori was already gone, darting through the trees at a speed surprising for his age. As he left, the earth began to shake. Vedau quickly swallowed his confusion and followed Todori. He looked back over his shoulder as he ran. Over the tops of the trees, he saw a mountain move slowly toward them. Ruined houses and a small temple stood upon its back. As he watched, one house crumbled and toppled off the side. The mountain rose over the treetops enough for Vedau to see a gaping black maw. A horrible roar sounded even over the din of the shaking earth as the creature grew closer with phenomenal speed. To his surprise, Vedau saw Todori stop, wakizashi in hand.

"May as well make a stand," Todori shouted. "Even I can't outrun this."

"I can," Vedau said. He grinned fiercely and drew upon the power of his tattoos. He scooped up Todori in one arm, and sped away over the mountains, leaving a trail of dust and broken trees in his wake.

"My apologies for the indignity, Hiruma-sama," Vedau shouted to him as he ran. His time among the Imperial Court had taught him most family daimyos preferred not to be picked up off the ground, though of course the current circumstances were extreme.

"Can you keep this speed all the way to Kyuden Isawa?" Todori shouted back.

"I intended to," Vedau replied.

"We have to warn them the Kusatte Iru is coming," Todori added.

"You recognize that thing, Crab?"

"Only from legends," Todori replied. "Rather, only from nightmares."

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!