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Legions, Part XI
By Rich Wulf

Daigotsu Hoturi stood on a high cliff, looking down at the valley below with quiet awe. Even his troubled soul was struck by the beauty of this place, for it was not every day that one was a witness to the act of creation. What once was a gray and featureless land became more distinct with each moment. A river now flowed gently through the hills to his left. The mists had begun to part, and twinkling stars could be seen in the sky above. All of this new order seemed to radiate outward from the ruins of the vast city that dominated the center of the valley. Though its structures were strange and exotic to Hoturi's eye, he recognized this place from legends.

This was Volturnum, the City of Trolls, home to Oblivion's Gate.

He could sense the power of the Gate from here, feel it pulling at his soul. It called to him, drew him to step through its threshold and live once more. The temptation was overwhelming, but he resisted. The Legion of Blood occupied the city below; it would be foolish for him to rush through their defenses to seek the wonders the Gate held. What's more, he had a higher purpose here. Hoturi looked upon the shambling form of the First Oni at the edge of the city, still locked in combat with his fellow Oni Lords. This beast, like so many others who once served Fu Leng, had been subverted to serve the Legion of Blood. Fu Leng had dispatched Hoturi to learn how this had happened.

Yet Hoturi remained where he was, not yet moving toward the field of battle. There were too many questions here, too many uncertainties. At the Bloodspeaker Iuchiban's command the Legion of Blood spread across this new-born realm like a wave of locusts. The Legion of the Dead, an army of heroes under Matsu Goemon's command, had gathered to face them. But where did it begin? Neither side knew of this strange Realm of Thwarted Destiny before this battle had begun. How did they come to be fighting over it?

"The answer is simple, Hoturi-san," said a sinuous voice. "What one believes they fight for is not always their true goal. Yet, in the end, most souls are so simple that only victory matters."

Hoturi turned slowly. A serpentine dragon woven of darkness hovered in the air behind him. The samurai's pale face showed no hint of surprise. In a sense, Hoturi realized that he had been waiting for this creature.

"Shadow Dragon," he said, drawing his sword.

"Hoturi-san," the dragon replied. It looked at the tip of his blade with a trace of faint amusement. "Why show your steel to me? Am I your enemy?"
"Your Ninube were the ones who killed me," he hissed, keeping his blade steady. "You stripped me of the life Fu Leng returned to me, all so that you could betray Daigotsu and curry favor with Iuchiban."

The dragon chuckled. "You see only what is placed before you, Hoturi. What is death to a creature such as yourself? Why hold a grudge against me for stripping you of your mortal husk? I saw the joy in your eyes just now, when you looked upon this place. I know how rarely a being such as yourself finds happiness. This was my gift to you, Hoturi."

"What is happening here, dragon?" Hoturi asked, ignoring the dragon's comments. "Was it you who set these legions against one another or are you here merely to amuse yourself with the chaos you create?"

"Will any answer I give satisfy you?" the dragon asked. "Would you believe me? I confess it was not I who led the First Oni and his brethren astray. It was Yori and Yajinden who accomplished these things."

Hoturi scowled. "Then what is your business here, creature? What do you seek?"

"You," the Shadow Dragon replied.

"What?" Hoturi replied. "Impossible. How could you even know that I would come here?"

The dragon chuckled. "You more than any soul here has a vested interest in both sides of this conflict," the dragon answered. "The Legion of Blood has stolen your Kami's most powerful servants and Bayushi Dairu's soul marches among the Legion of the Dead. Why do you think the Ninube killed you, Hoturi? Because I knew you would inevitably be driven to this place."

Hoturi sheathed his blade, regarding the Shadow Dragon warily. "Why?" he asked.

"You are a unique creature, Daigotsu Hoturi," the Shadow Dragon said. "You bear some piece of the original Hoturi's Soul of Thunder, though it has been stained by Fu Leng's blessings. The soul extends through its bloodline. Just as Kachiko rescued Shosuro from my predecessor, just as Konishiko took up her dead brother's sword and marched into the Shadowlands, so can you sense and protect others who bear a connection to you. You already know this, Hoturi. Is that not how you protected Bayushi Dairu's vision from my influence?"

Hoturi folded his arms across his chest. "Whatever your goals, Shadow Dragon, you will be disappointed. I serve only Fu Leng and Daigotsu."

"Excellent," the dragon said. "Then you shall be interested in what I have to say. The task I offer is a simple one. You need only pursue a soul bound closely to your own, and return what has been lost."

"If you have business with Dairu, pursue it on your own, dragon," Hoturi snapped. "I will not aid you in whatever plans you have for my son."

The dragon chuckled. "Then never fear, Hoturi-san," it said. "For I have no interest in Dairu at all."

Sanzo sat apart from the others upon a small boulder. His horse stood close by, looking at him with soulful black eyes. He gazed helplessly back as he stroked Musha's mane, more for his own comfort than the animal's.

"Why are you here, Musha?" Sanzo whispered to the animal. "Is there not a better fate for such a loyal beast? Why did you follow me to this place? You deserve green fields and fresh water, not this endless battle."

The horse, of course, said nothing. It only stared at its master with a warm, loyal gaze. Sanzo drew some measure of strength from that. Though he might fail again and again, Musha was always there. Odd, how something as small as that helped dull the pain of the fear that now lanced the ronin's heart.

Once, long ago, Sanzo had been afraid. On that day he crouched in terror among the reeds as the ogres slew his wife, daughter, and friends. Since that day he had not known fear again. There was no reason for fear; a man who had lost everything truly had nothing to risk. For decades following that day and even after his death he had wandered the lands without fear.

Now, as he watched this realm change around him, as he watched this place resolve into something more than it had been, he was afraid again. Sanzo looked back at the Legion of the Dead. The Sun and Moon stood among them, as well as the Fortunes of Persistence, Heroes, and Rebirth. An Elemental Grand Master numbered among them as well as some of the greatest heroes he had ever known. The Lords of Death, bizarre gaijin gods who supposedly now protected the Unicorn Clan, were also his allies. All of these souls now waited for him. Men, women, and gods relied upon him. Though many of them had been trapped in this realm as he had been, none of them knew it as well as he did.

Failure was an acceptable fate, one that Sanzo was accustomed to, but only when it was only his own soul at risk. This was different. What if he failed now? What fate awaited this place, awaited the souls now trapped within it, if he was not strong enough? The heavy crunch of footsteps approached, and Sanzo looked up with a bleak expression. A massive warrior in black armor approached.

"We leave within the hour," the man said without greeting or preamble. "Will you be ready, ronin?"

"Yes," Sanzo whispered. "I can guide you to the Gate, Kisada-sama, though I still think this plan is unsafe."

Kisada looked down at Sanzo silently.

"Master Kuro says that you will appear at the Gate's counterpart in the mortal realm, in the heart of the Shadowlands," Sanzo said. "Even if we survive our fight through the city, how will you escape the Shadowlands alone?"

"Persistence," the Crab replied and continued on his path, walking past Sanzo toward the other leaders of the Legion.

A tall warrior in brilliant green armor followed the Crab, also approaching the place where Sanzo sat. Sanzo bowed from his boulder. The man returned the gesture and sat upon a stone nearby.

"You are Sanzo," the man said.

Sanzo nodded.

"I know you," the man said. "I remember you. Were you not a guest in my father's home once?"

Sanzo looked up, studying the strange samurai's features. His face was familiar, now that he thought about it. He remembered a time many years ago when he visited the halls of the Mirumoto. It was long before the day his family had died, the day that everything that was Dragon within him had died.

"That was not me," Sanzo said quietly.

Satsu's harsh eyes did not move from the ronin's. "I know many things can lead a man to the path of the wave-man, Sanzo," Satsu said. "I do not know what shame hides in the shadows of your past life, nor do I care. Tsukune claims you know a way to Oblivion's Gate, a way that Yori's army does not know."

Sanzo nodded.

"Do you have the strength to walk the path that lies ahead?" Satsu asked.

Sanzo did not reply at first. "I know the way," he said at last, "but I sense there is more to your question."

"The Lying Darkness left a savage wound upon the Celestial Order, and this realm has grown to fill the void," Satsu replied. "This realm could become a place of hope and potential, or it could become the embodiment of ruined destiny, a place where potential is extinguished forever, where samurai must watch the deeds of their lives reduced to bitter failure. My sister fears that should such a thing come to be, the remnants of the Lying Darkness would return to life once more."

"What does that have to do with me?" Sanzo asked. "I'm not fighting for the future of this place, I'm just guiding Hida Kisada to the gate so that he can help the mortals find a way to kill Iuchiban. My task has nothing to do with this place."

"And when seven heroes fought Fu Leng their goal was to remove a wicked Emperor from the throne," Satsu replied. "Yet their actions determined the fate of the mortal realm. When the Celestial Order falls into disharmony, only conflict can restore balance. We are the instruments of that balance, Sanzo. I think it is no coincidence that we find ourselves in battle here now, just as this realm begins to complete itself."

Sanzo frowned. "Such news does little to make the task easier."

"Do not dwell upon failure, Sanzo, or failure will become your fate," Satsu said. "A warrior must know why he fights. He must know the price of failure so that he might be prepared to sacrifice everything to prevent it, but he must not let fear and doubt consume him. That path leads only to madness. Are you prepared to make that sacrifice, Sanzo?"

Sanzo pondered the Dragon's words. He remembered that day so long ago once more, the day he had known fear. He had been afraid to fight the beasts that destroyed his village, and at last he understood why. He had not been afraid to die, he had been afraid to fight and fail, to give his life without meaning.

Through his cowardice he failed before the battle had begun.

"I am ready," he said.

"Good," Satsu replied. He rose to leave, but stopped a few feet away.

"You were a Dragon once," Satsu continued. "Yet you carry only one sword."

Sanzo looked down at the katana at his hip. "I lost my wakizashi long ago," he answered.

Satsu rose and stood before the ronin. Wordlessly, he drew his own short blade from his obi and offered it to Sanzo. "A Mirumoto cannot fight with only one blade," he said. "Not even one who no longer bears the name."

"I cannot take this, Satsu-sama," Sanzo said, looking at the blade in surprise. "What if I fail and bring your sword shame?"

Satsu's lip curled into a small smile. "Easy enough, my friend," he said. "Do not fail."

The battle had begun in earnest. Already the Legion of the Dead had swarmed the walls of Volturnum. The First Oni, who had nearly turned them aside before, now found itself bound in combat with two of its fellow Oni Lords. Though Junzo and the Steel Chrysanthemum commanded the Legion of Blood, Yori had little doubt that they would fail. They were irrelevant. The majority of twisted souls that formed his legion were, after all, failures. They were beings so weak that they had sought solace in the power Iuchiban offered, and instead found enslavement.

Kuni Yori cared little. He stared up into the alien structure of Oblivion's Gate, studying the strange image of a serpent devouring its own tale. Well protected by his own demonic guard, he ignored the battle around him. His twisted features creased into a slow smile as he watched the Gate begin to flare from within, long dormant power now rushing to the surface.

Yori pondered the strange course of events that had resulted in this battle. The Legion of Blood believed that they were formed to halt the Legion of the Dead's crusade against the Bloodspeakers, but Yori knew that was not true. Many of the souls in this army had wandered this place long before Goemon even became a Fortune. The Legion of the Dead believed that this place was born of the Legion of Blood's meddling, and had gathered to fight it. Which was the truth? To Yori, obviously neither was the truth. As he studied the Gate, he assembled the pieces of what he knew in his mind.

And he began to understand.

This realm was born long ago, during his imprisonment within the Naga pearl. Few had noticed its existence, so well it was hidden among the shadows of the Spirit Realms. It was born out of destiny denied, the chaos of the War of Spirits, the aftermath of the Lying Darkness' defeat. Only those accursed souls who had been denied their fate discovered it, and of course were consumed by it in turn.

One, however, could not be consumed.

Yajinden.

The swordsmith had spent decades imprisoned in Iuchiban's tomb, suffering all manner of torture at the hands of his master. During that time Yajinden had sought out all possible avenues of escape, and found none. Perhaps it was then that he learned of this place, and when the realm reached out to consume him it found itself unable to remove him from the Tomb. By the time Yajinden made his escape he had prepared his defenses and this realm could no longer claim him. Curious about the potential of this place but unwilling to risk himself personally, he assembled an army of wretched, expendable spirits to investigate. Iuchiban knew nothing of this, but why would he care? The swordsmith often indulged in experiments without his impatient master's knowledge.

Yet when the Legion of Blood first began searching for this place, it began to react to their presence. It grew and fed upon them; it began to develop into an independent realm. When the Celestial Heavens sensed the imbalance, the Legion of the Dead was created to stop it. Goemon simply assumed that his enemy was the army of Bloodspeaker spirits and marched out to stop them, never realizing that they sought this mysterious new realm on Yajinden's behalf, not Iuchiban's.

When Iuchiban learned of the Legions, his paranoia consumed him. He commanded Yajinden to create an army of his own to fight Goemon's forces& a simple enough task, considering Yajinden already had one. The only true mystery left, Yori realized, was why did Yajinden call upon him to lead this army? He knew that Yajinden was an unwilling slave of Iuchiban. He had defied his master before, even helped bind him within his tomb. It was Yajinden who told Yori the legends of the Doomseeker, the title of those who once battled the khadi. Yet ultimately, Yajinden could not directly act against Iuchiban. That was why he needed Yori& somehow use him as a weapon against his master once more.

But how? And what did that accursed Shadow Dragon have to do with any of this?

The mystery intrigued Yori, but it did not truly matter. Now an impossible opportunity presented itself, an opportunity to pass through Oblivion's Gate, an opportunity to live once more. Only one would pass through the threshold, then the magic would be gone.

"Kyojin," Yori said, his voice a dry hiss. "Do all that you can to keep Goemon's forces from this gate."

The enforcer nodded.

Yori returned to his musings, one skeletal hand tracing the smooth obsidian of the ancient gateway.

In the depths of the Shadowlands, in the heart of a ruined city, in the center of a forgotten arena, stood a broken portal of sleek black stone. Once, it had been a serpent, eternally swallowing its own tail. Once, it had been a gateway to other places.

Now it was only a ruin.

At the foot of the portal knelt a single man, dressed in a plain brown kimono. His head was shaven like a monk's. His dark brown eyes were fixed upon the heart of the portal. The scowling mempo that was the symbol of the true Dark Lord was emblazoned upon his right sleeve, guiding his sword arm.

And he waited.

"I do not trust him," Hida Enko whispered. She crouched in the shadows of a weathered archway beside the other four Crab. "We should not have come here."

"He would have come here even without us," Hiruma Ashihei whispered grimly. "Better that we keep an eye on him than let him wander alone, I think."

"No need to whisper, Crab," Rezan said, looking up from his meditation with a grim smile. "There are no secrets from me in this place. In any case, was it not one of your own that told me to come here? It is the least you can do to trust me in turn."

"One of our own?" Enko demanded. "What are you talking about?"
Rezan smiled.

"Madman," Enko said with a sneer, glaring at the kneeling ronin poet. "Why did we even listen to him?"

"He wears the symbol of the Dark Lord," Hida Daizu added, barely concealing the murder in his voice.

"The Dark Lord and the Crab are at peace, for now," Hiruma Todori said, though he watched Rezan cautiously. "The Crab will not fail to keep their word while Fu Leng's minions keep theirs."

"Rezan speaks the truth, for what it is worth," said Kuni Jiyuna. "Oblivion's Gate stirs once more." The Witch Hunter looked uneasy, eyes alert and fixed on the ronin poet. "How did you know this would happen, ronin? I sense no magic in you. You say a Crab told you what would happen here?"

Rezan only chuckled.

"What must we do, ronin?" Jiyuna asked. "What will come through the Gate?"

"You need not fear what comes," Rezan said, "and you need do nothing to aid it. It will aid us."

"Then why did you bring us here?" Enko snapped irritably. Rezan looked up at her mildly, eyes moving to her hand, clenched on the hilt of her sword. He smirked and returned to his vigil.

"You need only do what comes naturally, Crab," he said. "You will not be displeased with the results."

Enko opened her mouth to argue again, but Ashihei quickly held out a restraining hand. Enko followed his eyes; her sword was drawn in an instant, just as a cloud of boiling darkness spilled across the arena, followed by a hideous echoing cry.

"FOR IUCHIBAN!"

Two dozen black-robed men charged into the arena. Each man's head was shaven clean and covered with intricate scar patterns. Each wielded a wicked curved sword of black stone, blazing with red fire.

"Bloodspeakers," Jiyuna said, rising to her feet with a snarl.

"Only twenty," Ashihei replied calmly. He stood beside her, balancing his tetsubo in both hands. Daizu laughed, agreeing with his friend's bravado.

As the Bloodspeakers drew nearer, a peal of thunder echoed through the arena. A faint green light began to build within the depths of the shattered stone portal.

"The time has come," Rezan said, leaping to his feet. "The Realm of Thwarted Destiny opens. We must hold the portal until he arrives."

A savage crack resounded as Ashihei's tetsubo struck the first of the Bloodspeakers. An obsidian blade slashed his midsection but he struck its wielder away with a powerful backhand, ignoring the wound. Then Enko was beside him, katana slicing a path through the tsukai. Todori struck down another with a well placed arrow, narrowly dodging beneath another's blade. Jiyuna called jade fire from the earth to burn their enemies, but they continued their charge. Daizu threw a heavy shoulder into the first to approach the Gate, driving the Bloodspeaker into the ground, where he did not move again.

Another peal of thunder erupted, this time shaking the entire arena. The glow within the gate grew brighter.

A large Bloodspeaker fired a bolt of pure black energy into Daizu's chest, but the Crab did not fall, not at first. With a final burst of strength he seized his attacker by the throat and squeezed, then toppled to the earth.

"Daizu!" Todori shouted, fighting his way toward his comrade's side. The Bloodspeakers surged around the Hiruma daimyo but his blade seemed everywhere at once, knocking aside his enemies' weapons and slicing into their ranks. He hauled the larger man to his feet and retreated to the Gate. Through the portal he saw two mighty legions, clashing with one another in a half-formed reflection of the world around them. Rezan stood nearby, katana dripping with the blood of fallen Bloodspeakers, watching the battle with eager eyes. One army had reached the other side first, and Todori's heart fell when he saw the face of the man who led it.

It was a face that all men knew, a twisted, monstrous visage that all Crab were taught to remember. Taught to hate.

"Kuni Yori," Todori whispered.

"What have you done, poet?" Enko snapped, glaring at Rezan in betrayal.

"This is not how it was meant to be," Rezan hissed, sounding even angrier than the Crab.

"Ignore him!" Todori shouted. "Hold the portal. If Kuni Yori would walk this world again he will face us first!"
The cry invigorated the outnumbered and wounded Crab. They gathered in a circle around the Hiruma daimyo, blades, tetsubo, and magic holding back their attackers, but only barely. The battle would soon be over, they all knew, but the Bloodspeakers' victory would not be easy.

Todori risked another glance at the battle behind, and to his amazement the scene began to shift. A circle of warriors had broken through Yori's army, charging toward the Black Crab himself. Yori had turned to face them, striking down all who dared approach them with unspeakable magic. At his command, demons tore through the ranks of his attackers, but one would not fall. A single rider on a single horse charged through the chaos, screaming in blind fury. Neither Yori's magic nor demon claws would hold him at bay, and as he leapt from his saddle with his swords held high even the Black Crab seemed afraid. With a frustrated scream, Yori fell under the unknown rider's wild attack. As Yori fell, another samurai separated himself from the ranks of those attacking him, moving toward the gate.

Todori could risk watching the battle behind no longer, turning back to his attackers. It seemed for a moment as if the Bloodspeakers might be defeated despite the overwhelming odds, but his heart sank as he watched dozens more of the black-robed figures charging through every entrance into the arena. There was no way to fight so many, not in so ill-defended a place. Enko was right; the ronin had led them to their doom.

The bright glow of Oblivion's Gate began to fade, and for a moment the hope drained from the old scout's heart nothing had come through at all. At the very least, he said to himself, Yori had not returned.

Then a heavy footfall sounded behind him, and another. A massive warrior stepped through the shattered archway, black armor gleaming with the few sparks of magic that still crackled through the gate. This samurai was also familiar to every Crab that guarded the Wall, though when Todori saw him he could not bring himself to believe it was possible.

Rezan laughed out loud, a long, mad laugh.

The Bloodspeakers fell back, weapons shaking unsteadily in their hands, as they looked into the eyes of the lone samurai that had returned.

The Great Bear, the Fortune of Persistence, Hida Kisada, had entered to the mortal realm. For a long, silent moment, the enormous warrior said nothing, did nothing. His flint black eyes scanned the ranks of the wounded Crab soldiers and the countless enemies that surrounded him.

"I have been told much has changed," he said, deep voice echoing through the arena, "but I see too much has remained the same."

He lifted his tetsubo in one thick hand, pointing it at the chest of the nearest Bloodspeaker. He said nothing more. The Crab stood as one, their wounds forgotten, and charged into the enemy beside their returned leader.

This time, the outcome was not in question.

It was done.

Sanzo stood in the heart of Volturnum, staring at the empty archway of Oblivion's Gate. The stone was pitted and cracked now. Crumbling pieces dropped off periodically as the dormant portal succumbed to the ravages of time. The ronin felt odd, strangely detached. He had fought in many battles before, survived many, but no battle had felt quite like this. The ground was clean of all corpses; the souls of Yori's army had either vanished upon their deaths or fled when it was clear victory would not be theirs. Even the Black Crab had fled, though not before uttering a murderous curse and a promise of vengeance against Sanzo.

As ever, the only constant was Musha. The dead ronin's horse stood nearby, patiently waiting for its master.

Many of the others had gone as well, though a handful remained nearby, conferring with Matsu Goemon. One stepped forward, greeting Sanzo with a broad smile and a deep bow. Sanzo bowed in reply.

"You honor me, General Toku," Sanzo said. "So is this victory?"

"Of course!" Toku replied eagerly. "Kisada has survived his journey to the mortal realm, and Master Kuro reports that this realm has finally found balance, though it will be some time before we can communicate with our descendants again."

"It feels no different to me," Sanzo said. "I still sense powerful evil here."

Toku's expression fell slightly, but his eyes remained bright. "This realm was created by the Lying Darkness' machinations," Toku said. "It was intended to be a place of evil. We have already accomplished so much just by bringing hope to this place, but we are no longer bound here. Already many members of the Legion have returned to Yomi, including many who had become trapped here after their deaths."

"Enough talk," said a gruff voice. A tall Lion approached them, his eyes scouring the arena for any sign of enemies that may remain. "Lord Goemon prepares the last squadron of troops to march. We leave at once."

"So that's it then, Agetoki-san?" Sanzo said sourly as he mounted his horse and rode beside them. Even as they set out, the realm seemed to shift around them. The earth became greener, the skies more radiant. Already they were well on their path back to Yomi, leaving the forsaken plains behind. "We just return to the golden fields and abandon that place to its fate?"

"We do not belong in that lost realm, Sanzo," Toku replied.

"Every day souls die with their destiny denied," Sanzo answered. "That place will test them as it tested us. Someone must be here to guide them. Perhaps you are intended for a better place, Toku. Perhaps you have a purpose in Yomi, Agetoki. I have neither."

"Fine," the Lion said. "Go back there, then, and good luck to you. Yet before you go you there is one more thing. The Realm of Thwarted Destiny requires a true name. Lord Goemon says that it should be your honor to select it."

Sanzo smiled. "Maigo no Musha," he replied. "The Realm of Lost Heroes."

The Lion scowled. "Are you mad, ronin?" he demanded. "You would name a Spirit Realm after your horse?"

"The honor is his," Toku said firmly. "We should not question him."

The Lion shook his head, spat on the earth, and rode away.

"So you will return to Maigo no Musha now?" Toku asked.

Sanzo nodded silently. "Soon enough," he said. "I have one more thing to do here."

"Then I wish you good fortune, Sanzo-san," Toku said. He bowed from his saddle before departing as well.

Sanzo rode on across the green fields of Yomi. He was not quite sure how he knew his destination; he merely followed the course he knew to be true. Soon enough he happened upon a small village. The buildings were familiar to his eye, though he had not seen them in many years. He searched the faces of the blessed spirits who moved through the streets.

There, at the edge of the village, Sanzo found what he sought. A young woman and her daughter sat by the river's edge. The girl laughed as she looked into her mother's eyes with adoration. They sang together, and though their voices would hardly have pleased the most discerning Kakita, Sanzo had never heard a sound so sweet. For a moment, the anguish that filled the lonely ronin's eyes faded, and his soul was at peace.

He did not ride forward to meet them, or even let them know he was there. He knew that if he did, he would never leave. With a final, sad smile Sanzo turned his horse around and rode back toward the empty plains of Maigo no Musha.

Much later, in the mortal realm&

The swordsmith's hammer rang upon his anvil in a steady rhythm. His face was fixed in an expression of deep concentration, but when the shadows moved behind him, his hammer paused.

"A pity to see your talent squandered in this place, my friend," the Shadow Dragon said.

Yajinden rested his hammer against the anvil and turned to face the creature. "A temporary circumstance," he said. "Servitude toward a master whom you despise is nothing unfamiliar to you."

The dragon laughed. "The memory that was the Lying Darkness compelled me to aid it," it replied, "but events transpired as we predicted. The Legion of the Dead has destroyed any possibility of its return."

"The heroes of this Empire are most deadly when they face a common foe," Yajinden said. "Push them in one direction, and they will charge in the other. It is a lesson my master never learned, and defeated him twice. I am glad it served you well."

The dragon nodded. "Their actions served you as well, my friend," it said.

Yajinden raised an eyebrow. "Tell me more," he replied.

"Our celestial distraction drew the masters of Meido from their rightful places," it said. "What once was guarded by the fiercest of protectors was a simple task for the False Hoturi to reclaim, once his father showed him the path. They would have sensed me acting so openly in their realm& but he is a shadow. He left no trace."

"Hoturi helped you?" Yajinden asked, surprised.

"He was most eager, when he learned the prize we sought," the dragon said.

The dragon swirled upon itself and something seemed to part in the center. A glowing light appeared there, clutched within its claws. Yajinden stared into its depths, his blue eyes filled with awe as he realized what he looked upon.

"Give it to me," Yajinden said, extending one callused hand.

"You know I cannot," the dragon answered. "You are still bound to Iuchiban. You would betray your plans to him despite your best intentions. You have kept your word to me, Swordsmith. I repay my debts. This will be returned to its rightful place."

"When?"

"Soon."

The dragon faded away once more. Yajinden laughed lightly to himself, picked up his hammer, and continued with his work.

 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!