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The Gift

By Rich Wulf

Asako Hirotsugu chuckled as he looked down from the bow of his ship. If there was anything a Mantis hated more than all else, it was having nowhere to run. The Mantis kobune was far larger, sleeker, and faster than the three Phoenix vessels that pursued it. The Phoenix had no doubt that if the Mantis' intentions were hostile, their ship could have driven at least one of them to the bottom of the sea and still escaped, but the Mantis had been given no such opportunity. Their clan might be the finest sailors in Rokugan, but the Phoenix Clan had its own advantages.

The clouds moved swiftly in the sky above and on the horizon waves could be seen crashing against the rocky Phoenix shores, but around them there were no movement of wind or water. The air was cold, dead and still. The sea was as flat as a garden pond. The Mantis vessel sat helplessly immobile. Some of the sailors had already produced oars and were looking at their captain intently, but had made no move to begin rowing yet. The captain merely stood on the deck, glaring across the water at Hirotsugu. He was a tall, bare-chested man, dark hair hanging down his back in a long topknot. A pair of wickedly sharp kama hung from his belt.

"What is the meaning of this?" the Mantis cried out, his deep voice carrying easily over the still water. "Why have your shugenja stranded my vessel?"

Hirotsugu did not answer immediately. Instead he whispered a brief spell, summoning wind spirits to fill the sails of his own ship. It coasted easily across the water, coming to a halt twenty feet from the Mantis kobune. Shiba samurai immediately lined the edge of the deck, spears at the ready, prepared to repel any attempt at boarding or perhaps begin for their own assault. Hirotsugu stood just beside them. He smoothed one hand over his left shoulder as if brushing away dust, making certain to display the brilliant orange mon of the Phoenix Clan to the Mantis. This one was a simple enough soul, a brash and defiant bushi of the Yoritomo house. Hirotsugu whispered another spell under before he spoke, releasing a swarm of invisible spirits toward the Mantis.

"You are an intruder and a pirate," Hirotsugu said mildly. "I have been authorized to deal with you accordingly."

"Pirate?" the man exclaimed, voice thundering with rage. His hand curled into white-knuckled fists. "I am Sen of House Yoritomo, a proud samurai of the Storm Legion. I am no pirate! As for my being an intruder, all the seas of Rokugan are my clan's domain. It is you who are the intruder, Phoenix, though my Champion has commanded me to tolerate your presence."

Hirotsugu glanced at his heavily armed crew, raised an eyebrow as he looked at the twin ships in the distance, then looked back at the Mantis. "How fortunate for us that you are so merciful," he replied dryly. "We both know that your clan was allowed to maintain its ridiculous claim of sovereignty over the oceans only on the condition that your piracy ceased. Four Phoenix vessels have vanished in the last month alone, and a dozen new Mantis encampments have been spotted off the coast. How do you explain that?"

"Idiot!" Sen snarled. "It is the corrupted traitor, Yoritomo Kitao, who destroys your vessels! She who burned the City of Remembrance while you Phoenix hid in your temples! We hunt her even now!"

"Is this the vaunted Mantis diplomacy?" Hirotsugu asked calmly. "To insult the man who will determine your fate?"

"It is you who have insulted me, Phoenix," Sen hissed, "and you are fortunate there is no shugenja among my crew to counter your pathetic weather magic& or I would move our ships in boarding range and show you Mantis diplomacy."

Hirotsugu chuckled. He gestured vaguely and the sea began to churn once more; the winds filled Mantis sails. Sen's eyes widened and his face grew red with rage. The two hulls brushed against one another with a dull thud.

"For the honor of the Mantis!" Sen cried, drawing twin kama from his obi.

The crew of the Mantis vessel immediately rose up at their captain's command, drawing all manner of blades and other killing implements. Their weapons were unsophisticated to Hirotsugu's eye, but he knew the Clan of Storms well enough not to underestimate their skill with any weapon that came to hand. The Shiba warriors seemed surprised at their own captain's actions, but did not hesitate. They lunged forward, in a single movement, burying their spears in the first wave of boarders. Some were not swift enough and fell under the furious strokes of Mantis blades.

Sen moved like a demon among them, his kama shearing down a Phoenix warrior with each stroke. He moved directly toward Hirotsugu, eyes burning with hatred. The Phoenix smiled. If the Mantis survived, he would wonder at his own actions later, that he allowed himself to take such furious insult in a situation where a cool head would have served him better.

But he would not survive.

Hirotsugu drew a long knife as the Mantis lunged toward him. He ducked to one side, slicing at Sen's knee with a swift stroke. Sen anticipated and pulled back; the knife left merely a gash across his thigh rather than the intended crippling wound. The Mantis delivered a heavy knee into the Phoenix's chest, driving him back onto the deck. Hirotsugu looked up in shock as the battle swiftly turned against him. This had been the risk, he knew, when he incited his enemy. Anger was a powerful weapon, even to such an insignificant foe. The captain's twin kama lifted for a killing blow, but a Shiba bushi charged to Hirotsugu's defense. Sen turned, knocking the man's sword aside with one blade and burying the other in his chest.

It was just enough of a distraction. Hirotsugu drew his knife across his palm and spoke a single word. Invisible talons streaked through the air, reaching for the Mantis' eyes, mouth, throat. Sen shrieked in pain and fell to one knee as the magic surged through him. Hirotsugu stood quickly, seizing the captain by the wrists. He made a show of struggling, crying out as they rolled across the deck. Sen offered no true resistance; he was too consumed with pain to do anything but scream. Hirotsugu reared up dramatically and kicked the afflicted captain hard in the midsection; Sen fell back over the railing and was taken by the sea.

Within minutes, it was over. The Mantis were demoralized by their captain's death, and the other two Phoenix ships arrived quickly to supply reinforcements. The survivors quickly offered their surrender. Hirotsugu climbed aboard the Mantis vessel with a triumphant sneer, commanding his soldiers to fan out and search the ship with a silent gesture.

"This isn't how it was meant to be," said an irritated voice. A young woman in brilliant red armor stepped onto the deck from one of the other Phoenix vessels. She regarded Hirotsugu with a look of stern displeasure. "The Masters had hoped we would investigate this without bloodshed."

Hirotsugu smiled at her placidly. "Tsukimi-sama, I cannot be blamed for Mantis idiocy," he said. "They attacked us first."

"After you blatantly provoked him," she retorted. "You cancelled the spell that kept our ships apart before he could calm his temper."

"Oh?" Hirotsugu replied. "I was not aware that I had done so, but clearly a bushi would know the ways of magic and the spirits better than a shugenja. Be sure to include that in your report to the Masters."

"This could have been handled differently, Hirotsugu," she said coldly. "The Phoenix cannot afford another war."

"Nor can we afford to stand idle while the Mantis move against us," he replied. "Now with all due respect, such bickering avails us nothing. We must let the Masters determine if my actions were inappropriate. I bow to their judgment. Surely you'll do the same?"

Tsukimi's lips pursed into a severe frown. "Surely," she retorted.

"Excellent," he replied. "Then if you will excuse me, I must complete my search of this captured vessel."

 

"

 

One Week Later&

Hirotsugu's feet crunched softly in the pure white snow. His deep red robes stood out in stark contrast to the serene white earth, disturbed only by the subtle paw prints of rabbits and the deep path gouged by his own passing. Winter came early in Phoenix lands, and few dared walk the roads after the snows fell. Hirotsugu did not fear the elements, not so long as his magic protected him. Even so, there were other dangers to concern oneself with in places such as these. As Hirotsugu looked at the silent city rising from the forest before him, he wondered if he was wise to come here at all.

The old shugenja pushed back his hood, shivering as the wind blew across his shaven scalp. There would be no sense in turning back now. She would have sensed his arrival. To withdraw would be a fatal sign of weakness. He could not afford to offend her. If his instincts were true he would need all the allies he could muster in the days ahead, and she was a powerful ally. He had come too far to stop now, in more ways than one.

Hirotsugu folded his arms into his sleeves, bowed against the wind, and trudged on toward the city walls. A low, monotonous chant welled from somewhere deep within the snow-crusted buildings. Though warm lights radiated from the windows of many houses, the city radiated a sense of death and emptiness. This was no place for mortals.

This was the City of Tears.

At the Battle of Oblivion's Gate, five cities stood at the edge of Yomi, Realm of the Blessed Ancestors. Each city was infused with the power of the elements, Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Void. In these cities, the blessed shiryo and faceless Goju clashed to determine the fate of the Celestial Order. Outnumbered by their shadowy enemies, the ancestors faced a battle they could not win. In the mortal realm, the Phoenix Clan's Elemental Council heard their plea and enacted a ritual like none other in history, a ritual that would draw these five cities to the mortal realm where reinforcements could arrive to fight the spawns of Nothing back.

Sadly this city could not be saved. Rising from the forests literally overnight, it was too far from the armies of the living for help to arrive in time. The Elemental Council received a vision of the Goju and ancestors destroying one another with powerful magic, a brutal cataclysm that left no survivors on either side. The Asako Inquisitors who later investigated found the water spirits that infused the ruins were consumed with grief. The entire city was essentially a tomb, a place where the spirits of those who had already died had fallen once more, their souls dispatched to an uncertain fate. The Phoenix Clan declared the city sacrosanct and, like so many other legends of the Phoenix woodlands, the City of Tears was covered with snow and forgotten.

After the War of Spirits, the Elemental Council turned their eye upon the City of Tears once again. Drawing upon Imperial funding, the city was rebuilt. Mizu Mura, as the Emperor's maps called it, soon became a home to many displaced Phoenix refugees of that horrible war.

Of course, like so many other legends, there was a deeper truth to the tale. Hirotsugu, as well as a few others, knew the true history of the city. The Goju had slain the ancestors who once dwelled here - that much was fact, but it was not the righteous ancestors who defeated them in turn. When the city materialized, it appeared near the camp of Jama Suru, the infamous Bloodspeaker. Drawn by the city's magic, Suru was surprised to find the Goju running rampant in the streets, celebrating their victory over the shiryo in their strange, inhuman manner. His Bloodspeakers eradicated the foul spawn and he sent a false vision to the Elemental Council, a vision of in which shiryo and Goju had destroyed one another. Suru and his followers then entrenched themselves in the extensive tunnels beneath the city and shackled the water spirits to their foul will. Their presence subtly twisted the pure elemental magics that once flowed through the City of Tears.

It was also Bloodspeaker influence that later led to the city's restoration. The cult had long sought to influence and recruit the lost and hopeless. The War of Spirits created many such broken individuals. By gathering these refugees in one place, the Bloodspeakers were free to pick and choose those who they would recruit in total security. Unknown to many, the cult had cast a deep shadow across the heart of the Phoenix Clan.

To Asako Hirotsugu, this place was home.

He saw few signs of life as he passed through the city's streets. The City of Tears was a bleak place at the best of times, and with the snows falling most citizens were content to burrow into their homes. The chanting grew louder as he approached the center of the city. It seemed to reverberate through the very stones beneath his feet. For one as skilled in magic as he, it was a simple matter to sense the powerful spirits that dwelled here. He sensed their confusion, their agony, their loneliness. Those Inquisitors had believed the spirits grieved for the ancestors who had been destroyed in this place. In reality, the spirits were in pain because of what Suru had done. Now their torment had increased because she was here.

Hirotsugu shuddered as he looked up at the towering temple that dominated the city. Water streamed from spigots on each corner of the steeply angled roofs, creating man-made waterfalls that spilled into a moat below. As the setting sun cast its light over the city, the waters shone a dull red. The monks called these the Fountains of Sunset Blood. Hirotsugu recalled the first time he had set eyes upon them, the first time he had come to the city. He had lost three sons to the mad Steel Chrysanthemum. The oldest was only twelve. His home village was burned by Agasha Tamori's armies. With nothing else left, he found himself here. He had hoped that this secluded temple might offer his wounded soul peace.

Instead, it offered him something better power.

Asako Hirotsugu was not a noble man, nor was he an honorable man. He was, however, a practical man. His fealty to the Bloodspeakers had been born from a lust for power as well as a belief that some day those who had turned their backs upon the Phoenix would see their treachery repaid. He knew those who gambled for power took great risk, but with each day that passed it seemed clear that his gamble had not paid off.

When Iuchiban escaped his tomb, Hirotsugu began to see the Bloodspeakers for what they truly were. The cult would not serve his needs. The cult would not bring him vengeance. The cult merely existed to shackle the foolish to Iuchiban's will as he pursued his own goals the destruction of Rokugan. In joining them, Hirotsugu had only become a pawn. The Phoenix Clan had suffered under Iuchiban's heel, and it tore apart what was left of Hirotsugu's soul to know he had been a part of it. Killing brought him no regret or shame, but to betray his clan was intolerable.

Hirotsugu was wise enough never to let his doubt reflect in word or his action; the cult was murderously intolerant of disloyalty. Of course, Hirotsugu had always known that maho would exact a terrible price. In the beginning, he believed it mattered little. He had seen the arrogance of the ancestors during the War of Spirits and had no desire to join them in their eternal "paradise." Damnation was acceptable, preferable, but the price the Bloodspeakers demanded was even greater than that. Eternal torment in the next life was fine; servitude in this life was not. Hirotsugu would not endure seeing his will chained to a maniac no better than the one who had slaughtered his sons.

There must be a way out. For a long time, he believed there was nothing he could do. He knew to resist would only hasten his demise and his damnation. A single man could do nothing against Iuchiban, especially a single man who had already given the Bloodspeakers his soul. Yet it seemed, of late, that his shackles were growing looser. His will was becoming more his own. Perhaps Iuchiban was concerned with other matters, no longer able to exercise control over his minions as he once had. Perhaps his power was decreasing. If such was true, then the time might soon come when he would find opportunity for escape. He could not oppose the master Bloodspeaker alone. He would need allies, and soon came to realize there were others that chafed under Iuchiban's yoke as much as he did.

And though he had always feared Asako Kinuye, he could not deny her worth as an ally.

 

"

 

"Enter," she said in a soft, languid voice.

Hirotsugu stepped into Asako Kinuye's chambers, bowing deeply as he did so. He was always unsettled in this place. He knew of Kinuye's power as well as her reputation. She was among the most powerful Bloodspeakers. Her command of maho was incredible, as was her ruthless drive to use whatever means necessary to eliminate those who interfered with her plans. Yet her chambers were always clean and bright. In the daytime, they were open to the sun; in the evening, like now, they were filled with colorful lanterns. Flowers of a dozen varieties decorated her chambers in a riot of color. Kinuye knelt in the center of the room on a plain mat. She was a small woman, possessed of an aura of demure serenity that was only slightly undermined by the sheer, revealing robes she favored. She behaved as if unaware of her beauty, which of course only made her even more appealing to the unwary. Hirotsugu was not distracted by her charms; he was too afraid to notice them.

"Hirotsugu-san," she said, red lips curling in a faint smile. "Welcome home. It has been some time. How goes the hunt?"

"Kitao's fleet continues to plague the Phoenix coast," he replied. "We have been unable to find any trace of her."

"Unfortunate," she replied. "What of the Mantis?"
"Phoenix cargo was discovered in the hold of Yoritomo Sen's ship, as you requested," he replied in a heavy voice. "The Elemental Council have taken this as evidence the Mantis are continuing their piracy, not hunting Kitao as they claim. They shall soon declare war, I think."

"Hirotsugu-sama," she cooed softly. "You do not regret what you have done?"

He fixed his gaze upon the floor. "To be honest, Kinuye-sama, I think I believed the Masters would see through the deception."

"The Masters are only human," she replied. "Their magic is powerful, but in the end they believe what they wish to believe. The Phoenix and Mantis have never been friendly with one another. Your façade has only given them a reason to continue to hate. Did you not wish it to be so?"

"All that I do, I have done for my clan," Hirotsugu whispered. "The monster that I am, the damnation I have earned, the blood on my hands, all of it was done so that my clan would know its rightful vengeance. My life, my soul, for the Phoenix. I do not cherish the idea that I have pushed our clan into another war. I have become another Agasha Tamori."

"Tamori?" Kinuye chuckled. She plucked a small red flower from a nearby arrangement, turning it between her delicate fingers as she spoke. "Tamori sought to destroy the Phoenix and Dragon Clans. You have done no such thing. The Mantis sought to challenge us before. They lost. If the Mantis pursue war against the Phoenix, we will crush them. If they withdraw to their own lands, then they will be distracted from their hunt. In either case, our goals are met. We need not worry over Mantis oafs slaying Kitao on their mission of vengeance. We can continue to pursue her, take her alive, and learn how she and her followers have defied Iuchiban's control."

"There is still a problem, Kinuye-sama," Hirotsugu said.

"Oh?" she looked at him archly, plucking the petals from the flower as she leaned back on one elbow.

"There is a young samurai named Shiba Tsukimi," Hirotsugu said. "She is a hero of the battle of Gisei Toshi. She does not believe that the Mantis are our enemy, and Shiba Ningen seems to agree with her. If we are not careful, she could gain more influence among the Council. The war may yet be averted."

"And what do you recommend?" Kinuye asked. She held up the flower, a single red petal dangling from its stem.

"We must kill her," Hirotsugu said coldly.

"You are a peculiar man, Hirotsugu," Kinuye replied, casting the mutilated flower carelessly to one side. "One moment you regret inciting a war, the next you plot the murder of a kinsman so that it will continue unhindered. We must remember who we are, Hirotsugu-san. We serve Iuchiban out of necessity, but those days are swiftly passing. Murdering peasants and Mantis is well and good but we are Phoenix, first and foremost. We sacrifice our honor, our souls, for the sake of the Clan. Let the enemies of the Phoenix bleed and perish without mercy, but we will not kill a Phoenix samurai unless we must. No, I have a better plan."

"What is that, Kinuye-sama?" he asked.

"There is an enemy on the horizon," she said. "The closer Phoenix and Mantis remain, the stronger they become. It thus serves our purposes that they remain apart. We must convince this Tsukimi that the Mantis Clan is even more dangerous than the Council believes."

"How?" Hirotsugu asked.

"A gift," Kinuye answered. She rose in a smooth, liquid movement and sauntered to a low table in the corner of the chamber. A small white box rested upon the table, worked with pale green crystal. "A tribute to that most worthy of Iuchiban's enemies. Though to insure the quality of this gift, it must first be used...."

 

"

 

Several Days Later&

Tsukimi's reputation had earned her admittance to the Imperial Palace almost immediately, but soon after she arrived, all erupted into chaos. She now knelt patiently in the middle of an outer audience chamber, her swords carefully placed on the floor beside her, the white box resting before her knees. She kept her gaze low, arms carefully pressed to the floor. She had never seen so many Imperial Guardsmen in one place, so many Seppun shugenja standing alert with scrolls unfurled. She also was not entirely surprised that they had sensed the power of what she bore, nor was she shocked by the arrival of the man that now stood before her.

"What is the meaning of this?" Isawa Sezaru demanded harshly. His white mask was in place, the face he showed only in battle. He glared down at Tsukimi. "That box you bear contains powerful maho. How dare you bring evil such as this to the Imperial Palace?"

"There can be no apology, but I intended no deceit," she whispered. "This was necessary."

"What is in that box, Tsukimi?" Sezaru demanded.

"The Masters bade me promise to speak of it to none but the Emperor and yourself," she said. "I will tell you when the guards are gone."

"The Masters?" Sezaru scoffed. "If what you bear is so terrible, why did Ningen or Nakamuro not deliver it personally? Why send a single samurai?"
"Because in matters such as this, the Council trusts themselves least of all," she replied. "Masters and more have fallen to its like before."

Sezaru's eyes widened slightly. He peered over his shoulder at the Imperial Guard. "Leave," he said.

The guardsmen hesitated only for a moment before hurrying to comply with the Wolf's words.

"I think I know what you bear," Sezaru said quietly, "but why bring it to the Emperor? Why now, of all times when so many of his favored vassals gather for his wedding?"

"Because this could not wait," Tsukimi said urgently. "The Mantis sought to use it as a weapon against us."

"The Mantis?" Sezaru demanded. "Impossible."
"I did not wish to believe it myself, but this was found in the hull of a Mantis vessel commanded by Yoritomo Sen," she said, then paused for a long moment. "Only days ago, we found a Phoenix village that had been touched by its power. The bodies are still burning. My clan has declared war upon the Mantis for their actions, and the Elemental Council asked that I surrender this to the Emperor, so that he may choose an appropriate guardian."

Sezaru nodded. He reached up slowly and removed his mask, tucking it back into his obi. His hand grasped empty air as he nervously sought to stroke the braid he had lost months before. "If this is what I believe it is, you have done the Empire a great service by delivering it from the hands of those who might use it against us," he whispered. "The Righteous Emperor will not forget your dedication."

Tsukimi only bowed her head deeply.

"Will you destroy it?" she asked.

"I do not believe things such as this can be destroyed, no matter what the Scorpion claim happened to the others," Sezaru said bleakly. "Have the Masters identified which one this is?"

"Yes," Tsukimi answered. "The box holds the first of the Black Scrolls that once bound the dark god, Fu Leng. It is the same scroll Yogo Junzo opened, the spell that doomed the Hantei Dynasty and began the Clan Wars."

Sezaru nodded slowly. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible.

"The Wasting Disease."


 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!