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Legacy of the Kami
By Shawn Carman

Rokugan's northern border, year 45

The crisp, pristine silence of the mountain air was a treasure in and of itself. In times of peace, holy men ascended the mountains and relished the serenity of perfect isolation, honing their minds and bodies by completely severing all times to mortal things. In times of war, they came to escape the horrors of death and suffering, hoping for some glimpse of insight that would reveal the universe's grander nature.

Today, the tranquility was no more, shattered by the march of thousands. The clan of the Ki-Rin, devotees of Shinjo, was leaving the Empire of Rokugan to explore the lands beyond.

Iuchi smiled at the thought. Their duty would be difficult, some believed suicidal, but Iuchi could barely restrain the joy he felt at the dawn of their journey. Many had called him a wise man in recent months, but he was merely more curious than most. He longed to learn, to absorb new knowledge of all kinds. Beyond the Empire's borders lay secrets that none who lived beneath Amaterasu had ever known, and he would master them all.

Lady Shinjo pulled her steed up short, gazing at the horizon with a severe expression. "The pass to the northwest is unstable," she called back to her attendants. "We will ride to the northeast. Other, safer routes lay that way."

Iuchi raised his eyebrows and glanced sidelong at Ide, who only shrugged and turned his horse to follow their Lady. Shinjo boasted insight that no mortal could hope to possess. Whatever she had seen to make her turn her people away from the pass, they would accept without question.

"She is troubled of late," Iuchi said in a low voice. "I worry."

"You worry for a child of Tengoku?" Ide returned with a quiet chuckle.

Iuchi grinned. "You know what I mean. The war has not set well with her. She is troubled."

"Of course," Ide replied. "She was forced to fight her own brother. Who among us would not be crushed by such a thing? I could not have endured it as she has."

"I am troubled as well," Iuchi confessed. "The Dark Brother's forces nearly crushed the Empire. Now that we have departed, with the Emperor's forces so depleted, what will happen if another threat rises to take the Dark One's place? Or what if he was not defeated as the Scorpion claimed?"

"I have thought much of that as well," Ide said.

Shinjo stopped again, and this time turned to face those who followed her. "Why do you speak of these things?" she demanded of the two men. "Do you seek to open fresh wounds?"

Iuchi immediately bowed as lowly as possible as he sat atop his steed, seeing Ide do the same from the corner of his eye. "Forgive us, my lady, we did not think you would hear. We only think of the future."

"Fu Leng is no more," Shinjo said flatly. "He is gone."

"Forgive me," Iuchi repeated, "but from my understanding he is not dead, merely imprisoned. His soul was trapped by Isawa's magic. It is not inconceivable that he may one day return."

"No," Shinjo said. "What the Thunders fought might survive, but my brother is dead."

"But his threat remains, and that is what concerns my, Shinjo-sama," Ide said "It took the combined forces of the clans to defeat him before. What will happen if he returns while we are exploring the world?"

"Would you have me turn our people back?" Shinjo asked. The anger was gone from her voice, leaving only pain behind. "Would you have me abandon our sacred task?"

"Never," Iuchi replied.

"Then what would you recommend?" Shinjo asked.

Ide nodded to the highest mountaintops, sheathed in fog and snow. "We should leave a handful of people behind to watch the Empire. Upon our return, they can advise us as to what we shall face. If some enemy has risen to power, we will be prepared to fight."

Shinjo frowned. "You are odd, for a man of peace."

Ide smiled. "One does not prevent war by ignoring its possibility," he said. "To foster peace, one must prepare for war. If I have your permission, my Lady, I have a plan."

Shinjo listened.

----------------

Decades later&

Shinjo Tsutari ran for his life, darting through the narrow stone corridors with a speed borne of familiarity. He reached the storeroom he sought and slammed the door behind him, barring it the moment it was closed. Tsutari glanced around the room in a panic, taking in every detail of Suteko's chambers. Poor Suteko. Her death had been gruesome indeed. Her blood still stained the hem of his robe. Thinking of her death caused a great pain to well up in Tsutari's heart, but he shoved it aside. He could mourn her death later. Now, he must focus on survival.

He ran to Suteko's table and began knocking things aside at random, desperately searching for her jewelry. He threw aside bracelets, rings, and other mindless decorations, many of which he had given her. Finally, he found what he was searching for and gripped it tightly in his palm, feeling it bite into his hand.

There was a quiet rustling near the door, and the darkness from outside spilled through the cracks around the door, knitting together in the pale light to form a crude outline of a man. Its long, jagged talons were horrifying, but not so much as the smooth, featureless face. "You are the last," it whispered. "It is your time."

"Not today," Tsutari snarled with a certainty he did not feel. He lunged forward with Suteko's crystal pendant held out like a tiny dagger, slashing viciously at the thing's body.

The shadow bent and curved away from the strike, but there was some intersection between darkness and crystal. There was a slight hiss of pain, but the thing did not stop. It lashed out viciously, its talons cutting through Tsutari's wrist all the way to the bone. He howled in pain and desperation as he felt the crystal fall away from his useless fingers, and again at the cold feeling of the claws slashing through his chest.

Tsutari dropped to the cold stone floor. His life was falling away, and he drifted in the darkness. The last thing he heard as the shadows claimed him was a foul, eager voice whispering in his ear.

"Your Lady is next."

----------------

The Dragon mountains, year 1130

Kitsu Motoichi adjusted the pleat of his hakama and shuffled his feet restlessly. He glanced up at the cliff where a lone figure stood, locked in conversation with a number of smaller, hunched figures. Motoichi frowned, shaking his head slightly.

"What troubles you, priest?"

Motoichi turned to face the Matsu samurai-ko waiting a few steps farther along the path. Beyond her, the rolling hills and jagged peaks gave way to a vast, rocky plain, filled with a sea of black and red clad samurai. The Scorpion waited in morbid silence, resigned to their fate. Motoichi felt sadness each time he gazed across the assembled exiles. Their fate was a tragedy, but no one seemed to appreciate it, least of all the other Lion who were accompanying them as an honor guard.' They were no honor guard - they were executioners. Any who attempted to escape the path into the desert would be slain. Any who agreed to venture into the Burning Sands were likely just as doomed. Honor guard? Bah. There was no honor in this.

"I am merely wondering what Gohei-sama is doing," Motoichi answered at last.

The samurai-ko nodded toward the cliff. "The Broken Shinbone Ratlings have been worthy allies. They do not know fear the same way we do. If they refuse to come across the sands, then they have good reason. Gohei-sama only wishes to ensure they remain safe in his absence."

"And that they will be at his call upon his return," Motoichi said, his tone dark. "The Butcher is not one to forego his assets lightly."

The Matsu scowled. "You have not fought alongside him as I have. You are not fit to judge him."

"I know ambition when I see it," Motoichi said.

"And what is ambition but the ability to see one's destiny and grasp it without fear?" the Matsu asked. "You understand nothing, priest. As I hear it, your bitterness over your inability to walk the Spirit Realms has poisoned your soul against your brothers. You are not a sodan-senzo, and so you hate your own flesh and blood. I heard that your assignment here is punishment for your constant inability to work alongside your cousins."

Motoichi lowered his head. He could not deny the allegations. They were true, one and all. Or they had been, until recently. His frequent arguments with the master of the Kitsu Temple had led him to this duty. "I apologize, Matsu-san. I meant no insult to Lord Gohei. I am merely anxious. We face an unknown path, and I do not wish to dally. The longer an unpleasant task is contemplated, the greater the burden it becomes."

The samurai-ko frowned, then nodded. "As you say," she said. "I wish to depart soon as well, but the Nezumi must be cared for. They have earned that much."

"Then we wait." Motoichi turned back to the Scorpion. Had they not earned as much as the Nezumi, he wondered? Were they to be treated as less than animals? It made little sense to him.

Kitsu Motoichi shook his head and waited for the next stage of his life to commence. Where this strange twist of fate would take him, he had no idea.

----------------

Rokugan's northern border, year 1132

The Scorpion cheered when the mountains first came into sight. The march across the Burning Sands had been grueling, tolerable for the second time only because they were at last returning home. Their punishment had been grueling, but the Scorpion had been strengthened by the experience. The desert had hardened them.

Kitsu Motoichi would once have claimed not to believe in predestination, but that had been a lifetime ago. The embittered young priest he had been only a few years ago had allowed petty jealousy and ambition to cloud his judgment. It was not until his assignment to escort the Scorpion, alongside the poor, doomed Matsu Gohei, that he had realized the degree to which he had squandered his life.

No more.

He had stood beside the Scorpion Clan during their exile, helped them fight the Senpet and defeat a powerful evil in the city of Medinaat-al-Salaam. The Burning Sands had transformed Motoichi, both physically and spiritually. The difficulty in summoning the kami so far from Rokugan had taught him much of perseverance and of the bond he had always shared with the elements. Even as they trekked through the mountains toward home, he could feel the siren call of the air, the earth, the wind, the water, and the ambiguous void coursing through him, welcoming him home.

The Lady Shinjo marched at the head of a vast army, comprised of Scorpion and the Moto tribesmen who had sworn to serve her, even as their ancestors had once refused to do. The Kami was unquestionably divine, and her presence filled Motoichi with a sense of otherworldliness that was almost too much to bear. More than her divinity, however, Shinjo radiated a fury that cowed all who came near. The Scorpion Clan had aided the goddess in escaping the prison where she had languished for centuries, and she was eager to return to her Empire. What she had learned of events since her disappearance had not been to her liking.

The Kami said nothing until the massive caravan was well into the mountains. Only then did she pause, glancing around among the different peaks with an inscrutable expression. "What vexes you, great Shinjo?" Moto Gaheris asked her. The Khan was a great beast of a man, solidly built and dressed in rough leather and furs. "Voice your concern, and the Moto will remove it."

"My concerns are many, Gaheris," the Kami returned, "but for the moment I am simply& reveling in the familiar."

Gaheris glanced around and shrugged. "I never gave the mountains much thought," he mused. "I suppose they are glorious, my Lady."

"Not the mountains," Shinjo corrected, "but what lies hidden within them." She glanced around those who followed her, then slowly gestured toward Motoichi. He felt his spirit quaver under her gaze, but stepped forward and bowed at her command.

"Tell me, Lion," she said, "where do your loyalties lie?"

Motoichi drew back at the question, then rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "My Lady Tsanuri sent me into the Sands to guard the Scorpion," he finally answered. "I have done that, and in the process encountered a child of the Sun and Moon. As a samurai, I am sworn to serve the Lion, and as priest I am sworn to serve the Celestial Order."

"And?" she demanded.

"And," he finished, "there are no Lion here to serve."

Shinjo smiled, and gestured for Motoichi to follow her. She likewise signaled the others to remain where they were. The two rode a short distance ahead of the group, then stopped. "When I left these mountains so long ago," Shinjo said in a quiet voice, "I left a small group of followers behind, that they might prepare the Ki-Rin upon their return. Have you heard of such a thing?"

"Yes, my lady," he answered at once. "They became the Fox Clan."

Shinjo shook her head. "No, not the Fox. There were others. A small number who remained in the mountains. Their orders were to observe, to watch for hidden foes that might threaten the Empire, and to teach my people how to resume their role as protectors of my brother's domain." She glanced back at the Lion. "Do you know of this?"

Motoichi shook his head. "When the Unicorn returned, they returned from the south," he explained. "They never passed through these mountains, and I have heard nothing of a group descending to aid the Shinjo in their re-acclamation."

Shinjo frowned. "Then those who returned knew nothing of these watchmen. The ones who waited here are either long dead, or they chose to remain apart from their kinsmen. I wish to know why." She gestured to a particularly tall peak, the top of which was completely hidden within the clouds. "They were there," she explained. "I wish for you to find them, and bid them return to me."

"Of course, Shinjo-kami," Motoichi said. "And if they have passed on to Meido?"

"Then wait," Shinjo said. "I will come for you."

----------------

The present&

Shinjo Fuyuko frowned and shielded her eyes with her hands. For the briefest moment, she believed she had seen something. A glimmering among the mountaintops, hidden among the clouds and revealed for the briefest moment, then swallowed by the jealous sky once more. Now, staring at the cloud-shrouded peaks, Fuyuko could not imagine what could be found in such a desolate, empty place.

The scout glanced around the peaks, shaking her head slightly in frustration. She had been ordered to make detailed observations of this entire region. Apparently some felt that the Khan's precious new wall did not extend far enough, and should cross the entire mountain range in an attempt to guard the Empire from potential invasion. Exactly what had happened to make the Moto rulers so cautious of an invasion, Fuyuko was not certain. From her perspective, there was little cause for such a thing. It seemed more a naked display of power than anything else; such a thing was the Khan's right if he desired it. The Shinjo did not ask questions, however. They merely fulfilled their duty.

There. Another flash of light, as if the sunlight were reflecting off of something. The summer heat had not reached the peaks, but had warmed the region enough that the fog covering the peaks had receded somewhat. During any other time of year, the clouds would have obscured fully another quarter mile of the mountaintops, and nothing would be visible. Now, however, Fuyuko could not so easily put aside her curiosity. There was something atop the peak, and she wanted to know what.

There was a rustle of loose gravel somewhere behind her. Fuyuko did not pause, turning drawing a small blade from her obi in one smooth, continuous motion. She flung the small, steel projectile with practiced ease, and both heard and saw it strike the flat stone surface from whence the sound had come. There was a low sound, a subtle hiss of pain, that brought a wry smile to Fuyuko's face even as she drew her blade. "I know you're there," she said. "Step out. Face me." There was no response, causing her grin to widen. "It's all right to be afraid."

A Lion emerged from the boulders, her face a mask of anger. A line of blood marred her cheek, sliced open by a shard of stone sent flying from Fuyuko's blade. "The day I fear a Unicorn will be the day I cleanse my honor with my blade, either in your blood or my own."

"A Matsu," Fuyuko said, shaking her head as she saw the Lion's family mon on her sword arm. "If you thirst for blood I fear you cannot drink mine, but I think I saw a tiny dragonfly at the base of the mountain."

"Arrogant stable maiden," the Lion hissed. "I will not suffer insults from you!"

"Oh?" Fuyuko asked. "And what will you do? Attack me here, for refusing to rise to your own boorish challenge?"

The Matsu drew her blade, saying nothing.

"Fine," Fuyuko said. "Attack me. Perhaps you will kill me, but at the very least I will wound you. We will both die here in the mountains and none will ever know why."

"I do not fear death," the Matsu hissed.

"Of course you don't," Fuyuko acknowledged. "But you fear failure. And what was your mission, exactly? To spy on me and report the purpose of the Khan's scouts in the mountains? Who will fulfill your task when you fail? It does not matter, I suppose. Violence is all that matters. I'm sure your ancestors will understand your failure."

The Matsu clenched her teeth and tested the weight of her blade in her hand. "What would you have us do, then?" she said, her tone full of venom.

Fuyuko sheathed her blade and shrugged. "I am not particularly interested in killing you, nor am I interested in dying here today. Perhaps you can help me with something, and in return I will answer whatever questions you have regarding my activities here."

The Lion looked on in disgust. "You would reveal your Khan's secrets so easily?"

The scout shrugged again. "My mission here is not a military matter. The Khan has nothing to hide from the Lion." She smiled. "Even if you knew his plans, I doubt you have the strength to oppose him."

The Matsu sneered, lowering her blade slowly. "What do you require of me?" she asked cautiously.

"First, your name."

"Matsu Nanako," the Lion scout answered.

"Nanako," Fuyuko said, "I wonder if you might help me satisfy my curiosity." She gestured up at the peak where she had seen the glint of light. "It would be far safer to climb that peak if I had someone to assist me. Even a little ice can be dangerous."

For the first time, Nanako's expression showed something other than anger: confusion. "Why would you want to climb up there?" she asked.

Fuyuko smiled. "To see what lies beyond."

----------------

The two scouts had climbed for nearly four hours before they caught the first glimpse of what awaited them. The peak had not been as severe a climb as Fuyuko had imagined. Despite the mountain's bleak appearance, the snow and ice actually concealed several recessed paths sheltered from the elements by overhanging ledges. Fuyuko thought it odd, and Nanako remarked she considered it rather suspicious. The Unicorn scoffed at first, but she had to grudgingly admit that so many carefully concealed passes did seem unnatural. But constructing such a path would take years, perhaps decades, and there was no sign of travelers having passed this way. Fuyuko idly wondered if perhaps an ancient monastery sat atop the mountain. It was then that a particularly strong wind blew through the mountains, chilling both women to the bone and blowing aside the clouds for just a moment, just long enough for Fuyuko to see what waited above them. "By the Fortunes," she swore.

"What is that?" Nanako asked.

"I don't know," Fuyuko asked truthfully.

"It is old," the Lion said. "I have seen buildings constructed in that manner before, but only among the oldest and most venerated holdings."

Fuyuko glanced at Nanako strangely. "You study architecture?"

Nanako looked away, her expression irritated. "I enjoyed reading tales of Miya Anou when I was young. He was a Kaiu engineer who revolutionized the way fortresses were built in his day."

"I did not realize there were scholars among the Matsu," Fuyuko said.

"Do not insult me again, Unicorn," she said hatefully. "A true samurai finds value in all knowledge." She glanced upward, craning her neck to try and see what awaited them atop the peak. "Let's go."

An hour later, the two finally reached a ledge that allowed them to see what the clouds had hidden. The two stood silently, oblivious to the fierce wind that tore at their flesh and clothing. Atop the ledge, near the mountain's peak, stood a large, bleak fortress, seemingly hewn from the mountain itself. There was little wood used in its construction, and no sign of the decorative trappings of artisans that adorned so many great palaces throughout the Empire. Years of the fearsome mountain winds had worn the stone smooth, further disguising it to the point that it was all but indistinguishable from the mountain around it. The sole identifying feature, the one that had drawn Fuyuko and Nanako from the valley far below, was a metal insignia hanging above the large stone door. Like the fortress, it was crafted by hand, and not by the hand of any master smith. It was crude, roughly shaped, but unmistakable.

It was the Shinjo family mon.

Wordlessly, the two scouts walked forward to the entrance. Fuyuko placed one hand on the door, gingerly at first, but with more force until she was shoving with all her might. Years of disuse had caused the stone to settle, and the door budged only slightly. Nanko stepped forward and helped, her arms like cords of steel as she threw her meager weight behind the attempt. There was a rumble, and the door opened. A thick cloud of dust descended from where the door met the wall. The air inside was stale and vaguely unpleasant, causing Nanko to grimace with distaste. Fuyuko barely noticed, however, entranced with their discovery. Without a word, she stepped farther into the building and disappeared into the shadows.

----------------

The torch Fuyuko carried had burned low during her exploration of the fortress. Her head still spun at enormity of it all. Stockpiled weapons, outdated but still useful, precious metals taken from the mountains, vast libraries of carefully recorded historical records covering the Empire's first centuries, ancient relics from Rokugan's first days& the contents of this place were nothing short of amazing. And yet, despite the obvious work that had gone into constructing such a repository, there had been no sign of any occupants nor any indication that anyone had been within the building for decades, perhaps longer. The mystery of the entire affair had overwhelmed her senses, and it was not until much later that she realized she had left Nanako at the doorway.

The scout found her comrade sitting in a small chamber near the entrance, kneeling on the floor and reading a scroll. Several other scrolls lay open and scattered around her, their broken seals littering the floor. Her face was an inscrutable mask, but the stereotypical Matsu anger was noticeably absent. "Nanako?"

The Lion looked up, her expression blank. She blinked and came back to her senses, then forced a smile. "My apologies, Shinjo-san. I was distracted."

"What is this chamber?"

Nanako pointed to a stand near the wall where a wakizashi rested. A Lion mon adorned its hilt, causing Fuyuko to draw back in surprised. "A Lion blade? What is it doing in such a place?"

"Here," Nanako replied, gesturing to the scrolls. "There were Lion who accompanied the Scorpion into the Burning Sands. When they returned, Shinjo asked one to find this place. She ordered its creation even as she left Rokugan a thousand years ago. Those she left behind were to gather information on the Empire."

Fuyuko nodded. "I have seen their records, but they are far from complete."

"The shugenja, Kitsu Motoichi, found this place with no one within it. It had been empty for centuries. He read their records and discovered that they had knowledge of the Lying Darkness. They sought a means to destroy it, but in doing so only gained its attention. The Darkness came for them and destroyed all who dwelled here& then it set out to find their mistress."

"Meanwhile their home remained hidden, all this time." Fuyuko shook her head. "A tragic loss."

"There is more," Nanko insisted. "Motoichi was an artisan as well as a shugenja. When he discovered the records of what the Shinjo had found, he sought to create a weapon against the Darkness. He crafted it from the gaijin crystal that the Darkness had used to trap Lady Shinjo." She held up the scroll in her hand. "His last journal claims that he knew Shinjo had departed for the Heavens once more, and that the Darkness would come for him even as it prepared to face the Great Clans. He was prepared to face it."

"What became of him?"

Nanako shook her head. "There is no sign of him. I can only assume that he fell in battle against the Darkness or its minions. But all was not lost." She withdrew a small cloth package from her lap and unwrapped it carefully. Within the cloth was a perfect crystal tessen, impossibly delicate and yet fairly thrumming with power. Looking at the weapon filled Fuyuko with a sense of purity that she only knew from the grandest temples within Unicorn lands. There was no question that the tessen was a masterpiece.

"Beautiful," Fuyuko breathed.

"Yes," Nanako agreed. She looked up and met Fuyuko's eyes, her gaze steady and probing. "I must return this to the Lion. It is theirs by right."

"Did Motoichi not die in service of Shinjo, and of those who served her?"

Nanako did not waver. "Yes, but this is his work. His legacy. It belongs with his family, and I am honor bound to return it to them." She paused for a moment. "Will you stand against me in this?"

Fuyuko considered the matter. "No," she finally answered. "No, take it to the Kitsu. You are right, it is theirs, just as this fortress is rightfully the Shinjo family's. You will inform the Kitsu that this tessen was surrendered to you willfully and without objection."

"I will," the scout answered. "You have my thanks, and the thanks of the Lion, for returning this treasure to us." She bowed from where she knelt. She glanced around the room for a moment. "I must depart as soon as possible. What will you do?"

Fuyuko smiled. "I will finish my mission and return to the Shinjo lands, where I will inform Lord Shono and his family of my discovery. My family revels in new discoveries. Today we revel in an old one."

Nanako nodded. "Thank you for sparing me in the valley before. To have died uselessly would have been an honorless end."

Fuyuko looked surprised. "A Lion, forgiving an enemy?" she asked.

"Courtesy is one of a samurai's virtues," Nanako replied as she moved toward the door. She looked back at the Unicorn from the entrance, a vicious gleam in her eye. "And should we meet again, on the field of battle, I will show you the strength that bushido brings."

Fuyuko's smile was somewhat sorrowful. "We shall see, Lion."


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!