Kaze no Shiro Kazenoshiro Banner



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


 

 

The Touch of the Void

By Shawn Carman

Two Months Ago,  Ichiro family provinces&

Lord Sun's journey across the heavens was half complete when the sentry first noticed the four riders descending through the mountains. Visitors were unusual in Badger Clan lands. They almost never appeared without prior knowledge. Could this be the prelude to an attack? The Badger Clan had little worth taking, but a Minor Clan could not afford the risk. Ichiro Hamatsu quickly shouted to his comrades within the tower behind him. One nodded rapidly and hurried off across the rugged ground to carry word to Shiro Ichiro. The sentry then moved to the middle of the road, waiting for the strangers to arrive.

A crow settled on a boulder overlooking Hamatsu's post. It cawed once, then fell silent, staring at him with an unsettling instensity. He considered throwing a rock to frighten the creature off, but did not wish to seem foolish in the face of unknown visitors. So he waited.

The first to arrive was a woman. Hamatsu's stern expression faltered for a moment when he saw her. She was striking, with pale features, flowing dark hair, and piercing black eyes. Just behind her rode a young man with the bleached white hair of a Crane. He was as handsome as she was beautiful, though his features twisted with impatience when Hamatsu lifted a hand to stop them.

"Hold!" the sentry called out. "These are the lands of the Ichiro family. For what reason do you arrive unannounced?"

"What reason?" a gruff voice asked. A third rider appeared, a burly older man in thick brown robes. His right arm remained folded inside his robes; he held the reins only with his left. "What reason does any man take a journey? To reach his destination. To see old friends."

"Sugimoto!" the sentry shouted. In reply, his fellow guards scrambled out of the tower to see the visitors. They knelt as one.

The fourth rider appeared, a woman in pale green armor. She looked down at the kneeling badgers, then immediately looked to the others for explanation.

"I told you they knew me here," Sugimoto said with a chuckle.

"Keeper of Earth, you are always welcome in the lands of the Badger," Hamatsu said with a sincere grin. He rose and nodded eagerly to the each other travelers. "Are these& could these others be?"

"The Keepers," Sugimoto confirmed as they dismounted. "Mirumoto Masae Keeper of Air, Doji Jun'ai Keeper of Water, and Kakita Tsuken Keeper of Fire." He stared at the sentry for a moment. "Ichiro Hamatsu, isn't it? Motoki's son."

Hamatsu's eyes widened. "I am honored that you remember a humble guard, Sugimoto-sama."

"We would speak to Lord Kihongo, if possible, Hamatsu," Sugimoto replied. "What can you tell us of his court these days? Will he see us?"

Hamatsu's expression fell. "I am certain he will see you, but you may wish to avoid involving yourself in our politics," he said. "They have grown complicated."

The white-haired man brightened. "Interesting," Tsuken said. "How so?"

"We are currently hosting representatives from the Crane, the Crab, and the Imperial House of the Miya."

"How many fellow Crab?" Sugimoto asked.

"All but a few engineers were recalled by Lord Kuon weeks ago," Hamatsu said. "A pity. Our cousins would be welcome allies against all of these& politicians." He looked at the two Cranes suddenly. "No offense intended."

"Why are so many ambassadors here?" Jun'ai asked, ignoring the unintended slight. "May I ask their names?"

"Doji Koin of the Crane, and his shugenja advisor, Hira," Hamatsu answered.

"Asahina Hira?" Tsuken asked, seeming to recognize the name.

"And the Miya?" Masae asked.

The Badger's expression darkened. "Miya Tsurugi," he said.

"Why so grim, Hamatsu?" Sugimoto asked. "I thought the Miya were friends of the Minor Clans."

"This man does not come out of friendship," Sugimoto said. "He has been dispatched by Princess Hoketuhime. She wishes to assess whether Emperor Toturi made a mistake in allowing us to retain our Minor Clan status." Hamatsu bowed his head. Beside him, his fellow guards exchanged dark looks. "He seeks to determine whether or not the Ichiro name should be stricken from the Imperial records, leaving us ronin."

"So the lands of the Badger will belong to no one," Masae said. "That explains why the Crane are here, at least."

Tsuken uttered a curse. "This is ridiculous!" he snapped. "What have the Badger done to deserve such treatment? They have endured too much to simply be cast aside."

"To be named a Minor Clan is an unparalleled honor," Masae said. "If the Imperial Families feel that a clan is no longer worthy of that honor, they may importune the Emperor to rescind their status. It is no secret that the Badger Clan has undergone difficulties."

"Sugimoto-sama," Hamatsu whispered, his voice desperate. "Have you come to help us again?"

The eyes of every Badger now watched the Keepers very carefully.

Kaiu Sugimoto smiled. "Send a messenger to Lord Kihongo," he said. "Let him know that Shinsei's Keepers are coming."

Hamatsu's face brightened. "I will deliver the message myself!" The other guards bowed deeply and repeatedly, then returned to their posts.

Sugimoto watched the younger man race up the trail. He looked at his fellow Keepers and sighed.

"Return to your master," he said, looking at the crow perched nearby. "Tell him we may be a while."

The crow cawed once and leapt into the sky, disappearing in the southern sky.

"Our course seems clear," Masae said, climbing into her saddle. "We have been sent to insure the Ichiro name is not forgotten, and that the sons of the Badger Clan are not cast upon the waves. Sugimoto knows the Badger. What do we know about the rest?"

"Doji Koin is a courtier," Jun'ai offered. "A junior diplomat of some skill, from what I recall. To be sent so far from home he must have offended someone important or believes he can prove himself here."

"And the Miya?"

Jun'ai shook her head. "I do not know of him," she said. "Of all the Imperial Families, the Miya are the most public. He must be newly posted, and seeking to gain a reputation."

"Why would Hoketuhime wish to destroy the Badger?" Tsuken asked. "They harm no one."

"And they help no one," Sugimoto said with a sigh. "They are a memory, a shadow of failure. The Otomo wish the Emperor to appear strong, and to do that his clans must appear strong. There is no room for shadows in the Righteous Emperor's court."

"Bah," Tsuken hissed. "These lands belong to the Badger Clan. That my own kinsmen come here to feed on their carcass disgusts me."

"And what of Hideo no Oni?" Jun'ai asked. "What of the demon that ravaged these lands? Was it not active again recently?"

"Yes," Sugimoto said. "That was when I found the Book of Earth, but we never found the demon itself."

"Then perhaps it, and not the Badger, is why we were sent," Jun'ai said. "Are not the demons of Jigoku Shinsei's greatest enemies? As much as we all may sympathize for the Badger, perhaps they are not our concern."

"Then Rosoku should make his instructions clearer," Tsuken replied. "If the Ichiro need my help then I, for one, will help them. What say you?"

"Agreed," Sugimoto said.

The rest of the Keepers mounted and continued down the rocky path toward Shiro Ichiro.

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

Shiro Ichiro was a chaotic sort of place. Large parts of the castle lay in ruins; other sections lay in a state of indefinite construction, covered with scaffolding and surrounded by heaps of building materials. The interior was only slightly more orderly. The castle was undergoing constant repairs, and it was obvious that the Badger's priorities favored security over comfort.

Sugimoto glanced around absently, occasionally pausing to run one hand across the stone and wood supports, assessing their stability. He did not tarry long, however, as the Keepers were led down a wide passage and into a large chamber. Numerous tables were covered with drawings of buildings and maps of the surrounding area. Two older men were discussing something on one of the maps, flanked by a burly Ichiro soldier and a portly Kaiu engineer. The discussion ended when the Keepers entered, and the eldest of the Ichiro offered the assembled group a weary smile. He gestured for the young soldier and the engineer to depart, thanking them with a quick bow. Both returned the gesture and left.

"We welcome your return, Sugimoto-san," the old Badger said, "and are honored to host your fellow Keepers as well."

"Thank you, Kihongo-sama," Sugimoto answered. "It is good to be in the mountains once more." He turned to his companions. "These are my friends, Mirumoto Masae, Kakita Tsuken, and Doji Jun'ai."

The old man smiled politely at each of them, though the smile looked forced when he looked at Jun'ai and Tsuken. "I am Kihongo, lord of the Badger Clan," he said. "This is my advisor, Jinzaburo. I must confess you have the advantage of me, Keepers. I did not expect the arrival of such prestigious visitors. If I can serve you in any way, simply say the word."

 "It is we who come to serve you," Jun'ai said in a silky voice. "Do not look upon us as Crab or Crane or Dragon. We are here to offer guidance, and to seek wisdom."

Kihongo looked at Jun'ai for a long moment, then burst out laughing. Even Jinzaburo glanced at his daimyo in surprise, seemingly embarrassed.

"Did I say something funny?" Jun'ai asked stiffly.

 When the old man finally recovered his composure, his face was twisted into a grimace. "Forgive me, Keeper of Water," he said. "I appreciate your offer of aid. It is not my intent to offer you disrespect, but put yourself in my place. The troubles of my clan are so great that Shinsei sends his Keepers here to test them not once but twice. Is this to be the future of my clan? Will my homeland become a place where samurai journey to seek glory by overcoming our shame even while the Great Clans plot to parcel off our lands?"

"My lord," Jinzaburo warned. "Such talk is unseemly in the presence of Great Clan samurai."

 "Then I am fortunate that we will not be a clan much longer, aren't I?" Kihongo said with a deep sigh.

"If you insult all your allies like this, then the Badger's current state becomes a bit clearer," Tsuken said.

"Tsuken, please," Jun'ai said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

The Keeper of Fire looked at Jun'ai. His annoyed scowl faded somewhat. "Kihongo-sama, we need to know more," Tsuken said. "The Badger are the oldest of the Great Clans. What has happened that would cause the Otomo to seek to remove your name? Perhaps if we knew more of your struggles&"

"Struggles?" Kihongo asked. "Struggle is not the word." The old man rubbed one hand over his face, slumping visibly. "I became the Badger Clan Champion only after a demon appeared in our lands and slaughtered seven of every ten Ichiro. I was chosen only because my sensei, the great Ichiro Tashime, refused to accept the position. I pledged that the Badger would not die, and now I regret my arrogance. A samurai might find glory in death. There is no glory in the existence we have now, only shame."

"You chose to fight on rather then accept defeat," Masae said. "There is no shame in that."

"Isn't there?" Kihongo asked. "This is but one of our fortresses, and it is the finest of them all. Even it is a ruin. We do not have the resources to repair our castles. We do not have the resources to construct an embassy in Toshi Ranbo. We can barely meet our yearly taxes." The daimyo laughed again. It was a dark, desperate sound. "Hideo no Oni ravaged much of our fertile lands, collapsed our mines. Much of Rokugan does not even realize my clan still exists. They see my kinsmen working as mercenaries and caravan guards and assume that we are ronin." Kihongo closed his eyes. "Perhaps the only difference between a Badger and a ronin is that a Badger is arrogant enough to believe that he matters. We are samurai too destitute to serve our Emperor, forced to scrape and labor to gather the gold we need to survive. What a pathetic fate for a samurai. I would have retired long ago, save for the fact that I do not wish to leave my grandson the burden of failure." He shook his head. "The Badger will dwindle and die a coward's death. A death of weaklings. Of all the Minor Clans that have died or vanished& only the Badger's death will be a coward's death." The old man's voice trailed off.

"No," Tsuken said.

Kihongo opened his eyes and glared at the Crane, but something in the Keeper's eyes forbade all argument.

"No, Lord Kihongo," Tsuken repeated. "I swear upon the Book of Fire that we will not let the Badger Clan die."

The old samurai's eyes widened. The corner of his mouth turned in a very small smile. He nodded at Tsuken.

Jinzaburo stepped forward. "Please excuse us, honored Keepers. My lord has gone without rest for several days. We will speak again, if you wish it. When my lord's mood is better, then I feel confident he will accept your counsel. Whatever aid you can offer us, we gladly accept."

Jinzaburo helped the old daimyo rise and exit the room. Two servants met him at the rear door and led Kihongo away. Jinzaburo looked back just as the Keepers were leaving.

"Sugimoto-sama," he called out quietly.

The Keeper of Earth paused. The others looked back as well.

"My lord does not wish to trouble outsiders," he said, "but you have helped us before."

"Go on," Sugimoto said.

"There have been disappearances," Jinzaburo said. "Entire squads of soldiers vanishing, leaving behind only blood."

"Hideo no Oni," Sugimoto said darkly.

Jinzaburo nodded. "The demon has returned. He senses our weakness, and he prepares to feed. Kihongo has said nothing of this to the Crane, the Crab, or the Miya& but perhaps you can help?"

"Have your scouts report to us," Sugimoto said. "Show us where the demon killed last."

Jinzaburo nodded silently, casting a quick look back the way his lord had gone before disappearing once more.

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

The private chamber offered to the Keepers was large, divided roughly in two by a large wooden screen placed in the room's center. The others barely had time to place their meager belongings upon the low tables before Tsuken began pacing the chamber.

"Demons hunt the badger from without," the Keeper of Fire said. "Courtiers seek to destroy the Badger from within. Their own lord has abandoned hope. What can we do here?"
"How do I kill it?" Sugimoto mumbled.

"Excuse me?" Tsuken asked.

"In Crab lands we face many unorthodox enemies, many impossible challenges," Sugimoto said. "In the end there is only one question. How do I kill it?' One must not be overcome by problem upon problem. Find a place to fight, and begin."

"The demon, then," Tsuken said. "That, at least, is an enemy we can understand."

"We are not warriors," Masae cautioned. "Not any longer. If our duties as Keepers are to be so mundane as to hunt demons, then we have failed to comprehend the wisdom Rosoku has entrusted in us."

"Nor can we afford to let arrogance blind us to worldly problems," Jun'ai countered. "We struggle against fear, hopelessness, and confusion. Here, in these mountains, those things have a form, and a face. The troubles that plague Rokugan are made manifest in Hideo no Oni. Our battle is a symbolic one. We must fight."

"Defeating the demon, even if that were possible, would only send a message to the people of Rokugan that will solve their problems for them," Masae said, shaking her head. "We are meant to guide. We must not do this. For the Badger's struggles to have worth, they must defeat their own enemies."

"Those devoured by the demon might have been willing to wait for guidance," Sugimoto said. "If evil dwells in these mountains, I will fight it, Keeper or no. We have the skill and the means. We are all samurai, and Shinsei's teachings have begun to make us something more. We have all felt it."

The other Keepers said nothing. They looked at Sugimoto silently.

"Jinzaburo asked for our aid," Sugimoto said. "The Badger must face their destiny. I will face it with them."

"As will I," Tsuken agreed. "We can deal with the beast and worry about our purpose later."

"The greater concern," Jun'ai said, "is the Badger's present state. Even if we aid them in dispatching the oni, everything that Kihongo said is unfortunately true. The Crab cannot offer them anything more than token assistance and other clans are unlikely to aid them. The Badger lands are in a sorry state. They have no resources, nothing to offer save the strength of their samurai& and each samurai they dispatch to work as a mercenary is one less to defend these lands."

"Yet what can we do?" Masae shook her head. "We are still incomplete, as the Keepers of the Book of Void and the Five Rings have still not been found. We have no resources to share with the Badger, and if we did, would it be wise to do so? We cannot solve the Empire's woes with koku, even if it were in our ability to do so."

"Gold cannot buy honor," Sugimoto said with a grunt, "but it can surely kill it."

"There is a way," Jun'ai insisted. "We only need to find it."

Masae smiled. "Perhaps you are right, but how can we find a way when we are new to these lands?"

"Find someone who sees everything," Tsuken said.

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

"Thank you for seeing me, Hira-san," Tsuken said. "I know your duties keep you very busy." The Keeper of Fire sipped at the tea the ancient shugenja had provided for him, savoring its rich flavor.

"I was no aware that the Keepers had such rich senses of humor," Asahina Hira replied, pouring himself a second cup. "My duties to Doji Koin are light. I spend quite a bit of time wondering whether not if I went insane from boredom, if that would prove more interesting." He smiled. "It's quite the paradox."

Tsuken smiled wryly, noticing that Hira poured a perfect amount of tea into each cup despite the silken scarf that covered his eyes. "I had hoped that I might talk to you about what's going on here," he continued. "I understand that you have been stationed here for quite some time."

"Several months," Hira confirmed. "I actually arrived very shortly after your friend Sugimoto departed. My time here has been quite uneventful. I think that Koin-sama gives me little thought. He agreed to bring me as a favor to my family, but he leaves me to do what I wish. He looks at me and sees a helpless old blind man."

"So he is a fool, then," Tsuken said.

"Koin serves his clan as best he can," Hira replied with a small smile.

"It seems odd for a shugenja of your experience to be stationed in such a remote place," Tsuken pressed.

"It does," Hira agreed, "but we do what we feel we must as you did, when you proclaimed your love to Jun'ai even when you knew her family intended to marry her to another." The old man sipped his tea. "Yet I do not question you."

Tsuken fell silent, his face reddening. "I have offended you, Hira," he said cutly. "I apologize. I will leave." He started to rise.

"Sit, sit." The old shugenja waved for the young Keeper to take his seat. "It is I who should apologize. I am in no position to judge you, Tsuken-san. There are simply parts of my life I would prefer not be questioned."

"Hai," Tsuken said, though his face was still dark red.

"Are you angry?" Hira asked.

"Yes," Tsuken admitted. "I would never do anything to shame Jun'ai. I would sacrifice all. Our difficulties are in the past we are both Keepers now, and our destinies are our own to determine."

"How lucky," Hira said.

"You are as infuriating as you always were, uncle," Tsuken said, burying his face in his hands.

Hira laughed. "When you are older, such things will not be so vexing," he said. "But enough of my foolishness. How can I help you, Tsuken?"

Tsuken straightened and drunk from his tea again. "The Keepers are unfamiliar with the political climate of this area," he said. "I was wondering if you could help us."

Hira nodded. "Of course. I will offer any aid I can. I have had little to do but sit and listen& and I have heard much."

"Arigato. What can you tell me of Miya Tsurugi?"

"Tsurugi is an honorable man, given an unenviable task," Hira answered. "He resents his position here, however. I believe he views it as some sort of punishment, or perhaps an oversight. I believe he is predisposed toward finding the Badger incapable of fulfilling their duties because, on some level, he fears that if they remain he will be assigned here on a more permanent basis. For a young member of the Imperial Families there is little recognition to be gained in so remote a place."

"He has already made up his mind." Tsuken tucked a strand of white hair behind his ear absently. "Interesting."

Hira was quiet for a moment. "It does not surprise me that Shinsei chose you as Keeper of Fire," he finally said. "You are as he was flawed and wise at the same time."

"And you are as blunt as ever."

"I mean no insult," Hira said. "I heard you and your fellow Keepers in your discussions. The face you present to others is flawless. Your uncertainty is buried so deeply that none can sense it. You appear ever prepared, and deal burn whatever anxiety you find in private, so as not to alarm those who look to you for guidance. To others, you are brash, impetuous& but every decision you make is based on years of honed contemplation and instinct, ready to burst into action. There is no fear. It really is quite fascinating."

Tsuken's eyes narrowed slightly. "You heard us from here?" he asked. "Why does that not surprise me?"

"I did not intend to eavesdrop," Hira replied, "but the Void spoke to me and I listened."

Tsuken looked at Hira quietly. "Is that why Sekawa sent you here, uncle?" he asked. "To avoid upsetting the Phoenix now that the Crane have strengthened ties with them?"

Hira chuckled. "The Phoenix see the world a certain way," he replied. "Any variance from that standard upsets them. You know that for an Ishiken to be born outside their clan is extraordinary. For an Ishiken to learn to control his power alone&" Hira sipped his tea. "Is impossible."

"It's not as bad as you say," Tsuken said. "If the Phoenix knew our family's history&"

"It would only upset them more," Hira finished. "The Elemental Masters do not cast out an Ishiken lightly. Our ancestor Nariaki, was fortunate that the Asahina took pity on him."

"That was long ago," Tsuken replied. "I would think that the Phoenix would rejoice to see the blessings of the Void reborn."

"Nariaki's punishment was called the Forgetting for a reason," Hira replied. "The Phoenix do not like to be reminded of such criminals, and even the long centuries since his exile would not be enough to earn forgiveness. The past should have remained buried." Hira lifted one long-fingered hand, tracing the silken scarf that bound his eyes. "Oblivion's Gate opened a wound that should have remained closed, and granted me a power better left forgotten."

Tsuken looked at his uncle sadly, clearly unconvinced. "Jun'ai believes we were sent to save the Badger from extinction," he said. "Sugimoto thinks we are here to kill the demon. I wonder if either of those are our true purpose here."
"What do you mean?" Hira asked, mildy confused.

"Never mind, uncle," Tsuken said. "Just tell me whatever you can about what has happened at Shiro Ichiro."

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

Deep within the most remote valleys of the Northern Wall Mountains, the Keepers and their Badger allies found a temple, one seemingly hewn from the mountains themselves. Lord Kihongo's grandson, Ryozan, would only say that it was the oldest and most sacred of all Badger holdings, and one that had been empty for centuries. He would answer no further questions, but ordered his scouts to examine the perimeter cautiously.

Unfortunately, caution did not serve the Ichiro well. The scouts ventured too close to the temple, and Ryozan's suspicions were brutally proven correct when the Hideo no Oni burst forth from the temple's darkened interior and slaughtered two men before anyone realized what had happened. The massive, multi-limbed creature's speed was astounding, matched only be the nearly superhuman speeds of Tsuken and Masae, who ventured into the valley and engaged the beast, distracting and outmaneuvering it to keep the others from harm, never striking against it directly.

Ryozan and his men did not hesitate to exploit the advantage the Keepers offered them. They pressed the beast, using their traditional fighting style, adapted from the Crab techniques after centuries of modification, to gradually overpower the much larger foe. The demon was forced back into the temple, where it was pinned against a wall. Ryozan himself struck the final blow, bringing the beast to the ground. He then put it to the torch at once, unwilling to risk further danger from its death throes.

Several of Ryozan's men died, but in the end the Badger achieved a much-needed victory. The Ichiro soldiers cheered their commander's name, joined by an enthusiastic Tsuken while the other Keepers looked on.

Sugimoto and Masae exchanged a knowing glance, and the Dragon left to return to Shiro Ichiro. The truly difficult part would now begin, and the Keepers were as yet uncertain whether or not they could overcome the far more dangerous foe that awaited them.

Miya Tsurugi glanced around the ancient temple with a disinterested expression. "I fail to see why I needed to come to this place myself."

Kaiu Sugimoto gestured to the charred corpse that had once been Hideo no Oni. Even now, eta assembled around it with torches and shovels, afraid to touch the remains directly. "The demon has been defeated," the Keeper said. "The Ichiro have fulfilled their duties, as they were charged by the first Hantei."

"They have fulfilled their duty," Tsurugi agreed, "and for that they have my respect and admiration. Unfortunately, it took over thirty years for them to defend the Empire against a single demon. A demon that, if rumors are to be believed, arose from a member of their own clan." Tsurugi shook his head. "All of this will be included in my report."

"How can you be so brazen?" Ichiro Ryozan demanded, advancing toward the herald, but Kaiu Sugimoto seized his arm.

"I am a representative of the Emperor, boy," Tsurugi said, glaring at the larger Badger without fear. "Whether the Badger rise or fall, your service to the Son of Heaven remains. To threaten me will hardly improve your position."

The Badger scowled.

"This is not the way, Ryozan," Sugimoto said. "Allow us to reason with him."

Ryozan nodded and stepped away, muttering under his breath.

"Hideo no Oni was born in the Clan War," Masae said. "It was a dark time, when many families faced demons from within. Before you cast blame upon the Badger, you might look to your own house, Miya. The tale of Miya Satoshi has not been forgotten by the Dragon Clan."

Tsurugi blanched, but recovered quickly. "True," he said, "but the Miya have recovered and serve the Emperor dutifully, while everything I have seen in these mountains suggests that the Badger have no future. In eleven centuries of protecting' the Empire from northern invaders, none have come. They serve no purpose."

"The Ichiro are valiant samurai," Tsuken insisted. "How can you take away the names and home of those who have done nothing but serve?"

The herald's eyes narrowed. "Unfortunately for the Badger, my superiors do not see the value of their service as you do," he said with disinterest.

"And you, Miya?" Tsuken asked. "You would like nothing better than to leave here."

"Do not question my motives or my honor, Keeper," the herald retorted. "I have no ulterior motive. I take no joy in the notion of informing Hoketuhime-sama that the Ichiro cannot fulfill their duty. I do what I do because I must, not because I choose to do so."

"Then you choose destruction, for you have doomed good men to a life of shame." Jun'ai's voice was even, calm, but there was the weight of sadness. "You could choose to petition your lord, convince them of the Ichiro's worth. Would you cast them upon the waves, to an uncertain destiny?"

"The Badger are already mercenaries bereft of purpose," Tsurugi's said in a resigned voice. "They are already no better than ronin save that they have been given the recognition of an undeserved family name. I will not use my position to allow them to retain worth that lies above them. Unlike others, I do not have an inflated sense of my own worth." He smiled at the Keeper.

Sugimoto frowned, and Masae lowered her head. The assembled Ichiro said nothing, but the anguish on their faces was telling enough. Silence filled the ancient temple, with no one able to speak. For a moment, it seemed that the end had come.

"What is this?" asked a soft voice.

The assembled samurai turned to Asahina Hira, who was regarding a large, column that dominated the temple's center. The old shugenja was standing near the shrine with his head cocked to the side, as if listening. "Is there writing on this stone?" he asked, gesturing at the column.

Tsuken stepped forward and examined the ancient stone. "Hai, Hira-san." He lifted the old man's hand gently and placed it on the inscription. "I do not recognize it."

"None do," the Ichiro officer said. "It has stood since the Badger Clan's first days, but its meaning has been lost to time."

Hira carefully traced his fingers across the delicate stonework. "These kanji," he said. "I recognize them."

"What does it say?" Masae asked.

"It is the language of the Kami, spoken in Tengoku and among their servants, the lesser elemental kami. Shugenja can hear it, but never speak it. Mortal tongues are not worthy to speak it." He paused and bowed his head. "Such characters have never been written by mortal hands, and even then not since the time of the first Hantei."

"What do you mean?" Tsurugi demanded. "What is this place?"

Hira continued moving his fingers across the characters until he reached the end, then stepped back. "Kneel, friends," he said quietly, dropping to his knees. "This is most holy ground."

The Keepers knelt at once, followed by the confused Ichiro and other assembled samurai. Tsurugi only looked on in confusion. "Explain, please," he demanded.

"Centuries ago, Hantei charged Domogu, the first Badger, to protect these lands," Hira said. "The Empire assumed the Badger were intended to guard the northern borders, but no threat has ever crossed these mountains. I think now that Domogu allowed the Empire, allowed even his descendants, to believe what they wished. All that mattered was that the Badger remained here that they protected this place. Now that I have seen the kanji, I understand why Hideo no Oni believed it could increase its power here."

"What is this place?" the herald repeated. "Is there danger?"

"No," Hira said. "Quite the opposite. This is a place of peace, harmony, and unity. The inscription charges Domogu with keeping the shrine safe and hidden. I doubt even he knew what he guarded. The inscription says that mortals shall not enter this place until the Tenth Kami walks the earth once more."

"Ryoshun?" Masae exclaimed. "The tenth Kami?"

"We have disgraced it with our presence," Ryozan said quickly. "We must all leave. I will escort you back to Shiro Ichiro, and then I will perform the three cuts for my failure to protect this place."

"Rysohun returned during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate," Hira said. "I saw him guarding the rift, though he returned to death thereafter. Thus you have not failed Ryozan-san." The shugenja rose, then turned to face the others. "Yet Ryoshun's grave still stands, and the Hantei's charge remains. The sons and daughters of Domogu must protect this place." He looked at Tsurugi. "Unless, of course, Tsurugi-san would place his own judgement above that of the First Hantei."

"I would not," Tsurugi said, completely mortified. "The Badger Clan will not fall, so long as I draw breath. I shall report to my family and speak to Lord Shoin. Each year the Miya gather the Emperor's Blessing, funds which we use aid those who have fallen to crisis. I have no doubt I can convince my lord to use the Blessing to improve the Badger's conditions here."

"The Crane will not falter, either," Doji Koin said, rising quickly and standing beside Hira. "My clan would gladly offer the Ichiro their support as thanks for guarding the grave of our Lady Doji's brother. Your taxes this season shall be paid in full by the Crane, with our gratitude."

"The Crab would do no less!" barked one of the Kaiu engineers. "We shall build a wall around this place, a fortress to protect Ryoshun's grave! And the fields of the Kaiu will turn out rice enough that your Badger warriors can return from abroad to protect these mountains!"

"I suspect the other clans will offer similar gifts, when they hear of this," Hira said. "What say you, Ryozan? Do you speak for your lord?"

Ryozan seemed stunned by the news, but quickly recovered and returned the bow. "I thank you for your kindness, my friends, as I know my grandfather will thank you as well." He smirked. "My opinion of Tsurugi-san has increased considerably."

Tsurugi chuckled.

The Miya left immediately to report the news. The Keepers soon filed out as well, though each of them paused to pay their astonished thanks to Hira. Tsuken was the last. He stepped forward and impulsively embraced his uncle, clapping the old man on the back. As the Keeper of Fire left, the old shugenja sat down upon a stone, taking a moment to compose himself. Facing an Imperial Herald and defending the right of a clan to exist had shaken him quite a bit more than he had let on, and he was an old man.

He leaned back against the stone, reaching back to trace its smooth surface with one hand. His hand stopped as a loose stone fell away, and he cocked his head in confusion. Curiously, he reached into the gap and drew out what he found. It seemed to be a book of some sort, but how had it come to be in such a place? Hira's mouth dropped open in shock as he recognized the symbol engraved upon the cover.

The old man now held the Book of the Void.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!