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To Save a Soul

by Rich Wulf

"Of the Crane, a fallen foe will prove to be their undoing. They will be led astray by a deceiver, and the true hero will arise too late to save them." Doom of the Crane, the Prophecies of Uikku

Some Time Ago&

A single figure in battered blue armor stood at the edge of a windswept cliff. Once, he had been Champion. Once, he had stood above all others as the Emperor's foremost defender. Once, he had been one of the most powerful samurai in all of Rokugan.

Now, he was only a ghost.

Doji Satsume stared silently out at the sea, his dark blue eyes as cold and depthless as the water. His journey was nearly at an end. Somewhere, nearby, he would find Teinko, his wife. It was her fault that she had been driven to such a horrible fate. She had taken her own life dishonorably, damning herself to this place. Satsume, on the other hand, had died in service to his Emperor. He had died a samurai's death and thus passed on to glorious Yomi, the Realm of the Blessed Ancestors. In the decades since his death, he had convinced himself that he deserved his reward, that Teinko's exile here was only just punishment for his own weakness.

It was not right. It was Satsume's cold obsession with duty, the impossible standards he enforced upon even those he cherished, that had slain Teinko. During his battles in the Realm of Thwarted Destiny, he had been forced to confront his past again. He had been forced to confront the truth. He was a murderer, as surely as if he had thrown her from the cliffs himself. In killing Teinko, he had destroyed all that was good and pure within himself. His hatred put his son, Hoturi, on a path that ultimately led to his own destruction.

It was a credit to Hoturi's strength that he had died a hero, burying his blade in the heart of the Dark God. But it did not make things right.

But was it possible to find her in this place? If he found Teinko, would she remember him? Would she forgive him? Would his apology only deepen her endless torment? Why had he really come here? Did he truly wish to make amends or was it only to satisfy his own arrogant sense of honor?

He should turn back now, abandon this quest. Better yet, he should remain here, cease resisting the wailing despair that eroded him at every moment, and let the Grey Realm claim him. Satsume fell to his knees as he began to drift away, forgetting who he was, why he had come here. The old ghost buried his face in his hands. By all rights he should weep, he thought, though he could not remember why. The tears would not come. The fingers of his left hand traced his cheek and found the scar that twisted his lips and sliced across his face.

And he remembered. He was young then, but a newly recruited member of the Emperor's Guard. The assassins had appeared from nowhere, rushing from the bushes to surround the Emperor's palanquin in the outer courtyard of his own palace. In a matter of moments only Satsume and a handful of others remained, fighting in a tight ring around their lord and master. The ninja's blade slashed across his face, blinding him with his own blood, but he fought on, hewing about savagely with his grandfather's sword. Though he had been trained in the way of the samurai all his life, in that moment he learned what it truly meant. He had been fully prepared to give his life for another, to die only so that the Emperor might live for just one more instant. He had sworn an oath to defend the Son of Heaven, an oath he eventually gave his life to uphold. A samurai who did not uphold his oaths was less than nothing.

"Teinko," he whispered, hands tightening into fists. He had sworn an oath to her as well, and he had failed her. Now this place sought to make him forget.

"No," Satsume hissed, rising to his feet. He felt a great weight pressing upon his shoulders, encouraging him to remain as he was, to surrender. He shrugged the weight aside and rose to his full height. The gray fog of Meido seemed to twist and recoil from his presence. His blue armor shone again, as it had in life. He could see figures in the fog now, the shades of men and women drifting upon the still air. They wore the rich kimono and proud armor of samurai, but without any life or color, without any symbols of who they once were. They looked at Satsume with pained expressions, black eyes wide as they basked in his defiance.

"Well done, Grinning Crane," said a mellow voice. A tall warrior in sleek black armor stepped forth from the fog. Satsume recognized him at once, but a slow sneer creased his weathered face.

"What are you?" Satsume demanded. "Some demon sent to torment me?"

He chuckled. "I am Hoturi, Satsume-sama," he replied. "I am your son."

"You bear my son's face, but you are not him," Satsume retorted. "There is too much murder in your eyes. You are something else."

"It is as you say," the stranger replied. "I am your son, yet I am not. I am the creature of Bayushi Kachiko's creation. I am Daigotsu Hoturi."

"The Doom of the Crane," Satsume hissed. As he spoke he noticed more of the lost, gray souls. They gathered at the fog's edge, like moths swarming about a flame.

"I have been called that, yes," Hoturi replied, "yet what the prophet Uikku wrote was not to be. I waged war upon our people. I burned all the houses of the Crane and offered my soul to the Dark God. And do you know why?"

Satsume only stared at the shadow silently. His hand moved toward the hilt of his blade.

Hoturi's eyes fixed on Satsume's hand for a moment, though he did not reach for his own weapon. "When Kachiko created me using the Egg of Pan Ku, I possessed all of Hoturi's memories, all that he was. She commanded me to be her weapon of vengeance against my own clan, and the magic that made me would not allow for disobedience. I was Hoturi, in all ways. How could I murder my people? How could I find the strength to do such terrible things? How could a man like Hoturi endure such betrayal? Yet there, in Hoturi's memories, I found the tools I needed to become the monster Kachiko wished me to be."

"Speak no more, demon," Satsume hissed, drawing his sword. "I will not let your lies turn me from my path."

"Your path?" Hoturi asked with a laugh. "What interest do I have in your path? Succeed or fail, it makes no difference to me, you will aid me just the same."

"Then what do you want from me?" Satsume demanded.

"Only to hear my tale," Hoturi replied. "How could a man like Hoturi, even a copy of Hoturi, become a monster? Simple enough. I remembered what my father taught me, that a man should not endure weakness, that a man must sacrifice all that he is to obey the oaths he has sworn. I embraced what you taught me. I set out to purge all that was weak within my clan. You claim that I am not your son and in blood perhaps I am not, but know before I leave you that I am truly your son in a way that Doji Hoturi never was."

"So you wish to taunt me?" Satsume demanded.

"Honestly, I cannot say," Hoturi said, tilting his head slightly as he studied Satsume. "Perhaps I truly wished to see you suffer, as petty as it sounds. I know that Hoturi hated you for what you did, for killing his mother. I know he wished you pain, but you died fighting the Scorpion and his vengeance was forever denied. Perhaps what is left of Hoturi within me wished only for me to seize upon this last chance to inform you that it was you, not I, who was truly the Doom spoken of in prophecy."

"Last chance?" Satsume asked. He noticed that some of the spirits had ventured out of the fog, closer to him. Faint hints of color had begun returning to their clothing and armor.

"Yes," Hoturi replied with a cold smile. "He is coming for you even now, and he does not take intruders lightly."

The tremor passed through the earth beneath their feet. The still air of Meido began to stir, turning the fog into a gentle mist. The wandering souls that flocked around Hoturi and Satsume began to wail and shriek, flailing their arms like beasts. The False Hoturi offered a mocking bow and stepped back into the mists, fading quickly away.

Satsume held his sword steady in both hands, watching the flailing spirits for any signs of attack. They only continued their manic howling and swirled about him in mad circles. What was this mad place? Was Teinko doomed to become a creature such as these? He was resolved more than ever to remove her from this place.

"Who are you, to intrude here?" roared a metallic voice that seemed forged from the very essence of Meido. "Who are you to judge ME?"

An enormous warrior in blackened armor stepped out of the mists, looking down at Satsume. The Crane looked up in horror as he realized there was no man within the armor at all; it merely hung in the air as if worn by an invisible figure. The space behind the helm was filled with inky shadow, and he could not help but feel as if the darkness itself was glaring at him. The warrior held a massive obsidian spear in one hand, leveling the blade at Satsume's chest.

"I am Doji Satsume, Emerald Champion to the Hantei Dynasty, lord of the Crane Clan!" Satsume proclaimed in a defiant voice.

"Seek to impress another with your titles," the warrior replied. "Your Emperor holds no power over me. I am the Fortune of Death. I am the warden of lost souls. I am Emma-O, Lord of the Gray Realm, and light such as you bring is not welcome here. Your soul shines with the light of memory, and in a place such as this, it is better to forget. Be forgotten, Crane." The Fortune of Death lifted his spear high, prepared to drive it through Satsume's chest.

Satsume had always valued strength and considered himself a strong samurai. He had always chided his son, Hoturi, for his weakness. He had mocked Hoturi's compassion, his willingness to give himself to others. Yet in that moment, without hesitation, Satsume found the strength to do that which surprised even himself.

The Grinning Crane fell to his knees before the Fortune of Death, placing his sword upon the earth. He bowed his head in shame, and Emma-O held his spear in check.

"Please, mighty Fortune, I beg your mercy," he whispered. "I do not mean to blaspheme this place or intrude upon the sacred duty entrusted to you by the Celestial Order. It is not my intent to judge your methods nor bring your subjects pain. I only seek a single soul."

Emma-O scoffed. "I am impressed by your sincerity, samurai, but why should I give you what you seek?" the god asked. "All who intrude here seek only one soul. Were I to oblige them all, the Gray Realm would be empty. The Celestial Order would fall to chaos as souls out of balance ran unchecked throughout the realms."

"This soul is different," Satsume said. "It is not her fault that she has come to this place. It is mine."

Emma-O lowered his spear. "Truly, you do not understand, mortal," Emma-O said in a sad voice. "Sin is a burden that is rarely one's own, but in the end all must be accountable for their own actions. It may be as you say. It may be that your actions drove the one you seek to an unwelcome fate, but the fact remains the kharmic debt must be repaid, and Meido must have its due."

"Then take me instead," Satsume replied quietly. He looked up, dark eyes staring fearlessly into the void that was Emma-O. "For I have a greater debt to repay. It was I who drove my wife to her death. It was my hatred, my violence that gave birth to the Doom of the Crane."

"You speak of Uikku," Emma-O replied, and his voice seemed almost amused. "You are confused, Crane, as most mortals are. Your people believe Uikku's Dooms have come and gone, that their fate has been averted. Fate cannot be denied, only forestalled for a time. The Dooms Uikku prophesied have not yet come to be."

"Yet the truth remains," Satsume retorted. "I have wronged Doji Teinko, and she suffers for my misdeeds. Please, mighty Fortune, let me take her from this place."

Emma-O said nothing for a long time. He stared silently at the Grinning Crane. Satsume felt as if the god was weighing his soul, judging the value of his entire existence. At last, Emma-O shook his head.

"The balance must be retained," the god said. "Sin demands atonement. A soul must remain here."

"Then take me," Satsume said without hesitation. "My shame is greater."

"You are a hero, Doji Satsume," Emma-O replied. "Your place is in the green fields."

"No," Satsume said. "All that was good and noble in me was born of love for my family and clan. If you would judge Teinko for my arrogance and hatred, then you must honor her for my deeds. Release her into the green fields of Yomi, and let these mists claim me."

"Do you realize the weight of what you ask, Satsume?"

Satsume remembered briefly when the mists had sought to claim him, when he had forgotten all that he was. He would become like the lost souls that surrounded him now, desperately hungry for any memory of the living world. It was a bleak fate.

"It is no less than I deserve," he said, rising to his feet and sheathing his blade.

"It is within my power for you to see Teinko one last time," Emma-O said. "To speak to her before she departs for Yomi and you become one with this place. I will summon her now."

"No," Satsume said sharply.

Emma-O looked down at Satsume, the void within his helmet radiating surprise and confusion.

"To know that I suffer will only bring her pain," the Crane said softly. "Tell her only that her debt is fulfilled, and send her to meet our sons."

"Very well," the Fortune said.

He turned his spear in one hand, and in an instant it was done. The mists rolled over Doji Satsume. The color faded from his face and armor. His dark blue eyes widened in the last moment before all memory faded from him, then he drifted into the fog with the others.

Emma-O stood silently where he was for a time, contemplating the peculiar nature of mortals. Then, suddenly, his hand tightened on the haft of his spear. A savage bellow, the sound of unfathomable rage, welled up from within him. The Fortune of Death sped away through the mists with all the divine speed he could muster, though he already knew he was too late.

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

The Shadowlands, Present Day

The City of the Lost was a flurry of activity, as it had been since the Bloodspeakers were defeated. The corrupted samurai and peasants who made their home here had set their sights to rebuilding what had been destroyed. Old enmities had been forgotten, as those once compelled into Bloodspeaker service now obeyed their Dark Lord again.

Though they served the Dark God, Fu Leng, with every fiber of their being, these men and women had learned a peculiar sense of honor from Lord Daigotsu. They followed his example dutifully, for he had lead the Lost to glory as none other had before. Years ago, Daigotsu restored the bound essence of Fu Leng to his rightful place among the gods and earned the Fortune of Death's enmity. Though Daigotsu foresaw his own death and stored a portion of his soul in trust with his ally, the Shadow Dragon, that part of him which had died remained bound in Meido.

The Fortune of Death's vengeance was a particularly harsh; he shielded Daigotsu from the dark powers of Jigoku, barring him from the Taint that fueled Fu Leng's minions. What most souls might find a blessing was a horrible curse to the Dark Lord. Though he still served Fu Leng loyally, he was unable to draw upon the dark powers that once let him rule unopposed. Weakened by Emma-O's vengeance, he was unable to prevent Iuchiban from usurping his rule and claiming many of his former followers. Now, however, all of that had changed. Iuchiban was dead. Daigotsu had returned to his proper place in the Temple of the Ninth Kami, and old loyalties were renewed.

And within the Temple, new loyalties were born. As the Dark Lord paced his chambers, he listened to the end of his visitor's tale. A small smile twisted Daigotsu's handsome features as he unraveled the details aloud.

"So you entered into a bargain with the Shadow Dragon, as I once did," Daigotsu said.

"Yes," the man replied. "The Dragon knew where your soul was bound, though a being as powerful as he leaves ripples through the elements that would have been detected by the Fortune of Death. I helped the Dragon find the opportunity we needed to send one less& obvious. Satsume merely provided the distraction we required."

Daigotsu held a hand before his face, studying the black flame that danced between his fingertips. It wasa simple trick of blood magic, but even magic such as this had been beyond him until recently. "You are a student of irony, my friend," Daigotsu said. "I wonder if Hoturi enjoyed watching his father' consumed by Emma-O's realm."

"I doubt he saw anything at all," the other answered. "He was most likely busy escaping Meido before the Fortune noticed."

"Point well made," Daigotsu mused. "Now let us move on to other matters. The favor you have performed for me cannot easily be repaid."

"I ask only two things from you, Dark Lord," the other replied. "Your mercy, and the opportunity to continue to pursue my art in your service."

"You ask for a great deal," Daigotsu answered. "There are many here who remember how you served Iuchiban."

"You know what I offer cannot be denied. You know that with my help the City of the Lost will become even greater than it was before. My fealty is no small gift, Dark Lord."

"It will be difficult to earn my people's trust," Daigotsu said.

"Then to Jigoku with them," the man spat. "I need only your favor, and my tools. I will take your name and swear fealty if such is required; your service is far greater freedom than Iuchiban ever offered me. My art is everything. Give me work to do, and that is all I will ever ask." The man kneeled deeply before Daigotsu, long white hair spilling over his broad shoulders.

"Well said," Daigotsu said, letting the fires fade from his fingers. "I accept your offer& for there is much work to do. Rise, Daigotsu Yajinden, and join the ranks of the Lost."

The former Bloodspeaker rose, shoulders squared with pride. Slinging his heavy blacksmith's hammer over one shoulder, he bowed to the Dark Lord another time and set out to join those repairing the broken city.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!