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Ruins of Otosan Uchi, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Editing & Assistance by Fred Wan

Eastern Hub Village

Of the four Hub Villages, the Eastern Hub Village had survived the destruction of Otosan Uchi perhaps the best. Granted, such a statement was relative, given Eastern Hub Village might best be described as slightly less abandoned than the others, but it was nevertheless marginally more active. The tiny Tortoise Clan maintained a nominal presence within the village, which could explain its relative prosperity. Whatever the reason, there were a large number of ronin who made the village their home.

Shinjo Shono leaned against a building casually, his identity and loyalties obscured by his thick traveling robes, watching the coming and going of men who appeared to be preparing a shipment to leave the nearby port. He had hardly moved in two hours, but he thought finally he had learned everything he needed. He stood, stretching as he did, and frowning at the number of bones that creaked after what he thought was a short period of immobility. Shono crossed the dusty path, approaching the group of men occupied with the loading of a cart across the way. The men noticed his approach, and were obviously on guard. One turned to face him, wiping away the dust from his hands. "Finally decided to make your move, have you?"

"I suppose so," Shono said.

The three other men bristled, but their leader waved his hand. "What's it to be, then? Are you a hired killer? Or just looking to make a name for yourself in hopes that one of the other gangs will take you on?"

"None of those," Shono answered. "I'm just looking to do a little business."

"Business," the man said, shaking his head. "We are not interested."

"I think you will change your mind," Shono said. He gestured back toward the building where he had been standing only moments before. A woman appeared, almost from nowhere, like a phantom from between two buildings. She walked up and held out a canvas traveling back. It was just like a thousand other such bags, like the ones carried by virtually anyone traveling in Rokugan. "Take it," Shono said.

"No," the man said. His eyes had narrowed, and Shono thought perhaps he realized exactly how much danger he could be in if things went poorly. As far as Shono was concerned, that was a good thing. He appreciated warriors with an eye for detail.

"There is no need for concern," Shono said.

"I find men with crystal eyes concerning," the man answered. "Forgive me if I seem a bit rude."

Shono laughed and nodded to the woman. Shinjo Loruko smiled and dumped the contents of the bag out onto the ground without ceremony. All manner of valuables spilled out, included golden statuettes, jewelry, gaijin goods, and all manner of koku, bu, and zeni. It was most likely more wealth than the men had seen in the entire time since Otosan Uchi had been razed, and the shock on their faces was everything Shono had imagined it would be. "Now," he said with a broad smile, "are you certain?"

"What is this?" the ronin asked, his expression doubtful.

"It is yours," Shono said. "With more if you agree to help me."

The man said nothing for several moments. "What is it you wish?" he finally asked.

"Information first," Shono said. "Tell me what is going on in this village."

The man frowned. "Very little," he said. "The Tortoise Clan has largely relocated, although they have some agents here. It will take a long time to remove all their assets, however, and as yet they have no significant storage space elsewhere. They have hired me and my men to ensure their operations here are protected. They lost many in the battle, you see, and have few men to spare guarding warehouses."

Shono nodded. "This village seems remarkably free of crime."

"Yes," the man said. "Our duties are to protect the Tortoise's assets, and this entire village is an asset. We have allowed none of the corruption that afflicts the other villages." The man frowned. "If there were more of us, perhaps we could protect the others as well, but we are hard pressed to survive here as it is."

"Who are the other gangs you mentioned?" Loruko asked.

"There are many," the ronin explained. "The largest and most dangerous is a massive group of brigands who call themselves the Sons of Shadow. Keeping them from this village has been difficult, and I fear once the Tortoise withdraw completely, it will be impossible."

"Perhaps not," Shono said. "What is your name, friend?"

"Hokatsu," the man answered, "leader of the East Wind."

"The East Wind," Shono mused. "A worthy name."

"Who are you?" Hokatsu asked. "Why are you here?"

"I am Shinjo Shono, daimyo of the Shinjo family and general of the Khan's Junghar army," he answered, removing his cloak to reveal his armor. "I seek those who sent an assassin against my family. The man moved like the night itself, and was far stronger than any two warriors combined. I have spent the last day in the Northern Hub Village, and everyone I asked for information told me to seek out the leader of the East Wind for information. Now," he leaned in close, "what can you tell me?"

Hokatsu's mouth became a thin white line. "Few go into the city any more," he said. "Often, those who do, do not return. And of those who do return, they are changed. They leave the area. Some say that the leader of the Sons of Shadow dwells within the city."

"I have seen these Sons," Shono said. "The assassin I faced could have slaughtered two dozen of them without difficulty."

"They are fools, yes," Hokatsu said. "Their strength is in their numbers, and in the superstition that surrounds them."

"Do you believe it?" Loruko asked.

Hokatsu did not answer immediately. "I believe that there is something sinister in Otosan Uchi," he finally said. "Do the Sons of Shadow serve it? I do not know. But I fear it all the same."

"How many men do you have?" Shono asked.

"Nearly three dozen," Hokatsu answered.

"In the Northern Hub Village, we discovered a storehouse of wealth looted from the city and the four villages," Shono said. "It seems a particularly greedy Tortoise had spent the past few years seeking his fortune, and found it many times over. Guide us to the city, help us find the man who ordered my family's death, and every one of your men can walk away with as much wealth as he can carry."

One of the men behind Hokatsu dropped the crate he was carrying. Hokatsu seemed stunned by the news "You cannot be serious," he said, his voice just above a whisper.

"I am," Shono said. "Truthfully, there is so much that you will walk away with perhaps a quarter." He extended his hand in the manner often used by the Unicorn. "Do you accept?"

"Yes," Hokatsu said, taking Shono's hand without hesitation. "When do you wish to leave?"

"Now," Shono said.

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

Otosan Uchi

"Why did you say that you had seen true madness?"

The question took Mirumoto Ryosaki off guard. She glanced back at the small Phoenix woman sitting calmly in center of the ruined husk they had claimed upon their arrival in the city of Otosan Uchi. The two women had been waiting inside the partially collapsed building for more than two hours without interruption. "What?" she asked.

"In the temple," Agasha Miyoshi explained. "You said that you had seen true madness, and that our consternation over the seeming change to a stone carving was no comparison. What did you mean?"

Ryosaki frowned and turned back to watch the street. It was the only real path of entry into their place of concealment, and she did not wish to be taken unawares by an enemy. "Months ago," she explained, "I was assigned to deal with the aftermath of a small peasant rebellion. I had restored order when he arrived."

"He?" Miyoshi asked.

"Kokujin," Ryosaki said. No explanation of that name was necessary.

Although she could not see Miyoshi, the Dragon warrior knew the Phoenix bore a horrified look. "The tattooed madman?" she whispered. "The one they call the Dark Prophet?"

"He is the only Kokujin I know of, yes," Ryosaki said. "He could have killed me. I believed that he was going to do so, but he did not. He simply said that I was not ready to receive his enlightenment. He said that first I must overcome great obstacles to prove my worth."

"Is that why you came with us?" Miyoshi said, her tone shocked. "Are you attempting to prove your worth?"

"Yes," Ryosaki answered. "If I can prove worthy, he will return to offer me his enlightenment." She turned back to the Phoenix priestess. "And then I will kill him."

"I see," Miyoshi said quietly. The young shugenja was clearly out of her depth, and yet she had never complained or lost her composure. She had recovered from the damage inflicted upon her to their ronin assailants in Western Hub Village, and she had earned Ryosaki's respect.

"A delightful story, but one we hardly have time for."

Ryosaki leapt back from the opening, blades appearing in her hands instantly. She stifled a curse as Isawa Angai stepped into their sanctuary. "How did you do that?" she hissed.

"Magic, of course," Angai answered. "What did you think? In any event, I have found our prey."

"How many?" Ryosaki asked.

"Around a dozen," Angai answered. "They were exactly where our friend said they would be."

"You were very convincing," Miyoshi said quietly.

"Is it their weapons cache, as he said?" Ryosaki pressed.

"I could not tell," Angai confessed. "But if he and his colleagues are getting their weapons there, then it would be a splendid idea for us to put a stop to that."

"The criminals plaguing Western Hub Village will be no less dangerous without weapons," Miyoshi insisted, "or even with weapons of lower quality. What will it matter if we deprive them of their equipment?"

"Depriving an enemy of his equipment limits his options," Angai said. "It will reduce the threat they represent to the people in this area."

"I, for one," Ryosaki said quietly, "will not stand by while repulsive scum such as these men brandish katana taken from fallen samurai."

"We do not know that is their source," Miyoshi offered.

"Correct," Angai said with a smile. "Let us go find out."

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

A whispered prayer from Angai and the sentries outside the bandits' shabby headquarters were incapable of calling for help. Ryosaki dispatched them easily, and the three women slipped inside just as silently. The hallway beyond the door led underneath what had appeared from without to be nothing more than a series of collapsed buildings. From inside, however, it was clear that the ronin had excavated the area and braced it with a number of improvised columns. It was not elegant, but apparently effective.

The corridor branched off into two directions, and for a moment the three women stood in the fork. Miyoshi held up her hand and closed her eyes, feeling for something that Ryosaki could never hope to understand. Finally, she opened her eyes. "I hear men talking down the right," she said. "To the left, there is silence and warmth."

"Left," Angai said. Despite her severe expression, she smiled. "Sounds more interesting, does it not?"

Ryosaki stepped to the front as the women proceeded down the left corridor. Whatever it might be now, the passage had once apparently been the basement storage area of a large building. The hallway periodically branched off into large room, most of which were empty, some of which were filled with what appeared to be valuable items taken from various ruins.

After several hundred feet, the corridor turned sharply to the left. The three women stopped and Ryosaki glanced around the corner briefly. She signaled with two fingers, indicating the presence of enemies. Angai nodded, but Miyoshi placed her hand lightly on the warrior's shoulder. Miyoshi stepped around the corner and muttered under her breath, waving with her hand. There was a gasp of surprise, then two thuds as the sentries fell to the ground asleep. "There is no need for death."

"If you say so," Ryosaki said with a respectful bow. She sheathed her blades and stepped to the thick metal door the two men had been guarding. "Shall we see what they were protecting?" With a nod from the two Phoenix, Ryosaki forced the door open. It was not an easy task, for it was heavily rusted. The screeching echoed uncomfortably through the corridor.

"Be quick," Angai said.

Ryosaki drew her blades and stepped through the door into the murky light. There was a moment of silence, and then she called out to the others. "Angai-san. Come in here, please."

Angai and Miyoshi stepped through the doorway into the large chamber. It was lit only by a handful of flickering torches scattered throughout the room at regular intervals. Weapons of all sorts adorned the walls, held in what seemed to be an endless series of brackets. Blacksmithing equipment of all sorts was scattered throughout the room, including a single large anvil positioned in the chamber's exact center. Sitting there, his back to the anvil, was a massive man. He was chained to the anvil at the wrists and ankles, and although his eyes were open, he did not appear to see the women as they approached. Angai and Ryosaki glanced at one another cautiously, but Miyoshi did not hesitate. She stepped forward cautiously. "Excuse me," she said softly. "Are you well? Do you require aid?"

The man shifted slightly and looked up at the young Phoenix with a blank expression. Comprehension slowly blossomed in his eyes. "Who are you?"

"I am Agasha Miyoshi of the Phoenix," she answered. "Who are you?"

The man stood, brushing the dirt from his clothes and drawing himself up to his full height. "I am Tsi Zutaka, master smith and daimyo of the Tsi family."

"The Tsi?" Ryosaki said. "How did you come to this place?"

"I am a prisoner," the man said, his voice heavy with fatigue. "I have been held here for& I am not certain how long. Well over a year, I know that much. These men have held me and forced me to maintain their weapons."

"You created all these in a year?" Ryosaki said incredulously, looking at the many blades hanging on the wall.

"No," Zutaka said. "I merely restored them. It was my hope that one day I would be freed and I could seek out their rightful owners. No blade should go without a master."

"I cannot believe you would willingly participate in the arming of these bandits," Angai said with an air of distaste. "Better to die than such disgrace."

"I am disgraced, yes," Zutaka agreed, "but the Sons of Shadow hold my wife, our daughter, and my apprentices. If I do not cooperate, they will be killed, and the entire Tsi family will vanish into obscurity. If I must bear disgrace to keep alive the traditions of my ancestors and the hope of my descendants, then so be it."

"How many innocent lives have you destroyed through your actions?" Ryosaki demanded. "How many more?"

"Every weapon I have supplied to these men is flawed," Zutaka said. "Three inches above the tsuba, there is a weak spot on the underside of every blade. Strike it, and the blade shatters. I could do no more, but I could not do nothing."

"Even with the threat of your family's death, you tried to undermine your captors," Miyoshi said. "You are a brave and noble man."

"No," Zutaka said. "If that were so, I would be gone and the Tsi would be no more."

"And no one would benefit," Miyoshi insisted. "I would have done the same to save the Agasha, just as Ryosaki would have the Mirumoto, or Angai the Isawa." The young priestess's earnest looks caused the other two women to look down in shame at their earlier words.

"It is a simple matter to judge when it is not my family with a blade at their throats," Ryosaki said. "Forgive my impertinence, Zutaka-san."

"Touching," Angai said, "but we must make haste. They will discover us soon enough, and there are enough that not even Ryosaki can kill them all." She nodded to the chains binding the smith to the anvil. "Free him."

"No," he said sternly. "You are too few. We cannot free my family, and I will not leave without them. You must leave me here."

"Ridiculous," Angai said. "Free him."

"No!" he insisted. "I will not come with you unless I can be certain my family will be safe!"

Angai opened her mouth to retort, but at that moment there was a loud crashing sound from somewhere down the corridor. It echoed throughout the chamber, and the sounds of shouting, then fighting soon followed. It sounded for all in the world like a battle was being waged somewhere up ahead. Angai turned and looked at the smith with raised eyebrows.

"Free me," he said hoarsely.

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

Shinjo Shono buried his blade in the chest of a surprised looking bandit, then tore it free and struck down another before the first had even struck the floor. "I need a leader alive!" he shouted to the other Unicorn. The lot of them, a dozen in all, had poured through the doorway into the hidden stronghold of the Sons of Shadow, followed closely by three times that number of ronin from the East Hub Village. "None of the rest survive!"

Moto Chen bellowed in rage and grabbed an opponent by the helm. He wrenched the man's head so savagely that it nearly twisted all the way around. Chen dropped the man and drew his blade, his face a mask of rage. Despite his zeal at the thought of avenging the attempted assassination of his family, Shono felt some regret that he had brought Chen. The man had largely put violence behind him in his new role as the representative of the Naga in court. Looking at him now, one would never compare him to the calm, good-natured man who had become popular in the Imperial Court. But his family had been threatened as well, and Shono could not blame him for his anger.

"Lord Shono!" Someone collided with Shono and brought him crashing to the ground. There was a loud crashing sound, and the earth shook slightly. Shono struggled with his attacker before realizing that it was Xie, his scout. The young man was unconscious, having taken a blow to the head as they fell. Xie's diving tackle had spared Shono from death at the hands of a ronin shugneja that was now locked in a battle of wills with Iuchi Najato. The two shugenja seemed evenly matched, almost certainly due to the Unicorn shugenja's state of exhaustion. The two stood evenly for a moment, the other combatants parting ways for them.

Suddenly the ronin shugenja screamed, and steel blades seemed to sprout from his shoulders. He fell to the ground, writhing in agony, and Shono saw that a Dragon samurai-ko had felled him from behind. "Forgive me," she said calmly. "I thought perhaps this one could not be trusted."

The fighting had largely subsided, as the bandits had no chance against the far more skilled Unicorn. "Greetings," Shono said flatly.

"Shinjo Shono, Master of the Wind," another woman said, stepping out of the shadows. "A delight to meet you. I am Isawa Angai, and these are my associates Agasha Miyoshi, Mirumoto Ryosaki, and Tsi Zutaka. We were just contemplating taking action against your enemies." She paused and glanced around. "Admittedly we would have been a bit more subtle, but one certainly cannot argue with your results. We believe there are other prisoners somewhere in this area, and we need to locate them. May we have your assistance?"

"Certainly," Shono grumbled. He walked over to the bleeding ronin shugenja and hefted the man to his feet roughly, ignoring his sharp cries of pain. "Where are the prisoners?" he demanded.

The shugenja said nothing.

"Where?" Shono roared, his crystal eye gleaming in the darkness.

The man whimpered as if the light reflecting from Shono's eye burned him. "Down the corridor, the second passage on the left," he whispered.

"Now," Shono hissed. "Where are the ones who ordered my family killed?"

As the shugenja whimpered again, Angai turned to the others. "Find Zutaka's family and free them." She turned back to the interrogation. "I want to see what our friend discovers."

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

Two figures carefully made their way through the dark, ruined area near the center of Otosan Uchi. They carried no light, but the taller of the two wore a bright green garment that radiated a soft light, sufficient for both to see their way through the debris. The two walked in silence most of the way before finally reaching their destination. The woman leading the way pointed farther in toward the city's center. "There," she said quietly. "That is where the shadows dwell."

"This was once the Forbidden City," the man observed. "No one was permitted to enter this far into the city without the express permission of the Imperial Guard."

"Yes," she answered. "What will you do now?"

"The polite thing would be to announce myself," the man answered. He raised his voice, the light from his mantle increasing dramatically as he did so. "I am Asahina Sekawa, daimyo of the Asahina family, Jade Champion of the Righteous Emperor, and the Keeper of the Five Elements. I have come to cleanse this city of your evil touch. Who among you has the courage to face me?"

For a moment, there was no response, and Yotsu Seou seemed to breath a sigh of relief. Only a moment later, however, her hand was on the hilt of her blade as the two watched a strange swimming of shadows in the darkness before them. There was a stirring, and then forms began to coalesce in the darkness. First one, then two, then a dozen murky forms lingered around the edge, their faces completely featureless and smooth as an eggshell. "Fortunes!" Seou swore under her breath.

One form emerged from the ranks and stepped forward. Unlike the others, her face was not featureless, but instead was obscured by a murky cloud of darkness. "You were a fool to come here," she hissed.

"I have been told that before," Sekawa said. "And like then, I am told such by a woman who believes herself to be something more than human."

"I am the master of darkness, lord of the Ninube," the woman said. "I am Ninube Chochu. I am your death."

"You are a petty fool swallowed by darkness who believes himself a demon incarnate. You are yet human, Ninube Chochu. That much is clear to me. The depths of self-deception to which men can sink are far greater than anything even the Scorpion are capable of." Sekawa shook his head. "You are so convinced of your omniscience that you genuinely believe I came alone."

"We have watched you since you arrival in the village beyond," Chochu whispered. "We watched as you proceeded into our domain alone, like the fool you are."

"You watched what I wished," Sekawa said. "I orchestrated those events for your benefit. And because of your arrogance, you have ignored everything else, salivating over the opportunity to kill a Jade Champion." Sekawa's radiant green light increased again, and there was an answering shout from somewhere to the south.

The Ninube's hiss of anger as Doji Reju and the Jade Legion appeared to the south was priceless, and even Seou managed to grin at their enemy's disquiet. "Now," Sekawa said, "let us see which is stronger, the light or the darkness."

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

"Miyoshi," Angai said sharply. "What is it?"

The smaller Phoenix woman had stopped dead in her tracks and gone into a wide-eyed stare. "The essence from the Temple," she said dreamily. "It is here. I can sense it."

Ryosaki looked at Angai questioningly, but the former Scorpion ignored it. "Listen to me carefully," she said in a low voice, demanding Miyoshi's attention. "Are you certain?"

"Yes," Miyoshi insisted.

"I know that you are favored by the dragons, Miyoshi, but you must allow me to try and make contact with this& whatever it may be."

"What?" Miyoshi said, stirring from her stupor. "Why?"

"We do not know anything about this phenomenon," Angai insisted. "It could be a deception, and you are ill-suited to deal with such a thing. If the presence you have sensed is indeed a dragon, then you will be able to communicate with it once I have confirmed that. If it is something else, then you will be able to deal with it after I have been struck down. Whatever happens, you must survive to maintain the Temple of the Seven Dragons. If you perish, their favor could be lost."

Miyoshi frowned and started to say something else, but a sudden wave from Shono silenced the two Phoenix. "Loruko," he said sharply. "Do you hear that?"

"Battle," the scout said instantly. "Not far away."

"Go," Angai said. "Follow Shono. I will deal with this."

Miyoshi looked doubtful, but Ryosaki gestured after the Unicorn, and finally the priestess deferred to Angai's wishes.

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

"What in the name of Emma-O is all this?" Shinjo Xie demanded.

The Unicorn contingent, accompanied by Ryosaki, Miyoshi, and their ronin allies, looked down on a depression in the ruined city. There was a pitched battle taking place between two ill-defined groups. One was clad primarily in green armor, but did not appear to be Mantis. The others were shadowy figures that seemed to strike and melt into the darkness, constantly moving and fading from one foe to another. In the center, two shugenja appeared to be dueling with one another.

"Trouble," Shono concluded. "Are those Seppun?"

"Looks like Jade Legionnaires," Loruko observed. "I've never seen so many in one place."

"Ready weapons," Shono said. "Prepare to charge."

"What's that?" Ryosaki whispered under her breath. She saw a man in blue dart across the battlefield, slaying two enemies without breaking stride. She recognized his stance, and the arm that ended just before the elbow. She saw the man hurl himself between an enemy attacking the Crane shugenja from the rear, and absorb the blow meant to kill Asahina Sekawa. She saw him cut the attacker from hip to shoulder, then falter and fall to the ground, obviously badly wounded.

"Father!" screamed Ryosaki, rushing down the hillside into the battle.

"Charge!" shouted Shono. "For Rokugan!"

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

Somehow, amid the chaos, Ryosaki reached her father. Doji Reju lay on his side atop a pile of jagged stones that had once been a garden wall. "Father!" she cried out. "Father, can you hear me?"

"Ryosaki?" he said softly. "What are you doing here?"

"Father, don't move!" she insisted, horrified at the deep wound across his chest. There was a flowing darkness that seemed to scurry in and out of the torn flesh. "Don't move, I will get help!"

"No," he said sternly. "Leave me be."

"No!" she cried.

"So many failures," Reju said softly. "So many times I have failed to protect those under my care. Now, finally, I know why. I survived, that I might protect Sekawa and help him purify this ancient city." He smiled weakly at Ryosaki. "It is a good fate, but I fear I may not be able to see it through. Will you take up my blade for me, daughter?"

"Don't go," she said weakly. "Please."

"I am so glad you are here," Reju croaked. "I am so glad you can be proud of me, if only just this once." He stopped suddenly, his eyes staring blankly at nothing.

Ryosaki clenched her teeth as her eyes stung with tears. "I was always proud of you, father," she whispered, taking his blade from his dead hand. "Now watch, and be proud of me."

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

Isawa Angai put the chaos of her surroundings out of her mind. She ignored the sounds of battle and focused her attention inward, reaching a practiced state of meditation in a matter of moments. She reached out through the kami, sensing their constant dance all around her. "What entity dwells in this place?" she asked, although not with her voice. "I sense your presence. Come forward, I implore you."

There was a stirring in the air, as if something roused from the very elements themselves. "I rather expected the priestess to come before me," an ominous voice intoned. "You are not what I anticipated, although you will certainly suffice."

"I am Isawa Angai," she replied, "and I am a priestess as well."

"Are you?" the voice inquired casually. "One could argue."

The serenity of Angai's face was marred with a fierce look of determination. "The Shadow Dragon," she said. "I will be no easy prey."

"Do not compare me to that blasphemous creature," the voice said with a hint of indignation. It was the first real emotion Angai had sensed. "I have endured enough indignity."

"Who are you?" Angai said. "What are you?"

"I am the balancing of heaven's scales," the creature replied. "I am the avatar of night and sin."

"Night and sin?" The shugenja was filled with a sudden cold dread. "Are you a vassal of Lady Moon, then?"

The voice growled angrily. "Simply because a human sits atop the Heavens does not entitle her to such a title."

"Tell me, little human, what do you know of the Jade Dragon?"

"The Jade Dragon?" Angai frowned. Miyoshi would know more of this, but the young girl could not be counted upon to ask the more difficult questions. "It is not a true dragon, although it apparently possesses the ability to sponsor an Oracle."

"At the cost of its freedom, yes," the voice answered. "Jade sacrifices its freedom, binding itself to a mortal soul, and in return gains a mortal Oracle to enact its purpose."

"And what is Jade's purpose?" Angai asked.

"To foment purity and righteousness," the voice answered. "To aid the Crab in their struggle against the touch of Jigoku. And it is for that reason that Jade has attracted the attention of Lord Sun."

"Lord Sun," Angai breathed. "Of course he would value such acts."

"Of course," the voice replied. "But Lord Sun's favor created an imbalance that cannot be endured in the Heavens. Such things must be corrected, and thus I was born. I am the extension of the Moon's will made manifest in the mortal realm, just Jade has become Lord Sun's."

Angai paused for a moment, her brow furrowing. "You are the Moon's will, yet you will not speak of Lady Moon&" her voice trailed off. "This is the site where Lord Moon's avatar fell to Takao. You are not linked to Hitomi at all. You are&"

"The last true child of Onnotangu," the voice whispered. "The true Lord Moon."

The shugenja drew in a shaky breath and cast about for another topic. "What is your relation to Jade?"

"Relation?" the voice almost chuckled. "There are no human words to describe it. Jade is my twin, my brother, myself. It is my enemy and my closest ally. We are one, and yet forever separated."

"Are you the same creature?" Angai asked.

"Perhaps we are," the voice mused. "Does it matter? All that matters is that I, whatever I may be, am destined to be its opposite in all things. It fosters purity, I foster vice. It is the day's searing light, and I am the night's obscuring darkness. Separately, we are weaker, but together we share the power of the Elemental Dragons. As one, we are the Eighth Dragon Miyoshi has foreseen."

"An Obsidian Dragon," Angai mused. She frowned. "How can you be a creature of Tengoku? You foster evil."

There was a sinuous laughter. "Mankind has ever had a tendency for evil, long before Jigoku's touch was ever prominent among them. What does evil matter, so long as there is honor? Your master Paneki has done many horrible things, and yet he is a hero. What of Daidoji Uji? Moto Chagatai? What of countless others who have done great things? Evil does not preclude greatness."

"Paneki is no longer my master," Angai said. "I am Phoenix."

"Are you?" the voice asked again.

"I do not understand any of this," Angai said.

"Those who master their dark impulses can achieve incredible things," the dragon whispered. "Rage is a malevolent thing until it can be mastered. Lust can be used as a weapon. Ambition can create empires as well as destroy them. Jade drives away imperfections. I will teach my supplicants to embrace them, and make them into strengths. There is no greater strength than one forged of weakness."

"Why do you remain here?" Angai insisted.

"The Ninube bound me upon my arrival in this realm," the dragon said. "They learned to spy upon the other realms from Daigotsu's example, and were prepared for my arrival. Asahina Sekawa's arrival has broken the bonds that hold me, but I am still weak. Until I choose a mortal Oracle, my power shall not truly awaken. Until that time, Jade and Obsidian remain lesser entities, denied our true birthright."

"And when you choose an Oracle?" Angai asked.

"Our power shall be realized in full," it answered. "Yet, for now, I am too weak to search. I must find a suitable mortal, one with a propensity for vice and the capacity for greatness. You are unsuitable, Angai, but you may yet aid me."

"How?" she asked.

"A name," the dragon whispered. "Speak unto me a name, and I shall go to them and offer my power. Merely say it, and I shall realize all that was meant for me in this world."

Despite the chaos, Isawa Angai smiled.

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

Jade Legionnaires, Unicorn scouts, and ronin waged a brutal war against the Ninube's minions all across the battlefield. The Phoenix shugenja who had appeared on the sidelines was summoning wave after wave of tiny, bird-sized dragons composed entirely of flame that swooping through the battlefield at high speed. It added to the chaos, but the dancing lights severely hindered the Ninube's ability to move through the shadows. Sekawa heard an anguished scream of loss and rage, and glanced to his left to see Mirumoto Ryosaki tearing through the Ninube like an elemental force of nature. He knew only one thing could have prompted such a rage.

Sekawa turned to face his sinister opponent. "Reju was a good and honorable man. His is the last life lost to filth like you."

"Words," Chochu spat. "Nothing more."

"My actions speak for me," Sekawa said. He threw both hands open wide, and a brilliant explosion of white energy cascaded from him, illuminating the entire area. There were screams from all across the battlefield as the light scoured the flesh of any touched by the Ninube's corruption. Smoke sizzled from their flesh and clothing, and their samurai enemies did not hesitate to act on their anguish.

"What are you doing?" screamed Chochu.

"I am the Keeper of the Five Elements," Sekawa answered, his voice booming. "Crystal and jade are composed of all five elements in harmony, and their power is mine to call upon if I require it." He redoubled his efforts, causing the light to grow even brighter. Chochu screamed again.

"This will not end!" the master of darkness shouted. "We will ascend! The Ninube will be divine, and when that day comes they shall return my soul to this world!"

"The Ninube may yet survive," Sekawa said, "but their power is broken. Your time is over." The Jade Champion suddenly dropped his arms, allowing the light to fade slowly. The damage had been done, however, as most of the Ninube had been destroyed or fled. Chochu growled through her blackened, burning flesh, and summoned her remaining energy for one final assault. "You die now, pretender!"

"No," Sekawa said quietly.

Chochu lifted his hands to unleash the killing torrent of Nothingness upon his foe. Even as she did so, she registered a feral battle cry. Almost against her will, she turned toward the sound.

Mirumoto Ryosaki took Ninube Chochu's head with one flawless stroke. The woman who believed herself to be a shadow fell to the ground in two pieces, the energy from her uncast spell dissipating harmlessly into the cool night air.

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

Asahina Sekawa finished his prayer and rose, looking to Ryosaki with a somber expression. "Your father was a great man. A hero. He saved my life."

"It is what he would have wanted," she said quietly. "I do not mourn his death. I mourn that I must go on without him."

Sekawa nodded. After the chaotic struggle against the Ninube, it seemed strangely quiet. The only sound was the praying of Iuchi Najato a short distance away, praying over the body of a scout named Xie. Shinjo Shono knelt near the body, offering prayers of his own. "I will send for an eta to prepare the bodies for transport."

"No," she said. "He would have wanted to stay here, where he fell in battle. I have his blades. That will be enough." She turned to the Phoenix priestess standing off to the side. "Miyoshi, will you render my father's body to the spirits?"

Miyoshi looked surprised. "Me? You would not wish the Jade Champion to perform such an honor?"

"My father would have liked you," Ryosaki said. "You see the innocence in the world. Please, if you would."

"Of course," Miyoshi said. She knelt and began praying, entreating the fire kami to carry the body of a brave warrior home to Yomi, where he could rest with his ancestors.

"What will you do now?" Sekawa asked.

"Return home," Ryosaki said. "I have offered temporary refuge to the Tsi. It seems that Zutaka-sama recovered the blade once carried by Hantei XVI. I am certain lord Rosanjin will wish to present him in court that he might return it to the Emperor."

"His master's blade," Sekawa mused. "A powerful gift. Even if the Emperor is absent, I am certain the Empress will wish to reward him, and the Dragon for their aid in recovering it."

"I care little for rewards," Ryosaki said. "My destiny lies elsewhere."

"And where is that?" Sekawa asked.

Ryosaki's face was grim as she watched her father's impromptu funeral pyre. Her hand drifted to her blade. "I must kill Kokujin," she said.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!