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The War of Fire & Thunder, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Editing & Development: Fred Wan

The Isawa coastline, early morning hours

An explosive clap of thunder and flash of lightning from the clear morning sky would have seemed out of place anywhere but the Isawa lands. The assembled Shiba forces did not find it unusual, however, as they knew all too well that it signaled the arrival of the Elemental Masters.

Isawa Nakamuro exhaled slowly, inwardly thanking the kami for their indulgence in transporting him and his two fellow Masters to the coastline. "They are nearby," he said. "It will begin shortly."

"Just as we intended," Isawa Sachi said firmly. "They have come to the Isawa lands at last, and now we will end this war once and for all." The Master of Earth glanced at Nakamuro with a knowing look. "You shall soon see the folly of your ways."

"Will I?" Nakamuro said quietly, clenching his spear in his fist. "Will the Mantis killed today somehow undo how many Phoenix have died in this war?"

"Enough," Isawa Ochiai said firmly. "This is hardly the time."

"Agreed," Sachi said. He glanced around at the Shiba legions with a slight frown and a tug of his beard. "Mirabu must possess the gift of foresight," he said. "How did he know the Mantis would arrive at this location?"

"Asako Bairei," Nakamuro said.

Despite the circumstances, Ochiai laughed brightly. "Typical," she said.

"We shall see if Mirabu values his counsel as much as you do," Sachi said smartly. "We must prepare ourselves for the Storm Riders. The orochi that serve them will be a challenge, even for us."

Nakamuro said nothing, but only stared at the ships darkening the seas.

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

Yoritomo Naizen, general of the Mantis armies, stood and watched as dozens of Mantis ships disgorged hundreds of archers, marines, and shugenja. His flagman signaled furiously to direct the troops, and the invading army began to take shape.

Yoritomo Singh stood and watched the approaching Shiba armies. "How did they arrive so quickly?" he asked.

"I do not know," Naizen said. "They anticipated our strategy perhaps, although I am not certain how. It does not matter. The dice have been cast, and we shall see if Winds & Fortunes is the result."

Singh frowned at the gambling reference, uncertain what it meant. "Kumiko-sama remains with the fleet?"

Naizen nodded. "We shall carve a path through the enemy forces, so that she can confront their leaders."

"The Shiba general?"

"No," Naizen said with a smile. "That honor is mine. Kumiko-sama hopes to face the Masters herself."

Singh shook her head. "That seems& unwise."

"The Daughter of Storms lives for danger and recklessness. I have seen her face odds that no mortal should ever survive, and yet she thrives." He shook his head. "Anyone else eager to face the Masters would be a fool. With Kumiko-sama, I only wonder how many Masters will die."

"You will not wonder long, I think," Singh said. "The Phoenix armies advance."

Naizen nodded and turned to his flagmen. "Signal Chae and her forces to open fire."

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

Which army fired first was unclear and, ultimately, unimportant. Archery fire exploded from both sides, with thousands of arrows being loosed in a matter of seconds. Men and women fell on both sides, their lives snuffed out in an instant by wood or steel. The Yoritomo forces charged, remaining under the cover of their Tsuruchi archers, trying to reach the Shiba before the Phoenix archers and sporadic bursts of flame exacted too great a toll upon them.

Phoenix shugenja hovered above the battle, buoyed by the kami they loved so well. One, a student of Nakamuro's named Isawa Sueno, desperately tried to shield her kinsmen from the Tsuruchi. Her winds turned aside hundreds of arrows, but could not stop them all. One struck her in the shoulder, then another in the leg, and a third in the stomach. She cried out in pain and tried to summon the kami, but her concentration was shattered. Her body plunged to the earth and was dashed on the shore.

A platoon of Yoritomo soldiers ran toward the Shiba ranks, screaming their wild, feral cries all the way. A wave of earth rose up before them and blocked their way, then washed over them like the tide. They were buried to a man, with not a single limb or weapon protruding from the earth to show where they had been. Their comrades, enraged by the ignonimous death, charged over their graves and collided with the Shiba like a hurricane on the mainland.

Death was on all sides, gathering more souls like peasants at the harvest.

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

Standing apart from the battle, but ever so close by, a dark woman smiled wryly. "They are so eager to kill one another. So eager to do my work for me." She turned to her first mate. "Are you certain they cannot detect us?"

The little man at her side nodded. "Even if they were not so distracted, even if there were not so much elemental magic distracting them from my spells, it would be difficult. I enslaved spirits of Sakkaku to conceal us. Only the Orochi could detect us easily, and they are too caught up in their bloodlust." He paused. "Do you wish us to remain concealed until the battle is over?"

"No, Mogai," Yoritomo Kitao said. "I will not risk another taking the lives of those I am destined to kill." She smiled cruelly. "And besides, if we did not reveal ourselves, how could we test my beloved's most gracious gift?"

At her words, the hulking beasts lurking on the deck skittered anxiously. They looked something like great insects, but much more so like the cannons that gaijin forces had used against the Empire at the Battle of White Stag. The beasts were alive, and their gaping maws clicked hungrily at the promise of battle. "We have sufficient ammunition?"

"Oh yes, my lady," Mogai said, gesturing to the crewmen behind him. They held at least a dozen captives, Yobanjin taken from the northern coast, all bound and terrified of the hulking creatures that clearly hungered for their flesh. "Enough for our needs."

"Signal the other ships to load their weapons," Kitao ordered. "It begins now."

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

The war raged on all sides.

Archery fire from both sides rained down on the armies, but it was far worse from the Mantis. Their archers were greater in number, and far faster and more accurate. The toll they took on the Shiba ranks was tremendous.

The ranks of infantry told a different story. The Phoenix soldiers were better trained and armed. They stood their ground and executed precise maneuvers that changed in a second's time, gradually overcoming the more violent and boisterous Yoritomo soldiers. The Phoenix could only press the Mantis so far, however, for when they drew closer to the sea, the Storm Riders erupted in a savage display of magic that extinguished the lives of dozens of Phoenix with each attack. The Orochi reared up and swallowed entire squadrons near the coast, and the Phoenix would fall back. This pattern repeated itself time and time again, with the skies full of fire and storms as the shugenja aiding both sides executed their will against one another.

At one point a new force of Phoenix emerged from the wilderness to the north. They were twisted and Tainted, remnants from the Bloodspeaker conflict of previous months. Their leader, a madman named Shiba Hayama, directed his forces in a ruthless assault that crippled a flanking maneuver by one Yoritomo legion, but were undone almost immediately when one Orochi vomited a lake's worth of scalding ocean water upon them, cooking them alive.

The battle raged, and so it was that no one noticed with the air around the sea north of the Mantis fleet seethed and shimmered, then suddenly parted. A dozen vessels emerged, followed by nearly three times that many more. The ships were battered and scarred, but the flag they flew was unmistakable.

It was the flag of Yoritomo Kitao, scourge of the northern seas, mistress of the Dark Wave.

"Fire," Kitao said with a smile.

The unholy living cannons that adorned the decks of Kitao's vessels belched forth their shrieking payload, blasts of explosive black fire that destroyed everything it touched. The first volley struck the Mantis fleet and destroyed over a dozen ships in a single blow. The second obliterated a Phoenix legion near the coastline. The third dissolved the hide of an Orochi. Its death screams echoed for miles.

Above it all, Yoritomo Kitao laughed.

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

The sudden explosions and gouts of black fire stunned Nakamuro for a moment. He watched in horror as the strange magic tore through the Shiba ranks, killing dozens with each volley. "What is this?" he whispered.

"Treachery!" Sachi snarled. "An ambush!"

"No," Ochiai said. "Look."

The two elder Masters followed her pointing hand to where thick columns of smoke rose from the Mantis fleet. The newcomers had opened fire indiscriminately, and many Mantis ships were burning. The others turned desperately in an attempt to engage the new ships before being put to the torch. As the Masters watched, the Mantis vessels rushed into their new foe, clogging the coastal waters with a snarled mass of ships attempting to destroy one another. "They are attacking the Mantis as well," Sachi said flatly.

"Not as well," Nakamuro said. "They fire on us only as a means of keeping us at bay. It is the Mantis they seek." He ran his hand through his hair. "This is all a lie. It has all been a lie."

Sachi stood, unmoving. His eyes fixed upon the dark fleet.

Nakamuro took up his spear, the one that the Fortune Bishamon had given him at the Battle of Gisei Toshi. "I will not stand idly by and watch a slaughter," he said, "even if those who are slaughtered are my enemies." He turned to Ochiai. "Little sister, be sure&"

Nakamuro dropped to the ground suddenly, his world spinning madly, clutching his head where he had been struck. "You are too young," Sachi said, taking up Nakamuro's spear. "This is a fool's mission, and there has been no greater fool than I."

"Sachi," Nakamuro said weakly, struggling to rise.

"No," Sachi said. "I have been wrong. Every decision I have made since I joined the Council has been a terrible mistake. The war, Akiko&" his voice trailed off for a moment. He leaned down. "I was wrong about the war, as were you. Ochiai was wrong as well, but at least she held true to the principles of our people. War and death is never the way. Remember that when I am gone." He paused for a moment, his eyes growing wet. "I never had children. You have been the only son I ever knew, Nakamuro. Be strong now." Sachi rose and held Bishamon's spear, all trace of emotion gone from his face. "I will spare you this obscenity."

Nakamuro struggled to his feet, Ochiai helping him as he rose. There was a great rumbling sound, and a column of earth erupted from the ground, buoying Sachi atop it and carrying him toward the see.

"Sachi!" Nakamuro shouted. "Sachi, don't do this!"

The Master of Earth showed no signs of hearing his former pupil, as the wave of earth carried him from the mainland and into the shallow waters near the coast.

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

"Kaigen!" Yoritomo Kumiko screamed. "Kaigen, what is it?"

"The Dark Wave!" the old sensei roared. "They have stolen upon us!"

Another blast of the strange energy erupted near Kumiko's vessel, utterly destroying one of the ships sailing alongside her. "What is this weapon? Is it magic?"

"I do not know!" Kaigen roared. "They have struck down one of my Orochi! I must tend to the others!"

"Go!" Kumiko shouted. She brandished her kama and snarled in frustration. If the Dark Wave had arrived, then somewhere, her nemesis was nearby, and she would spare no effort in ending her threat once and for all.

The deck beneath her bucked wildly as a volley of fire from the Dark Wave ships struck the Third Kama squarely along its length. Kumiko scrambled to keep her feet, but soon gave up. The ship lurched and tipped, sinking quickly beneath the waves. Kumiko leapt across the divide to another of her vessels, sinking her blade into the throat of a Dark Wave crewman who had boarded.

"Kitao!" she shrieked. "Kitao! I'm coming for you!"

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

The Master of Earth stood atop a massive column of stone jutting up from the sea, looking over the pitched naval battle. Periodically he would raise his fist and clench it tightly, and a massive spike of earth would erupt from the sea an puncture the hull of a ship, breaking it apart before disappearing back into the water from whence it came. Each crippling blow brought a victorious smile to the old man's weathered face. There was a sudden torrent of wind, and Sachi had to brace himself to keep from losing his balance. A green glad form borne aloft by the wind appeared nearby. "Fool!" the man shouted. "That was a Mantis vessel you just sank! Do you wish to free the Dark Wave to attack your precious coastline!"

Sachi snarled. "I cannot tell the difference!" he cursed at Kaigen. "I know nothing of ships, only how to sink them!"

"Then watch me, you old fool!" Kaigen shouted. He cast out his hand and a bolt of lightning struck one vessel, which Sachi then promptly crushed between two columns of stone. The two repeated the process again and again, Sachi grimacing furiously as he did so, and the Mantis shugenja laughing in joy. So engrossed in their war were they that Sachi did not notice the ships lining up for a shot at them until it was too late.

"Watch out!" Sachi bellowed.

Kaigen saw and summoned a great wind to carry them away, but he did not have enough time. The insidious creatures that served as the Dark Wave's primary firepower launched a volley of their black fire at them. Sachi was struck full on and Kaigen suffered a glancing blow. The Mantis's howl of pain cut off his prayer, and the spell surged wildly out of control. The winds carried the two smoldering shugenja up and away from the battle, sending them spiraling downward toward the islands in the distance.

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

The Daughter of Storms ran recklessly through the snarled mass of ships, her clothes dripping with salt water. She ruthlessly cut down enemy after enemy, leaping from one deck to the next without pause. She took a convoluted path, desperately looking for the enemy flagship. She was certain she would know it. The Bitter Flower. After what seemed like an eternity, she spied it and reached the deck of the ship adjoining it, panting from the colossal exertion.

"Kitao!" she screamed, standing with both kama held aloft. "Show yourself!"

A blast from one of the strange weapons erupted along the port side of the kobune on which she stood, destroying the railing and several feet worth of deck. The ship lurched precariously, but Kumiko did not lose her footing. "Do not be so impatient for your death!" a voice roared. "It comes soon enough!"

A hideous creature that might once have been a woman leapt nimbly across the divide between her ship and Kumiko's. She was taller than Kumiko remembered, and her body bore little resemblance to the last time the two women had met. The eyes did not lie, however. This foul creature had once been Yoritomo Kitao. "I see your body now matches your soul," Kumiko said with a snarl. "Twisted and diseased!"

"Be silent, harlot," Kitao snarled. A half dozen warriors fanned out behind her. "I have come to take back what was stolen from me."

"It was never yours," Kumiko insisted. "And it never shall be."

"Kill her," Kitao snarled, waving her men forward. "If you survive, imposter, then perhaps you will be blessed to face me personally. I rather doubt it, though. These are my finest warriors, and you are outnumbered."

Kumiko's face split into a broad grin as the warriors approached. "Fool. Don't you know? Your men are outnumbered, twenty to six."

The Daughter of Storms leapt at her foes with a fierce, bloodthirsty shriek.

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

In the confusion on the mainland, the two armies had collided with one another and intermingled, their attention and aggression squarely focused on the new threat in the seas. Perhaps by virtue of terrain advantage, or perhaps by divine intervention, the two generals found themselves standing nearly side-by-side.

"Yoritomo Naizen," the Phoenix Champion said, his grip on his blade tightening. "Is this some manner of trick? Some deception to marshal your allies?"

"Don't be a fool, Mirabu," the Mantis general answered. "There is no force in the Empire that the Mantis hate more than the Phoenix, save for the Dark Wave."

Mirabu studied his opponent for a moment, then nodded. He turned to his officers. "Tell your men to open fire on the new ships," he ordered. "Do not fire on the Mantis unless otherwise ordered."

"Kill the traitors," Naizen hissed to his flagmen. "None must escape, no matter the cost."

The two enemies stood side-by-side, their mutual hatred temporarily forgotten as they watched the heavens darken with arrows raining down upon their mutual foes, each prepared to kill the other in a moment if treachery reared its head.

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

Blood from a half dozen wounds ran down Kumiko's limbs and pooled on the deck, where it was lost in the sea of blood from Kitao's men. The lot of them lay broken and torn on the deck, dead to the last man. Despite the pain and the injuries, Kumiko's face was split in a wide grin. "Outnumbered," she said, her breath ragged. "As I told you before."

Kitao sneered as she drew her blade. "We were evenly matched before, and you would not draw on your own corruption to save you. Now you have lost that edge, and I have embraced it. You stand no chance against me." She grinned. "The Mantis are about more than inheriting your position."

Kumiko's grin vanished. "Yes," she said. "Yes we are." Quick as a flash, she hurled one kama at her hated enemy.

Kitao batted the weapon aside with her blade, catching it around the tsuba and then flicking it over the railing into the sea. She started to laugh, but the second kama buried itself to the hilt in her chest while she had been making a show of tossing away Yoritomo's weapon. Kumiko was on top of her in an instant, tearing the kama free and inflicting terrible damage in the process. "You were never my equal," she hissed. "The Taint was a weakness, and one I have overcome. Now, you are nothing."

Kitao stabbed Kumiko through the stomach with her blade. "We both die," she hissed, "but death will not stop me. I will rise again."

"No," Kumiko said, blood bubbling form her lips. "No, your soul is doomed to Jigoku forever, even if I must take it there myself."

With a massive heave, Kumiko hurled both herself and her enemy from the ship's deck, carrying them the short few feet to land on the Bitter Flower's deck. Kitao raged at the pain from her wound, and Kumiko gasped in agony as the blade bit deeper into her abdomen, but she did not release her rival. "Release me, harridan!" Kitao shrieked.

"Not just yet," Kumiko croaked, hurling all her weight onto Kitao and throwing them both directly in front of one of Kitao's cannon-beasts.

"No!" Kitao screamed. "Stop!"

The beast fired.

The Bitter Flower was consumed in black fire.

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

Isawa Sachi stirred, then immediately came awake as searing pain tore through his entire body. He clenched his teeth at the sheer agony of it, but did not cry out. "Kaigen," he croaked. "Can you hear me? Are you still breathing?"

"So it seems," the wheezing response came. Kaigen attempted to climb to his feet, but hissed in pain. Sachi could see the jagged end of a bone jutting from the Mantis sensei's shoulder, and marveled that his arm was still attached. "You?"

"My legs are useless," Sachi said. "I am all but finished."

"I may be able to heal you," Kaigen said. "Just let me& catch my breath."

"Don't be a fool," Sachi said. "Do not waste your energy on me. We have a job to do yet, and I will see it done before I die."

"Your wounds," Kaigen said with a grimace. "They are quite severe. Are you able to finish this?"

Sachi laughed. "Watch and see."

"We cannot reach the Dark Wave," Kaigen said, "and if we could, we are in no condition to face them."

"Do not reach them, then!" Sachi shouted. "Bring them to us!" The Master of Earth closed his eyes and put aside his pain, digging both hands into the rocky soil. He reached out with all his might, summoning every remaining ounce of his will for one last spell.

The ground beneath their feet rumbled and shook. There was a sensation of lurching, and then massive spires of rock began erupting from the ground. The island began growing in size as more and more rock burst from the sea, adding to its diameter on all sides. The sea all around the island protested, churning and sending massive waves in every direction. The island grew and transformed, changing into a massive, spiked region that would have looked more at home in the Shadowlands than the Phoenix seas. "I am giving you the anvil," Sachi gasped, clearly exhausted. "You must be the hammer."

"Yes," Kaigen hissed, smiling with delight. He, too, summoned his energies, drawing upon the waves created by Sachi's upheaval and turning them to his might. In the distance, massive walls of water exploded upward, carrying Dark Wave ships atop them like leaves in a stream. Kaigen drew his hand toward his chest, and the waves answered, surging toward the island as if beckoned. The Mantis ships were tossed about by the aftermath, but remained afloat.

The massive waves that carried the majority of the Dark Wave loomed toward the island, bearing them down toward rocky death with incredible speed. As they grew closer, the panicked cries of the men aboard those infernal vessels could be heard even above the roaring waves. As the sky darkened, the two battered shugenja on the ground rejoiced in their victory. Death loomed, and each spoke a single word.

"Victory!" screamed Kaigen, a wild, manic grin on his face.

Sachi smiled and closed his eyes. "Taeruko," he whispered.

The sea crashed down upon the island, destroying the corrupted vessels and shattering rock with the force of its impact.

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

Those gathered on the shore watched in amazement as the sea carried the Dark Wave away to the twisting, shifting island and dashed it upon the jagged spires. The force of the impact shook the earth beneath their feet, even from more than a mile away. In the moments following, a great silence fell across the battlefield. There was only the keening wail of the orochi, who somehow sensed the death of their friend and ally, to break the stillness.

Nakamuro turned to face Naizen. "Your man Kaigen was noble indeed," he said quietly.

"As was Isawa Sachi," Naizen added.

"Not all the Dark Wave is destroyed," Nakamuro said, pointing to the much smaller number of ships retreating from the Mantis at full speed. "They are attempting to escape."

"The Storm Riders will deal with them," Naizen answered. "They will seek blood for their sensei's death."

"And you?" Nakamuro asked. "What of you?"

Naizen's eyes were cold and even. "I have business with the Phoenix," he said. "Nothing has changed."

The Master of Air stood, mouth agape. "You cannot be serious," he insisted. "This matter began with the Dark Wave, and has ended with them. There is no more reason to fight."

"There is every reason," Naizen said. "You and yours have accused the Mantis of using a Black Scroll. I will not suffer such dishonor for my clan." "Who are you to speak for the Mantis?" Nakamuro demanded. "Your lady Kumiko lies dead, in all likelihood."

"We shall see," Naizen said. "And in any event, her orders would remain the same. The Mantis have suffered greatly at the Phoenix's hands, and we will not turn aside from your insult." He turned and nodded to his flagmen. "I am prepared to continue until only one clan remains. If the Mantis must perish, then let the Empire know that our light was extinguished in defense of our honor."

Nakamuro stood dumbfounded. He looked around at the battered Shiba legions, and met the eyes of Shiba Mirabu. Mirabu nodded once, slowly, in assent. Only give the word, his gaze said, and we shall drive them into the sea. But Nakamuro could not give that order. "No," he said, "No more."

"What?" Naizen asked, his brow furrowed. "What did you say?"

"No more," Nakamuro said loudly. "Too many have died already, and for what? Nothing. I will not see more of my brothers dead because the Isawa are too proud." He shook his head. "The Phoenix will recant our claim of maho use. Your name will be cleared in the courts."

"That is no longer sufficient," Naizen said coldly.

Nakamuro closed his eyes. "What is it you wish?"

"The islands," Naizen said. "They will remain with the Mantis. We will construct a city, a city of broken waves, on the island your Master of Earth created, and through it we will control the trade through these seas."

"Preposterous," Shiba Mirabu said. "We will never allow such a crippling economic blow. Unleash my legions, Nakamuro-sama. Let us finish this war once and for all"

"It is alright, Mirabu," Nakamuro said. "If it will spare the lives of your men, and let us put an end to the death, then it will be worthwhile." He turned to Naizen. "The petition in the courts will not be retracted," he warned.

"It does not matter," Naizen said. "Should our status as a Great Clan be revoked, you will be bound by Imperial decree from waging war against us, and the islands will remain ours regardless."

Nakamuro bowed his head and said nothing for several moments. "Very well," he finally said. He knelt before Yoritomo Naizen. "For the good of all, and in the cause of life, the Phoenix surrender."

"The Mantis accept your surrender," Naizen said. "The war, then, is at an end."

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

One week later&

Isawa Nakamuro sat meditating in his private chambers. He had spent much of the past week engaged in such activities, mourning for the many that had died and praying for guidance for those that had lived. Mostly, however, he prayed for himself. He feared now that he had lost his way utterly. He had actually championed the cause of war. How could he have fallen so far from his ideals? His younger sister had shamed him with her strict adherence to the principles on which the Phoenix Clan had been created.

"Master Nakamuro."

The quiet voice from the doorway startled him. One disadvantage of teaching the acolytes of air was that they were incredibly quiet, and Nakamuro had been so engrossed in his philosophical musings that he had not sensed the young man enter. "I do not wish to be disturbed," he said quietly. "I believe I made that clear."

"Of course, Master," the boy said. "I believe you will wish to make an exception."

Nakamuro turned with a frown. "What is it?"

"A woman is here to see you," the boy said. "A Dragon."

Nakamuro felt a distant stirring in his chest. "Of course. Thank you. Admit her, please."

The boy nodded and withdrew. A moment later, a radiantly beautiful shugenja entered, clad in green and gold robes that left a considerable amount of flesh exposed. "Nakamuro," she said in a relieved voice. "I had feared the worst. The reports of the battle&"

"Could not compare to the experience," Nakamuro said. "Shaitung&" words failed him, and he looked down at the floor. "I am glad to see you," he whispered, "but what are you doing here? When we last spoke&"

"I was being foolish," she interrupted. "My apprentice Emina helped me to see that."

Nakamuro frowned. "Emina must be quite persuasive."

"She can be," Shaitung admitted. "In fact, she is the official reason for my visit to the Phoenix lands."

"Official reason?"

"I wish to consult your new Master of Water regarding manifestations of the Fortunes," Shaitung said. "I understand he is something of an expert on& well, on everything."

Impossibly, Nakamuro smiled. "Bairei is quite impressive, to be sure. But why do you seek his counsel regarding the Fortunes?"

"Something most unusual has happened," Shaitung confessed. "A manifestation of the Fortune Benten appeared to Emina and blessed her. For what reason, I do not know, but I cannot deny that it occurred."

"You witnessed it?" Nakamuro asked.

"No, but Emina is& changed. She understood that I was somewhat skeptical, and shared with me a fraction of the blessing Benten bestowed upon her." She drew closer and caressed the side of Nakamuro's face. "It has changed me as well," she said softly. "I see things differently now."

"What are you saying?" Nakamuro asked.

"I am saying," Shaitung whispered, "that you should ask again the question that drove us apart when we last spoke."

"Shaitung," Nakamuro said, "will you be my wife?"

The Dragon daimyo shook her head slowly. "No," she said with a smile, "but you can certainly be my husband."

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

Yoritomo Naizen and Yoritomo Singh stood on the rocky beach and watched as wounded soldiers walked the area, retrieving what could be salvaged from the debris washed up on shore. "So many ships were lost," Singh said sadly. "So many lives."

"Too many," Naizen agreed. "But their sacrifice will make us stronger. We shall recover from this."

"It will take time," Singh said.

"Not so much as you think," Naizen said. "Kumiko had been stockpiling resources for months. She ordered dozens of new ships constructed before she left the islands. The fleet will not be weakened for long, and when the ships are finished they will bring what remains of the resources here, for our new city."

"You were speaking the truth, then," Singh said. "I have difficulty sometimes in discerning truth from boasting. Your culture and mine differ somewhat in definition of those terms."

"I lead the Yoritomo now," Naizen said. "Deceit ill becomes such a position."

Singh nodded. "What will you order built first? The port?"

"No," the general said. "The first building shall be Kyuden Kumiko, that neither the Phoenix nor the Mantis will ever forget her valor."

"She was a great leader," Singh said quietly. "I mourn her loss."

"Do not mourn for her. She stands in the company of her father and brother. There could be no greater reward." Naizen smiled. "Pray only for her guidance, that we may live by the example she set for us."

"Agreed," Singh said. He watched as a lone sailor broke away from the pack patrolling the beach and walked toward the two men. Others followed him.

"Naizen-sama," the man said with a bow. "We have found something."

"What is it?" Naizen asked.

The sailor held forth a cloth wrapped bundle. Naizen took it and unwrapped it, revealing a blade wrapped in seaweed and battered from its immersion in the choppy salt water. "Kumiko's blade," Naizen said with reverence. "The Celestial Blade of the Mantis."

"A sign," Singh said. He drew his blade and held it aloft. "All hail Yoritomo Naizen!" he shouted. "Yoritomo!"

"Yoritomo!" The fierce cry echoed across the newly formed islands, and the revelry continued for hours.

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


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!