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The Battle at the Tomb, Part 4
By Shawn Carman & Nancy Sauer
Editing & Development by Fred Wan

Within the Tomb of Seven Thunders, deep inside the Shadowlands

The chamber was as silent as the grave. No one spoke. No one dared move, save for the Nezumi warrior that sniffed idly at the ancient artifacts scattered throughout the room. The Emperor stood in the chamber's center, his blade drawn. He looked from one to another of the assembled samurai expectantly.

"No," Yasuki Hachi said flatly.

"You have been given an order by your Emperor," Toturi Naseru said. "You are to take these objects and leave immediately. I will buy the time you need to return them to the Empire, but you must leave now."

"No," Hachi repeated. "I will not leave you."

"We do not have time for this!" the Emperor said sharply. "You are my Emerald Champion! Your only duty is to obey my command without question!"

Hachi immediately tore the chrysanthemum mon from his kimono and dropped it to the floor. "I am Champion no longer, then. I will not leave you."

For a moment, a wrathful fury burned in the Emperor's single eye. His hand twitched as if he might strike Hachi down, but the Crane warrior did not flinch. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the Emperor's fury was gone. "Very well," he said quietly. "I will be honored to have you at my side, Hachi. But the others must go now."

Hachi turned. "Chen, get them out of here. Take the things and go."

Moto Chen nodded and stepped forward, taking up a small figurine of jade that glittered brightly despite the years' worth of dust covering it. "Do as the Emperor says," he barked. "We leave now."

Asahina Sekawa stepped forward and shook his head. "I stand with you, my Emperor, and with Hachi-sama."

"No," the Emperor and Hachi both said at once. Hachi stepped forward and stared imploringly at his friend. "Anyone who stays here dies," he said quietly. "If I stay, I die. If I come with you, I am just another blade, and I will likely die as well. If you stay, you will die. But if you go with them, they have a chance. The power you wield can make the difference between their deaths and survival. Save them, Sekawa."

The Jade Champion frowned and shook his head.

Naseru seized Sekawa roughly by the shoulder, his eye burning brightly as he stared into the depths of Sekawa's soul. "The scrolls," he hissed, pointing at the thick volume he had given the shugenja only moments before. "Take them. Read them." He leaned in closer, his hand digging into the Crane's shoulder. "Understand," he whispered. "It is our only chance."

Sekawa looked back at his Emperor, looked into the absolute certainty and unwavering resolve in his master's eye. There was nothing he could do in the face of such a will but nod mutely.

"What do you think you are doing?" someone snarled. The Emperor turned to see a livid Daidoji Kikaze, blade half-drawn, facing a darkly beautiful woman who stood in the Tomb's entrance. "How dare you enter this place?"

"Hello, my son," the woman said with a coy smile. Her hand drifted near her blade as well, but she did not draw it. "I hardly think this is the time."

"Rekai," Sekawa said, the scroll beneath his arm forgotten.

Unabashed hatred burned in Rekai's face at the sight of the Jade Champion. "Sekawa," she spat.

"Silence," the Emperor said. "Rekai, why have you come here?"

"The battle goes badly," she said flatly. "We have perhaps only moments."

Naseru nodded grimly. "Can you guide these men and women back to the Wall? Can you get them there safely?"

Rekai sneered. "If I wished."

"Then do so," Naseru commanded. "They will not harm you." He gestured to the low shelves filled with strange objects. "Take what you will from here. It is yours, as payment."

"My lord!" Sekawa said. "Surely you cannot&"

"There is more than can easily be carried!" Naseru said. "This tomb will soon be little more than rubble, and all that is not taken will be lost! What is better, Sekawa, that it be destroyed forever, or that it be lost to the Shadowlands, where it might one day be recovered?"

"Of course," Sekawa said with a bow. "My apologies, my lord."

"Your apologies are unnecessary, so long as you leave immediately." He turned to the others. "So long as Rekai holds to her word, she is not to be harmed."

"We ride, my lord," Chen said, bowing deeply. "May the Fortunes watch over you."

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

Outside the tomb, Moshi Sayoko lifted her hand and called out to the kami. They answered, and a bolt of lightning leapt from her hand to incinerate an oni. The bolt was not as powerful as she had hoped, however, and did not arc among the others rushing toward her. The kami here were scarce and weak, and Sayoko could hear the screeching of other spirits in her ears, promising her all the power she needed, tempting her to call upon them. She would not do it. She was a Storm Rider, and the Storm Riders never succumbed to weakness.

The oni lumbered toward her. Sayoko called out for the kami, but there were none remaining to answer her call. With a defiant snarl, she drew her knife and beckoned for the demons to come. They did not disappoint. A tide of the creatures washed over her, tearing and crushing her. She lashed out again and again, feeling dark flesh beneath her steel with every blow, but it was not enough to turn them away. She felt them collapsing on her, weighing her down, crushing her beneath their weight. The pain was too great, and she began slipping away into darkness.

Something was happening. There were shrieks of rage and pan, and the weight diminished. One of the creatures directly atop her was torn away, screaming as it was first lifted into the air, then torn in half by a brilliant steel blade. She struggled to lift her head, wiping the blood away from her swollen left eye with an awkward swipe of her sleeve.

"Get up!" a Unicorn warrior shouted. "Get up, Mantis, and fight for your life!" He was wearing the Shinjo mon, and Sayoko thought she remembered that his name was Turong. She staggered to her feet, everything aching almost beyond her ability to endure it.

"Everything is dark," she croaked, clumsily striking at one of the retreating oni.

"The sun's gone black!" Turong answered. "The end is upon us!"

It seemed for a moment as if the earth itself was pitching and rolling, and Sayoko struggled to maintain her footing. She glanced at Turong, and her mind cleared for a moment as she realized he was struggling as well. She looked at their enemies to see the accursed things scrambling as they literally bounced from the thunderous shaking of the earth. "What&" she muttered. "What is happening?"

"Oh, no," Turong said, his voice just above a whisper. "Oh, Fortunes."

Confused, Sayoko followed his gaze to the horizon. At first she was confused, for it appeared as though there was a mountain collapsing in the distance, shifting and moving as the stones that made it up fell upon one another. Her mind cleared in an instant as she realized that what she looked at was no mountain, and that it was not far in the distance at all.

An oni larger than any the samurai had seen before was plodding inexorably toward the battle. Its footfalls caused the earth to tremble, and its wide, slavering maw was vast enough to engulf perhaps the entire army, or even the tomb itself. Even worse, in the failing light of Lord Sun, the gleam in the creature's eyes was evident even from this distance. They bespoke a malevolent intelligence. This was no mindless beast. "I have seen such a thing before," Turong said, "when I was a guest at Kyuden Hida. That is the Maw, the reason the Great Wall was created." He turned to Sayoko with a forlorn expression "We are lost."

Sayoko bent and retrieved her fallen knife, nearly collapsing as the action made her head spin. Turong grabbed her and steadied her, then nearly lost his balance as well when the earth's shaking redoubled. Both clung to one another as they cast about, searching for the source of their predicament.

A second oni, equally as large as the first, came bounding from the south, the same direction from which the Lost had arrived. This one had gigantic horns swept back from its skull, and a thick mane of hair that could have been a forest. Three tongues of flame flickered from its mouth as it bared its fangs in fury. A massive tail swept behind it, sweeping through the oni as it charged toward its prey. Sayoko saw a dozen oni, each twice as large as a man, tossed high into the air by the tail's inadvertent assault. The two massive creatures roared at one another. The sound burned Sayoko's ears, and she knew instinctively that it was the primal tongue of Jigoku, the language of demons.

The two titanic demons collided with such force that a wave, much like a tsunami Sayoko had witnessed as a child, tore through the legions of oni between the two monstrosities and the army of samurai. The last thing Sayoko saw was the wave crashing toward them, and Turong diving toward her, and then all went black.

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

Kikaze had spoken little to the other samurai in the group, and to the black-clad woman who led them not at all. Patiently he maneuvered his horse until he was behind hers, and then he reached into a sleeve and palmed a pair of slim, jade-edged daggers. A furtive glance told him that the jade had started to rot, but some remained pure. Enough, perhaps. It would have to be enough. Gripping the dagger tightly he started to nudge his horse forward.

The horses' wild gallop made a steady hand all but impossible. Kikaze waited, hoping for the perfect moment, but it did not materialize, and he could not wait forever. Every moment that passed was another chance for Rekai to betray them, to lead them into a slaughter. The others might be foolish enough to trust her, but he certainly was not. At last, he lifted the first knife and let it fly.

His aim was not true. It missed her by mere inches, perhaps scraping along the length of her armored shoulder as it passed. Her head whipped around, a look of annoyance on her face. Kikaze swore inwardly and readied his second knife.

"Kikaze-san, what in Lady Doji's name are you doing?"

Sekawa's voice was clear, and loud enough to be heard over the rhythmic sound of galloping horses. In a matter of moments, the group had stopped, and Kikaze found himself at the center of their attention. His first instinct was to hide the dagger, but instead he held it up for all to see. "In Lady Doji's name," he snarled the words, "I am going to end one of our clan's shames."

"Incompetent as ever, I see," Rekai commented. "Kosaten Shiro stood against the armies of the Lion for centuries, and you lost it to a Dragon expeditionary force."

Kikaze's face went red, then bone-white. A muscle started to twitch in his jaw. "And now, unable to perform even a simple assassination." Rekai's voice sharpened. "Typical for one of your harriers. Incapable of even keeping your word of honor."

"My word to one such as you means nothing," Kikaze said.

"Your word means nothing regardless," Rekai said coolly. "You were not worth the sacrifice I made."

"I am delighted to hear that you think so, Lady Rekai," Sekawa said, and received glares from both sides. He ignored Kikaze and gave Rekai a bright courtier's smile. "As Jade Champion I meet so many people who believe that accepting the Taint will bring them their heart's desire; having testimony from an informed source that this is not so will be quite helpful. Don't you think so, Lady Rekai?"

"Fool!" Rekai barked. "I have been given more than my heart could have dreamed of then. I have embraced a glory you cannot imagine."

Sekawa made a point of looking at the blighted landscape around them. "If you say so," he said politely. "But time grows short, and we really should continue our journey."

Rekai smiled. "Indeed you should. But since my idiot son has undone our agreement, you will travel without my help." There was a nervous shifting about at these words, and Rosanjin shot Kikaze a withering look. Jinn-Kuen nervously licked his lips and looked as if he was about to speak.

Sekawa spoke first. "That is unfortunate," he said. "We will most likely survive without you, or at least some of us shall. And any hope your lord ever had for his petition to be considered, even by a handful of sympathizers, will die with your departure."

Rekai glared. "I have been ordered by Lord Daigotsu to aid you," she said after a moment. "That is the one and only reason I remain." She looked at Kikaze with disgust. "A dagger hurled at my back? Is this what Crane honor means now? I bless Fu Leng for the day he took me away from such mincing lies."

"I am sorry to learn that you wished to recant your promise out of spite, though I cannot say I am surprised," Sekawa said. "I understand your son has a similar habit."

Rekai stared at Sekawa, her face perfectly still. Chen, Rosanjin and Aikune went for their swords. Kikaze shifted his grip on the dagger. Jinn-Kuen started backing his horse away. Sekawa sat calmly, looking back at the Lost woman with an unwavering gaze. "I will guide you back to the Wall," she said finally. "And then, our agreement concluded, I will kill you." Her eyes flicked over to Kikaze. "Both of you. You are a disgrace to your family, your clan, and the Emperor you left to die."

Kikaze stared back at her with open hatred, but Sekawa only shrugged. "We shall see, my lady." Rekai turned her horse and urged it into a trot. Sekawa waited until all but the two Cranes had followed and then he sighed and let his shoulders slump. "I will never fear Bayushi Kaukatsu again," he said to the air. He turned to the man beside him. "Kikaze-san," he began. The other man snarled something inarticulate and kicked his own horse into motion. The Asahina daimyo watched him go and tried to quiet the foreboding that welled up in his heart.

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

Hachi ducked under a claw, slashed it off, and turned to meet the newest threat to his life. He didn't know how many he had already killed, but he could feel their number in the burning weariness of his arms. The one-strike philosophy worked even against the Horde, he had glibly told Yasuki Namika. But that had been at Shinesi's Last Hope, against an enemy leader with a mind and a complex purpose. There seemed to be no leader among the oni here; there was only a mass of individuals, all having the same simple plan: Kill The Emperor.

Slowly Hachi was forced back. He was going to die here, he thought, and so was his Emperor. He was a failure as an Emerald Champion, totally unable to protect his lord. He swayed out of the oni's reach, felt the scrabble of its claws on his armor. Soon his strength would run out. The memory of Rekai's face appeared in his mind, and he found himself envying the Lost woman. She drew her strength from the same unholy source as the oni did, and she would not falter the way he was faltering now. With her strength he could survive this fight, could save his Emperor, could.....

"No!" Hachi shouted at the sky. The oni he was fighting was intelligent enough to be confused, and it stood gaping at him until Hachi cut it down with one strike. He wiped the sweat away from his eyes, shaking. "Honor is my guide," he whispered, drawing strength and calm from the words. He was going to die here, and Jigoku would probably claim his corpse as it had his ancestor Tsukuro's. He couldn't help that. But he didn't have to embrace the darkness while he was alive.

Looking around the battlefield Hachi saw a large, gaunt oni that he had taken for dead push itself to its knees and roar its displeasure. It reached out a long, spindly arm, seized a Crab bushi, and started to squeeze him to death. "Hida!" Hachi yelled and he charged across the distance between them. The oni's arm was shaping itself into blued, armored plates and so the Yasuki lord ignored the forearm and leaped up to cut at the thing's elbow. The Crab dropped from the now-dangling arm, and Hachi darted in to slash again. As he did, his foot turned on a loose rock and he went down, landing hard on his knees as pain shot up from his ankle. Hachi ignored that and focused on the hand closing in on him. He whipped back into an overhead strike and slashed down, severing the fingers and part of the hand away. The oni howled, waving its now-useless arms in the air, then it rose halfway to its feet. Hachi had also risen to his feet, unable to walk on his damaged ankle but with no intention of dieing on his knees. As he saw the oni rearing above him he instantly understood what the creature was about to do and he grinned savagely. "Hida! Doji!" he yelled, and charged forward with blade point-first as the oni threw itself down to crush him.

Naseru heard the battle cry and the crash that ended it, and looking about he saw the oni sprawled on the ground, a katana sticking out of its back. "The Emerald Champion is dead," he said quietly to his yojimbo. Yotsu Irie had fought her way to his side after he had emerged from the Tomb, given him a reproachful look, and planted herself on his left flank. "He was a good man."

"I'll give him your regards the next time I see him," she said, scanning the area for the next threat. Death would take her and her charge today, but not without a fight. Naseru wished he had her focus. The tattoo Togashi Satsu had given him had begun to throb slowly, like the tolling of a low temple bell, and as it grew in power it ate away at his thoughts. Naseru didn't know what to make of it. Satsu had inked a chrysanthemum on his skin, one of steel and jade, claiming that it would help him deal with the Porcelain Mask, but had not explained how. Dragon wisdom, the Emperor thought, left something to be desired.

"Behind!" shrieked Irie, and she shoved Naseru to one side as she cut at a greenish, many-armed monstrosity. She died a moment later, the oni slashing her throat open as its other arms tangled her blade. It took one more step toward the Emperor before a jade-tipped arrow flew through the air and embedded itself in its face. Tsuruchi Etsui let three more arrows fly before the oni finally collapsed. The archer waited a moment to make sure it was down and then ran over to where the Emperor was kneeling.

"Naseru-sama! Get up!" Etsui said.

Naseru looked up at him slowly. As he had fallen his hand had brushed the bag he was carrying the Mask in, and he realized that it was also throbbing. It was a rapid, angry beat that jarred badly against his tattoo's stately rhythm, and Naseru realized that Satsu was right to have been troubled. The Mask was free of Jigoku's Taint but not its malice, and it shook with its effort to reconnect with the power that had made it.

"Samurai, what is your name?" Naseru asked.

" Tsuruchi Etsui, Emperor-sama."

"Etsui-san," Naseru said, "come closer." The Mantis warrior leaned in closer, and Naseru spent several precious seconds whispering feverishly to him, answering only a single question. When he had finished, he asked, "Do you understand?"

"Yes, Emperor-sama," Etsui said, "but--"

"Good," Naseru said. "I despise repeating myself. Now gather up what remains of the army and go."

"But the oni--" Etsui began.

Naseru shook his head. "A blacksmith needs many hammers but only one anvil," he said, and put the Mask on. When he did every oni on the battlefield stopped what it was doing and started to howl in pain. Etsui looked around in confusion and then back at his emperor. Naseru's calm, pain-filled eyes looked out of the Mask, and as Etsui watched the Mask started eroding in small puffs of porcelain. "Go," Naseru said through clenched teeth, his flesh beginning to smolder around the edges of the mask. The cloth that covered his tattoo smoldered as well. "It will not be long now."

Tsuruchi Etsui spun on his heel and ran.

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

Chen rode harder than he had ever ridden in his life. He knew that the horses would not survive the pace they were keeping, and for that he felt genuine regret. Ultimately, he had no choice but to weigh the lives of their steeds against their lives, and in such a situation there was but one choice. The return to the Great Wall would be much faster than the trip down, owing largely to the fact that they now knew exactly where they were going. He was loathe to admit, even if only privately, that he and the others might owe their lives to a traitor like Rekai, but he could not find it within himself to be too angry. The faces of Akasha and his infant daughter kept springing into his mind.

"Chen!"

The Unicorn general turned in his saddle. "What is it, Jinn-Kuen?" he roared without slowing. The Crab was pointing feverishly behind them, and Chen twisted to see behind them. Against the horizon he could just make out a number of riders following them. They were carrying something, and Chen slowed to try and make it out. He squinted, then signaled for the group to stop.

"What is it?" Kikaze asked. He glanced back to the riders. "We cannot stop for them."

"They carry the Emperor's standard," Shosuro Aroru said quietly.

"The Emperor?" Matsu Benika said breathlessly. "He lives?"

"We can only hope," Rosanjin said. "We must wait."

The riders moved at impressive speed, their steeds pushed even faster by fear as well as desperation. In only a matter of moments, they were upon them. The fact that there were less than a dozen, and that the Emperor was not among them, filled Chen's heart with ice. "What news?" he demanded. Even as he asked, a young Mantis dismounted and ran to Katoa, whispering something in his ear. The older man's eyes widened as the Tsuruchi spoke, but Chen could not be concerned.

It was a young Crab girl who carried the standard. She shook her head gloomily, and Chen bowed his in response. "Are there any other survivors?"

"No," a Dragon officer said. "The battlefield is virtually gone. Nothing remains, save the oni chasing us."

"How many, Hirohisa?" Rosanjin demanded.

"Too many to kill," Hida Benjiro said, his features twisted. "They will catch us before we can reach the Wall. It will be close, but not close enough. We will die within sight of salvation."

"Not necessarily," Shiba Aikune said. The Phoenix warrior dismounted and handed the reigns of his horse to Shinjo Turong, one of the survivors. Turong took them gratefully and laid the unconscious form of a wounded Mantis across the saddle. "Not if they are delayed."

"Don't be a fool!" Benjiro snarled. "One man cannot hope to delay those monsters!"

"Perhaps not," Aikune agreed. "But I think I shall find out all the same."

Chen nodded and jumped down from his horse. "Take them back to the Wall, Benjiro. Aikune and I will hold them here for as long as we can. I pray to the Fortunes, the Lords of Death& anyone who might be listening, that it will be long enough."

There were grim nods among many, but one man only frowned. Rosanjin considered for a moment, then turned to the general. "How old is your daughter, Chen?"

Chen stared at him incredulously. "She is less than a year old, but what&"

Rosanjin leaned forward suddenly and kicked Chen across the jaw. The burly Unicorn fell onto the ground, unmoving. "Take him," Rosanjin ordered Hirohisa. "Put him on his steed. The rest of you get moving, now."

"There is no need for you to stay, my friend," Aikune said with a sad smile. "This is my task. My redemption, if you will."

"No Phoenix will face his death alone in this place while I still breathe," Rosanjin said.

Aikune's smile became more genuine. "Can I trouble you for a favor, then?"

"You need not ask." Rosanjin beckoned to another of the Dragon among the survivors. "Maya, see to it that Aikune-san's artifact reaches his people. And see to it that they hear of his valor."

"I will," the ise zumi said with a reverent bow.

"Aroru," Rosanjin said. "I am trusting Hirohisa to keep Chen alive until he returns to the Wall. Can I place this in your care?" He held the dragon's head statue with the jade mirror out.

Aroru bowed deeply. "The Dragon have ever been our closest allies. It would be my great honor."

"Now go!" Rosanjin ordered.

Reluctantly, the others complied. They mounted their horses and stormed to the north, rushing toward the distant Wall that they knew was their only hope of salvation. As the dust cleared, Rosanjin saw that a third man stood among them. He frowned. "Why are you here, Katoa?"

The old pirate smirked as he twirled his kama. "There's little left for me in the Empire. I'd rather die a hero than go back to the courts."

Aikune smiled broadly. "Welcome, then. I am glad to have men such as you at my side."

Rosanjin nodded. "I deeply regret that our clans have not been as close in our generation as in the past. I would have enjoyed your friendship, I think."

"Likewise," Aikune answered.

"I rather enjoyed the war, myself," Katoa observed casually. "At least it wasn't boring."

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

It was less than twenty minutes before the oni were upon them again. Aikune grimaced at the sight of their approach. There were more than he had imagined, and any fleeting thoughts of survival that he had entertained were banished in an instant. The rolling mass of teeth, talons, and tentacles rushing toward them washed such hope away like a brisk spring rain. In its place, he found, there was a strange calm. He saw that Rosanjin shared it as well, although Katoa seemed to have missed it altogether.

"Come on!" the Mantis screamed, a feral grin on his face. "Come to me!"

As the oni arrived, all three men leapt nimbly into the air. They had not discussed it, it was merely an instinctual maneuver that all three seasoned warriors performed without thought. Claws and other appendages tore and smashed at the ground where the men had been only a moment before. For one shining second, the three hung in the air, their blades at the ready, and then they fell atop their enemies, tearing at their flesh, killing everything within reach.

The combat almost certainly lasted only a few moments, but to Aikune it was an eternity. He watched as Katoa spun again and again, narrowly avoiding one murderous strike after another. He plunged his kama into his foes again and again, laughing like a madman the entire time. It occurred to Aikune that he had never seen the Mantis truly alive until this moment. It was a tragically short moment. As he watched, a Nairu no Oni tore through the man's shoulder with one of its many claws, darting outside of his reach even as he howled in pain and tried to destroy the demon killing him. Another demon lurched forward, one that looked much like an ogre, only larger. It seized Katoa around the waist and squeezed. The Mantis laughed, spraying blood from his mouth and burying both kama in the creature's chest. With the last bit of energy he possessed, Katoa brought his head down in a crushing blow against the creature's face. Both their blood came like a fountain from their ruined faces, and both fell unmoving to the ground.

Rosanjin lasted considerably longer. Aikune watched in awe as the Dragon daimyo moved with incredible speed from one target to another. How a man of his bulk could move with such easy grace and speed astounded Aikune. The Dragon's armor was torn away in seconds, leaving his tattooed chest open to the cool air as he killed demon after demon, never slowing despite the dozens of wounds covering his body. Perhaps realizing the threat Rosanjin presented, the demons rushed in, cutting off his ability to move. His twin blades never stopped moving, even as his enemies piled around him and began to overwhelm him. Blood flowed like a river from his blades, and when Aikune finally lost site of him, it was only because of the dead and dying oni that hurled their bodies atop him, burying him under a pile of his dead foes.

At last, only Aikune was left. He held his flaming katana at the ready, the stench of scorched oni flesh already thick in his nostrils. He smiled now, knowing that his time had come.

It is time, my friend, he thought.

No! I won't leave you, Aikune!

You must. You cannot stay here. You must flee. It is not safe.

I will stop them! I won't let them hurt you!

If you unleash your power, this place might gain a foothold in your essence. Your father died here. You are his last wish. You must endure.

Please don't! The Wish was screaming now. Please don't leave me!

"Thank you, brother," Aikune said. "Thank you for everything." He leapt at his foes, his katana flickering as he disappeared beneath their mass, cutting and killing with every movement. My ancestors& I can hear them now. They are calling to me. Goodbye, my friend.

Aikune! AIKUNE!

There was no answer.

I WILL KILL YOU ALL!

There was a brilliant flash of light, and fire washed over everything.

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

To the north, the fleeing survivors glanced back as there was a brilliant light from somewhere behind them. Even here they felt heat wash over them. "By the Fortunes," Tsuruchi Etsui whispered. "What was that?"

"Aikune," Hirohisa said, bowing his head.

"Nothing could have lived through that," Etsui insisted. "Nothing."

Benjiro turned to them. "Are you certain enough to risk your life? Ride!"

They did as the Crab veteran commanded. The lot of them rode like the wind, their horses' breath ragged, their flanks wet with perspiration. The Wall finally appeared, first as a tiny speck on the horizon, then larger and larger until it loomed before them, a massive barrier preventing their entry into the Empire once more. "Open the gates!" bellowed Benjiro. "Open the gates, for the love of the Heavens!"

A large figure appeared on the Wall's edge, looking down at the battered survivors with obvious scrutiny. "How do we know you are who you appear to be?" he asked, his deep voice easily crossing the distance between them.

"Kuon! Let us in or my sister will never forgive you!"

"That is Benjiro all right," the gigantic man muttered. "Open the gates!"

Slowly, the gates opened and the survivors raced through. None of them had ever heard so sweet a sound as the gates closing behind them, and at last they dismounted and collapsed in relief. Some among them wept openly at the loss of the Emperor, while others raced atop the wall and glared back toward their distant pursuers with raw hatred. "How many follow you?" Hida Kuon asked.

"We do not know," Benjiro said, wiping the grime from his face absently. "There was& an explosion. We do not know how many survived."

"However many, it will not be enough," Kuon said grimly. He turned to the man standing behind him. "You have requested the right to perform this task, Tonoji. Are your men ready?"

The Crab warrior bore the Imperial mon, as well as one signifying his position as the commander of an Imperial Legion. "Yes, Kuon-sama," he rumbled. "We would be deeply honored."

"Of course," Kuon said. "One stipulation, you must take them with you." The Crab Champion jerked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating a large number of Lion warriors standing at the ready, blades drawn. "They arrived a few hours ago. Apparently Otemi sent them to join his vassal Takuya." He glanced down at the survivors. "He does not seem to have survived. I am certain the Lion would relish the chance to avenge his death."

"Vengeance is my business today," Tonoji said grimly. "If that is their goal, then they are welcome to stand beside the Fourth Legion."

Kuon nodded, and the commander withdrew to give his men the signal. Kuon's gaze returned to the southern horizon, where the first oni were just coming into view. "This was a mistake," he said quietly. "How could the tomb be worth this much death, Benjiro?"

Benjiro handed a carefully wrapped package to Kuon, all the while staring down at Asahina Sekawa, who was already poring over the scrolls the Emperor had handed him in the tomb. "I do not know," he admitted. "It may not have been."

Kuon looked down at the survivors as well. "How many, do you think?" he asked. "How many will discover that this act of desperate heroism, this futile battle, will have cost them the purity of their souls? How many will awake one morning with the first signs of the Taint wracking their bodies?"

Benjiro said nothing. Below them, the gates opened, and a thousand screaming Crab and Lion warriors poured out, hungry for the blood of demons.


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!