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By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

There was no time. No day or night. There was only the sea.

She drifted in it, only distantly aware that she clutched tightly to some scrap of wood, some fragment of the vessel that had carried her for so long. The pain in her head was overwhelming. There were moments when she could almost open her eyes, when she could hear the sounds of the ocean. The crashing of the waves against the jagged rocks. The lapping of the waves against one another when the seas were choppy. And occasionally, she thought, the sound of something swimming in the water around her.
She wondered if the sharks would take her first. It might instead by the water. Or possibly even the sun, if she held on long enough.

It did not matter.

By the time that the hands pulled her from the water, she was barely in condition to even notice when the water was finally gone.

Hotako came awake with a start. She leapt halfway from the mat where she lay before she was even fully awake, but her legs betrayed her. She went sprawling across the floor, her arms splayed out, bringing everything around her crashing into the floor. She lay on the floor for a moment, collecting her wits as best she could. She recognized the slow rolling of the floor. She was aboard a kobune, still on the ocean. After a moment, she rose carefully to her feet, moved to the cabin's small doorway, and opened it.

Save for a few minor details, Hotako could very well be back on the deck of the Spoils of War, but of course she knew that her old ship no longer existed. Still, the similarities were impressive. If the drab-clad men working on the deck had been wearing Mantis colors, then she would have felt perfectly at ease. As it was, there was a sense of danger in her chest, one that she could not easily dispel. Her hand reached to her hip, but of course here sai were not there.

"Do not be alarmed. Your weapons were not taken from you. They were long gone when we pulled you from the sea."

The Mantis warrior turned to see a small man clad in clean but somewhat shabby robes. He did not have the look of a captain, or even a man of the sea, but Hotako could not deny the air of command that surrounded him. "Who are you?" she demanded.
The little man raised one eyebrow. "Mantis hospitality never fails to impress me," he muttered. "I am Motaro, captain of the Modest Blossom. My men pulled you from the sea three days ago. If you are as unhappy to be here as you appear, you are more than welcome to hurl yourself over the rail. Less weight would improve our speed, if only marginally."

Hotako grimaced and stared at the deck. "I did not mean to seem ungrateful," she said after a moment. "I& I am a bit confused. Whom do I have to thank for my rescue? You are not Mantis."

"Certainly not," Motaro said. "We prefer to be called independent contractors."
Hotako's eyes narrowed. "Pirates?"

Motaro chuckled. "If we were, would I admit it? No, not pirates. I will not claim that we have not done terrible things in the past, but who can claim that?" He stared at Hotako with a critical eye. "Can the Mantis Clan?"

The young warrior said nothing. The Mantis were the unquestioned masters of the sea, and for much of their history the clan had engaged in practices that others would have called piracy without a second thought. Those days were past, however; the clan had new purpose and new direction under their Champion, the man called the Scourge of Storms, Yoritomo Naizen. It was at his command, in fact, that Hotako and the other crew aboard the Spoils of War had been ordered to hunt down pirate groups, and one group in particular.

As if sensing her recollection, Motaro peered at her. "How did you come to be adrift in the seas, Yoritomo-san? There was a significant amount of wreckage in the area."

She bowed her head. "Were& were there any other survivors?"

She knew the answer already. "None," he answered.

Hotako nodded. "My brother," she said, but had to stop for a moment. "My brother was aboard as well," she said after collecting her thoughts.

"Ah," Motaro said. "I am sorry to hear that. I fear you were the only apparent survivor. The Fortune of the Sea is a wrathful being."

"I am grateful for Suitengu's mercy," she answered. "There are others to blame for my brother's death."


"The Serpents of Sanada," she said, spitting the name.

Motaro rubbed his chin. "I am familiar with the name," he said. "Pirates, are they not?"

"The worst of the lot," Hotako confirmed. "They have significant resources at their command. They strike quickly and disappear among the waves. They have been an annoyance for decades, but my lord Naizen-sama has commanded that their nuisance come to and end." She grimaced. "It has proven more difficult than I had imagined."

"I would imagine the Serpents are aware of your mission," Motaro observed. "They would find it easy to conceal themselves from you if that was there only purpose, I suppose."

"Apparently," Hotako agreed. "Our fleets are too large to pursue and engage such a small group of ships. We have had to separate and conduct a large scale sweep of the area. Larger ships, like the one on which I served& we were supposed to be able to deal with the pirates independently, and so we& we were sent out alone, without support ships."

"The Serpents are better equipped than you thought," Motaro said.

"Yes," she said, her voice just above a whisper. She shook her head, then glanced at the captain again, frowning. "Forgive me, but have we met before? You seem familiar."

"Doubtful," Motaro said. "I am certain I would remember a young woman as striking as you." He turned back to look at the sea. The jagged rocks that had been so familiar for the past week aboard her previous ship were still present, but far less so now. "How long had you served aboard your ship?"

"Six years," she answered. "I was stationed there shortly after my gempukku ceremony." She remembered the day she had received the post. She and her brother had been elated to discover she would join him on the same ship. It had been a wonderful day. Her parents had been so proud, and she had been honored by a visit from her mother's old friend, the renowned poet Yoritomo Yoyonagi. The poet's entourage had been considerable, and among them had been many important personages, as well as a few that were clearly nothing more than hangers-on&

"You!" she exclaimed suddenly, pointing at Motaro.

"I pushed my luck too far, didn't I?" he asked with a disgusted expression. "I do that sometimes."

"Moshi Mogai!" Hotako snarled, grabbing futilely at her belt for a weapon that was not there. "Traitor!"

The little man drew himself up with a terrible gleam in his eye. "I should hardly think I have to accept such insults from one who owes their life to me." Mogai had been one of many Mantis samurai lost in a terrible incident that had happened years ago, something called the Rain of Blood. It had been a dark ritual enacted by the Bloodspeaker cult, and many who had touched by the blood that fell from the heavens had been corrupted and lost to the Shadowlands Taint. Mogai had accompanied the clan's former Champion, Yoritomo Kitao, and created a vast fleet of vessels known as the Dark Wave, a fleet dedicated to destroying the Mantis. Fortunately, that had not come to pass, and much of the fleet had been destroyed at the final battle of the War of Fire & Thunder, a battle that created uneasy peace between the Mantis and Phoenix clans. Most believed the Dark Wave destroyed entirely, but some believed that a few ships had escaped. They had been correct, it seemed.

"What now?" Mogai asked. "Will you leap at me and kill me with your bare hands? It seems a foolish attempt. I am called the Master of Pain for good reason, surely you understand that."

"My life is meaningless if losing it buys your death," Hotako said, desperately glancing around for something, anything, to use as a weapon. The crewmen had all stopped what they were doing and stared evenly at the two. She knew they could kill her just as easily as Mogai could.

"Your death would be a shame, particularly if it came before you understood the truth of your brother's death."

Something cold blossomed in Hotako's chest. "You killed him," she hissed. "It was you who destroyed the Spoils of War, not the Serpents of Sanada!"

"If I had destroyed your ship," Mogai said with a sneer, "I assure you no one would have survived. No, it was indeed the Serpents of Sanada who destroyed your ship and killed your brother. The truth is that it need not have happened, and you can help ensure it never happens again."

Hotako froze. She did not move, nor did she drop her defensive stance, but her brow furrowed all the same. "You hunt the pirates as well?"

"I have no need to hunt them," Mogai said. "I know exactly where they will be, and when. We are on our way to meet with some associates who will help ensure that what happened to your brother need never happen again."

Hotako licked her lips nervously, but said nothing.

"You are of course confused!" Mogai said. "If you will join me in my cabin for dinner, I would be happy to explain exactly how we will ensure the Serpents do not plague your people any longer." He smiled broadly. "Afterwards, of course, you can try and kill me if you still wish."

Mogai turned and entered the cabin. After a long moment of consideration, Hotako followed suit.

* * *

"Will the child be coming?"

Hotako ground her teeth in frustration. The hulking warrior never spoke to her directly, but asked Mogai all questions pertaining to what she was doing. She had despised him almost instantly, but could do little about it. In three days time, she had seen nothing she could take as a weapon to defend herself. True to Mogai's word, however, no one had lifted a finger against her or even paid her much attention in that time. She did not know what was worse: the helplessness, or being regarded as beneath notice.

"Our guest has the option to accompany you if she wishes, Tatsune," Mogai said evenly. "You would be well served to have a woman of her talents accompanying you, I should think."

"I am a warrior," Tatsune said with a dismissive glance at Hotako. "A commander of the Spider Clan army. I do not need the aid of children."

"I am not a child, miserable beast," she spat at the man before she could stop herself.

The massive man clad in blood-red armor turned and fixed her with an impassive stare for only a moment before turning back to Mogai. "If it speaks again I will crush its skull with my bare hands," he said without apparent malice. "You will answer for bringing her into this operation, Mogai. Her presence undermines our task."

Mogai waved the comment away and ignored the man as he strode away, his footfalls like thunder on the wooden deck. "You will have to overlook him, Hotako," he said. "He is an arrogant buffoon, but an extremely successful warrior and commander."

The Mantis shook her head in disgust at everything around her. "This is all madness."

"Madness?" Mogai seemed surprised at the term. "Perhaps. And yet we will accomplish that which the Mantis have failed to do. We will end the threat of the Serpents of Sanada. How long have you hunted them, Hotako-chan?"

She bristled at his use of the familiar, but did not rise to the bait. "Seven months," she admitted.

"Seven months," Mogai said. "We will accomplish it in less than a week. What is the difference? We are willing to do what samurai will not. Do you recognize that island?" He pointed to a small island in the distance.

Hotako frowned and squinted. She could make out several ships, but nothing detailed. "No," she said.

"Blue Reef Village," Mogai offered. "A small fishing village. Out of the way, really. They pay their taxes and see the Mantis ships that supply them perhaps once a month. Less than two hundred people live there."

"What manner of target is this?" Hotako said incredulously. "You think the Serpents of Sanada will attack here? Why would they bother?"

"They will bother," Mogai said, "because they have been paid to ensure no one on this island survives."

Hotako stared at her former kinsman in shock and horror. "You paid them? You paid them to attack these people?"

"Not me personally," Mogai admitted. "But yes. It is a convenient means of tracking their movement. We will wait until they have moved inland, then we will move in and disembark. Tatsune and his men will see to it that the Serpents do not return from the village alive. I will deal with their ships."

The young Mantis stared toward the island. "Do you know how many people will die as the Serpents move into the village? They will die while we sit, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. These are lives that the Mantis have sworn to protect! They are loyal vassals of the Yoritomo!"

"Are they?" Mogai asked casually. "Unfortunate, but their deaths are ultimately a lesser evil."

"Lesser evil?" She was nearly shouting. "How is that possible?"

"Do you know where the Serpents were planning to attack before they were& persuaded to attack here instead?" he asked. "Isora Mura. How many people live in Isora Mura? Do you know?"

She said nothing for a moment. "Over a thousand," she said quietly. "My parents live there."

"Do they?" Mogai said. "Interesting. I understand the Serpents leave few witnesses."

"Very few," she whispered.

"Of course," he continued, "your parents are doubtless great warriors. I am certain they would endure without difficulty. And if not, death in honorable combat is an enviable fate."

She said nothing for a moment. "My mother is a courtier," she began. "My father was forced to retire from his duties as a bushi because of a grievous injury. He is now a minor sensei at the local dojo." Hotako shook her head. "They could not stand against the Serpents."

"So the question, then," Mogai said, "is whether the sacrifice these people are making is worth the lives of so many others. I know that the Mantis have a much closer relationship to the people who serve them than most clans, but really& are the lives of these people worth more than your parents? Than your brother?"

Hotako stood silently for several minutes. "I will need a weapon," she said softly, "if I am to assist Tatsune's forces."

Mogai smiled and produced a pair of sai from within his robes. They are not yours," he said, "but I think you will find them adequate to the task."

The fighting took even less time than Hotako had imagined. The Spider samurai cut a path through the Serpents with brutality unlike anything she had ever witnessed. There was no anger, no vengeance in their method. They simply killed and moved on. Hotako was different, however, and made certain that each man she killed as she fought alongside the Spider saw her eyes as he died.

The number of dead villagers sickened her at first, but she put her grief aside and embraced the rage. She moved among the pirates like a wraith, like a punishing spirit from another realm. The only thing that tempered her anger was the certainty, somewhere deep within her, that the men who had actually killed her brother were not here. For now, their deaths would suffice, but more would be required if justice was to be done.

Through the haze, Hotako heard Tatsune shouting orders to his men. "No survivors! None of these pirate filth walk away from this battle!"

"No!" Hotako shouted. A few of the Spider around her turned to look at her in surprise, and even Tatsune glanced at her as he pried his blade free from the corpse in which it had been buried. "These are not all the Serpents! There are far more! We need to keep some of them alive to find out where the others are!"

There was a moment of perfect silence, when all that could be heard was the roaring of the fires the pirates had started, and the distant wailing of some peasant who had lost a family member. It was Tatsune who ended the silence when he pointed toward Hotako. "Kill her."

One of the Spider moved toward her instantly, blade in hand. She was much smaller than he was, and she stepped outside of his swing easily. She reached out and drove the hilt of her sai against his temple, cracking the lacquered plates of his armor and causing his eyes to roll back into his head. Before he had even hit the ground, she turned and threw her other sai.

Tatsune had crossed nearly the entire courtyard in the second it had taken her to disable the other Spider. His blade was aloft for a strike that would doubtless have cut her completely in half, but her aim was true. The metal shaft of her sai disappeared into the man's throat. He faltered in his charge, stumbling and staggering to his knees. He looked at her with a mixture of annoyance and surprise, making several feeble slashes with his blade before slumping face-first into the dirt. There was a soft metallic click as the tip of her sai was driven forward and hit the back of his helmet.

Hotako turned to the other Spider, who were regarding her with a strange indifference. "Kill me if you want," she said, "but first, we kill the pirates, and then we find out where the others are."

Amazingly, the Spider soldiers followed suit.

* * *

Hotako waited for death when the battle was concluded, but none came. She stood in the village's center, looking at the death all around her, when she noticed what appeared to be familiar fletching on an arrow that jutted from the chest of a pirate. She knelt and examined it more closely, confirming her suspicions. She rose and looked around the village. "Tsuruchi!" she called. "I am Yoritomo Hotako!"

Moments later, a familiar face emerged from one of the buildings. It was Tsuruchi Mitsuzuka, an old friend from the islands. Despite their friendship, she noticed that he was still holding a bow with an arrow readied, and it was pointed in her general direction. "Hotako," he said, glancing around at the others. "Who are these samurai? What is going on here?"

She considered the question for some time. "It does not matter," she finally answered. "Do you still serve on the Venture?"

"I do," he replied. "I was ordered to stay here and observe in between shipments. The captain thought perhaps someone on the island might be in league with the Serpents."

Hotako nodded. "Give your captain a message for me. Tell Yoritomo Han-ku that the Serpents of Sanada will be dealt with. Tell him that the Spider Clan has seen to it."

"The Spider Clan?" Mitsuzuka was obviously becoming agitated. "What insanity are you spouting? Who are the Spider Clan?"

Hotako simply pointed to the others around them. "Tell Han-ku that the Serpents will be dealt with. Tell him that in exchange for looking the other way when the Spider's ships sail through his territory, his brother will have a far easier time fulfilling his duties."

"His brother?"

Hotako tilted her head. "You and I both know what duties Yoritomo Dainaru fulfills for Naizen," she said softly. Simply let us go about our business, and his competition disappears. It is that simple."

"I will tell him," Mitsuzuka said. "Why do you speak of the Spider in the first person? Are you going with them?" He shook his head and leaned in closer. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because the man who ordered my brother's death is still out there," Hotako hissed, "and I will not rest until I look into his eyes while he dies. I would sail alongside Fu Leng himself if need be."

"You are throwing your life away," the archer said flatly. "You are destroying everything you have ever worked for."

"Everything I have ever worked for sank to the bottom of the sea less than a week ago," she replied. "There is nothing left for me but vengeance."

"You disgrace your parents!" the Tsuruchi shouted.

"Tell them that I obtained vengeance for my brother," she called as she walked back toward the beach. "That will be all they need here."

* * *

Hotako stared out at the open sea, in the direction of Blue Reef Village. It had disappeared from the horizon hours ago, lost from sight as Mogai's ship sailed into the distance. The little captain had said nothing since their departure, but finally he looked up at his fellow former Mantis with an approving nod. "You were right to kill Tatsune," he said. "He was a gifted warrior, one of the finest in the clan, but he cared only for glory and battle. He would have been severely punished if Daigotsu had discovered what he had done.

"Would he?" she asked. "Would your lord have discovered what happened?" She shivered at the very mention of Daigotsu's name. The Dark Lord of the Shadowlands was a man that every wise samurai feared.

"One way or another," Mogai shrugged. "I would have told him myself, given the chance. Had Tatsune had a moment of clarity before we reached port, he might have tried to kill me in order to silence me, but then I would have had no choice but to slay him." He folded his hands into his sleeves. "It is just as well. I have no desire to assume his position."

Hotako turned on the little man with a curious expression. "His position?"

Mogai chuckled. "Tatsune was first among Daigotsu's officers. He achieved the position after an exceptionally brutal tournament the Dark Lord held before they departed the City of the Lost. Any can challenge for the position, if they have just cause to do so. Those who challenge without just cause are tortured to death, if they survive the challenge."

The samurai-ko paled. "And will he judge my cause as just?"

"Oh my yes," Mogai nodded. "I should think so." He chuckled again. "I suppose congratulations are in order."

"I have my doubts," she said darkly.

"You are the Obsidian Champion," Mogai said. "First among the Spider's warriors, and preparing to move into battle as your first command, to avenge the death of your brother and make certain that the Serpents of Sanada never threaten anyone again."

"All at the cost of a few dozen innocent villagers," she said bitterly.

"Yes," Mogai said. "Well worth the cost, would you not agree?"

She could not disagree.




Kaze no Shiro Return


Togashi will return!