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Shadows

By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

The Fox Clan lands, two months ago
Kitsune Ryukan stalked through the tiny village courtyard, his hands clasped firmly behind his back. His expressing was grim, and none dared approach him. Peasant and samurai alike avoided him at all costs, and the courtyard was very nearly empty, with only an occasional soul darting through to reach something on the other side. Periodically a pained wail would breach the winter air, drawing a terrible snarl from Ryukan, who would increase the pace of his walk. Already he had worn a visible trail through the snow in the courtyard, and if he noticed the cold that had turned his features red, he gave no sign.

After a time, a woman in a green kimono emerged from one of the larger buildings that faced the courtyard. She wiped her brow and drew her cloak tighter about her, her features a portrait of exhaustion. She walked slowly over to where Ryukan had stopped to glare at her with unabashed anger. "She is resting," the woman said. "Perhaps it will ease her discomfort."

"Perhaps?" Ryukan said. "In the three days since she returned, she has barely slept, barely eaten. She thrashes about in pain almost constantly, and for all your supposed help it seems that she is growing worse by the moment." He shook his head, cursing himself inwardly. "I should never have let her leave with those two samurai."

Moshi Amika smiled wearily. "I understand your anger, Ryukan-sama," she said. "It was Narako's choice to attend the Jade Championship. She did so out of a desire to help you and your clan. Do not rob her of that honor with your anger."

Ryukan frowned at the priestess. "All the same, it was a mistake. The cost was too high."

"She did what she felt she must," Amika said resolutely. "The two who brought her to the tournament spared no effort in protecting her and aiding her in her mission. There is no one to blame for this, my lord."

"I find that of little comfort."

Amika nodded and glanced to the west, where the edge of the Kitsune Mori could be seen in the distance. "What of the forest?"

"Nothing good. The attacks abated after Narako left, but since her return they have increased tenfold." The Fox daimyo's hand drifted to his blade unconsciously. "I have lost ten men in the past few days. If something does not change soon, the bloodshed will grow unchecked until this forest is awash in the blood of the Fox Clan."

"I have sent word to Lord Naizen," Amika said. "He will come." There was no doubt or question in her voice.

"The Mantis Islands are far from here. His arrival will come too late to make any difference," Ryukan said. "These are our last days, I fear."

"Have you sent for aid from closer quarters?"

Ryukan laughed bitterly. "From whom should I seek aid? The Sparrow have precious few resources of their own to offer. The Scorpion have ever been our enemies, and I have received no word from their new Emerald Champion." His grip on his sword blade tightened noticeably. "The Crane, as always, promised us their assistance. Again, as always, when we asked them for aid, they merely sent us a polite apology that their conflict with the Crab left them unable to deal with our minor problem." He shook his head again. "No, we are very much alone in this."

"No," Amika said. "Not any more."

Ryukan closed his eyes and rubbed them. "My lady, I thank you for your aid, despite my rudeness earlier, truly. But your Champion cannot arrive in time. There is little that can be done at this point." He was quiet a moment. "I must ask you to leave, for your own sake. I do not wish the Fox to be remembered as those who allowed a Mantis daimyo to perish in their lands."

"You do not understand," Amika said. "When I say that you are not alone, I do not refer to myself and my yojimbo. We could make little difference in any significant conflict, after all."

The Fox daimyo frowned. "I fear I do not understand, my lady."

Amika's smile returned, this time with a bit more energy. She pointed wordlessly to the hill that sat beyond the village's northern border.

Atop the hill, descending into the village, were dozens of Tsuruchi samurai, flying the banner of the Mantis Clan.

* * *

Tsuruchi Takeba moved through the forest like a wraith. His footsteps made no sound. His movement barely stirred the air. He had streaked his face with dirt to better match his surroundings. There had been times when others had berated Takeba for such a loathsome practice, but several of them were dead now because they were not as silent, not as hidden as he was. That was all the endorsement he required, really.

There was the faintest hint of movement somewhere to Takeba's left. He made no immediate obvious response, continuing on his path, but focused his senses in that area. There was the faintest rustling, the crunch of a single leaf beneath someone's foot, and then Takeba turned and fired in one fluid, flawless motion.

The arrow disappeared into the thick foliage. There was a sound of impact, and an exhalation. It was surprise rather than pain, which caused Takeba concern. The archer did not hesitate, however, but nocked a second arrow and darted through the woods with the speed of a true hunter.

It required all of Takeba's focus to follow his prey. The sound of his own feet moving through the brush all but obscured the faint whisper of something else moving ahead of him. Several times it changed course, and the archer nearly lost track of it, but veered back on course at the last moment. Once, and only once, he caught a glimpse of a man moving through the forest, but he disappeared too quickly for Takeba to take the shot. The man was broad of shoulder, clad in ashen robes, and moved with a grace that belied his size.

Finally, just as the young man leapt into the air to avoid a fallen log, he closed his eyes and fired. The arrow sprang from the bow and flew true, cutting through leaves, branches, and shrubs. Takeba heard it strike home, and heard the crash of something falling to the ground. It was a heavy sound. He darted through the forest, weaving between trees as he drew a third arrow. It might be necessary.

The Tsuruchi burst through a low wall of shrubs into what appeared to be a small clearing in the forest. He nearly wretched at once, waving his hand and covering his face with the cloth of his sleeve, as the clearing was thick with some dense forest mist. Takeba had seen pockets of fog or mist persist in the forest well past the morning, but never so late as this, and never that stank so ruthlessly.

The form on the ground was unmoving, and slowly Takeba released the tension on his bow. He took up a stick and nudged the strangely formless figure, forcing it over. He drew back in surprise, for there was nothing but a skeleton clad in gray, ancient rags. A rusted blade was still clad in the thing's hand, and for all the world it looked as if it had lain in this very spot for years, if not decades.

Except, of course, that the plants beneath it were green and freshly bent beneath it. Takeba knew it had been here only moments, and one of his arrows clattered among its ribs as he turned it over.

Takeba turned and headed back for the village at once. This was no ordinary prey, and something that a lone hunter and scout like himself could not hope to handle alone. He only hoped that Lady Amika would know how to deal with such a threat.

* * *

"My lord!"

Ryukan looked up from the scroll he was reading, his eyes instantly scanning the horizon for any sign of the bandits from the forest. Finding none, he instead turned back to the village and looked for the source of the sound. A young samurai, clearly less than a year past his gempukku, was running at full speed from the village's southern border. "My lord!" he shouted again. "My lord! Boats!"

One of Ryukan's attendants turned back toward the daimyo with a blank expression, blinking several times. "Did he say boats?"

"Impossible," Ryukan said. "The older men must have given the boy sake." He stepped out from under the tent where the latest shipment of supplies was being readied for transport. "You there!" he shouted as the boy approached. "What is the meaning of this?"

"Boats, my lord!" the boy repeated. "Dozens!"

"That is ridiculous," Ryukan said. The river that edged against the village's southern border was narrow and shallow for nearly twenty miles south of the village, and it disappeared into the depths of the Kitsune Mori some distance north. The open, wide portion that was just north of the village was the only part that could even hope to offer any real opportunity for practicing seamanship for miles in any direction, and so no one in the region had any sort of boat whatsoever.

"It is ridiculous," the boy panted, bowing deeply before Ryukan. "But it is true! Boats approach from the south!"

Ryukan tossed the scroll to his attendant and began jogging toward the river's edge. Whatever was going on, it made him feel ill at ease. He hoped that the boy was mistaken, because he could not imagine what it would mean otherwise. As he approached the river, however, he felt a chill settle over his spirit. The boy was correct; dozens of small, thin boats were moving up the river. They deftly moved between rocks and stumps, progressing at a rate that was out of all proportion to the conditions. Ryukan stared in mute amazement as the first of the tiny kobune sailed easily up to the bank near the river, and a man clad in heavy green armor. "Greetings, Kitsune Ryukan."

Ryukan bowed politely, but it was a reflex action. "No one has sailed this river since its course was changed during the Clan War," he said flatly.

"Only because the Mantis have had no need to do so," the newcomer replied. "My men will require barracks, of course. We have brought sufficient supplies for ourselves, as well as a surplus for your village. For your trouble, naturally."

"It's you," Ryukan said. "You came."

"Of course," Yoritomo Naizen said.

A short time later, the two lords sat in the antechamber of the hut where Kitsune Narako lay resting in another room. Naizen sipped the tea Ryukan had prepared, nodding in appreciation. "I do not normally care for tea, but I have always had a weakness for the Fox blend," he admitted. "Very earthy."

"How did you get here?" Ryukan asked. "I do not mean to seem impertinent, but I cannot fathom how your ships could have sailed so far upriver, much less done so so quickly."

"There are shugenja among the Yoritomo," Naizen answered. "They excel at making the impossible possible. This was a challenge worthy of their efforts."

Ryukan shook his head. "Amazing."

Naizen glanced toward the room where the young prophet lay sleeping. "I take it you received my gift."

Ryukan bowed. "We did, and you have my eternal gratitude for that. It finally seems to have brought her some measure of peace. She has rested more in the two weeks since it arrived than in all the time since her return from the Jade Championship." He hesitated for a moment. "Forgive me, my lord, but I must ask&"

"You wish to know what it is?" Naizen smiled wryly. "I have asked myself that question many, many times. I fear there may be no answer. The Moshi and Yoritomo shugenja temples both studied it for months after its retrieval, and while they were able to determine what it is and what it can do, no one can even imagine how such a thing might be created."

"What is it?"

Naizen set his tea cup down. "It is called the Candle of Shadows," he explained. "It was retrieved from the Temple of Seven Thunders within the Shadowlands. Yoritomo Katoa found it, but Tsuruchi Etsui brought it home. As for what it does," his voice trailed off and he shrugged. "It illuminates, as all candles do. And it conceals, as all candles do."

Ryukan looked toward the screen that separated the two men from the prophetess. "It brings her peace, that much I know."

"It conceals," Naizen repeated. "All candles, when lit, cast shadows. The shadows of this particular candle conceal all attempts to foresee the future. Divination, and apparently even prophecy, are pointless. More importantly, however, those within its reach are concealed from all who attempt to divine their location."

Ryukan looked up sharply. "The attacks. They stopped after we lit the candle."
"Because no one beyond that room can sense her location. There are many who know where she is, of course, such as your people and my soldiers stationed here. Even the Elemental Masters could not divine her location, however. The candle prevents it."

"Incredible," Ryukan breathed. He looked back toward the Mantis Champion. "You said it also illuminates?"

"Those within the boundaries of its light cannot lie," Naizen said. "Quite a useful implement, wouldn't you say?"

"Indeed," Ryukan said. He hesitated. "There is nothing the Fox possess that can repay you for this," he said softly.

"That is not true."

"What is it you wish?"

Naizen smiled. "Why do we not step into the room with Narako?" he asked. "I have no doubt you will want to ask me questions, and within the candle's influence, you are guaranteed the truth."

Ryukan nodded.

The light cast by the Candle of Shadows was meager at best, and the room, which had no windows, was adorned with dancing shadows along the walls. Narako slept on a mat, covered in a thick blanket. Only her face was visible, and she looked pale and weak, but better than she had in previous weeks. Ryukan looked at her for a long time, then turned to Naizen. The Mantis Champion was looking at him expectantly. "Ask me whatever you wish," he said.

"This candle is a treasure beyond price," Ryukan said. "Why have you given it to us?"

"The Fox are among the oldest Minor Clans in the Empire," Naizen said. "Our clans may have had their differences, but the ties of brotherhood are stronger than that. And, of course, it benefits the Mantis to have as many allies on the mainland as possible."

Ryukan frowned. "What is it you wish in return?"

"The fealty of the Kitsune family," Naizen answered at once. "The Fox to join the Mantis."

"No," Ryukan said at once. "That is unacceptable."

"That choice is yours," Naizen said. "The Candle of Shadows is a gift regardless."

"What of you?" Ryukan said. "What will become of you and yours if I decline your offer?"

"Nothing," Naizen said. "We will bid our farewells and depart amicably. You will keep the candle and the surplus supplies as a gift. I wish for there to be no more ill will between our people regardless of the outcome."

Ryukan thought for a moment. "What will happen if you leave and the candle is consumed?"

"I do not know," Naizen said. "I would guess that those who seek the prophet will be able to sense her again when the candle is extinguished. They will come for her. I imagine that they will be& irritable."

The Fox slowly shook his head. "There is no way we can survive an all-out attack."

"I truly regret that," Naizen said. "But you must understand that I cannot allow my clan's resources to be spread so thin, even in defense of an ally, when the throne sits empty and the other clans vie for it."

"I do understand that," Ryukan said, the words bubbling to his lips almost without thinking it. The candle was affecting him as well. "In your place, I would do much the same." He sat quietly for a moment. "What will happen if I accept your offer?"

"Then no expense will be spared in defense of your people and their land," Naizen said at once. "I will provide as many troops as is necessary, under your personal command if you wish. The Kitsune will become the fourth family of the Mantis Clan. Those who sully the Kitsune Mori will be purged, and you will be given exclusive command of the resources necessary to ensure it is safe for those who dwell within and around it."

"I do not understand what the Mantis gain from this," Ryukan said.

"Diversity. Legitimacy. Prestige." Naizen shrugged. "There is much the Kitsune can offer that the Mantis require. We lose nothing, and gain much. The Fox loses nothing, and gains much."

"We risk the loss of our identity," Ryukan said. "We risk losing ourselves."

Naizen shook his head. "Only if you allow it. The Fox need not die. Your banner can remain the same. Your name remains the same. Your colors can remain the same. All that will change is that you will become part of something greater, and will have the respect and resources you so rightly deserve. The forest you hold so sacred will be secured against any threat, and all done in a manner you desire." He shrugged again. "I see no loss for the Fox, Ryukan-san."

"So my people can die as the Fox, or live as Mantis," Ryukan said. "This is not a choice I wish to make."

"Is the Fox Clan's pride so important that they would die, and leave their forest to be consumed by some nameless horror that lusts after their destruction?" Naizen asked.

"No."

"And what of her?" Naizen said, gesturing toward the sleeping woman. "I know that she means a great deal to you. Will you allow her to be taken by whomever these fiends are who desire her, because the Fox are too proud? Is that what it means to be Fox?"

"No," Ryukan said, more forcefully. "No, damn it."

"Well, then," Naizen said. "Do you accept my offer?"

"Yes," Ryukan whispered. "The Fox accept your offer."

* * *

Snow was drifting down at a steady pace in the early hours of the morning, but it had done nothing to deter the dozens of Mantis soldiers assembled in the village courtyard. Ryukan could never remember seeing so many people in the village. He estimated there were well over a hundred of the Mantis, meaning that they likely outnumbered the Fox villagers. The groups had begun splitting off into squads of ten. Each squadron was accompanied by a shugenja, some Moshi and some Yoritomo, and one guide from the Kitsune. The faces of the Fox guides were bright and eager, the despair that Ryukan had witnessed for months long gone. Some had taken to his announcement with anguish, but just as many had accepted it as the price of their salvation. Now that they Mantis were preparing to take the fight to the mysterious opponents who had plagued them for so long, the Fox were eager to participate in their assault. In and of itself, that troubled Ryukan, but there were far greater things to be concerned about, it seemed.

Assuming that the Kitsune Mori could be cleansed of that which corrupted it, and Narako could come out of hiding at last, then the Fox would be the guardians of the Candle of Shadows, which had several days more of use at the very least. The Fox did not have a pleasant history with items of power, in Ryukan's opinion, and the burden of such a thing already weighed upon him like a stone around his neck. Furthermore, Naizen had already made arrangements to ship a large number of weapons and the materials necessary to fortify several of the villages near the Fox Clan's borders to the area, and left Ryukan to determine how best to put it to use. The Fox Champion was unaccustomed to dealing with matters of such a military concern, and answering to someone else was entirely new. He was not yet certain how he felt about it.

Ultimately, he thought as he watched the Mantis and Fox load into the small boats and sail into toward the edge of the forest, it did not matter. The die was cast, and there was little he could do save protect his people.

As he always had done.

As he always would do.

No matter the cost.

*

 

Togashi will return!


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!