Morikage, Part One
Morikage, Part Two
Morikage, Part Three
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Morikage, Part One
"That's simply bizarre, Garou."
"In my opinion, the whole thing was Sanzo's fault," I repeated, eating another mouthful of rice.
"Really," Uji replied, sipping from his tea, "I really don't see that."
I shrugged. "Well, he started the whole thing. It was his idea to kidnap the Emperor. He started playing with the Obsidian Blade while we were in the Dark Sanctuary. He sold Toku to the Phoenix, too."
"All right, granted," Uji said, picking up a small cookie and breaking it open, "but it sounds like all four of you had your share of mistakes, eh? If you've told your story properly, that is."
"Of course I've told it properly," I sniffed, "Do you think I'd change something or leave something out?"
"Well," Uji chuckled, reading the little fortune from inside his cookie, "It does sound a little silly. What with the magic aphroditic tattoo and the disco oracle and all."
"Every word is true! Why would I make any of that up?"
"Some sort of misguided attempt to amuse people or draw attention to yourself, I'd wager," the Crane said with a laugh, "but you wouldn't do anything like that, would you, Crab?"
"I'm not exactly a Crab anymore," I said, ashamed.
"Really?" Uji asked, "What happened?"
"I was just getting to that part; it was after we talked to Kuni Yori. Our adventure was just about over."
"Ah. Then I apologize for interrupting the story. Pray, continue."
"Follow me," Kuni Yori said, turning and striding off across the cracked Shadowlands landscape. The hordes of goblins and minor demons scuttled away from his path.
Toku, Sanzo, Matsu Agetoki and I quickly stepped after our tainted ex-algebra teacher, keeping close behind him in case any of his minions got any ideas.
"So how are you going to send us to Morikage, Mister Kuni?" Sanzo asked.
"I figured I'd do what I usually do," he said, "summon an oni."
"Cool!" Sanzo said.
"I d-d-don't know about that," Toku stuttered fearfully, "What if the oni tries to eat us or something?"
"Posh," Mister Kuni said dismissively, "Onis don't eat people. That's a common misconception, Toku."
"Hey, man, what about the Day of Thunder?" Sanzo asked, "There were all sorts of hideous beasts killing people in the capitol that day."
"How would you know?" Agetoki growled, "You stayed home sick that day, you wiener."
"Er... you guys told me about it," Sanzo replied, his eyes cast on the ground.
"Well I suppose some oni do, on occasion, when provoked, occasionally partake in the eating of the odd person. Or two. I'll admit that," Kuni Yori said carefully, "but you have little to fear from this oni. I doubt it would eat any of you."
Yori snapped his fingers, and the ground shook. A massive crimson beast of sinew and bone rose from the ground, standing a full two heads higher than even Agetoki. "I AM GEKKIDO, SLAYER OF JIGOKU!" it roared.
"That thing is SO going to eat us," Toku whimpered quietly.
"Gekkido," Yori said, "Go get Pekkle."
"Okey dokey," it said, and dropped back into the earth. A moment later, a ten year old child in a kimono popped up out of the fissure, smiling.
"Hi, I'm Oni no Pekkle!" it said, "I love you."
We all stared for a minute.
"What the hell is that?" Agetoki asked, pointing.
"That's the oni you're going to ride on," Yori replied, "I know Pekkle doesn't look like much, but what with the War in the Shadowlands and all, resources are running pretty low. Pekkle can't even get you all the way to Morikage, really. But it can get you close."
"Doesn't look like much?" Sanzo scoffed, "That thing's not even extended legal!"
We all looked at Sanzo.
"What does 'extended legal' mean, Sanzo?" Yori asked.
"I... I don't know," Sanzo said, clutching his forehead, "Sometimes I say these things and I don't know what they mean!"
"Yeah, well we'll worry about that later," Agetoki said, shaking his head, "How does this oni work?"
Pekkle threw out his arms and smiled. "Hug!" it cried.
"What?" Agetoki asked fearfully, "What is it doing?"
"You have to give Pekkle a hug, or it won't help you," Yori explained.
"I'm not going to hug that thing!" Agetoki said.
"Hug!" Pekkle repeated, smiling broadly.
"You'd better hug him before he starts to sing," Yori cautioned, "He's been watching a lot of Teletubbies lately and--"
"Okay, okay," Agetoki said and hugged the little oni.
"Hug!" Pekkle repeated, turning to Toku.
"Aw, geez," Toku said, "The things I do for the Emperor." He hugged Pekkle.
"Hug!" it said to Sanzo.
Sanzo stepped forward. "I've been to the Shadowlands a dozen times, guys," he said, "but I have to say this is the creepiest freaking thing I've ever seen." He hugged the oni.
I stepped forward to take my turn. Pekkle ignored me.
"Huh?" I said.
"You don't have to hug Pekkle, Garou," Yori said, "You're already one of the family."
"What?" I retorted, shocked, "What does that mean?"
"Hm?" Yori said, "Did I say something? Couldn't have been important. Well, I'll see you boys later. Good luck!"
The world twisted and blurred, and we suddenly found ourselves standing on a rocky hillside, little snowflakes drifting down all around us. The Dragon provinces. Oni no Pekkle, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen.
"This really is pretty country," Toku said, "I wouldn't mind retiring here someday. Here or the Phoenix lands."
"Yeah, my uncle lives in Phoenix lands," Sanzo replied. "Well. Near Phoenix lands. He lives in Reno. That's near Phoenix right?"
Agetoki shook his head and grumbled something under his breath.
"STOP RIGHT THERE!" shouted a voice from the underbrush.
Which was really weird, since I hadn't even noticed the underbrush, much less the guys in the underbrush, which said a lot for their stealth abilities. But I digress.
"Yasuki Garou," boomed a scruffy looking ronin, stepping out and sneering at me, "And you three. Somehow I knew we'd run into you again. How's it going, Toku?"
"Hey, Ginawa!" Toku said cheerfully, "What've you been up to?"
"We could ask the same of you! NINJA APPEAR!" shouted a man in white, leaping out of a nearby tree and doing a triple backflip to land almost on his feet. "Ow," he said from the earth.
"Not these guys again," I mumbled, sitting on a rock and sighing.
"I almost pulled it off that time," Hiroru said, holding up one finger, "One of these times, I'm gonna land on my feet!"
"Just get up, stupid," Ginawa said, sitting on a rock. "Anyway, how the heck did you four make it this far?"
"Make it this far?" I asked, "What do you mean?"
"The armies!" Ginawa said, "The armies of Hitomi are duking it out with the Naga! We're right in the middle of it! I barely managed to sneak through, trying to drag mister Super Ninja here with me and not get caught. Man. I envy you Garou. My job's a lot like babysitting except I don't get paid."
"The Dragon and the Naga?" I cursed.
"Yeah, sucks to be us," Ginawa replied, "This is gonna be a lot tougher than sneaking out of Matsu Castle. Hey, Garou, while I'm thinking about it I'm gonna have to ask you for that bloodsword back now."
"Sure thing," I said, "Sanzo's got it."
Ginawa looked at Sanzo.
"Hey, no way!" Sanzo said, clutching the hilt of his sword, "This thing is the bomb! You can't have it!"
"I need it, Sanzo," Ginawa said, "Stormshadow here dropped Passion in a pond two hours ago and I left Judgment at home in the bathroom. I need a bloodsword, Sanzo. I'll trade."
"For what?" Sanzo asked.
"I'll give you another bloodsword for it," Ginawa said, pulling a small box out of a satchel on his side. "This one's Ambition."
"In that little box?" Toku said doubtfully, "Is it broken?"
"Well, some assembly required," Ginawa replied sheepishly.
"Ginawa?" I said, "You have the bloodswords?"
"Yeah," he said flatly.
"ALL the bloodswords?" I asked, "How the heck did you get ALL four bloodswords?"
"None of your damn business. Now can I have the sword or not, Sanzo?"
"As if!" Sanzo laughed, "Why would I trade my perfectly good ogre-bushi-killin' bloodsword for your raggedy-old-busted-into-pieces-sittin'-in-a-cardboard-box bloodsword?"
"Well, if you really want to haggle, Sanzo," Ginawa said, "How about I forget all about how I was just about to kick the crap out of you?"
Sanzo laughed and looked at Agetoki.
"Don't look at me, Sanzo," Agetoki said, "I was thinking about helping him."
"Okay, it's a deal Ginawa," Sanzo said, quickly handing over the sword. Ginawa tossed him the box with a metal clink and wandered away, gleefully swinging the katana in the air.
"So..." Hiroru said, finally getting up on his feet, "Where are you guys off to? Lookin' for the Emperor?"
"None of your business, ninja," Agetoki snapped. He didn't like Hiroru any more than I did. Agetoki was always the one who had to drive Hiroru to the Matsu family reunions, and then Hiroru would get drunk and start hitting on his cousins and Agetoki would have to apologize to everybody. Ugly business.
"Well sor-ree, Super Mario!" Hiroru said mockingly, "Fine. We just wanted to help you guys out a little. We're on the same side here."
"Yeah, sure," Agetoki said.
"Thanks for the offer, Hiroru," Toku said politely, "but we already know about Morikage Castle."
"Know about Mori-whatty?" Hiroru said.
"Morikage," Toku repeated, "You know, where the Emperor's being held and everything?" Toku looked around blankly. Agetoki glared at Toku.
"Er... yeah!" Hiroru said, "Of course I knew about that! Doesn't everybody? Hey! Ginawa! Guess what?" Hiroru ran off after the ronin.
"Good job, Toku," Agetoki growled, "Now we'll have those two in our hair on top of everything else. You and your stupid Toturi's Army friends."
"Hey!" Toku shouted, "We're just like a real clan!"
"You talkin' back to me boy?" Agetoki said.
"Hey!" Sanzo shouted, looking in the box, "There aren't any directions for this thing!"
I just sort of walked off, lost in my own world as Sanzo complained about his sword and Agetoki pummeled Toku. If we really were in the middle of the Naga-Dragon War, I didn't know what we were going to do next. Hitomi's tattooed men probably wanted me dead more than anyone else in Rokugan (second only to the Naga, if they ever found out that I was the one who accidentally started the war. And it seemed like such a good idea at the time.)
"I'll never put this thing together in time, Garou," Sanzo whined, trotting up to catch up with me, "I need a real sword!"
"We don't need a sword," I said, "We need an army."
"Why don't we just use that one?" he asked, pointing.
And standing there before us was the Crab army.
"Wow!" I said, "That's awfully convenient."
"I wonder how they got here?" Sanzo asked as we approached.
"I TOLD you that the Lion lands were east, not north!" a wafer thin man in riding armor whined, pacing back and forth. Yasamura. I'd met him before. He'd defected from the Unicorn. Wise move if you ask me. It's hard to look like an intimidating warrior when you're wearing lavender.
"We ARE heading east," retorted a large, well proportioned woman carrying a hammer. Hida O-Ushi. Good friend of mine. Well, sometimes. Standing behind her, toying with his whip, was my cousin, Nokatsu.
"We're heading north! Look at the sun, honey! Look at the snow!" Yasamura pointed, "North! I think we should stop and ask for directions."
"We're NOT lost, dear," she said firmly, "Now will you just listen to me?"
"Hi!" I said, and they all looked at me.
"Garou!" said Nokatsu.
"Oh, not another Yasuki," said Yasamura.
"Hey, sweet thang," said O-Ushi. And I realized I wasn't covering my tattoo. It grew very warm.
"Er... hello, everyone," I said, quickly pulling down my sleeve.
"Oh, cripes, Garou, not again!" Sanzo whispered, glancing at my tattoo.
"I think I stopped it in time," I whispered back.
So I stepped forward and introduced Sanzo to everyone. The whole time, O-Ushi was giving me an odd look, and Yasamura just kept staring.
"Just in time, my boy!" Hiruma Yoshi said, ambling up to me with his walker and shaking my hand, "Come to join us in our battle against the Lion?"
"Sure thing," I said, a glazed grin on my face, "Sounds like fun. Hey. There's another friend of mine waiting for me back over the hill. Why don't I go get him?"
"Over the hill?" Yoshi spat, his hands trembling on his walker, "Are you trying to tell me I'm over the hill, sonny?"
"Hey, I'm sorry!" I said, "Didn't mean anything by it! Don't go berserk on me, Yoshi-sama!"
"I CAN'T go berserk!" he snarled, "I'm to OLD! And thanks for bringing THAT up again!" He stormed off. The other Crabs all stared at me. Nokatsu chuckled at me. O-Ushi just looked bewildered. I couldn't tell what Yasamura was thinking.
"We'll be right back," I said, and we left before anything else dumb happened.
"This is terrific!" Sanzo said as we walked off, "Now we have an army, Garou!"
"Yeah," I replied, "Now we just have to convince Agetoki to lie low."
"Why?" he asked.
"I know my family," I said, "If they see a Lion right now, they're not going to ask questions."
"Sorry." When we got back, Toku and Agetoki were standing in the clearing. Agetoki was playing one of his favorite Matsu games, holding a big tree branch and making Toku go through the alphabet, complimenting the Lion with each letter and whacking him when he missed one.
"Unparalleled," Toku said.
"Yeah, I guess we are," Agetoki answered.
"Virtuous," Toku said.
"Mm-hmm," Agetoki said, "That's us."
"War-like," Toku said.
"Um," Agetoki thought about it. "Yeah. Yeah, we are at that."
"Extraordinary?" Toku said.
WHACK! "That's 'e,' doof, not 'x.'"
"What starts with 'x'?" Toku whined.
"Not my problem," Agetoki said.
"I hate this game!" Toku whined.
"Hi, guys," I said.
"Garou, make him stop!" Toku cried, "I'm Captain of the Imperial Guard, for heaven's sake! I shouldn't have to put up with this!"
"Agetoki, leave him alone," I said.
The Lion shrugged and dropped the stick.
"So what's up?" he asked.
"We just found the Crab army," I said, "Apparently they went out to attack the Lion and... got lost."
"No way," Toku said, "Weird."
"Par for the course on this trip," Agetoki said, "and we're not even at Morikage yet. I'd hate to see what we'll run into next."
And then, right on cue, Otaku Kamoko rode into the clearing.
Agetoki's mouth dropped open. He glanced around, but his horse was nowhere to be seen. He was trapped. She took one look at him and her eyes went red.
"Hoowee," Sanzo said, "She looks mad."
"Shut up, Sanzo," Agetoki stuttered.
"You should see the look on your face, man," Sanzo said.
"Shut up Sanzo," Agetoki stuttered.
"Man, if I were you I--" Sanzo went down on the ground, unconscious. Wow. I hardly even saw Agetoki move.
"So, um... Kamoko," Agetoki said nervously, "I guess you're here to talk about your mom..."
TO BE CONTINUED
Morikage, Part Two
"A good evening is one spent in good company," Uji said.
"Er, okay," I replied.
"You have a deep appreciation of the arts and music," he added, folding a small slip of paper.
"Thanks," I said.
"Your mind is creative, original, and alert," he said.
"Uji," I said, glancing over the table, "Stop reading out of the fortune cookies."
"I collect them, Garou," he said, hurt, "We all have our little vices. You turn Emperors into chickens. I collect fortunes and read them out loud."
"Whatever," I said, "Can I continue the story?"
"Get off to a new start," he replied, "Come out of your shell."
"You're doing it again," I said.
"Good sense is the master of human life," he answered.
"Okay, I'll continue the story," I said, "Just stop doing that."
"DIE!" Kamoko shouted, hurtling at us at full speed.
"Guys," Agetoki said, carefully drawing his sword, "Maybe you'd better go."
"No way, Agetoki!" Toku said, "We're pals, right? We stand together! She messes with you she messes with all of us!"
"Nice knowing you, Agetoki," Sanzo said, nodding to the Lion and quickly walking away.
"Garou!" Agetoki shouted, ignoring us both as he focused on the advancing Battle Maiden, "Get Toku out of here. I have to handle this on my own."
I didn't want to leave Agetoki, since he was my friend and all, but there was something in his voice. It reminded me of the time in gym class back in Hantei XXIII when Kakita Ichiro just wouldn't stop singing that Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch song over and over and over and Agetoki warned him but he wouldn't listen and he beat the entire Crane softball team unconscious. I still had nightmares about that sometimes. So I grabbed Toku by the collar and dragged him out of the clearing. Behind me, I could hear steel clash on steel.
"I don't believe you murdered my mother!" Kamoko shouted, "How could you be so insensitive?"
"Hey!" Agetoki shouted back, "We weren't going out then! I didn't think it was such a big deal!"
I didn't hear the rest of their conversation. I didn't want to hear it. That was the last time I ever saw Matsu Agetoki.
Back in the Crab camp, Yasamura and O-Ushi were still arguing.
"East! We're going east!" O-Ushi roared, "The sun sets in the east and that's the way we're headed!"
"The sun sets in the west, dear," Yasamura said with a sigh.
"Maybe in Unicorn country," she said, physically shoving him, "but that's not the way we Crabs do things."
"The sun is the sun! It doesn't change-- oh, nevermind." He sat down on a rock with an exasperated sigh.
Everyone turned and looked at us. I felt the tattoo get warm again, and barely covered it up in time.
"Garou, is your arm hurt?" Yasamura asked, an expression of concern on his face.
"No," I said, "but if I'm not careful it will be. This is my friend, Toku, Captain of the Imperial Guard."
"That was close," I whispered to Sanzo, "My tattoo almost seduced O-Ushi again."
"I dunno, dude," Sanzo said with a smile, "O-Ushi didn't give you a glance. Yasamura's the one staring at you."
"Shut the hell up!" I said. I glanced back at O-Ushi and Yasamura. O-Ushi was just looking at me blankly. Yasamura smiled. No way. Just a coincedence. Couldn't be.
Well, he did used to wear lavender.
No. I vowed to never even think about it again.
"Hey," Sanzo said, turning away from me and shaking the box that Ginawa had given him, "I don't suppose any of you guys have any glue?"
"I do!" Hiruma Yoshi said eagerly, "It keeps my teeth in!"
"Choice!" Sanzo said, "Think I could borrow some?"
"Sure, sonny!" Yoshi said, hobbling away. Sanzo followed.
"The Captain of the Guard?" Nokatsu asked, arching an eyebrow, "Such strange company you keep, cousin. What brings you and your friends so far north?"
"East!" O-Ushi corrected, punching Nokatsu in the chest.
"So far east," Nokatsu repeated, gasping for breath and rolling his eyes.
"We're on a mission to rescue the Emperor!" Toku replied with a proud smile.
"The Emperor?" Yasamura repeated, "He's been found?"
"He's in Morikage Castle, in the Phoenix Lands," I answered, "I'd appreciate it if you guys could help us storm the castle and save him."
"How long will it take?" O-Ushi asked, "We were planning to kill all the Lions."
Just then an exhausted scout staggered out of the forest, collapsing in a heap before us. His clothes were in tatters and he was bleeding from his forehead. Nokatsu brought him a cup of sake, and he managed to sit up and compose himself.
"O-Ushi sama," he said, breathing hard, "We are under attack!"
"Under attack?" she exclaimed, "By whom, Iyojin?"
"The Dragon!" he said, "Hitomi Kokujin and his Ise Zumi appeared out of nowhere, attacking our left flank!"
O-Ushi took up her hammer. "The Dragon? In Lion territory? What could the Dragon be doing this far south?" she mused.
Yasamura slapped his forehead and closed his eyes. "I don't know, dear," he said with forced patience, "Perhaps we should investigate."
"Good idea," she said, "Garou, Toku, why don't you make yourself useful and go ahead with Iyojin? We will follow as soon as we can."
We bowed to O-Ushi and excused ourselves, making our way into the forest. For several minutes, all was silent.
"Wait!" Iyojin exclaimed suddenly, "I can't go back! I lost my hat! My lucky hat! We gotta look for it!"
"We can't go back now!" I said.
"I can't go on without it!" Iyojin whined, "I'm serious. My therapist says I'm at a critical stage right now. I need a hat or I can't function properly."
"Oh, for pete's sake," I said, "Take mine." I tossed my straw hat on the ground. Iyojin picked it up eagerly and put it on his head, smiling in gratitude. We continued into the forest.
"Aha!" shouted a voice behind us, "I thought we would meet again!"
I turned around. A tattooed man with dark black hair and glowing green eyes crouched in the bushes, smiling darkly at me.
"Do you remember me, Yasuki Garou?" he laughed, "I am Hitomi Kobai, Hitoden of the Dragon Clan!"
"Yeah, I remember," I said, drawing out my tetsubo, "What the heck is a hitoden?"
Kobai thought for a moment. "I really don't know," he admitted, "but it certainly sounds impressive, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, whatever," I said.
"But enough talk!" he shouted, drawing up to his full height, "Garou, in the name of our dishonored lady, I challenge you to--"
And that's as far as he got because at this point in our conversation I had already hit him with my tetsubo. He fell down.
"There they are!" boomed another voice, a voice I recognized. A tall, dark-skinned man wearing a loincloth stood far off in the forest, pointing at us. Kokujin. Two dozen more tattooed zealots boiled up out of the woods around him. "Bring me the Defiler! The one called Yasuki Garou!" he commanded, "He must atone for his crimes!"
"The Defiler?" Iyojin asked, turning to me, "What's a Defiler?"
"Yeah, what are they talking about?" Toku asked.
"They're a bunch of bald naked guys who tattoo themselves and shoot fire out of their mouths," I replied, "and you're looking for logic here? Just run!"
So we ran. I was in the lead, with Toku just behind me. Iyojin was still pretty tired from his earlier run, so he was starting to fall behind. Suddenly, there was an explosion behind us as one of the Ise Zumi unleashed a huge ball of flame from his mouth. Tree limbs scattered everywhere. I was thrown hard into a tree trunk by the shock and crumpled to the ground, debris falling all over my body. I lay on the ground dazed, unable to move.
"I've got one!" shouted one of the Ise Zumi, "Over here!"
"Me too!" said another.
I lolled my head over and vaguely perceived two large bald men dragging Toku and Iyojin over to where Kokujin waited. He held a large needle in one hand and a bucket of paint in the other.
"Hmm..." Kokujin said, glancing at Toku. He took off the little samurai's helmet and grabbed the top of his head. "Nope. Useless. Let him go."
"Let him go?" replied another Ise Zumi, "But why?"
"We cannot use him for our lady's cause," Kokujin said, "His head is all bumpy and funky. If we shaved him, he'd look silly and too many people don't take us seriously as it is. Go, little Captain of the Guard. And tell the Crab that we have taken your friend Yasuki Garou!" He pointed at Iyojin.
"Huh?" Toku said, "he's not--"
"Huh?" Iyojin said, "I'm not--"
"A nice try, Yasuki," Kokujin laughed in his face, "Perhaps in the months since we last met you have hoped that I would forget your face, but I would never forget this ludicrous hat!" He grabbed Iyojin's straw hat, my hat, decorated on the front with the golden carp of the Yasuki.
"But I'm not--" Iyojin pleaded.
"SILENCE!" Kokujin commanded, "Hitomi Garou..." He drew out his needles and paints and went to work, laughing maniacally.
Another tree limb fell on my head and I passed out.
"Maybe he's dead," someone suggested.
"He's not dead, Turi, he's just hurt. Wake up, Garou."
My vision blurred and cleared. I saw Toku, Sanzo, and Nokatsu standing before me. Sitting next to me on the ground was a big Lion with a bandaged leg.
"What happened?" I asked, sitting up.
"We defeated them!" Toku said proudly, "I escaped while Kokujin was tattooing Iyojin, and led the rest of the Crabs back here! We defeated them!"
"Kokujin?" I asked.
"He got away," Sanzo said, "And, oh man, was he mad when he realized that Iyojin wasn't you. Iyojin dropped this for you when he took off with the Ise Zumi."
Sanzo offered me my hat. It had several arrows lodged in it, a large bite taken out of one side, and parts of it were still smoldering. The Yasuki carp had a big circle and a line through it drawn in tattoo ink.
"He said you could have it back," Sanzo explained.
"Great," I said, throwing it over my shoulder, "Iyojin's a tattoo freak now. There's another load for my conscience. Sanzo, what the hell are you holding?"
Sanzo glanced down at the sword in his hand. It was a glowing blue wakizashi with a slightly crooked blade, dripping with adhesive.
"It's Ambition," Sanzo said, "I fixed it."
"I thought all the bloodswords were supposed to be katanas," I said.
"It was," he said with a frown, "I was missing a piece. I just improvised. I hope Yoshi's denture glue holds."
I shook my head. "I guess we should keep moving," I said, "Where are the others?"
"O-Ushi ran into a group of Nagas headed for Hitomi Mountain," Nokatsu replied, "Turns out they were the same ones that took Yakamo snipe hunting."
"Snipe hunting?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's how the Hiruma Castle thing started," Nokatsu replied, "The Isha dropped by one day and offered to take Yakamo out to Hiruma Castle to hunt the elusive Oni no Snipe. Yakamo said he'd never heard of such an oni but, heck, he was game. The Isha said that hunting him involved a lot of wandering around Hiruma Castle with a torch and a sack, calling out 'snipe!' for at least a week or two. The Nagas came back a few days later, giggling like schoolgirls. That's the last we saw of Yakamo. O-Ushi, Yasamura, and the Hiruma decided that they needed to discuss a few matters with those particular Nagas. Last I saw, she was introducing her die-tsuchi into the Radakast's hindquarters."
"Wow, so Hiruma Castle wasn't our fault after all, Garou," Toku said.
"What?" Nokatsu asked suspiciously, "Why would it be your fault?"
"Er, never mind," I said, clearing my throat and looking away. I finally noticed the big Lion sitting next to me.
"Hey," he said, "What're you in for, Crab?"
"What?" I asked, "Who are you?"
"Matsu Turi," he said with a grin. He reminded me a lot of Agetoki, but then all Lions look pretty much the same. "So they tell me I'm destined to contain a foul spirit in Morikage or something. They give you the same line or was that just me?"
I just stared, confused. That was when I noticed the three guards standing behind him. The three Phoenix guards.
"Ah," Shiba Tetsu said, stepping up with a smile, "Yasuki Garou. Or should I say Asako Garou? Master Kuro has been waiting for you to awaken. Deserter."
TO BE CONTINUED...
Morikage, Part Three
"So there we were, deep in the forest, prisoners of Shiba Tetsu. The Crab army we'd been leading was nowhere to be found, and Matsu Agetoki was still missing."
"Now wait just a moment, Garou," Uji said, brooding carefully over the plate of tea cookies before selecting one, "Your story doesn't seem to make much sense."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, I heard another version of this story recently, in which many of the Crabs you mentioned as being members of your army were in fact stationed at Hiruma Castle at the same time in which your tale was supposed to be happening. Now, how can this be?"
"Beats me," I said, "I'll bet it was those damn ninjas again."
"Those damn ninjas again?" Uji repeated.
"It's a good excuse," I nodded, taking three more cookies for myself, "It seems to work for near everything."
"Ah," Uji replied, chewing.
"Anyway, now that you've interrupted me," I said, "I'd like to ask you a question, too, if that's okay."
Uji gestured his assent, being too polite a Crane to speak with his mouth full.
"I heard a rumor that you were going to chop your own head off and send it to Doji Kuwanan once you'd dealt with the Lions," I said.
Uji blinked. "You heard what?"
"I heard you were going to disobey your Champion's orders and kill Ikoma Tsanuri, then decapitate yourself to cleanse your shame," I said.
"You did," Uji swallowed hard. "I suppose you want to know if this is true, then."
"Not really," I said, "I don't really care. I was just curious how a person chops their own head off. It seems like a difficult sort of thing to do. You only get one chance. Not like you can exactly practice."
"I... um... I really haven't heard that rumor," Uji said, his face suddenly pale, "Maybe you're thinking of another Uji. Lot's of Ujis around here." He paused again. "You don't think I'm really going to have to go through with it, do you?"
"Possible," I said, "Lot of strange things happen in Rokugan."
"More than a fair share, to hear you tell it," Uji said dryly, "Damn ninjas."
"Damn ninjas," I agreed.
"But enough of that," Uji said, "Tell me the rest of your story."
"Just hold still," Tetsu said, drawing his daikyu and aiming an arrow at me, "This won't hurt a bit."
"What are you doing?" I asked, glancing about nervously.
"Oh," Tetsu said, lowering the bow a bit and grinning, "I'm executing you for treason."
"Master Kuro said he could," said Hoichu, a weedy little shugenja kid sitting on a rock. Tetsu nodded to the boy and took aim again.
"Hold on a second!" I shouted, holding up my hands defensively, "Is this because of the whole stupid fealty thing?"
Tetsu lowered the bow again. "Yes, Garou. You've betrayed your clan and your daimyo. The penalty is death."
"Death?!?" Toku exclaimed, "For that? Garou was only a Phoenix for like ten minutes! You can't shoot him for that."
"You're next, 'Shiba' Toku," Tetsu said, aiming at me again.
"Wait just a second," Sanzo said, narrowing his eyes at the Phoenix samurai.
Tetsu sighed and lowered the weapon again. "What is it?"
"Where the heck have YOU been for the last year?" Sanzo asked, "I was at Isawa Castle for a while, and you weren't anywhere."
"I was... um... sick," Tetsu said, glancing away and smiling weakly, "I was wounded on the Day of Thunder."
At this point, Matsu Turi looked up from the book he had been reading. He'd been ignoring the entire affair up to this point, but now his interest had been piqued. "You fought at Otosan Uchi?" Turi asked, "On the Day of Thunder? Where?"
Tetsu chuckled and gestured vaguely with one hand. "You know... around..."
"Around where?" the Lion pressed.
"Um... I dunno," Tetsu said, his face beginning to redden, "You probably didn't see me..."
"I was at the North Wall," Turi said, "I was at the South Wall. I was everywhere."
"Oh," Tetsu said. "Hey, you know what, guys?" he asked as he put the arrow back in his quiver and put the bow away, "This execution thing isn't really a big deal. Let's just forget about it and get moving to Morikage, okay?" He quickly moved off into the forest, expecting us to follow.
"Hey, hold on a second, Tetsu," the young shugenja said, jogging after him, "Where WERE you on the Day of Thunder?"
"Shut up, Hoichu," Tetsu said.
So we moved off into the forest. The two Phoenix didn't really have much to say to us. Matsu Turi just kept telling dirty limericks about the Day of Thunder, which irritated Tetsu to no end.
"There once was an oni named Dave..."
But our laughter fell silent as we entered a small clearing in the shadow of the pines. In it's center was a tall, slender white stone. Upon it rested a golden helmet with a long red mane, and a pair of swords lay at its base. A smoldering pile of burning ashes lay before it.
"Matsu Agetoki..." I said, my knuckles white on the haft of my tetsubo. Sanzo bowed his head.
"Dibs on the swords!" Tetsu said.
Matsu Turi turned, calmly, and punched Tetsu directly in the face. He fell down.
The Lion looked at Hoichu, who was staring in stunned disbelief. "My yojimbo!" he squeaked.
"What?" he said, slinging Tetsu's limp body over one shoulder, "He was being rude."
I chuckled. "You just reminded me of someone just there, Turi."
"What the heck is Toku doing?" Sanzo asked.
Toku was kneeling at the foot of the marker, scribbling something on a scrap of paper. He glanced up at us when we approached and quickly shoved the paper down into the grass and stood up, wiping his eyes. I thought he might have been crying, but I wasn't sure.
"I'm ready, guys," he said, his voice thick as he blocked us away from the marker with his body, "Let's keep moving."
Toku waited until we all left to follow. I snuck back when he wasn't looking and took a glance at the scrap of paper Toku had hidden in the grass.
"Brite the full mune shins On the pael face of onner Shadows of the pins."
It was a death poem.
I smiled, took a small bottle of ink and pen from my scroll satchel, corrected the spelling, and signed it.
"Bright the full moon shines On the pale face of honor Shadows of the pines." -Toku
Then I replaced the poem and hurried to catch up.
I glanced back, one more time, for a final look at Agetoki's tombstone. In the deeper shadows of the forest, a large figure quickly moved away.
"Garou!" Turi called out, "Hurry up or we'll kill all the ninjas without you!"
Well, I certainly didn't want to miss that.
After a few hours, Shiba Tetsu woke up and was able to keep walking. To pass the time, I struck up a conversation with Isawa Hoichu.
"So, you're the Novice of Fire, then?" I asked, nodding at the big fire emblem on his no-dachi.
"Yup, that's me," the kid said proudly, "Someday, I'll be Master of Fire."
"That job must really suck," I said, "Considering what a creep the last Master of Fire was."
"Hey," Hoichu said angrily, "That's my dad you're talking about!"
"Oh, man, I'm sorry," I said, embarrassed, "I didn't know."
"Hey, it's cool," Hoichu said, "I get that all the time. He murdered thousands of people. That's, like, so embarrassing."
"I know the feeling," I said, "Kuni Yori used to be my mentor and my hero. Now he spends all his free time either stitching things to his own face or disemboweling my cousins. I guess that's life, huh?"
"I guess so, Garou," Hoichu agreed.
Then, in the distance, we could hear the sound of steel clashing against steel. Hoichu drew his oversized sword and I readied my tetsubo.
"What's that noise?" Tetsu asked.
"That's what a battle sounds like, Tetsu," Turi said.
"Oh," Tetsu said.
We hurried off in the direction of the conflict. Tetsu offered to stay behind and guard the trees, but I talked him out of it by prodding him in the back with my tetsubo. A few minutes later, we emerged into another clearing. Faceless figures in black jumpsuits sprang from the trees everywhere, attacking with blades and claws. And in the center...
"A monster!" Turi exclaimed.
"No, wait," I said, "I know that guy."
Hoshi stood in the midst of the battle, coiling his serpentine body protectively about a group of warrior monks. He grabbed ninjas in great fistfuls and crumpled them up like origami birds.
"Hi, Garou!" he shouted cheerfully, waving a hand covered in ninja bits.
"Hey, Garou! Long time no see!" Togashi Mitsu shouted, spitting a mouthful of fire on another group of ninjas. He turned back to Hoshi. "He's the guy with the tattoo you were telling me about?"
"Yeah," Hoshi chuckled ruefully, "MAN was I plastered that day, Mitsu. I was spouting prophecies and everything."
Some of the ninjas turned and noticed us and sprang to the attack. Turi roared and drew his sword. Toku did the same, and fire sprang from Hoichu's blade. Sanzo offered to keep an eye on Tetsu, and the two of them began rapidly looking for an escape route.
"No, Sanzo," I said turning around and pointing the tetsubo at him, "You're going to fight, too, or I'm going to tell Matsu Turi where YOU were on the Day of Thunder."
Sanzo grimaced and drew Ambition. He turned to Tetsu, "Well, if I have to fight, you have to fight too, loser," Sanzo said. Tetsu whimpered and drew his own sword.
"Hey, Garou, thanks for the assist!" Hoshi called out from across the clearing. The hordes of ninjas were beginning to move away from him, obviously seeing four samurai and two shugenja as a bit less of a challenge than a dragon and a bunch of fire breathing monks.
"No problem!" I shouted back, clubbing a ninja into the ground. It instantly got back up, "Er, do you think you could save US now?"
"See you around!" Hoshi yelled as he and the monks disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"What the hell!" Sanzo shouted, slicing through a pair of ninjas with his bloodsword. Oddly enough, it seemed to be the only weapon besides Hoichu's fire that was doing any permanent damage, "The monks just cut out on us!"
"That's what you get for trusting organized religion," Tetsu grumbled.
"Hey!" Hoichu snapped, "Watch the blasphemy, Tetsu!" I remembered about a minute late that, as a shugenja, I was also a priest, and thus should have been offended by that too. Oh, well.
"These things won't die!" Turi roared, his swords making no progress against the shadowy spirits.
"Really?" Sanzo asked, swinging Ambition easily, "I'm not having any problem."
Turi looked at Sanzo for a second, then grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and took his bloodsword away. Turi then began cutting down five ninjas at a time.
"Garou!" Toku shouted, as a squad of six shadows pinned him to the ground, "Use your magic!"
Again, I forget I can do that sometimes.
"Jade Strike!" I shouted proudly, lancing a green beam of light into the ninja horde.
"What the heck are these things?" Hoichu shouted, beginning to tire as he swung his gigantic sword again and again. The hordes of shadows surrounded us, hemmed us in, tore at us with blackened claws.
"They may be spirits," Turi said, grabbing Toku by one foot and pulling him free of the shadows that overwhelmed him. "but they are still ninja! We have to use our brains! What is it that ninja fear?"
"Bedtime!" Toku said.
We all stopped, even the ninjas, and stared blankly at Toku.
"Well, they're always wearing pajamas, but they run around at night. They must be afraid of bedtime. When I was little, I was scared of bedtime, so I ran around the house in my pajamas all night long. I thought Kyoso no Oni was in the closet."
Ignoring Toku, we all began fighting again.
"Try another spell, Garou!" Hoichu shouted.
"Earthquake!" I exclaimed, casting as much of my energy into the spell as I could.
The ground began to rumble. A large tree toppled to the earth and the shadows shrieked in confusion as they darted aside.
"They're distracted!" Tetsu shouted, "Run!"
For once, we agreed with Tetsu, and ran toward the castle as quickly as possible. The ninjas fell back; I thought I caught a glimpse of them chasing after a group of Nagas off to our left. We scrambled toward the eastern wall of the castle, taking cover for a moment and catching our breath. Tetsu was still swinging his sword at nothing and gasping loudly.
"Stop that!" Turi shouted.
"Sorry," Tetsu replied.
"Jade didn't work on those monsters," I said, "What the heck's going on?"
"Lost souls perhaps," Turi said, "The Kitsu have often spoken of such things."
"Yeah," I said, "The Kitsus I've met say a lot of weird things, though."
"Granted," Turi admitted.
"Those were something else," Hoichu said.
"Really, you think?" Sanzo snapped, taking his sword back from Turi, "You figure that out all by yourself, kid?"
"I'm just trying to be helpful!" Hoichu exclaimed.
"Yeah, well put a shirt on," Sanzo said.
"Didn't Isawa Kaede say something about a 'shadow' over Morikage?" Turi asked.
"Yeah, but that was in the other story," Hoichu said.
"Perhaps you are right," Tetsu said, "Uncertain. To be sure, the Phoenix have always feared this forest."
"And Phoenix are sterling examples of bravery," Turi said directly to Tetsu.
"I think maybe the forest is haunted," Hoichu said, "It's feeding off our fear and anger."
"Again, thanks for the info, genius," Sanzo said, "anything else helpful you'd like to add?"
"Hey, lay off!" Hoichu retorted, "I don't see you providing a lot of crucial info here! Oh, by the way, that's a really nice maho-sword you're wielding there!"
"Listen, punk," Sanzo said, staring into the blade of Ambition, "Someday you might be the Master of Fire, but right now you're in Sanzo's World."
"Sanzo," Toku said, "Maybe you ought to put that bloodsword down now. I think it's affecting your judgment."
"Oh, yeah?" Sanzo snapped back, "And who's going to make me?"
And then Isawa Tsuke appeared on the battlements and threw a fireball at Sanzo.
"Ye silvery gods!" Turi shouted, leaping out of the way as Sanzo flew high into the air and landed with a grunt on his back.
"Dad!" Hoichu said, "Cut it out!"
"That's your dad?" I asked, staring up at the flaming blue ghost. Dark fires raged in the mad spirit's eyes.
"Yeah," Hoichu said wryly, "He's always embarrassing me in front of my friends. I'd better go see what he wants. You guys keep moving; you all have destinies to fulfill."
"Righty-o!" Tetsu said, quickly hurrying back the way we'd come.
"Hey!" Hoichu said, "You're my yojimbo, your destiny is to protect me!"
Tetsu groaned and came back, his shoulders slumping.
"Well, good luck, Hoichu," I said, bowing to the shugenja and ducking as another blast of Tsuke's fire struck the earth.
"Yes, good luck," Turi said, glancing from Hoichu to Tetsu, "With him as your bodyguard, you will need it."
Tetsu frowned but didn't argue. The rest of us ran off parallel to the castle, leaving Isawa Tsuke far behind. We ran through an opening in the walls, into the palace's ruined garden. Beyond, the full moon shone brightly upon a dark and stagnant pond, and a translucent figure kneeled by its waters. Turi froze in his tracks, his mouth hanging open.
"Someone you know?" I asked.
"Matsu Tsuko," he choked.
"The Lion Clan Champion?" Toku said in wonder.
"Yeah," Turi replied, "We used to date back in high school."
"She graduated when we were freshmen," Sanzo said, "MAN she was HOT! I must have asked her out like fifty times, but you know, she was 'too cool' to go out with a freshman. If you ask me, she was just a snooty, stuck up little--" Sanzo stopped, noting the dangerous look on Turi's face.
Turi shook his head and walked away from Sanzo, approaching Tsuko's ghost. "Hey, baby," he said.
"Hi!" she replied, drawing her wakizashi, "Good to see you again, Turi. I'm kind of busy right now, though. I was just about to kill myself. Again."
"Wait!" Turi shouted, taking another step toward her, "Why?"
"Well, let's see," she said, rolling her eyes, "The Akodo are all dead. The Kitsu are maho-tsukai. The Ikoma are rebelling. And the Matsu. Well, let's just admit it. The Matsu are just screwed up. Gohei's on vacation. I'm dead. Toki's comparing moisturizers with Kuni Yori. And Agetoki. I don't even want to talk about what Agetoki's doing." She looked at the wakizashi again. "I guess you're still okay, Turi, but all the other Lions are losers. I mean, really, Sanzo over there's more of a hero than most Lions these days."
"Hey!" Sanzo shouted, "I think I'm supposed to be insulted by that."
Turi sat down on a rock, staring into the pond. "Wow," he said, "You're right. We suck." He drew his wakizashi, too.
"Hey, hang on there just a second!" I shouted, running up and grabbing Turi's arm, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Tsuko's got a point," Turi said morosely, "My clan's finished." He rose the sword again, ready to plunge it into his chest.
"Dang!" Toku said, "Just when we get a new Lion, he kills himself again!"
"Basic design flaw," Sanzo said sagely, "Crops up in Cranes a lot, too."
I nodded, stepped back, and clubbed Matsu Turi across the helm with my tetsubo. His wakizashi went clattering across the courtyard, and he rolled to his feet with blood trickling down his brow.
"Excuse me," he said, grabbing my shirt collar and lifting me several feet of the ground, "What do you think you're doing, Crab?"
"Listen," I said tersely, "Sanzo and Toku and I have been through hell in the last year. We've fought Ise Zumi, ogres, Mantis, Nagas, oni, and those damn ninjas. I've risked my life on a flying carpet, risked my soul in the Shadowlands, and risked my sanity in Hitomi's bedroom. Toku's given up his first girlfriend, Agetoki's given up his life, Sanzo's lost his horse again, and heaven knows what the Crabs will do to me when they find out that I cut a deal with Kuni Yori. We all hugged Oni no Pekkle, for pete's sake! And do you see any of us spilling our guts on the pavement? Well, do you?"
"Agetoki did," Turi said.
"Well, that's a bad example then," I said, "Anyway, what would you rather do? Would you rather kill yourself or fix the problem?"
"Kill yourself," Tsuko said, "It worked wonders for me."
"Turi!" I said, "You are in a HAUNTED NINJA CASTLE! We just fought a horde of evil SHADOW SPIRITS! Now the ghost of Tsuko shows up out of nowhere and tells you to KILL YOURSELF! You're even considering this?"
"Hey, good point, Garou," Turi said, "Besides, she dumped me for Akodo Arasou and I never got back at her." He turned to Tsuko. "Hey, guess what," he said, "Not only am I NOT going to kill myself, I think I'll go save the Emperor and reunite the Lion Clan, too. What do you think about that?"
"You're such a geek," she sniffed, "I'm glad I dumped you."
"Yeah, well, Ketsui's got your old room now and she threw away all your old Rick Springfield posters."
"She didn't!" Tsuko gasped, clutching her chest.
Turi turned and walked away, a satisfied smile on his face.
"Man," I whispered to Sanzo, as we followed, "What's the deal with these Lions and their psycho ex-girlfriends?"
"Again, basic design flaw," Sanzo said, "It happens. Same way you Crab shugenja always end up getting Tainted."
"I'm not going to get Tainted, Sanzo," I said, "No matter what Mister Kuni thinks."
"Okey dokey, penaggolan," Sanzo said.
The dark hallways of Morikage surrounded us. Toku drew out a small lantern to provide light as we progressed, moving slowly so as not to alert the dark masters of the castle to our presence.
"Listen!" Turi whispered, "Battle begins anew!"
In the distance, we could hear steel strike on steel again, and warriors shouting to one another. We quickly advanced to a large pair of double doors at the end of the hallway. Sanzo opened them a crack and we peeked through. Beyond, a wall of shadows surged around eight figures. Three were Nagas. Another was a wasp. One was a tall, pale man in black robes. Two were Unicorns, Kamoko and someone else. The last was...
"My Emperor!" Toku squealed in delight.
"No," Turi said, clamping a hand over Toku's mouth, "something's not right here."
We waited. The pale man vanished, taking Toturi and the other Unicorn with him. The others continued fighting the shadows, quickly retreating toward the castle gates. The shadows fought half-heartedly, as if just putting on a good show of a fight, as the samurai and naga fled the castle.
The shadows dispersed once more, and a tall man in a jingasa stepped from the darkness. He chuckled menacingly, leaning back against a large clock, no doubt an import from Unicorn lands.
"Wow, Garou!" Toku said, "That guy looks just like you!"
"Weird," I said numbly.
Several more dark-suited figures surrounded the large man. "It worked, Adorai-sama!" chuckled one of the faceless ninja.
"Yes, Ninja Shadow-walker," he said, "Victory is within our grasp! The foolish samurai of Rokugan have been fooled. The Naga cannot stop us! The humans cannot stop us! Not even accursed Bedtime can stop us now!"
"They believe they have rescued the true Emperor!" laughed another ninja, playing with a box full of fishing lures.
"Indeed, Ninja Questioner!" he replied, "when in reality, the true Emperor is.... right here!" The man drew a birdcage out of the shadows behind him, containing a small black rooster.
One of the faceless ninjas laughed, cocking his head curiously. "So then Kamoko rescued..."
"The False Toturi!" Adorai replied boldly.
"Wait a second," another ninja said, holding up a single finger, "That name sounds familiar..."
"Silence, Ninja Mailman!" Adorai commanded, "My genius is above question.
"No, I think he's right," said yet another faceless ninja, "I think something like this has happened before."
"Yours is not to reason why, Ninja Janitor!" he shrieked angrily, "Only to obey the Dark Path!"
"Hey, and while we're at it, what's with these names?" a shadow in the corner asked, "I mean, the first few, Ninja Shapeshifter, Ninja Mystic, Ninja Shadow-walker, those were all cool. But then you started running out of ideas, and..."
"SILENCE, NINJA STABLE-MUCKER!" Adorai shouted at the top of his voice, "I WILL NOT ALLOW SUCH DISSENSION AMONG MY FACELESS MINIONS!" He fired a bolt of black light into the ninja's chest, scattering Ninja Stable-Mucker into his component bits.
"No more arguments!" Adorai spat, "We must prepare the Black Chicken for travel to Otosan Uchi. He must arrive there in time for the Great Feast."
"We must rescue the Emperor now, while they are confused and distracted," Turi said, drawing his katana.
"I dunno. There's a lot of ninjas in there, dude," Sanzo said doubtfully.
But then Turi had kicked open the door and started screaming.
"He reminds me a lot of Agetoki," Toku said with a grin.
I nodded and followed, shaking the floor with an Earthquake spell. Sanzo and Toku were right at my side, swinging their weapons. Toku had put away his sword and was using the yari that he'd been given in Phoenix lands, which seemed to be a lot more effective against the ninjas. Before we knew it, we were before Adorai himself. The ninja master clutched Toturi's cage in both hands and scowled at us in white-faced rage.
"You!" he spat, "The Heroes of the Black Chicken! I thought that was all a drunken delusion of that bizarre Hoshi creature!"
"Think again," Sanzo said, splitting Ninja Brush-Salesman's head with Ambition.
"Shosuro!" Adorai commanded, "Kill them!"
A tall, thin ninja woman stepped from the shadows, her face a blank slate. Her form twisted and warped, until she became an exact copy of Oni no Akuma. She hissed, acid dripping from her jaws, and advanced.
"Hey!" I said, smiling at her, "I recognize you! Weren't you in Mister Kuni's algebra class? Ninja Shapeshifter, right? We went on that field trip to Beiden Pass together?"
She stopped. "Oh, yeah!" she said, "I always thought you were so cute!" Scary to hear that out of Akuma's mouth, but she did have a pretty voice.
"Well, thanks," I said. That sort of embarrassed me. In high school, I'd never even realized that Ninja Shapeshifter was a girl.
"Well, anyway, sorry but I have to kill you now, Garou," she said, "I, like, gave my free will to the Shadow so I'll, like, get fired if I don't." She lurched toward me, leaning low and preparing to shred me with her claws.
So I showed her my tattoo. It suddenly got very warm and she stopped cold.
"Shosuro, kill him!" Adorai commanded, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Eh, I hate this job!" she chuckled, turning around and hacking down Ninja Librarian and Ninja Cookie Chef in a single stroke.
"Bah! Your betrayal shall avail you naught, Shosuro!" Adorai laughed, "The Heroes of the Black Chicken are incomplete! The Fool, the Wizard, and the Innocent have come but without the Firemane, they cannot fulfill their destiny. And the Firemane is already dead." He had a point there. The room was suddenly filled with ninjas, and we weren't getting any closer to Adorai, even with Shosuro's help.
And then something hit Goju Adorai in the back of the head, and he fell on the ground. Toturi's cage rolled across the floor toward us. The rooster cackled fearfully as I snatched up the cage and tossed it to Toku. In the shadows behind Adorai, I could see a tall samurai in a brown mask nod and vanish into the shadows.
"Was that?" Sanzo asked.
"No way," I said, "Couldn't be."
"Figure it out later," Turi said, beginning to stagger under the ninja's fearsome attacks, "How the heck are we going to get out of here?"
Toku had fought his way to the clock against the wall and was tinkering with the hands. Suddenly, it chimed ten times. The ninjas scattered like dust in the wind.
"What the heck happened?" Sanzo asked, gasping for breath, swinging his bloodsword at a foe who was no longer there.
"Ten o'clock," Shosuro laughed, shifting back into her original form and placing her hands on her hips, "Bedtime."
"No," Sanzo said, "No, no, no, no and again no. PLEASE somebody tell me that Toku did not just save our lives in such a stupid way."
We exited the dark walls of Morikage. It was still late at night, but the forest seemed brighter. Toku was proudly carrying the cage of the Black Chicken and Sanzo was doing his best to ignore him. Turi was humming a Lion battle hymn to himself. Shosuro was walking with her arm hooked in mine.
"Well, I have to go now," she said, "I'm not exactly sure how you pulled me away from the Dark Path of Shadow, Garou, but I seem to have free will again now and I think I'm gonna go visit my relatives. Thanks for everything." She transformed into Bayushi Kachiko and kissed me on the lips, then melted into the form of a raven and was gone.
"Um... thank *you*," I said.
We hurried on out of the shadowy forest, and when we emerged into the hilly Phoenix plains once more, O-Ushi and the rest of the Crab Army were there waiting for us.
"Er... hi," I said.
"Hello, Garou," she said, folding her arms grimly, "We need to talk."
So I walked off and talked with my clan champion for awhile. She had this guy named Kuni Utagu with her, who apparently was not at all impressed by the rumors of my visit to the Dark Sanctuary and subsequent transformation of the Emperor into a chicken through an accident of maho. Then he found out I'd been carrying a bloodsword around for like three years, and had summoned up a kansen in Hiruma Castle, and had made a deal with Kuni Yori and he almost spat up his miso when he heard I'd hugged Oni no Pekkle.
Well, Utagu was ready to string me up right there. He even had the string ready, but then Yasamura of all people stepped in on my behalf. He suggested that since it was a first offense, that I should be let off easy. Utagu retorted that since it was a lot of first offenses all at once that I should be let off the edge of a cliff easily. O-Ushi stepped in with a compromise.
And I was exiled from the Crab Clan.
I stumbled back to my friends, waiting back on the other side of the hill. I could see in their faces that they knew what had happened, as I had left my Yasuki jingasa and tetsubo behind with the others.
"Tough break, Garou," Toku said.
"Yeah," Sanzo said, "Trust me, though, you'll like being a ronin. Ronin get all the chicks."
"Shut up, Sanzo," I said, "Maybe I can go back and see if the Phoenix will still have me."
"Please do not do that," Turi said, "I've gained a lot of respect for you in the last day or so, Garou, and I'd hate to lose all of it again."
"What's wrong with the Phoenix?" Toku whined, "My girlfriend's a Phoenix!"
"Isawa Osugi?" said a voice, "Nice girl. Good friend of mine."
We all turned to see a group of Cranes riding up toward us. In the lead was a young shugenja with long white hair.
"Cranes," Turi growled.
"You're Garou, correct?" the man asked, "Yasuki Garou, of the Crab?"
"It's just Garou now," I replied, staring at the ground.
"Asahina Tomo told me all about you," the man replied, hopping off the horse. "You're quite a hero, Garou, and if the Crab can't see your value I'm sure we in the Crane would be proud to have you."
"Really?" I said hopefully.
"Well, certainly," he said, "We'll just have to run it past Uji or Kuwanan, but I'm sure there'll be no problem. If you'd like to join me, I'm sure we can settle all the paperwork rather quickly. I'm headed back to Crane lands after I... meet someone up north."
"Well, thanks, that'd be great!" I said happily. "What did you say your name was again?"
"Dorai," he said with a bow, "Asahina Dorai."
All artwork above created by Rich Wulf