By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
Shinden Asahina, 1166
He rushed through the hallowed temple, his footsteps echoing through the silent building. As the young man hurried through the main hall of Shinden Asahina, the ancestral home of the Asahina family, he marveled at the peace that reigned in the room. Shinden Asahina was one of the largest temples in all of the empire, and many considered the place the most serene location in the Empire. Thousands of pilgrims traveled to see the sights and pray to the Fortunes each year. As a result, there was a constant stream of people through Shinden Asahina. In the public sections of the shrine, silence was a rare treat.
At any other time, he would have stopped to enjoy the serenity, but today his mission would not allow it. He reached past the main hall and turned to face the wall. He pushed aside an elaborate screen depicting the fall of the kami. Few people knew of the storage room beneath the main floor of the temple and fewer still were given access. Complex spells diverted the attention of observers, directing their focus to the artistic works in the temple rather than to the entrance to the basement. Other wards protected the room from scrying; only the most dedicated and talented shugenja could help to pierce them. He slid open the secret door and entered.
He walked down the stairs and stopped short at the sight in front of him. The room was empty, save for a large box covered by a silk blanket. A man stood with his back toward the entrance, staring at the mysterious object. The personal mon of the Asahina daimyo marked the back of his kimono.
“Sekawa-sama,” the young man said and bowed. “I came as fast as I could.”
The Jade Champion turned and nodded to the newcomer. “Keitaro-san. Prompt as always.”
Keitaro smiled. “I believe any praise of my skills should rightfully be directed toward my teacher.”
A shadow of a smile flitted across Sekawa’s face, but his face remained grim. Keitaro could not remember the last time he had seen Sekawa’s face unmarked by severity. His lord had too many responsibilities weighing down on his shoulders, and too many tragedies marred his past.
“Keitaro-san,” Sekawa begin slowly, “you were one of the first to follow my lead. I know all of the Asahina embraced me as their leader when I became daimyo, but they could not see past their traditions. The Empire had changed. The Shadowlands assaulted our very souls in front of their eyes, but they did nothing! It seems like ages ago, but you were the first to become a Jade Magistrate. For that, I thank you.”
Keitaro’s eyes widened. He had never seen Sekawa show so much frustration. “What are your orders, my lord?” he said softly, ignoring Sekawa’s outburst to save face for his lord.
At those words, Sekawa visibly calmed down. He coughed and looked away from Keitaro. “I have come to a difficult decision, Keitaro.”
“I will do whatever I can to aid you, my lord,” Keitaro responded promptly.
Sekawa nodded. “I know.” He gestured to the large square behind him. “There are dozens of powerful nemuranai that have been lost over the centuries. Only luck and destiny allows these artifacts to fall back into human hands. I had hoped this item would remain lost forever, yet fate has thrust this situation into our hands.”
“Several of our relics have disappeared over the ages, though we always recover them in unexpected areas,” Keitaro said, his forehead lined in thought. “For instance, our lord Doji Kurohito-sama carries Chukandomo, a blade thought to be lost centuries ago. On the other hand, Kotoku remains in the bottom of the sea, where Daidoji Masashigi fell fighting the Shadowlands. If someone has found the Ancestral Spear of the Daidoji, or some other revered relic, we must make sure he is properly rewarded for his heroism.”
“No, Keitaro-san. This is the shame of the Asahina.” Sekawa walked toward the box and pulled the blanket off. It was not a box at all but a large black anvil. Keitaro paled. He had never laid eyes on the cursed item, yet he knew its identity in a glance.
“The Anvil of Despair,” Keitaro whispered. He immediately took a step back before he could control himself.
Sekawa nodded. “Imperial cartographer Asahina Juneko found the Anvil in the Twilight Mountains. A member of the Tsi family, turned mad by the nemuranai’s power, attacked her when she drew near. She brought the Anvil here after her Phoenix yojimbo killed the madman.”
“I see,” Keitaro answered, his mind racing. “I shall ensure that the secret of the Anvil’s location is never revealed.”
For a long moment, Sekawa stared at Keitaro without speaking. There was a strange look in his eyes, as if he were measuring the worth of his vassal. “No,” Sekawa said finally. “That matter is settled. I need someone to guard this… thing. Someone I can trust. Someone I know will not fall under its power.”
Keitaro bowed deeply, his heart pounding. “My lord, I am ready to bear this duty.” He frowned. “There is a complication.”
“As you recall my lord, some time ago we entered into an… agreement with the shugenja called Katsu, in order to better understand our enemies. The quarters we arranged for the Tainted men are less than a league away from this building. Under your orders I took charge of the operation. I have continued to interrogate the prisoners and ensure the security of the operation for the last year.”
“Ah,” Sekawa said. “The repentant Lost. How many have we moved into our lands?”
“We have twenty guarded by Jade Magistrates and Daidoji warriors. I still retain some doubt about the sincerity of their conversion,” Keitaro said.
“As do I, but we cannot deny the value of the information we have gleaned from them,” Sekawa answered. “We cannot afford to have them near this abomination, no matter what their affiliation. I will move the camp further into Asahina lands. Do not worry about those men. I will make sure that they are in capable hands. Make the safety of the Anvil of Despair your first priority.”
“I will not fail you, my lord,” Keitaro said. He bowed once more as the Jade Champion left the room. Slowly, he turned around and faced the Anvil of Despair. The slick black surface seemed to draw in all the light in the room and reflect a dark, sinister glow to the rest of the room. The Anvil seemed to be marked with strange carvings in a language Keitaro had never seen before. Tormented faces seemed to leap out of the surface as if lost souls sought freedom from some intangible horror. The faces seemed to writhe the longer he stared at the side.
Keitaro stepped toward the Anvil. He slowly raised his hand, stopping it inches from the surface. He could feel warmth radiating from the black wall.
“Created by an Asahina, and laid to rest here at our home,” he said. “Will your legacy forever haunt us?”
Keitaro did not notice the whispered laughter that seemed to emanate from the deepest shadows in the room.
City of the Lost, 1166
She walked through the halls of the hallowed temple, her footsteps echoing in the long corridors. Tsukai praying to the Dark God watched her walk by and could not resist staring at her magnificence. Her youthful face was the embodiment of beauty, untouched by the ravages of time. Her walk exuded a casual deadliness with the katana that lay at her side. They quickly moved out of her way, equally afraid of her wrath as attracted by her beauty.
She ignored the fools that littered the temple as she headed directly toward the audience room. She reached the doors that led to the audience room and opened it without preamble. The chamber was large and ornate, able to hold hundreds of men at once. Today, only two men were inside. The Dark Lord of the Shadowlands sat on his throne. A man in monk attire stood in front of the dais. They stopped their conversation and turned to face the door as the samurai-ko entered.
“Leave us,” she said to the monk and waved her hand toward the door. He glared at the woman. His face was cracked and wrinkled with age, as if the Taint had accelerated the ravages of time. His eyes sized up the newcomer. He frowned slightly, as if the sight of her face triggered some long-forgotten memory.
“Ah, Rekai-chan,” Daigotsu said, “Welcome home.”
Recognition flooded the monk’s eyes. “Daigotsu Rekai.”
“Who are you, monk?” Rekai asked.
“I am Konetsu, recently sworn to the Dark Lord,” he answered.
Rekai smiled. “I see. Leave us, Konetsu.”
Konetsu shook his head. “Perhaps you forget things have changed, Rekai-san. I need not remind you that you are no longer a daimyo. Here you are simply one of the Dark Lord’s servants. You do not frighten me. Show your respect or be prepared to face the consequences.”
Rekai looked at the monk. She did not move, but suddenly Konetsu felt like a mouse under the eyes of a hawk.
“Let me be direct. There are only a few people I consider worthy of my respect. Run along before I teach you exactly how little you matter in this world.”
Konetsu stared at the dark samurai-ko. She bowed to the Dark Lord. Already she was ignoring Konetsu’s presence. He weighed the choices laid out in front of him. There was only one answer to his quandary. He quickly bowed to Daigotsu then stepped out of her way. Rekai looked away from the monk as he passed by her in a huff, a disinterested look on her face.
Daigotsu chuckled. “Do you enjoy antagonizing your former clansman, Rekai-chan?”
“We both served the same master in my former life, Daigotsu-sama, but you cannot mistake him as my equal,” Rekai sneered. “He is a fool who does not know his place in life. He retired into priesthood years ago, but continued to grasp for any semblance of power in his pathetic reach. He lives here now because he succumbed to his failings during the Rain of Blood. I am here of my own will.”
Daigotsu stood from his throne and walked forward. “The Shadow Dragon is a strange ally,” he mused aloud. “He comes and goes, whispering secrets and promises. One can never tell where and why he will show his support.”
“I serve you faithfully, my lord,” Rekai said stiffly.
Daigotsu waved his hand, dismissing the thought. “Of course you do. You are Daigotsu Rekai, and your strong sense of honor is well known, even to your former enemies. Even though I have called more samurai to my side, your worth will never be ignored, Rekai-chan.”
Rekai bowed. “Thank you, my lord.”
He began to walk, and Rekai fell in step behind him. “Tell me,” Daigotsu said, “what do you know of the Lost leaving my empire?”
“What do you mean?” Rekai said.
“I have known that Katsu’s loyalties have wavered in the past. He believed that he was still samurai, that he stilled owed his loyalty to Rokugan. I do not know exactly what he did or who he contacted, but he has smuggled similar minded Lost samurai out into the empire. My other servants have told me that of his actions, but they could tell me nothing more.”
“If he is so disloyal, why do you keep him now?” Rekai asked.
“I have guaranteed his loyalty would be to me, permanently.”
“Could you not ask him yourself and force an answer?”
“I could,” Daigotsu said, and smiled. “Such a solution seems so inelegant.”
“Wait,” Rekai said, frowning. “Katsu. I remember that name. When I was still a Daidoji, one of my soldiers encountered one of the Lost, a man that saved his life. He said the man’s name was Katsu. A common enough name, perhaps, but still.”
“What happened?” Daigotsu asked.
“We escorted one of his men into the hands of Asahina Sekawa, the Jade Champion. The Jade Champion wanted to question them personally.” She looked at her lord meaningfully. “About your weaknesses, of course.”
Daigotsu slowly nodded. “Interesting. No one else would know of Katsu’s change of heart. Perhaps this line into the empire could prove to be a valuable resource.”
Rekai bowed. “Shall I work with your men, to better fool the Crane that they are genuinely repentant?”
Daigotsu smiled. “No, Rekai-chan. I have something in mind that is more suited for your talents…”
Asahina lands, 1167
Daidoji Tae stepped out of her office and stretched. She deserved a break from all her work and she intended to enjoy her walk around the camp. She pushed her white hair out of her eyes and roughly tied it behind her. Once again she wondered if she should simply cut the hair so that it would not be such a bother. She had always been pretty ever since she had been a little girl. Her parents had hoped for her to study the ways of court with the Doji, but the nuances of honor and proper conduct never drew her interest. Eventually, her aptitude and pragmatic mien led her to study at Shiro Giji.
When she had started to serve Asahina Sekawa, she did not expect to be forced to be administration. Still, despite her lack of experience, she admitted to herself that she had performed marvelously. Under her command, the camp had grown from a few makeshift buildings to three sturdy buildings surrounded by a tall wooden fence. The soldiers remained fit and ready, and the interrogations always proceeded without any problems.
No, she decided, she would not cut her hair. It was a bother, but she enjoyed the effect she had on men. The inconvenience was a small price to pay for her amusement. She walked along the wall of the camp without a thought in her mind. She enjoyed the feel of the wind on her face and the smell of the night air. She looked around at the samurai that stood on patrol and smiled. Her men were ready for danger, no matter from what direction it arose.
She knew something was wrong an instant before it occurred. The wind abruptly stopped, and her stomach clenched up in knots. She crouched instinctively and looked around for the source of her discomfort.
A roar filled the camp and one of the buildings suddenly lit on fire. Tae drew her katana in a flash and scanned the area again. She could see nothing that could have started the fire. Her soldiers began to run toward the well. Tae stepped in front of a young Daidoji warrior. He stopped and bowed quickly.
“Report!” Tae said.
“The situation is unclear, Tae-sama,” the soldier responded. “It must be an assault, but no one can figure out where the attack is coming from. We’re attempting to stop the fire and find the enemy now.”
“Let the others handle that. Find some Jade Magistrates and execute the contingency plan. These Shadowlands creatures must never roam free through Rokugan!” Tae ordered. When the soldier nodded and ran toward the barracks, Tae headed for her office. In the event of an attack, she could only trust in the strength of her men to protect the camp. She had her own duties to fulfill. Over the past year she had reviewed countless scrolls filled with information that could be used to fight against Daigotsu. Most of them were already stored at Shinden Asahina but too many were still here.
The lantern in her room was out. Tae moved slowly into the shadows, navigating her way through the familiar furniture with practiced ease. She held her katana at the ready in front of her and tried to sense whatever still remained in the room. Her sensei in the Daidoji harrier school had taught her how to feel other cues rather than sight to locate her opponent. There was a shape near the window that stood waiting for her. She moved forward slowly and readied herself to leap upon her enemy.
“Foolish Crane,” something whispered behind her. “Do you truly believe your amateurish techniques will work against me? I am made of darkness itself, girl.”
She felt the bite of a blade in her neck, and then she felt nothing at all.
Toshi Ranbo, 1167
“How beautiful,” Rekai said. She lifted the hood away from her face and stared out at the buildings in front of her. The hidden room had a perfect view of the Imperial Palace which lay only a few hundred yards from the Shadowlands samurai. The current capital had previously been the focal point of countless battles between the Crane and the Lion, and Rekai was familiar with many of the secrets the Crane had installed in the city.
The man next to her shrugged. He peered out the window, his face completely hidden by his cowl. “It just looks like buildings to me. Dirty and ugly.”
Rekai turned to her companion. “You do not see the perfect marriage of functionality and elegance in this palace? The guard stations along the wall are so well made they barely exist to a trained eye.”
“It’s nothing as elegant as the sight of a man choking on his own blood or the pure horror of a man holding his own entrails in his hands.”
“You are a brute, Isoruko. Conversation is wasted on you,” Rekai said.
Chuda Isoruko pushed the cowl away from his face and turned to face her. His skin was sickly green, and rot had begun to grow along his cheek. He smiled. His teeth looked no better than his face. “Thank you, Rekai-san.”
“Are you sure you can handle this?” she asked. She looked pointedly at his empty scroll case.
“Of course,” Isoruko said. He reached into his scroll case and pulled out a small bag. “A Toritaka taught me the secrets of spirit summoning and banishment years ago. I have tested the techniques, and refined them to better fit our purposes.” The maho-tsukai looked around the room. “This seems to be an ideal spot. The kansen are whispering to me that the owner was murdered on this very spot by his son.”
“Do it,” Rekai ordered.
Isoruko pushed the sleeve of his kimono away from his body. He opened the bag and palmed a strange, white powder in his hands. His gaunt, emaciated arm moved in a small pattern above the ground as he sprinkled the powder onto the ground. Isoruko began to mutter in a strange, spitting language.
The room darkened as the ritual continued, as if the light was drawn away from the evil that collected into the room. Isoruko shouted and raised his hand, releasing more powder into the air in front of him. The dust coalesced into a humanoid form in front of them. The ghost began to resemble an old man, robed in the vestments of an ashigaru warrior.
“Who are you? What are you?” the spirit shouted, its voice thundering in the enclosed space. “How dare you bind me! I will rip you apart piece by piece, and feast on your soul!”
“Do not worry, Rekai-san,” Isoruko said over the spirit’s shouts, “the ghost cannot move from that spot. My spell prevents him from doing anything except talk to us.”
Rekai shot a disgusted look at the maho-tsukai. “Worried, by this?” She turned back to the enraged spirit and nodded slightly. “What was your name when you walked this realm, gaki?”
The spirit stopped raving for a moment, confused. “I was… I am…” Its eyes glowed dark red. “My name was Botan, samurai! I was the finest soldier in the Crane army! I killed dozens of Lion samurai as we defended the castle against impossible odds!”
“I am sure you died nobly, gaki,” Rekai said.
“Of course!” the spirit shouted. It looked around the room then focused its attention again on Rekai. “Who are you to disturb my torment?”
“I am Daigotsu Rekai,” she replied, “samurai of the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands. I, too, fought in the Crane armies in defense of this castle.”
The spirit shied away on reflex at the thought of being so near a samurai. Isoruko’s wards stopped the spirit in his tracks, and it glared at Rekai.
“Then you know of my pain, samurai,” it said. “The battles that went on in this city, the death, the pain… It traps me in this realm, unable to break free!”
“Are there so many of you wandering in this place?” Rekai asked, her eyes suddenly intent.
“Of course!” the spirit shouted. “We are all trapped in this accursed realm. We searched for tranquility but there was none to be had. All we desire now is vengeance. Vengeance and death for those who defile our graves.”
“Perhaps we can come to an arrangement, then,” Rekai said, smiling. “The place you inhabit is now the Imperial Palace, where courtiers and samurai come to meet the Emperor. They come to discuss army movements, location of the Emerald Magistrates, and where the eyes of the empire will be. The most important information of all the empire is spoken, and can be heard, in that building.”
The spirit grew still. Its eyes narrowed. “And?”
Rekai leaned closer to the spirit. “If you keep me informed on everything that goes on in the palace,” she said softly, “I will bring war upon this land once more.”
It thought for only an instant before answering. “We will do as you ask, mortal,” the spirit hissed. “And in return… you will tear the empire apart.”
Kosaten Shiro, 1167
She smiled at her captors, ignoring the pain coursing through her body. “Come,” she said lightly, “you can do much better than that.”
“The same can be said about you, Lady Rekai,” Sekawa responded. “Your wit seems to have faded in the last four hours. Do you regret your impurity now? I promised you pain and I will make sure it is the last thing you will feel before you die.”
“I promise you that despair will be the last thing you feel before I kill you,” Rekai said.
“Tell me,” Sekawa said, “what were you doing in the Imperial City?”
Rekai shrugged. “Admiring the architecture.”
Sekawa spoke a single word, and the room erupted in a bright green light. Rekai did not utter a sound, but she reacted to the purity of the ward. Her body twisted in pain but her expression did not shift even slightly from her smirk.
The light faded. “It is not easy to bypass the wards that cover Toshi Ranbo. You were there for a specific purpose. What were you doing?”
“Your shugenja are weak, and your wards weaker. Is that why you have so many organizations devoted against us? Because you are all equally ineffectual?” Rekai asked.
A man stood up behind the Jade Champion and shouted something in the language of the kami. Rekai’s eyes widened as her right arm exploded in pain. She shut her mouth to prevent any outburst and closed her eyes until the pain disappeared. When it left, her arm throbbed as if it were badly burned. She resisted the urge to look at her arm, and smiled at her captors. A single drop of blood fell from her lips.
Sekawa turned to his aide. “She must be kept alive until we can determine what she was doing within the Imperial City. There is too much risk in remaining ignorant of such things. Once she has revealed that, dispose of her like the traitor that she is, and I shall inform the Daidoji that their honor has been cleansed.” He turned back to his prisoner. “This is Asahina Keitaro, Lady Rekai,” he said. “He will take over the questioning while I finish some business with the Keepers. I assure you he will be as gentle with you as I am.”
“Splendid,” Rekai said.
Keitaro loomed closer and smiled. “Yes. It will be, my lady,” he said.
Rekai sat on the floor in the middle of the cell. Though the Jade Champion had left a bed and a pail for her, she could not move beyond the confines of the ward. Instead of focusing of what lay beyond her reach, she sat and meditated. She could even ignore the constant flow of pain from the ward carvings on the floor. The merest touch sent stinging spikes up her entire body, as they were lined with jade.
Something was happening outside. Even here in the basement of the castle, she could here shouts and sounds of steel on steel. The sounds came instinctively to her. Battle had come to the Crane lands. She knew she could do nothing about it, so she took the information in stride. Even the smell of fire did not excite her, for what good could it do for her?
A large explosion suddenly rocked the building. A beam that braced the ceiling suddenly shattered in two and began to crash down on her. She looked up at the falling bar and watched it fall toward her with no fear in her eyes. It crashed down only inches from her leg, and the force of the impact shook the building once more.
Rekai frowned. Something felt different. She had grown accustomed to the purity of the wards holding her in her cell. Somehow, the pain seemed less pervasive. She looked down and saw the carvings on the floor. The fallen beam had crushed a small section of the ward, altering its shape and changing the perimeters of the spell. She raised her hand through where the wall of the ward would be. A flare of green light filled the room, but it was dull and weak. In one swift movement, she leapt toward the door of the cell through the ward. Pain ripped through her in a thousand places at once, but she was out. She was free from the ward.
She looked at the bars that trapped her in the cell and smiled. She closed her eyes and drew in on the strength of the Shadowlands Taint that infused her very soul. She opened her eyes. There was a battle of some sort being waged above, and regardless of who had attacked the Crane, she believed she knew how to make their assault far more successful than they had imagined.
Hours later, a panicked Daidoji informed Asahina Keitaro that nothing remained of the cell below the castle.
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