By Shawn Carman
The stone outcropping was battered mercilessly by the waves, creating a constant spray of foam that soaked anything in the area. The brilliant sunlight caught each drop as it hung in the air before plummeting to the rocks below. The effect was breathtaking for those rare few who came to this place. For the moment, however, there was but a single man, a consummate warrior, who stood among the rocks, practicing his kata. The water ran off the lacquered plates of his armor in rivulets, but he paid little attention. He leapt nimbly from one stone to the next, each time executing a flawless kata with his twin weapons. His footing was never shaken, the intensity of his gaze never broken. He was like a part of the shore and the sea. He was relentless. He was perfect.
He was out of his mind with the tedium of it all.
Nothing changed in this place. Everything was exactly the same, every day. To many, it was paradise, and in truth it had been so for him for quite some time. Then, not so long ago, he had been part of a grand expedition to a different land, a different realm, and the excitement of battle had been his once more. Ever since that day, he had been inconsolable. The boredom of his existence had been revealed to him, and it crushed him like no burden he had ever borne. His reward had become a punishment, one wherein there was nothing different or unusual to be had.
And then, something completely different happened.
A ship appeared on the horizon. At first, the warrior believed he was dreaming, or perhaps he had simply gone mad. As it grew closer, however, there could be no mistaking it for a dream. It was a ship, like those he had known so long ago, and it was coming directly toward him. For the briefest of moments he dared to hope that it was an enemy of some sort, come for him at last. Perhaps he would die, but at least he would experience the thrill of battle one last time.
Hope for battle faded as the ship approached. It was the most brilliant green the warrior had ever seen, and it could be nothing else but jade. He could make out two figures standing on the deck, and as the ship glided perfectly up to the rocky shore, a shore whose fierce current and jagged outcroppings would destroy any normal kobune, one of the women leapt from the deck and glided effortlessly to the rocks near him. She lifted one shaking hand to her face, then knelt before him.
“It is you,” she whispered. “I dared not dream…”
“What is this?” the warrior demanded. “Who are you?”
“I am Moshi Amika,” the woman answered, “daimyo of the Moshi family of the Mantis Clan. My comrade is Horiuchi Rikako of the Unicorn.”
“It is my great pleasure and honor,” the other woman called down from the deck, bowing low with her hands clasped before her. The warrior noted that she did not leave the vessel, and that her fingernails were strangely long. “We have traveled far to meet you, great one, as you might imagine.”
“How is this possible?” the warrior demanded.
“I understand it poorly,” Amika admitted. “This vessel once belonged to the Fortune of the Sea, or rather it is a portion of one that once did. It allows us to… to cross the sea of the heavens and come to you here, for I am insolent enough to ask for your aid.”
“We require guidance,” Rikako said. “We must sail among the stars to find our destination, and if we become lost, the ramifications will be dire indeed. Because of the Unicorn’s respect for you, and for your clan, we sought Amika’s aid in finding you. You alone are at home enough aboard such a vessel to help us find what we seek.”
The warrior turned to Amika. “Is this true?”
“It is, my lord,” she said, her voice just above a whisper.
He rubbed his chin. “This will be dangerous, I imagine.”
“Very,” Rikako said with a grim smile.
Yoritomo, the Son of Storms, placed his kama in his obi. “Then I will guide you.”
The Moto provinces, three weeks ago
Moto Tsusung stared silently at the spectacle unfolding before him. For months now, he had labored in seclusion to uncover the secrets hidden in the tiny jade boat that sat in the center of the temple. It was an exquisite work, detailed to an extent that the shugenja had never seen in any piece of art, not in paintings, sculpture, literature, or any other endeavor undertaken by human hands. It took his breath away just to look at it, and yet after so long spent examining it, he had not been able to determine its function or purpose.
The boat had been taken from a tomb deep within the Shadowlands, a tomb long thought to be nothing more than a myth. The Tomb of the Seven Thunders was gone now, destroyed only hours after having been found. The general Moto Chen had returned with it, ordered by the Emperor to take something from the tomb so that it would not be lost. Tsusung often lay awake at night, wondering what other treasures might now lie buried in that dark realm, about what other power could have been unlocked if Chen had not simply grabbed the closest thing at hand.
Those thoughts were gone now.
Horiuchi Rikako, Tsusung’s student and apprentice, sat before the tiny kobune, her eyes closed in deep meditation. The ship floated a few inches off of the temple floor, revolving ever so slowly. “The Fortune of the Sea used it to visit the mortal realm,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. “There was a great battle with an enemy, and a shard of his mighty vessel was chipped off. It stayed hidden, drifting along the sea floor for centuries until…” she frowned. “A ningyo. A ningyo discovered it. They knew nothing of the Fortunes, or of kobune, but she sensed what it was. She crafted it into this shape, and in doing so she unlocked its true power.”
“Which is?” Tsusung asked eagerly.
The ship drifted gently to the floor, and Rikako opened her eyes. “It can be used to do what it was born to do. It can sail the seas between the Heavens and this world.”
Tsusung frowned and rubbed his goatee. “Incredible, but not as useful as I had hoped. The Khan will not be particularly impressed, I fear.”
“Surely Chagatai-sama will understand the potential in our possession,” Rikako said. “The things we can accomplish with something like this are nearly limitless.”
“Such as?” Tsusung said with a raised eyebrow.
“We could sail to Yomi and consult our ancestors,” Rikako said. “We could reach Meido and return with the spirits of the dead.”
Tsusung shook his head. “No,” he said firmly. “Those uses are unacceptable.”
“Why?” Rikako demanded.
“The Lords of Death hold sway in Meido,” Tsusung said. “Even if the notion of circumventing their judgment were not blasphemy, we would risk incurring their wrath if we took our dead from their grasp and returned them to the battlefield.” He shook his head again. “You are young, and do not understand the enormity of what that means. To knowingly incur my Lords’ wrath is… unthinkable.”
“What of Yomi, then? The Realm of Blessed Ancestors?”
“Possible,” Tsusung admitted. “We must be cautious with such thoughts, however. The spirits of distant realms have returned to Rokugan once before, and the result was disastrous. We could not risk such a thing without turning the Empire against us, even more so than they already are. As it is, we must avoid even the implication of blasphemy. The Great Clans are eager to turn on us, as they did the Mantis only a short time ago.”
Rikako frowned. “The Mantis? What do you mean?”
“There was a petition made in the Imperial Court,” Tsusung explained. “The Phoenix claimed that, because the Mantis did not have the blood of a Kami, because they lacked divine protection from Tengoku, they were not truly a Great Clan.” He shook his head again. “Since Fu Leng slew Lady Shinjo, we cannot risk attracting the ire of our enemies with anything that might be perceived as blasphemy. They could make similar claims against us, and there is enough ill will toward us that it could be allowed.”
Rikako folded her hands before her and considered. “The Khan shares these concerns?”
“Of course. Everything that could threaten the Unicorn is of concern to the Khan in one way or another.”
A smile began to form in the corner of Rikako’s mouth. “Then I think perhaps I know a way to use the kobune,” she said, “and in doing so, prove our value to the Khan once and for all.”
Somewhere among the Heavens
Yoritomo placed his sandal against the shimmering, unmoving form atop the deck and kicked it from the ship’s deck. The thing spun out into the inky blackness all around them, its form slowly dissipating into tiny flecks of light that seemed to take their place among the stars in the distance.
Amika stared in wonder. “What was that?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Yoritomo grunted. “They swim among the stars. Spirits of the heavens, I suppose.”
“Beautiful,” Rikako breathed.
“Dangerous,” Yoritomo warned. “We are fortunate that this vessel bears the essence of Suitengu. If it did not, they would overwhelm us and we would be destroyed in an instant.” He shrugged. “As it is, only those that grow close enough recognize that we are not divine.”
“What is this place?” Rikako wondered aloud. “Are we in the Heavens? Is this Tengoku?”
“Yes,” Yoritomo answered. “And no.”
“What does that mean?” Amika asked.
“It is and it is not,” Yoritomo said. “I cannot explain it any better than that. We are on the periphery of Tengoku, but not within it.”
“We are not meant to know,” Rikako said finally. “And, ultimately, it makes little difference one way or another. We need not understand to accomplish our objective.” She smiled at the warrior that loomed above her. “Can you lead us to that which we desire, Yoritomo-sama?”
The great warrior looked out at the void in which their vessel hung. “This is like no sea I ever sailed in life,” he admitted, “but it is a sea all the same. I can find your destination, if you are but patient.”
“Patience is a virtue,” Rikako said, her smile widening. “And we are virtuous women, are we not, Amika-sama?”
Time did not pass in the void, or at least it did not seem to. The three travelers stood atop the deck, gazing into the sea of stars around them, for what might have been hours, days, weeks, or even months. Yoritomo stared into the endless sea before them, his eyes constantly flitting from one star to the next in search of what they sought. Rikako guided the vessel, the smile never leaving her face. And Amika kept watch for the strange, mercurial spirits that threatened them more and more infrequently the longer they remained in the void. Privately, she worried that their growing disinterest in the ship and its occupants was a sign that their presence in the void was changing them, that if they remained long enough, they would never be able to leave. But she did not speak her concerns, for she did not wish to seem cowardly in the face of her clan’s greatest hero. If this was her destiny, to remain here forever, then at least her sacrifice would have had purpose, and the bond between the Mantis and the Unicorn would be cemented forever. And, if nothing else, she at least had met the man who once married her aunt, however briefly.
“There.” Yoritomo pointed to the distance. “That is the one we seek.”
Rikako nodded and closed her eyes. The kobune turned in the direction Yoritomo had pointed, and began to glide through the void in the same smooth, effortless way that it had for the past few days. As the ship grew closer, a sound reached their ears. At first it seemed like thunder, or perhaps hail on the roof, as Amika had heard in her childhood. The pace continued to accelerate the closer the vessel came, however, and in a moment it became obvious. “Hoofbeats,” Rikako said.
“Quickly, girl!” Yoritomo barked. “We must hurry!”
Rikako nodded, and for the first time since the kobune had arrived in the void, Amika felt a surge of momentum as it accelerated. The stars in the distance suddenly seemed to be fleeing backward, and the shugenja wondered exactly how fast they might be going if they could feel the wind on their face.
“There!” Yoritomo shouted.
Amika ran to the rail, gripping it so hard that the cool green stone bit into her palms despite that there were no sharp edges. Above them, to the left, there was a woman atop a horse, racing among the stars as though she were running for her life. She could see the color of the rider’s armor, and the mon she wore upon her shoulder. “It is her!” she shouted to the others.
Rikako shook her head, her brow furrowed. “I must maintain the course,” she said through gritted teeth. “Amika-sama, you must speak to her!”
“Me?” Amika said. She turned to Yoritomo, and the man’s gaze was utterly unforgiving. He did not speak. He did not need to. Amika’s cheeks burned, but she did not turn away from him. “Very well then,” she said. She walked to the prow of the ship and threw her arms wide. She shouted a prayer to the elements, not even certain if they could or would respond in this place.
A brilliant flash of lighting, like no storm that had ever been seen in the mortal world, split the sky open. It came to Amika as she called, and she felt the power of it course through her arms as it descended to her. Everything was white for an instant, and then color flowed back into her vision. There was a deafening ringing in her ears, and she turned back to the deck to see both Rikako and Yoritomo staring at her in awe, the ship lurching slightly as Rikako struggled to regain control. She smiled weakly, but her expression faded to shock when she realized that, as her hearing came back, the hoofbeats had stopped altogether. Aghast that they had lost their prey, she turned and scanned the stars.
The woman sat atop her horse, having turned to look at the ship. “That was impressive,” she said in a low, gruff voice. “What are you doing here? You do not belong here.”
Amika hesitated only a moment before kneeling. “We have come in search of you, Otaku Kamoko-sama,” she said. “Your clan has need of you, and it is my great honor to assist them in contacting your to beseech your aid.”
Kamoko frowned. “What has happened?” she demanded.
The Moshi provinces, one week ago
Moshi Amika stared in mute shock at the woman standing before her. “Is this some manner of joke?” she finally asked. “Or perhaps some custom of your clan with which we Mantis might not be familiar? I am hardly one to condemn the odd customs of others, but this is preposterous and mildly insulting.”
Rikako smiled and inclined her head respectfully. “I would never presume to disgrace my clan, or yours, by speaking to you out of duplicity. And as you may be aware, my oath of fealty to the Unicorn took place relatively recently, so my familiarity with their customs is still somewhat fledgling. No, I assure you, Lady Moshi, this is a genuine offer.”
Amika opened a fan and used it to cool herself, concealing her smirk of annoyance. “If you have this vessel, this kobune of the gods, so to speak, then why do you not use it? Why travel here using conventional means when you could, apparently, have simply sailed through the sky to reach me?”
“I fear I have not explained myself properly,” Rikako said. “The Heavenly Kobune of Suitengu can sail the seas in the manner your people are familiar with, of course, but it also possesses the capability to cross into the spirit realms. The seas are all connected, and it is possible for one to sail from the seas of Rokugan into the seas of Yomi, or even Tengoku, providing one has the power of a Fortune.” She smiled. “Or, perhaps, the vessel of one.”
“This is ridiculous,” Amika said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”
“Of course not,” Rikako said. “You and those of your clan can summon tempests and hurricanes in the blink of an eye, and dismiss them just as quickly. You have bound the powerful spirits of orochi to your will, and use them as weapons of war, riding them through the surf like demons in a child’s nightmares. But the notion of a kobune that can sail among the heavens is ridiculous… because you have never seen it.”
Amika frowned. “There are wonders in this world, and in others, that cannot be imagined. Still, you must admit…”
“I know exactly how it sounds,” Rikako admitted. “To be honest, my lady, had I not discovered the secrets myself, I wonder if I would not be even more resistant to hearing them than you have been. But I have seem what it can do, and I know what I must do in return. I have come to ask for your aid, out of respect for the growing alliance between our clans.”
“I am no scholar of the spirit realms,” Amika said. “I know little of such things. Perhaps you would be better suited speaking to the Kitsu.”
“That seems unlikely,” Rikako said flatly.
“Yes, of course,” the Moshi daimyo replied. “Still… why seek me out? Why seek out the Mantis at all for something like this?”
“I can guide the vessel with instinct,” she explained, “but I know precious little of sailing, or of the seas. I cannot say what similarities there will be. Perhaps it will be completely different, or perhaps it will be exactly the same. I do not know. All I know is that I would feel much better with a Mantis at my side.”
“You require the services of a Yoritomo, then,” Amika said.
“No,” Rikako corrected. “I require the aid of an ally who understands the realms, and the paths of the kami. I require a shugenja.”
“There are shugenja among the Yoritomo.”
“None so powerful as you,” Rikako said. “I will go elsewhere for aid if that is your will, my lady, but it is your aid the Unicorn require, above all others. However, if you decline, I will understand. This is not a matter for the uncertain.”
Amika closed her fan with a snap. “I do not struggle with uncertainty,” she insisted. “Nor do I wish to overlook the friendship between our clans. Our lord Naizen has offered his support to your Khan, and I will do no less. I will accompany you, but I think perhaps we shall need a guide. Someone more gifted with such matters than any living soul.”
Rikako looked surprised. “You have someone in mind, Lady Moshi?”
The Gates of Tengoku
Even the outer reaches of the Celestial Heavens, the great gates through which no mortal was ever permitted, were so beautiful that Amika could not stop the tears that streamed down her face. She looked at the gates longingly, but forced herself to look away. She was not worthy to gaze upon them. And still, she found her gaze returning again and again. She could not help herself.
Otaku Kamoko did not appear quite so impressed, but even her stony countenance was not unmoved by the vista before them. “Lady Shinjo is dead,” she said quietly.
“She was slain in glorious battle with her brother, the dark god Fu Leng,” Rikako reiterated. “That is why we have come here. That is why we have sought you out. It is a dark time for the followers of Lady Shinjo. We need her guidance and protection, and she cannot offer them from her place in the Realm of Waiting.”
Kamoko gazed off to the side for a moment, as if peering at something in the far distance. “Meido?” she asked. “Hardly. But your point is well made all the same. The people of the wind have changed much, even since I last walked the earth, but our Lady would love you no less for it. She has suffered enough. I will not permit you to suffer, for it would only compound her pain.”
Rikako knelt on the deck. “You honor us all, great Kamoko-sama.” She rose. “What will you do, if I may be so bold as to ask?”
“I was blessed by Lady Shinjo in life,” Kamoko said. “It is how I was given my place among the stars. For all my mortal failings, she redeemed me. I will go to the court of Tengoku and take my place as her yojimbo, and in her absence I will defend those who owe her loyalty. When she returns, she will judge us all, but she will not find that her clan has been destroyed because there was no one among the court to speak for them.”
“Thank you, great Kamoko,” Rikako said, bowing again.
Kamoko turned to the figures on the deck. “You are bold women,” she said. “Venturing into the unknown is difficult, even for samurai, and yet you have undertaken this burden for your people, or your allies.” She held out her hand, in which was a tiny glowing light, like the stars that had twinkled in the distance during their voyage through the void. “Take this, and call upon me should you require it. I shall come to you, in one form or another, and offer what aid I can.”
Rikako paled visibly. “My lady, I am not worthy of such an honor.”
“That is for me to judge.”
The shugenja shook her head. “I have asked too much already. I dare not further impose upon your generosity.”
Kamoko’s face twitched in what might have been a smile. “You dare not decline my gift, you mean,” she said.
“Thank you,” Rikako whispered, accepting the light from Kamoko’s hand.
“And what of you, Son of Storms?” Kamoko asked, turning to the former Mantis Champion. “What shall become of the great Yoritomo now?”
“I will return to Yomi, and the tedium from which these mortals briefly rescued me,” he answered, his voice heavy with resignation. “There is little else for me.”
“Not so,” Kamoko said. “You have proven your worth, in life and beyond. Stand at my side in the court of Tengoku. Give the Mantis a voice among the Heavens as well. They have earned that much, at least.”
There was a spark in Yoritomo’s eyes. “I will gladly accept your offer,” he said.
“It will be dangerous,” Kamoko warned. “The games played by gods have consequences you can hardly imagine.”
“I relish danger over the boredom of an idyllic paradise,” Yoritomo countered. “I will be indebted to you forever if you spare me that fate.”
“So be it.” Kamoko stepped from the kobune onto the shore before them, and Yoritomo followed. “Farewell, women of Ningen-do,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “Return home, and do not travel to Tengoku again. Once is courageous, but more than that is disrespectful.”
“Thanks to you, we have accomplished all we set out to do,” Rikako assured her. “We would not be so presumptuous as to return to Tengoku.” She smiled wryly. “I make no promises of the other realms, however.”
Horiuchi Rikako and Moshi Amika set off from the shores of Tengoku as their heavenly patrons strode toward the great gates, and the former demon that guarded them. It would be a long trip home, but not long enough, for the heavens were a miraculous place, and they knew instinctively that their souls would ache to see them again for as long as they lived.
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