By the Legend of the Five Rings Story Team
The wind howled furiously, stealing all sound of battle away from their ears. The skies exploded in blood red fire, rolling out in thick clouds from the epicenter. Sezaru flew in the midst of the chaos, his voice echoing in the heavens. It seemed as though the sky were bleeding from the crazed shugenja’s entrance. He raised his hands and raw elemental power gathered in his palms. Flames erupted from his fingers and leapt onto the unprotected city. The flame engulfed a row of buildings like a ravenous beast, incinerating samurai and peasants alike with reckless power. Men screamed, flames roared. To the citizens of the Imperial City, the world was ending.
None of it mattered to the Khan, Moto Chagatai, as he lay on his back on the ground. His breath came in rapid and labored gasps, echoing in his ears louder than the shriek of the wind. His blade Enginoshi lay on the ground, shaking from the countless explosions in the city. He looked down at his leg, cut open by Kaneka’s strike. The blood pooled around the wound, and he could not see how badly he was cut. There was only pain. He twitched his leg from side to side and struggled to regain his composure. All of his carefully laid plans were coming to a pitiful end.
The Shogun stood in front of him, his eyes fixed on the sky where his crazed brother flew. His blade, once raised to deal the final strike, was lowered to the ground as Kaneka struggled to rein in his disbelief. Chagatai’s eyes focused on his opponent. His stance was momentarily relaxed as he watched the devastation ripping through the city.
Four footsteps. Chagatai grimaced. Four footsteps and his enemy would be dead beneath his blade. He knew that the moment he reached for his blade, Kaneka would come back to his senses and strike him down. He only had one chance.
“What can stop him?” Kaneka wondered.
Chagatai stretched out his arm and grabbed the hilt of his blade. With one swift move he rose to one knee. Pain flared in his mind but he grabbed it and pushed it aside. Kaneka reacted as predicted, raising his katana in defense and stepping back. Chagatai lunged forward. He roared in anger and struck, his blade slashing in a horizontal arc toward Kaneka’s stomach. The curved edge of Enginoshi powered through Kaneka’s defensive stance and sliced through his breastplate.
Chagatai’s roar turned to a scream of pain as his leg gave out from the stress. He collapsed at Kaneka’s feet. His blade fell to the ground once more, and a section of Kaneka’s armor landed next to it. Kaneka stepped forward toward him, and Chagatai waited for the strike with pain-glazed eyes.
A pair of arrows flew over Chagatai and imbedded themselves in Kaneka’s sode, the armored plates covering his shoulders, a trickle of blood leaking from the points of impact. The Shogun stepped backward from the force of the attack. Chagatai could feel hands grabbing him beneath his arms and pulling him to his feet. They were two of his White Guard, the most prestigious of his military units. They nodded to him quickly and readied blades in their free hands. The guardsmen’s eyes, fixed on Kaneka, showed their acceptance of death. Kaneka was one of the most feared swordsmen in the empire, and even though he was wounded, they held no chance against him. Yet they would stand their ground to save their lord. Chagatai heard his archers die behind him, their gasps choked by their own blood.
The ground shook as a building close by went up in flames. Chagatai’s guards staggered, but did not release their hold on their champion. Kaneka took a ready stance once more. His eyes darted from one guard to the next. He approached slowly, and the two White Guardsmen raised their blades higher.
Kaneka moved forward and Chagatai’s guards reacted with rapidity. One of the guards let loose his hold on Chagatai and moved forward to block the Shogun’s approach. The other positioned himself between Chagatai and Kaneka, holding on to the crippled Khan with all his might.
The Moto White Guard charged first, his scimitar held menacingly in front of him. Without breaking his stride, Kaneka struck twice in quick succession. The Moto fell with a severed wrist and a slit throat. He stepped past the corpse and continued stalking towards the injured Khan.
The remaining guardsman at Chagatai’s side let loose her grip on her lord and drew a second scimitar from her back. Kaneka charged and struck high, bypassing the Moto’s stance. Kaneka slashed through the guard’s throat and placed the blade in front of him once more in readied stance. His eyes turned to Chagatai. The White Guard gargled and dropped her blades. With frenzied eyes she leapt and impaled herself onto Kaneka’s blade. She grabbed the guard of the Shogun’s katana with both hands and held it directly against her stomach.
Chagatai grabbed the guard’s scimitar as it fell from his hands. Ignoring the pain, he moved forward once more. Kaneka let his katana fall and reached for his wakizashi.
The ground shook once more and a column of flame leapt out from the nearby building. Chagatai and Kaneka stumbled, and Kaneka lost his hold on the wakizashi. Putting pressure on his good leg, Chagatai leapt and slammed into the Shogun. The force of the assault threw the pair to the ground.
Chagatai stared into the eyes of the man he had once called brother. Kaneka stared back at the Khan, gasping. He looked down at the scimitar lodged in his chest then up again. Blood bubbled out of his mouth.
“Kaneka,” Chagatai said.
Kaneka’s eyes looked past the Khan and toward the lit sky. “Brother…” he said.
Chagatai stared at the dead Shogun and, if only for a moment, mourned the future that could have been.
Isawa Sezaru hung above the Imperial City, suspended in the air like a mote caught in the eye of a hurricane. Pillars of flame coursed all around him, twining like serpents that struck at the city below again and again, killing and destroying with every touch. The screaming and the laughter had stopped, and now there was only cold, ruthless brutality. His eyes blazed behind the white mask that covered his features.
He felt a fleeting prick of something through the Void. He extended his awareness, and was mildly surprised to find someone from the city below rising to meet him. He reached out through Fire to destroy them, but then some faint familiarity occurred to him. Did he know this person? He hesitated, a spark of curiosity burning brightly amid his anger.
“Sezaru!” a voice called out as the figure continued to rise through the smoke and flame, buoyed by powerful currents of air. Embers seared holes through the person’s robes as they rose. “Sezaru, please… stop this?”
The Wolf stared emptily at the woman drifting before him, buffeted as she was by the searing thermals that threatened to disrupt the simple spell she used to rise up to him. “Do I know you, woman?”
“It is I, Sezaru,” she implored. “Angai. Please, try to remember.”
“Angai,” he answered flatly. He considered for a moment. “The wife,” he finally added.
“Yes, your wife,” she insisted. “Can you remember, Sezaru?”
“It does not matter,” he said, his voice hollow. “The man you married is gone. He was too weak, too empty. For all that he accomplished, the world rejected him, and he turned to me for strength.”
Angai shook her head. “Who are you?”
“I am the Wolf,” he answered. “I have been with him always. I am his power, his strength, his conviction. He had sent me away, but I returned at the behest of his brother, to visit punishment upon his enemies. I am ascendant. I am the vengeful wrath of heaven, come to punish these fools for desecrating the Emperor’s city. I shall transform it into a tomb befitting a man of Naseru’s station, and then I shall go forth and bring punishment to everyone that failed him.”
The priestess covered her mouth with her hand. “You are mad.”
“If you find that label of comfort,” Sezaru said with a dismissive wave. “I care not at all.”
Angai drifted closer. “Let me speak with him,” she said softly, her voice barely audible over the roaring winds and crackling flames. “Let me speak with my husband.”
Sezaru drew back slightly. “Do not touch me, woman!” he warned.
Angai paid no attention, and lifted one hand to the mask that covered his face. She lifted it away. For a moment, she paled at the anger and power evident on the twisted features of the man she loved, but then his eyes softened and that face was gone. “Angai?” he asked, clearly confused. “Angai, what…”
“Shh,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It will be alright, my love.”
“I cannot stop him,” Sezaru said, his voice shaky. “He has grown too powerful.”
“Let me help you,” she said. “I can stop him. One last kiss…”
The two lovers leaned in, and their lips brushed lightly against one another. Sezaru’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, and he looked down. Angai held a brilliant, flaming dagger, and had buried it in his abdomen. He looked up at her without recrimination. “Forgive me,” she sobbed.
“There is nothing to forgive,” he said, and then his features twisted again. The Wolf returned. “Harlot!” he screamed, a ribbon of blood streaming from his lips. “What have you done?”
“Goodbye,” she whispered.
The Dagger of the Last Wish exploded, and the sky above the Imperial City burned as brightly as the midday sun.
The shockwave from the last remnant of Isawa’s Wish erupting into flame flattened everything directly beneath the space where Isawa Sezaru and Isawa Angai had floated only seconds before, leaving a massive crater that dominated the northeastern quarter of the city. Other buildings shook and wavered from the sheer force of it, but remained intact. Samurai fled from the conflagration, some finding shelter before they were incinerated, others failing to do so. For several minutes after the explosion, calm settled over the city like a shroud. Then, the warriors emerged. With the immediate threat passed, they had but one clear path before them: to fulfill the orders of their lords.
Within seconds, the ringing of steel on steel began to carry on the breeze, and the battle was resumed in earnest, with only the thick pall of smoke over the city and the massive hole in the merchant’s quarter to indicate that Sezaru had even interrupted their conflict in the first place.
“Unbelievable.” Bayushi Kaukatsu sipped his tea calmly, inwardly amused by the terrified countenances of so many other courtiers around him. “I do not imagine I shall ever see such a spectacular display of power again, although who can say for certain?”
“Chancellor,” Bayushi Kwanchai said quietly at his elbow. “Please, allow me to escort you somewhere more secure. This balcony is not safe.”
“Enough.” Kaukatsu held up a hand. “I am the Imperial Chancellor. I will not cower like some mewling pup afraid of the storm. The Khan is my ally. His men will not harm me, nor those with me.” He favored the assembled ambassadors with a smile. “I assure you, my simple yojimbo, we are quite safe here.”
Kwanchai clenched his teeth and seemed to consider a response, but in the end he only bowed his head respectfully and retreated from the balcony’s edge.
“This is all very unfortunate,” Kaukatus said, his tone somber. “I have little choice but to believe that, had the Shogun’s forces not been scattered to the winds, perhaps they could have helped address this situation. A pity the Empress sent them away so readily.” He shook his head. “Perhaps she has been away from the battlefield too long to truly call herself a student of tactics. As I said, unfortunate.”
There were gasps behind him, and Kaukatsu only glanced over his shoulder. “Do not be concerned, my friends. We are safe here. There is nothing to be concerned about. The threat from above seems to have been dealt with, and as for the armies below us, I scarcely believe they could scale so high as this.”
Kaukatsu turned quickly, his irritation dissipating. He was annoyed at the mindless panic some of the younger attendants displayed, but the shout for his attention had a ragged tone to it, something that suggested an immediate threat.
Near the doorway back into the palace, the air shimmered and seemed to stretch. Indistinct forms hovered, then grew somehow closer. Their feet trailed away into vapor, and their mouths yawned with deadly, insect-like hunger.
Kaukatsu did not move. “The palace is warded against evil spirits,” he cautioned them, his voice level and calm. “Leave this place at once.”
The spirits did not seem to respond for a moment. The palace is well protected, yes. The balcony, one whispered, is far less secure, old man.
The balcony. The irony was not lost upon Kaukatsu. These were gaki, spirits of the hungry dead that longed for blood and flesh to feed their endless famine. “Leave this place, foul spirits,” he repeated. “I will not warn you again.”
You amuse us, one whispered.
There was a shout from one of the others, and a Crab ambassador unleashed a torrent of green energy from his hand. The jade energy struck one of the gaki dead center, and it shrieked as it was torn to pieces. The Kuni shugenja raised his other hand, and green crackled from his palm, but a trio of the spirits fell upon him before he could complete the prayer to the kami. His chest and face were torn apart within seconds, and as his dying act, the Crab tore a ribbon from his obi and threw it into the air.
Bayushi Kwanchai leapt into the air and grabbed the ribbon, affixing it to his katana before he landed. He assaulted the largest gathering of the spirits at once, tearing one apart with his blade as the ribbon’s blessing flowed through it. “Run!” he screamed at the top his lungs. Another gaki attacked him from behind, tearing a bloody ribbon from his back. Kwanchai hissed and turned to face it, even as others gathered around him. “Chancellor, run!”
Kaukatsu looked at the doorway leading back into the palace, a doorway barred from him by the presence of the other spirits, spirits that were now in the process of tearing his loyal yojimbo to shreds even as others advanced upon the assembled courtiers. Their screams began in earnest as one moved toward him, its inhuman mandibles opening and closing in anticipation of a feast.
“How… unexpected,” was all Kaukatsu could think to say.
Doji Domotai leaned against a stone lantern and wiped the sweat from her forehead with a grimy sleeve. The winds created by Sezaru’s spectacular arrival and death had taken on a life of their own, fed by the fires that were consuming the city. In the garden of her estate those winds brought her the smell of blood and the taste of ashes. Somewhere in the distance she heard a loud booming noise, and closing her eyes she wondered wearily who had died this time. At the sound of footsteps on the path she opened her eyes again and saw Daidoji Kimpira, the commander of her personal bodyguard, approaching with a flask of water in hand. “Report,” she said.
Kimpira bowed and handed her the water. “Domotai-sama, our scouts report another group of fifty Unicorn samurai approaching, detached from a much larger force heading towards the palace.”
Domotai stared at the flask for a moment before unstopping it and drinking. “Good,” she said finally. She hadn’t had enough bushi in the city to offer a direct challenge to Chagatai’s forces, so instead she had concentrated her efforts on defending her estate. So long as they held, the Lion forces had a secure flank to operate from and the Unicorn had an enemy that they had to engage, or risk being attacked in the rear. It frustrated her not to be in the front lines of the battle, but tactical need took precedence over personal desire. “Has there been any news from the other estates?” When the Unicorn had begun pouring into the city she had sent word to the other large Crane estates, ordering them to adopt a similar strategy.
“No,” Kimpira said, “though that means little. They could be as well off as we, but see no need to lose a defender to run a message.”
Domotai finished drinking her water and dropped the bottle. “Let’s go,” she said.
The walls of the estate were tall and wide, a legacy of the years Toshi Ranbo had spent being swapped between the Lion and the Crane. It had taken very little time for the estate’s guards and servants to drag out and reassemble the wooden platforms that allowed the defenders to stand and look out over those walls. Domotai and Kimpira climbed onto the one that overlooked the front gate just as the Unicorn came into the square in front of it.
A Unicorn samurai bearing the mon of the Utaku walked a few feet forward. “I am Utaku Yanmei, officer of the Khol! Noble samurai of the Crane, know that the Khan does not regard you as an enemy, and would welcome your service to the Empire under his rule. Give us your word that you will not bear arms against us and we shall not harm you.”
Domotai felt her lips curl back in a snarl. “I am Doji Domotai, Champion of the Crane!” she yelled back. “Withdraw from this city or die on Crane steel!” A ripple of reaction went through the Unicorn force at the sound of her name, and she saw Yanmei’s head tilt slightly as she considered the wall and the number of samurai defending it. Domotai knew exactly what the other woman saw: three samurai on a central platform, three samurai each on platforms flanking it some distance away. The Utaku gestured, and the force behind her stirred and seven pairs of men made their way to the front, each pair bearing a ladder. Yanmei gave a great war cry and the whole mass surged towards the wall.
Arrows flew through the air as the archers concealed in the buildings lining the square began to fire. The samurai on the estate’s wall also caught up their bows and began to shoot into the charging Unicorns. Many fell, but the charge didn’t falter. The ladders were placed against the wall in the spaces between the groups of Crane defenders and the Junghar soldiers began to swarm up them. Then the Daidoji samurai who had been kneeling on the platforms in the apparent gaps, hidden from view, stood up with yari in hand and methodically began to clear those ladders of opponents. The archers continued their fire, and in a few minutes the attackers had been eliminated.
“That was too easy,” Domotai said as she put down her bow. It made her feel suspicious.
Kimpira nodded. “Chagatai’s forces have been moving, fighting, and moving for hours now,” he said, “while we have been able to rest between battles. Exhaustion is a powerful ally.” He gave a signal, the gate opened, and the estate’s servants moved into the square. They quickly grabbed the bodies of the Unicorn and dragged them into nearby buildings, out of sight. An Asahina shugenja stood just outside the gate, waiting to purify them all from the touch of dead flesh before they reentered the estate.
A shout went up from one of the watchers on the wall as a samurai in the colors of the Crane staggered into the square. He headed towards the gate, calling out, “Doji! I bear a message for Lady Doji!” Kimpira pointed to two of his men and they headed towards the runner to make sure this was not a trick. After a minute they brought him to Domotai.
The samurai was a young Daidoji bushi. His clothing was burned in several places and an acrid, bitter smell clung to him. He had no marks of wounds on him, but he obviously favored his left side as he knelt. “Lady Doji,” he rasped, “I was stationed at the estate maintained for the use of the Daidoji family. It is gone.”
“Gone,” Domotai said. “You mean, overrun?”
“No, Lady,” the man replied. “Destroyed, totally gone. One of the districts near us was destroyed by Sezaru, and flaming rubble from it fell on the main mansion. We had no one to spare to put it out, as we had word of an approaching Unicorn force. The house burned quietly for a while, and then suddenly it exploded like a giant firework.”
Domotai closed her eyes. Kikaze, she thought despairingly, have you failed me already?
“How many of you survived?” Kimpira asked.
“There were twelve of us still able to move and fight,” the man said. “We carried the wounded to nearby houses so they could be out of the sun. Then I was sent here and the others went to reinforce the Jade Champion’s estate.”
“That was well done,” Domotai said quietly. “Get some water and rest up for the next battle. I–” She was interrupted by a cry of alarm and the sound of the men around her going for their weapons. Domotai turned around to see what was going on. Below her, in the center of the square, stood a tall, powerfully built man in Dragon colors. He wore no armor, but a daisho sat ready in his obi. Domotai stared, feeling the beginnings of rage stir in her mind. “Open the gates,” she said, starting to climb down the platform.
“What? Kimpira said. “My lady, you can’t–”
“Open the gates!” Domotai insisted. They opened before her and she strode out to meet the Dragon. She didn’t know how he had gotten here, or what part he played in the Khan’s calculations, but there was one thing she was sure of–she would have had a lot more men to defend Toshi Ranbo if she didn’t have them facing off with the Dragon. If she hadn’t declared war on the Dragon. If the Dragon had not attacked Kosaten Shiro. “Togashi Satsu,” she said loudly. “There is war between our houses, and today I will see it ended!”
Satsu nodded gravely. “It is for that I have come here, Doji-san.”
“Excellent,” Domotai said. She fell into her stance, hand hovering over the hilt of her katana as if ready to give a gift.
“Lady of the Crane,” Satsu said, “I have come to speak peace with you. Will you not speak with me?”
Domotai started to speak and then stopped herself. During his life her father had made peace with the Lion; to refuse to even listen to the Dragon would dishonor his memory. “Very well,” she said finally, and gestured towards the gate. “Togashi-san, would you be my guest?”
“I would be honored,” Satsu said, and walked with her into the estate.
Kimpira met her at the gate, looking desperately unhappy. “Kimpira-san,” Domotai said, “I will be speaking with the Dragon Champion and do not wish to be disturbed. You will take command of the defense. Also, have some tea sent to the white garden.” She passed on before he could dishonor himself by arguing with her. He was right to worry about a guest who rumor said could turn himself into a dragon, but the prospect of peace was worth the risk.”
They sat in silence until the tea was delivered. Satsu spent the time examining the garden, while Domotai sifted through her own thoughts. As she poured and handed him a cup of tea Satsu spoke. “You have a lovely garden, Doji-san,” he said with simple honesty.
“Thank you,” Domotai said, pleased in spite of herself. So few people actually saw her gardens: they looked, made polite comments and moved on. She poured herself a cup. “I do not wish to be rude, Togashi-san, but our time here is limited.”
Satsu nodded. “Doji-san, my clan is blamed for the destruction of Kosaten Shiro but you know that it is more complicated than that.”
“The gaijin pepper stored there,” Domotai said bitterly. “I sacrificed my honor by hiding an Imperial crime to protect my clan from the corruption within it. I will fight to cleanse the Crane of its shame, but I fear that those who embraced it will resist. I had given clear orders that all our gaijin pepper stores were to be destroyed, but I lost a mansion to it today.”
“I would not rush to judge Daidoji Kikaze,” Satsu said. “If very few people know of it, then there are very few available who can collect and destroy it.”
Domotai blinked. “What do you know of Kikaze’s involvement in this?”
The Dragon champion gave her a serene smile. “Enough to alarm you, and reassure me. You say that you have sacrificed your honor, but I see your zeal for it still burning. I do not think you will fail your clan.”
Zeal for honor was no substitute for honor itself, Domotai thought. But if a Deathseeker could regain his honor, perhaps there was still hope for her. “Thank you, Togashi-san,” she said quietly. “And…I am sorry for the trouble this has caused. Today might never have happened, had my clan’s shame not interfered.”
“Regret is a sin,” Satsu said. He finished his tea. “Your commanders have already begun to pull back, sending their fastest units here to reinforce Toshi Ranbo. I will recall all Dragon forces from the areas we are in conflict with the Crane. Our war is over.”
“Wars do not end that simply,” Domotai said, thinking of Nagori’s earlier words.
“Why not? Satsu said, smiling radiantly. “If I say it and you say it, who can disagree?”
The Empress, Domotai almost said, but she didn’t think it would be that hard to convince Kurako to agree. “Then it is over,” she said, putting down her cup with a decisive click. She bowed to Satsu and then rose to her feet. “I apologize for leaving in such haste, but I still have Unicorns to kill.”
“Less, I think, than you suppose,” Satsu said. “But one more word of warning, Doji-san. I think that there is another evil at work in your clan, one more insidious than the one we have discussed.”
Domotai firmly suppressed her irritation. Satsu was a Dragon, it was unreasonable to expect him to go an entire conversation without being cryptic. “Togashi-san, the last time the Dragon withheld information from the Crane it started a war. Perhaps you might wish to be more plain-spoken this time?”
“I have told you all I know,” Satsu said. “This threat was what prompted me to send magistrates to investigate, but its nature is still unclear to me. Its persistence and mystery are disturbing.”
Domotai thought the matter over and bowed again. “I thank you for the warning, Togashi-san. I will be careful. You are welcome to enjoy the gardens as long as you like.”
Throughout the city, chaos reigned. Lion killed Unicorn, and Unicorn killed Lion. The Mantis played the part of the wild card, and thwarted the Lion’s attempts to stop the Unicorn progress at every turn without becoming directly involved. Death lurked around every corner. Samurai died with both nobility and honor, and some with cowardice and rage. Blood ran in the streets. For those trapped within the buildings, listening to it unfold in the streets beyond, it seemed as though the world had come to an end.
The Deathseeker Akodo Osamu raged against the Unicorn forces as his men died around him. He suffered wound after wound, but refused to submit. He killed again and again, relenting not at all. It was not until a Unicorn blade nearly separated his head from his shoulders that he at last fell to the streets, surrounded by the bodies of his enemies. That which he sought was his at last, and for that he died grateful.
Shinjo Saihan, the favored scout of Moto Chagatai, led his men through the streets in search of their prey. He was sickened by the loss of life, but had accepted that it was a necessary aspect of his lord’s plan. He paused only to shout to peasants to find shelter, avoiding the random Akodo patrols rather than engaging them. His task was to reach the palace and gain entrance. If the Empress could be captured, the Lion would have no choice but to relent in their assault. Their presence in the city had been unexpected, and was threatening everything that Chagatai had worked to achieve. When the Akodo spilled into Saihan’s path, he killed them as quickly as possible and moved on, taking no pleasure in the death of his enemies.
Yoritomo Naizen wasted precious seconds gazing at the unconscious form of his defeated foe, the Akodo daimyo Shigetoshi. He knew it was practical to kill the man; to do otherwise would only ensure that the Lion would bear a blood feud against him forever. And yet to do so would direct perhaps the entire Akodo line’s wrath against him for eternity, and that would be so troublesome that he suspected he would not have time for it. Finally, Naizen grunted and kicked Shigetoshi’s blade away. His wounds were not so severe that he would not recover, and his humiliation upon awakening would be magnificent indeed.
Naizen almost wished he could be present to witness it, but he had far more pressing matters that required his attention.
Bayushi Norachai and his men arrived outside the Imperial Palace after fighting through the streets for nearly an hour. They were exhausted, but not one offered complaint. The sheer determination and anger in their leader’s eyes would have likely deterred them from doing so even if they had been inclined.
Bodies littered the entrance to the palace. Norachai knelt and examined them. Many were Seppun, but there were a number of Unicorn as well. Each of the Unicorn bore a distinctive mon, one depicting a white kabuki mask. It was the old mon worn by the Moto in the days before the family had assumed control of the clan. “White Guard,” Norachai said. “Be ready, men.”
The sound of a group of men running rose above the distant clamor of battle, and Norachai turned with his blade in hand. A large group of Crane warriors, all bearing the Daidoji mon, arrived in the courtyard. One stepped forward. “Identify yourselves,” he demanded.
“I am Bayushi Norachai, Protector of the Imperial City.” The title tasted like ashes in his mouth as he spoke the words. His failure had been disastrous. “Who are you?”
The Crane officer bowed sharply. “I am Daidoji Gempachi, tasked by Lady Domotai to secure the entrance to the Imperial Palace. My men and I are of course at your disposal, lord Protector.”
Norachai nodded. “The White Guard have been here. I see four dead. That means at least twenty are within the palace already, perhaps more depending upon the size of the unit. How many are you?”
“Thirty seven,” Gempachi reported grimly.
“You and your five best men accompany me,” Norachai commanded. “There is an Akodo division en route to secure this entrance. They will arrive within ten minutes. Can your men hold the line, Gempachi?”
“They can, and they will,” he said without hesitation.
“Then come,” Norachai ordered. “The Empress may be in danger.”
Gempachi quickly called out five names, then spoke briefly to one of his subordinates. The six Crane followed Norachai and his men up the stairs, and the Daidoji took up a defensive formation behind them. As they entered, Gempachi barred the door. “What are your orders, Protector?”
“The throne room,” he replied. “We find the Empress, then her court.”
The corridors seemed to extend forever. Some clearly showed signs of battle, and there were bodies littering the occasional chamber. Norachai led the men on an unerring path through the palace to the throne room, but halted in the doorway to the antechamber that preceded it. For a long moment, no one said anything. “When I was a boy,” Gempachi said softly, “I wandered away from my parents and mistakenly entered a slaughterhouse in the eta quarter. I had forgotten it until this moment.”
Blood covered nearly everything in the antechamber. Bodies and parts of bodies were everywhere in the room. A single samurai stood before the doorway to the throne room, his blade held before him in a defensive stance. He was so covered with ichor that at first glance the color of his armor could not be determined, but after a moment’s inspection it was clear that he was Crane, as were many of the bodies around him. Even more numerous, however, were the Unicorn.
Gempachi stepped forward. “Do you require assistance?” he said loudly.
The words seemed to snap the warrior out of his stance. He lifted his blade and shouted a fierce kiai, then charged across the room. “Kakita Matabei!” Norachai’s shout brought the Crane to a sudden stop.
“Hai, Protector?” the Crane asked, his voice cold and distant. His eyes gave no indication that he knew where he was.
“Is the Empress within?” Norachai demanded.
Matabei nodded. “She commanded that no Unicorn enter, and I have allowed none.”
“Well done, Matabei-san. Stand down.”
At the command, Matabei glanced around the room and seemed to finally realize the extent of the carnage around him. “My men,” he said softly. He crossed the room, looking from one to the other, but finding none alive. He knelt for a moment at one body, one that appeared to be resting against a wall as if he had perished during a lull in the fighting. Matabei took a scrap of paper from the man’s hand, read it, and covered his face with his hand. He gave it wordlessly to Gempachi.
The gunso read the paper. “I go to her now / Perfect blossom, brilliant blade / The one true Empress.” He looked up. “Who is he?”
“Doji Tanitsu,” Matabei said. “The Imperial Advisor.”
Norachai opened the doors to the throne room and disappeared within. None of his men followed, and Gempachi looked at them for a moment before finally rising and moving as if to enter. Just as he reached the doorway, Norachai reappeared and barred his path. “There is nothing in there for us,” he said quietly.
Gempachi paled at his words. “The Empress?”
“The Empress was unwilling to risk being taken as a political prisoner, it seems,” Norachai said. “She has ensured that the Khan will not take her captive.”
Gempachi shook his head and began to say something, then stopped suddenly and held his head slightly askew. “Do you hear that?” he whispered.
Norachai frowned. “I hear nothing.”
Gempachi gestured for him to be silent, and then slowly began walking the edges of the room, listening intently. Finally, he nodded and took off down one corridor at a trot. The others followed, and as they did, they began to hear the noise as well. It was a loud, crashing sound that repeated itself over and over again. Gempachi followed it like a hunter, twisting and turning until finally he reached a large pair of doors. “What is in the chamber beyond?”
“A balcony, I believe,” Norachai said. He turned to his men. “Get this door open!”
The assembled samurai turned their combined strength against the doors, and slowly they began to open. Finally, they seemed to get past whatever obstruction held them closed, and flew open suddenly. Gempachi swore violently and drew his blade, holding it before him defensively.
A lone warrior stood on the other side of the doors. His armor hung off of him in ribbons, and he seemed to bleed from a dozen wounds. He cradled a form in his arms, and tears coursed down his face from beneath his mask, clearing a path on his blood-splattered cheeks.
“Kwanchai?” Norachai said incredulously. “Is that you?” The warrior stepped inside, saying nothing. Norachai stepped closer to look at the bloodied figure Kwanchai carried. “Is… is that Kaukatsu?”
“Do not touch him!” Kwanchai roared. “Leave him be!” He calmed down, gathering his composure as best he could. “He deserved better than this.”
“I hear fighting at the gates,” Gempachi said. He stepped out onto the balcony and ran to the edge. He could see the Unicorn that vastly outnumbered his men, crashing again and again into the Daidoji formation. It had been nearly the full time they had been told to hold the line, and there were few of them left standing. They held, however, even as each Unicorn charge whittled their numbers down. They were the Iron Crane, and they did not falter. Gempachi shouted to them, but he knew they could not hear. He saw as the three remaining men assumed a formation with their backs to one another, fighting against all odds as the Unicorn overwhelmed them.
And he saw the Akodo legions charging across the courtyard to assault the Unicorn’s rear flank. Gempachi shouted the battlecry of the Daidoji again and again, but his men had disappeared beneath the Unicorn assault. They were gone.
The gunso pounded his hand against the railing in frustration. “I should have been with them!” he cursed. He averted his eyes from the spectacle of death beneath them.
There was nothing more he could do.
Akodo Natsu grimaced and executed another flurry of attacks, to no avail. His men had dealt with the other Unicorn advances already, but they held back while he attempted to deal with their gunso. He had heard one of the others call her Fujiko, and while her name was not of particular concern, he had little choice but to appreciate her prodigious talent with the blade.
Fujiko shouted a kiai and attacked again, and again Natsu barely turned her strikes away. He counterattacked, but she evaded him so easily that he felt his mother’s Matsu ancestry raging within him. Natsu could not afford to give in to anger, however, or he would be killed instantly. “Surrender,” he ordered. “Your men are dead.”
“There will be more in only a moment,” she answered. “You surrender and I will see to it that your men are not harmed.”
“You dare?” Natsu shouted, but he could not complete his indignant reply. A sudden gust of wind bellowed up, so strong that both he and Fujiko were literally lifted from the ground and cast down the street several yards. It was all Natsu could do to retain his blade. Even as he hissed in pain at the sharp collision with the street, he could hear his men shouting in alarm. He rose and looked about for the Unicorn reinforcements he was certain had launched the attack, but he was not prepared for the spectacle that he faced.
To the northeast, rushing toward the city with such speed that he could not believe it even as he looked upon it, there was a vast army of Phoenix. The army was encircled by the wind, much like the whirlwind storm that Natsu had witnessed as a child. Great plumes of earth rose and fell, hastening the army as if they strode upon the sandals of a Fortune. He could see coursing waves like a tsunami, carrying the Phoenix adrift among them and leaving behind no sign of moisture. Natsu had seen battle during the war with the Dragon, and years before in the limited conflict with the Phoenix, but he had never witnessed any display of elemental fury on the battlefield that could rival this.
Two Phoenix stood at the city’s edge, apparently moving well in advance of their clan’s army. One wore a strange mixture of Dragon and Phoenix symbols, and the other had long, flowing black hair that billowed in the suddenly strong breeze. “Stand down,” the older of the two commanded. “Put aside your weapons. This conflict is at an end.”
“You hold no authority over the Akodo legions!” Natsu shouted. “By what right do you command us so?”
“I command you in the name of all men and women who claim to serve their Empire with honor,” the older man continued. “You presume to spill blood in the Emperor’s streets with such reckless abandon, and yet ask us for justification?”
“We defend the city from the Khan’s men!” Natsu shouted.
“You wage war for war’s sake,” the Phoenix returned. “Nothing more.”
The Phoenix lifted one hand, and tiny arcs of lighting danced among the Akodo, striking their blades. Against their will, the men shouted in pain and dropped them. “Do not force me to destroy your weapons,” the Phoenix said. “I have no wish to dishonor your families in such a way, but I will if you insist on continuing this shameful and pointless battle.”
“You have thrown in your lot with the Khan!” Natsu sneered. “You have arrived to ensure that he takes this city!”
“No,” the younger man replied. “We have arrived to ensure that this city remains intact, and that the people who dwell within it are free from the constant threat of violence. We owe no allegiance to the Khan, and neither will we permit this disgraceful bloodshed to stain the memory of Toturi III.”
Natsu shook his head. “You have no chance of standing against the Lion when we are bent on obeying our duty.”
“Look to the palace,” the older man ordered. “I think you may reconsider.”
Above the Imperial Palace, another figure appeared, much as Sezaru had appeared only a few hours previously. Where Sezaru’s appearance had brought chaos and death, however, this new arrival instead radiated a warm, peaceful light that drove away the smoke and clamor of war. She hung unmoving above the palace, hands folded in her sleeves, her eyes close. “Samurai of Rokugan,” she said, her voice booming like thunder, “the Phoenix Clan will not permit the Imperial City to be desecrated in this manner. Otosan Uchi was lost to us because the hearts of men could not contain their violence and vengeance, but that shall not happen again. Toshi Ranbo shall survive this day, no matter the cost. Put aside your weapons. This battle serves no purpose save to shame us all, and further loss of life will not be tolerated.” She paused for a moment and unfolded her hands, releasing a small, dark orb that floated before her. “The Phoenix have strayed from the path in the past, but we have found our way, and we must not stand aside and allow this desecration to occur. By the will of the Celestial Heavens, and the favor bestowed upon the Phoenix by Tengoku through the power of the Egg of the Void, this city is now under the protection of the Phoenix Clan and the Council of Elemental Masters.” She raised her hands above her head. “All those who cannot accept this risk the wrath of the Heavens themselves, and may the Fortunes forgive your foolishness.”
As Isawa Ochiai raised her hands, the clouds above her parted and the brilliance of the Heavens shone down on the mortal realm for the briefest of moments. When the light faded, and mortal eyes could once again look upon Ochiai, the gasp of shock was almost audible across the city.
The great Fire Dragon swam through the heavens above the Imperial Palace, seeming to coil around Ochiai protectively.
After their sudden arrival in the city’s northeastern quarter, the Phoenix washed over Toshi Ranbo like a wave. Their greatest shugenja, the Elemental Guard, moved through the streets like a force of nature. Alongside them were the Elemental Legions, Shiba trained to accompany, assist, and fight side by side with the Guard. Everywhere battle they found, the powerful Isawa magic held the combatants at bay until the legions could isolate each faction and prevent them from engaging. A tense peace followed in their wake. It was obvious that the samurai killing one another in the streets had little desire to obey the Phoenix mandate of peace, but the shadow of the Fire Dragon seemed to fall over every section of the city, and by its mere presence, it forced the cessation of battle. None dared lift a hand against the Fire Dragon, for to do so was to abandon every shred of belief in the Celestial Order and the Mandate of Heaven.
Water and wind, fire and earth were shaped by the Isawa at Ochiai’s command, and slowly, the city quieted. The battle was at an end, although none could say how long it would last.
Although the Imperial Palace itself had not suffered any apparent damage, the ruins of several buildings around it filled the air with smoke, and the courtyard seemed to be in the center of some great calamity like an earthquake or a hurricane. The Elemental Masters emerged from the palace, their faces drawn and pale. A number of Phoenix officers stood waiting, looking to the Masters expectantly. One of them, Shiba Naoya, stepped forward. He glanced at the meager handful of those accompanying the Masters, then back to the palace doors. “Are there any others, my lords?” he asked quietly.
Isawa Emori shook his head. “None,” he said flatly. “The hungry dead were set loose within the palace. They left very little for the Unicorn.”
Naoya averted his eyes from the palace, his expression horrified. One of his fellow officers, Shiba Tsukimi, stepped forward in his place. “The Unicorn and Mantis contingents have been isolated and detained, as you commanded.” Her face was completely devoid of any emotion. “The Lion daimyo is demanding access to the Khan and his associates. He also claims that Yoritomo Naizen is present within the city.”
“Unsurprising,” Tamori Nakamuro said. “The Mantis Champion is a man with a penchant for finding trouble wherever it may be.”
“Bring them before us,” Ochiai ordered.
“I have already sent for them,” Tsukumi answered. She gestured to the rear of the Phoenix formation, where a large circle of Shiba samurai marched with two men held at spear point. One was clad in Unicorn colors, a lop-sided helm perched precariously atop his head. He limped badly, favoring one leg. The other was a broad-shouldered man who walked tall, his head high. A green band of cloth tied his unruly hair back, and his armor showed signs of heavy fighting. “My lords, I present Moto Chagatai and, presumably, Yoritomo Naizen.”
Ochiai stepped forward and looked at the men evenly. “You two men, Champions of Great Clans, are largely to blame for a disgraceful loss of life today,” she said softly. “What manner of madness has driven you to this point?”
“I am a warrior,” the Khan said defiantly. “I do not answer to such as you.”
“Not to me, perhaps,” Ochiai said, “but rest assured, you will answer for what you and yours have done today.” The diminutive priestess turned to the Mantis Champion. “And what of you, Naizen? For what purpose have you cast your lot with the Khan?”
Naizen looked at the Elemental Masters for several moments, as if considering whether or not to answer the question. Finally, he nodded very slowly, almost imperceptibly. “For two reasons,” he said. “For the first, the Mantis owed the Unicorn a debt that I believed we could never repay. They aided us. They allowed us to accomplish something that will ensure the Mantis live on forever. I could not permit that debt to go unpaid.”
“At the cost of your honor?” Ochiai asked.
“At any cost,” Naizen affirmed. “As for the second, you are hardly in a position to criticize my motivations.”
“How so?” she demanded.
“Because you have done precisely the same thing.”
A murmur broke out among the Phoenix until Ochiai held up her hand. “Explain, please,” she said.
“The throne is empty,” Naizen insisted. “You know as well as I that there are many who would not support the Empress. With no clear indication of the Emperor’s heir, how much time before the clans march to war over control of the Empire? How much time before war rages across the entire world? How many will die?”
Ochiai shook her head. “And you thought to prevent this?”
“The Khan is strong. He would have united the Empire, either under his banner or against it. His rule, one way or another, would have prevented the madness and war that rages each and every time the throne is left empty.” He paused and stared around at the assembled Phoenix. “I would sacrifice a few to save many. What have you sacrificed? How many will die because of your seizure of the capital?”
“We would not sit by and watch another Imperial City razed to the ground by man’s ambition,” Ochiai insisted. “If the clans cannot cooperate peacefully, then we will ensure that they have no option for violence.”
“Thank the Fortunes that we have your wisdom to guide us,” Naizen sneered. “How would we mere mortals manage without your guidance?”
“Master Ochiai!” a voice bellowed from the observers. A man in battered Lion armor elbowed his way through the masses, his face a mask of rage. “On behalf of the Lion Clan, I demand that these criminals be turned over to me for summary execution! They are guilty of treason, sedition, and murder!”
Ochiai glanced at Tsukimi, who took a step forward. “Lady Ochiai, this is Akodo Shigetoshi, daimyo of the Akodo family.”
“These men are no better than gaijin!” Shigetoshi snarled. “Once again, I demand they be turned over to me for execution. Their crimes against the Lion cannot be allowed to stand!”
The little Master of Fire lifted her hand. “I agree that the Khan’s crimes against the Lion are heinous indeed, but enough lives have been lost today.” She looked for a long moment at Naizen. “And I cannot say that I do not believe the Mantis Champion has a point, misguided though he may be.”
“What?” Shigetoshi demanded explosively. “You would allow these miscreants to walk away with their lives? After so many lives have been lost to their murderous ambition? A point that you made yourself only a moment ago!”
“Enough lives have been lost,” Ochiai repeated. “No one else will die this day.”
“You are mistaken,” Shigetoshi said. Almost faster than the eye could follow, the Lion warrior drew his blade and held it aloft. As one, there followed the sound of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of blades being drawn. The Phoenix soldiers answered, and stood ready to receive a charge by the Lion legions assembled around them. “Turn them over to me, or share in their fate.”
“I know the fire of vengeance burns brightly in your heart,” Ochiai said quietly, “but you cannot reasonably expect this gambit to succeed. What will happen if you attack? Your men will perish, to the man. I do not wish that, and I do not believe you wish it either.”
“My men would rather die than see injustice of this magnitude,” Shigetoshi answered. “And you underestimate the prowess of the Lion. We will not be held back, even by such slim odds.”
“Odds are not an issue,” Ochiai said. A shadow fell across the courtyard and a wave of oppressive heat crashed down upon all present as the Fire Dragon leveled a baleful gaze upon the Lion. “You throw your lives away for nothing if you do this.”
“I fear death less than failing to follow bushido,” Shigetoshi said.
A moment of silence fell across all assembled as the Lion and the Phoenix glared at one another. The momentary reverie was broken by the sound of a galloping horse that burst among the Lion ranks and into the midst of the confrontation. The horse’s flanks were covered in foam from a long ride, and the beast let out an exhausted but clearly terrified neigh at the presence of the beast overhead. A young man glad in brilliant gold and brown armor leapt down from the steed and quickly mopped the perspiration from his brow. “Stand aside, Shigetoshi.”
The Akodo daimyo stared in mute disbelief as his sword slowly lowered to his side. “Yoshino-sama?” he asked, clearly incredulous. “What… how did you get here?”
“Katsuko,” the young Lion Champion said. “Never let it be said that the Lion cannot learn from their enemies, although in this case I fear the lesson has cost us dearly. The strain upon Katsuko to hasten my arrival was terrible indeed.”
“It is my honor to meet you, Matsu Yoshino-sama,” Isawa Ochiai said with a bow. “I fear, however, that if you have come to reiterate your vassal’s command, the Phoenix will be equally unable to acquiesce. As I have said, there has been enough life lost today.”
“They will not surrender the traitors to us, Yoshino-sama,” Shigetoshi explained.
Yoshino nodded and stared at the Khan. The much older man glared back hatefully. “I see no reason to demand the Khan’s execution.”
The color disappeared from Shigetoshi’s face at once. “My lord?” he asked shakily. “My lord, are you certain? This is the man who murdered your father.”
“My father died on the field of battle,” Yoshino corrected. “The Khan is defeated. He goes home to his people in shame, his name cursed forever by an entire Empire that will remember his line as one of dishonorable braggarts and fools. Tell me, Shigetoshi… if you were faced with such an insurmountable disgrace, would you choose life or death?”
“Death,” Shigetoshi answered at once.
“Then life for the Khan,” Yoshino said. He stepped forward and met the Khan’s glare evenly, less than a hand’s width between the two men. “You are broken, old man. Go home to your sons in shame, but remember this: you and I are not finished. You have wounded the Lion, but we are not defeated. I will come for you, and soon.” He drew back, and looked around at all those assembled. “You are all witnesses. On the honor of my father’s name,” he said loudly, “I vow that within one year from this day, I will stand in the courtyard of Shiro Moto, and claim it in the name of the Lion Clan. On that day, Moto Chagatai will die by my hand in honorable combat, and the honor of my father shall be avenged.” He turned back to the Khan. “Go home, old man. No Lion shall bar your path. Go home, and make ready for my arrival.”
The roar of victory from the Lion could be heard for miles.
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