By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
East of the Scorpion lands, Month of the Rooster, year 1169
Kitsuki Taiko marveled at the beauty of the Empire in autumn. The forests that dotted the countryside in this region, while vastly smaller than the Kitsune Mori in the distance, were majestic in their colors. She and her companion had ridden in silence for several hours, which suited her perfectly well. While their journey had not been nearly so exhausting as she had imagined, he could be quite tiresome nevertheless.
As if on cue, the young Crane warrior turned to her and flashed his brilliant smile. “Thinking of me, little hummingbird?”
“Yes,” she answered honestly. “I believe I asked you not to call me that.”
“Of course. Please forgive me. It is only that your name is such sweet music, I feel unworthy to speak it.”
“You could of course refrain from speaking altogether,” she suggested.
Kakita Hideo looked so sincerely hurt for a moment that Taiko genuinely believed he was taken aback by her comment, but then his grin returned and, thankfully, so did the silence. The young man could easily be the finest actor she had ever seen, were he not so intent on becoming the greatest duelist instead.
Their destination was not far ahead, and Taiko needed silence to try and contemplate exactly what she would say. The notion to come to the tiny Fox Clan lands and investigate their request for assistance had seemed the right thing to do back in the Imperial City some weeks previously, but now it seemed almost foolish. If the request was a fabrication, would they accomplish anything other than to make their respective clans look foolish? And if it were genuine, what could two samurai hope to accomplish that an entire clan, albeit a Minor Clan, could not? She wondered idly, and not for the first time, if Hideo was a maho-tsukai who could cloud the minds of others with his foul magic. But of course that was merely wishful thinking. On the other hand, the notion of bringing a Crane to the Fox lands, two clans that were often ill at odds with one another over some unpleasantness generations prior, could be a mistake.
An hour later, the duo spied men standing in the road a short distance ahead. Taiko and Hideo exchanged a glance, and he nodded, smiling while tapping one finger against the hilt of his blade. If there was difficulty, he would be ready. Despite the length of their trip, Taiko was not certain what she would say now. At the very least, she would not have a great deal of time to worry over it.
“Excuse me, noble samurai,” one of the men called out as the two travelers approached. All three men bore the trappings of Fox samurai, but of course that was not a reliable indication. “I regrettably must inform you that the Fox Clan is not permitting outsiders to entire at the present time.”
“That is most unusual,” Taiko observed. “May I ask why?”
“You may, my lady,” the same man answered, “but unfortunately I cannot answer.”
The center man had been frowning and looking intently from Taiko to Hideo and back again for several moments. Finally, he leaned in toward the speaker and muttered “Could these be the ones we have been waiting on?”
“Waiting?” Taiko asked. “Why would you be waiting for us? What do you mean?”
The speaker forced a smile. “Please forgive my cousin,” he said calmly. “We have been stationed here for many days, and the fatigue is surely affecting him. Please, I must respectfully ask you to turn around.”
“The Dragon have good hearing,” the mutterer said.
Taiko frowned and began to say something, then a flicker of movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. She did not move her head, but cut her eyes in that direction once, just for an instant. “May I ask why five of your comrades are observing us from the bushes one hundred and fifty feet away?” she asked quietly.
The speaker’s reaction indicated at once that the men in the bushes were not with him. He glanced in that direction at once, and Taiko could see the muscles at his brow tense as he realized the mistake he had made in doing so. Perhaps these men were fatigued after all. Regardless, their observers now knew that they had been seen, and there was a flurry of motion from the bushes.
Hideo moved so quickly that Taiko could barely track him. He dismounted and leapt between Taiko and the bushes, striking with a strange, downward spin that she did not understand. Not until the two pieces of an arrow dropped into the dirt. One of the three Fox sputtered something incomprehensible and dropped to the ground, an arrow sticking out of his chest. The first Fox swore and drew his blade, darting across the intervening ground between them and the archers with unbelievable speed. Hideo and the mutterer followed closely behind.
Taiko leapt down from her horse, her blade drawn. She was no warrior, but neither would she shirk her duty. A moan from the ground stopped her, however; the wounded Fox samurai was not dead. She knelt to examine the wound and grimaced. It was close to his heart, and if he was not treated very quickly, he might die. Even if he was seen by a skilled healer, he might die regardless. She sheathed her blade and withdrew a small traveling kit from her horse, then knelt by the wounded man again.
“What are you doing?” the speaker demanded as the three men returned.
Taiko stared at them in disbelief. “It is over already?”
Hideo shook his head. “Two dead, the other three just… disappeared. It was like smoke in the shadows. I have never seen anything like it.”
“They do that,” the mutterer said. “Take your eyes off of them for a second and they are gone.”
“Be silent!” the speaker shouted. He turned back to Taiko. “You must not remove the arrow. He could bleed to death.”
“If he is placed on a horse with this in his chest, he will be dead long before you get to your destination. The bleeding will worsen but he may live if we hurry. How far?”
The man grimaced. “Two hours.”
“Then we must make haste.”
“It is them,” the mutterer said in quiet voice. “‘A prideful warrior and the healing dragon.’ It is them.”
The speaker slowly nodded. “It must be,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” Hideo demanded.
“Come,” the speaker said, mounting his horse and reaching down to lift the wounded man atop his. “We will show you.”
The Fox village the group arrived at shortly thereafter exploded into activity as soon as their horses came to a stop. There seemed to be a disproportionate number of samurai present for so small a village, Taiko observed, but the real shock was the degree of interaction, almost casual in nature, between the Fox and the peasants that served them. Academically she understood that the Fox had little choice but to toil so closely with those who served them, difficult as survival had been throughout their history, but to see it in person was still a great shock.
“Do not stare,” Hideo cautioned in a quiet voice. “They will not appreciate it.”
“Have you visited the Fox lands before?” she asked him.
“No, but I know something about them,” he answered. “In my great-grandfather’s day, the future Kakita daimyo was involved in an unfortunate incident, a duel, actually, that caused a rather significant rift between the Crane and the Fox. The wound has never been fully healed.”
“And you wanted to come here?” she asked. “I think there must be something wrong with you.”
“You would not be the first to suggest that,” Hideo muttered, then smiled and bowed deeply as an unremarkable Fox samurai approached. “Greetings, honorable Kistune-san.”
“Greetings,” the man returned with a curt bow. “I am told that you are the ones responsible for saving Hibume’s life. Is that correct?”
“We were merely in a position to offer assistance, and gladly did so,” Taiko said with a bow. “It was our privilege to serve the Fox.”
“Hibume is my only nephew,” the man said, “and for saving his life you have my eternal gratitude.” He bowed again, noticeably lower this time. “I am Kitsune Ryukan.”
Hideo knelt at once, and Taiko followed suit. “Forgive us, Ryukan-sama. We did not know that we addressed the Fox Champion.”
“Rise, please,” Ryukan said. “It has been several years since I took over the position after the death of my lady Ryosei, but I have never adjusted to the title.” He paused for a moment. “The hospitality of the Fox Clan is yours for as long as you choose to partake of it, but I must caution you that this is a very dangerous time for our clan. If you are wise, you will leave at once.”
“We cannot do that,” Taiko answered. She withdrew a burned scroll from her obi. She had discovered it in the Imperial City after the Battle of Toshi Ranbo, and finally identified it only a few weeks ago with the help of Hideo. “My clan discovered this entreaty for assistance, and we have come to determine if this is a current document, or a historical one that merely was scattered to the winds during the fighting at the capital.”
The disappointment on Ryukan’s face was impossible to conceal. “It did not arrive,” he said flatly. His voice sounded exhausted. “The Mantis did not receive it.”
“Then this is a current document? The crisis you refer to is that which currently plagues the Fox?”
“It is,” he said, crumbling the paper. “We had hoped to seek aid from our old allies, the Tsuruchi.”
Hideo frowned. “Would it not have been faster to simply send word to their lands? They are far closer than the Imperial City.”
“It would, but the primary paths by which we would do such a thing were washed out by a late summer storm, and the secondary routes all go through the Kitsune Mori.” The man clenched his fists so tightly that his knuckles were white with the force of it. “Which is something we can no longer do.”
Taiko and Hideo exchanged a confused look. According to the histories she had read, the benevolent spirits within the Kitsune Mori were the only thing that had saved the nascent Fox Clan from starvation centuries ago when they first moved to the area. The bond between the samurai and the clever fox spirits that dwelled within the forest was legendary. “My lord,” Taiko said, “what can we do to aid you?”
“Nothing,” he said bitterly. “This is beyond the capabilities of two magistrates.” He paused, then added, “Capable though you doubtless are.”
“Who was expecting us?”
Ryukan looked at Hideo carefully, his expression suddenly inscrutable. A quiet sense of alarm flooded through Taiko. “What do you mean?” the Champion asked.
“After the attack, one of the sentries said that we were the ones that they had been expecting. Who was expecting us? No one outside of our immediate superiors within the Imperial City knows of our journey here.”
Ryukan glanced from one to the next as if seeing the two samurai for the first time. “Impossible,” he said. Then he was quiet for a moment. “How many times have I said that in the past months?” he asked himself aloud. Finally, he turned and left the two standing alone. He glanced once over his shoulder and gestured for them to follow him. The gesture seemed reluctant somehow.
Taiko and Hideo followed.
The Fox Champion led the two to a large building near the village’s center. At first it seemed to be a tea house, but the interior clearly indicated it was some sort of community gathering point. At the present it was largely empty, save for a careful scattering of items that seemed strangely out of place. Ryukan gestured around the room. “These are remnants of the men who have been attacking us. They strike from nowhere and fade into the darkness. Many of my people believe that they may be demons, and there are times when I have difficulty refuting such claims.” He crossed his arms. “What can you tell me?”
Taiko blinked at the odd question, but then bowed and walked around the room. There were weapons in various states of disrepair, scraps of cloth, and all manner of random things that appeared to have no relation to what she had seen thus far. She stopped finally at what appeared to be a piece of a kimono, one that bore a faded and tattered symbol. “I have seen this before,” she said.
“Have you?” Ryukan asked. He did not seem particularly concerned.
Taiko frowned and tried to remember where she had seen it before. “This is a symbol worn by a particularly powerful bandit group. They were wiped out several centuries ago by the Emerald Champion. I cannot recall their name…”
“The Sons of Winter,” Ryukan offered.
“Yes!” Taiko exclaimed. “They were broken and driven into the Shinomen Mori. It is believed that a few dozen survived, but they were never seen again.” She frowned. “Why would this be in the Kitsune Mori? This cloth cannot possibly be so old.”
“This blade is,” Hideo offered. He gestured to where the blade met the guard. “The folding is a flawed attempt to reproduce the Masamune style. This was common among ronin swordsmiths some centuries ago, but it has not been seen in at least two hundred years.”
“What is all this?” Taiko asked. “I do not mean to be disrespectful, honorable Ryukan-sama, but are you suggesting that your people are being attacked by a group of bandits that were wiped out centuries ago?”
“I am suggesting nothing,” the Fox Champion said. “You may draw your own conclusions as you like, but take this into consideration: three months ago, we first discovered that we were not alone in the forest. Strange assailants drove out our hunters, our patrols, our scouts. The kitsune spirits we have shared a bond with for nearly a thousand years were suddenly silent, as if they had disappeared altogether. The bandits, if that is in fact what they are, became more and more aggressive in pushing us outside the boundaries of the forest. Two entire villages have had to be evacuated because of the near constant assaults.”
“How many in number are they?” Hideo asked.
“We do not know,” Ryukan answered. “I have seen more than three dozen killed with my own eyes, and yet their numbers do not falter. Our situation was dire, but the worst was yet to come. Six weeks ago, their attacks changed. They did not seek to oust us from our home, but rather to overrun us. It was as if they had discovered something they wanted.” He paused for a moment. “They are after her.”
“Her?” Taiko asked. “Of whom do you speak, Ryukan-sama?”
Ryukan was silent for a long time, then closed his eyes. “Very well,” he said quietly.
The hut was small and very meager compared to the larger building the three had just departed. It was located in the village’s center, a mere stone’s throw from the storage building, but it was guarded by a pair of Fox in heavy armor and wielding naginata that appeared to be of higher quality than anything Taiko had seen in the village thus far. Both men knelt as Ryukan entered, and he gestured for the two samurai to follow him.
Taiko’s confusion only deepened as she entered the hut. The interior was completely empty save for a tatami mat, a tray containing the remnants of a simple meal, and a young woman meditating amidst several burning sticks of incense. “This is Narako,” Ryukan said quietly. His tone was one of reverence. “This is what they seek.”
Hideo seemed equally confused. “My lord, she is but a girl.”
“Her gempukku ceremony was two years ago,” Ryukan said. “Which would, if I am not mistaken, make her older than you. Perhaps it his her gift that makes her seem so young. I cannot say, for I have no understanding of such things.”
“Is she the one who told you to expect us?” Taiko asked.
Ryukan nodded. “A prideful warrior and a healing dragon. She knew that you would come, just as she knows so much else.”
“What are you saying?” Hideo said.
Ryukan drew a deep breath. “Narako is a prophet. She knew that you would come. She has made numerous predictions regarding our enemies. Six weeks ago, she suffered a terrible attack and issued a prophecy regarding the end of our clan. The first attack attempting to take her came the next day.”
“Why do you keep her in this village?” Hideo asked.
“She will not be taken from her home. She refuses.”
Taiko shook her head. “Forgive me, my lord, but you are her Champion. Could you not order her to do so, and she be forced to obey?”
“She has been blessed by the Heavens in a manner I will never understand,” Ryukan replied. “I will not question their gifts. It is not my place.”
The young Dragon frowned and began to say something else, but was cut off.
Narako’s eyes opened and she stared at the three without seeing them. Her eyes were completely white. “The master of darkness knows that the heralds have come. They will steal his prize away, and thwart his wishes as they have been thwarted before. His rage will be terrible, and blood will choke the trees of the forest.” The girl shuddered and blinked, and then her eyes were normal again. “Ryukan-sama!” she exclaimed happily. “You have brought them!”
“I have,” he answered. “I am glad that you are well, Narako.”
“Thank you for bringing the heralds,” she said. “All will be well now.”
“I hope that is true,” Ryukan added.
“A true prophet has not been known in the Empire since the death of Agasha Hamanari,” Hideo said. “Before that, it had been centuries. I must confess, my lord, that I find this all very perplexing.”
The joy disappeared from Narako’s face. “I am very sorry to hear that. I did not ask for this gift, this burden, but I do not shy from it.” She tilted her head to the side. “May I touch the sleeve of your robe?”
“What?” Hideo asked. “Why?”
“Can you control these prophecies?” Taiko asked.
“No,” Narako answered, “but I am able to glimpse things if they are closely tied to other prophecies that I have already experienced. I saw the two of you coming some time ago, and I believe that I can prove the truth. May I?”
Hideo held out his arm, and the tiny Fox girl took the sleeve gingerly. She closed her eyes for a moment, then frowned. “Why?” she asked. “Why do you shy away from it? Your gift, it is a beautiful thing. Your duty is to kill, but you could accomplish so much. And why do you not speak of her? What is the purpose of concealing your…”
“Enough!” Hideo nearly shouted. He was pale and seemed to be shaking. Taiko had never seen his composure so shattered. “Enough,” he repeated. “Forgive me, Ryukan-sama. I did not wish to dishonor your house.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” he answered. “I did not believe at first either, but her gifts are… considerable.”
Narako put a hand to her head and swayed somewhat. “I… I must lie down. I will need rest if I am to travel.”
“Travel?” Ryukan said. “Then you will come to Kyuden Kitsune?”
“Forgive me my lord, but I cannot. I must depart with the heralds today, before nightfall.”
“What?” Taiko said. “What do you mean?”
“I have seen a great gathering of priests,” she explained. “A convergence of the greatest and wisest of all the Empire. I am to accompany you there and meet with the Mantis. If I do not, then the Kitsune Mori will burn. I cannot allow that to happen.”
“Priests?” Taiko asked.
“Yes,” Narako said. “Summoned together by those without a clan.”
“Ronin?” Hideo asked.
“No,” Taiko said. “Imperials.” She turned to the Crane. “Can she mean the Jade Championship?”
Hideo paused. “I do not know.”
“I will not allow you to travel with these two,” Ryukan said. “You cannot be protected.”
“The bandits will not come for us,” Narako said. “I cannot leave this village unless I leave with them, and if I do not, then I will fall to the enemy within a week’s time, long before anyone arrives to assist us. This is the only way, my lord. Please forgive me.”
Ryukan grimaced. He turned to glare at the other two, but his features softened almost instantly. “When can you be ready to depart?”
Taiko and Hideo shared a momentary glance. “We are ready now, my lord.”
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