By Rusty Priske
Edited by Fred Wan
The wind blowing off the mountains sent a chill across the village but the yobanjin did not notice. The cold was nothing next to the unease felt as they watched the samurai in their midst. The dozen warriors all wore black and dark grey in their outfits, even though they were not uniform in color or style. They ignored the yobanjin as if they were beneath their notice. They talked amongst themselves about their travels to this outpost north of Rokugan and the disdain in their voices was clear.
The yobanjin tribesmen, for their part, only hoped for a short stay by the samurai and a return to the normalcy of their lives. They were not afraid of Rokugani samurai, but the sort that came to visit Chosai were different than the Dragon mountaineers they had encountered intermittently over the years.
The man once called Tamori Chosai cared little for what the yobanjin desired or feared, as long as they continued to follow his orders. He had adopted the largest hut in the village, forcing the tribe headman to vacate. Over the years he had redecorated more to his liking, which primarily consisted of removing much of what was there. This left him with somewhat austere surroundings and little in the way of creature comforts. It was a ruse, of course; he would never call such pathetic surroundings home, but he had no interest in allowing these visitors within his true sanctuary.
His visitor showed little appreciation for his surroundings. “How can you stand this wretched cold?” Megumi griped as she looked around at the lack of blankets or cloaks. Chosai himself was stripped to the waist but seemed to take no heed of the near freezing temperature.
“One finds that cold only bothers those who allow it.”
Megumi snorted. “I did not think much of Dragon platitudes when I was Crane, and I think even less of them now. At least start a fire.”
Chosai expression changed only slightly, with the barest hint of sneer, as he replied, “As you wish.” He motioned towards the fire pit in the center of the hut and a fire sprang forth in an instant.
Megumi moved closer and warmed her hands at the new heat source. “Thank you. Considering how we were dragged up here, it seems the least that you could do. Now, why were we called here, and why should we do whatever it is that you ask?”
Chosai smiled mirthlessly. “There are various reasons why you should do as I ask, with self preservation being one interesting among them, but I think I will place my faith in ‘because your master ordered you to’. Daigotsu understands the value of my allegiance and you are his method of continuing that.”
Megumi snorted again. “What use is someone who cannot even enter Rokugan? Your power over the yobanjin is impressive, oh great Oracle,” sarcasm dripped off her tongue, “but what is that to Daigotsu?”
“That is the nature of your quest. I have discovered the whereabouts of a certain item. I need you to bring it to me. Do so and I will be able to remove my former clan as a threat to Daigotsu’s plans.” The small fire blazed up in roar, forcing Megumi to step back. The light danced across Chosai’s face and he said, “Bring this item to me and the Dark Oracle of Fire will walk Rokugan again.”
* * *
To the south the mountains were still cold to someone not used to the climate, but summer was arriving and the sun kissed the mountaintops, and grass and flowers bathed the landscape in color and beauty. Kitsuki Berii was not one of the mountaineers of the Dragon, who preferred the peaks to the rest of the world. His duties as a magistrate caused him to spend most of his time indoors, examining the actions of man, rather than the wonders of nature.
So why did he feel the desire to walk the slopes on this day, of all days? Yes, late spring in the mountains was a wonderful time, but it had still been spring the day before and he felt no such desire.
The mysteries of the human mind were unknowable, even to a Dragon.
A swirl of orange at the corner of his eye prompted Berii to turn, dismissing such thoughts. Standing before him was a Crane, though clad in unusual clothing. His white hair spilled over the shoulders of his kimono and armor of orange. The sleeves of the stranger’s garb were stitched with red flame, winding up towards his elbows and his mon was the symbol for fire.
Berii realized immediately who the man was and bowed deeply. “Keeper-sama. You honor our lands with your visit.”
Kakita Tsuken smiled and returned the bow. “Thank you Kitsuki-san. I feel comfortable in the lands of the Dragon.”
“Do you seek Togashi Satsu, Keeper-sama? I can escort you to his castle immediately, if you wish.”
Tsuken shook his head. “It is not Satsu I seek today, though I will speak with him afterwards to ensure that I am not requesting something that works against his interests. I cannot imagine that, however, as once I make my request, it will be clear why I have come to the Dragon for aid.”
Berii took on an air of seriousness and said, “I am at your service Keeper-sama. How may I aid you?”
“I have watched you, Kitsuki Berii, and I have been impressed by your willingness to look to the future and accept change as part of who you are. There are those who feel that our future lies only in tradition, and while there is value in remembering who we were, in times like these we need to realize who we might be.”
Tsuken’s speech did not bother Berii, who was used to listening to the monks of his own clan expound in non-linear manners so he found the heart of the matter. “Change is inevitable, Keeper-sama. We only need to recognize what change is in our best interests and embrace it, while fighting against changes that will not improve our condition.”
Tsuken nodded. “There are many changes coming to Rokugan, and soon. There is one change that I think we would agree would be better avoided, if possible. The Dark Oracle of Fire looks to return to Rokugan.”
Shock struck Berii’s face. “How is that possible? He was banished by Tamori Nakamuro using the one method that no Dark Oracle could combat.”
“Yes. Nakamuro used the Dark Covenant of Fire to force Tamori Chosai to leave Rokugan and never return. It was an ingenious stratagem on his part, but that does not mean it cannot be countered.”
Berii looked puzzled. “What could override an order from the Dark Covenant?”
“A specific order countermanding the first, by someone else wielding the Dark Covenant of Fire.” Berii’s face was answer enough and Tsuken continued. “The Dark Covenant is a powerful artifact and sometimes its movements are mysterious. It vanished from its place of safekeeping and those who knew of it have been seeking it out, quietly, so as not to let those who would use it against the Empire know of the danger.” Tsuken paused momentarily before saying, “Two things have happened to change that. First, I discovered where it is. Second, I found out that Chosai also knows where it is.”
Berii looked startled. “Then we must retrieve it before the Dark Oracle is able!”
Tsuken nodded. “That is why I came to you. I spoke with the other Keepers and we agreed that there is some danger in one of us wielding the Dark Covenant. The temptation to use it, even with the best of intentions, would be too great. We need someone to keep it safe, unused and protected.”
Berii thought for a moment and said, “Why did you not approach the Crane? They are your former clan and I would thing that they would be your first choice.”
Tsuken’s face darkened. “They were, I admit. I approached…” he trailed off as if he was about to say a name but thought better of it. “I approached a member of my former clan and was going to explain my mission to him, but while I was speaking, I felt a darkness within him. I could not pinpoint it but I knew that revealing this to him would have been a mistake. I knew that if he were to gain the Dark Covenant he would not protect it. He would use it.” and change the last sentence to “Instead, I came to the clan of the Keeper of Air.”
Berii nodded. “Tell me where the Dark Covenant is and I will do as you ask.”
Tsuken returned the nod. “Chosai’s agents move there as well, so you will require aid. A group small enough to move quickly, but you need to be prepared to face obstacles.” Tsuken paused once again. “This is a great undertaking, Berii-san, and I wish to give you what aid I can. There is little I can do other than tell you where the Dark Covenant is, but there is one other thing.” Tsuken reached into a bag at his waist and removed a thick scroll. “I give to you the Book of Fire.”
Berii looked overwhelmed for a moment before starting, “Not the…”
Tsuken saw his confusion. “No, not the original Book. That is in my keeping, otherwise I could hardly earn my title.” Tsuken chuckled softly. “No, this was written by me. It is my writings on swordsmanship and other facets of war. Hopefully there will be something that will be of use to you in the coming times.”
Berii bowed deeply. “I am truly honored, Keeper-sama.”
* * *
Kakita Kensho-in paced impatiently. “I do not understand,” she said. “I am a warrior. The Crane are at war. Is that not where my blade should be put to use?”
Doji Hakuseki sat nearby on a soft cushion. Her face was calm and nearly placid compared to her agitated companion. “I am sure our new orders will be clear soon, Kensho-in-san. You must be patient. Did Noritoshi not teach you that a lack of patience is the downfall of many a samurai?”
Kensho-in stopped her pacing. “You are correct, of course, but I greatly dislike the feeling that I am not serving the Crane to my greatest ability. My place is on the battlefield, defending the clan’s honor.”
“Our objective is not the Crab.” Doji Doukohito spoke as he walked into the room. Hakuseki rose to her feet and bows were exchanged between the three. “We have received word that a small force of the Lost is in Rokugan. Given what we know of their location, only we are close enough to intercept them. That is precisely what we are going to do. The war with the Crab is important, but we cannot let it allow us to give the Lost unfettered access to the Empire.”
Haskuseki nodded at the magistrate’s words. “Where are these Lost going?”
“Reports tell us that they are moving towards Nichibotsu Fushero.”
Hakuseki pursed her lips. “Sunset Tower? Why would they go there?”
Doukohito shook his head. “We do not know, nor do we care. If we eliminate them, it will not matter.” He looked at Kensho-in. “Another point of interest. These Lost are led by Megumi.”
Kensho-in’s eyes flashed. “When do we leave?”
* * *
As the contingent of Dragon samurai approached Sunset Tower there was a rustle from the underbrush nearby. All took note and hands went to weapons as a samurai burst from the foliage.
Mirumoto Narumi was closest and her katana crossed paths with the man, who pulled up with a startled expression. He covered for his unorthodox approach with a deep bow. Berii recognized the samurai’s mon and colors immediately but before he could say anything, the bowing man spoke.
“My apologies, Dragon-sama. I am Kasuga Eizan, of the Tortoise clan, and I am grateful that you are here.”
Berii motioned Narumi to lower her blade, which she did, reluctantly. “Eizan-san, what is it that makes you act in such a fashion? Your brother is the champion of your clan, and I expect he would expect a little more decorum from you.”
Eizan bowed again. “You are correct, Dragon-sama. My apologies, but my needs are quite urgent.”
Mirumoto Agito stepped forward. “Then speak, Eizan-san. What is so urgent?”
“As I am sure you know, the Tortoise have occupied Sunset Tower for some time,” he said, “but we have been assaulted! Ronin! Strangers, not those from the Hub villages, for I know them well. These men are warriors such as I have never seen! They decimated our defenses and ousted us from the tower only a short time ago! A small number of Crane arrived shortly thereafter, but I fear they are badly outmatched. Please, I beg your aid in this!”
Berii’s eyes narrowed. The mention of the Crane filled him with dread. Tsuken had been clear that they must not gain the Covenant, no matter the cost. He turned to the warriors with him and said, “You know what we seek. Do not let any stand in the way of our goal, no matter what the cost. We will break into three groups. Narumi-san, take three with you and search the lower levels. Ichizo, do the same with the middle levels. I will take the upper. Allow no one to bar your path.” He turned back to the Tortoise with a nod. “Lead the way.”
* * *
Doji Hakuseki joined two other Crane samurai in a circle to keep their backs protected. The samurai around them were clad in a similar fashion as the Crane, exposing their original homes. There were signs that things had changed, though, as mons were missing and swaths of red and black littered their raiment. The battle was short but bloody. Hakuseki’s katana broke the defenses of the first Lost to lunge towards her, and she left him unarmed, literally, as both his forearms were cleft below the elbows. Not all of her companions were as successful and she soon found herself alone, facing two attackers.
* * *
Mirumoto Ichizo burst in on three Crane standing over two dead bodies, and he instantly assumed an aggressive stance. Doji Doukohito answered by modifying his own stance, while insisting, “Dragon! Stay your blade! You do not know what transpires!”
“It is you who fails to comprehend. Withdraw from this Tower at once, or face my steel.” His tone was mildly regretful.
Doukohito’s face hardened. “You are a fool, Dragon.”
“You are standing between me and my duty. Who, then, is the fool, Crane?”
“Drawing steel against the Crane will be your last mistake.”
“Dragon!” Ichizo barked at the samurai with him. “You know your duty!” There was a flurry of movement and battle was joined, felling two souls in the first seconds.
* * *
“Did you think you would be allowed free passage through Rokugan?” Megumi spun around at the sound of Kensho-in’s voice.
“Another weak imitation of the greatness of your ancestors,” Megumi spat. “How many Crane must I kill before you realize that my mission is none of your concern?”
Kensho-in smiled with cool confidence. “I do not care about whatever mission you have, creature. I am here for you.”
Megumi circled warily, trying to spot an opening. “What am I to you, Crane? Is it jealousy you feel towards one who once walked your path but learned the truth?”
“Truth? Your beauty is gone, and your elegance but a memory. What truth could you have possibly discovered that matters?”
Megumi resisted laughing. “The truth that perfection cannot be found in bushido. It cannot, little samurai. If you had learned that lesson you would not have to die here.”
Kensho-in smiled again. “Save your philosophy lesson. No, I am your death out of respect to the one who taught me the ways of the blade. My master swore your death and in the name of Kakita Noritoshi, I will be his instrument.”
Both saw their opening and took it.
* * *
Mirumoto Narumi caught the Lost by surprise, and such a distraction was all Doji Hakuseki needed. Her first strike removed the head of one the two remaining Lost and her second drew deep into the shoulder of the second. He howled with pain and pulled himself away from the Crane, taking her katana with him, only to meet Narumi’s thrust, through his stomach and out his back.
As he fell, Hakuseki’s sword fell at Narumi’s feet. She looked at the Crane and at the fallen Lost and Crane around her. She motioned to Mirumoto Agito and turned to continue her investigation of the Tower.
* * *
Ichizo and Doukohito ignored the fighting around them and concentrated on each other. Doukohito had become the aggressor, but Ichizo was able to use his wakazashi to counter the Crane’s technique.
“Your reflexes are a little slow, Crane. I think you have spent too much time in a dojo and not enough time on the field of battle.”
“If you spent more time training, Dragon, and less time talking, you might know the difference between age and experience.”
Both men could see that they were near equals. Their two styles could not be more different but they matched one other, and neither could find the opportunity for a killing blow, until one was felled by the luck of war.
The samurai around them fought and fell. As they moved among them, Doukohito nearly tripped over the body of one of his own men. He compensated and stepped past him, overextending just a little. He then stepped in a trail of blood, which caused a slight slip that extended him a little further than he had planned. His katana dropped slightly as he tried to regain his footing but Ichizo would not allow it. The Dragon used his wakazashi to force Doukohito’s katana lower and then drove his own katana through the chest of the Crane.
* * *
Mirumoto Agito looked at Hakuseki’s sword and then back at the unarmed Crane. He did not think more than a moment before kicking the katana across the floor into Hakuseki’s reach.
As she retrieved her weapon, Hakuseki said, “It is my honor to face such an honorable foe. Is there no chance we may both leave this room, Mirumoto-san?”
Agito shook his head. “I am afraid that would be impossible, Doji-san. Too much is at stake.”
“Is this some prophecy that the Dragon are privy to?”
“The explanation would take more time that our battle and I cannot be stalled for that long. Please, let us finish this.”
Hakuseki looked sad as she knew that one of them would die in the next few moments. She did not believe it would be her.
She was correct.
* * *
Kitsuki Berii found Kakita Kensho-in and Megumi locked in battle. He appraised the situation and then ignored them. He ordered the men with him to fan out and continue to search the chamber. His priority was clear.
It was Berii himself who found the Dark Covenant, however. The lantern was held in a small wooden cabinet. As soon as Berii opened it, he could feel the energy and evil spilling out. He shut the cabinet immediately and turned back to the death duel not ten feet from him.
“You are well trained, Crane, but I was trained in the same fashion, and you are not my match.”
Kensho-in ignored Megumi’s taunts and said, “Your betrayal has made you less, creature, not more. You depend upon darkness and ignore your training. My blade is guided by a purity of spirit that you try to extinguish because you can never embrace it.”
Megumi laughed. “You hold onto purity like it was…” Megumi trailed off and a look of surprise crossed her face. “You have…” she grasped at her side where Kensho-in’s blade had made it past her defense and found purchase. The wound was grievous.
“You are finished, creature, in the name of Kakita Noritoshi.”
Megumi tried to raise her katana for another attack, but instead she fell to one knee. She attempted a last word of defiance, but none would come. She collapsed to the floor, dead.
“Now, Crane, do I have to face you as well?”
Kensho-in looked at Berii. “I do not know why you are here, Dragon, but I have what I came for.”
Berii nodded. “Then let us stop the fighting and discuss what is to come next.”
* * *
Berii and Kensho-in went together through the Tower, calling a halt to hostilities between the Crane and the Dragon while also discovering that the last of the Lost had fled when it was clear they were outnumbered. The remaining members of the two clans met at the base of the Tower with Kasuga Eizen.
Hakuseki was the senior member of the Crane after the death of Doji Doukohito so she spoke on their behalf. “Kitsuki Berii, you must tell us why the Dragon came to Sunset Tower.”
Berii bowed. “My apologies, Doji-san, but I cannot. I cannot emphasize enough that this is said with no disrespect to you or any of the samurai with you. I can only ask you to withdraw from Sunset Tower and leave it to us.”
Kasuga Eizen interjected. “The Tower is under the protection of the Tortoise.”
Berii looked at Eizen warily. “We will discuss such things later, Kasuga-san.”
Hakuseki pondered and then said, “I believe you when you say this of great importance, and I think we have both seen too much death here today. I do not think that further conflict would serve any cause, but we cannot simply allow you to take the Tower over the blood of men like Doji Doukohito.”
“The Dragon have also lost samurai today, Doji-san. I believe Mirumoto Agito fell to your own blade.”
Hakuseki nodded. “We still must have some compensation to assure that your claims are valid and that your actions were not meant as an attack on the Crane in any way. Perhaps a hostage from your clan would accompany me back to mine. This would give us some leverage in case of any further disagreements. I assure you it would be for appearances only. This hostage would be well treated.”
Berii bowed. “I would expect nothing less. If I could volunteer for this, I would do so, but my immediate duties would not allow it.”
Hakuseki glanced across the group of surviving Dragon. “Perhaps this samurai would accept this new duty.” She motioned to Mirumoto Narumi.
Narumi looked at the woman whose death she had so recently ordered. “My duties as an Emerald Magistrate permit me a great deal of discretion in my travels. If it will assuage your anger, then I will gladly accompany you. Should my duties summon me elsewhere, I have no doubt that the Dragon will ensure that a hostage with greater value than my own will take my place. Is this acceptable?”
“I believe so,” Hakuseki said.
“Very well,” Berii replied.
* * *
Once Narumi had left with the Crane, Berii turned to Mirumoto Ichizo. “Do you understand the responsibility, Ichizo-san?”
“Of course. The Dark Covenant must be kept safe. I will stay and safeguard against any further attacks against it.”
“This is a sacrifice you are making, Ichizo-san. I know you love the mountains and the lands of the Dragon.”
“What sort of Dragon would I make if I was afraid of sacrifice, Berii-san? In fact, I have often read of Mirumoto Satsu and what he gave up for the good of the Empire. What I give is much less than what could be asked. I will serve, and honor Satsu-sama’s memory in doing so.”
Berii bowed. “I will bring word of your valor and honor to your family.”
Ichizo returned the bow. “I could ask for no greater reward.”
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