By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
The Happy Wanderer was a pearl in a sea of mediocrity, Isawa Takesi mused. He had not expected to find such a refined and sophisticated sake house so far from the major cities of the Great Clans. He had held low expectations of the place because of its location. When he arrived he noticed that this small village teemed with activity as samurai of the Minor Clans gathered to trade information and goods. The merchants of Kudo as a result served food and refreshments of much higher quality than the norm. The sake served at the Happy Wanderer was as refreshing as anything from the Imperial City itself. It was almost enough for him to forget his unease at being in Kudo in the first place.
Takesi took another small sip from his cup and looked up at his companion. Isawa Kyoko held a tea cup in front of her and stared at it, contemplation written on her face. Takesi frowned. He could not hold her objections in any longer.
“I do not agree with this course of action, Kyoko,” Takesi said. Isawa Kyoko put down her cup and acknowledged his worries with a small nod.
“I agree that this may not be the optimal path to our goal, Takesi-san,” she replied. “However, our options are limited.”
Takesi looked around the room once more. Currently there were only a handful of patrons in the large room. There was a ronin in the corner of the room, mournfully pouring himself another drink. A pair of samurai â€” a Hare and a Sparrow, by the looks of it â€” quietly discussed some discreet subject. They occasionally burst out into peals of laughter at their own wit. None of them looked to be their mysterious contact.
“We cannot discount the idea that this man was simply boasting,” Takesi said. “Drunk sailors will say anything that might raise his reputation to everyone who could hear his voice. Perhaps when the matter is in front of him, he will not be so eager to traverse those seas as he so loudly proclaims.”
“That is possible,” Kyoko said. “Still, our sensei trusted us to find any resource to turn over to the Asako, and it would be remiss if we did not follow this lead to its end. Not many people do what we have set out to do. I would venture that the path will stray far from the norm many times before the journey is finished.”
Takesi suddenly saw the ridiculousness of the situation and smiled. “Forgive me, Kyoko. You must be sick of repeating the answer. You can rest assured that your words do not fall on deaf ears.”
Kyoko stared at his lips then met his gaze once more. Her eyes shone bright as she smiled back at him.
“In fact,” he murmured, “I find it impossible to ignore the sound of your voice.”
For a long moment Kyoko did not reply. They stared at each other and Takesi saw the unmistakable longing in her eyes. He waited and swallowed his second reply, afraid of ruining the moment.
A loud ruckus rang through the air as several boisterous men approached the sake house. Kyoko quickly turned her head and watched the entrance for the man who would lead them to their goal. Takesi gritted his teeth. He turned to see who had broken the moment and saw three Mantis samurai animatedly talking to each other.
“There he is,” Kyoko said and she nodded her head at one of the Mantis in the party. She waited until the party sat down and settled in then quickly got to her feet. Takesi followed her as she made her way to the Mantis table.
“Excuse me,” she said politely, “I am Isawa Kyoko, shugenja of the Phoenix Clan. I believe you expected my presence here.”
As Takesi closed the distance between him and the Mantis group, he noticed several details that betrayed much about their target. The man Kyoko addressed was a Tsuruchi who bore his family mon proudly on many points of his kimono. Unlike many other Tsuruchi, however, this man carried his daisho strapped to his waist. Takesi knew that many of the former Wasp Clan did not use the katana but the reason was beyond him. His knowledge of the Mantis Clan only consisted of the Moshi customs and tales of the fantastic magic that bound the Orochi to their shugenja.
“You managed to arrive here earlier than I expected,” the Tsuruchi said politely. “Your clan’s reputation for magical mastery seems to be well deserved.”
Kyoko bowed slightly. “And your clan’s mastery over the seas is undisputed. My companions and I would like to experience this first hand.”
“I am Tsuruchi Sho,” he said. He bowed slightly without leaving his seat. Kyoko and Takesi bowed in response. Sho gestured to the two (rather unsavory, Takesi thought) Yoritomo sitting next to him. “This is Yoritomo Fushou-sama, first mate of the Unknown Path. The esteemed warrior here is Yoritomo Buntaro-sama, the captain of our ship.”
Takesi did not like the look of these men in whose hands he would place his life. Fushou was the eldest of the trio. Streaks of gray lined his hair, and his thick mustache covered a stern expression. Buntaro seemed an opposite of his first mate. He drank with abandon, ignoring the two Phoenix in front of him, and his impish grin only accented his youth.
“I am a little confused, Sho-san,” Takesi said hesitantly. “If you are neither first mate nor captain of the ship, what authority do you hold?”
Buntaro grinned widely. “I trust Sho completely,” he said. He leaned back against the wall and placed his hands behind his head. “He finds opportunities for us in places we would not normally frequent, and we are quite ready to accommodate your needs if they are within our ability.”
“Which leads us to the crux of the matter,” Sho continued. “Your man mentioned that you wanted passage through the seas but did not specify what this quest would entail.”
“Tell us what noble, foolhardy quest you have undertaken so that I may refuse and get along on our way.” Buntaro said. He took a swig of the sake then blinked in surprise. “By the kami, this is good. I’ve changed my mind. Get me more of this drink and I’ll agree to anything!”
Takesi fought the urge to say exactly what he thought of the unruly Mantis. Kyoko quickly gave him a warning look and spread out her hands. “We search a wreckage of a ship that disappeared over thirty years ago. I know that I will not find anyone else who can search the seas with your expertise.”
“What is this ship called?” Sho asked
“It was called the Inferno,” Takesi stated. “Once it was one of the treasures of the Phoenix Clan, but it disappeared during the chaos of the Clan Wars. Our sensei used a favor with the Kitsu to contact the spirit of the captain of the ship. The conversation was short and tortured, but we found out that the captain accidentally navigated into a Sea of Shadow. There they all met their end.”
Takesi did not miss the look in Buntaro’s eyes as he exchanged a quick glance with his first mate.
“Did the spirit tell you where to find this cursed ship?” Sho asked.
Kyoko shook her head. “He was not able to tell us its exact location, but we know enough to start us on our way.”
Fushou, who had rested quietly throughout the conversation, leaned in close to Buntaro. Kyoko closed her eyes briefly. Takesi could see the air kami turn and gather around them as Kyoko silently prayed for their aid. In an instant Takesi could hear the first mate whisper to Buntaro clearly as if he had shouted it across the room.
“I do not feel comfortable traversing the Seas of Shadow for a foolhardy quest,” Fushou said.
“You’re right, but let’s see what these fops can offer us,” Buntaro replied. “It may be worth the trouble if they pay us handsomely for it. We’ve done it before.”
“I assure you,” Kyoko continued as if they had not whispered at all, “our quest will be difficult, but is crucial to the fate of the empire.”
“It always is,” Buntaro said. His sardonic smirk clearly stated exactly what he thought of that idea.
Takesi spoke loudly. His indignation clearly colored his words, but he could not restrain himself. “Our associate told us your ship was willing to go to the ‘darkest waters of the sea.’ Sho-san said that nothing on the ocean was too dangerous for your crew. Was that simple bravado, then?”
“The Seas of Shadow are not trifling matters,” Buntaro said. He drank for a long time then placed his cup back on the table. “The horrors that live under its surface will destroy any normal man’s sanity. Few travel into them and survive.”
“I assumed you are no normal men. If you help us, your names will be declared across the empire as heroes,” Kyoko said. She paused a moment. “Of course, the Phoenix will see to it that you are handsomely rewarded.”
“What items do you seek from the ship?” Sho asked.
Kyoko nodded. “The ship was on the way to the Crab lands as aid. Before it disappeared, it carried a large cache of jade and several priceless artifacts. Those artifacts must come back to our hands, but you are welcome to everything else.”
“Bah!” Buntaro said. “A few decades in the Sea of Shadow and everything you find will be worthless.”
“The Elemental Master warded the ship with the strongest rituals,” Kyoko said. “Its contents, I assure you, will not disappoint you. If the treasure does not meet your standards, Buntaro-san, the Phoenix will justly reimburse you for the time and effort you spend on our behalf.”
Fushou and Sho turned to their captain. They waited as Buntaro sat and deliberated their situation. Finally, Buntaro shook his head. “I am a fool for even entertaining the offer, but I have been accused of being worse than that. We accept. You may join our party for our trip back to my ship. We’ll head out now.”
Sho and Fushou immediately stood up and headed for the door. Sho tossed the owner of the sake house a small pouch. Takesi’s mouth dropped. “Wait, that’s it?” he asked. “A moment earlier you told us you would not help us. Now you’re ready to go?”
Buntaro stood up and shrugged. “What do you expect, boy? We decided on our course of action. There’s no point in wasting time.”
Kyoko stepped forward and bowed. “Thank you, Buntaro-san. Takesi and I are grateful for your aid.”
Takesi bit back further protests and bowed along with Kyoko. The two Phoenix followed the Mantis as they moved out onto the street. Takesi immediately stopped in his tracks to avoid walking into Buntaro. The Mantis trio stood in the middle of the street without moving. “What now?” Takesi asked.
Kyoko pointed to the north. “Look, Takesi-san,” she said. Takesi focused his gaze on the horizon, and he let out a small gasp of surprise. Countless golden banners fluttered in the wind and the army simply waited for some signal. Two samurai rode at full speed toward the village. Murmurs emanated around him as the villagers stepped out to view the spectacle.
“Lion,” Sho said quietly.
Within minutes the two Lion riders reached the town square. The door of the court chambers flung open and a young Hare samurai-ko stepped out. Takesi recognized her heraldry as that of Usagi Oteko, the leader of Kudo. The riders bowed slightly â€” enough to avoid insult but only barely so. One of the riders, clad in rich golden robes, dismounted and withdrew a large scroll from his pouch.
“Greetings to the citizens of the city of Kudo,” the Lion shouted. “I am Ikoma Hodota, omoidasu of the Lion Clan. The armies of the Lion Clan have arrived to enforce the will of the Imperial Court.”
Oteko called out loudly across the square. “I was not made aware of any proclamation from the Court concerning our village.”
Hodota smiled. “Forgive me. I forgot that news travels slowly in the rural villages. Allow me to enlighten you.”
He unfurled the large scroll in his hands and began to read its contents in a loud booming voice.
“The city of Kudo has suffered great many tragedies in the past. It has been targeted by the rain of blood, the army of Bloodspeakers, and many other dangerous threats. The Imperial Court hereby proclaims that the village of Kudo will be protected by the might of the Right Hand of the Emperor. The Lion armies pledge to defend Kudo to the death.”
“Those threats have long since passed into history!” Oteko shouted. Her face grew dark red. “The Hare are strong enough to defend this city!”
“They will be honored for their steadfast adherence to their duty,” Hodotai said. “That duty is no longer upon them to fulfill.”
“The Hare are more capable of guarding this land than any other!” Oteko shouted.
Hodotai’s eyes narrowed. Very calmly and carefully, he asked “are you implying that the armies of the Hare rival those of the Lion?”
Warnings rang in Takesi’s mind, but the impetuous Hare did not seem to notice. “The Lion cannot protect this city as well as the Hare have in the past. Set your power hungry eyes elsewhere and leave Kudo alone!”
“You forget yourself!” Hodotai roared. “Did you think you could insult the Lion Clan because I am an omoidasu? Honor demands an answer. I accept your challenge.”
Oteko’s eyes widened as she realized what she had done. After the realization settled in her eyes, determination replaced the surprise. She nodded once then strode forward to meet Hodotai in the middle of the street. They bowed deeply to each other then began to ready their stances.
“Let us be on our way,” Sho said. “This will not end well, and it would not do to ignite old rivalries here.”
Buntaro nodded. The group headed on its way to the road heading east. As they left, the small, almost insignificant sound of two swords leaving their sheaths reached their ears. Oteko gasped.
* * *
Takesi raised his katana into a ready position. His gaze was focused on the blade as it slowly cut through the air in front of the Phoenix. The edge glinted golden with the light of the distant sun as he held his position for one long moment. He struck quickly, slashing horizontally at some imaginary foe. He reset his position and repeated the movement five more times before lowering the blade to his side.
“I gather you do not travel by boat often,” Sho said from behind him, and Takesi quickly turned around to see the solemn Tsuruchi standing behind him. His face flushed and he wondered how much the Tsuruchi had witnessed.
“This is only my second time,” Takesi said. He sheathed the katana and turned back toward Sho. “However, I am used to the rocking of the sea. Do my movements seem awkward to you?”
“A little, though that is not what I meant,” Sho replied. He pointed at the katana by his side. “All veteran sailors know to wrap their daisho with oiled cloth to prevent rust.”
Takesi looked down at the katana with chagrin. “I did not know that. I’ll attend to that as soon as I can.”
“You are an interesting man, Takesi-san. I do not know many shugenja who perform kata at the beginning of the day, much less that one. That looked to be a basic kata to ready one’s mind for iaijutsu.”
Takesi nodded fervently. “It is a fascinating ritual. I am not proficient with the blade by any stretch of the imagination â€” my work with the kami leaves me with little time to devote to such skills â€” but I do learn when I can.”
“I see,” Sho said and stepped to the edge of the boat. The pair stared out at the rolling waves, watching for any sign of their target. The wind blew cold, refreshing air into them as the ship continued forward.
“I did not think you would accept our terms,” Takesi admitted.
Sho stood silent for a long moment before responding. “Buntaro-san has a rough reputation, but he is a good captain. I believe he has embarked this quest on my behalf.”
“What drives you to help us?” Takesi asked.
“The treasures you have promised us,” Sho responded.
Takesi found himself speechless for a moment. “I see,” he said when he found his voice once more.
Sho glanced at him and suddenly grinned. “I mean the cache of jade that has been lost to the Empire. It has become a precious commodity of late, and the Crab can use any that they can get their hands on to power their war effort against the Shadowlands.”
“You would sell the Crab the jade from the ship?” Takesi asked.
“I intend to gift them with my share of the jade,” Sho responded. “More than my share, if I can convince the others of its importance.”
Takesi blinked rapidly. The conversation was turning stranger by the moment. Was this truly a Mantis, whose ruthless and mercantile nature was so widely disparaged in the corners of the courts?
“I have a personal interest invested in the cause,” Sho said. “My brother and I were in Otosan Uchi the day it fell to the Shadowlands. He did not escape unscathed, and he voluntarily gave himself up to the Witch Hunters. It has been many years since I have last spoken to him, but…”
“I understand,” Takesi said.
They stood quietly, contemplating over the Tsuruchi’s last words. As they waited on the front of the ship the cool breeze turned warm and sticky. The refreshing smell of saltwater became sickly and putrid, and the waters slowly became rough and dark with some brown substance. Discordant shrieks began to interrupt the song of the kami, turning the beautiful sound into a mournful dirge. The other samurai on board â€” Kyoko, Fushou, Buntaro, and several Asako Inquisitors â€” joined Takesi and Sho on the deck.
“I hope your information turns out to be good,” Buntaro said. “We’re approaching one of the Seas of Shadow. Things will become a tad difficult.”
“It is good,” Kyoko whispered to herself. “By the kami, it must be good.”
They waited with baited breath as the ship cut through the disturbing waters. The Asako Inquisitors murmured under their breath and Takesi could watch the water kami respond to their prayers. Soon they navigated through the Tainted waters with ease as the pure kami traveled along with the ship. Ten terse minutes passed as they searched through the dangerous sea. Each passing minute felt like hours as they raced the clock to escape notice from the worst of the Sea of Shadow’s dangers.
Fushou was the first to spot the wreckage near the island. He raised his hand and pointed off the port of the ship. “There!” he proclaimed. All eyes turned to the left and faced a gruesome sight. A ship aged beyond its years crashed its bow into a series of large stones. The rotten mast had crashed and fallen onto the beach. A shiver ran down Takesi’s spine. The ship had taken a beating over the years, but it was the Inferno. It could be none other.
Buntaro seemed to share his excitement. “Press forward!” he called out to the peasant sailors and the ship moved closer to the island. The chanting grew louder as the others intensified the ritual to protect their vessel. The sudden appearance of water trolls along the beach dampened Takesi’s spirits. The trolls roared and began to run toward the approaching ship. Takesi reached into his scroll case for a prayer to the kami as they drew ever closer.
“I didn’t sign up for this,” Buntaro grumbled and picked up his kama. “Ready yourselves!”
That was all the time they had before the monsters were among them. Only a handful of trolls assaulted them, but each one fought with the ferocity of several men. Their long arms reached out and slammed into the samurai, flinging their victims off their feet. They fought with tooth and claw and fist and foot, and the desperate melee continued. A Mantis crewman fell into the water and immediately sank underneath the waves. He never came up again. The Rokugani were far from helpless. Kyoko rose toward the sky as the air kami enveloped her in their embrace. The wind shrieked as it violently slammed into the Shadowlands creatures. It was not enough to deter the trolls from their attack.
Takesi fervently called out to the kami, but there were precious few fire kami nearby. Instead, the kansen sang out to him in seductive tones, asking for simply one chance to prove their power to him. Takesi held firm against the siren song and desperately ducked away from a troll’s ferocious strike. He knew that the devastating punch would kill him if he faltered even for a second.
“Take this, beast!” Buntaro suddenly shouted and leapt in front of Takesi. The troll roared.
Takesi composed himself. He would not get such a respite again. He prayed fervently to the fire kami once more and this time they were ready to answer his call. Flames erupted around his hand as the fire kami danced and sang around him. He raised his hand and pointed at the approaching troll. Fire leapt from his hand and engulfed the beast as it raised one giant hand to pummel the Mantis in front of it. It screamed in pain and began to beat at the flames. Takesi calmly stepped forward and placed one hand on the hilt of his katana. It was just like performing one of his kata. He struck and the troll gurgled its death knell.
The fight was not over by any stretch of the imagination. Buntaro immediately turned around and struck the closest troll in the back with both his kama. The troll stopped and turned around to face Buntaro. Before the troll could react further, Buntaro attacked with wild abandon. The troll, taken aback by the barrage, fended off the blows with his large hands. The kama slashed harmlessly against the troll’s thick hide. Buntaro jumped backwards to avoid the troll’s attack. He threw the kama in frustration and watched as they bounced off the troll to no effect. The troll laughed.
“Buntaro-san!” Takesi called out. He quickly whispered, focusing his thoughts into another prayer. The fire formed around his hands once more then turned into a flaming katana. When Buntaro turned to face him Takesi threw the magic blade to him. Buntaro leapt into the air and grabbed the hilt of the katana. He landed then lunged forward, impaling the troll through the chest. The monster died, surprise freezing onto its face as it crashed and died.
Buntaro kicked the troll in its chest and it fell backward into the murky waters. He turned back to the Phoenix and glanced at the sword in his hand.
“Thanks for the loan, Takesi-san,” he said. The Mantis grinned and offered the blade back to him.
* * *
Unloading the hold of the Inferno took far less time than anticipated. It seemed that the ship was not as lost as the group had believed, for there was not a scrap of jade remaining aboard. Takesi had been extremely distressed, but his state was nothing like that of Buntaro’s, who had raged and wailed for almost an hour about risking his ship for nothing. Sho had performed a careful examination of the area and found a scrap of dark blue cloth caught on one of the jagged edges of wood near a hole in the hull. “Only the Crab use such coarse fabric,” he had said. “They were here. No more than a month ago, by the look of it.”
The irony of the ship being lost for so long only to have been discovered twice in such a short time was not lost on Takesi. It soured his mood considerably, but he could not help but appreciate Sho’s wry smile. Considerably more than the archer’s share of the jade would go to the Crab, apparently. And Kyoko had quietly assured Buntaro that, in light of the situation, she felt sure the Phoenix would wish to increase his payment. To assuage his honor, naturally. Personally Takesi was not sure Buntaro was concerned about his honor, but the promise of more payment brightened his mood almost immediately.
It was nearly a week later that the ship was approaching the mainland, and the two Phoenix had privately had time to go through all the personal belongings that they had recovered from the ship. The Mantis left them to it. After all, they were simply preparing the possessions to be returned to the lost men’s families, or so the Mantis believed.
“It is not here,” Kyoko said as the Phoenix prepared to disembark and return to their homeland. The disappointment in her voice was palpable.
“Perhaps someone else has already found the Dark Covenant of Water,” Takesi said. “We shall simply have to look elsewhere, or follow some other lead.”
“Now you are optimistic, my friend?” Kyoko asked.
Takesi smiled. “Perhaps we have taken yet another setback, but we have gained so much. The Tear of Lady Doji is priceless. The journals are priceless. Perhaps reading Tsuke-sama’s journals will share some insight into the mind of someone who committed so many horrors in the name of the Phoenix Clan. We can avoid such pitfalls if they present themselves again. Most importantly, I have gained the measure of a truly honorable man. Sho has informed me that he has received an invitation to visit the Crab lands from some mysterious organization. I am sure that he will find the destiny of a hero if he takes the opportunity.”
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