By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Crab lands, a short time ago…
Somewhere in a hidden recess of the vast Twilight Mountains, a lone stone tower stood, concealed from prying eyes and unknown to all but those who made the region their home. Countless tents and small stone barracks dotted the landscape around the tower, but none rivaled its height, and certainly none were obtrusive enough to be seen from a distance.
The man called Omen sat in meditation within the tower’s uppermost chamber. He often spent hours each day in such a state, communing with the divine entity whose soul he shared. Omen considered himself fortunate indeed that their bond was such a close one, and that his patron communicated so openly with him. Of late, however, the task had been more difficult, his patron more removed, and as a result he had felt more human than in all the time since he had become the Oracle of Jade. In some ways it was a refreshing sensation, but in just as many it troubled him greatly. His path was less certain without his patron’s constant influence, and the raw, sinister power of the artifact that was contained within the tower’s lowest level gnawed at the edge of his mind. Not for the first time, Omen was grateful that the blessing the Jade Dragon had bestowed upon the Crab outside rendered them essentially immune to the book’s power. Omen greatly missed that portion of his patron’s power.
There was a sudden flash of jade that illuminated everything in the room. Omen gasped at the intensity of it, even more so when he realized that it had emanated from him. His awareness, muted in recent days, suddenly expanded outward beyond anything he had ever known. He could sense each of the men and women outside the tower, standing guard, sleeping, meditation, eating… he could see inside the souls of each and every one. He had known them before, and seen within them when they had undergone the ritual that bound them to the Order of the Jade Hand, but now he could see beyond even that. His soul swelled with pride at the strength that they possessed.
The link Omen possessed with his patron had been restored, and he knew what that meant. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, of course. I live to serve your will.” His gaze lingered for a moment at the window, his thoughts flickering to those who stood alongside him in their duties. “I… had hoped for a longer time to prepare them. To make them ready for what will come.” He paused, his head tilted to the side as he listened. “No, they are ready. They are the finest among mankind. All that comes, they will weather. Even the defeats.” He paused again, then nodded. “At once, my patron.”
The man that had once been called Omen left the tower without a word, and began the long walk north toward the Imperial City.
* * *
The Scorpion village of Ginasutra…
For at least the tenth time since she had risen to greet the sun in the morning, Matsu Benika wondered what manner of offense she could possibly have committed to garner a duty such as this. She despised the Scorpion lands on general principle, and that was enough to make the situation thoroughly unpleasant. The company she was forced to keep, on the other hand, made it beyond unbearable.
The Crane agent to whom she had temporarily been assigned duty as a yojimbo had identified himself simply as Naoharu, with no family name given or indicated on his attire. The man had consumed as much sake with his morning meal as Benika had ever seen a soldier consume after an exhausting battle, and yet he seemed to suffer no ill effects that she could immediately see. Naoharu had seen her disdainful stare and simple smiled and insisted that he found it calmed his nerves before an important negotiation.
Negotiation. That was the true dishonor inherent in the matter. Naoharu’s business in the village was to conclude what was apparently a very important trade negotiation with the Scorpion, a negotiation that would apparently secure considerable resources for the Crane in their battle with the Crab. Benika was not certain how the Lion were involved, and did not wish to know. Matters of a mercantile nature were not of interest to her.
“You seem ill at ease, Benika-san,” Naoharu said smoothly. He inspected the folds of his kimono, which were of exquisite quality, while the two of them waited for their counterparts among the Scorpion to arrive.
“I find my presence here curious,” she said simply.
“Ah,” the merchant lord said, smiling wryly. It was a thoroughly unpleasant expression. “I suppose it is odd, if one is not familiar with the situation.”
“I have no formal training as a yojimbo,” she explained. “I would think that you would be better served with a Daidoji at your side. They are fare better equipped than I to deal with any threat that might arise.”
“There will be no threats,” Naoharu said. “Or at least, no physical threats. No, my friend, your presence here fulfills a different purpose entirely.” He paused. “You are not curious as to what that might be?”
“My duties do not require knowledge of it,” she answered flatly.
“I see,” he answered. “I will indulge myself regardless! You see, this trade does not in any way involve the Lion Clan. The Scorpion are aware of this. Your presence, even as a simple yojimbo, will set them on guard enough that I may be able to gain an advantage in the negotiation.” His smile widened. “The Scorpion tend to find the Lion a bit more threatening regardless, I imagine.”
“Curious that a Lion yojimbo would be so easy to obtain,” Benika observed.
“I fulfill a number of very important roles for very important people within the Crane,” Naoharu laughed. “Since your clans… forgive me, our clans, are so close, it made it a simple matter. Given the important nature of these negotiations, you must be a person of considerable regard among your leaders to be assigned. You must be quite honored.”
Benika was saved from responding by the arrival of a trio of Scorpion, including two armored yojimbo and a man who was clearly Naoharu’s equivalent within the Scorpion Clan. He was extremely aged, perhaps even what Benika might call elderly, but his eyes were bright and possessed a hint of menace. “Good day, friends,” he said, his eyes flickering to Benika for just a moment. “I apologize for keeping you waiting. I am Yogo Ichiba. It will be my pleasure to speak with you today.”
“Yogo Ichiba,” Naoharu said, rising to bow. It was the first bit of sincerely appropriate behavior that Benika had seen from the Crane. “I am a great admirer of your work, my lord. The pleasure will be mine, I assure you.”
Ichiba’s smile did nothing to allay his menace. “Then may we begin?”
* * *
Naoharu seemed positively giddy as the two of them returned to their quarters at a local inn. The negotiations had taken longer than Benika had expected, but there was still time for them to begin the journey to their respective homes before nightfall, and Benika had every intention of doing so. “That went far better than expected,” Naoharu was saying. “Perhaps Ichiba-san is growing too old for his duties. Or perhaps I am simply more skilled than even I thought!” He chuckled to himself, and Benika wondered if it was possible that the sake he had consumed hours ago was only now beginning to affect him.
Benika could not contemplate an appropriate response, and so said nothing. Her warrior instincts were alerted, however, as a quartet of men stepped into the fading afternoon light to block their path. Benika’s hand went toward her sword, but relaxed somewhat when she saw the Imperial mon on the leader’s kimono. She did not relax entirely, however; this was still the Scorpion lands.
“Naoharu, emissary of the Crane,” the leader said. “I am a duly appointed representative of the Emerald Champion, Imperial magistrate Bayushi Takao. I have heard disturbing rumors, Naoharu-san,” he emphasized the familiar term of address, “that your business practices regularly skirt the edges of legality in terms of certain goods. I have concerns that you might be trafficking in such items within the Scorpion lands, and that of course is unacceptable. I wonder, what would come of a search of your belongings?”
Naoharu smiled. It was a predator’s expression, and Benika knew that the man would not come away from such an invitation without attempting to gain further ground against the Scorpion. “Takao-sama,” she interrupted, bowing. “Forgive my intrusion, magistrate, but I have been assigned to Naoharu as a yojimbo on behalf of the Lion, as part of our alliance with the Crane. I have accompanied Naoharu-sama throughout his stay in this city, and I assure you that I have seen nothing that would indicate any manner of criminal activity.”
Takao frowned. “What interest do the Lion have in this matter?”
“None whatsoever,” she answered truthfully. “I merely do not wish to see a magistrate of Imperial standing waste his time with a fruitless search.”
The magistrate was silent for a short time, then slowly nodded. “Very well then. Far be it from me to impugn the honor of the Lion Clan over something as… trivial… as commerce.” He bowed to Naoharu, but only slightly, and the lot of them left.
Naoharu watched them retreat. “Well, that was disappointing,” he said dryly, all signs of his mirth gone. “Still, I suppose I should thank you.”
“Save your thanks,” Benika said. “I have no use for them, or you. My duty is fulfilled.”
The merchant lord raised an eyebrow. “Why do it at all, then? Why bother?”
She could not contain a sneer. “You disgust me,” she spat. “Of course you would not understand. You have no honor. I was given a duty to fulfill, and I have done so. I have saved an ally of my clan from losing face in public. Should I have permitted your disgraceful behavior to become known to even more samurai, even those among the Scorpion? I would never stoop so low as to bandy about such personal matters in front of others.” She shook her head. “You are a disgrace to the name of Lady Domotai. I will rejoice on the day I hear of your sepukku.”
Benika turned and left without another word. She had time to visit the vast plains to the west before returning to the Matsu provinces, and she hoped that she might see the great cats that called that region home. Her soul could benefit from something of beauty to wash away the grime of this place, and of these people.
* * *
The shrine to Kisada, the Fortune of Perseverance, was the largest in the halls of Kyuden Hida, save for those shrines devoted to the Kami Hida and to his son, Hida Osano-Wo, now the Fortune of Fire and Thunder. The shrine had been more or less closed down after Kisada’s glorious return to the mortal realm through Oblivion’s Gate some years ago, but recently, tragically, it had been re-opened. It was among the most heavily trafficked areas of the castle now, as countless Crab warriors filed through each day to pay their respects to a man who had transcended legend to become a god made flesh.
Now, however, there was only one man within the shrine.
Hida Kuon sat unmoving before the shrine. He had come to the shrine for one hour at the same time of day every day since the day he had learned of his grandfather’s death. All others had learned to anticipate his visits, and avoided the shrine during that time out of respect for their Champion’s grief. Those few who had seen him sitting before the altar, however, knew that it was another emotion that dominated Kuon’s visits to his grandfather’s shrine.
There was a slight stirring somewhere behind him. “What is it?” Kuon demanded.
“It… was not my intent to disturb you, my lord,” a voice said. “Your orders were to report immediately, however. If you would prefer I wait…”
“Lord Kisada had no use for the meek, and nor do I,” Kuon said. “Speak.”
“As you wish, my lord,” the messenger replied. “The Kuni have submitted their findings. Regrettably, they report that Lord Sun is indeed absent from the Heavens. His place seems to have been usurped by another.”
Kuon said nothing for a moment. “The remains?
“The Kaiu samurai whose report prompted the matter led the Kuni to the site where this event allegedly took place.” The messenger’s tone was uncomfortable, and it seemed to Kuon that he was struggling to be as vague as possible. Likely a defense for a mind unsuited to such matters. Kuon made a mental note to have the man reassigned elsewhere when this was concluded. “They discovered a mass of jade that they believe may have been Lord Sun’s… corpse.”
“Jade,” Kuon said blankly. “Feast or famine, it seems.”
“Yes. Ah, well… the Kuni believe that the jade recovered from the site may in fact be heavenly in nature. It appears to be incorruptible. They have asked what your orders are regarding the remains, my lord?”
“Use the largest portion to create a new shrine to Lord Sun,” Kuon answered at once. “Adjoin it to this shrine, that Kisada and his son might be revered in the same manner as Hida and his son. As for the rest, commission a new lot of Kaiu weapons, each prepared to accept jade inlays. We will remember our fallen in a manner befitting the memory of great Crab warriors… with the deaths of our enemies.”
* * *
The unaligned lands north of the Crab provinces…
The tiny village of Dokushi Mura appeared on no maps. It was simply too small for anyone to bother noticing. No roads led through it, and there was nothing to mark its presence save for a simple path that wandered out of the village’s western edge, and that would eventually find a more suitable road elsewhere in the province. The village numbered no more than a few dozen, perhaps fifty souls at the very most, and as such was simply beneath the notice of most.
The man formerly called Omen walked through the village, making no attempt to draw attention to himself. It was along his path, but he had little interest in the village itself. Still, the sight of a stranger was not common, and many stared at him as he passed, or even ran in fear. He could see their fear, their awe, written on their souls. These people, and their ancestors for generations, had been preyed upon by the most desperate ronin and bandits, for they were an easy target and the simply did not warrant the attention of larger or more successful groups.
The former Omen stopped, and experimented for a moment with the boundaries of his new awareness. He peered into the souls of those around him, deeper than that to which he was accustomed, and examined the very essence of who they were. He could see the struggle they had each year, the fight to produce enough food to sustain a village and pay their taxes, meager though they might be. They traveled for two days to transport the rice to the nearest town with a magistrate, sending enough men to keep it safe and leaving their own homes vulnerable in the process. The adults of the village were thin, but seemed content, and their children were well-fed and happy. Despite the meager resources available to them, the former Omen saw bowls of rice left in offering at the village shrine, as was proper.
Many villagers who had not fled had fallen on the ground, kneeling before Omen despite that he bore no swords or badge of office. They could perhaps sense his new station, or instinctively understood who he was. What he was. This was a good and proper village, and he could not pass without offering his patron’s blessing.
“I am the Voice of the Jade Sun,” he said, his voice mild but carrying throughout the entire village, audible to every ear. “You are a virtuous and pious people, and the Heavens are greatly pleased with your reverence.” He waved his hand toward the fields beyond the village. “Your harvest will be abundant. You and your families will feast, and sickness will pass over this village, so long as your path remains true.” He paused and smiled at a small child who gazed up at him with wonder. “Tell all those who pass through your village. The new order will reward the pious, and the sinful will be punished.”
The Voice of the Jade Sun continued on his path northward, and the people of Dokushi Mura bowed their heads in prayerful thanks.
* * *
The Plains of Thunder, west of the Scorpion lands
The unpleasantness of Ginasutra could almost be forgotten in such a place as this, Benika thought. The plains seemed almost without end. Even in the emptiest regions of the Lion lands, there was always a settlement somewhere within sight, even if only on the horizon. Farmers would dot such places, constantly wrapped in a cycle of planting and harvesting in an effort to feed the vast legions of the Lion. Even though Benika took pride in the accomplishments of those men and women who served the clan, there were times when she craved the absolute isolation that this place seemed to afford her so easily.
The pride of lions Benika had been watching for more than an hour continued to ignore her presence. She could tell from their posture and appearance that they were well-fed, and thus she had little to fear. She had arrived in the plains the previous night, and bedded down in the wild, like the animals she now observed. It was a dangerous thing to have done, any sensible soul would have told her, but she had never felt threatened under circumstances such as these. It was not within her nature.
Something seemed to catch the attention of the male lion. He stood, and even at this distance Benika could see his mane bristle. He growled to the lionesses, and they in turn herded their cubs to the interior of the group. The low growl the male issued could be heard even this far away. The Lion warrior frowned and scanned the horizon for what might have caused such alarm in the otherwise relaxed creatures. For a moment she could see nothing, and then she spotted a lone traveler walking along the western horizon, back toward the Scorpion lands. He was even farther away than Benika, however, so there was no reason that he should have alarmed the creatures. Still, they watched him carefully, and their postures were such that she felt concern.
As quietly and discreetly as possible, Benika rose from where she sat among the tall grasses and began moving toward the traveler, a cautious walk at first, and then a low run that kept her profile concealed among the grass as much as possible. It was dangerous to attract the pride’s attention when they were clearly agitated, but she could not stand idly by while some foolish ronin or peasant got himself killed.
After a few moments, she reached the traveler. He was wrapped in thick cloaks despite the heat and seemed to walk with a slight stoop. “Traveler!” she hissed. “You need to turn back the way you came, now. You are in danger?”
“Danger?” the man said. His voice was strange, and it reminded Benika of her most senior sensei at the dojo where she had grown up. The men and women that had taught her had been wise beyond all reckoning, and had been a powerful influence on her as a child. “What danger might that be, child?”
“You need to leave, grandfather,” she said, convinced the traveler was nothing more than an old man who had chosen a terrible time and place for his walk. “You need to leave. There are predators about.”
“Predators,” the man said. “Do you mean them?”
Benika turned and nearly recoiled in shock. The entire pride, cubs and all, had crossed the plains and now stood a very short distance away, far shorter than even the haughtiest among the Matsu Beastmasters would consider safe. They stood, apparently curious, regarding the two without malice. She knew from experience, however, that could change in an instant.
Benika moved between the lions and the old man, moving very slowly. “Turn and go back the way you came,” she said in a quiet voice. “I will attempt to keep their attention.”
“You are a courageous woman,” the man observed, apparently completely unconcerned. “But then your virtues are many, are they not?”
The notion that the man might be insane distressed Benika, but the behavior of the lions was far more distressing in how extraordinarily atypical it was. “What are they doing?” she whispered. “They would never have approached this closely if not to attack. Why have they not attacked?”
“Your soul bears the fingerprint of Chikushudo,” the man said. “It is a faint mark, and nothing that guarantees safety, but it is perceptible to creatures such as these all the same.”
Benika frowned, and turned to look at the man over her shoulder. “Who are you, grandfather?”
“You risk your life to save that of a stranger, one who by all clear indication is beneath your station in every possible regard. You adhere to duty, even if it causes you distress to risk your commitment to sincerity. You are a virtuous woman, Matsu Benika.”
She rapidly forgot about the lions. Something about the man’s voice was almost musical, and it filled her mind with a radiance she could not put into words. “How do you know my name?” she asked, her voice strangely quiet to her own ears. “Who are you?”
The man raised his head, and the brilliance of his eyes was more than she could bear; she looked away. “I am the Voice of the Jade Sun,” he said. “I am the voice of a power that shall reshape the Empire as you understand it, and it is my great privilege to offer its blessings to those who are worthy.” He shook his head. “So few are. So very, very few.” He looked up again. “You are not among the unworthy masses, Matsu Benika. You are a worthy soul, a soul of virtue amid an Empire of self-absorption.”
“No,” she muttered, still looking down. “I am… I am only a warrior.”
“We are all more than what we do,” he said. “You inspire those around you. You demonstrate with your every action that there is a greater path, a more honorable way. How many have looked upon you and your great cats and secretly marveled at the blessings of the Heavens? How many have had their faith confirmed by the simple acts you commit without thought? How many have strived for greater devotion to honor and bushido because of your inspiration.”
She could not find words. She simply shook her head. This was too much. Why could she not speak? What power did this man have, and why was he saying such things? She was a warrior. None of the things he was describing had ever happened. Had they?
“Those who are worthy will be rewarded,” the Voice said. “You are worthy, Matsu Benika. Take my hand. Take my hand and receive the blessings of the Jade Sun. Become a prophet of honor in an Empire that has lost its way.”
Benika summoned all her strength and raised her head. “I have made oaths,” she said, her voice just above a whisper. “I will not, I can not, turn my back on them.”
“And you will not be required to do so,” the Voice said. “To do so would betray the trust that this gift represents. Take my hand, Matsu Benika.”
She reached out and took his hand.
The world was awash in a brilliant green light.
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