The invasion of the Empire becomes more widespread as agents of the Army of Fire appear throughout the northern reaches of Rokugan, including the Badger, Phoenix, and Unicorn lands. And in the court of the Empress, a surprising development turns a simple contest into something far more significant.
The War of Dark Fire, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The northern reaches of Rokugan
The stone seemed so hard and sharp beneath his hands. It had been such a comfort to him only a short time ago. He had thrilled at the feel of the mountains beneath him, the cold air filling his lungs, the light-headedness that came with exertion. It had been the greatest thing in life to him only this morning.
Strange how quickly things could change.
Kazumasa stumbled and fell, skidding along the inclined surface. He reached out weakly with his right arm, but his strength was failing, and he was nearly unable to stop himself. He winced in agony as the stone bit into his already bloodied flesh. His will wavered, and he began to drop that which he held so closely to his chest in order to reach out with his left arm as well.
“No,” he croaked, his voice barely a whisper. He summoned the strength to push with both legs, halting his descent toward the precipice that would have surely ended his life. “No,” he repeated. His head swam, and for a moment, everything was black.
When did it become night? He was not sure. Perhaps it wasn’t night. Perhaps his injuries were simply too severe for him to perceive things correctly. Kazumasa had heard others speak of a certain calmness, a certain clarity that overtook men on the battlefield who were so grievously wounded that they could not possibly survive. The fact that this realization did not frighten him only reassured Kazumasa that he was, in fact, dying. He could hear the sounds of his ancestors speaking in the distance. He was coming ever closer to them. That, at least, would prove interesting; he had never known any living member of his family.
“Captain!” one of his ancestors shouted. “Captain, there’s someone here!”
One of his ancestors appeared, followed by two more. They loomed over him, wearing strange armor. Perhaps it was what all samurai wore in the next life. He had never cared for armor, personally, but things could change.
Another figure appeared over the shoulder of the first. “Is he alive, Yudo?”
“Yes, Joyung-sama,” the man replied. “He is badly injured.”
Shinjo Joyung bent over the wounded Kazumasa. “Who are you?”
“Are… are you… my father?” Kazumasa gasped.
The senior scout frowned, and gave him a careful look over. “He appears to have suffered significant injuries to his left leg, ribs, and an unpleasant cut on his right arm,” he said. “There is so much blood on his face I cannot tell if his left eye is missing or not. And I suspect he may be more than a bit mad, from the sound of it. Patch him up as best you can, Yudo.”
The younger scout nodded and reached down to inspect the bloodied cloth around Kazumasa’s ribs, his fingers grazing the stone in his hand. “No!” the Explorer shouted suddenly. “Do not touch it!”
Joyung appeared again, his expression curious. “Listen to me,” he said softly. “We are scouts with the Junghar army of the Unicorn Clan. We are searching for signs of the Army of Fire. We are not your enemy. Who are you? What happened to you?”
“I am… Kazumasa,” he gasped. “I am one of the Shogun’s Advisors, serving the Badger Clan. The… the Army of Fire came from nowhere. They move so much faster than we expected. They carry no supplies. They take what they need, they care nothing for the welfare of their men.”
“What happened?” Joyung repeated.
“They came upon the shrine,” Kazumasa said, his good eye tearing up. “We tried to stop them, there were reinforcements on the way, but there were too many, and we were too few. They reveled in the blasphemy of it. They indulged in it, surrendered to it, as if… as if…”
“As if in doing so they gain the favor of their master,” Joyung said with a sneer. “What is it you carry?”
Reluctantly, Kazumasa held forth the shattered stone. On its surface was an inscription, but Joyung could not read it. “It is all that remains of the shrine’s center column, on which the sacred invocation of the Kami Ryoshun was inscribed.”
Joyung nodded. “Do not worry, my friend. You and your treasure are under the Khan’s protection now.” He looked back to the others. “We have the information we need, men. We make for the northern Unicorn border, as fast as our charge’s injuries will allow us to travel.”
* * *
Doji Koin scowled as he followed along behind the elderly Badger Clan Champion. “Kihongo-sama, please, I am begging you, you must listen to reason.”
“What reason is there to this matter?” Kihongo said without turning around. “The matter is clear. The Badger have a sacred duty to perform, and for the first time in our history, we are being called upon to actually perform it.” He removed his ever-present pipe and blew an irritable puff of smoke. “Would you have me order my family to abandon their duties and flee like cowards?”
“No, my lord,” Koin said, “of course not. I am well aware of the proud tradition of the Ichiro family. You are descended from the blood of Crab and have endured more hardship than any clan in the Empire. But surely you must see that this is an insurmountable challenge. What you are expecting is impossible.”
“I am old enough to have seen the impossible accomplished many times,” Kihongo answered. “Perhaps this will be one more.” The old man entered the room that served him as his war room, and still Koin trailed behind. The other Ichiro within glanced in his direction curiously, but when Kihongo gave no consideration to the Crane’s presence, they too chose to ignore him. “What news?” Kihongo demanded.
“Nothing promising,” Ichiro Ryozan answered. Despite his young age, the man was one of the Champion’s principle military advisors. “The reinforcements that we dispatched to the northern shrine should have arrived some time ago. Their orders were to send a runner to inform us that they had arrived and were in position. That no one has arrived indicates they may have been intercepted or overrun even as they arrived.”
Kihongo drew deeply from his pipe and blew another ring. “If the shrine has fallen, then our very reason for existence has ceased to exist,” he said flatly. “Only the shrine’s presence saved us from dissolution a few years ago. Its destruction now…” he shook his head.
“They will be coming here,” Ryozan said. “We must determine how our defenses should be set up.”
“My lord,” Koin said quietly, “this army has been decimating Dragon defenses, and they have far greater resources at their disposal.”
“The army also has a commander who was among the highest ranking members of the Dragon Clan,” Ryozan snapped. “Of course he knows how to hurt the Dragon. That is all the Dark Oracle of Fire wishes to do in this world!”
Koin frowned. “I cannot refute that your point is well made,” he said, “but neither can you honestly deny that any military force sufficient to challenge the Dragon, regardless of their tactical advantage, can be easily rebuffed by the Badger. I mean no offense. I merely think of your future generations.”
“How many guests remain in the castle?” Kihongo asked suddenly.
“Only the Crane remain,” Ryozan said, glancing irritably at Koin.
Kihongo nodded slowly. “I regret that we cannot spare an honor guard for you,” he said, “but you will understand that we need all our forces. Please gather your retainers and head for the southern keeps. And…” he paused, clearly pained by the enormity of his decision. “And if I might ask of you a favor, please escort the children of the castle there as well. Some of our older children will look after them, but they will require an escort.”
Koin blinked in surprise, then bowed. “I would be greatly honored to provide such a service to the Badger Clan Champion, my lord.”
Ryozan frowned, but nodded grudgingly. He took a scroll from an attendant and glanced at it, and his frown turned into a cold, detached expression. “I am afraid that may not be possible, Kihongo-sama.”
Ryozan held the scroll out. “There are reports that scouts from the Army of Fire have been seen in the southern passes. They have cut off the only route south, my lord. There are perhaps a few minor trails here and there, but children could not traverse them safely.”
Kihongo lowered his head. After a few moments, he simply said. “I should have listened to you earlier.”
Koin thought for a moment, rubbing his chin. “My lord, there may be something. If you would permit me, I will be back in a few moments. There may yet be a way.”
It was nearly half an hour before Koin returned with two others in his company. Kihongo and the others looked up at them as they entered with the same confusion as if they had never laid eyes upon them men before. Koin could scarcely blame them. The men were planning defenses that would almost certainly fail and result in all their deaths. Such work could confound even the most stoic of men. “My lords, you know my yojimbo, Daidoji Sugoru. This man is one of your sentries, Ichiro Doru. Are you familiar with his name?”
“Should I be?” Kihongo asked.
Doru cleared his throat slightly. “My father was Ichiro Taraken.”
It seemed that the temperature in the room dropped noticeably with the mention of the name. “Perhaps you are not familiar with Taraken’s story,” Kihongo said to the Crane. “He was placed in charge of supervising a mine during the lean years our clan experienced after the Clan War. Unfortunately, he permitted the workers to range far from their assigned area, and ultimately not only did they fail to produce the ore we so desperately needed, but the fools spent more than a year digging a tunnel that ended up reaching the foundation of this very castle.” The Champion turned a baleful glare at the young Badger. “His father’s failures are among our most shameful. The waste of resources and time came when we could scarcely afford them.”
“No one questions that, my lord,” Koin said, “not even young Doru. However, my yojimbo has had time to speak with Doru over our months spent here, and he knows something of redemption. Doru spoke to him of the tunnel, which he saw as a child. It terminates outside one of the outermost walls of this castle’s subterranean level, and the other end emerges somewhere a few miles to the south.”
“I fail to see what this…” Kihongo’s voice trailed off. “How far south are the scouts?”
“A mile, perhaps a bit more,” Ryozan answered.
“We need a hammer,” Kihongo said.
Ryozan lifted a dai tsuchi and placed it on the table. “I believe I can help you find this tunnel,” he said to Doru. “Please, lead the way.”
* * *
The Winter Court of the Empress, Kyuden Bayushi
Shiba Yoma joined the others in polite applause as the final round of the contest took place. The contest had taken place over three days, organized as it was by the Otomo family, and supported whatever form of oratory that the contestants required. The early portions had unfolded as one might expect, with the Crane performing strongly. The real surprise was that a ronin attendant, a minor functionary of the Hare delegation, had held his own as well. In the final round, the Crane artisan had spontaneously woven an elaborate poem concerning the bravery of the Badger Clan. It had moved some to tears despite that it was relatively short and, in Yoma’s opinion, fairly pedestrian.
The ronin, on the other hand, had told a story of redemption, of a samurai who had lost all that mattered to him, and who had turned his back on his family, his clan, and his Empire, to embrace a dark and selfish past in order to survive his agony. In the end, the story went, he had a revelation at a critical moment and sacrificed himself to restore some vestige of his honor. It was a dramatic tale, of course, but to Yoma’s ear there was enough selfish and sinister behavior appearing within it to give it a ring of truth. Regardless, Yoma found himself wondering after the ronin’s history.
The judges determined that it was the ronin, whose name Yoma had never heard, was the victor, which was something of an upset among the echelons of the more ‘civilized’ clans. Under different circumstances, the Phoenix mused, such a thing would have been cause for at least a week’s worth of dramatic posturing. As it was, with the events unfolding in the north, the reaction seemed subdued. Even the defeated artisan seemed to smile appreciatively. The ronin was brought before the head Otomo in the presence of the Empress to receive his prize. The item in question, an exquisite calligraphy set, was offered twice and declined twice as protocol demanded. The judge smiled and offered it the third time, reaching out to bestow it to the victor.
“You misunderstand,” the ronin said. “I was not being polite. I cannot accept this prize.”
Whispers broke out through the crowd, and Yoma’s interest was piqued. The Otomo’s expression was a mixture of confusion and offense. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
“I will have no use for it shortly,” the ronin replied. “And in any event, I believe you will soon have no desire to give it to me. I suppose the tale of my sins was not sufficient to discourage you.”
The murmurs returned, louder this time. Yoma noticed the delegate from the Hare clan whispering furiously with other members of the Minor Clan Alliance’s delegation. “The actions you mentioned, the crimes you described,” the judge said, aghast, “you actually committed those actions?”
“Those and far worse,” the ronin agreed.
The uproar was considerable, particularly given the setting. Many were holding rapid conversations behind their fans, but the Imperial Advisor held up his hand for silence, and the room quieted at once. “I find your confession of interest,” Susumu said. “How much of your tale can be true, after all. You yet live.”
“I do,” the ronin agreed, bowing his head respectfully to the Advisor. “I can not yet meet my final fate until I have brought a gift to the Empress, a gift from my lord, on behalf of his lord. It was taken from the Realm of Waiting and passed into the Realm of Mortals some years ago, and now it is intended for the Child of the Heavens.” He withdrew something from his obi and held it forth. “It is nothing of significance, I fear. A minor netsuke. But the Heavens guide the world of man through the reign of the Divine Empress, and it is into her possession that this token, which once belonged to the Kami Ryoshun, must fall. My lady, I offer it to you and you alone.”
The Empress did not move behind her screen, but the Voice bowed. “If your offer is genuine, then the Empress wishes to have its veracity tested first. She remands custody of the token to her hosts among the Scorpion until such time as it can be ascertained if your words are true.”
“Your wisdom, my lady.”
“I am curious,” the Advisor continued, “who is your lord, ronin?”
“The Empress and those who require such knowledge already possess it,” the ronin said with a bow.
“The Empress would know the purpose of your visit to the court,” the Voice said. “Presentation of a gift would not require such elaborate means, and the concealment of your purpose is not lost upon her divine wisdom.”
The ronin inclined his head. “On the day of her ascension, the Empress extended an offer, one carried by the words of her Advisor to certain elements within her Empire. Regrettably, I find that I do not meet the conditions necessary to obtain the Empress’ pardon, but it is my desire to prove to her that even those who suffer from my particular… malady… are capable of recognizing their place in the new order.” He knelt. “No one is beyond redemption, my Empress. Salvation is the unique gift you can offer that was given to you by the Heavens to parcel as you deem appropriate. Please, allow me to prove to you that I am worthy of such a gift. That others are worth as well.”
There was a long moment of silence. “Speak your name, ronin,” the Advisor said.
“I am the poet Rezan,” the ronin said.
Whereas there had before been whispers and hushed conversation, now there was naught but silence. The story of Rezan was known to many, and he had disappeared following the Rain of Blood years ago, supposedly lost to the Shadowlands. What did his reappearance portend, Yoma wondered.
Finally, the Voice of the Empress spoke. “If it is redemption you seek, then there is but one means by which it can be achieved, Rezan. You understand this.”
The Empress nodded, and the Voice bowed his head. “In one hour, the Empress will accept the seppuku of the poet Rezan, in atonement for his crimes against the Empire and his succumbing to the lure of the Realm of Evil.”
* * *
Asako Serizawa looked again to the northwest and frowned at the column of smoke. It had been visible for more than an hour, but it would be some time yet before he and his attendants could reach the village. The notion of anyone finding Yobanjin Mura, a village that existed on very few maps and which had an entirely different name on those few that did bear its mark, was not something that the Phoenix wished the world at large to know of for a number of reasons.
One of the normally taciturn men who accompanied him virtually everywhere he went gestured toward the road ahead, where a single figure was walking toward them. Serizawa frowned, then nodded in silent assent.
At the inquisitor’s gesture, both the men rode ahead and took positions on opposite sides of the traveler. The lone figure stopped, regarding both men carefully, but there was no conversation between the three of them. They all seemed to be waiting for him to take charge of the situation. “Hello,” he finally said, as he took a position a short distance away. “I am Serizawa, an inquisitor with the Asako family of the Phoenix Clan. May I ask your name and the purpose of your presence here?”
“Only if I can ask the reason your men seem to be so adversarial,” the samurai, a woman, answered.
“The nature of business in this region concerns the possibility of enemy forces within Phoenix lands,” Serizawa answered in his plain, even tone. “My attendants are merely being… cautious.”
The woman seemed to consider his words for a moment. “And can I assume that your mute minions are of the Shiba family?”
Serizawa frowned at the question. “You may assume that, yes.”
The woman nodded and carefully withdrew a bundle from her back, watching the scrutiny that the attendants levied toward her as she did so. She placed the bundle on the ground and opened it. Within were four swords. “These belonged to the two magistrates in the village. I wanted to return them to their families.”
Serizawa looked to the column of smoke again. “What happened?”
“I was in the foothills south of here, near the border to the Dragon Heart Plain,” the woman said, “when your magistrates took me into custody and brought me to the village. That was two days ago. In the middle of the night last night, the village was attacked.”
“What is the status of the attack?” Serizawa asked.
“Completed,” the woman answered. “Nothing remains. It was burned to the ground. Every living thing was killed, save for myself.”
“What is your name?” the inquisitor asked.
“I am Bayushi Iyona, magistrate of the Scorpion Clan.”
He leaned forward atop his horse. “And why do you suppose that you were spared, Bayushi Iyona?”
“I possess the skills necessary to avoid detection,” she answered.
“And if I asked you why you were traveling in the foothills?” Serizawa demanded.
“Then I might be led to ask why your clan’s magistrates took me into custody outside the bounds of your clan borders,” she answered, “and why the village to which I was taken does not appear on any map, nor was its name given to me at any point, and why the denizens there, may the Fortunes watch their souls on their way to the Realm of Waiting, seemed so… exotic.”
The two attendants looked to Serizawa expectantly, but he waved them away. “Very well then, Bayushi Iyona,” he said. “Perhaps we can both go about our respective business, with no further questions asked.”
“That would be delightful, thank you,” Iyona said dryly.
Serizawa gestured to the blades. “You have my thanks. Is there any message I should send?”
“Tell the families that their kinsmen died valiantly, and that they took many of their enemies with them. And tell them that the men who killed them did not survive the night. I made certain of it.”
* * *
Shinjo Osema ran a hand through his close-cropped beard, which was less shot through with grey anymore than it was simply grey with flecks of black. “How many?” he asked.
The captain of the guard shook his head. “We cannot say, my lord. The only sightings have involved a small number, but it is impossible to say if the groups that have been seen are different forces, or a single force that has been sighted multiple times.”
Osema grimaced. His appointment as governor of Bikami had been extremely uneventful ever since his arrival years ago. At the time he had resented it, accustomed as he had become to the hectic insanity of governing Ryoko Owari Toshi. In his later years, however, he had come to greatly appreciate the serenity of his position, and had tried to rule as best he could. His efforts had been rewarded with great prosperity, but now it seemed as though all that could be destroyed. “How many were there in the group that laid siege to Far North Village?”
The captain shook his head. “I do not know. Not many. Less than we have seen, certainly, but they had the great hawks with them as well, and Far North Village is not as well defended as Bikami.”
“Can we assume that the hawks will not come?” Osemi asked. “It may well be what the scouts are waiting on before they attempt to test our defenses, for all we know.”
“I do not know, governor,” the captain answered.
“And what if the wyrms come?” Osemi said quietly. “How can we hope to defend against such a thing?”
The captain paled at the mention of it. “We cannot, my lord.”
Osemi nodded. “Every man and woman trained with the blade remains. Everyone else is to be removed. Take everything of value, every stored piece of grain or item of food, and have them travel west to Shiro Utaku. The fortifications there should hold in the face of almost anything, and they can reallocate the crops as necessary.”
“Your will, governor,” the captain said. “What will the remainder of us do?”
“We will remain and deal with this matter as samurai,” Osemi said. “The Khan’s enemies will find nothing of value here, but they may well find death.”
* * *
The Empire was far smaller than most within it realized. A samurai could travel from one end to the next without great difficulty, assuming the proper papers were not an issue, but stigma and shame could follow just as easily as if they were borne on the wind. There were times that Yoritomo Chimori wondered if that might not actually be the case, if somehow the kami did not carry with whispers and secrets of men like himself, men who had failed spectacularly in life, to the ears of all whom he encountered. Chimori put down the firewood he carried and sat down on a crude stool. He withdrew a rice ball from the sack he carried on his hip and munched on it absently, looking at the assortment of tents and other temporary structures that surrounded the lone watchtower.
Exile’s Watchtower was well known among certain circles. The road that it watched over was the path from the Unicorn lands into the desolate northern mountains, with nothing between those who traveled upon it and the end of the Empire save for the distant Badger lands high amid the peaks. Those whose shame was beyond redemption left the Empire along the northern road, and the watchtower stood to ensure that the weakest and most dishonorable among them did not attempt to re-enter the Empire. Chimori glanced over at the nearest tent, where a young Unicorn woman sat miserably, poking absently at her campfire with a long stick. “Why so many?”
The young woman looked up at him, her expression a mixture of surprise and annoyance. “What?” she snapped.
Chimori gestured again at the tents. “Why are there so many?”
The Unicorn looked over them as if seeing them for the first time. For a moment she was lost in thought, then finally she shrugged. “Many have questioned their worth to the clan after the Khan… after Chagatai-sama’s gambit failed, and the Lion came to punish us,” she said. “The ranks of the dishonored at Outsider Keep are too great. Some of those whom the clan would prefer to forget have come here. Others have been sent by their families. And some of us have come of our own volition, in an attempt to determine our own fates.”
“Oh? And what is your fate to be, then?”
The woman scowled. “Even if I knew, it would be none of your concern.”
Chimori considered it. “Fair enough,” he finally said.
She glanced at him periodically for a while as they sat in silence. He pointedly ignored her, first finishing his rice ball and then building a fire, until finally she could not bear the silence. “What is a Mantis doing here?” she finally blurted out.
“My name is Yoritomo Chimori,” he said, looking at her expectantly.
Yet another scowl. “My name is Utaku Shoyu.”
Chimori nodded. “I am seeking a way to repeat the mistakes of my first life,” he said. “When I heard of this place, I thought perhaps it might give me some perspective on the meaning of failure, redemption… that sort of thing.”
“Your… first life?”
“We all have many lives,” Chimori said. “I am simply a little more fortunate than most.”
“I see,” Shoyu said, clearly wary of the strange Mantis.
“I died,” Chimori explained. “Or I was supposed to. Everyone believed I was dead, including me. But I lived, nursed back to health by a wise old monk, and I learned much. I was not an honorable man in my first life. I was not the sort of man I want to be. Now, I have to find a way to become what I truly am, despite the specter of my past misdeeds and the temptations of a world rife with corruption.”
“Oh,” was all Shoyu said.
“Have you heard the rumors of what is happening in the north?”
The change of subject seemed to pique her interest. “Only a few bits and pieces,” she acknowledged. “They say there is an invasion, that the Dragon lands have been besieged by a vast army of barbarians under the command of a Dark Oracle.”
Chimori nodded. “I have heard the same. I have also heard that a Unicorn village was attacked, however.”
“What?” she demanded, leaping to her feet. “What village? Where?”
“Far North Village, I believe,” he answered.
Shoyu sat down suddenly. “My sister lives… lived there,” she said flatly.
“Many people had family there, I imagine,” Chimori said. “Many more will lose their loved ones before this is over.”
“Do you think it will truly be a war?” Shoyu asked, and for the first time it struck Chimori how very young she was.
Chimori chose his words carefully, but did not have the chance to speak them. Before he could, the evening air was split with a strange, keening wail that seemed to come from all around them. “What is that?” he wondered aloud.
Shoyu gasped and leapt to her feet. “Oh no!”
Chimori followed her gaze and felt his stomach churn. Exile’s Road led into the mountains, and coming down the road, back into the Empire, were a dozen or so men. They would not have been visible in the failing light, save that they were burning. Each of them was wreathed in flames and ran in a haphazard, panicked fashion. The sound that they had heard, the terrible wail that echoed across the mountains, was a chorus of their pained screams. “Get your bow!”
“What?” She seemed confused, stunned.
“Your bow, girl!” Chimori roared, pointing to the weapons at the side of her tent. “Get your bow!” He grabbed his kama and ran toward the men, his legs pumping furiously as he hoped to reach them before they reached the tower.
It was a futile hope. The first of the men reached the tower’s base before Chimori even got clear of the tents. The man’s screams ended as he ran without pausing into the stone wall at its base, and he seemed to disappear entirely, flames washing over where he had stood and spilling along the stones like liquid dropped on a wooden floor. Impossibly, the stone began to blacken almost at once. “Archers!” Chimori shouted at the top of his lungs. “Archers to the tower at once!”
Chimori halted near the base of the tower. The other men were still running, but not as fast as the first. Chimori could smell charred flesh and a strange, salty smell that made him wonder what would happen if the fire was hot enough to destroy stone. There was an alarming cracking sound from the base of the tower, but he hoped it would hold up unless the others struck it as well. The other runners split into different directions, with most running toward the tents off to the side, and three more running toward the tower after the first of them. The screaming made it nearly impossible to think. On instinct, Chimori hefted one of his kama and hurled it with all his might.
His aim was true. The kama’s blade buried itself to the hilt in the skull of the man in front. The sound was gruesome, and he dropped instantly. His body continued to burn, and flames raced along the length of the kama’s wooden handle as well. Chimori threw the other as well, dropping the second man with a strike to the chest. Unfortunately, he had only the two, and now he was virtually unarmed as the third flaming lunatic bore down on him. Chimori grimaced and drew the knife from his belt. He was not particularly skilled with it, and had no chance of throwing it accurately, which would leave him without a weapon in any event. He grimaced as his opponent approached, the heat already noticeable even dozens of feet away. Chimori whispered a brief prayer and prepared to sacrifice himself to save the tower and those within it.
The sound of arrows whistling overhead was audible even above the crackling sounds of the flames. One, then another, and then a third struck the burning man, slowing and then halting his progress. He slumped forward, driving the arrows deeper into his body, and lay still on the ground, the soil around him blackening from the heat.
Chimori exhaled shakily. He could hear shouting and screams from the area of the tents, but there were fewer than he would have expected, and they did not have the frantic, agonized sound of the burning men. Wounded, most likely. There was a glow from the area, certainly burning tents, but the flames on the tower were more subdued now, revealing blackened and cracked stones.
Shoyu came running up, bow in hand. “Are you alright?”
Chimori nodded, but his mind was racing. The Army of Fire was closer than he had imagined, perhaps closer than anyone had imagined. He looked down at one of the corpses, which had finally burned itself out. “This is Rokugani armor,” he said, pointing to the man’s attire. “This man was a Unicorn.”
“No Unicorn would ever join the Dark Oracle,” Shoyu said defensively.
Chimori shook his head. “That is not what I mean. They say a group of exiles left north a week or two ago. How many of them were there? Were there a dozen?”
Shoyu shook her head, never taking her eyes from the corpse. “I do not know,” she said.
“How many are here?” He pointed to the tents.
“A few hundred,” she said.
“A company, then.” Chimori rubbed his chin. “What is the nearest fortification?”
“Shiro Shinjo. But it is several days’ ride, and they will be busy fortifying more important places than this,” she said.
The Mantis thought for a moment. “How far is Outsider Keep?”
Shoyu frowned. “There is no road, but one could follow the mountains. Four days, perhaps?”
“How fast could you get there?”
“Three,” she answered at once. “Possibly two and a half.”
“Go,” he said. “Bring as many as will come. I will gather the men here. We will head north as soon as you arrive.”
Shoyu turned to find her horse, but stopped and looked over her shoulder. “What is it you hope to accomplish with perhaps a legion’s worth of men?”
“Redemption,” Chimori said. “What could be greater?”
* * *
“I have been informed,” Yoritomo Sachina continued, “that the Mantis forces en route to the Badger lands have been granted uninterrupted passage through the Crane, Lion, and Unicorn lands. My lord Yoritomo Naizen, the Scourge of Storms, wishes to extend his gratitude and appreciation to the lords of all those clans, and offers his admiration for their selfless devotion to the will of the Divine Empress.”
The assembled courtiers seemed to respond well, many nodding to the delegations of the three clans in question. Ide Eien and Doji Nagori both smiled and bowed respectfully to Sachina, who returned the gesture. The Lion delegation was less expressive in their gratitude, offering only a tight smile from Akodo Setai and a quick, shallow bow toward the Mantis, with whom they had nothing but poor relations since the court was convened. Longer than that, Shiba Yoma thought. The two clans had shared nothing but hostility since the Khan’s failed attempt to capture the capital years ago, when the Mantis had, in the eyes of the Lion, betrayed the clan to aid the Khan. Yoma had to stifle a slight chuckle at the thought that the Lion had apparently long since forgiven the Unicorn, but not the Mantis.
“It is the hope of Lord Naizen that these august clans will be similarly tolerant,” Sachina continued, “as he has recently commanded a sizeable quantity of additional supplies be transported across the Empire so that our allies among the Unicorn will not feel the burden of these attacks so sharply.”
“The Empress is greatly pleased with the charity of the Mantis,” the Voice of the Emperor said, “and hopes that all clans will look to this example and reciprocate. The loyal servants of the Empire among the northern clans will require much aid before this war is concluded, she fears.”
Ide Eien stepped forward and bowed deeply. “We among the Unicorn are grateful to have such loyal and generous allies as the Mantis,” he said simply. “The Khan will not soon forget this gesture of friendship.” He turned and bowed again, this time before the Empress and her advisors. “If I may, Divine One?”
The Empress nodded once, ever so slightly, behind her screen, and Eien continued. “This is a difficult time for all of us, given the unfortunate delay of information coming from the front. Many times we can only speculate at what is happening at present, and the motivations of our enemies are of course a complete enigma, which makes the formulation of defenses even more difficult.”
“Enemies that are poorly understood can pose a significantly greater threat,” Susumu agreed. “However, what purpose does this acknowledgement of the obvious serve, Eien-san?”
“If it pleases the Empress and her advisors,” Eien said with a gesture toward the Unicorn delegation, “we have a scholar among our number that may prove able to shed more light on this situation.”
The Empress stirred behind her screen and nodded to the Voice, who in turn spoke to the Unicorn’s head delegate. “The Empress is intrigued, master Ide. Please continue.”
Eien smiled broadly. “If it pleases the court, I wish to present the august sage Iuchi Kitaro.” At the statement, a wizened elderly man in incredibly neat robes stepped forward, his movements clipped and precise, and bowed. “Kitaro-sama is a learned master sensei of the Iuchi dojo, and has studied the culture and traditions of the yobanjin tribes throughout his lifetime.” Eien frowned slightly and offered the sage an apologetic look. “It is a pursuit that has caused Kitaro-sama great difficulty with members of other clans, who have failed to understand the purpose behind such studies, despite his assistance to the Imperial Legions during the yobanjin invasion of the Phoenix lands many years ago.”
Kitaro bowed his head. “I was honored to serve, and have feared for many years that such an event might take place again during my lifetime. I only regret that it is the reign of the Divine Empress that might see such a terrible occurrence.”
“Your words are appreciated,” the Voice assured him. “What can you tell the court of the yobanjin? It is the Empress’ belief that understanding is essential to victory.”
Kitaro bowed. “The yobanjin culture is organized around a tribal structure, and many of the tribes are centuries old. It is difficult to ascertain because their history is largely oral in nature. The tribe with the most involvement with the Empire in recent memory is the Sons of the Wind, who aided the Crane Clan in the recovery of the Seal of the Empress some years ago.”
The Unicorn scholar continued, and the majority of the court attendants were clearly enraptured by the information he imparted. Shiba Yoma quietly excused himself and slipped out the back of the chamber. There were too many things that required his attention to spend them listening to something he knew more about than most. Perhaps there would be time for him to finish the letters he had been composing for two days.
“Shiba Yoma. It is always pleasant to see you.”
Yoma turned and hesitated ever so slightly before smiling. “Good day to you, Jinn-Kuen-sama.”
The Yasuki family daimyo smiled warmly. “I was saddened to hear that the august Phoenix have been victimized by the attacks on the Empire. I heard that the valiant sacrifice of your men was witnessed by a magistrate of the Scorpion.”
“Correct, my lord,” Yoma said. “Their blades were returned to their families, thankfully.”
Jinn-Kuen nodded. “Are the Phoenix aware of why a Scorpion magistrate would have been in the region? It seems peculiar.”
“It is quite peculiar,” Yoma agreed. “However, the Phoenix were content to permit her to return to her home province with their gratitude. The emphasis is on defending the provinces, not questioning the acts of those who assist us.”
The Crab smiled. “I am glad to hear that, my friend. I feel such amenability will benefit us all as this war continues.”
Yoma smiled. “I hope so.”
Tournament Winner: Aaron Boyhan
Political Winner: Mark Armitage
Tournament Winner: Andrey Tretyakov
Political Winner: Nikolay Roganov
San Diego Kotei
Tournament Winner: Case Kiyonaga
Political Winner: Scott Brandenburg
Tournament Winner: Trevor Valentine
Political: Robert Pursell
Tournament Winner: Walbert Ibarra
Political Winner: Joaquin Rivas
Check out the preliminary card designs that came about as a result of the tournaments above!
Blades of the Fallen Phoenix [Item]
Attaches to a Scorpion Clan Personality paying 1 less Gold.
Open: Transfer this card to another of your target Personalities.
The Shogun’s/Emerald Champion’s Forces [Follower]
Attaches to a Mantis Clan Personality ignoring Honor Requirement.
Battle/Open: Attach this card from your hand to your target Personality. Before the next End Phase ends, you may put this card in your hand from play.
Senseki Province [Region]
Reaction: When paying for a Follower, bow this card: Produce 2 Gold, or 3 Gold if you are a Unicorn Clan player.
Saving Kazumasa [Action]
Battle: If you have targeted the current battlefield’s province with a Recon action this turn: Move a target Cavalry unit there. If it moved, you may straighten it, and you may target and straighten one or more Unaligned Human Personalities there.
The Badgers Live [Event]
Each Crane Clan player gains 2 Honor. Before the next time this game one or more Unaligned Personalities is destroyed, negate the destruction of one of them.
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