The siege at Shiro Shinjo comes to its fiery conclusion, and the ever-encroaching hordes of the Dark Oracle of Fire threaten the Shrine of the Ki-Rin, one of the most sacred sights in all of Rokugan.
The War of Dark Fire, Part 9
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The city burned, but as yet the castle was untouched. Shinjo Dun wiped the ash and sweat from his face with a sleeve that was already saturated with blood, both from his allies and his enemies. He assisted one of his comrades to his feet, but the man shook his head; it was clear that his fighting was finished. “Leave me here,” he rasped. “I will hold this position as long as I can.”
“They are in disarray,” Dun insisted. “We can break the line! Force them back!”
The infantryman shook his head. “I will be dead before long, my friend, and there is no line weak enough for me to break in this condition.”
Dun swore, but nodded. The man’s injuries were significant, and unless a shugenja happened along before the battle was over, his expectation of death was most likely going to prove accurate. Unfortunate though it was, however, it could not be Dun’s priority. Right now, his task was to push the Yobanjin line back, and if he only had a force capable of mounting a counterattack, it would be almost simple…
The young Unicorn turned to find a Lion standing at the ready. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “I told you to protect the castle and the Lady Genki!”
“The Lady Shinjo is protected by four hundred Lion guardians,” the Lion answered. “I am Matsu Mari, and I and ninety-nine of my men stand ready to assist you. Will you lament the situation, or shall we break the line?”
Dun scowled, but glanced down the alley and into the street beyond, where the hoarse shouts of the Yobanjin officers resounded again and again as they tried to bring order to their ranks. “Stand ready to charge,” he ordered.
* * *
“We have no word of the battle at Shiro Shinjo,” Ide Towako informed the court. “Lord Eien is with our Iuchi kinsman in attendance, attempting to discover any information that he can, but thus far there has been little word.”
“Long range communication is intensely taxing,” Shiba Yoma offered. “Those shugenja participating in the battle likely have far more pressing matters to attend to. I am certain your lord will hear of the results once the fighting has ceased.” He smiled, and added, “One way or another.”
“Forgive me if I am not as polished an orator as many of you,” a rough voice said suddenly as a large man stepped to the fore. “I am a simple man of simple tastes. I cannot help but wonder, however, how much of our concern should be heaped upon the Shinjo.” He shrugged lightly. “They are a family in disgrace, are they not? Let them fend for themselves. It is only fitting.”
There was a murmur through the court at the man’s words, both in agreement and dissent. Smaller conversations broke out among them, some of them almost immediately devolving into arguments as sharp words were exchanged.
“With respect,” a soft, musical voice said, slightly above the din of conversation, “I disagree with the respectable samurai of the Yasuki.” An exquisitely beautiful young woman clad in Scorpion colors stepped forward into the center of the room. Her name was known to all, and her face haunted the dreams of dozens of would-be suitors. “My grandmother was a ronin during the time of the Clan War, and during her travels, she spent some time in the Unicorn lands.” Bayushi Kurumi smiled fondly at the recollection, and many men felt their temperatures rise at the simple expression. “She always used to tell me what a great honor it had been for her to work alongside Horiuchi Shoan and her efforts to protect those children whose families had been lost to the war.”
“No one here questions the charitable nature of the Horiuchi,” the Yasuki said gruffly. “I am speaking of the Shinjo. Try to keep up.”
“The Horiuchi family at that time consisted exclusively of Shoan-sama,” Kurumi continued without pause. “The entirety of her efforts were funded and supported by the Shinjo, and to a considerably lesser extent her relatives among the Iuchi.” She tilted her head to the side. “They were compassionate and merciful, and worked tirelessly for the benefit of others, the majority of whom were not of their clan. I find it difficult to condemn the entire family for the actions of a few.”
The Yasuki snorted. “I might be surprised at such an opinion coming from anyone but a Scorpion,” he said derisively. “The Shinjo were still rife with Kolat at that point. They were doubtless attempting to gain the favor of a new generation to make them easier to recruit in later years.”
Kurumi raised her eyebrows slightly. “I am sorry, Yasuki-sama, but I do not know enough about the tactics of subversives to offer an opinion on a theory such as yours.”
The Crab courtier colored and seemed to be contemplating a response, but Kurumi was joined by another Scorpion, this one recognized by virtually no one. “I must offer my support to my kinsman in her assessment of the Shinjo,” he said, his voice even and clear despite the cloth mask that obscured the lower half of his face. “I am Bayushi Jutsushi, magistrate of the Scorpion. My father was Bayushi Jintoshi, whom I am greatly honored to say was an Imperial Magistrate in service to the throne for many years. Many years ago, when I was but a child, I remember my father struggling to combat the influence of a criminal group in the city where he served. They were nefarious and extremely secretive, leaving no loose ends behind when they moved from one venture to the next. My father worked for years to try and expose them, to bring them to justice, but felt that he accomplished little.”
“Perhaps he was in league with them,” the Crab suggested with a wry grin.
“Perhaps the Crab delegation would be well served to remember that an insult against the hosts of the Empress’ court could be construed as slander against the throne,” the Imperial Chancellor said calmly.
“Ah,” the Yasuki said, grimacing. “Of course, that was not my intent. Please, continue.”
“Regardless,” Jutsushi continued, “my father found himself in a stalemate until a wandering samurai arrived and offered his assistance. My father was skeptical, but ultimately accepted. Under the unwavering scrutiny of this newcomer, the group was eradicated in a matter of months. The samurai never asked for any payment, nor recognition for his deeds. When the matter was concluded, he left the next morning without a word. My father never saw him again. That man was Shinjo Shono.”
There were nods of approval throughout the room, but the Crab seemed unwilling to abandon the point. “If you are willing to consider the notion, it is possible that he was simply eliminating rivals.”
There was a stirring from the Unicorn delegation, but before Tawako could respond, a Lion stepped forward. “The Akodo family will not hear slander of Shinjo Shono or his family in court,” the lean warrior said softly. “I am honor bound to inform you that doing so further will result in a challenge being issued.”
The Yasuki seemed surprised at the response, and then Kurumi struck again. “Would you then say, Yasuki-sama, that Shinjo-Kami’s purge of the Kolat from the family’s ranks was incomplete?” She shook her head. “I find the act of questioning the Kami most distasteful. Particularly when we are convened in the court of an Empress ordained and appointed by the Celestial Heavens, which I believe includes the Kami themselves if I recall my theology correctly.”
Fans snapped open throughout the room, and the Crab clearly struggled to find a response. Finally, he simply forced a smile, muttered “Please excuse me, honored delegates,” and disappeared quickly from the room.
* * *
“My most humble apology for disturbing your meditation,” the monk said quietly, “but you must evacuate with the other attendees, my lady. There is great danger.”
Utaku Reyo opened her eyes and looked up at the monk. “What do you mean, brother?”
The monk bowed his head respectfully. “The Phoenix lands are under attack by an invading force from the north,” he explained. “We must abandon the temple. They are within striking distance.”
“Invasion?” Reyo stared at him in disbelief. “The Empire is being invaded?”
“The news has been known to us for some time,” the monk said apologetically, “but we have not shared it with pilgrims unless they specifically asked for news of the world beyond. So many of you come here for relief from such worldly concerns, we felt it would not be in your best interests to burden you with it.”
Reyo frowned. “I would not wish to have been distracted from my meditations,” she said, “but I have family for whom I would be concerned. My younger sister serves with the Khan’s armies. Have these enemies been seen anywhere besides the Phoenix lands, brother?”
“I am sorry, but I do not know,” the monk said. “Please, we must go.”
Reyo rose and accompanied the monk, surprised at how empty the shrine seemed. “Has everyone left?”
“For the most part,” the monk confirmed. “Please, gather only what you require, and we shall go. There are only a handful of us remaining.”
“What of the shrine?” she asked.
The monk halted and smiled sadly. “This place is merely stone. It is sacred, but the Ki-Rin is a creature of compassion and mercy. It does not desire wanton death in its name.”
Reyo frowned as the monk went deeper into the shrine. It did not seem right to her to abandon such a sacred location. Her own people were known for their love of life and kindness to others, but even to her mind it was wrong to leave such a place to be destroyed by… whatever it was that was looming before them. She considered it while idly admiring a tetsubo, one of the many weapons left behind by those who had embraced the teachings of this place, but she could not find resolution. What was the life of someone such as her, someone living with disgrace, in comparison to this place? Why should it be abandoned and her life spared?
A noise from behind her. “Are you prepared, brother?” she asked. “I have to be honest, I am struggling with…” But there was no monk behind her when she turned around. Instead, there stood a creature, an unmistakable manifestation of something she had seen rendered in countless paintings, sculptures, and tapestries throughout the shrine.
It was the Ki-Rin.
“Grandmother watch over me,” Reyo croaked, but she felt no fear. It was as if she were staring into the next world, so great was the otherworldly essence of the creature standing only a few feet away. Almost beyond her control, she dropped to her knees on the cool cobblestone floor. “You… all of your kind are said to be gone from this world,” she croaked.
The world, the creature said, its exquisite face never changing, is more than what mortals can understand. The dark ritual that brought the Rain claimed my life, or the life of my sister. We are one and the same. We are both and neither. Alive and dead. None of the terms mean what you believe they mean.
Reyo stared at it in fascination. “I do not understand.”
It matters little, the Ki-Rin said. You live with a burden that is not yours. A burden you share with another.
“My sister,” she whispered. “We are both… our parents… they…”
It is wrong that it should be visited upon you. Its voice was like music, like the song of the Heavens. Your soul is pure. Your greatest wish is to find absolution, not for yourself, but for your sister.
“Yes,” she said, a tear running down her cheek. “I would spare her this.”
That is possible, if you wish it, the Ki-Rin said. The cost will be great.
“Anything,” she said.
She waited until the advancing force approached the northern pass. It was the only means by which the shrine could be approached from the north, at least without spending days or weeks having an army scale the cliffs that separated the shrine from the Phoenix and Dragon lands. She patted her horse affectionately, feeling certain it would be the last time they rode together. And in her other hand, Reyo hefted the tetsubo she found in the temple. She knew what it was for. She only hoped she would be strong enough. Strong enough for her sister. Strong enough for Meyko.
When the first scouts from the army came into the pass, Reyo charged. She rode toward them with reckless abandon, a familiar Unicorn war cry filling her lungs. The first crossbow bolts cut her cry short, made it hard for her to find her breath. More bolts struck her, one in the shoulder, one in the stomach, one grazing her face as she rode. Fortunately they did not think to fire upon the horse.
The Yobanjin stopped firing when she changed her approach, making it clear that she was not riding toward them. They paused to reload their crossbows, staring at one another in confusion.
In a strangely detached manner, Reyo considered the circumstances. In the winter, the snow melted, seeped into the rock of the cliffs, and froze again. It made them prone to terrible landslides, at least until the final snows were passed, and the Phoenix sent their earth shugenja to tend to the land and keep it safe. But that hadn’t happened yet.
Reyo rode to the wall and pulled her horse alongside it, running parallel to the stone. She struck the wall again and again with the tetsubo, using every ounce of her remaining strength. The scouts realized what she was doing and began shouting, firing at her again. Their shots were wild, panicked, and for good reason. The earth around them was trembling, shaking with the force of an impending cataclysm. Reyo struck a few more times and then struggled for the energy to release her war cry once more. Her breath caught in her throat.
She fell from her horse.
The world broke around her.
* * *
The Yobanjin army fell back, and fell back again, forced away from the city by the spearhead led by Dun and his Lion honor guard. Every street that they regained, their numbers were joined by more and more Shinjo samurai, rallying from units that had been broken and scattered. What’s more, the people of the city, those few who remained, took up whatever weapons they could, some carrying the weapons of fallen Yobanjin and others simple farming implements, and joined the ranks. The Shinjo had ever been kind and generous masters, and now the fruit of their kindness was made manifest. Dun’s heart swelled with pride as he saw a trio of young men, no more than teenagers, bring down a pair of Yobajin with little more than crude sticks gathered from the wreckage of a building the raiders had destroyed.
The officer turned in the direction of his Lion comrades. Mari was pointing to a building nearby. “Your family’s chop!”
With a dawning sense of horror, Dun turned and saw the estate to which the Matsu was pointing. The chaos of the battle had been so overwhelming that he had not realized his proximity to his family’s personal estate. An estate that was now smoldering from within. “No!” Dun shouted. “Brother! Mother!” He looked back at the fighting, then to his family’s estate again.
“Go,” Mari said. “We will hold the line.”
With a grateful nod, Dun broke into a run. He did not slow as he approached the building, however, instead hurtling through the battered shoji screen that hung before the entrance with his blade drawn, losing none of his momentum. “Brother!” he shouted again. “Shun!”
“Dun,” the reply came, but far too weakly. One of the raiders held his brother by the kimono, its front staining rapidly with blood. “Too many… run…”
Dun’s speed was incredible, unlike anything he had ever experienced before. His rage, his fear, lent him speed. He crossed the room in an instant, shouldering the raider aside and leaving his brother on the floor. “Dun,” he croaked again, and was still.
”No!” Dun shouted. He took his brother’s blade, a blade he had given him only hours earlier, and charged. In his right he held the blade of his sensei, and in the left the blade of his grandfather. The raider was on his feet already, turning with malevolence in his eyes. The look faded to surprise when Dun plunged both blades into his heart. “My brother is worth a thousand of you!” he hissed. “Ten thousand!”
More of the raiders emerged from within the house. “Unfortunate that you will die to such a meager number of us,” one of them said. “But then, you people believe you will be together again in the next life, don’t you? Convenient.”
“Yes, but not for you.” Mari and a half dozen Lion appeared in the gaping hole at the estate’s eastern wall. At her gesture, the unleashed a volley of arrows that cut down the entire group. She turned and bowed before Dun. “Every life claimed by the Lion in this battle is in honor of your family, Dun-sama. We cannot return your brother to you,” she gestured to where Shun lay unmoving on the ground, “but you have many brothers who will stand at your side.”
Dun said nothing for several moments. Finally, he lifted both blades in salute. “For the Lion,” he said.
“For the Unicorn,” she returned.
* * *
Isawa Nomi awake from the dream with a scream in her throat. The leering face had been almost upon her, and no matter how far or how fast she had run, she could not escape it. It had drawn closer and closer, at first a sinister, aged countenance that had frightened her as a child, but growing young as it approached. Somehow, its new youthful appearance was far more terrifying. She had never seen the man’s face when he was young, but somehow she knew it had never been so sinister, so horrific. She knew the old man’s face quite well, though. It haunted her now, constantly surfacing in her dreams to plague her, and she did not know why. His name hung in her name like a shadow, threatening her very sanity until she was afraid to even speak it aloud, fearful that he might somehow appear and claim her as his own.
“Fosuta,” she whispered defiantly in the cool evening darkness. “Isawa Fosuta.”
The simple act of refuting her fears made her feel stronger, and she exhaled shakily as she tried to calm her racing heart. The death of her maternal uncle over a year ago had affected her profoundly, and she wondered if it was his zeal for hunting his wayward brother down, his passion to correct the stain upon the honor of their family, that had caused her to begin experience such vivid, horrifying nightmares. Nomi wistfully wished that she could get a good night’s sleep. It had been months since her last.
Nomi glanced at her writing desk, considering whether there was any point in trying to go back to sleep. The dreams would come again, of that she had little doubt. It might be best to while away the long hours before dawn in something more productive. Perhaps those letters she had been avoiding, or the arrangements that the Phoenix had made to bring additional supplies to Kyuden Bayushi in order to assist in defraying the burden of supporting the court since it had been held over for months beyond its normal cessation. Or then there was…
Wait. Why was it light outside?
Nomi frowned and rose from her mat at once. She had always possessed an exceptional sense of time’s passage, and she was certain, without question, that morning had not come. What then could cause such a glow from beyond the screen in the courtyard? She had no notion. Nomi quickly crossed the room and threw open the screen.
The priestess fell away from the screen in surprise and alarm, a strangled cry all that she could manage. There was a brilliant, radiant light filling the courtyard beyond her room, but it was not the sun. Something incredible was present within the garden. Why could the sentries not see it?
Nomi, a voice called. Nomi, come.
She climbed to her feet, huge, wracking sobs shaking her entire body. This was more than her dreams. She should be consumed with terror, and yet she felt jubilant. Her eyes streamed with tears and she could not stop smiling, but she did not know why. After what seemed like an hour, she managed to reach her feet and drag her gaze back into the courtyard.
The most majestic creature Nomi had ever seen stood amid the hedges. It was similar to a horse, but not quite. She had seen depictions of ki-rin her entire life, it had been one of her mother’s favorite subjects, but the reality of what she was seeing was so far beyond even the most beautiful drawing she had ever seen. Nomi, the thing said, its voice filling her mind like a song, remember her.
“Who?” she gasped. “Remember who?”
Remember her, the ki-rin repeated. Remember her to the others.
And then it was gone, disappeared in a flash so bright that it was as if she had looked at the sun itself. She cried out again and looked away, rubbing her eyes. Visions filled her mind as the light blinded her momentarily, and when her sight returned, she scrambled across the room, knocking everything out of her way until she reached the paper and brushes she needed.
* * *
The air reeked of smoke as dozens of buildings burned out of control. There was little sound save for the crackling of flames consuming all in their path, and the cries of the wounded as they were moved from harm’s way in order to wait for the shugenja and herbalists that were on the way to try and save as many as possible. The city that surrounded Shiro Shinjo was in ruins, at least half of it destroyed utterly by the fighting, and the other have seriously imperiled by the blaze that continued to consume it.
But the castle itself remained untouched.
Matsu Mari approached, giving curt orders to her junior officers. She bowed crisply to Dun. “Do we pursue?”
Dun gripped his blade tightly. The handle was slippery with blood from the wound on his shoulder, which had run the length of his blade and slickened the metal. He looked after the retreating Yobanjin with longing. “No,” he said bitterly. “We have too few forces remaining, and we cannot leave the castle undefended. It could be a feint to draw us away while reinforcements strike, or some other ploy.”
Mari nodded, looking toward the enemy’s ranks wistfully. “As you say. Zeal should not precipitate weakness.”
“I had thought the Army of Fire fought until death,” Dun said. “Strange that they should fall back after failing to reach the castle.”
“The army has suffered significant losses,” Mari said. “Some estimates I have read believe as much of a third of the army may have already been destroyed, both through small-unit attrition and at major engagements such as Kyuden Isawa, Shiro Mirumoto, and Shiro Tamori.” She shrugged. “Chosai may not care for the rate at which his army dies, but I am certain his commanders do. This was a tactical retreat.”
“Dun-sama!” A scout came riding down the street, calling his name. “Dun-sama! The army turns!”
Dun swore. “Are they coming about to attack from a different vector?”
“No,” the scout called. “They are circling around the city and pressing farther into Unicorn territory!”
“No!” Dun said. He looked around at the others, but the wounded vastly outnumbered those able to give pursuit. “We cannot let them threaten the other holdings!”
Mari shook her head. “There is little you can do at this point, Dun-sama. We must regroup at the castle and assess your strength. Then, if you wish, the Lion will assist in whatever manner possible”
“To the castle!” Dun shouted. “All ready troops fall back to the castle!”
* * *
The victory at Shiro Shinjo, following so closely on the heels of at least a stalemate at Shiro Mirumoto and Shiro Tamori, was welcome news indeed to the assembled attendants of the Empress’ court. The mood for the day was jubilant, almost as if a festival had been declared. Shiba Yoma smiled and spoke quietly to several individuals among the delegations, selecting those he knew were among the most appreciative and most interested in the arts, as well as some of the most critical. If he was to create a new sensation, something that could benefit his clan, he needed the proper mix of opinions. “Nomi-san.”
The young shugenja was badly distracted, and glanced at him in surprise. “Yes?”
“I require your assistance,” Yoma said. “Please bring that box,” he gestured to a large wooden writing kit, “and come with me, will you please?”
“Of course,” she said at once. She lifted the case and followed behind him. The returned to his quarters and she waited outside as he retrieved a few items from within, then he led her to the principle audience chamber of court, not currently in use because the Empress was not present. Roughly a dozen people were waiting on the two of them, just as Yoma expected. “What is this, Yoma-sama?” Nomi asked quietly.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Yoma said, not addressing her question. She would see soon enough. “I have something I want to share with you, something incredible, and I did not yet wish to share it with the court at large. This is something that should be savored by those who have an appreciation for such things, before it is shared with the court at large.” He took the box from Nomi with a quiet thanks. “It was brought to my attention this morning, and I took the liberty of bringing it along without consulting the responsible party.” He waved his hand. “A breach of etiquette, I know, but this is a matter I have no choice but to feel very strongly about. If you would give me but a moment, please.”
Yoma carefully removed a number of small items from a low table, placing them atop an adjoining table. He then opened the wooden box and removed a carefully rolled sheet of paper, which he then spread atop the table.
“Yoma-sama!” Nomi gasped.
The others gasped as well, although for very different reasons. The painting that Yoma had removed from Nomi’s chambers was unlike any he had ever seen before, and when the yojimbo who had seen it reported it to him, he had know he must see it for himself. Looking upon it, he had known in an instant it was not meant to be hidden away, but shared with the world. “My esteemed colleague, Isawa Nomi, painted this magnificent tableau last evening, if I am correct.”
“By the Fortunes,” one of the Crane in attendance said. “I have never seen any depiction of the ki-rin with such detail! And this image, this woman who is superimposed into the image… who is it? She has such tranquility, such beauty. Nomi-sama, please, tell us about this painting!”
Nomi stared around the room with an expression like horror. “I… I… I do not know,” she said. “I had a dream, or… perhaps a vision. I saw the Ki-Rin. I saw it, and it showed me the image of a woman who sacrificed herself to save its temple. It told me… told me to remember her. To help others remember her.”
“So incredible,” the Crane repeated.
“Indeed it is.”
Yoma and the others turned to see the Empress and her Voice standing near the doorway that led to the Empress’ dais. “I have seen the Shrine of the Ki-Rin,” Togashi Satsu said. “It has been my great pleasure to visit that sacred sight many times. Never have I seen anything that captured the serenity of the shrine, however. This thing, this painting you have created, must surely have been inspired by the Heavens.”
The Empress said nothing, but walked calmly across the room to regard the paintings. The others parted for her to pass, kneeling as she drew near. Iweko admired the painting for several moments, then turned and favored Nomi with a smile as she wiped a single tear from her cheek. Then she turned and left the room without a word, Satsu following behind her.
“Fortunes,” one of the Crane said in a hushed whisper.
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Unicorn Clan * Samurai * Cavalry * Commander
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