While the battle to defend the Empire rages in the south, an unexpected threat rears its head once again in the north.
Doctrine of Confrontation
By Lucas Twyman
Edited by Fred Wan
For ten years, Tamori Akeno had tended his exquisite rock garden outside Jagged Peak Watchtower, one of the easternmost Dragon Clan outposts in the northern mountains. When the War of Dark Fire raged, Akeno left his little garden to defend his homeland, only to return and find the watchtower untouched by the Army of Fire. It pleased Akeno greatly to see his garden undisturbed – it was a reminder that the beauty of the mountains would remain eternal, despite the raging conflict that took place between the peaks.
Now, Akeno cursed his foolish optimism. A small legion of men trampled across the mountainside towards the watchtower, destroying the tranquility of the stone garden. The forces of the Army of Dark Fire had returned – smaller, rougher, seemingly better organized. Rather than attempting a suicidal assault led by flaming madmen, the northern barbarians had snuck in under the cover of night and struck with swift and deadly precision. Mirumoto Gukochi, the acting commander of the Watchtower, was struck by a sudden arrow and tumbled from his perch to the earth. The combat was swift, and the defenders were overwhelmed.
The Jagged Peak Watchtower was doomed, and as the leader of the barbarians approached, Akeno whispered a final request to the kami dwelling in his beloved garden: send a message across the earth; find another shugenja and warn the Empire of the Army’s return. The earth rumbled slightly in assent, but the barbarians only laughed, revealing mouths of broken and missing teeth. Their leader, clad in the unseemly flesh and fur of dead animals, laughed the loudest, and mocked Akeno with a thickly accented tongue: “The Lord of Fire gives you a regard, Roku-ganis. He hope you have not forgotten him already!”
The barbarian chief raised his crooked blade, and Akeno joined his ancestors in the Fields of the Dead.
* * *
The order had not yet been given to evacuate the town of Last Ridge Village, but the Third Blossom Sake House was nearly empty all the same. During the aftermath of the War of Dark Fire, many veins of valuable minerals were found near the surface of the mountains, unearthed unintentionally by the earth-churning magic of the Rokugani priests. Within weeks, new mining villages were established by the local lords, and Last Ridge, located near a newly established gold mine, was among the most populated and successful. A crafty young merchant, sensing the need for some civilization in the harsh wilderness, established the Third Blossom, and it became the first permanent structure in the makeshift village. The establishment was popular and boisterous, but as Shiba Nobuyuki entered the sake house, the only sounds he heard was the pained moans of four men lying unconscious by the door and a single deep voice singing a popular peasant song inside.
The Third Blossom was in complete disarray. The seating mats were scuffed and thrown about the room; several of the tables were overturned. The only waitstaff still present were huddled in the far corner, a large pile of coinage sitting in a bowl before them. They looked at Nobuyuki as he entered, and he followed their eyes to a trail of empty drinking bowls and sake bottles leading towards a short, heavily-built man sitting next to the the eastern wall of the sake house. The man was bald except for a tight topknot of hair, and his body was emblazoned with tattoos – most prominently, a leaping tiger across his chest and midsection and a blazing inferno of flame licking across his back and neck. Nobuyuki slowly approached the man, and rather than acknowledging the approaching samurai, the man simply refilled his own drinking bowl with a nearby bottle of expensive import sake.
Nobuyuki sat gingerly across from the man, who stared at him from behind a bowl of sake. The monk slurped loudly as he swallowed every last drop of sake from the bow.
“Your tattoos logically place you as a Togashi. You are a monk of the order, yes?”
“All men are many things,” the monk replied, “why create impressions when they exist only to be shattered?”
Nobuyuki scowled and rubbed his temples. “Fine. You are definitely a Togashi.”
The monk smiled and reached for a mostly-full bottle of shochu. “If you say so.” he said. Almost as if he were felt the need to punctuate the statement, he lifted the bottle to his lips and began to gulp down the strong-smelling liquor.
“The four men outside the front door…” Nobuyuki said, questioningly.
“The unconscious men?” the monk replied, with a predatory smile.
Nobuyuki raised an eyebrow. “And that was your doing?”
The tattooed man slammed the bottle down on the floor and slid to his knees, looking around for something else to drink. Glancing back at the the Phoenix, he replied, “Those men walked their own path, without a care to watch where it led. I am simply the cliff that lay at the end of it.” There was a dangerous edge of humor in his voice.
Nobuyuki willed himself to remain still. “I am to believe, then, that you are a Togashi who picks fights in bars after nearly drinking them out of business?”
“Believe what you will, Shiba,” the monk replied, “but I have a secret.”
The monk crawled next to Nobuyuki and sat perpendicular to the seated yojimbo. He leaned in close to Nobuyuki, and the yojimbo noticed that the monk’s breath smelled not of alcohol but of ash. The monk moved close to the yombo’s ear, and whispered, “This is a place of vice, but the vices men come here to feed I do not share.”
In a single smooth motion, Nobuyuki leapt to his feet. He glared down at the monk. “At best you are mad, at worst you are a fraud, and I do not have time for you.”
To Nobuyuki’s astonishment, the monk pressed his right palm against the ground, leaned forward on his right arm, then slowly lifted his legs into the air. With a quick jerk, he flipped from his upside-down position, spun through the air, and landed on his feet. “Leaving me so soon, Shiba? Did you forget your charge?”
Nobuyuki rested his hand on the hilt of his katana. “My charge is being watched by my compatriots outside. There is danger approaching, but I fear that you may be the greater threat.”
The tattooed man narrowed his eyes, then reared back and laughed, holding his stomach with both hands. “Truly?” he said, covering his mouth with his hand, “I assure you, I am in full control of my faculties.”
Nobuyuki looked across the room, noting the dozens of empty bowls and bottles strewn across the floor. He nodded at the proprietor, cowering in the far corner, before turning back to the tattooed monk. “I am sure you are in perfect condition.”
The monk opened his worn hands as if he were proffering a gift. “My dear Shiba, think for one moment: if I were an ordinary man, drinking all the bottles of sake here would not have made me drunk – they would have likely killed me!”
Nobuyuki nodded, and flexed his fingers anxiously, ultimately closing them around the hilt of his blade.
The monk glanced down at Nobuyuki’s obi, then back to his face. “I am no ordinary man. I trust that in your line of duty, you had to learn something of medicine?”
“I know basic first aid, of course, in case I fail at my initial duty, and I know what herbs and compounds can be used to treat common diseases and poisons.”
“Then you know that our bodies contain many strange organs that direct the flow of the elements, and others that can be manipulated to maximize the flow of chi?”
Nobuyuki nodded, but did not loosen his grip.
“I do not have such things. Instead, the gifts of Lord Satsu and the late Lady Moon have replaced my insides with a roaring furnace!” The monk smiled widely, and Nobuyuki could see that the edges of his teeth were blackened. The monk pointed at his mouth and continued. “Consequently, anything I place in here has the same result: burnt away as kindling to fuel the flame. No drink can make me lose my sense of self, no poison can bring me low, no food is too rotten or tough for me to draw some strength and sustenance from. And since the fire has burnt my taste away completely, I don’t mind too much doing so. Not to mention that the fire of my chi – well, let’s just say it has some use in my path to Enlightenment.”
“So the sake doesn’t affect you. You are still a monk – why drink all of it?”
“Alcohol itself is not the sin; it is the intoxication. By drinking all the sake in this establishment, I prevent the minors from falling too deeply into their bowls, thus giving them the incentive to seek their own personal enlightenment.”
“And the men outside? How are they seeking enlightenment while passed out on the floor?”
“They are embracing the Void?” The monk smiled innocently. “If nothing else, they aided me on my path to Enlightenment. In combat, I will find the state of connected separation needed to become one with the Universe. Enlightenment requires both knowledge of all things and separation from that knowledge. Through confrontation, I learn, and by destroying all that I confront, I am separated from it by its non-existence.”
“You are mad.”
“No, I am Taro, and I am pleased to meet you, Shiba.” Togashi Taro bowed deeply to the yojimbo, and said, wryly, “I suppose this is the part where you lecture me like my friend Gato normally would.”
Nobuyuki blinked twice, then released his grip on his blade. He bowed to the monk. “No, now I will ask you to join me, Taro-san. I was sent to find you by your sister monk, Togashi Miyoko. She told me that you alone could buy this town time.”
Taro’s eyes grew wide. “Little Miyoko needs my aid to save the town? Why didn’t you say so sooner?” As he rushed past the Shiba bushi, he added, “That’s the problem with you Phoenix. It’s always a guessing game with you – you never say things in a sensible manner.”
Nobuyuki was too stunned to reply.
* * *
Across the makeshift street from the sake house, three men and a young woman stood, watching the entrance intently. The three men all wore positions of their station – the first, dressed in simple brown with a small dragon mon, stood alone, bearing only a katana in his obi. The second, clad in gold and green, had a katana and two wakizashi at his side, while the final man wore an orange and gold kimono emblazoned with the Isawa family mon. The young woman’s face lit up as Taro emerged from within the sake house, and the large tattooed man rushed to her and clasped her on her shoulders.
“Miyoko, my Little Flower! I did not expect to see you here!”
The small woman smiled up at her brother monk. “Nor I, you, Taro. When the villagers told me you were here, I could scarcely believe it.”
Taro looked at her companions with interest. “And this is the famous Lord Kenzo, I presume? I heard you had travelled with her.”
Kenzo bowed deeply to the monk. “Hai, sensei.”
Taro shook his head. “I am a teacher, samurai-san, but I do not think you would appreciate my message. And who is this?”
“His name is Hozumi, big brother,” Miyoko said, “he has accompanied me across the Empire. We recently returned from the lands of the Crab.”
Taro walked up to Hozumi and examined him closely. Hozumi, visibly unnerved by the proximity of the tattooed monk, gingerly stepped backwards. The monk narrowed his eyes and moved in closer. Then, with a loud clap, he clasped the vassal bushi on his shoulders. “Hah, my clever girl!” Taro boomed, “You leave your place at the ronin’s shrine to watch over his grandson! Did his ghost ask you, or was it his horse?”
Miyoko thrust her lower lip out. “Taro, my duty is my own.”
“So the horse, then,” Taro replied, his eyes glittering, “I always thought she might be cleverer than the rider.”
Behind Taro, the broad-shouldered shugenja cleared his throat. “I am Isawa Nakajima, and you have already met my yojimbo, Shiba Nobuyuki.”
Taro curtly nodded to the shugenja, then turned back to his fellow Dragons.
“Is this what you thought our Champion meant when she told us to go out and teach?” Miyoko said, her hands on her hips. “Beating up men outside establishments of vice?”
Taro shrugged. “Those men made their choice, and the price they paid for it was not too steep. After all, if it were Akagi or Futoshi, they would certainly be dead now.”
“Akagi and Futoshi see no wisdom in associating with other men, Taro, so they do not put themselves in situations where they are around other men enough to get in random fights,” Miyoko chided. “Besides, the last I heard, Akagi has been perched on the roof of a Crane palace for a month or more, and refuses to come down.”
Taro frowned. “I take it, then, that the Cranes have not yet tried sending a peasant with a broom up after him?”
Miyoko shook her head. “No. They sent for aid, but Lady Maya has decided that it would be more educational for the Crane if Lord Numata figures out the way to get Akagi down on his own, and, therefore, hasn’t sent a reply.”
“Maya and her trickery,” Taro said, shaking his head sadly, “when will she learn that knowledge comes from confrontation, not cleverness?”
“Not everyone shares your belief in your philosophy, Taro,” Miyoko replied.
“And that is why these doctrinal differences will lead to our doom!” Taro exclaimed. He and Miyoko exchanged knowing stares.
The large, long-haired Phoenix shugenja took advantage of the momentary silence to step forward. “If I may, Lord Togashi, we face a much more tangible threat than philosophy.”
“The earth spoke to me,” Nakajima said, his voice a low rumble. “It told me of an attack on the Jagged Peak. My yojimbo and I were within a day’s travel, so we investigated. Sure enough, the watchtower has fallen, and two others near it as well.”
“A new foe?” Kenzo asked, narrowing his eyes, “Surely this cannot be Chosai attacking again so soon?”
“It is Chosai, Mirumoto-san,” Nakajima confirmed. “The forces he uses now are veterans of the previous conflict, the few clever and skilled enough to survive our rout of their forces. They do not attack like raging madmen, nor do they use burning barbarians screaming in eternal pain as their vanguard. They have moved in swiftly and efficiently, using their better mobility and lifetime of traveling through the rough northern steppes to strike quickly, eliminate all opposition, and retreat before reinforcements can arrive.”
“And now you believe they are headed here?”
Nakajima nodded firmly, his lips pursed together.
“Lord Nakajima tried to contact Shiro Tamori, but the apparently the earth kami around the fortress were uncooperative,” Nobuyuki added.
Kenzo laughed. “You wanted a response by Lord Shimura to the request of an Isawa? No, despite his parentage, he is not very fond of your clan. They are one of the fortresses nearest to here, however. I know some hidden paths through the mountains, and my steed is trained to travel through this rough terrain. I will deliver your message for you.”
“That would be helpful, Lord Kenzo, but this village is in the army’s path,” Nakamuro replied. “We need to evacuate the men and women living here.”
“Hozumi and I can help you, Lord Isawa,” Miyoko said, her voice chipper. “Champion Shrine Village is within a few days’ walk from here. With your aid, we can cut down on travel time.”
She turned to Taro. “And that leaves the most important job to you, brother.”
Taro’s eyes glowed and his smile grew even wider. He slammed his fist into his palm. “I get to fight them, don’t I?”
“You get to find them and occupy them, yes, despite their overwhelming odds.” Miyoko said, frowning. “Don’t look so excited about it.”
“One man?” Nobuyuki said. “That’s madness. Nakajima and I will accompany you.”
“Don’t worry, my lords,” Taro said with a bow, “I will find the Army alone and delay them long enough for you to evacuate Last Ridge.”
“You’ll hold off a legion by yourself? What if the Army gets past you, Togashi?” Nakajima rumbled, “We should accompany you.”
“Ah, but they won’t! Even if they did, you have Miyoko with you. Don’t you worry!” Taro said, still laughing, “The child is a once-in-a-generation prodigy. One day she’ll give Kaelung himself a run for his money.”
Taro sprinted away from the two Dragons and the confused Phoenix, towards the north. Before they could register a reply, the boisterous tattooed man leaped thirty feet off a ridge to the small mountain path below, laughing all the while. After watching the monk leave, Hozumi merely turned to his companions and shrugged. The two Phoenix stared at him, their mouths open, and he just proffered his open hands and shrugged again.
“You get used to that kind of thing after a while,” he said, and Miyoko nodded to him in agreement.
“Let’s get these people out of here.”
* * *
One day later, Togashi Taro returned to Last Ridge Village, soaked in blood, pursued by the remainder of a burning legion of northern barbarians. When he saw the village evacuated, he began laughing again, and quickened his stride.
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