With the toll taken upon the northern clans by the Dark Oracle of Fire increasing with each passing day, the Dragon and the Phoenix risk a terrible gamble to stop the foe who batters down their defenses. Even if victory can be secured, will the cost prove too high?
A Desperate Ruse
By Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
The northern Dragon provinces
“Wake up, my beautiful Dragon.”
She became aware of the pain before everything else. Dull aches throbbed across her entire body, protesting her every move. Her mouth was painfully dry. Her vision cleared. She lay prone at the mouth of a cave. She could see mountains all around them, but she could not be sure exactly where she was. She was alone, but for one man standing a few feet below the cave. He was an old man, garbed in simple white clothes. His smile couldn’t hide the menace behind his darkened eyes.
Her fingers grasped at her side but touched nothing. Her swords were gone.
“I apologize for these meager surroundings,” the Dark Oracle of Fire said. “My home used to be welcoming to visitors. That was before I was banished from my own land, forced to live with savages. This cave is the best I can do under short notice.”
She tried to swallow. “I am Kitsuki Tsuboko, daughter of Kitsuki Sakura and Tamori Syosuke. I am trained with the Fusami dueling style, and you do not intimidate me.”
“Interesting,” he murmured. “I do not care who you are, Kitsuki Tsuboko of the Fusami dueling style. I want to know where the caravan went. You will tell me.”
She drew in a deep breath and broke into an uncontrollable fit of coughs. The coughs turned wet and finally ended in a violent splatter of blood dripping out of her mouth. The presence beyond the light paused in his pacing and watched her until she finished.
“I wish…” she muttered.
“Yes? What is it, dear?” he asked.
She closed her eyes and paused to gather her strength. “I wish you had the courage to die before you turned your back on the Dragon, Chosai.”
“I see,” he replied. “While we are praying for the impossible, is there anything else you would like?”
“M… mock me all you want, traitor,” she spat. “I am ready to die.”
“Yes, you believe you are ready,” Chosai repeated. “A samurai is born to die. You were told that ever since you were a child.”
He drew closer, so close that she could feel his heated breath on her neck. She wanted to cringe but could not find the strength.
His voice was calm, as if he were discussing the weather. “Have you ever imagined how painful the process could be? You are going to linger, my dear. Your demise will be counted by hours, not seconds.”
“Your threats are as empty as your soul,” she whispered. “You are bound by laws of heaven. A Dark Oracle can only harm another when he is being threatened. You cannot touch me.”
His eyes filled with what looked like pity. He reached out a hand and caressed her bloody cheek. “You don’t recall the battle. That is regrettable. I wish you could enjoy everything from what little time you have left on this world.”
How had she gotten into this situation? She could not remember. The pain drove every errant thought from her mind and her instincts drummed a mantra in her head. Run. Fight. Get Out. She gritted her teeth and tried to reach her center of tranquility and slowly the haze began to lift from her mind.
The attack had appeared from nowhere. The Dark Oracle’s minions seemed to know exactly where to strike, deep within the Dragon Clan provinces. She was assigned to a specific task, ready to fight against the Dark Oracle of Fire. She was protecting something, when the creatures appeared. The warriors of the Dragon had been ready. The battle was going well until…
Her eyes widened. “The Son of Fire is alive!”
“Good,” the Dark Oracle responded. “As a Dragon you are strong. Do you remember what you told me when you first laid eyes on me?”
“I remember,” she continued, her voice strengthening. “I told you that I defy you with every breath in my being. I told you that while I am alive…”
“No matter how difficult it may be, you will find some way to end the atrocity of my life,” the Dark Oracle finished. He looked at his fingers that still lingered on her cheek. “You were very convincing, bleeding and wounded as you may have been. I believe your sincerity. That’s unfortunate for you. It means as long as you are alive, I can do things like – Melt.”
His fingers dug into her skin and she screamed at the top of her lungs despite herself. Her every muscle strained against the fatigue but they lay slack in betrayal. After an eternity he lifted his hand, leaving a mass of charred flesh in the shape of a handprint.
“No!” she wept.
“I have never considered myself a sadistic man before,” the Dark Oracle said. He looked at his hand. “I will stop as soon as you tell me where the child is headed. Then the pain will end, Kitsuki Tsuboko.”
Her voice grew strong. “I do not know their destination, Dark Oracle. I cannot tell you anything. You will kill me, monster, but I defy you!”
A smile crossed his face. “We shall see.”
* * * * *
She woke up to a cloud of smoke surrounding her face. It only took her a moment to recollect herself, and she came to the sick realization that the smoke came from her own burning skin.
“I appreciate that you have remained strong. Six hours of questioning can break any normal man, and the incessant weeping can grate on the nerves,” the Dark Oracle of Fire said.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please.”
“You know how to stop this, Tsuboko,” he continued, talking over her feeble objections. “Tell me where they are, and I will stop the torture.”
“The southern guardhouse,” she said, her voice breaking on the last word. “The last guardhouse watching over the Phoenix lands. They took Satsu-sama’s child there, Dark Oracle. No one would suspect such an inconspicuous area to be used for something so important. Please—”
The Dark Oracle chuckled. “The past five soldiers I questioned told me the same thing. Good. You’ve convinced me, Tsuboko. Thank you for your honesty.”
He kept his gaze on her, but it was clear he was no longer focusing on her tortured body. His eyes glowed deep red and an inhuman screech pierced the silence as if in response. The wyrm swooped down from the mountains without warning. The Son of Fire jumped off its back and walked over to the cave. He nodded with a slight show of respect and stood next to the Dark Oracle. He gave one disinterested glance at her mangled form and turned to face his partner once more. “How may I serve?”
“I need a diversion,” the Dark Oracle said. “Attack the Dragon along their western provinces and draw their attention. You do not need to conquer them, only to deal damage and draw them to you. I presume you can do that without my aid?”
“Of course,” the Son of Fire responded. “I am eager to repay them for the defeat I suffered at their hands.”
“Then gather your forces and go,” Chosai snapped. “It took an inordinate amount of effort and energy to bring you back to full strength. Prove to me you were a worthy cause.”
The Son of Fire strode out of her field of vision. The Dark Oracle of Fire watched him leave with an unreadable expression on his face. After a while he turned back to her.
“I apologize for being discourteous,” he said. “Thank you, Kitsuki Tsuboko. You have been a great help in my efforts to destroy the empire. For that I will do as I promised.”
He turned away and walked out of the cave. “Blaze,” he said.
The entrance of the cave immediately caught onto a raging fire. It flared and stopped a foot away from her. She wanted to move away, but her body would not answer.
“I am no longer torturing you, Tsuboko, but I cannot let you leave and warn the others,” the Dark Oracle of Fire shouted over the sound of the flames. “I have left you enough time to contemplate how you have become a traitor to your precious Dragon Clan. If you can, I suggest throwing yourself into the flames. It is a much quicker way to die than losing the air from your lungs.”
He stood and stared into the fire. When she did not reply, he shook his head and walked away.
Kitsuki Tsuboko could see her death in the flames, but she was no longer afraid. They had warned her before she volunteered that this was possible and she had borne the duty regardless. She had succeeded. Before they embarked upon the decoy mission, each samurai volunteer had learned the whole plan. It had been a tenuous attempt but it had been an unqualified success. The Dark Oracle would walk unexpectedly into an area of the Dragon Clan’s choosing. It was now only a question of whether the trap would prove strong enough to contain the evil creature.
She died with the faintest hint of a smile on her ruined face.
* * * * *
The First Guardtower, Western Dragon lands
“Creatures on the horizon, Satobe-sama,” Mirumoto Yukai said. “What are your orders?”
Satobe looked out at the field and watched the burning creatures slowly approaching. “Why would they be attacking here?” he asked, mostly to himself. “We are guarding a remote province with no tactical value. What would they gain by destroying these lands?”
“Perhaps they are chasing you, Satobe-sama,” Yukai said. “After all, you did defeat one of their precious wyrms in the battle of Shiro Mirumoto. Perhaps they want vengeance.”
Satobe looked at Yukai, but it did not seem like she was joking. It was hard to tell with her, now. Their entire unit had been ambushed by plague creatures several months ago and the pair had been the only survivors. They had lost many friends in the most gruesome method possible. She often reassured him that she was ready for active duty once more and he had reluctantly agreed. One thing was sure: she was no longer the same person she had been before the war.
“Let the archers know they are approaching from the west. I trust their gunso. Let them know to fire whenever they are ready.”
Yukai briskly bowed and disappeared into the tower. Shortly after, a warning gong began to ring from deep within the building. Satobe stared at the slowly advancing horde of burning men with growing unease. He could not understand the motive behind the assault. There had to be something more that he could not see.
“Satobe-san!” a voice called out from behind him, and Satobe turned and bowed.
“Kijima-sama,” Satobe greeted him. “The creatures of the Dark Oracle of Fire have returned. I do not foresee a problem, but it might be best for us to meet them head on before they reach the guard post.”
Kijima looked out at the creatures and nodded. “We’ve seen much stronger creatures in the past. Why are these things here, and in such small numbers?”
“It is peculiar,” Satobe agreed. “I can only imagine that there is some trap in store for us. The malevolent forces driving the enemy have always shown they had purpose. They would not waste their troops if they did not have something else in mind.”
Kijima looked around at the mountains around them, and Satobe mirrored the motion. The guard post was at the top of a mountain to maximize visibility, but there were still several cliffs that could hide some nasty surprises.
“Good assessment, Satobe-san,” Kijima said. “If there is truly something else in store, there is but one thing that we can do: spring the trap. We’ll meet them directly on the battlefield.”
* * * * *
The battle started with a series of volleys from the samurai archers at the top of the guard post. The creatures began to die in droves before they could even reach the Dragon samurai waiting at the foot of the building. Satobe watched with growing unease as the forces of the Dark Oracle fell without protest. The burning men had gotten no closer to accomplishing any goal.
The creatures broke out into a frenzied run as they drew to two hundred yards of the building. Satobe and his men standing near him tightened their grips on their weapons as they got ready to receive the charge. He spared a look at the samurai-ko at his side. Yukai’s hands held the shaft of her spear tight. They shook violently.
“Yukai—” Satobe began to say.
“Focus on the battle, Satobe-sama!” Yukai shouted and readied her weapon.
While he was looking away from the charge, Satobe’s eyes caught a glimpse of something large preparing to leap from the nearby cliff. It instantly rang bells of warning in his mind as a nightmare he had seen in the previous war.
“Wyrm,” Satobe breathed. He quickly gathered himself and pointed to the sky behind them. “Wyrm! Prepare yourselves!” he bellowed.
The timing was impeccable. The Dragon lines wavered for just a second when the wyrm appeared, and that second was all the burning creatures needed to smash into their enemy at full force. Confusion reigned for a brief moment as the samurai struggled to maintain control. It was only a few seconds before the military discipline took over again. By then the Dark Oracle’s forces had already penetrated their line.
The Wyrm landed onto the top of the guard tower with great force. The initial blow killed dozens of archers and the rest scattered away from the beast. To engage the beast in such close quarters would have been sheer suicide, and the Dragon wisely leapt away from the Wyrm.
Satobe swung his blade across a burning man’s neck, and for one brief moment his blade formed the shape of a crescent. Satobe turned away from his opponent immediately, before his enemy’s death, and he stared up at the Wyrm behind him. The Son of Fire leapt off the creature and jumped into the middle of the fray. Satobe could not reach the man from where he was. But he could certainly reach the wyrm.
Satobe quickly sheathed his wakizashi and ran toward the rampaging wyrm. Without the guidance of its rider, it was acting in line with its instincts. It whipped its head against the tower, showering stone and wood upon the Dragon fighters below them. It shrieked and slammed down onto the ground, crushing the luckless few caught beneath him.
Satobe held his katana with a two handed grip and brandished it close to his chest. With a warrior’s cry he leapt forward and stabbed as deeply as he could into the creature’s chest. The wyrm screamed in pain and lashed out with pure rage. Its claws raked out and ripped through Satobe’s armor as if it were cloth. Satobe stumbled back, and assumed a fighting stance once more.
Satobe watched the wyrm, standing a hair’s breath out of its reach. Was it his experience, or had he become more attuned to his surroundings? He felt as if he could predict the wyrm’s every move. The wyrm lunged forward and snapped its jaws at the Mirumoto. Satobe slashed it across the face and danced away out of reach. The wyrm shrieked again and struck, this time with its claws. They slashed through his armor, but Satobe moved with the strike and slashed the creature across the forearm.
The wyrm shrieked in helpless anger.
Good, Satobe thought to himself. He was not doing much damage, but while the monster was focused on him, it was not killing anyone else. Satobe could feel the beginnings of optimism stirring within him.
“Out of my way, fool,” the Son of Fire roared behind him. Before Satobe could react, he felt a hand clasp his shoulder. The inhuman warrior dug his fingernails deep into Satobe’s shoulder. The blood began to seep out of the wounds. Satobe lunged to the side, ripping his shoulder apart on the Son of Fire’s hands. He gritted his teeth and assumed the Mirumoto fighting stance once more, moving to watch both of his opponents at once.
The wounds in the wyrm’s scales seemed to only enrage it further. It seemed to move faster, weaving left and right with a predatory rhythm. Its master was its polar opposite. The Son of Fire stood perfectly still, his gaze fixed on Satobe. He did not seem interested in fighting the Mirumoto at all.
Satobe would change that.
He lunged forward at the Son of Fire with his katana in both hands. The wyrm immediately leapt into action to protect its master, and Satobe quickly changed direction and sliced across the creature’s eyes. The wyrm’s eyes immediately closed to protect itself, but Satobe struck true. Pus and blood splashed out from its slashed eye and the creature reared back in panic.
Satobe turned to face his other opponent, with the slightest sense of satisfaction dawning over him. The Son of Fire had moved directly next to him without a sound.
“You fool,” he snarled. It whipped its hand across Satobe’s face. Satobe flew and slammed into the building, his nose a ruined mass of flesh and blood.
“I have no intention of being stranded here,” the Son of Fire continued. “For attacking my steed, you shall die.”
“You will face all of us, demon,” Mirumoto Yukai snapped. She stepped out between Satobe and his enemy. Her spear was unwaveringly held in front of her. The other Mirumoto stepped out and began to surround Satobe.
Satobe watched conflicting emotions flicker across the Son of Fire’s face. For the first time since his appearance on the battlefield, the demon seemed hesitant and uncertain. It would seem that the Dragon Clan would win the day.
* * * * *
“Satobe-sama!” Yukai shouted in his face. His eyes cracked open.
“Is it over?” he asked faintly.
Yukai’s eyes seemed unnaturally wide at such a close distance. “The burning creatures are mostly dead, with the survivors retreating along with their leader. You drove the wyrm away, Satobe-sama.”
“Good,” Satobe said feebly. He propped himself up onto his elbows and stared at the bloody slashes in his chest. He gingerly touched his smashed nose and winced. “Fighting wyrms seems to be detrimental to my health. I should not make a habit of it.”
Yukai did not smile. “I’ve already alerted Tamori Temonai-sama to your condition, and he will tend to you very quickly. Try to remain still.”
Satobe stared at the ruined guard tower, with pieces of its walls still crumbling from the wyrm’s impromptu attack. Despite his jests, he knew the creature – and its master, the Son of Fire – would soon be back to haunt the Dragon Clan.
Broken and bleeding on the ground, he swore he would be ready for their next appearance.
* * * * *
The Fifth Guardtower, Eastern Dragon lands
“The worst part of setting a trap,” Mirumoto Kenzo said slowly, “is waiting for the prey to come.”
“You are a seasoned veteran, Kenzo-san,” Togashi Osawa replied. “One would think you would have cultivated patience over the years.”
“Do you enjoy uncertainty? With your ise zumi riddles, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it,” Kenzo demanded. His right hand balled into a fist, and he unconsciously placed a hand on the hilt of his wakizashi. “We don’t even know if the Dark Oracle has taken the bait. We could be waiting here for nothing, with forces that could be used to fight the Destroyers in the south.”
Osawa nodded. “And if the bait remains unhooked, we shall avoid the dangers of a prey too strong for our trap. Either way, we win.”
Kenzo shook his head. “You don’t share a soul of a samurai. You don’t have the drive to fight and die for our lord, nor the ambition to fight against the impossible when necessary. We need to defeat the Dark Oracle of Fire, and postponing it would only make the tragedy of that story worse.”
“Perhaps you are right,” Osawa mused. “One thing is for certain. We will know very soon if the trap is strong enough. To arms, Kenzo-san.”
He was taken aback by the conversational tone of Osawa’s warning, yet he did not need to be told twice. He drew his swords.
“It is coming!” he shouted at the others. “Ready your weapons! Be prepared to defend the tower with your life!”
The ground cracked open and jets of flame roared into the air. The Dark Oracle of Fire landed in the heart of the encampment, and the flames danced together to wrap around him. They whirled around him faster and faster, spreading quicker and quicker, until a small whirlwind of flames was spinning around him. No one could approach. Kenzo backed away more and more, his daisho trembling impotently in his hands. Arrows sped toward the Dark Oracle, turning to ash before they could reach their targets.
“Defend yourself?” the Oracle laughed. “But I am not here for you, mortals. I am here for the tower. You are just the distraction.”
A sickening realization dawned upon Kenzo. The Dark Oracle’s flames were only protecting him, and he could maintain the blaze around himself and the tower without ever violating the rules governing the Dark Oracle. He watched Chosai walk to the very front of the guardhouse unimpeded.
The guardhouse exploded in a flash of bright light. The Dark Oracle of Fire reeled back and covered his eyes. Five Phoenix warriors, weapons at the ready, stood at the heart of the ruins.
“I am your death, Dark Oracle,” Isawa Mizuhiko said. “This is your Judgment.”
* * * * *
“Inferno!” he shouted and pointed his finger. The flames rushed forward and enveloped the five. Four quickly raised their hands and began to pray loudly to the kami. The barest flicker of light appeared between the flames and the Phoenix, and the Oracle’s assault stopped inches away from the Phoenix. Only Mizuhiko walked forward heedless of the danger.
“How the Phoenix have fallen, resorting to a madman’s blade to attack their enemies,” he taunted. “Are your vaunted skills not up to the task?”
Mizuhiko’s stare did not waver. “I have spent a year in search of the answer, Oracle. I crafted a temple on a remote island, surrounded by the water kami. Could I wield a weapon so dangerous it could bring about the doom of the Empire?”
“And?” Chosai said. He brought his hands together, preparing for one more assault. “Will you sell your soul?”
“I still do not know,” Mizuhiko admitted. “But you are too great a threat to the empire. You cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.”
He stared at the katana in his hand. To the Dark Oracle’s eyes, the blade seemed to throb with eagerness.
“It hungers, Oracle,” he continued. “It whispers of your doom. It speaks of your crimes, your betrayals. It speaks… and I answer!”
He lunged forward on jets of water, yet the Dark Oracle was prepared for the attack. The protective flames drew in from around the tower and converged on the Phoenix. It slowed the shugenja, yet he continued to surge forward. He leapt backwards to dodge the attack yet Mizuhiko kept on moving forward. His flesh was beginning to peel from the flames, yet the attack moved forward with relentless persistence.
The tip of the sword plunged into his chest, and the world froze. He could feel the blade in his flesh, pulling at him, pulling at his very soul. He waved his arm and his control of the fire wavered. It whipped around him and lashed his skin into strips. He fell, but so did Mizuhiko.
He leapt to his feet and ran.
* * * * *
He took in a deep, rasping breath. He screamed in rage and pain, the sound echoing through the cavern. He picked up a nearby corpse of the zokujin who had once called the cave home.
“They will pay!” he screamed. Fire poured out of his mouth and his fingertips as he vented his rage. The hole in his chest pulsed darker than black in time with his flames. Blood oozed from the ruined injury, dripping unbidden to the ground. Fire and smoke churned from the wound that ran diagonally along his chest. He slammed his fist against the cavern walls, and waves of flame flared out from his hand.
“My task was complete, but it seems yours did not fare as well,” the Son of Fire growled.
Chosai whirled in place and glared daggers at the Son of Fire. “The Kitsuki woman tricked me! If I could I would kill her again!”
The Son of Fire laughed loudly. “What’s done is done, Oracle. What would you do?”
Fire shimmered around the Oracle’s wound, and he settled down on the ground. The flesh began to knit as he concentrated, but only for a moment, then it spat ash and the wound opened again. “This is not the end,” the Oracle snarled. “I will recover and destroy the Dragon. Until then, you will have to be the instrument of my revenge!”
The Son of Fire showed his teeth in a predatory grin. “I look forward to it.”
* * * * *
Kenzo watched the Dark Oracle of Fire’s departure. The traitor evaded the Dragon Clan’s trap, but the Phoenix’s sword had struck true. The Dark Oracle had fled, bleeding from a gaping injury to his chest.
“It is done,” Kenzo said. A sense of wonder filled his voice. “If the Phoenix are correct, then the Dark Oracle of Fire’s threat against our clan is ended!”
Kenzo laughed out loud and made his way to the Phoenix responsible for the strike. Isawa Mizuhiko knelt on one knee. Instead of celebrating, he was weeping openly.
Kenzo slowed to a stop and said nothing. His hand fell to the hilt of his katana. He grasped it tightly, his knuckles white with the exertion.
He did not notice.
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