After seeking their hated enemy for weeks and months across the face of the Empire and beyond, the Crab finally come face to face with the unbridled evil of the Ebon Daughter, head priestess of the living Destroyer.
The Hunt for the Ebon Daughter, Part 2
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Iuchi Quan paid no mind to the winter chill that hung in the air, nor to the frost that rendered the grass beneath his horse’s hooves yet crisp and brittle. His breath plumed out before him, as did that of his beloved steed, but he smiled regardless. Almost as an afterthought, he renewed the prayer that protected the two of them from the worst of the cold. He did not mind it himself, of course, but he would not risk the health of his horse for any reason. To do so would bespeak an illness of the soul that would be out of place for any priest of the kami.
Quan pulled on the reins and brought his horse’s trot to an end, sliding down from his seat atop it and landing deftly in the grass, feeling it crunch beneath his sandals. His smiled broadened as he withdrew a clay bottle from his obi and took a draught of water from it. He gazed around at the undisturbed landscape. Snow was still visible in some of the trees, and in the shaded areas, beneath the trees and in the lee of the stones that dotted the landscape. There was no sign of any civilization. Quan had not seen another person in five days. He had scoured the wilderness, the empty provinces north of the Toritaka lands and west of the Scorpion lands. He took another drink from the bottle and wiped the back of his hand across his face, blotting water from his goatee. A small amount of water sloshed from the bottle onto the grass at his feet.
Quan stared at the water as it melted the frost and revealed the dead grass beneath before seeping slowly into the frigid earth. He looked at the bottle, then back to the damp earth. On a whim, he turned the bottle up and emptied its contents onto the ground, then sank down on his haunches and shoved his fingers into the cold soil. He closed his eyes and cast his spirit downward, his awareness seeking the spirits of earth and water that were contained within the soil beneath his feet, and all around him.
He shuddered at the sensation of it. The quiet, the stillness, thrilled his love of the unspoiled world, but the enormity of it and its sequestered nature left him feeling closed off and slightly trapped. Quan ignored the feeling of claustrophobia and searched, imploring the spirits of earth and river to aid him, searching for the darkness he had pursued so diligently over the past weeks and months. It had become his life, and he felt on some level as if he had a connection to his prey, the insidious foe that he at once hated and loved, for the hunt had given him freedom he had never known.
Then he felt it.
Quan shuddered with the sensation. He had sensed the presence before, a memory of a shadow, like a jet of obsidian running through the earth.
“She is near,” Quan whispered.
* * * * *
It was at tiny village, insignificant in every regard. Once upon a time, she had defended such places with all of her being… but those times were long since gone, and better forgotten. The woman known as the Ebon Daughter wondered idly for a moment what the village’s name was, but ultimately it did not matter. In any even it was likely something foolish and ruthlessly absurd. And soon it would matter even less, because within an hour’s time, the village would cease to exist altogether.
Six souls had been consigned to the next life before the Daughter had learned the village’s location. They had suffered terribly at her hands, but in the end she had believed them when they insisted that they did not know where it was. The sixth had finally betrayed its location. For that, she supposed, he suffered in the next life, but she could hardly blame him. His suffering there could not compare to the suffering she had inflicted upon the end of this life.
The Ebon Daughter chuckled at the deliciousness of it. There were rumors, persistent, undying rumors, that a cure for the plague had been discovered. Some rare herb from this province had held the key to the treatment that could bring those afflicted back from the brink of death. It was foolishness, of course; there could be no cure for the plague, not while she lived. Still, it would take time for this truth to be discovered, and in that time, hope would blossom in the hearts of the Rokugani. The goddess would be pleased to see that hope shattered, crushed underfoot, leaving her enemies weakened and despondent. That would be her gift to the goddess. Fear. Pain. Hopelessness.
There was movement within the village, but not much. It was a small and wintery affair, and the weaklings within doubtless remained hidden from the chill. Only the men ventured forth, perhaps daring to consider themselves protectors and providers. An illusion she would delight in shattering.
“Come, my pretty ones,” she whispered, and the dead answered her call. They emerged from the forest where they had awaited her call. She had wrought them a short time ago. She wished for more, but the accursed cremation rituals of the Empire made such recruitment difficult. Still, it was more than she would need for such a meager target. “This will be a delight,” she whispered to herself, and chuckled once more.
The Daughter wrapped her power around her like a cloak, and laughed at the folly of the fools she faced. They gaped at her, slack-jawed, and fled before the shambling advance of her pets. They disappeared behind every available obstacle, seeking escape from the inevitable. She allowed them a moment’s hope, allowing their desire for survival to ripen upon the vine before she crushed it and drank of its sweet nectar. She laughed as the red flame wreathed about her, but her laughter was suddenly stifled.
Something had changed.
She gazed about, seeking the source of her inexplicable consternation, and found a single man standing in the village center, regarding her with obvious contempt. His trappings were those of a shugenja, but his visage was altogether different. This was no simple priest. “At last,” she said, her breath coming faster. “Something interesting.”
The man drew a scroll in one hand and placed his other on the hilt of his blade. “Only a nihilistic wretch would take delight in their doom. It is reaffirming to see you are as foolish as I had imagined.”
“Bold words,” she said. “Can you bear their weight?”
The Crab said nothing, but beckoned as if for her to approach.
The Ebon Daughter grinned with anticipation and unleashed a wave of red flame toward the Crab. He drew his blade and struck at the coursing energy as if it were a physical thing that approached, somehow shattering its cohesion and sending a shower of sparks across the courtyard where they stood, but leaving him utterly unharmed. “Impressive,” she said, “but hardly insurmountable. What is your counter?”
The Kuni said nothing, but wielded his blade in a quick, flashing kata that involved numerous circular strikes around his person before he dropped to one knee and sank the blade half its length into the earth. There was a tremor as he did so, and the earth flowed as water. A wave crested and struck across the courtyard at the woman, with luminescent green energy surging amid the soil and stones as it rushed toward her. She laughed and tore at the air with her talons, leaving a ragged wound in the air. The wave parted mere inches from her, passing on either side and leaving her unfazed. Her laugh died. “I can see this will be an exercise in tedium after all,” she said. “How unfortunate. Perhaps seeing you devoured alive would be more entertaining.” She gestured for her pets to destroy him, and they shambled forward to answer.
“I am Kuni Kiyoshi of the Crab,” the priest said. “A Crab never stands alone.” He gestured slightly with one hand, and a hail of arrows emerged from every hidden space within the village and it surroundings. Dozens of arrows. Hundreds, perhaps. They rained down on her pets and laid them low in an instant. Many came toward her as well, but they were consumed by fire, leaving not even ash to sully her flawless skin. “Can you say the same?”
“Do you think I fear your archers? Or your laughable ‘purity?’” She shook her head. “You may be well suited to counter the will of the kami, and perhaps even blood sorcery cannot overcome your talents. But if you think those are the only abilities at my command, you are sorely mistaken.” She lifted a hand above her head and shouted a prayer to the goddess.
“Ah yes, your gaijin blasphemy,” Kiyoshi said, unconcerned. “You will find I sought out a means to deal with that as well.”
The Daughter snarled, finally annoyed, and embellished the dark power gifted her by the goddess. She reached for more, not only to destroy the upstart priest but the entire village and all his men… and she found the path blocked. “What?” she hissed underneath her breath. “What is this? Who dares still my power? Who knows that arcane path?”
Kiyoshi smiled slightly. “Frustrating, is it not?”
“Die!” the Daughter spat, drawing back her hand to unleash the power she had gathered.
An arrow shot through her wrist where it joined the hand, filling her entire being with agony. A garbled cry escaped her mouth, and in the absence of her focus, whatever force it was that was interfering with the goddess’ blessings quickly dissipated her power. A second arrow raced from parts unknown, and though this one did not strike her directly, it glanced across her face as it passed, opening a cut on her forehead that sent her helm to the ground and brought a fresh wave of blood to her eyes, obscuring all vision. “Deceivers!” she wailed.
“Unbelievable,” a new, gruff voice said. “She brings the Empire low with her treachery and expects us to play by whatever rules she has envisioned in her madness.” Rough hand seized her and brought her close. “If you expected any quarter from the Crab, then you deserve everything about to happen to you and worse.”
Darkness claimed her.
* * * * *
The world swam like water, and the Ebon Daughter’s awareness slowly crept back in. She stifled a groan as she felt the pain that coursed all over her body. It felt as if she had been exerting herself for hours on end, then taken a short sleep, and awakened as sore as she could ever remember being. She wondered for a moment if she had been tortured while she was unconscious, but of course the Rokugani were too weak for such a thing. She attempted to ignore the throbbing pain in her head and ask a question, but her voice was too slurred.
“She is awake,” Hiruma Todori said.
“Good,” Kiyoshi said. “Then it is time to begin.”
The Daughter groaned again, only slightly more articulately this time.
“Iuchi Yue,” Kiyoshi said. “You stand accused of treason against the throne, against your clan, and against your family. You have conspired with dark powers of the worst sort, and committed acts of murder and depravity on a scale unseen in the Empire of Rokugan. Do you have anything to say regarding your actions before you are sentenced?”
The Daughter chuckled and began to summon her power to her, to punish them for their temerity and make her escape. “Now, please,” Kuni Iyedo said quietly.
“Gladly,” Todori said, and kicked her in the head.
The former pain, which had been dreadful, suddenly seemed blissful by comparison. Her senses swam and darkness loomed, but Todori seized her by the head. “Do not pass out until your sentence has been passed, witch,” he spat. The power that she had been gathering dissipated at once.
“I say we should kill her now,” Iuchi Quan said. “What purpose does leaving her alive serve? This is too risky an endeavor.”
“No,” a woman’s voice said. “She must be held accountable for her crimes. The Empress’ subjects must see that there is a terrible punishment to be had for things such as this. She must be an example to all who waver in their devotion.”
“Quite right, Rieko-san,” Kuni Kiyoshi said, his voice cold and stony. “I am grateful that the Jade Champion saw fit to lend you to this endeavor. A Jade Magistrate and member of your order will be quite welcome.”
Yogo Rieko bowed slightly, never taking her eyes from Yue. “It is my exquisite pleasure to be involved.”
“If we are conducting introductions to the condemned,” Kiyoshi continued, “then please let me introduce the remaining arbiters of your judgment. You have met Yogo Rieko, I believe, and Iuchi Quon is present to represent the interests of your family in this matter. If I may say, they are quite displeased with your activities.”
“Traitorous slattern,” Quon hissed.
“The remaining members of our impromptu council are Isawa Kumai, representing the interests of the Phoenix Clan in this matter, and Moshi Kekeisu, whose unique insights into the Ivory Kingdoms and the magic of that land will doubtless prove most useful in this situation. I believe you noticed her influence a few moments ago, did you not?”
“I will pray for your soul,” Kumai said, bowing slightly to Yue. Kekiesu said nothing, but continued glaring at Yue with palpable malice.
“Iyedo,” Kiyoshi continued. “You are to monitor the Ebon Daughter at all times for any sign of deceit, treachery, or magical activity of any sort. Alert Todori-sama at once, just as you have done, and he will deal with the matter in an appropriate manner.”
“And I will enjoy it,” Todori added.
“She is not to be killed unless her escape is imminent, in which case, end her at once,” Kiyoshi said. “Otherwise, she must be stripped of her power beforehand lest her link to the Destroyer allow her to cheat death.” The Kuni daimyo glanced at the other members of his so-called council. “Let us begin,” he said gravely.
* * * * *
The Imperial Court was utterly silent as the procession moved quietly through the corridors of the Imperial Palace. Some among their number looked upon the object of the procession with smoldering hatred, some with curiosity, and some averted their gaze altogether in shame. Two dozen men in Crab colors surrounded a single prisoner. They were clad in armor and bore weapons, an odd enough sight within the Imperial Palace. They were accompanied by a half-dozen Crab shugenja, and another dozen Seppun guardsmen stood at the perimeter of their formation. As they approached the center of the court chamber, a half-dozen of the Empress’ Guard formed a line between the prisoner and the dais on which the Empress sat, allowing the Divine One to see over them but obscuring much of the prisoner’s line of sight to the Child of Heaven.
Kuni Kiyoshi stepped forward and knelt before the dais. “My Empress,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “On behalf of the Crab Clan, I bring before you the woman known as the Ebon Daughter, vassal of Kali-ma and the former daimyo of the Iuchi family. As you have commanded, so the Crab have obeyed.”
The silhouette of the Empress nodded behind her screen, and Kiyoshi rose. On the right of the dais, the Imperial Advisor shifted in his seat. “My Empress,” he said, “I would never presume to question your will, but the nearness of this traitor to your person makes me extremely uncomfortable. I think I speak for all your people when I say that I worry for your safety.”
“The Empress is grateful for the counsel of her Advisor, as ever,” the Voice of the Empress said, glancing with obviously repressed emotion to his counterpart across the dais. “However, she has absolute faith in the competency of her vassals among the Crab in securing the traitor.” He turned to face Kiyoshi. “Lord Kuni, despite the cancellation of the Winter Court, the Imperial Court has been convened for the sole purpose of witnessing your presentation of the prisoner. To assuage the concerns of her people, what measures have you taken to mitigate her threat?”
Kiyoshi nodded. “With the august assistance of many of our allies, the threat the Ebon Daughter poses has been negated,” he said firmly. “The Phoenix graciously supplied a ritual which robbed her of her power, once modified to suit the needs of the Crab, of course.” He looked to the delegations in the chamber. “I feel it only right and just to state before the court that this ritual is among the most ancient and secreted of the Phoenix Clan. That they would have shared something of such incredible importance to their clan with the Crab for this matter… it speaks incredible volumes as to their devotion to victory on behalf of the Empire. We among the Crab are eternally, enormously grateful for the assistance of the Phoenix, in particular the Masters of Air and Water who assisted in the ritual’s modification. We are also grateful for the assistance of our honorable allies among as the Unicorn, Scorpion, and Mantis for their roles as facilitators of this action.”
“What threat does the Ebon Daughter currently pose?” Susumu asked.
Kiyoshi looked at the prisoner with obvious contempt. “The Ebon Daughter possess, or possessed, a number of abilities, each powerful in their own right. Combined, she was formidable indeed, but perhaps less so than we had been led to believe. The threat she has posed to our Empire is perhaps unsurpassed, but as an individual, she is less of an overt menace and more of an insidious, undermining influence.”
“Noted,” the Advisor said.
“The modified ritual we enacted could not completely sever the Daughter’s connection to the malefic forces she commands,” Kiyoshi continued, “but it did sever her connection to the kami and, in the estimation of our Jade Magistrate associate and our expert on gaijin sorcery, placed insurmountable obstacles in the path of her link to the Destroyer’s power.”
“Can you be certain?” Susumu pressed.
“If the Daughter retains her power in the face of what we have done to her,” Kiyoshi said, “then there is nothing whatsoever that can be done to stop her. That outcome is extremely unlikely, but it does exist.”
“Then the level of threat to the Empress is unacceptable,” Susumu said, drawing nods of agreement from members of the Empress’ Guard. “She has been playing the weakling in order to be brought before the Empress!”
Kiyoshi’s gaze never wavered. “She was told we were traveling to the estate of the Emerald Champion, outside the ruins of Otosan Uchi, where she would be tried and sentenced by a council of Imperial Magistrates. She had no notion of where she was being taken until our arrival at the Palace.”
There was a murmur of approval through the crowd until the Voice of the Empress held his hand up. “The Empress has already stated her faith in the competency of her subjects in containing this threat,” he said. “Consideration for her safety is touching and appreciated, but further discussion is unnecessary.” He gestured toward the assembled courtiers. “Before the prisoner is addressed, the Empress wishes to grant the Unicorn contingent their request to address the court.”
A young man stepped forward and knelt before the throne. “My Empress,” he said quietly. “I am Iuchi Ietsuna, and it is my privilege to stand in your presence. I am the daimyo of the Iuchi family, and though I was absent from the Empire due to my imprisonment within the Ruby of Iuchiban for many years, the burden of my predecessor’s failure can but fall upon my shoulders.” He looked up. “I humbly request your permission to cleanse the horrible stain upon the Iuchi and Unicorn’s honor with my seppuku, my lady.”
The Voice looked to the screen, then nodded. “The stain upon your honor is great indeed,” he agreed. “The stain could be erased with the cleansing purity of your blood, but the Empire can ill afford to lose any lives at this point. Your death would purchase forgiveness, but your burden is a different one: you must erase the dishonor with the sweat of your brow and the quality of your service. The Iuchi must stand up and prove to the Empire as a whole that they are more than the shame of their fallen lady.”
Ietsuna bowed his head. “Yes, my Empress,” he whispered.
As the Unicorn lord rejoined his delegation, the Voice turned to the prisoner. “You were once known as Iuchi Yue, but you cast aside that name along with your oaths of fealty, your honor, and all measure of decency. You have betrayed the throne and your Empire, your family and your clan, and you have done so in service to a false goddess who has taken the lives of countless loyal vassals of Rokugan, many exclusively through your assistance. Is there any means by which you can hope to address the enormity of the horrors you have perpetuated upon your soul?”
Hiruma Todori stepped close to the prisoner and removed the gag around her mouth, pressing his blade against her ribs as he did so. “Speak one word that I find questionable, and you will not live long enough to feel me cut your tongue from your head,” he whispered.
The battered and bruised form of Iuchi Yue, once the Ebon Daughter, surveyed the room. “I can defend nothing,” she said. “I ask only for death. It is the only means by which the Empire can be protected from the potential threat of my existence.’
The Voice raised an eyebrow. “Are you presuming to claim that your actions are not your own? That you have been coerced or subverted in some way?”
“The rites to which I was subjected filled me with darkness,” Yue said, “but it was darkness already present within me. I am a monster, but it is of my own making. So long as my link to the Destroyers is suppressed, I may regain some semblance of control over myself, some hint of the conscience I once possessed, but it is a temporary measure.” She shook her head. “I must be killed, Empress.”
“And you shall be,” the Voice assured her. “Your death, the Jade Champion believes, will allow the plague that has cursed our lands to be more aggressively treated and cured. What information do you possess in this regard?”
“The plague is not mundane in nature,” Yue confirmed. “When the Ghul Lord was slain in Ryoko Owari, I became the sole manipulator of the plague. In recent months, however, I have felt that control… diminished. I do not know why. It is as if some other force commands it as well, now. I do not know who that might be, but it is no one among the Destroyers.”
The Imperial Chancellor visibly paled but said nothing.
“Very well,” the Voice said. “The Empress thanks you for your forthrightness. For your crimes, for your treachery, and for your disgusting lack of honor, the Empress of Rokugan commands that you be executed immediately. The honor of this act shall fall to those responsible for your capture, the Crab.”
Kiyoshi stepped forward and bowed. “Thank you, Empress,” he said. “You honor us.”
“Let it be done,” the Voice commanded. “And let all within the Empire know that the threat of the Destroyers shall be purged from this land, one vassal at a time if need be, until all that owe allegiance to that so-called goddess shall suffer in the next life, waiting only for their wretched mistress to follow them in death.” The Voice paused and surveyed the room. “That wait shall be short indeed.”
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