In the Rokugan of Emperor Edition, the new Ruby Champion has a chance encounter with a man who may end a grave threat to the Empire, or who may simply be another body in the path of a nightmare.
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
The wind swept up the last tortured breath of the fallen man, adding his voice to its own. If he uttered any last words, they were forever lost, devoured by the howl of the wind. One figure stood triumphant at the center of the clearing. Beyond, the spinning wall of wind stripped the gray branches of their brittle leaves. She left the dead man’s blood on Mukizo’s steel tongue, allowing it to savor this moment of victory, if only because she could not. She didn’t feel anything anymore.
Except for hatred. That still remained, even long after she’d willingly abstained from the use of the taint, lest gaijin forces consume her completely. It remained even after the ascension of her dark lord; on that day, she’d tried to use her dark blessings, but none were forthcoming. Perhaps they’d grown weak from disuse, like the withered arm of crippled man. Or perhaps her lord, from his new throne in Jigoku, had decided that she was unworthy.
But Mukizo was still strong. The taint within that blade had guided her through the wilderness all these long years, its voice growing stronger with each passing day. It led her to this small forested island, where it blackened the grass, stripped the trees, and shackled the wind to her will. Her power had waned, perhaps, but the sword’s power was still strong. The bodies strewn throughout the island, some skeletal with time, were a testament to that.
She would prove that she was still worthy. She still had her title, and there were many that coveted it. They would come to her, one by one, seeking that in her death, and she would meet them without hesitation. Only the tainted could hear the sword’s call as it spread through the lands. They were drawn like moths to flame, and like moths to flame they were each immolated, consumed both by Mukizo’s strength and her anger. One day, a warrior would finally come that could slay her, and on that day she would stand by her dark lord’s side once again. But that day had not come yet. Still, Hotako was ready.
Enemy dispatched, victory achieved, she fell back into her dark kata. Mukizo, still dripping with blood, swung and cut the air hungrily. Herkamaspun in her opposing hand. Together, they stirred the air, spun the wind like spider’s thread. She moved with the dark grace of dancing shadow. Her steps lifted the curled husks of fallen leaves as the wind rumbled at her wordless command. Her kata renewed the whirlwind’s spin and invoked the sound of the wind. It spread, cold and loud, from the clearing and through the empty trees, between the stalks of dead grass and to the water’s edge. There were voices in that wind. The scattered leaves were their tongues, the brittle clatter of the branches were its song, the wind its very breath.
“I am Mukizo,” it said, “the sword that drank an Emperor’s blood.”
The voices were in the crash of the waves that brought the words to the shore beyond the island. They were in the wind that spread the words throughout night-cloaked lands. They seeped into the dreams of those tainted warriors that slept in secret amongst the populace. They were echoed in the whispers of the hidden remnants of the Lost, spoken in tea houses, dojos, courts great and minor, all shadowed places both obscure and in plain sight. Dark samurai repeated them, felt the kata-borne breeze, tasted its temptations, and looked to the south.
“I am the sword of the Obsidian Champion,” it said. “Heirloom of the Chuda, breaker of steel, a blade of traitors. I rest in the hand of my mistress. If you are worthy, seek me. Defeat my mistress and claim me. Grasp true power and become one with Obsidian, a Sentinel of Chuda. If you are worthy.”
The clearing thundered with the deafening wind, the crack of splitting wood, and the crash of the shore. Daigotsu Hotako dragged her twisted kama-blade against Mukizo’s steel. The voices howled, here and hundreds of miles away. “Come!” they challenged. “Come and get me!”
* * * * *
Traditionally, achieving the station of Ruby Champion would mark of the end of a Magistrate’s career. The Ruby Champion was the sensei for Emerald Magistrates, after all, bestowing personal techniques and molding the minds and methods of an entire generation of Magistrates. In many subtle ways, the Ruby Champion decided the policy of future magistrates, occasionally acting as the liaison between the Emerald and Jade branches. It was the second-most coveted position in the entire Empire amongst those who enforced order. However, once achieved, there was nowhere else to go. The Ruby Champion traditionally remained within the dojo; gone were the days of tracking criminals, of accumulating testimony, and the rare thrill of the chase. Outstanding cases would be passed on to promising minds, and the Ruby Champion would retire from the field, oftentimes young, and content himself with instruction and self-contemplation.
This never sat well with Tsuruchi Nobukatsu. The role of the sensei was an honored one. It was all-important, a duty that could never be set aside. Still, what good were time-honed tracking skills that were never tested, keen eyes that never laid sight upon a crime scene, experience never wielded for the honor of the Empress? Surely the Ruby Champion could be a sensei and an active magistrate in his own right?
When he’d uttered these things, his friends had humored him. “Perhaps when you are Ruby Champion one day,” they’d joked, “you can implement such bold changes!”
Nobukatsu smiled as he exhaled the sweet kizami smoke from his kiseru. When Yasuki Miliko bestowed the Ruby Championship on him, over all of his peers, he did exactly as they had predicted. After all, wasn’t Yasuki Miliko active in the Destroyer War during her time as Ruby Champion? Perhaps he should honor her example.
Besides, he reasoned, frowning at the map before him, there were things that could not be adequately taught in the dojo. For instance, his famed techniques for hunting men, the very reason he was chosen and the thing he was expected to impart upon the new generations of magistrates. Words and gestures could never be enough. There was too much nuance to his work, too subtle and mutable to be demonstrated in controlled settings. Men were unpredictable prey, but there were patterns one could watch for, things that could not be reproduced in a dojo. His students had to learn “in the field,” to see the techniques demonstrated firsthand and hone their skills against live targets.
And of course, if this meant he had to spend much of his time in the field of duty instead of the dojo, well… then that could not be helped. After all, these students were unworked bars of iron waiting to be forged into blades, and one did not work wrought iron over cold coals. One sought fire.
And one had found fire. A rumor, really, but one grave enough to investigate. A magistrate had captured a tainted Spider warrior who had remained behind, thinking it fit to disobey the command of Heaven. The magistrate had shown him the error in his thinking, and during the following interrogation, something interesting had slipped out. This claim was then investigated on its own merit, rippling through the shadowed network of contacts the Emerald Magistrates had maintained over the course of centuries. Saibankan’s Net had pulled something more concrete from these shadowy waters: a challenge from the south, and a name. It was the last case on the former Ruby Champion’s desk before she severed her topknot and retired to the monasteries of her family’s ancestors. Her last unfinished case became his first, and he intended to finish it.
The Emerald Magistrates could not follow their leads. The trail was cold, and there was no way for them to find the source of the challenge. They believed that they had little choice but to wait for something else to surface, something they could follow. They could hardly be blamed; they didn’t have Nobukatsu’s methods, nor the training of a Tsuruchi bounty hunter amongst their leadership. Once that changed, the trail became quite clear. Nobukatsu followed it south, bringing his students with him. It was the perfect chance to demonstrate the techniques by which the obscure could be seen and the hidden could be found.
Those were not the only reasons he had for his personal involvement in the matter, however. The name in the possession of the Magistrates was Daigotsu Hotako, a woman their contacts called the “Obsidian Champion.” In addition to existing crimes, she was a tainted warrior living in the Empire, which could not be tolerated. Even though he didn’t know what her title meant, Nobukatsu knew her by another name, as did all Mantis. He knew her as Yoritomo Hotako, former crew of the Spoils of War and dark stain upon the honor of the clan. This he kept to himself; it was a matter of honor and of no concern to others. It was a rare thing when one’s duties to two masters overlapped into the same goal, and he wasn’t about to ruin that by talking about it.
A frustrated slam on the table stole him from his introspection. Nobukatsu lazily looked up from the map at his students. They were still arguing. He sighed again and no one noticed his displeasure. It seemed the argument was over how to approach the island on the map, where they’d finally tracked the tainted woman. Originally, the concern was that she would flee, but since they’d arrived and remained hidden within the quiet fishing community, the magistrates had witnessed a steady stream of ronin challengers passing through the village, taking small sampans to the island, and not returning. One after the next these challengers went to their doom. It was like something was calling to them.
His students were convinced that they could wait no longer. She had to be brought to justice. Some even feared that she was gathering an army, but others dismissed this as preposterous. Nobukatsu suspected their urgency was as much cabin fever from their self-imposed reclusion within the teahouse walls as it was a desire to see an end to this threat to the Empire. A part of Nobukatsu agreed with haste, the part that could not permit a stain upon the Mantis to survive, nor a criminal free reign to do as she pleased. But he also knew that she wasn’t going anywhere, and thus they had time to wait for the right moment to strike. That moment had not come for the last two weeks, two weeks of waiting, plotting, and watching tainted ronin march to their deaths. At least, in that time, she was doing much to purge the Empire of its tainted denizens, in her own way.
“Any way we approach the island, she will see us coming!” his youngest student announced. He was already well into adulthood, an accomplished magistrate before his promotion into his current position. “We should attack under cover of darkness.”
“Daylight is our one advantage,” a woman countered. “You would sacrifice that for nothing?”
He sneered. “You have not offered one suggestion yet! At least I am trying!”
And the argument continued. Nobukatsu tapped his cheek. Maybe he should say something…
But in truth, he was finding it hard to pay attention to his arguing students. There was a man sitting on the far end of the otherwise unoccupied room, his tea untouched on the table before him. A wide-brimmed straw hat covered his features, but Nobukatsu knew the man was watching them. He was probably listening as well. The Ruby Champion mirrored the actions of this man, threading his fingers together and appearing to be weighing the words of his students. He watched carefully with the periphery of his vision until the man finally stood from his table, unnoticed by the students, and walked out.
Nobukatsu nodded to himself. The man was listening to them after all. He’d heard whatever he needed to hear and was now making for the island. Nobukatsu stood, silencing the students abruptly.
“Heed your surroundings,” he said, donning his own straw hat, “and solutions to your problems will present themselves.”
He left them in stunned silence. Passing through the door into the cold night, Nobukatsu quickly spotted the man as he approached the shoreline, making for one of the many sampans on the beach. The island, tiny in the distance, was nonetheless visible on the horizon beyond, thanks to the stare of the moon above.
“Hold on,” Nobukatsu called out. The man halted, keeping his back to the Ruby Champion. The mon of the Ikoma stared at him from the man’s back.
“Identify yourself,” said Nobukatsu. He didn’t adopt a demanding tone; he left his voice calm and nonchalant. The light from the teahouse behind him threw his shadow over the man like a vast net. The man turned and looked at him.
The reply came with equal calm. “I am Ikoma Ayumu,” he said. Donned in sandy browns and oranges, the man wore incomplete scraps of armor over his kimono, his daisho firmly tucked into his obi. The gaze of the Ruby Champion narrowed upon him.
After several long moments of silence, Nobukatsu spoke again. “I know what you’re intending to do,” he said, in the tone of one offering friendly advice. “You’re not the first. I’ve seen countless men pass through this village to that island. That’s where you are headed, right?”
Ayumu did not reply. He stared, face serious.
“I should arrest you,” Nobukatsu continued, “but I recognize that mon on your shoulder. You served in the Destroyer War.”
The Ikoma nodded. “Hai.”
“So did my brother,” Nobukatsu smiled. “It is out of respect for this that I offer you some advice. Go home. This is a matter for the Emerald Magistrates alone.”
After several long moments, Ayumu turned in Nobukatsu’s shadow to fully face the Ruby Champion. “With all due respect,” he replied, “this is a matter of honor.”
Nobukatsu’s gaze turned to Ayumu’s left sleeve. It was cut long, but after a moment he realized it was empty. He saw that the Lion’s left sode was damaged on the shoulder, that he was slightly curled to his left, as if compensating for a grievous loss. The loss of his arm.
A matter of honor, the Lion had said. Nobukatsu nodded with understanding. It occurred to him, in that moment, that only the tainted could hear the call of this “Obsidian Champion” on that island, and that would be reason enough to subdue the man. Perhaps the prudent thing would have been to do this, to question him and gain more insight on his enemy. But the Ruby Champion’s one vice was that he was a gambler, and the fact that this always paid off only encouraged this behavior. His practiced mind measured the odds and came up with a plan.
He reached into his sleeve and drew out a drawstring bag, unwinding it and fishing out a pinch of tangled kizami for his pipe. “I would never stand in the way of honor,” he said, packing it into the mouth of the kiseru. “Of course, you cannot possibly win. A man in your condition would be dispatched rather easily.”
His words did not seem to affect Ayumu. The magistrate lit his pipe with a flint and steel device he produced from his sleeve, tucking it back again as he drew deeply on the kiseru. “The style that woman adopts is one I am familiar with,” he continued. “She fights with two weapons, becoming a storm of death. She will strike twice, first to disable, then to kill. Aiming for an arm, the neck, or perhaps an organ… she robs her opponent of the chance to fight back. If she perceives weakness, that is where she strikes. And the second one ends it.” Nobukatsu shrugged. “Even a complete man has no defense. There is no stopping the attack, and it cannot be deflected, nor dodged. It can only be absorbed, which naturally means certain death.”
“Of course,” he held out a hand, “I know that I cannot dissuade you. You have until the morning. If fortune favors you somehow, and you are able to defeat her…” He paused, lifting the pipe from his lips and meeting the man in the eyes, “if you were to recover her blades and bring them to me, I would be forever grateful.”
The Lion nodded, then bowed deeply. “Arigato,” he said. Then, he turned and continued his walk, making his way to the beach and the small boats that rocked there.
Nobukatsu watched him for some time. Until morning, he’d said. That was how long he gave the man to redeem himself. It was a lie, of course. He’d give this Ayumu a head start, then he would order his students to arm themselves and they’d follow him to the island. He would serve as an adequate distraction while the magistrates did their work.
The Ruby Champion smiled. He’d lied to the Lion, perhaps. But Nobukatsu did not concern himself keeping promises for dead men.
* * * * *
Ikoma Ayumu planted his foot on the dead island. Even in the light of the moon, the sand was black, like soot. The forest beyond was skeletal and tangled. Clouds churned in the sky. In the distance, Ayumu heard the howl of battering wind. So this was where the dark breeze had led him.
A dead man greeted him on the beach. No more than a lifeless skeleton, still gripping the handle of a weather-worn katana. It wore splintered armor bearing the mon of the Spider. Ayumu took note of the location of the strikes and then moved on.
The next body he encountered lay just within the border of the stripped forest. This one’s back was broken. It was cleaved in the same place as the first, but was also missing its jaw. Ayumu took note and then passed through the brush. There, the wind grew louder.
As he drew closer to the center, he could feel the wind’s strength increasing. The battered limbs of the trees towered over him, swaying with the force of the breeze, clattering and splintering violently. He soon saw that the forest was growing thinner; the wind had uprooted the weakest trees and flung them aside, obscuring the path beneath piles of broken limbs and twisted trunks. There were bodies as well, all bone-dead, all bearing the same fatal injuries. With only one arm, Ayumu had to carefully maneuver around them. There were far less barriers to stop the wind here, and it constantly buffeted him. Swaying thorn-covered branches clawed at his face and grabbed his kimono, like lifeless minions commanded to stop him. Halfway to the center, he drew his wakizashi, using it as a parangu to clear the attacking foliage.
The wind’s howl was deafening. The closer he came to the center, the stronger it grew. It tore the hat from his head and clattered his armor. It threw sticks, leaves, and small branches in his way. Now and again, it threw the bone of a defeated enemy. It pulled on his empty sleeve and tossed it into vile prickers. And worse of all, it whispered, layered voices hissing in his hear, like a thousand snakes.
“Worthy?” they asked. “Are you worthy?”
Ayumu persevered, pushing forward through the thick wind, gritting his teeth against the bone-chill and the ice-flecked tempest. His eyes pressed shut as the voices whispered. They urged him, challenged him, all the while mocking him in rasp hisses. He could hear nothing else. He opened his eyes and saw a clearing just beyond the torrent, distorted by the ripple of the air and suspended debris. Beyond it, he saw a shadowed form, flickering like some dark flame, a dancer obscured by tempest wind. It spun. It laughed.
Wakizashi in hand, Ayumu dove into the clearing through the barrier of wind.
There was no one there. The clearing was empty. Even the grass stood still.
Ayumu stood at the center of the clearing. His eyes scanned for any movement. His foe was here, he knew. She was watching, waiting. There were others, he felt, that watched as well. The night sky above him was dominated by the body of the Obsidian Moon. Staring. Judging.
The whirlwind assailed his ears. He realized that he would not be able to hear his opponent’s approach. Cold numbed his fingers, lessening his already diminished control over his sword. The spinning distortion of the wind was almost hypnotic, requiring great discipline to look away. She’d drawn him, as she’d drawn countless others, into a battle that robbed him of his senses. He realized that he could not depend upon them.
The words of the man from the teahouse came to him in that moment. She will strike twice, he’d said, first to disable, then to kill. If she perceives weakness, that is where she strikes.
He lowered his guard and closed his eyes.
When they opened again, she was upon him. It was too late to avoid the strike, but then, he could never deflect her blow anyway. She’d fallen from a high vantage, and her sword, an arc of glassy light at this speed, had already fallen into its target. The first strike was to disable. Thekamain her other hand was readied for the second, to kill.
And it would have worked, as it had worked on countless others, were it not for one thing. Her first strike, as it was for every corpse he had studied on his path to the clearing, was aimed at his left shoulder.
His left shoulder, where there was no arm.
He watched the severed sleeve of his kimono flutter away, sucked into the vortex of wind surrounding him. His wakizashi struck behind him, sinking up to its tsuba in her unarmored belly. He felt her surprised gasp on his ear, felt her weight against his back, and the warmth of her blood. Thekamafell from her limp fingers, followed by her katana. He waited.
She whispered in his ear. “How did you know? How did you hear me approach?”
He replied, “I didn’t.”
He twisted the blade and effortlessly pulled it from her side. She fell like a punctured water-bag, trailing a lazy arc of red and black. Her landing was violent. Life seeped into the grass as death entered her body. He watched her wordlessly as she twitched, tilting her head up, staring at him with wide eyes. They were glassy orbs of polished obsidian, reflecting the moon.
“You would have won,” he said, “if you wore proper armor.” Ayumu tilted his head and met her gaze. The wind was slowing, as if it ebbed with her life. “You don’t remember me,” he finally said. She didn’t reply. Blood bubbled on her lips.
He nodded. “We fought together,” he told her, “in the Destroyer War. Only I didn’t know who you were, back then.”
He knelt by her side, still beyond her reach. Even so, she hadn’t the strength to attack him if she wanted. She was like a slain beast, laboring in her death, the violent struggling from before giving way to a patient calm. He continued, “My men engaged one of the ironclad units. Yours attacked its flank. I didn’t recognize your heraldry, so I didn’t know who you were. Not until your lieutenants raised the bodies of my fallen comrades, robbing them of their rest.” His eyes burned with the memory. “When the Destroyers were beaten, you turned on us.”
“And I took your arm,” she whispered, a smile coming to her moonlit face. “And tainted you.”
He nodded. Her body shook; if she had the strength, it would have been a chuckle. She drew a painful breath. “Now I know why I failed. I should have killed you.”
Ayumu shrugged as he sheathed his blade. “You wanted me to suffer.”
Her smile grew wider. Impossibly, she raised her head, looking deep into his eyes. “Did you suffer?” she asked, flecks of red spattering her teeth. “Did you, fallen man?”
He said nothing. She broke her gaze and lowered her head to the soft grass. It seemed to him that she sank there, that something vital had escaped her body with that final effort.
“You… don’t even… know,” she whispered, skin growing pale, “…what… suffering… … …is…”
The wind swept up her last tortured breath, adding her voice to its own.
Ayumu expected the tempest to fade in those moments. But they did not. The wind continued its tormenting spin, the leaves rustling, the limbs of the trees clattering together. The voices in the wind continued their hum. He was still being watched; the blades of grass held still, as if waiting to see what he would do next.
Ayumu reached for her sword. The voices grew louder, their whispers surrounding him. “Worthy,” they said, “Worthy…”
His hand grasped the handle of the blade. It was surprisingly light. Manta-skin enwrapped the black stone of the handle. The tsuba displayed a grimacing face. The handle was like black stone, the visage of a snake carved into the hilt. The blade was flawless and mirrored. It seemed to speak to him, in the rustle of the leaves, in the gust of the wind, even in the rasp of his own breath.
“I am Mukizo,” it said, “A sword of the Chuda. My power is yours, Obsidian Champion.”
Ayumu leveled the blade with the saya from the dead woman’s side, propping it so that he could sheath it properly with his only arm. The sword tilted in his hand, and in the mirrored blade, he saw his reflection. He saw himself whole again, a left arm of chitinous black plates, crackling with power. He saw himself leading armies again, countless forms obeying his unspoken commands. He saw purpose to his life once more, service to a lord that would embrace him, despite his condition, his self-loathing. He saw lithe and limber women hanging from his shoulders, strong warriors bowing before him, a vast castle filled with servants, and more land then he could cross in a day. He saw a future in that blade, promises, and the power to regain everything he had lost. Everything and more.
“No,” he said. “Never. I will never serve you.”
He sheathed the blade, and the wind died. The woods crashed with the sound of falling branches. Silently, he lifted the sheathed sword from the body of Daigotsu Hotako, the last Champion of Obsidian. By defeating her, by recovering her blades, he’d proven himself worthy of the title of Obsidian Champion. By rejecting it, he’d proven himself worthy to be a Lion.
Sword in hand, Ayumu turned towards the woods. The Mantis from the teahouse, smiling, pipe in hand, and flanked by many magistrates, looked back at him.
* * * * *
Ayumu sipped his Jade Petal Tea. Its warmth sustained him, like the serenity of the surrounding temple. Nobukatsu smiled from his seat on the other side of the table. “How is the tea?” he asked.
“Bitter,” Ayumu replied, setting the cup down. “But adequate.” He met the man’s eyes. “Arigato. For all that you have done for me.”
The Ruby Champion nodded, packing his pipe. “The law is unyielding,” he said, “but for those who serve the Empress, certain concessions can be made. Do you understand?”
“Hai,” Ayumu said. “I do.”
Nobukatsu put away his sack of kizami, then drew a small scroll, placing it on the table. “This deed places this temple in the hands of your family,” he said. “This place is yours now, as is its purpose.” He glanced a little beyond where Ayumu sat. Beneath the shrine to the Jade Sun, Hotako’s twistedkamalay, and Mukizo sat in its sheath upon a daisho stand of carved jade. His gaze returned to Ayumu.
“I have spoken with the Jade Magistrates,” Nobukatsu said, “They assure me that the trappings of the Obsidian Champion, including her sword, could perhaps serve the Empire once again. Until that day comes, guard them with your life.”
Ayumu’s eyes were serious. “I will.”
The Ruby Champion stood, bowing in parting. Ayumu replied in kind. Nobukatsu turned to leave, but paused for a moment, glancing back to the one-armed man seated before the shrine. “Arrangements such as this are uncommon in this day and age,” he remarked, “even as secrets are not. Make sure that you are thankful for this.”
Without further word, the Ruby Champion left. Ayumu watched him go, passing the guards that stood by the door of the temple. His temple, he reminded himself, and his duty.
The wind blew in through light-filtered windows. The candles flickered; Ayumu turned to face the shrine of the Jade Sun and the blade that sat beneath it. The carved snake-face of the sword’s hilt stared at him. The breeze swam around his ears, whispering with a faded voice.
“I am Mukizo,” it seemed to say, “the blade that drank an Emperor’s blood.”
The whispers were in the creak of the wooden floor, the quiet shuffle of his robes, the exhale of his own breath. “I cannot be purged, cannot be redeemed. I am but a vessel… The Chuda speak through me. They are coming… WE are coming. It is only a matter of time. We will find you where you hide. You will die alone, our darkness will spread once more, and all of your actions will have been pointless. These blades are the Chuda’s, even now. There is nothing you can do.”
If they had been watching, the guards may have thought that Ayumu was bowing, tilting his head towards the blade as he leaned in. Or perhaps that he was tempted by the weapons on the stand, and was reaching once more for his Jade Petal Tea.
But neither of these things were true. He was leaning in, bringing his lips close to the sword’s carved handle. The face of the snake grimaced. Whoever had watched him from the clearing was watching him now. He knew they were listening, knew they would hear his words, here and a thousand miles away. His lips parted. He replied with a whisper.
“Then come and get them.”
Discuss the events of this fiction in our Story Forum!