Judgment, Part 1

As the release of Emperor Edition grows closer, we take a look at the conclusion of one of Celestial Edition’s most popular story arcs: the tragic tale of Isawa Mizuhiko.

Judgment, Part 1

By Lucas Twyman

Edited by Fred Wan

Thanks to John Wick, Ree Soesbee, Rich Wulf, & Shawn Carman

Special thanks to Erykah Fasset for translation assistance

 

Prologue: The Mists

The Phoenix sat alone in front of the fire, shivering. His knees were pulled tightly against his chest, his arms around his legs, trying to fight off the damp. No, not damp – the fog was everywhere, but it wasn’t damp. Damp would be something, and the fog was not that. Normal fog enveloped and subdued, this fog simply dulled. It was cold and empty, soporific and forgetful, but sharp and biting. It dulled all the senses, preventing any perception. No sounds echoed in the grey night; no light glimmered down from stars or the moon above. Only here, in front of the fire, was an island of something; the fog seemed to avoid it, dancing around the island of hard, cold dirt and the oddly yellow-grey flame.

            “Oh, good.”

            The Phoenix whirled around, startled. It felt like he had sat there alone forever, and the voice was the first noise he had heard since… since when? Certainly since he arrived, but how long had he been here?

            The man’s face was deeply lined with wear and worry, and dirty, making it impossible to determine his age. His hair was unkempt, but he had no beard and only light stubble on his chin. He walked with the careful, wide gait of a man who spends most of his day on the saddle. At his side he wore a daisho with elaborate dragon-headed pommels. He saw the Phoenix glance at them and smiled. “They were not mine, originally. They were a gift from a great man. I am glad to see you; starting a fire myself is always a bother.”

            “Who are you?” the Phoenix asked, brusquely. “Why are you here?”

            The rider smiled. “No one important. A sentry, of a sorts. A sentry and a guide, I suppose. I belong here, that’s all.” He kneeled down next to the fire, picked up an unburnt branch, and began stoking the flames.

            The Phoenix climbed to his knees and moved closer to the flames. He rubbed his hands together and watched the rider intently. “So this is your home?”

            “Yeah, I live here,” the rider replied, not looking up.

            “Alone?”

            “Nope.” He inclined his head towards the sturdy mare standing at the edge of the mist. “She’s here too. Really, it’s more her place than mine. I’ve always just been along for the ride.”

            The rider scratched his head, and the mists swirled heavily around them. “We get other visitors too, from time to time. Some just for a night. Some longer, ’till they move on to another realm. Yomi most often, but sometimes Meido.  A handful made it back to Ningen-do, though I suspect they arrived just in time to have to move on somewhere else.”

            “Am I dead?”

“Could be,” the rider said, shrugging. “Most likely you’re just sleeping. The walls between the realms are thin in places, ‘specially near old battlefields. Ningen-do is greedy, but Maigo no Musha was pretty good at letting people fall in even before I got here.”

            “Fall in?”

            “Yeah. Happened to me, I guess, but I think I was dead first. One minute you’re wandering around the Empire, of no importance, the next minute the mist closes around you and you’re here. Of course, when I showed up, my horse was here waiting. That’s how I knew something was up quicker than most. That’s how I figured my destiny back home was finished.”

            “Then is mine done as well?” The Phoenix asked. There was a strange weight at his hip, pulling him down.

            The ronin walked over to his horse and scratched it behind its ear with the other end of the stick.  “Nah. If your story was over, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be in Yomi with the honored dead, or Toshigoku as a hungry ghost, or your soul would be stuck in a sword or something.” Wandering back to the fire, sat down again, rubbed his stubble, and nodded his head. “No, thing is, if you’re here instead of somewhere else, it’s because the heavens aren’t done with you yet.”

            The Phoenix tried to recall what he knew about Maigo no Musha – a once-unknown spirit realm, it said to be the site of a great war against the Iuchiban’s Bloodspeakers, though it was not spoken of often. Only the tales of Kisada, the Fortune of Persistence, mentioned it, though several Kitsu had written treatises on it. The Phoenix had studied both the histories and the scrolls. Many  Kitsu scrolls were required reading for water acolytes, but he had studied Kisada’s histories for his personal edification when it became apparent that he needed to learn more about the Bloodspeakers and their weapons. Unfortunately, the information about Maigo no Musha was sketchy at best – it resembled a strange variation on Meido, the Realm of Waiting, where souls remained after death until they sloughed away their old identity  and karma.

            The rider leaned forward, and the firelight reflected off his face, shining through the mist. Flame danced in his eyes. “You carry one, don’t you?”

            The Phoenix reached for his obi and found himself tense, almost panicked. His sword wasn’t there, but it still somehow lingered in him. He could feel its weight.

            “It won’t follow you here, but it won’t let you go either.”

            The Phoenix remained silent. The rider watched him for a moment, then shrugged and turned to the fire.

            “Give me to drink,” he whispered into the fire, then he slowly looked up at the samurai, his eyebrows raised. “It can be confusing, can’t it? It always sounded just like me. And it was smart, too. Not always talking, just when it would make the most sense. Do you hear it often?”

            “Even in my dreams… especially in my dreams. I suppose I should count myself lucky I am sharing your fire here tonight.”

            “Unless I’m just a trick of the blade. If I am, I’m a pretty terrible one, but if I remember right, my blade was pretty deceptive. It shaped the Empire, y’know. Tasted the blood of three Emperors. One was even a god at the time.”

            The Phoenix’s eyes widened. “Then you’re Sanzo.”

            The rider laughed. “Been a long time since somebody new called me that.”

            “And you once wielded Ambition.”

            The ronin frowned. “I’m more inclined to say it wielded me. Like I said, it twisted an entire Empire. Shoju you probably know about, being a scholar of the swords and all. He killed the second-last Hantei. And Toturi, well, my story is a little less known, but the Phoenix definitely know all about it. I thought I was re-forging the blade to help me win back my father’s sword, but after I got my wish, I almost murdered the Emperor. “

            “You said three Emperors. Shoju’s story I know, and yours as well. Who was the third?”

“Well, yeah. This one the historians usually miss: when little Hantei the 39th broke the Scorpion Clan, he broke the Scorpion sword with it. But, despite his best efforts, he didn’t really break the clan, and he didn’t really break the sword either. The sword Shoju used was Ambition, not Istuwari, so it was the one shattered to pieces. Kachiko didn’t know that either, so she made hairpins out of those pieces. Imagine what the blade was whispering to her all those years! And when the Thunders fought Fu Leng, she drove those shards right into his eyes.” The rider shrugged. “Small wonder Ambition was able to get someone to pull itself back together, despite being shattered completely. I had no idea what I was getting involved with.”

            He looked solemnly at the Phoenix. “Shoju, Kachiko, and me – you know our stories, and you know how they ended. Only one of us got out alive. How do you think your story will end?”

                  The Phoenix stared at the fire. For the first time, as long as he could remember, there was no sound beyond the crackle of the flame. There were no kami singing their strange, voiceless requests, no water flowing beneath the earth, no voice whispering in his mind. For the first time, despite his companion, he felt alone.

            “For almost fifteen years I’ve served the Empire,” he said, staring into the flames, “over half my life. I have given everything, lost so much. So many friends are gone. I suppose I will give more before all of this is done.”

            Sanzo nodded sympathetically. “But will you be remembered?”

            “I…” the Phoenix shook his head. “… perhaps. Maybe not correctly. They will say that I was a great hero, who slew three Oracles, who fought creatures beyond imagining, monsters who approach the reach of gods. Maybe they will curse me for my hubris, for the destruction I have caused – I even destroyed one of our greatest temples. Perhaps I will be a cautionary tale, alongside Tsuke and Akuma; yet another Isawa who sought the power to protect the Empire and was driven mad by it.”

            “You will be remembered.” The rider smiled, but his eyes were tired. “Many can’t even expect that.”

            “You were, you know,” the Phoenix said.

            “Was I?” the rider said. “I spent the last years of my life wandering the Empire, hoping against hope that someone would believe the stories I told. I died alone and hungry. I think your family might have held onto my skull for some unknown reason. To be honest, I wasn’t very happy about that.”

            “But they know your name, Sanzo. I have visited your temple. The monks say that you are a lesson to be learned, to be remembered. They say you have a son who visits twice a year, to pay his respects.”

            “I’ve heard him,” the rider said softly, “But does he know my story? He couldn’t. I have heard other whispers with him, familiar ones. I fear that he may even carry my old blade.” He poked at the fire angrily. “I should have tried to linger. There is so much I should have told him. I should have lived to fight at his side.”

            “I do not know if he carries both of his father’s swords,” the Phoenix said. “Perhaps not the one that cursed you, but he does carry the one you redeemed. I have corresponded with him, due to our similar… interests. Perhaps he may one day visit you, like I have tonight. But he knows this – he knows you fought for him, fought at his side, long before he was even born.”

            Sanzo contemplated Mizuhiko’s words for a moment. A smile crossed his face. “I suppose so. Listen, you be careful. When you look at things with a wide enough perspective, the Heavens win out in the end. There’s a happy ending, but it’s not for everyone. Remember what I said about my sword – it helped shape the Empire’s history, and it was broken for half of that time.”

 

Early autumn, year 1176

The Northeastern Lion provinces, two days ride from the Castle of the Swift Sword

The war had been over for four years, but the Lion lands were still recovering. Of all the clans, the Lion took one of the greatest tolls – only the Crab and Scorpion had means to argue, and the Empress had made their reconstruction her first priority. While the Crab suffered from the shattering of the Wall, and the Scorpion struggled to contain the new Festering Pit, most of the Lion’s losses were found amongst the people themselves. This made the reconstruction deceptive – while the Lion palaces took less damage than, say, the Dragon orPhoenix, the massive peasant class and centralized location of the Lion lands made them an obvious target for both the plague victims and the Destroyers themselves.  Well after death of Kali-Ma, the Lion found their lands still ravaged by bandits, violent bands of starving veterans, and lingering terrors.

Through the balmy false summer rode twoPhoenix. During the war, Isawa Mizuhiko had crossed the length of the Empire hunting his quarry, the indomitable Dark Oracles. He had surprising success in killing them – any mortal who faced an Oracle in combat and surprised could be considered to have surprising success, and Mizuhiko had slain two of them, the Dark Oracles of Earth and Air. His quest to find the remaining Oracles had been more difficult. After a confrontation with the Dark Oracle of Fire, no further evidence of their involvement could be found. Whether the Oracles were in hiding or simply regrouping for an assault on thePhoenixand the Empire, Mizuhiko was not certain.

His yojimbo, Shiba Morihiko, had less success in his own duties. While he was charged with defending Mizuhiko from harm, the shugenja had an infuriating habit of disappearing for several days, then arriving at an inn or roadhouse, where he, more often than not, found Morihiko contemplating his own seppuku for his dereliction of duty. When pressed, Mizuhiko would claim that he had visited some far-off hamlet or landmark – a village in Scorpion lands, a cliffside along the Crab border, a clearing in the depths of the Shinomen – often across the enemy lines of a major battlefield. Since the war’s end, Mizuhiko’s travels had been far more predictable and leisurely, but no less infrequent, and the yojimbo was forced to become very used to spending days in a saddle. Whether it was a trip to a distant shrine in the mountainous Dragon provinces, a small garden at the edge of the infected no man’s land in the Scorpion lands, or their current quest, he always was left with one question.

As Morihiko watched the Lion bushi spur his horse back towards the two travelers, that question came readily to mind: “Why, again, are we here?”

Morihiko shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and looked back at his yojimbo with pursed lips. “To answer the summons we received in the letter.”

Morihiko eyed the approaching Lion. “You know what I mean, Mizuhiko. Why are we still wandering the Empire instead of enjoying the peace we fought for, or at least helping the Clan rebuild? We’re not going to find any further knowledge here.”

“He is a magistrate, most likely,” Mizuhiko said, turning away from his yojimbo. “Probably simply patrolling the road.”

Morihiko frowned, but his charge paid him no notice. He pulled his horse to stop and dismounted. “I’ll fetch our papers.”

As Morihiko rummaged through his travelling packs, the Lion pulled alongside them. He was lean, tall, and well-muscled, with long features and dark goatee that contrasted with his messy, dyed topknot. “I am Matsu Sasake,” he boomed, “and you travel across the lands of the Lion Clan. I ask that you present your papers and explain the purpose of your presence.”

Mizuhiko and Morihiko both offered their chops, each bearing the insignia of the Jade Champion. As further proof, Morihiko offered the Lion the letter requesting their presence. TheMatsuinspected the chops thoughtfully and then took the letter, holding it gingerly and staring at it with a perplexed look on his face. Morihiko wondered if, perhaps, the bushi was illiterate.

“If it is not to much to ask,” Morihiko said, cautiously, “why have you approached us?”

The Lion narrowed his eyes and peered off into the distance. “I am the harbinger of the next stage of your destiny,” he said, perhaps a bit too forcefully. His demeanor suddenly changed and he looked at the twoPhoenixwith a large smile. “I am here to welcome you to the lands of the Lion, and to guide you to the estate this spoken of in this letter. I am familiar with its location.”

“I am sure we can find our way there ourselves.” Mizuhiko said quietly.

“Nonsense!” Sasake replied. “These roads are not safe. Three travel better than two, and any who attack you while accompanied by me will  have doomed themselves. I do not boast idly when I claim that I am among the finest magistrates in this region. Since the waning days of the war, I have helped disperse three bandit gangs, including the feared Throat-Slitters. I cut down Parangu himself, and his men scattered before me like chaff cut from the wheat.”

“I—“ Mizuhiko began to reply before thinking better of himself. “We are glad to have your company, Lord Sasake.”

Sasake nodded, looking very pleased with himself. As he rode, he regaled the priest and his yojimbo with tales of his valiant deeds, giving them little chance to speak. Eventually, the Lion slowly rode ahead of the twoPhoenix, still talking at length, and Mizuhiko pulled his horse back, slowing her pace until the trotted aside Morihiko.

“I hunt them because I must, Morihiko. ThePhoenixwill forever sacrifice itself for the Empire, but I also cannot forget what we have lost – what they took from me. They have taken so much from me.” He looked Morihiko in the eyes. “You may not understand this, but I must not allow them to take from others what I have lost.”

Morihiko nodded sadly. “I understand, my friend. I am here with you because I understand your loss all too well.”

 

Far to the north…

Cinders fell through the sky like snow, singeing the traveler’s elaborate robes, but he looked no worse for the wear. Tiny, scalded holes opened where each burning flake fell, but after a few steps, the multicolored fabric re-knit itself, each of the many-colored threads combining into a unified shape. From a distance, his form was shrouded in shimmering darkness; if an observer could somehow survive the deadly ground surrounding him, they would think that his robe was a deep black patterned with pinpricks of dim light like stars above a city’s glare, rather than a thousand colors intertwined in such a way that they seemed to reflect the light itself, the illusion only shattered by the falling ash.

The traveler strode purposefully across the sea of jagged obsidian, seemingly unaware of the difficult ground, each step finding perfect hold on the shifting black glass as if he knew where his next step would be. When he approached a flowing river of molten lava, he paused only for a moment before stepping into the rolling flame. The lava itself curled away beneath his feet, and he continued unimpeded to the side of the mountain. Molten rock flowed down its side in an awe-inspiring simulation of a massive, slow-moving waterfall.

The traveler did not slow his pace as he walked into the falling lava. It tumbled on him, burning away his robes, but leaving his wild hair and blemished skin untouched. As he stepped into the massive chamber hidden within the mountain, his clothes had already begun to reform from the shadows and air around him and reknit themselves.

Magma bubbled up in pools throughout the cave, causing most of the chamber to glow a dim red and casting strange, long shadows across the room. At the far end of the chamber stood a tremendous throne of harden molten rock. On the throne, a slumped figure sat. As the traveler crossed the scalding cave floor, a crackling voice echoed through the chamber.

“Brother.”

The seated figure raised its head, balancing a red-gold crown precariously on its shattered brow. Its eyes glowed faintly; its skin hung ragged across the left side of its face, and charcoal bone could be seen underneath. The right half of its jawbone had crumbled away into ash. Its regal robes hung loosely on its cracked and broken shoulders, and the flesh of its left hand sat exposed, as if it had been flayed away. Its right arm fared worse – fingers of blackened bone still moved, but all that remained of the arm was bone and ash. Its left leg was gone completely, the only evidence remaining was a sooty shadow clinging to the throne where it once sat.

“Toryu,” the burnt man said, his voice amplified by crackling flame but obscured by his shattered jaw, “How kind of you to finally visit me. Forgive me if I do not stand.”

The traveler advanced before the throne, but offered no deference. “There is no Toryu, Fire. You know this,” he replied. “There is only Void. There has always only been Void. Void is all that will remain.”

“Of course,” the Dark Oracle of Fire said with mock contrition, “How foolish of me.”

“You have called for me more than once,” the Dark Oracle of Void replied. “I felt it time to finally respond.”

“Well, yes,” Fire said, exasperated, “I do have a few minor issues I am coping with. But I will persevere. I called you because we are missing our chance to consolidate our power.”

“What power?” Void replied. “We have no need for temporal power. Despite its upheavals, Jigoku has not recalled our presence or removed my mandate. I assume that all is going to plan.”

Crumbling bone scraped against stone as the Dark Oracle of Fire clawed at the arms of his throne. ”Plan? Need I remind you that two of our siblings have been eliminated, and Turi remains missing, likely dead. If Jigoku does not replenish our ranks soon, or restore me to power, all I – all we have worked for will be little more than ash.”

Void loomed over Fire, appearing to grow in the shadows. His voice remained the same consistent monotone. “All that you worked for is nothing. Our position here is to shape the mortals slowly, not to hammer them into tools or force them to bend knee. Our power is great enough that forcing them to do so merely works against us.” His eyes flashed gold. “As for Water, I too have noticed his absence, but I would also notice if he were lost to us, unless he had somehow travelled beyond the reach of our realm. I believe he is either in hiding, or he, like you, like Earth and Air once did, is insisting on playing one of his foolish games and is hiding his presence from all viewers.”

“Then why are we not finding him?” Chosai roared, and he attempted to stand, summoning flame to lift his frail form. Void motioned with an opened hand to stop him.

“We must be patient, Fire. Conserve your strength.”

“If you have not forgotten, Void, we are being hunted.”

Void inclined his head, affirmatively. “And if our hunters ever take direct action against me, I will deal with them appropriately. I understand that it is our nature to struggle against the rules that constrict us, but I also wonder if perhaps our hunters’ success is simply karmic retribution against us pushing too far. I will not act rashly.”

The air around Chosai began to waver with his anger. “Then what do you suggest? That we simply abandon our brother and sister to their fates? That we leave their souls forever trapped in that bloodspeaker toy?”

Void crossed his arms and stared into the ruins of Fire’s eyes. “Their souls?” he said, his voice cold and bemused. “Is that truly what you believe the blade stole?”

Fire shifted in his throne, and the sound of his bone scraping against the rock echoed again through the chamber. “Is it not? They have not reincarnated or been replaced.”

Void chuckled. “Fire, my brother, our souls were claimed by Jigoku long ago. What the sword stole from us is much more important. When we became our present, perfect selves, our earthly physicality was replaced by elemental energies replicating our mortal shells. Where a mortal’s spirit sits, there is instead a direct conduit to the elemental essence of Jigoku itself. When Judgment tastes us, that is what it steals.”

Void waved his hands over his chest, and his flesh peeled apart, revealing a rift where his heart should sit; beyond it, a thousand souls screamed in terror. Clenching his fist, he willed his form again shut.

Fire’s ruined face pulled down into an approximation of a frown. “And that is why Air and Earth have not incarnated in new forms – their conduits remain in Ningen-Do, trapped within the blade.”

“Precisely,” Void replied. “It is also the cause of your present lessened state – you remain Oracular, but without a means of replenishing the elemental essence that fuels our… capabilities. With each use of your powers, you burn away what essence you have remaining, essence that makes up your physical form. You literally have begun burning yourself out.”

Fire’s nostrils flared. “Then what is our next step, Void? What are we to do?”

“We? You will do nothing,” Void said, insistently. “No answers, no magic, no armies, no plots. Nothing, at least until we have destroyed the blade. Hopefully, whatever minions you have already empowered will be enough to defend you until then. I will watch, and wait, and hope an answer presents itself before Yomi decides that we are not in balance and takes advantage of our failures to permanently destroy the armistice between the two realms. Or worse, decides that one set of Oracles is all that is needed, as it once was for Void.”

“Watch?” Chosai roared. “Wait? Are you a fool, Toryu? A coward like Turi?”

Void did not deign to give Fire a reply. He simply regarded his crippled counterpart coolly, then turned and began to walk away.

“Wait! Void! We must plan!” Fire cried as Void crossed the chamber. “We do not need to do this blindly! We must strike! If we can claim the blade ourselves, then perhaps we can claim the power within as our own! Between the two of us, the most powerful and the most wise, we can hold the power of Jigoku undivided!”

Void gave no indication that he heard.

“You can’t just leave me here, Void!” the Oracle screamed, his voice growing higher and higher with desperation. “I am Tamori Chosai, the Scouring Flame of the North! You can’t just leave –“

But Void simply took another step and was gone.

 

The lands of the Lion Clan

The estate was modest and comfortable. The home at its center was small, but of sturdy construction. It resembled a quiet vacation home for a great lord – secluded, well-made, and practical, rather than large and ostentatious. Several tents were assembled around the central structure. Mizuhiko assumed they were remainders from the war, repurposed to hold the monk’s visitors and well-wishers. As thePhoenixapproached, their magistrate escort remained at the edge of the estate, leaving them to introduce themselves to the suspicious Lion security. It took a bit of arguing, but eventually an older woman emerged from the home, examined their papers, and hurried them inside. The décor within was entirely functional – the only decoration was a single large tessen hung on the doorway leading to the bedroom. It bore the mons of the Lion, the Akodo, and the Castle of the Swift Sword dojo in a vertical column.

As they approached the bedroom, the door slid open, and a short man blocked their path. His hair was dyed blond and stuck out in wild and huge ways, as if he were trying to make himself appear bigger to frighten away larger threats. Surpised, he glanced up and down Mizuhiko nervously.

“We are not taking visitors. The master of the house is ill,” he said, his voice abrupt and tremulous.

Mizuhiko regarded the man coolly, examining the insignia he wore on his shoulder. “You are a Kitsu, yes? A shugenja?”

The small man nodded, his body bowing slightly with the reply. “Yes, on both accounts. I am Kitsu Yutaro. I am serving as the monk’s physician.”

Mizuhiko held up the scroll. “I have a letter from the monk Heigai. He requested that I visit him with all urgency. I wish to speak with him now.”

“I am afraid that is impossible.”

Morihiko nodded to his charge. “We can rest outside tonight, refresh ourselves, and return tomorrow morning.”

“I am afraid that is impossible as well. Heigai is deathly ill. He should not see anyone, beyond his family. In fact, he should do nothing but be as comfortable as possible for his last days. You should not see him.”

The twoPhoenixexchanged glances. Morihiko simply shrugged, and Mizuhiko looked down, startled. His fists were clenched so tightly that his hands were becoming white and pale. He slowly unclenched his fists, stretched his fingers, and scratched the back of his neck thoughtfully.

“I am a warrior-priest, but my domain is water,” Mizuhiko said, “and life flows from water. I could help him.”

The Kitsu quieted Mizuhiko with a look, and leaned closer to him. “I assure you, my skill as a healer is well-regarded,” he said softly, “and I would remind you that a Kitsu once served as the Master of Water on the Elemental Council. My knowledge is worthy enough.” He paused when the corner of Mizuhiko’s eye twitched – seemingly involuntarily – but Mizuhiko made no further response. There was no sign if he had a conscious reason for the reaction.  “The earth within him has grown too powerful. Simple healing will only dull the pain and hasten growth, which is the problem. His body has become greedy and takes too much, and he has begun to waste away.”

Mizuhiko found himself compelled to speak in a somber whisper. “Then it is not the lingering effects of a plague?” he asked.

The Kitsu shook his head. “Not a plague, or a lesser disease. No man could catch from him what he has. It is unfortunate, but common among the few blessed to live to his advanced age.”

Mizuhiko’s fingers drummed softly along the blades tucked in his obi. “Then his own blood has become too greedy and begun to eat away at him? A terrible irony.”

The Kitsu sniffed and nodded slightly. “I suppose so, though given his history, he is quite fortunate to have survived this long.”

“We all should be so lucky,” Mizuhiko replied, gruffly, and turned away. He had noticed the Kitsu glancing at his daisho. “Perhaps I will ask him if he agrees.”

“See here,” the Kitsu said, but Mizuhiko glanced at a Morihiko, who stepped forward as if to brush the small man aside.

“Please listen to him,” Morihiko said, with characteristic softness. “The letter was most urgent.”

Behind Yutaro, a coughing voice said something, and Yutaro cocked his head to listen. The Kitsu begrudgingly stepped aside, and the old woman entered, followed by the twoPhoenix.

The old man was wrapped in blankets of silk and cotton, his frail, bald head barely emerging from the end of the bed. The bedchamber was sparse and undecorated, appropriate for a monk’s cell. When the old woman entered, she knelt at his side and whispered to him, and he began to stir.

The Kitsu produced a fan and and waterskin. He began waving the fan throughout the room, periodically pausing to sprinkle water. As the monk began to rouse himself, he scowled at the shugenja. The Kitsu, not noticing the reaction, sprinkled more water. Several droplets hit the monk across his face and his brow wrinkled angrily.

“My ashes have not fertilized the ground yet,” he grumbled angrily. “No need to water where I lie.”

The Kitsu paid him no notice, so the monk, with the help of the old woman, slowly pushed himself up to his knees. His body was wrinkled and worn, crossed with scars and calluses. “And you?” he said, staring at the twoPhoenix. “Have you also arrived to torment me before I die unhappily in bed?”

“I came because you requested my presence, Monk Hegai,” Mizuhiko replied.

The monk set his jaw and nodded, staring at Mizuhiko’s daisho. “Finally. I had a matter I wished to discuss with you.”

Mizuhiko followed the monk’s gaze and placed his own hand on his blades. “You wish me to do something for you?”

The monk snorted. “Yes. I want you to listen. I offer you the gift of experience.”

Mizuhiko nodded. “I thought as much. A monk such as yourself must have learned much from the experience of others.”

“Others?” the monk said, his eyes dull with confusion. “Oh, yes. I see what you mean. How clever.”

He scratched the back of his neck and looked up at Mizuhiko. “Let us not mince words. We both know who I once was. I was supposed to leave that all behind when I retired, but I have never been good at moving on and forgetting the past.” He turned to the old woman. “Sachiko, attend to me. I will not have him speaking down to me. Help me stand.”

Slowly, the old monk rose from his bed. The skin along his back and arms was paper-thin and mottled with dark bruises. His arms trembled slightly as he lifted them and pointed them to his sides, and he slumped as his attendant placed his robes on his body. He ran his fingers along his bald scalp as he might have once done to brush wild hair from his eyes, and his hands stopped shaking. As his sash was fastened around his waist, his back straightened and his brow furrowed slightly, giving shape to his face. With eyes open and cloudy, staring thoughtlessly at the ceiling, he could have been any old man.  With his eyes narrowed, he was a raptor of a man, again the warrior he once was. He turned to the woman dressing him and bowed.

“Sachiko,” he whispered, “It is time.” She nodded and left the room, and the monk turned back to Mizuhiko. Only a significant limp betrayed his economy of motion as he drew close to the shugenja. His breath was warm and sweet as he whispered in thePhoenix’s ear.

“We share something, boy. We share my pity. And that’s a powerful thing. For most of my life, I pitied no one but myself.”

The monk waved away the attendants. A few, like the attending Kitsu, left reluctantly, but ultimately none refused his steely glare. When the room was empty, he relaxed somewhat, his back again became slightly bent and his skin drooped, but his face – his eyes – remained strong and alert.

“Let me make something clear, boy,” he said, his voice rolling like rainwater down recently-sanded oak. “I am among the greatest failures in the history of the Empire.”

Mizuhiko shook his head. “You are one of the Empire’s greatest heroes.”

“Is that what they say about me now?” he smiled wolfishly. “Make no mistake, this is not pity. I killed my own lord. It took me decades to hunt down the creature that manipulated me, and the one I killed may not have even been the same thing it once was. Worse, I failed my Emperor and the Empire many times. The Son of Heaven was stolen away while I lost in my cups, and when we recovered him, I failed to see the corruption seeded within him and the Empire almost crumbled for my lack of insight. He had to die for our failures. I was not there when he died again. I even failed his son, and the Empire lost him, his brother, and an entire dynasty. The only thing I have always succeeded at was wielding a blade, and now there is a new batch of students out there lacking my instruction… ah.”

The old monk smiled, and Mizuhiko followed his gaze. His sword hand was clenching and unclenching at his hip. Mizuhiko felt his face go white and he grabbed his wrist with his free hand.

“I thought as much. You are strong, boy, but despite that it has already started cutting its way into your heart. It’s not your fault – every man breaks eventually. I speak from experience.”

“Is that what this is? A test?”

The monk shook his head sadly. “No. It is only the truth. I am a failure, but that has never mattered. I learned a phrase from my time studying the Tao these last few years: ‘Fall seven times, stand up eight.’ I think the Fox stole that from Shinsei, but I have always lived that belief. What defines a man, what makes a man, and makes our Empire is not our failures: it is how we respond to our failures.  My lord was killed, and I sacrificed everything in desperation, sacrificed everything for revenge. Make no mistake: I was almost consumed utterly by it. And the Empire almost paid the price.”

“You saved the Empire,” Mizuhiko said. “You saved the Emperor himself. When Toturi arrived at Oblivion’s Gate, you were the one who pulled him through it.”

“That’s it exactly.” The old man chuckled. “I see you have watched Hyun’s ‘The Tale of Revenge Found’, where I left my old sword sticking out of the lifeless body of that Goju? Or perhaps simply read Rezan’s ‘The Gate of All Hearts?’ I was quite fond of that one – ‘his bloodless bloody blade tossed aside/ he lifted up the Empire’s Spirits as he lifted the Son of Heaven’s hand’. None of the poets or playwrights managed to mention the truth of the matter. In fact, the only men who know the truth, other than me, are both dead. And I always suspected Toturi didn’t want to know – and Kaneka, the blessed child, always thought it more interesting than important.”

“What was the truth, then? You did pull him through, and that did save the Empire.”

“I pulled him through, yes. But what the histories don’t say is that when Toturi offered me his hand, the first thought that appeared in my head was to cut him down where he stood, as revenge for the Empire he failed and abandoned.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because your soul is in conflict. Only with help can you master the spirit of the blade, and even then, it is likely impossible.”

Mizuhiko took a step back. “The blade is my burden. I will not share it with you, or anyone.”

“No,” Heigai said sadly, and he slid his arms out of his sleeves, into his robes, and crossed them over his chest. “I do not wish for you to share it. I want you to throw it away. It will bring nothing good to you, or the Empire.”

Mizuhiko stood, silently, his eyes darting back and forth subtly, his hand shaking. “You are a hero, monk, but you are not alone. I have saved the Empire three times over. The Empire has nothing to fear from me.”

“There is only one thing in this world I fear, shugenja,” the Lion said sadly, “and it has nothing to do with you.”

He looked past Mizuhiko, and the shugenja heard the chamber door slide open again.  The old monk’s female attendant entered, her face drawn. Her cheeks were slightly stained, and Mizuhiko noticed small waterdrops scattered around the neckline of her simple kimono. Hegai stared at her, but she did not return his gaze, simply offering him a long parcel.

“You have heard its voice,” the old monk said, beginning to unwrap the package. “It sounds like your own.”

“Give me to drink,” Mizuhiko replied, softly.

“Then you know what must be done. Throw the blade away. Destroy it if you can, seal it away, or place it in the care of your clan.”

“And what would the cost be?” Mizuhiko replied, his anger soft and cold. “I have confronted three Dark Oracles, slain two of them. It took only one to ravage the lands of three clans. Would you have me leave the job unfinished, perhaps damning the Empire in the process?”

Hegai turned away from his task for a moment and stared into the shugenja’s eyes, measuring his words. “And if you damn yourself in the process? Shoju shattered an Empire with the blade he refused to put away. You have done great work for the Empire, and you could continue to do so without the sword.”

“Could you?” Mizuhiko snapped. “You say that Revenge almost drove you to strike against Toturi, but in the end you did not. Do you really think that you would have even been capable of making it to the gate without Revenge at your side?”

“Fine.” Heigai’s jaw clasped shut, his thin lips pressed together tightly. He finished unwrapping the parcel and removed two blades, sliding their scabbards into his obi. “For nearly thirty years, I no longer needed to wield a sword of steel. Now it is obvious that I have no choice.”

The old Lion raised his hand towards Mizuhiko, pulled tightly in a fist. “Mizuhiko of family Isawa, I challenge you to a duel. If I win, you will discard the sword, for the good of the Empire. If you win, it will be proven that I have slighted your honor and taken steps beyond my present station. I will accept all consequences for my impertinence that our daimyo judge as just and proper.”

Shiba Morihiko stepped between the priest and the monk. “That’s ridiculous. I cannot –“

Mizuhiko silenced his friend by placing a hand on his shoulder. “No. Heigai of the Order, I accept your duel. It will be a duel of kenjutsu, to the first drawing of blood, and will take place two days from now, at dawn. I will see that justice is done.”

 

Interlude: Isawa provinces, autumn of 1174

“While your testimony is complete, valid, and sincere, your complicity cannot be completely dismissed.”

            “The colors suit you, my lady.”

The two serving girls bowed deeply. Their faces were round and their cheeks full, as if they were still children. A third girl approached swiftly, pushing a large, silver-backed mirror. Some families believed it to be poor luck for a bride to see her own reflection prior to the wedding, but Kyoko put no weight in such foolish superstition.  After all, Isawa himself had said that the world was a solvable problem, that faith should be put in the sciences of the kami, the Fortunes, the spirit realms, and the Heavens and Earth.

Isawa Kyoko had to agree: the colors did suit her. But that was no surprise. Red she had always worn well, and white… there had been too many occasions to wear white in recent years. At least the wedding would be a happy one. And the robes were exquisite, folded stiffly with the precision of origami, the white outer kimono piled high on her shoulders like wings, enough of her neck showing to allow her pale skin to shine through while still being demure.

 

“We will do your best to remain out of the public eye. We will find you a husband, a minor lord who will solidify our alliances, but a man without ambition or public stature.”

 

“Your husband is extraordinarily fortunate to be marrying such a lovely young woman,” her ancient handmaiden said, smiling. The old woman had often confided to Kyoko that she hoped this marriage would be fruitful. She had looked after Kyoko’s household since before Kyoko’s birth, but the youngPhoenixmaiden was the only family member to survive the wars that ravaged the clan seemingly every other year.  “Especially,” the handmaiden said, adjusting Kyoko’s collar, “One who has proven herself to be so loyal to her duties.”

 

-Takesi’s face melted away, skin and flesh and bone and ash. Kyoko felt like screaming.-

 

“Thank you,” Kyoko said, bowing her head to each of her servants, “You have all prepared me well. It does not need to be said, but all of you will always have a place in my household.”

In turn, each of the servants each stepped aside and bowed deeply. Kyoko nodded to each as she passed them, and they hurried before her to clear the passages and open the many doors ahead of her. She was thankful for their help, as her high wooden sandals and unsteadily perched hairpiece meant walking required her full concentration.

 

“You will remain a dutiful wife and honorable member of our clan. There will be no further adventures on your part, no further research. Your training ends today.” 

 

As she entered the courtyard from the exit of the Great Hall, her betrothed entered through the gates leading into her family estate. Shinjo Chu-Yeung, her betrothed, cut a handsome figure in a set of fashionable red and gold robes altered with a fur fringe to reflect his heritage. Accompanied by his parents and a train of servants, his entourage dwarfed Kyoko’s own, despite the ceremony taking place in Kyoko’s ancestral home. He came from one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the Shinjo, but the lesser status of the Shinjo family in the Moto-led Unicorn meant that he would be marrying into Kyoko’s family, rather than her taking his name. Access to Chu-Yeung’s resources without costing the Isawa a member – or allowing Kyoko to leave thePhoenixlands – made the marriage very profitable for thePhoenix. Kyoko was already pleased to know that her husband was quite heroic and compassionate; that he was also handsome was an unexpected boon. The Unicorn presented an endless series of bride-gifts; horses and clothes and baubles from the edges of the Empire and beyond. The sky was clear, the day beautiful.

 

-Takesi smiled and turned to her, stopping to brush a lock of hair from her face. “Our ceremony could be as lovely, you know,” he said quietly. - 

 

At the center of the courtyard, standing before the small orchard, was Isawa Sawao. While Kyoko knew that Sawao had volunteered to preside over the ceremony, she was still surprised that his request had been approved.  After all, she had not spoken with him since the hearing with the Elemental Masters, almost a year prior. Sawao smiled warmly at her as he blessed the celebratory sake. The old priest’s gentle nature had been the source of so much comfort; she could never resent him, despite his role in setting her on her path.

 

Your gifts will not be used in the temples or on the battlefield. Violation of our edicts will lead to further inquiriy and possible subjection to The Forgetting.”

 

The bride and groom presented themselves under the cherry-blossom tree, each bowing their head in mutual deference. Sawao began the lengthy prayer to purify the proceedings and bind the lives of the two samurai together. The handmaidens and servants joined their voices in song with the priest, who then turned to Kyoko and asked, “Lady of Isawa, will you take this man into your family, be his wife, provide for him and your family? Will you honor him and accept him into your home?”

Kyoko looked into Chu-Yeung’s eyes.

           

There was a hole inside her, a terrible itch, like a phantom limb. When she looked at Chu-Yeung — when she thought of Takesi – she knew that there should be a feeling there, there should be something beyond familiarity.

 

The bride and groom drank from the purified cups of sake. As Kyoko had no living family, Sawao accompanied Chu-Yeung into the estate, while Kyoko approached his parents. The handmaidens removed the white robe representing death, revealing the red gown of rebirth. Her new husband’s mother took her arm and led her through the gate, to be embraced by her new family.

 

For the life of her, she could not recall how that lost emotion felt.

 

The Akodo plains, late autumn, year 1176

The sun rose over the Akodo Plains, burning the wheat fields red. Before the dawn began, the two entourages had already arrived. One, Isawa Mizuhiko’s modest group, consisted only of Mizuhiko himself, his yojimbo, and theMatsumagistrate who had accompanied them since entering Lion lands.  Hegai’s larger group arrived second, the frail monk’s physicians and attendants accompanied by the head instructor and several students from the Swift Sword Dojo. The dojo members had ridden hard through the night, bringing with them a selection of fine blades for the duelists to choose from. Hegai inspected each, appraising their balance and craftsmanship without even lifting them.

The dojo’s head instructor served as primary witness and head official for the duel. He approached Mizuhiko and bowed deeply. “Do you plan on wielding your own blade?”

Mizuhiko exchanged glances with Shiba Morihiko. “I do not require the services of my yojimbo in this matter,” he said softly.

“If I thought you were planning to,” the old monk said from across the dueling grounds, “I wouldn’t be fighting you myself. That’s not what the man is asking.”

Mizuhiko turned and regarded the monk.

“We will duel,” the old man said, pointing at Mizuhiko’s side, “but you will not use that sword.”

He fears me, Mizuhiko’s thoughts said, he fears my skill and wishes for me to be handicapped against him. He seeks to trick me, to cut me down!

            Mizuhiko pushed away his thoughts. The old man was a great warrior once – one of the greatest – but despite a few surprising displays of iai in his youth, he was not a renowned duelist. Nor was he a well man – the Lion stood with the uncompromising rigidity of a man held aloft by will rather than strength. His movements were neither fluid nor swift, and there was a slight tremor in his left hand, but no motion was consciously wasted — his technique would be without par. His body, however, could fail him. Mizuhiko was not an exceptional duelist, but his natural speed and reflexes warranted some training in the art. Mizuhiko would not win easily, but he would win.

Mizuhiko unsheathed Judgement, raised it, stared at the slowly rising sun reflected blood-red in its blade.

He would win without the blade. Gripping the pommel tightly, he flipped the blade downward and drove it deeply into the earth.

“A fitting resting place,” the old monk said, his voice surprisingly loud and full. “After our duel, the Kitsu will raise a shrine around it there, burying it beneath tons of stone, as Akodo buried himself to seal away evil , and enclosing it in the most powerful wards found outside theImperialCity. Defending the shrine will be a position of honor. The finest warriors will guard it, and the watch will rotate swiftly and often, so that none may remain long enough for the blade to begin to whisper to them.”

“That is only if you win,” Mizuhiko said. He turned to the small entourage of attendants. Six, seven, eight men all kneeled before the two warriors, their heads bowed, and offered up sheathed katanas to choose from in each of their fists.

“Even if I do not, priest, I beg you to reconsider,” the monk said as he examined the sword offered to him. He hefted it and swung it in the air.

“If you do not win, Lord Ginawa, then I am sure you can then try to convince me again,” Mizuhiko replied, looking at the old monk. The monk turned swiftly and met his gaze.

“My name is Hegai, Lord Mizuhiko.”

“Obviously, I must have been mistaken. Hegai is a monk’s name, and you are a monk.” Mizuhiko said, “I must be a confused fool, since, for a moment thought I saw a samurai, a mighty bushi standing before me.”

The old wolf’s eyes glimmered, the last dullness of age finally vanished. “Indeed. I can see how that mistake was made.” He took several steps forward and pointed to one of the swords. “I recommend that one, Mizuhiko. Its balance seems impeccable.”

Mizuhiko raised an eyebrow. “Have you touched steel in the last two decades?”

“Not in almost three, young one,” the wolf replied, “but these old eyes know a good sword when they see one.”

Mizuhiko hefted the blade, then slid it open from its sheath and inspected the edge. He took a few swings in the air before resheathing it. Its balance was indeed perfect. He turned to his opponent and nodded. “If I recall, your judgment in selecting a sword was often as poor as mine.”

The wolf scratched his chin. “Is that a joke? Did the priest make a joke?” He slid his chosen swords into his obi, and Mizuhiko did the same.

The two duelists bowed to the officiant, then in the direction of theImperialCity, then to each-other.

“The terms of the duel are clear. It is a matter of honor to be settled, and the fight will be to first blood,” the officiant read. “Here, on the Plains of Bloodied Honor, within sight of both the participant’s ancestral home and the Castle of the Swift Sword, whereMatsuand Akodo first met. Let this duel not tear our clans asunder, but strengthen the bonds of the Empire, as Akodo’s did withMatsu.”

Both samurai drew their swords. Mizuhiko held his katana in one hand, with the other resting lightly at the end of the hilt, as the Fire Tensai had done since Tsuke revised their dueling technique, but stood in the rigid stance of the Shiba. Ginawa swung his blade three times in the air and let loose an impressive kiai, ending his motion in the stiff, ritualized stance of the Swift Sword. Mizuhiko recalled his brief training with Shiba Sakishi – from the central stance, an Akodo could continue into over a dozen ritualized kata steps, each targeted at a specific circumstance, and from there they trained in hundreds of further reactions and modifications. Only the Mirumoto could rival the Akodo in kenjutsu, but they placed more emphasis on defense and flexibility over offense and perfect technique. Ginawa was a master of the Swift Sword’s technique, and his years as a ronin only made his improvisation skills more impressive. Mizuhiko’s only chance was to be swift and hope that Ginawa’s body failed him in executing his techniques, for his knowledge of technique would not.

Fortunately, Mizuhiko was very good at being swift. Even without the kami aiding him, his raw reflexes and ability to make split-second tactical assessments and adjustments were among the finest in the Empire. Years of training the kami to move him at intense speeds meant that moving at a man’s normal pace gave Mizuhiko a phenomenal amount of time to react. He charged at his opponent, feinting to the left, and as Ginawa moved to intercept him, he pushed off his left foot, hopping into the air; he dived and rolled to the right. Tumbling back to his feet, he saw Ginawa already turn to face him and was impressed by the old man’s speed. He whirled around, knowing his opponent’s response – Junjin’s Third Step, the second movement in a prominent kata designed to press an off-balance opponent.

Mizuhiko was too quick, however, and he spun a half step around the opposite direction, swinging his sword tightly with his left hand, steadying it with his right. Ginawa began the Third Step, as expected, but shifted his stance and moved left as well, and Mizuhiko knew – too late – that they had both made a grave mistake. Ginawa stepped directly into the path of Mizuhiko’s blade; worse, the old man stumbled as his foot touched down, and he pressed forward into the weight of Mizuhiko’s strike. Mizuhiko’s cut was perfectly planned and executed, but he could not pull away in time.

The sword scraped beneath Ginawa’s collarbone. The older man turned his head and fell, and Mizuhiko could do nothing as his weight came down on Mizuhiko’s blade. It slid with the falling man and sliced his his chest, his collarbone, his neck. Mizuhiko first pulled back, then simply dropped the sword. Ginawa fell to his knees, holding his neck. Mizuhiko knelt next to the old man, immediately praying to the kami, but Ginawa reached his free hand over and took Mizuhiko’s hand.

“I abdicate the duel, my opponent has won,” the old samurai forced out, his voice barely more than a whisper. He looked at the officiate with steely eyes. “Let the Isawa take no blame, the fault is mine.”

Ginawa’s shoulders slumped and Mizuhiko slid him to the ground. Ginawa pressed Mizuhiko’s hand to his neck, then took his bloody hand away and used it to pull the shugenja close.

“Your technique… unexpected,” he whispered. His eyes again grew cloudy, and he raised his bloody hand in the air and examined it. “A small mistake… with an ordinary blade…”

The kami wrapped around Ginawa’s body, but, in his heart, Mizuhiko knew he could do no more than ease the old man’s pain. Staunching the blood would not undo the shock to his system or heal the disease festering within him. He could only ask why.

Painfully, the old man smiled. “Thank you,” he whispered. His eyes clouded over, his body stiffened, and he was gone.

 

Four days later…

Hegai the Monk may have been an unknown advisor to a dead Shogun, but Akodo Ginawa’s name loomed large in the Ikoma Histories. News of his death travelled quickly, and dignitaries from throughout the lands of the Lion, ambassadors to the clan, and neighboring nobles all made a point of travelling to the hero’s funeral. Despite the risk, the body was not immediately burnt; instead, Kitsu priests said purifying rituals over it and protected it until the spirit within was fully ready to travel to the next realm. That, combined with the cursory investigation into the circumstances of the former Akodo daimyo’s death led to a delay in both the funeral and Isawa Morihiko’s departure.

Shiba Morihiko was not happy that he or his charge had stayed for the final ritual. Mizuhiko did not speak for two days, and spent the next two in almost perfect seclusion. He was forced to spend his time listening to Matsu Sasake tell him stories of each of his hundred ancestors, and while many of them were quite exciting examples of the strength of bushido, none of them seemed particularly relevant to Morihiko. More importantly, despite Ginawa’s insistence of Mizuhiko’s innocence, Morihiko suspected that some of the Lion might be unhappy about the circumstances of Ginawa’s death. The Lion did have a reputation for compounding slights. Oddly enough, if that were the case, none of the many bushi made any show of their anger – in fact, they were much more interested in celebrating Ginawa’s death in a honorable duel than avenging the death.

“Will you do as he wished, Mizuhiko?” whispered Morihiko, “Will you abandon the blade?”

“No,” Mizuhiko said, his eyes not wavering from Ginawa’s unlit pyre. “Not exactly. I am more convinced than ever that abandoning the blade would doom the Empire, but now I realize that is because it must be destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” Morihiko said aloud, before continuing in a self-conscious whisper, “Ambition has proven the blades difficult to destroy. If the sword is really at the height of its power, how could we hope to destroy it completely?”

Shiba Morihiko had no reply. The fallen Lion’s body, wrapped in white linen, was carried to the pyre by hinin servants, and the Kitsu priests took positions around it.

Finally, Mizuhiko spoke again. “I have an idea, one given to me by a Dark Oracle, of all things. We will break it down, destroy it with molten earth. However, unlike Nokatsu, we must be sure that the burning mountain will not erupt and destroy the northern reaches of the Empire. Tomorrow we will journey far to the north, outside the bounds of the Empire, where any reaction would not endanger the clans.”

Morihiko nodded firmly and turned his full attention to the funeral. The two Kitsu flanking the hero’s body began their prayers, and a torch was raised beneath the pyre.

“At the end of our days, we all burn in the fires of this world,” Morihiko whispered.

Mizuhiko joined his voice with his yojimbo’s. “But in those fires, the Empire is reborn.”

 

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Author: Shawn Carman View all posts by