The final installment in the saga of Isawa Mizuhiko and his struggle against the malevolent influence of the Bloodsword, Judgment.
Judgment, Part 2
By Lucas Twyman
Edited by Fred Wan
Northwestern Lion Provinces, one day from Swift Sword Dojo, year 1176
The autumn sun hovered expectantly over the heads of the three travelers, but progress across the war-torn side roads was slow. Neither Isawa Mizuhiko nor Shiba Morihiko exchanged words after the trip north began. Matsu Sasake rode ahead, but turned and spoke often – usually to regale his charges with tales of a roadside shrine or the site of a fierce battle – but the Phoenix paid him little mind.
“Why?” Mizuhiko whispered, finally. “Why did he step forward?”
The magistrate’s horse bucked, and the Lion stiffened, but did not turn around. “He was a samurai, and a Lion,” Matsu Sasake said, his voice even and distant, “He did not die in bed. He died on the field of honor, fighting for something he believed in. It was a good death, not a mistake.”
He is a liar! He insults you with his deceit!
It was like a scream. Mizuhiko shook his head, and the world spun. He almost fell from his horse.
“Stop!” he heard Morihiko shout, “Sasake! Stop!”
He heard the two men dismount and approach. He felt Morihiko help him down, steady him as his legs shook.
“I am… fine, Morihiko,” Mizuhiko said.
You will be judged! First Oharu, then Sakishi, and now Ginawa. You fail all those around you, and they die.
“I am just thirsty. The sun is high in the sky today.”
Sasake offered Mizuhiko his waterskin, but Mizuhiko shook his head. “The kami will provide for me. Give me a moment to rest.”
He sat unsteadily on the ground, and prayed hastily to the kami that forever followed him, his most loyal companions. The air shimmered, and in his hands water appeared, and he drank greedily. He looked up, first at Shiba Morihiko, then at theMatsu.
“How do you know these things about Ginawa, Sasake? How can you be certain?”
Sasake smiled. “In this matter, I am certain. I would argue that I understand the heart of a Lion better than anyone in the Empire.”
Morihiko snorted. “I’m certain. You are a Lion.”
Sasake nodded, “More than that, Shiba. This… event that took place, it was over a sword, yes? A blade that is thirsty for blood? Like the one Lord Ginawa once wielded?”
Loosening his obi, Sasake carefully removed his daisho and presented it to the twoPhoenix. Both the katana and the wakizashi were exquisitely made, with a strange beaded artifact hanging from the katana’s pommel – a stone beetle surrounded by inlays of gold and precious stones.
“These are the swords of a thirsty man, rather than a sword that thirsts. This is the daisho of Matsu Gohei, hero of the Lion Clan, who escorted the Scorpion during their banishment. He was cut down by foreign barbarians for presuming to ask for water. Gohei’s heart was so mighty and honorable that he returned from the dead and killed a barbarian who dared presume to be part of the Empire’s armies. In doing so, he saved face for the Empire during a dark time. His daisho was lost for many years, until a deathseeker named Senichi found them lying beside him shortly after he awoke from a strange dream. When Senichi ultimately died, I took the blades. I have carried them since.”
Mizuhiko nodded his head slowly, his brow furrowed. “And this proves you understand the Lion… because only a great Lion could wield such great blades?”
“Precisely,” Sasake replied. “It takes great will and understanding to wield nemuranai of power. You must certainly agree with that idea.”
“I…” Mizuhiko regarded the Lion, but before he could finish his thought, Morihiko gruffly interrupted them.
“We have around four more hours of light, but we will reach the edge of Lion lands in one, and half a day’s trek through the Unicorn lands to the mountains. Since we are still recovering from the events of the past few days, I suggest that we rest while we are still under the beneficent protection of the Lion, and we can leave before the dawn.”
Sasake nodded. “Splendid. That means you will spend another evening in my company.”
Mizuhiko and Morihiko exchanged glances, but the Lion had already begun unpacking his supplies. He lifted a wooden training sword in the air and turned to the yojimbo, smiling.
“Since we have the time, Morihiko, will you finally take up my request to spar? I would hate for my horse to be carrying these bokken for nothing.”
* * * * *
Interlude: The southern Phoenix provinces, year 1176
Shinjo Chu-Yeung paced before the door and braced himself for the screams that never seemed to come.
By all rational measurements, she was a good wife. She was dutiful, loyal, competent, and elegant. With her higher status, their family would be set, their child certain to obtain either the one of finest spiritual tutors among the Isawa (and, thus, one of the best in the known world), or to attend the Eternal Phoenix dojo in the heart of Shiro Shiba. While she was unpopular among the highest echelons of her clan – for reasons completely unknown to Chu-Yeung, for he had never found the need to ask – she remained a hero of the Battle of Shiro Shiba, and they had already received invitations to several Winter Courts. They declined the previous year, of course, because of the need to establish their new household, and this year due to the impending birth of their child making travel difficult, but Chu-Yeung was very optimistic that he would be able to finally experience the benefits of peacetime in centralized Rokugan, far from the freezing cold of the steppes.
Despite his optimism, and Kyoko’s suitability, Chu-Yeung found himself plagued by strange doubts. When Kyoko had first taken him aside and told him “You are an excellent husband, and I will be an adequate wife, but I will never love you,” he thought her reaction was perhaps lingering anger at being forced to marry below her station. As time slowly went by, he came to realize that she did not resent him – quite the contrary, she was somewhat fond of him. She often told him that he reminded her of a lovely visit she had to the Unicorn lands several years prior. She arranged that traditional steppe food be provided at least twice a month – often at great expense – and she had taken to adding elaborate Shinjo flourishes in her decorating.
He came to realize that while she may decorate a wall of their bedchamber with an illustrated animal pelt, and she may pull close to him for warmth in the night, there would never be any passion in her embrace. She would never be more than dutiful and perhaps a little sad.
Chu-Yeung’s heart grew heavier as the months went by. He was quite fond of his wife; she was beautiful and elegant, and she did never once condescended towards him. Her gifts were quite impressive, as well. Once a week, as a form of blessing their household, she would wander the garden outside and commune with the spirits. As she walked, the spirits around her would gather, invisibly but certainly there, and carry her a few feet into the air, where she would dance amongst them. On the front, he had often seen the Iuchi do magic, but their dangling trinkets and course prayers to the gods of death were nothing like Kyoko’s elaborate tributes. During the first few months, Chu-Yeung tried to hire performers and acrobats, men and women with skills that could almost rival the beauty of his wife’s weekly communion, but while they often brought a smile to his wife’s lips, she never expressed more than a dutiful thanks to him.
That spring, when they found that she was already carrying a heir, Chu-Yeung rejoiced. There was no need to hide his anticipation – a father should always be enthusiastic about the arrival of his firstborn. But Chu-Yeung’s outward enthusiasm masked an ever greater hope: certainly, once his child was born, his wife’s heart would begin to soften, and she would learn to put aside her past hurts and learn to love. It was impossible for a mother not to love her child, and then, perhaps, she would learn to love her husband as well.
Finally, a sound cut through the terrible silence: a loud gasp, and then a sharp cry, the unmistakable cry of a child. Then a splash, as the child was blessed and bathed, and its bubbling cries continued, starting and stopping like stones tumbling into a pool. The door slid open and the midwife presented Chu-Yeung with a small bundle; red and gold silk blankets wrapped around a tiny pink creature, its eyes pressed shut. Chu-Yeung lifted the bundle above his head and the blankets fell open.
“A daughter,” he said softly, then again, louder, “a daughter!”
He pulled the girl to his chest and bowed to the midwife, who smiled and returned his bow. There was a strange hesitation in her movement, a strained look on her face.
“My wife…” Chu-Yeung said suddenly, “is she alright? Why did I not hear her?”
“She is fine, my lord,” the midwife said, her tone still slightly off to Chu-Yeung’s ears, “it was the easiest birth I have ever witnessed. The spirits are fond of your wife, I think, very fond.”
Chu-Yeung looked sharply at the midwife. “Then what is wrong?”
“Nothing, my lord,” she replied quickly. “Nothing. See for yourself.”
She slid open the door, and Chu-Yeung hurried quickly through the threshold, pulling his daughter close to his chest. When he saw his wife lying happily at the far end of the room, her attendants gently cleaning her, he realized he had not been breathing and exhaled sharply.
“My wife!” Chu-Yeung said happily. “You have done a wonderful thing! It is our daughter, and she is beautiful!”
“Husband,” she replied dutifully, inclining her head towards him.
He hurried to her side and knelt down to present the bundle. The little one began to whimper, but quickly quieted when her mother cradled her in her arms. Chu-Yeung smiled widely, but his eyebrows narrowed as he watched his wife examine their child. She looked at her not with fondness or relief, but as if she were appraising the little girl, like a jewel or a piece of art. Chu-Yeung studied her face, and his heart felt cold.
As he stood up swiftly from Isawa Kyoko’s side, Shinjo Chu-Yeung could swear that, for the first and only time in his life, the kami spoke to him. Whether it was the spirits or his thoughts finally admitting the truth, he would never know, but the realization would forever haunt their household: “It is not that she will not love, it is that she cannot.”
* * * * *
The northwestern Lion provinces, autumn, year 1176
“You dare?” the Lion roared, swinging the wooden bokken.
There was a loud crack, and Mizuhiko looked up from his meditations. He knew he must bring himself into balance if he was to succeed at his quest, but the noise and activity made it difficult. The two bushi had sparred for nearly an hour, and the water kami seemed agitated – perhaps about the conflict. Mizuhiko found it strange, as the kami rarely understood the implications of combat, let alone mock combat, but he felt them moving and shifting so rapidly that he could not help but notice them. Perhaps they were upset about something else?
“I am a magistrate of the Lion!” Sasake cried, “I outrank you, and you think you can humiliate me?”
Mizuhiko whirled around and gasped. The Matsu bushi stood over the prone form of Morihiko, swinging his bokken down on the crumpledPhoenixrepeatedly. Morihiko had curled up into a ball, covering his head, but he was already knocked unconscious and was beginning to slump further to the ground.
With less than a thought, the water kami wrapped themselves around Mizuhiko, offering their strength and speed to his limbs. In the space of two breaths he was at theMatsu’s side. When the bushi swung the wooden katana again, Mizuhiko raised his arm and caught the blade mid-swing, the wooden edge colliding with his hand in an audible snap. He closed his hand around the sword and twisted it away. The Lion grabbed his own wrist in pain.
“I have authority here!” Sasake said, spittle flying from his lips. “I am a magistrate of the Lion clan and I am enforcing a matter of my and my clan’s honor! You have no authority–”
The pretender spits in the face of proper authority.
“I am a Jade Magistrate,” Mizuhiko replied, “and as such have authority in all the Empress’s lands.”
Mizuhiko saw theMatsuthrough a crimson veil. He swung the wooden sword back around, slamming its end into the Sasake’s head. There was an audible crack. Blood arced through the air and theMatsufell to the ground.
Taking two steps back, Mizuhiko dropped the wooden blade. His sword hand itched, longing for the feel of his own katana. He clutched his hands tightly into fists and closed his eyes. Beneath him, he heard the Sasake breathing, but the bushi did not stand or react. Slowly, he turned away from the Lion towards Morihiko. He kneeled next to his yojimbo and began praying to the kami, begging the now-frightened spirits to heed his call and heal his friend.
Painfully, Morihiko looked up at his charge. “Away…” he said groggily, “stay away!”
Instinctively, Mizuhiko stood up, still chanting to the kami. Morihiko’s eyes grew wide. “No…” the yojimbo whispered, trying to lift himself up. “You struck him…”
There was a sharp scraping sound, and the yojimbo screamed. Red flashed before Mizuhiko’s eyes…
… he felt a familiar weight in his hand…
And he looked down. Judgment remained in at his side. Instead, blood pooled in his hands. He looked down, and choked as he noticed the point of Matsu Gohei’s katana emerging from his chest, right beneath his lungs.
An inhuman laughter rose behind Mizuhiko. Shiba Morihiko scrambled backwards, scrabbling for his fallen sword, unable to turn away. Behind Mizuhiko, theMatsustood, his features sloughing away, his body shifting and growing. His face grew more heavy-set, his eyes dark pools. His dyed hair slumped and dangled limply around his head, strands shifting, becoming as green and thick as leaves of seaweed. His shoulders grew half-again as wide, and thick, calloused barnacles grew across his exposed skin. His body stretched upwards and outwards, taller than the largest mortal men to walk the roads of the Empire. His armor changed as well — from gold-flecked lacquered wood to tortoiseshell and obsidian, with an inlay of mother-of-pearl shaped into an inverted kanji of water across his chest.
“Hello, Mizuhiko,” the Dark Oracle of Water said. He whispered the words into Mizuhiko’s ear, but they rippled outward, echoing across the Akodo plains. “My name is Turi. It’s a shame we had to meet like this.”
“Huh… how…” Mizuhiko gasped, his eyes wide, watching his blood pour into the dry earth.
“Forgive me…” Turi boomed. He yanked the blade upwards and twisted it Mizuhiko’s chest. “…if I make sure you are dead before I explain my plan.”
He leaned back and kicked Mizuhiko forward. The priest went stiff, then slid limply off the blade to the ground. From somewhere within his armor, the Oracle produced a damp silk cloth, and he proceeded to wipe Mizuhiko’s blood from Gohei’s katana.
“No!” screamed Morihiko. Despite his grogginess, he managed to stumble to his feet and charge the Dark Oracle.
Turi grunted as he observed the yojimbo with mild bemusement. With a single, exaggerated, flowing step, he dodged the charge and smirked.
“Oh, you. I suppose I will have an audience after all,’ the Dark Oracle intoned. He raised his hand, closed it into a fist. “Drown.”
Morihiko tripped and slid on his knees, grasping his throat. The air in his lungs had begun to liquefy, choking him from within. His eyes were wide with terror as Turi smiled and strode towards him. He reached for his wakizashi, but the Dark Oracle crushed his arm under a massive foot. Turi lifted Gohei’s katana to catch the sunlight and smiled at it with admiration.
“This is really the Butcher’s sword, you know. I sought it out specifically for your friend. I knew that Mizuhiko had an unfortunate reputation of being difficult to kill, so I decided to seek out the proper tool for the job. After my old friend used it for so much slaughter, his sword began to enjoy its reputation as a butcher’s implement. But unlike your charge’s sword, it is more hungry than thirsty.” He lowered it to Morihiko’s face. “That means that any wound it inflicts won’t be healed by normal means, including those delightfully naive little water kami constantly fluttering around our late Tensai friend. It’s a pity that he was able to cull our ranks so efficiently, but, to be honest, I am happy to be free of the driftwood. And once I determine how to unlock the essences stolen by the blade, even our new Dark God will be suitably impressed, say nothing of Fire and -”
Turi paused. Was the yojimbo laughing at him? No, that couldn’t be – his lungs were still too full of water, his free hand clawing at his throat. But the thick, scraping laughter –
“No.” Turi said, spinning around. “That’s impossible.”
Slumped over, but still slowly rising to his feet, Mizuhiko shook with coughing, convulsive laughter. Fresh blood still poured from his wounds, dripping from his lowered head, running through the hair that dangled towards the ground over his face. The fingers of his sword hand were clenched around the bloodsword’s handle.
Turi took a step backward. “No. I shattered your heart. There is no way you could stand. No amount of will would allow you to stand.”
“My will was so strong,” the shugenja replied, a sharp cough that somehow formed itself into words. “I must thank you, Oracle. His was stronger.”
Mizuhiko’s head reared back, his mouth twisted into an open, broken smile. His eyes were completely bloodshot, as if every vessel had burst. Blood poured from his lips, his eyes, his nose. It dripped down his arms, poured from his chest. With each step forward, it pooled where his foot once stood. “Now his will is broken with his heart.”
“Mizuhiko, boil.” The Oracle cried, pointing a closed fist at his attacker. “Mizuhiko, evaporate. Mizuhiko, die!”
“Mizuhiko is dead,” the broken voice said, and a hundred different voices whispered alongside it. “And now there will be Handan. And you will be the first judged.”
The Oracle screamed and began to gather his energies, but the blade was suddenly at his side, as swift as thought.
A hundred voices whispered: “Unworthy.”
A hundred more replied: “Give me to drink.”
The evening sky exploded into a tsunami of watery energy as the bloodsword was driven into the Oracle’s chest. It began with a ripple, as the air shook and burst outward in a massive wave of elemental energy. It was as if the ocean itself had been funneled through a tear in the air, washing everything hundreds of feet to every side. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the tide retreated back into nothingness, and the two combatants were gone.
* * * * *
Epilogue I: From the official Inquisitor’s Report of the Incident near Swift Sword Castle, 1176
… it is believed that the conflict between the Tensai and the Oracle was concluded swiftly following the ambush. Testimony from the Tensai’s yojimbo, Morihiko, while suspect due to his injuries, indicates that the Tensai recovered enough from his wounds to intercept or redirect the magical energies generated by the Oracle. While this seems implausible, Tensai Mizuhiko had proven himself quite exceptional at applying his skills at importuning in improvisational ways. Once again our initial assessment of Tensai Mizuhiko as having mediocre skill and capabilities beyond mastery of transport and movement-enhancing magics to be a quite limited assessment of his overall talents.
An alternate explanation has been put forth by Magistrate Sawao that bears merit investigating. It is obvious from interviewing the residual kami that the Oracle was attempting to cast a powerful transportation magic. It is possible that Tensai Mizuhiko managed to interrupt this casting with a physical attack. He has proven in the past (see Incident Reports on The Destruction of the Temple of the Eight Guardians, The Battle of Sleeping Thunder Mountain, and The Repulsion of Chosai) to be quite formidable once within striking distance of a Dark Oracle, with his weapon (cross-reference: Judgment, Iuchiban Blades) more than capable of eliminating their current elevated mortal guise and extinguishing their threat for an unknown period of time. It is then likely that if the Dark Oracle’s ambush was not entirely successful, he then attempted to escape, instead finding his spell interrupted by Mizuhiko’s assault. The elemental energies then engulfed both combatants, tearing them apart.
Part of the remains of the Dark Oracle of Water, the former Matsu Turi, were found at the site. His skull has been preserved and is under the highest level of security, awaiting investigation. A daisho belonging to theMatsufamily was also recovered, and has since been returned to the Lion Clan for safekeeping. No remains of Tensai Mizuhiko or the Iuchiban Blade were found at the site. It is likely that the Tensai did not survive the assault, given his wounds and the decimation wrought on the body of the Dark Oracle of Water (despite the enhanced physical formidability of the Dark Oracles). Of the Iuchiban Blade, no signs have been found – it has either been destroyed or is beyond the influence of the Empire.
While the loss of Tensai Mizuhiko is immensely regrettable, given the great works he has performed for the Clan and Empire, the ultimate result of his campaign was surprisingly positive. There has been no sign of the four primary elemental Dark Oracles, and the only one with a chance of surviving his encounter was Fire. With the recent upheavals in the structure of Jigoku and its place in the Celestial Order, if the Dark Oracles’ influence in Ningen-Do has been lessened or severed completely, we may have prevented countless catastrophes from happening in our mortal realm, while also maintaining the slightly more positive status quo with the elements of Jigoku – reportedly, the Dark Oracles have been independent entities in regards to their activities and associations with the various historical Dark Lords of the Shadowlands, so we may have prevented future hierarchal struggles from spilling into our realm, far more important now that Jigoku has a much more localized access point to our realm and, specifically, the lands of the Phoenix.
Master of Water
Head Researcher, Asako Libraries
Imperial Year 1176
* * * * *
Epilogue II: Far from the Empire, the island-state of Anisrana
“Water! Fresh water, free of salt!” Monja cried at the crowds hurrying past him. “Fresh water! Sweet tamarind dough, persimmons, lemongrass tea!”
The day was terrifically hot, and Monja had made good money working his uncle’s food pots earlier in the afternoon, but the crowd in the early evening was mostly dockworkers, fishermen, and sailors, rather than traders or merchants. TheCinnamonPortwas the largest on the island, and the Jeweled Path was the swiftest route from the port to the central markets of Raksiraka. While the port typically had a swift turnaround – the Gateway to the West, the sister port on the mainland, was much more of a trade hub, due to the Yodatai’s inability to travel by water – there were enough mainland merchants, thirsty from the day-long journey, to give Monja brisk sales during the day. During the evening, however, the majority of the road’s travelers were residents of the bustling city, hoping to get home to drink their own water and honey-wine and eat their wives’ spiced fish stew and riceflour bread.
A small crowd passed by. “Water! Fresh Water!” Monja cried again.
One man, a large fisherman with a shaved head and several missing teeth, peered out from the crowd and guffawed. “Hey Monja, tell yer uncle that I’ll pay fer his wife’s leftovers if I get an evening with her too!”
“Then we’ll see you this Thursday for your shave ‘n grooming, Rantil? We know you love how auntie makes you look so pretty!” Monja replied quickly, and several of the fishermen laughed and slapped the big man on his shoulders.
Monja turned back and stirred the embers under the stewpot – he likely wouldn’t sell anything else tonight, unless a sailor had been too drunk to come in with his shipmates earlier in the day, and that kind of customer was just as likely to try and take what he wanted. Still, business had been good, and would likely continue to be good until the rainy season began. Trade flourished during the hot months. Despite the heat, the coastal winds were manageable, and the likelihood of the great storms in the rainy months made the trade routes meant that the spice trade had a specific window of a few months of heavy traffic.
Then thunder pealed, and the previously-clear sky opened up. Monja was momentarily stunned. He spat a curse. It never rained during the dry months. If fresh water fell from the sky, how was he supposed to sell a drink? He peered upwards into the suddenly-roiling storm as the last few stragglers of the day’s trade hurried by. There was something unnatural about the stormclouds, more unnatural than even its sudden and untimely appearance implied. Thunder crackled around a single tight point in the sky, as if the heavens had been torn open and the stormcloud had poured out from the tear.
Monja hurried to cover up the various perishable foodstuffs in his small roadside stand, cursing himself for his poor luck. So engrossed was he in his tasks that he nearly didn’t see the figure stumbling painfully onto the Jeweled Path. The man was small by Anisrana standards – Monja was nearly as tall as the stranger, and he was only on the cusp of manhood. The man walked slowly, holding his stomach with his left hand and carrying something long and thin in his right. He was shrouded by the heavy rain, but a burst of lightning revealed his features.
Monja had lived through only fifteen rainy seasons, but he had worked his uncle’s stand since he was seven, and he was sure he had seen more than most. In fact, he believed that he had seen visitors from every nation of the world, from the pale northern Yodotai and the lean Eastern Yodotai during his trips on the mainland to the men from hundreds of cities come to visit the Palace of Spice and Silver — the tattooed and dyed Senpet; the lithe, tanned merchants of the Ivory Kingdoms; the bearded Hanif and the blocky Merenae; the fur-clad northern barbarians of the Niask and the savage tribesmen of the Ayst; the angry Sons of Lost Thrane and ostentatious Children of the Jewel. This man resembled none of them – his features were thin but short, his skin light but not pale, and his hair was long and dark and straight, darker than even the deep brown of the Yodatai, as dark as Monja’s own hair, but thicker and straighter.
“Can I give you something to drink?” the boy asked cautiously. “We have lemongrass tea and I can maybe spare some honeywine…”
As the man approached, he raised his head in the air and oriented himself towards Monja. Monja suddenly gasped. Blood, not water, ran down the man’s face and arms. It poured from a hole In his chest and stained his thick silk robes deeply. His sleeves were tattered, and blood flowed both up and down his right arm.
Monja took several steps backwards and fumbled for something to hold onto, his eyes never leaving the figure. “What are you?” he whispered.
“Handan,” the storm itself seemed to rumble in reply.
Finally, Monja’s grasping fingers found the hilt of the iron knife he used to chop apart meat for the stew. He raised it in trembling fingers.
“Come no closer!” The bleeding man did not pause in its advance, so Monja waved the knife in the air, shouting “Stay there!”
A rough choking sound echoed from within the bleeding man. Monja could not tell if the figure was coughing or laughing. It raised its head high and gazed at him with bloodshot eyes. “Muchi wa iiwake ni wa naranai,” it said in a language both sharp and lyrical. It continued moving forward, stopping within ten feet of the young street hawker.
“You are to come no closer, spirit!” the boy said, clutching the icon of the Teacher he wore above his heart. “The Students of the Living and the descendents of the Great Hunters protect this land! You are not welcome here!”
The bleeding man inclined his head from side-to-side like a bird watching its prey. “Omae wa ten no ishi ni shitagatte inai,” it drawled, its voice shifting from calm bemusement to cold anger. It raised its right arm and shifted its hand, revealing the object it carried almost parallel to its arm. What Monja believed to be a stick or staff was actually a long, barely-curved blade, a razor longer than a man’s arm., Its edge was much keener than even the iron knives and spearpoints carried by the palace guards. Where the blade met its hilt, blood poured out and in, like a heart pumping blood through a man’s chest.
Monja screamed and suddenly the man was gone. Everything was silent except for the fall of the rain. The boy trembled for a moment, weeping, before finding his composure enough to put down his knife and fall to his knees.
“OMAE NO KUNI WA HANKETSU NI CHOKUMEN SURUDAROU!” the voice boomed from behind him.
Monja screamed again and twisted around. The falling blade cut through the air, slicing apart even the individual droplets of rain. Monja’s scream abruptly ended.
* * * * *
Epilogue III: The Mist
A horse and three figures emerged from the mist: its rider, a ronin, and a third man following silently behind.
“Almost everybody has at least visited, but you’d be surprised as to how many of us end up having to do other stuff,” the rider continued, and the ronin sighed. Whether or not the rider noticed, he gave no reaction; he simply continued talking. “Most of them have moved on to the next stage, of course, like Hasame and Yayu. Tokei left almost immediately, though he’s one of the few that visits regularly. Toku and Goemon have other duties. Mikio and Asuma patrol the realm, but Dairya is usually pretty upset that he’s still here. Musha is always fond of seeing him, anyway. And you can guess what the boss is up to. Now that you’ve arrived, the only one I haven’t seen is Hiroru.”
The ronin inclined his head and breathed the mist in deeply. “He’s here. He’s probably been here for a long, long time. I’m not surprised you haven’t seen him.”
“He always did like hiding, I guess.”
The ronin rubbed his forehead with his fingers. “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
The mists swirled around them, and the four figures continued their journey silently. Here and there, the fog would open up into a clearing, pulling away from piles of ash and charcoal strewn along the shapeless, colorless earth. At times, the mist would shape itself into the outline of figures going about their daily routines, oblivious that the travelers could see them. One, a small, older woman, sat alone, her head in her hands, occasionally wiping the edges of her eyes as she tried to sort and contemplate something indistinct set before here. The ronin stopped and watched her silently, and she swiftly faded into the mist.
“I loved her, you know,” the ronin said sadly, “Setsuko.”
“I’m sure she knew,” the rider replied.
“That’s not the problem,” the ronin said, his voice dry. “I didn’t tell her that enough. It would have been improper. I spent ten years of my life recklessly, ignoring propriety, devoting myself to revenge. I drank and swore and killed without abandon. But after that time, I couldn’t even tell the woman who devoted herself to me how much I loved her. I was worried about appearances.” He spat. “Did I waste my life? Did I live as a fool?”
The rider shook his head. “No more than any of us. When my wife and son died, I told myself that it was my shame over losing my father’s sword that hurt me, but only after I had reclaimed it did I realize that my regret was the same as yours. Duty was my obsession, I thought. I married her for duty, but she was a good wife. She gave me a son, built a family. When the ogres came and killed my wife and child, I feigned my own death. I spent the rest of my life hoping to cleanse the shame I brought on my family, but my cowardice wasn’t what I was really ashamed of. In reality, I should have been fighting for her, her and my son. Then I wouldn’t have needed to re-forge that damned sword. I think that’s why spirits linger to watch over their clans, rather than re-entering the great wheel and being reborn: the families we’ve made are what really give us strength, in life and in death.”
“Family?” the ronin said incredulously. “Family I learned to understand, but that wasn’t until over twenty years after you died. When did you have time to think about family?”
The rider shrugged. “I spent my entire life trying to reunite with my family, and when I finally found them, I ended up returning here,” the rider said. “Even in death, we cannot be sure we made the right choices.”
“’Trying to reunite with your family’ is a lovely way to say that you were always trying your damnedest to get your damn fool self killed,” Ginawa replied, his voice rough and wry. “You were never that eloquent in the Twelve Ronin.”
“You’re wrong.” The two turned swiftly, surprised to see the shinobi at their side. His voice was his accustomed whisper, and muffled by the white mask covering his face, but it still cut through the whistling fog with unearthly clarity. “That speech about chasing death he always gave would have been eloquent, if he didn’t insist on telling it to everyone he met.”
Ginawa slid his right arm into his kimono, reached through the center, and scratched his chin. “I told you he was here. I knew all along, since I first arrived.”
Matsu Hiroru narrowed his eyes. “Of course you did.”
Sanzo scratched the back of his neck and smiled lazily. “What do you think, Hiroru? Does mortal man’s strength derive from our love for our family, or from our duty to it?”
Hiroru simply turned away. “How long do we plan on remaining here?” he asked, his voice cold.
Sanzo shrugged and walked over to his horse. He scratched Musha on the ears and leaned in close to her, touching his forehead to hers. He stood there silently for several moments, then turned back towards the two wanderers, looking past them.
“Not much further,” he said, and the four travelers continued their journey through the mist, this time with the horse in the lead. Eventually the horse slowed, stopped, and turned its head from side to side to look at its rider inquisitively. Sanzo nodded and signaled to the others to stop.
“You wanted to know what happened to him,” Sanzo said to Ginawa. He raised his hand and pointed ahead, into the swirling mists. “The barriers are weak here. See for yourself.”
The three travelers peered into the gloom; if they still could breathe, then they would have been holding their breath. The mists parted and they saw it: a city of the dead, an entire nation executed for the crime of not knowing the laws that doomed them; bloodless bodies piled in the street like pyrewood, and an insatiable weapon in the form of a man, forever waiting for new subjects to pass Judgment upon. An inhuman king holding an endless, empty court from atop a throne of skulls.
“Stupid kid,” Ginawa whispered sadly. “Poor, stupid kid.”
“It’s not his fault,” Sanzo replied. “Heaven and hell have plans for us all. Our stories wouldn’t be interesting if they were always merciful.”
“I know,” Ginawa replied, patting Musha on her neck. “That’s why I feel for him.”
The travelers were silent for a moment, and the vision began to fade, dissolving into the formless smoke that made up Maigo no Musha. Finally, the shinobi turned to his two companions and bowed.
“It’s time to go now, Ginawa. We have another long journey ahead of us. The boss is waiting.”
Ginawa slid his arm into his sleeve and scratched his chin. “Another trip with you through realms unknown, Hiroru, where we find Toturi at the end? Why does this keep happening to us?”
Matsu Hiroru shrugged. “At least the end result should be more pleasant. Yomi is quite a bit nicer this time of year than Morikage.”
The three men exchanged bows. Ginawa and Hiroru turned and began walking away. The mists swirled up again, obscuring vision and engulfing the travelers, making them appear to be little more than silhouettes in the gloom. The rider climbed back atop his loyal steed, and the two of them vanished further into the Realm of Forgotten Heroes.
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