The first in a trio of fictions based on the events taking place within the Embers of War CCG Expansion.
Embers of War, Part 1: The Unicorn
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
It was said by many throughout the Empire, not all of them Unicorn, that it was in the provinces of the Unicorn Clan that the greatest beauty of Rokugan could be found. Although he paid lip service to such claims, the truth was that Moto Jun-ni could not see beauty here. To be completely honest, he could not see beauty anywhere. The world was an ugly, unpleasant place, filled with selfish, ignorant people, and he could not recall the last time he had looked upon anything and thought that it was not ugly. The woman that he and his men were presently escorting was perfect proof of that.
There was doubtless no shortage of men who would argue endlessly that Susumu Kuroko was a woman possessed of incredible beauty. Her features were pristine, and perfectly placed. Her hair was a brilliant white color, supposedly a tribute to her mother’s people, the Crane. Yet Jun-ni looked at her and saw only the conniving, evil spirit that he knew must dwell within. She cared nothing for men such as he, seeing them only as pawns and fools to be manipulated like the pieces on a go board. Even as he dwelled on such thoughts, he noticed that she looked toward him, and he forced a smile. “It will not be a great deal farther, my lady,” he said, struggling without success to keep his voice from its normal, gruff timbre.
“That is a shame,” the courtier said. “I so enjoy traveling in the Unicorn lands, and I feel that you and I have scarcely had a chance to get to know one another.”
Jun-ni frowned slightly. He had been unaware that his duty to escort the Susumu family daimyo to the recently constructed Spider Clan monastery in his family’s home province had included a social component. “I am aware that you requested me as your escort,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “May I ask why?”
“You are Moto Jun-ni,” she said, as if this explained everything. “The legendary Demon Slayer of the Unicorn Clan. How could I pass up the opportunity?”
“Oh, that,” Jun-ni said. “Is there something you wish to know in particular?”
“How did you come by such a name, and such a fearsome reputation?”
The old warrior shrugged. “I was fresh from my gempukku when the Destroyer War began,” he said. “Little more than a child, really. That conflict crushed every vestige of idealism or innocence that remained within me. When it was over, I simply could not bear to return home and deal with life after such a change. So I joined the forces hunting what remained of the Destroyers. Then I joined another force to hunt demons from the time when the Carpenter Wall was down, or that escaped from the Second Pit.” He shrugged. “I suppose I got good at it, is all.”
“So I have heard,” Kuroko said. “Few can claim such proficiency, even among the Crab. I understand you have received accolades from Kuni Renyu himself.”
“It was a small matter,” Jun-ni said.
“Modesty?” Kuroko sounded amused, and it irritated Jun-ni to no end. “How unexpected.”
It sounded as if the noble lady might say something else, but Jun-ni had noticed his scout ahead becoming alert, and he held up his hand for silence. To her credit, Kuroko stopped at once. Jun-ni rode ahead a hundred paces to be within earshot of the scout. “What do you see?” he asked the Shinjo.
The young man nodded toward the forest in the distance. “Something there has been moved since we came through here last,” he noted. “The tree line is different.”
Jun-ni could tell no difference, but he knew better than to question a Shinjo scout. “Ambush?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” the scout replied. “It might be nothing. Or it might be a distraction.”
“Distraction?” Jun-ni was instantly alarmed.
The scout nodded. “If I wanted to attack a well guarded caravan, I’d try and find some means of drawing their attention away from the direction of the attack.”
“Damn!” Jun-ni cursed and turned his horse back toward the caravan. Even as he spurred the animal into a gallop, he saw a half dozen men erupt from a low ditch on the opposite side of the road. They must have been lying there, covered with a thin layer of dirt, waiting for some indication that their prey was near.
“Death to the Spider!” one of the men shouted. “Let the god of darkness starve without his worshippers!”
The other guards were after the assailants at once, but for such an attack to even have been implemented, those who conducted it must have had no plans to survive. Jun-ni knew all too well how difficult it could be to stop suicide attacks. The Shinjo and Utaku under his command were on the men in an instant, but the majority of them appeared to be protecting the man at their center, who was wielding what appeared to be a bow of Mantis origin, albeit in rather shoddy shape. The man drew and fired an arrow, a sinister, black-looking thing, his expression never changing. The man’s mind was on the kill and nothing else.
Jun-ni hurled himself from his horse, using his body to shield his charge, the alleged lady Susumu Kuroko. The impact from the arrow was stunning, and its size and construction was such that it punched through the armored plates of his do-maru without any noticeable resistance. As if from some great distance, despite the chaos, Jun-ni heard a strange, flat clink that he realized was the arrowhead striking the plate that protected his back. At least, he reasoned, the arrow did not go through him and strike the Spider. From the ground he watched as a Shinjo and Utaku converged on the archer. The Shinjo struck low and the Utaku high. The man who had almost certainly killed him collapsed onto the ground in a number of pieces.
Kuroko appeared in his field of vision, her piercing gaze taking in his wound. “I have sent for a shugenja,” she said, her voice soft and low, “but I do not think much can be done for you. The wound is quite grave.”
“Grave indeed,” he said, chuckling. The chuckle was a terrible idea, as it gave way to a cough that was agony itself. “You are… uninjured?”
“Yes,” Kuroko replied. “I likely would have been fine regardless. I have my own protections in place.”
“Ah,” Jun-ni rasped. “I… I rather wish… I had known that earlier.”
“You despise me,” she said, her voice growing quieter, so that only the two of them could hear. “You loathe me and my entire clan. You are not alone among the Unicorn, but your feelings seem particularly strong. Why? Why did you save me at all?”
“My… my duty,” he sputtered. “This is… for the best. My family has… suffered much shame. My death will… erase some of it.”
Kuroko frowned. “You are a great hero. What shame could possibly remain?”
Jun-ni’s eyes shone brightly. “My father’s brother… was Moto Kang.”
Despite her training, despite her reputation, Susumu Kuroko drew back slightly at the mention of the name, something that filled Jun-ni with amusement and shame all at once. “I did not know that,” she said. She paused for a moment. “I will ensure that all know of your bravery here, your sacrifice. I will see your family’s honor restored, no matter what it costs.”
Jun-ni’s face relaxed. It was a strange thing, to be surprised by a woman like this. And all at once, he realized that she truly was a beautiful woman. Perhaps the most beautiful he had ever seen. “Thank you… my lady.”
Moto Jun-ni’s hand fell away from his blade.
* * * * *
The Ki-Rin’s Path was a long and arduous trek, consisting of weeks of overland travel from the most remote, westernmost regions of the Unicorn Clan’s holdings before finally reaching the northern reaches of the Colonies. Despite the difficulty of the trip, Moto Isul adored it completely for many reasons, not the least of which were the raucous celebrations his people held at Journey’sEndCityupon their eventual arrival in the Colonies. More so than many of his clansmen, Isul suffered from wanderlust the likes of which could not be tamed. Remaining in one place for more than one week began to sour his disposition to the point that he was eventually unsuitable for companionship, or so he had been told. Thus the duty of caravan escort had been given to him, and he had never been happier with any detail he had endured.
The stone formation that Isul had come to recognize as the mid-way point of the trip was looming on the northern facing of the path. It was a welcome sight, not only because it indicated that the terrain from here on out would be smoother and less rocky, but the weather would quickly become much warmer. He always enjoyed those portions of the trip more, when the freezing temperatures of the Empire were not nipping at his back.
A dust cloud was rising up to the northwest. That typically meant a sandstorm was coming in from the western wastes, and that put a damper on Isul’s mood somewhat. Something about it bothered him, though… something he could not quite put his finger on. He stared at the cloud for several minutes, his frown growing deeper as he did so. And then it occurred to him: the wind was blowing the wrong way.
“Riders!” he shouted at the top of lungs. “Riders approaching!’
Isul drew his blade. There were far too many of them for it to be anything other than an attack force on the move, and moving fast.
Utaku Eun-ju was at his side in an instant, her eyes blazing, her face a mask of eagerness. “What is it, commander?” she said, her voice hungry.
“Riders,” he repeated. “Take the rear units and escort the caravan to the secondary route immediately. You have command.”
“What?” she blurted out. Disappointment was etched on every inch of her face. “My lord, why? Let me have the bandit scum! I will bring you victory!”
“There is no time to discuss this!” Isul thundered. “You have command of the second unit! If they attack it as well, you will be the only hope of stopping them long enough for the merchants and the Imperial cargo to escape. Now do as you are ordered!”
From the look on her face, Isul could tell Eun-ju was almost hoping that there was a second attack, but of course she would never say such a thing. “Your will, commander,” was all she said before turning and spurring her horse to join the rear unit. He could hear her clear, concise commands ringing out sharply to the others in the caravan. It eased his mind greatly to know that she would lead the others. Her prowess was unquestionable, and if Isul and his men fell, she could still save the day. Of course, he had no intentions whatsoever of falling.
Isul drew his sword and looked at his men. “They outnumber us, from the look of it!” he shouted. “Surely the Fortunes smile upon us! More glory for us and souls for the Lords of Death!”
The men roared in agreement, and Isul sounded the charge.
* * * * *
Shinjo Tselu was aware of the presence of someone behind him as he finished carefully tying all the items he needed to his horse’s saddle. It was more than he normally carried, and he did not wish to risk the horse developing an injury as a result. “Do you need something?” he finally asked of the unseen presence behind him.
“Forgive me my lord, but… are you leaving the city?”
Tselu turned to face Akodo Tsudoken, master of the Second City Guard. “I have duties beyond the walls, yes.”
“I seem to recall you lamenting the poorly-defined state of your duties on at least two occasions,” Tsudoken observed.
Tselu maintained an appropriate expression, but it was difficult. “Do you have something that requires my attention, senior guardsman? Or do you consider wasting my time a suitable fulfillment of your own duties?”
“You are a man of honor,” Tsudoken said flatly. “I have concerns that you will allow yourself to be overcome with emotion and act in a manner that you will later regret. I would hate to see a young man of such promise live with such a burden for the remainder of his years. If I may say so, Ivory Champion.”
“You may say what you wish,” Tselu said. “I will not be deterred.”
Tsudoken seemed determined. “You are needed here, Champion.”
“Do not be ridiculous,” Tselu insisted.
“You are known to the men,” the old Lion pressed. “They see you as one of them. They follow your lead. The Governor… she is an unknown, and frankly impossible to understand, quantity. You are the key to stability in this city. Do you truly not know that?”
Tselu turned and frowned. After a long moment’s consideration, he shook his head slowly. “It does not matter.”
Tselu’s eyes were piercing. “In defiance of all reason and logic, I am the highest ranking Unicorn samurai in the Colonies. I have troops at my disposal. I am trained as both a magistrate and an explorer. You know as well as I do that there is no way that this attack, an attack not only against my clan but against the Imperial families I am sworn to serve, could be completely hidden. Somewhere in the Colonies, there is a bandit or a criminal who knows the truth, and I will find him. I will find him and I will make him tell me everything he knows, or I will make him beg the Fortunes to take him. I promise you that.”
Without another word, the Ivory Champion swung atop his horse and urged it forward, leaving the commander of the Second City Guard standing and watching as he rode through the gates and departed the city. A much younger woman milling about in the area stepped forward. “What has gotten into him?” she wondered aloud.
“If I were to hazard a guess,” Tsudoken said, “I would say wrath.”
“Huh,” the Matsu warrior said, watching after him. “It looks good on him.”
* * * * *
Daigotsu Negishi had never been in the presence of a samurai from another clan who had made him uncomfortable. Indeed, that was a role that was typically reversed, for it was Negishi who made others uncomfortable. It was not something he attempted to achieve or reveled in, unlike so many other of his kinsmen; it was merely a fact of life regarding the existence he now enjoyed, and he did not struggle with it. At this moment, however, he had full empathy for those who clearly found his presence disturbing, for he was in the presence of perhaps the most disturbing individual he had ever met in his lifetime. “The prophet will be with you shortly, my lady.”
Moto Rani turned and regarded him coldly, and it was all he could do not to shudder under the intensity of her gaze. “Thank you,” she said, her voice strangely deep and hollow, as if it was the voice of another merely using her body.
Negishi forced a smile that he was sure was frankly hideous. “I trust your journey was not unpleasant?” he said, desperate to fill the silence.
Rani stared at him for a moment. “I find social niceties as alien as you surely do,” she said. “You may dispense with them, if you wish.”
“Well if you insist,” Negishi said. He looked around the chamber, unsure what else to do.
“You are dismissed, Negishi,” a voice said suddenly. It was as deep as the thunder and as clear as the ringing of a bell. “I must confess, it is unusual for a guest to make my retainers uncomfortable. But then you are hardly a typical guest.”
“Usually Dragon, I presume,” Moto Rani said.
Daigotsu Tenbatsu smiled, his solid-white eyes incapable of betraying emotion. “Quite right,” he said. “How may I serve an emissary of the Unicorn Clan, staunchest allies of the Spider?”
Rani’s eyes glanced to the blade on Tenbatsu’s hip. “You still carry Seiatsu, then?”
“Of course,” Tenbatsu replied. “In accordance with the arrangement between your Champion and mine, it remains in the hands of a warrior without the blessings of Jigoku, a category into which I fall.” His hand strayed across the hilt of the weapon, highlighting the detail on its grip. “It is a magnificent blade. My thanks to the smiths who created it.”
“I will pass on your gratitude,” Rani said. “Are the Spider involved in the attack on the Unicorn?”
“Of course not,” Tenbatsu replied at once. “I presume you would know if I were lying.”
“That is why they sent me,” Rani said. “I do not believe any of our people in the Colonies actually suspect the Spider, but it was necessary to be certain.” She offered a half-smile. “I presume you would know if I were lying.”
“Indeed I would,” Tenbatsu replied. “We appear to be two of a kind in that regard. How should we proceed?”
“The Unicorn will discover the truth,” she answered. “Any assistance the Spider might offer would be most welcome indeed. Particularly the aid of a man such as yourself, a former member of the council who ruled your clan during your lord’s childhood.”
Tenbatsu bowed. “It would be my exquisite pleasure to ensure the continued alliance between our clans,” the prophet said. “I presume you have an idea as to where to begin?”
“I have a number of them,” Rani replied, “but one that I think you will particularly enjoy.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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