This is the final entry of the Writer Nerd Game Night serial. This episode was written by Paul Genesse.
It has been fun posting these stories of our magical samurai. I hope that you guys have enjoyed them. If you’ve not read this serial yet, I would recommend checking them out. If you would like to read them all in one place, go here: http://www.alderac.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=295&t=94523
This WNGN crew had a lot of fun. We’ve changed around a bit and some of us have moved, but I’ve been running a new WNGN. We are currently running a new L5R campaign and I look forward to posting that here in the future, once we get enough backlog at least.
From the Private Scrolls of Kuni Magatsu, Earth Shugenja of the Crab Clan
I humbly thank all the Gods and the Blessed Fortunes, for my prayers have been answered. Every night I am gifted with hauntingly vivid dreams of the dark realms where ghosts, demons, and oni roam the tortured landscape. I rejoice, as I have seen what my friend, Hida Makoto saw when he traveled for ten years in the places beyond our mortal world of Ningen-Do. I have seen the miserable wasteland of Maigo no Musha, the Realm of Thwarted Destiny. I have smelled the demonic blood that soaks Toshigoku, The Realm of Slaughter. I have heard the keening of the spirits in Gaki-Do, the Realm of the Hungry Dead.
Every night I am thrilled to exaltation as I see those shadowy places that terrify most men. Each day I yearn for nightfall, so I may return to bed and look into the blackness once again. I have learned so much about these distant realms, and if I survive tomorrow’s battle, I shall spend years writing it all down for the Kuni family archivists. Perhaps only they will appreciate what I have seen, but this knowledge will be a great boon to those who follow me, or those who will follow the path Makoto tread for ten years there, while only ten minutes passed here.
I now know the secret weaknesses of our enemies in those realms. The Kuni will become even stronger against the vile forces who assail Rokugan. However, if I do not survive tomorrow, I shall return as a ghost and whisper my knowledge into the ears of a worthy Kuni scribe who dares listen to a spirit. Then I will have all the time I need to impart the hidden knowledge I have gained in my sinister dreams.
It will be asked how I came to have this knowledge. Let me state this unequivocally, this tremendous gift of never-ending revelatory visions has been bestowed upon me by a very uncommon sword. It is a powerful nemuranai, a katana with awakened kuei inside, malevolent spirits that are a twisted reflection of the blessed kami. They seem to have no power over me, aside from the delightful compulsion for me to go to sleep as early as I can each night and hold the blade unsheathed and close to me.
I have shared this truth with only my most trusted friends, but I shall record all of it here, holding nothing back. Let there be no doubt that I have become the bearer of one of the most powerful Shameswords ever forged. It calls itself, Fear.
I must thank the last owner of Fear, Bayushi Jimen, the dishonored Emerald Champion, for this gift. He managed to stab my friend, Hida Makoto with this blade, and in doing so the sword drew in all of the nightmarish things Makoto had seen, thereby preserving them for eternity within the kuei living inside the steel. It seems that the worst fears of every man and woman whose blood Fear has tasted, are gloriously preserved in the blade. Every last detail. Permanently recorded in an object that is nigh indestructible.
Bayushi Jimen was a powerful man of the Scorpion clan, but it is obvious he was not suited to carry a sword such as this. This weapon must be bourn by a man such as myself, who is not so easily swayed and manipulated by base emotions like fear.
Jimen was a thrall of this blade, and his weakness was his downfall, though he came close to attaining the Emerald Throne with his schemes, namely the spirit poisoning of Otomo Yuni and several other high status nobles. He was a skilled courtier and purveyor of many mundane poisons, and a master duelist, but he will forever be remembered as being drowned in a shallow koi pond by Hida Makoto, a man with a far greater destiny than Bayushi Jimen. I am pleased that so many in the Imperial Court, including Hida Kisada, witnessed this event, and am certain that no samurai will ever dare to duel a member of the Crab clan beside a body of water ever again.
When Makoto waded out of the pool like rice paddy buffalo, blood and water draining out of his armor, and an exquisite katana protruding from his side, I of course helped by removing the blade from his flesh. Right away I sensed the power of the sword, similar to the Shamesword Penance, which I carried for many months, but this weapon seemed strangely quiet when I held it close, and I only saw fascinating images of samurai dying and being taken away by hungry ghosts when I closed my eyes. I listened carefully, my ear almost touching the steel, and after a few blissful nights it became clear that the sword was indeed a powerful nemuranai, and I was chosen to be its master by the Fortunes.
Now I prepare for war with the new Shogun of the Imperial Legions, Hida Makoto. We are tasked with the impossible, stopping a gigantic army of Yobanjin, led by the Branded Man. We are outnumbered ten to one, and will only buy time for the Great Clans to assemble their armies in defense of our capital city. But we samurai are content, as we shall fight our greatest enemy. The Branded Man is the most powerful Servant of Tamori Chosai, the Dark Oracle Fire. Corrupted Chosai is forbidden from entering the Empire, but he has sent his best lieutenant to do this his bidding. I have faced this man before, and he has been nearly impossible to vanquish. He is responsible for the deaths of far too many of my friends, and it is fitting that in their barbarian language The Branded Man is called, Finds Them And Kills Them. His followers say he is made of flame and fear.
Flame and Fear? Fire yes, I have seen this first hand, but how could primitives from beyond Rokugan who have never slept for weeks in the Shadowlands beyond the Kaiu Wall know anything about what fear truly is?
I do not believe it is wrong that I crave the knowledge I shall gain when my blade drinks of The Branded Man’s blood. I will know all the unholy places he has walked and I will see his master, Chosai. I will learn how to defeat our enemy, The Dark Oracle of Fire tomorrow, and if the signs and portents I read in the bottom of my sake cup prove correct, I shall survive the battles ahead. The Fates have many things left for me to accomplish. Of this, I am certain.
Makoto is not as optimistic as I, and he believes he has been sent forth to die by our new Empress, the newly named “Hantei” Hoketuhime, formerly of the Otomo family. She does not like Makoto, and wishes to find a more suitable and higher status husband for her daughter, but I have also seen into the Realm of Blessed Ancestors, where Hida Makoto and Otomo Yuni were married and spent time together. I have seen the love that has been spinning on the Celestial Wheel between these two young people ever since their paths crossed when they first met on the Kaiu Wall.
Their union is not an ending, but a new beginning. Let it be known to all who question if what the honored samurai of the Crab Clan, now Shogun Hida Makoto, endured to save Yuni’s life and rescue her soul from Gaki-Do, was worth the price, I tell you with absolute certainty that it was. Future events will speak for me louder than this scroll ever will.
Now I will draw forth my katana, Fear, from the jade sheath specially crafted for me, and sleep soundly through the night beside it, for tomorrow I shall kill scores of Yobanjin. Our army is one-tenth their size, but we are servants of the most culturally advanced empire the world has ever seen. We are men and women who call ourselves samurai are servants of the Emerald Throne, and descended from the immortal heroes of all the Great Clans. We are led by a Shogun who fought for ten years across the darkest pits of the nether realms, and we shall quench the flames of the Branded Man and his lackeys with rivers of blood.
From the Private Scrolls of Kuni Magatsu, Earth Shugenja of the Crab Clan
Rain, blood, muddy river water, and the loose bladders of the Yobanjin horde have put out the flames that those fire-worshipping barbarians brought into the Emerald Empire. Their army is scattered and we have done all that was asked of us, and more. We have paid a terrible price in lives, and there are many who are maimed and will never fight again—if they survive the hours ahead. I know that many wish they were dead, and some will ask their daimyo’s for permission to commit seppuku if we ever return from this war. The Imperial Heralds have already been sent to report to the Empress about this day, which I have named the Battle of Broken Steel.
The enemy dead are beyond counting, but I do not mourn for any of them. Nor do I mourn for the samurai who fell here. They have earned much honor for their families and clans and they shall all be reborn as samurai once again. Much glory and honor was won today. I do not wish to see things such as this again.
I have survived the day, and it falls to me to recount the events of this battle and the ones before it. I shall begin with the place of the deaths of so many: Atsui Torii. This name will be remembered.
Our Shogun, Honorable Hida Makoto arrayed his forces on the southern bank of the great river of the north, the Oboreshinu Boekisho Kawa, the Drowned Merchant River. We fought only a day’s march north of the village of Oiku on the Imperial road. We were less than three days fast march from the capital city of Toshi Ranbo, and had been tasked with delaying the Yobanjin horde as long as we could, while the combined armies of the Great Clans assembled under the leadership of our new Empress.
Shogun Hida Makoto had been given command of The First Imperial Legion, ten thousand strong, plus another ten thousand from the Fourth Imperial Legion. The First were made up of the finest warriors, mostly from the Crane and Phoenix Clan. Many Daidoji Iron Warriors, Tetsu-tsuru, Iron Cranes with long spears and heavy armor were present, as were some of the greatest Phoenix samurai blade-masters.
The Seventh Legion lived up to its ruthless reputation and many in its ranks were up dishonored samurai intent on regaining lost honor, or those intent on dying to atone for their sins. There were many Crab clan Berserkers and Lion clan Deathseekers as well. All of them found what they sought today.
We also had a few fast cavalry scouts on the tall horses from the Unicorn Clan, one hundred shugenja of various ranks, and the Voice of the Empress, Miya Todo himself, to bolster our troops. I will always think of him as from the Ide family, despite the Empress forcing him to marry into the Miya family and take their name.
I should note that before we left Toshi Ranbo, I was told that my loyal bodyguard, Tamori Fubatsu, and the acclaimed Lion bard, Ikoma Katsu, would soon die from the stings inflicted upon them by the ghost spiders of the Poison Dragon. Fubatsu saved my life that day, and Katsu got too close to the story he did not live to tell. I wanted to stay and help heal them, but there was no time and we were ordered to march. I do not know if even I could save them.
I mourn my friends, and wonder what Fubatsu would have thought about the sword I now carry. I tasked him to kill me if the last shamesword I was asked to carry possessed me, but I did not succumb to the voice of Penance, and Fubatsu held his blade. What would he do now?
Makoto and I argued politely with Todo when we left the city, asking him to stay behind in the capital where he could do more good and assure our supply lines, but he would not be denied, and I am just a lowly samurai and cannot dispute the Voice of the Empress. Shogun Makoto, leader of all the Imperial armies was also overruled, but Makoto had never been very good at winning arguments with his words.
The madness of Todo’s decision still shocked us. Our honorable and wise leader had only drawn his wakizashi once in a real fight. It is well known that with one blow he killed the Poison Dragon, stabbing him through the back, and piercing the obsidian heart of the man I knew as Zuko.
Regardless, how could this Unicorn Courtier hope to survive a battle such as we were going to fight? I should have sent him back with the messengers when we first sighted the enemy.
We faced over two hundred thousand Yobanjin. The large army we helped defeat at Pale Oak Castle was half the size of this horde, and this army had penetrated to within three days march of the capital.
The Empress had given us little chance of success and our orders were to stand and die. No retreat, no drawn out delaying tactics, or hit and run maneuvers. We were to fight to the last man. We all swore that we would. Including Miya Todo.
The orders could not have been more perfect for most of us, and every man and woman was highly motivated. If we lost, our capital would be taken and our Empire gutted and destroyed. The Yobanjin would rage across our lands and without the Empress in charge. She had said very publicly she would not flee the capital, which would assuredly be sacked. The clans would fail to unite, and be defeated, or at least savaged one at a time. That is what Shogun Hida Makoto told the generals. True or not, it had the desired effect.
The warriors’ backbones were made of steel when we took to the field. No retreat. Only death or victory. A samurai could not ask for more than this.
I limped along after Makoto as he surveyed our troops standing on the riverbank. I do not mind the pain in my hip, but it does slow me down, and reminds me of my failures. Perhaps it will remind the men that they must fight on no matter how gravely they are injured. It is also good for the men to see me with our new Shogun, for they know that Makoto has the power of the Earth with him at all times. The Mountain will not break.
He stared at them for some time, then raised his tetsubo high.
“When they come out of the water,” Makoto said, “you will kill them, and push their bodies back in!”
“Hai, Shogun!” the Imperial Legions shouted, twenty thousand strong. Speaking as one.
“So many of their bodies will clog the river that the rest of the barbarians will walk across their backs and cross faster.” He paused, angling his tetsubo down and holding it steady in a fit of incredible strength as he pointed at the brown water flowing slowly by. “The faster they cross, the faster they die!”
Makoto permitted himself to smile then, and I laughed loudly. Many of the men laughed along with him. It is good for the men to be jovial before a battle.
We waited for the Yobanjin to come and Makoto put on his treasured peasants hat to shield himself from the rain. He said the hat was once worn by the Lord of Death himself—at least that was what Shinjo Braga had said to him at Pale Oak Castle, before Braga died on a suicide charge. Only the hat remained, and I agree, it is lucky to wear such a thing, despite its ugliness.
Makoto sat on the wet grass shoving rice balls filled with bits of carp into his mouth. It was going to be a long day, and all of the men ate with him, calmly waiting for the enemy to arrive.
I wore no hat, but the rain did not smear the white and red makeup I wore on my face to honor my sensei and the Kuni Shugenja who came before me.
The Yobanjin finally came at midday after the rain had made the far river bank a morass of sticky brown mud that reminded me of the first stool an infant passes after coming into this world. The mud sucked at the barbarian’s feet and they sunk into it up to their knees. When they waded into the river the water did not wash the mud away. It clung to them like glue and weighed down their feet.
The Earth Kami favored us, and our southern riverbank was dry and firm several steps away from the water where we made our stand. This too was not an accident. I had prepared the battlefield and more clinging mud would coat the barbarian’s feet and legs when they reached our side.
The rain had indeed brightened our sprits, and most of our troops followed our Shogun’s lead, and wore the wide brimmed peasant hats while we waited, but the fires of the Yobanjin were subdued, like a lantern almost out of oil, barely clinging to life.
Our enemy found no bridge as they anticipated. We had dismantled it the night before, at midnight, and used the wood to make large wooden spikes and baricades that would channel our enemy into our waiting spears and swords. Not even a pillar remained of the bridge.
It did not matter much, as there has always been a ford at Atsui Torii, where a hot spring runs into the river and the Imperial road connects the north and south. This hot spring, where Makoto, Todo and I had bathed the night before, gave this place its name long ago, The Hot Gate. The scalding water felt so good on my injured hip as we surveyed the lay of the land, staring across the river.
It is no surprise that Shogun Makoto decided to set up his defense on this riverbank. Like me, he is Crab Clan, and we know all too well that the Kaiu Wall was built behind the Last Stand River for good reason. The creatures of the Shadowlands must cross the river to attack, and the Yobanjin would have to do the same at Atsui Torii.
The barbarian vanguard tried other crossing points, but the Shogun’s advanced forces crushed them on three separate occasions before the Yobanjin decided they would have to move across the more shallow waters en masse in a wide front. Atsui Torii was their best chance and the water was only shoulders deep. A long front of men could come across here, but we had enough men to face them, and despite their overwhelming numbers, our bushi could keep them bottled up. Twenty thousand could hold off two hundred thousand for a very long time in a place like this.
The Phoenix shugenja in our ranks made sure the wind was blowing north, and the range of our arrows was increased dramatically. Many of the Yobanjin died in the deadly hail that fell continuously on them. Few of their arrows reached our lines, as their bows are inferior and the wind was against them. Those shafts that did find their way across the river were often used by our own archers and shot back at the enemy.
Despite the storm of arrows, the Yobanjin staggered out of the river. Wet, coated in mud, they struggled up the bank and died quickly on our spears and swords. Some of them burst into flames when they died as the Dark Oracle of Fire had imbued them with terrible magic, but their wet clothing and the rain lessened their effect. Makoto had also taught the men how to react when those warriors were about to die, and our troops would lunge backward on the command of their Gunso. Still, many of our men were burned, the flesh so charred they could not hold a weapon. Some of these men refused to sit idle and tackled Yobanjin and drowned at least one in the river before they themselves perished. I know the wounded samurai emulated their Shogun, and did him much honor.
Of course, Makoto stood at the center of the line and crushed skull after skull with his tetsubo. The veteran Imperial Generals argued that he should not fight on the front line, but he did not listen. He pushed barbarians back and back. They fell and collided with their comrades knocking them into the water where they were trampled and drowned by oncoming warriors. At one point a knot of Yobanjin tried to grab Makoto’s heavy weapon and wrest it from him, but samurai guarding his flanks cut off their hands, and if one account is to be believed, Makoto bit off a large man’s fingers to pry them lose.
I did not see this, but it would not surprise me. I stayed near him, strengthening him with Earth magic throughout the battle. My attendant shugenja healed him of his injuries as well, as I was focused on keeping up our Shogun filled with resilient might that approached divine proportions. My sword gave me power I had never experienced before, and the kami prostrated themselves before me, trembling as they carried out my will. My power seemed limitless as I crushed my enemies and watched them driven back.
Exhausted, the barbarians called off their attack four times, though they fought fearlessly at times, with little regard for their own lives. We heard the sound of deep-throated horns calling them to retreat, but whenever they would try to re-cross the river and fall back, our archers would kill scores of them, shooting them in the back or the neck. Many of our men had died as well, but our lines held, and our ground was solid, though now wet with blood.
Some of the Crab berserkers had to be restrained when the enemy would retreat, but they followed Makoto’s commands and rallied around him. With Makoto in charge, we would not break. Everyone believed that. Even me, and I knew that no man indestructible. Every man feared something.
It was not long after the fourth Yobanjin attack was repulsed, that the Branded Man stood on the north bank of the river. Every inch of his skin had been burned, seemingly melted away. I stood beside Makoto and we eyed him together, our hatred and the desire for revenge giving new vigor to our bodies.
A few of our best archers sent a volley in his direction, but the arrows caught fire and disintegrated in the air around him. The feathers fell burning into the river and extinguished themselves.
The Branded Man’s eyes fixed on our position.
“He’s looking at you,” Makoto said. “Like he did before when you carried the Shamesword into the North and he tried to take it from us.”
“He knew I carried one then,” I said, “and he knows now.”
“Will he come for it?” Makoto asked.
I grinned and walked to the river’s edge. Makoto joined me as I washed the blood from Fear, and he scraped the bits of flesh from his tetsubo. I showed the Branded Man my katana, taunting him. He growled at me and made a crude gesture with his upturned fist. I had learned some of the more course Yobanjin words when we traveled north of the Empire’s border and infiltrated the All-Mother. I used them at that time, suggesting where I would sheath Fear inside the Branded Man’s body.
“That should draw him over,” Makoto said, “but you better stay behind me when he comes. He must not take your sword.”
“Hai,” I said, for I did not disagree. The Branded Man was already almost as powerful as a god. I lowered the sword, which showed me a man’s eyeballs burning and exploding in his head, then the flames at away the flesh of his face until only a charred skull remained. It was fascinating.
I blinked and realized the Branded Man had made no other reaction to us.
Instead of another attack, we heard extremely loud drumming, coming from at least a hundred large skin drums. The air changed, and I realized it was the wind altering its course. It blew south now.
Angry, I limped to where the useless Phoenix shugenja maintained their supposed mastery of the weather and they mumbled apologies as they worked to strengthen the air kami who were failing in their task to keep the wind in our favor.
When I returned there was an unease settling on our line.
The rain had also stopped and the Yobanjin were building large fires on the far bank. Dozens of them. The drumming accelerated and the smoke from the fires filtered through our ranks. It smelled like burnt yak hair mixed with pig dung, and irritated my nose, though I did not rub it, for my white face paint must not be marred in any way.
I watched impassive as the bonfires grew in height, much too tall to be natural, and soon the fires linked until they were a solid wall stretching across the center of our line. The Shaman of the Yobanjin were cooking up some new devilry.
“Pull the men back fifty paces!” Makoto shouted. The gunsos began repeating the order immediately, though many questioned it and would not budge from their positions. Had he ordered a retreat? Some men started to obey dutifully, but it was too late.
I should have known long before Makoto did what was about to happen. I should have warned everyone.
A gigantic wall of fire swept across the river like a tsunami wave. The river hissed and floating bodies caught flame. The heat rolled ahead of the burning wall as Makoto half-dragged me with away from the water’s edge. The mud I had created baked into hard clay in an instant.
Many of the gunsos led their men back, but with our deep ranks so tightly packed, it was hard for men to back up. The fire engulfed our front ranks burning out men’s lungs, blinding hundreds, and setting thousands aflame. The screams of panic and agony from our brave Imperial Legionnaires shattered our morale. We thought ourselves invincible, but now many of us were charred meat encased in smoldering armor.
The flames kept rolling forward, though their height gradually began to fall. The entire center portion of our line was pushed back and even the men in our reserve areas began to flee in case the fires did not stop coming.
Our flanks appeared intact, as the fire was not wide enough to reach the left and right formations of five thousand men each, but with the center gone, we could not hold off so many Yobanjin. Their barbarian cries of victory and the splashes of thousands of men crossing the river added to the panic and our center was in full route.
Makoto was shouting for the men to reform ranks, and I was trying not to get knocked over by retreating warriors. At that moment, when I thought the battle might be lost, I turned to see a man of small stature riding a tall white horse toward us from the rear area of our lines. He wore the finest robes of purple, and he called out in a perfectly clear voice for the men to follow him to the river. He carried in one hand the streaming jade colored standard of the Empress, and in the other hand a burning bright yellow lantern held aloft by a lacquered bamboo pole. The tall horse, a stallion of the finest stock from the Unicorn clan did not shy away as hundreds of frightened men rushed toward it.
The horse was calm, just like its rider.
The Voice of the Empress, Miya Todo, led the march back to the riverside, his voice carrying above all the shouting. Men stopped running immediately when they saw him and turned about, regaining their courage. Thousands flocked to him while Makoto assembled a company of stalwart samurai, mostly Crab berserkers. We all followed my friend, Miya Todo toward the river.
A screaming Yobanjin horde had gained the bank and were running at us when we crashed into them. Miya Todo stayed at the front of the line on his majestic horse. I saw arrows pierce the Empress’s banner and the paper lantern itself, the symbol of our order. I tried to reach him, as did Makoto, but he was too far away. The horse fell and Todo went with it. The Empresses banner was snatched up by some samurai, but the paper lantern was lost in the fray, as was my friend, who had gone into battle and did not even draw his sword.
“For Miya Todo!” Makoto shouted, as he charged forward and the real butchery began. I gripped my sword tightly in my hand, and attacked screaming for vengeance. My hip did not slow me then, and ran with the power of a charging bull. With an enchanted blade and the brutal magic of the kami I crushed my enemies. Boulders of granite rose from the ground and bowled over dozens of Yobanjin, clearing a path for us to run. Lightning struck them from above, and Fear cut a bloody swath through the enemy ranks as we fought our way to the place where Miya Todo had fallen. We would rescue his body from the barbarians, or die in the attempt. That is what I thought at that moment, and I know Makoto thought the same.
I caught a brief glimpse of the white horse, blood splashed across its coat, but that was as close as I would come to where the lantern, our brightest lantern, had gone out.
The Yobanjin pushed us back. Thousands of them attacked, and many burst into flames as they died, killing our stalwart Legionnaires. We would have been routed then, but on Makoto’s orders, a screaming squad of a hundred Deathseeking Lion samurai charged forward out from the left flank, where they had waited for this very moment. They slaughtered the Yobanjin as if the barbarians were wheat in a field, and when the once disgraced Lion Clan warriors died, they were surrounded by piles of barbarian dead, at least five for every one of them.
Still, we fell back in measured steps, fighting for every bit of blood soaked dirt as the Yobanjin poured onto our riverbank. Our flanks, bristling with well armed men were holding and funneling the enemy down the center, but our center could not regain the ground held by so many of the enemy. Makoto and his lieutenants had reformed a firm centerline, but the enemy had gained a tremendous foothold and were advancing steadily now.
Makoto ordered the Daidoji Iron Warriors to hold the line, but we fell back, step by step while the reserve units prepared to hold when our battalion was finally shredded and drained of our ability to hold. The generals on both flanks sent messenger after messenger to Makoto, asking permission to attack, but he sent them all away, with orders to hold the flank positions until the signal was given for them to attack.
Our porous line had been pushed to the limit, and Yobanjin war parties broke free and into the area behind us where a few archers, and the reserves would be left to deal with them. I withheld my power, sensing that I would need all that I had left in the moments ahead.
If I was going to die, it would be spectacular and I would take hundreds of the enemy with me, and thousands more would flee in terror from my blade. I merely had to unleash it, and give myself to it completely.
No, not yet, I thought, when Makoto glanced at me, wondering what trick I had left to save our lives. He knelt on the ground, his chest heaving, and I did not know how he could continue to fight. His heavy tetsubo, once carried by his grandfather, lay in the mud. We had failed to hold the line, failed to retrieve the body of Miya Todo, and now we would fail the Empress. There was much honor in death, but much more in victory.
The Yobanjin must have known how weak we were as they paused to consolidate their forces. Thousands more poured into the gap between our flimsy centerline and our two relatively strong flanks who had barely joined the fight. I could hear the bushi, unblooded and ready, begging their commanders to unleash them, but if they moved would the massive force of Yobanjin across the river have the opening they needed to route our entire army?
I didn’t care. I wanted to scream at Makoto myself and tell him to commit our flanks and the reserves. What was he waiting for? Had the ten years in the nether realms driven him truly mad?
It was at that moment that I saw the cloud of smoke moving through the ranks of my foes. The Branded Man glided forward wreathed in orange flame. The scars on his body flowed white-hot and the bodies of the dead melted as he stepped on them.
I had never seen the Branded Man carry a weapon before, but this day he carried the longest sword I had ever seen, a great nodachi with no equal in the history of Rokugan. He was a tall man, taller than even Makoto, and his over-sized katana was easily twice as long as Fear. The blade was wreathed in yellow flames that licked across the steel and leapt from it like small twisted claws, grabbing at the dead and setting their hair aflame.
I had already been entreating the earth kami and summoned their strength, using the power in my sword to call them to heights undreamt of before I had wielded Fear.
Makoto stood, sent away his last two messengers, likely carrying the last orders he would ever give . . . for death approached us both.
I kept my hand on Makoto’s shoulder, urging him to wait a moment longer so I could finish the prayer which I recited from memory, hoping I would not ruin it all by missing a single word or rearranging a complicated phrase.
Right in front of us, the Branded Man raised his sword and cut off the heads of two Legionnaires, their folded steel weapons breaking like they were made of wicker when his blade struck them. He slew several more and their bodies burst apart, fire erupting from their severed necks where there should have been blood. The heat was intense, and I saw the skin of the men around us turning red, burning from the heat. Only the power of the kami kept Makoto and I from suffering the worst of the flames.
Makoto tried to step forward, but I shouted, “Wait! Stand with me! He will come to us!”
A snarl of rage erupted from my friend as the Branded Man cut his way toward Makoto and I.
We both tensed, wanting to attack as more brave men died, unwilling to let this demon man near their commander. Finally, I shouted the last phrase of the prayer with the loudest voice I could muster. “THE MOUNTAIN DOES NOT BREAK!”
I compelled the kami to fill Makoto with the Strength of the Elder Mountain Spirits, and they swirled inside him, making his bones harder than the strongest rock, his might that of a hundred men.
Makoto attacked and his metal-encrusted tetsubo struck the Branded Man’s great nodachi. Crimson fire exploded from the blade, and Makoto was thrown backward and he barreled over me. Tentacles of fire whipped out from the Branded Man’s circular scars, struck us like whips, and the men close by were wreathed in flames. They died screaming, fire exploding from their eyes, just as we would have save for the protection of the kami.
The nodachi swung in wide arcs now, faster than a mortal could possibly swing. He killed men all around, slicing through their armor as it were wet rice paper, and he opened a giant gash through our line. Ranks of Yobanjin followed behind their leader grinning like wild dogs about to kill an injured lion.
Cornered animals fight the fiercest and Makoto attacked with renewed fury. He traded blows until my friend was again blasted backward, his armor singed and dented.
There was no hope in our once proud Shogun now. I helped him stand and Makoto said, “His guard is too strong and fast. I cannot defeat him.”
Our soldiers began to flee then, leaving Makoto and I alone to face the Branded Man, who raised his arms in triumph, then brought his sword down slowly, waiting for Makoto to attack one last time.
“I shall die from his blade,” Makoto said. “Save yourself, Magatsu-san. Tell Yuni I died with honor. Tell her I loved her, and I shall see her again someday.”
A thousand Yobanjin stalked forward and stopped behind the Branded Man, waiting for him to unleash them.
He held them back and stepped forward to finish us both.
“If only Todo were here to save us again,” I said.
Makoto grinned. “I will hold him here a moment longer then.”
I nodded to him, as I melted into the earth, my body disappearing inside the ground as I swam through the earth.
When I erupted from the dirt behind the Branded Man, I saw him bringing his flaming nodachi down in a vicious swing that would prove fatal to anyone. Makoto stood right in front of him, defiant, and stubborn, far inside the circle of blazing and sharp death. My Shogun held his thick tetsubo up to block the powerful blow. The nodachi cut halfway through the thick shaft, but the burning steel sword broke, the top half of the blade sheared completely off.
The Branded Man did not even flinch as his sword was broken. He stabbed Makoto in the chest with the long blade still attached to the hilt, and pushed my friend down, pinning him to the ground.
The Poison Dragon did not see Ide Todo before he stabbed him, and The Branded Man did not see me.
I brought my katana down with two hands, all the power and rage inside me channeled into the sword. The Shamesword called Fear penetrated The Branded Man’s back and I felt his heart explode like a skin of overfilled rice wine. I saw into his soul for an instant, and gaped at the vast pain and suffering he had endured at the hands of the Dark Oracle of Fire. Tamori Chosai had branded him with terrible powers, and I saw Chosai’s imprint on this broken man. In a sudden rush of searing pain I knew what they both feared above all other things. Being swallowed by a deep and pitch dark well filled with icy water. No flame could burn in the waters at the roots of the mountain and the ancient water kami, the very first ones from when the world was born, hated Chosai and were waiting to take their revenge.
The Branded Man showed me all of these things and more as he lay in the mud gasping for breath. Makoto struggled to his feet, his life pumping out of the great wound in his chest. Smoke drifted up from his armor and knew his heart would soon be burned to a cinder.
Over a thousand Yobanjin yelled in horror as their leader fell. They tensed, ready to tear us apart with their bare hands and grind our bodies into pulp.
“Go to ground, my friend,” Makoto said to me as he lifted his half-cloven tetsubo over his head for one final strike.
We both knew what would come when Makoto brought down his weapon and crushed the Branded Man’s head.
Tears filled my eyes as I bowed to my Shogun as a thousand Yobanjin charged toward us.
Makoto shouted his battle cry for the last time, as I let the earth swallow me. I went deep, but even inside the rocks below the Battle of Broken Steel, I could feel the heat, which turned sand to glass, and melted metal.
I am told that the fireball that exploded from the Branded Man’s crushed head killed hundreds of Yobanjin.
When I resurfaced from my refuge, the field was a slaughterhouse, and grass will not grow in that place for many centuries now.
I appeared in time to see that Makoto’s messengers had reached both the right and left flanks. The fresh battalions attacked with all the ferocity they had held inside while our center was destroyed.
The reserves came close to me then, ready to attack at last. A few hundred men only, and still some thousands faced us. I raised my katana and led the charge, screaming in the ancient tongue that the Kuni use to frighten oni. I do not know what the Yobanjin saw or heard as I attacked, but my visage terrified them and the fear spread from one to another until they whimpered and ran away in droves.
Nine out of ten Yobanjin who came across the river were killed in the vice-like trap set by Shogun Hida Makoto. The barbarians were assailed on three sides and killed mercilessly. The rest fled to safety on the north bank, and though they were still a large force, they would not cross at Atsui Torii, and did not dare fight the First and Fourth Legions again.
When I had finally sheathed my sword, now using the scabbard as a walking stick, I searched for Makoto’s remains. I found a ring of samurai from all the great clans kneeling around what was left of his body. His armor, most assuredly nemuranai, was singed, but not badly burned. His body, save for his melted hands and face, was intact. I knelt there, weeping soundlessly, then placed the charred and half-sundered tetsubo I had found at his side. The weapon must have had fire kami awakened inside it, for it had survived the battle.
A short time later, a man approached and laid the jade colored banner of the Empress over Makoto’s body. I did not realize who it was until he put his small, soft hand on my shoulder.
“He died with honor,” the man said, and I noticed there was mud under his fingernails.
I knew whose voice it was, but I could not believe. I wiped the tears from my eyes, not caring if my face paint was smeared, and beheld Miya Todo himself, the Voice of the Empress, standing before me. His fine robes were muddy and stained with blood, but it was him. Alive.
“How?” I stuttered. “I saw you fall.”
“My horse died under me, but the men saved me, sacrificing their lives as I held aloft the Empress’s banner. It never touched the ground . . . until now.”
We both looked at our friend, and the honor Todo had given him.
I soon learned that the men around Miya Todo had shielded him until he could get into the lines at the right flank. “I have spent the whole battle there,” he said, “convincing the commanders to follow Makoto’s orders and not attack until he commanded it. That is what I did, and Makoto’s plan carried the day.”
I bowed to Todo, my forehead on the ground. When he touched my shoulder I could not help myself. I hugged Todo then, damn all proper forms and customs. At least two of the Paper Lanterns had survived, though at that moment I wish it had been me who died, and Makoto who had lived.
* * * * *
The First and Fourth Imperial Legions eventually marched back to our capital, Toshi Ranbo. We carried our Shogun’s remains in a cedar coffin engraved with all his titles and draped with the Empress’s banner and those of the Legions under his command and the Crab Clan’s mon on the front.
Thousands of samurai wanted to help carry his casket, and they fought in camp at night for the honor. I refused to allow duels to the death, and I would not give up my place, no matter how badly my hip pained me. I staggered along that rutted road for five days carrying him, and Todo was right in front of me.
When we presented his remains to Otomo Yuni in her private chambers tears flowed from her eyes in great drops, and she lay upon the coffin for some hours whispering to him. She asked to be undisturbed during that time Miya Todo and I, along with her personal guard, stood vigil. If the Empress, her Divine Mother had come, I would have kept her out, then committed seppuku later for the great insult. The Fortunes favored me again, for Hantei Hoketuhime did not appear that day, though she did attend the funeral of Makoto, though she never left her draped palanquin.
It was at Makoto’s funeral where I learned that several of the Paper Lanterns had survived. My loyal yojimbo, Tamori Fubatsu, and Ikoma Katsu, had recovered from their injuries suffered from the ghost spider stings inflicted upon them by the Poison Dragon.
In the weeks following, Miya Todo convinced the Empress to make me Jade Champion. I accepted the post, only after finishing my duties to the still grieving Otomo Yuni. She often wanted to speak with me about Makoto’s last days. I told her everything. I told him of how he commanded the men with great intelligence and honor. I told her that he had asked me to tell her that he died with honor, and that he loved her.
She accepted these words quietly, and one day, three weeks after we buried her husband in a simple, but very stately tomb, I asked her to tell me about the time she spent in the nether realms with my late friend.
“Forgive me, Most Honored Lady,” I said, “but I have seen some of Makoto’s memories from the time you spent with him away from the mortal realm.”
Her sad eyes brightened for a moment. “Magatsu-san, those were the best times of my life, after he freed my soul and we were married in Yomi, the Realm of the Blessed Ancestors.”
“Most Honored Lady,” I said, “it is about that time of which I speak. May I ask a sensitive question?”
She regarded me for some time. She was the heir to the Empire and I was far beneath her. She did not have to grant my request, but she had become quite fond of me in those days.
“You may ask, Magatsu-san, but I know you will never speak of this or write about it in your scrolls.”
“Of course not, Most Honored One. I will preserve your answers even unto death.”
“Ask, then,” she said.
I glanced down at her, my eyes lingering on her beautiful kimono and the pearl white belt around her slender waist. “How long were you and my most noble friend, Hida Makoto, in the Blessed Realm before you returned here? I believe that I saw something quite unusual in the dreams granted to me by . . . ” I touched the handle of my sword and stroked the jade scabbard.
She looked up at me, her almond eyes filled with love and longing. Certainly it was not directed to me, and perhaps not to Makoto either. After a soft breath she finally said, “Long enough, my dear friend.” Then she whispered what I had suspected for quite some time.
I shall not reveal the secret here in this scroll, as I have sworn not to, but someday, when the time is right, all will be revealed.
Until then, I shall serve as the Jade Champion, and root out all of the dark spirits, oni, bloodspeakers, and the hungry dead that infest my beloved Emerald Empire. I shall serve the current Empress, and someday I shall serve dearest Yuni, the heir to the Empire.
From the Scrolls of Kuni Magatsu, Crab Clan Shugenja and Jade Champion of the Emerald Empire.
I am considering a marriage proposal. A woman of high station in a prominent Crane family, actually she is a member of a branch of the Yasuki who has gone back to the Crane after spending centuries as a Crab Clan family. Yasuki Tamiko has made her intentions known to me. She writes such lovely haiku, and when I read her verse, I knew she was a woman who could understand a man like me.
Black leaves in Autumn,
Ever falling to ground,
Just like my black tears.
Her poems are as intriguing as the inner sanctum of her shadowy home. She is not like other Crane women with their perfectly coifed hair and sparkling jewelry. Her garden is bare, save for one blood red rose. She has had three husbands before and outlived them all. They were deeply flawed men, and refused to allow her to travel with them. I shall not make this mistake and plan on showing her the Empire in ways only a Jade Champion can.
Wherever I travel, whether it be alone, or with Tamiko, I shall carry my sword, Fear, and in the night, I will carry a lit paper lantern, and think of my lost friends. I suspect, that when I leave this mortal world, whether it be mere months, or decades from now, I shall travel through the nether realms one last time before I enter the Celestial Heavens. I know it seems improbable that a man like me will end up in that most blessed domain, but the visions in the bottom of my sake bowl have all come true, and I trust that even one so improbable as that will also come to pass.
I know that someday my need to look into the dark places will be at an end. I shall rise up to the Celestial Heavens and there I shall look for the light cast by my friends who have gone before me. Hida Makoto and many others will be waiting for me, and when I meet them, I shall enjoy the time that we have in that peaceful place. It will not be an eternity as the Celestial Wheel will keep turning.
It will take many more lifetimes before I attain enlightenment. My spirit will return again, and I can’t help but wonder if my fascination with the darkness in the world will be sated after this life, or if I will spend another full lifetime seeking it out, studying it carefully, and destroying it without mercy.
Forgive me, but I have almost run out of ink, and this long scroll is almost full. I shall blow out my lantern soon, and surrender to sleep, and the time of secret whispers and blessed dreams.
What will I dream of tonight? Tamiko in her midnight garden? Yes, I will see her, but I know I will have more visions of the Dark Oracle of Fire sitting on his burning throne. I know what he fears, and if I ever meet him, I will show him he was right to be afraid.
This episode was written by Paul Genesse, author of the Iron Dragon series. If you’ve not checked out his stuff, you really should, because Paul is a great guy. Support a good writer. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=monshuntnati-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=B006PU7PIE
Thanks for reading everyone. This was a lot of fun. I welcome comments and feedback.
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