A Lion's Honor
By Shawn Carman and Rich Wulf
The Shadowlands, year 1156
Two Tsuno guards fell to the ground, gasping for air and digging tiny troughs in the stone floor as their claws flailed about pointlessly. After a moment of spasms, they lay still. The doorway they had blocked was now unobstructed, and a small figure clad in a ruined blue cloak walked through without further disruption. His footsteps made a sickening, squelching noise, as if he were treading through mud.
The chamber beyond was a vast temple of some sort. Many Tsuno were present, all turning to face the mysterious newcomer. The particularly large specimen at the chamber's other end looked on with interest, and then gestured for two of his guards to intercept the stranger.
Roaring, the two beasts rushed headlong through the chamber, their blades in hand and their gaping jaws dripping with saliva in anticipation. The stranger did not falter in his approach, but lifted a single hand. "Fall."
The two Tsuno were sent sprawling headlong, twisted as if by the force of some monumental blow. Their weapons slid across the floor, away from their reach. "Drown," the strange said in the same, low, disinterested tone. Both Tsuno began writhing much as the two beyond the chamber had, with thick gouts of black water leaking from their eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. After a moment, they too stopped moving, with only a spreading puddle beneath them to mark their passing.
The stranger never halted, but continued his casual pace toward the chamber's front. Other Tsuno looked as though they might attack him as he passed, but the beast at the chamber's front did not move, and thus neither did they. Within short order, the man had reached the altar at the other end, and stood face to face with the titanic Tsuno waiting there. "Greetings, Tsuno Kurushimi," the man offered. When there was no response, he added, "You are not going to attack me, as your brothers did? Strange to find so diplomatic a soul among the Tsuno."
"I know what you are," Kurushimi growled in response. "I will not invite your power by attacking, but you are nevertheless unwelcome here. Leave."
"I will," the stranger offered. "But not until you have heard my proposal."
The Tsuno snarled, its immense fangs gleaming in the torchlight. "You kill my brethren and then make demands of me? You are arrogant, human."
"I left their bodies intact," Turi replied. "Your Soultwisters will restore them to life with little effort, I think."
"You know of our magic," Kurushimi said, ridged brows furrowing.
"There is little that I do not know that concerns me," Turi said, "but with your aid soon there will be nothing beyond my power."
"Then say your piece and be gone, lest I discover if such as you are truly beyond death," Kurushimi said.
The shadowed face beneath the hood shifted, and for a moment a smile was obvious in the low light. "An intriguing proposition. I wonder if you could kill me. But again, this is not the reason for my presence here." The stranger looked about the room. "I wish to ally with your people, Kurushimi. I feel confident we can aid one another."
The short roar that escaped Kurushimi might be mistaken for amusement, if the Tsuno were capable of such a thing. "We are already allied with Daigotsu, your lord and sovereign. Why should we deign to make arrangements with his lackey?"
"Do not discount the power I offer," the stranger countered. "Daigotsu may be your ally, but he does not share your hatred of the Lion as I do. They abandoned me when I needed them most. I will see them suffer. If you know of my powers, then you know am limited in my ability to act directly against the Lion," the stranger confessed. "I need allies without such restrictions. I can give you much information on our mutual enemy's abilities. I can tell you when and where to find what you seek. Once you maneuver them into my clutches, they will be utterly destroyed, just as you wish. All the families of the Lion will fall before me."
"No," Kurushimi said. He leaned in close to the cloaked figure. "Not the Kitsu. The Kitsu are ours."
The stranger laughed. "Fair enough..."
The Kitsu Tombs, year 1158
Another samurai died on Domotai's right, just a Tsuno warrior on his left eviscerated a young Akodo bushi. Blood and death were all around him, an ocean of carnage and confusion. Domotai heard one of his men calling for aid as he ripped his blade free from the Tsuno skull where he had buried it. He looked around and finally found the one who had called out to him, but it was too late. The soldier disappeared under the onslaught of three Tsuno warriors, his face a mask of grim determination and he lashed out at his killers with his last bit of strength.
This was not how it was supposed to be. When the Tsuno had first appeared at the Hall of Ancestors, Domotai had known instantly there were too few attackers to be a real threat. His men had dispatched them quickly, and he had led his entire legion directly to the Kitsu Tombs, believing that to be the beasts' true objective.
Domotai's suspicions had been well founded. As his men had crested the hill overlooking the Tombs, they saw far more Tsuno than had appeared at the Hall of Ancestors. They had been badly outnumbered by the creatures, but that was never a consideration for a Matsu. His men had charged into the creatures' midst without fear or hesitation. Now, Domotai scanned the battle and was hard pressed to pick out more than a dozen of his men still fighting.
A Tsuno blade bit into Domotai's shoulder. He ground his teeth against the pain and spun to face his attacker. A single blow severed the creature's sword hand, causing it to recoil in agony. Domotai ended its pain by burying his blade between its eyes. He tried to pull it free, but another of the beasts collided with him and drove him to the ground, his blade disappearing from his field of vision. The Tsuno leaned in close, trying to gore Domotai with its fearsome horns. The mighty Lion warrior grabbed the creature's horns and wrenched its head with all his might. The crack of its neck was very satisfying.
Domotai lurched to his feet, but another Tsuno instantly knocked him to the ground with a swipe from one massive arm. The Lion struggled to regain his footing, but a kick to his ribs sent him rolling across the battlefield. A flurry of blows followed, and blackness claimed him.
The last thing that reached him as he drifted into oblivion was the harsh, rasping voice of a Tsuno. "This one will serve us well. Bring him."
The Shinomen Mori, year 1159
He was roused from his painful slumber by unfamiliar noise. Not the normal sounds, the screaming and the unanswered pleas for mercy; he had grown immune to those long ago, ceased to even realize that the screams came from his own throat. This was different. It was a familiar sound, one that he had known his entire life but had not heard in many long months.
It was the sound of battle.
Energy rushed through Domotai's tortured form. His torn and bloodied muscles surged with strength, a sensation he had not known in longer than he could remember. His mind cleared, the haze receding. The warrior was careful to remain exactly as he had been, slumped on the floor in apparent defeat.
Another sound approached, this one more familiar. The door slid open, and the rasping breath of his jailor could be heard. Then, the sound of a sword being drawn. "Time for one last kill before I go," the man muttered. Domotai moaned slightly, drawing a dark laugh from his would-be executioner. The man stepped quickly across Domotai's chamber… and within reach.
In the months since the Tsuno had handed Domotai over to Shahai and her minions, he had long since ceased to offer resistance. Instead, he had quietly waited for his opportunity. Domotai's eyes fixed on the uneven stone a few paces away. For months he had watched that stone, marked that as the farthest point his chains could reach. His jailers had never paid attention to such things. Why should they bother when Domotai was too weak to struggle?
One of the torturers stepped across the line into Domotai's range, his stained knife held aloft, a murderous grin plastered across his face.
The Lion kicked with all his remaining strength, catching his assassin directly in the knee. Domotai felt it give, then snap. The man fell to the ground, crying out in agony. Domotai was on him in an instant, knocking his blade away and wrapping his muscular arms about the man's head, looping his chains about the torturer's throat. He squeezed with all his might, the man's muffled shriek of panic blending with his own scream of pain as his injured muscles burned with the sudden exertion. There was a snap, and then the man went limp.
As he fell, another figure appeared behind him. He wore long blue robes, damp and stained with mud. A deep hood covered his features. He stood just beyond the reach of Domotai's chains, watching him cautiously.
"Who are you?" Domotai snarled between gasping breaths. "Another tsukai come to torture me?"
"Only an observer, Domotai," the man said in a thoughtful voice. "Only an observer."
The robed man faded; Domotai was uncertain if he had truly seen the stranger or if it had been another pain induced hallucination. He released the broken corpse still clutched under his arm and collapsed. His head swam with pain and confusion. He felt rough hands inspecting him, but the normal pain of torture was not there. "We have found Domotai!" someone called out. A moment later, "He is badly injured! We need a healer!"
Darkness claimed Domotai again, but this time, there were no tormented visions. Only peace and confidence that his pain was over.
Shiro Matsu, year 1159
"What is the meaning of this, Nimuro-sama?" Kitsu Juri demanded. "We are all very busy, as you well know. You cannot expect us to accomplish what you ask of us if we are constantly being summoned to some sort of impromptu war council."
"How is your brother, Nimuro-sama?" Akodo Ginawa asked quietly.
The Lion Champion leveled an emotionless stare at Kitsu Juri, causing the old shugenja to frown and shift uncomfortably. Matsu Nimuro then turned to Ginawa. "He is recovering, Ginawa-san. Thank you for your concern, I know Domotai will greatly appreciate it." He looked back to the group, which also contained the venerable Ikoma daimyo, Sume, and his mother Ketsui, daimyo of the Matsu family. "But that is not why I have brought you here. As Juri-san so politely points out, many of you are in the midst of important matters that I have bidden you to deal with on behalf of our clan. Unfortunately, a matter of much more importance has arisen."
Sume's eyes narrowed. "What has happened? Is it the Crane? I knew we could not trust them to keep the treaty at Toshi Ranbo."
"They would not dare," rumbled Ginawa. "They have too much to gain from peace."
"It is another matter altogether," Nimuro said darkly. "Four days ago, the corpse of Matsu Giriko was found cast against the walls of Matsu Shiro."
"Giriko was lost in a scouting mission to the south some weeks ago," Ketsui offered. "We assumed she had died in the rockslides."
"Perhaps she did, perhaps she did not," Nimuro continued. "Her throat had been crushed. More to the point, the corpse was saturated with sea water, as if she had drowned."
"Disgusting," muttered Juri.
"And a message was attached to Giriko's do-maru," Nimuro said. He held a wrinkled scroll before him. "It bears a familiar chop."
"Matsu Turi?" Sume said, surprised. "He was lost shortly after Oblivion's Gate."
"Yes," Nimuro said. He nodded at the old courtier, impressed that he recognized the symbol. "If his letter is to be believed, he is now the Dark Oracle of Water."
"What?" Matsu Ketsui had risen from her seat, her disbelief obvious. "Matsu Turi is one of the most venerated heroes of the Matsu family! You cannot be serious!"
"Turi single-handedly turned the tide of battle at Otosan Uchi's west wall on the Day of Thunder," Ikoma Sume agreed.
"He was lost during the retreat from Oblivion's Gate," Ginawa finished in a low voice. "He defended a low canyon while the Lion armies marched back to the Wall. His sacrifice bought the lives of hundreds of samurai. He died as he lived, a hero and a Lion."
"Then apparently reports of his death were a mistake," Nimuro said firmly. An oppressive silence filled the room. The Lion daimyo glanced at one another, their expressions grim. "Turi claims to have recovered the remains of Akodo One-Eye," Nimuro said, his voice empty. "And he will return them to us, if a single Lion agrees to serve him as his vassal and student."
"What?" roared Ginawa. "Outrageous! How do we even know if his wild claims are true?"
"Juri," Nimuro said. "He invites the Kitsu to verify his claim. Summon your finest sodan-senzo and commune with Akodo's spirit. I want no ambiguity."
"At once, Nimuro-sama." Juri rose and left the chamber without hesitation, all trace of his former recalcitrance gone.
The Lion Champion turned to the others. "I have no doubt that Juri will confirm what the message says. Such an elaborate hoax would accomplish nothing, and thus I must believe that it is genuine."
"What shall we do if it is true?" Ketsui asked, her face a mask of determination.
"I do not yet know," Nimuro said, anger blazing in his eyes. "But someone will pay for this blasphemy. Someone will pay with their life."
The Matsu Provinces, the present day
A Lion was taught to live without fear. In his youth such had always been an easy task. Now things were not so simple.
At night, the demons always came for him. He would hear them first, their thick, rough armored plates scraping against one another in the shadows, filling the night air with a terrible rattling sound. He always drew his blade, ready to fight, but he could never find the source of the noise. It was all around him, constantly moving just outside his field of vision. Golden-red eyes blazed in the darkness in the corner of his eye, but faded before he could find them. And then there was the laughter. It was a low, husky sound that filled him with terror.
So he ran. No matter how hard he tried to stand and fight, he always ran. Steel in hand, the ground racing beneath his feet, his breath coming faster and faster, but the things in the shadows never went away. It didn't matter that he ran. They were still there.
Then he felt the claws. Claws, teeth, and steel. He fell to the ground, blood streaming from a dozen wounds. They were upon him now, still wreathed in shadows. Their weapons tore his body apart, ripping his flesh away in ragged strips as he screamed to Lady Moon. There was pain, fear, hatred, outrage… and relief. Terrible, blessed relief to be home again.
Matsu Domotai woke up with a scream trapped in his throat, breathing heavily as the nightmares of the Tsuno faded away.
The Hall of Ancestors was empty. In recognition of his valor, even the monks and Kitsu shugenja had left the temple last night, leaving it completely empty for perhaps the first time in centuries. Domotai was alone with his ancestors, having spent the night in meditation. It was strange. Up until this point, there had been fear. As a Matsu, he had crushed it and buried it deep within him, of course, but it had been there. Now, there was none. He was ready. His destiny awaited, and he would meet it as a Matsu.
The statue before him was of the first Matsu Domotai, an ancient hero of the Lion Clan. The first Domotai had stood bravely against Iuchiban and his blasphemous undead minions at the Battle of Stolen Graves in Otosan Uchi. The legionnaire had pursued half a dozen escaping Bloodspeakers and defeated them single-handedly. His will alone had protected him from their dark magic. Yet for all that, the first Domotai had been generally forgotten among the many other heroes forged that day. Domotai had taken this hero's name as his own at his gempukku ceremony, vowing to overcome his own obscurity as second son of the Matsu daimyo and to bring honor and glory to a great Lion hero in the process.
Footsteps approached from the temple's primary entrance. Domotai did not turn around. There was no need. None would dare interrupt his vigil unless it was of the utmost importance. The footsteps halted behind him. Still he said nothing.
Finally, someone spoke. "It's time, little brother."
Domotai nodded. "I know, Nimuro-sama."
"Do not do that," came a second voice. "Do not make this about duty. This is a family matter. I will not pretend otherwise."
Domotai smiled. "I am sorry, Satomi-chan." He paused. "Where is mother?"
The others were silent for a moment. "She asked us to speak to you first. She… needed a moment to compose herself."
"She always was the emotional one," Domotai noted sadly. He rose to his feet and turned to face his brother and sister. "I suppose she is entitled, though."
"This is madness!" Satomi burst out suddenly. "You are the Lion Clan Champion's brother! Son of the Matsu daimyo! Guardian of the Hall of Ancestors! You cannot do this! You are too valuable to us!"
Matsu Nimuro laid a hand on his sister's shoulder. "Enough, Satomi. He's made his choice."
Domotai nodded. "It is the only way."
The young samurai-ko grimaced, her eyes swimming with tears. She looked down at the floor in agony. "This is not right," she said again, softly.
"Go tell mother we will be out in a moment, Satomi," Nimuro said quietly.
Satomi turned and left immediately without saying a word. Domotai looked after her sadly. "No matter what happens, you must not tell her."
"You have my word, brother," Nimuro promised somberly. "The dreams… you are still having them?"
The other Lion warrior nodded. "They're getting worse. I am not sure what the Tsuno intended for me, but there is a darkness inside me. I am not certain if I can control it for much longer."
"The Kitsu could help you, surely. Juri could find some way to alleviate your suffering."
"No," Domotai shook his head firmly. "If I am dependent upon the Kitsu, then I am weak and a liability." He chuckled darkly. "But of course I am already a liability, aren't I? And that is why I must go."
"There are thousands of others who would gladly take your place," Nimuro observed.
"Turi asked for a member of the true Matsu line," Domotai countered. "I could not ask another to go in my place, and you are too valuable to our clan."
"I could order you to remain," Nimuro said flatly. He regarded his younger brother without emotion.
"But you won't."
The Lion Champion inhaled deeply. "No. No, I would not rob you of your dignity. If you are resigned to this course of action…"
"…then you have my blessing and support." Nimuro clapped the other man on the shoulder. "I am proud to call you my brother."
Domotai grinned, but only for a moment. "Nimuro," he said hesitantly, "if this fails somehow, if I should return at Turi's side…"
"I will take your head, brother," Nimuro said sternly. "I would never permit the Dark Oracle to destroy your honor in such a way."
"The dreams," Domotai rasped. "I may not be able to help myself."
"Then I will help you," the Champion said. His tone implied the discussion was finished. "Now come. Let us find our mother and sister. I suspect whatever ordeal you will be facing in the coming days will pale before the prospect of facing the two of them together."
Domotai and Satomi rode side by side, a hundred Lion soldiers following them. They went for a long while without speaking, until finally Domotai looked over his shoulder at the soldiers with disdain. "I do not understand why you insisted on a full platoon. It seems unnecessary."
"Do not speak to me of unnecessary," Satomi said angrily.
Domotai shook his head. Despite her anger over his decision, Satomi had demanded that she accompany him. The message the clan had received from Matsu Turi specified the day upon which a Matsu was to surrender to him, and where. Black Tear Mountain was on the northern edge of the Twilight Mountains, west of the Crab lands and north of the Plains Above Evil. Few ever went there. Yet Satomi had insisted on accompanying him, and that they bring a full platoon of Lion warriors. She clearly expected treachery, and in that perhaps she was correct.
"One day, little sister, you will understand what I do here."
"Understand why you must give yourself to an honorless madman in exchange for something we should seize by force?" Satomi snorted. "I do not think I will ever understand something so foolish."
"Even if we wished to attack a Dark Oracle," Domotai countered, "how could we ever find Akodo's bones? A man such as Turi could hide them anywhere. No, we must do as he demands, or they will be lost to us forever."
"I would rather force him to tell us."
Domotai scowled. "Don't be a fool."
"You are the fool!"
The Lion shook his head. Satomi was overcome with anger and grief, and could
not be reasoned with. As when they were children, it would be best to leave her
to her own devices rather than force the issue. It was sad, that this was
probably the last time he would see his sister and their last words had been
spoken in anger.
Domotai sighed sadly and looked back toward the lands of his birth for the last time.
The wind rustled Domotai's clothing as he climbed the jagged rocks. He knew without looking that the Lion soldiers that had accompanied him had begun their retreat from the valley below. He had ordered them to do so despite Satomi's objections. A sarcophagus had been sitting plainly in the valley's center. The Kitsu had reverently reclaimed Akodo One Eye's bones from within it, and then Domotai had ordered them to leave.
His sister insisted he leave with them. A pact made with a Dark Oracle held no weight, she had claimed. He could leave the valley and feel no dishonor. She was still young. One day she would know better. If the Shadowlands could show more honor than the Lion, where would that leave the Lion?
Domotai grunted with effort as he hefted himself onto the final ledge. The entire valley was laid out below, but the Lion paid little attention to the view. There was someone waiting for him - a figure wrapped in a heavy cloak from head to toe, with only the vaguest facial features visible. The garments leaked foul, brackish water onto the hard, cracked stone despite the heat and wind. A Lion Clan mon was emblazoned upon his shoulder. Domotai remembered him from his vision so long ago. This was Matsu Turi, the Dark Oracle of Water.
"Matsu Domotai," Turi said, drawing the last syllable of his family name out uncomfortably. "The Tsuno promised me that you would be the one to come. Do you not find that odd? That such beasts would know you better than your own kinsman?"
"What do you want from me?" Domotai said demanded. "I was told that you desired a vassal, but I do not understand what difference you think one Lion could make."
"Then understand," Turi replied. "I was once honored above all other members of your family. I was a hero of the Clan War. I led Tsuko's Heart, a legion dedicated to the memory of the greatest hero I have ever known. When I fell to the Shadowlands, it was in battle, surrounded by a legion of fallen enemies. Dark Oracle I may be, but I know the power of bushido."
"Bushido?" Domotai asked, confused.
Turi nodded. "The Shadowlands have grown in power of late. The Horde has ravaged Otosan Uchi, crumbled the Kaiu Wall, and released Fu Leng into the Heavens. Why is this?" He narrowed his eyes and looked down at Domotai.
"Because the new Dark Lord is powerful," Domotai said.
"Powerful, yes," Turi said. "But Daigotsu is not powerful because of his magic. Daigotsu is powerful because he is a samurai, and he thinks as samurai do. If I will serve the Dark Lord, my soldiers must also understand bushido as he does. They must be Lion. They must know bushido."
"Your soul is lost to Jigoku," Domotai retorted. "How could you, or your Dark Lord, understand bushido?"
"Perhaps we simply see it differently than you do," Turi said patiently, as if illustrating an obvious point to a particularly stubborn child. "You will learn. Your learning has already begun. Why do you think the Tsuno tortured you so? If Tsudao had not rescued you, you might already be serving beside me. I thought it best to let her take you, so that you would see how much you have changed. There is no longer a place for you in Rokugan, Domotai. You have seen what lies within the Pit, and it has changed you. You belong with us now."
"Does not the Dark Lord already have soldiers enough?" Domotai asked.
"Yes, but they are not Matsu," Turi replied with a sneer. "My status as Dark Oracle of Water grants me many advantages, but so does it bind me in many ways."
"But a vassal could act freely," Domotai said.
Turi nodded. "The Tsuno have served well in that function, but a vassal of the true Matsu line will would be more suitable. If the Horde will create a new Empire, let the Lion rule it as the Dark Lord's Right Hand! You will show the Shadowlands the strength of the Lion!"
Domotai looked out at the Lion army retreating from the field, his ancestor's remains carried alongside them. "Then I say yes," Domotai said. "I agree to your terms, and I will be your vassal."
Turi's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "So easily?" he asked, surprised. "I had expected you to resist."
"We have made a bargain," Domotai said. "Honor and my word bind me. If the Lion cannot maintain their honor and the Shadowlands can, how can any Matsu call himself a samurai again?"
Turi grinned. "Very well, my vassal," Turi said. "Then follow me, to the City of the Lost."
"A moment, my lord," Domotai said. "There is something I must do first." His hand went to the hilts of his swords, tucked beneath his obi.
Turi looked mildly surprised. "Do not attempt to attack me, Domotai. You cannot imagine the power I wield."
"I would not attack my lord," Domotai said, drawing his wakizashi, "but I will show him the shame I feel for the twisted abomination that he has become." Matsu Domotai fell to his knees.
"Seppuku?" Turi replied. He gestured vaguely at the kneeling man. "You cannot be serious. Stop."
Domotai's body froze, paralyzed from within by the Oracle's magic. He looked up at Turi, jaw clenched in anger. "You would have me serve as a vassal and yet not give me the freedom to serve as I must? You do not want a samurai, Turi. You want a puppet. You are no Lion."
Turi frowned and lowered his hand. "Why would you waste your life, Matsu Domotai?"
"I do not waste it," he replied. "I spend it to buy back my family's honor, as Tsuko once did."
The Oracle's eyes widened, and Domotai took great satisfaction in the doubt he saw there.
"You struggle to understand bushido," Domotai said, pushing his chest plate aside and pointing the sword toward his belly. "Watch now, Oracle, and understand."
With that, Domotai fell upon his sword.
"You accomplish nothing with this foolish gesture," Turi said, sneering as Domotai's blood spilled. "Your friends will suffer for your stupidity, as will you." Turi waved one hand. In the canyon below, a handful of Tsuno shimmered into being as if stepping through some curtain to another realm. They were joined by dozens more, then hundreds. Hungrily, they began surging north after the outnumbered Lion forces, their loping gait exactly as Domotai remembered it from his dreams.
Domotai managed a laugh, splattering the ground with his life's blood. He turned the sword for the second cut. "No. The Kitsu taught me something before I left. Travel the Spirit Realms too much and you weaken the boundaries between them. Others who know the proper paths might follow you..."
Turi frowned in anger and confusion. He looked up at the Lion army, still retreating, and at the hundreds of Tsuno that had emerged from the spirit realms at his summons. A shimmering in the distance caught his attention, and he used his magic to see across the distance between the Lion and the cliff on which he stood.
Matsu Turi swore violently. The hills surrounding the canyon's mouth shimmered and disappeared. Beneath each one was a legion of Lion soldiers, each masked by Kitsu magic. They had hidden at the edge of his perception, waiting for the betrayal they knew would come.
Turi turned back to the triumphant Domotai, whose face had paled considerably. The stone on which they stood was dark and wet. "See, fallen hero," the dying Lion groaned, "Even the shadow gives pause… How a lion dies." His death poem completed, Domotai gave a final wrench, pulling the sword deeper into his abdomen. His eyes never left Turi's, and the look of victory never faded. The great warrior fell to the cold stone floor, dead.
The Dark Oracle shook his head in exasperation. It was all so futile.
"Rise," Turi said, holding his hand over Domotai's cooling corpse. There was a twitch from the body, but there was no way to be certain if it was merely a death spasm or the beginning of something else. But then a second twitch, and another spasm. And then the body rose to its feet haltingly, one hand clutching the blade's hilt and slowly drawing it from its stomach. "Now, my servant," Turi began, "let us see to your brethren…"
Turi's threat trailed off into nothingness. He stared intently at the creature before him. There was intelligence in the eyes, but there was no fire. Matsu Domotai had been a warrior. This thing was none of those. It was just some shambling beast. Turi reached out with his magic and felt nothing, no Lion's soul. Domotai's soul had ascended to Yomi the instant his body died, and not even a Dark Oracle could reach that sacred realm. "You are not Domotai," he finally said. "You are no Lion."
The dead thing said nothing, only stared. Turi snorted in disgust and waved his hand. The thing collapsed in a heap. The Dark Oracle frowned. How could such a simple thing be beyond his power? How could this insignificant speck have thwarted his will? He had expected such a gesture of defiance. Seppuku was never far from a Matsu's mind when forced to accept dishonor after all. He remembered that much, at least. What he had not expected was for it to affect him so. To hear Tsuko's name, after all this time…
Turi pushed the thought out of his head. He snarled, kicking Domotai's broken corpse. It all but disintegrated at his touch, flying in all directions. He looked to the north, where the Lion were routing the Tsuno. Turi melted into the ground, joining the water beneath the earth and racing through the land between his cliff and the Lion. In an instant, he reappeared miles away, on a cliff overlooking the battle between Lion and Tsuno. The Lion's clever scheme had succeeded, and the Tsuno were being overwhelmed. He could just travel to the depths of Shinomen Mori and alert the other Tsuno there that their brothers were dying, but why bother? Not when he could deal with the Lion himself. And it was so much more satisfying. He lifted his hand to crush the Lion army with a vast tidal wave… and stopped.
His offer to the Lion had been so utterly perfect. They would have no choice but to offer one of their own in return for Akodo's remains. Matsu Domotai had been a fool, yet somehow he had thwarted the Dark Oracle's plans. How was such a thing possible? How could he have anticipated how Turi would respond, and how could he have known his soul would have been beyond an Oracle's reach? Surely it was fool's luck, and nothing more. Yet as he surveyed the battle, he could not help but wonder… he had placed such high value on bushido, on the strength of a samurai's spirit. How galling, in the end, that he was defeated by the same.
Turi's hand slowly sank back down to rest at his side, his hooded eyes glaring at the Lion, probing them for weakness or duplicity. He saw only valor and courage. In some measure, he wished he could charge out beside his Lion brethren and battle the Shadowlands once more. Preposterous. He was an Oracle. How could the action of one pathetic little man affect him so? Did not the fires of Jigoku beat in his heart?
The Dark Oracle of Water watched his former clansmen on the field of battle, and for the first time since being granted his sinister power by the forces of Jigoku, he felt uncertainty.
This would require more thought.
There was a swirling sound, like a great vortex upon the sea, and the Dark Oracle was gone. In the valley below, Tsuno warriors fell to Lion steel by the score as the Lion commander screamed her throat raw in rage and loss.
Somewhere beyond Rokugan
The Lion awoke with a start. He was laying in what appeared to be an endless green field. He leapt to his feet, looking all around for his enemies. Yet somehow, he felt at peace.
"There are no enemies here, Domotai," a gruff voice said.
Instinct took over, and Domotai wheeled to face the voice, his hand on his blade. He was startled to find a Lion samurai-ko, beautiful for all the scars of battle that marred her flesh. "Who are you?" he asked breathlessly. "What is this place?"
"You know the answer to both questions," she said simply.
Domotai took his hand from his blade. "Yes, I suppose I do." He looked around the beautiful landscape. "What of my family?"
"It is not yet their time," the stranger answered. "They are strong. They will join you in time."
"Can I aid them?" Domotai asked. "The Oracle is still a threat!"
She shook her head. "It is their struggle now. You have made your final sacrifice, and have won the day. Your destiny is complete. Theirs is still to come." She smiled. "In time, they will earn the same peace you have earned."
"Peace," Domotai said numbly, enjoying the word's flavor. "I have been a warrior my entire life so that I might know peace with my ancestors. And now, I do not even know how to begin."
"Come, then," Matsu Tsuko said. "I will show you."