Battle For Otosan Uchi
(Part II of II)
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman

On the seventh day of the month of the Ox, 1159 by the Isawa Calendar, the City of Otosan Uchi came under attack by the Shadowlands Horde, led by the Dark Lord, Daigotsu.

What follows are the tales of triumph and the tales of tragedy that befell the Imperial City on that day.

Listen now to the tales of the fallen, and learn from their example.

- Ikoma Sume, Imperial Historian

(Note: these stories take place shortly before the final events in Prelude to Darkness part 6)

o

East Hub Village

Asako Kaushen laughed as the ronin soldiers fled before his forces. To his right, a Titsu no Oni clubbed several ashigaru aside, using the upper half of a dead samurai as a club. To his left, the rain sizzled as it struck the boiling cloud of red flame that was a Chi no Oni. The demonic creature gleefully coughed its fiery breath upon a band of fleeing villagers. Kaushen was amused by the way they ran in circles as they died. He clapped his hands with pleasure as he surveyed the destruction.

"They scatter like winds before the typhoon," Kaushen shouted over the din. "Truly, my pets, none who survive this day shall ever again question the power of the Shadowlands. Leave not one timber standing, not one brick atop another. Destroy it all!"

A shrieking roar behind him drowned the shugenja's final commands. Peering over one shoulder, he saw the air itself slice open, revealing a sparkling void beyond. A tall samurai in brilliant orange armor stepped out onto the street and looked about the city with a frown, long hair whipping in the breeze. When his eyes rested upon Kaushen's robes, that frown turned into a sneer.

"You fancy yourself a Phoenix, fallen one?" the man asked in a quiet voice.

"I do," Kaushen said. "I still remember what it means to seek knowledge rather than hide from it. I am not afraid to embrace power."

"Then I shall give you your chance to do so," the man said, advancing toward him.

"How so?" Kaushen cackled. He opened one hand; a sparkling aura of blood-red energy arced between his fingertips. The Titsu no Oni chomped its oversized jaws in anticipation. The Chi no Oni hovered ominously over its master's head. "You are merely a lone samurai. Your armor shows no scars of combat. You throw your life away."

The cloud of fire that was Chi no Oni hurled itself toward the man as Titsu no Oni galloped toward him on all fours. With a quick gesture, the man held his empty hands into a swordsman's pose. A katana of pure white flame formed in his hands, blazing so brightly that it hurt Kaushen's eyes to look upon it. With a single stroke, he sliced the Titsu in half at the waist and then plunged the blade into the heart of its companion.

The Chi no Oni released a soul-wrenching scream of fear and surprise as, for the first time in its existence, it felt the pain of being burned. In an instant, both the oni were nothing but ash and the samurai fixed cold eyes upon Kaushen.

"You misunderstand me, tsukai," the samurai said. "My armor is untouched because no sword can touch me, and I am never alone."

Kaushen's eyes widened. He had never sensed such power before.

He never would again.

o

Dojo Seou

"Attack!" shouted Yotsu Seou. At her command, a dozen samurai leapt from their hiding places to catch a patrol of Tainted samurai in a vicious pincer attack. Her men, all members of the ronin band known as the Sword of Yotsu, struck with the precision she had taught each and every one of them. The patrol was outnumbered and caught completely off guard. They were cut down to a man in seconds. Their Tainted corpses lay scattered in bloody puddles as the rain poured down around them.

"Seou-sama," one of her men reported. "This is the third patrol, but they continue to send more. We cannot hold out forever. Should we gather the refugees and prepare to depart?"

"No," Seou replied, her voice firm. "This province is under the protection of the Yotsu. We will not abandon it." She thought for a moment, then added, "Send word to the other groups. Have them pull back. We will make our stand near the dojo."

The samurai bowed quickly and moved to carry out her orders. In moments, they were on the move once more. Those they had saved were protected near the middle of the group. By Seou's count, there were nearly two-dozen peasants in their care now, rescued from near certain death. It was not enough, but it would have to do. So many others had already died…

The three groups reunited at Dojo Seou, headquarters of the Sword of Yotsu. There were just under three dozen total, and Seou felt the loss of those faces she did not see among her men. Half again that number of peasants had been saved from the wreckage, for which she was grateful. Surprisingly, there was a pair of Crane among the refugees, the only samurai in the group other than a Dragonfly woman her men had pulled from the wreckage of a collapsed building. One of the Crane, a courtier by the looks of his once fine clothing, was bloodied and badly wounded. His eyes glazed over with pain and confusion. The other, also bloodied, did not appear to be wounded, but instead seemed strangely calm and resolute as he glared at her through the rain.

"Are you Yotsu Seou?" he asked.

"Hai," she responded. "Who are you?"

"I am Doji Okakura," he said, "yojimbo to Kakita Gemon. My charge is badly wounded, and I request medical attention for him. We need to be fight our way out of the city immediately."

Seou nodded. "Of course. You would be better served to remain here with us, however."

"I cannot."

"Why is that?"

Okakura furrowed his brow. "I mean no disrespect, Seou-sama, for I have great respect for the Sword of Yotsu and their devotion to justice, but this city is dying." The bushi gestured to the smoke and flame around them on all sides. "I have seen entire Legions crushed on my flight from the Forbidden City, and with so meager a force under your command, you stand no chance for survival. We must escape and regroup with the Legions massing beyond the city walls. They must know what they face here."

Seou shook her head. "We will not abandon the people of the city."

"What of them?" Okakura gestured to the peasants around them. "Would they not be better served if we led them to safety? I have great love for Otosan Uchi as well, Seou-san, but I do not believe it can be saved."

There was a long silence. Seou took in those that had been rescued. Women and children, mostly, although a fair number of men were scattered among them. She considered the Crane's words for several minutes before turning to one of her men. "Break out the polearms. Equip those who can fight. We are leaving." She looked at her men, some of whom were nodding, some of whom looked upset. "But we will return once these people are safe. Our first duty must be to the people." She gave a meaningful nod to Okakura. "We leave in ten minutes."

o

The Sheltered Swords District

"We have them on the run, men!" Kakita Hisashi shouted, pointing his sword at the backs of the fleeing goblins. "Only one fate awaits those who would defile Otosan Uchi!"

The samurai that surrounded Hisashi charged. As little as one day ago, they were rivals. The Sheltered Swords District was a residential neighborhood for wealthy samurai of the Scorpion, Crane, and Dragon Clans. Underhanded political conflicts were common, but now it seemed those days were in the past. When Hisashi had found his own rival, a Dragon by the name of Mirumoto Hoitsu, laying dead in a gutter with his throat torn out, he knew that only by standing together would they stand a chance. Now the samurai of the three clans of the Sheltered Swords stood as one, and they were retreating. Hisashi had never felt so elated as in that moment. Thunder echoed in the heavens, and Hisashi echoed its triumphant cry.

Now Hisashi knew what it truly meant to be a samurai.

The feeling ended the moment that he rounded the corner and saw what awaited him there. A force of samurai in black armor stood in a phalanx in the center of the road, spears leveled at Hisashi's group. They outnumbered the survivors of the Sheltered Sword's District three to one. Glancing back, Hisashi saw more Lost Samurai emerge from the buildings behind them, sealing off their escape.

"Stand together," Hisashi shouted. "Unity had brought us this far!"

The other samurai nodded, forming a tight circle with swords drawn. Then the ranks of the Lost parted, and their leader stepped forward. He was a tall man with skin as pale as a corpse, black hair flowing loose upon the wind. His left arm ended in a hideous claw crafted of flesh and metal that flexed and snapped like a thing alive.

"I am the Dark Oracle of Earth," the man said, looking down upon them with glowing red eyes. "All who step aside and join me now will be welcomed. Have no fear. Any who would judge you will soon feed the earth."

"We would rather die than join the Lost," Hisashi roared.

"A disappointing answer, but we shall honor your request," the Dark Oracle said. "How pitiful. Always, it is the same. You bicker and argue and expect that everything will be fine so long as you remember to stand together at the last moment. So what happens, I ask you, when you stand against an enemy who has been unified all along?"

Kakita Hisashi said nothing; the fear that gripped his heart would let him say nothing.

"Let me show you," the Dark Oracle said with a smile.

o

The Makoto Wall

Doji Midoru leapt gracefully atop the wall that separated the provincial governor's residence from Kyuden Kokai, the prison of Otosan Uchi. This region of the city was preternaturally still, although the commotion from other parts of the city carried here on the wind. All in all, it was a very surreal, almost dreamlike experience.

Midoru never dreamed, and was unaffected by the strange sensation. He gave the all-clear signal to the people still in the governor's residence. Half a dozen servants and eta emerged from the residence, moving quickly and as quietly as possible in the direction of the city's southern gate. In their wake followed the governor and a pair of his yojimbo. Atop the wall and safe from their scrutiny, Midoru scowled in the governor's direction. The Ikoma was as weak and ineffective as anyone Midoru had ever met. The governor could have fled nearly an hour ago, but had demanded his servants remain and assist him in securing several of his belongings in the event that he would be able to return. One had tried to flee and the governor had ordered his yojimbo to cut the man down.

It was not that the governor did not fear death. That would have been a quality Midoru would have respected. Instead, the man simply did not have the wisdom to recognize the severity of his situation. His foolishness would likely cost him and his entourage their lives. An hour ago, they might have made it to the gate. Now, the city was completely overwhelmed by the Horde. The gate was too distant to hope that they could reach it without incident. Not that it mattered to Midoru, of course.

Even as the thought came to him, Midoru saw a band of shambling undead moving along one of the side streets to the south of the residence. From his vantage point, he could see that the undead would intercept the fleeing group in a few short minutes.

Without thought or hesitation, the Crane samurai reached into his obi and pulled forth a tiny porcelain dove. It was a fetish given to him by one of his Asahina cousins a long time ago. He had never had use for it until now. He crushed the fragile figurine in his palm and felt the rush of air kami infusing his form. He dropped to a low crouch and sprang upward.

Midoru's leap carried him across the roofs of four buildings. The wind ripped at his blue silk kimono, filling his ears with the sound of flapping cloth. The pouring rain plastered his long white hair to the sides of his face. Wordlessly, he dropped from the sky exactly where he had intended: among the undead creatures moving down the street.

A flash of red lightning arced through the sky above, but Midoru's blade moved even more swiftly. In one instant, he stood alone on the street, dismembered corpses littering the ground. Only one of the beasts had even noticed his arrival quickly enough to attack Midoru before being cut down. A scrap of his torn kimono flitted through the storm winds like a butterfly.

"Impressive," came a voice farther down the street. Midoru turned to face another undead, but one far more alert and intelligent than those he had destroyed. This one wore the armor of a samurai. Once, its armor might have given away its clan, but now it was merely black with age and decay. "That was the Wind In Darkened Skies technique. I have not seen such the style performed so expertly in centuries."

"And after today," said Midoru calmly, "you will never see it again."

"Arrogant whelp," snarled the thing. The lightning flashed again, and Midoru could see that the man's eyes sockets were hollow and empty. "I have practiced the way of the sword for centuries, yet you think you can best me? I will…" the warrior's voice faltered as it noticed a peculiar mark on Midoru's shoulder. "What is that? Is that…?"

"Yes," said Midoru as he leapt forward. The magic of the air summoned by the dove fetish still filled his soul, and his leap carried him across the street in one instant. His blade claimed the zombie's head in one clean sweep. He resheathed his blade before the body hit the rain-soaked street. Casually, he pulled his sodden kimono over the skull shaped birthmark on his shoulder.

"When your unworthy soul finds its way to Meido," he whispered over the body of the fallen samurai. "Tell the Fortune of Death that Doji Midoru sends his regards."

o

Temple of the Eternal Breath

Asahina Handen leaned heavily against the gates of the Temple. He had fought for so long that he could no longer lift his staff. His mind was so weary from spellcasting that he could hardly even sense the kami. Behind him, he could hear the cries of the children and elderly who had fled to the temple to escape the invasion. For a while, the blessings that protected the Eternal Breath had held the darkness at bay, but now those wards were failing. The Lost were becoming more daring. They had only narrowly fought off the last wave. At his side, the monk, Koro, looked at him nervously.

Handen did not wish for this. He did not want to be a warrior or a leader. He was a merchant sponsor, using his magic only to garner knowledge and resources that would profit his clan. If he had not been in the city surveying his merchant holdings, he would not even have witnessed the attack. Now he was trapped. His yojimbo was dead. He was the only true samurai remaining.

The next wave came swiftly. This was worse than the others. Lost, bakemono, and even a few ogres came in a single large group. Handen stepped forth with the ashigaru defenders of the Temple, hewing about with his staff as rage bolstered his strength. His family was peaceful by nature, but that pacifism ended with the minions of Jigoku.

It took only a few moments to realize that this time, there was no hope. Tears streamed down Handen's face as he thought of the innocents within the Temple. As the fight grew more intense, he noticed a gap in the attacking force.

Taking a final glance at the doomed temple, Asahina Handen ran for his life, abandoning the others.

When he reached the safety of the Temple, the sounds of combat vanished. Looking back, Handen saw no bodies, no fallen peasants or Lost. Koyo stood in the threshold of the temple, looking at him in horror.

"An illusion?" Handen whispered.

"The desire for life is strong in this one," whispered a voice from the shadows.

Handen looked up. Through the darkness of the smoke and rain a single figure emerged. It stood over nine feet tall, its lean body covered in hide of burnished gold set with sparkling gems. Mighty wings formed of silken hairs spread from its shoulders. It looked down upon Handen and Koyo with strangely hypnotic eyes.

"Stay back, demon!" Handen shouted. "I will not die easily!"

"You are already dead, in all the ways that matter," the creature said, tilting its head slightly. "Your selfishness and cowardice have fed me well. In return, I shall spare the lives of those within the Temple... as this is also something you desire, for your own glory, it serves my purposes just as well. Now go forth, Asahina Handen, and live the long life of a coward."

The creature vanished as swiftly as it had appeared. Asahina Handen bowed his head in shame and fled into the alleys of Otosan Uchi.

o

Life's Love

Tamori Tsukiro had little time for romance. Despite his training as a priest of the kami, he knew that his was the heart of a soldier. The thrill of battle, the flames of war, the sight of one's enemies fleeing in the face of your greater strength… these were the things that spoke to Tsukiro's soul. Once, his ambition had led him to throw his lot in with the ambitious general Mirumoto Junnosuke. Since Junnosuke's disgrace and subsequent banishment from the Dragon Clan, Tsukiro had found himself far from the battlefield. Perhaps, he mused once again, he should have followed Junnosuke as so many other of the general's officers had. But no, that had ended badly. There was no glory in serving a ronin. His post here in Otosan Uchi, supporting the Dragon emissaries to Otosan Uchi, was at least prestigious if not exciting.

Until today.

The sound of combat outside the garden wafted over the carefully constructed stone walls and hedges of Life's Love Garden. Although he personally had no interest in courting, Tsukiro had once found the place peaceful. Normally, the garden's cleverly arranged hedges and walls prevented sound from moving among the paths. It was designed so that young lovers might talk in privacy, but Tsukiro found it an excellent place to escape the mindless droning of Otosan Uchi. Today, such privacy only meant more places for the minions of the Horde to hide. Tsukiro had already destroyed several of the walls, causing them to crumble into dust with his earth magic. He had been meditating to regain his spiritual energies when the sound interrupted him.

Motion to his left drew Tsukiro's attention, causing him to instinctively crouch low to the ground. A young woman flew perhaps ten feet over his head, landing easily on her feet nearby. She was clearly a shugenja, a Unicorn by her dress. He did not recognize her family mon.

Heraldry vanished from his thoughts as three large beasts followed the young woman. They had hugely disproportionate back legs, allowing them to leap like frogs or insects. Their mouths were enormous, lined with sharp teeth. They eyed Tsukiro and his new visitor hungrily.

"Kiai!" she shouted, punching toward one of the distant creatures. In tandem with her gesture, one of the tiny ponds scattered throughout the gardens belched forth a gigantic column of water that spouted skyward, then crashed down on one of the beasts with earth-shaking force. The creature was smashed to bits, but its two pack mates continued to advance.

"Brothers," Tsukiro whispered to the kami of the earth. "I need your aid."

The young woman was readying another spell when several huge columns of stone erupted from the ground, separating the creatures from her. With surprising quickness, the columns transformed into enormous hands and enclosed into fists over the creatures, crushing them into pulp.

"My thanks!" shouted the girl. "I am Horiuchi Shoko."

Tsukiro nodded. "I am Tamori Tsukiro."

"Why are you still here?" she asked, staring at the man incredulously. "The city is being overrun! There are a thousand more where these three came from! Everyone is fleeing the city!"

"Let them," Tsukiro shrugged. "I live for battle."

"You will live longer outside," she replied. "The Legions gather to stage an attack against the Horde. I returned to find survivors. We could use another shugenja with your power."

The thought of fighting beside the Legions, the same Legions that had once spurned General Junnosuke, intrigued Tsukiro. "Then let us hurry," Tsukiro said. "I will escort you beyond the walls."

"Escort me?" said Shoko with a smile. "Perhaps you would be safer if I escorted you. Would you care to place a friendly wager on which of us claims more Tainted lives on the way out?"

Tsukiro grinned broadly, intrigued by the fiery Unicorn. "I would be quite pleased, Horiuchi-san," he said, gesturing toward the paths that led to the garden's exit. "After you, my dear."

o

North Hub Village

Kasuga Taigen watched the southern horizon with growing concern. The skies had been growing darker all day. Now a furious storm centered over the city of Otosan Uchi, a storm that his sailor's instincts told him was distinctly unnatural. The few samurai of the Tortoise Clan had rallied to defend the village if necessary, waiting at the walls of the village for any word from Otosan Uchi.

No word had come.

No one had exited the city.

Taigen nursed a faint hope that perhaps the survivors simply had not chosen to flee to the north. If so, he was grateful. Fleeing refugees meant fleeing pursuers and North Hub Village was not prepared for an attack.

"What is happening in the city, father?" asked Mino, his eldest daughter. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the haft of her naginata.

"Something bad," Taigen said simply.

"Should we not send scouts?" Mino asked, her tone fearful. "Perhaps the people might need our help!"

"No, Mino-chan," Taigen said. "A Minor Clan survives by being cautious, not curious. We will wait here until we are needed."

"Wisely said, Kasuga Taigen," said a voice from behind them.

Taigen turned with a shocked cry. He had believed that they were alone. A small figure in dark clothing appeared from the shadows, bowing low at the waist. Taigen quickly drew an arrow and fired it at the intruder. The missile stopped inches from the man's face, held in midair by invisible air kami. The man looked at its tip curiously.

"You have quick reflexes, Taigen-san," the man said. "I take no offense, under the circumstances. I am Koji, master of the Yogo. I mean you no harm."

"What do you want, Scorpion?" Taigen demanded.

"I bring a message from Bayushi Yojiro," Koji said. "He will be arriving in the city within the hour, but as he has been forced to use magic to transport himself here, his forces are somewhat smaller than we require. I was dispatched to find sufficient samurai to supplement our numbers. Yours will be satisfactory."

"You do not command me, Koji, and nor does the Master of Secrets," Taigen said boldly.

"Of course not," Koji said evenly, "but your clan has ever survived at the goodwill of the Emperor. The Emperor is gone now, and though you carry the Anvil's favor so do we. We would make a better ally than an enemy, Kasuga Taigen."

Taigen frowned and swallowed hard. He did not wish to enter the doomed city of Otosan Uchi, but the thought of becoming a target of the Scorpion was nearly as frightening.

"Muster the Tortoise Clan, Taigen-san," Yogo Koji said. "You have an hour to make your choice."

o

Kyuden Seppun

"Reserves, to the left flank!" Seppun Hideko shouted, gesturing sharply with her tessen. Sweat streamed down the grim miharu's face. The attack had occurred only minutes after the messenger arrived with news of the situation in Otosan Uchi. A cloak of darkness had fallen over the castle. A mixed band of Tsuno and ogres burst through a screaming black portal, attacking the Kyuden on all sides.

The Seppun bushi fought valiantly, and had thus far been able to hold back the assault. Despite their success, Hideko knew that the thoughts of her fellow miharu were on the Imperial City. This attack was obviously meant to contain them, to prevent them from aiding the others in the city. To survive and yet be unable to save Otosan Uchi was no better than failure. She had taken an elite force out through one of the castle's escape tunnels and made for the city with the greatest possible haste, using only a few torches to light their path.

Only a small pack of Tsuno had noticed their departure. Hideko nodded in satisfaction as the last of them fell dead. She shouted to the others and galloped forward into the unnatural darkness. Her head snapped forward as she felt her horse suddenly torn out from under her. Stunned and disoriented, Hideko braced herself for impact with the ground; none came. The torch fell from her hand, illuminating countless jet black strands that held her suspended in midair. From the startled shouts of her fellow Seppun, she knew that the same fate had befallen them as well.

"What is this?" she whispered, tugging at the strands to no avail.

"Poor little Seppun," replied a voice within her own mind. "For a nation that claims to be so steeped in tradition you have woefully short memories. Did not your parents tell you of the day that I spun a web of darkness over Otosan Uchi? I have done the same this day with Kyuden Seppun. None of your miharu will escape to bolster their fellows in Otosan Uchi. Your ride ends here."

Eight glowing lights appeared above. Hideko realized in terror that they were the glowing eyes of an incredibly large spider. "The Great Sea Spider," she whispered, "but in the legends your soul was put to rest... You can only be awakened once more by a child of the Daidoji..."

"True," the spider whispered in an amused voice as it descended toward her. "Quite a mystery, I suppose. A mystery that, much like the strands that bind you, will not be unraveled in your lifetime..."

o

Kyuden Kokai

Again, there was a loud crash, a sound far too close to be the storm. The sounds of shouting followed. Asako Ichiniro frowned. For the last hour, he had been attempting to meditate, but the constant drone of noise from elsewhere prevented it. Ichiniro was somewhat accustomed to the din of noise from the prison grounds as various inmates honed their martial skills. Brushing aside mild annoyance, he wrapped himself in his old kimono and left his room, heading down the hallway toward the courtyard.

As he walked down the hallway, the aging shugenja marveled at the commotion. He had only entered this level prison of his own free will once, over a decade ago. He had following a creature that… it was better not to think of such things. In all his time here, however, he had never heard such a disturbance. There was a tiny spark of anger, which he dispelled instantly. He had vowed not to be ruled by his anger long ago, and would not break his vow for such a small offense.

Ichiniro pushed open the door leading to the courtyard and instantly froze. This was not what he had expected. Bodies littered the floors of the dungeon, and perhaps a dozen samurai in blackened, filth-streaked armor stood in the hallway, weapons drawn. "Ah," one of them grinned. "More fodder for the slaughter."

The shugenja struggled to remain calm. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded in an even, almost conversational tone. "What are you doing in the Emperor's prison?"

"We serve the Dark Lord," the samurai responded. "We have come to purge the weak." He gestured at the bodies around him. "These men were defied the Emperor's law, but allowed themselves to be caged like animals rather than rise up against the fools who condemned them! We will cleanse their disgrace permanently! Are you the warden here?"

"No," the man said quietly. "I am a prisoner, like the others."

"And yet you are not caged," the samurai said, giving Ichiniro an appraising look. "Perhaps I should help you cleanse your shame." The samurai advanced toward him.

A shimmering staff of fire appeared in Ichiniro's hand. Before he realized what he had done, he had lunged forward and impaled the Tainted warrior. The samurai shrieked as his body burst into flames from within. His armor exploded from within, the metal shards reflecting off the flaming aura that suddenly enveloped the Phoenix.

The other Lost stared at Ichiniro in shock, but their surprise paled in comparison to the shugenja's own horrified expression.

"Oh no," he breathed, the flaming staff vanishing. "Not again."

"Die Phoenix!" screamed another of the Tainted samurai, brandishing his blade.

Ichiniro looked at the man. Fire poured from the shugenja's eyes, incinerating his attacker on the spot. When the flames vanished, Ichiniro's eyes yet glowed a bright red. The rage blossoming in his chest, a rage that had lain quiet for over a decade had returned.

"No more," Ichiniro roared, growing visibly larger as a nimbus of fire crackled between his hands. "I will endure no more!"

He clapped his hands, and a shockwave of fire struck three more of the intruders dead. Throughout the prison, a sudden cry erupted among the prisoners. They took up clubs, stools, whatever weapons they could find, and rallied to fight back the Lost. Ichiniro melted the locks of the nearest cell with a touch, releasing those within.
"Come with me," Ichiniro snarled. "The Horde has given us one last chance to cleanse our shame. Let us seize it. Together."

o

West Hub Village

Hida Tokichiro paced the road that led from West Hub to the Imperial City. The berserker's expression was sour and impatient. He swung his blood-spattered tetsubo at nothing, grunting in disapproval as he paced before the gates.

"Calm yourself, Tokichiro-sama," Hida Wukau said from where he crouched beside the gates. "Losing your temper before it is time is what led to your being sent to Otosan Uchi in the first place."

"I was not meant for the life of a courtier," Tokichiro growled. "I did not want to be an emissary. And now, when an attack finally happens that is worthy of a Crab samurai, what becomes of us? The Emerald Champion sends us here to protect refugees!"

"And did you never consider that perhaps Hachi-san knew what he was doing?" Wukau replied. "The Crab have defended the Empire for ages. Surely the defense of one small village should be a simple matter. Already we have fended off four attacks and received twelve refugee bands. We have won much glory today."

"I do not care for glory!" Tokichiro roared. "Look! The Imperial City burns! We stand here guarding the lives of a few, when many more are in danger! Yasuki Hachi himself is still within the city! I cannot rest safe and sound while a Crane does the duty that should be ours."

"Why the insulting tone?" Wukau said. "Hachi has proven himself a hero this day."

Tokichiro nodded. "And that is what galls me the most!" he said with a low growl. "Before this day, I wanted Yasuki Hachi to die, to suffer for the war that erupted his claim upon our lands. Now... now as much as it irritates me I find myself respecting him. I will not let him stand alone!" A few of the other Crab murmured their assent. They were students of the Razor's Edge Dojo, one and all, more accustomed to action than waiting.

"We cannot abandon West Hub, Tokichiro," Wukau said. "The Crab must protect the survivors. If you wish to go, then take your berserkers but the rest of us will remain here. Can you pierce the city with such a small force?"

"If I must, then I shall," Tokichiro said, nodding to his friend. "I know where my destiny lies. If I see you again, remind me to apologize for abandoning you here."

"Think nothing of it," Wukau said. "If any of us survives this day, I shall be too overjoyed to think of apology."

With a final nod, Tokichiro hefted his tetsubo and charged toward the city. With a defiant cry, his fellow berserkers followed in his wake.

o

Trading Grounds

The little boy clutched his head in his hands, trying desperately to shut out the horrible noise all around him. There were things running through the marketplace, attacking anyone they came across. Already he had seen Hoshiko, the nice old lady who worked in the market and sometimes gave him candy, dead in the street. There was some little green man on top of her, and he thought maybe the green man had been eating her. So he had run, hands clamped down on his ears to drown out all the screaming. Some of the screams had been his.

The boy slipped in a puddle of rain and fell hard on the street. A hand grasped him by the wrist, and he screamed shrilly. He hadn't seen anyone standing there, but then he had not even realized he was running with his eyes closed. He started to fight, but a soft voice quelled his fear. "Hush child," a woman's voice said. "You are safe now." He opened his eyes to see a beautiful woman in a bright orange and yellow kimono holding him. She had a bag full of scrolls hanging on her hip. He thought she was a samurai, but then she stopped to pick him up with one arm. She was no samurai! No samurai would stoop to pick up a peasant boy. Surely she was a Fortune, come to rescue him.

The woman chanted softly and pointed at one of the big monsters scuttling down the road toward them. It looked a little bit like a horse with crab pincers. Suddenly, lightning crackled down out of the sky and took the shape of a samurai wielding a long spear. The electric samurai attacked the monster, making it rear up in alarm. The samurai planted its spear deep in the creature's chest. It slumped on its side and stopped moving.

A pack of the little green men with all the sharp teeth ran across the marketplace, then stopped and stared at the electric warrior. The largest stepped forward and growled fiercely at the lightning samurai. It extended its spear and fired a bolt of electricity at the creature, leaving it a charred husk. The others whimpered and scampered away as quickly as they could.

"That will buy us a few moments," the woman said. She smiled at the little boy. "I am Asako Yuya. Who are you?"

"Saburo," the boy replied.

"I need you to be brave, Saburo. I am going to try and get as many of us out of here as I can. Would you like to leave this place?"

Saburo nodded so hard it looked as if his head might fall off.

Yuya smiled again. "Good. Do exactly what I tell you, okay?" She waved her hand again, this time toward the wall that separated the inner and outer cities. Two walls of fire sprang up, just far enough apart for people to walk between them. The walls burned across the marketplace and smashed into the already weakened wall. While Saburo watched, it collapsed, creating a doorway to the outer city. "Hold on tight!" Yuya whispered to him, and he did.

"Follow me!" Yuya shouted as she ran toward the walkway in the fire. Other people from all around the market started to run after them. Ryubu, the mean old fat merchant that Saburo didn't like, was one of them. He ran fast for a fat man.

"Do not worry, little Saburo," Yuya said as she ran. "I will get you safely out of here." Saburo snuggled up next to his fiery goddess and closed his eyes contently.

o

Fox Clan Embassy

"Stand fast," Kitsune Taro said. His voice was as steady as if he were asking a geisha for tea. "Ready your bows. Prepare your spells. They will come again soon. Do not fire until I give the order." The assault on the Fox Embassy had been nearly relentless for over two hours. His men, the Mondai Ketsu, enforcement arm of the Emperor's will, were exhausted and dangerously low on ammunition. Taro would not let them fall apart, however. They were better than that. The Mondai Ketsu had once been called the "Fury of the Hantei." It was time to remind the city why that name had been so well earned.

"Taro-sama!" one of the men called out. "One of our scouts is returning!"

Taro watched the street carefully. The scouts they had dispatched nearly an hour ago had not returned for far too long. He had assumed they were all dead. Now a figure in thick, concealing clothing ran down the street toward the embassy. "Prepare to fire at my command," he ordered. "There are far too many beasts among our enemies skilled at deception." He waited, desperately hoping that this might genuinely be one of his men returning. His instincts warned him not to embrace such an idea.

Just then, as the scout ran toward them, he stumbled slightly on some debris in the road. The scout tripped and fell, but rolled across his shoulder and sprang instantly back up with no loss of speed. It was a deft, graceful move, and one with which Taro was very familiar.

"He moves like Ryodan," one of the men said.

"It may be a trick," Taro said. He turned to Kiyo, one of the shugenja who served in the embassy. "Do you sense any magical illusions?"

"Nothing of the sort," she said.

"Any Taint?" he asked.

"Difficult to say," she said pensively. "The Taint seems to be erupting all across the city. The kami are weakening..."

"Open the gates!" Taro exclaimed. "Let him through, men!"

The men, many bearing overjoyed, relieved expressions, parted to allow the scout to stagger through. One reached to remove the Ryodan's heavy cloak, but the scout batted his hand away. "No," he rasped, his voice jagged but familiar. "Leave me be. I was wounded by a Tainted arrow."

The men drew back, and Taro's expression fell. "You gained this affliction in the line of duty, Ryodan. You have earned no shame. Tell us, what have you found?"

Ryodan slumped to the ground, clearly exhausted. "Another wave is preparing to move on the embassy. The Crab armies have arrived and are taking the fight to the horde. The city is rising up and fighting back. If we can repel this last wave, we might be free of them!"

As if on cue, a wave of Tainted warriors and undead surged down the street toward the Embassy. "Fire at will, men!" Taro ordered confidently. "When the Crab arrive, they will find that the Mondai Ketsu have held their ground as they have for centuries."

The soldiers opened fire, peppering their foes with a shower of arrows and spells. In seconds, the wave of enemies was destroyed, but at the expense of the last bit of their ammunition. Taro did not care. Salvation was at hand. His men had survived.

The searing pain of the blade was a terrible surprise. Taro turned to find Ryodan's blade buried deep in his side. He tried to demand an explanation, but found he could not speak. Feebly, he reached out to pull away Ryodan's hood.

The face beneath was rotten, decayed… and female.

"How?" he whispered. "We sensed no magic..."

"I am Shosuro Taushui," the undead woman whispered through ragged lips. "And I need no magic to fool one such as you."

Taro fell to the floor, dying. The woman laughed as she tore open her robes. Her chest exploded as several oni podlings scampered out of her body and lunged at the Fox defenders.

As Taro died, he realized that the impersonator's tale had been a lie. There were no reinforcements.

There was no hope.

o

The Forbidden City

The sound of thunder echoed through the Imperial City, shaking the walls of the ancient palace. Goju Kyoden smiled behind his jet-black mempo; the battle was drawing closer. Soon, it would be time to test his mettle. The dark warrior cast a quick glance over one shoulder. Daigotsu now knelt at the foot of the Steel Throne, his head bowed in concentration as he began the ritual that was their true purpose here. Shahai was nowhere to be seen; she had vanished only minutes before to deal with Tsudao's legions in the Shinomen. Kyoden gently closed the doors of the throne room so as not to disturb his master and stalked forward through the halls. Kyoden's boots made disturbing sucking noises as he marched through the blood of fallen courtiers and Imperial Guardsmen who had not escaped the palace swiftly enough.

At the end of the hall, a breathless man in tattered brown robes leaned heavily against the wall. Blood streamed from a long gash on his forehead. His face was deathly pale, but that was only normal for the shugenja known as Katsu.

Kyoden stopped, looking silently at Katsu as he awaited the shugenja's report. The Obsidian Champion did not speak; only in the presence of his master did any hear his voice.

"The enemy forces are gathering," Katsu reported. "They have massed their forces in the Hub Villages. Already the Unicorn and Phoenix have pierced the inner walls, and a strong force of Crane has secured the Western half of the city. Garen and his fleet have experienced some difficulties in Golden Sun Bay. Akodo Kaneka's has taken the south wall and Toturi Sezaru has been sighted in the city itself. If we do not withdraw our forces immediately, we may be trapped here!"

Kyoden said nothing. Even were his words not reserved for the Dark Lord alone, this pathetic wretch was beneath his consideration. Katsu's heart was weak and his loyalties were often questionable. Only his mother's status as Dark Oracle of Air gave him a position in Daigotsu's court, a fact that Katsu was well aware of.

Kyoden strode past Katsu, gesturing for him to follow. As the Obsidian Champion strode into the courtyard, dozens of soldiers that awaited him - the army of the Lost - immediately stood at attention. The explosions of Phoenix magic and the hoofbeats of Unicorn cavalry could be heard not too far from the Forbidden City. Kyoden gestured at his men, signaling them to prepare a defense at the gates of the city.

"What are you doing?" Katsu asked nervously. "They are about to storm the gates! We must flee the city now!"

Goju Kyoden shot the smaller man a look that said without words exactly what he thought of the idea of retreat.

Katsu bowed his head, but did not step away. "Fine, then," he said. "We will make our final stand here. For Lord Daigotsu and the Shadowlands."

Kyoden nodded sharply and returned his attention to the gates. Drawing his obsidian katana, he prepared for the first of the samurai to arrive. With a thunderous crash, the gates fell open. Dozens of ashigaru in golden armor charged into the courtyard, colliding with the armies of the Lost. Kyoden swung his sword lazily, beheading the first to reach him with little effort. With a single blow he cut a man in half at the waist so swiftly that the samurai had time to look down at his horrible wounds before he died. Kyoden took no joy in the killings, but simply pushed through the crowd like a farmer at harvest. Finally, the ranks parted and a single samurai stood before him. This one was not like the others. This one was a true samurai. His armor was scorched and beaten from battle. His sashimono flapped wildly in the breeze. The bushi clutched a no-dachi, pointing it level at Goju Kyoden's heart.

"No more, killer," the samurai roared. "I am the Golden Lion of Toshi Ranbo, and your massacre stops here."

Kyoden raised his sword in salute then sheathed it at his side, waiting for his opponent to do the same. The samurai nodded sharply and did the same, falling into a dueling stance. Around them, the battle suddenly grew calm as both sides waited to see what would happen next.

The sound of steel on steel echoed through the courtyard as both samurai drew their blades and lunged at one another in a single movement. Kyoden peered back over one shoulder, scowled, and crumpled to the ground.

"For Rokugan!" Matsu Nimuro cried, pointing his katana at the gates of the Palace.

And the battle continued…