The Battle of Ki-Rin's Shrine
By Shawn Carman

 

Mirumoto Junnosuke was awakened by the explosion. Cursing, he rose from his bedroll and exited the tent that was his command center. He ignored the shock of the winter wind on his lean, muscular form. Glancing around in torch-lit Dragon camp, he found one of his lieutenants. The soldier was in conference with Nodoka, a former Dragon, now the Brotherhood's Acolyte of Water. For many years, Nodoka had tended the Ki-Rin's Shrine, and had been providing information to Junnosuke's forces so that his brothers in need could regain the land they required to survive. But Junnosuke was not in a mood to wait. "Well?" he barked.

Nodoka frowned at Junnosuke, clearly annoyed to be interrupted. Junnosuke ignored him.

The soldier bowed crisply from the waist. "Hai, Junnosuke-sama! We have their location."

Junnosuke shoved his swords into his obi. "Are the Tamori ready?" The soldier nodded. "Take me there," the commander finished.

Striding through the camp, Junnosuke felt eager to engage the enemy. Although there had been very few skirmishes between the Phoenix and Dragon since he had arrived on the fields surrounding the Ki-Rin's Shrine, the Isawa were waging a considerable psychological offensive. Twice an hour, their magical flares detonated above the Dragon camp with a blinding explosion and a deafening report. His men were exhausted from the lack of sleep. Now, however, it was time to put a stop to this cowardice.

Arriving at the tents of the Tamori family, Junnosuke immediately took stock of the situation. A half dozen Tamori shugenja, each emblazoned with a twining tattoo of a dragon, stood ready, their bizarre alchemical supplies at the ready. Junnosuke regarded them frankly. "Our Kitsuki analysts have located the Phoenix who are harassing our camp. It would be simple enough to send a soldier to eliminate their hidden shugenja, but I wish to send a stronger message. Do you have the materials I need ready?"

One young shugenja stepped forward. "Hai, Junnosuke-sama. I request the honor of performing this task for you, shireikan."

"Very well. Do not fail me."

With the Tamori and several Mirumoto soldiers in tow, Junnosuke strode purposefully toward one of the large barrack tents. A Kitsuki guard stood at the entrance.

"Is it ready?" Junnosuke asked simply.

"It is, my lord."

The Dragon commander turned to the Tamori following him. "Load it." The shugenja quickly disappeared inside the tent with their strange cargo. Junnosuke surveyed the forested hills that surrounded the valley where his men were camped. Somewhere within the trees, the Phoenix who were harassing his forces lay hidden. But only for a few moments longer.

"Now," commanded Junnosuke.

The barrack tent fell away, revealing a catapult pointed toward the eastern hills. Two Tamori stood ready, chanting softly. A bushi awaited Junnosuke's orders.

He did not wait long. "Fire the Dragon's Breath," commanded the general. The catapult fired, sending a huge glass ball twice as large as a man's head toward the hills. One of the shugenja chanted softly, using the kami to guide its flight.

"Forty ken-an to the southeast!" called the Kitsuki. The shugenja nodded and chanted louder, gesturing sharply with is open hand. The missile veered in flight, directing itself in accordance with the Kitsuki's instructions.

"Now!" Junnosuke rasped only seconds before the orb struck the trees.

The young Tamori gave a great shout and punched forward as if striking an unseen enemy. In tandem with his strike, the glass orb shattered, spreading the liquid within it all across the tree-line.

Even as the liquid struck the trees, it exploded into a firestorm that scoured the entire hillside in mere seconds. The fire was a brilliant blue, burning without fuel and seeming to draw upon the void itself. Despite the flames, the Dragon camp seemed colder. The distant screams of dying Phoenix came with the breeze. Junnosuke only smiled.

Nodoka looked on in horror, his mouth agape in shock. He started forward as if to run to the fire, looking to offer aid to the burning soldiers there. Junnosuke cleared his throat loudly, grimacing in disgust at the acolyte's weakness. Nodoka stopped himself.

"There is nothing you can do, monk," Junnosuke said. "They are already dead, walking corpses that don't have the sense to stop screaming."

Nodoka glared at Junnosuke. "How could you commit such an atrocity? This is war, not slaughter."

"Semantics." Junnosuke turned to his men. "Now the Phoenix feel our power. Now they feel the pain we have known in our homelands. Now they know the cost of their greed, hoarding these fertile farmlands that could easily feed our people. Our sleep will be left undisturbed tonight." He looked at the young Tamori. "Let it burn for another ten minutes, then quench the flames." He thought for a moment. "What is your name, shugenja?"

"I am Tamori Tsukiro, shireikan."

Junnosuke nodded. "Well done, Tsukiro. You will join my personal forces during the final battle with the Phoenix."

"It would be my honor," Tsukiro said solemnly as he bowed deeply.

o

Battle came with the sunrise. Rousing his forces before dawn, Junnosuke led his men in an attack on the Phoenix encampment with the first rays of sun. The Dragon had superior numbers, as they were not yet within the Phoenix holdings, but the Shiba legion was well entrenched and had exceptional support in the form of several powerful Isawa. The battle raged for many hours with great loss of life on both sides.

Finally, at mid-day, Junnosuke realized that there was no alternative. "I cannot allow my men to die in battle if it accomplishes nothing." He turned to the battle-weary shugenja at his side. "Tsukiro, signal the retreat." The young shugenja nodded. With a look of bleak resignation, he summoned the last of his energy and cast a great column of fire into the sky.

Recognizing the signal, the Dragon forces began an orderly withdrawal. They gave no quarter in their retreat, fighting the Phoenix every inch of the way. Even as they fell back from their foe's entrenched location, they peppered the Phoenix with archery fire.

While his troops reorganized and moved outside of the Phoenix's range, Junnosuke was surprised to see a lone Shiba warrior extract himself from the trenches. His armor was extraordinary, no doubt a symbol of his high rank within the clan.

"Junnosuke!" the Phoenix shouted. "You come to claim the lands of the Phoenix, then flee from true battle? You are a coward, like all your clan!"

A murmur of anger rose of from the Dragon ranks. Junnosuke quickly made his way to the front ranks. In a cold, even voice, he shouted "You dare lay claim to lands owned only by the Emperor, Phoenix? Then you are a fool and a traitor! I claim your life in the name of the Steel Throne!" Junnosuke broke into a run, his eyes on the Phoenix commander. As he ran, the Phoenix forces rose up from their position and fell into ranks behind their commander to witness the fight.

The Shiba was upon him. Junnosuke deftly blocked his foe's strike with his wakizashi, swinging his katana beneath the Shiba's guard and through his upper leg. The Phoenix general hissed in pain and dropped to one knee, desperately bringing his blade up to fend off a second blow. Junnosuke's wakizashi knocked the blade easily aside. With an overhead strike, he brought his grandfather's soul down in an arc that tore the Shiba in two from the crown of his head to his gut. Holding both blades aloft, Junnosuke shouted in victory. Even though his death may be imminent, his victory was unquestioned.

From the corner of his eye, Junnosuke saw several dozen monks leaving the nearby Shrine of the Ki-Rin's and moving toward the battlefield. As the Shiba troops drew nearer, he saw the monks cast off their robes and charge the rear of the Phoenix forces. Below their robes, they wore armor of red and black.

Scorpion colors.

Junnosuke's victory shout was answered not once but twice. The Dragon army, led by Tamori Tsukiro, rushed past Junnosuke to slam into the Phoenix. For their part, the Phoenix were disoriented from the surprise rear attack by the Scorpion. Although there were only a handful, they made full use of their advantage and were wreaking havoc on the enemy ranks.

Robbed of their terrain advantage, assaulted on two fronts and denied their leadership, the Phoenix quickly fell into disarray. The Scorpion were aided in their assault by actual Shintao monks, former members of the Dragon Clan angered at the Phoenix Clan's denial of resources to their suffering kinsmen. One in particular, the acolyte of water Nodoka, seemed incensed by the Phoenix and leapt into battle with a fervor that surprised and delighted his Scorpion allies. At his side fought many belligerent younger monks, eager to feel the thrill of battle one last time.

Just as he finished a powerful water kiho that sent half a dozen Phoenix sprawling to the floor, Nodoka locked eyes with Isawa Hiruken, a powerful apprentice of the Master of Fire. For long moments, the two merely faced one another while chaos reigned around them. Hiruken focused his energies, chanting under his breath, while Nodoka performed a complicated kata to gather his chi. Finally, the two moved. Hiruken shouted out to the kami, throwing both hands forward in a summoning motion. Nodoka leapt through the air, his body angled for the deathblow. Mere seconds before the monk struck, he was engulfed by a massive gout of flame.

Hiruken laughed, a deep, boisterous sound. His victory was cut brutally short, however. Nodoka's burning form leapt up from the flames, arcing through the air like the very image of a phoenix, descending upon Hiruken with his last breath. Flesh burning from his body, Nodoka struck out with one final blow, his fingers striking Hiruken's chest. The shugenja spasmed in agony, dropping to the ground and writhing in unimaginable pain. Just as Nodoka's spirit finally fled his horribly burned body, the poisoned flow of chi through Hiruken's body killed him. The two bodies lay on the battlefield, surrounded by violence and death.

o

As the sun's last rays disappeared behind the western mountains, the forces of the Dragon Clan claimed victory over the fields surrounding the Shrine of the Ki-Rin. Junnosuke gleefully ordered the mass cremation of the fallen Phoenix, unwilling to allow their dishonorable corpses to litter the fields that now belonged to the Dragon. The Dragon army quickly made use of the pre-existing Phoenix fortifications, preparing to hold the fields from the Shiba at all costs.

Taking his mid-day meal in his command tent, Junnosuke reflected on the monk Nodoka and his noble sacrifice. Had he been correct? Was it necessary only to defeat your opponent rather than to crush his spirit and drive him before you? But no, that could not be true. Nodoka was dead, after all. His philosophy had obviously failed him.

A voice from outside interrupted the Dragon's reverie. "Junnosuke-sama, a message has arrived for you!" Setting aside his chopsticks with a grimace, the Dragon commander gestured for the guard to open the tent flap. Tsukiro entered, bearing the newly-granted crest of a gunso of the Dragon army.

"What is so important, Tsukiro?"

"Two messages, Junnosuke-sama." The young shugenja held out a scroll. "This one arrived just a few moments ago. It bears your family crest."

Junnosuke took the scroll and broke the seal roughly. Skimming the message, he broke into a sinister grin. "I have been recalled to deal with the Lion presence on our southern border. Uso-sama will send a replacement general as soon as possible." He clutched the scroll tightly in his fist. "At last," he whispered hoarsely, "A chance to test my mettle against true warriors, not these Phoenix whelps." Glancing up, he barked "Tsukiro! You will remain in command here until Uso's sends my replacement."

"As you command, shireikan." Tsukiro held out a second scroll. "This arrived sometime this morning, sir. We are not sure how or when, but it bears the Imperial seal. The Hantei seal."

A quizzical look on his face, Junnosuke took the second scroll. As he read it, a stern and uncertain look clouded his features. "You do not know how this arrived in camp?"

"No, my lord. Is it a concern?"

Junnosuke shook his head. "No. It is a message from Hantei Naseru, congratulating us on our victory. But he is somewhere near Kyuden Miya. How is it possible that he has heard and sent word so soon?"

"He cannot have," Tsukiro said flatly. "This must have been written some time ago."

"Yes," mused Junnosuke. "Yes, it must have." Thinking back to the previous day, the Dragon warrior wondered about the Scorpion presence, and how quickly they had departed once the battle was over, before he had time even to thank them or meet their leader. It left a nagging question in the back of his mind.

Who had truly been victorious at the Shrine of the Ki-Rin's?