Beginning of Legend
A story of heroes…

The small shrine was barely lit, but in the middle of the night it made its surroundings clearly visible. The Daidoji had no trouble spotting the single guard: a large Crab in heavy armor, who was snoring so loud that he could disturb his ancestors. It would be an easy job tonight: retrieve the sword from the shrine, kill the guard if necessary. Easy enough.

The Daidoji crouched low and carefully made his way through the bushes, making no more sound than the brushing breeze. When he was halfway, the Crab's snoring halted abruptly and with quite a bit of noise. The Daidoji froze and looked for the Crab, but he was still sleeping vast in the same spot. Letting out a silent sigh, the Daidoji prepared to move closer, but another sound made him freeze in his tracks again.

"You can come out of those bushes now, little Daidoji."

It was the Crab! It had to be, but how? The Daidoji slowly stood and faced the still loitering Crab. "Impressive," the Daidoji said.

"Hardly," the Crab remarked sarcastically. "You made so much noise that you could've awoken your ancestors."

"How dare you?" the Daidoji exclaimed. "I will have you know…"

"No!" The Crab cut the intruder off with a menacing voice. "I will have you know that I am sick of your masters. This sword belonged to our common ancestor, but it was decreed that it would be kept here. And still they shame the name of our ancestor, not only by sending agents to retrieve it, but also by sending such inexperienced whelps!"

"An inexperienced… whelp? Me?" The Daidoji almost shouted. "How dare you!"

"Be still, little one! I am Hiruma Nodotai and the sword in this shrine belonged to my mother and to her grandfather before her! From the realms of Yomi I returned to fight beside your former Emperor. Now all I wish is to guard this shrine. Go. Go and tell your masters that this sword belongs to the Crab and it will as long as I remain… which, under the current circumstances, could be quite some time."

As the Daidoji look closer, he could make out the glow that was distinctive to spirits; he hadn't noticed it earlier because the light from the shrine drowned out the faint glow.

After a few moments the Daidoji nodded and replied, "Very well. I shall report to my masters and tell them what you told me. After that it is their call."

"Of course, I understand," Nodotai said. He stood and bowed to the Crane, who returned the bow and left. Nodotai stood in the silence of the night until he could no longer hear the Daidoji.

"Now you can come out from your hiding place as well, Scorpion."

A dark form leapt out of a nearby tree and landed in the clearing. When it entered the light, it was revealed to be a masked man of light build. "The Crane was right: quite impressive," he said softly. "You have senses which would make a Kitsuki envious."

"Hardly," Nodotai remarked sarcastically, "just an understanding of the tricks of the trade."

The Scorpion snickered and asked, "And what trade might that be? Are you a ninja, perhaps?"

Nodotai grinned. "Perhaps," he answered. "But then again, so are you."

The Scorpion's eyes widened and said, acting insulted, "You think me a faceless and nameless minion of the Shadow? A little history: the Lying Darkness was killed."

"I've got a little history for you too: I am Hiruma Nodotai…"

"I already heard that…"

"… my father was a Shosuru, my mother the daughter of a Hiruma and a Daidoji. I was trained by the Bayushi, while my Shosuru cousin trained with the Hiruma. You could say that stealth is in my blood."

The Scorpion now knew why he was sent here, at least, if this was true. With trained and even voice he said, "I see, but if that is the case: why are you wearing armor?"

"That," Nodotai said with a boisterous laugh, "is my little secret."

"Be that as it may, I imagine you might want to know why I am here. When I got this assignment, I had my doubts, but now I know why I was sent to you specifically."

"Well then, tell me. I am sure it will amuse me."

"To honor the bond between our ancestors and families, it was suggested that I would become your student."

With that Nodotai fell down and hit the ground.

* * *

"I really do not see what is so funny about this," the Scorpion said angrily. "So please, Nodotai-sama, stop laughing and get up on your feet."

"Not funny?" Nodotai as his body was apparently being wrecked by laughs. "I think this is rich! You really expect me to trust you or your master's intentions?"

"No, but is that really necessary?"

"I think it is," Nodotai said, his voice suddenly terribly serious again, and stood. "My sensei and I trusted each other; we know each other's loyalties and understood them."

"So you are denying me the honor and privilege of learning under your tutelage?"

"Indeed, I am. Now leave me be, there are… others I must attend to." Nodotai turned around and walked towards the small shrine.

"My name is Shosuru Kangaku, you might want to remember it," the Scorpion said to Nodotai's back and walked off into the darkness.

Nodotai entered the shrine and knelt before the dais bearing his mother's sword. During the centuries he had been away, it had been used by heroes on several occasions, but he had never wielded the blade himself. As Nodotai was praying to his ancestors and asking for their blessings, he felt a strange, but familiar presence around him.

"Mother?" he whispered. "Is that you?"

"Yes it is me." The disembodied voice was spectral and seemed to echo on longer than it should. It made the hairs on Nodotai's neck rise and sent chills down his spine, yet it also lifted his spirit and lightened his heart.

"Why are you here, mother?"

"I came here because I needed… wanted to speak to you."

"About what?"

"Why, my son? I wonder why you do not take up my sword?"

"How could I? I am not worthy of it!"

"Why do you think such a thing?"

"Because I wasn't there when you died! I should've protected you! But I was at Kyuden Bayushi enjoying tea with my sensei!" Though Nodotai was very clearly disturbed, he kept himself like a samurai.

"Oh, my poor boy," the voice said with sorrow. "You could not have saved me and neither could your father. And, besides, were you not the one to rescue your siblings? The one who saved his daimyo from an assassination? Your father and I are both inexplicably proud of you."

"Father? Proud… of me? Surely you are joking, mother! All he ever did was complain that my skills weren't good enough, he kept pushing me in some quest to make me exactly like him!"

"No! No, Nodotai-kun! He kept pushing you, because… because you had surpassed him. But he knew that, should you ever find out, you would become lax in your training and that your skills would wane."

Nodotai suddenly came to a terrible realization. "Is that… Is that why he would not face me in Yomi? Why he avoided me?"

"Yes," his mother's voice said sadly.

"And all the times I cursed his name," Nodotai stammered.

"All those times he was proud of you. It was the sacrifice he chose to make, to make you who you are. He did it because he loved you. I know you feel ashamed, sad and even angry with yourself, but my time with you is nearly over. I implore you to use my sword. It was forged for great deeds and you are a great man. Please."

A small smile forced itself onto Nodotai's face, he stood and took the katana from its stand. With a trained movement he freed the blade from its saya. He heard his mother's last words as her voice disappeared.

"Go and visit your father…"

His father? But he had been dead for a long time, unless… Unless she wanted him to visit the ancestral shrine where his father's cremated remains were kept…

Nodotai sheathed the ancestral blade and fastened it in his obi with his other swords. He bowed to the shrine a final time, before leaving into the night.

* * *

Shosuru Kangaku slowed his breathing and focused on the target. He closed his eyes and centered his thoughts, then, when he was at full concentration, Kangaku threw half a dozen shuriken at the target with blinding speed. All found their way: had the target been a living human, he would've found the tiny throwing stars imbedded in several crucial body parts and organs.

From the far end of the dojo came the sound of clapping hands and a voice. "You are making good progress in your training, Kangaku-san."

Kangaku turned and made a deep bow. "Domo arigoto, Kyuto-sensei."

"What do you have to report, my student?" Shosuru Kyuto asked. Shosuru Kyuto was Kangaku's uncle and sensei at the small dojo. His voice was soft, but deadly, and just as controlled as a scorpion's sting; his body was lithe and probably capable of amazing feats of speeding and stealth.

"I found Nodotai-sama where you told me he would be. Before I could approach him, a Daidoji appeared."

"Appeared, Kangaku-san? Out of thin air?"

"No, sensei. He was stalking Nodotai-sama, but his skills did not escape the Hiruma's perception. Apparently they are after the sword that was used by Nodotai-sama's mother, but he persuaded the Daidoji to leave and return with a message."

"And then you approached him."

"Not quite… He had known I was there all along and told me to show myself. So I did. He had a good laugh over our proposal, but then told me to leave. He did not trust our intentions."

Kyuto nodded thoughtfully.

"I am sorry that I failed you, sensei."

"Don't be. You did what you were told to do and the information about the Daidoji might yet prove useful. Come, let us have some tea and discuss these matters, before we continue your training."

"Hai, sensei," Kangaku replied and joined his sensei.

Both of them left the dojo and walked down the path that would lead them to a nearby tea house. The small dojo was built in the clearing of a small forest; there were only two sensei and about a dozen students at any one time, but the training was very intensive and adapted to personal capabilities.

The forest began to part before the two men, when Kangaku's sensei said to him, as if he had read his mind, "Do not worry. You have performed admirably. It is unfortunate you could not convince the Crab to train you. Perhaps we will use more aggressive matters next time."

"Then, perhaps, it is a good thing I came out of my own volition after all," it was the deep and mysterious voice of Hiruma Nodotai, carrying a gruff tone.

Both Scorpion turned around. "So you made the wise decision of training Kangaku-san after all?" Kyuto asked sarcastically, expecting the least.

"Didn't you hear what he told you in the dojo? I could, so I would guess you could too."

The older Shosuru carefully scrutinized Nodotai: he was a large man, though not particularly for a Crab, wearing heavy armor. His face and body betrayed nothing, his eyes showed an iron determination and great cunning: a combination between Hiruma, Daidoji and Shosuru blood, as well as the training of the Hida and Bayushi.

"You couldn't have heard, and wearing that I would've noticed you at the dojo. Making random assumptions does not become your reputation." Kyuto was irritated and his voice wavered only slightly to reveal it.

Nodotai simply smiled.

During the pressing silence that followed, Kangaku looked from his sensei to Nodotai and back. It took only several moments before the pressure forced him to speak.

"Why then, Nodotai-sama, are you here?" Kangaku carefully asked, hoping that his sensei would not take offense.

"I've come to visit the ancestral shrine which houses my father's remains," Nodotai answered calmly, a grin still on his face. "So I am need of an escort, to prevent misunderstandings."

"Kangaku-san," Kyuto commanded, "you will accompany our guest to the shrine and see to his safety and imminent arrival."

"Hai, sensei!"

* * *

"May I ask you a question, Nodotai-sama?" Kangaku asked softly as they made their way to the shrine.

"Go ahead," Nodotai answered cheerfully, "but I won't promise you an answer though."

Kangaku nodded. "Well, I was wondering why you, being to son of a Shosuru, did not train with the Shosuru."

"My father and mother decided that I would bear the Hiruma name: that made me a Crab. The Shosuru ninja school is a secret of which only a few outside the Scorpion know. The Scorpion daimyo could not allow a Crab to learn such things, no matter what his heritage was."

"Yet your cousin was allowed to train with the Hiruma?"

"Of course. The Crab are willing to train anyone who wants to fight the Shadowlands."

"So, basically, if I'd want to fight the Shadowlands… you would train me?"

Nodotai let out a hearty laugh and said, "You are a clever one, aren't you? But I would have to disappoint you again; at the moment I am not capable of training anyone. My ancestors have need of me."

"Need of you?" Kangaku asked with a frown. "For what?"

"That's what I hope to find out here."

* * *

With Kangaku waiting outside, Nodotai entered the shrine in quiet reverence. The shrine was dark and full of shadows, fitting the Shosuru family perfectly. Alongside the walls statues of the greatest of his ancestors and his own progeny stood guard. Nodotai's own statue was among them as well: it stood out because of its size and because it was the only one wearing armor. For a moment he considered his own image and smiled.

"Handsome fellow," Nodotai joked to himself.

"You take after your father and your mother in that," a ghostly, male voice behind Nodotai remarked.

Slowly turned around, preparing to finally come face to face with his father again.

"Father," Nodotai said with reverence and a bow.

"I see you still listen to your mother very well. She could always make you listen, far better than I could. But then again, we both now know why that is, don't we?"

"Let the past be the past, father. Mother has told me."

"Yes, I thought she would. You've always had my acceptance, son. Do not squander it, now that you finally found it out."

"I won't father. You have my word. But why did you need me?"

"When you came back to the realm of the living, Ningen-do, not only ancient heroes returned, but also an ancient evil. One of your fellow heroes has just been confronted with its renewed existence."

"Who is this hero and why would he need me?" Nodotai wasn't very eager to meet up with some his 'fellow heroes'.

"His name is Kitsuki Saibankan, I hope you do remember him, for he has Scorpion blood as well. This evil uses stealth and guile. Saibankan may have the senses of a Kitsuki and the mind of a Bayushi, he can never fight the proverbial fire with fire. He'll need your skills."

"Before I ask you anything else, could you tell me how you know of this creature that escaped Jigoku?"

"Not all of the spirits in Yomi opted to escape, but we could see who did leave through the gate. Even those from other spirit realms."

"And someone just happened to recognize it?"

"Before this evil was vanquished the first time, many people had hunted it to try and stop it. Saibankan was one of them, but a spirit hunter recognized the creature when it escaped. The gate closed before he could follow, so it was decided to make contact when the creature revealed itself."

Nodotai sighed and looked his father directly in the eyes. "Where do I find Saibankan and how do I destroy this evil?"

"The creature revealed itself in Unicorn lands, Saibankan is likely to be there when you arrive. Killing it… will be difficult. The person who killed him was a maho-tsukai, he died and went to Jigoku. If he still resides there, we do not know."

"You can count on me, father. I shall succeed and bring honor and glory to our line!"

The shiryo smiled faintly. "Too much glory can kill a Scorpion, son. We don't need too much attention."

"You are right, father. As usual," Nodotai said with a smile. "May we meet again in Yomi."

"I am sure we shall. I will be waiting for you with your mother," the shiryo said and disappeared with a bow.

* * *

"Kangaku-san! Tell your sensei to send a message to the Yogo and the Toritaka of the Crab. Have them know that an ancient, unidentified evil has reared its vile head in Unicorn lands. I will try to stop it, but if my efforts fail, others must know of it."

"Hai, Nodotai-sama! But won't you need help?"

"Others are already on its tail. I shall join them in their efforts. I am sorry, but you must tell this to your sensei, it is vital."

"But… If you don't know how to destroy it, how can you make a difference?'

"That is not something you should worry about. Now go!"

Kangaku turned and started to run back to the village, but after a few moments he hesitated and looked back. Nodotai was gone.

* * *

Nodotai silently waited in the tent near a small village: it was being used as a command centre. He was waiting for Hida Kuon to come and speak with him.

Finally, after hours of waiting, the tent flaps were pushed aside and the hunched form of Hida Kuon entered the tent. Promptly the champion of the Crab sat down, yet still his size was awe inspiring. Nodotai kneeled before Kuon.

"Stand, Hiruma Nodotai," Kuon began with a low voice that only added to his intimidating demeanor. "Why did you come?"

"Kuon-sama, I am in need of help. It has been brought to my attention that an ancient evil has returned. I want to go and help those who hunt it."

"You are a spirit, Nodotai-san, why do you come to me?"

"I might not be a part of the Celestial Order anymore, but that does not mean I do not adhere to it. You are still the champion of my Clan, Kuon-sama."

"Then what is it you want from me?"

"One man. One man to come with me and help me defeat this evil."

Kuon thought for a moment, but then resolutely said, "I believe Chousen-san would be eager to join you."

"Hida Chousen? Isn't he one of your generals, Kuon-sama?"

With a hard voice and a face to match, Kuon answered, "No, sadly enough we were forced to strip his rank from him. There have been several complicated events that lead to this."

"Very well, I shall go and find Chousen and prepare to go to Unicorn lands. You have my profound gratitude, Kuon-sama."

Kuon nodded and grunted, "Just destroy that thing."

"Yosh," Nodotai answered in kind and bowed deeply before he left.

* * *

"So Nodotai thinks he can defeat this evil without the help of the Scorpion?"

"Yes, sensei. Shall I prepare the messages?"

"No. How long has it been since you've seen your sister, my niece? Several weeks, no? I believe it is time for you to visit her again. Her and her new husband."

"Yacho-sama? But why?"

"He will be eager to strengthen his position as a minor daimyo. Defeating an ancient evil should prove quite prestigious."

"I don't understand, sensei."

"You don't have to. Go now and tell him what you told me. Also tell him that I'm offering him this opportunity only once, and only because he married my niece, your sister, Akiko-chan."

"Hai, sensei!"

* * *

"Nodotai-sama! To what do I owe the honor of your visit?" Chousen was visibly delighted to see the spirit hero at his doorstep.

"I have come because I need your help… and because Kuon-sama 'recommended' you, I'm afraid."

"I am surprised he'd even consider me for any task, not in the least helping you. What needs to be done?"

"I have been alerted to the presence of something sinister. It has been located in Unicorn lands. I am going to help several people to try to destroy it. If we can. Will you join me?"

"Of course I will!" I have not had any duty for three weeks, because of… complicated matters… But let's not talk about that."

"Excellent! And perhaps your Nezumi friend would like to join us too?"

From behind a tree Or'rum'tikir poked out his head to look at the strange man who had noticed him. In a way that looked more like twitching, Or'rum'tikir moved his whiskers. He cocked his head and blinked several times, all the time considering Nodotai.

"You are spirit, yes?" Or'rum'tikir asked. "You have smell of spirit."

Nodotai nodded, but it was Chousen who spoke. "He is a great hero, Or'rum. Come here and introduce yourself!"

Behind the tree Or'rum'tikir straightened himself and his swords. He took one large step to reveal himself and then approached the two men.

"Greetings, Nodotai-sama-sama. I am Or'rum'tikir and at your-r command," the large Nezumi said and bowed deeply.

Nodotai returned the bow with a quizzical look on his face. "I hope you're not offended," he said, "but I am amazed! I have never known many Nezumi, but you know etiquette and wield a daisho? Where did you learn?"

Or'rum'tikir snickered and replied, "I met with spirit-it, like you. Taught me sword fighting and eh-tee-ket. Gave me swords when he die-died."

"Truly amazing. I am sure you will make a great addition to our group. Chousen-san, Or'rum'tikir-san, we'll leave tomorrow morning. Prepare yourself and meet me in the village."

"Hai, Nodotai-sama," Chousen said with a bow and left to prepare.

"You no get in trouble-ble for taking Or'rum'tikir?" the Nezumi cautiously asked.

"I don't think so. After all, I am a hero," Nodotai answered with a smile.

* * *

"Kangaku-kun! What a surprise! Why are you here?"

"It is good to see you too, Bayushi Akiko-chan," Kangaku said. Behind his mask a wide grin appeared, but his older sister recognized the teasing twinkles in his eyes: when she had married Yacho, she had become a Bayushi by name, and Kangaku hadn't stopped teasing her since. "I am afraid, however, that I have come on serious business. I must speak with Yacho-sama at once."

Akiko nodded and took Kangaku to see Yacho. While they were walking, they spoke of what had happened during the time they had not seen each other.

* * *
"… And that's the entire story, Yacho-sama. I don't know why my sensei picked out you, but I am fairly sure it is not just because you married his niece."

Bayushi Yacho nodded thoughtfully and smiled. It was a smile that comforted and reassured Kangaku: not necessarily because it was meant, but simply because he could see it. It occurred to Kangaku that Yacho was a large man, like Nodotai. Perhaps he had Crab blood? Thinking of it, Kangaku decided not to ask… now.

Yacho called in a servant and said, "Please tell Mutomo-san to come and tell Samo-san that he will need to manage my estate for some time. I have to fulfil my duty to the Empire."

After the servant had left, Yacho continued. "It seems we're going to Unicorn lands, Akiko-chan. But… what about you, little brother? Will you come with us?"

Kangaku was amazed: Yacho asked him -HIM- to join in this legendary effort? Of course he'd go!

"Of course I'll go, Yacho-sama! I am honoured that you would even consider me for such a task!"

"Not a task," Yacho said, delighted about the young Shosuru's eagerness. "But a privilege as much as a duty."

"Are you sure, Yacho-kun?" Akiko asked worried. "Won't his sensei disapprove?"

"Your uncle will not deny me this, Akiko-chan. Certainly not afterwards: then we'll be heroes!" Yacho answered with a smile.

[To be continued…]

Next up: 'Gathering of Efforts,
a story of heroes…'