Chapter 22

The Battle of Asahina Temples

  <ed. this is an excerpt from the second complete novel in a ongoing creative process between myself, Christopher Orr, and Brent Morgan. We created our own unique personas and inserted them into the storyline between Shadowlands and Time of the Void. We also created unique positions for our novels, such as Mirumoto Ryoshi's title of Champion of Fire. It will become clear the more you read...>

There was a strange silence hanging over the plains that would soon be awash with the blood of madmen and samurai alike.  The wind seemed to feed from the anticipated bloodshed, becoming fierce and unpredictable, causing the banners of both armies to dance softly in the air.

But the smoke-stained cloth of the Crane standard made no sound against the oppressiveness of lingering stillness.

At the base of the low hill that held the temple grounds stood the armies of the Shadowlands.  The air within that camp of nightmares and demons was one filled with dark anticipations and confidence.  The oni silently wrung their talons in the air, knowing that the soft flesh of humankind was near.  Madmen and goblins crowded forward, hardly remembering that a command from their leader was needed to begin an attack.

They did not fear the forces arrayed against them.  They knew of their strength, and of their power.  To them, victory was not a question.  It was a certainty.

Awaiting them atop the hill stood the forces of the Crane and the Naga.  The silence within that host was not for fear or resignation.  It was a silent prayer.

As the final rays of pure sunlight vanished, Hoturi drew his katana.  The sound of ringing steel dispelled the silence, and almost immediately came from the dark host a cry of challenge, rising from the maw of a wizened human mage, some magic or force of will throwing it over the sudden roars of evil and hatred.

“I have killed a hundred of your kinsmen!  I have consumed the souls of your people in utter darkness!  I am the being that shall usher you pitiful souls to hell!  Come and face me!  I challenge you, Doji Lord!  Come, and be the first to die!”

Without another word, the samurai began to dismount.  Only Tsukune’s hand stopped him, and he met her large black eyes.  The Phoenix held her naginata tightly, and her voice was sure and determined, “With your permission, Hoturi-sama, this one is mine.”

"There is treachery here, Phoenix."

"My ancestors will protect me."

Swinging easily back into the saddle, Hoturi nodded.

“Live well or die well, Phoenix, “ he said with a smile.

Her dark eyes showed no readiness to die. “Hai.”

Her form dashed toward the necromancer, moving fluidly despite the mail she wore.  Even from this distance, the Crane could see the look of confusion crossing the evil wizard’s face.  Confusion gave way quickly to fear, however, as her naginata began to whirl over Tsukune’s raven hair faster and faster, till it seemed to be a shimmering shield.

As the now-distant samurai-ko met the necromancer in the center of the field, black magic crackled, fueled by the blood flowing from a fresh wound along the shunjenga’s forearm.  It was the power of the maho, the forbidden magic, which flowed through the wild-haired wizard, building until the air bristled with nameless death.

Hoturi held his breath, silently praying for the safety of the Phoenix.

But Tsukune was a Phoenix, not at all afraid of the power before her, and trained long ago in the strengths and weaknesses of the shujenga and their magic.  She continued moving forward without fail, pouring on extra speed.  An arcing bolt of fire passed just left of her dodging head, and the naginata lashed forward.

The spear whirled, and again the blood of the necromancer granted his spindly fingers the power to destroy his enemy.

A moment later, Tsukune tugged the huge blade free of the withered form.

Hoturi nodded, and their came from the Naga lines and the Crane echoed the twangs of a thousand bowstrings.  Arrows darkened the twilight battlefield, their tips flickering with the brilliance of jade and crystal arrowheads.

As if on a cue of their own, the Naga’s serpentine forms blurred forward, covering the empty field in a matter of seconds.  Arrows shattered the Shadowlands armies, and the coiled figures struck a second later, crushing further forward.

Goblins and madmen died screaming, and Hoturi’s sword came down.

The armies of the Crane rushed forward, moving from all sides at once.  At the head, stern Daidoji footmen and spear soldiers hewed at the lines, matched in ferocity by the roaring and screaming madmen.  Kakita Sataka’s huge figure was visible, ordering more arrows poured at reserve forces.

Suddenly, the echoes of explosions rocked the field.  Doji Genichirou’s samurai poured forth from the hidden tunnels, striking and retreating like a serpent’s head.

But Hoturi could see already that the dark army would not die easily.  Crane samurai lay in pools of blackened blood, and the great forms of Naga lay like broken things beneath the slashing and moving forms of the living.  Blank faces and lifeless eyes stared into the sky, silent accusations that the true general, that the true Hoturi already felt.

Leaping down from his horse, the Champion of the Crane drew his sword, turning towards the hundred samurai that silently awaited his orders.  He donned his helmet and the mask that guarded him from his fear.

He hoped that he still sounded brave.

“Today, we fight for our futures!”

They moved and they killed, their finely honed swords parting the way like stout stones against the sea of terror and death.  They moved with a speed and grace unseen before by the dark creatures, and in their tracks they left broken and beaten oni and madmen.

And always Hoturi chased the true demon.

He did not need to see the face or the black banner to know where the False One awaited.

It filled the battlefield, coating over every strike, every death, every broken heart and shattered dream.  The laughter of a demon surrounded by lesser and less evil demons.  It filled every crack and crevice with outrage and black thoughts.

Hoturi struck, and a lesser demon died.

They moved faster forward, leaving the dead from both sides to their peace or their damnation, and the wounded to fight for life.  Only once did they stop, when a samurai went down.  Hoturi had sworn not to let a man die when he could be saved.  He would not forget that in vengeance.

After all, he was a samurai.

Tsukune was at his side now, her face bare and splattered with the blood of the necromancer.  She nodded to him, turning and slicing a porcelain-masked zombie clean through, leaving the broken thing to dissolve into black, acrid smoke.

Rushing onward, they killed and died.  Hoturi felt the rush of battle fill him, and the stinging of tears fueled his rage as men that he respected and trusted died at the blackened claws and blades of monsters.  Hoturi found that someone was screaming, and realized that it was his voice.

Tsukune heard him, and she screamed as well, a union of dignity and fury.

And the rest of the Crane samurai, wounded and bleeding, echoed their primal, wordless cry.  The sound was deep and thunderous.  It was the shout of a wounded hawk, noble and elegant and heart wrenching.

Wounded, perhaps mortally, but alive and still fighting.

Smiling wolfishly as another monster died on their swords.

There was a simple way to win this terrible battle, to end the death and pain and the breaking hopes.  Kachiko had told him herself, though she had not known it at the time.

Cut out the heart, the Champion reminded himself, and the body dies.  

*    *    *

Deep within the swarming sea of death rode a lone Dragon samurai.  Shadowmane plunged forward, the horse’s bare forelegs crushing a goblin beneath them.  Behind the horse came a flashing sword, blazing with mystical flames.

A skeletal head parted as if made of folded paper, the body beneath it shattered by the sheer force guiding the magic sword.

Mirumoto Ryoshi reined the horse to a stop, having reached the edge of the Crane lines.  Above him fluttered a unique and ancient crane banner, and beside him rode the one samurai who had gained the honor to wield it.

Sitting stout and firm atop his roan stallion, the chain mesh mask of Daidoji Uji revealed the blazing fury of the eyes as his spearmen lanced through a battalion of undead warriors.  His small frame was a mass of taught, large muscles.

His eyes held nothing like fear.

The Iron Standard of the Crane fluttered on his head, the crane insignia done not in ivory light, but done with the tinge of grey steel.  This force, strong and fierce, was mainly composed of the Daidoji family, and they fought beneath the unbreakable strength of the tetsu-tsuru.

Ryoshi stood with the Iron Crane.

Even above the peerless skill of the Kakita swordsmen, Ryoshi admired the strong people of the Daidoji family.  The thought of failure, of surrender, of death and destruction, played no part in their fury now, or ever in these harsh frays.  They hated the Shadowlands as much as they hated the Lion Clan and the Scorpion, and still remembered those Lions that left them to die at Doji Palace.

This was their fury, and they were not afraid.

Revenge fed their honor, and honor guarded their souls.

Naga arrows sliced through an onrushing monster, and the huge bodies of the serpent-men squeezed and crushed at the undead things.  Somewhere, the Shahadet's mighty voice arose like thunder, shouting orders even over the screaming din of battle, and the tide swung back and forth between the two sides.

Blades bared to the soft moonlight, the two samurai met the onrush of a huge oni.  Roaring with a huge, toothy grin, the creature raised its corpulent form to strike at the riders.  Ryoshi smiled to himself as both swords ripped open the massive body.  Black blood splattered, adding to the mosaic of gore slickening the massive field of war.

Roaring in defiance and pain, the oni turned and fled, leaving its charges to die beneath the fire-tempered spears of the Crane.

Though his face was hidden behind the steel mask, Ryoshi saw a gleam of hatred that filled him eyes.  The silent samurai nodded a greeting, then spoke, his soft voice somehow cutting through the wordless songs of the battlefield, “We shall meet our fate together, Mirumoto-san.”

Patting his horse with his free hand, Ryoshi nodded back, feeling his own smile behind the mempo. “Together, we shall make an end that shall bring us songs.”

Silently, Ryoshi studied the battlefield, searching for the Scorpion's form.

She is here, the Mirumoto thought, already feeling her strength dimly.  It is Atana that she is seeking.

As the surge of battle embraced the two warriors again, the Mirumoto’s flaming blade tore open another blackened husk.  As the creature crumpled and died, the samurai moved forward, always keeping side by side with Uji.

He saw his nephew only once, as Daini was ripping his Naga lance from the body of a crumpled madman.  Then he was gone, lost to the rushing motions of chaos that controlled the battlefield more surely than any general now did.

Their swords struck again and again, parting the way for the troops that huddled behind them as the two horses pressed forward, their natural instincts overpowered by loyalty and devotion to their riders.  Blades sung, and arrows fell, but the two never faltered.

Plucking an arrow from Shadowmane’s flank, Ryoshi stared silently over the great host of darkness.  For each one that fell two more roared in anger and defiance.  It seemed a futile battle, but the Mirumoto only set himself and reined the horse forward.

He had chosen to fight here, and die if he must.

Beside him, Uji’s yari cut down through a zombie.  The Crane shouted orders to his troops, commanding that they strike at the head and chest of the undead monsters that felt no pain.  They sliced forward, each breath screaming for life, and each blade striking with the desperation and courage of a man that knew that he could not run.

Surging deeper into the tides of blackness they moved, a single blade searching blindly for the echoing laughter of the enemies’ heart.

The Doji, Genichirou was among them now, shouting orders and rallying his battered troops.  Ryoshi saw the archer, a grim skeletal monster amidst the creatures.  He tried to shout a warning, but the arrow struck the Doji, and he tumbled down to earth, the dark beings covering him.

Uji leapt from his horse and began to strike and slash his way through.  Ryoshi followed him without question or hesitation, allowing the winded horses to gallop back from the bloody field beneath the Asahina Temples.

When they reached the wounded Doji, Genichirou was hauling his slender form to his feet, using his katana to fend off a roaring swarm of goblins.  Uji’s lance took their leader through the eye, and they fled from the three samurai, a gibbering mockery of humanity.

“Many thanks, Uji-san.” Even now, Ryoshi was amazed at the calm in the voice as the Doji pulled the arrow from his body. "Praise be to the sensei of your family, and the Fortunes for granting you such a skillful hand."

For his part, the stout warrior simply nodded.

Now, the three fighters moved forward, calling to their forces and pushing against them.  An ogre died screaming as Genichirou’s sword sliced through its horned skull.  The huge being crumpled, leaving its stinking blood to stain the samurai’s armor.

Ryoshi’s helm broke in two against the strike of a thrown spear, and the Mirumoto felt the scratch along his forehead as blood blinded his left eye.  Still, guided by Uji and Genichirou, they all continued on.  When they had reached a lull in the fighting, they rested; each drawing ragged breaths and watching the massing forces warily.

“Truly, an end…to be proud of…Mirumoto-san.”

And Ryoshi nodded, mopping at his face with an already bloody sleeve.  “I think that fewer people shall think that the Crane cannot fight a war, once this day is done.” He felt his shoulders sag, and suddenly knew how weak he truly was.

Genichirou laughed; an odd and confusing sound to Ryoshi’s ears.  He was silently massaging a small painting hanging from a chain on his neck, “We are not beaten yet.  I am not ready to die, no matter how…how good a song it shall make.”

“They shall cut us down, if we continue to fight.  We are separated from our forces, “ Uji said with a curse, most likely still happy by the fact that the now distant banner of the Daidoji was still flying high, and the massive group of blue-clad soldiers still fought on valiantly.

Ryoshi nodded, feeling his body shake.

But the Doji only shook his head, “I have lived a long life, but I shall not die yet, young friends.  If you wish, escape.  There is no dishonor in leaving a hopeless battle…Hoturi-sama might even wish to see you go now, while you can.”

“Never, “ they both said with a single determined voice.

Genichirou nodded, “Remember that while our forces are far away, we still have the love of our peoples and the strength of our ancestors.  We shall not die today, if we believe in the strength of our hearts.  That, I believe, is the true measure of a warrior.”

Staring at a dead bushi lying face down in a pool of cold blood, Uji nodded.  Strong arms tore the man’s bloody shirt away, wrapping and tying the still-visible Crane insignia to his yari.  “This shall be our banner now, “ he said, letting the wind carry the half-red emblem into the sky.

"The Crimson Crane," Ryoshi growled with a reborn fire.

As Genichirou nodded slowly, Ryoshi marked the other side of his face with the dead man’s blood, “We shall bring vengeance to every man and woman and child that they have killed.  I swear by Togashi that I shall not allow anything to escape me.” The tiredness was gone, leaving the Dragon with only the icy feeling of strength to guide him.

He was not afraid anymore.

Weapons ready and willing, they entered back into the deadly thunderstorm of blades and arrows.  Moving with conviction in their hearts, they cut a wide swath.  In the days after this one, people would talk of the three samurai that sliced through an entire army, never stopping, always moving towards the next foe.  They were not called heroes.

They were demons as well.

Ryoshi never saw the Bayushi during the battle, and her image never wavered.  Only now did he understand.  He did not face a mindless killing machine.  He faced the cold, calculating brain of a Scorpion, and the hatred of an inhuman monster.

He knew now that when they met, he would be tested.

It would not be the first time.

*    *    *

  Standing at the edge of the raging conflict, Isawa Asano readied his magic.  The Phoenix glanced around the assembled shujenga as they began chanting.  It was not their faces that concerned him, nor was it the mon of their clans that he studied.  Asano watched as their aura’s adapted, and then summoned the proper elemental magic to create his own.

A slender finger extended, and he touched his own to another Master of the Asahina.  Asano’s other hand brushed against that of an old, powerful Crane master called Tomo.  The assembled Crane, Phoenix, and the two ronin shujenga began to concentrate, weaving and probing throughout the spirits of the universe for the power that they so needed.

Magic began to build, rippling over the complete circle of ten shujenga.  The ancient spells filled the air with light visible only to those that wielded the magical energy of the Five Rings.

Beside him, Sakane made a bubbling sigh, and Asano instinctively squeezed her hand, making her yelp in pain.  The other shujenga ignored the distraction, knowing full well the danger from which the wizened Phoenix had saved the young girl.

Sakane had very nearly given herself fully to the seductive flow of magic.  Had she done that, they might all have died.

She cursed herself loudly, and then, giving Asano’s withered fingers a squeeze back in thanks, continued to use her strength to find the way through the tempest of mystic force.

Now, as their voices rose higher and higher, Asano felt the energy of the scroll within the circle pour into him.   He shaped the magic into lightning, and used his spirit to guide the bolts where the eyes of a human could not see.

Rippling bolts descended from within a cloudless night sky, striking and receding from nowhere.  The host of darkness gibbered and roared in pain and confusion, but the shujenga never ceased their assault.

Every so often, a stray lance of magic struck the protective barrier separating the shujenga from the chaos of the battlefield.  The dark magicians wielded darker magic, but the strength of the Asahina guarded them well against the foul perversions of the Five Rings.

For hours they fought, and for hours they held the circle without challenge.  By the time that night fully masked the battle, hundreds of monsters had been laid low by the flowing fulcrum of power that rippled through each form.

Then, without warning, the power slackened, and the Phoenix felt weariness wash over his slender form, and fill it completely. His head pounded like after a long night of drinking, and the Isawa staggered, fighting to maintain his balance, swinging down his silver staff in order to keep himself from crashing to the ground.

Asano squeezed his eyes tight, directing another strike and trying not to sway.  As he glanced around, he saw that several of the assembled circle of shujenga were down, and that the remainder of them fought now with their own magic.

The circle was broken.

Noticing for the first time the dark shapes that had surrounded them, Asano finally understood.  He turned, sending a pitifully small bolt of magic through a skeletal chest.

The False Hoturi had planned too well for this battle not to know where they would stand.  Now, a force of skeletal monsters was among them, crushing the small guard of samurai that remained to fight for the shujenga.

Had Hoturi not insisted on them, all would be dead.

The Daidoji did not die easily, however, and still they fought on, striking time and time again despite overwhelming odds.  It was the courage of the samurai that had saved the shujenga, even though that same courage was proving too little to defeat the enemy.

Slipping to his knees, Asano felt the wetness of his own blood covering his back.  Crawling along in pain, he found Sakane’s form, lying unconscious before him.  He lifted her, feeling his weak muscles strain for more strength.

The Master of the Elements hovered over the two forms, lightning lancing from each finger, destroying any creature that dared approach.  The old man glanced towards Asano, “Take her and go!  I shall hold them here.”

Nodding, Asano tried to rise.  He glanced at her fair face, and remembered Sakane’s love for the idealistic Lion, Tursm.  He found the strength to rise, limping and feeling each jarring footstep as he did.  As he moved, he spoke to her, using his own words to keep himself standing.

“I hope that he…he appreciates this…his stupid s-samurai muscles…would be useful now, I suppose.”

It was slow going, even though she weighed very little.  The darkness was growing deeper, and Asano could only hope that he was moving away from the enemy.  Several times he collapsed, but each time he rose and moved onward.

“Sakane-san, you should have stayed at home.  When this is done…my ghost will guide you.  Guide you and…haunt Tursm…and Atana too…damn the lot of…them…idealists…”

All that time the lightning continued to boom in the distance, a valiant fight by the outnumbered and weakening Asahina.  Somewhere in the corner of his exhausted mind, Asano wondered how they still possessed the strength to fight on.

He had no strength for magic anymore.  All was focused into his arms and legs, pushing them forward when they refused to move by themselves.

Finally, he could go no further.  Asano settled her gently to the ground, then collapsed beside her.  He lay there for several seconds in the soft, tall grass, teaching himself to draw breaths without coughing up blood.  His lungs were on fire, and his legs would not work.

When the creature found them then, he was helpless to fight it.

The ogre rose over them, a huge thing, its horned head warped further in a snarl of rage.  A massive sword rested in the clawed hands, and it roared in fury as Asano tried to draw energy enough to fight back against it.

Too late, his cursed.  Too late!

From the darkness that had brought the monster, came salvation.

Ariana’s slender shirasaya, hidden long inside the wooden sheath, flashed, cutting through the ogre's huge, muscular neck.  Arterial blood sprayed from the fatal cut, splattering dark droplets over the young woman as she slipped away from the dying thing.  Her pale red eyes flashed as she looked at the shujenga and Sakane.

Those empty, lifeless eyes stared as Asano knelt beside the sleeping young woman.

Smoothing her hair, Asano noticed for the first time the ribbon still hanging in her hair.  Stained red from her own blood, Sakane’s ribbon, Tursm’s gift, revealed the almost hidden wound in the side of her head.  Blood covered his hand, and Asano could only continue smoothing her delicate hair.  He could find no shock, no grief to show to the strange eyes of the other girl.  Asano could find only silent resignation in the face of death.

Resignation to doom.

Her doom…his doom…the doom of all Rokugan, perhaps?

“I tried to protect her, “ he whispered to the distant Lion samurai.

“I really did try.”  

*    *    *

  Hoturi tossed down his helmet, letting the cracked thing tumble off into the rising dust of the battle.  Slowly and deliberately bringing his sword down to rest in both hands, the samurai lord stared towards his enemy.

 “Your guards are beaten.  Now you must face me.”

Rising slowly from where he had sat and relaxed, the False Hoturi rose.  His helm, Hoturi’s helm, lay discarded as well beside him, but it was quickly lifted and donned, leaving the Champion to stare at the red eyes behind the mempo.  The Ancestral Mail of the Crane Clan, Sasageru, shone like a clear blue sky against his chest.  From his scabbard, the imposter drew the ancient sword Shujuko, a sword forged by the same Crane who, long ago, had wrought Asamaru, Satsume's sword and its near perfect twin.

Now, that same sword stood against the ancestor of the man who had forged it.

Throwing back his long, white hair, the False Hoturi smiled within the helm, his crimson eyes seeming to leak vile energy from them with each breath.  His voice was Hoturi’s voice, but filled with Scorpion venom, “You defeated my guards all alone, Hoturi-san.  My mistress always believed that you were worthy of the ancestry of Kakita.”

Letting his anger slip away into the shrouds of control that always came with the sword, the young man readied himself, keeping the sword ready.  As much as Hoturi hated it, he knew too much about his double to sheath his sword and expect an honorable duel.

There was no honor left in the Scorpion Clan.

And so, they silently began to circle one another, each studying nothing and yet studying everything about their opponents.  The False Hoturi moved with a swift grace that spoke a great deal to a Kenshinzo like Hoturi of his Scorpion training.  His own step betrayed nothing, not hinting at the spear wound in his hip or the gouge beneath his left shoulder guard.

Truly, Hoturi knew his enemy as he knew himself, but that was not enough.  As they both tensed for the strike, the Crane realized for the first time the magic of the egg that had created his foe.  His enemy not only knew the Scorpion techniques; he knew the Crane’s secrets as well.

Both dashed forward, blurs to the observers.  Swords struck faster than either men could follow, and they stepped back.  Had a samurai turned his head, he would not have noticed that anything had changed at all.

Then the False Hoturi’s helmet parted.

As the pieces fell away, clattering to the earth in broken pieces.  He smiled still, the burning eyes glowing with a bitter hatred.

Hoturi felt the neck of his undershirt loosen, sliced cleanly just inches from his neck, and knew that he too had barely evaded a swift death.  The slit ran at a delicate angle, just left of his slender neck.  Again, the Champion slowly brought his sword down and gripped it lightly with both hands, “You have more skill than your guards.”

“You should not be so arrogant, Hoturi-san.” That maniacal grin returned, “I am everything that you are, and more, Hoturi.  I am the doom of your clan.” There was no arrogance now, no posturing or posing.  Only the words.

“Without honor, I am nothing.  You are nothing.”

The smile never lessened.

This time, they both hesitated.  Both men reached for their greatest strength, sought their innermost power.  It was the secret of the Crane, and both Hoturi knew that secret to be the key of survival against the other.

Lowering his blade so that it nearly brushed the trampled, dusty earth, Hoturi waited.

As if his slackening of muscles was a cue, the other samurai lunged.  The ancient Crane sword flashed in the harsh light of the full moon, its gleam falling onto the Champion’s eyes, blinding him as the attacker knew that it would.

Hoturi never hesitated.

From the depths of the emotionless, all seeing Void, the chosen Champion struck, a pale azure aura filling his vision.  His sword danced, and the echoing sound of steel on steel rung throughout the battlefield, easily drowning out the sounds of the surrounding turmoil.

The steel blade circled in the air three times before falling to the ground.  It caught the soft light of the moon, illuminating the two figures, each frozen as if by some strange power.  Then, with the serenity of a snowflake, the katana fell.

Shujuko landed silently, its keen blade sinking into the dry earth without effort.

Still clutching his father's sword, Hoturi turned to face his opponent slowly.  The fine Kakita blade slid into the saya with only a faint click. A few tiny drops of blood had touched his noble face, but the samurai made no motion to wipe the marks of battle away.

The False Hoturi’s body shook once, and then the still-staring head fell from the body.  Blood spewed and dripped from the dead form, and the form collapsed in a flurry of dust and the sound of tinkling armor.

Staring quietly at the headless corpse of his enemy, Hoturi bowed.

“You were never worthy to wear that armor, my Dark Shadow.  You were not worthy, but you did show me the Way.” And then the Crane Champion shouted towards the heavens, his final shout heralding that he was not afraid…

*    *    *

  So ended the Battle of Asahina Temples.  That night, just as the sun was dawning, the forces of the Naga and the Crane surrounded the remnants of the Shadowlands Army, rallied behind the horrible terrors that were Genichirou, Uji, and Ryoshi, and killed them to the last dark being.  The price of victory had been great, but they had won.

They had survived.

But there would be no celebration.

Each man suffered with his conscious.  Asano wept as he laid the girl’s dead form on a funeral pyre.  The Phoenix had constructed it himself, by hand, never once reaching out towards the magic to aid him.  Once, he had thought that magic was life.

Now, he knew better.

Ariana also watched in silent sadness as Sakane’s pyre burned.  In her hand she held the Lion’s gift, though now only a few stray parts remained to be white.  The assassin squeezed the item of innocence tightly, but she never shed a tear.

When a woman was an assassin, tears were things of memory alone.

Hoturi alone stood at the top of the hill, near the gates of the temple, clad in the Ancestral Armor of his Clan.  It was said that he stood there, his wounds untended, until the final wounded man had been born from the field, and the last funeral pyre was naught but cold ash.

The tears of the Champion fell at Asahina Temples, and as the sun streamed radiance over the burnt and ruined land, Hoturi understood truly why his father had been so silent, so cold.  It had been that strength that had saved him.

But Hoturi knew that emptiness could not save him as it had his father.  He wept and accepted the pain as his penance.  Because of him, men had died.  He no longer cared whether they had been samurai, daimyo, emperor, or peasant farmer.

Men had died for him.

Doji Hoturi would never forget that day.