The Coming of Destiny
A Story of Heroes

Four Months before the Fall of Otosan Uchi...

"Do not take me wrong, Nodotai-san, I am happy to see you again," Kitsuki Saibankan said. "Your story is just a bit unbelievable."

Hiruma Nodotai smiled and said, "In any case we are here to help you, perhaps evidence to support my story will present itself. Until then let us wait for my Scorpion friends to arrive."

"You are expecting us?" a voice full of unbelief asked from the open door.

"Nodotai-sama?" a lighter voice said almost immediately after the first.

The six people in the hall of the small estate turned around to see who had arrived. They saw a woman and two men who were obviously Scorpion, with a man in unadorned green robes standing behind them.

Nodotai took a step toward the new arrivals and spread his arms as if he would embrace them and said, "Ah, Kangaku-san, you have come after all! And you've brought more people to help us."

The largest of the Scorpion men -he was about as tall as Nodotai and Saibankan- stepped forward and looked at the six people before him: the famous heroes Hiruma Nodotai and Kitsuki Saibankan, a rather dense-looking Hida, two Unicorn shining with youth -or inexperience- and a Ratling armed like a samurai. He frowned slightly at the strangeness of the company, but he knew what was at stake and expected them to know it as well.

"My name is Bayushi Yacho. I take it that you all know why we are here. I want to pledge our aid to destroying what we are up against." With those words Yacho removed his mask.

Saibankan frowned and said, "Even I am a little surprised about this course events, but I will not turn down your aid. Perhaps some introductions are in order?"

* * *

"What is Or'rum'tikir-san doing, Nodotai-sama?" Kangaku asked, struggling with the Nezumi name.

"He is trying to find the scent of the attackers," Nodotai explained. "Ratlings have a keen sense of smell; some can even leave each other messages 'written' in smell."

Yacho spared the sniffing Nezumi a backward glance before continuing to scan the surroundings. "This is the place where you turned the tables on them? I find it amazing that such simple duplicity fooled you and here of all places."

Xingto shot Yacho an angry glare and hissed, "What's that supposed to mean, Scorpion?"

"Just that you should have been suspecting the deception," Saibankan interrupted. "Nubei-san should have, but I guess he was too distracted. It matters no longer at this point in time."

"Think nothing of it, Xingto-san," Yacho said. "We cannot fault you for not being a Scorpion."

"Just as we can't fault you for being one, Yacho-san," Kiniko quipped with a grin.

"Though I may be enjoying this banter," Nodotai suddenly said, "I find it to be hardly productive. I suggest we split up. I suggest Chousen, Or'rum'tikir, Yacho and Mutomo go with Saibankan on the search for evidence. Then Xingto, Kiniko, Akiko and Kangaku can come with me and we will try to find out if there are people who might know something about these villains."

The assemblage looked at traded looks with each other and with nods from Yacho and Saibankan the group split up.

* * *

"Your stance is wrong Kenshuko-chan. Turn your feet farther outward."

"Alright, alright," Kenshuko said with mock desperation, "but this is an awkward stance, sensei!"

"The name is Masurao," the ise zumi replied with a grin, "If you keep calling me sensei other people might want me to train them as well."

"That would be considered an honor by some, sensei."

"And it is considered a burden by me," Masurao bluntly stated. "Now pay attention or I'll never be able to teach you the basics of Niten. Live up to your father's name, will you?"

"Which one? Ronin or Ni-Ken no Tsuru? Both apply and both mean little good among my Clan, Masurao," Kenshuko said, her voice a little angry.

"It depends on your point of view. The fact a Clan would take the effort to ostracize someone can be considered an honor in itself."

Kenshuko smiled wryly as she adjusted her stance and said, "Even I was spared that honor, remember? That should speak for my father's renown."

"I have a feeling that it will take a turn for the better; we must not forget that he had a student," Masurao said thoughtfully.

"Ujirou," Kenshuko remembered, "let's hope he has more success than I."

Masurao laughed and said, "Come now, Kenshuko-chan, I am not through with you. I'll make a famous swordmaster of you yet."

"Now that is something I wouldn't want to miss," Kenshuko said and started the kata.

Between moves Kenshuko asked, "By the way, Masurao-kun, where did you learn to defend yourself with the potent weapon known as the fan?"

"My time as a courtier in Otosan Uchi was exciting, but not so exciting that I did not have a lot a spare time."

"If you had not spent so much time meditating and training, you could have actually gotten out of the court some times, Masurao-san."

"And you are telling me that you got out every day, Shoriko-san?" Masurao jested.

The aging woman who had been watching the two people practice smiled, creasing her face with thin wrinkles. "No, but I had a lot of... acquaintances to keep acquainted."

"And you didn't?" Kenshuko asked Masurao curiously, on a chiding tone.

"A few, but then again I was just an unofficial representative," Masurao answered.

"Speaking those other rare few, I do believe it would lighten their aging hearts if you would visit them again," Shoriko said. "I think Toku would be delighted to see you again."

"You know Toku?" Kenshuko asked amazed and faltered her kata.

Shoriki smiled and answered in Masurao's stead. "You would be amazed to learn who Masurao knows."

Masurao coughed several times drawing the attention back to him. "My student needs her training. So please stop disturbing us," he said with mock sincerity.

"Then I am afraid I will arouse your ire, Masurao-san, for I need a word with you." The new voice came from a small, elderly man with proud bearings. His colors identified him as Scorpion, his mon as Soshi and scroll satchel as a shugenja. "My name is Soshi Samo and there is something that requires your attention."

"Speak, Samo-san, you have my ear," Masurao quickly replied.

"Very well. I shall try to be brief, but the story is strange, so please bear with me. Some time ago the daimyo I was assigned to as advisor got a strange message from his wife's uncle. It considered something brought to this man's attention by Hiruma Nodotai, one of the Heroes of Rokugan. Apparently some great evil escaped through Oblivion's Gate during the battle against the Lying Darkness there. Now my daimyo has gone to Unicorn lands to aid another Hero, Kitsuki Saibankan, in defeating this evil."

"This is all very interesting, Samo-san, but why do you need me? It seems to me that there are more than enough capable men already there."

"It does not have to and normally it wouldn't have, but I've been given a vision. Though cryptic, I am sure that my daimyo would not survive the encounter. Unless you defeat this evil, thus the vision guided me to you."

"And it is your belief that I am the only one that can defeat this evil?" Masurao asked.

"I would not stoop to say you are the only one, but I am sure you can defeat it and you are the only one I could find," Samo said.

"I must vouch for him, Masurao-san," Shoriko said. "Samo-san is regarded a respected seer and fortune teller."

Samo shook his head. "I do no longer consider myself as such, but this vision is not of my own devising. It was given to me by the Fortunes and that is the only reason I trust it.."

Masurao nodded and said, "Then we shall travel to Unicorn lands and see what we can do."

"I thank you very much, Masurao-san. Let me tell you what you need to know," Samo said relieved.

* * *

"They left few-few tracks, but they left plenty smelly smell nonetheless," Or'rum'tikir remarked. "One of them is definitely like you, Saibankan-san and Nodotai-san. Once dead-dead, but now restored to the flesh."

"The must be quite stealthy, to have escaped the monks' notice," Chousen thought aloud.

"Or they bribed them," Yacho bluntly stated.

"I don't think so, sama," Mutomo said carefully. "The air kami have been manipulated here not too long ago. They are far more abundant here than the other elements. I think they may have used magical deception."

"No," Saibankan said flatly. "They are as capable as Chousen-san suggests. Perhaps they did bribe the monks, as well as use illusionary magics, but that's just to lure us into underestimating them."

Yacho slowly began to smile. "Marvelous! Such logic," he said with a broad smile.

It was only now that Saibankan noticed the astounding difference between the two faces Yacho had: one true and hardly ever seen, the other serving him better than any mask could.

Suddenly Chousen said, "Do you think they use maho, Saibankan-san?"

"I have seen no evidence of such, but I would not rule it out. Why do you ask, Chousen-san?"

"I have helped the Kuni on several occasions in rooting out small Bloodspeaker groups. They are hard to find because they travel around a lot. People like that never remain in the exact same spot for long, but they do stick to a particular region."

"Then let's hope our friends can find out more with the peasants," Yacho said.

* * *

"Nobody seems to know about them," Kangako said with a sigh.

"Or they don't want to tell us," Akiko added.

"Why would the peasants hold out on us?" Kiniko asked, hurt evident in her voice. "Do we not protect them from harm?"

"Perhaps not in their eyes," Xingto said gravely. "I think they fear us more than those we are looking for. Though you and I know why Nubei-san had a village burned down, the peasants do not. Our opponents do not need much to convince the heimin we are not to be trusted."

"You are a shugenja," Akiko said to Kiniko. "You can ask the kami to pry the information from the heimin's thoughts."

"I doubt that will be necessary, Akiko-san," Nodotai interrupted. "Xingto-san was nearly right in his assumption, but in one case he was mistaking: the heimin do not fear us more. Our quarry must be near, else the peasants wouldn't be so afraid to tell us. The question 'where?' remains."

"Let us discuss this with my husband and the others," Akiko said. "It is nearly the appointed time on which we would be back at the estate."

* * *

"Uhm, Masurao-kun, how are we going to get to Unicorn lands?" Kenshuko asked hesitantly. "I mean, horse riding is not one of my favorite pass-times."

"Don't worry," Masurao said on mischievous tone, "I intend to walk."

"Walking?" Kenshuko said full unbelief. "But wasn't this urgent?"

"Exactly. Just watch," Masurao said and incanted several mystical syllables.

At his words a large portal yawned into existence. Through it Kenshuko could see nothing, except for something akin to a long winding path.

"Follow me, Kenshuko-chan," Masurao said with a lopsided grin, "but stay close. It is easy to get lost when walking the Way."

* * *

"We discovered nothing. Or'rum'tikir confirmed one of them returned through Oblivion's Gate, but they had covered their physical extensively. We got no clue about where they can be," Yacho explained.

"The peasants were too afraid to tell us anything. We concluded they had to be somewhere close," Kiniko said. "But there is no place to hide well. No hills or mountains; no forests large enough to stay hidden in and the only nearby city is too small to stay there unnoticed for more than a few days."

"Why don't you tell them what you know, Kangaku-san?" Nodotai said.

"Kangaku-kun, what does he mean?" Akiko asked confused.

"Well... I was thinking... And I belief they might've been right under our very noses," Kangaku 'confessed'. "I think they are hiding in one of the villages."

"They must think we wouldn't suspect them of such simple deception again," Saibankan thought aloud. "And the villagers fear destruction of their homes, as happened before..."

"Which village is the right one?" Chousen asked. "Perhaps Or'rum'tikir can sniff them out?"

"No," Yacho said. "I doubt they'll leave tracks as easy as that. They'll know we are here by now, if they are any good. We'll have to find a way to find out where they are hiding."

* * *

The entire estate was filled with silence as the group was thinking about the situation at hand. Infrequently one would speak up and put forth an idea, but so far none were fruitful.

"I am going to get some fresh air," Mutomo suddenly said and walked outside. A lot of them we're starting to consider the option of their opponents using maho. He could not tell them how he knew so much about it, it would arouse unnecessary suspicions.

"You are a Chuda, aren't you?" Saibankan's voice suddenly rang through the air.

Mutomo turned around startled by voice and statement. "How did you know?"

"You have the features and bearing of an Isawa, but your accent and behavior are different. What 'betrayed' you though, was that each time someone mentioned maho, you flinched. Do not worry, I won't tell anyone."

"Is their a lineage you can't distinguish, Saibankan-san?" Mutomo asked with a sigh and wry smile.

"Maybe there isn't, though I do wonder about your lord, Yacho." Saibankan said locking eyes with Mutomo. "He must have some Crab blood, yet there something more distinct about him."

Mutomo's eyes betrayed nothing and he simply stated, "Ask him yourself. It is not my place."

"At least you understand loyalty, Mutomo-san," Yacho said as he stepped into the small courtyard. "Leave. I would have words with Saibankan-san."

Mutomo bowed and went back inside.

"It is not easy to skulk away with four other Scorpion around," Yacho said.

"There are only two full-blooded Scorpion here and you're not one of them, Yacho-san," Saibankan said. "Why are you, a minor daimyo, here? What is your interest in this all? Or is it a matter of more than simple prestige?"

"Our intentions will stay our own. Be glad we are here to help!"

"I've got Nodotai to thank for that. Perhaps he could help me out with identifying your lineage as well."

"If you need to know so badly, Saibankan-san, then let me tell you. You would find out yourself anyway. I am the descendant of the last man to carry the Heichi name. He was seduced by a trained Scorpion before his retirement."

Saibankan's eyes widened for a single moment in slight surprise. "A descendant of the Boar Clan? Fascinating. It will be interesting to see if this daring Scorpion plot will be successful."

Yacho only nodded and entered the estate.

Saibankan spared a last glance up at the stars of the now darkened sky before following Yacho back inside.

* * *

"Report," a dark brooding voice boomed.

"They have gathered more people to help. A Chuda and four Scorpion at the least, as well as a certain Hiruma Nodotai," the lithe man said, bowing before his master. "The Dragon is still there too."

"A pity."

"My lord?" a woman clad in dark clothes asked.

"A pity they are going to die for nothing."

The broad man standing in the corner smiled.

"When?" The woman again.

"Soon, this will end soon."

* * *

Kenshuko carefully took another step on the Way. Masurao had little trouble with it, but the surroundings played tricks with the young Crane's sense of balance. She placed her foot for the other once more, but stumbled. Letting out a small yelp, Kenshuko fell, expecting to tumble into oblivion.

....

Masurao's firm hands would not have her fall and quickly and gently grabbed her arms to keep her standing.

"Th-thank you, Masurao," Kenshuko stammered. "Perhaps we should have used horses after all."

Masurao smiled comforting and put an arm around Kenshuko. "This may feel awkward, but I can't have you falling off the Way. Imagine what Nikkan would say!"

"Imagine," Kenshuko repeated, feeling a strange embarrassment as the Dragon continued to hold her in his hands. He smiled once more, with that simple, boundless smile…there was nothing that she could not see through beside him.

There was no reason to be afraid.

Finally Kenshuko felt reassured enough to smile and continued the journey in the monk's safe embrace.

* * *

"Wh-who are you?" the peasant man asked warily.

"I am Kuoi and this is my son, Yube," Akiko said and indicated Kangaku.

"Why are you here?" The man was more assured, but not yet trusted them.

"Because that Nubei character burned down our home! My son and I had to slave away in the city before we were allowed to come here. All that for a few hoodlums!"

"Keep your voice down, Kuoi! You don't want to be punished!"

"Punished?" Kangaku asked, mock fear on his face. "But I thought that magistrate was gone. You said he was gone, mother!"

"Hush, child," Akiko said with a soothing voice. "Would you please explain your words?"

The peasant sighed and looked around with haunted eyes, when he was sure there was no one else within earshot he whispered, "The ones the magistrate was after have been living in the village centre. They threaten us not to tell anyone outside the village, but since you're moving here you should know."

Akiko put her arms around Kangaku and said, "Thanks for telling us this."

"Finally," Yacho exclaimed softly as he was looking on from a distance. "She's given us the signal."

"About time too," Chousen growled. "This is the seventh village we've been to in two days."

"Now we wait until night time," Nodotai concluded. "Let us get some rest."

* * *

After hours Kenshuko was finally able to step onto solid ground again. She almost felt like kissing the earth, but looked up at the evening sky instead. "How long did we travel? It is dark already."

"Oh, about two days," Masurao remarked.

"But I don't feel tired at all..."

"Not surprising. You slept for quite a while. You stumbled because you were tired. I carried you until you awoke. From that point we walked together."

Kenshuko moved her hand through her hair and smiled uncomfortably. "I 'slept'?" she asked sarcastically, knowing Masurao meant she had fainted; the second time in his presence. It had to be him. "What now?"

"Now we're going to find what we're after."

* * *

"Are the preparations made, Kiniko-san?" Saibankan asked.

"Yes, the air kami have surrounded the village centre and are stopping sound from entering through their barrier. Mutomo is almost finished erecting the wall around the building, then we can get out the heimin and then confront our nemeses."

"Good," Saibankan replied. "Nodotai-san?"

"Akiko and Kangaku have already convinced the villagers and the youth is now on his way to alert the magistrates."

"Excellent. Chousen-san?"

"Our horses are hidden and Or'rum'tikir has set theirs loose. They will not be able to flee. We are ready for battle, Saibankan-san."

"Indeed we are," Saibankan said grimly. "Let us go."

"May we live in interesting times," Xingto mused aloud.

Everyone nodded.

* * *

"What is this?" the gigantic man in a black cloak laughed. "Nine fools have come to die on our blades?"

"They are great fools, master," a large samurai said with a gruff voice.

"Two of them were with the failure, Nubei," a black clad woman mused.

Two identical, lithe and athletic men just stood and smiled.

The last, a man dressed in flowing black robes could've been a statue for all his motion.

"We will defeat you and rid the world of your evil!" Saibankan shouted, surprising his companions with his sudden outburst.

"Ah, Kitsuki Saibankan," the obvious leader said. "You live again? No matter, I defeated you then, what makes you think you can win this time? Even with their help."

"You are an arrogant fool," Yacho suddenly said, his face a mask of conviction and persistence. "You do not know whom you face!"

"And neither do you! But me show you something interesting..." The giant of a man removed the hood of his cloak and his mask.

"Gaijin," Xingto gasped.

The man was blond and had sapphire blue eyes, which shone with an icy cold: the cold of death. He smiled and said, "You will never know the truth. Prepare to die ignorant."

"But I do know... Marrick!" shouted an unknown voice.

"What! Who knows my name?" the gaijin bellowed in rage.

"I do," an ise zumi said as he stepped into the village centre, followed by a Crane woman. "It is a simple gaijin name, for a petty murderer."

"How dare you insult the master!" the gruff samurai yelled, spittle flying from his mouth. His other companions remained silent.

"Shall I relate the truth to them?" the warrior-monk chided.

"No," Marrick said. "Allow me the pleasure... As you have seen I am no Rokugani. Where I came from matters not, just that I got here. It was about eight hundred years ago that I came through the Exile's Road, welcomed by the violence of unknown people. I carried a sword, stolen from a 'sorcerer'. With it I defended myself and it made me stronger as I killed. Soon entire villages fell before my blade." After these words Marrick withdrew a strange weapon from his robes. It was like the gaijin swords the Unicorn sometimes used, but slightly longer and heavier by the looks of it. It emanated a strange aura that filled the group of heroes with dread and it had an almost blood-red sheen to it.

Marrick looked at the stunned and confused expressions of his attackers, his eyes chilling them more than death ever could, before continuing. "Your samurai did not tolerate this and a group dispatched by the Dragon Clan killed me. However, I awoke, blade at my side, to the sounds of battle all around. Something killed me, but again I awoke the next day and this time I killed several before dying. This went on and on and I grew stronger through the blade: it had become an extension of me essence!"

For a moment the monstrous gaijin let the silence linger, but then his cold voice spoke again. "However, I was suddenly drawn back to the world of the living by a maho-tsukai seeking vengeance. He was surprised to see me: 'gaijin are not part of our Celestial Pattern', he said. So the only conclusion could be that the absorption of Rokugani essences had made me one of you! I could be reborn! Time and again, until I would be invincible..."

Marrick's features twisted into a spiteful sneer and he hissed, "It was the same maho-tsukai that sent me back to Toshigoku before he died of wounds inflicted by me. The next chance came when a portal simply appeared. We could step through it and our flesh was restored and we lived once more! Of course, it matters not that you know all of this. I will kill you and add your powers to mine, Son of Fire!"

Everybody looked at Masurao, whom Marrick clearly addressed.

"Oh yes, Togashi Masurao, I know of you as you know of me. Your powers are like a shining beacon to me!" Not noticeable to most present, Kenshuko raised an eyebrow at these words. Marrick saw and said, "Oh yes, little Crane. I know of his powers. You see, I absorbed a lot of people. Some of them are not even natives to this realm, Ningen-do. I once happened upon a spirit, who actually turned out to be a sliver of the Dragon of Fire," Marrick said, smiling devilishly at the memory. "It so happened that this little piece knew of Masurao's powers. Others I added to myself have had the power to see into people's soul and see the power of their inner self. To that vision Masurao was a shining fire just beyond the horizon..."

"...But now I am here, so prepare for defeat," Masurao stated tersely.

"Now you are here," Marrick laughed, "you will be consumed. You will die!"

"Enough!" It was Saibankan who had drawn his ancestral no-dachi, Masamichi. "This blade has waited centuries to taste your blood again! Today it shall!"

It was Yacho who actually started the assault with a loud kiai. He, Nodotai and Saibankan charged. Through the sudden chaos Chousen and Or'rum'tikir moved to flank the opponents.

Marrick met the three attackers head on, defending with only his strange, straight sword. The two lithe samurai intercepted Chousen and Or'rum'tikir, while the large samurai occupied himself with fighting Xingto.

Kiniko seemed frozen, but Mutomo was working on a spell. But then he too felt the powerful atemi strikes the woman used on him. Mutomo was likewise paralysed and only Akiko's timely intervention saved the two shugenja. The butei attacked with her ninja-to, driving the other woman back.

Marrick's shugenja managed to summon the air kami to form a small whirlwind that blew Yacho, Nodotai and Saibankan against the wall. It was the only spell he got off, for a small dart suddenly lodged itself into his throat. Kangaku appeared through the door opening and received a knowing smile from Nodotai. Without further delay Kangaku went on to help his sister.

Marrick suddenly whirled around and lunged his blade through the gasping shugenja. "You are worthless! Give me your power!"

As the blade pierced the shugenja's body he could feel a sensation, like a gentle pulling, inside. The gentle pull, however, soon turned into a maelstrom, bent on sucking every last bit of his essence in. He tried to scream, but luckily he could only gasp, as he slowly felt himself draining away. On that moment he knew that he would not simply lose his life, but his very essence, his entire being and that he would be cast out from the Celestial Pattern. Perhaps this was his punishment for serving Marrick

Marrick's face split into a horrendous smile as he could feel the shugenja's essence flow into him. A slight shuddering passed over his body as the essence was moving into him, like fine sake moving through the throat and into the stomach. It settled after a few seconds the sensation ended and for a moment Marrick glowed a sickly red and his follower dropped to the floor, dead.

Kenshuko suddenly drew her sword and charged Marrick, horrified by his deeds to the point she could no longer control herself.

The large, gruff samurai saw the Crane's attack and backhanded Xingto across the room and ran towards his master. He caught the blade with his own body and fell to the floor, dying.

Kenshuko gasped in horrified surprise and was batted aside by Marrick, who drove his sword into the dying samurai as well. "Fool," he said after the man died smiling. He looked around to see the fighting had stopped. His servants stared at him with mixed horror and hatred.

"Master... why?" the woman stammered.

"You are but tools, serving no purpose other than strengthening me," Marrick said gleefully.

Again Yacho suddenly yelled, "Akiko, Kangaku get the... get Kiniko, Xingto and Mutomo to safety. We'll finish this."

Xingto was about to protest when he saw Saibankan's eyes. They told him that he did not see him again, so he left. Akiko took the shugenja outside, helped by Marrick's terrified followers and Kangaku.

Though Saibankan's form and technique were nothing short of perfect and his rage now focused and in check, he seemed to unable to harm Marrick. The strikes he got through the gaijin's defense did not seem to harm him at all. When he was cut across the chest, the large Dragon staggered backwards and Or'rum'tikir stepped in.

"A Ratling? Fighting me? I've never consumed one of yours," Marrick said with a foul smile.

"And you never shall!" Or'rum'tikir said, focus clearing his mind and straightening his tongue.

The Nezumi swordsman fell into a duelling stance, but did not wait and launched at Marrick, his twin blades slashing down.

Marrick met the blades with his own, his powerful arm more than capable to withstand the Nezumi's force.

As he felt his swords slide along his opponent's blade, Or'rum'tikir gathered his strength and pushed himself up into the air just before his tsuba met with the gaijin steel. He made a somersault and kicked backwards, hitting Marrick square in the back. When he landed he immediately crouched low and swept the legs from underneath the gigantic man.

The move actually caught the gigantic gaijin off guard, but he twisted in mid-air and landed on his shoulder blades. He pushed himself up with incredible strength and landed on his feet with amazing nimbleness. He screamed enraged and made a backhand motion at Or'rum'tikir, who was pummelled by powerful winds and knocked against the wall. Marrick smiled foully again and said, "My followers serve me well, even in death. Come now and show me what the rest of you is worth."

Yacho, Nodotai and Chousen traded glances and nodded, ready to defeat Marrick or die. But it was not meant to be.

* * *

In the past moments Masurao had help Kenshuko onto her feet and for several moments his burning, unreadable eyes looked into hers. Kenshuko did not know what she could be seen there, but their contact was broken when Masurao softly pressed a kiss on her forehead. He turned around and walked towards Marrick as a warm sensation passed through Kenshuko's body, soul and spirit. She hardly noticed his words, "This won't take long. Wait for me."

* * *

Marrick took one large step towards Nodotai and Yacho, when suddenly Chousen lunged at him. "Pesky gnat," the gaijin giant spat as he dodged the attack and kicked the fierce Crab away. When he turned around, he faced Masurao.

"Finally. I had thought you saw the futility of this fight and had left."

"Futility?" Masurao said incredulously, letting the word linger in the air for a moment. "Your evil will end today."

"Very well then," Marrick said with a chuckle. "Perhaps you should put some action behind your words."

Masurao simply smiled and nodded, but didn't move otherwise.

"Well now, I am going to have to wait for the action or shall I go take a nap?" Marrick asked cynically. "Oh, what the hell, I will just go and get you myself!" With a roar that sounded more beast-like than man-like Marrick charged Masurao and brought his sword down on him.

Masurao simply sidestepped the attack and lashed out with his flat hand, hitting him in the neck with a cracking sound. He whirled away from his attacker and faced him, passive once more.

Marrick bellowed in rage and turned around, his long blond hair dangling for his feral eyes. "Clever little bastard," he hissed. "If you want to play that game, don't forget I know the rules as well. I have several Niten masters within..."

Masurao said nothing and simply let his hand shoot out towards Marrick. His hand struck nothing but air, but the bolt of fire spring forth from his fingertips caught Marrick by surprise and squarely in the chest. The gaijin was hurled back by the impact and only the wall stopped his flight, though barely.

A throaty growl escaped from Marrick lay and he slowly stood. His predatory gaze settling on Masurao's unassuming pose once more.

Outside the battle hope glimmered among the onlookers, but they did not speak.

"I will see you dead and on my blade, Masurao," Marrick growled and he launched himself at Masurao. His blade missed its target, but Marrick's fist caught the ise zumi off guard and connected with the monk's jaw, sending him through the sky.

Masurao grunted and twisted to land on his feet, he did not stop moving and in a blur of motion and sound he withdrew his swords. As soon as the blades left their saya they went ablaze, fired by Masurao's inner flame that burned stronger than any other did. "Come then and test your sword against mine," Masurao said without emotion.

Kenshuko was slightly shocked by this display. Masurao had showed her what the swords could do if he wanted them to, but she had never actually seen him use them. Could Marrick be a foe beyond even the warrior-shugenja?

The two men walked in circles. Marrick scanned Masurao for any weakness, carefully keeping his unholy sword levelled with the monk's throat. Masurao observed Marrick's motions and breathing, while casually spinning his katana in his hand.

Marrick was the first to act, spinning his blade overhead in an attempt to cut off Masurao's head. Masurao deflected the blade and twisted it away with effort, slashing at Marrick with his wakizashi, but the gaijin was already spinning away and his heavy robes made it difficulty to discern his body.

With the scent of burning cloth in his nose Marrick snorted disdainfully. He suddenly broke into a flurry of attacks, which forced Masurao on the defensive. The strikes were lightning fast, but accompanied by thunderous power.

Masurao could feel the strain on his arm growing and knew that this way he could not last very long. He suddenly bent backwards, Marrick's blade whizzing past his face mere inches.

Marrick smiled and said knowingly, "Bend Like A Reed."

Masurao grinned and replied, "Wrong." Masurao did not bend backwards fully, but instead found support in a wall and quickly pushed himself forward again, smashing his head into Marrick's face.

The gaijin staggered backwards, holding his bloodied nose with his free hand and cursed in a foreign language, "Verdomme!" He immediately slashed with his blade again and though it wasn't a good attack, it did open up a thin line across Masurao's chest.

Masurao didn't seem to notice the wound as blood trickled out, but out of his view Kenshuko become more and more worried by the second. Never before had she seen Masurao being wounded before. She trembled with fear, but kept silent.

Marrick's blade glowed red for a split-second and he said, "Now it has tasted your blood, it will want the rest as well."

"Do not think that you will find salvation in that weapon, Marrick," Masurao said flatly.

For a moment Marrick just looked at the blade as if seeing it for the first and then smiled, "We care to think differently."

Masurao shrugged his shoulders and slashed his sword at Marrick. Again he was to far away, but now a wave of flame coursed towards Marrick.

The gaijin smiled and let the flames come to him. When the wave was a few feet away Marrick roared in defiance and summoned his powers. A slight glimmer could be seen as the wave collided with an invisible force and dissipated with a crackling sound. "Your puny flames will not harm me at all."

Masurao did not seem to reply in any way but setting his right foot one step forwards. However he put force behind it and when the foot stomped the ground, the floor split open as some unseen force through it.

Marrick barely jumped aside and made a motion as if throwing something. Suddenly a large bundle of a strange substance flew towards Masurao. The monk tried to avoid it, but it seemed to follow his motions and he was hit by it. It suddenly spread out and enveloped his entire body, disabling him and sending him to the floor.

The gaijin pushed himself from the floor and stood. He stalked over to his fallen prey and sneered, "Now you die."

Kenshuko swallowed deeply, she wanted to help Masurao, but what could she accomplish against a foe with the power of thousands?

"We both are shackled, Marrick, but the difference is that I can escape," Masurao said and with an enormous flash the substance covering him burned away. Everybody had to cover or close their eyes and when Marrick reopened them he was facing a standing Masurao again.

Marrick raised an eyebrow instead of attacking and asked, quasi-curious, "What do you mean 'shackled'?"

"Do you think that the sword is an extension of yours?" Masurao asked. "Do you really believe that you control it? Or that you even cooperate? That weapon has bound you to its will and through you it feeds. It is nothing more than a simple parasite and your are nothing more than its willing host. With this knowledge I shall easily defeat you.

Kenshuko was not so convinced about that and neither was Marrick.

Marrick almost gagged from laughing and coughed out a sentence. "You may... be able to k...ill me, but I have enough knowledge of this world to be certain of being summoned soon. Or return in some other manner."

"Not," Masurao said, and his eyes suddenly flared as he continued, "if I erase you from the Celestial Pattern."

"You would never do that!" Marrick hissed. "Do not bluff! I have felt your power and known it. To do such a thing would cause a major disturbance in the fabric of destiny! You cannot risk it!"

Masurao simply smiled and looked back at Kenshuko, who then realized the meaning of his kiss: a goodbye!

The warm sensation of the kiss suddenly sprang alive throughout her body again. It was a pleasant feeling, but it also filled Kenshuko with a strange dread. It was not something rational, but more like a tugging in the back of her head, something that told her this was not right. There was nothing pleasant about this moment, but why did she feel this way? What power was in the kiss that returned only just now? "No, Masurao! Stop!" Kenshuko screamed, but she could not move. Masurao had physically paralyzed her with the kiss as well. Again she screamed and struggled against the effects, but the love empowering the kiss was too strong.

"What is he doing?" Yacho whispered as he saw Masurao close his eyes.

The large ise zumi's body suddenly begun to shine with increasing fire, wreathing around him in a cloak of flames.

Slowly Chousen stood and looked at the scene, when the others came running back inside, ready for anything. Anything except for what they saw.

"What are you doing?" Marrick's voice was confused, enraged and scared all at once. "You can't do this! The consequences..."

"Are mine to bear," Masurao answered as his body began to emanate so much light that everyone else had to close his or her eyes.

A large wave of light passed through the entire chamber and through everyone, leaving them touched with something they could not describe or clarify, but with other things to worry about no one took note.

The realization of his mistake dawned on Marrick as his body was being consumed by the pure light coming from Masurao, and he screamed.

* * *

"Noooo!"

Kenshuko's scream drowned out even Marrick's death throes and rang throughout the entire village.

When the blinding light subsided everybody opened his or her eyes again, but there was no trace of either Masurao or Marrick. The centre was silent again, except for Kenshuko's crying.

The young woman fell on her knees and slammed her fists on the floor. "Why," she yelled turning her faces upwards as if addressing the Heavens themselves. "Why did it have to be him? Give him back!"

From where he had stood Chousen walked over to Kenshuko and knelt beside her and comforted her as best he could. He put his arms around her a bit clumsily, then a bit more assured. He whispered hushing words to her and let her cry on his shoulder. Why he did this, he could not explain, it just felt right and good.

Yacho ran towards Akiko and put his arms around her and kissed her, knowing they were lucky to be alive.

Kiniko, Mutomo and the woman monk tended to the Saibankan, Or'rum'tikir and Xingto.

Nodotai put a reassuring hand on Kangaku's should and said, "Thank you for disobeying me. I counted on it."

"I know," Kangaku said, smiling wryly until he saw Kenshuko. "That poor woman."

"I am sorry for your loss, Kakita-sama," Saibankan said as he stood, finding support in Masamichi's saya. "Please tell us your names, that we may know our saviors and pray for your friend."

When the young woman said nothing Chousen spoke. "Our martyr was Togashi Masurao. I met him and he is considered a brother to all Crab. But I do not know you, Kakita-sama."

"Kenshuko," was all Kenshuko managed to say in a coarse voice.

"Then please accept my condolences, Kenshuko-san. May the kami bless Masurao-sama and watch over his soul," Saibankan said.

"What will we do now?" Kangaku asked softly.

All eyes turned to Saibankan and he sighed, saying, "I suggest everybody goes home. Xingto, Kiniko and I will finish things up here."

Chousen stood, helped Kenshuko up and said to her, "I wish to offer you a place to stay. You should not be alone at this time. It is the least I can do to repay you. Unless you wish to return home."

Kenshuko shook her head.

"Then I wish to extend the same hospitality to Yacho, Akiko, Kangaku and Mutomo. You are welcome in Crab lands until everything has been settled," Nodotai said.

Kenshuko knelt and picked up Masurao's satchel and furoshiki sack. Without a word she slung the sack across her shoulder and fastened the satchel to her obi. "I am ready," was all she said.

Yacho only nodded at Nodotai and Saibankan and they all left the center.

"I'll keep you informed," Saibankan said to Chousen. "You make sure that you take care of her."

"You have my word, though I doubt she'll need much protection," Chousen replied. "She is stronger than she looks. She has to be if she traveled with Masurao."

* * *

Masurao opened his eyes and shook the disoriented sensation from his head.

"Little Fire? Why are you here?" a playful voice said above Masurao.

Masurao looked up and smiled. "Hello, Jade," he replied. "I had to come here to save them."

The larger Dragon cocked its head and blinked its sparkling eyes. "But why not stay in Rokugan?"

"Jade is right my son," a voice like crackling fire boomed. "You did not have to come here. The gaijin's death does not weigh up against your sacrifice, not even with all the 'gifts' you left. The gaijin was never to be a part of the Celestial Pattern and the spirits he consumed did not belong to him, changing his destiny or erasing him from Pattern does not require such a great toll."

"And you are hurting that poor Kenshuko," Jade added. "Why?"

Masurao sighed. "Kenshuko is a strong woman and I love her dearly, but she doesn't realise her own strength. She would never if I stayed by her side constantly and it is important that she does come to rely on her own capabilities. Though love can make someone strong, a lack of it can make someone even stronger. I can teach her a lot, but some things only experience can teach."

"You are a harsh sensei, Masurao-san," a familiar voice suddenly said. "How long do you even plan to stay here?"

Masurao turned around to face Hoshi, but if he was surprised, the ise zumi did not show. "I did not leave her behind alone, Hoshi-sama."

"What do you mean, Little Fire?" Jade asked curiously.

But Masurao would speak of it no more.

* * *

Three months later...

"I thank you for seeing me so soon, Chousen-san," Mirumoto Nikkan said as he bowed to the large Crab. "I know you must be a busy man."

"Hardly," Chousen said with a wry smile. "Though Kuon-sama offered me my old position as general back, I declined and told I could not fulfil that duty until I had seen Kenshuko off safely. When I mentioned Masurao's name he was quick to agree. Masurao is considered a brother to all Crab, for he underwent the Twenty Goblin Winter of his own volition."

Nikkan nodded and asked, "How has Kenshuko been? I wished I could've come earlier, but it isn't easy with everything my Clan is embroiled in."

"She is well, considering the circumstances. We should go take a look, she usually is training in the courtyard around this time." The large Crab said solemnly. Nikkan noticed how this Crab's eyes seemed to have little left of the determination and defiance of his brethren, it had been replaced by an even stronger sense of duty and protection. Though Chousen himself did not seem to be very assuming, he proved an admirable man indeed.

"Training?" Nikkan asked with a raised eyebrow.

"It helps her focus her thoughts, she says. Whatever the reason, she has proven to be too much for the Crab to handle. Already three Hida were sent to the Kuni to be tended to," Chousen said with a laugh. "They know not to pick on her anymore."

Nikkan's face was a bit worried when he asked, "Has there been any trouble because of... the war?"

Chousen fiercely shook his head. "No. I warned everyone that she was a close friend to Masurao. They honor his memory by not harassing her, as well as they honor their health by not doing so."

Nikkan managed to break out a small, wry smile. "I do not know if I can ever thank you enough for seeing after her."

Chousen suddenly leaned in closer and said carefully, "Do not thank me. We are more than proud to have her here. Her conviction and persistence have become the talk among many. She has ventured into the Shadowlands by herself and returned with the heads of several ogres."

"She has done... what?" Nikkan was barely able to hide his surprise. Was this the same Kenshuko he knew?

"That's not all, Nikkan-dono. But it would be best if she told you herself. Let us go and find her."

* * *

"Hah! You have been bested, Masurao!" A deep, boisterous voice said. "Give it up! You no longer have the strength or speed to pierce my defenses."

Masurao looked up from where he was lying on the ground. He lifted himself up and put on foot on the ground. "I am sorry, Bishamon, that's not in my nature." From this crouched position Masurao lunged at the Fortune of Strength.

"Fascinating, isn't it?" Benten said to Jotei. "I mean he can't defeat Bishamon, but he still keeps going. The mortals will never stop to surprise you, I can assure you that."

Jotei's draconic features split into a wide smile and he jested, "I can attest to that."

Meanwhile Bishamon was holding Masurao by his throat, having grabbed him from mid-air. "Now will you give up? Please? Though it is fun to spar with you, Masurao, it isn't fun to finish off an opponent who is already defeated. Let us call this a draw."

Masurao smiled and with his one good eye looked at Bishamon. "Very well then. I guess I need to tend to this bruised eye you gave me."

Bishamon relinquished his hold on Masurao and turned around to face his fellows. "Another victory!"

Benten applauded politely and Jotei let out a mock cheer.

Hoshi Eisai had suddenly appeared, seemingly from nowhere and helped Masurao onto his feet. She looked into his eye and posed a question.

Masurao shook his head. "No, not yet," he said to her. "The time isn't right just yet."

* * *

Nikkan was shocked when he walked into the dojo of Kyuden Hida. There he found several Crab sitting and watching Kenshuko perform her kata. Kenshuko's hair was cut short as was customary when mourning. Nikkan marvelled at the precision and strength of the strikes, a fury was behind the Kakita's eyes that he had only seen before in those of her father.

An elderly Kuni woman approached Nikkan and addressed him, "You have come for the girl, haven't you, Mirumoto-san?"

"Yes, Kuni-san," Nikkan simply replied.

"She is strong. Far stronger than she looks," the woman said.

"Indeed," Nikkan remarked, "it runs in her family."

"I doubt that there are many more Kakita that can send a burly Hida flying ten feet through the air with one backhand strike. She is filled with the essence of the Son of Fire."

"Perhaps, but she's the only who has travelled with Masurao for so long. Who knows what effects he had on her? What he taught her," Nikkan said flatly.

"You are mistaking. I mean that she carries Masurao's essence, Mirumoto-san. I consulted the kami and they have confirmed it: Kenshuko bears Masurao's offspring."

In the midst of the dojo Kenshuko suddenly grasped her abdomen and fell to the floor with an icy cry.

[To be continued...]

Appendix

Kitsuki Saibankan: One of the Heroes of Rokugan, Saibankan was known in his time for his stalwart support of the Kitsuki's Way. He would hold treatises in courts to prove the wisdom of his family's way, but most of the time he was ridiculed because of his name. (An earlier Soshi Saibankan set up a large part of the Rokugani justice system and the name has become a title for a judge) After his return to Rokugan he chose not to become mortal. He has been an Emerald Magistrate since the Battle at Oblivion's Gate, until he received a note from Shinjo Nubei's students asking his help. Saibankan is an excellent swordsman, but prefers to fight with his ancestral no-dachi 'Masamichi' ('the path of righteousness')

Shinjo Nubei: A Unicorn magistrate of high esteem. Nubei was tricked by the villain Marrick (although that was not known at that time) and forced to retire to a monastery. Eventually he was assassinated, but not before writing down Kitsuki Saibankan's name.

Moto Xingto: One of Nubei's student. A honorable and headstrong samurai, though a little hotheaded at times. Xingto would like to see justice served and help it along whenever necessary. He is still young, but far from naive.

Horiuchi Kiniko:
Nubei's second student. Kiniko is a shugenja of the Horiuchi family, but she also studied under Nubei's tutelage. She is still a bit unsure about herself, but doesn't hesitate when the time is there.

Hiruma Nodotai: Another Hero of Rokugan. Hiruma Nodotai was a greatly respected man during his time, some considered him the pinnacle of stealth and guile. This reputation lingered, though it is not entirely correct; Nodotai is a powerful combatant as well and combines his Scorpion tricks with Crab brutality with startling efficiency. Though not known for it, Nodotai is a capable duelist too. He was set on Marrick's tracks by the spirits of his mother and father.

Hida Chousen: Once a general of the Crab, Chousen has suffered a fall from grace, though the circumstances are obscure and known to very few. Chousen looks like the stereotypical Hida: large, broad and dense. This exterior hides a keen tactical mind, however, and a caring person as well. In combat Chousen relies on his perception to find an opponent's weakness and then uses his strength to bring him down.

Or'rum'tikir: A Nezumi who was earned great renown among his tribe. For a while Or'rum'tikir disguised himself as a samurai in full armor and used his impressive skills in kenjutsu to save many lives. However, he was discovered by Chousen after a battle, in which he dueled a Crane general in the Crab's stead and thus saved the day. Or'rum'tikir related the story of how he was trained by a Dragon spirit who had returned through Oblivion's Gate, but could not bear the consequences anymore. The Dragon trained Or'rum'tikir and committed seppuku shortly thereafter, with the Nezumi as his second.

Bayushi Yacho: A minor daimyo of the Scorpion. Yacho was born under a bad sign and his father's advisor, Soshi Samo, predicted that the boy would be a brute; mindless, but physically exceptionally strong. The young Scorpion was far from mindless, however, but picked up his 'destiny' quickly. He played the part handed to him, until his brother betrayed his father to usurp the position of daimyo. Secretly Yacho plotted his brother's downfall and his own ascension as rightful daimyo. Afterwards, Yacho revealed to those he trusted that he was a descendant of the lost Boar Clan and that perhaps the Scorpion would try to restore that Clan through him.

Bayushi Akiko: Formerly Shosuro Akiko, until she married Yacho. Not much is known about Akiko, as it should be with every butei. She and her husband were sent after Nodotai by her uncle, Kyuto. The opportunity for Yacho to prove himself and perhaps another step in returning the Boar.

(Chuda) Mutomo: One of the last Chuda, Mutomo traveled the Empire in search of maho, with the only thing on his mind its destruction. He was called by Yacho to aid him in overthrowing the Scorpion's brother and was offered fealty afterwards. He has chosen not to take the Scorpion name, the promise of the possibility of having his own family still in the back of his head.

Soshi Samo: The advisor of Yacho's line for three generations. Samo is renowned for his accurate predictions of the future through signs and omens. He himself, however, has lost much of his former certainty after he found out how terribly wrong he was with Yacho's birth. He learned of the plan's to hunt Marrick, but got a vision that told him his master could not defeat Marrick. He sought out Masurao for help.

Shosuro Kangaku: Akiko's younger brother. Trained to be a ninja, Kangaku ran into Nodotai in the Crab lands. The young Scorpion was immediately impressed with the Crab's abilities, until he heard whom the man really was. Kangaku, however, proved important later on, when Nodotai went to Scorpion lands. Through Kangaku his sensei and uncle, Kyuto, learned of the evil (which turned out to be Marrick) and sent Yacho there.

Kakita Kenshuko: The daughter of the (in)famous Koshin. Kenshuko had been travelling through the Empire to find her father. She had met Masurao twice during this time, but when she had finally found Koshin, Masurao offered to bring her home safely. There were complications, but it turned out that Kenshuko would travel with Masurao as her 'sensei'.

Togashi Masurao: WHAT?! You don't know who he is? Shame on you! ;0) Go read the Prodigal Prodigy stories to find out more. I won't tell anything here, because it is much more fun to read it yourself.