By Rich Wulf
Eighteen Years Ago…
Togashi Yoshune ran as swiftly as he could, never looking back. His bare feet moved easily over the rugged terrain of the Great Climb. His long black hair flowed behind him on the fierce mountain wind. The little boy grinned eagerly as he dodged to one side, tucking behind a large outcropping of stone. He peered back the way he had come and waited.
After several minutes a tall man appeared on the road, fierce eyes searching everywhere as he marched swiftly forward. He wore the topknot and daisho of a samurai and the brilliant green kimono of a Dragon Clan lord. He climbed a tall pillar of stone with remarkable ease and looked all around.
"I know you are here, Yoshune," he said. "I know you are hiding from me."
Yoshune said nothing, only crouched deeper in his hiding place.
The samurai scowled. "You cannot hide forever!" he promised. "I will find you!"
"Not likely, father," Yoshune called back. He threw his voice as the ise zumi taught him so that it would echo off the mountain walls and come from all directions at once.
"The Great Climb is no place for a child," the samurai answered. "These lands are treacherous. Even the Mirumoto bushi are wary of them."
"Then when I return home I shall be a strong as a Mirumoto bushi!" Yoshune said boldly. "Go back home, and I shall return when I am done with my adventure!"
The samurai looked thoughtful for a moment, shrugged, and seated himself on the rock pillar. Reaching into his kimono, he drew out a small package and began to unwrap it. Taking out one of the small cakes inside, he began to chew noisily.
A few seconds later, Yoshune appeared at the base of the pillar, looking up with wide eyes. "Are those the rice cakes mother makes?" Yoshune asked in a small voice.
The samurai nodded. "With the plum jelly, yes," he replied. He took out another, looked at it with great pleasure, and took a bite.
"Those are my favorite," Yoshune said. The boy's stomach growled.
"I would have brought you one," the samurai said, looking down at Yoshune with mild surprise, "but I thought you were off on an adventure."
"I'm done now, father," Yoshune said in a firm voice, watching the rice cake hungrily.
"We all learn something from our adventures," Yoshune's father said, looking at the cake patiently. "What have you learned, little Yoshune?"
"Not to forget to bring food with me," he said, climbing up onto the pillar next to his father.
Yoshune's father smiled and handed the boy a fresh cake. Yoshune took it with both hands and chewed hungrily. Togashi Hoshi was the most mysterious man in the lands of the Dragon. Champion of the Dragon Clan, son of the Kami Togashi, the legendary Man-Beast, an entire order of monks had dedicated themselves to understanding his power and wisdom. To Yoshune, he was just "father."
"You should not run away on these adventures, Yoshune," Hoshi said. "You will kill your mother with worry."
"And were you worried about me?" Yoshune asked, looking up at his father.
"Yes," Hoshi said. "I was."
"Then why could you not find me?" Yoshune asked. "You could have used your magic to discover me in an instant."
"Because I wanted it to be your choice to return," Hoshi said, chewing on his own cake as he studied the swirling clouds far below. "If I had turned myself into a dragon, cast my flaming eye upon the mountains, sought you out in your hiding place, and whisked you back home in a mighty claw then you would have learned nothing. Tomorrow you would have left again… or worse yet, you would have never left again."
Yoshune chewed quietly for a few seconds, then looked up at his father. "Either way, I would have learned nothing."
"Precisely," Hoshi said, smiling proudly.
"May I ask you a question, father?" Yoshune asked. "It is something I have been thinking about for a long time…"
"Of course," Hoshi replied. "Ask me whatever you like."
Yoshune's eyes gleamed. "Will you teach me how to turn into a dragon as you do, as grandfather did?"
Hoshi laughed out loud. "That is not the sort of thing that can be taught, my son," he said. "Though in time you may unravel that mystery for yourself."
"How much time?" Yoshune asked, shoulders slumping in disappointment.
"I do not know," Hoshi asked, "but when the time comes I think you will come to be even stronger than me, in your own way."
"I want to be a dragon now," Yoshune said with a sigh.
Hoshi wrapped one arm around his son's shoulder and hugged him fondly. "Some day," he said. "But until then, how about a ride back home?"
Yoshune tried to contain his grin, pretending as if this had not been his plan all along. Hoshi stood atop the stone pillar and leapt into the air. His form shimmered and twisted, transforming into a coiling red dragon that danced upon the winds. Turning agilely in midair he swam back toward Yoshune and dipped his head. With a wild hoot, Yoshune leapt onto his father's shoulders and seized his fiery mane. Togashi Hoshi let loose a roar that echoed across the Great Climb and soared into the sky.
"I can see the whole world from here," Yoshune shouted over the howling winds.
"Mark it well, my son," Hoshi said. "One day it will fall to you to protect it."
"To me?" Yoshune asked, "but you are immortal, father. Will you not rule the Dragon forever?"
"I am no leader," Hoshi said. "I am neither human enough to understand the Dragon nor divine enough to guide them. My destiny lies elsewhere."
"Do not worry, little Yoshune," he said. "I will not leave for a long time yet. We will still have time to fly through the mountains together. And I would never miss your gempukku. Have you given any thought to what name you will choose?"
"Satsu," Yoshune said without hesitation.
Hoshi seemed surprised. "Satsu?" he said. "For Hitomi's brother?"
"He died for the future, even though he did not understand it," Yoshune answered. "I do not know how he had the wisdom to do something so difficult. I hope by taking his name I will understand. Is that a good reason to take a name, father?"
"Yes, Yoshune," Hoshi said, smiling with pride again. "It is a very good reason to take a name."
"I have brought you a gift," Togashi Matsuo said.
The countless Shakoki Dogu suddenly ceased their advance on the solitary tattooed man and looked at one another with unblinking eyes. Heichi Jianzhen looked similarly surprised by the tattooed man's words.
"A gift?" Jianzhen replied. "What are you talking about, Dragon?"
"Is it not customary when entering another samurai's territory to bring a gift?" Matsuo asked. "It would be impolite to kill me before you accepted mine, Jianzhen-sama."
The hovering shugenja watched Matsuo suspiciously. "You could give me nothing that I would desire save your death, which will occur shortly."
"What if I rid you of Kokujin?" Matsuo replied.
"As I said, we do not want your war here, Dragon," Jianzhen snarled. "We can rid ourselves of Kokujin as easily as we rid ourselves of you." The Shakoki Dogu began to advance again.
"No," Matsuo said. "You cannot."
The statues stopped again, now only a few feet from Matsuo.
"Why do you say this?" Jianzhen asked. She moved closer to Matsuo, the Shakoki Dogu parting as she approached.
"Look at the army you have here," Matsuo said, gesturing to the Shakoki Dogu. "I have been told much of Kokujin. If you were any threat to him, he would not be here. Somehow he has found a way to protect himself from your spirits, hasn't he?"
"You are a clever man, Matsuo," Jianzhen said. She now stood only a dozen feet from Matsuo. "Even so, what makes you believe that you can succeed where I have failed? My Shakoki Dogu watched as your party was ambushed. We saw your leader dragged away in chains, along with your shugenja and your strongest warriors."
"It is true that alone we could not defeat Kokujin," Matsuo said. "Perhaps if we help one another we can find a way."
"Are you certain you wish to ally with us?" Jianzhen asked with a severe look. "When you learn the forces that are truly arrayed against you, you might pray that I had killed you."
"A cryptic comment like that only makes me more eager," Matsuo said with a laugh.
"Very well, then," Jianzhen said. "Collect the wounded monk and the hiding archer, Togashi Matsuo. Bring them to the temple at the base of that mountain." She pointed to a nearby crest. "I shall wait for you there, and all shall be explained."
Matsuo looked at the mountain then turned to Jianzhen to reply. She had vanished into shadow. The Shakoki Dogu figures looked at Matsuo in silence and melted back into the earth. Mirumoto Rosanjin stepped out of the bushes and let out a breath of relief. He shouldered his bow and ran to meet Matsuo.
"Well done, Togashi," Rosanjin said. "I thought I was going to have to put an arrow through her head at one point."
"When she threatened to rid herself of me?" Matsuo asked.
"Actually, no," Rosanjin said with a smirk. "It was when she said I wasn't the strongest Dragon warrior."
"Careful, Rosanjin," Matsuo warned as they headed off to collect Wayan. "The mountains whisper their secrets to her, you know."
One Year Ago…
As if the horrors of war were not quite horrible enough, now disease ran rampant in the lands of the Dragon. Satsu knew that outbreaks of disease were a part of war - the presence of rotting corpses and lack of decent food often lead to pestilence. To know it and to see it were two very different things.
Satsu stood at the edge of Mikoto Mura, a small Dragon village named for a minor hero of the Clan Wars. Now it was a dead husk. Many of the houses had been burned to try to contain the plague. Many others were marked with bright red kanji to prevent those yet uninfected from entering and becoming victims. A few Dragon shugenja in silken green robes, robes now stained with blood and filth, moved about the village trying to bring hope to the survivors and peace to the dying. There were too few.
Satsu steadied the large sack over his shoulder and strode into the village. An old shugenja immediately ran forward to stop him. "Togashi-san," the man said, noting Satsu's shaven head and vibrant tattoos. "This village is not safe. You must leave before you are infected."
Satsu bowed respectfully to the shugenja. "Do not fear for me, Tamori-san," he said. "My tattoos protect me as your magic protects you. I am Satsu, son of Hoshi."
The man's wrinkled face suddenly brightened with hope. "Satsu-sama?" he said in a quavering voice. "Here?"
"I have brought food and medicine," he said, nodding to the sack he carried.
"Arigato, Satsu-sama," the shugenja said, bowing deeply. "Such things are greatly needed, and deeply appreciated. Please follow me."
The shugenja led Satsu through the dying village, toward a large temple in its center. A statue of Jurojin stood watch over the temple gates. Satsu could not help but think that the elder Fortune looked saddened by the fate of Mikoto Mura. He bowed his head respectfully to the Fortune of Longevity and stepped inside. The stench within the temple made him choke. Heaps of dead bodies wrapped in straw mats stood stacked beside the doors, prepared for later cremation. Beyond the doors, the temple had been transformed into a makeshift hospital. Infected villagers lay everywhere. A few shugenja tried to make them as comfortable as possible with straw pallets and small cushions. Sadly the number of sick was small compared to the number of dead.
"Togashi Satsu-sama, allow me to introduce Tamori Chieko," the old shugenja said, pausing beside one of the nearest pallets. "She leads the fight against the plague here. Her healing powers are matched only by her boundless compassion." A dainty woman knelt beside a dying man covered with festering boils. Her head was bowed in prayer, and when she looked up her cheeks were stained with tears. Satsu was surprised by her beauty, especially amid such horror.
"He is dead," she said.
"I am sorry," Satsu replied. "I wish I could do more."
"Then do more, son of Hoshi," she said as she rose. "End this war with the Phoenix. Bring peace so that no more innocents will die."
"It is not that simple," Satsu said.
"Then stop wishing for what you do not truly desire," Chieko said coldly. "This war is a war of pride. Your father has the power of a god. Why does he allow this misery? Is the pride of the Dragon Clan so valuable?"
"Hoshi cannot stop this plague," Satsu said. "If mortal problems were solved so easily we would only make greater mistakes."
Chieko looked down at the dead man, then back at Satsu. "This man was the father of three children," she said. "Tell me what fate is worse for them than his death."
"I hope a future worse than this never comes to pass," Satsu replied. "My father is not ignorant of your plight. He sent me to give you all that you require."
"All he cared to give, you mean," she said.
"I am not your enemy," Satsu said calmly. "Would you turn me aside? Would you commit the same sin of which you accuse my father? Would you kill these people for your pride?"
Chieko looked down at the ground and was quiet for a long time. The wails of the sick and dying filled the silence. When she looked up at Satsu again, her anger was replaced by respect and understanding. "Follow me, Satsu-sama," she said. "I will show you how to help us."
"The old monk will live," Jianzhen said, startling Matsuo from his meditations. "I have not drawn upon my magic for healing in some time, but he is very strong. He is too stubborn to die, I think."
Rosanjin laughed. "That sounds like Wayan." The samurai leaned against the temple wall and nodded respectfully to the Boar.
Jianzhen knelt beside Matsuo in the small shrine. The wind moaned through the mountains around the tiny temple. The building was little more than a ruin, with many of the walls crumbling badly in places. The shrine bore no symbols of any ancestors or Fortunes. Whatever had been here once had long since been removed.
"So how did the Boar return?" Matsuo asked.
"We never left," Jianzhen replied. "We merely changed."
Matsuo looked at Jianzhen patiently.
"Our clan was founded when a band of Crab became lost in the Twilight Mountains. The small fortress they had constructed was buried in an earthquake. For almost sixty years they were forgotten until, unexpectedly, the descendants of the lost samurai returned. They considered themselves Crab no longer. They had spent their time mining the wealth of the Twilight Mountains, wealth they used to secure their position as a Minor Clan. They became the Boar. They were my ancestors."
"An incredible story," Rosanjin said. "They remained undiscovered all that time and no one looked for them?"
"The Crab were at war; they could not afford to lose so many troops," Jianzhen said. "They looked for my ancestors with all the troops they could spare, but they found nothing. My descendants were nowhere that they could be found."
Matsuo and Rosanjin quietly waited for Jianzhen to explain.
Jianzhen looked down at her hands, trying to choose the right words. "My ancestors should have perished in the earthquake, but they were saved by the Shakoki Dogu. They are ancient spirits who dwell deep within the earth, but were brought to the surface by a great catastrophe."
"The earthquake?" Rosanjin asked.
"No, something far worse than that," Jianzhen said. "A thousand years ago a terrible beast came here to die," Jianzhen said. "Its name has been long forgotten; legend speaks of it as the First Oni. Wounded by the Kami Shiba, it perished in the Twilight Mountains. Its blood tainted the earth. It was the First Oni's foul essence that awakened the Shakoki Dogu. It is their duty to contain the First Oni's evil, to prevent it from returning to the mortal realm."
"So why did they save your ancestors?" Matsuo asked.
Jianzhen smiled. "They were lonely," she said. "They saw my ancestors as worthy companions to while away their endless vigil. So they took the lost Crab to the place where they dwell, a place that is a part of the mortal realm, and yet beyond it. After sixty years, my ancestors convinced the Shakoki Dogu to release them, to let them return to the mortal world, in return for the promise that we would forever guard the Twilight Mountains. We kept our promise for many centuries… until Yajinden came."
"Asahina Yajinden?" Matsuo said with a shiver. "He served Iuchiban the Bloodspeaker."
Jianzhen nodded. "He came in the company of a corrupted Dragon named Agasha Ryuden. Ryuden and Yajinden had heard legends about the rich iron beneath the Twilight Mountains, and wished to use it to forge weapons of evil. A foolish Boar allowed the two Bloodspeakers to enter the mines, where they found the veins of iron corrupted by the First Oni's blood. Using corrupted Agasha metal smithing techniques and Yajinden's own perverted skill with artificing, they made a nemuranai more horrible than any the Empire has seen - a tainted nemuranai that creates other tainted nemuranai. The Anvil of Despair. Yajinden began to slaughter the Boar Clan to feed the Anvil. The Shakoki Dogu could not fight him; the Anvil is so strong with dark magic that they could not approach it. The best they could do was to gather the surviving Boar and take us back to their realm."
"And there you have lived ever since," Rosanjin said. "That is why your castles lie in ruins. That is why this temple looks as if no one has worshipped here in years."
Matsuo reached out one hand impulsively toward Jianzhen, his fingers passed through her arm as if she were only smoke.
"You say you are protected," Rosanjin said in a disgusted voice. "It seems to me you are imprisoned."
She looked at him with a sad smile, tears welling in her eyes. "It is not such a bad life, really," she said. "The Shakoki Dogu have it much worse than we do. They eternally feel the pain the First Oni's corruption inflicts on these mountains. It drives them mad sometimes. We Boar do all that we can to ameliorate their pain."
"Do all your clan walk the mountains like you do, as a ghost?" Matsuo asked.
"Only me," Jianzhen answered, "and only recently. Something is happening here that the Shakoki Dogu do not understand; they often do not understand the behavior of humans. They allowed me a small bit of freedom to help unravel the mystery. My magic can still affect the mortal world, even if I cannot."
"What have you learned?" Matsuo asked.
"Since the arrival of Kokujin and his minions," Jianzhen replied, "The Shakoki Dogu can no longer enter Shiro Heichi. Every time I approach I sense a great evil."
The realization struck Matsuo suddenly. "Kokujin has the Anvil of Despair," he said. "He is using the tainted iron to craft some kind of weapon."
Jianzhen nodded sadly.
"What do we do?" Matsuo asked.
Five months ago…
"To the south!" Satsu shouted, knocking a Shiba samurai to the ground with a fierce kick. "Their shugenja are hidden behind the tree line!"
The attack had been unexpected. Satsu and his retinue had been returning to the Shrine of the Ki-Rin to bolster the Mirumoto forces there. His group was mostly composed of ise zumi, traveling swiftly and silently off the commonly used roads. The Phoenix forces should not have predicted their arrival, let alone had time to ambush them, and yet they had. Samurai in brilliant orange armor surrounded them on all sides. Bolts of screaming white lightning exploded from the heavens, though Satsu noticed the bolts never struck anyone directly. Instead they hammered the ground nearby, stunning and deafening his Dragon allies.
Satsu seized the naginata from the fallen Phoenix and looked back to see if any had heard his rallying cry. His comrades were still engaged in battle with the Phoenix, unable to answer his call. He set off alone; if the Phoenix shugenja could be dealt with then they might yet have a chance.
"There he is!" shouted a triumphant voice. "There is the Man-Beast's son!"
Satsu looked up to see a quartet of Phoenix horseman galloping toward him. The leader wore the extravagant back banner of a shireikan, obviously the leader of the group. The riders kept their swords sheathed, wielding short handled jo staves instead. Their intent was obvious; they meant to capture him alive, to use him as a hostage against his father. Satsu held his spear low, aiming it against the chest of the closest horseman. A bolt of lightning hammered the earth behind him, pitching him forward onto the ground. His mouth filled with dirt and blood. A piercing ring echoed through his head, numbing all other sound. He tried to command his legs to stand again, but they would not. He was weak, helpless, and any moment he would be a prisoner of the Phoenix Clan.
Except that he was not. Slowly, the ringing faded and the strength returned to his limbs. Satsu sat up painfully and looked around. The earth was strewn with the bodies of dead Phoenix. A horse lay beside him, its neck twisted savagely. Satsu looked around for some sign of his savior. A massive ise zumi sat cross-legged on a tree stump. The dark tattoos of a kikage zumi, the Moon-worshipping order of the tattooed men, crossed his thick chest but his face was familiar.
"You are Hogai," Satsu said in disbelief, "the Crab ambassador."
"Not a Crab anymore," Hogai said bluntly. "Yesterday I heard the Lady's call. I am Hitomi Hogai now."
Satsu was surprised despite his disgust for the carnage that surrounded them. He looked up at the sky. Lady Moon shone brightly upon them. "So Hitomi has taken to recruiting members of other clans again, even from the Heavens?"
"Only when it is important," Hogai said. "Shiba Hayoto would have taken you hostage. I convinced him such an action was not wise and sent him back to Shiro Shiba. He was not pleased." Hogai looked at the dead horse. "I think he did not want to walk."
Satsu looked at Hogai in disbelief. "What happened to the other Phoenix?"
Hogai regarded Satsu calmly. "I killed them," he said. "Just as they killed your retinue."
Satsu felt a cold sensation deep in his chest. He suddenly felt very tired. He rubbed his eyes with one hand as the enormity of it all sank in. He had seen death before, but not like this. "No," Satsu said. "I killed them. None of them would have been here if I had not come. Father could have sent another emissary, but I thought I could help. I should have known better."
Hogai folded his arms across his chest and leaned forward on his knees, cupping one meaty hand on each shoulder. "So what will you do?" he asked eagerly. "Return to Togashi Mountain?"
"No," Satsu said. "I have come this far. I will not hide from this war."
"So then you will go to Ki-Rin's Shrine and feast on the blood of the Phoenix?" Hogai asked eagerly. "If so, I am with you."
"I will go to Ki-Rin's Shrine," Satsu said, "but not to seek revenge. I want to find an end to this war. Thank you for saving my life, Hogai-san."
"I ask a favor in return," the kikage zumi said bluntly.
Satsu studied Hogai warily. "What is that?" he asked.
"When you go into battle, take me with you," Hogai said with a savage grin. "I am not the sort who fears spilling blood."
"I do not fear battle either," Satsu said. He was uneasy in the kikage zumi's presence, as if Hogai might explode into violence again at any moment.
"There is a difference between a warrior and a killer, Satsu," Hogai replied. "You are a warrior. I am a killer. Keep me by your side, to guard against your enemies."
"And why would I want a killer by my side?" Satsu asked.
"So that you can see my example," Hogai said, "and never become like me."
Satsu considered the grim tattooed man's words. He nodded slowly. "Very well, Hogai-san," he said. "I accept."
"I choose Hogai," Satsu said, lowering his head in defeat.
"Are you sure that is the wise choice?" Kokujin asked in an amused voice. "The kikage zumi has a great deal of blood, and his heart is the heart of a killer. His soul will give my sword quite an edge."
Satsu looked up at Kokujin. "You asked me to choose and I have chosen," he spat. "I choose Hitomi Hogai." Satsu looked at Hogai. The kikage zumi looked back at Satsu with quiet courage, resigned to his fate.
"Very well," Kokujin said with a small smile. Behind him, a quartet of tattooed goblins filed into the chamber and looked up at their master curiously. Kokujin looked down at them with a charming smile. "Chain the girl to the Anvil," he said.
The goblins cackled and obediently hurried to Tamori Chieko. They loosened her chains and led her toward the Anvil of Despair. She stumbled along numbly, unwilling to believe what was happening.
"Kokujin, no!" Satsu shouted. "I chose Hogai!"
"I know what you chose," Kokujin said. "You forget that I am a Dragon too, so not all that I say is as it appears. You think that my objective here was to force you to condemn a friend and watch him die. No. My goal was for you to condemn a friend and watch him live. Now every time you look into Hitomi Hogai's eyes you will remember how you damned him."
"Damn you Kokujin," Satsu hissed. "I will kill you for this."
Kokujin frowned. "Damn me indeed. That's all you have to say? How disappointing. Perhaps you will think of something more clever after I kill Chieko."
Kokujin turned back toward the Anvil, lifting his unfinished katana high. Satsu's eyes met Tamori Chieko's. Strangely, he saw no fear. She was serene, as if all that was about to occur was meant to be. For a single instant, she smiled at Satsu.
Then the castle filled with screams.
"We are here," Kaelung said, gasping for breath as he collapsed against a large boulder. The Twilight Mountains lay before them, eternal and foreboding.
Togashi Mitsu fell on his knees, bracing one hand against the ground as the world returned to normal speed. He gasped as he fell into a sitting position and wiped the sweat from his eyes. "We should begin our search at Shiro Heichi," Mitsu said. "It is well fortified; Kokujin would find it a suitable fortress."
"You know where to find it?" Kaelung asked.
"I have been there once before," Mitsu said. "Some days I think I have been everywhere once before."
"We have to rest," Kaelung said. "The Centipede's power has drained us both. We cannot fight like this."
"We cannot rest for long," Mitsu replied. "Satsu and the others are in danger."
"Then Satsu and the others should have never come," Kaelung replied, glaring at Mitsu. "I am not here for them, Mitsu. I am here for Kokujin. If you place us in danger to save their lives, I will leave you behind."
"And if you place the others in danger to kill Kokujin you will find me equally unforgiving," Mitsu said.
"Then let us hope that we are not forced into disagreement," Kaelung answered.