By Rich Wulf
Three Years Ago…
"At the end of the War of Spirits, Lord Sun unleashed a rain of fire
upon the Seikitsu Mountains," Togashi Hoshi said, chewing a rice cake as he
studied the natural cavern walls. His exotic features looked slightly malevolent
in the flickering light.
"I know the story, Hoshi," Togashi Mitsu replied quietly. The old ise zumi sat cross-legged at the far end of the cave, arms folded across his chest. The only light in the cave came from the images of flaming dragons that swam across Mitsu's arms and body, casting a ghostly radiance in the darkness.
"No mortal knew exactly why Yakamo chose to rain fire," Hoshi continued, running a long finger along a pattern in the stone. "Some felt perhaps that Yakamo wished to provide the Empire with a new pass to replace the one at Beiden that had collapsed in the war's climactic final battle. Some thought that a samurai who lived in the mountains had angered the new Sun god and was destroyed for his arrogance. Some merely concluded that Yakamo wished to show himself the equal of his ancestor, Osano-Wo, who is known for channeling lightning from the heavens with little provocation."
"The wise don't ask why gods do what they do," Mitsu answered shortly. "There are no sensible answers."
The young tattooed man who knelt beside Hoshi looked uncomfortable at that, but Hoshi only smiled. "True," Hoshi said. "The wise merely take advantage of opportunity without wasting time wondering. Such as the Unicorn Khan, who saw the value in controlling the pass and laid claim to it at once. Such as you, who saw the even greater value in the caves that had been revealed beneath the mountains. It is said that a man can walk from the northern edge of these mountains to the southern and never once see the light of day."
"This is true," Mitsu said.
"It is said that a man could survive indefinitely off the blind fish and fresh water in these caves," Hoshi continued. "You could disappear into the darkness and never meet another soul."
"That is a lie," Mitsu said, looking at the Dragon Champion directly. "I have been here for six years and already I have been disturbed twice."
"Twice?" Hoshi replied, regarding Mitsu curiously.
"Who is the boy?" Mitsu asked, ignoring Hoshi's question. "Another fool following you to his death?"
"No, actually," Hoshi said. "His name is Matsuo, a boy who joined the order after he was orphaned in the War of Spirits. He follows me, yes, but I had hoped he could follow you."
Mitsu looked at the young ise zumi. He was new, so new that Mitsu could still see the cuts on his scalp from the inexpert job he had done at shaving his own head. His tattoo was that of a coiled dragon, common among the Togashi. What was uncommon was that the dragon was wreathed in mist and frost rather than flame. The boy glanced from Mitsu to Hoshi nervously when he thought they weren't watching.
"I do not want a student, and I will not take one as a favor to you," Mitsu said. "I owe you nothing, Hoshi-sama. The days when I leapt to fight at your side are past. Remember? We lost."
Hoshi frowned. "We did not lose, Mitsu," he replied. "We merely discovered something else worth fighting for."
"Something you felt was worth fighting for," Mitsu corrected. "I never forgave Hitomi for what she did."
"She never asked for forgiveness, only understanding," Hoshi said, eyes downcast as he remembered battles long forgotten. "When you and I set out to defeat her all those years ago we were not seeing clearly."
"I saw clearly enough," Mitsu said bitterly. "She killed my friends, Hoshi. She killed your father. How could you join her?"
"My father intended to kill you one day, Mitsu," Hoshi answered bluntly.
Mitsu's eyes widened. He scowled at Matsuo so fiercely that the young ise zumi flinched. "Do you care so little for your father's memory that you would betray his secrets even in front of this acolyte?" Mitsu hissed.
"There is no harm in revealing the truth to Matsuo," Hoshi said. "He is part of the cycle. That is why I have brought him to you."
"By the Fortunes," Mitsu said. His scowl vanished, replaced with a look of wonder. "How can that be? Togashi is dead."
"His power outlives him," Hoshi said. "The boy shows all the signs. He has great power, Mitsu. He is tamashii."
"So teach him yourself," Mitsu replied.
"It is not so easy," Hoshi said with a sigh. "Matsuo, could you please go deeper into the cave, where you cannot hear?"
"With all due respect, Hoshi-sama," the boy said nervously, "if this concerns my fate, I would hear it. I will not go." He looked up from where he met, meeting the immortal Dragon's eyes squarely.
"Very well, Matsuo," Hoshi said. "As you know, my father was one of the original Kami, the gods who fell from the Heavens and founded the Empire. When the Kami fell, their father Onnotangu cursed them. When they touched the earth, they were bound to it. They would grow old and die like mortals before they saw the Celestial Heavens again."
"But Togashi never grew old," Matsuo replied. "He lived on in a hundred different names, always disguised as the Dragon Champion."
"Like all things concerning my father, it is not so simple," Hoshi answered. "My father had the gift of foresight, and he knew that one day his wisdom would be required to save the Empire. He lived on, but not as himself. He borrowed a page from his brother, Shiba."
"He learned to reincarnate himself," Mitsu said.
"Reincarnation?" Matsuo said, eyes wide.
"In a manner of speaking," Hoshi relied. "Shiba's soul could live in peace in the same body as another, becoming part of that person. But Togashi was not Shiba, and he could not do what Shiba had done. Each time he passed to a new vessel, the former soul was consumed. Usually the vessel was so wracked by the process that Togashi immediately died again. The first time my father died, it took him twenty tries before he could find a host strong enough to bear his spirit."
"So what happened?" Matsuo asked.
"Togashi came to understand that only special mortals could contain his essence, those with extraordinary self-control. Togashi called these individuals tamashii, the "souls" of the Dragon Clan. The ise zumi tattoos were, in a manner of speaking, a test for his followers. Those who exhibited the greatest control of the tattoos were the same people with the discipline and willpower to serve as future vessels. Whenever such an individual arose, Togashi told them the secret of the tamashii and offered them the chance to become the future Dragon Champion. Mitsu was the last tamashii to bear the Togashi name."
"Togashi died before I could fulfill my destiny," Mitsu said. "Hitomi killed him."
"And saved the Empire in so doing," Hoshi added. "Do not forget that."
"I have never heard of anything like this," Matsuo said.
"It was an easy secret to keep," Hoshi said. "The ability to contain the essence of an immortal is very rare. Sometimes only one ise zumi per generation is found with such a gift, and very rare was the tamashii who did not willingly sacrificing their existence so that Togashi would live on. My father took their names not only to disguise his presence in the Empire, but to honor the men and women who had given him a chance to live."
Matsuo looked at Mitsu. Mitsu's eyes were closed in meditation, or perhaps in memory.
"I say Mitsu was the last because he is no longer the last," Hoshi said. "That is why your control of the tattoo magic is so unusual, Matsuo."
"Me?" Matsuo asked, dumfounded.
"How is that possible?" Mitsu asked in a low voice. "Togashi is dead. There is no more need for the tamashii."
"Just because my father does not need Matsuo does not mean the Empire does not," Hoshi said. "We cannot teach him, Mitsu. We do not understand him. He will never reach his true potential unless you are the one to guide him."
Mitsu looked at Matsuo, then back at Hoshi. His face was grim.
"My father once said that you had a great destiny, Mitsu-san," Hoshi said. "You are the one who assumed it would be to die for him. Perhaps he meant for you to live for him. Do not turn your back on us, old friend. Do not turn your back on Matsuo."
Mitsu looked at Matsuo with a cryptic expression. "Are you willing to learn from me?" Mitsu asked.
"Yes, Mitsu-sama," Matsuo said.
"More importantly, are you willing to teach me?" Mitsu said.
Matsuo did not hesitate, but he did smile. "Yes, Mitsu-sama."
"And what should I do if I discover that you are a fool?" Mitsu asked.
"A good question," Matsuo replied. "What should I do if I discover that you are one?"
Togashi Mitsu smiled for the first time in a long time. "I will teach him."
"You are a fool, Matsuo," Hoshi Wayan said in an exasperated voice. "You said it yourself. You need my help."
"And we still do, Wayan-sama, but the situation has changed," Matsuo replied. "Kokujin has fortified his forces in Shiro Heichi. He has more tattooed goblins and corrupted tattooed men than we can deal with. Jianzhen and the Shakoki Dogu cannot aid us unless we can neutralize the Anvil of Despair. Stealth is our only option for rescuing Lord Satsu, but even then, one mistake could bring us all to ruin. We need another chance. Someone has to carry news of Kokujin's presence here to the Crab Clan. Face of the East Castle is only a few days from here. Perhaps if we fail, that will not be too late to stop whatever he is planning here."
The old monk shook his head. "I have experience with stealth," he said. "You would be better off to take me than the Mirumoto."
Rosanjin looked up at the mention of his name. He was seated on a small boulder, carefully polishing his gleaming katana with a silken rag. "You didn't do so well against Kokujin's servants last time, old man," he said.
Wayan's hands tightened on the haft of his bo. "I can fight again, Rosanjin-san," he said calmly. "Heichi Jianzhen mended my wounds. If you continue to address me with disrespect, you shall see just how talented a healer she is."
Rosanjin only smirked and continued to polish his sword.
"Wayan-sama, please," Matsuo said politely. "No one is questioning your capability, but this is the way it must be. Rosanjin has no traveling papers. If an armed Dragon bushi is discovered in Crab lands without papers, he will be arrested. By the time they finish questioning him and listen to his warning it may be too late."
"So you go, then," Wayan said. "Your tattoos will let you arrive more swiftly than I can, and as a monk they will not arrest you."
"The Crab do not know me," Matsuo said. "They will think it is some ise zumi game, and they will not take me seriously. It must be you, Wayan-sama. They have heard of your reputation."
"Is that some attempt to soothe an old man's ego so the children can go off to war?" Wayan asked.
"You know that it is not, Wayan-sama," Matsuo said.
Wayan nodded. "Carry the Fortunes then, Togashi Matsuo," he said. "I would hate to return with an army of Crab and find that you have been forced into slavery as Kobai was. I do not think I can bear to kill another friend."
"Live or die, Kokujin will not take us, Wayan-sama," Mirumoto Rosanjin said, sheathing his sword with a metal hiss. "I promise you that."
Wayan nodded to the samurai and, bowing a final time, made his way off through the Twilight Mountains. He soon disappeared into the rocky terrain, moving carefully to avoid encountering any of Kokujin's minions.
"We will do all we can to aid him," Heichi Jianzhen said, appearing beside Matsuo and Rosanjin. "The power of Taint may protect Kokujin, but the Shakoki Dogu's power still rules these mountains. No harm will come to Hoshi Wayan."
"Thank you, Jianzhen," Matsuo said.
"I am shamed that I can do so little," she said, pushing back her hood to reveal a pretty face weathered by sorrow and exhaustion. "Kokujin must be working some magic to strengthen the corruption in the mines. I cannot even approach within sight of Shiro Heichi without feeling great pain, and the Shakoki Dogu can do even less."
"You saved Wayan and you gave us the time we needed to plan," Rosanjin said. "We cannot ask for more."
"But perhaps I can offer more," Jianzhen said. Her eyes became glazed as she stared into the distant mountains. "The earth whispers to me. There are two others in these mountains. They do not bear the same wicked stain as Kokujin's servants, and yet they are painted as you are." She looked at Matsuo, eyes following the curling dragon on his chest.
"Tattooed men?" Matsuo asked. "Here?"
"Or maybe Witch Hunters," Rosanjin offered. "They sometimes wear paint and tattoos, and this is their territory."
"Either way, they could aid us," Matsuo said. "Can you take us to these men, Jianzhen?"
"The Shakoki Dogu suspected you would ask for such a thing," she replied softly. "The mountains will bring them to us."
One Year Ago…
"What happened here, Mitsu-sama?" Matsuo asked. The apprentice ise zumi stared about at the burnt huts and stacks of cloth-bound corpses in horror and disgust.
"There was a battle weeks ago between the Dragon and Phoenix," Mitsu said.
"I see no dead samurai," Matsuo replied observantly.
"The battle was not here," Mitsu said. "It took place north of here, several months ago. Hundreds of bodies were left behind as both sides moved on. Many were left lying in a stream, the same stream that brings fresh water to this village. After a time, the bodies began to rot, and the stream became infested with disease. This village is dying now."
"What can we do?" Matsuo asked. "How can we help?"
"Any way we can," Mitsu replied. "Satsu asked me to meet with him in the Temple of Jurojin. In the meantime, look around here and do what you can."
Matsuo nodded obediently. His sensei departed, leaving him standing amid the dead husk of Mikoto Mura. Amid the crackle of funeral pyres and the moans of the dying, Matsuo thought he could hear a baby crying. He followed the sound, coming at last to a small hut still untouched by the flame. The crying trailed off just as he pushed the door aside and entered. The furnishings within were sparse and shoddy, a peasant's home. A young woman sat in the corner of the hut, cradling a baby wrapped in a rough blanket. Matsuo bowed respectfully, noting from the wakizashi and scroll pouch she bore that she was a shugenja.
"Konnichiwa, Togashi-san," the woman said, nodding rather than bowing so that the child would not be disturbed. The baby began to cry softly.
"I woke him," Matsuo said. "I am sorry."
"Hold him, please," the woman said, offering the baby to him.
Matsuo accepted the child awkwardly. The woman smiled and picked up a biwa from the floor. She strummed the instrument gently, filling the hut with haunting music. Her voice rose smoothly to accompany it. The song was a simple one, the song of a young man who weeps for his lost love each time the winter snows fall. Matsuo had heard it many times before. It had always saddened him, but today it seemed to make him feel better. He felt the baby grow still in his arms as the song drew to a close, its restless movements replaced by slow, steady breathing.
The shugenja smiled. "That song always makes him fall asleep."
Matsuo nodded. "You sing it well," he said softly. "You are a Tamori?"
"Hai," she said. "My name is Chieko."
"I am Matsuo," he replied he looked down at the baby. "And what is your name?"
"He wouldn't tell me," Chieko said with a laugh. She looked at him curiously. "You have never held a baby before, have you?" she asked.
"Why do you say that?" Matsuo asked.
"Well, look at you," she replied. "You're holding him like you fear he'll jump out of your arms. Just relax, Matsuo-san."
Matsuo nodded and tried to relax, failing miserably. He looked down at the baby. "He's an orphan, isn't he?" he asked.
Chieko nodded. "One of many," she said.
"If he has nowhere else he can find a home with the order of ise zumi," Matsuo said. "I was an orphan, and they adopted me."
"So he can grow up to be a warrior, like the people who destroyed this village?" Chieko replied sharply.
Matsuo looked up at Chieko, surprised. "Ise zumi are not responsible for what happened here," he said.
"No, but this is a warrior's world," Chieko said sadly, taking the child back from him, "A world of death and violence."
Matsuo said nothing. Rising, he turned and moved back toward the door.
"I… I am sorry," Chieko said.
Matsuo looked back at her. "Why?" he asked.
"Lord Satsu has already accused me of being too prideful, and I think he is right," Chieko said. "I was wrong to blame you for what has happened here, Togashi Matsuo, and I am sorry. I do not even know you. Perhaps the monastery is the best place for this one and the others."
"No," Matsuo said. "You are not wrong at all. We are responsible for what has happened here."
Chieko looked at him, perplexed.
"We are responsible," he said, turning fully to face her. "We did not cause this. We cannot undo it, but we are responsible nonetheless. The Dragon Clan protects its people. Any harm that befalls them is our responsibility."
"A bold statement," Chieko said. "So what do you do when you are not there to keep them from harm?"
"Whatever we can," Matsuo said.
"This is the third time we have passed that shrub," Kaelung said in an irritated voice. "You said that you knew where we were going."
"I thought I did," Mitsu replied, looking at the rocky path with a bewildered expression. "I have not been here in years, but even so I cannot imagine so much has changed. These are mountains, after all. Mountains do not move… most of them, anyway."
"Why did you ever come here before?" Kaelung asked, looking out at the jagged black peaks. "This place has been forsaken by every Fortune."
"For a friend," Mitsu replied. "Many years ago I met a man who believed he was the last descendant of the Boar Clan, a shugenja named Chokei. Shortly before the march to Volturnum he foresaw his own death. He came here to pay his last respects to his family, to apologize for his failure."
"Pathetic," Kaelung said. "He knew he would die and he marched into it regardless."
"I have never seen a man more at peace with his fate," Mitsu said. "I do not know how he met his end, but I suspect he did so with courage. Tell me, Kaelung, if you knew that your death were coming that you would not meet it with your axe held high."
"That is different," Kaelung said, a wicked smile flickering across his craggy features. "In any case I think we will find out soon enough."
"Why do you say that?" Mitsu replied.
"We hunt Kokujin in his home," Kaelung said. "We follow your friends into a trap. If there were ever a time two men walked more certainly into their own death, I cannot imagine it."
Mitsu did not laugh or smile. He only looked straight ahead, eyes narrowed in concentration. Kaelung caught the shift in Mitsu's posture and lifted his axe slowly, casting about for any sign of a threat.
"Mitsu-sama?" said a voice. Togashi Matsuo stepped out onto the path before them, his face a mask of surprise.
"Matsuo," Mitsu said with relief. "Kaelung, this is my student."
"A pleasure," Kaelung said tonelessly. He watched Matsuo with open suspicion.
"Matsuo, Where are the others?" Mitsu asked.
"Careful, Mitsu," Kaelung said. He never lowered his weapon. "He may have fallen to Kokujin. I have seen honorable men serve him willingly."
"I am not dominated," Matsuo said. "I escaped his ambush, but many of the others did not. Akuai, Chieko, Hogai, and Satsu are still in his clutches."
"Convenient that you found us first, then," Kaelung said suspiciously.
"We are hardly the ones who look suspicious here," Mirumoto Rosanjin said, stepping out from behind cover on the high rock wall with his bow trained on Kaelung. "Mitsu, when did you begin to associate with wanted criminals?"
Mitsu looked up at Rosanjin patiently, stepping between Kaelung and the arrow's tip. "Kaelung is here as an ally, Rosanjin," Mitsu said. "Remember, his eagerness to hunt Kokujin was what caused his exile from the Dragon."
"No, his murder of three Mirumoto magistrates caused his exile from the Dragon," Rosanjin said grimly. "Now clear my shot, ise zumi."
"Let him try, Mitsu," Kaelung said in a nonchalant voice. "He had best aim well or I will be on him before he can draw again."
"Do you have so many allies here that you can afford to kill one?" Mitsu asked.
"I have my honor," Rosanjin snapped, "and it will not let me fight beside a murderer."
"Rosanjin, lower your bow," Matsuo said cautiously, noting the murderous gleam in Kaelung's eyes. "If Mitsu-sama believes this man can help, then we should listen. If he is truly a criminal there will be time to bring him to justice later."
"He will not betray us, Rosanjin," Mitsu said.
Rosanjin looked uncertain, eyes still locked with Kaelung. He finally lowered his bow with a sneer. "When we have saved Lord Satsu I would have words with you, Kaelung," he said.
"Of course," Kaelung replied, lowering his axe slowly. "I look forward to that."
"What do you know?" Mitsu asked, looking to Matsuo.
"Kokujin hides in Shiro Heichi," Matsuo said. "He has the Anvil of Despair."
"So he intends to become another Yajinden," Mitsu said.
"Yajinden?" Kaelung asked curiously. "Who is Yajinden?"
"A mad weaponsmith who served the madman Iuchiban during both his lifetimes," Mitsu said. "My order has fought him before. I have seen the damage the Bloodswords can do. If Kokujin plans to create his own, we must stop him."
"We think we know where he might be holding Satsu," Matsuo said. "We met a… ghost of the Boar Clan. Kokujin needs tainted steel to make his swords. There is only one place where the tainted veins run beneath the castle."
"Your apprentice is speaking to ghosts now, Mitsu?" Kaelung said skeptically.
"Watch your tongue, monk," Jianzhen said, appearing from the shadows behind Kaelung. "You intrude in my lands. You live at my mercy, and that of the Shakoki Dogu."
Mitsu glanced back at Kaelung, then at Matsuo. "Is this spirit trustworthy?" he asked.
"I believe she is," Matsuo replied. "She saved Master Wayan's life. We were planning to attempt a rescue when she sensed your arrival. I must confess, I have more confidence now that you are here to aid us."
"My feelings are mixed," Rosanjin said, still glaring at Kaelung.
"We must act swiftly," Mitsu said. "The Anvil uses souls to power its nemuranai, but any person chained to the Anvil must die or the product will be ruined. If we can save his prisoners before he completes his work, then there is still hope."
"How much time do we have?" Kaelung asked.
A shrill scream sounded in the distance, echoing endlessly through the mountains.
"A warning," Jianzhen said. "The mountains carry us the screams of Kokujin's last victim. His work is nearly complete."
"That was Chieko," Matsuo said numbly.
"Let us hurry," Mitsu answered, already moving swiftly through the pass.
Chieko stopped screaming, if only for a moment, and Satsu cursed Kokujin vehemently. The dark ise zumi ignored him as he studied the blade of his bloody katana in the light of the crackling fire pit.
"You surprise me, little one," Kokujin said fondly. "I did not expect you to last as long as Akuai, much less even longer. The Tamori are a surprising family. Steel beneath silk, as the saying goes."
Chieko lifted her head to look at Kokujin. Her pretty face was now streaked with grime and blood, but her eyes were clear. She whispered something as she looked into his eyes.
"I did not hear you," Kokujin said, kneeling by her side. "Was that some curse? A wish for some foul fate to befall me, little one? Sate my curiosity. Tell me what curse you have put upon me for surely I have borne them all."
"Not a curse, Kokujin," Chieko said, drawing a ragged breath. "A… blessing."
Kokujin frowned. "Explain."
"You… say that you know no master," she said, seeming to draw strength from the words. "You lie. Pain and darkness are your masters… You serve them because you fear the light… Love burdens you and hope always betrays you."
"You have no idea what you're talking about, Chieko-chan," Kokujin said with a chuckle. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my work."
"No," Satsu said from where he hung in chains. "She is right."
"Silence," Kokujin said, not looking at him.
"No," Satsu snapped. "That is why you no longer desire my grandfather's swords… because you can no longer stand to hear his voice. You can no longer stand the burden of hope… You are what you are not because you are your own master… but because to be anything better would be too much effort. You are a slave to your own madness."
Kokujin smiled tightly. "You are the one in chains," he said.
"For now," Satsu said, eyes narrowing.
Kokujin sighed. "I promised to let you live, but your life serves my purposes equally well with or without a tongue, Satsu. Think on that. You cannot imagine what I am about to accomplish here."
"You are about to murder a woman who never wanted anything more than peace," Hogai said in a low growl. "You are about to make an enemy of a very violent man."
"Merely two small benefits of this process, Hogai-san," Kokujin said, laying the katana across the anvil as he hammered it into shape again. "You shall see. My crimes may seem great now, but in time you may understand." He looked up at Satsu with a faint grin. "I do not ask for forgiveness. Only understanding."
The doors of the chamber opened with a squeal and a pair of Kokujin's tattooed men entered. One approached Kokujin directly and whispered something too quietly for the prisoners to hear. A slow look of anger spread across Kokujin's face. In the distance, a low rumble passed through the mountain. It sounded like thunder, or perhaps an earthquake.
"Those moronic spirits again?" Kokujin roared. "Send the shugenja to deal with it."
"We have," the tattooed men replied. "This time the Shakoki Dogu do not wish to enter Shiro Heichi… They wish to destroy it. They are starting avalanches."
Another rumble passed through the floor, shaking the room heavily. A gout of flames erupted from the fire pit, and Kokujin grinned.
"What is it they say?" Kokujin mused. "Plan all you like, work all you like, the work will still follow you till the last moment." He sighed. "Please excuse me, gentlemen. You know I find it difficult to concentrate if my audience is not properly restrained."
The two men nodded and left the chamber, closing the door behind them. Kokujin looked down at Chieko again.
"My apologies, little one," he said, pointing the blade at her again. "Believe me or not, I was trying my best to cause you little pain. Now, unfortunately, I shall have to work more quickly…"