The Gift of A Blade

By Brent Morgan

  “If you can't walk and can't fight, but can hold your wakizashi, your duty is to commit seppuku to prevent the Shadowlands from claiming your spirit and your honor.”

                                                                                                    - Kakita Kaori

Looking across the dancing waves of tall grass, Miyu tried for the tenth time to trace the image of the setting sun onto her paper.  The brush moved slowly today, as if it no longer wished to answer her summons.  After a moment of irritation, the young woman tossed the paper over her shoulder, letting the wind cast it into the dust by the temple’s door.

The old man’s voice startled Miyu, as Tomo lifted the crumpled work from the floor. “Another masterpiece created already, little one?”

Rising from her seat in the grass, Miyu’s face blazed in embarrassment. “Hello, Master Tomo-sama.” As she bowed, the slender girl’s long ponytail nearly brushed the ground, and her cheeks still flamed as the old shugenja’s fingers delicately opened the discarded paper.

“It is wonderful work.”

Miyu shook her head fiercely. “I cannot paint anymore, Master Tomo!  Ever since my sister left for the Shadowlands, I just cannot!” Her cheeks were even more livid now, at the idea of pouring her heart out to an old man whom she barely knew.

Airei had always said that she was a crybaby, and her brother had always been forced to defend her from “mean old Airei.”  Right now, Miyu would have taken the words of either one.

The shugenja smiled, sending a thousand wrinkles rippling over his careworn visage.  Holding the paper as if it was a cherished treasure, the man placed it back into the girl’s small hands.  Miyu was shaking slightly under Tomo’s eyes, and turning her eyes away so that he could not continue to stare at her so intently.

After what seemed like an eternity, the old man spoke again.  “Well Miyu-chan, you will not have any more time to tell yourself that you are losing your talent.” Looking over at the picture in her hands, the shugenja smirked again.

“Tamako-sama wishes to speak with you, child.”

Blinking, the artisan looked up at the old man, “What?” 

*              *              *

Asahina Tamako sat in the darkness of the temple, his eyes watching the girl’s nervous fidgeting with great interest.  She was not a strong girl, but nor was she weak.  He knew that her father, Kakita Tsuna, had taught all of his children something of the sword, but Tamako knew better than to think that was why the Fortunes had chosen her.  There was something deeper in her...a power that went beyond the body, and into the soul.

He hoped that it would be enough.

“Miyu-san, there is no reason to be nervous.  Have some tea, and be at peace.”

Taking a bit of his own advice, the shugenja sipped his tea with great delicacy.  After a moment of silence, Tamako began speaking, his voice measured and calm.

“Miyu-san, I have brought you here to ask a question…what would you do, for the good of the Crane?”

The artisan blinked in a moment of confusion at the question, but her voice was strong, even in the presence of a man that obviously intimidated her more than a bit. “I have always tried to do my best for the clan, Master Tamako-sama.  Whatever the Crane ask, my brother, my sister and I have done.”

The shugenja nodded, turning away from Miyu and lifting an object, wrapped in pale blue silk and tied with a silver cord, from the darkened rear of the temple.  His slender fingers held it with great care, and Miyu could not help but remember how a mother held her child.

Placing it into the girl’s small hands, Tamako smiled slightly. “The Crane have need of you, Miyu.”

Drawing the silk away carefully, the artisan looked upon perhaps the most beautiful item she had ever seen, even more wonderful than the Kakita-forged sword Akaruikaze, which her brother carried.  The wakizashi was the blue of a spring sky, and the silver bands near the edges of the handle held pearls and bits of jade.  Shining even in the dim temple, the weapon was as beautiful as the dawn itself.

“What do you want me to do with this, Master Tamako?” Miyu held the sword tightly, not knowing what more to say.  She was not a warrior; her fits of epilepsy had decided that long ago, and Miyu knew that only a warrior had a right to carry such a treasure.

“He will need this blade, Miyu-san…and the stars have told me that you must take it to him.”

Miyu blinked again, not understanding at all.  In idle action, as Tamako continued to watch her, Miyu drew the blade out from its saya, just an inch.  Her eyes opened wider, and her breath caught in her throat as she saw the substance of the blade.

“You will take this to Kuwanan-sama, Miyu.  He will need it, before the battle is ended.”

Words failed her.  Her mind screamed a thousand questions, and a hundred thousand reasons why she should not go into the Shadowlands.  But all of those words fell away as the shugenja’s pinched eyes watched her, and the dim light grew weaker still.  Instead, Miyu slipped the blade back into its saya, and she rose from the temple floor.

“I will take this to Lord Kuwanan, Master Tamako-sama.  On my honor, I will…”

Or die trying. 

*              *              *

The samurai was sitting on the outer wall when the shugenja found him.  Tomo said nothing at first, but instead took a seat next to the tired-looking warrior.  Though he did not react in the least to the old man’s presence, the samurai’s black eyes followed every movement, and his keen ears caught every swish of the silken robes.

“It is a good night, is it not, Asai-san?”

Those flashing eyes still did not move, as if the samurai was worried that the grasses beyond the temple would rise up and attack at any moment.  Daidoji Asai had learned well the virtue of being observant; it had saved his life many times.

Eventually, the man spoke, his careworn hands clutching the wall edge tightly. “It is too cold for my tastes, Master Tomo…why did you seek me out to discuss such things?”

“I have a question to ask of you, Asai-san…”

The samurai knew well of the Asahina and their ways of speaking in riddles.  But Asai had been until recently a general, a warrior in command of other warriors, and he too knew how to defeat those that would speak in cryptic words. “Whatever you wish, Master Tomo.”

The old shugenja had brought with him a servant; as the two men sipped at their tea, Tomo spoke again, watching the Daidoji’s face intently as he did. “What would you do, for the good of the Crane?”

Most men would have shown some kind of shock at having their honor called into question, but Asai was too schooled in war to let his emotions show.  Instead, the Daidoji sipped his tea in silence for a moment, knowing better than to let his mind race away.

Finally, in a somber tone, Asai spoke. “Whatever the Crane have ever asked of me, I have done, Tomo-sama…except to kill anyone that is not my enemy.  Even for the Crane, I would not do that.”

“Not even to save his soul?” Asked the shugenja, his wrinkled face empty of emotion.

Asai knew too well what he was talking about.  Even with all of the jade and the amulets of protection of the Asahina, the Crane could not protect everyone in the face of the Taint.  Though at times the Daidoji warrior felt regrets at not being permitted to follow his lord, there was not a day that he was sad at being spared the duty of “giving final mercy.”

“I would spare them that…” Asai’s shining eyes turned at last, staring at the shugenja.  They were filled only with conviction, not having any resignation or hate. “For my clan, for my honor, Tomo…I would give them peace.”

Nodding, the shugenja returned his tea to the waiting acolyte.  After the young man had vanished, the shugenja turned to face the samurai. “Then will you perform what we need of you, now?”

“Hai, Master Tomo.”

In the days that would follow, filled with danger and hardship, Daidoji Asai would question many things.  His strength, his sanity, and his ability to carry out this mission alone.  All this and many more things he would question, but the Daidoji would never question his promise to the Clan.

Not once. 

*              *              *

Standing quietly in the shadows just on the edge of the torchlight where Tamako had told her to remain, Miyu fidgeted as the shugenja spoke with yojimbo after yojimbo, judging each samurai by some kind of test that the artisan could not fathom.  After each one, the Asahina bowed deeply, but each one he sent away.

The wakizashi rested in Miyu’s obi.  The weapon was perfectly balanced and forged, and yet she could not help but think that it had grown heavier since she had first held it.

Since she had learned of its purpose and the journey that she must make.

And if Tamako did not soon find what he was searching for, it seems that she was destined to walk the path alone.  The thought chilled Miyu to the bone, even so much that she did not notice at first that the next bushi had entered the room.

Bowing low before the Asahina, the man introduced himself simply as Daidoji Asai.  He was not what Miyu expected of a Daidoji.  Of medium height, the samurai’s face was weathered, making him look older than he really was.  Dressed in a plain kimono and hakama and wearing no weapons save for his daisho, the samurai was far from Miyu’s imagined protector.

Yet his sharp eyes were the only ones that noticed her in the darkness, and even when he fully faced the daimyo with a slight swish of black hair, the man’s attention remained firmly on the girl in the darkness.

After a moment of quiet muttering between the samurai and the shugenja, Tamako nodded to Asai with a smile.  The Daidoji stood silent, as if carved of some harsh breed of rock, even when the shugenja turned to call Miyu to the floor.

For several moments, the young girl stood, face flushed, before the samurai.  Asai looked her skinny form over, head to toe, his eyes flickering like the torches to his side.  Though his face never wavered, she could sense the doubt, now that Tamako had told him what he must do.

Still, in the end, the samurai turned back to the Asahina, telling him what he would need for the long ride.  Miyu knew nothing of such things, of rations or horses or the other strange items that the Daidoji requested, but the shugenja only nodded sagely, as if Asai’s words showed great wisdom.

Once Asai had left the room, Tamako dismissed the attendants and walked with Miyu into the garden.  Kneeling to examine a delicate chrysanthemum, the shugenja spoke without looking up at the artist. “What do you think of Daidoji Asai, Miyu-san?”

“He frightens me.” Miyu had thought for a moment of saying something braver, but her mother had told her that the greatest courage is in revealing the truth. “His eyes are very sharp, and the way he looked at me scared me, Master Tamako-sama.”

 The shugenja nodded, his thin face seeing the worry in Miyu’s eyes.  Tamako knew how much he was placing on the girl’s shoulders…had he not seen this in his visions, he would have questioned the reasons to send a lone samurai and a young girl into the Shadowlands, when all the Clans fought in vain to defeat the evil.

But Shinsei’s wisdom had guided him this far, and Tamako would not refuse it now.

“Asai is a man that has suffered much, Miyu-san.  He has fought many battles, killed many men…it is only right that you be afraid of him.” The shugenja smiled slightly, watching as Miyu idly sketched a figure of a budding iris blossom.

“But his is a man of great honor, Miyu-san.  I would not have chosen him, if I did not believe that to be so.”

Nodding almost to herself, the girl crumpled up the paper and tucked it into her kimono.  As she turned from the garden, Tamako spoke to her again. “Remember, Miyu-san, to sleep well tonight.” He left the words unsaid, but still they chilled the girl’s heart.

Tomorrow you ride to the Shadowlands. 

*              *              *

Dressed once more in his plain, worn armor, Asai stood in the temple of his ancestors, his head bowed low to the floor.  As the samurai whispered to the spirits that could no longer hear his words, he drew strength from the deeds of his past, just as the heroes of his past were drawing strength from his belief in them.

Then, as if some great weight had been lifted, Asai rose, binding back his dark hair with a band of white cloth.  Reaching down to lift his yari from where it lay, the Daidoji raised the weapon so that the shaft was directly before his eyes, then swept it down in a samurai salute.

“I will not fail you.”

Stepping out into the morning light that seemed to still rule over the lands of the Asahina, the samurai checked over his horse for a final time.  There was no need; the Asahina neglected nothing, but Asai trusted few men now, in the wake of the Shadow.

The pieces of jade, the rations and the water, all of it was as he had wished it.  A quiver of arrows, their edges of crystal and jade, had also been placed on the pack, lying beside the same dai-kyu the Daidoji had carried since his youth.

Everything was ready, and something more.

Glancing over towards the nearby Asahina daimyo, Asai held up the small potion.  Inside its crystal vial, a soft blue liquid shimmered in the light, and Asai would have sworn that it was made of liquid gems.

Tamako only smiled to him, then turned back to speak to the little girl.

As Miyu came up to him, the Daidoji frowned slightly.  He did not understand Tamako’s reasons, for it was obvious that this girl was not a samurai-ko in any sense of the word.  Though she wore her swords with relative ease, her armor was poorly tied, and she carried neither a helmet nor any other weapons.

Still, if he could manage it, neither of them would need to grip their swords.

“Are you prepared, Miyu-san?”

The girl was probably more than ten years younger than Asai, and he knew by now how to recognize fear.  But she nodded, gripping an article wrapped tightly in blue silk, tucked deep within her obi. “I am grateful for your help, Asai-sama.”

Mounting up his horse, the Daidoji laid his yari across his saddle. “You may call me simply Asai, Miyu-san.  I do not need pleasantries.”

Flushing red (it was quickly becoming her usual pallor), the artisan nodded in her slightly tilted armor. “Of course, Asai-san.”

Turning his horse towards the south, the Daidoji offered a final glance towards the Asahina, now mere spots against the walls of the temples.  As he rode ahead of her, the samurai spoke, breaking the silence that had suddenly fallen. “They never told me what this quest will accomplish, Miyu-san.  Will you tell me?”

It was not the voice of a nosy man, or an enemy probing for secrets.  She knew that the samurai was asking for one simple reason: if she died, he needed to know.

Biting her lips as she began trembling slightly, the girl gripped tighter to her horse’s reins. “We are doing what our clan asks of us, Asai…we are going to help our Champion defeat the darkness.”

Nodding almost to himself, the Daidoji felt the strength in his heart rising, a strength that he had not felt in many days.  Reining his horse around to look at the girl, the samurai smiled slightly.

“For the honor of the Crane, I will not let anything harm you, Miyu.  I will be at your side, from beginning until the end.”

Miyu nodded to the bushi, her face calm in the light of Asai’s courage. “Thank you, Asai-san…”

Thank you for everything that you are willing to lose. 

*              *              *

The Shadowlands were silent.

Asai sat in the darkness, his bow resting beside him, and his katana ready besides.  The samurai watched over the desolate wastes, their colors washed clean by the moonlight.  The small fire of the campsite threatened to die upon him at any moment, but the Daidoji made no move to tend to it.

If he needed any light, Asai knew that the moon would bring it to him.

Beside him sat Miyu, her pale head tilted beside a large stone in sleep.  The girl’s armor was scratched and worn, as were the clothes of her yojimbo, and the dust of the long ride clung to all of them.  The horses, placed further in the darkness of the camp’s hidden position, were nervous and skittish, but remained too tired to move very far.

All in all, Asai reasoned, they were tired and worn, but had ridden deeper into the Shadowlands than anyone that he had ever spoken to, without seeing a single thing.

There were signs of the monsters, of course…this was their land, and the Oni sometimes chose to remind the Crab of that.  The samurai had tried to turn Miyu away, but the girl’s eyes had seen too much, nonetheless.  The great burnt spots of ground, the corpses of samurai, rent to shreds by mighty claws…all of it, her eyes had seen, now.

Never again would Miyu write poetry of love and triumph; never again would she sing of happy things.

Of the Clans, there were only the distant forms of fire and dust.  There was no sound.  There were no runners, no men returning to the Walls for reserves.  There were no reserves to send.  The Empire fought for its heart and its soul, and it did so with every samurai whose blade could be raised.

Again, Asai watched the darkness, his callused hands moving slowly to lift the bow from where it lay.  Miyu moved slightly, her tired eyes opening wide with sudden fear.  The artisan said nothing, made no sound to reveal them, however, as the Daidoji crept to the edge of the hillside, his shining eyes gazing deeply into the shadowed valley below.

Somewhere in the darkness of the valley floor, shadows moved.  The creatures of the Shadowlands, formless against the darkness cast over them by the hills beyond, crept through their homeland, unchallenged and unafraid.

They were searching for something, Asai knew.  They were searching for a little girl, who carried something that they wished to destroy.

Asai did not know why the wakizashi was important; it was not his duty to ask.  But as the shapes of three massive ogres stepped from the valley darkness and onto the foot of the hill, the samurai was ready to do his duty, regardless of what shadows stood in his way.

“You must remain here, in the darkness, Lady Miyu-san.” His words were a harsh whisper, and they left no room for any challenge.

Miyu felt her hands shaking, but they gripped tightly her own blade. “I will, Asai-san.  I will.”

Knowing better than to face the monsters with the girl so close, the samurai crept through the darkness, moving south along the rocky slope.  He made little sound as he did so, and the ogres, their horrid faces will teeth and horns, could only turn about in agitation as pebbles slipped from stone.

Pulling from his quiver an arrow of jade, the Daidoji rose like the sun atop a mighty boulder.  One of the ogres saw him, and it shattered the silence with a thunderous roar.  The arrow flashed forth without hesitation and the roar died in the birth of a shriek of pain.

As the first monster gripped its ruined eye, the other two began to move quickly towards their enemy, but the Daidoji was already gone.

From the darkness, arrows came, the running form of the samurai always beyond the mighty hands and clubs of the ogres.  As the night pressed on and Miyu watched from their hidden lair, Asai’s mind wove a brilliant path, pulling the ogres away from their prey.

Standing in the center of the valley once again, the two remaining ogres drew deep breaths from massive chests, their huge forms each bearing three arrows rising towards the sky like strange plants born of corruption and pain.

They had not been prepared for the Daidoji; the samurai was too swift, too clever in his movements.  From the darkness his deception defeated them; Asai had removed their strength, denied them the use of their numbers.

Against the flight of the samurai’s arrows, they were nothing more than targets, blood and bone rather than paper and wood.

Another arrow came, striking the first beast in the neck.  The monster tried to roar, but life’s blood and breath were denied it, and the creature died in silence, its talons digging into the blackened ground as the final moments ran away.

“Coward!” Called the ogre into the darkness that had borne the arrow.  The creature knew little of the meaning behind the word, but it was grown crafty in watching the humans in their walls and armies, and knew that of this word they were afraid.

Stepping from the darkness, Asai stood, staring at the ogre as the thing smiled an evil grin.  His yari was in his hand now, a slender bit of steel and wood against the ogre’s massive frame.

High above the two warriors, Miyu felt her heart catch as the Daidoji raised his weapon.  Against the dark hide of the ogre, Asai was a small thing in the moonlight, and his fine armor seemed like little protection against the huge tetsubo that the ogre had raised.

Her hands were shaking quickly now, and though Miyu bit into her lip with enough strength to draw blood from it, she could not quell the feeling, born of her own desperation and fear.

But Daidoji Asai was a samurai…there was no place in his heart for desperation or fear.  He filled his mind with courage and control, leaving his trouble worn face placid, and his breath quiet against the monster’s roars and angry rage.

This was not to be a duel of honor and skill; not a match between a master and a master.  The ogre fought with strength and fury, and the Daidoji with patience and control.  He moved and twisted, forcing the ogre to turn its massive blows, like forcing a river’s course to change.  His slender spear turned aside the crushing blows with great talent, and waited for an opening to be arranged.

Sooner or later, the ogre would make a mistake, Asai knew, and when it did, the blade would taste its enemy’s blood at last.

Finally, the yari struck, snapping in two at it pierced the thick chest of the onrushing ogre.  Falling back and drawing his katana, Asai continued to strike and retreat, his blade moving with the speed of a dancing snake.  In a few moments, the creature of the Shadowlands lay dead before the samurai of Rokugan, and Asai called up to Miyu, knowing better than to remain in the valley now.

No answer came from the darkened cliff, and the Daidoji’s heart froze.  It was at that moment that he saw the ogre’s body revealed in the light of the moon, as the face slipped away.

For even Asai could not have known of the mind of the Shadow, and he could not protect Miyu from the deepest concealed of blades… 

*              *              *

“You have nothing left to fight for, now.”

The ninja gripped Miyu tightly around, formless fingers of blood holding tightly to the terrified girl’s shaking form.  She stood at the gates of death even now, only a swift blade away from her final rest.  Only one thing remained to hold the Goju’s hand, one final person whose death remained.

Stepping under the overhang with katana drawn, the Daidoji’s weathered visage did not widen at seeing the artisan held in the Shadow’s embrace.  His shining eyes remained calm in the darkness, as dead as the ninja’s own pale eyes.

“Release her.”

Raising his blade for the fatal descent, the ninja watched the samurai’s face.  Asai waited, his hands ready and loose around his blade.

A smile appeared on the face of the ninja, as the face became Uji, became Kuwanan…as the ninja became as the Crane.

“You have lost, samurai.  You will be the next to die.”

Miyu’s hands were shaking madly now, and she could no longer hear the Goju’s whispered words.  But still the hands gripped the pale blue sword in the darkness, as if she knew all too well of the price that their failure might bring.

“We will not fail, ninja.”

Awaking to her guardian’s voice, Miyu’s brow tensed as she gripped the shining blade.  With a strength and speed created from Asai’s strength, the wakizashi moved.

Movement was a blur, as the ninja blade fell and the yojimbo lunged.  Miyu’s body crashed to the ground in a constant shudder and a single valiant slash as the Goju shrieked and Asai grunted in pain.

Thrust through his shoulder was the ninja’s sword, and in the Daidoji’s other hand stood his family’s katana, its ancient blade thrust into the Goju’s heart, black blood dripping as the tip remained buried in the stone beyond the enemy. 

Leaving his sword in the dying ninja and the stone of the Shadowlands, Asai moved to hold the Kakita.  Miyu was shaking badly now, and the Daidoji knew little of what he could do to stop the course of the affliction.  In the end, she awoke in his arms, coughing and retching, the form of the faceless creature still resting on the Crane’s blade.

“I owe you my life, Asai-san…thank you.”

For once, a smile crept over that impassive face, as the Daidoji retrieved his sword and wiped clean the blood from the blade.  His shoulder ached and bled badly, but Asai merely watched as the Kakita’s gentle hands cleaned and bound the wound, her fingers probing the body’s energy, and driving away the pain.

“I made you a promise,” He said as Miyu finished her work. “Now we must move quickly, before anything else comes to the smell of my blood.”

As they packed up their few belongings, the samurai and the artisan looked towards the coming dawn for a single time, before turning their weary horses toward the south, where Volturnum lay.  Somewhere in that bleak landscape was Kuwanan, and Miyu knew that she must fulfill her own promise to the Asahina. 

*              *              *

The winds brought the first warning to the Daidoji that they had neared the raging battle.  As Miyu sniffed the air with a questioning look, she turned to face the samurai. “What is that smell?”

Asai frowned. “It is blood, Miyu…it is human blood.”

The artisan gripped her katana tightly, but no matter how strong her spirit might have been, it could not have been ready for the sight that the two Crane beheld upon cresting the final hill in their long, dark road…

Asai’s eyes had seen pain before.  He had fought against the Lion; he had fought bandits and monsters before.  But as he looked down into the valley, upon the ravaged armies as they tore at each other’s hearts, even the Daidoji paled.

“No…”

Miyu’s face went white, but she could find no strength, no breath to scream.

Samurai and shugenja fought valiantly against the horde.  Never had Asai seen such a battle, where monsters and men fought against each other with such horror, ripping apart bodies with blades and teeth and claws.  He smelled the stench of burning flesh, and watched the dark creatures feed.  It was the grim spectacle of had been the Day of Thunder.

If it was not worse…

The Kakita girl’s hand touched his hand gently, and Asai ripped his eyes away from the carnage.  Following Miyu’s eyes, the Daidoji could now see the swords of the Crane, flashing valiantly against the writhing darkness.

“They are across the field…” Miyu’s voice was filled with despair, at the sight of a thousand of her nightmares barring the path to her goal. “We must get to them.”

Recovering his courage with a grim determination, Asai stiffened in his saddle.  His shining eyes followed the row of hills to the west, circling along behind the legions of the Lion and the Crab, “Then we will go around them.”

So they began the final leg of the dangerous mission, the Daidoji weaving their way around rocks and gullies, lying hidden as Oni and goblins crept by.  It was slow going, and dangerous too, for the only path that could shield them from dark eyes carried the artisan and samurai even closer to their enemy’s waiting blades.

By nightfall, the two lay hidden in the darkness, a lone finger of the black army separating them from the armies of the Crane.  As Miyu rested and fought the urge to allow her spasms to grow any worse, Asai crept slowly towards the raging enemies, trying to find a final path.

The Daidoji returned moments later, his face ashen. “The army has turned to the West.”

Miyu looked up in confusion.  The Daidoji explained the situation frankly; he had never possessed any talent for colorful words. “There is no way to go around them now, Miyu…we must either wait and hope that the Oni move their forces again, or fight our way through.”

“We must find another way,” the artisan said simply.

His eyes betrayed him even before he spoke the words. “There is no other way.”

As the whisper struck her, the last bit of strength slipped away from Miyu.  Her newly sunken cheeks, her half-starved and dirty form; none of this had hurt her spirit in the least.  But when Asai said that they must fight through the darkness, the little girl’s courage shattered.

She was only fourteen years old; she still had a right to cry.  But when she wrapped her arms around Asai’s neck and continued to weep quietly, the Daidoji was thrust into foreign land.  He knew nothing of tears…he had not cried when his brother had died in the Civil War, nor when news came of the death of his sister.

Asai understood pain well, but he did not understand her tears.  She could not be afraid to die, truly…he knew that she would not have come this far if she was.

“I am sorry, Asai…I am still such a little baby…”

Removing himself from her arms, the Daidoji looked into her eyes.  He had seen the eyes of men who were afraid…even Lion and Crab had regrets, and the Crane of the civil war certainly did.  Miyu was not afraid to die here…rather, the artist was afraid that some things would be left undone.

“You will finish your quest, Kakita Miyu.  We all do what we must do, and you and I, we must not fail.”

Drawing his katana from its sheath, Asai stared at the ancient blade.  It represented everything that his family believed in.  Honor.  Courage.  Duty.  Miyu looked into the shining blade too, though what she saw was only a reflection, of an honor that was all her own.

“Please help me,” Asai whispered, though only in the voice of his mind.  “Help me to stand on my own.  I know that you are still here, father.”

“Help me to do my duty.  Help me to serve my clan.”

“Not yet,” Miyu said, reaching into her pack of meager belongings.  She rummaged for a moment before removing a brush from the ruined furoshiki, and then the artisan pressed it into against the bushi’s forehead.  The brush moved slowly, delicately, and Asai saw calmness fill the girl where despair had ruled a moment ago.

Withdrawing her brush, Miyu smiled weakly. “That is all that I can give you, Asai.”

Holding his sword, the Daidoji nodded, the symbol of protection shining crimson in the darkness of the night, “Together, Miyu, we will finish this.”

*              *              *

He was one man, and she was one woman.  One man and one woman, against a thousand monsters, or more.  In his hands were a single sword, one blade against a thousand talons and claws.  As the Daidoji came forward, there was confusion at the enemy coming from behind their legions, but confusion was not fear.

And Asai knew that soon, the confusion would be gone, and his enemy would replace it with hatred and blood.  Hatred for the samurai that assailed them…leaving the running figure of a small Kakita little more than a glance before the battle.

Turning to face the girl, the Daidoji nodded to her through the splattered blood.  “Your way is clear, now, Miyu-san!  Remember me, when the time comes!”

She knew better than to argue.  Rather, the girl hesitated for a moment, her eyes shining as they took in everything that was Asai.  No words were spoken, no time was wasted.

Then she was gone.

The katana screamed, its keen edge slicing through the misshapen forms of goblins and stabbing deep into ogre flesh.  Asai was screaming a battle cry, adding his own breed of chaos to the horde.  Off balance and unprepared, the samurai was a lone terror, though his fervor died abruptly as an Oni’s talon ripped through his side, breaking through flesh and armor, sinew and bone.

Crashing to the black earth, Asai’s bright eyes turned to face the monster.  It towered over him, a horrible creature of steel and stone.  Flaring eyes of fire looked down upon the samurai and a mouth of teeth and blood worked itself into an evil smile.

Gripping his katana firmly in his right hand, the Daidoji looked up into the eyes of his own death, and his brow furrowed in concentration for the task at hand.  In his other hand was the crystalline vial of the Asahina, its liquid still shining like the sunlight.

“I am ready.” 

*              *              *

Running through the ruined ranks of the samurai, Miyu tried not to think.  Her thin legs moved quickly, dodging past lines of spearmen and goblins crashing in to one another with blades raised.  No one paid any attention to the small girl running through the field; each mind was set towards saving their own life.

After what seemed like an eternity of running and dodging, Miyu crashed to the ground surrounded by the kenshinzen of the Crane.  Pulling her to her feet, one of the samurai finally spoke to her, his thin face covered with dirt and grime, and his white hair singed as if by fire.

“What are you doing here, sister?”

Looking up at the samurai, Miyu tried to explain herself.  She was going too fast for the man, however, and he turned back to the front lines as he answered her. “Stay with me, child!  This is no place for you.  We can finish your duty later.”

Duty…Miyu blinked as she looked out into the field.  The Kakita had no idea where Asai was, now, but nonetheless the artisan turned back to the samurai, “I need your help!  I left my yojimbo out there!”

The swordsman looked at her, “You can’t go back out there!  If anyone is there, then he’s dead already!”

Shaking her head with conviction, Miyu turned back towards the field, “I know he’s still alive!” With that, she was dashing off through the battlefield, leaving the shouts of the kenshinzen fading behind her.  As Miyu dashed back into the bloody chaos, there was only one thought with her.

Hold on, Asai-san.  Hold on.

As she stepped back onto the front lines, Miyu finally drew her katana from its sheath.  The blade bit deeply into a gibbering thing’s shoulder, forcing the four-legged beast to withdraw with a hissing howl.  The artisan held her sword tightly as her eyes moved about the entire field, shouting at the top of her voice against the roar of the field.

Eventually, like the turning of the ocean’s tide, the armies dragged each other into a different part of the valley, leaving stragglers and the wounded still battling around the artisan.  By now, tears stung Miyu’s eyes, and the gore of five different enemies bloodied her sword.

“Asai…” The words died in her throat, as she saw the shining blade lying on the dirty ground.

Laying in the dirt, the yojimbo’s body was silent, his hand extended towards the katana.  Slowly, Miyu lifted the sword from the ground, reaching out and slipping the simple handle into his weathered hand.  As she did, the hand moved, and Miyu retreated with a yell.  She could not take this, not see him rise from death to fight again…

Pulling himself up, Asai did indeed look almost like he was dead.  But the samurai was alive and breathing ragged breaths, barely alive, as Miyu half pulled his heavy form with its ruined armor to his feet.

“Didn’t I send you to finish something…?” His sharp eyes looked at her, but his dry lips had worked themselves into a smile.

Smiling weakly as she pulled him up to a standing position, the artisan shook her head. “Remember that you are my yojimbo, Asai-san…I think that I am the one supposed to be in command.” Her hands were trembling slightly, but her slender muscles still held the Daidoji strong.

As they turned from the blasted heath, the weary duo was greeted by a lone kenshinzen.  Frowning at the little girl, the slender man helped to hold Asai up. “All the samurai in Rokugan come here to fight, and we are humbled by the courage of a little girl.”

 

As they helped the Daidoji back through the carnage to the tents of the Crane, the artisan could not help but smile.  After all, how often could a simple artist know the joy of preserving a life, and at the same time complete her mission to the Crane? 

*              *              *

Kneeling before the Doji Lord, Miyu could not help but feel the dryness in her own mouth.  His eyes were sharp and harsh to look upon, and in his armor he seemed like one of the Fortunes, a being from beyond, returned to do battle.

“…And so I did as Master Tamako-sama commanded, Lord Kuwanan.  I have brought you this sword.”

Nodding without a word, the samurai accepted the beautiful gift.  Drawing the short sword from its saya, the man’s sharp eyes looked upon the shining reflections of the blade.  Carved from a single piece of jade, the wakizashi shone with runes of crystal in the symbols of honor and duty.

“He said that you would need it, Kuwanan-sama, before you are done.”

Looking on the blade, Kuwanan nodded.  He spoke at last, his voice commanding and ready, but nothing in it was the resignation that the Kakita might have expected. “You have done your duty in bringing me this, Miyu-san.  Know that I will do mine.”

“I will see that you are taken safely beyond the valley, Kakita-san…the Daidoji will find the two of you a way.” With that, Kuwanan dismissed her, leaving him to sit in the darkness of the tent, and regard the glimmer of the blade.

Stepping into the dirty, bloody world beyond the tent, Miyu could not help but smirk a little as she saw Asai waiting.  The shugenja had tended to his many wounds, but the bruises still made his face seem a bit more monster than man.

Beside the Daidoji stood the kenshinzo, Doji Kijiro.  The man was cleaner now, and tucked into his armor were three small pieces of jade, gifts from the artisan and the shugenja of the Crane.  She had given out every piece that they could spare, along with shimmering crystals sent along just the same.

It was all that they had been able to carry, but even all this would not be enough.

“Are you returning home now, Miyu-san?” Kijiro’s handsome face and voice made the girl blush slightly, and she smiled as he pressed a scroll into his hand.

“It is for my wife,” the Doji explained with a bitter face. “I know that I can trust you.”

Nodding, the girl walked over to the waiting samurai.  Looking with a crooked smile to Asai’s face, the girl lifted her ruined pack. “I am ready if you are, Asai-san.”

The yojimbo nodded simply, his hands resting on his blade.

Later, as they stood on the top of the hills and looked upon the carnage for a final time, Miyu turned to face the Daidoji, “Do you think that they will make it, Asai?”

Holding onto his horse’s reins, the samurai nodded, his face grim. “The Shadow thinks that they have nothing to fight for.  We have lost a great deal, but they will win.  Each thing that the enemy takes from us makes what remains more precious, Miyu.”

“That is why we will win.” 

The Road to Volturnum Continues…