By Shawn Carman
A Long Time Ago…
The crashing sound of steel on steel rang throughout the entire castle, although no one seemed to notice. The servants and samurai who walked through the vast hallways acted as though there was no disturbance. They knew the sound well - the labor of their lady's son. Few others would be allowed to make such a racket in this household, but he was granted such permission. He was their most beloved hero, save perhaps for his father, and had earned the right.
The forge deep beneath the castle was a small one, only large enough for a single smith and an assistant. A lone man worked over the forge, his hammer rising and falling with single-minded determination. A band of white-hot steel took shape beneath his tireless efforts. His face was a mask of sweat and concentration.
There was a grunt from behind the smith. He blinked and shook himself briefly, as if waking from a dream. He turned to the poorly lit chamber behind him. "Forgive me, friend. I did not hear you. What?"
"I said," came a sour voice, "that I should be with my people. They need me."
"They do, yes," the smith agreed. "But the Empire needs unity if we are to defeat this horde that attacks from the south. I must try and heal the rift between the Crane and the Lion, or else we may be unable to repel them. And did we not grant the Crab nearly half of our harvest in exchange for one week of your time, mighty Kaiu?"
"Alright, alright," Kaiu grumbled. "But I do not enjoy being away while the Crab prepare for war. I should be beside Hida."
"My uncle will fend well for himself," the smith answered, "but if the Lion and Crane are to come to the Crab's aid, we must first heal the wound my father and Matsu tore open all those years ago."
Kaiu grunted. "Seems like a foolish grudge to hold onto."
"Father has forgotten it already. It is the Matsu I must placate."
"And you think this blade will suffice?"
"Not just any blade," Doji Yasurugi said, holding the blazing steel before the two of them. "A blade born of Kakita's form and Kaiu's function. The perfect blade. Chukandomo."
"Not bad," agreed Kaiu, expressing his legendary gift at understatement. "You've learned my lessons well."
Yasurugi bowed slightly. "Thank you. But the real test shall be whether or not it can heal as well as cut." He sank the steel into a vat of water, giving rise to a huge cloud of steam that swelled out and enveloped both men.
The steam slowly faded away, the slight breeze clearing the air in Yasurugi's forge. Wisps of steam still swirled around the perfect steel blade the Crane warrior held before him, clasped tightly in the metalworking tools that protected him from the searing heat. He turned the blade over and over, looking carefully for any flaw or imperfection. There were none. Yasurugi smiled.
"What shall you call it?" came a strange, squawking voice.
The Crane glanced over to the table where the tools he would use to finish the blade waited. "It is not yet finished, Kozue-sensei," he answered the kenku. "I cannot name the blade until it is finished."
A strange chuffing sound indicated the raven-man's amusement. "You humans, with your strange ways. Did I not teach you that a weapon's soul is the most important part? Samurai may believe the katana holds their soul, but in truth every truly perfect blade has its own spirit. The samurai's soul influences the sword, and vice versa. A sword is nothing without a name, and it is best to give the name before the steel fully cools. A soulless blade is a terrible thing."
Yasurugi considered his sensei's words, and then regarded the blade. "It shall be called Naishi, the Raven Sword," he finally said. "It will be a gift for you, Kozue-sensei. As thanks for all you have done for me and for the Crane Clan."
Kozue clicked his beak. "Your generosity is much appreciated, Yasurugi-san, but it is not necessary. I carry a blade already."
Yasurugi smiled. "Then do with Naishi as you will. Perhaps in time you will have another student who needs your guidance as much as I have."
"Your human Empire is in dire need of heroes," Kozue observed. "Fu Leng's armies are encroaching further each day. Is there not another who could better wield Naishi?"
"This evil will be defeated," Yasurugi said determinedly, "but I am not so arrogant as to believe my sword will be the cause of Fu Leng's defeat. No, it is better in your hands."
"Then I graciously accept," the kenku replied. "I hope in time there is a soul worthy to wield it."
"There will be," Yasurugi said. "For now, there is time to finish this blade." He smiled. "Then I must put aside these things for now. My wife will soon give birth. I'm going to be a father."
"Ah yes. Congratulations. May you and your children have a long and prosperous life."
"Thank you, Kozue-sensei," Yasurugi said, an enormous smile splitting his face. "I am certain that we shall."
Kyuden Doji was in mourning. There was not a soul who walked the halls whose eyes were not wet with tears, and many wept openly without shame. The Shadowlands had come to this perfect place, and the Lady Doji's beloved children were no more.
Doji Nio walked through the halls in a daze. He nodded functionally at those he met, but he did not truly see them. His elder brother, Yasurugi, was dead, cut down by the blackened blade of a demonic assassin. His sister Konishiko had taken her brother's place and followed Shinsei into the Shadowlands. Their mother was inconsolable in her grief. Kakita and Nio's younger brother Shimizu were grieving, but would recover. His youngest brother, Hayaku, spoke of traveling south to find the missing Konishiko but Nio thought little of it. Hayaku was still young - he spoke often and promised much.
Nio found himself in Yasurugi's quarters again. Whenever he worried for his brother's plight, he would find his way here. Yasurugi's wife had taken their infant son and moved to new quarters a few days ago. She claimed the pain was too great to remain in the rooms she had shared with her dead husband.
The southern wall of the chamber was decorated with a pair of magnificent swords, forged by Yasurugi's hand. They were spectacular weapons, each crafted with Doji's beauty, Kakita's perfection, and a myriad of techniques the smith had gathered from all across the Empire. They were the last of a family of five. Their father now carried Shukujo. Kunshu had been given to the Emperor's son, Genji. Naishi had been given to the kenku, Kozue. The sight of these blades, Kanpeki and Chukandomo, brought a fresh wave of grief. Nio's eyes clouded over once again.
A servant entered the room, not noticing Nio's quiet pain. She stopped with a gasp, then bowed deeply and began to withdraw. "No," rasped Nio. "Please, come in." He pointed to the wall. "Find a samurai and tell them that I have commanded these blades to be placed in the vault. They should be protected until… until Yasurugi's son can decide what should become of them." The servant bowed again and retreated. Nio gazed at the sword for another moment, then disappeared into the hallway.
In the shadows the kenku Kozue, hidden from the eyes of men, clicked his beak sadly. He had come to pay his respects privately, but was dismayed out how his favorite student's family had already forgotten his ways. Would Yasurugi wish for them to wail and mourn so? No. He had loved life, and loved creating. He would wish Chukandomo to be given to the Lion as he intended. He would wish Kanpeki to be given to a hero, so that both could forge a name for themselves. The Crane remembered him by wasting their short human lives with grief, and by locking Yasurugi's creations away from public view.
Holding Naishi tightly, Kozue left Kyuden Doji.
Some Time Later…
Doji Hasan gripped the side of the boat tightly, struggling to keep his meal down. He had been on the sea many times, but the ocean had never been so violent. The ship had been tossed about on the waves for hours on end. The captain had initially hoped that moving away from the shore would ease the journey, but it turned out that the storm was even more violent the further they ventured from land.
"Hasan!" the captain shouted over the roar of the wind. The man was clad in shoddy green robes, in keeping with the tradition of his people, the so-called Mantis Clan. Hasan had his doubts as to whether or not a motley collection of cast-off samurai and thugs could constitute a clan, but it was not his place to say. They were fine sailors, and were available when Hasan needed them. "You should get inside, now!" the captain shouted. "It's about to get worse!"
"Worse?" shouted Hasan. "How much worse could it be?" But the captain had already run to the front of the vessel to begin lashing things down. Looking at the frantic pace at which the Mantis sailors were working filled Hasan with a terrible fear. He rushed into the meager quarters he had been given and withdrew the cloth-wrapped blade from the trunk where it had been stored.
The blade was called Chukandomo, crafted by Hasan's great-grandfather. It had been locked away in the Doji vaults for generations, until its original purpose had been remembered. Hasan was chosen to bear the sacred blade to Otosan Uchi, and there to present it to the Lion in an attempt to heal the great rift between the two clans. It would be an almost impossible task, but Hasan was up to the challenge. He was a skilled diplomat and talented orator. If any could hope to bridge the gap between Matsu and Kakita, Hasan was the man to do it.
There was a deafening peal of thunder from outside, and the boat pitched badly, Hasan flew across the room and struck the wall hard. Chukandomo came free of the wrap that protected it from the salt air. He shook his head to clear it, then struggled to cross the treacherous deck and claim his ancestor's sword.
The deck pitched again, throwing the entire room into total chaos. There was a terrible scream from out on deck, and then a wall of water shattered the door and slammed into the room. The force of the wave crushed Hasan against the wall again. He felt something snap within his chest. His vision began to fade. The last thing he saw before the water claimed him was the glittering blade of Chukandomo disappearing beneath the waves.
Some Time After That…
The battle raged all about Doji Hotei. Lion and Crane killed one another with unbridled enthusiasm. Hotei knew his wounds were mortal, but he did not care. He had fulfilled his destiny. Long ago he had succumbed to madness, but now that was at an end. His decades-long imaginary quest had taken him to all corners of this vast Empire, but in the end it had delivered him to the site of his destiny: the battlefield where Akodo Shakato's forces threatened to overwhelm the Crane and spill forth into the Doji provinces.
"Kozue," Hotei rasped weakly. "I know you're here, sensei. Please, let me look on you one last time."
A transparent figure appeared on the edge of the dying Crane's vision. "I am here, my student," the kenku whispered. "What would you have of me?" An inhuman beak protruded from the folds of the voluminous blue cloak the figure wore.
"Kozue-sensei," Hotei said, a smile gracing his blood-flecked lips. "I had always hoped I would see you again."
Kozue knelt and placed a feathered hand on his student's shoulder. "It is good to see you too, Hotei-san. But you must hurry. Your time grows short, and there is nothing I can do for your wounds."
"I would not have you heal me, even if you could," Hotei responded. "I merely wish to return Naishi to you." He held the blade up shakily. "I can never thank you enough. Without it, I could not have broken the Lion defenses. The Crane would have been lost here today."
"It was the man, not the blade, who did that," Kozue assured him.
"Thank you nonetheless," Hotei said. "Thank you for everything. I have no regrets. The madness that claimed me for so many years… perhaps it was necessary to bring me to this place. Perhaps without it, I might never have fulfilled my destiny, and Naishi would have been lost. You have given an old man focus once more… a chance to be the hero I have always wished to be."
"Be at peace, Hotei," Kozue urged him. "Do not worry so."
"I am not worried," Hotei laughed. "My time in this realm has passed. I only regret that my loyal yojimbo had to suffer the yoke of my madness. I was never able to ask their forgiveness."
"You will be with them again soon," Kozue said.
"I hope so," Hotei croaked. "I hope… so."
While the battle raged, Kozue said a quick prayer over Doji Hotei's corpse, then grasped Naishi and disappeared from the mortal realm once more.
Some Time After That…
A flash of lightning illuminated the horror on deck. Yasuki Tamiku backed away, his face white with terror. Spectral beings were clamoring over the sides of his vessel, struggling to their feet on the deck and killing his men. Any time one of his men landed a blow on these inhuman boarders, they shrugged off the blows without harm. As Tamiku watched, his friend Hamatsu was torn apart by a ghostly kama. His scream was brutally short.
"Yasuki Tamiku," one of the ghosts moaned, walking toward him. "You have failed!"
"It's not my fault!" Tamiku howled above the wind. "The magistrates set a trap for me in Sunda Mizu Mura! There's no way I could have known! We escaped alive, how is that a failure!"
"Failure," repeated the ghost monotonously. "Chukandomo demands that you pay the price for your weakness."
"What?" pleaded Tamiku. "Chukan-what?" He looked around wildly before noticing the blade in his hand. His men had taken it from a fishing vessel some two weeks before, and he had claimed it for himself. He had known there was something unique about the blade, but surely it could not be responsible for this. Tamiku thrust the blade before him threateningly. It no longer felt so light and powerful as it once had. "Stay back!"
The spirit laughed. Tamiku realized that there were more ghosts now. Some of them were horribly familiar - his own fallen crew.
"No!" Tamiku screamed. "You won't have me! You won't have me!"
The spirits laughed as they descended upon him. His screams lasted until the boat disappeared beneath the waves.
Some Time After That…
"I… I don't understand," stammered Doji Yoringu.
"What is there to understand?" asked the kenku plaintively. "It is a simple notion, really."
The Crane magistrate tried not to stare at the raven-man's strange features and outlandish clothing. He had heard of such creatures since he was a boy, of course, but he had never imagined he would meet one. Legends told that the kenku would occasionally take a human student if one caught their attention, but what could he have done to bring one here to the Crane provinces?
"I cannot accept this," he finally said.
Kozue cocked his head to the size quizzically. "Is this that game you play where you refuse to accept a gift? I am good at this game."
"Stupid game," muttered Fuhao, the warty little creature that followed the kenku. "Someone offers you something, you take it. That how things work." The mujina eyed Yoringu suspiciously.
"No," Yoringu said, "It isn't that. It's just… I am not worthy to carry a blade such as Naishi, kenku-sama."
The kenku clicked his beak in amusement. "You underestimate yourself, Doji Yoringu. You have great potential. You need not wield the blade, only carry it until such time as you feel worthy of it. And keep it safe."
"Keep it safe?" Yoringu repeated.
"Yes," said Kozue. "Your granddaughter will have need of it, I fear."
"Granddaughter?" said Yoringu incredulously. "But I am not yet married!"
"Hmm. I suppose it will be longer than I imagined, then. Best keep that very safe indeed!" laughed the kenku.
"Granddaughter," Yoringu repeated.
"Yes. When the time comes, she will seek me out. In the great Shinomen. Remember." The kenku bowed and disappeared.
Doji Yoringu stared incredulously at the blade in his hand. A lone kanji adorning its tsuba identified it as Naishi, the Raven Blade. Shaking his head, Yoringu wrapped the sword reverently in cloth and placed it on his saddle. His family would never believe this.
Some Time After That…
Doji Narumi reclined on the luxurious pillows, her breath coming in jagged gasps. One of the midwives wiped her brow with a cold, wet cloth. "Rest, my lady, rest," the old woman said, her voice soft and soothing. "You've done well. Your son is here now. Rest." The sound of a baby crying reached Narumi's ears. So strong and insistent, he was! She smiled, already thinking that he must take after his father.
Narumi rested, nearly dozing. The lulling sound of the midwives washing her son was strangely comforting despite the infant's continued protests. There was another sound, though, one less comforting. Muffled voices from beyond the chamber disturbed her. She could make out the insistence in a midwife's voice, denying someone entry. The other was equally insistent, speaking something of omens and portents. "Juriko," she said weakly, summoning one of her attendants. "Tell whoever waits outside that I will see them."
"My lady Narumi-sama!" one of the midwives said, clasping her hand to her chest. "How can you admit visitors? You have just given birth!"
"I am the wife of the Crane Champion," Narumi said firmly. "I will see whomever I wish. The duty falls to me while my husband is at war."
The mention of Lord Kuwanan silenced the attendants, and in short order a young Asahina shugenja was admitted. "My lady Narumi-sama," she said, "an acolyte at our temple found something on the beach. I feel it necessary that you be made aware of it." Seeing Narumi nod, the priestess gestured to one of the attendants, who held forward a brilliant katana. The attendant carried it with a thick cloth so that she did not touch the steel. "It bears the mark of Doji Yasurugi, my lady. This blade has been lost for centuries, yet it appears on the day of your son's birth. This is a powerful omen."
Narumi nodded. "Have it placed in the vault. Unless our Champion wishes it otherwise, that blade shall be carried by my son on the day of his gempukku."
"It will be done, Narumi-sama," the priestess said.
She looked at the Asahina hopefully. "Any other news?" she asked.
The Asahina looked at her silently.
"Of Lord Kuwanan?" she asked. "My husband fights at Volturnum with the greatest heroes of the Empire. Surely the seers have found some omen that points to his victory, some portent that suggests he will soon return?"
The Asahina only bowed her head and said nothing.
It was a day no Crane believed they would see. The valiant forces that had defended Toshi no Ranbo for the past few months were leaving. They were not retreating before a superior Lion force as they had many times in the past, nor were they charging the entrenched Matsu forces to oust them from the city as they had countless times before. Instead, they were departing in an orderly manner. The rhythm of armored feet tramping across the battle-hardened plains and the squeak of innumerable supply wagons were the only sounds. No one spoke.
Equally silent were the Lion forces watching as their ancient enemies withdrew. Despite their many slurs and insults toward the Crane over the centuries, they had become accustomed to fighting tooth and nail for every inch of ground gained in this oft-exchanged city. Watching them withdraw without contest was strange and unexpected. Even more bizarre was the announcement that the Lion would not retake the city until after nightfall, allowing the Crane safe retreat. The entire situation was bizarre and unprecedented. The Matsu soldiers were not accustomed to stilling the passion for battle that raged in their hearts. It was possible that they might have rushed the city regardless of the Crane's withdrawal, save for the source of their orders.
Matsu Nimuro stood on the crest of the hill that looked down upon the city, his forces arrayed behind him. His mighty arms were crossed, his gaze taking in each and every detail of the Crane's retreat. Nimuro watched for any sign of treachery, any indication that Doji Kurohito's troops were not prepared to live up to their lord's promises. He could find nothing.
"The Crane forces should be completely withdrawn within the hour, Nimuro-sama," said Kitsu Hisashi, Nimuro's advisor and shugenja. "It is as Kurohito claimed. Only he and one other Crane samurai remain behind."
"Unbelievable," Nimuro said, shaking his head. "What is he planning? It is unlike Doji Kurohito to give up something of such great value without a fight. Could the city be consumed with plague? Perhaps a band of Daidoji saboteurs wait to burn it down around us? What is going on here?"
"If it is your wish, my lord, I could take a detachment of Kitsu to investigate," Hisashi replied. "He requested no warriors, but a troop of priests should present little threat."
"Very well," Nimuro responded with a grin. "Surely even Kurohito cannot find fault should you and your sodan-senzo arrive early to inspect the ancestral temples. Proper reverence toward the spirits is the duty of your family, after all."
"It is as you say, my lord," Hisashi replied.
Doji Kurohito stood alone in the crossroads of Toshi Ranbo. The others had retreated at his order. He remained behind with only his armor and his sword. Kurohito had remained motionless in the center of the courtyard for well over an hour. The only movement was his slow, steady breathing, and the occasional closing of his eyes as he offered prayers to his ancestors and the Fortunes for the endeavor before him. It was only through their blessings that he could hope for success.
Chukandomo weighed heavily in his hand. It was hard to imagine that the blade he had carried all these years was the source of such a powerful curse. Still, Yasuyo had presented more than sufficient proof of her claims. The sword was a living thing, a powerful entity that judged harshly those who wielded it. He who carried Chukandomo was granted unmatched strength and speed, but those who failed to live up to its expectations were destroyed.
Since taking up Chukandomo Kurohito's reign had been a successful one for the most part. Where others would have failed, he found victory. Even so, now that he knew the dangers of the sword the risk was too great. Kurohito could not allow his pride to endanger his people. If he waited for fate to run its course, there would be no way to know for certain on what grounds he would face the sword's curse.
He remembered the words Daidoji Rekai had told him once. "If you have no choice but to fight, pick your battlefield wisely."
Kurohito smiled as he saw a band of six priests in dark orange robes enter the square. Though they wore the robes of holy men, their bearing and demeanor were those of soldiers. Their leader was a severe looking man with long, loose black hair.
"You are Lord Doji Kurohito," the man said without preamble. "I am Kitsu Hisashi, vassal of Matsu Nimuro."
Kurohito nodded. "Good evening, Kitsu-san," he said with a short bow. "Welcome to Toshi Ranbo."
"This is no longer your city," the Kitsu said. "You should seize upon Lord Nimuro's mercy and depart immediately."
Kurohito's lip curled in a brief sneer. "In good time, Kitsu-san," he said. "I have one more matter to attend to here."
As if on cue, the wind began to pick up. It seemed to form a circle, whistling around the courtyard carrying debris and dust in its path. The six Kitsu glanced about in alarm. "There is something wrong here," Hisashi said, drawing a sacred scroll from his pouch. "There is a dark power here. Doji, if this is your doing…"
"It is indeed my doing, Hisashi-san," Kurohito said. His long white hair billowed around his head like a mane. "I came here tonight to break a curse. I invite you and your brethren to witness my triumph."
The whistling wind slowly grew louder, until Kurohito could begin to make out words.
"There will be no triumph," it whispered. "Failure. Coward."
"Finally," Kurohito said with a sigh.
Hisashi's eyes fixed on Kurohito's katana. "The sword speaks," he whispered.
"Doji Kurohito!" the wind roared. "What have you done?"
"I have returned Violence Behind Courtliness City to the Lion Clan!" he shouted in return. "I have willingly surrendered it to Matsu Nimuro, Lion Champion, without a fight!"
"Fool!" the wind returned. "Traitor! Failure!"
"Am I a fool?" Kurohito asked. "You were created to end the feud between Crane and Lion. Are you angry because I am a failure, or because I have fulfilled the destiny you failed to uphold?"
"You do not deserve your position!" the soul of the sword cried. "You are no child of Doji!"
"No, Chukandomo!" Kurohito insisted. "You are the one who has forgotten what it means to be a Crane. I have protected my people from you!"
"Your words will not save you, traitor!" came the hissing reply. The wind was roaring with the force of a hurricane now, and indistinct forms began to appear from the swirling madness all around the courtyard. These were the ghosts of Chukandomo, once proud samurai who had died in the sword's service and were now slaves to its curse. Their armor was corroded and studded with barnacles to the point where it seemed part of their flesh. Their spectral bodies were pitted and bloated, pierced here and there by white bone. At first there were only a few, but more and more began to appear until hundreds were shambling through the courtyard, each intent on Kurohito and the blade he held. Bits of seaweed clogged their armor and weapons, and their footsteps left hauntingly luminescent puddles of water that slowly faded from view.
"Spirits of Toshigoku!" Hisashi exclaimed. "Do not let them touch you, my brothers! Protect the Doji as well, lest he join their ranks!" The six priests began a steady chant. A faintly glowing aura appeared around them. The spirits drew to the edge and struck out with their claws, tearing at the magical barrier. Sparks of blood red and bright white flew wildly, but the barrier held firm.
"What have you done, Doji?" Hisashi snarled, glaring at the Crane. The priest carried no weapons; his magic was focused upon the barrier that protected them both. He could only glower at the Crane who had doomed them both.
"Stand back, sons of the Lion," Kurohito commanded, stepping into crossroads of Toshi Ranbo. "I face a more deadly foe than you today."
"The barrier will not hold," whispered the sword in his hands. "Speak your last words so these priests may record them!"
Kurohito was not daunted. "I do not need words!" he shouted, holding the blade above his head. "I am Doji Kurohito! I am Champion of the Crane! My fate is not for such as you to decide!" Kurohito turned to face the largest building in the city. "Now, Yasuyo! Now!"
A slight figure clad in blue appeared on the roof of the nearest building. Signaling to her cousin, Doji Yasuyo held her own sword aloft just has he had only a few moments earlier.
"What is this?" Chukandomo roared. "Who is that?"
"You are not the only blade with a legacy," Kurohito said. "That blade is Naishi, your sister-sword. Just as you have cursed the greatest failures of the Crane, so has Naishi blessed our mightiest heroes."
Yasuyo whispered the words her sensei Kozue had taught her, and felt the sword's power awaken. "Heroes of the Crane!" she shouted. "Awaken! Awaken and aid your champion!"
The roaring of the wind stopped instantly. An unnatural silence fell over the city, and with it a stillness that even the ghosts of Chukandomo noticed. They stopped dead as every sound and movement suddenly stopped. The air thickened with a sense of arrival, and then new forms began to appear, stepping through the night air as if through a fabric curtain that separated one room from another.
The new spirits were vaguely transparent and luminescent, much like the spirits Chukandomo had summoned, but the similarities ended there. While Chukandomo's ghosts were ghastly and inhuman, these new beings were perfection. Their blue armor was polished and beautiful, their weapons gleaming, their clothing perfect. They wore armors and weapons of every style, from every age. More and more appeared, until they rivaled the number of cursed ghosts filling the courtyard. The two spirit armies cast the entire city in an eerie glow of blue and green. The faces of startled merchants and ashigaru peered out from the many windows, looking down in awe and horror at the battle about to begin. One Crane hero stepped forward. He drew his sword without a sound and struck out at a cursed spirit with his blade.
The katana passed without harm through the spirit's flesh.
"Pathetic," Chukandomo roared. "These are merely shiryo, pale reflections of the Realm of Ancestors Do you really believe that they can match my power? Your ancestors have no flesh, no substance here."
Kurohito held his sword in both hands, ready for combat, and looked to Kitsu Hisashi and his brethren.
"You think we will aid you, Crane?" Hisashi asked.
"I trust the valor of the Lion," Kurohito replied. "You know where the greater threat lies."
Hisashi scowled fiercely. The other shugenja looked at one another with intent expressions. The Kitsu were Lion, but they were also the guardians of the ancestors. They would not let these cursed spirits suffer. "Very well," Hisashi said. "We will add our prayers to your cause, Lord Kurohito."
The priests knelt in a circle and began to chant. The wind roared in anger. The cursed spirits slashed at the magical barrier with renewed vigor, but with each moment that passed the chanting became more confident. The glow that suffused the Crane ancestors grew brighter. One, an elderly warrior in brilliant emerald armor, drew his sword. This time the blade rang strong and clear with the sound of steel. He turned and bowed to Kurohito.
Kurohito returned the bow. "For the honor of the Crane Clan!" Kurohito cried. He leaped beyond the protective circle, striking out at the nearest ghost with his shining blade. The spirit was cut from hip to shoulder and fell heavily to the earth. A Kitsu ran forward beside the Crane lord and spoke a quick prayer. Blessed kanji flared across the cursed ghosts forehead and it disappeared with a pained moan. Across the battlefield he could see Yasuyo leap from her perch, Naishi gleaming as she cut a swath through the cursed spirits.
"No!" Chukandomo shouted desperately. "You will not bring rest to those I have cursed!"
Kurohito could feel the sword quaver in his hands, as if it were now physically resisting him. He tightened his grip, steadied his sword as he cut down another ghost. "All angry spirits will be put to rest today, Chukandomo," Kurohito said. "Including yours."
The courtyard exploded into battle in seconds. Ancient Crane warriors clashed with hate-filled ghosts at across every inch of the city's center. Spirit after spirit was dissolved on the wind, shrieking as the blades of Yomi severed their connection to the cursed sword or Kitsu magic sent them to their final rest.
Doji Kurohito moved through the ranks of his enemies like a man possessed. One moment he fought alongside the great hero Daidoji Masashigi and his hunting party, the next he stood next to Doji Hotei and his loyal bodyguards. Once he even saw a glimpse of a man that could only have been his old friend and teacher, Kakita Kaiten, who paused for a brief moment to lift his sword in salute and share a grim smile. At every moment, Kurohito struggled against the ghosts, cutting them down in vast numbers, his incredible speed defeating their peasant weapons.
Kurohito suddenly noticed a lone Crane ancestor being pressed by half a dozen cursed ghosts. He charged the distance between them, cutting down one of them instantly. The others turned to face him, allowing the Crane to counterstrike. Between the two of them, the ghosts were defeated in seconds. "Thank you," the spirit said. "I needed a distraction, else I might have been hard pressed to defeat them."
Kurohito opened his mouth to reply, but was startled when he saw the personal mon on this Crane's armor. He had never seen this Crane before, but he knew his symbol well. Kurohito fell on one knee, head bowed. A single tear streaked down his cheek.
"Rise, Kurohito," the spirit said gruffly. "It has been an honor to stand beside you but the fight is not yet done!"
"Yes, Lord Kuwanan," Kurohito said quietly. He rose and charged back into the fight, face fixed in a proud smile.
As dawn broke over Toshi no Ranbo, the remaining Crane spirits returned to Yomi with Kurohito's thanks and the blessings of the Kitsu. Yasuyo remained silent and thoughtful all the while.
As the last Crane spirit bowed and returned through the veil to Yomi, Yasuyo turned to Kurohito with an inquisitive look. "Why didn't you tell him?"
"I do not know what you mean," Kurohito said with a bland expression.
"Yes you do," she said firmly. "Your father died before you were born. You did not even tell him you were his son."
"I know when Lord Kuwanan died." His voice was irritable now. He glanced at her with a frown, but her expression did not falter. Kurohito sighed. "My tale is not yet done," he finally said. "My father is one of the greatest men who ever lived. How can I face him when my destiny has not yet been reached? How can I show him I am worthy?"
Yasuyo was taken aback. As long as she had known him, Kurohito had ever been possessed of an unshakable resolve. To see him doubt himself like this, even for a moment, was unthinkable. "He is proud of you, cousin," she whispered. "You know that. One day you will see him again in Yomi, and he will tell you so."
"We shall see," Kurohito said gravely.
The sound of Lion troops reached the courtyard as Matsu Nimuro and his forces
arrived. The massive warrior leapt down from his steed and surveyed the city,
which still retained the unnatural stillness from Naishi's magic. Kitsu Hisashi
dismounted beside him, his expression unreadable as he watched Kurohito in
Nimuro gave a smug grin and bowed to Kurohito. "All things considered," he said with a terse laugh, "you Crane took excellent care of our city while you were here."
Yasuyo frowned, but Kurohito actually smiled. "See that you do the same for us," he said.
Several Lion samurai bristled at the comment, but Nimuro laughed uproariously. "Hisashi told me of what happened here," he said, his expression becoming more serious. "If I were a paranoid man, I would think that you arranged the surrender as you did knowing that I would send priests to investigate, knowing that they would help you win the battle."
"Are you a paranoid man?" Kurohito asked frankly.
"I think that I am," Nimuro replied.
"The Lion have encountered spirits from Toshigoku before," Hisashi added in a quiet voice. "The Legacy of the Forge is an old enemy of ours."
"You know that the Lion do not forget their enemies," Nimuro said. "It was… generous of you to allow us to share in this glory."
"We could not have triumphed without Hisashi's aid," Kurohito said.
"So," Nimuro said, eyes narrowing. "Does this mean that your withdrawal from the city is not as sincere as it first appeared?"
"Not at all," Kurohito said. "I cede the city to you, and I give you my word that no Crane shall take up arms against it for at least one year in recognition for your aid during the battle."
Nimuro nodded. "So be it. In return, you have my word that no Lion army shall march against Crane lands from Toshi Ranbo for an equal period of time."
"There is one other matter," Kurohito said, stepping forward. He drew Chukandomo from his obi, still in its saya, and held it forth in both hands. "I have carried this blade since the day of my gempukku, but it was never truly mine. My ancestor forged it as a gift for your people, to heal the rift between Kakita and Matsu. I offer it to you now, in hopes that our people can one day overcome the centuries of hatred."
Nimuro regarded Kurohito cautiously.
"It is cursed no longer; Hisashi can attest to that," Kurohito replied. "This blade was created as a gift for your clan, to end the hostilities between Lion and Crane. Diverting it from that destiny is what brought about its curse. Let us put its tortured spirit to rest, and let it become the legendary blade it was meant to be."
"Giving me this sword will not end the hatred between Lion and Crane," Nimuro said. "The old wounds are too deep for that."
Kurohito nodded. "I know," he replied. "Yet, it is a start."
Nimuro shook his head. "I cannot leave a warrior such as you without a blade," he said.
"Take it," Kurohito said. "Another sword waits for me at Kyuden Doji, the Celestial Sword of my clan. It has gone unwielded for too long."
Nimuro nodded in gratitude and accepted the blade. "I, too, must wield the Celestial Sword but I know a Matsu who could make good use of this." Nimuro passed the blade to a servant, then looked back at Kurohito. "Farwell, Lord Kurohito. I will let you leave Toshi Ranbo in peace, but know that I am disappointed that I missed the chance to test my mettle against yours."
"Be patient, Lord Nimuro," Kurohito said. He mounted his waiting steed as Yasuyo climbed into her own saddle. "You may yet get your chance."