Island in the Mist, Part III
by Rich Wulf

Some time ago...

Yasuki Fumoki screamed into the storm. "Hard left! Turn her hard left!" The crew was no longer listening. They scampered about the deck in terror, driven mad by the skull tide's terrible clatter. Fumoki gritted his teeth angrily and cursed the Seas of Shadow. He cursed the fate that brought him here. He had chosen the life of a pirate so he wouldn't have to face the terrors of the Shadowlands again. He had made a good life for himself, sacking Crane ships, taking away their priceless treasures, watching their dainty pale faces as they sank to the bottom of the sea, weighted down with stones. Perhaps it wasn't an honorable life, but it was a good life, and it was far from the Shadowlands.

Now the Shadowlands had found him.

As much as he knew that it would be wiser to turn and flee. As much as he wanted to take the Deathless and sail her south out of the Sea of Shadow and never turn back, there was something deep inside that would not let him abandon this fight. Not that a fight was necessary. The jade on the hull would protect the Deathless from the Taint, and the steel would turn away the teeth of the skull tide. Soon, they would leave all this behind. They would be safe.

A massive reptilian head rose from the sea, as large as three horses. Its skin was pitted with black boils and oozed with slimy black fluid. Its eyes burned with a hateful yellow light, and as it opened its mouth the stench of rotten flesh rolled over the Deathless. Fumoki's jaw dropped open. He had seen an Orochi before, but it wasn't like this. This one bore the signs of the Tainted. No, not just Tainted - Lost.

"LITTLE CRAB YOU HAVE BROUGHT ME A SHIP," the monster roared, its voice deafening above the cry of the storm. "LITTLE CRAB YOU HAVE BROUGHT MY SKULL TIDE A FEAST OF RODENT FLESH."

For a moment, Fumoki considered leaping overboard and swimming for his life. There was a chance he'd survive the gaki and escape this thing. He had survived situations almost as bad before... well not really this bad.

The Orochi leaned closer, its nostrils only inches from Fumoki. "CHOOSE, LITTLE CRAB," it said. "JOIN THE KING OF THE SEA OF SHADOW, ADD THE MIGHT OF YOUR SHIP TO MY LEGIONS, OR ADD YOUR BONES TO THOSE OF THE CRANE YOU MURDERED."

Fumoki looked into the Orochi's eyes. He reached for his katana, sheathed across his back so that he could climb the rigging more easily. He drew the blade and a flash of lightning made it glitter. The blade was Kaiu steel, wielded by his grandfather's grandfather's grandfather at the Battle of Stolen Graves. Once it had struck down Iuchiban's servants. Perhaps it could kill this... No, that was insane. Nothing could kill something this big.

But for a moment, the Orochi's eyes narrowed, and Fumoki wondered.

"YOU THINK TO FIGHT ME?" the Orochi said. "A PATHETIC PIRATE?"

"I am not a pirate," Fumoki said. "I am a Crab."

For the first time and last time Yasuki Fumoki felt like that was the truth.

As the Orochi opened his mouth to laugh Yasuki Fumoki charged across the deck and lifted his katana high. The Orochi seemed surprised for a moment as Fumoki leapt into its mouth, burying the blade deep in the monster's throat. Black blood erupted in a torrent and the King Orochi screamed. It began to close its mouth just as Fumoki began to twist the blade. Both were going to die; it was merely a race to see who would die first; the battle would be over in an instant.

In that instant, lightning consumed them both.

And so the battle never ended...

 

Four hundred and seventy years later...

"Get up, boy," Matsu Nimuro said, "and try again." The Champion of the Lion was half visible through the early morning mists of the practice field, gracefully entering into another kata with his bokken clutched in both hands.

Ichiro looked about for his own bokken, finding it several feet away, half buried in the soft earth from the force of Nimuro's disarming blow. The boy reached for his weapon, but felt a seizure of pain from his hand. Ichiro's fingers where red and swollen where Nimuro had struck him. "My fingers," the boy grunted, massaging his hand as he rose to his feet. "I can't feel my fingers."

"You do not need your fingers, boy," Nimuro said, passing his bokken in slow, wide arcs as he paced across the field toward the young samurai-in-training. "You need only honor and courage. Fight one-handed if you must. Fight left-handed like a Scorpion if you must. Clutch the bokken in your teeth and choke your enemy on your own blood if that is what need be done. Find a way, and win."

Ichiro nodded. Even out of his formal armor the Golden Lion of Toshi Ranbo was a fearsome sight. He was not a tall man, but he was as broad-shouldered as any Crab, with a musculature as rigidly defined as a mountain. His long black topknot - uncovered by the familiar mane he wore on public occasions - still and motionless despite the warrior's movements. His face was flat and grave, his eyes two chunks of sharpened flint. Nimuro was the Champion of the Lion, a slayer of countless samurai. Ichiro, in contrast, was only a twelve year old boy. He was lanky, bony, and still had a child's haircut. Nonetheless, Ichiro lifted his sword and saluted the Golden Lion.

Nimuro roared like his clan's namesake and charged.

Ichiro threw his bokken at the Golden Lion's feet. Nimuro's eyes widened slightly as the wooden blade struck tangled in his ankles. The massive samurai tumbled forward on the soft earth. He looked up quickly to find Ichiro holding his lost bokken in one hand, pointing it at the Golden Lion's collar bone with an expression of absolute terror. A low growl rose in Nimuro's throat.

"I found a way," Ichiro said. "I won."

For a moment, Ichiro was certain Matsu Nimuro was going to kill him.

Quiet applause echoed from across the practice field. Nimuro and Ichiro both turned at once to see the wizened old figure of Ikoma Sume approaching them, face barely visible between his snowy white beard and wide-brimmed hat. "A masterful display, Nimuro-sama," the old man said, bowing deeply to the Golden Lion. "Your skill in the blade is only matched by your prowess in swiftly instructing others. With teachers such as yourself and students such as Ichiro, who can defeat the Lion?"
"Indeed," Nimuro said, accepting the compliment with a frown. His eyes flickered toward Ichiro. Ichiro quickly looked away, but noted a glimmer of respect in place of the rage he had seen a moment before. Sume's compliment had spared him the Golden Lion's wrath. "You may go, Ichiro-san," Nimuro said. "You must begin to prepare for your gempukku tomorrow."
"Hai, Matsu Nimuro-sama," Ichiro said, bowing deeply to the Lion Champion. "I thank you for this opportunity to-"
"Just leave," Nimuro growled. "I need to talk to your uncle."

Ichiro nodded, grabbed his bokken, and fled as quickly as he was able. Nimuro and Sume stood quietly and waited until the boy was gone.

"The Crane are on the march," Sume said quietly. "My sources say that Kurohito has acquired a taste for Yasuki gold. Apparently the philosophies of his departed spirit brethren have found a place in his heart. He, too, believes that the Yasuki should be Crane."

Nimuro tapped his bokken thoughtfully over one shoulder. "More likely he believes the Yasuki farmlands and merchant caravans should be Crane," Nimuro said.

Sume chuckled. "Very likely, but Kurohito's claim is well supported," Sume said. "The Otomo have researched the records at Kyuden Miya, Kyuden Asako, Otosan Uchi, and our own Kyuden Ikoma. What evidence exist supports the Crane's claim."

"What?" Nimuro sneered. "The Lying Darkness ravaged the historical libraries during the War of Shadow. How can they be so sure?"

"Truly, the Ikoma Histories are in a state of disrepair," Sume nodded, a pained look crossing his face. "But the heraldic records of the Miya are complete. The Darkness never considered such things worth its while, but one can learn much from mons, insignia of rank, family, and station. Those records contained the information needed to secure the Crane's claim."

"Who is the heir?" Nimuro asked.

"A young gunso named Daidoji Hachi," Sume said.

"I do not know him," Nimuro said. "What sort of man is this new enemy?"

Sume rose an eyebrow. "We do not know he is an enemy."

"We know that he is Crane," Nimuro said.

"Indeed," Sume said. "Hachi is an honorable if occasionally... unrestrained young samurai. He apparently earned a reputation for being somewhat indiscreet in his affairs with a Doji provincial governor's twin daughters two winters past. Hachi apologized and the Doji never pursued the matter further; apparently that may have something to do with Hachi's reputation as a duelist. Another encounter four years ago between Hachi and an angered Scorpion cuckold led to the latter's death."

"Bah, gossip," Nimuro waved one hand dismissively. "He can fight, that's all I need know. What does the Emperor say on this matter?"

"Publicly?" Sume glanced sideways and cleared his throat. "Publicly, he has said little regarding the Yasuki."

"And privately?" Nimuro said, his expression unchanging. "Where lies the Emperor's heart, old spy?"

"Toturi is a fair and unbiased Emperor," Sume said, blithely ignoring Nimuro's jab or taking it as a compliment. "An Emperor's mantle may rest upon Toturi's shoulders, but a Lion's heart beats within his chest. I do not think the Crane will find their claim so easily pursued."

Nimuro said nothing, but frowned into the mist.

"You are not pleased, Nimuro-sama?" Sume asked.

"I am not pleased by politics, deception and shadow games," Nimuro said. "I accept that certain things must be done for our clan to survive, but gossip and espionage still do not sit easily with me."

"That is why you have me, my lord," Ikoma Sume said with a short bow.

Nimuro chuckled, a rare laugh from the Golden Lion. "You are indeed crafty, old man," he said. "And your nephew seems to have inherited your guile."

"After his parents died he was forced to endure my upbringing," Sume said. He looked at the Lion Champion, his expression serious. "I think that we will all need cunning, my lord. Ichiro is a capable lad, of many talents. He has studied the histories, he can wield a sword, he's an expert horseman, he's even become quite accomplished at the art of taiko. He will make a resourceful and versatile samurai. When he reaches his gempukku, I am sure that he will be more than willing to serve in any way you require, and bring glory to the Lion."

"Glory is not for everyone," Nimuro said carefully. "Better that you keep him here. I think it best that we have at least one skilled samurai kept well in reserve, where our enemies will not expect to find him."

"This from the man who disdains shadow games?" Sume asked with a grin.

Nimuro shrugged. "I do not like mud either, and yet I tread upon it. The Lion are weaker than our enemies know, Sume. The Ikoma and Kitsu still have not recovered from our losses a generation ago against the Darkness. The Akodo and Matsu are demoralized after fighting a war against the same ancestors they have always been taught to revere. The Lion are strong, yes, but not as strong as once they were. If the Crane should regain control of the court, or if our alliance with the Phoenix should turn against us..."

"Let me concern myself with what may be, my lord," Sume said. "That is my duty. Your own position is difficult enough without worrying over possibilities."

"Then share your thoughts, Sume," Nimuro said. "Do you think the Lion are strong enough?"

Sume nodded. "I look into the eyes of the young, and I think that we will be strong enough." The old man looked in the direction in which Ichiro had departed.

"He takes a new name tomorrow," Nimuro said. "I wonder what it will be."

"That is a private matter, known to Ichiro alone," Sume said.

Nimuro glanced at Sume, raising a doubtful eyebrow.

The old spy chuckled. "His name will be Otemi," Sume said.

"After your brother?" Nimuro replied with a note of surprise. "Quite a name to live up to."

"Yes," Sume nodded, "but as you said, he is cunning. I have trained him well, as have you. I think there is very little that Ikoma Otemi will not be able to handle..."

 

Two years later....

"Akodo's Eye!" Ikoma Otemi swore rising to his feet and glancing about desperately. "How did I get into this?"

Matsu Kenji continued to stride off through the Nezumi village, her pace suddenly even less feminine than it was before. She shouted orders to the Ratlings in their own language and they obeyed, scrambling about eagerly as they readied the great koutetsukan warship for departure.

"Captain Fumoki-sama punch-punch you in the face," observed H-Tach'kir. The Nezumi shaman was perched on a nearby stump, arms wrapped around the haft of his spear.

"What?" Otemi snapped at the Nezumi. "Kenji punched me. Captain Fumoki-sama is still laying over there." Otemi pointed at the unconscious Ratling laying in the dueling ring.

"That not Captain Fumoki-sama," H-Tach'kir. "That N'tuk. Captain Fumoki-sama over there now." He pointed at Kenji. "You no tell me you not figure this out by now. Humans even dumber than I thought."

Otemi frowned. "She's possessed by the ghost of your dead pirate captain," he said. "You knew this would happen."

"Didn't tell you before," H-Tach'kir said. "Nothing we could do."

"Nothing you could do?" Otemi asked.

"Captain Fumoki-sama does what he likes," the shaman said with a sigh. "Powerful spirit, he. Not even my magic can pry him out, once he go in. He leave-leave when he choose, or when he die. Probably leave soon."

"He will?" Otemi asked.

"Oh, yes," H-Tach'kir said. "Captain Fumoki-sama going off to fight King Orochi's ghost again. He will die-die like he always does, then ship will turn back here and we be trapped for another year till he take another body and try again. Then your friend be free. Dead, but free. Hope she not come back as ghost too. Got enough of those around here."

Otemi swore. "You're telling me that the ghost of Yasuki Fumoki has been possessing Nezumi and reliving his fight with the King Orochi every year since he died?"

"Not every year," H-Tach'kir. "Just every year since tribe come back to island and try to steal his treasure." The Nezumi's shoulders slumped. "Bad idea, that one was. Can't leave island now, not even in Deathless. Sea of Shadow turn us back every time we try. Stranded here we be, stranded here forever. H-Tach'kir think it lucky you even found the map."

"You made the map that led me here," Otemi concluded, drawing the wooden map from his obi. He knew the marks on the shaman's spear had seemed familiar.

"Made many maps," H-Tach'kir said. "Threw them in ocean. You just find one. Captain Fumoki-sama say he need stronger body, need samurai body, so he can finish big fight-fight once and forever. So make maps, draw samurai here."

"You think he's right?" Otemi asked. "You think that with Kenji he can beat the Orochi?"

H-Tach'kir snorted. "You stupid-stupid or something? Nezumi be stronger than humans. Captain Fumoki-sama just making excuses. Captain Fumoki-sama going to die. Again. Sorry about that. Your friend seem like mighty warrior. Shame-shame, really. K'Chee said that you two were going to mate. That true?"

"That's none of your business!" Otemi shouted.

"Whatever," the Nezumi shrugged and went back to staring at the sea.

Otemi swore again. For an instant, he wanted to draw his sword and cut something down, but that wouldn't really serve any purpose. H-Tach'kir wasn't really his enemy and he couldn't attack Fumoki while he was in Kenji's body. No, his uncle had taught him about ghosts. They always came back for a reason, to complete some business left unfinished. Perhaps if Kenji could defeat the Orochi, then the fight would finally be over. Both the Orochi and Fumoki would be at rest and that would be the end of it. But how could you win a battle that had already been lost countless times? Otemi tried to concentrate, tried to rein in his temper and think of a way, but it was difficult with all the drumming.

"The drums!" Otemi exclaimed, turning to the shaman and startling him greatly. "K'Chee said that the drums keep the ghosts away from the island."

"Was Captain Fumoki-sama's idea," H-Tach'kir shrugged. "Lucky some Crane drums be in treasure hoard on island. We good enough drummers to keep ghosts away from island, but King Orochi not so impressed. Tried to take drums out to sea with us once. Stun him a little bit, but then just make him angry. Not good. Nezumi not good drummers."

Otemi nodded and headed for the Deathless.

 

Ten minutes later...

"You must think I'm stupid, Lion," Matsu Kenji said. Her voice was strangely accented like a Crab. She wore her katana and wakizashi in a strange improvised saya strapped across her back, and had replaced her loose kimono with a sailor's loincloth and loose fitting short-sleeved shirt tied tightly at the waist. Kenji paced back and forth across the deck, keeping her eyes on Ikoma Otemi at all times. "Why should I trust you? I've stolen your friend's body. If I were you, I'd betray me the first chance I got."

"But you're not me," Otemi replied calmly. "You're a pirate. I'm a Lion. I'm trustworthy and you're not. Besides, you're not Kenji either. I'd say its a safe bet that she's putting up a lot more resistance than you expected. The Lion's Pride can be rather... willful."

Kenji was silent a moment, seeming to consider this.

"Kenji is under my command," Otemi said. "She will listen to me. Allow me to help you, and she'll stop resisting. She may even help."

"Bah," he sneered. "What do I need a Lion's help for? I sank a hundred Crane ships in my time. I left my mark on history even if I'm doomed to never see Yomi's green fields. Thanks to me, the Crane hear the Yasuki name and they know fear!" Kenji smiled a savage grin.

"Ah," Otemi said. "You realize, of course, that the Yasuki daimyo is a Crane now, right?"

"Liar," Kenji said instantly.

"His name is Yasuki Hachi," Otemi said. "The Yasuki daimyo died heirless. His vassals survived, but his direct line was left savaged after the War of Spirits whittled their numbers down considerably. The Otomo traced the Yasuki lineage and determined the heir to be a Crane. The Crab and Crane war over the Yasuki lands as we speak."

"You are a liar!" Kenji said, pointing at Otemi's face.

"That's twice you've refused my gift of information, Crab," Otemi said evenly. "I appreciate your grasp of etiquette, but if you call me a liar again I'll treat you as your ill manners demand. I don't care whose body you're in." Otemi rested his hand on the hilt of his katana. "Your new daimyo is Yasuki Hachi, formerly Daidoji Hachi."

Kenji's mouth hung open limply. "I... well..." she ran one hand through her long hair as she struggled to digest the news. "At least he's a Daidoji."

"The Lion have no love for the Crane," Otemi said. "But we have yet to involve ourselves in your war. Our resources are spread more thinly than the other clans realize."

Kenji looked at Otemi shrewdly. "But with the wealth of a hundred Crane vessels..."

Otemi nodded. "Perhaps that could free our resources enough for more... traditional pursuits."

"I would be glad to accept your offer of aid, Ikoma Otemi," Kenji said, her mouth turning up in a leer that was distinctly Yasuki. "What must we do?"