The King of the Trolls, Part II
Rokugan, the year 1159 (present day)
Togashi Matsuo sat back against the rugged face of the mountain wall, pausing for a moment to catch his breath. A cold wind blasted through the peaks, chilling him to the young ise zumi to the bone. Matsuo laughed in defiance, facing the gale head-on. His training as a tattooed monk allowed him not only to ignore the rigors of the harsh mountain climate, but to find joy in them. He drew new strength from the chill breeze. The tattoos upon his broad back shifted, reforming in the shape of a white dragon.
Moving to the very tip of the cliff, he spread his arms to the sky. The tattoos shifted again, becoming a mighty eagle. With an excited cry, Matsuo leapt from the edge of the mountain and vanished into the mist below.
Several moments later, the young ise zumi landed in a crouch on a plateau near the base of the mountain. He glanced back up the way he had come, a broad grin spreading across his features. He rubbed a hand across his smooth, shaven head and whistled.
"Nicely done, boy," said a voice from further down the path. Like Matsuo, the newcomer was also an ise zumi; a great dragon tattoo blazed across his chest and arms. Fine lines around his eyes revealed that he was older than he seemed.
"That's the thing about the art of leaping off of mountains," Matsuo said, glancing back. "Out of necessity, one must master the art on the first try."
"So you are a master now?" the other man laughed.
"Of course," Matsuo shrugged. "My teacher was the legendary Togashi Mitsu."
The other man laughed out loud. "Legendary, was I?"
"Of course," Matsuo said with mock sincerity and a negligent wave. "He once defeated forty oni using nothing more than a pair of chopsticks."
"Hm," Mitsu grunted. "If I am so legendary, then, you would think that Lord Uso would have given me a more important duty than scouting the southwestern provinces of the clan." He folded his arms and stared out at the unpopulated, barren landscape.
"Perhaps this is a test of your legendary humility, sensei?" Matsuo asked.
Mitsu shot his student an irritated glare. Matsuo maintained his serious expression for only a moment before glancing away and disguising his chuckle as a cough.
Mitsu raised a graying eyebrow in disapproval. "Your humor is misplaced, student. These are serious times for our clan. Our people are starving. Junnosuke has gone rogue, befouling the name of our clan. The greater part of our armies hides behind a wall of earth, hoping that the winter snows will fall before Shiba Aikune returns once more. Satsu, Shaitung, Hoshi, Eisai, all are missing. I belong where I can be useful, not here in the middle of nowhere."
"I share your frustration, sensei," Matsuo said, bowing his head contritely. "Like you, I am certain that were I at the Shrine of the Ki-Rin, all of the Dragon Clan's problems would vanish by the next time Lady Moon rises. Alas, such is not to be. Our brothers and sisters will have to struggle on without us."
Mitsu looked at Matsuo again. "I would chastise you for inappropriate humor, but I think the Fortune of Irony would strike me down on the spot," he said.
"I am not as studied in the arts of theology as you are, wise sensei," Matsuo said with exaggerated seriousness, "but I do not think that there is a Fortune of Irony.
"Keep speaking then, boy," Mitsu said, glancing around at the landscape again. "I'm certain one will spring into being from your breath in time."
Matsuo laughed and clapped softly, acknowledging the winner of their verbal duel.
"Shhh," Mitsu said, holding one hand up sharply.
Matsuo looked around quickly. "Do you hear something, master?" The tattoos on the younger man's chest formed into the shape of a howling wolf. Matsuo sniffed the air.
"I thought…" Mitsu shook his head. "No. Perhaps it was only wishful thinking on my part."
Matsuo looked confused.
"I have a vague hope that Mirumoto Uso had reasons for sending us out here beyond getting rid of a meddlesome old man and a sarcastic brat," Mitsu said. "I had hoped, for a moment, that perhaps there was some other reason for our mission here, something too sensitive for Uso to discuss, but something he knew that the two of us could handle."
"You have quite an imagination, sensei," Matsuo said. "Who's a sarcastic brat?"
Mitsu ignored the question. "Perhaps we would be better off…" Mitsu suddenly grew quiet, noting the distracted look in Matsuo's eyes.
The peak of the mountain seemed to be moving.
"By Lord Sun…" Matsuo swore.
"I've met Lord Sun," Mitsu said, still staring up. "I bet he's laughing at us both right now." Mitsu glanced to his left and right. "Is this entire mountain… moving?"
Matsuo cocked his head. "I can hear the mountain's heart beating," he said. "Sensei, look out!" The tattoo on Matsuo's chest became an eagle again. He suddenly seized the older ise zumi by the arm and leapt.
The earth behind them exploded with a cacophonous roar. Boulders rained down
around them. A cloud of dust quickly consumed them both. The two Dragons
stumbled through the chaos; drawing upon all their training to roll and tumble
down the face of the mountain as best they could. After a moment, they both
realized that it was the mountain itself that was moving.
Blind and deaf, Togashi Matsuo whispered a prayer to every Fortune he could name, including the unnamed Fortune of Irony, and jumped.
The two Dragons stumbled out of the small cave and gasped for breath. Mitsu leaned against the trunk of a thick conifer. Matsuo collapsed on the earth, fingers clenching deep into the dirt as if grateful to be on unmoving ground at last. Both men were covered in blood and dust. Mitsu's eyes were glued on the horizon, on the impossibly huge shadowed figure that was striding away to the west.
"Thank Amaterasu we found that cave," Mitsu whispered.
"What was that thing?" Matsuo whispered, looking up at his sensei with terrified eyes.
"I… I don't know," Mitsu said.
Matsuo looked back at his teacher. "You have never seen anything like that before?" Matsuo asked.
Mitsu shook his head slowly.
"Then we must be in trouble," Matsuo said morosely. "At least it's moving away from Dragon lands."
"And that makes it someone else's problem?" Mitsu said, glaring at Matsuo.
"You know that's not what I mean, sensei," Matsuo said, rising to his feet and dusting off his hakama with both hands. "I… that's funny." He looked off to his left. "I don't remember there being a ravine around here."
A pair of yellow eyes appeared in the dark cave behind them. "Not ravine… foot print. Foot print of King Troll." A brownish-green reptilian face emerged from the shadows, circled with bony ridges. It watched them both patiently. It was a squat creature, about the size of a grown man, dressed in garments of rough cloth.
"A zokujin!" Matsuo shouted. A great white dragon rippled across his chest. White frost billowed from the tattooed man's mouth.
"No!" Mitsu shouted, holding out a hand to halt his student.
"Master, have you not heard the tales?" Matsuo shouted. "These beasts attacked our patrols!"
"These beasts can tunnel through solid stone," Mitsu replied, fixing his student with a stern glare. "If it were not for the cave this one burrowed, both of us would be dead."
Matsuo opened his mouth, looked at the zokujin, looked back at Mitsu, and closed it with a click. He nodded and stepped back.
"My apologies," Mitsu said, bowing at the waist to the creature. Matsuo copied the gesture. "And my thanks. I am Togashi Mitsu of the Dragon Clan. This is my student, Matsuo."
The creature's wide-eyed expression did not change. It rested one long-fingered hand upon its chest. "Zgkol," it said, continuing to stare at them.
"It was fortunate that you arrived when you did, Zgkol," Mitsu said, stumbling a bit over the strange name.
"Where else would Zgkol be?" the creature said, exhaling sharply. "Zgkol has always been here."
"What was that creature?" Matsuo asked, pointing at the shadow receding in the distance.
Zgkol tilted its head at Matsuo. "You know," it said. "You come to wake King Troll, no?"
"The King Troll?" Matsuo scoffed. "That's only a legend!"
"So am I, remember?" Mitsu said dryly.
Zgkol's eyes narrowed. "Zgkol has been watching. You have been searching mountains for something."
Mitsu and Matsuo exchanged bewildered looks. "No," Mitsu said. "We did not come to awaken the King Troll. We merely came to survey our clan's southern provinces. We had no idea we would find such a creature here."
"And what will you do now?" Zgkol asked. "King Troll very dangerous. Will Dragons run, or will Dragons help fight?"
"If you know a way to fight such a creature, we would be glad to help," Mitsu said.
Zgkol continued to study them for another long moment. A black tongue flickered over its lower lip, brushing a fly away. Finally, its great yellow eyes blinked. It raised its head and said something in a strange, gravelly language. Two dozen zokujin separated from the surrounding landscape and set aside the large, sharp stones they had been prepared to throw.
"They're almost as quiet as Daidoji," Mitsu said, impressed.
The zokujin were now ignoring them both. Most were sitting on the rubble that remained of the mountain, watching King Troll. Zgkol rummaged through his clothing, finally producing a small figure of jade.
"Troll-killer Gohiro left this," Zgkol said, looking up at the ise zumi. "Troll-killer asked that we teach the lessons, make sure that there would always be someone ready to defeat King Troll." The zokujin whispered to the statue for several moments. The tiny figure shifted; its indistinct face became a mask surrounded by long hair. Its tiny arms moved like a thing alive.
"Zgkol-san," the little statue said, its voice smooth and resonant. It bowed in the zokujin's hand. "What news from the Dragon lands?"
"I recognize that voice," Mitsu muttered under his breath.
"Time has come, Bayushi-sama," Zgkol said. "King Troll wakes now."
"Bayushi?" Mitsu shouted suddenly.
"I beg your pardon?" the little statue said, peering about. "Who is that speaking?"
Mitsu moved more quickly than thought, snatching the small figure from Zgkol's hand. The zokujin hissed in alarm and skittered away from the belligerent Dragon.
"You were using zokujin to spy upon the Dragon Clan?" Mitsu demanded, squeezing the statue in his fist. "Upon your own allies?"
"The famous Togashi Mitsu!" the statue said; its tone was that of a man greeting a dear friend rather than that of a small statue being crushed in the fist of a much larger man. "Please allow me to explain. This is not what it seems. My name is Bayushi Ogura."
"The Scorpion are involved and nothing is what it seems," Matsuo said with a sigh. "What a surprise."
"Now, now," the statue said with a laugh. "I am not your enemy. I believe that honor belongs to the six hundred foot troll. It has been buried in your lands for two centuries, Mitsu-sama. The lords of the Dragon Clan have always known of its existence, and the danger that it posed. Do you think it was coincidence that someone as important as yourself was sent to patrol these barren lands while your clan has so many other problems?"
"The zokujin knew your name," Mitsu said. "Something tells me he reports to you more often than once every two centuries. You're using them as spies."
"Zgkol is… a good friend," the statue said. "Keep your friends close, I believe the saying goes. Let us work together, and bring this beast to its end as swiftly as possible. What say you, Mitsu-sama? It would be an honor to fight beside you."
"Hai," Mitsu said, pausing only a moment to consider.
"Which way was it headed?" the statue asked.
"West along the mountains," Mitsu said.
"Unicorn territory," the statue said, its tone bemused. "Perhaps the matter isn't so urgent after all."
"I jest, of course," the statue said. "How quickly can you be in Ryoko Owari?"
Mitsu smiled. A vibrant red centipede tattoo seemed to skitter across his chest and arms. The designs on Matsuo's chest shifted to form the image of a running hare. "We are on our way," Mitsu said.
Bayushi Ogura sat before a small writing desk in his offices in Ryoko Owari. Numerous unfurled scrolls and small items of bright green stone lay out before him. The young Scorpion studied one scroll in particular with a studied gaze. Though he had inherited his father's good looks, one would ever accuse Bayushi Ogura of being a handsome man. His eyes were too hard. He frowned too much. He tended to wear dark, intimidating clothing. His mask resembled a pale, expressionless corpse. He spoke to others in sharp, condescending tones. Some said that Ogura always seemed as if he were planning someone else's funeral.
Bayushi Ogura cared little what others said about him. He had other things on his mind.
The shoji screen slid open. A masked samurai peered into the room. "Ogura-sama," he whispered. "You have visitors."
"Ah," Ogura said, setting his scroll to one side. "The Witch Hunter? Send him in, Katai."
"Not the Witch Hunter," the yojimbo replied. "Two ise zumi."
Ogura blinked, then looked at the tiny jade figure at the corner of his writing desk. "That's impossible. I only spoke to them five hours ago."
The yojimbo looked lost. "Sir, should I send them away?"
"Absolutely not," Ogura said sharply. "Send them in."
The two massive Dragons stepped into the room. Steam was rising from their shoulders.
"Togashi Mitsu, I presume," Ogura said, rising and bowing. "And your associate?"
"Matsuo," Mitsu said. "My student."
Ogura nodded. "This is quite an honor. I admit I am quite surprised. The King Troll's tomb is nearly nine days' travel from here."
Mitsu shrugged, returning the bow. "The mountains delayed us a bit."
"The ise zumi sense of humor," Ogura said, sitting again. "How refreshing. In any case, I am glad to see you here. I am sure that with the famed Mitsu and his student at my side, I will be a triumphant as my glorious ancestor." Ogura's tone did not sound triumphant in the least. In fact, his voice seemed laced with dread. "Can I get you some refreshment? Sake perhaps?"
"No, thank you," Mitsu said. "What can you tell us about the creature we saw in the mountains?"
"Right to the point, eh?" Ogura said. "It is a long story. Over two hundred years long, to be precise. Two centuries ago, an Imperial cartographer named Asako Gohiro was sent to investigate the Seikitsu Mountains. While exploring the area, his Unicorn aides accidentally awoke the creature you saw today. It rampaged across the Empire, laying waste to the villages of the Unicorn, and Scorpion. As it traveled, it drew power from the earth and became larger. It destroyed everything in its path."
"But somehow it was put to rest," Mitsu said.
Ogura nodded. "With the help of a magistrate named Bayushi Seiko, Gohiro met the zokujin, Zgkol. The zokujin seem to know much about the magic that created the King Troll. He taught Gohiro how to cast a spell that would separate the Troll's spirit from its body, casting it into a deep slumber."
"Zgkol?" Mitsu asked. "The same one zokujin I met today? How is that possible?"
"The zokujin are a very long-lived race," Ogura replied. "To continue the story, Gohiro faced the troll and cast his spell, while Seiko distracted the troll using a sword made of pure crystal. In the end, Gohiro defeated the King Troll. In time, Zgkol taught Seiko's descendants the secrets of defeating the King Troll as well. Thus the secrets of the defeating the King Troll have passed through the generations. I inherited the duty from my mother. And here we are."
Mitsu frowned. "If Zgkol taught Gohiro the magic they would need to defeat the King Troll, why didn't the zokujin just cast the spell himself?"
"A question I have often wondered myself," Ogura said. "I have always felt that the zokujin knew more about the King Troll than they cared to tell. I have tried my best to find out what they might be hiding, but I may as well pry secrets from a stone for all the good it does."
"Those with the darkest secrets hide them best, I find," Mitsu said.
"Out of necessity," Ogura said with a nod.
The shoji screen slid open again, and Katai appeared once more. "My lord, your other visitor is here," he said.
"Of course," Ogura said. "Send him in."
"Other visitor?" Matsuo asked.
"The local agent of the Kuni Witch Hunters," Ogura said. "My ancestor Bayushi Seiko served on the Carpenter Wall. Since her time, we have found it useful to maintain relations with the Crab."
Several moments later a young man wearing dark blue robes stepped into the room. He wore his hair in a shaggy black mop. His face was painted in blue and black, made up to resemble the face of a scowling demon. A jade seal hung from around his neck, carved with a pair of crossed crab claws and an open eye. A short tetsubo was strapped across his back. His eyes scanned the room, searching for hidden enemies or perhaps planning an escape route. The young man's eyes widened in surprise when he noted the two ise zumi.
"Kuni-san," Ogura said, rising and bowing to the young man. "Mitsu, may I introduce Kuni Junji. Junji, it is my honor to introduce Togashi Mitsu and his student, Matsuo."
The Witch Hunter did a quick double take. "The Togashi Mitsu?" he asked, gaping at the Dragon.
"The legendary Togashi Mitsu," Matsuo said. Junji bowed as deeply as he was able.
"Please, Matsuo. Don't do that." Mitsu sighed.
"I beg your forgiveness, Mitsu-sama," Junji said.
"I'd rather you skipped that, too," Mitsu said.
"Of course," Junji said. "It is merely that one so rarely gets to meet a true hero in an area so full of sin and vice as Ryoko Owari. The streets teem with every sort of base villain." Junji looked at Ogura meaningfully.
"Enough of this," Ogura said, moving to the darkened rear section of the chamber. "There is business at hand." The Scorpion whispered a soft prayer to the fire kami, and the back of the room filled with soft light. A beautiful lacquered sword stand rested there with a single katana resting upon it. Ogura lifted the sword reverently from the stand.
Junji looked to Ogura. "Katai said that there was an emergency?"
"The King Troll has awakened," Ogura said, looking over his shoulder.
Somehow, the witch hunter managed to pale behind his makeup. "How soon do we leave?" he asked.
Ogura tucked the sword into his obi. "Immediately," he said. "We can let nothing delay us."
All things considered, the Seikitsu Pass was quite a beautiful place. From a distance, it almost looked as if a great hand had descended from the heavens and scooped out a bit of the mountains. If you believe the Unicorn Clan's stories, of course, that was exactly what had happened.
Ogura found it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the place. At the moment, the annoying Unicorn samurai who barred their passage through the pass was occupying his attention.
"The papers are in order," Ogura said, his tone clipped and impatient. "Please allow us passage."
The Unicorn guard glanced down at the sealed document, then back at Ogura again, then at the dozen Scorpion bushi, two ise zumi, and witch hunter that followed him. "Diplomatic mission, Bayushi-sama?" he asked.
"Of a sort," Ogura replied. "I am here as a representative of my father, Bayushi Kaukatsu."
"Ah," the Unicorn said. "And is he important?"
Ogura bristled. "My mission is urgent, Shinjo-san," he said in as polite a voice as he could muster. "If you could please step out of our way, we would be sure to spend as little time in your lands as possible."
"Of course not," the Unicorn said. "With a group as heavily armed as yours, I don't imagine it would take you long to do whatever you plan to do. Leave." He rolled up Ogura's traveling papers and offered them back to the Scorpion.
"You have no idea what you are doing," the Scorpion hissed.
"Of course I do," the Unicorn replied. "I'm giving you a chance to back off gracefully before I show those forged documents to my superior, he notices that the seal at the bottom is a forgery, and we end up having to kill each other."
"Of course, I may be mistaken," the Unicorn said with a smile. "Perhaps the wax on the seal is merely damaged. I'm sure if you returned to Ryoko Owari and had the Unicorn magistrate there replace it, we would realize it wasn't a forgery after all."
Ogura shoved the papers back into his sleeve, turned, and stormed back down the path. The others followed, leading their horses carefully over the rocky terrain.
"I don't understand," Matsuo said, looking back at the guard post. "Why did that Unicorn think our papers were forged."
"Because they are forged!" Ogura said. "I didn't have time to arrange our journey through legal channels, and I didn't have enough koku on hand to just bribe the local Unicorn magistrate. I had to resort to a forgery, and we were in too much of hurry to get a decent one."
"You could simply explain the danger to them," Junji said. "Perhaps they would let us through."
"So a small army of Scorpion tell the Unicorn army that they have arrived to fight a giant troll on their land," Matsuo said. "The results of such honesty would be interesting, if nothing else. I wonder if the Unicorn would just laugh at us again, or blame us for the troll's awakening and kill us all?"
"It does not matter," Ogura said fiercely. "We must find another way through the mountains, though I had hoped to explore the Seikitsu while we were here."
"Why?" Junji asked.
"It was in this area that the Unicorn scouts first uncovered the Troll King two centuries ago," Ogura said. "I think that the Unicorn Clan's rumored excavations here may be linked to its awakening."
"Well, there are a number of smaller passes through the mountains," Mitsu said. "Most are dangerous this time of year, but with a group this small we should be able to traverse them. The journey should only take a few more days."
"And how much will the troll destroy during that time?" Ogura asked.
Finding the King Troll's trail was not difficult. The path of devastation carved through the countryside, obliterating natural and man-made structures alike. Soon after they found the creature's trail, they found a small village it had passed through. Buildings lay in ruins; corpses of samurai and peasants were strewn everywhere. The haunted eyes of survivors watched them from the rubble.
Matsuo stepped out to the edge of the road. A huddle of frightened peasant children watched him, ready to run away at any moment. Matsuo smiled soothingly, drew several balls of rice wrapped in paper from his furoshiki, and set them at the edge of the road. He turned to hurry up with the others.
At one side of the road, a dead Unicorn samurai lay next to a large puddle of green fluid. Junji moved quickly to the puddle, knelt, and held one hand just above the surface. His face creased in thought. "Strange," the witch hunter said, looking up at the others. "This is the troll's blood, clearly, but I sense no Taint." He looked back at the others.
"Does it matter if the creature is Tainted?" Matsuo said, gesturing at the ruined village. "We still have to stop it."
"That is not the matter in question, Matsuo," Ogura said looking down from his horse with a worried expression. "Junji and I had always assumed the King Troll would be Tainted. This changes our strategy considerably."
"My spells specialize in destroying the Taint," Junji added. "I am not sure how much help I will be if the Troll is not a creature of the Shadowlands. How is this possible? I thought Fu Leng created the trolls." The witch hunter climbed back into his saddle.
"I have seen Volturnum," Mitsu said. "That city is far older than the Empire."
"A mystery for another time," Ogura said. "We cannot be delayed any longer. Let us find this creature, and end this." The Scorpion kicked his horse into a gallop. The others followed as quickly as they were able.
Some time later, Ogura paused to await the others. Junji was the first to catch up with him. A solemn scowl was fixed upon the witch hunter's features.
"Why so grim, Kuni-san?" Ogura asked. "We are about to become heroes."
"Save your honeyed words, Scorpion," Junji replied. "I fight beside you because the cause is just. We are not friends. When this mission is done, I will return to my investigation."
"Feel free, Kuni-san," Ogura said coldly. "I have nothing to hide."
"Indeed," Junji replied, and galloped off down the road.
The King Troll's trail continued west and south. The creature seemed to be
moving very slowly, but it let nothing stand in its path. Wherever it was
headed, it was moving directly there with a purpose. Fortunately, no more
villages stood in its path.
Unfortunately, the Unicorn Clan did. The King Troll stood before the Great Crater, at the mouth of the Seikitsu Pass. The Unicorn soldiers defended the pass from the enormous creature as best they could. Countless arrows from Unicorn archers peppered the beast's limbs. Bolts of ice and lightning erupted from well hidden shugenja, striking the creature in the legs and face. The troll struck out wildly at the mounted samurai, hurling trees and boulders in every direction. The Unicorn were fighting bravely, but each time the beast attacked another samurai fell and did not rise. Their arrows and magic did nothing to harm the King Troll, though it had ceased its march to deal with the attackers.
"Well this is ironic," Mitsu said, crouching on a rocky perch so he
could get a clear view of the battlefield beyond. "If we had just waited at
the pass, the troll would have come to us. I guess you were right, Ogura. It's
looking for something down there."
"I hope that arrogant guard is down there somewhere," Ogura said with a sneer.
"He was only doing his duty," Matsuo said.
"And now it is time to do ours," Junji said.
"The creature is much larger than the legends said," Ogura said. "I hope the zokujin magic still works. I think I will need your aid in the casting, Junji."
"Of course," the witch hunter said. "I pray together our power will be enough to stop it."
"We shall soon find out!" Mitsu said with a maniacal laugh. The tattoos on his chest and arms seemed to writhe in anticipation of battle. "Are you ready, Matsuo?"
"I am always ready," Matsuo replied. The white dragon tattoo
appeared upon his flesh once more. He cracked his knuckles.
"Take this," Ogura said, removing the ancient sword from his obi and tossing it to Mitsu. "Junji and I will begin the spell while you help the Unicorn distract the beast."
Mitsu drew the crystal katana and stared into the blade. "I have not wielded one of these in some time."
"And the blade has not been wielded in some time," Ogura replied. "So you are even." He turned to the Scorpion samurai following him. "Now go! Follow the ise zumi to victory!"
The Scorpion samurai and tattooed men charged. Ogura and Junji followed behind them, but drew up short at the edge of the battlefield. The Scorpions moved to fill the holes in the Unicorn defense, firing their bows at the massive creature. The Unicorn seemed surprised by the Scorpion's arrival for only a moment, then moved to accommodate their unexpected allies. Mitsu and Matsuo charged into combat with the beast directly. Matsuo spat shards of jagged ice from his mouth, slicing deep into the King Troll's ankle, squirting green ichor. Mitsu ran up the creature's leg, leaving a trail of flaming footsteps. Performing a nimble cartwheel in midair, Mitsu buried the blade in the creature's back and dropped. He carved a green scar down the creature's back as he fell. The King Troll howled in rage and pain, flailing about in a desperate attempt to crush the nimble ise zumi.
"The ise zumi are quite powerful," Junji said, folding his fingers in a complex pattern as he began to draw upon his magic.
"Of course," Ogura replied, drawing out one of his scrolls and beginning the ritual that would doom the King Troll. "Why do you think the Scorpion made it a point to make them allies?"
"It seems the Scorpion always take the surest route to power," Junji said, cold eyes fixing up on the Scorpion.
"I really do not know what you are talking about," Ogura said, "and this is not the time for your accusations, witch hunter."
Junji said nothing, merely shook his head and continued the ritual. Across the battlefield, the King Troll suddenly looked up. It's wide, black eyes suddenly filled with fear. It recognized the sensations it felt now, the power of the zokujin magic slowly drawing its soul from its body. It glanced about the battlefield desperately, trying to find the casters of the spell. Mitsu and Matsuo, perched on either shoulder, coughed twin gouts of flame and frost into its eyes.
"The spell is working," Junji whispered between chanted verses. He looked back at Bayushi Ogura. The witch hunter's eyes widened when he noted the malicious smile on the Scorpion's features.
"Every bit as powerful as Zgkol promised," Ogura nodded. He began chanting a different, more complex ritual. The kami of earth and air swirled around him, above him, then suddenly surged toward Junji. "Now, finish it witch hunter!"
Junji staggered backward, suddenly finding the power of the zokujin ritual transferred entirely to him. He could not stop chanting, could not stop casting the spell, could not break the connection between his soul and the mighty King Troll's. Ogura stood only a few steps away, a wicked smile on his face. "How?" was all that Junji could manage to say amid his own chanting.
"Asako Gohiro was a great hero," Ogura said. "He was prepared to give his life to save the Empire. I am also prepared to give a great hero's life to save the Empire. Yours."
"You bastard…" Junji growled. The witch hunter's skin began to crack and blister. "I should never have trusted you."
"How insulting," Ogura said. "I'm a very trustworthy person! Your mistake was not trusting me, Kuni-san, it was in making me your enemy. Your investigation is over. I'm certain by now that Katai and my other bushi have ransacked your hovel in Ryoko Owari and confiscated any 'evidence' you may have gathered. Look at it this way, Junji. Your death will be a noble one, celebrated in song and verse, and I, your noble companion, will officiate as shugenja at your funeral."
"Curse you, Ogura," the witch hunter whispered as his soul was torn from his body.
Across the battlefield, the King Troll's enormous body suddenly shuddered and collapsed with a mighty thunderous sound. At the same moment, Kuni Junji's burning corpse fell to the ground.
"What in Jigoku was that thing?" demanded Moto Chen, commander of the Unicorn forces. He stood before the face of the great fallen troll. Already the creature's flesh was adopting the consistency of dark granite. Within hours, it would be a mountain again.
"Trouble," Togashi Mitsu said simply. The exhausted ise zumi rested against the fallen troll's chin.
"Thanks," Chen said wryly. "Mind telling me how you showed up conveniently to put it down, Dragon? Or what all these Scorpion are doing here?"
"Luck," Togashi Matsuo replied, sitting down next to his teacher.
Chen took a deep breath. "Need I remind you this is Unicorn territory?" he asked.
"Need we remind you that we just saved your life?" Bayushi Ogura asked, limping toward the group of samurai. The Scorpion's robes were tattered and burned. The skin visible on his arms and throat were blistered and burned. "The beast you see here is the King Troll. Perhaps you may have heard legends about it. I am Bayushi Ogura, the descendant of Asako Gohiro, who put the troll to rest two hundred years ago. I have done so here again today, but not without cost." Ogura held out his hands to display his burned flesh. Sadly our friend, Kuni Junji, did not survive the ritual."
"Junji died?" Matsuo exclaimed. Mitsu only watched Ogura carefully.
"Something isn't right here," Chen said. "I'm keeping all of you here till I can send word of this to Lord Chagatai."
"Of course," Ogura said, nodding. "I shall contact my father, the Imperial Chancellor, and notify him as well. In the meantime, I'm certain you wouldn't mind if we explored the crater? It was here that the troll first appeared two hundred years ago, and here that he returned. Perhaps your excavations here are connected to the troll's return?"
Moto Chen looked distinctly uncomfortable. The sound of someone clearing their throat loudly came from the wall of Unicorn samurai behind him. Moto Chen quickly stepped aside. A hunched man in dark fur robes stepped forward. His thick cloak jingled with countless amulets and fetishes.
"I am Vordu," the man said, watching Ogura with sharp black eyes. "We will arrange an escort to Ryoko Owari for you and your companions immediately. Give my regards to your father."
With that, Vordu turned and walked away.
Bayushi Ogura fixed Moto Chen with a triumphant smile. The Unicorn sighed in exasperation and walked away, shouting orders to his men to begin cleaning up the battlefield.
Lord Sun was setting over the Great Crater, painting the sky above in a thousand brilliant colors. The eta had cleaned the field of fallen samurai. The samurai had returned to their posts. Ogura and his Scorpion had journeyed on, taking Junji's remains with them to Ryoko Owari. Only Mitsu and Matsuo remained. The two Dragons crouched on the crest of the fallen King Troll's head. Mitsu was deep in meditation. Matsuo was simply staring at the sky.
"So what happened here today, sensei?" Matsuo asked. "I get the feeling that I missed something."
"How so?" Mitsu asked, not opening his eyes.
"Well, it's just that today was very strange…" Matsuo said. "We never found out what the troll wanted or why it woke up… and then there's Ogura. He was acting rather suspicious there at the end."
"Kill an Emperor sometime," Mitsu said.
Matsuo looked at his sensei, confused. "What?"
Mitsu opened his eyes. "Sometimes endings aren't simple," Mitsu said. "Sometimes you're left wondering what could have gone better, if you've somehow compromised yourself along the way. On the Day of Thunder, Toturi faced the possessed Emperor, and killed him. Not a day went by that Toturi didn't wonder if there was another way, if maybe he could have saved the Empire without killing the Emperor. That guilt weighed him down for the rest of his life. It also made him a great Emperor, the sort of man who weighs every decision and accepts the good with the bad. Sometimes that's all you can do: look at the good you've done, accept it, and be stronger next time." Mitsu gestured at the fallen Troll King. "We've won, Matsuo. Isn't that a good thing?"
"I guess so," Matsuo said, "but…"
The sound of footsteps below silenced both men.
"A Unicorn?" Matsuo whispered.
"Alone?" Mitsu replied.
The two ise zumi crept silently across the mountainous King Troll, moving toward the sound of the noise. They stuck to the darkness, moving like shadows. Finally, they saw a small figure below. He hunched by one of the fallen King Troll's cheek, placed one hand against the surface. Leaning closer, he spread his arms against the troll king's face. His body shook; he seemed to be sobbing in deep grief.
Matsuo's foot scuffed the rocks, and the creature suddenly looked up.
For a brief moment, they caught a glimpse of the figure's bright yellow eyes, and then it was gone.