The Last Ride
By Rich Wulf
Chikao looked up at the sun, burning red and angry in the sky. Night would soon fall over White Shore Plain. If he hoped to finish his planting today, he had best hurry. The young farmer had worked this rice paddy at the northern edge of White Shore Plain all his life, though his home was actually located two hour's walk north of here, across Firefly River. The young farmer frowned in thought; he had already lingered too long. If he finished his work, it would be dark by the time he arrived home. He could leave now, and reach the last ferry before sundown. It would be safer...
Chikao laughed quietly to himself. As if he had anything to fear. Many ghosts were said to wander White Shore Plain, but the lands had been at peace for nearly a decade now. Ever since the armies of the mighty Moto Gaheris crushed the spirit invaders the other clans had learned not to trifle with the power of the Unicorn. Chikao could still remember that day though he was little more than a boy. Is that how he would pay back the protection they gave him? By being lazy? Chikao knelt in the water and prepared to return to work.
On the horizon, something caught his eye. A plume of dust in the south, rising and getting closer. Chikao frowned. In his boyhood, his uncle Gaho - a brave ashigaru who fought in the service of the Shinjo - had taught him how to recognize danger from the dust kicked up by approaching riders. From the looks of the cloud on the horizon, it looked as if a dozen steeds were galloping toward Firefly River.
Glancing about, Chikao realized that he was alone. The other farmers had already left for the ferry; they had long since finished their work for the day. Terrified, Chikao crouched down in the water and hoped that whatever was coming would not see him. He had heard rumors of the beasts that had overrun the Crab in the south. Could this be them now? The Tsuno? Or even worse, Tainted human horseman, like the Dark Moto of old? Chikao clutched his kama in both hands and shivered uncontrollably as the dust cloud drew closer with tremendous speed.
Chikao's jaw dropped. What approached his field was no group of horsemen, but a single warrior, mounted on a great white steed. She wore the lavender armor of a Unicorn bushi, and her mount glowed with a faint blue light. As it galloped closer, he saw that foam flecked the horse's lips and coat. The rider looked exhausted as well; her eyes were shadowed by dark circles and her black hair was plastered to the sides of her face by sweat and grime. Even yet, Chikao could not help but be captivated by her. There was a power, a strength, a strange beauty to her that he could not describe. The fear within him vanished. He no longer groveled in his puddle in fear, but bowed in respect and admiration to this obvious lady of the Unicorn.
As soon as he saw her, she was gone once more. The rider blazed across Chikao's paddy, the horse's hooves moving across the surface of the water as if they were solid stone. With a single leap, it galloped into the sky above the seventy-foot expanse of the Firefly River and was gone over the northern horizon. Chikao barely had time to look up in awe once more, at the blazing hoof-prints that burned momentarily across in mid-air, twenty feet apart at a stride
And then he was running toward the ferry, his work forgotten. He had to tell his friends and family about the goddess he had just seen.
As the horse landed with a jolt, Iuchi Lixue felt very little like the goddess Chikao believed he had seen. She wanted little more than to peel herself from this saddle and sleep until the end of time. It was doubtful that would happen anytime soon. As the onion-bulb spires of Shiro Moto drew closer, she felt her horse begin to falter. Its pace became erratic, clumsy.
"Just a bit longer, Kizashi," she begged the horse, but she could see its eyes roll from exhaustion. Clutching the crystal amulet at her throat, she whispered a brief prayer. "Give us strength, spirits of water. Only a few moments more..." A sudden swirl of blue-white mist surrounded horse and rider, wiping their exhaustion away. However, even the water kami could only do so much and Lixue knew that both of them would pay dearly for their haste when the spell ended. She only hoped that it would last long enough.
As she blazed over the hills around the great castle of the Moto, she noted a column riding out to meet her, one far ahead of the rest. Even on their fine Shinjo steeds, their movements seemed slow and clumsy to her. She whispered a brief prayer and slowed her mount, rearing to a halt. She felt dizzy from the sudden lack of movement, and nearly fell from her horse as the spell faded.
Then a rider was by her side, a strong arm steadying her as she gasped for breath. She looked up into the rider's face, but she already knew who he would be. A short, muscular man dressed in a strange mix of heavy steel armor and exotic furs, an enormous blade sheathed across his back. No one would ever call that face handsome - it was squat, blocky, and homely even for a Moto. Even yet, there was a strange intensity in those black eyes. Lixue lowered her gaze quickly; even among the Unicorn, few could meet that stare for long.
"Lord Chagatai," Lixue said, her voice coming in breathless gasps.
"Hai," Moto Chagatai nodded, his blunt face softening for only a moment. "It is good to see you, Lixue. Even Tadaji did not believe you would arrive in time, and I think Tadaji is the only man in this Empire or any other who has seen more adventure than my grandfather."
"How is your grandfather?" she asked. "I received a summons from the lady Yue. She said that Lord Gaheris was dying."
"Yes," Chagatai sighed. "The old fool fell from his horse yesterday afternoon. He should have known better than to be hunting at his age."
"Hunting?" Lixue asked, "at a monastery?"
"He slipped past the monks and stole a horse," he replied. "He was seeking deer... he found an ogre instead. When the monks found him he was slumped against the corpse of the ogre. His left leg twisted beneath him and his ribs were shattered. He said that it was worth it, for one last ride..."
Lixue nodded quietly. "How long does he have?"
"Hours," Chagatai said grimly. "If that."
"Lixue-san!" shouted a second rider, a triumphant note to his voice as he galloped forth to meet them. "From the Carpenter Wall to White Shore Plain in less than a day!"
"Was there any doubt, Chen?" Chagatai said with a harsh laugh. He removed his hand from Lixue's arm and placed it on her shoulder in the intimate gesture of a close friend. "We are the generals of the Three Armies. We serve the Khan. When he needs us, the Sun and Moon cannot bar our path."
Lixue smiled, feeling pride well up within her soul at the sound of Chagatai's words. Few outside their clan knew that he was not the Khan in name as well as action, but the loyalty they felt for him was no less real.
"You are wounded, as is your steed," Chen said, gesturing at the brownish-red bandage tied roughly around Lixue's right thigh, the deep red scratches on her horse's matching haunch.
"A pack of Tsuno gave chase when I left the Crab encampment," Lixue said. "The Crab call them the Ravagers, faster and stronger than even normal Tsuno. They took me by surprise."
Chagatai looked at Lixue's wound and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Can your magic heal your wound?" he asked.
"My magic has already done its work," she replied, her voice as calm and detached as if she were discussing someone else's injury. "The Ravager's bite nearly severed it at the thigh. You should have seen it this morning. But worry not. A few more days and I will be well enough."
Chagatai cocked his head slightly. "I hope you bit him back," he replied.
"The beast will remember me," she answered grimly.
"Good," Chagatai nodded, his expression becoming suddenly stern and severe. "Enough chatter. We are needed at Shiro Moto. Let us return swiftly. Is your steed good for one last run, Lixue-san?"
Lixue nodded. Chagatai shouted to his guard, and they galloped off as one.
Moto Chagatai strode through the halls of Shiro Moto like a dark cloud. Chen walked at his right, Lixue his left. Servants, attendants, and fellow bushi scattered from the path of the three generals, bowing and muttering respectful greetings. None of the three made any reply, but simply headed for the great temple at the center of the castle.
Lixue still felt tired and weak, like a thread ready to snap at any moment. Even yet, she pushed on, hardly even showing her limp. She would not walk beside Moto Chagatai and show weakness, even to her own kinsmen.
"Why was he not brought to Shiro Iuchi?" Lixue asked as they hurried to the temple. "I mean no offense, Chagatai-sama, but the skill of our healers rivals the Asahina and Isawa."
"I know," Chagatai replied gruffly, "He said that this was as good a place to die as any. He wished to die at the site of his greatest mistake."
Chen and Lixue exchanged worried glances. "Mistake?" Chen replied cynically, "but Shiro Moto is a symbol of the strength of our people. It symbolizes our rebirth as the leaders of the Unicorn."
Chagatai stopped suddenly, staring upward at the great spires of the Moto temple. Chen and Lixue stopped beside him, also looking up at the strange foreign architecture.
"Tell me, my friends," Chagatai said in a quiet voice. "How much do you know about the origins of the Moto?"
"Some," Chen replied with a severe frown. "Though my studies focused mostly upon the great battles..."
Lixue said nothing, but simply allowed Chagatai to continue.
"Long ago, the Moto were part of a nomad people called the Ujik-hai," Chagatai said, as if fondly recalling memories of his own youth, "The Ujik-hai did not know the grace of the Fortunes and the protection of the kami. We worshipped strange demons of fire and smoke, called the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang, or the Lords of Death. We worshipped them not out of the respect that we Rokugani show our gods, but out of fear, for their wrath was great. The history of the Ujik-hai was one of conquest and slaughter. We wandered the desert for three thousand years, slaughtering all others that crossed our path. We were a tribe of murderers."
"That is impossible," Lixue replied. "The Empire itself has existed for only a thousand years, born with the creation of mankind."
"Perhaps that is the way your gods see it," Chagatai said. "The Lords of Death saw things differently, and the gods care little whether or not the world makes sense to people like you and me."
"I find it difficult to believe that the Moto were killers," Chen replied. "Are you certain this tale is accurate?"
"As certain as I am of anything," Chagatai replied.
"Then I shall put my trust in your words, my Khan," Chen said.
"I may serve as your Khan, but I am not called that here," Chagatai replied. "Not while Gaheris still lives."
Chen bowed his head. "Of course, Chagatai-sama," he replied. "I did not mean disrespect."
Chagatai made no reply, but simply continued his story. "When the Lady Shinjo first appeared, the Ujik-hai attacked her. Our dark gods demanded it. But, for the first time in our long history, we were defeated. We saw for the first time that perhaps there was a light bright enough to burn away the darkness that had been our lot..." Chagatai looked back at his generals. His eyes were strangely distant. "Those who swore to follow Shinjo were offered protection from the demons we once served. We were offered a new name, so that our bloody past would no longer define our nature. We became the Moto. We would be Shinjo's eyes, and she would be our shield... forever...
"Shinjo told us that without our worship, the Lords of Death would wither, like a man without water in the blazing desert. Weakened by our abandonment, they could coerce no one else to follow them. But gods take a long time to die..."
"What happened?" Lixue asked.
"Greatly diminished, they survived only by the power of their anger," Chagatai said. "They followed the lords the Moto in their dreams, waiting for their vengeance. We hoped that if we kept moving, that they would never find us, but after eight centuries they did. They took root in the soul of a Moto who lingered in one place for too long... His name was Tsume."
Chen frowned. "You speak of the Dark Moto," he replied. "They were destroyed decades ago. The sacrifice of Otaku Kamoko cleansed their disgraceful existence."
"Tsume was destroyed, this is true," Chagatai said, "but the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang created him, and they still dwell in the dark spaces between the Realm of Nightmare and the Realm of Slaughter. They hunt us still, and if we stay in one place for too long, they will find us. They will gather the souls of the fallen, until their armies have been rebuilt..."
"The Dark Moto would return?" Lixue asked. Her voice quavered but whether from fear or exhaustion she did not know.
"No," Chagatai said, "but perhaps something worse would rise in their place. Tell me, Lixue. You saw the Tainted armies that attacked the Kaiu Wall. Were there Unicorn among them?"
"Yes," Lixue said. "I saw banners of every clan."
"Did you see any Moto?" he asked.
"I..." Lixue paused for a moment in thought. "Only a few," she said. "
"My grandfather's armies fought at Oblivion's Gate," Chagatai said, "Many Moto fell there. Did you not think it strange that more of them did not return to follow Daigotsu?"
"It did not strike me as strange at the time," Lixue replied, "though I had much on my mind."
"Of course," Chagatai nodded. "But this brings me to the reason I call Shiro Moto my grandfather's greatest mistake. It is a sentiment with which he would agree. We have built a great castle, a great city, and shared with it the name Shinjo gave us. Now the Lords of Death know where to find us."
"If Lord Gaheris knew this," Lixue asked softly, "why did he build Shiro Moto?"
"After Yokatsu's fall, the Unicorn needed a leader," Chagatai said. "Gaheris placed the future of the clan before the safety of his own soul."
"So why would he choose to die here?" Chen asked.
Chagatai looked at her and gave a short, humorless laugh. "My grandfather was never one to run from a fight," he said. "He plans to stand against the Lords of Death after his own passing. He lays in his deathbed, sword in hand, ready to face them."
"Can he defeat them?" Chen asked.
"My grandfather has never known defeat," Chagatai said. "Even yet, I do not know if he can face this alone..." Chagatai looked at Chen and Lixue, his eyes suddenly intense. "Tell me, if you had your choice, would you stand beside my grandfather? Would you face these dark gods though even the boldest and bravest of all Moto who had lived could not defeat them? Even if it meant a fate of eternal corruption?"
"Of course," Chen said without hesitation.
"Is such a thing possible?" Lixue asked.
"Perhaps not," Chagatai said. "I suppose it was merely a rhetorical question. Now come with me. We must show our final respects to our Khan..."