Muted Thunder
A story of the Jade Empire

By Christopher Orr

The storm raged outside the kyuden, howling in its fury. An almost equal fury was desperately contained within the form of Doji Hoturi. Instinctively, he reached for the cool, soothing hilt of his katana. He knew it would not be there, but he was not convinced until he grasped nothing.

The desperation built. His fingers began to move of their own accord, only intensifying the fervor inside the samurai. With effort, he grasped the pleats of his hakama in white-knuckled hands. That helped to compose him slightly.

"So…Hoturi-sama. I assume we can began now?"

Hoturi looked across the small table at the Kitsuki. She appeared sympathetic, but her smile seemed to be part of the job. The Crane Thunder assumed it was, and that it had no effect with him. He would not let it work. He had used his winning smile on too many in the Empire to have one used on him.

Anyway, he knew exactly why the Kitsuki were interested in him.

The knowledge did Hoturi little good as the frenzy built inside him anew. He could feel himself riding the edge, and it took all of the bushido training he had acquired to keep himself in control.

He also knew that any of the objects inside the room with them could be nemurani, trinkets of the Agasha. The Crane Champion idly wondered who else might be listening.

"Ahem…Doji-sama. I know you have told the others what happened, but I need you to tell me now. Simply start at the beginning and tell the tale in your own words. I need to know how this happened."

Doji Hoturi stared at the Kitsuki nearly reproachfully. He had no duty to tell this Dragon what he knew. The Emperor had not commanded it. But the words seemed to all rush to his mind at once and Hoturi knew he had to say them or face madness.

With a deep breath, he steeled himself to the retelling.

"It started, I believe, with Hitomi. No…actually, Kamoko was probably first. I had not thought about that. That would be nearly three weeks ago…"

*

The rain softened the ground around Hoturi's feet. The slippery ground only served to infuriate Hoturi as he seethed away from the geisha house.

"Noriko not in?" he snorted in disgust, "Why should she be out while her dama is in the area?"

The light rain gave a shine to his flowing white hair. Normally, the face of the Crane Champion would attract women by the handfuls… but today his face was twisted to drive off battle-hardened samurai.

Doji Hoturi let out a suffered sigh when he saw the temple gates. An aspirant monk stood outside the gates. That could only mean that a missive was waiting, and he felt little patience for affairs of the court. Still, he ventured toward the gate and steeled himself for what was to come.

"Doji-sama, a ronin, with a dark hood, left a missive that your presence was requested yesterday…but none knew where to find you." The young monk spoke earnestly.

Hoturi knew it was a carefully spoken lie, his dalliances were well known. "Very well, but who requested my presence?"

"Otaku Kamoko-sama," the messenger spoke in low tones, "The missive would not say why, Doji-sama."

Inwardly, Hoturi smiled. Kamoko was almost better than anyone tonight, she was much more straightforward than other women. Yes, a much easier puzzle to unravel. He was careful not to let his pleasure show on his face.

"I will go at once. It would not do to keep the lady of the Unicorn waiting any longer, eh?"

The Unicorn insisted on keeping a separate camp from the monastery, saying that Otaku steeds needed more care than simple stable boys could manage. For their part, the other Great Clans were agreeable to this arrangement.

Of course, the well-traveled Crane Champion knew his way around all the camps. As such, he knew that this was the quickest way to Kamoko's spacious tent. He hummed a catchy little tune from a recent Kabuki play as he walked. He almost walked into the tent before he saw that it was sealed shut. It was sealed with white cloth. This was most odd.

"Hello?" he rapped on the tent cloth, making some sort of gaijin bauble jangle, "Kamoko…are you in there?"

The sound of someone moving inside was obvious. The ties were undone, and Shinjo Shono stood inside the doorway. He appeared very stricken about something.

Hoturi stared at the Shinjo for several long moments before spoke, "What is the matter now? Kamoko asked to me, now the tent is sealed?" Something was very wrong.

Shono seemed to be holding back tears while he spoke, "Otaku-sama's horse died during the night."

Hoturi only vaguely understood what was happening; he knew nothing about the bonds between Otaku and their steeds…well, just a little. "Kamoko must be hurt deeply."

Hoturi had never cared much for horses, much less the overly large Unicorn steeds. Still, he had learned some. "How is Kamoko, Shono?"

Shono straightened his back, "She does not fare well. We are taking the steed back to Unicorn lands so that he may be given a proper burial. Kamoko has made no mention of returning."

Hoturi grasped Shono's arm before he realized what he was doing. The Unicorn had done little thus far, but he felt he owed Kamoko something. "If there is anything I can do, just let me know."

Shono turned in the doorway, "Thank you, Doji-sama." He said as he began to retie the bands from inside.

"One more thing, Shinjo," Hoturi said as it occurred to him, "How did lady Kamoko's steed die?"

Shono looked at the Crane reproachfully, and Hoturi then realized how poorly he had chosen his words. "He died peacefully in his sleep, apparently of a heart attack." With that, the ties were done and the sounds inside died away again.

Hoturi sighed and mentally chastised himself. Was all of Yoshi's training in vain? Would he ever learn to speak at the right moment?

Slowly, Hoturi made his way back to the temple and his own room. During the walk, he realized he would miss Kamoko very much.

The thought was somewhat surprising, and more than little upsetting.

*

"Kamoko's prize steed?"

Hoturi nodded slightly, "No one had reason to believe that it was anything other than natural causes, except for the age of the horse. Nobody there knew anything more about horses than the Unicorn."

"It is unfortunate that the steed is buried in Unicorn lands. There is no chance that the Kitsuki could examine it now." It was a simple comment, but it felt like a direct accusation to Hoturi. He summoned up his samurai spirit to quell the urge to land a blow across the Kitsuki's face.

The paroxysm had no noticeable effect on the Kitsuki, who went through the story very carefully. After a moment, she spoke again, "So the Otaku charger was first. Then came…" she paused momentarily, as if waiting for a reaction, "…Lady Hitomi?"

Some of the iron went out of Hoturi's spine, "I only heard about Hitomi from the messengers." That fact was a source of shame for Hoturi; he hadn't seen much of Hitomi. She had been a good colleague, if not exactly a true friend. He really should have called on her more often. If only he had been there on that day…if only.

*

Hitomi sat within her chambers, staring at the dusky sky.

The very nature of hope was that it was precarious, almost tenuous in its existence. Still, Hitomi had hoped for a chance to know the young Crane Champion more personally. Even so, he seemed farther away every season, pulled closer to Kachiko. At Winter Court, she had felt her hope slowly slide into resigned despair.

Hitomi was a very determined little samurai-ko, however. Just when it seemed that all would be lost, that the budding romance would succeed, the Emperor had chosen the Lady of Scorpions to his bed.

Even just know - more hope had arrived. An alliance had been cemented, a powerful ally gained. Hoturi could still be hers.

Hitomi capped the inkwell as the kyuden went dark.

Mirumoto Hitomi sighed softly; these eclipses were fairly annoying. They threw off the running of the Clan. Still, they had their uses. She had finished most of her work early in the day, and was now free to enjoy the celestial show.

All she had to do was make it to the balcony. As she walked, she heard padded footsteps that were not her own. Hitomi spun around near the balcony, her eyes adjusting slowly to the dim light. She could make out a single figure moving slowly, deliberately.

Suddenly, a harsh voice released a muffled cry as the black figure attacked.

Hitomi tried to dodge the incoming blow, but was caught by an ill-placed table. She heard the whine of something flying through the air. As soon as the blade pierced her upper arm, Hitomi realized how well she had silhouetted herself in the growing light.

The wound burned and Hitomi stifled a cry. She clamped her left arm over the wound to try to stop the warm blood from flowing out. She shambled across the floor, trying to find a measure of safety. Hitomi would have died right then, but the attacking figure was too clumsy. He continued to run into tables and cushions, but they slowed him down little as he continued toward Hitomi.

However, Hitomi was familiar enough with the layout and her eyes had adjusted sufficiently that she was able to find her daisho with little problem. As she drew the trusted swords, a measure of relief flooded through her. She might just live through this.

Then the black-clad man was upon her. She fell into a defensive stance that should allow no opening to an opponent. As the blow came in, she lifted her wakizashi in the defense. With a cry, she saw the blade pushed down and the sword bite shallowly into her chest. Suddenly, she realized her arms were shaking. She tried to bring forth the energy to mount an attack, but her body seemed out of her control. She tried to stand defiantly, but slumped to the floor instead.

The black-clad figure grunted in satisfaction, and it seemed to Hitomi that several hundred knives were thrust into her body in succession. Fortunately, only the first few caused any pain. The darkness claimed Hitomi to the sound of muffled laughter. That the laughter was so very feminine never registered to Hitomi.

*

"You were both Thunders, correct?"

Doji Hoturi closed his eyes and nodded wearily. "It was our fate, or destiny, or some other prophecy that was supposed to tie us together." A quick spasm of anger at the kami filled him, quickly drowned in the pain of the other's deaths.

"You were opposed to the decree."

"Not really…" Hoturi said with little conviction.

"Good, then, that your fate was tied to Hitomi. With a piece missing, the whole is irrelevant." She spoke as only a Kitsuki, or a Scorpion, could. Accusation without malice.

Even so, the act filled Doji Hoturi with resentment. He leapt to his feet, bringing hid fists down with a shattering blow. "Do you know what you are saying? I liked Hitomi, even after everything." The words surprised nobody more than Hoturi himself, but like the rest of the tale, he seemed powerless to stop the telling. "You won't accuse me of anything!"

"Hoturi-sama, no one was making accusations." The Kitsuki looked only slightly startled.

Hoturi almost put his fist through the floor as he threw himself back down to a seated position. The stories were true, after all. There was no way to win with a Kitsuki. To Jigoku with all of them.

The woman collected her thoughts for a minute, and then continued on. "Then, the incident with your friend, Hida Yakumo?"

Hoturi could only nod dumbly. Friend. It seemed so odd to hear their relationship put in such a manner, but it was true. Yakumo was his friend.

Had been his friend.

*

Hida Yakumo contented himself inside the teahouse, nestling in the arms of an obviously superior geisha. These were the good times in life. He looked over at the effeminate Crane, Doji Hoturi. Sitting alone, the large Crab samurai between Hoturi and his beloved Kachiko. He would never succeed with quality women such as these, especially Kachiko if Yakumo could help it. The thought made the Crab swell with pride.

Kachiko sighed absently, staring out the window into the darkness that fell. The rest of the remaining Thunders were seated around the low table, with varying levels of companionship. The Hooded Ronin had just returned with the tea. That the tea was late was irritating, but not enough to ruin Yakumo's mood. Now, everyone was drinking the fine Doji tea.

"Won't you have some tea, Kachiko-san?" the Hooded Ronin's voice called from the far end of the room.

With a suppressed shudder, Kachiko answered, "No, not today."

The answer caused Yakumo to look at her anew, and she appeared to be in some sort of pain. Yakumo tapped the table as he tried to move closer to her. Kachiko released a small gasp of pain. One hand went inadvertently to her stomach as she hurried to the door.

"Kachiko-san…what's wrong?" Yakumo growled in alarm.

"Nothing, it is nothing Hida-san." She waved him off quickly. But when Hoturi rose to assist her, she made no effort to stop him. The two left without another word.

"Bah! It can hardly be 'nothing'. What is wrong with Kachiko?"

Isawa Tadaka looked over with those Tainted eyes, "She has been acting delicate for the past couple of days. She is forced to be strong, she does not like to admit when she falls ill."

The Hooded Ronin smiled, "She must be strong. I'll make sure she is doing fine."

The Crab looked around the table, seeing concern on each face in turn. He turned to go out the door, but when he did he saw the empty cushion where he had placed Hoturi. Rage boiled within Yakumo and he flexed his muscles as the fury sought release.

He spun, only to meet the small figure of the Hooded Ronin in the doorway. The fury melted inside of him, he couldn't hunt down Hoturi while he was a guest of the Hooded Ronin. Instead, the Hooded Ronin handed him another full cup of tea.

Yakumo grunted and drank the tea in a single swallow before heading to the door. He knew exactly where he wanted to go. The rage had only melted, not disappeared. Being right outside the Wall made the trip very easy.

Grabbing a tetsubo from the rack, Yakumo rumbled at the gate guard to let him through. With his size and reputation, it took only moments before Yakumo was knee deep in Taint.

A shout was his only warning. Reaction and instincts flexed his muscles as he spun to meet the strike. It grazed his shoulder down his back. He had taken worse in training. He smiled darkly as he realized it would not slow him down at all.

The figure ahead of him turned. It was a well-built man, dressed all in black with his face covered. He carried a katana, slightly stained now on its tip. Suddenly, the figure cried out again, but this time the voice seemed ripped from the throat. As if the figure had lost touch with his sanity.

From somewhere behind Yakumo, a somehow familiar voice spoke, "Do not hesitate. Kill."

The frenzied man reacted to the words almost instantly. He lunged to Yakumo, swinging furiously. Yakumo met the man blow for blow, each clang sending a rush of anticipation through him. He could feel the rage building in his core. Every exchange sent more into him until he could feel it building on itself. Even so, he forced himself to study the man's technique. A grim smirk played on the Crab's face. There were few in the Empire who could best Hida Yakumo in a straight fight…and this man was not among them.

Yakumo decided to take the fight to his opponent. He took a quick step forward, and stopped. The one move had taken a lot of effort. He thrust his other leg forward and nearly stumbled. He let out a cry and ran forward two steps and landed in a thunderous heap on the ground.

The man lorded over the prone Yakumo and began to land solid hits on Yakumo's back. Through the thick muscle, Yakumo hardly felt them. If he thought that beating the great Hida Yakumo would be so easy, this man was in for a painful surprise.

Yakumo finally started to get angry. Very angry.

He could feel the fury building up inside of him, more than he ever felt in his travels to the Shadowlands. The man standing over him did not seem to notice. Yakumo focused the anger, allowed the fury to fill him with energy, as much frenzy as his body could handle.

Suddenly, another figure appeared in front of him. She snapped something at the black clad man that Yakumo could not make out through his rage. Not that it mattered anyway; all that mattered was the passion and anger filling his muscles. He released more control and felt the levels of wrath rush upward. He could almost feel his body quivering with the amount of anger that filled him.

The smaller woman pulled on the black-cad man. The black-clad man was lost in his victory, however. He simply ignored the command. Desperation began to fill the movements of the smaller figure. With a quick motion, she pulled out a small packet from the recesses of her kimono. Without a word, she blew the contents into the black-clad man's face. The black-clad man slumped immediately, and the smaller woman dragged him away quickly.

The sight only made Yakumo more irate. He could barely see for the red haze in his vision. He wanted to rise, to shout his familiar battle cry and charge at the retreating couple. He wanted to make them feel the wrath that was Hida Yakumo. But he could not rise, could not speak. He could only lie there. That made him more angry, which made it even more difficult to act. The cycle was closing. Yakumo was losing control of his rage.

From somewhere deep in his mind, a single thought arose. All of this rage was like a beacon in the Shadowlands. Something would sense it, and it would come.

Almost as if reacting to a cue, Yakumo heard the growl of bakemono and oni surrounding the area in which he lay. There was only one way for this to end, and Yakumo knew what it was. That knowledge mad his anger absolute, and the vicious cycle was complete.

The twisted, Tainted creatures began to move in with ravenous glee. Yakumo never saw them come.

*

"There was little left of Yakumo by the time he was recovered. The bakemono were extremely thorough. The attack must have been quite impressive."

Hoturi swallowed hard. He knew the strengths and styles of all the Clan's arts. The Crane had a good idea what had happened to Yakumo, but the explanation would be difficult and probably not make much sense anyway. He had seen berserker rage used by Hida before. Hoturi knew enough that the rage was dangerous unless it could be released. Apparently, Yakumo had lost control.

"Somehow, you made it there very quickly. The Hiruma scouts say that they met you there."

Hoturi looked up wearily, anger would not help him now. "We were very close at the time. It happened not far from where we were staying. I only wanted to know what had happened."

The Kitsuki arched an eyebrow, "Do you often chase down people in the Shadowlands to rescue?"

In spite of his control, Hoturi could feel rage bubbling up. "I was only trying to help. Does that make me a killer?"

"It seems that most killers are only trying to help."

To Jigoju with Kitsuki! They could take any words and twist them. Or perhaps that was the aid of their Scorpion allies. Either way, there was no point arguing.

The woman looked intensely at the weathered Champion. "And that leads us to last night. By your own admission, you killed a man."

"Yes," the word seemed harsh in Hoturi's throat. He had killed several men before, but none like this. None like him.

*

The shoji restricting the Scorpion quarters had been shut most of the week, ever since the night Yakumo had died. None had entered or exited by those doors that anyone admitted to seeing. The few instances that it sounded as if the shoji had hissed shut, the halls were empty and almost too quiet.

It was outside these doors that Hoturi now stood. For the doors had remained shut to him as well. But this time, he was not alone.

"Perhaps…we should call a shujenga? This illness of Kachiko's does not seem right." Hoturi fought to hide the irritation in his voice, but he could not tell if he succeeded.

For his part, the Hooded Ronin only smiled.

"Do not concern yourself, Hoturi-san. I have checked her health myself…several times. She is ill, but it is passing."

The Crane clenched his jaw as he slowly walked back through the grounds. The one time he had managed to gain entrance into Kachiko's personal chambers she had appeared so pale and barely able to sit upright. Even her coy games had had no real bite to them.

He was just about to storm back to the Scorpion section when the Hooded Ronin appeared again. His head was obscured by the thick cover he wore, but his voice was unmistakable and nearly unrefusable.

"Hoturi-san, it seems your aid is required this morn. The Scorpion have a band traveling from Ryoko Owari and the Lady Kachiko is still confined to her room." He spoke without looking at Hoturi, but Hoturi found he could not pull his vision from the small monk. "It would be better for even a Crane to deal with such a delicate situation that the Lion."

Hoturi blinked in amazement, but quickly regained his composure. With a courteous bow, he headed out to meet the envoy.

The Crane looked around as he walked to greet the party. It was a way off to where he was to meet the Scorpion. It left him far too much time to think.

Nothing had gone right recently. Absolutely nothing.

As he was fuming, a cry rang out from behind him. He spun around to deflect the blade he heard coming toward him.

A single heartbeat and several exchanges later, Hoturi realized something very important.

Over his years, Hoturi had become a master of reading fighting styles. Everything about the techniques that the mad used screamed to Hoturi. Every stance, every strike…perfectly readable. The man in front had a style that Hoturi could recognize just as easily as his own. His actions were wild and erratic, almost as if he was drugged. Still, Hoturi could not deny it.

Toturi.

The fallen Lion, the Dragon's general. Now, he was Hoturi's enemy and he seemed to have no intention of easing his attack.

Toturi's blind fury seemed to produce openings in Hoturi's guard, or perhaps the stun was enough to distract the Crane from his techniques. Either way, the hot, throbbing pain was intensifying.

The next blow had more power than Hoturi's burning arms were ready to deal with. Hoturi only allowed himself a muffled grunt as he fell to the ground in front of Toturi.

A samurai does not fear death.

Hoturi was able to watch the blade come toward his throat in perfect detail. Yet, he seemed unable to do anything to stop it.

As Jigoju seemed to loom before him, Hoturi's mind clicked. Toturi drugged… Hitomi poisoned, probably Kamoko's horse, too. Something had caused Yakumo to lose control, and it fit, too. It all pointed to one impossible person. It had to be Kachiko.

Almost as if answering him, Kachiko's voice tore from the nearby brush.

"No! Not Hoturi!"

She dove between Hoturi and his assailant, taking the killing blow directly through the chest. The air escaped her lips in a pursed gasp.

Hoturi grappled with Toturi, immobilizing Toturi's sword. He looked over at Kachiko, who was staring off into a pool of her own blood.

"It was…not supposed…to end this way." She murmured almost to herself, as the light in her eyes went out.

The two men continued to grapple in the muddying field. With the strength leaving his arms, and Toturi's unthinkable power, Hoturi knew it was only a matter of time before something gave.

Finally, Toturi lunged in at the Crane in desperation. The strike from Hoturi came from the Void alone, for he could not have struck down his friend even in thought. He spun around, grasping Toturi's own sword and drawing across the Lion Thunder's chest biting deep.

The burning in Hoturi grew worse, and it was not until he nearly reached the temple that he realized that the blood on his kimono was only partially his.

*

The Kitsuki seemed lost in thought once more, staring directly into Hoturi's eyes before speaking again.

"But what would Kachiko-sama have to gain by killing Clan Champions?"

Hoturi accepted the accusation as nothing more than a question. He was done fighting those battles.

"I don't know…but it does not feel right, somehow." Hoturi spoke the words with little emotion. He was nearly spent after the night's telling.

As such, the Kitsuki's next words caught him completely off-guard.

"Well, then. I suppose you are free to go, Doji-sama."

"I can…leave?" Hoturi sounded skeptical.

The Kitsuki flashed a smile, breaking the impassive role she had been in the entire night.

"The examinations show that Toturi was under some heavy drugs. Opium mainly, but some that the Kitsuki have never encountered. It is entirely possible that he would act the way you described." She appeared annoyed over the inability to identify the drugs, "And there is no one to testify against you in the courts. Those that may have cause are either deceased or no match for Yoshi-sama."

With numb hands and a numb mind, Hoturi made his way out of the small room and out to face his present.

*

As he walked back through the temple grounds, certain parts of his own story ate at Hoturi. He had not realized them until he had to clear the events for telling. His head buzzed until he nearly ran over the Hooded Ronin seated inside the entry room of the shrine.

"I am sorry, I was not aware." Hoturi tried to apologize, but the Hooded Ronin only waved him to sit down and share the tea and rice cakes that he was eating.

Hoturi sipped his bitter tea without really tasting it. Only the concerned look on the Hooded Ronin's face told him he was thinking aloud.

"She said it was not supposed to end this way. What could Kachiko have meant?" Hoturi grew frustrated, "It was like she trying to tell me something, but I could not understand."

The Hooded Ronin looked pained. "The Taint can come in all forms, Hoturi."

"No…the Kitsuki, and others, could find no trace of Shadowlands Taint in Kachiko. Anyway, that seems too easy an explanation."

Hoturi could hear himself repeating the Kitsuki's words, "What would Kachiko have to gain by killing Clan…Champions…"

Hoturi's voice trailed off as the puzzle seemed to come into painful focus. It was not Clan Champions who were being killed. Shiba Tsukune and Togashi Yokuni never seemed to be in danger. It was Thunders.

Shinsei.

Sending the missive that Hoturi was to meet with Kamoko the day the Unicorn broke camp. Why would Kamoko have left the missive with a middle agent? She was always the type to do things herself or not at all.

Shinsei.

All of the Thunders trusted him. He could easily have slipped something into Yakumo's tea that night in Crab territory. No one would have been looking for it. Could he have gotten to Hitomi? Of course, no one would deny the descendent of Shinsei practically anything.

The red began to float in front of Hoturi's eyes again.

"Shinsei…what did Kachiko mean?"

"Oh, the poor Scorpion. She had delusions of having you all to herself. You know how those Scorpion are. They cannot keep their magic out of scrying." Shinsei sighed, "She knew that if the Day of Thunder were to occur that you would get yourself involved in some foolishly heroic quest and die. I seemed her only hope."

Hoturi growled, "But you double-crossed her."

"Very good! The Crane courtier schools are still keen in their art. Oh, do not try to stand. You will only make more noise." Shinsei smiled grimly.

Only then did Hoturi notice that Shinsei's teacup was still full. It always had been. Hoturi slumped to the ground, feeling the ability to control his body leave him.

"Do you know how tedious it gets? Waiting a thousand years to lead some foolish seven against a Dark God? All it takes is one failure and the cycle is ended for me. And then I am free." Shinsei pulled out a small blade from under the table, "It might seem a shame that it had to end with you, but in a thousand years someone else will try."

Hoturi stared at the growing pool of his own blood, remembering how Kachiko had been in the same position. It might have been funny, if Hoturi could laugh anymore.

Only a thousand more years…