Nightmares, Part II
By Shawn Carman

The West

Ryoko Owari had become a home to chaos and betrayal.

The carnage had begun hours ago with the sunset. Two of the Onisu had simply appeared in the fisherman's quarter without warning or fanfare. The number of deaths in the past two hours was unbelievable. The Unicorn forces had proven completely unable to stop the beasts' rampage. The best they could do was to contain them within the Merchant's Quarter, but now even that was proving impossible. In mere moments, the two abominations would cross Moment's Edge Bridge.

And there, they would find the massed forces of the Scorpion awaiting them.

Bayushi Katai stood at the head of the two-dozen samurai who were prepared to face the Onisu. They wore no armor, for they knew all too well that it would do them little good against their enemies. By forsaking it, they increased their speed and maneuverability, giving them a slightly increased chance of survival. None among them believed it would be enough to let them live until the dawn, but they accepted their fate without fear or hesitation.

"You must not hesitate," said Katai to the men assembled before her. "If you show doubt or weakness, they will kill you instantly. You must be certain and strike true, or you will fail."

One of the soldiers, a man whose mask did not quite fully conceal his exotic features, frowned at Katai's words. "That is not what I have heard of the Onisu," he offered to the men. "Their weakness is the virtue that counteracts their vice. We should think carefully about our assault."

"That is enough!" shouted Katai, glaring at the speaker. "You may be the errand boy of our Champion, Shixiang, but I am the chief magistrate of our clan in this city, and I will not be questioned by one such as you!"

"She's a very forceful woman, don't you think?" one of the men adjacent to Shixiang asked under his breath.

"Be silent, Kwanchai," Shixiang replied. "She is the ranking magistrate. It is her right." His frown deepened. "But she is wrong about the Onisu."

"One of our foes tonight is none other than Fushin, the so-called 'Nightmare of the Scorpion', murderer of our beloved Emperor!" Katai continued, pointing across the bridge to the flaming fisherman's quarter. "Who among us is not willing to lay down their life to destroy such a beast?" She held her blade above her head. "I would gladly give my life to cleanse our honor! Who stands beside me?"

The Scorpion lifted their blades and shouted their vehement agreement. Kwanchai joined in enthusiastically, but Shixiang's heart was not filled with the same bravado. Death in service to the Scorpion would be glorious indeed, but this was a fool's errand. The Onisu could be defeated, of that there was no question. But like this? It was beyond foolish.

There was precious little time for doubt, unfortunately. "Behold!" shouted Katai, pointing at the bridge. "They come!"

Two huge forms, backlit by the fires raging in the fisherman's quarter, lumbered from the shadows toward Moment's Edge Bridge. Both were half again as tall as the tallest Scorpion warrior, and one clearly possessed not two but four arms, each of which held gigantic swords on a scale equal to the beast's body.

"Hold your stances, men!" Katai shouted. "Wait for my command!"

The Onisu had clearly seen the Scorpion, for both hastened to a run toward the bridge and the battle awaiting them on the other side.

"Now!" screamed Katai.

The surge to the bridge was manic, almost hysterical. The men all around Shixiang were on the brink of panic, but none would abandon their duty. In a maddened rush, the bushi collided with the Onisu on the middle of the bridge.

Shixiang was near the front of the charge, and only his focus and clarity of thought allowed him to stop short before he ran into several barrels sitting on the bridge. The men behind him, however, were not so observant, and Shixiang was sent sprawling headlong into the barrels, knocking several of them over and very nearly losing his blade in the process.

The fall saved his life. Muchitsujo, the Onisu of Chaos, leapt into combat with the men that had pushed past Shixiang. Despite their valor, they were cut down with blinding speed. Even worse, the creature emitted some sort of chittering sound that burrowed into his head, disorganizing his thoughts and filling him with a maddening urge to leap up and flail at his enemy without thought or technique.

Concentrating with all his faculties, Shixiang rose to his feat and shoved aside one of the other Scorpion who had succumbed to the beast's mind-shattering clamor. The man dropped to the ground, scrambling ineffectively in some liquid coating the decks and laughing in a high-pitched, deranged manner. Focusing on his duty, Shixiang slashed at the thing with a series of measured strikes that combined the legendary speed of the Bayushi style and the powerful strokes of his Moto ancestors.

The strike was ineffective. Muchitsujo laughed. It was a grating, discordant sound that jarred Shixiang's teeth and made his head buzz unpleasantly. The beast swiped at him, but he slipped on the wet wood surface of the bridge and fell hard on his back. A second blow from the Nightmare knocked his blade out of his hands, leaving him virtually defenseless.

"The souls of magistrates are delicious," the creature babbled. "So much conflict. Yours will be particularly so, I'm sure." It reached down for him.

Shixiang drew out a dagger from his obi as he thrust his badge of office, a seal crafted entirely from jade and emblazoned with the crest of the Bayushi family, in the creature's face. He had no idea if jade would work on such a beast, but he would not die without trying.

Muchitsujo recoiled slightly from the touch of the green stone, lifting his head away as if from a bright light. Wasting not a single second, Shixiang drew the jagged edge of the gaijin knife, a blade once wielded by his Unicorn mother, across the Onisu's exposed throat.

The beast gurgled and lurched away from the magistrate, but it too slipped and fell as its legs became entangled in the corpses of those it had killed. In seconds, Shixiang had retrieved his blade and stood above the creature, his blade poised for the killing blow.

Somehow, the beast laughed. A thick, clear fluid bubbled up from its mouth and sprayed the street. He felt his stomach lurch sickeningly.

"You think yourself the victor?" Muchitsujo asked, pain and pity warring on its face. "I may die, but I will return. Your death will be more permanent."

"I have nothing to fear from such as you," the Scorpion countered.

"No," the Onisu admitted with a wet laugh, "You do not. But your loyalty and your strength of purpose, the very things that let you defeat me, will lead you to ruin and death. Your life will mean nothing. Your death even less. How does it feel?"

Teeth clenched in anger, Shixiang's only response was merciless katana strike that cut the beast's head into two parts. Shixiang flicked the tainted blood from his blade and turned to find the other Onisu. To his horror, he saw only what seemed to be an endless field of Scorpion corpses. The barrels had been shattered by the fighting, and Shixiang was surprised to discover that they contained had contained pitch. The thick substance had been smeared all across the bridge by the combat.

There, on the distant edge of Moment's Edge Bridge, he could make out Bayushi Kwanchai embroiled in a heated battle with the four-armed demon, Fushin. Without hesitation, Shixiang began to make his way through the field of slaughter toward the combat.

o

Kwanchai's eyes narrowed. This Fushin was a tenacious foe, almost worthy of the Dark Sword. The blades it carried were not merely ornamental, but truly weapons that it wielded with incredible speed and skill. With four arms and two blades, it had Kwanchai at a distinct disadvantage. Despite his flawless technique, he felt the first moments of doubt.

Fushin grinned evilly, exposing a mouth full of jagged, sinister teeth. "I do not mean to fill your final moments with pointless explication," the demon says. "My fellow Onisu do it ceaselessly. It is an annoying habit. Even yet, you must be feeling some doubt. How does it feel to know that your sensei's teachings are not enough to save you? Betrayed?"

"The Dark Sword of Bitter Lies has never known defeat," Kwanchai hissed, though for the first time in his life he was not certain if the words were true.

"Your bitterness is understandable. But you can do nothing!" Fushin laughed. "Your fate is sealed. You are a traitor and a fool. You place your loyalty in a clan that cares nothing for you, Kwanchai, like a farmer who plants his seed in barren soil."

"Liar!" screamed Kwanchai, leaping forward in a whirling kata of his own design. A rapid flurry of strikes rang against Fushin's blades in a rapid-fire staccato of steel against steel. If the Nightmare was impressed, however, it did not show it. The Onisu parried each blow in turn, waiting for an opening. When Kwanchai finally exposed his left side to the beast, it lashed out with a vicious kick that sent the Scorpion sprawling across the bridge and streaked with pitch. Fushin's laugh rang out again, echoing across the river and throughout the Merchant's Quarter.

Shaking his head in an effort to clear his doubling vision, Kwanchai's eyes settled upon the bridge post above him. It had been broken during the battle and lay half-fallen against another post. There, stuck deep in the wood, was a flaming arrow. The flames still flickered hypnotically along the arrow's wooden shaft. Without hesitation, Kwanchai reached up and snapped the arrow off, careful to keep the burning tip as far from his pitch-covered hands as possible. He leapt to his feet, facing Fushin with clenched teeth.

"Run, brothers!" he shouted. "I will destroy this beast!"

Scorpion bushi scattered, recognizing the hard edge to Kwanchai's voice. Fushin only snarled. "Do not do this, Kwanchai," it said. "I will return. Your sacrifice will mean nothing. Your brothers will remember you as a fool."

Kwanchai said nothing, but drug the surface of his blade across the pitch-streaked surface of the bridge. Amazingly, he saluted the Onisu with his blade before leaping atop a fallen beam, then springing to attack the creature from an equal height. Fushin raised one of his blades to parry, but Kwanchai feinted and struck low, imbedding his katana superficially a few inches in the creature's thick hide. He kicked his feet against Fushin's chest, springing away as if to leap from the bridge into the water. But Fushin was simply too fast, snapping a free claw out to grab the Scorpion's ankle, holding him fast. The snap of the bones in Kwanchai's lower leg was audible even over the din of the fighting.

"Die," hissed Fushin.

"Show me how," Kwanchai hissed, spitting blood in the demon's face. He touched the still flaming arrow to the surface of the pitch-stained katana jutting from Fushin's abdomen. Flames leapt up the blade, racing along the Onisu's form and penetrating through the carapace to burn the demon's flesh. Fushin's roar of pain was incredible. Without pause, Kwanchai drew back the burning arrow and buried it in the Nightmare's eye.

The pitch covering both combatants and the bridge ignited almost instantly. Swathed in flames, Fushin and Kwanchai staggered across the bridge, smashing through the already battered railing on the side and teetering over the brink.

"Kwanchai!" shouted Shixiang, racing across the bridge despite the flames. At the last moment, he dove, reaching out to try and grab Kwanchai's arm.

His reach was not sufficient. The two flaming forms fell into the dark waters of the river. As he watched them fall into the water, Shixiang heard a sound that filled his soul with both pride and sorrow.

"Fall before the Dark Sword of Bitter Lies!" Kwanchai shouted, laughing defiantly even as he hit the water.

o

The morning sun was still hours away as the survivors gathered in the same courtyard where they had mustered to face the Onisu so short a time ago. There were very few left. Shixiang knew he should have felt satisfaction at the successful defense of his lord and clan, but instead he felt only emptiness and a slowly building anger. Shixiang looked out at the bodies of the fallen, at the path of destruction the demons had carved through the City of Lies and was saddened.

"A heavy price," Bayushi Katai said, appearing at the head of the group. "But one we each would gladly have paid if it had been out destiny." Many of the others nodded at their commander's words, but Shixiang could only stare at her in dawning horror.

"Why are you not covered in pitch like the others who guarded the bridge, Katai-sama?" He gestured at the other survivors, all of whom were streaked with the viscous substance. "And why do you carry a bow?"

"Mind your tongue, Shixiang," the woman growled.

"I will not!" He took an involuntary step toward her. "You planted the pitch on the bridge! You fired the flaming arrow! You would gladly have killed us all for an attack that would likely not have killed either of the Onisu!"

"I did what must be done," she said coldly. "Are you questioning my authority?"

Shixiang clenched his teeth and placed his hand on the hilt of his blade. On some level he appreciated that she had done only what a loyal, if dishonorable, warrior would do. But her callous disregard for the lives of her men and for Kwanchai's sacrifice… it was unbearable.

"Stand down, Bayushi Shixiang," a smooth, velvety voice said. "Katai is in command here, and you will only ruin your own career by carrying this any further." The sleek, supple form of Bayushi Sunetra appeared among the men. They parted before her, allowing her to stand between the two feuding Scorpion. She looked at Shixiang, then her blue eyes fixed icily on Katai. "It is not worth it."

"Wise words," Katai said. "You had best appreciate them, Shixiang."

"Be silent, cow," said Sunetra in a very conversational tone, "lest I remove your command and your tongue. I do not relish the thought of apologizing to Ogura for eliminating one of his primary lackeys. You have your victory. Now take it and go home."

Katai fumed, but stepped away from the smaller woman. She turned and stormed into the darkness.

"Well done, Shixiang-san," Sunetra continued. "Lord Yojiro will no doubt be very pleased with your service."

"It is Kwanchai who served his clan tonight, Sunetra-sama." Shixiang looked out over the dark river. "For the last time."

"Do not be so certain," Sunetra said, turning back the way she had come. "Kwanchai's sensei, Tangen, was notorious for surviving when all seemed lost. We may yet see the Dark Sword of Bitter Lies again..."

The South

If there was one thing that Matsu Hyun hated, it was waking up early in the morning. It was one of the great ironies of life, that her position required it of her so often. How better could a poet of the Lion army compose epics that would stir the blood of soldiers than to rise with the sun and meditate on the glory of one's ancestors? One might even call it poetic irony.

Hyun forced herself into a sitting position and rubbed her face vigorously in an attempt to drive the fatigue from her mind. She had been in a spirited discussion with a Mantis courtier and poet, Yoritomo Yoyonagi, until the wee hours of the morning. In retrospect, she should have arranged to take her midday meal with Yoyonagi and continue the discussion rather than remain in the Shogun's court so late. Now that she thought about it, Yoyonagi had seemed eager to be somewhere else as well. She should have picked up on that last night, but when the subject of epic poetry arose, Hyun often became caught up in the moment with little care for social niceties.

There was a sudden sound from the hallway beyond that caused Hyun to frown. It was far too early for clumsy servants to be dropping things in the hallway. The sound came again, and Hyun realized that no clumsy servant could cause such commotion. She grabbed her blade from its stand and cautiously moved to the door. She listened for a moment, but the sounds were distant now. She slid the screen back slowly and stuck her head out into the corridor.

The corridor was brighter than it should be, and for a moment she could not determine why. One look down the eastern corridor revealed the cause: the wall that separated the hallway from the courtyard below had been smashed into rubble. Hyun ran down to the end and examined the strangely shaped mound that lay there.

Once, it had been a man, a Unicorn by the style of his armor. It was obvious the man had been hurled through the wall, and it appeared as though the armor was the only thing holding his shattered corpse together. Even as the poet recoiled in horror at the thought of what could cause such terrible injuries, a distant roar came from the courtyard far below.

A great armored beast was running amok in the courtyard. While she watched, it tore through a trio of samurai were attempting to hold the creature at bay. The thing looked similar to the Tsuno Hyun had seen during a brief skirmish in her home provinces, before she had followed Akodo Ijiasu to the Shogun's camp. This thing, however, was far larger and substantially more massive. Its armor, if that was in fact armor and not the creature's flesh, was jagged and severe, like a suit of blades.

"I would avoid the courtyard, girl," came a rasping voice from behind Hyun. "Nikushimi feasts on the hatred of your Lion brothers. You would not last long, I think." Already surging with adrenaline at the sight of the beast in the courtyard, the poet was badly startled at the sound and lost her footing in the loose rock that once formed the corridor's wall. She scrambled to hold on to her blade as she rolled desperately away from the rubble and rise to a kneeling position.

Another beast, albeit a smaller one, filled the corridor behind her. Even though it was smaller, it still filled the hallway completely with its size. In one gigantic, clawed hand, it held the unmoving form of Yoritomo Yoyonagi by her hair, seeming to drag her along the floor as it moved. "You are so lovely," it purred at her in a strangely seductive tone. "I came for this one," it jerked Yoyonagi's form up by her hair, "but you are nearly as beautiful. Perhaps I shall take you both for myself. I deserve both, do I not?"

"You… you shall not have me, beast."

The thing cocked its head to the side. Although it had no human facial features, Hyun imagined that it was smiling. "How precious. Do you think you can defeat me? You, who steal beauty from the sunset, the morning mist, the glory of battle and place it in your poems? No, little one. You have no more power over me than this one or her dead companion. I am Settozai, Onisu of Larceny."

"Oh, I'm far from dead." This time, the voice came from behind Settozai. The thing turned around, knocking stone and wood from the walls in the process. Hyun seized the opportunity and lunged forward to cut the thing down from behind, but an almost casual swipe from its free claw crushed into her side and sent her bouncing against the wall and into the floor, where she writhed in pain clutching her side.

o

Settozai would have frowned at the sight before it if its face were capable of such an expression. A male, the one it had thought dead, emerged from the quarters it had so recently vacated. Blood ran freely from the wound on his head. "You would... take this girl from me?" Settozai asked in an amused voice. "You would have been wise to stay down. Now I will take your life. I suppose Hakai would be pleased."

"Better to die well than to live in fear," the man said with a shrug. "I let you knock me aside so that you would leave and I could fetch my sword." He drew the blade with a faint hiss, a slow smile spreading across his features.

Settozai nodded, impressed. "You are brave, samurai," it said. "Or do you steal your courage from the knowledge that death is nothing to fear? I smell the Taint of Yomi on your blood. Who are you?"

"I call myself Rezan," he said. "Though others have borrowed my name since I first called myself by it."

"A gathering of poets," Settozai said, yawning as he let Yoyonagi's limp form fall to the floor. "There is far too much greed and lechery in your heart for you to harm me, Rezan. Run from me while you can. Steal my mercy." The Onisu snickered.

"I don't think so," Rezan said, advancing. "Please allow me to explain what is about to happen, for I would not wish you to be confused." He pointed the tip of his blade at the Onisu. "I will cut you down with two strokes. Then, I will make certain these beautiful ladies are in good health. Finally, I will send your… brothers, sisters, whatever they are… to join you. I know how lonely the afterlife can be, and I would hate for you to suffer it alone."

"You? You are the source of more larceny any other I have ever met. Your entire life has been a theft of pride, a theft of honor, a theft of prestige. After your death others stole your name to add to their own fame. Of all the beings in the Empire, you are the weakest against me. I will devour you. Why would you risk your life for these? Surely there are other beauties in the Empire without such fierce guardians. Go find them, Rezan. Live long, and continue to feed me."

"One moment of weakness and beauty dies forever," Rezan said fiercely.

Settozai roared inarticulately and darted forward with a speed that belied its size. Rezan, however, was far faster. He spun to the side, neatly avoiding the comparatively clumsy swipe. He continued his spin, allowing it to give speed to his strike. He slashed one of the Onisu's legs, making it stagger back in pain.

"How?" it snarled, clutching the wound. "A ronin... a lecher..."

"A true poet gives of himself for the pleasure of his audience," Rezan said with a small grin. "I do not expect you to understand."

Settozai turned to scramble away, terrified by the advancing Ronin. With its wounded leg, it could not move swiftly enough. Rezan charged, lifting high the sword he had carried with him from the fields of Yomi. With his second stroke, the Onisu of Larceny was no more.

o

Hyun groaned in pain as she felt hands pulling her up from the floor. Through pain-blurred vision, she could make out the battered face of Rezan, the famous duelist. Behind him, Settozai and Yoyonagi lay side by side on the floor of the corridor.

"What happened?" she gasped, trying desperately to catch her breath.

"I won," he said. "Too bad you were both unconscious. It would have made a beautiful tale for you to tell."

"But I could only have been unconscious for a few seconds," she said.

"That's how long it takes."

Hyun bent and retrieved her blade, wincing at the pain in her side. "Before I passed out, did I hear the beast say that you were weak against it? It said much the same to me. What does that mean?"

"That is the beasts' greatest weakness, I think," Rezan said, moving to pick up Yoyonagi. "Those who are without the vice they represent have the ability to weaken or even kill them. I suspect the reverse is true, and that they feed off the sin they represent. I must hand it to Daigotsu. They are living engines of poetic justice." The poet raised an eyebrow impishly. "Now come. You are badly injured, and Yoyonagi is even worse off. We must get you both to a shugenja."

"No," she said. "I must go to the courtyard and help my brethren against that giant Tsuno."

"With your injuries?" he asked. "You must be mad."

Hyun stared him in the eyes without flinching. "I am Matsu."

Rezan watched incredulously as the wounded poet disappeared into the courtyard. "I'm not entirely sure there's much difference."

o

The Onisu called Nikushimi roared as it tore the samurai apart. It was a raw, primal sound, and one that shook Hyun to her very soul, awakening some sort of animalistic fury deep within her. She quashed the feeling immediately, remembering Settozai's words. This creature fed off of hatred as the other fed from greed. To give in to her rage would only give the creature the opening it needed to destroy her. With her blade in her hand, Matsu Hyun drew a deep breath, stepped into the courtyard, and began to sing.

It was an old song, one that Hyun's father had once sung to her when she was but an infant. It was a tale of sorrow and loss, one of love and commitment. It told of Matsu Hitomi, who had loved another with all of her heart. Though her lord had been a wicked man, nothing could force her to break the vows she had sworn to her lord... except for her great love."

At first, there was no obvious effect. In a few moments, however, the Onisu of Hatred shook its head like a confused animal. It pawed at its head with its great claws then finally turned to find the source of its pain. The rage and seething hatred on its face was enough to cause Hyun to stagger backward a few steps. Sensing her weakness, the beast roared again and charged.

Hyun stepped forward, singing louder to combat the ringing in her ears. The beast charging at her seemed as large as a team of horses. She did not falter, however, and refused to step aside. As the beast closed, she thought just for a moment that she could see pain on its inhuman face.

At the last possible minute, Hyun flung herself to the side, lashing out with her blade as she did so. The pain in her ribs was incredible, and the blade glanced harmlessly off its armor. As she looked, though, she could see that the blow had chipped away a tiny piece of its carapace. She knew in that instant that the creature could be defeated.

Hyun launched into a kata. Despite the teaching of her sensei, she did not summon the cold anger from deep inside to fuel her movements. She focused only on the song, focusing on the peace and tranquility that came from the familiar, sorrowful words. Again and again the beast lunged at her, and again and again she moved away, chipping at its armor each time.

Within a few moments, the pain in Hyun's side had become almost overwhelming. She began to lose her speed, and Nikushimi's strikes came closer each time. Finally, she realized that she could not continue. She was reaching the climax of the song, and a calm such as she had never known filled her soul. She braced for the creature's final charge.

Instead, there came a deafening roar from across the courtyard. Even the Onisu turned, startled by the fury and volume of the cry. There, charging as one across the open yard, were at least two-dozen Lion samurai. Akodo and Matsu fought side by side. While she had occupied the beast, her surviving kinsmen had rallied together and prepared to face it one last time, bolstered by her heroic song.

Hyun continued her song as the bushi swarmed over the hideous abomination. She saw one warrior hurl another aside to take the blow meant for his comrade, only to be dragged from the battlefield by the man he had just saved. The Lion fought together, defending one another with no sign of the usual reckless abandon that the Matsu style demanded. The unified attack of so many men fighting as brothers, fighting to protect one another, was more than even Nikushimi could stand. It lashed out, tearing flesh with every blow, but in a few moments it fell beneath the relentless onslaught of many blades and souls fighting as one, all unified by a young girl's song.

The tiny poet finally collapsed, her song ending. She wondered idly if death would claim her, but she felt instead the rough hands of her Lion brothers picking her up from the ground. "Rest, sister," one whispered to her. "You showed us the way to defeat the Onisu. We will see to it you are healed… and one day it will be your tale that others sing."

Matsu Hyun smiled weakly as unconsciousness claimed her.

o

Death was not something to be feared; yet Asako Hirariko found that in these last moments of her life, she feared it very much indeed. She had not fulfilled her destiny in this life; of that much she was certain. Would Meido be like the horrible emptiness she had known while a slave of the Lying Darkness? She was suddenly terrified that it would be. After the horrors of Otosan Uchi, she had come to the Kaiu Wall hoping to add her strength to the Crab's struggle. Now she was having second thoughts.

Hirariko crouched in the shadow of the Wall, shivering with equal parts cold and terror. On the horizon, a massive blue creature as wide as three men cut a swath through the Crab forces. It resembled a large suit of samurai armor, empty within save two glowing eyes. It moved with total silence. Few actually faced it, however, as any who approached were filled with a blossoming horror that at best sent them screaming in the other direction or left them paralyzed with fear at the beast's mercy.

The aging henshin had fought against the fear, using all her tricks to try and defeat the Onisu before its power overwhelmed her. Nothing had worked. Now, she was powerless before it, unable to move because of the palpable terror that emanated from the creature's depthless eyes.

"Weak. Unworthy." There was no anger, no elation in its voice, only a deep disappointment. The Onisu crushed the last Crab samurai with its massive tetsubo. "You Crab claim to fight from courage, yet you hide behind this wall. You fight only because the alternative is too much to bear. You Crab live in terror and call it bravery. You are not worthy to stand against us." It turned and, noticing Hirariko, lifted its huge weapon to crush the life from her.

Just before the strike, something struck Hirariko and knocked her clear of the demon's weapon. Instead, it crashed down on nothing, leaving a small crater where it crushed earth and rock into powder. Shaking her head in an attempt to clear it, Hirariko suddenly found herself face to face with the largest rodent she had ever seen.

"Pretty-pretty fire lady okay?" the thing asked sincerely.

"What… who are you?" she asked shakily.

"A Nezumi?" the Onisu said, voice echoing with contempt. "One of the rats who hide beneath the wall."

The Nezumi drew himself up proudly and spread his arms wide. "Stupid demon!" it shouted. " Yoee'trr not Third Whisker coward! Proud scout! Daring warrior! Son's son of Rik'tik'tichek! Run away demon before Yoee'trr stab-stab his spear in your ugly-ugly helmet!"

"All the same, still vermin." Kyofu said, striding purposefully toward the Ratling. Unbelievably, the Nezumi rushed toward the creature and darted up its form, climbing its thick carapace with incredible speed. In a mere handful of seconds, he had crawled completely over the Onisu and was perched precariously on its back. It began stabbing frantically at the demon's armor with a sharp stick.

"Strange," asked Kyofu, unconcerned with the beast's presence. It reached back with its tree-sized arms and snatched the creature by its scruff of its neck. It pulled Yoee'trr free; the Nezumi flailed wildly and snapped at Kyofu's arm. "There is no fear in you... no fear of any kind. You are too much of a fool to be afraid, I think. A pity you do not have strength as well as courage."

Kyofu hurled Yoee'trr against the base of the Kaiu Wall. The Nezumi struck the stones but landed nimbly on its feet. It rolled agilely and snatched its stick from the earth again. Hirariko was amazed. Did the Ratling have no bones?

"Yoee'trr like-like it better when demons no talk much." The Nezumi hunched low, ready to pounce on Kyofu again. The demon regarded the Nezumi with boredom.

An idea occurred to Hirariko suddenly. Though she was no shugenja, the Asako henshin had taught her a few tricks that came in handy now and then. Sometimes, she could call the kami to her aid, and sometimes they listened.

Closing her eyes, she reached out to the water kami.

"You are Hirariko?" the voice of the water kami whispered in her ear. "The one that once was, then was not, and now is once more."

"I am," she said.

"You have a riddle for me?" it asked.

"I do," she said. "Which is more fearsome, light or darkness?"

"Darkness, of course," the creature said. "The greatest terrors live in shadow."

"But from the light you cannot see them," Hirariko said. "And they can see you."

"Interesting," the kami said. "Your riddle is acceptable. What favor do you ask?"

"Aid him," Hirariko said, pointing at the Nezumi.

The little creature was still dueling with the Onisu, dodging Kyofu's powerful blows and lashing back with ineffective stabs of its spear. The Nezumi lifted its weapon and swung again, but this time a sharp crack echoed across the battlefield. Kyofu looked down in surprise. The Nezumi's stick now pierced its breastplate, sending cracks through its armor.

"Told you!" Yoee'trr shrieked in triumph. "Warned you!"

The Nightmare of the Crab's eyes widened... in fear.

The Nezumi tossed his stick aside and began pounding on the Onisu's shoulders with his bare paws. Waves of blue energy surrounded Yoee'trr's limbs as the water kami strengthened the blows. The effect was unbelievable. The Onisu actually staggered under the Ratling's relentless, supernaturally powerful assault. Shards of broken armor flew free with each strike.

"You cannot defeat me!" Kyofu shouted. "I will not be undone by an animal!"

In response, Yoee'trr clutched the Onisu with his legs and tail and lifted both arms over the abomination's head, bringing them down in a massive double strike that sent the Nightmare to its knees. The Nezumi was in motion at once, moving off of the Onisu's back and circling around its side, where it grabbed Kyofu's left arm in both of its own. Planting its feet firmly against the Onisu's side, the Ratling warrior tore with all his magically endowed strength. With a terrible ripping sound, Kyofu's arm came free of its body, spilling a thick blue mist from the wound that dissipated quickly in the morning sun. The light in Kyofu's eyes faded. The dark blue armor fell empty and useless to the earth.

"Whew," exhaled the Ratling, dropping his grisly trophy as his strength began to fade. "Me really tired-tired."

Asako Hirariko climbed unsteadily to her feet. She still could not believe such a thing had happened. Had she really witnessed a Nezumi slay one of the dreaded Onisu? It didn't seem possible, yet it had taken place in a span of mere seconds.

"Yoee'trr," she said, stumbling over the bizarre name.

"Pretty fire shaman lady make Yoee'trr strong," the Ratling nodded as sagely as if he were quoting the intricacies of the Tao. "Fire lady and Yoee'trr make good pack."

The henshin did not know how to respond. She was not familiar with the ways of the Nezumi, but she did notice that this simple beast was treating her as an equal. Even among the Phoenix, few treated her with such respect due to her past. It was bizarre, yet strangely touching, and Hirariko found her heart going out to this brave creature that had apparently left its tribe behind. Without thinking, she reached into her obi and withdrew a carefully wrapped package. The package contained a mystic jade goblet that Hirariko had managed to save from a burning temple in Otosan Uchi. She had intended to give it to her fellow henshin for safekeeping, but it seemed a suitable reward for such a brave warrior. "Please take this gift as a sign of my… because I want to thank you for saving me."

The Ratling made an excited squeaking sound and quickly and roughly tore the package open to reveal the goblet that was contained within. "Pretty!" he exclaimed happily, watching the cup sparkle in the light. "You sure you no want?"

"No," said Hirariko. "I had thought I could… I could make my tribe like me more by bringing it home, but a brave warrior like you should have it instead."

"Not just brave! Brave-clever!"

"Yes," she smiled. "You are indeed."

The Nezumi looked at Hirariko curiously. "You should walk-walk with Yoee'trr," he said. "Come, visit Tattered Ear Tribe. Tribe would love to hear stories of brave-brave Phoenix who fight demons with Yoee'trr. Shamans would be impressed by fire-lady's powerful magic!"

Hirariko smiled gently. "I think that I would like that, Yoee'trr," she said. "Lead the way."

As the sunlight finally drove away the last remnants of the morning fog, Hirariko thanked the Fortunes that she was still alive while a young Nezumi warrior tucked a priceless cup in his ragged clothes. Quietly, the two began the long walk home.

EPILOGUE

"Can it be done?" Daigotsu asked, a hint of impatience in his voice.

Omoni scratched his long, unkempt hair and frowned. "I believe so, yes, my lord. It will be difficult, but it can be done. Unfortunately, it will all but destroy the carapace in the process. The result will be useless to you."

"I will worry about that, old friend. Just do as I have asked, and all will be well. Our enemies have defeated the Onisu; now they believe that they know the enemy. It falls to us... it falls to you... to make certain that we continue to improve ourselves."

The twisted little goblin-man shrugged and bowed. He often forgot such formalities because of his long friendship with the Dark Lord of the Shadowlands. When others were about, though, he always tried to show only obedience and respect. Others in Daigotsu's forces, particularly Shahai and the sinister Onisu, often mistreated Omoni as a result of his submissive behavior. Ultimately, Daigotsu knew, Omoni was a powerful individual and unworthy of such mistreatment. Such behavior would only fuel the little man's hatred until he took vengeance in some hideous, vile way. History showed that far too many would-be conquerors were undone because they refused to recognize the quality or temperament of those who served them.

"The Onisu... can be difficult," Omoni said. "You ask me to improve upon perfection."

"Do what you can," Daigotsu said. "I have faith it will be more than enough."

The thought of the Onisu caused Daigotsu to sigh heavily. They had been defeated, just as he had known they would when he freed them to run rampant through the homes of the Four Winds. For all their power, to think that none in Rokugan could rise to meet them as equals would have been foolish. He had hoped for a bit more destruction, perhaps, but it sounded as though many samurai had died and morale was low among the survivors. He counted such as a victory. And this too would be a lesson for the great beasts, and might temper their arrogance.

There was a sickening crack as Omoni successfully split open the now-empty shell of Kyofu, the Onisu of Fear. The nightmare had been banished to the spirit realms, just like its comrades. Daigotsu had not yet returned them to the mortal realm, for the ritual was long and extremely taxing. Kyofu would be the first, and he would not return as he was before. Daigotsu had experienced an epiphany when pondering the Onisu's return, and was eager to test this new theory.

With Kyofu's carapace laid open, Omoni barked a short, guttural order to his minions. In short order, half a dozen goblins returned, escorting a bitter looking shirtless samurai. His skin had the pale hue of the undead. His eyes burned with quiet rage.
"Kuroda-san," Daigotsu said with a smile. "How are you?"

"Dead," Kuroda said with a snarl. He shoved away the nearest goblin and took a quick step toward Daigotsu. Several spears pointed at his chest halted him.

"I left you to guard the Kaiu Wall in my absence," Daigotsu said. "Instead, three of the fallen towers have been retaken. I wonder if in your reanimation I left too much of what you once were..."

"Do you mean to imply that I allowed my brother to win?" Kuroda roared. "Step closer and say that, Dark Lord!"

Daigotsu shook his head slowly. "I don't think so," he said. "Whether or not your allegiance is true as it should be, the fact remains that you were weak. I have a means for you to grow stronger." Daigotsu stepped to one side, gesturing at the armor of Kyofu. Omoni chuckled in anticipation of the work to come.

Kuroda's eyes narrowed. "You intend to combine me with... with that Nightmare?"

"You fear losing even more of your sense of who you were then you already have. You fear facing your brother in combat, and watching him die as the Taint drives your hand. You fear what will happen when the Crab find what awaits them in the final tower. Your fear... will keep Kyofu strong. You are a fitting host, I think."

"Never!" Kuroda roared. He snatched a spear from the nearest goblin's hand and lunged at Omoni. A crackling bolt of electricity erupted from Daigotsu's right hand, striking the undead Crab in the chest. Kuroda grunted in pain and fell to the floor, unconscious.

Daigotsu looked at the fingers of his new right hand, then nodded to Omoni. "Nearly as good as the old one, just as you promised," the Dark Lord said with a satisfied smile. "I leave you to your work, flesh-sculptor."