Prelude to Darkness
Part Four

The Curse

A small horned head poked out of the side of the tree, passing through the bark as harmlessly as a ghost. A slow smile spread across the little creature's ugly face as he noticed the hooded figure seated against a thick tree, arms folded across his chest, jingasa pulled low over his eyes. The mujina had been waiting for hours for a chance like this. Now, finally, the old sensei had gone to sleep. Chuckling to himself, the mujina hovered out of the tree. His impossibly tiny wings fluttered rapidly, making no sound. Settling on the ground by the sensei's feet, he searched about for any sign of…

There!

The creature extended one tiny hand, reaching for the crystal necklace about the sleeping sensei's throat.

The jingasa tipped up to reveal a bird-like face, covered in black feathers. A pair of coal black eyes opened. A sharp black beak, long enough to swallow the mujina whole, clicked in disdain.

"What are you doing, Fuhao?" the sensei asked in a shrill voice.

"Just… guarding your sleep, great Master Kozue!" the mujina lied, folding his hands behind his back and carefully averting his beady eyes from the necklace.

"You were trying to steal it again, weren't you?" the sensei asked, his tone vaguely amused.

Fuhao feigned astonishment. "What? Fuhao?" He pressed one hand against his chest. His little jaw dropped. "Never!"

"Ah," the sensei nodded in reply. "Then obviously you came to wake me up for our lesson with the young Crane," he said.

"Yes!" the mujina said, seizing on the excuse. "That was exactly it, master!"

"Very well then," the sensei replied. "Why don't you fly to Kyuden Doji and retrieve our samurai friend?"

The mujina grumbled. That sounded like work.

Kozue clicked his beak and leaned forward quickly.

With a frightened squeal, Fuhao dashed off toward Kyuden Doji.

Within seconds the mujina had risen above the forest, his ethereal form passing easily through the branches and leaves. From the air, Kyuden Doji was easy to see. The humans had built it at the very height of the cliffs, overlooking the sea. The view was magnificent. Too bad the castle wasn't. It was very tiny and only half-constructed. The silly Crane always claimed that it would be the jewel of their Empire one day. Fuhao was unconvinced, but he was too much a trickster at heart to believe that others could accomplish anything through honest effort. Fuhao pondered this as he sat in the kitchens of Kyuden Doji, munching on a small sweet cake. Remembering abruptly that he was on a mission, he tossed the rest aside and zipped through the wall. A servant appeared just as he vanished, shrieking in dismay at the sight of the lady of the house's dessert.

Fuhao found the Crane outside, practicing with a boken. The young samurai moved from one practiced pose to the next, eyes focused in deep concentration. Fuhao watched quietly for several moments. Humans were such strange creatures. They liked killing each other so much that they practiced even when nobody was around.
Fuhao sneezed loudly. The Crane stopped in mid-movement, blue eyes flicking down to fix upon the creature.

"You again."

"Sorry," the mujina said with a giggle. "Fuhao did not mean to disturb you."

"A twig disturbs the stream only for a moment, and the water returns to its course," the Crane said, sheathing the katana with a graceful movement. "You cannot disturb my concentration."

Fuhao frowned in disappointment. "Master Kozue wants to see you," he said.

The Crane nodded. "Show the way," he said, taking a deep breath.

This was Fuhao's favorite part.

The mujina flitted off as quickly as he could, passing through the wall of the castle. He glanced back just as the Crane leapt over the top of the wall, face grim with determination. Fuhao laughed and flew faster, veering between the trees. He stayed just close enough so that the Crane could keep up with a bit of effort. For nearly an hour the mujina veered randomly through the forest, running the Crane through mud, fallen trees, and brambles. Fuhao was quietly impressed; his pursuer never failed or faltered, eyes on Fuhao all the while. Finally the mujina soared out into Kozue's clearing again. The Crane, dirty and exhausted, staggered into the clearing behind him.

Kozue stood in the center of the clearing, black eyes impassive as he stared at the pair.

"You took your time," the kenku said in a bored voice.

"That mujina is a demon," the Crane said, pointing one finger at the floating creature. "I swear to the Fortunes he chose the longest, most difficult path. No one could possibly keep up with him."

"Then become faster," Kozue replied. "When you can catch Kozue, no other samurai will be as swift as you are."

The Crane's face turned red, lips fixed in a thin line. The young samurai took a deep breath and bowed contritely. "My apologies, sensei. I will try harder."

"Good," Kozue said. "Now let us begin."

Fuhao settled on a log, pouting with his pointed chin nestled between his hands. His games just weren't as fun now that he knew they served a higher purpose. He sighed dramatically. He wondered if Master Kozue would notice if he returned to Kyuden Doji for another cake.

Kozue ignored the mujina and unshouldered his robes. The kenku was tall and slender, garbed only in a skirt of steel armor. His talon-like hands held a long-handled hammer.

The Crane's face grew confused. "I do not understand. You have been teaching me the way of the sword. What is the hammer for?"

"I promised to teach you all that there was to know of the sword," the kenku replied, setting the hammer on the ground. "Today I shall teach you how to forge one."

"That is a job for heimin," the Crane laughed, not touching the hammer. "Samurai are warriors, not craftsmen."

"Set aside your foolish pride, young one," Kozue said. "Anyone with talent can become a kenshinzen, a master of the blade. The skill of such a warrior will be remembered while he holds his blade, and perhaps for a while after. But a master swordsman can give birth to a thousand more masters if his craft is true. Such a hero will be remembered so long as his work lives on. Do you consider such work unworthy of a samurai?"

The samurai considered the kenku's words. After a long moment the Crane took up the hammer and knelt before the kenku. "I did not think of it that way. Teach me, master."

"I will, Doji Yasurugi," the kenku said. "I will."

o

Some time later…

Doji Yasuyo stepped into the clearing. Her long white hair hung ragged and unkempt. Her armor was scratched and stained with mud from the mad dash through the forest. She whirled about angrily, crystal blue eyes burning with rage.

"You," she said, finding the mujina perched on a high branch.

"Fuhao?" Fuhao replied with a small smile. He hovered upside-down on tiny wings. This Crane was almost as funny as Yasurugi.

"You promised to lead me to the kenku," Yasuyo said with a snarl.

"Yasuyo-chan is not enjoying the trip through the forest?" the mujina asked in a sweet voice.

Yasuyo glowered at the creature. "I nearly died fighting that sanshu denki you led me to," she said, pointing back the way she had come. "I'm beginning to think that you have no idea how to find what I'm looking for, that you're just trying to get me killed."

"Could be," the mujina said, rolling over in midair. "So go home."

Yasuyo's left eye twitched. Her hand trailed toward the golden sword tucked beneath her obi. The mujina giggled and floated within reach of the blade, knowing that she could not harm him.

"Bah," Yasuyo said, taking a deep breath and moving her hand away from the sword. "Play your games, mujina. I know Lady Doji would not have led me astray. She said that you would guide me to the kenku, so it must be true. Lead on."

A sharp click sounded from the high branches of the trees, attracting Yasuyo's eye. A small figure sat perched in the tree, covered in thick robes, a crooked walking stick clutched across his knees. "You have learned the virtue of faith, Yasuyo-chan," the stranger said in a shrill voice, "though you must work on your patience."

The robed figure leapt from his perch, landing gracefully several feet from Yasuyo. He threw back his hood to reveal the head of a large crow. The kenku was nearly a foot shorter than Yasuyo, standing with a pronounced hunch. His black feathers were shot through with silver. "You seek me," he said. It was not a question; there was no uncertainty in the creature's words. "Well done, Fuhao. You have brought me another visitor."

"Crane claims to be sent by Lady Doji," Fuhao said. "Sounds kind of strange to Fuhao."

"Humans are strange creatures," the kenku acknowledged. He cocked his head to one side and regarded Yasuyo with one coal black eye.

Yasuyo knelt before the kenku. "The Lady Doji came to me in a dream," she said. "She promised that a kenku would teach me."

"Hm," the kenku said, bobbing his beak sharply. "And why would the Kami do that? I understand the samurai of the Crane Clan are skilled swordsmen."

"Perhaps Crane has turned her back on her sensei, master?" Fuhao said in a mocking voice.

"Perhaps," the kenku said. "Humans are fickle."

"Perhaps Crane will turn her back on you as well, master," Fuhao added.

"It stands to reason," the kenku replied, nodding thoughtfully. "The only thing consistent facets of human behavior are their vices."

"Eleven centuries ago, my ancestor, Doji Yasurugi trained with a great kenku sensei named Kozue," Yasuyo said, head still bowed. "Those teachings were incorporated into the heart of the style that would come to be known as the Way of the Crane. Our schools flow from the same river. Thus to train with you would not dishonor my school, but grant greater depth to what I have learned. Unless, that is, you have abandoned the techniques of your own ancestor, Master Kozue." Yasuyo lifted her head, her cool blue eyes meeting those of the kenku.

The kenku cawed with amusement. "My ancestor?" he replied, preening the feathers of one shoulder with his beak. "You think that I need to follow the tradition of Kozue? I make my own tradition." The kenku ambled about the clearing, circling to Yasuyo's right. Fuhao fluttered down onto the kenku's shoulder, grinning at the Crane all the while.

Yasuyo's eyes narrowed as she watched the kenku carefully. "You would insult Doji Yasurugi's teacher?"

The kenku leaned on his walking stick and gave Yasuyo a bored look. "You would defend Kozue though you have never even met him? I am a far greater swordsman than the kenku who taught your ancestor. You know nothing of Kozue."

"Master Kozue is a lazy, arrogant, abusive fool!" Fuhao said. "Take it from Fuhao!"

The kenku's eye flicked toward the mujina. The creature laughed and fluttered away. The kenku's eye flicked back toward the golden sword tucked behind Yasuyo's obi. "May I see that blade?" he asked, leaning his walking stick against a tree and extending one clawed hand.

Yasuyo rose and stepped away with a hiss, turning the blade away from the kenku.

The creature looked at Yasuyo curiously. "You beg me to guide your blade, but you will not let me touch your blade?" he asked.

Yasuyo frowned. Her shoulders relaxed, and she drew the katana from her obi, still in its saya. Reverently, she offered the blade to the kenku.

The kenku accepted the sword, pausing for a moment to consider the symbol of the crow marked on its handle. Then, with a brilliant flash of golden light, the kenku drew the katana from its saya. Clutching the weapon in one hand, he flew into a dazzling display of martial prowess. The creature spun in midair, turning the sword in a dazzling arc, trailing golden sparks through the air. Fuhao dove and wove about playfully, circling the kenku as he flew back and forth across the field. No longer did the old kenku stand hunched and bent; he was now as tall and proud as Yasuyo. Even the silver seemed to have faded from his feathers.

With a final aerial cartwheel the kenku landed beside Yasuyo again. He held the sword high, reflecting the sunlight from its blade. "Naishi," he said. "It has been long since I have held her, and she is still as light and sharp as ever. Your family has done me great honor by keeping this sword in such fine condition. Yasurugi only forged one sword greater than this."

Yasuyo's brow furrowed. "You have seen Naishi before?" she asked.

"I have seen her," Kozue said with another cawing laugh. "I helped Yasurugi forge her."

Sudden realization dawned across Doji Yasuyo's face. "You are Kozue," she said.

The kenku cocked its head and clicked its beak.

"Crane isn't very smart, is she?" Fuhao asked.

Yasuyo ignored the annoying mujina. "How can that be?" she asked. "You trained my ancestor over eleven centuries ago."

"Time is not the same for one who knows the paths of the Spirit Realms, Doji Yasuyo," the kenku replied. "I have spent much time in Chikushudo, the Realm of Animals, where time flows randomly. By my perspective, I trained Doji Yasurugi only seventy years ago." He returned Naishi to its saya. "Still a long time, for a human, but not entirely impossible for a kenku." It offered the blade back to Yasuyo. "Why have you sought me out, Doji Yasuyo?"

"As I said, Lady Doji sent me to-"

"I did not ask about Lady Doji," the kenku said firmly. "Why have you sought me out, Doji Yasuyo?"

"My cousin, Doji Kurohito, Lord of the Crane Clan," Yasuyo replied. "He has changed in the last few years."

"All things change, that is the way of existence," Kozue replied. "Why should I care?"

"I am worried for him," Yasuyo said. "Since he took up his new sword he has been more angry, more intense."

"A new sword?" Kozue replied, suddenly interested.

"The style is similar to this one," she replied, "but the blade is silver rather than gold, and the hilt is worked in the shape of a reclining crane."

"Chukandomo," Kozue hissed, taloned hands curling into fists. A rare, worried look crossed Fuhao's tiny features.

"You know this sword?" Yasuyo asked, her voice full of hope.

The kenku nodded. "Chukandomo was the greatest of Yasurugi's five blades, the first sword he forged without my aid. It was forged as a gift for the Matsu family, intended to stifle their feud with the Kakita while it was still young. Petty larceny and betrayal ruined its destiny. Like an ambitious samurai whose destiny has been denied, the soul of the blade became bitter and spiteful. The sword gives great power, but it is bound to dark spirits. They bring destruction to those who do not meet the sword's impossibly high standards."

Yasuyo's face grew pensive. "So my cousin is in danger."

"Your cousin is Lord of the Crane, you say?" Kozue asked, snatching his walking stick in one hand.

Yasuyo nodded.

"Then your entire clan is in danger," Kozue said with dreadful certainty. "Chukandomo will inspire Kurohito, pushing him to new heights of ambition. For a time, the sword will lead him to become a mighty samurai but in the end it will not be enough. The instant your cousin fails to meet the sword's expectations, the spirits will come to destroy him. Strong though he may be, he stands no chance against the unquiet dead. Like Fuhao, they only exist fully in this realm when they choose to." The kenku swung his walking stick at the mujina. The creature laughed brightly as it hovered about, the stick passing through its form harmlessly.

"What can I do?" Yasuyo asked.

"The soul of a sword reflects the soul of its master," Kozue said. "Yasurugi valued his family more than all else, so only family can break the curse upon his sword. That is why Lady Doji sent you. You are blood to Kurohito, just as Naishi is sister to Chukandomo. You have a chance, if you are prepared to learn."

"Will you teach me, Kozue-sama?" she asked.

"Hm," Kozue grunted. Kneeling, the kenku carefully selected twelve broad leaves from the ground. "When I throw these, strike them with your blade. As many as you can."

Yasuyo began to draw Naishi, but stopped when the kenku glared at her. "Do not draw your blade until the leaves are in the air," he said.

Yasuyo nodded.

With a sharp cry, Kozue hurled the leaves. Yasuyo drew Naishi and leapt forward, her blade carving the air. A moment later, the leaves had all fallen to the earth. Kozue picked up three leaves, still untouched, and turned to face Yasuyo. Fuhao giggled. The Crane bowed her head in shame.

"I will teach you," the kenku said.

"But I did not strike all the leaves," Yasuyo said.

The kenku gave a cawing chuckle. "If you had struck all the leaves, you would not need me to teach you," he said. "Now follow me."

o

Again, Some Time Later…

Doji Yasuyo stepped out of the forest, squinting and shielding her eyes with one hand as she adjusted to the morning light. "Well?" she said, glancing back over her shoulder. "Where are you, creature?"

Fuhao spun in midair and alighted on a fallen log, humming idly to himself as he drummed his fingers on his fat belly. He idly snatched a passing spider in one pudgy hand and tossed it in its mouth. The spider fell through the mujina's intangible throat, landed back on the log, and scurried away in confusion. Yasuyo shook her head in disgust.

"Fuhao sometimes think that Yasuyo does not like him," the mujina said, looking up at her with exaggerated sadness.

Yasuyo sighed. In the years she had spent training with Kozue in the Realm of Animals, she had grown accustomed to many strange things. The mujina was not one of them. She patiently ignored his annoying antics and breathed the air of Rokugan again.

"How long has it been?" Yasuyo asked. "How long have I been away? By my count it has been seven years, but Kozue said that time flows randomly in the Realm of Animals."

"Only six days since you saw the ghosts from the shore," the mujina said, "but much longer since Yasuyo left this realm to train with Master Kozue."

"It has been so long," she said. "I suppose seven years does not seem like long to you, Fuhao."

The mujina settled on Yasuyo's shoulder. "Just because Fuhao has lived a long time does not mean Fuhao does not appreciate time. Fuhao has seen many friends come and go. All the years just make Fuhao appreciate time more." The mujina wrapped its arms around its knees and leaned against Yasuyo's cheek.

"You can't be serious," Yasuyo said suspiciously.

"Nope," the mujina giggled and hovered away.

Yasuyo sighed again. "Where are we?"

"Close to where Yasuyo needs to be," the mujina said. "Kozue says that Yasuyo must go to Realm of Slaughter, find the spirits that curse your cousin's blade, must defeat them all."

"How do I enter the Realm of Slaughter?" Yasuyo asked.

"There is a place close by where all Spirit Realms touch one another," Fuhao said. "Fuhao can show Yasuyo the way."

"Lead on," Yasuyo said.

The mujina flitted off down the path. This time it moved slowly enough that Yasuyo could follow without difficulty. The odd pair soon found their way to a wide road. In the distance, an enormous city dominated the horizon. Yasuyo caught her breath at the sight of the great golden walls and the mighty palace that stood at their center.

"That's it," Fuhao said, pointing a stubby finger. "That is where Fuhao and Yasuyo need to go. That is the place where all the Spirit Realms touch." The mujina chewed its lip thoughtfully. "Maybe Yasuyo and Fuhao should come back later."

"What's wrong?" Yasuyo asked.

"Fuhao has a sense for trouble," the mujina said. "Fuhao senses a lot of trouble headed for that city. Not the good kind of trouble, either. Fuhao smells death."

Yasuyo was about to question the mujina further when the sound of hoofbeats echoing on the road behind him frightened him away. Yasuyo glanced back to see a legion of samurai galloping toward them, clad in dark green armor. The banner of the Emerald Magistrates was emblazoned on their back banners. Yasuyo stood where she was and waited for them to arrive.

"You there," one of the magistrates shouted, pointing to Yasuyo. "State your name and business."

"I am Doji Yasuyo, cousin of Lord Doji Kurohito," she replied calmly, moving to the center of the road so they could see that she posed no threat. Fuhao had disappeared; the mujina would almost certainly return later at a time of its own convenience. "I have no traveling papers, but please tell the Emerald Champion that I send him my regards. Lord Toshiken is an old friend of my family, and he knows that I am no threat."

The magistrates looked at one another, confused. "Wait here, please," one said.

Yasuyo nodded. The magistrate galloped off into the body of troops. The other magistrates remained where they were, watching Yasuyo with openly curious expressions. Yasuyo wondered what their problem was. How long had it been since Rokugan had seen her last? Was it possible that Toshiken was no longer Emerald Champion?

A short time later, the magistrate returned. Beside him rode three others. One wore the armor of the Emerald Champion, his face hidden behind a steel mempo. Another was dressed in the armor of a Scorpion samurai. Yasuyo recognized the third instantly.

"Yasuyo!" Doji Nagori shouted, leaping from his horse and running to meet her. Her younger brother embraced her impulsively. Yasuyo returned the hug, her face flushing from embarrassment. Nagori seemed hardly a day older than when last she had seen him.

"Nagori, calm yourself," she said, pushing him away gently.

"Calm myself?" he said, an infectious grin spreading across his handsome features. "You disappeared without any word! No one knew what happened! I was so worried for you!"

"I am fine, Nagori," Yasuyo replied. "How long has it been since you saw me last?"

Nagori looked confused by the question. "A little over fourteen months," he said.

"I see much has changed," Yasuyo replied. "Have you become a magistrate or does the Emerald Champion have need of a storyteller now?"

"The Emerald Champion has need of all the help he can get," Nagori replied in a whisper. "He isn't exactly popular, though through no fault or failing of his own. It is good that you are here, Yasuyo. He will be pleased to see you." Behind them, the Emerald Champion and the Scorpion had begun to dismount.

"Toshiken, unpopular?" Yasuyo replied. "And since when did the Emerald Champion have a Scorpion advisor?"

Nagori blinked. "Oh," he said quietly. "Don't you know?"

"Doji Yasuyo," the Emerald Champion said, his voice rich and deep. He removed his helmet and bowed to the samurai-ko.

"Hachi?" Yasuyo said, stunned. "You are Emerald Champion now?"

"Life is strange," Hachi said, pushing his long hair out of his eyes. "It is good to see you, Yasuyo-chan. Allow me to introduce my second in command, Bayushi Norachai." The Scorpion nodded imperceptibly. "Norachai, this is Doji Yasuyo, an old friend."

"I have heard stories," Norachai said dryly.

Yasuyo raised an eyebrow at Hachi.

"And all of those stories true, maintaining the honor and reputation of the cousin of the Crane Lord," Hachi said innocently. When Norachai looked away, Hachi flashed an impish grin at Yasuyo.

"What brings you to the Emperor's Road, sister?" Nagori asked. "Can you join us?" The storyteller looked hopeful.

"I would be honored, so long as you are going that way," Yasuyo said, pointing at the city.

Hachi smirked. "That city?" he repeated. "You mean Otosan Uchi? Of course we're going that way, Yasuyo-chan. We would be pleased to have your company."

To be continued…