Shinsei's Last Hope
By Rich Wulf

"In the end, all of our petty feuds mean nothing. The Empire exists for a single reason, for a single purpose. There is only one true enemy…" - Kuni Osaku

The Shadowlands…

The land was blasted and dead. Nothing grew here; nothing could grow here. The parched earth was webbed with deep cracks and, sometimes, small creatures moved between them. Three Crab warriors walked in a triangular pattern, watching the barren land carefully. One held a bow with an arrow knocked and ready. The other two held tetsubo. The iron bound clubs were more effective than the katana against most of the creatures who dwelled out here.

"Anything?" Kanko asked. Kanko was the nikutai, patrol leader, the eldest of the three. Though the Shadowlands had been relatively quiet of late, he had seen his share of fighting with the Horde and had the scarred face to prove it.

"Nothing," Munoto replied, squinting as he studied the western horizon. He was the youngest of the three; this was his first patrol in the Shadowlands. His left hand fidgeted nervously with the jade finger hanging around his neck. "All is clear. We should return to Kyuden Hida. I feel uneasy here."

"This is the Shadowlands, Munoto," Ogai replied with a chuckle. "You are supposed to feel uneas-- wait!" The archer's eyes widened. He pointed with his arrow at a spot to the northwest. A gleam of metal shone on the earth.

The other two Crab nodded silently. They approached slowly, weapons ready. As they drew closer they could see that the shine of metal came from a well-polished helmet. A samurai in fine blue armor lay face down in the dust, not moving. The ground around him was littered with twisted green bodies - bakemono. The three warriors stopped a safe distance away.

"A Crane," Kanko said, studying the man's helmet. "A Daidoji by the symbols on that helm. Magistrate. Died fighting, it looks like."

"Poor fool," Ogai whispered. "What was he doing all the way out here?"

"Makes no difference now," Kanko said with a shrug. "Munoto, take his head so we won't have to deal with him later."

Munoto nodded, approaching the figure slowly. He paused a few feet away, looking back at Kanko. "Nikutai, I think he is still alive."

The fallen Crane groaned, leaning up on one arm. He sat up painfully, pushing his dirty topknot away. There was no blood on him, save the black blood of the bakemono. He was uninjured. He plucked his katana from the earth and sheathed it, watching the Crab warriors with clear, curious blue eyes. "Konnichiwa, sons of Hida," he said, bowing as he rose.

"You are far from home, Daidoji," Kanko said in a gruff voice. "Where is your jade?"

The Crane looked confused. "Jade?" he asked.

"To protect you from corruption," Ogai said, keeping his arrow trained on the stranger.

"Corruption," the Crane said with a chuckle. "How ironic that I came here fleeing accusations of corruption, albeit of a political sort, and now I find myself faced with them again. Leave me alone, Sons of Hida, lest you share my curse."

"Curse?" Munoto said nervously, one hand tight on his jade as he looked fearfully at his commander.

"When I was born, the Asahina told me that there was dark magic in my family," the man said, slowly walking toward the Crab soldiers. "They told me I would amount to nothing. Their prophecies were self-fulfilling. My commanders ignored me, passed me over for promotion, fearful that my curse would destroy them. All I wanted was to serve."

"If he approaches further, Ogai," Kanko said, "Shoot him."

The Crane stopped with a smirk. "I am no madman, Nikutai. I wanted only to embrace a destiny that was denied me. Instead, my corrupt superiors blamed me for their own crimes, knowing no one would defend me. I had no recourse but to flee. The Crab, I had heard, are a sincere people. You judge others on their own merits. Surely, I thought, I could find a place among them."

"You have wandered past Crab lands, Crane," Kanko said. "You are in the Shadowlands, far too deep to be safe without jade. Show me your jade."

"I have none," the Crane said.

"Shoot him," Kanko commanded.

Ogai's arrow flew true, burying itself in the Crane's chest. The Crane staggered backward, looking down at the wound with shock and surprise. Another arrow took him in the forehead, snapping back his head. A third struck his knee, causing him to fall. Kanko ran forward, dropping his tetsubo and drawing his katana to strike off the fallen samurai's head. In a flash, the Crane sprang to his feet again, sword in hand. He struck so quickly that Kanko could not see, his blade cutting the Crab veteran's legs from beneath him. A second blow sent Kanko's head tumbling across the earth.

Munoto froze in terror. He opened his mouth to say something, perhaps a confused question or a plea for mercy. The Crane did not care to hear his words. Turning in midair like a dancer, he cut Munoto from hip to shoulder. The young samurai fell to the earth beside his commander.

Another arrow struck the Crane in the shoulder. Ogai backed away rapidly, drawing another arrow. The Crane only looked at him curiously. He reached up and drew the arrow from his forehead. As the head came free, the flesh of the Crane's face tore away like rice paper. When he looked up again, his eyes burned like fiery points of light. The arrow Ogai had knocked fell from his trembling fingers.

"Run, Crab," the undead Crane said. "I will not chase you. Tell the others what you have seen here. Tell the Empire that what they spurned, Fu Leng has embraced. Tell them that Tsukuro will not be denied his destiny. I shall stand beside the ruler of this Empire, one way or another."

Ogai threw his bow over his shoulder, turned, and ran as quickly as his legs would carry him.

o

Six Hundred Years Later, Kyuden Doji…

The morning sun painted the Fantastic Gardens in a thousand different colors. Three samurai walked down a winding path leading toward Kyuden Doji. Two looked somewhat out of place in their heavy armor, marked with the symbol of the Emerald Magistrates. The third, dressed in fine blue silks and a peaked black cap, fit right in with the countless courtiers and palace functionaries that idled their time away in the gardens..

"It has been too long since we have visited Kyuden Doji," Doji Nagori said, smoothing his kimono over his thin frame with a pleased sigh. The storyteller bowed in greeting as a pair of young Doji maidens passed. He was clearly quite pleased to be home once more.

"Try not to grow too comfortable, Nagori," Bayushi Norachai replied. The Scorpion's sharp gaze peered into every corner of the clearing, as if expecting an ambush any time. "I doubt we shall remain here for long."

"True," Yasuki Hachi replied. "The Empire is still in too much turmoil to dally here for long." He glanced back over his shoulder at the retreating Doji maidens, smiling as one glanced furtively back at him. "Though once again I envy you for having been raised amid such beauty, Nagori."

"Yasuki Hachi," said a cool voice. "You have changed much, and yet some things remain the same."

Hachi glanced back at the source of the voice, and was surprised to see Doji Kurohito, Champion of the Crane, standing before him. Norachai and Nagori both bowed deeply. Hachi bowed only half as much, the acknowledgment of an equal. Kurohito returned the gesture.

"Why so surprised to see me here, Hachi?" Kurohito asked. "Did you not come seeking me?"

"Well, yes, but I had expected the usual formalities," Hachi said. "Generally clan champions let me know when and where I will meet with them."

"This is my home, I go where I please," Kurohito replied. Kurohito nodded to the functionary who walked beside him, who drew a scroll case from his satchel and offered it to Hachi. "This is a copy of the peace treaty I have signed with Matsu Nimuro, guaranteeing a cessation of all hostilities between Lion and Crane in the vicinity of Toshi Ranbo for a minimum duration of one year. This, I assume, is why you came here, to grant the Emerald Champion's blessings to our arrangement."

"Yes," Hachi said, accepting the documents.

"And this," Kurohito said, nodding to the functionary as he drew out another scroll case. "Is a copy of the treaty between Crane and Phoenix, guaranteeing favored trade status between our clans and military aid should one or the other of us find our borders threatened. I assume this, also, was a matter of sufficient import to draw your attention?"

"Indeed," Hachi said, accepting the papers.

"And this," Kurohito said, nodding as the functionary offered a third scroll case, "Is a recent treaty brokered by Doji Midoru, guaranteeing the Crane Clan's navy unmolested access to Mantis naval trade routes, so long as we perform no aggressive actions against the Mantis and do not interfere in Akodo Kaneka's attack upon Ryoko Owari. This, I assume, is also of interest to the Emerald Champion?"

"Yes," Hachi said, accepting the third scroll. "Arigato, Lord Kurohito."

"Do itashimashite," Kurohito said with a cold smile. "I believe this should conclude your business here, Hachi-san. I am certain your duties will demand your attention elsewhere, though of course you are free to remain as long as you like." Kurohito bowed a final time and continued down the path. The silent clerk followed in his wake.

"Well that was uncharacteristically efficient," Norachai said. "Almost as if he wanted to be rid of us."

"It comes as no surprise," Nagori replied. "Hachi and my cousin have never been on the best of terms."

"I do not think that is entirely it," Hachi answered, tucking the documents into his official satchel. "As Emerald Champion I may be impartial, but much of the Empire still sees me as a Crane. Thus the more I am seen abroad in the Empire, enforcing the Emperor's justice, the more influence the Crane Clan accumulates. Kurohito knows this; he wants me out in the Empire, visible, not wasting time in his gardens. We should prepare to leave at once."

"I will not accompany you, Hachi-sama," Nagori said, a note of regret in his voice.

"Nagori?" Hachi looked at his old friend in surprise.

"Ide Tadaji has invited me to Kyuden Miya," Nagori said.

"To join the new Imperial Court?" Hachi asked, impressed.

"No doubt Tadaji-sama felt that if Nagori could help you overcome your own reputation, he could accomplish anything," Norachai said dryly.

"No doubt," Hachi said in a bland voice. "Congratulations, Nagori. When we depart in the morning, I will leave a party of Emerald Magistrates to escort you there."

"We are leaving so soon?" Norachai asked. "Your magistrates are used to spending up to a week awaiting a daimyo's attention. I think they shall be disappointed not to have some time to relax in Kyuden Doji."

"Disappointment builds character," Hachi said. "Besides, the crisis in Ryoko Owari demands our attention."

Norachai raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you that to involve yourself in Naseru and Kaneka's feud would be a good idea?"

Hachi looked at Norachai frankly. "Two Imperial heirs prepare to murder one another in a Scorpion city. You think we should not get involved?"

"I think neither Naseru nor Kaneka are the sort to take view your attempt at moderation kindly," Norachai said. "You have something of a history with both of them. Your presence may make things worse, as it nearly did in Friendly Traveler Village."

Hachi scowled at the memory, but could not argue.

"If you are eager to bring justice to the Empire there are other options," Norachai said. "We could help broker peace between the Dragon and Phoenix. We could attend to the growing internal strife within the Mantis. We could help the Lion deal with their Tsuno problem. We could aid the Crab in solidifying defense of the Kaiu Wall."

"We could deal with the Shadowed Tower," Hachi offered.

"With all due respect, my lord," Norachai replied tersely. "That is a Scorpion matter, and it will be dealt with by the Scorpion. Please do not mention it again."

"Very well," Hachi said. "Many samurai would call me a fool for trusting a Scorpion, Norachai. Do not prove them right." Hachi looked at the Scorpion, his usually smiling face now grave.

"Of course, Hachi-sama," Norachai said, bowing his head. "So what will our next objective be? Where will the Emerald Champion seek justice next?"

"I do not know," Hachi said with a frown. "Let me think upon it. I am certain the answer will present itself."

o

The Shadowlands…

None in Rokugan would argue that the duty of the Crab Clan is a difficult one. The Crab are the guardians of Rokugan's southwestern border, sworn enemies of the Shadowlands. So long as the minions of Jigoku seek to enter the Empire, the Crab will fight to force them back.

Naturally this duty is not an easy one, and at times the Crab's losses are great. To help circumvent this, there is an ancient tradition among the clan, referred to as the Twenty Goblin Winter. At the beginning of each winter, the Crab Champion proclaims that any warrior who can enter the Shadowlands and return with the heads of twenty goblins will be granted fealty in the clan, no questions asked.

Since the rise of the Dark Lord, Daigotsu, the Crab had been having a particularly difficult time. One of Hida Kuroda's first acts as Champion was to proclaim a Twenty Goblin Winter. At the end of winter, the edict had not been rescinded. Now, almost two years later, in the middle of summer, the Twenty Goblin Winter continued. This meant that, occasionally, Crab warriors were forced away from their duties to attend ambitious ronin seeking to gain fealty. Hida Benjiro was one of those Crab warriors, though today, as most days, he wished those duties had been granted to someone else.

"When will we arrive, Hida-sama?" Kihei asked urgently. The handful of ronin who followed him looked on in interest.

Hida Benjiro looked back with an acidic scowl. "We'll be there soon enough, ronin," he snapped. "Now be quiet."

"I cannot wait to see it," the ronin said, ignoring to the Crab's threat. "The very idea intrigues me. To think that I never heard of such a place before."

Benjiro looked back at Kihei again, casting the ronin a withering glance. Benjiro was large, even for a Crab. His head was shaved and his weathered face was marked with dozens of scars. Most sane men would not dare meet his gaze, but the wild-haired ronin continued smiling black, a vaguely deranged cast to his expression. "This one is insane," Benjiro said, turning to Yasuki Namika with a sigh. "Why must I always be saddled with the mad ones?"

"Because Lord Kuon knows you are a troublemaker," she replied with a demure grin. "At least here you will be causing trouble far from Kyuden Hida."

Namika was a Yasuki, but she remained a Crab even when many of her brethren joined the Crane. Like a Crane, she was thin and pale with a strange, aristocratic beauty. She hardly seemed the sort one would wish at their side against a Shadowlands invasion, a misconception she had turned to her advantage against the Armies of the Lost. Benjiro had watched seven of Daigotsu's Obsidian Magistrates fall to her blade during the retaking of the Kaiu Wall. When his sister asked him to select a political liaison to help in escorting Kaneka's ronin followers, she was his first and only choice. She was subtle and discreet where he was not, and could handle herself in a fight.

Benjiro shook his head. "I do not know what my sister sees in Kuon," he replied. "O-Ushi was a fine champion but her sons… they have too much Unicorn blood, I think."

Namika laughed loudly. "Kuon retook five of the six fallen Kaiu Towers and rebuilt the sixth. What more must he do to prove himself?"

Benjiro looked at Namika bitterly. "Never lose them in the first place."

"It is easy to judge another man for his mistakes," Namika said softly. "Were you in Kuon's place, what would you have done differently?"

The small band rounded a sharp corner in the pass. "We are here," Benjiro said, ignoring Namika's question. He pointed at the horizon. A small village lay nestled between the mountains and the sea. Fortified walls surrounded the settlement. Even in daylight they could see green lights shining from the battlements.

"Welcome to Shinsei's Last Hope, gentlemen," Namika said.

"An uncorrupted village in the Shadowlands," Kihei said, awed at the tiny settlement nestled among the mountains. "How long has it stood here?"

"Since the Day of Thunder," Namika replied.

"For thirty years?" one of the other ronin asked. "Extraordinary."

"No," Namika replied. "The first Day of Thunder. Shinsei's Last Hope has stood for eleven centuries."

"How has it survived?" Kihei asked.

Namika looked at Kihei archly. "Do you visit the Utaku lands and ask why the riders don't fall off their horses?" she asked. "Do you go to Kyuden Kakita and ask the Kenshinzen if they remembered to sharpen their swords?"

"This is what we do," Benjiro said. "Namika, take them to the village. I wish to check in with Wukau before I meet you there."

"All right," Namika said, casting Benjiro a worried glance.

Benjiro gave a comforting smile, an expression that on his scarred face was not entirely comforting. He waited until Namika and the others had disappeared into the pass, then walked back twenty paces the way he had come.

"Tatsuzo," Benjiro called out.

Halfway up the face off the cliff a large warrior separated himself from the shadows. Bits of withered undergrowth were tucked into his headband. Torn, camouflaged cloth hung from his armor. He held a bow in one hand, arrow knocked. His face was even more weathered and scarred than Benjiro's. Cold, dispassionate black eyes fixed upon the Hida.

"Find Wukau," Benjiro said. "Tell him I am here." Benjiro paused for a moment. "Tell him there is trouble."

Tatsuzo studied Benjiro for another moment, then was gone as quickly as he had appeared. A few minutes later a knotted rope uncoiled itself from the top of the cliff. Benjiro climbed up quickly, hauling the rope up behind him. At the top he found Tatsuzo waiting with another warrior, an extremely short man who appeared to have been built entirely out of muscle.

"Commander Wukau," Benjiro said with a respectful bow."

"Benjiro-sama," Wukau said in a concerned voice. "Tatsuzo said that there was trouble?"

"I arrived with a group of goblin-hunters here from Kyuden Hida," Benjiro said. "Yesterday morning, I saw a flock of hanemuri."

"Goblin-birds," Wukau said with a frown. "Not uncommon. They are no danger as long as our archers are alert."

"True," Benjiro said, "but hanemuri are ravenous creatures. They only remain in an area if there is a promise of food or battle. I saw the same flock three times yesterday, always circling, always staying on the far horizon, keeping pace with us."

"An army?" Wukau asked.

"Or perhaps a large oni," Benjiro said. "Whatever it is, it is an ill omen. I'd like to investigate. Can you spare a scout?"

"Take two," Wukau replied.

o

Kyuden Doji…

Yasuki Hachi sat alone atop a tower in Kyuden Doji, staring out to the south. For a long time, he said nothing, simply stared to the south. He sensed a presence behind him, climbing the ladder to the height of the tower.

"Are the troops prepared, Norachai?" he asked.

An old samurai peered over the top of the ladder. He looked up at Hachi with a curious expression, golden eyes gleaming in the failing light.

"Reju-sama," Hachi said, beginning to rise to the old samurai. "I did not know that you were at Kyuden Doji."

"I come and go as I please, of late," Reju said, "like an unpleasant memory." gesturing for Hachi to remain seated. The old man sat beside Hachi, steadying the katana at his hip. Reju wore a pale golden kimono. The right sleeve was artfully pinned back, drawing attention away from the fact that Reju's arm now ended at the elbow.

"You did what you could to save Kakita Toshiken," Hachi said. "None could fault you for your service."

"So you say," Reju said bitterly. "We worried too much for an enemy who never came. We never see our true foe. Such is always the way. We turn on one another and the Shadowlands wins."

"And that's what worries me," Hachi said. "I know my Lord Kurohito is an honorable man, and I know Hida Kuon knows his duty, but the Dark Lord has been driven back and the Shogun has removed his armies from Crab lands. It is only a matter of time before the Crab and Crane realize that nothing prevents them from fighting over the Yasuki lands again."

"So tell them to stop," Reju said. "The lands are yours, are they not?"

"It is more complex than that," Hachi said.

"Is it?" Reju asked.

Hachi looked at Reju curiously. "The last time I saw Toshiken, he said many strange things to me, some of which I am only now coming to understand."

Reju raised an eyebrow. "Such as?"

"I used to think that the Yasuki War was the result of some great conspiracy," Reju said, "some manipulation intended to place me in control of the family so that some unseen enemy could manipulate me. When Toshiken set me hunting the Kolat, I felt certain I would discover they had manipulated me into my position."

"And?" Reju asked.

"The conspiracy was over before it began," Hachi said. "The rulers of the Yasuki Family were Kolat, renegade Kolat. They were murdered for their defiance against the Ten Masters. Toturi suspected as much, but he could not reveal that a great family of Rokugan had fallen under the Kolat's control. Look what such a revelation did to the Shinjo. Instead, Toturi ordered the Otomo to place the Yasuki family in the hands of a Crane, preferably a low-born and dishonored Crane, until he could be certain which Yasuki were Kolat and which were not." Hachi was silent for a long time, then a rueful smile spread across his face. "I wondered all along who my enemy was. I wondered who had manipulated me into this position, and why. It was not the Kolat who had manipulated me. It was the Emperor. I thought I was the center of some grand conspiracy, when all along I was merely a detail."

"Men live and die by details, Hachi," Reju replied.

Hachi nodded. "Toturi knew that so long as he lived, he could maintain peace between the Crab and Crane even with a Crane ruling the Daidoji. Then he died, and all fell to chaos."

"As I said before, we never see our true foe," Reju said. "Perhaps Daigotsu killed Toturi when he did so that the Crab would go to war with the Crane."

"Trust the Dark Lord to turn a perfectly mundane war of succession into a threat to the entire Empire, I suppose," Hachi said. "But why would Naseru want me to be Emerald Champion? That is the part I still do not understand. If I was Toturi's pawn, why place a pawn in such a position of influence and power?"

"Extend with your analogy," Reju replied. "What is a pawn?"

"The weakest peace in shogi," Hachi replied. "Used mostly to block, to interfere with the enemy's progress."

"But a pawn that makes unexpected progress can be promoted," Reju said, "to turn the enemy's strategy against itself. With Toturi dead and no clear heir, there was little Naseru could do to restore peace between the Crab and Crane. The Crab despise him too much for that. To win the game, he needed to change the game."

"And by making me Emerald Champion, I gained the power and influence necessary to bring peace to the Crab and Crane on my own?" Hachi asked. "That seems complex, even for Naseru."

"Actually, he probably thought that by making you such a public figure you would almost certainly be assassinated, forcing the Crab and Crane to resort to a diplomatic solution," Reju said, "but I'm certain Naseru considered your contingency as well."

"Either way," Hachi said. "My course is clear. I must return to the Yasuki lands and stop this war between the Crab and Crane before it ignites again."

"So you will tell them to stop?" Reju asked.

"I think so," Hachi asked.

"As I suggested originally," Reju replied.

"Yes," Hachi said with a laugh. "I suppose I only needed to talk myself into it."

"Then take me with you," Reju said. "Perhaps this maimed old warrior can serve his clan one last time."

"Old warrior?" Hachi asked. "Even with one arm you're twice as skilled as most samurai I've seen."

"I thank you for the compliment," Reju said with a sad smile. "Now let us see to this war of yours."