Shinsei's Last Hope, Part II
By Rich Wulf
"The Emerald Champion's duty is unlike any other in Rokugan. He must stand above all the clans, and yet he must stand beside them, uniting them in peace." - Doji Hatsuo
Several Months Ago, Otosan Uchi…
"This is a terrible place to make a last stand," Yasuki Hachi whispered, pacing the streets before the Asako archives.
"This was the most defensible building we could find," Bayushi Norachai replied. "We must hold the line here while Naseru and the Seppun guard work to evacuate the Forbidden City."
"I would prefer to hold the line at the Temple of the Sun God," Hachi said, looking off to the south. "It is larger and more defensible."
"As would I," Norachai replied, "but it has been overrun."
"It is a blasphemy we should not be forced to endure," Hachi said.
"There is nothing to be done," Norachai said. "We do not have the troops to stage a counterattack. Until the Legions arrive, the best we can hope for is a strategic retreat."
"I know," Hachi nodded solemnly. "That makes it no easier to accept."
"Lord Hachi!" shouted a young Crane soldier, running up the street to meet them. The boy was out of breath. A streak of blood stained the right half of his face. "The Lost gather their forces! They have abandoned Yakamo's Temple and march this way!"
"It looks like you may have your chance to redeem the temple after all, Hachi-sama," Norachai said, drawing his katana.
"How many were there?" Hachi asked.
"Two hundred," the boy said, eyes bulging with terror.
"They outnumber us three to one," Hachi said. "Our forces are spread too thin. Norachai, ride to the east. Summon our troops from Bright Wind. We will hold the line here until you return."
"Good luck, Hachi-sama!" Norachai shouted, leaping onto the nearest horse and galloping away.
Hachi stepped into the middle of the street, preparing to face whatever came. His handful of troops fanned out to help him defend the area. Glancing back, he noticed that the young soldier who had delivered the warning was now hunched on the steps of the Asako Records, dead from an arrow in his back. As the soldiers of the Lost appeared on the streets ahead, Hachi's anger boiled to the surface.
"You dare call yourself samurai?" the Emerald Champion roared. "You attack the magistrates of Rokugan! You murder helpless peasants! You despoil the sanctity of the Imperial City! I am Yasuki Hachi, Emerald Champion! Those who defy the justice I serve will be destroyed!" A few scattered drops of rain began to fall, spattering the streets.
The leader of the Lost stepped forward. He was a horrible figure, wearing a mempo of stitched human flesh. "Yasuki?" the twisted samurai said in a dry voice. "You are no Yasuki. You are a Daidoji, like me... I smell it in your blood…" The samurai sheathed his blade and fell into a dueling stance, stepping forward from his troops. "Face me, cousin. You will die, but I may spare your troops."
"Who are you?" Hachi demanded, stepping forward to face the abomination.
"I am Tsukuro, general of the Lost." The samurai cackled. "Look into my eyes, and see your own future..."
"We shall see," Hachi said.
They drew their swords.
Hachi kept his blade low across his hip, left palm extended as if offering a gift. Tsukuro advanced toward Hachi, red eyes gleaming brighter as they grew closer. His hands twisted on the hilt of his blade, bringing it into a high stance over his right shoulder. He eyed Hachi's own stance, skeletal face unreadable.
"You fight like a Kakita," the undead soldier said, his disdain evident.
"And you smell like a corpse," Hachi replied, sneering.
"How did you come to be?" Tsukuro demanded. "A Daidoji with the Yasuki name, fighting with the Kakita style, leading the Emerald Magistrates?"
"Stop talking and fight," Hachi retorted. He lunged forward with his blade. Tsukuro lifted his heavy sword to block Hachi's blow, but hesitated at the last instant. The red light in his eyes flickered. With a single perfect strike Hachi cleaved Tsukuro's head from his shoulders. The general's body melted into shadows and was carried away on the wind.
"Lord Tsukuro!" cried a Lost samurai in ebony armor.
Hachi looked up, eyes scanning the Tainted armies. The black-armored soldiers had fallen back a pace, stunned by the loss of their invincible leader. Now was the time to strike. "Attack!" the Emerald Champion shouted, pointing his sword at Tsukuro's legion. "And do not stop until we reach the Temple of the Sun God!"
The Emerald Magistrates echoed Hachi's triumphant cry…
Hida Benjiro rose cautiously from his crouching position, peering over the top of a broken slab of rock. From a patch of high grass nearby, he saw the top of Hiruma Tatsuzo's jingasa. The scout was visible only for an instant, just long enough to show Benjiro his position before he vanished again. Looking behind, he saw Hiruma Ashishei hiding at the mouth of the pass they had just crossed.
Ashishei was the youngest of the three and this was his first year patrolling the Shadowlands as a scout. Even so, he was a Hiruma, meaning he had been raised far beyond the protection of the Kaiu Wall. Benjiro signaled back that he planned to move ahead. The boy's cool, dead gaze fixed on Benjiro, and he nodded. There was no fear in his eyes; already he had seen too much horror to be afraid anymore.
The three Crab skulked with utmost care across the Tainted field. Not only might enemies be anywhere about but the grass here was also razor sharp. A fool who crossed it too quickly would surely be crippled. Compound that with the fact that any injury in the Shadowlands was likely to become infested with Taint and the trio was triply cautious.
"Hanemuri," Tatsuzo whispered, pointing at the sky as Benjiro reached his position. A flock of twenty creatures, like skeletal vultures with reptilian heads and broad, leathery wings circled in the distance.
"The same flock I saw before," Benjiro said. "I recognize those white stripes at the tips of their wings. Whatever they are following, we are closer now."
Benjiro felt a hand on his shoulder. Ashishei had appeared beside him, and was pointing silently ahead and to the left. Benjiro looked that way, and swore under his breath. Four bakemono - the fierce little goblins that served the Lost as hounds and cannon fodder troops - had emerged from the rocky outcropping ahead and were moving toward them. They might be scouts. They might be stragglers. They might just be wandering beasts. Whatever the case, in another moment they might see the three Crab. They could not be allowed to cry out.
One bakemono stooped to pick up the hunk of bone he had been chewing on. Ashishei released an arrow; the shaft passed through the stooping goblin's skull and landed in the chest of the one behind. The first tumbled forward in a heap. The second looked down pathetically, rolled back its eyes, and collapsed. A third fell back with Tatsuzo's arrow in its eye. The fourth grunted as it turned to see what had happened to its fellows, and Benjiro launched himself forward. In the space of an instant his tetsubo had crushed the creature's chest and sent it flying back into the rocks. He was about to turn and congratulate Ashishei on his well placed shot when he froze, eyes fixed upon the view beyond the rocky ledge.
In the valley below, an army of undead and goblins were massing. From every direction, small packs like the one they had just encountered shambled toward the forming ranks. In the center there was a small camp of Obsidian Magistrates, as disciplined and orderly as any samurai camp. The legions that had already formed into ranks were all pointed in one direction - back the way the three Crab soldiers had come.
This army was headed for Shinsei's Last Hope.
Hachi's Emerald Magistrates were a courageous and dependable band of samurai. Even so, there were certain things that even the bravest warrior could not be expected to face without some trace of emotion. Such was the case now. As Hachi looked back at his loyal soldiers, he realized that most of them had not seen such a horrifying, intimidating sight in their lives. The empty eyes of an enormous demonic skull glared down at them from the gates of a menacing castle carved of slate black stone. It had the look of a place into which no sane man would enter.
"Welcome to Kyuden Hida, home of the Crab Champion," he said to his soldiers. "Try not to stare."
"What was that creature?" Bayushi Norachai asked. Though he did not turn his head, his sharp eyes watched the massive skull as they approached the gates.
"I believe that was an Oni Lord, Norachai," Doji Reju replied. The old samurai was utterly unconcerned with the skull, and was calmly reading a small prayer scroll as he rode.
"Surely that could not have been its actual skull," Norachai said. "The head alone would be larger than an Onisu."
Reju looked up at the skull, studied it for a moment, shrugged, and went back to his reading.
"A good lesson," Hachi replied. "You think that we live in difficult times? Imagine what it must have been like to fight something like that."
"Some of us don't need to imagine," Reju said wryly.
"I'd rather not imagine anything like that if it's the same to you," Norachai replied, turning away from the dead demon's haunting gaze as they passed through the castle gates. "If this is the duty of the Crab Clan, they are welcome to it."
The central courtyard of Kyuden Hida was relatively quiet. Straw archery
targets and dueling circles stood empty and unused. A few ashigaru sparred with
staves and one old samurai sat in the shade whittling something with his
wakizashi. The troops of battle-ready Hida warriors Hachi had expected to see
were not present.
"Yasuki Hachi…" called out a gruff voice. A large samurai in battle-scarred armor approached Hachi and the others. He eyed the Emerald Champion, then cautiously added "sama," a grudging show of respect for Hachi's title. "Lord Kuon is not currently here. You and your magistrates are welcome to the hospitality of the Hida family as long as you care to wait for his attention. Your soldiers can stay in the barracks for now." He gestured vaguely at a long, squat building on the western side of the courtyard. You and your lieutenant will be given rooms in the castle. I will announce your arrival to Lord Sakamoto. In the meantime, you may entertain yourselves in our guest chambers."
"Thank you very much," Hachi replied, pausing expectantly to catch the Crab's name.
The Crab only scratched the back of his head and walked away, leaving Hachi and the others to their own devices. A servant appeared from the central castle to lead Hachi and Norachai inside. As Hachi followed, he looked back at his soldiers. They filed into the barracks in orderly lines.
"I saw a shrine on my way in," Reju said in a quiet voice. "I would like to pray there, if you do not require me, Hachi-sama."
"Of course," Hachi said, still watching the other soldiers with a solemn expression.
"Do you wish you had brought more soldiers?" Norachai asked blandly as Reju departed.
"More?" Hachi replied. "We have two hundred magistrates. That's hardly a diplomatic mission."
"You are the Emerald Champion," Norachai replied. "You could have brought seven legions if you had wished, and even Lord Kuon could not have disputed your right to do so."
"No, but he might have seen it as a challenge to his power," Hachi replied, "or the prelude to an invasion."
"And a mere two hundred is just enough to appear strong," Norachai said. "You have dealt with the Crab before, Hachi-sama. You know how they respect strength."
"I know," Hachi said with a sour frown. "I just find it ironic that even among a family as blunt and straightforward as the Hida, I cannot escape thinking like a politician. The Anvil would be proud of what we have become, Norachai."
Norachai chuckled, but said nothing.
As he entered the dining hall, that particular lesson became even clearer. This room was obviously intended for guests of the Hida family. A pair of Mantis sailors sat at one end of the table, drinking sake and laughing loudly at some shared joke. A group of dark-skinned Moto warriors sat beside them quietly devouring plates of red meat. An old samurai wearing dun brown robes emblazoned with the mon of the Akodo family also sat near the group, quietly eating rice. At the far end of the table sat a pair of Phoenix in brilliant orange garments. Hachi immediately felt the division in the room. The Lion and Unicorn looked up with unfriendly eyes. Emerald Magistrates or no, Hachi and Norachai were still Crane and Scorpion here. Hachi felt more like he had stumbled into a sake house in one of the less hospitable neighborhoods of Ryoko Owari than a guest dining chamber in the home of a Great Clan Champion.
"Yasuki Hachi-sama!" called out one of the Phoenix, a clean-faced young man wearing formal shugenja robes and a small black courtier's cap. "Emerald Champion, please feel free to sit here with us."
Hachi nodded graciously, pausing only long enough to acknowledge the other guests as well. The Lion returned his polite nod, as did the Unicorn. One of the Mantis grinned broadly and held up his cup in a toast, eyes glazed by the cups that had already gone down. Hachi seated himself where the Phoenix indicated. Norachai walked past the seat the Phoenix offered and selected a place on the other side of the table, a seat with a clear view of the exit and all the other guests.
"Lord Hachi, it is an honor to meet you again," the Phoenix said in an excited voice.
"I apologize, but have we met?" Hachi asked. The Phoenix's bodyguard, a pretty young samurai-ko, smiled at Hachi over her tea. The Emerald Champion raised an eyebrow and smiled briefly while her master was distracted.
"We met briefly at the Test of the Jade Champion," the Phoenix said. "I was one of the contestants, eliminated in the later rounds. My name is Isawa Nodotai. This is my yojimbo, Shiba Emiri."
"Ah, yes, I remember you now," Hachi replied. In all honesty, he only vaguely recalled the man but Nagori and Norachai had taught him it was better to be polite to a potential friend lest you make an enemy. Hachi hated politics. "This is quite an interesting mixed group you have here," he said, gesturing toward the Lion, Unicorn, and Mantis. "Are these early guests for Lord Kuon's Winter Court?"
Nodotai chuckled. "No, no, these are all representatives of the Shogun," Nodotai replied. "Though Kaneka has marched on Ryoko Owari, he left a number of his soldiers behind to maintain good relations with the Crab."
"To keep an eye on the Shogun's stolen land, you mean," Norachai grumbled, glaring at the nearest Unicorn. A serving girl arrived at the table, delivering rice, water, and sake for the new guests.
"Norachai," Hachi said in a terse voice. "We are here to end a war, not start another."
"Of course, Hachi-sama," Norachai said, covering his empty sake cup with one hand and waving the servant away. "I can wait until you are done."
"So what brings you to Crab lands, Nodotai-san?" Hachi asked. "We are a long way from Kyuden Isawa."
"We are on a diplomatic mission," Emiri replied, folding her hands gracefully on the table before her. "It has come to the Elemental Council's attention that the Crab have been exchanging hostages with the Dragon and have come into an indirect alliance with the Lion, via the Shogun. While the Lion have made no aggressive actions against the Phoenix of late and prospects for a lasting peace with the Dragon are good, the Council does not wish to risk the possibility of the Crab allying with either clan against us."
"The Crab?" Hachi asked, surprised. "The Crab have enough problems of their own. Surely they are too far away to be any threat to the Phoenix?"
"Oh, we know that," Nodotai said, sipping his sake. "Even yet, the Masters are thorough. They wish to extend the hand of friendship toward the Crab. Sadly, as of yet I have made little progress. Lord Kuon asked for a show of good faith, as he was convinced I had some ulterior motive for rushing through negotiations."
"Did you?" Norachai asked.
"Of course I did," Nodotai answered, setting his cup down with a click. "I wanted to go home!" Emiri chuckled, and Nodotai sighed in exasperation. "This forsaken place grates on my nerves," he continued. "Every time I look southwest I feel sick to my stomach. I think the Crab take delight in my discomfort. Kuon has been gone for two weeks, and though he sends frequent messages to Lord Sakamoto never is there any message for me regarding our potential alliance."
"What sort of show of good faith did Kuon demand?" Norachai asked.
Nodotai sighed again. "The shrines in this area have fallen into terrible disrepair, as the local shugenja have been occupied with fighting Daigotsu's army or tending to the injured. Lord Kuon requested that we tend to them. A band of twelve Isawa-trained shugenja and he has us blessing roadside shrines! Unthinkable."
Hachi tried not to smile too much at the poor Phoenix's misfortune. He sought desperately for something comforting to say. Fortunately, the door opened behind him and a Crab samurai stepped inside, drawing the room's attention.
"Emerald Champion," he said. "Lord Sakamoto will see you now."
Hachi and Norachai followed a quiet servant girl through the halls of Kyuden Hida. Hachi found it surprising at first that there were so few elderly servants in Kyuden Hida. Most were in their early teens; a few were little more than children. The only people in their prime were soldiers. After a moment's reflection he realized that, with their constant war against the Shadowlands, the Crab were not a clan that could afford to waste able-bodied men and women as servants. In this place, even the children did what they could to aid in the war, even if all it amounted to was cooking, cleaning, and guiding errant guests around the castle.
Hachi was suddenly interrupted from his thoughts by the sounds of heavy footsteps in the hallway behind him. He looked back to see a massive warrior hurrying up the corridor, large even for a Crab. His head was bared to reveal a bald, scarred head and his arms were covered in sweat and grime. He carried a tetsubo as if it were a cane, ironbound wood thumping on the ground as he limped forward. He moved directly ahead as if Hachi and Norachai were not there, forcing the two to duck aside or be run down.
"You there, Crab," Norachai said in an oil slick voice as the man passed. "This is the Emerald Champion! Show respect, dog of Hida."
The man stopped, peering over one shoulder. His black eyes narrowed and he lifted the tetsubo in one hand. Norachai reached for his sword.
"Norachai," Hachi said in a sharp voice. "My ego is not so frail that I cannot step aside to let a Crab do his duty in his own house. This man is obviously on a mission. Let him pass."
Norachai nodded, removing his hand from his sword. The Crab only squinted, turned, and hurried on.
Hachi looked at Norachai. "Another show of strength?" he asked. "You weren't really going to fight him were you? You expected me to stop you."
Norachai only adjusted his kimono and smirked.
The two men advanced toward the door, pausing at the threshold when they saw that the Crab who had passed them was already inside. He was speaking heatedly with another samurai, a tall man with close-cropped, graying hair, wearing a fine gray kimono. Hachi assumed that this must be Sakamoto, the acting master of the household. Sakamoto's arms were folded behind his back as he gazed out an open window, a center of calm in contrast to the other man's obvious agitation.
"I have given you my decision, and that decision is final, Benjiro," Sakamoto said with a sigh.
"You know how important the village is, Sakamoto," Benjiro said urgently.
"I know," Sakamoto replied with a frown. "As much as it pains me, I cannot spare any troops to help you." He looked back over his shoulder as Hachi approached. "Ah, Yasuki Hachi-sama. Please come in."
Hachi and Norachai entered the small room and exchanged bows with Sakamoto. The flustered Benjiro bowed as briefly as he could to maintain etiquette, watching Norachai cautiously as he did. The walls were covered with maps of the Crab lands. Tall racks stuffed with more scrolls - histories and maps, stood in each corner. A broad, low table dominated the center of the room. The Hida presumably used this room to prepare their battle strategies.
"I apologize for visiting on such short notice," Hachi said. "However, I feel that peace between the Crab and Crane is not a matter that can wait."
"Of course, of course," Sakamoto said impatiently. "I fear Lord Kuon is not here at the moment. He and most of his staff are at Kaiu Shiro, overseeing the completion of the new castle. He is not expected back for several weeks. I know you have much to do, Emerald Champion, so perhaps it would be best if you were to meet him there."
"Perhaps," Hachi replied. He turned to leave, then paused, looking back at Benjiro. "You sounded as if there was trouble earlier," Hachi said. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Mind your own business, Crane," Benjiro retorted. Sakamoto shot Benjiro a stern look.
Hachi smiled briefly, then stepped toward Benjiro, looking directly up into the eyes of the larger man. His smile vanished. "Crane I may be, but I am the Emerald Champion of Rokugan, Benjiro-san," he said. "My business is what I choose to make it. Now what is the problem here?"
Benjiro sneered and opened his mouth to reply with some cutting remark, but Sakamoto quickly interrupted him. "A day's ride from here is the village of Shinsei's Last Hope," Sakamoto said. "It is the only uncorrupted village in the Shadowlands. Several days ago, Benjiro and his scouts found an army of Lost, undead, and bakemono marching toward the village."
"Which apparently is of no concern to you, 'Lord' Sakamoto," Benjiro snapped.
"Benjiro, that is enough," Sakamoto said in a low voice. "We have been over this. My troops are spread thin here as it is. I cannot risk leaving Kyuden Hida undefended. I sent word to Hida Kuon. No doubt he will be sending what troops he can as soon as he is able."
"That will be too late!" Benjiro snapped. "We have days at most! One hundred Crab samurai are stationed at Shinsei's Last Hope along with two hundred ashigaru and dozens of ronin. Would you leave them there to die, Sakamoto?"
"No," Sakamoto replied. "Nor will I risk the lives of thousands more by creating a weakness here. You should have realized the severity of the situation and ordered Ashihei to evacuate the village rather than sending him to organize a defense."
Benjiro looked down at the floor in helpless rage. His hands balled into fists. He opened his mouth to retort again, then stopped. His shoulders slumped, and he sighed in exhaustion. "You are right, Sakamoto," he said hoarsely. "I was a fool. I did not wish to see Shinsei's Last Hope fall as the Kaiu Towers fell. I should have realized we did not have enough troops to save them." He looked up at Sakamoto, his jaw clenched in determination. "I will return to the village," he said.
"If this army is as large as you say you will surely die, Benjiro," Sakamoto replied.
"So be it," Benjiro answered. "It is my fault that the others are trapped there. It is my responsibility to die beside them. If I do not return, tell my sister…" Benjiro's voice caught in his throat, and he was silent a moment as he composed himself. "Tell Reiha what became of me."
"I will," Sakamoto said quietly.
"How much jade do you have in Kyuden Hida?" Hachi asked tersely.
Sakamoto and Benjiro both looked at the Crane in surprise. "That is a matter of clan security," Sakamoto replied.
"And, as it seems I must constantly remind everyone, I am Emerald Champion," he replied. "How much jade do you have here? Enough to outfit two hundred men?"
"The Yasuki have at least that much, I am certain," Sakamoto replied. "Would you march your Emerald Magistrates into the Shadowlands, Hachi-sama?"
"Will two hundred Emerald Magistrates save your village, Benjiro?" Hachi asked.
"Possibly," Benjiro said, hope dawning in his eyes. "We need only hold the walls till reinforcements can arrive."
"Your untested troops will more likely doom the village," Sakamoto cut in with a hoarse chuckle. "Your men have never been in the Shadowlands, Hachi. You don't know what it is like."
"Oh?" Hachi asked. "These are not untested soldiers, Sakamoto. These are Emerald Magistrates, the finest samurai chosen from every clan - including the Crab. It is part of our charter to fight the Shadowlands, and though all of us do not possess the experience your defenders of the Wall claim, every one of my soldiers knows the dangers of the Taint. All of my bushi fought at the Battle of Otosan Uchi. We have fought the Horde before and triumphed. Do not underestimate us."
"You are quite arrogant, Crane," Sakamoto replied.
"Knowing your capabilities and having the confidence to use them in the Empire's defense is not arrogance, it is duty," Norachai said. "You have heard of duty, yes, Sakamoto?"
Sakamoto gave the Scorpion an appraising glare.
"Sakamoto, Hachi's soldiers might be able to help," Benjiro said quickly.
"Might," Sakamoto sighed. "Our stores of jade are at an all-time low. You wish me to risk enough jade to supply an entire platoon on a possibility that you might save a doomed village?"
"No," Hachi replied. "At this point, you need risk nothing that belongs to you."
Sakamoto looked at Hachi curiously.
"You say that the Yasuki stockpile your jade?" Hachi asked. "I am Yasuki daimyo, and I command you to relinquish it to me."
Sakamoto scowled. "The Crab have first claim to all jade in the Empire, by Imperial Edict," he said.
"And as Emerald Champion, I can temporarily revoke that edict. There is no Emperor to contradict me," Hachi said.
Sakamoto scratched his chin and looked back out the window, weighing his options. "Fine," he said. "Benjiro will show you to the jade stores. Keep him close to you, Yasuki. He knows the Shadowlands like few others. With his help, your troops may just survive."
"Come," Benjiro said, hurrying toward the exit. "We do not have much time."
It was hard to discern day from night in the Shadowlands, as the sun rarely shone in the muddy grey sky. The land was so dark that Hachi's magistrates were forced to light torches and lanterns to find their way. The lights would often blow out unexpectedly even though there was no wind, a frustrating phenomenon that forced the platoon to stop frequently as they renewed their light sources. Benjiro assured Hachi that such was normal in the Shadowlands - even the elements worked against travelers to make their journey as unpleasant as possible.
"You seem eager for battle, Reju-sama," Hachi said.
"Not I," Reju replied. "I wish only to keep you alive, Hachi-sama. Unlike me, you have yet to meet your destiny."
"You think what we do here is that important?" Hachi asked. "You think we go to meet our destiny?"
"We always go to meet our destiny, Hachi," Reju replied. He fixed Hachi with his strange golden gaze, then returned to scanning the path ahead.
As the platoon entered a narrow pass, a green haze appeared on the horizon. Reju stayed close to Hachi at all times, left hand always on the hilt of his Mirumoto blade. Though the light was unusual, Hachi felt a strange peace of mind as he looked upon it. The nausea that had boiled in his soul since crossing the Kaiu Wall died away.
"What is that light?" Hachi asked, pointing with the handle of his tessen as he climbed to the lip of a rocky ledge.
"That is Shinsei's Last Hope," Benjiro replied. The Crab also relaxed for the first time since Hachi had met him, pleased to finally have his destination in sight. "Tatsuzo will have already arrived and prepared them to receive us."
"What is that light?" Norachai asked.
"Centuries ago the walls were studded with jade. The Kuni found a way to draw upon the natural purity of the land to keep the jade eternally uncorrupted. It glows with its own light, in defiance of the evil that surrounds us. It is the only pure city beyond the Wall."
"The Kuni Wastes and the Hiruma lands both lay beyond the Wall," Reju replied.
"But they are not truly uncorrupted," Benjiro replied. He pushed onward, expecting the others to follow. "To fight back the Taint, the Kuni were forced to kill the land. Nothing grows in those places, and no animals willingly make their home there."
"Except the Hiruma," Reju replied.
"Yes," Benjiro said with a laugh. "Shinsei's Last Hope, on the other hand, is lush and fertile. Even without jade, you could live within its walls indefinitely and never be corrupted."
"Incredible," Hachi replied, keeping pace with the Crab. "How is it possible such a village can exist?"
"To be truthful, we do not know," Benjiro replied. "The Kuni believe that it exists in an area of spiritual calm, like the eye of a hurricane."
"I am surprised I have not heard of this place before today," Hachi replied.
"It is legendary among the Crab, but outside our clan we keep its existence as quiet as possible," Benjiro said. "Shinsei's Last Hope has few real natural resources and its location is remote. It has little use other than as a staging ground for Crab scouts."
"And a symbol of purity, which the Shadowlands would surely wish to destroy," Norachai added.
"They have tried," Benjiro replied. "I just wonder why they bother now. Surely there are more important targets than a tiny village like this."
"No," Reju replied. "Right now, nothing is more important to the Shadowlands than victories such as this."
Benjiro looked at Hachi curiously.
"Fu Leng besieges the Celestial Heavens," Hachi explained. "The Dark Kami is strong because the Lost believe in him so strongly. If he can shake our faith in our own gods, then he will undermine their power and triumph. We saw the Lost attempt just such a conquest of spirit at Kyuden Kakita several weeks ago. You say this village is a legend? How disheartening would it be to your people if it were finally taken by the Horde?"
"So what you are saying is that to save the Fortunes, we must save ourselves?" Benjiro asked.
"Has the world ever worked differently?" Reju replied.
Benjiro frowned as the true weight of the battle ahead settled on his shoulders. He glanced back at the line of magistrates that followed, filling the pass. Yellow lightning flashed in the dark sky above, outlining a flock of hanemuri with white stripes on their wings.
"They are here," the Crab whispered.
"To the village, double time!" Hachi shouted to his men. "Charge!"
The Emerald Magistrates moved as a single unit, and as they did a thundering roar sounded from the mountains around them. Even as Hachi's men ran toward the city, he could see legions of undead and goblins begin to boil out of the other passes leading into the valley. A heavy weight knocked Hachi off his feet, causing him to tumble several times before landing on his back. He stared up into the feral face of a bakemono, like a tiny man mixed with equal parts rabid dog. The goblin opened its mouth in a snarl and lunged at Hachi's throat.
Hachi seized its forehead in an armored fist, drew his wakizashi with his
free hand, and peeled the goblin's head from his shoulders. He rolled to his
feet to see three more of the creatures charging toward him. He hurled the head
into their ranks. One stopped, cackling, to pick it up. Hachi sheathed his
wakizashi, and kicked the first solidly in the stomach. He turned as he did so,
drawing his katana in a smooth motion and cutting the second from hip to
shoulder. He turned back to the first; it had already fallen dead with
Norachai's arrow in its chest. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the third
begin gnawing at the discarded head. Benjiro charged past, pausing only long
enough to lift one leg and stomp solidly on the back of the creature's neck. It
gave a wet squeak and died. Benjiro pointed back behind Hachi.
Hachi turned just as three Obsidian Magistrates on black-armored steeds galloped down on him. He rolled aside, striking at the legs of one horse; the steel passed harmlessly through its body. He looked up as the rider's spear struck at him, knocking the shaft aside with his tessen. The other two steeds circled back for him. Doji Reju lunged at one of the Lost samurai, knocking the man from his saddle. The old samurai stood high, katana held in his left hand, full moon tattoo shining on his chest.
"You wear the trappings of samurai!" Reju shouted to the Lost. "Do you have the courage of samurai? Come at me, vermin of Daigotsu!"
The three riders charged Reju; the tattooed samurai darted back into the pass and was seen no more. Norachai appeared at Hachi's side, pointing to the west with the shaft of his bow. A squad of black-armored cavalry, like those who had attacked Hachi, moved to flank them as his troops engaged the goblin pack.
"Ignore the bakemono!" he shouted. "Get to the village!"
The troops complied as quickly as they could, taking a few departing strikes at the harrying bakemono as they moved on. The magistrates charged over the lip of the valley, hurrying for Shinsei's Last Hope. Benjiro drew a curled iron horn from his obi and blew a single, resounding note. The village gates opened and a squadron of heavily armored Crab samurai marched out, breaking into two columns and holding the valley against the encroaching Horde. Hachi's magistrates ran, ignoring the goblins and undead at their heels. As they drew closer to the walls, a line of blue-robed shugenja appeared at the ramparts. Bolts of jade fire rained down from the sky, causing the Horde to fall back with shrieking wails. The Crab soldiers fell back into the village as the magistrates passed through to the gates. When the last of Hachi's soldiers passed through dragging the injured, they closed with a heavy thud.
"Norachai!" Hachi shouted. "How many lost?"
Norachai gave Hachi a grim look. "Fifty," he said.
One quarter of their troops lost before they even made it to the village. Hachi absorbed the news silently.
"Reju?" he asked.
"He never left the pass," Norachai replied.
Hachi nodded and followed Benjiro to the top of the wall.
"Benjiro!" Yasuki Namika shouted, running to the big Crab's side. The young courtier wore full armor now and had a bloodstained bandage on her right arm. "When Tatsuzo said you would bring Emerald Magistrates, I did not believe it."
"Hai," Benjiro replied with a dark laugh. "Now we can all die together. Namika-chan, allow me to introduce Yasuki Hachi, Emerald Champion of Rokugan."
"Konnichiwa, Namika," Hachi said, looking out at the valley. "My thanks to your shugenja. If not for them, none of us would have survived that ambush."
"I assure you, the priests were as pleased to see your soldiers when you first crested the ridge," Namika replied.
"How long can we hold here?" Norachai asked.
"With these reinforcements?" Namika asked. "Benjiro is a master of defensive warfare. With him in command, we should last another week."
"Hopefully," Benjiro replied. "The Horde has grown more cunning of late. If the Dark Lord has placed a capable leader behind this rabble, we may not last three days."
Hachi looked out at the undead armies, massing in the valley. In the green light of the walls, he saw a single samurai step forward from their ranks, stand at the edge of the Crab archers' range, draw his sword, and salute.
"Prepare for the worst, then," Hachi said, pointing the Lost samurai out to the others.
"Why?" Namika asked. "Do you know that samurai?"
"I have faced him before," Hachi said. "He is the general who led Daigotsu's invasion of Otosan Uchi. He is Tsukuro."