Shinsei's Last Hope, Part III
By Rich Wulf

"There are those who believe themselves secure, wholly protected from our power… Such fools have already been defeated." - Yogo Junzo

The First Day of Thunder…

The Crab scout crawled carefully through the bizarre landscape. For the last hour he had been patrolling these twisted, shadowed lands by himself. He could not believe that, of all the provinces in Rokugan, Lord Hida could choose these for his home. The landscape was broken and desolate. To the southwest, an evil stench permeated everything. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and yet a greasy half-light still covered the horizon. This was where the Fallen Kami's minions made their home.

Lord Hida had dispatched the scout to check upon Shinsei's progress. For one week he had wandered these Tainted lands, seeking any sign of the Thunders. The party of five who had begun this patrol had slowly fallen to Fu Leng's demons or the supernatural hazards that abounded here. Though he was the only survivor, he could not flee. Hida had forbidden him to return without news. The Crab lord's own son, Atarasi, marched with the Thunders against the Fallen Kami. If any of the Thunders lived, then he must find them.

A samurai was expected to have no fear; the Kami had taught him that. Even so, the Crab scout had been utterly terrified since entering Fu Leng's territories. Every thing that moved was a threat. The sky rained poison. The earth coughed forth nameless beasts to tear and eat flesh. This was a land of fear; the sooner he was gone from this place the better.

A sudden explosion of light and sound echoed over a nearby ridge, filling the southwestern horizon with a sickly green light. The Crab scout watched in shock for several moments before a shockwave of cold air washed over him, knocking him off his feet. The scout fell face down in the dirt and was still.

Recovering his senses, the scout sat up in a crouch. Glancing about, he could not tell if he had been unconscious for moments or days. Looking to the southwest again, he saw a circular hole torn in the greasy clouds. The bright light of the sun burned down upon the lands below. He could see an impossibly huge shape shambling across the landscape, its form shifting and changing by the moment. The beast roared in pain, audible even from here. The Crab took cover in some tattered shrubs as the wounded beast continued on its way.

Cautiously, the Crab made his way forward, eyes wide as he peered over the crest of the ridge. In the valley below, he saw an army of oni and bakemono strewn dead about the landscape. A black crater marked the center of the valley, immediately in the path of the sun's light. For a moment, the Crab thought that there were no survivors of whatever cataclysm had occurred below, but then three figures drew his attention.

One was a tall samurai in light armor of brilliant orange. His armor and face were streaked with blood. He was clearly wounded, and by the scout's eye he would not survive long. The others helped him walk. One was a thin woman in red and black armor, a plain white mempo covering her face. A satchel of thick scrolls hung at her hip. The other was a tiny man in a peasant's robes, a long staff tucked under one arm. The Crab recognized Shosuro and Shinsei from Lord Hida's descriptions, but the wounded samurai was unfamiliar.

"You there, boy," Shinsei said, pointing his staff urgently at the scout. "We need you!"

"Of course, Shinsei-sama," the scout said, running to the little prophet's aid. He reached out to take the burden of the wounded samurai from him.

"No!" Shinsei said, pushing the scout away with surprising strength. "Shiba's path is set. You have a more important task."

The scout looked at Shinsei curiously.

"This place where we stand," Shinsei said, pointing back at the valley where the sun now shone. "Will never fall to the Taint so long as your children protect it. Guard it well, for it is in this place that the Empire shall find its last hope."

"What is this place?" the scout asked, looking up in wonder at the sun. "Why is this valley uncorrupted?"

Shinsei smiled. "Our battle with Fu Leng raged across the breadth of these Tainted lands, but here… here is where he fell. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Shinsei-sama," the scout replied, bowing deeply. "I will not fail you."

"See that you do not," Shinsei said urgently. Then he returned to the wounded samurai, helping him as the trio made their way toward Kyuden Hida.

The Crab scout took up his post at the entrance to the valley, katana drawn, ready for any challenge. He was no longer afraid.

o

The Present Day…

"Within a week, others found the Crab scout, standing alone in this valley," Namika continued. "Here, they built the village of Shinsei's Last Hope. The grass grew green and healthy here. The waters flowed clean. It was, and ever has been, an oasis of purity in the midst of corruption." The young Crab maiden's almond eyes swept over the crowd of bushi. "Here, we fight as our ancestors did. For eleven centuries, these walls have never fallen. They shall not fall today."

A chorus of cheers erupted from the assembled Crab warriors within the small temple to Shinsei. At the back of the room, Yasuki Hachi watched in earnest fascination, leaning against the doorway. Namika's gaze fixed upon him and her features twisted into a sly grin as she walked toward the Emerald Champion. "Hachi-sama," she said, bowing politely to him.

"Extraordinary," Hachi said, returning her bow.

"The tale?" she replied. "We tell it here every night. It is not so well known outside of Crab lands, partially because few would believe it."

"The tale is not what fascinates me," he said. "My friend Nagori once told me that the telling of a tale is even more important than the tale itself." He gestured toward the departing audience, all warriors now returning to their posts. "I have fought beside many of these men over the past two days. I have seen the berserk rage with which they battle Tsukuro's legions. But here, today, they were like children, hanging upon your every word. Even the wounded forgot their pain for a few minutes. You give them all hope, Namika."

"You flatter me, Hachi-sama," she replied as she made her way toward the exit. "Shortly after the War of Spirits I had the good fortune of training among the Kakita for two winters. I learned the ways of politics and the arts."

"I am impressed," Hachi said, following beside her. "I did not expect to find such a talent so deep in Crab lands."

"Then consider us even," Namika said as they passed out onto the courtyard again. All around them, soldiers prepared the village's defenses for the next inevitable attack. "Few of us expected a Crane to be such a talented warrior. Even Benjiro is impressed by the way you and your troops have carried yourselves since you arrived here, and Benjiro does not impress easily."

Hachi grunted noncommittally. "Is it so surprising? The Way of the Crane is the way of the samurai like any other," he replied.

"I did not mean to imply otherwise," Namika said. "But you must admit our styles are very different. The Crane are the masters of the single strike. A single perfect strike is well and good, but it helps very little when there are a thousand more goblins behind the first."

Hachi laughed out loud. "It all depends where you strike," he said.

"Lord Hachi," Bayushi Norachai said, quickly approaching the Emerald Champion. The Scorpion magistrate's armor was now stained with blood and ichor. A thick bandage covered his upper arm. Unlike most Scorpion, Norachai seldom wore a mask. Today, he wore a featureless iron half mempo over his lower face.

"Report," Hachi said to the Scorpion.

"Tsukuro's goblins charged the eastern wall," Norachai replied. "They climbed a ladder of their own fallen brethren to scale the wall. A few dozen made it over the top before the light finally drove them back." Norachai nodded toward the green glow of the distant walls.

"That makes eight goblin attacks in two days," Namika said. "I wonder why they bother sending such pathetic troops when they know the jade will turn them back."

"These are not attacks," Hachi replied, studying the walls carefully. "Goblins are disposable troops. These are tests of our defenses."

"Benjiro said much the same thing," Norachai said, nodding soberly.

"Then we should be cautious," Hachi replied. He turned to Norachai. "Norachai, find out which locations admitted the most bakemono before they were overcome. Coordinate with Benjiro, and insure that our defenses are reinforced in each of those positions."

"Hai, sama," Norachai replied, darting away quickly to deliver Hachi's message.

"But how does Tsukuro plan to overcome the jade?" Namika asked. "Our shugenja continually perpetuate its enchantment, and rest in shifts. With the extra shugenja that accompanied your magistrates, we should be able to hold them off indefinitely. Other than archers, most of his troops should be kept at bay. No other force in the Shadowlands has been able to breach our defenses for long."

"Tsukuro is a general, first and foremost," Hachi replied. "If the jade was truly a barrier, he would never have mounted this attack. When he finds a weakness in our defenses, he will strike… assuming he has not found one already."

Hachi looked out toward the barren mountains that surrounded Shinsei's Last Hope, back in the direction of Kyuden Hida. Somewhere out there, perhaps reinforcements gathered to aid them. Now that he knew the origin of the village, he was more certain than ever that it must not be allowed to fall. Fu Leng fought a war of faith, a war to extinguish hope. What better way to extinguish that hope than to corrupt the same battlefield where he had been defeated so many centuries ago? Shinsei had named this village as he did for a reason. The Crab and Emerald Magistrates here were resolute, but few of them truly believed even the jade would protect them forever.

The Shadowlands always found a way…

o

"Reju…" a harsh voice whispered in his year. "Have you lost your way, Doji Reju?"

Reju said nothing, did not reply to the voice, only trudged on through the bleak landscape. The voice had followed him for the last twelve hours now, obviously some sort of oni or tainted spirit. Reju held his sliver of jade close and trudged on. The green had become noticeably darker since his escape from the mountain pass, succumbing to corruption far more swiftly than it should. He had no doubt that whatever was taunting him was responsible.

"You do not answer to the Doji name," the voice continued. "Perhaps you find it unfamiliar. Should I call you Hitomi Reju instead? You have so many names, so many loyalties, perhaps it is difficult to keep track?"

Reju ignored the voice.

"How fortunate you were, so long ago, to hear the Lady's call…" the voice pressed on. "You left your clan and family behind and joined the Dragon… then as soon as the Lady Moon was done with you, you were discarded, forbidden even to give your life in her service at Oblivion's Gate."

Reju continued walking.

"But the Crane took you back, did they not? Placed you as yojimbo to a feeble old man. Let you watch him waste away in the shadows of Kyuden Kakita. And when the time came for you to give your life again, you failed once more did you not? They told you, again, that your death would serve no purpose. Much like your life."

Reju pressed on in silence.

"It is said that a samurai cannot serve two lords, two Clans, Doji-Hitomi Reju," the voice pressed on. "I see that is untrue. One can easily serve two lords, as long as one does so poorly!"

Reju scowled, stopping. His golden eyes searched all around for the source of the voice.

"I have always wondered," the voice said in a mocking tone. "For a man who has trained beside both the Kakita and Mirumoto, which style was superior. I suppose, for you, the choice between one sword and two is obvious." Reju felt a brush of cold air over the stump of his right arm.

"I warn you, spirit," Reju said in a low voice. "Cease."

"I do not wish to anger you," the voice said. "I do not wish to harm you. I only wish for you to fulfill your potential. You can be a whole man once more, Doji Reju. We can repair your disfigurement as we repaired Daidoji Megumi's. You could face her again, perhaps take her place among the Lost. All we ask is your acquiescence. Already you have submitted, in some small way. I have noted how you rush to return to the Wall, rather than returning to aid your friends at Shinsei's Last Hope. You are a defeated man, Reju. Join us, and know victory again."

"A defeated man?" the old samurai asked, bowing his head with a rueful chuckle. "Is that what you see?"

"That is what I see," the voice answered.

"And all you ask is my soul?" Reju asked, looking up. His golden eyes narrowed.

"Is that so much?" the voice replied. "I suppose being who you are you must have heard offers like this before, but I can easily grant you power beyond your meager understanding."

Reju paused for a long moment. His shoulders slumped and he nodded. "Very well then," he said.

A low laughter echoed from the shadows. A misty form moved toward Reju, shadowy claws extended toward his chest. Its form merged with his, and Reju closed his eyes as the chill burned deep into his body. A slow warmth spread from the center of Doji Reju's being in reply. The full moon tattoo on his chest burned a brilliant orange, illuminating the rocky pass around him. His eyes opened, shining golden in reply. A confused shriek echoed from the demon seeking to possess him. It drew back from Reju, red eyes sparkling in terror. It scampered toward the shadows in desperation just as the clouds parted overhead. The brilliant light of the full moon glared down upon the Shadowlands. The tainted spirit looked up at the light and was afraid.

Reju drew his katana slowly. It gleamed in the light of the moon and the old samurai smiled at the familiar radiance. "What you ask is not mine to give, spirit. I serve the Lady Moon, now and forever. Tonight you are the one who meddles with power beyond your understanding."

Reju struck once, returning the shadowy demon to nothingness, and continued on his way to Kyuden Hida.

o

Tsukuro scratched his chin with one skeletal finger as he inspected his troops. Daigotsu had offered his finest soldiers to serve in the undead general's armies. Lost samurai, undead bushi, bakemono, and even a handful of oni and ogre warriors now arranged themselves in neat ranks before him. Of course some ranks were arranged more neatly than others. There was only so much even a talented general could do where the mindless undead and goblins were concerned. A troop of chittering goblins skittered past, shepherded by a Lost samurai mounted on a demonic horse. Not for the first time Tsukuro was glad that his sense of smell had rotted away long ago.

A ripple of light appeared to the general's left. Tsukuro turned just as a tall Tsuno warrior stepped into the mortal realm, accompanied by a small man in dark green robes. Symbols of entwined snakes were embroidered on the sleeves of the man's kimono. His face was covered in shadow. "General Tsukuro," the man said. "I have come for your status report."

"Mishime-sama," Tsukuro said, bowing to the tsukai. "All goes well. We have probed the village's defenses. The Crab are stalwart, but they are not perfect. I believe I have discovered an area where both the wall's construction and the jade aura are weaker than they believe."

"How do you plan to overcome the jade aura?" Mishime asked. The tsukai looked toward the green glow of the village, wincing slightly at the sight. "You have few tsukai in your army."

"I need no magic," Tsukuro said with a laugh. "After my death in Otosan Uchi, my soul was returned to Jigoku. There, I joined Fu Leng's armies as they invaded the Celestial Heavens. The Dark Kami felt that I was of more use to him in the mortal realm, so he returned me here with his blessings. I have the power to call upon the Chosen."

Mishime looked at Tsukuro in surprise. "Ashura?" he asked, a note of fear in his voice. "They are destruction incarnate. Even Daigotsu does not call upon them lightly."

"I do not plan to control them for long," Tsukuro replied.

"Then be doubly careful," Mishime said. "By our spies reports, the Emerald Champion himself now defends the village."

Tsukuro nodded. His skeletal frown seemed to deepen. "I know," he replied. "My soldiers slew many of his magistrates."

"Do not underestimate him," Mishime said. "He killed you once before."

"Of course he did," Tsukuro said with a chuckle. "His bloodline is very strong."

Mishime gave the general a long, quiet look. "Do not be overconfident, Tsukuro," Mishime replied. "Death is only a minor inconvenience to you. Daigotsu knows this. Should you fail here, there are worse punishments than death."

"Do not threaten me, Snake," Tsukuro whispered.

"Do not fail us, corpse," Mishime replied. He nodded to his Tsuno, and the passage between the Spirit Realms opened again. The two figures vanished, leaving Tsukuro to his plans.

o

Hida Benjiro's knuckles whitened on the haft of his tetsubo. Though nothing appeared any different in the ranks of Shadowlands troops below, he could feel that something fundamental had changed. His instincts screamed at him to be prepared, but what against what he had no idea. His eyes scanned the enemy ranks, seeking any new threat. In the background, he could hear the faint chant of the shugenja, one of the groups that perpetually renewed the spell that maintaining the enchantment upon the jade-studded walls. The shugenja were well protected behind the walls, defended by his finest warriors. If Tsukuro was wise, and Hachi cautioned that he was, then he would attack here.

But how?

The uneasy feeling in Benjiro's stomach grew. He looked to the sky instinctively. The clouds swirled above, and a column of inky darkness extended from the heavens. Even this far away, the air grew chilled. Benjiro's jaw hung agape.

"What is happening?" Yasuki Hachi asked, appearing at Benjiro's side. "Have you seen anything like this before?"

"Only once," Benjiro said, his mouth dry. "When Fu Leng extended his power from the heavens to curse the Tower of Fear. Tsukuro has called upon the Dark Kami's aid directly."

Hachi paled slightly as he looked at the turmoil in the sky above, but he did not falter. "Let us hope our gods are with us as well, then," he replied.

After a few seconds, the column of darkness was gone.

"That's all?" one soldier asked with a nervous laugh.

"No," Norachai said in a low voice. "Something came out of that column. Look."

The Scorpion pointed. Two tiny black dots hovered in the sky, slowly growing as they approached the Crab village. Soon, they resolved themselves into a pair of flying figures, deathly pale samurai in ebony armor like that of Tsukuro's legions. Each had enormous moth wings marked with death's head symbols.

"What in Jigoku are those?" Norachai asked, drawing his bow.

"I don't know," Benjiro replied. "All archers! All shugenja! Turn your aim to those two creatures!"

The Crab and Emerald Magistrates replied without hesitation. The sky was filled with deadly arrows and bolts of pure elemental magic. The two fiendish warriors soared unaffected through the haze of missiles. Arrows bounced harmlessly from their armor and flesh. Spells melted away in their presence, as if the kami feared drawing close. They drew close enough for Hachi to see them more clearly. Each of the pair had a cold, emotionless expression. Their wings were unmoving; it looked almost as if they flew merely from a refusal to obey the logic of the mortal realm. They drew long, curved bows as they hovered closer, loosing obsidian arrows upon the Crab defenders. Where they struck, soldiers fell down screaming and clawing at their wounds.

Norachai loosed a jade-tipped arrow, slashing the cheek of one of the pale warriors. A plume of black fire erupted from the wound, and the creatures flew on. As they drew nearer, more and more missiles struck home, injuring the two countless times. They flew on, uncaring of their injuries, radiating auras of black energy as their wounds bled fire. Benjiro's eyes followed their line of descent. One flew toward the top of the wall; the other continued past the wall toward the protected circle of chanting shugenja. They no longer bothered with arrows, but flew directly toward the village at tremendous speed.

"Scatter!" Benjiro roared to the shugenja below. "End the ritual!"

Some of the priests looked up in startled confusion. Others obeyed his command and began to run. A streak of dark flame arced past Benjiro as the demon-samurai plunged into their midst. As it collided with the earth, a tremendous explosion of fire erupted, throwing Benjiro back against the edge of the wall. Another sphere of black flame erupted to his left, consuming the upper portion of the wall. Shards of shattered jade and broken granite peppered his face and arms. The Crab staggered on his hands and knees, leaning on his tetsubo for support. A rough hand seized his arm, dragging him to his feet. He looked up into the wild eyes of Kihei, the ronin he had guided here days ago.

"Madness, just madness!" Kihei shouted over the din of falling stones. "Is it not glorious?"

"Namika!" he shouted, ignoring the deranged ronin. "Hachi!" There was no reply. His voice was swallowed by the shouts of the injured and the triumphant roar of the Shadowlands Horde. He snatched a broken Crab banner from the earth and held it high, rallying what troops he could.

As he regained his bearings, he realized with horror what had happened. A large portion of the wall had fallen away in the explosive onslaught that had followed the second creature's death. Around it, the jade light that protected Shinsei's Last Hope began to fade. Already goblins were beginning to pile themselves over the breach. Below, he could hear a hollow voice shout a single word.

"Charge!"

o

Only two days ago, Kaiu Shiro had been the site of jubilant celebration. To the surprise of everyone present, a former Crab himself, had appeared to pay his respects to the newly finished castle. The Oracle placed his blessings upon the fortress, promising that the walls would never fall so long as the Kaiu family maintained their oaths to the Crab Clan.

Now, however, the mood at Kaiu Shiro had changed due to the arrival of a single messenger. Hida Kuon looked down at the little man, craggy face severe with disapproval. The exhausted scout kept his eyes down, drawing upon all his strength not to flee before his lord's anger.

"This is unacceptable," were Kuon's only words.

"Lord Kuon, we both know Hida Sakamoto well," said the deep voice of Kaiu Umasu, seated to Kuon's left. "If he had any troops to spare to defend Shinsei's Last Hope without compromising the Wall, you know that he would have done so."

"Sakamoto is not what stirs my anger," Kuon said, his voice an earthy rumble. Kuon's left hand tightened into a fist. He turned away from the messenger, looking out over the Kaiu Wall, over the blasted expanses of the Shadowlands. "I save all my rage for the Horde. Umasu, how quickly could we gather sufficient reinforcements to save the village?"

"Difficult to say without knowing the size of the besieging force," Umasu replied, chewing his lip in thought. "However, if we move south along the wall and take small bands of reserve units from each watchtower we should be able to gather sufficient forces to deal with any significant threat and reach the village in no more than a week."

"Too long," Kuon replied. "What about cavalry?"

"The area is too rugged," Umasu replied. "Any advantage our cavalry would gain by racing ahead would be swiftly negated and they would be overwhelmed."

Kuon shook his head ruefully, unwilling to accept the possibility of defeat.

"My lord," Hida Hitoshi interjected in a confused voice. "With all due respect, this village is of little true significance except as a staging ground for our scouting parties in the southern Shadowlands and a curiosity to the Kuni scholars. Why should we risk our armies to save so few?"

Kuon turned to face Hitoshi, his eye cold and pitiless. "When we regained the Kaiu Towers, I swore that the Crab would never give ground again. Are you ready to abandon this village? What other sacrifices should we make for the sake of strategy? The Hiruma lands, perhaps? Tell me, Hitoshi, what number dead friends and comrades do you find… acceptable?"

Hitoshi's face paled. "I am sorry, my lord," Hitoshi said in a quiet voice. "I am deeply shamed."

"You say that my brother, Benjiro, returned to the village?" Hida Reiha said softly. The young samurai-ko's face was grave. Her arms were folded across her slim chest.

The messenger nodded. "He returned to the village, along with a platoon of magistrates led by Yasuki Hachi."

Kuon looked over his shoulder, eyes alert with surprise.

"Hachi?" Umasu retorted, outraged. "The usurper who forced us to waste precious resources warring with the Crane? If it were not for him-"

"Umasu," Kuon said sharply, ending the Kaiu daimyo's tirade. Umasu bowed to Kuon and fell silent. The Crab Champion turned, expression thoughtful, and faced the messenger. "How many men marched beside Hachi?"

"Two hundred," the scout replied.

"Is that enough to make a difference?" Hitoshi asked.

"We shall see," Kuon said. "Gather all the soldiers we can spare at once. If Shinsei's Last Hope falls, it shall not be because the Crab failed them."

o

Hachi stood up with a groan, heaving aside the rubble that had covered him. He only narrowly brought his sword up in time as an undead samurai lunged at him with claws outstretched. Hachi ducked out of the creature's reach and backhanded it across the face. The zombie staggered, confused by the blow. Hachi brought his sword up again, causing the creature's head to fly free. The decapitated body took two steps and fell down lazily.

Glancing around for any sign of more attackers, Hachi found the village near the wall had been overwhelmed. After the exploding demon-samurai had breached the walls, Tsukuro's legions had made short work of their defenses. Even now he could see a large gap in the wall. Units of swiftly moving ogre bushi worked to tear down what remained and move the debris aside. Packs of bakemono and units of Lost soldiers charged into the Crab ranks. Flaming arrows rained down on the village from just beyond the walls, setting many of the outer buildings ablaze.

The Crab were mounting a defense, with troops rallying from other portions of the village. Benjiro stood at the forefront of the Crab troops, waving his banner wildly. Crab and Emerald Magistrate alike rallied to his side, but the Shadowlands troops were too swift, too well organized, too many.

"Hachi, this battle is lost," Norachai said, appearing at the Emerald Champion's side. "Namika says that there are too few shugenja surviving to restore the jade walls, even if we were to force back these invaders. We should withdraw, find some means of escape. I am certain the Crab have some tunnels or something. They always do."

"No," Hachi said, crystal blue eyes fixed on the gap in the wall. "We fight and die here or the Empire suffers."

"What can we do against an enemy like this?" Norachai replied. There was no fear in the Scorpion's voice, only an irritated resignation. He looked to Hachi for an answer.

Striding through the gap in the wall, Hachi saw the familiar rotted visage of Tsukuro, the same undead general he had fought and defeated in Otosan Uchi. "It all depends where you strike, Norachai," Hachi said. "Cover me."

Norachai nodded sharply, shouting for several Crab archers to aid him. Hachi did not wait, but ran directly ahead. A trio of Lost samurai turned to face him. Hachi's blade took the first before he could mount a defense. The second parried Hachi's blow before Norachai's arrow found his throat. Hachi dodged the third samurai's sword and sliced at his legs, leaving the man flailing on the ground. A band of bakemono surged forward, clawing and biting at Hachi's legs. The ancient armor of the Emerald Champion protected Hachi from their attacks. He spun and cleaved in their midst, cutting down goblins like chaff until finally he stood before Tsukuro himself.

The undead samurai looked at Hachi calmly, katana already drawn. He batted an arrow out of the air with a disdainful chuckle even as his soldiers charged forward to deal with Norachai and the other archers.

"Hachi," Tsukuro whispered, circling with the Emerald Champion. "How strange to see you here. Destiny forces us together once again."

Hachi lunged at Tsukuro, but the general parried the blade and struck back. The cut was quicker than Hachi had intended. He only narrowly moved aside; Tsukuro's sword drew sparks as it left a deep gouge in the Emerald Armor's chest plate.

"I have defeated you once before, Tsukuro," Hachi said, withdrawing several steps to gauge his opponent. "What makes you think today will be different?"

"You surprised me, Hachi," Tsukuro replied. "I allowed the smell of your blood to distract me." Tsukuro cleaved the air with his sword again. Hachi rolled aside as Tsukuro's katana cut a support beam neatly in half, toppling a burning watchtower. "Did you never wonder why a family such as yours, a family descended from the highest nobility of a great family could be ranked so low among the Daidoji?" Tsukuro chuckled as he circled Hachi, cornering him against the burning timbers.

"I never really cared," Hachi said. He could feel the heat of the fire through his armor. He feinted with his sword, hoping to force Tsukuro back, but the undead samurai only looked at his blade in disdain. "I suppose you are my ancestor or something like that. Lucky for me my looks favor my mother," Hachi replied, leaping back over a burning timber.

"It was my dishonor that led to your family's downfall," Tsukuro replied, ignoring Hachi's jibe. The undead soldier stepped slowly and carefully around the fire. "They buried all traces of my existence, and so my line fell into disfavor."

"Then I should thank you, Tsukuro," Hachi said, glancing down at the burning timbers and then returning his attention to his opponent. "I was happier when I was low-born. Rank brings nothing but problems."

"Typical," Tsukuro said with a snarl. He leapt forward with his blade, slashing the air as Hachi leapt aside. "Just as it was in my lifetime, power always falls to those who are undeserving, unwilling to grasp it! With the Emperor dead, you are the most powerful samurai in all the Empire. Why bother to work for peace when you could be the warlord of Rokugan?"

"Honor is my guide," Hachi replied with a smirk.

Tsukuro's eyes lit up with rage and he lunged at Hachi, sword clutched in both hands. Hachi struck back, his blow aimed directly at Tsukuro's sword. The two blades struck with a brilliant clang and both men staggered back. Shards of steel spiraled through the air with a resonant sound as both weapons shattered. Tsukuro looked down in surprise just as Hachi fell into a crouch, then rose with a flaming timber in one hand. He seized the chest plate of Tsukuro's armor in his free hand and forced the torch into the undead samurai's face. Tsukuro screamed as his ancient, withered flesh burned.

"This is not the end, Yasuki Hachi!" Tsukuro shrieked, seizing Crane's throat in one hand. He pushed Hachi to the ground, pinning him with his superior strength. "I am eternal!"

Hachi winced as he felt his ancestor's skeletal hands tighten about his throat, as the flame seared him through his armor.

"I shall pull your soul to Jigoku with mine," the dying general whispered, his face so close Hachi could smell his own flesh burn. Then he felt a heavy thud above him, and Tsukuro's body fell to one side. Hachi looked over in surprise at the burning general, his skull now crushed to one side. The body melted into shadows and was gone, as it had vanished in Otosan Uchi months before.

"To the breach!" shouted Hida Benjiro, standing over Hachi with his tetsubo and banner held high. "Finish what the Emerald Champion has begun!"

Benjiro charged forward, Emerald Magistrates and Crab bushi moving in formation behind him. The Shadowlands soldiers fell back, disorganized and disoriented without Tsukuro's leadership. Even so, Hachi wondered what they would do once the Horde regrouped, and realized that the walls were no longer impervious to their armies.

Then Hachi saw the green glow that now burned upon the walls around the breach, the jade glow that now surrounded Shinsei's Last Hope once again. He rose to his feet, oblivious to the pain of his injuries, staring in disbelief as the Horde retreated from the village. Men and women in robes of brilliant orange descended from the sky on wings of jade fire, adding their power to the chant that fueled the magic. One landed nearby, a small man who also used his magic to bear a familiar figure to the earth.

"Reju," Hachi said, awed by the old samurai's arrival. "You have brought the Phoenix?"

Reju shrugged, drawing his blade as he scanned the streets for opponents. "I met a few of their shugenja at Kyuden Hida tending the roadside shrines," he replied. "They seemed dissatisfied with their duties there, and eager for a chance to show their worth to the Crab."

"Everything here should be secure in a matter of moments, Hachi-sama," Isawa Nodotai said, bowing deeply to the Emerald Champion. "I trust you will inform Lord Kurohito that we were helpful." Nodotai gave Hachi a slightly fearful look.

"Of course," Hachi said smoothly.

"Excellent, excellent!" Nodotai said. The shugenja hurried off, eager to aid his fellows in restoring the jade barrier.

Hachi looked at Reju curiously. "Kurohito?"

"I also informed him that you were carrying Doji Kurohito's documentation of the Crane-Phoenix alliance," Reju said.

"Implying that if we died here, the alliance was off?" Hachi asked, raising an eyebrow.

"It is well known that Lord Kurohito despises repeating himself," Reju replied. "I let the Phoenix draw their own conclusions." Reju nodded a final time to Hachi and hurried off to join the rallying soldiers with a triumphant cry.

Hachi followed.

o

Several Days Later…

Hida Kuon's troops had arrived to find the remaining Horde forces huddled well beyond the range of the jade walls, mounting only the occasional ranged assault. At the sight of Kuon's legions, they had fled. Kuon allowed a few to escape, enough to inform their brethren of the fate that awaited those who challenged the Crab. Now Kuon strode through the streets of Shinsei's Last Hope, his face grim as he surveyed the destruction. Namika and Benjiro walked beside him, supplying answers as he asked for specific statistics but otherwise remaining silent.

Kuon rounded a corner to find a man in a rough blue kimono awaiting him, surrounded by Emerald Magistrates and a handful of ronin. Kuon recognized his face immediately.

"Yasuki Hachi," he said in a gruff voice, bowing as little as etiquette allowed. "Benjiro tells me that you came to the village's aid."

"I did," Hachi replied, nodding.

"If you expect my thanks, you will not receive them," Kuon said. "This is the least your clan can do to make up for the damage you did. If not for your Yasuki War, the Wall would have never fallen."

"I do not expect your thanks, Crab lord," Hachi said. "I expect only that which is owed to me."

Kuon's scowl deepened. "If you are here to press your 'right' to the Yasuki lands, Emerald Champion, you would do well to think again. This is not the time or place to anger me."

"I am here to ask for no such thing," Hachi said. He looked down at his rough kimono. "And I am not here as Emerald Champion." He stepped aside and gestured at the scattered satchels behind him. "I give you twenty goblin heads, Hida Kuon. In return, I ask for fealty as you promised. No questions asked. The Twenty Goblin Winter is still on, if I am not mistaken."

Kuon blinked, tilted his head slightly, and laughed out loud. "You would abandon the Crane to serve the Crab?"

"I said no such thing," Hachi said. "I will serve the Crane and Crab. Those Yasuki who are Crane now will remain Crane. Those who are Crab will remain Crab. The Crab and Crane Yasuki shall combine their efforts to the mutual benefit of both Clans. The Yasuki lands will remain the provinces of the Crab Clan, while they will gain the access of Crane trade routes to the benefit of all. As a member of both clans, I shall insure that neither side is cheated. There will be no more Yasuki War. With the respective Yasuki families now working together toward a common goal, there will be no cause for war."

"A samurai who serves two Great Clans?" Kuon asked. "Impossible."

"Not so impossible," said Doji Reju.

"Very well then, Yasuki Hachi," Kuon said with a slow nod. "I shall accept your fealty, if only so that I can look forward to the day that you fail me."

"So be it," Hachi said, bowing deeply to the Crab.

Kuon gave Hachi a long, steady look, nodded briefly in respect, and continued on. Benjiro and Namika remained behind. Benjiro's expression was surprised; Namika was only amused.

"That was reckless, Hachi-sama," Benjiro said. "What will Kurohito have to say when he learns you have sworn fealty to the Crab?"

"Careful Benjiro," Namika said in a mild voice. "Do not speak ill of my daimyo."

"My clan's war with the Crab is over and I still serve the Crane," Hachi replied. "That should be enough to satisfy the Crane Champion."

"Hopefully," Norachai said dryly.

"What of you, Benjiro?" Hachi asked. "What will become of Shinsei's Last Hope?"

Benjiro shrugged, rubbing the back of his thick neck with one hand. "We will rebuild, as we always do. The village survives today, but tomorrow that could change. I used to think that with the jade walls we were untouchable here. Now I'm not so sure. All we can do is keep fighting."

"I would stand with you, if you would have me, Benjiro-san," Doji Reju said suddenly.

Hachi looked at Reju in surprise. "Will you not be expected back at Kyuden Doji?" he asked.

"I told you before," Reju replied. "I am an unpleasant memory. Perhaps here in Shinsei's Last Hope, I can be of use."

"We would be grateful to have such a legendary swordsman among us," Benjiro said sincerely.

"I must return to my duties as Emerald Champion," Hachi said, bowing to Benjiro, Namika, and Reju. "Farewell to all of you. May these walls never know defeat."

"Good fortune to you as well, Yasuki Hachi," Benjiro said. "Fight with the strength of the Crab and the skill of the Crane. You are one of us now."

Hachi bowed a final time and prepared to lead his magistrates home.