To Do What We Must
By Tonbo Karasu
Daidoji Anniko stood on the highest point of the arched stone bridge. Her yojimbo, four members of the Daidoji Harriers, were spaced around her at the compass points, resplendent in their white and blue armour. Her thoughts returned to her childhood as she waited.
The strange man in the unadorned kimono let go of Sakura's hands and opened his eyes.
"Daidoji-sama, your daughter, Sakura, is close to the kami, that is why you have been experiencing these strange happenings recently. Her latent powers are combining with her childish good humour to excite the spirits in the house."
Sakura's father looked round and spoke. "How can we stop her from doing this again, Asahina-san?"
"My lord, I am unable to comply with your wishes. She is gifted with the spirits in the same way that she is gifted with breathing. If we were to remove this gift completely she would die. All we can do is to train it. The Asahina family would be happy to carry out that task."
"Honoured Asahina-san, I mean no disrespect, but how would she then fulfill my family's sworn obligation to defend the Clan from its enemies?"
There was a small thud as a statuette of Benten flipped over and stood on its head, apparently of it's own accord. Sakura giggled, the two men ignored it.
"My lord, that is a question that I cannot answer for you."
"I will think on this matter. You may leave me."
She had been watching the glowing column of dust for the past few hours as it approached from the horizon, and now the individual spirits were close enough to be discerned. Soon she could fulfill her family's oath.
"Come forward, Sakura-ko, and display to us your mastery of the elements, that all here present might know that you have come of age and are henceforth an adult samurai." The man in red, orange and yellow robes took his place once more amongst the Masters.
Sakura smiled tightly and walked to the centre of the room and knelt down. As the sole Crane in the school, she had been left till last. She bowed deeply to the Elemental Masters, turned and bowed just as deeply to her father and her daimyo. Uji himself had come to see her gempukku! Finally she bowed to her former classmates, all adults now, who sat with their families.
She started small, asking a small kami of air, her weakest element, to blow her long white her artfully out behind her. A gesture of her hand and Uji's empty tea cup appeared in it. She concentrated and then let go, it hovered. With a scooping motion she caused tea leaves to pour into the cup from out of nowhere. A cupful of water coalesced from the vapour in the air as she stared at it. Gradually, a small flame grew into life in the palm of her hand. She held it under the water, which quickly approached boiling point. The flame went out and the water poured itself into the cup, careful not to splash or spill. Using the whisk she was suddenly holding she finished preparing the tea and then took the cup in her hand again. Finally, the ground shifted and the stone of the floor flowed like water, carrying her, still in her kneeling position, to Daidoji Uji's side. There was a barely concealed gasp; she had researched that spell secretly in the library and she was sure that none of her classmates could have done it.
"Your tea, my lord."
"Who do I have the honour of addressing, samurai?" he asked.
"My name is Daidoji Anniko, Uji-sama."
The spirits stopped just over a bowshot from the Crane bank of the river. This put Anniko in range of their archers, but she knew she could protect herself.
A bulky man in Crab armour was talking to a spirit clad in black and red who could only be described as weasely.
'That must be Hida Tsuneo, the Stone Crab,' Anniko thought.
Spears and arrows rained down from the battlements of the Lion castle, but the Daidoji Iron Warriors advanced nevertheless. Anniko wasn't actually a member of this prestigious unit, they were merely escorting her to the walls. Her magic kept the worst of the missiles away, but a couple of the spearmen took wounds nevertheless, and one fell, lifeless to the ground beside her.
Finally, they arrived at the wall and Anniko reached out and touched it. The kami within the castle was huge and ancient. The Kitsu had tried to put it to sleep permanently, explaining why her earlier attempts from the Crane camp had met with failure. However, actually touching the wall gave her a greater spiritual contact and should help her to succeed this time. It felt is if there was a shugenja on the inside now, opposing her influence. However, he did not have the right attitude for dealing with mikokami of the earth and Anniko brushed his presence quickly out of the spirit world.
'First things first.' She thought.
A ledge of stone slowly, but with increasing speed, grew out of the wall above them. The arrows from the Lion stopped as the archers on the walls found they could no longer see their targets.
"And now to finish it," she murmured.
With an ear-rending crack, the wall in front of her split and crumbled to dust. A group of Lion samurai in the courtyard looked shocked, but quickly turned to face them and charged, showing their excellent training. Anniko was ready for this and a sheet of flame leapt from her hands towards them, blunting the attack before it could contact the Crane ranks. The Iron Warriors counter-charged, and she could hear the 'Banzai!' of the rest of the Daidoji army as they advanced to take the breach, and then the castle.
Shiro no Yojin was as good as theirs.
Tsuneo started towards her, accompanied by a small retinue of bodyguards. She walked down the bridge towards him, whilst her yojimbo turned and trotted in the other direction. They had other work to do. Seeing this, a number of scouts ran from the spirit ranks, passing their general and then Anniko. Neither of them looked round. They met on the riverbank before the bridge. Tsuneo had obviously been campaigning for weeks. The odour was unmistakable.
The smell of corruption was heavy in the air and the screams of the dead and dying mixed with the shrieks and howls of the oni who were assaulting them. Anniko had lost track of the Crane forces she had entered this kami-forsaken land with. Now she fought side-by side with a group of shugenja from the Dragon and Unicorn clans, defended by a cadre of masked Scorpion samurai wielding strange crystal weapons to horrendous effect.
They were still losing.
A Scorpion went down amid a flurry of claws and blood as a many-armed oni she hadn't seen until too late broke into the circle of defenders.
"Jade Strike!" she shouted, pulling on inner resources she had never known she had to cast the spell yet another time. The beam of green light struck the oni full in the chest and it toppled backwards, arms flailing and smoke rising from the fatal wound.
She looked around to acquire a new target, and despair touched her heart, for there were far too many evil creatures and not enough samurai to defeat them. Anniko dropped to her knees in the muck and reached for her wakizashi. Far better to die by her own hand than be torn limb from limb by these monstrosities.
A hand grabbed her arm and an unfamiliar face thrust itself into her view.
"Are you a coward? Or are you worthy of the Daidoji mon you wear?"
At that she started and the anger burned the fleeting touch of a lesser Shuten Doji before it could consume her.
"I am no coward!"
"Then fight! You should be destroying these foul abominations to your last breath."
Anniko stood, and prepared to sell her life dearly, anger lighting up her mind.
"No Crane shall bow to a Crab!" she yelled into Tsuneo's face. She channeled all of her anger into the stones of the bridge behind her. It exploded.
The spirit scouts who had been crossing were consumed utterly. Blocks of stone, sharp and broken, rained through the air. None hit her, the kami knowing that she was the centre of the storm, but one clipped Tsuneo, and several of the larger pieces found the ranks of the spirits behind.
She had one moment of seeing the look of utter surprise and shock on the Stone Crab's face before three blades pierced her body.
"Anniko-san, is that you?"
"You have died then, my daughter, and honourably too, if you are here."
"I died protecting my Clan, that is all that matters."