Treachery's Coin, Part III

Moto Chen stretched, listening to the bones in his back crack in the crisp morning air. He rolled his neck in a slow circle, feeling a night's worth of sleep on the hard ground wash away with the breeze. It was good to return to nature. Too much comfort could rob a soldier of his edge. Chen had spent a lifetime honing his instincts and skill, and he had never allowed luxury to dull it. Still, it would feel good to return to his admittedly lavish quarters at home when this ordeal was over.

Akasha came through the brush carrying a small pail of water. She smiled coyly at him as she set it down in the center of the camp. Wordlessly, she offered him a quick kiss on the cheek, then disappeared back into the sparse forest. Chen shook his head. All the times that they had been together, she had never failed to rise earlier in the morning, despite the fact that he was a trained soldier and was well used to rising early. He had often wondered if she needed less sleep because of her strange link to the Naga. It seemed an odd notion, but he could not explain it any other way.

A muttering sound from across the camp drew Chen's attention. "What did you say, Kumiko-san?" he asked, turning to face the young Mantis woman that had ridden alongside the Unicorn pair for over a week now.

"I said your friend gets up far too early for her own good," Kumiko said, her voice still thick with sleep. "It isn't natural."

"You get used to it," Chen assured her.

"I've lived with monks my entire life," the Mantis returned. "They rise with the sun or even earlier. Her idea of 'early,' however," she nodded in the direction Akasha had left, "surpasses that of any monk I've ever known."

Chen studied Kumiko carefully. "Her name is Akasha. You never call her by name. Why?"

The young samurai-ko looked down at her feet. It was a shameful expression, and one that surprised Chen. He had seen nothing from Kumiko except strength and resolve in the few weeks they had known each other. With her head bowed, however, he was reminded of just how young she really was, and just how large her burden was.

"I don't know. I suppose… I suppose I envy her."

The general frowned. He had been afraid of something like this. "Kumiko-san, you mustn't feel that way. You and I are from opposite ends of the Empire. It would be far too complicated to even imagine such a thing, even if I were not with Akasha…"

Chen's voice trailed off as Akasha's bright laughter filled the clearing. The exotic young woman returned from the bushes carrying one of the strange fishing strings that the Shinjo used so often. From it hung a trio of small fish, presumably to be cured for the midday meal later that day. "Is that what you think she means? That she's envious of my relationship with you?" She laughed again before glancing at Kumiko and rolling her eyes.

The general scowled. "Well, then," he said, covering his embarrassment, "what did you mean? What does she have that you do not?"

Kumiko looked up and glanced at Akasha briefly, then looked at Chen. "She is free."

Chen's frown deepened. He looked at Akasha quizzically, but Aksasha only smiled at Kumiko. She crossed the campsite to kneel beside the embers of their fire and began cleaning and drying the fish for rations. She and Kumiko spoke in quiet tones, but Chen could not overhear them. He shook his head in confusion and began packing up his things for another day of travel. Half-Naga, half-pirate… it didn't matter. As long as they were at least half woman he would never understand them.

o

The three riders made good time. Chen had once told Kumiko he thought being on a boat would be like riding a horse. It turns out he had been incorrect, but there must have been some small kernel of truth in the comparison, because for an inexperienced rider Kumiko did very well on her borrowed steed. They had already skirted around the great Shinomen Mori and were traversing the distance between the forest and the Crab lands. Akasha had announced they would arrive in the outermost Crab provinces by nightfall.

They had spoken of many things since departing Chen's estate in the Moto lands, but just as often they would go for hours without speaking. Chen enjoyed the women's company, but he enjoyed the silence just as much. It was good to have allies you could trust enough that no words were needed. Kumiko had proven herself during Chen's attack on the Kolat stronghold in Phoenix lands, and of course he trusted Akasha with his life. Both women were deadly warriors, and Chen had rarely felt this secure in his travels. With two such as these to watch his back, he did not fear the poisoned blade of a Kolat assassin for the first time in many months.

"Why do you hate the Kolat so, Chen?" Kumiko asked. It was as if she could read his thoughts. "Beyond the obvious, of course. They are traitors, murderers, and thieves, to be sure, but your hatred seems very personal. Far beyond that of a samurai for a criminal."

He did not answer immediately. "A generation ago, the Kami Shinjo returned and revealed that they infiltrated and corrupted the Unicorn," he said after a few moments' thought. "Their perversion of our clan was so complete that it required the eyes of the divine to see it. We had suspected nothing. Even our Champion, Shinjo Yokatsu, was a Kolat. They made a mockery of us all."

"And that was well before you were born," Kumiko added. "Before your father's family even came to Rokugan, if what I've heard is true. It seems a strange motivation."

"Yes, you're probably right. By the way, isn't the Mantis a minor clan?" Chen grunted.

Kumiko chuckled. "Perhaps you're correct. But you're holding something back. You don't have to tell me, of course, but I thought perhaps it might make the day pass faster."

He was quiet for a few minutes. There really was no reason not to tell her, of course. It was a painful subject, but no more so than many things they had already discussed on their trip. "I am convinced that it was the Kolat who aided my brother in removing me from my position as general of the Junghar," he finally said. "After decades in hiding, the Kolat have the audacity to imagine they can threaten the Khan's rule."

"Your brother?" The Mantis raised her eyebrows in surprise. "The same one that the Naga talked about? Your 'clutchmate'?"

"Chaozhu," Chen confirmed. "My elder brother. He has always had a bitter resentment toward me. I never understood why he could not overcome his jealousy and find his own successes. It is not as if he is incompetent. He has always been smarter than me, stronger than me, and yet I have been promoted while he has not. He has too much ambition, I think, and not enough focus."

"Your older brother," Kumiko said, a sympathetic tone in his voice. "He believes you usurped his place, so he has stolen your rightful position?"

"Yes," Chen said, his voice thick with anger.

"It's ridiculous, of course," Akasha added. "Chen-san's family is wealthy, but were not prominent in their military service to the Khan. Chen was selected because of his ability, not his social position. The Khan does not appoint his generals randomly."

"Yet this Chaozhu now commands the Junghar," Kumiko observed.

"No, he does not." Chen was quick to correct her mistake. "After Chaozhu… had me removed, the Khan appointed Shinjo Shono to replace me. However, the Junghar are a large army and Shono cannot be everywhere at once. Shono made Chaozhu one of his lieutenants, and he now commands a large number of troops."

"Shono trusts Chaozhu?" Kumiko asked. "So the Shinjo daimyo is a Kolat, too?" Kumiko smiled bitterly. "I guess Shinsei was right. History really is a circle."

"Shono is no Kolat," Akasha laughed.

"How can you be sure?" Kumiko asked.

Akasha raised an eyebrow. "Have you ever met Shinjo Shono?"

"No," Kumiko replied. "Why?"

"Let us say that he is not the sort of man an elite conspiracy would wish dabbling in their secrets, and leave it at that," Akasaha said. "He is emotional but perceptive, heroic, and yet extremely unpredictable."

"Plus its hard to be a good spy with a glowing gem shoved into your eye socket," Chen grumbled.

"Shono's choice to appoint Chaozhu seems to have two possible motivations," Akasha continued, ignoring Chen. "Either he recognizes Chaozhu for what he is and wishes to keep him close, or he is unaware of his Kolat affiliation and merely values your brother for his abilities as a tactician. You must admit that the two of you are very similar in that regard."

"Keeping one's enemies close at your hand binds theirs," Kumiko added.

"Do you always quote Shinsei this much?" Chen asked.

She shrugged. "I was raised in a monastery. Thank your Moto gods that I'm not chanting, at least."

"At any rate," Akasha went on, "as far as we know Shono has no notion that the Kolat are involved in the Shinomen Mori in some way. Appointing Chaozhu to lead a portion of the Junghar to defend the forest is merely an unfortunate coincidence, I'm sure."

"Coincidence," growled Chen. "The Kolat hide behind 'coincidence' like a back alley thief hides in shadows. I have no reason to distrust Shono, but I have no reason to trust him, either."

"Chagatai trusts him," Akasha said.

"The Khan can afford to take risks. I cannot."

Kumiko laughed uproariously. "That's good to know," she said, wiping a tear from her eye. "I'd hate to think after we destroyed that Kolat port in the middle of Phoenix lands while the Empire was at war with itself that we'd attempt something risky."

Akasha joined in the laughter, and even Chen smiled. The three riders continued south into the foothills of the Twilight Mountains.

o

Just as the sun began to dip behind the horizon, Akasha called for them to stop. "This is as far as we go for the moment," she said as she dismounted. "I will have to go on alone into the village." Seeing Chen's skeptical look, she continued. "Foothill Village lies a few minutes' ride ahead. It's a small village, one of the lesser known entrances to the Crab lands. There aren't many travelers through here, and the Crab take careful note of those who do come through. I'm sure a former Unicorn general and the Mantis Champion's heir will arouse suspicion. We don't need that."

"Why go through at all?" Kumiko asked. "Can't we go around it? There are vast stretches of undefended border."

"Yes," said Akasha, rooting through her pack, "but the only way to reach our destination is to contact someone here in this village. The others will kill us on sight otherwise."

"Others?" Chen asked.

"You are hardly inconspicuous," Kumiko noted, nodding toward Akasha and ignoring Chen. "What makes you think you won't be detained?"

"This," Akasha said, holding up a pearl she had withdrawn from her pack. Its shape was slightly imperfect, and it had a strangely green hue. "This will let me move in and out without attracting any attention."

Kumiko leaned over to Chen. He saw the mischievous glint he had noticed when they first met back in her normally haunted eyes. "Do you see a pearl? Because it doesn't look like anything fancy." In a louder voice, she asked "Are you planning to bribe your way past the magistrates with that? Good luck."

"That isn't exactly the plan," Akasha said. She muttered something under her breath, and a strange look came over her face. Chen recognized the look. Akasha wore it whenever she was reaching inward to that strange connection she had to the Naga. She had once described it to him as having your body sleep while your mind remains awake. It always left her feeling breathless and excited, which Chen found extremely fascinating.

There was a low roaring sound coming from the pearl now, like ocean waves crashing into rocks. Akasha continued to speak, louder now, in a strange, hissing voice that made no sense. A dull green light was pulsing from the pearl. Then, suddenly, Akasha was gone.

"Fortunes!" cursed Kumiko, nearly falling backwards from her horse. Where Akasha had stood only moments ago was a large, very hirsute Crab warrior. His armor was dusty and battered as if from a long journey, and the seal of a Hida magistrate hung from his neck.

"What do you think?" grunted the Crab, holding his arms out from his sides and turning around slowly. "Fairly impressive, if I may say so myself."

"How did you do that?" asked an incredulous Kumiko. "I didn't think you were a shugenja."

"She isn't," Chen said.

"No," the Crab agreed. "I merely have a rather instinctive understanding of Naga magic. I can utilize some of their pearls, like this one. It is called a Pearl of Chameleon Skin, and allows me to assume forms other than my own." The beefy warrior smiled, revealing less-than-perfect teeth. "I shouldn't attract too much attention this way, should I?" She turned and started toward the village, then turned back over one shoulder. "Grant me a kiss before I go, Chen-kun?"

Chen smirked. "I think I'll wait until you change back."

The Crab's lower lip jutted out in an obscene parody of Akasha's pouting. "And I thought you loved me."

Kumiko and the transformed Akasha laughed long and hard at Chen's disgusted expression. Chen only shook his head and made camp. It would likely be a few hours until Akasha could return, and he saw no reason to sit idly on his horse in the middle of the road. With the risk of being seen by Crab scouts he could not start a fire, and was forced to dine on cold rations. His mouth watered at the thought of a warm meal at an inn within the village, and he could tell Kumiko was thinking much the same. Still, they had come a long way and he saw no reason to risk exposure for a single meal.

A few hours later, Chen had laid down to rest in case they were planning to travel at night. He had more trouble than normal falling asleep. Kumiko had never told him exactly what the three of them were seeking, and Akasha was strangely quiet on the subject. He suspected Kumiko had some secret that she had shared with Akasha, perhaps some ailment that only Crab medicine could cure. He had researched Kumiko's history briefly before meeting her in Sunda Mizu Mura over a month ago, but there was little to be found. Her father, of course, was the legendary Son of Storms. Her mother had died after the march to Volturnum several decades ago so despite her youthful appearance Kumiko was not much younger than him. Chen idly wondered if Kumiko simply wished to know her mother's fate.

"Family," Chen mused as he drifted off to sleep. "They are nothing but trouble."

Suddenly, someone was shaking him awake. He nearly panicked at the sight of the hulking Crab warrior standing over him, but recovered just short of plunging his blade into Akasha's stomach. "Akasha," he whispered softly. "Please don't do that."

"So sorry," Akasha said, slowly changing back to her usual slender form. "Is that better?"

He breathed a sigh of relief. "Much."

"Time to go," she said. "We have a guide, and we need to cover a lot of ground before morning."

"Before morning? We're going into the Twilight Mountains at night?"

"No other choice," she said. "Our guide has to be back before sunup or someone will notice he's missing."

"Oh, outstanding," Chen said, scrambling to gather his belongings. "Not only are we climbing the mountains in the dark, we're rushing as well."

"You complain a great deal," observed Kumiko.

"And you complain about my complaining so where does that leave you?" Chen said through clenched teeth. Kumiko said nothing further. Within a few moments, the three had gathered all their materials together and disappeared into the wilderness, bound for the Twilight Mountains looming before them.

The first few hours were the worst. The rocks at the base of the mountains were loose and difficult to navigate. Their guide, a taciturn man with a strangely intense demeanor, informed them that there had been a recent rockslide that made the climb more dangerous than usual. Chen noticed that the guide was observing Kumiko very closely, and vowed to be ready in the event that his intentions proved less than honorable.

At one point, Kumiko slipped slightly, sending a shower of rocks down the mountain behind them. "Be cautious, Kumiko-san," the guide said. "We do not wish to attract attention to ourselves while in these mountains."

A noticeable quiet fell over the group. "We did not tell you our names," Chen said with a menacing tone, his hand straying to his weapon.

"I do not know your name," the guide answered. "Nor yours," he said with a look at Akasha. "But Yoritomo Kumiko is known to me."

"How?" Chen demanded. "I warn you not to try my patience. You will find it in very short supply."

"I will be glad to tell you," the guide answered arrogantly. "But only if Kumiko wishes me to." Seeing Kumiko's confused look, he smiled. It was not a warm or friendly expression. "Would you like me to explain, Kumiko? I'm sure your friends would be fascinated by the monthly visits you receive from my comrades. Or about the tea you purchase from my family's stockpiles. Or have you told them your secret already? Somehow, I doubt it. Honesty was never a Mantis trait."

Kumiko's teeth were clenched in anger. "Forgive me, my friends," she said to the others. "This fool's rambling is not something I can discuss at the moment."

"Careful, Daughter of Storms," the guide admonished. "Anger and outbursts toward one's allies are symptoms my comrades consider quiet serious."

Chen took one rapid step forward and landed a devastating blow to the man's abdomen with his clenched fist. There was an audible rush of air from his lungs before the guide collapsed to the ground, gasping for air and moaning lightly. The Unicorn warrior loomed over the fallen man. "If you were anything but a fool," he said, "then you would know that arrogance and secrecy do not sit well with one such as me."

The guide, to Chen's surprise, smiled. "Very well," he said. "We shall get along just fine…"

"Enough," Akasha said, pulling Chen away. "He has shown us what we need. We can proceed from here."

"I want to know what this is about," Chen said, regarding Kumiko intently.

"No," Akasha said. "It is not yet time. Soon, Chen. I promise."

Chen stared into Akasha's gold-tinged eyes, then back at Kumiko. The Mantis was strangely subdued, almost embarrassed, but regarded the man on the ground with open hatred. "I'll wait," he said finally. "For you. But my patience has limits."

Akasha smiled, then turned and continued along the dark mountain path.

o

By the end of their second day in the mountains, none of the three companions had any humor left in them. Each of them were covered in minor scrapes and bruises, and their gear had taken similar abuse. One particularly treacherous climb had nearly seen Chen's daisho plummet hundreds of feet down a rugged cliff face to disappear forever down some dark chasm. He had taken care to secure his weapons after that.

Chen had difficulty finding any rhyme or reason to the route Akasha was taking through the mountains, but he had learned long ago not to question her instincts. Still, as the third day came and went, he began to wonder exactly what these two women were leading him into. By his estimation they should be well into the Kaiu provinces, near where the Twilight Mountains met the Plains Above Evil.

The sun was setting on the third day when the three of them reached a cliff overlooking a valley of sorts. Within the rather barren valley, a small village lay hidden from the outside world. Somewhere between two and three dozen buildings lay scattered throughout the valley, and Chen could see many people moving about. A village of such size could support perhaps as many as a hundred, although why they would hide so deep within the mountains he did not know.

"At last," said Kumiko breathlessly. She turned to Chen and smiled. "I've waited a long time for this."

"What is this place?" Chen demanded. He had not intended his voice to be so rough, but his patience was at an end.

"This is the Village of Broken Dreams," Akasha answered. "It is the home of the Unbroken."

"I know that name," Chen said. "A band of ronin, yes? They fought at Oblivion's Gate."

"Ronin, yes," Akasha said. "Ronin allied with the Ashlim. Before the Clan War, the Ashlim took pity on the Unbroken and created a powerful ritual to aid them."

"Aid them? Aid them in doing what?"

"In removing their Taint," Kumiko said. "The Unbroken are ronin who have been contaminated by the Shadowlands Taint. The Ashlim's ritual gives them a chance to purify their bodies and souls."

"For a price," Akasha added.

Chen's eyes narrowed. "So you have the Taint, then."

Kumiko's gaze did not waver. "My mother was corrupted by the wounds she sustained at Volturnum, and died shortly after I was born. It is the only thing I have left of her, but it is a gift I've carried long enough. I must cleanse myself or die trying."

It made sense. Akasha did not place the same stigma on those who carried the Taint as others did. Kumiko could have confided in her for that reason, and because she knew of the Unbroken. Chen, on the other hand, was an unknown quality. The Moto family had a history of hatred for the Shadowlands. Was it any wonder the Mantis samurai-ko had chosen not to tell him? Chen wanted to think he would not have condemned her for it, but in all honesty he could not say for certain.

"Good," he said. "I would hate to think we came all this way for something unimportant." Kumiko's look was one of gratitude and appreciation. "Our guide?"

"A Kuni witch-hunter allied with the Unbroken," Akasha explained.

"I purchase the materials necessary for a tea that suppresses the Taint," Kumiko expanded. "They discovered me that way, and have checked on me regularly for years. To ensure my mind and will have not faded."

Chen nodded. "A noble vigil, even if there are fools among their number." He glanced back down at the village. "So shall we descend?"

"No," said Akasha. "We wait for them."

"I grow tired of waiting," muttered Chen. "How long?"

"They are already here," Akasha answered, looking around at the jagged rocks that surrounded them. Even as she finished, half a dozen men and women rose from their places of concealment within the rocks, all with weapons at the ready. Each was heavily bandaged, with thick cloths covering their faces and arms. Only their eyes were visible. One of them had bandages stained from within with some opaque brown fluid.

"I'm not used to having others sneak up on me," Chen said, his hand hovering near his blade.

"Strangers have no place here," one of them replied.

"We come in good faith," Akasha said, her voice soft and even. "We have brought one who wishes to join your brotherhood."

Two of the bandaged ronin glanced at one another. "Who are you who know our ways?" one asked.

Akasha withdrew another pearl from her pack. This one was pure white and flawless in every respect. It glowed with a beautiful white light. "I am Akasha apprentice of the Ghedai and defender of the Shinomen Mori. I know of your ways and traditions, and come to pay my respects."

"You are the Legacy," the ronin said, lowering his weapon. "The Pearlborn."

Akasha cocked her head to the side slightly. Chen could tell she was suppressing her surprised reaction. "I am," she said. "Will you take us to see Mariko?"

"Mariko is dead," was the matter-of-fact answer. "She died during the winter."

"I am sorry," Akasha said genuinely. "She was a great leader."

"Her death purchased the life of my father," the ronin said. "He leads us now. We will take you to him."

"You have our thanks."

Half of the ronin led the way down a well concealed, winding path that entered the village. It seemed that everyone in the village wore the same bandages, although in varying degrees. Chen tried not to stare at the tiny, bandaged children who halted their games to watch them. How strange to be one of two pure samurai in a village full of Tainted, yet feel like the outsider. The party was led to a slightly larger building in the village's center. In another setting, Chen might have called it the most ramshackle dwelling he had ever seen. Here, it had a certain dignity he could not deny.

The interior of the building was strangely warm despite the cool mountain air. Three figures waited within, both swathed from head to toe in bandages. One sat on crude, dirty cushions, and had the posture of an elderly person. Her eyes had a crimson color. Another was a tall, well-built man who stood as if waiting. His arms were crossed, and his blue eyes blazed with a fierce intelligence. "I am Tsumaru, leader of the Unbroken."

"I am Akasha," she bowed far lower than etiquette demanded. "My companions…"

"Your names are unimportant," Tsumaru interrupted. "We know the reason for your visit. We have been expecting you."

"You have?" Kumiko asked, amazement and horror in her voice. Chen imagined that she had lived in fear of exposure her entire life. As the only child of the Mantis' greatest hero, the burden of greatness was hers to bear.

Tsumaru nodded. "Shiriko has visions. One of them showed you coming to us." He glanced down at the old woman sitting in the floor with a respectful nod.

"A seer? A strange gift for the Taint to bring," Akasha said with a short bow to the old woman.

"Is it?" Shiriko croaked. "For every true vision I receive ten of blood and horror. Have you seen your own children torn apart by your hand? Or watched your family drown in an ocean of blood? Hardly a gift." The old woman's crimson eyes flashed. "My years are growing short. The visions will end soon, praise the Fortunes."

The third figure, a woman, stepped forward and eyed Kumiko carefully. "You are Yoritomo's daughter, then."

"I am," Kumiko said proudly.

"You command the Storm Legion?"

"No, I…"

The woman did not wait for Kumiko to finish. "Are you the Mantis Champion?"

Kumiko's eyes blazed. "I will be." She stared back at the bandaged woman, recognition finally shining in her eyes. "You are Yoritomo Yukue, aren't you?"

"I am Yukue," the woman answered. "That is all."

"I heard of your triumph over the Taint," Kumiko said with a bow. "It was your tale that inspired me to seek out the Unbroken. I had heard you cleansed yourself of your Taint and returned to give your armor and swords to your daughter."

Yukue nodded.

"If your Taint is cleansed, why are you still here?" Chen asked.

"My battle is not done," Yukue answered. "I may be cleansed, but the others are not, so it falls to me to stand beside them."

"I see," Kumiko said. "Then it is your victory I must share if I am truly to be the Daughter of Storms."

"Your titles are unimportant here," Tsumaru admonished. "All Unbroken are equal. We are brothers and sisters, not lords and vassals. If you cannot accept this simple precept, then you have no place among us."

The Mantis warrior nodded. "I sail alongside my fellow Mantis every day. I am accustomed to such ways."

"Good. Then you are suitable."

Chen could see Kumiko struggling to contain her enthusiasm. "Then… you will accept me?"

"Perhaps. There is one other within the village who wishes to join us. If you can prove yourselves worthy of the Unbroken, you will be accepted into our ranks."

"Worthy?" Chen said. "Are there those that are unworthy? What manner of creature is turned away by a band of Tainted wave men?"

Tsumaru's gaze was withering. "To cleanse our souls of the Taint, the Unbroken must destroy those that possess it. We are hunters, and goblins, ogres, oni and the Lost are our prey. Would you hunt such creatures alongside men you did not trust, Unicorn?"

Chen said nothing. Both Kumiko and Akasha were shooting him unpleasant looks. His brash nature could cost Kumiko her chance with these strange people if he were not careful, and that was something he dared not do.

"If you are ready, your test will begin immediately," Tsumaru said. Seeing Kumiko's silent nod, he gestured for her to follow him. Almost as an afterthought, he turned back to Akasha and Chen. "We do not have guest houses, but there are some that are currently vacant. You will be shown to them. I urge you to remain within until you are sent for. There are things in these mountains that make a quick end of the unwary."

Tsumaru's parting words were far too much like a threat for Chen's tastes, but Akasha grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the door before he could comment. Kumiko gave them a parting look, one full of gratitude and exuberance, and then she was gone through the curtains in the back.

Chen idly wondered if he would ever see her again.

o

"We will leave at first light," Akasha said as she prepared her things for their departure. "The return trip should be faster, since we won't have to hold back for Kumiko."

"I am not comfortable leaving her here," Chen said through a mouthful of dried rations.

"It does not matter if you are or not," Akasha said matter-of-factly. "She chose to come here of her own free will. If you wanted take her from here, you would have to fight her. If you tried to stay, the Unbroken would drive you from the valley."

"I don't have to like it," he said sullenly. "But I suppose it is for the best. They can purge her Taint, hopefully, and it leaves me free to deal with Chaozhu." He sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Do you know what Ghedai meant about an army?"

Akasha stopped what she was doing and sat down. A grave look came over her. "I do know, yes. He has been experimenting with a means of removing certain individuals from the Great Sleep. I believe he intends to awaken a small army of Asp warriors."

"Good idea," said Chen, nodding. "The Tsuno have been far too active through your forest, and the Legions do not know the land like your people."

"I hope you are right," Akasha said. "But one way or another, there are many things you do not know about what has been happening in the Shinomen. There are things you do not know about my sensei."

Chen frowned. He started to ask what she meant, but was interrupted by shouting from outside. He leapt to his feet in an instant, and charged for the door. Akasha called out to him, telling him to stop, but he would have none of it. Just before he grabbed the door to wrench it open, an Unbroken warrior opened the door and blocked the doorway. "Do not be alarmed," he told the surly Unicorn. "All is well."

"What was that noise?" Chen demanded. "Where is Kumiko?"

"She is safe," came Tsumaru's voice. The guard stepped aside and the Unbroken's leader entered the door, closing it behind him. "She has passed her test. She is fit to be one of us."

"What test?" Chen continued.

"The other that wished to join us, the one I mentioned before. He was one of the Lost, a spy from Daigotsu's Obsidian Legions trying to infiltrate and corrupt our village."

"What?" roared Chen. "You can't even police your own village? Outrageous! How can you hope to help her?"

"We knew what he was as soon as he arrived," Tsumaru answered flatly. "We waited for you, that he might serve as a test for your friend. She saw through his lies and dealt with him appropriately."

Chen was fairly screaming now. "How dare you? What if she had been killed?"

"Then," Tsumaru said plainly, "we would have known that our foe was very powerful, and that he could save even one of the most Tainted among us."

The Unicorn general was at a loss for words. His instincts demanded he cut the ronin down for his effrontery, but he knew he could not. Akasha and Kumiko would likely not survive the reprisal, even if he did. "You're a monster," was all he finally managed.

For the first time, Tsumaru's steely gaze softened. "Now you understand," he said. "We are all monsters. That is why we stand aside from the world. Together, with luck and fortitude, we can be something more. This is why you must leave. Despite your friendship with Kumiko you are not one of us. If the Fortunes are kind, you never will be." He glanced back and forth between the two Unicorn for a moment, then straightened again. "I will expect you to be ready to depart in the morning." He turned and left, closing the door behind him before Chen could think of a response.

"This place is madness," Chen said quietly.

Akasha placed a hand on his shoulder. "There is madness everywhere." Her smile was very sad. "It is time you knew the truth about the Shinomen Mori. You and I and one other may be the key to saving the Naga race, and there is little time in which to do it."

TO BE CONCLUDED