By Rich Wulf
Ten Years Ago…
Traitor's Grove was silent today, as it always was, save the morbid chime of rusted armor and broken swords that hung from drooping branches. Bayushi Yojiro knelt amid the bent and twisted trees, head bowed in prayer. He came here often of late, though few knew why. Few dared to question him; the Master of Secrets was called so for a reason. Some reasoned that he came here to remind himself of the price of failure. Some thought perhaps the spirits of the grove spoke to him, whispering the wisdom of the ages to the Scorpion Champion in an attempt to atone for a life of treachery.
Bayushi Kawamura knew the truth, but none bothered to ask her. She was called "the Ghost of Traitor's Grove," a lonely woman with a mask of pure silver and the gift of magic so rare in her family. She tended the trees in the cursed grove, kept them healthy and strong so that the tormented souls bound within them would never escape. One day, she would die and her duties and mask would pass to another. Few paid any attention to Kawamura. Not many samurai even chose to acknowledge her existence, so loathsome was her duty.
Bayushi Yojiro was unlike many samurai.
"You wait for him still, Yojiro-sama?" Kawamura asked, kneeling silently beside the Lord of the Scorpion Clan.
"I have good news for him, Kawamura-chan," Yojiro said, looking down at the young shugenja with a fond smile. The demonic mask Yojiro had taken to wearing during the War of Spirits had been set aside, revealing his handsome face. "The Crane Champion has bargained for leniency on all spirits who displayed loyalty during the war. Those who agree to undergo the Phoenix ritual will be made mortal once more, and will be welcome in the Empire."
"Baku is not like other spirits," she replied.
"To say the least," Yojiro replied. "Furuyari and the other Heroes of Rokugan all played their part, but it is to Baku that we owe our freedom from tyranny. It was he who gained the trust of the Steel Chrysanthemum and led him into our trap at Beiden Pass. He has saved the Empire."
Kawamura was quiet for a moment. "You think that Baku did what he did for the Empire?" she asked.
Yojiro regarded her curiously. "Why do you ask? Do you think that his intentions were not honorable, little ghost?" he asked.
"You know little about him," she said. "His history, his memory, was destroyed by the Lying Darkness. You know only that he appeared at the height of the war and offered his aid."
"And without him we would have failed," Yojiro said. "Whatever his past, whatever his secrets, they are his own. I, of all men, know an ally when I see one. Should I not place my trust in Baku?"
Kawamura stood and turned to face Yojiro, leaning back against the trunk of a thick tree. Yojiro winced slightly. Few who visited Traitor's Grove would dare touch the haunted trees, but Kawamura did not fear the spirits trapped within. "Our family is unlike any other, you know that," Kawamura said. "Our bonds of loyalty span beyond life, beyond death." She ran one hand fondly along the tree's trunk. "So is it with Baku. Just as a fish cannot choose but to swim, even in death he cannot cease to serve the Bayushi. He does not seek rewards or favors. He does not seek honor, trust, or glory. He seeks merely to serve."
"And he has served me well," Yojiro said. "He has served the Empire well. He deserves to return to life, should he wish it."
"He will not accept," Kawamura replied. "I doubt if you will even see him again, until he is needed. He does not serve you, Yojiro. He does not serve the Empire. Baku serves only the Bayushi family."
"And the Bayushi serve the Empire," Yojiro replied.
"Yet Baku does not," Kawamura said. "During the Clan War, when the Scorpion were outlaws, Baku was a vengeful spirit. He roamed the Scorpion Provinces murdering any Imperial Legionnaires he found. He left widows and orphans in his wake with no remorse. What would he have done had he found you, I wonder, leading the hunt against your kinsmen as an Emerald Magistrate?"
"I served as a magistrate because it was Kachiko's command," Yojiro said. "Itsuwari, the Ancestral Sword of the Scorpion was to be protected at all costs. I steered the Legions away from my kinsmen whenever possible, and never drew another Scorpion's blood."
"Yet now even that sword, the sword for which you sacrificed your honor, is gone," Kawamura said.
Yojiro frowned. "What are you saying, Kawamura?" he demanded sharply. "That I was wrong to follow my lady's command?"
"No," Kawamura said softly. "I mean to say that you understand what Baku does not. Loyalty is not as simple as some make it. Baku cannot see things this way. His view is distorted through a mask of death and pain. There is only loyalty and disloyalty to his eyes. All are either friends or enemies. You are fortunate that he regards you as a friend, Yojiro, but it may not always be so."
"Nonetheless he deserves Toturi's blessing as much as any," Yojiro said. "When I see him, I will tell him of the Emperor's edict."
"You will not see him," Kawamura answered, "until he is needed again."
Bayushi Kawamura walked silently among the shadowed paths of Traitor's Grove. The long hair that spilled out from behind her silver mask was now shot through with gray, but the dark eyes were still the same, haunted and wise. There were few visitors in the grove these days. Even Yojiro seldom visited anymore. Yet when a tall figure stepped out from between the trees, armor and skin glowing softly in the twilight, Kawamura showed no surprise.
"Baku," she said, bowing politely to the spirit samurai. Her voice was quiet and resigned. "You have returned."
The spirit looked about warily, as if seeking enemies behind every bent tree. He looked down at Kawamura, his eyes twin pools of darkness. "I am needed, holy one," he said simply.
"How can I aid you?" Kawamura asked. It was her duty to steward tormented, lost spirits. Whether they were bound in a tree or wandering freely made little difference to the Ghost of Traitor's Grove.
Baku's face twisted in confusion. "Remain as you are," he said. "You know your place, unlike these others."
"What others?" Kawamura asked. "What enemy have you come to fight?"
The spirit looked away, in the direction of Kyuden Bayushi. "I do not know," he said. "We shall soon see."
Bayushi Yojiro was not himself of late, in a quite literal sense.
It all began with the Shadowed Tower. They were the foulest sort of traitors - an organization that hid within the ranks of the Scorpion Clan and utilized dark magic to gain power and influence over the weak-minded. Even that, however, was not their most nefarious crime for their leaders conspired against the Scorpion Champion for his unwillingness to utilize every weapon at his disposal to serve the Empire. They did not realize that one could not use the powers of Jigoku, no matter how careful you thought you were. Yojiro had seen the Crab, Phoenix, and Lion all learn that lesson. He would die before he allowed such tragedy to befall the Scorpion.
Even so he found there was little he could do to fight the Tower. Their agents were always too quick, too clever, always aware of his plans before he made them. At one point his hunt for the Shadowed Tower was even exposed to the Scorpion's closest allies, the Dragon Clan. The revelation of such a clandestine power struggle could threaten their valuable alliance. What use was an ally who could not even command the loyalty of his own clan?
For a man as used to being in control as Bayushi Yojiro such was a difficult situation to find oneself in. Eventually he came to realize the reason they were so adept at predicting his movements was because the group had been founded by one of his closest advisors - Shosuro Furuyari.
Yojiro was a man of many secrets but Furuyari, it seemed, was something more than mortal. As a returned spirit he had once been a member of the Gozoku, a conspiracy that once brought the Hantei Dynasty to its knees. After his death, he spent many centuries wandering the Spirit Realms, planning his conquest of the Empire. He had fought by Yojiro's side in the War of Spirits, knew the Master of Secrets' tactics and ways of thinking. There was little that Yojiro could plan that Furuyari could not predict.
Except, hopefully, for the entirely unpredictable.
Unknown to any save his spymaster, Shosuro Yudoka, and his master shugenja, Yogo Koji, Yojiro had passed on his sword and title to another. Now a new Champion reigned over the Scorpion - not as experienced as Yojiro, of course, but in many ways less predictable for Furuyari and his shadowed Tower. In the meantime, Yojiro was free to continue acting against the Tower without being constrained by the burdens of rank. Already he and Yudoka had rooted out and destroyed three Shadowed Tower facilities within a day's ride from Kyuden Bayushi.
Now Bayushi Yojiro stood in the shadows of the Scorpion Champion's audience chamber in Kyuden Bayushi. He wore the rough robes of a monk and a plain wooden mask. Few bothered to pay attention to monks, but Yojiro took no chances. Drawing upon arts of disguise he had learned from Yudoka he was unrecognizable even to those who knew him. His eyes were covered with thin fish scales to give them a milky cast. Even his bearing and posture were altered just as his face was concealed. For nearly five months he had exercised by punching his hands into barrels of uncooked rice, leaving calluses on his hands more indicative of a militant student of the Tao than a swordsman.
The former Scorpion Champion moved slowly and quietly about the chamber, cleaning and blessing each of the small shrines to the Scorpion ancestors that lined the walls of the audience room and appearing in no way to be paying undue attention to the Scorpion Champion's meeting with the assembled diplomats.
Soshi Aki, a wizened old courtier with a sharp tongue and brusque demeanor, was currently speaking. His voice was only slightly muffled by the silken mask that covered his lower face. "Lord Furuyari reports that the civic unrest in the western provinces continues unabated despite Shosuro Yudoka's best attempts to stop it," Aki said. He held a scroll in one hand but did not refer to it, quoting his report from memory. "Ryoko Owari in particular is a problem area. It has been all that the magistrates can do to prevent open peasant revolt."
"Why do I receive this report from Furuyari, of all people?" the Scorpion Champion asked in a calm voice, distorted by Koji's magic to sound like Yojiro's own. "The man is a playwright. Is this not a matter to be dealt with by magistrates?"
"Yes, of course, of course," Aki said, nodding quickly. "Yet Furuyari is a concerned citizen of Ryoko Owari, and an old comrade of yours, so he felt that the source would not matter so long as the message was conveyed. In his eyes, the lord of the Shosuro Provinces has been doing little to circumvent this problem. He encourages you to alert the Emerald Magistrates and beseech them for aid."
Yojiro scowled. Furuyari was toying with them and attempting to make Yudoka look incompetent as he did so. Furuyari's connection to the Shadowed Tower could not be traced beyond his confession to Yojiro. The Scorpion Clan was built upon unquestioning loyalty, but to publicly execute such a beloved public figure without any obvious connection would only inspire more disloyalty, which would suit the Shadowed Tower perfectly. No, the Shadowed Tower had to be rooted out quickly, quietly, and privately. Calling the attention of the Emerald Magistrates would only cause difficulty with their strict procedures and unflinching adherence to the letter of the law. Yojiro, of all people, would know. He had been one of them once. It was bad enough with the Dragon here. They were loyal allies, to be sure, but there were some things even their enlightened minds could not comprehend. Furuyari was using the chaos he had created to prove Yojiro incapable of rule, encouraging disloyalty through lies, inciting public opinion against him with half-truths. It set the old Scorpion's teeth on edge.
"Our own magistrates can deal with this problem quite capably," the Scorpion Champion said, selecting words carefully. "The Emerald Magistrates have enough problems with the aftermath of Otosan Uchi and continuing crisis revolving around the Imperial succession."
"And one of the heirs, Hantei Naseru, resides in Ryoko Owari," Aki replied. "Would you not feel responsible if you did not do everything within your power to assure his safety, Yojiro-sama?"
The Scorpion Champion laughed. "Somehow I doubt the Emerald Champion places a high priority on the Anvil's safety. No, I shall send my own personal guard to enforce Naseru's estates."
Clever. The feud between Emerald Champion Yasuki Hachi and Hantei Naseru was still a popular subject of gossip, though those who knew better realized the two men had buried their differences back in Otosan Uchi. Yojiro congratulated his successor quietly; Furuyari was not the only one who could use what people's false perceptions to his advantage.
"I would volunteer my own troops to protect the Hantei as well, if you would have them," added Rosanjin, the Dragon representative.
"I thought your kinsmen supported Naseru's brother, Sezaru," said Koji, looking up from the scroll he had been studying to one side.
"Just because we know the Wolf deserves the throne does not mean we wish his brother harm," Rosanjin replied. "My kinsmen will do everything in their power to protect him, Yojiro-sama."
"That is appreciated, Rosanjin," the Scorpion Champion replied. "Will there be anything further, Aki? I am not the young man I once was, and my bones ache for rest."
Yojiro chuckled to himself quietly.
"No, nothing more," Aki said with a small shrug. "It was my mission to pass on Furuyari-sama's words, nothing more."
"Very well," the Scorpion Champion said. "You are all dismissed. Rosanjin-san, I would speak to you further if you will walk with me."
The Dragon nodded. Yojiro continued tending the shrines, watching Soshi Aki from the corner of his eye. He wondered if the old courtier was an agent of the Shadowed Tower, or was merely loyal to the legitimate public image Furuyari had crafted for himself. That was the most difficult part of this silent war. One could not tell who was friend or foe, even among one's brothers.
With a deep sigh, Yojiro took a final glance around the chamber. Confident that no one was paying any attention to him, he stepped into the secret passage to meet with his successor.
"Well done, Rosanjin," the Scorpion Champion said as they strode across nightingale floors. "I think poor Aki was quite shocked by your sudden offer to safeguard the Hantei."
"Always a pleasure to offer a favor for our cousins in the Scorpion, even if I do not understand it,"
"What are you implying, Rosanjin?" the Scorpion replied, peering over one shoulder at him.
"I have few men at my disposal," he replied. "I will not be able to adequately protect Naseru and aid you in your search for the Shadowed Tower. I think perhaps you are trying to get rid of me."
"You are right," the Scorpion said.
Rosanjin blinked. "You are far more blunt than I had heard," he said, a slow frown crossing his features.
"Listen to me, Mirumoto," the Scorpion said, stopping and turning to face the tall samurai. "It was the Shadowed Tower that summoned you here, hoping to make this private war a public matter and cause me to lose face."
"But we are here," Rosanjin said. "Is there not some way we can help?"
"Could you not have used the Scorpion's help in your journey to the Twilight Mountains?"
Rosanjin's eyes widened, surprised that the Scorpion had known of the secret mission he and his fellow Dragon had undertook only weeks prior. He finally nodded in understanding. "You are correct, of course," he said in a soft voice. "There are some problems of family and clan that can only be dealt with privately."
"Thank you for your understanding, Rosanjin-san," the Scorpion replied. "I shall call upon you if I require you. In the meantime, remain vigilant. It would do great damage to the Scorpion if Naseru were harmed in our territory. He will be safe under the protection of your samurai."
"Hai, Yojiro-sama," Rosanjin said. "In any case, I hope this matter is resolved soon. What with my travels across the Empire my duties at Iron Mountain have been unfairly ignored. My students will have grown fat and lazy."
The Scorpion Champion chuckled. "Your reputation is well known as a warrior and a teacher, Rosanjin," he replied. "I do not think any student would be foolish enough to risk your wrath whether or not you were present."
"We shall see," Rosanjin said with a grin. He bowed, turned, and made his way back the way they had come.
The Scorpion Champion continued alone. Opening a door at the end of the hall, a small room full of shining steel katana waited for its master. This was the Chamber of Swords, the means by which the true ruler of the Scorpion's identity was proven.
"That Dragon is clever," said Yudoka, pushing aside his shadowy cloak as he stepped away from the wall beside the door. "His sense of honor dilutes his focus from time to time, but his swords are guided by an equally keen mind. I would hate to see him as an enemy."
"Agreed," the Scorpion Champion replied, turning to the ninja. "How long have you been following me?"
Yudoka only chuckled. "My agent reports that he is closer to learning the central location of the Tower's central headquarters, the facility where they train their tsukai and process most of their Tainted grain."
"Is he certain they haven't discovered his true loyalties?" the Scorpion Champion answered. "It seems unlike Furuyari to consolidate his power in one vulnerable location."
"I find it difficult to believe myself," Yudoka replied. "I will continue to monitor the…" The ninja fell silent. His hand darted into his robes seeking a weapon, but just as he did so an armored figure materialized and backhanded Yudoka across his mask. The ninja rolled backwards with the blow. His attacker seized the ninja's cloak with his other hand and grappled with him, but cloth fell limp in his hands. Yudoka was gone.
The samurai discarded the empty cloak and turned toward the Scorpion Champion, who waited with the Celestial Sword of the Scorpion in hand. The samurai's flesh and armor glowed with a pale light. His eyes were twin pools of darkness.
"I know you," the Scorpion in Yojiro's armor whispered. "You are Baku."
"Yojiro," Baku said, his voice a hollow moan. "I have come for vengeance."
"Vengeance?" the Scorpion Champion asked sharply. "Vengeance upon whom?"
"The Scorpion turn upon themselves," Baku said, advancing slowly. "Brother battles brother and I awaken again as I did in days of old to protect the Bayushi line. I know not where the path of loyalty lay, so I came to confront you. There is something… wrong with you, Bayushi Yojiro."
"You are mistaken, Baku," the Scorpion Champion replied. "You have been gone many years. Much has happened that you do not understand."
"I do not require understanding," the spirit said. A glowing sword of green fire appeared in his hand. "I only require loyalty!"
The spirit lunged, sword lifted high. The Scorpion Champion dodged to one side but the spirit banked in midair, bringing the sword down hard. His target brought Churetsu up with no time to spare, Baku's sword still colliding sharply with Yojiro's mask. The ancient mempo of porcelain and steel shattered, hurling the Scorpion Champion into the Chamber of Swords. Colliding heavily with the wall, the armored figure slid to the floor, katana clattering to the ground on all sides. Baku advanced, pausing only when his target looked up to face him.
The spirit's magical sword had shattered Koji's illusion. Instead of Yojiro's flint black eyes, eyes of pale blue now gazed up at the vengeful spirit.
"What in Jigoku is this?" Baku hissed, taking a wary step back. "Who are you?"
"I am Bayushi Sunetra," she said. Choosing Churetsu carefully from among the fallen swords, she rose painfully to her feet. Blood streamed down across her pale face, but her expression was firm and unwavering. "I am the Scorpion Champion."
Behind them the nightingale floors cried out noisily. Baku glanced back sharply and stood to one side to watch the old monk that ran to meet them. He stopped, gasping for breath, and threw his wooden mask to the floor. Baku's empty eyes widened in astonishment.
"Yojiro," Baku said, sneering at the disheveled old man he had fought beside in the War of Spirits. "What have you become? What right has this woman to wear your name and mask?"
"She has every right, Baku," Yojiro said hoarsely. "She is my successor. Were it otherwise, she would have surely been killed by the wards in that chamber. You are, yourself, a spirit. Can you not sense the magic in that room?"
Baku looked back into the Chamber of Swords, then at Sunetra, then at Yojiro. He never lowered his sword. His face was an emotionless mask. "She is no true Bayushi," he said. "I can smell it in her blood, see it in her Crane's eyes."
"I see Jigoku in your eyes, Baku," Sunetra said. "What does that make you?"
The spirit looked at the Scorpion Champion solemnly. He could think of no response.
"It is true," Yojiro said, "Sunetra was not born a Scorpion. She was fostered to the Bayushi at birth, abandoned by a low ranking Daidoji family and sent to learn the ways of the Scorpion so that the Crane could pay lip service to a favor they owed Bayushi Kachiko. When the time came for her gempukku, she chose to remain here. She may not have been born a Scorpion, but she has become one through effort and dedication. She carries the Way of the Scorpion, the way of loyalty, in her heart. That is more than I can say for some of our other comrades."
Baku turned toward Sunetra again. He lowered his sword and extended his left hand slowly. His depthless black eyes fixed on Sunetra's pale blue eyes, and she did not turn away.
Shosuro Yudoka appeared suddenly between the spirit and the Scorpion Champion, a katana of pure crystal in his hands. The blade was engraved with shimmering Ashalan runes. Baku hissed in pain when he looked upon it.
"My apologies, my lady," Yudoka said in a level voice, gaze locked on Baku's. "I required a moment to retrieve a suitable weapon."
"Yudoka, no!" Yojiro shouted. The blade halted a hair's width from Baku's unmoving throat.
"It is all right, Yudoka," Sunetra said, stepping forward and pushing Yudoka's sword away. "Baku will not harm me now."
The ninja watched Baku for another long moment, then nodded in satisfaction. "I will fetch Koji," he whispered. "The shugenja will wish to heal your injury and restore your disguise before anyone sees you in this state." The ninja vanished as quickly as he appeared.
She extended her hand, palm up. Baku's fingers touched her palm, cold spirit flesh meeting warm mortal flesh. Memories flashed through Sunetra's mind, and Baku shared them. He witnessed memories of her life in the southern provinces of the Crane, of her parents, her brother, a life of poverty and obscurity, memories long forgotten. He saw a life of joy and happiness, a youth surrounded by the children of the Bayushi. He saw a young girl launch herself into her studies with honest fervor. He saw her enter the service of Hantei Naseru, the mysterious Anvil. He saw her fight a thousand enemies by his side, a thousand victories hidden forever in the shadows. He saw her leave her life behind to become Yojiro, to help the Master of Secrets root out the cancer that threatened to destroy them. He saw her heart, the heart of a Scorpion. All passed in less time than it takes to tell. The spirit caught his breath, or seemed to, and withdrew his hand.
"Do you see the truth now, Baku?" Yojiro asked.
"I see much," Baku whispered, "Yet I do not understand."
"Will you help us?" Sunetra asked. "Your power is legendary, Baku. You could do much to aid us against the Shadowed Tower.
"I must think on this," the spirit said. "I think in the days to come I will wish you had let the ninja return me to Meido. Things are less complicated there." The spirit turned and walked away, his image fading from sight as his footsteps continued across the nightingale floor.
"A strange creature," Sunetra said, watching as he departed.
"A tragic figure," Yojiro said.
"He would have quickly become more tragic if Yudoka had heard that spirit call him a ninja," Sunetra said, sheathing the Celestial Sword at her hip.
Yojiro smiled, lifting his old broken mask from the floor and staring into its empty eyes. "Do not be too quick to judge Baku, Sunetra," the old Scorpion said. "His past has been forgotten, even to himself. He serves without a second thought, though he cannot remember why. How can a samurai remain true to himself if he does not remember who he is?" Yojiro handed the mask to his successor with a thoughtful look.
"And who are we?" Sunetra asked. "I wear your mask. You wear the mask of a monk who never existed."
"Yet we remember who we are, and why we fight," the Master of Secrets replied. "When all about is shadow, cling to the light that reminds all the more fiercely, and let that guide the way."
"Honor is my guide," Sunetra quoted with a small smirk.
"A bit trite, but I suppose that says it well enough," Yojiro said. "Shinsei?"
"Not Shinsei," Sunetra said with a laugh. "My brother."
Yojiro nodded in understanding.
With that, the Scorpion Champion set Churetsu to rest in the Chamber of Swords and closed the door behind her.