Visions of the Future, Part II
By Shawn Carman

The Asako Provinces, six months ago

The henshin moved slowly through her garden. She relished everything about her beloved gardens. The plants here were like her children. She tended to their every need, raising them from the tiniest seedlings to the beautiful, mature plants they were now. Their scent, their texture, their warmth… it was her greatest joy in life. What did it matter if she had never had children of her own? She had no need for the filthy, noisy creatures.

Footsteps from where the garden and her private estate merged carried to the aging woman's acute ears. She frowned in mild surprise. It was uncommon for anyone to disturb her here, and for very good reason.

A young man in blue robes ran up the stone walk and dropped to his knees before her. "Kinuye-sama, I have news from our agents. They have…" The man's eyes bulged, and a single hand flew to his throat in surprise. Beneath his skin, his veins throbbed and twisted, darkening to a sickly black color. He opened his mouth, but could say nothing. Only a wet gurgle escaped.

A single drop of crimson blood trickled down Asako Kinuye's hand. She glanced at the rose in her hand, at the thorn that she had purposefully used to spill her own blood. With a motherly smile she casually held her hand above the rose bush so that her blood would drip down into the soil. "Haruki," she said pleasantly, "have I not ordered that no one is to disturb me here?"

The man said nothing. He clawed at his throat with both hands now, ragged coughing sounds escaping his rapidly closing windpipe.

"I believe I have," she answered herself. "This is my private place. I won't be bothered with trivialities here. Not from you, nor anyone else." She looked down on the man and smiled warmly. "I will release you for just a moment so that you can tell me exactly what it is that is so important for you to throw your life away. Perhaps I'll spare you, if this is a true crisis." She tucked her hands behind her back. "Personally, I hope it is not." She smiled again. "My plants are thirsty."

A wave of the hand Haruki fell to the ground, noisily gasping huge gulps of air into his oxygen-starved lungs. "Th…thank you, Kinuye-sama," he rasped. "Your mercy is appreciated, my lady."

"You waste more of my time?" She said mildly. "How fortunate for my chrysanthemums."

"No!" he blurted out. "We have found one of the Black Scrolls!"

Kinuye stopped just before the thorn broke her skin again. "Explain," she said softly. "Quickly."

"Our… your agents have been tracking the Scrolls, as you asked," he stammered quickly. "As you theorized, we found evidence some months ago that one of them was taken from Yogo Junzo's corpse by Iuchi Karasu. We have only recently received word that our agents among the Unicorn have found where the Iuchi are keeping it."

Kinuye's eyes narrowed. "Which Scroll was it?"

Haruki offered a feeble smile. "The one you wanted most, my lady."

She straightened and folded her hands within her sleeves. "Excellent," she said with a smile, eerie in its sincerity and warmth. It was the sort of smile that one might receive from a pleased grandmother. "Summon Tadiyuki and have him prepare for an extended trip." She paused. "No, on second thought, summon Michirou instead. Tadiyuki lacks the subtle touch for such a delicate assignment." She nodded to Haruki in dismissal.

The young man leapt to his feet and darted for the exit. He was almost there when Kinuye called after him. "One last thing, Haruki," she said. He winced, then turned obediently and awaited instruction.

Kinuye glanced at him with raised eyebrows. "I'll summon Michirou myself. I have need of you elsewhere."

"Anything, my lady."

"Very good," she said. "There are twelve chrysanthemum bushes in the northern garden. Water them."

"Very well," the man said, he looked about in confusion, searching for a watering tool.

"No," she said in a deathly cool voice. "Water them as I do." She extended one finger, letting another drop of blood fall on the earth. "I believe you have a knife,"

The man paled.

"Oh, do not fret, Haruki," she replied. "You served me well, but you also disobeyed my rules in entering my garden. Perhaps you will not die, if you are strong, but if you cease your work before I command you will never leave these walls."

"Yes, my lady," the man said in a terrified voice.

o

The Iuchi Provinces, two months ago

The wind rustled through the long grass on the plains surrounding Shiro Iuchi, Gather of Winds Castle. The bizarre castle spires, an obvious bit of gaijin architecture, rose elegantly into the night sky. The village surrounding the castle was little more than an embellishment to the grand structure, a footnote to the castle's greatness. Seen from afar, it seemed strangely idyllic, above reproach.

Shiba Michirou would see to it that it was not. He lay motionless in the tall grass, careful to remain hidden even at this great distance. The Iuchi were a potent family of shugenja, and could likely detect him even this far away if he were not careful. Fortunately, he had long ago learned to conceal himself. He would not be discovered tonight.

There was a slight rustle in the grass to his left. Annoyed, he turned to inspect his captive. The young peasant he had abducted from the last village was beginning to stir. He checked her bindings again to make certain she could not escape if she were to wake. Satisfied, he returned to continue his inspection of the castle. It appeared that the grounds were patrolled regularly, and it would be difficult to gain entry that way. The roof, however, was vulnerable, particularly because of its strange architecture.

Michirou smiled. He loved nothing so much as turning someone's strengths against them. More than one of those damnable Isawa had suffered at his hands, and their precious strength with the kami hadn't helped them. The Iuchi's bizarre ways wouldn't help them either. His studies indicated the family had little experience with maho and the Taint beyond their daimyo's enmity with Yogo Junzo during the Clan War. While they might well sense elemental spells being used within the castle, there was little chance they would detect his particular brand of magic.

The sinister man drew a long, black knife from his obi. He turned to the woman stirring in the grass beside him. He checked once again to make certain the cloth binding her mouth was secure, then leaned in to whisper in her ear. "This will hurt, but if you're smart and don't make any noise, you will live. Killing you serves no purpose for me." He was lying of course. He only took the girl to provide blood for his spells. Michirou would be able to gain entry to the castle and escape again with a few spells, but the blood loss would leave him weak. He would need more to hasten his departure. And when he was done with her, she would die. It was only a matter of practicality.

The black knife bit deeply into the skin of the girl's arm. She came fully awake and screamed, but the gag held. It was not a deep cut, but the pain was enough to cause her to lose consciousness. The lesser classes were very weak-willed, but blood was still blood. With the blood still wet on his blade, Michirou chanted a quick incantation, summoning the power hidden within the fluid of life.

There was a tearing sensation, painful and disturbing. Large, leathery wings the color of raw meat tore through the kimono on Michirou's back. He flexed them a few times, but needed little practice. It was a familiar sensation. With a leap and a surge, he lifted off the ground and soared into the night sky with little effort.

As he soared toward Shiro Iuchi, Michirou reflected on what would need to be done to secure his prize. He was a shugenja of limited ability, but because he was a Shiba, his Phoenix brethren had never truly accepted him. He had been left frustrated and belittled because of his meager ability with the kami. At least until Kinuye found him. She had taught him ways to gain far more power, and ways to make those who had cast him aside pay for their folly. In return, he did whatever she asked, without question. No act was too base, too vile. He was her agent in the Empire at large, her reaching hand beyond the Phoenix lands, and he would have it no other way.

Michirou landed lightly on the highest spire of Shiro Iuchi. He paused for several minutes, listening intently to see if he had been discovered. When there was no indication he had, he willed the wings to disappear. They did so in seconds, each crumbling into a handful of foul, blackened earth that stained his torn kimono. The assassin drew in a deep breath and quieted his anxious desire to blast through the wall and begin killing Unicorn. This mission would be difficult, and require subtlety. He would need several spells to penetrate the castle's vault, and if he had to use his own blood, he would be weak by the time he escaped. He must be cautious, for if he was pursued there was little chance he could survive the night.

Slowly, Michirou drew his knife again. He effortlessly sliced open the flesh on his deeply scarred forearm, opening a torrent of blood that smeared the tower. He chanted an incantation, once again drawing on the power hidden deep in the blood. This was his gift, to use blood to create powerful effects that other maho-tsukai, those who had studied the dark arts for years, could not master. It was also his bane. If he used it too much or too often, he risked insanity and destruction at the hands of his mistress.

The spell's power washed over him, stretching his hands into long, spidery fingers that dripped a thick, pungent-smelling adhesive. His flesh rippled, then slowly faded until it was virtually transparent, blending his color with that of the walls around him. With his hands clinging easily to the sides of the walls, Michirou carefully made his way down the castle's side, hidden from the view of all those below by the camouflaging effects of his magic.

He easily made his way down the wall until he reached an open window. Glancing inside, he recognized what must be guest quarters, apparently having recently been cleaned after someone's departure. He slid inside the cramped opening and dropped silently onto the floor, again pausing to listen for any sign that he had been detected by those beyond the chamber.

Michirou faced a moment of indecision. His spell was not enough to mask him completely from the eyes of others. If he met someone in the hall, they would almost certainly see him, although they would not know exactly what they were seeing. On the other hand, the Iuchi might sense a regular elemental spell, even though such a spell would be far more effective in hiding him from mortal eyes. After a few moments of consideration, he decided that a single spell cast in a castle of shugenja would most likely go unnoticed. A quick prayer later, he felt the air kami swirl around him, disgusted though they were with his presence, and conceal him from sight.

Once concealed, it was not difficult for Michirou to make his way deep inside the castle. He studiously avoided anyone he met in the halls, and noticed a few that seemed to frown when he came near, as if they sensed something amiss. Unable to kill them, he chose to avoid them instead. In less than an hour's time, he had reached the deepest levels. There, he found what he sought. Like fools, the Iuchi had left only a pair of guards to protect the vault where it was stored.

He moved like a shadow. One moment the two guards were alone, and in the next, Michirou was there and one was dead. The second was fast, but not fast enough. Michirou cut his throat open before his katana ever cleared its saya. Whispering an incantation before the man's blood dried, the Bloodspeaker transformed his body into a fine red mist and slid effortlessly through the solid wall that separated him from the object of his quest.

The interior of the vault was pitch black, but such things did not bother Michirou. It was one of the more beneficial effects his magic had wrought on his body. There were riches and incredible magic all around him, but these things were of no interest to the assassin. He needed only one thing… and he had found it.

Reaching out to lift the delicate crystal case from the stand where it rested, Shiba Michirou smiled a cruel, sinister smile. Tucking the case securely into his garments, Michirou turned to leave. It would be difficult getting out without being detected of course, but the most difficult part was already over. And he might even have a chance to kill someone on his way out.

o

The Phoenix seashore, present day

Iuchi Yue was awake in an instant. She did not move, nor give any sign that she was anything but fast asleep. There was no immediate sign that anything was amiss, but someone was near. The gentle lull of the waves on the beach had changed suddenly, and her trained ear had detected the kami's disturbance.

The dim light of Lord Sun palely illuminated the area, as Lord Yakamo had not yet crossed the horizon in his pursuit of Lady Moon. Yue could only make out indistinct shapes where the bushes and undergrowth surrounding her were. There was nothing unusual that she could see, yet she knew there was something amiss. So she waited, moving only slightly, as a woman in her sleep might. One such move ended with her hand resting very near the hilt of her blade. She waited another ten or fifteen minutes, then she heard the sound again, off to her left.

Yue leapt up from her bedroll, drawing her sword in a single fluid motion. Her exquisitely crafted wakizashi captured the pale sunlight and glinted brilliantly. The flash of light brought a slight gasp from the bushes, and Yue homed in on the sound. She slashed through the underbrush with two lightning strikes.

There was nothing immediately visible within the bushes. Yue glanced around, keeping her guard up. She reached out with her senses, looking for the source of the sound she had heard only seconds before. There was nothing, but she did sense a strange confluence of kami swirling about in the local area. On a desperate whim, Yue lashed out with a kick, aiming for the center of activity.

Her foot struck something, although she could not see it. She heard a surprised grunt, then a disturbance on the ground as something struck it. She shouted a well-rehearsed prayer to the kami, and they scattered from her target. Yue lifted her blade, expecting to find her prey at her mercy after months of pursuit, then lowered it in confusion.

The form on the ground was a man, but not the man she was chasing. His cloak had fallen open to reveal a shabby kimono marked with numerous questionable discolored patches. His face was covered with a scraggly beard, and he was clearly older than she, though his disheveled appearance made it difficult to tell his age. He pointed at her with one hand, the nails long and jagged, his fist crackling with the kami's power. Yue began another prayer to counter his energy, but paused when he did not attack.

"I mean you no harm," he grumbled in a thick, ragged voice.

"Your actions cast doubt on your intentions," she said, not yet lowering her blade.

The man stared curiously at her blade, then the satchel kept close on her hip. "You are a shugenja? I did not expect that."

"Looking for easier prey?" she hissed angrily.

The man gestured back to her tiny camp. "There is a large bundle that appears to be armor near your horse. I assumed you were a bushi. I should know better than to make assumptions." He snickered. "Next time I won't make such a mistake."

"You assume that you will live," Yue countered. "Didn't you just learn not to make assumptions?" She moved the blade's tip closer. "Who are you?"

"Considering these are Phoenix lands, and considering you have a blade and I have the kami," he lifted his burning hand slightly higher, "you are rather presumptuous to make demands." He paused for a moment, then shrugged. The flames surrounding his fist disappeared. "I am Isawa Fosuta."

"Why are you out here?"

"Now you really are being unreasonable," he grumbled. "I am a warden charged with protecting these remote lands. I survey them periodically to ensure nothing strange has happened. Such as, for instance, an invasion by a lone shugenja from the Unicorn Clan. Now… who are you, and why are you here?"

Yue frowned. "Aren't you a bit old to be a warden?"

With a snarl and an annoyed look, Fosuta retorted "Well, these aren't exactly high traffic provinces, now are they? Answer my question."

She lowered her blade. "I am Iuchi Satsuki," Yue lied, reciting her practiced cover story. "I am a magistrate of the Iuchi family, pursuing a thief."

"A thief?" Fosuta asked, a crooked grin on his twisted features. "A long journey from your family's provinces, isn't it? Your thief must have stolen something of significance."

"I am not permitted to speak of it," she said primly.

"Very well," he said. "I assume you have some sort of proof of this? Or am I to allow anyone claiming to be a magistrate to traffic in my lands?"

Suppressing a smile, Yue nodded. "I have a letter bearing the chop of my daimyo, Iuchi Yue. Would you like to see it?"

"I would," Fosuta said. "Regardless of its authenticity, you know I cannot permit you to travel these lands alone. I must accompany you."

"No," she said firmly, turning to retrieve the letter from her travel pack. "You will only slow me down."

"Allowing you to travel unsupervised would be a failure of duty, not to mention the Elemental Council may well view it as an act of war for Unicorn scouts to travel their lands unsupervised," Fosuta said. He snickered again. It was a strange, unpleasant sound. "And you might be surprised how well I keep up."

Yue frowned distastefully. "Very well. I suppose I can accommodate you."

The little man pointed at her with one of his gnarled hands, the sickening nail sticking out like a tiny blade. "You have no authority here," he reminded her. "You would do well to remember that. Your presence is only acceptable because I choose to allow it. If you would rather face the Phoenix magistrates, I can summon them very shortly."

Yue glanced down at the ground and drew a deep breath. It was difficult for her to remember that, for the moment, she was nothing but a simple family magistrate. Her life of power and influence had conditioned her to regard others with a bit less compassion and tolerance than would be accepted from those unfamiliar with her position. "You are correct, Fosuta-sama. I apologize for my rudeness. I would be grateful for whatever assistance you might offer in capturing my prey."

Fosuta cleared his throat. "Well, then. As long as we understand one another. Now, tell me of this troublesome thief who trespasses in my lands."

o

True to his word, the strange little man had little trouble keeping up with Yue. Fosuta had obviously spent a great deal of time in the wilderness, and Yue was impressed with his hunting skill as well as his affinity for the kami. Her admiration ended there, however. There was something about Fosuta that was disturbing. His gaze lingered a bit too long, and was too intense. His physical appearance and hygiene were just short of revolting, and his presence seemed somehow oppressive,.
The trail, which even Yue had to admit at this point was growing increasingly random, led them ever north toward the remotest portions of the Isawa provinces. Fosuta carefully led them around the infrequent villages they had encountered during the past three days, going in alone to make cautious inquiries about their prey, and was pushing north at a considerable pace. "Do you have any idea where we are going?" Yue finally asked him on the second day.

Fosuta grunted noncommittally. "Either your thief is headed this way or he isn't. Do you have any idea where he might be if not here?"

"No," she admitted. "He has proven most difficult to track."

"Well then it doesn't really matter," the old man laughed. "If he is going north, however, then I think I know where he might be going."

"How can you know that?" she demanded.

"Because I have known these woods since I was a child," he retorted. "But you're welcome to go ahead alone if you want."

Yue ground her teeth in frustration. The truth of the matter was that she needed the Phoenix's help. She was not familiar with these lands, and her prey obviously was. Without Fosuta, she had little chance of catching him. "No," she said finally. "No, I would greatly appreciate your help."

"Then be quiet and let's go," Fosuta said irritably.

It was late afternoon on the fourth day when they reached a particularly desolate stretch of coast. It was completely devoid of anything resembling civilization, but Fosuta explained that there had once been a library in the area, and that it had been destroyed by fire centuries ago. Since that time, the area had been left abandoned. "It has no resources to speak of," Fosuta explained. "The soil is not fertile. There is no reason to come here."

"Why would our prey come here, then?"

"Because no one comes here," Fosuta laughed. "It is often used as a hiding place for criminals."

Yue threw up her hands in exasperation. "If you know that, why haven't they been dealt with by now?"

Fosuta looked at her irritably. "I like knowing that I can come here and find my prey. If I were to arrest every minor thief that hid here, the rest would scatter. Then when something important comes along, such as this alleged thief you are chasing, where would we be?"

"That makes no sense at all," Yue insisted. Her patience was wearing very thin indeed. "You are a disgrace to the title of warden. We are finished here. I will find him on my own, if you haven't thrown me too far off the trail."

"Why is she still alive?"

The voice caught Yue unaware. She leapt from her horse and landed in a fighting stance, with one hand on her blade and the other clutching a scroll. She whirled to find a young man perched atop a rock several dozen feet above them, overlooking the path they had been taking. His features were nondescript, but his eyes told her everything she needed to know. He was a murderer, a madman. He was her prey. "You are the one."

"Yes, I am." Michirou smiled and tossed a strange knife from one hand to another absently, as if bored. He glanced irritably at Fosuta. "Why isn't she dead?"

Yue turned to face the Phoenix warden, her eyes narrowing. She had been a fool to trust him. She had been so at a loss in these strange lands, she had grasped for any hope of succeeding. And now it would be her death. Fosuta only shrugged. "You know who she is. I thought perhaps I might need help. Where are the others?"

Michirou laughed and spread his arms wide. "Everywhere, of course!"

Yue scanned the rocks and shrubs all around them. Now that she was not focusing on Fosuta's annoying behavior, she could sense others hidden there, cloaked by some magic she did not understand. "You'll pay for this," she said quietly. It was not a threat.

Michirou snorted. "Your humor is a pathetic as your clan."

"Where is the scroll?" she demanded.

"Scroll?" Fosuta asked.

"I handed it to a contact days ago," Michirou bragged. "By now it's changed hands three or four times." He laughed at her crestfallen expression. "You'll never find it, Unicorn! You've failed utterly!"

Yue shouted and pointed at him with her blade. Lightning raced along the metal and arced toward the thief. He sprang away at the last moment, and the rock upon which he had been sitting exploded with the force of her spell. To her left she saw a shimmering as three more men cast aside their concealing magic and prepared to attack her. She spun to defend herself, knowing she could never stop them all but vowing to make them pay dearly for her death.

Even as she spun around, Yue saw that a portion of the cliff face was collapsing on the three men. They realized what was happening far too late, and were unable to stop it. One released a fire spell just as the stones crushed him, but the flames washed over the rocks without effect. Yue spun around again to see Fosuta gesturing toward the cliff face, clearly just completing a spell. The old man gave her an eerie grin. "Try to take him alive," he said in a terse voice. "I will deal with the others."

Yue didn't stop to question. She summoned a force of air and leapt upward, the air kami suffusing her and carrying her well above the cliff. The kami held her aloft as she scanned the ground for any sign of where the thief had landed. She heard a strange sound and instinctively hurled herself to the side.

Michirou dove from a higher altitude, his hands twisted into blackened claws, two huge crimson wings sprouting from his back. His strike missed, but only just. He laughed darkly. "Submit to me, woman. I may let you live."

Yue held her blade in a defensive position and began reciting a prayer.

"Don't be a fool!" Michirou shouted, his smile gone. "You cannot hope to match my power!"

The Iuchi daimyo said nothing, but unleashed a torrent of water that seemed to explode from her palm. It struck Michirou squarely in the chest and drove him backward, saturating him. His wings flapped frantically, but they were useless. He plummeted to the earth with a scream of panic and rage.

Yue did not hesitate. She maneuvered downward at great speed until she was a mere ten feet above where Michirou was struggling to rise from the stone where his shattered body had landed. She released her spell and dropped the final ten feet in freefall, her blade held above her head. Just before she touched the ground, she swung downward with all her might.

Michirou looked up for a fraction of a second. There was no arrogance. Only fear. She aimed her sword at his arm, hoping to disable him for questioning. To her surprise, the man ducked in front of her blade, splitting his skull open. And then he was dead.

Yue took a few moments to catch her breath. From the silence all around her, she knew Fosuta must have defeated the others. She found she was not surprised. The old man was not what he seemed, apparently. Stifling the urge to retch, Yue rifled through the dead man's belongings quickly, desperately hoping he had lied about the scroll. He had not.

"Did you find it?" Fosuta called from the ground below the cliff where she stood.

Yue stood up, looking down into the chasm before her. She wanted to turn and shout at Fosuta, but he had done nothing. She had failed, just as the thief had said. She started to close her eyes, but noticed something in the chasm below. It was partially buried, but appeared to have been uncovered by the rockslide Fosuta had triggered. "Just a moment," she shouted.

She leapt down into the chasm, slowing her fall with another spell. It was too much to hope that the fool had just hid something so precious nearby, wasn't it? Yue wasn't sure. She had to know. She moved some rocks and pulled out what appeared to be an ancient scroll satchel. Her heartbeat racing, she reached inside.

Again, crushing disappointment filled her soul. The scrolls inside were ancient, and had clearly been buried for many years. What's more, they were written in some strange cipher she did not recognize. An Isawa code, most likely. Her expression downcast, she shouldered the bag absently and leapt back up.

Isawa Fosuta looked at her impatiently when she finally descended back to the path where the two of them had arrived so short a time ago. "Well?"

Yue shook her head. "No trace of it. He must have been telling the truth." She looked at the old man curiously. "Do you know what it is?"

"I know enough," he said. For once, there was no humor in his voice. "What will you do now?"

"Keep looking," she said without hesitation. "I have no choice." She frowned. "You are no warden, but neither are you a Bloodspeaker."

"No," he laughed. The laugh remained as chilling as ever. "I am an Inquisitor. I infiltrated this cell months ago. I considered letting them kill you to maintain appearances, but I decided I could not allow the Iuchi daimyo to perish in Phoenix lands, even if you are here in secret. That would be bad form."

"You know?" Yue discovered that she was not surprised.

"It is my duty to know that which is hidden," he confirmed with a cackle. "I have mined deeper and darker secrets than yours, Yue-sama."

Yue shook her head. "And what will you do now?"

"I will stay hidden for a while, then try to contact other Bloodspeakers. Perhaps I can find another cell." He stroked his chin and grinned. It was not a pleasant sight. "There is a matter in the Shiba provinces I must deal with first, though. A matter of some wayward Lions."

"Good luck to you, then," Yue said, placing her things back on her horse and preparing to mount. "I thank you, Isawa Fosuta. I would have never found him without you, and perhaps he would even have found me first if not for your aid."

"Carry the Fortunes, Yue-sama," Fosuta said. "Perhaps we shall meet again."

She could not suppress a small grimace. "Perhaps so," she agreed. She urged her horse to turn south. Somewhere, the Wasting Disease was waiting to be used, and she would do anything to prevent that from happening. If she had the opportunity, she would try to decipher the scrolls she had found in the chasm. It was possible, however unlikely, that they might hold a clue to the Black Scroll's whereabouts.

She could not afford to overlook any advantage at this point.