By Shawn Carman
The bandits had attacked without warning. Their approach had been very carefully coordinated and stealthy enough that at one moment, Kamiya's band was plodding along slowly and in the next they found themselves surrounded on all sides. Kamiya cursed under her breath. She had hoped that by skirting close to the Lion borders, she and her companions could avoid a situation like this. The Kitsu lands were perhaps three miles to the south at the most. She could make it if she ran, but her companions would surely die. The thought of negotiating crossed her mind only briefly; the look of these men was such that she knew they would leave no survivors.
"Give us what we want and we'll let you live," one of the bandits lied.
"Let the others go," she said, gesturing to the women, children, and elderly with whom she was traveling, "and you can have whatever you want."
"I don't think so," the bandit laughed. "I think we shall take what we want, and your lives as well."
"I have no doubt you will," Kamiya said darkly. "We will not die easily."
"Bravado from a ronin," spat the bandit. "Even an unwashed, clanless samurai thinks she can speak down to us." He turned to favor his comrades with a sinister sneer. "Kill her."
The bandits began moving in. Despite that they seemed to have a clear advantage, they approached cautiously. They were not the fools they seemed, apparently. Kamiya could defeat two or perhaps even three, but she knew she could not stop them all. She would die here, with her only family and a handful of peasants looking on. It was not the death she had imagined for herself, but it would suffice.
"What is the meaning of all this?"
The question was spoken in a soft, quiet voice, but it somehow echoed across the plain so that everyone heard it. The question was so calm, so strangely out of place, that everyone stopped to see what had happened. For one moment, the bandits and travelers shared their confusion equally.
A man in a red robe stood observing the spectacle, his hands tucked casually into his sleeves. Kamiya was certain he had not been there only a moment ago, yet he was regarding the bandits and the travelers as if he had been watching since the beginning. His long, white braids lay draped across his shoulders several times.
"Who are you?" growled the bandit's leader menacingly.
"Only a holy man," the stranger answered. "Why do you threaten these people?"
"I threaten who I choose, priest!"
A pained look crossed the stranger's features. "Your anger, your violence…" he whispered. "They offend the kami. Do you not fear their wrath?"
The bandit leader had clearly endured enough talk. Blood was in his eyes now, and he moved toward the mysterious shugenja. "The kami should fear me, priest. As should you."
"I fear no man, for the kami are with me." The shugenja's eyes blazed. "Let me show you." Kamiya was not entirely certain what followed. There was a flash of light so bright that she had to look away, and what might have been the first second of a man's scream. A wave of heat washed over her, and then there was nothing. Kamiya looked back to see the shugenja standing alone in the tall grass, a wisp of smoke rapidly dissipating in the morning wind. She thought that she saw a shadow scorched on the grass in the shape of the bandit, but could not be sure. "These lands are mine," the shugenja whispered. "All who travel through them are under my protection. Your crimes are at an end."
There was a second flash, this time not so bright. Kamiya saw lightning leap down from the heavens and strike the priest despite the clear morning sky. The electricity arced harmlessly off the man and scattered throughout the field, striking each of the bandits. There was not even time to scream. There was only the briefest sizzling sound, like meat over a campfire, and the scent of burning incense, and then the bandits were gone.
Sheathing her katana, Kamiya dropped to one knee instantly, for she had guessed their savior's name. "Toturi Sezaru-sama," she said, head bowed, "we are unworthy of your intervention. We are in your debt forever, my lord."
She could feel Sezaru's strange, dark eyes boring into her very soul. "Rise, Kamiya-san. As I said, all who travel my lands have my protection."
"Thank you, my lord." Kamiya rose, but maintained a respectful posture. "Those curs would have killed us all."
"Yet you stood against them."
"My father taught me to fight. I could not dishonor him with surrender." Kamiya glanced back at the elderly man being helped along the road by the other travelers. "Father's mind… it is no longer in this world. But I remember him as he was."
Sezaru was strangely silent as he regarded the smiling old man's oblivious expression. "It is a terrible thing, to be denied a father's guidance."
"He guides me still," answered Kamiya. "My memories of him guide me, even if his body and mind are failing."
Sezaru turned his attention back to her, and the scrutiny of his stare was almost more than she could bear. "You are traveling to Kyuden Sezaru?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Your father will be well cared for there," Sezaru answered. "And if you wish it, I would have you serve in my house guard. Wisdom and prowess are far too rare to be overlooked."
Kamiya was shocked at the offer. "I… I would be honored, my lord," she stammered.
Sezaru nodded. "I will see to it that you will have accommodations. And now, I must take my leave of you." With that, there was a rustling breeze, and he was gone.
Deep within the structure once known as Kyuden Tonbo was a shrine. It was a private place, one of seclusion and meditation. Sezaru was the only person allowed within the shrine, for it was his sanctuary from the concerns of the world beyond, and no one dared to intrude on this most personal of retreats.
Sezaru inhaled deeply, allowing the scent of the sandalwood incense to wash over him, cleansing him of the impurities the mortal world inflicted upon his soul. It was a daily ritual, and one that he needed in order to feel whole. He had retreated to the shrine earlier today than normal. Violence always made him feel unclean, and he needed to purge the sensation from his system. The bandits had earned their grisly fate, to be sure, but it was still an unpleasant act.
The Wolf merged his senses with the Void, feeling the universe fall into place around him. He could sense all life around him, from the tiny rodent hiding inside the wall to Koshei, his loyal bodyguard waiting in the chamber beyond. He reached further, sending his perception outside the walls to Kyuden Sezaru and the village outside its walls. He could feel the emotion of the Tonbo who served him. Some felt enormous relief and gratitude toward him for restoring their lands and saving them from the life of ronin. Others bore smoldering embers of resentment deep inside their souls, secretly cursing him for usurping their lands for his own purposes. He regretted that they could not see the wisdom of his actions, but he had no time to assuage their petty concerns. There were greater matters at hand.
And that was the crux of the matter. For perhaps the first time in his life, Toturi Sezaru felt genuine uncertainty. It was not a sensation he was accustomed to. He had never lacked direction or purpose, yet now he was uncertain how to proceed. In the time immediately following his father's death, he had been overwhelmed with a driving desire to find and destroy those responsible for Toturi's murder. Sezaru had never been a particularly violent man, but the Shadowlands drew his ire like nothing else. The Taint and those that bore it were an affront to the kami. He would not suffer them to live so long as he possessed the power to destroy them.
Despite his vow to avenge his father, Sezaru had realized that Daigotsu posed a greater threat to the Empire than perhaps any other in history. It had been Daigotsu, possessing one of his Onisu, who had murdered his father. It had been Daigotsu who had engineered the destruction of Otosan Uchi and the return of the Dark Kami, Fu Leng. Sezaru's brothers and sister could not stand against Daigotsu. Only Sezaru could stop him. But what would become of his father's empire while he pursued his vengeance?
((Empires are united with steel. Faith and prayers alone will not suffice.))
Sezaru frowned. He could not recall an Emperor who was also a priest of the kami. But that did not mean such a thing could not be done. In fact, had he not already proven such a thing was possible? His siblings had spent months building their power, acquiring allies and preparing a headquarters from which to launch their individual campaigns to become the next Emperor. He, on the other hand, had constructed his stronghold in a single day, bringing life where there had been only death. In a matter of weeks, the scattered Dragonfly had flocked to his banner along with countless others, all eager to serve Toturi Sezaru.
((You see only what you wish. Your desire betrays your intentions.))
"No," said Sezaru softly. "I do not do this for myself. The Empire must be protected. I alone am capable. I alone can lead Rokugan through this conflict."
((You alone can doom them with your false certainty. No mortal can be truly certain what the future holds.))
"Be silent," Sezaru replied, cursing the strange voice. It was unusual for it to bother him so swiftly after his purification rituals. "I only do what Father would have done. He would want the Empire to be protected from Daigotsu and his filth. He would know I am the only one capable of doing it."
((Not even you could ever truly know Toturi's thoughts. His strength of will surpassed even your power.))
"He would want this."
((Then why did he not declare you his heir?))
Sezaru rose from his meditative posture, quickly severing his connection to the Void. The voice was always stronger when he was within it. More assertive, more combative. His Phoenix Ishiken sensei had once told him that someone as powerful as he would affect even the Void, and could imprint upon it when he immersed himself in it. The voice had first appeared not long after he had learned to summon the Void. What else could it be but a reflection of himself?
But there was a painful dagger of doubt that the voice had identified all too well: why had his father not chosen him as heir? His sister was worthy, of course, but dangerously naïve at times. As the eldest son, it was his birthright if Tsudao could not perform the duty, or did not wish to. He loved his sister dearly, but she was not ready, and there was no time to wait.
Doubt was unacceptable. Doubt destroyed all it touched, and crumbled the will of even the mightiest mind. Sezaru would not allow it to weaken him. If he could not be certain of his father's intentions, then he would investigate them.
Sezaru drew on the power of the air kami as he had done in the field earlier that morning. With a flickering of the candles in his private shrine, he disappeared, swallowed by the wind.
"I must confess that I am very surprised to see you, Sezaru-sama," Kitsu Juri said as he walked through the halls of Shiro sano Ken Hayai alongside the Wolf. The elderly daimyo's wrinkled face was brightened with uncustomary joy. "I had begun to think you would never accept our invitation."
"Your indulgence is much appreciated, sensei," Sezaru said plaintively. "Unfortunately, I have come to ask a favor of you, and time is of the essence. I know your clan has all but endorsed the Shogun. Will your assistance create problems for you with the other families?"
Juri chuckled, but there was no humor. "I think you have overestimated the Lion's commitment, my lord. Many among the Akodo and Matsu support Kaneka, yes, but a sizeable faction who have served in the Legions think your sister a better choice, and many among the Ikoma support Naseru. Our clan is divided in our loyalties more than any other. None loved Toturi as the Lion did, and each of us see a different part of him in his children. As for the Kitsu's loyalties," he smiled, "I believe you know that you are the only non-Lion to have trained beside the sodan-senzo in over five hundred years. We do not accept outsiders lightly."
"I am honored, Juri-sama. And I will remember my allies among the Kitsu once Daigotsu and his legions have been crushed. But first, I must ask you a favor."
"You have only to name it, Sezaru-sama."
"I must speak with my father's spirit."
Juri stopped in his tracks. Sezaru walked a few steps farther before he realized the older man had stopped, then looked back quizzically. "My lord," stammered Juri. "What you ask… it has never been done. The most favored Emperors ascend beyond the Realm of Blessed Ancestors, into the heart of Tengoku itself. They speak to us when they wish to, not when we wish it. No mortal has ever traveled to the Celestial Heavens without the direct intervention of a Fortune or some other heavenly power."
Sezaru raised an eyebrow. "You cannot help me, then?"
The old shugenja rubbed his chin, frowning. "Few passages to Tengoku are known to exist in the mortal realm; most exist only under the protection of the Oracles. It is possible, however, that one exists somewhere in the other Spirit Realms. There is no way to know."
"Where should I begin?" Sezaru's voice and expression did not allow for doubt. He would accomplish this task.
"Meido," said Juri. "The Realm of the Dead. The souls of those who are deemed worthy ascend to Yomi from there; in Yomi, you may find passage to Tengoku. Your quest must begin in Meido. It will be dangerous, Sezaru. The Fortune of Death is wary of outsiders."
"Then let us begin, sensei." Sezaru turned and continued down the path toward the Kitsu temples where he had studied long ago. As he had said, time was of the essence.
Time in the Spirit Realms was a strange thing. To Sezaru, it felt as if he had been searching for a passage to Yomi for several days. Fortunately, his spirit did not feel fatigue. In the mortal realm, it could have been only hours since he departed, or it could have been weeks. It was of little consequence, as Juri had ensured him the Kitsu spells would keep his body healthy and strong no matter how long his spirit remained abroad. Sezaru did not fully understand the sodan-senzo magic - his link to their bloodline was not strong enough - but he trusted Juri implicitly.
Juri had accompanied him to the passage to Meido. The Kitsu daimyo's spirit form was much different than his physical body. He was a radiant, powerful being with a broad-shouldered frame. His face was that of a hunting cat with a flowing golden mane. Juri's appearance, however strange, was nothing compared to Sezaru's. He could not see himself in the Spirit Realms, of course, but any time he had traveled here through Lion ritual or Phoenix spell, others had been taken aback by his spirit form.
He was a wolf. Not entirely a wolf, but neither was he exactly a man. His form was much larger than his physical body, towering above most others. His senses were razor sharp, and his features lengthened to resemble the animal whose name he had taken. The wolf had once been a creature of ill omen. That was before Toturi had taken it as his symbol, however. His so-called Wolf Legion had served well in the Clan War and their name was still revered among Imperial circles. So, too, did the towering majesty of Sezaru's primal, overt power awe all who saw him.
Sezaru idly wondered what form his siblings' avatars would take in this place, were they able to travel here. A serpent? A falcon? A bear, perhaps? There was no way to know. A pity, given the incredible insight such things offered into the inner workings of one's soul. If little brother Naseru could only perceive others as they appeared here, there would be no challenge left for him in the courts. But of course, he would never possess such a gift - still more evidence of Sezaru's destiny to guide the Empire.
The search for a passage to Yomi was a slow, inexorable process. The souls of those trapped in Meido were of little help, as they walked in a constant fugue state, unable to speak to him with anything that even resembled clarity or coherence. Should Sezaru attempt to communicate with them he would only draw the Emma-O's ire - something he truly did not wish to risk.
Emma-O, the Fortune of Death. The subject of a thousand nightmares and terrifying children's tales. Some tales regarded him as just as treacherous and sinister as Fu Leng, though his area of influence was much smaller. If Sezaru truly wished to find his way, he would need to locate the Fortune, and speak to him on his own terms.
Locating Emma-O had not proven as difficult as Sezaru had imagined. Despite the confused state of most of the realm's inhabitants, there was one thing they understood perfectly: they each feared their lord and master. The Fortune of Death was a harsh, unrelenting lord, unwilling to allow his subjects any freedom or relief from their endless wanderings. Sezaru imagined that the exodus during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate must have enraged the Fortune greatly, and wondered how many innocent souls awaiting reincarnation had suffered for it.
Emma-O's palace was not at all what Sezaru would have imagined. It was a drab, uninteresting structure with little decoration. There were no guards to keep it safe, and there were no stewards to inform guests of their role in this place. But then, were such things necessary in the Realm of the Dead? Who would visit here intentionally? The black-armored guards watched Sezaru without fear or surprise. They knew of his arrival. They knew that he would come. The air was heavy with dread and consequence, and Sezaru could sense full well the implications of any insult he might offer his host.
The innermost chamber of the gray palace was what Sezaru might call an audience chamber in any mortal structure. Here, it had the feel of a tomb. Again, it was only appropriate. The great being was setting upon a throne of bone-white stone, looking like little more than a discarded suit of ebony armor, but Sezaru could sense the celestial being's power from here. The Fortune's posture suggested complete exhaustion, or perhaps defeat. The empty helm where his face should be was covered with one gauntlet.
"Hail Emma-O, Fortune of Death."
The Fortune stirred and started from his resting place. A wave of emotions flickered from his being, ranging from outrage to something that Sezaru thought might even be fear. "I knew one day you would return!" But the fury lasted only a moment, and then the expressionless veneer was back. "No. No, you are not he. You are another, but cut from the same cloth. Who dares disturb me in my own home?"
Sezaru stepped forward and knelt reverently. "I am Toturi Sezaru, son of the Emperor Toturi, master of Void and Fire. I have come to your realm to seek your wisdom."
Emma-O scowled. "What gives you the right? How arrogant! How presumptuous! My wisdom is my own, and well earned. Why should I allow you to leave this place, much less give you that which you seek?"
"My cause is just. I seek the wisdom of the Heavens. I cannot gain it without your aid."
"The Heavens." Emma-O waved his hand dismissively. "What do I care for them? They do not concern themselves with me. I am unwelcome there. I have chosen to perform a duty that is vital to the Celestial Order, yet what recognition do they offer me? None. Now that they have been attacked in their own realm, perhaps they wish they had acknowledged the Realm of the Dead before, perhaps offered me assistance in containing the Dark Kami. More likely they will see me as a failure, and ignore me all the more..."
Sezaru frowned. Something was terribly wrong here. No depiction he had ever seen of Emma-O had shown him like this: weak and frail, paranoid and uncontrolled. "Great Emma-O, are you well?"
"I am the Fortune of Death!" he roared, sitting upright in his throne. "How dare you question me!"
Understanding dawned on the Wolf. "Daigotsu. When he freed Fu Leng's spirit… he faced you. He could never have found Fu Leng's spirit in this place unless… unless he forced you to release him."
"SILENCE!" shrieked Emma-O. The very walls of the castle shook with his rage. "I will not brook such insolence from a pathetic mortal! Your existence is a fleeting memory! I am ETERNAL!" He leapt up from his throne and leveled one long finger at Sezaru. "You will not have what you seek! If I see you in my realm again, you will join my legions forever!" He closed his armored hand into a fist and vanished in a flash of pale light. His servants vanished with him.
With Emma-O gone, the dread atmosphere of the castle faded, and to Sezaru it was even more like a tomb than before. Empty, barren, and desolate, it was clearly a place of abandonment and sorrow, not power. For the first time, Sezaru wondered if the Fortune would have been able to help him even if he had wished to.
"You are fortunate. Emma-O's moods of late have been so unpredictable. Quite frankly, I'm amazed he didn't attack you at once."
For a moment Sezaru could not isolate the voice. Then he noticed a man standing off to the side of the main chamber. His clothing was so faded that he seemed to blend into the background, almost as a part of the castle. No, it wasn't his clothing. He was faded. But more importantly, he seemed aware of what as going on around him. His eyes, while grey and transparent, but retained a sharpness that Sezaru had not seen in any other soul in the realm, including Emma-O. "Greetings," Sezaru said with a bow, "I am…"
"Toturi Sezaru. I heard. Welcome to the Realm of Waiting, if no one has already offered you such sentiment. And I would guess they have not."
"No, they have not," agreed Sezaru. "None have seemed to have the presence of mind for basic conversation, much less pleasantries."
"Few maintain the strength for such things, I'm afraid. This place… it saps the will. In time, virtually everyone becomes little more than a wandering shade of their former life."
Sezaru scrutinized the other man. "You seem to have no trouble."
"I," the stranger said with a smile, "am somewhat unique."
"And you are?" said Sezaru with a hint of impatience.
"I am the forgotten child of heaven. I am a spirit cast out from my own body. I am the rebirth of the Empire and its doom." He smiled again. "I am Hantei Sotorii. It is good to meet you, Son of Toturi."
Sezaru took an involuntary step backwards. "How?" he whispered. "You became Fu Leng."
"I was possessed by Fu Leng," the spirit corrected. "In a moment of weakness the Dark Kami consumed my soul… and so I came here. I could not ascend to Tengoku because I was not truly dead, and because, all things considered, I was not a very good Emperor. I was forgotten. It is not a difficult thing, to forget the man who nearly destroyed a thousand years' of civilization. Had I been stronger, or wiser, then I could have resisted Fu Leng's whispers. Then, I would be worthy. But I am not. So I remain here. Waiting. Forever."
"Bah," Sezaru said, sneering at the spirit. "I am no stranger to the temptations of darkness. You must have known. In the beginning, you must have sensed what was happening. You could have stopped it. You chose not to. This fate does not seem so terrible, given the enormity of your failure."
"My, you are direct," observed Sotorii, blinking in surprise. "But you are also correct. In the beginning, I began to hear a voice. Subtle at first, but it grew stronger. Insistent. It urged me to do things that weakened me and made it far simpler for the Dark Lord to take control. I was not strong enough. And my failure was enormous. I have accepted this."
Sezaru did not know what to say. He could never have imagined such a meeting, but if he had, such an attitude would never have been expected. It would be simple for such a spirit to feel outrage and disgust at his fate. Yet he did not. He simply felt sadness. "Do you know how I may ascend to Tengoku?" he asked.
Sotorii shook his head. "It cannot be done. In the aftermath of Daigotsu's attack, every passage has been sealed. None may leave this realm without Emma-O's permission, and he has not allowed anyone to leave. You will only be spared because you still live. You do not belong here. And, perhaps, because he fears you. You remind him of Daigotsu, I think." Sotorii studied Sezaru curiously. "And that is what brought me to you. You spurn me for my weakness, but your own battle is not yet done, Wolf. Be cautious."
The Wolf's head fell. His journey had been for nothing. "I must speak with my father. I need his guidance. I… I must know if my path is true."
"Do you remember your father, Sezaru?"
The priest looked at Sotorii strangely. "Of course I do. He died only a short time ago."
"What was most important in his life?" Sotorii asked, his gaze intense.
"Rokugan," answered Sezaru without hesitation. "He would have given his life for the Empire, and did."
"Then you must do that which will protect the Empire," Sotorii
said. "My father loved the Empire, but I cared more about avenging his
death than caring for the people of Rokugan. If I had been wiser… well, who
knows what might have been."
Sezaru nodded silently. He looked around at his dismal surroundings. "A pity I had to come so far for such simple wisdom."
"Wisdom is always simple," Sotorii said with a small laugh. "Listening to wisdom is difficult. You loved your father, Sezaru. Do not succumb to pettiness and vengeance. Live a life that would have made him proud." Sotorii's features were sad now. "For I know that my father is not proud of me."
Sezaru felt an unexpected wave of pity for the wretched spirit before him. His only crime was that he had been human, but the demands placed upon him were more than any human should bear. It was a crime every man committed. Sotorii had simply been born to a position where it would cause pain and suffering like no other.
"Thank you, Sotorii-sama," Sezaru said, his voice thick.
"Don't thank me," the spirit said. "Keep our fathers' dream alive. Triumph where I failed."
"I will," vowed Sezaru.
There was no doubt left in his heart.
The soft wind stirred the candles in Sezaru's private shrine once more as he emerged from the wind's embrace. He had not been in Meido as long as he had thought. The Kitsu caring for him reported his absence as a mere three days. It was time lost, but not too much. There was still time to do all that he must do.
Crossing the shrine, he opened the door. Koshei was still at his post, looking somewhat hungry but otherwise unchanged. Soshi Angai was with him as well. "Welcome back, my lord," she said, the light reflecting from her silky black tresses "I trust your sojourn was successful?" Her eyes twinkled behind her mask, her curiosity clearly overwhelming.
"Angai," he said, ignoring the question, "gather a half dozen messengers and have their steeds prepared. I have urgent correspondence to be sent."
"At once, Sezaru-sama," she bowed. She turned and disappeared down the corridor in an instant.
((She is weak. You need no one. Cast her out.))
I will not be swayed, Sezaru said inwardly. You will not deter me from my path.
((Sotorii was a fool. His words lead only to ruination. I have always been with you, and I always will be.))
Sezaru's eyes blazed. If he was to succeed, there would be no doubt. No mortal could truly know the future, after all. Whether his future held ruination or victory, he would embrace his destiny with certainty of purpose.
As his father would have done.