Words Against the Shadow

A Story of the Crane Clan

Author: Brent Morgan  

  “Not all battles are fought with horse and arrow, and the greatest victories are seldom won with steel.”

  - Kakita Koshin

  Bitter winds danced across the empty land, nothing and no one challenging their rightful rule.  Alone in the place of abandoned hopes and lost fortunes, the samurai stood.  Upon the winds were the whispers of dark nights, and somewhere lay death, beneath those gray eyes…

  Alone in the mystic forest of the lands of the Fox Clan, the samurai walked along the narrow road, his shadow long in the sun’s last lingering rays as they cut through the thick trees above.  His dark hair danced in the wind, brushing the nape of his neck as it responding to the wind’s command.  The forest was silent tonight, more silent than they had been in many years.

  For his part, Koshin did not notice.

  He failed to notice much these days, and for a duelist, for a samurai that was inexcusable.  Even now, the Crane paid little attention to his empty surroundings, and so he never noticed the movements of four grubby ronin hidden in the tall grasses and behind mighty trees.  Clutching dull swords and holding their empty stomachs, the desperate men nodded to one another, and moved…

  Koshin’s gray eyes opened slowly, as if the Kakita was waking from a dream.  His twin katana flickered in the lingering light of a dying sun on the edge of the forest of the Kitsune, and the world fell away…

  Broken gold resting within the dirt.  Pieces of coin, simple metals that men would kill for.  As the samurai stood among the corpses of the ronin, the stars begin to shine.  Laughter fills the shadows of darkness, and somewhere lay a forgotten lesson, beneath those gray eyes…

  Koshin was still staring at the bodies of the dead men when the magistrates found him.  Swords in his hands, the Crane’s eyes were pale in the moonlight of the forest grove, and as he turned towards the light of the guttering lantern, death again claimed his eyes, casting the nothingness away.

  “Hold, Crane!  What business has brought you to these lands?”

  Turning slowly to face the Fox for the first time, Koshin sheathed his swords.  Immediately the man on the horse relaxed, and the Crane became aware of the heimen surrounding him, sharp yari and katana clutched tightly in white-knuckled hands.

  “Have you come as a messenger for your Lord?  Answer me, or are you deaf?”

  Shaking his head slowly, Koshin looked up at the magistrate, studying the man’s thin beard and sharp, angry features for a long moment.  Finally, the Crane let his shoulders drop, again letting his mind drift back into nothingness, “I am Kakita Koshin…”

  Am I still that Koshin?  Or am I not as I was, when the Dragon came?

  Looking at the slender scars running over his forearm, marks from duels that he could not remember fighting, Koshin whispered to himself.

  “Who is this Koshin?  Have I fallen, as the Emperor…”

  The Emperor…in Koshin’s mind, tormented by shadows and lies, he had no other name.

  Within the fortress of the Fox, the darkness lingered.  Echoes in the hallway, darkness that stole everything.  Words, secrets, love.  In the castle was nothing, and yet it was not alone.  The samurai sat against the darkness, alone in the burdens of a single soul…

  Awakened in the middle of the night, Kaori rose wearily as the Fox samurai waited outside.  The samurai-ko quickly donned her kimono and her daisho, combing her disheveled hair quickly into a long, straight shine.

  She was, after now, all too used to being awakened early, and having little time for rest.

  Led down the hallway of Kyuden Kitsune, the samurai-ko listened carefully as the Fox samurai spoke.  She knew nothing of a man who called himself “Kakita Koshin,” but from the whispered words of the Fox, the man must be at least a little insane.

  That thought was enough to shake Kaori’s heart.

  “And he carries two katana.”

  Kaori nodded, realization not strong enough to slip into her tired young face.  She knew of the “Two-Sword Crane.”  Koshin’s parents had been a Mirumoto and a Master of the Kenjutsu School, and she had once heard of him referred to as, “a man of torn souls.”

  He was an enigma, almost as much a Dragon as he was a Crane.

  Still, Kaori had only heard of him, never spoken to the man personally, never even seen his face.  And now, in the home of the Fox, she was walking directly into the heart of a fellow Crane…a madman.

  Were the stories true?  Had another soul been lost to the Shadow?

  Bowing to the Fox samurai, Kaori brushed a long strand of white hair from her face as he opened the door for her to enter, stepping into a lonely room where the windows stood wide, revealing a pale moon, washed free of everything…

  Sitting in the darkness of the shadows, the samurai could feel his own breath.  Dying wind cast dead leaves against the walls of the fortress, and the baying of a distant wolf shook the ruined air.  The samurai’s eyes watched the opening door, and somewhere he knew that there was a forgotten sister, and a clan that he had never known…

  “Kakita Kaori…”

  The young woman was nervous, but she was also a Crane, and so she did not hesitate to speak with him, even though the Fox had said nothing during the entire journey.  Her face hid her worry as Koshin repeated her name, slowly.  He would remember…

  He would remember, for a while.

  “Koshin-san, what has brought you here?”

  His eyes were heavy.  They rested on her shoulders, her stomach, her hips.  Someone…Toshimoko?  Someone had shown him to watch those places, where a person could not lie.

  He could not see his own shoulders, his own stomach clearly.

  He did not know if he was lying.

  “I am alone…”

  Kaori looked at him, her young eyes hesitant and showing something else.  Compassion…  Koshin could still remember compassion, and for some reason, some reason that he could not remember, but he felt pained at the sight of sad eyes.

  “Koshin-san, you are among friends here.  I can help you…”

  “Help me…”

 Kaori nodded, “I will try to help you, Koshin-san.  Please, let me help you.”

  For what seemed like an eternity, the tall, thin samurai stared at the girl, his eyes as empty as the skies without their stars.  Then, moved as if by a mighty effort, his words came to him, filling the dark room with a challenge, a willingness to fight.

  “Miyu…Airei…”

  Kaori blinked at him, and her shoulders knotted.

  She was afraid, yet her resolve never shook.

  “Who are they, Koshin?  Your family?  Your friends?”

  He waited, thinking, reaching at elusive shadows.

  “Family…”

  Thus passed a long night of conversation and questions that Koshin could not answer, and Kaori fought the Shadow, though she never knew the truth…

  Light filled the courtyard, Amaterasu’s protection from the Shadow.  Birds leapt into the skies, and darkness lay beneath the darkened earth.  Somewhere beyond the light of the Mother, the samurai sat, swords with forgotten names at his side.

  Toshiki set his brush delicately to the ground, his eyes shining as the joy of creation.  The darting fox on the fan was a beauty, and one of his finest creations since he had come to the lands of the Kitsune.

  “And you say that he knows nothing of the recent months?”

  Sitting alongside her brother, Kaori nodded as she looked in wonder at the beautiful fan.  Made as another gift for Ryosei-sama, the fan was Toshiki’s way of proving that he had been sent to the Fox not to manipulate, but to bring them aid in their new alliance.

  Finally, it was working.

  “He knew nothing of the War between the Doji and the Daidoji, Toshiki.  Not that, or of the Purging of the Court, or even the death of the Moon.”

  The artisan wiped the paint from his finger idly, his mind deep in thought as he listened.  Tapping out a quiet melody on the floor of the room, Toshiki listened as his sister told her more of the things that Koshin did not know, and what he did.

  “If he is Koshin, then we must be certain.  I do not think it is wise to trust him yet.”

  Kaori shook her head. “He was no danger, Ani-ko.”

  “We cannot be too cautious, Kaori.  Too much depends on the Kitsune for us to trust someone too easily.”

  Nodding slightly, the samurai-ko glanced out of the window.  From her vantage, she could see Koshin in the garden below, guards standing ready at every side, wary as the samurai moved his twin katana forward and backwards in slow, rhythmic patterns, blending together the ways of the Kakita with Mirumoto’s style.

  Toshiki rose from his seat, wiping the last bit of paint from his brush delicately.  As the artisan walked to the window and watched Koshin’s movements, he idly tapped out a song on the edge of the window.  After a few moments, he turned to his sister, his course finally decided.

  “We will go and speak with him again, Kaori.  If anyone here can help him, it will be us.  He is a Crane, after all.  We cannot forsake him.”

  “And if we cannot help him?”

  Toshiki stared out of the window, this time looking up to the birds dancing in the sun. “We will find a way, Kaori.  We must.”

  Banishing the light of sun and torch, the darkness grew.  The samurai’s face slipped further into nothingness, leaving him with the broken memories of another Koshin.  Against the laughter of the darkness, the samurai tried to remember, to remember a warning that he had never been told.

  Sitting in the small room in the stronghold of the Fox, Koshin let his stare rest on the floor.  He paid little attention to the two people seated before him.  He had met one of them before…Kaori.  Yes, he knew who Kaori was…he had seen her, somewhere.

  Where, he could not say.

  The other one was talking to him…the man who called himself Toshiki.  For some reason, Koshin thought he was an artist of some kind.

  Had he said so?

  “I have spent years in the mountains, Toshiki-san…the mountains…of the Dragon.” Koshin’s voice was unsteady and uncertain, as if he himself barely believed his own words. “There was…a shadow.  A shadow in a child’s room…”

  Kaori glanced over to her brother, but Toshiki was too interested in listening to Koshin.  As the duelist spoke of snippets of his past, the artisan watched as those pale gray eyes changed with the flickering candle, turning from sharp and observant to empty and alone.

  It was a nightmare that Toshiki had heard of, a story that was all too much truth.

  “I want you to hold this, Koshin-san.” Removing a small crystal from his obi, the artisan let the delicate item fall into Koshin’s waiting hand.

  Turning the crystal over in his hands like a scholar studying an ancient scroll, Koshin’s eyes turned strong again, and he began to speak in a calmer, measured tone.

  “There was a shadow in the temple…a shadow sent there to kill.  I fought side-by-side with the Crow Girl, fought to save her little child…The shadow…began it’s revenge…”

  The crystal fell from his hand suddenly, shattering into a hundred pieces on the floor.  Kaori moved towards Toshiki, her hand touching her katana at Koshin rose from the floor, his eyes again clouded and distant.

  “I would like to walk in the garden…”

  Nodding with a relieved smile, Kaori stood and looked over at her brother.  Toshiki was running his hand across the floor, scooping the shards of crystal into his free hand.  Glancing up at her at last, the artisan nodded with a small frown on his pale face.

  “I will join you, sister.  In a few moment’s time, I will be in the garden, at your side.”

  As she followed Koshin out into the gardens, Kaori could not help but feel sorry for him.  From the little Koshin could recall, he had two sisters, an uncle…but they were only glimpses.  His walked with the grace that only a master swordsman knew, and yet Kaori knew that he could not remember much more than his sensei’s name.

  He had lost almost as much as a man could.

  And yet, as they stepped into the moon-filled gardens, the Shadow moved to claim even more…

  Whispers among the shadows, shadows borne to hatred, came clearly to the samurai.  He could hear the words of the darkness, as their venom filled his soul…

  “This is a good place…”

  Kaori blinked, glancing over the empty gardens.  The servants kept the gardens cut back nicely from the sandy path, yet in the light of the moon, they took on a new life, and even the most delicate blossom was twisted into a thing of hate, if only for a moment.

  “A good place, Koshin-san?”

  Drawing his katana in one hand and holding the other, still sheathed, in his right hand, the Crane looked towards Kaori, his eyes for once clear.  Placing her hand on her sword, the samurai-ko took a step backwards as Koshin turned back to face the garden beyond.

  “What are you doing, Koshin?”

  The samurai did not answer her, but the shadows did.

  Toshiki stepped into the gardens only a minute behind them, and the two Fox samurai behind him stared with open eyes.  Rushing over to Kaori, the artisan smiled weakly in relief as she rose from where she had ducked, a pair of slim throwing knives lodged in a nearby tree, just where the samurai-ko had been a moment earlier.

  Lying face down in the sand was her attacker, dressed in the armor of a samurai.  Three more Fox guards lay in the darkness surrounding Koshin, who still stood in the midst of the moon’s light.  As the faces of the assassins ran like water, Kaori pulled her sword from the dead man’s chest, wiping away the blood with a shudder as Toshiki and the Fox samurai checked the other bodies.

  “Ninja…” Toshiki said softly.  Just like the stories said.

  As the samurai rushed off into the darkness of the castle to alert their Lady to the events, Kaori and Toshiki watched as Koshin cleaned his swords and returned them to their waiting sheaths.  Once he was done, the samurai started back towards his dark room without a word, the remaining guards following him along the way.

  Toshiki turned to catch his arm, “Wait, Koshin-san?  How did you know?”

  The samurai smiled sadly, looking over brother and sister in turn.  Once he had studied them, memorizing their features, Koshin returned to his lonely little room.

  “Don’t you know, Toshiki…?  I am one of them.”

  Assembled in the shattered light of the forest of the Kitsune, the samurai and shujenga as they made ready to move.  In the darkness that lingered even in the wake of the shadow’s blood, the samurai sat, a tiny bit of broken crystal his only refuge from the darkness…

  Dressed in her pale armor, Kaori stood ready as the troops of the Fox, watching the soldiers of the Kitsune as they prepared themselves for the long march that was to come.  As she waited, Toshiki came to her side, dressed as always in his fine kimono and robe.

  “You will watch over him?”

  Smiling, the artisan nodded.  In the past week they had learned little more from Koshin, but every tiny bit was important, and he gave what little he knew freely.

  Even in the grip of the shadow, Koshin served his oath, for he was still a Crane.

  “He will be fine here.  I will see to that.”

  Smiling in the sunlight, Kaori watched as the Fox began to move.  She stood with Toshiki a moment longer, but then the samurai-ko moved off into the forest beyond the castle too, and was quickly swallowed up by the gentle leaves.

  Alone in the courtyard save for a few scattered yojimbo, Toshiki was about to turn back to the castle when he saw the monk’s straw hat coming through the doors.  Dressed in the pale golden robes of a Dragon, the man stepped past the samurai of the Fox to stand directly before the artist, an almost teasing smile on his face, the rest hidden beneath the hat’s wide brim.

  “Good day, Crane-san.”

  Toshiki returned the bow, a knowing smile on his face. “Welcome, Mirumoto-san.”

  As the soldiers of the Kitsune and a lone Kakita vanished into the wilds of Rokugan, an artisan and a Dragon samurai sat in the fortress of the Fox, speaking of the fate of the lonely samurai, as he fought against the shadow in the darkness of his soul…

 

  Epilogue

  Sitting in the light of the Kitsune dojo, the lone Crane lifted his brush from the paper, smiling a little bit as he thought back to the days that had brought him to write.  The Mirumoto sat idly in the corner of the room, staring at a simple piece of paper, Toshiki’s image of a soaring crane filling it with beauty.

  Kaori…I had no chance to thank you, and now you have gone.  I know that you will find honor in your path.  Know that it was you, Kaori.  Your words have saved my soul.  One day, I hope that will have a chance to thank you in person.  Until then, my life is yours.

-          Kakita Koshin

  Looking up from his gift, the Mirumoto smiled.  As Koshin tucked his swords into his his obi, the Dragon rose, slipping the delicate art away into a hidden pocket.

  “It will be a long struggle, if you wish to defeat this shadow, Koshin-san.”

  The Crane nodded, slipping the note into Toshiki’s hand as they stepped out into the light of the morning.  The artisan smiled as he accepted the letter, then stood and watched as the two figures vanished into the forest, setting the spirits alive.

  “I know that I can win…now.”

The Road to Volturnum continues…