The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Blood and Pain

"When a samurai has said he will perform an action, it is as good as done."
- Akodo's "Bushido"


Soaring like a bird Mochiko dove down upon Honkai, the very motion of her leap adding more power to the sweeping draw of her sword. As she struck, the assassin's face was filled with focus, concentrating only on the attack as the Phoenix desperately rushed to raise his guard.

Now, with your feet unbalanced and your opponent coming from above you, Mochiko thought as she caught the determination in the Shiba's eyes. Try blocking this one now!

Katana and yari collided hard enough to stagger the defender, and his eyes shifted upwards in that moment when the world froze. Honkai's arms shivered against the immense power that his spear was absorbing, matching Mochiko's attack with all his precision and stamina as the assassin's strength was channeled fiercely down her right arm.

For that moment, the two warriors stood as perfect equals, one almost balanced on the other as they fought with all their might.

Then, like at things, the moment ended, the tatami beneath Honkai's feet shattering in a shower of pieces even as the Shiba forced his yari high. Unbelievably, the force of his defense threw Mochiko wide of the samurai, and she landed roughly on one knee, her back to him now.

Pain suffused her sword arm at that moment, the sudden feeling like a needle beneath her skin.

It was less than a second later that the cross-shaped yari turned and smashed into her like a hammer, its edge piercing through her right side. Swinging the weapon as hard as he could Honkai flung Mochiko back towards the fire, smashing the assassin through the rear wall of the burning building, spilling her out into the rear balcony where thunder crackled over a turbulent sea.

Blood and spittle flecked the ground beneath her face, and Mochiko felt deep injury as her eyes shifted towards the broken wall.

When Honkai stepped onto the balcony Mochiko was still laying where the attack had thrown her, the woman's body crumpled from the strike. As she slowly lifted her head, the samurai halted a few feet in front of the assassin, seeming to wait patiently as she painfully closed her eyes and dragged herself back to her unsteady feet.

The samurai-ko could feel the deep wound in her left side from the Shiba's yari, and worse, her right arm still throbbed horribly, and she knew that it had been broken in the midst of that last desperate strike. Stumbling backwards, Mochiko switched hands as well as she could manage, leaning against the stone railing as she looked up at the burning house.

"I gave you a chance to surrender," Honkai said without even the slightest bit of regret.

Spitting some more blood from her mouth Mochiko nodded, wondering if this was how he brother had felt when he was about to die. "I know."

The last few attacks were fast and unforgiving, driving the ronin backwards, constantly hammering down on her guard. Honkai was relentless in his moves as he went on the offensive, his three-pronged weapon mercilessly blocking Mochiko few, staggering strikes.

Yet even then, in the middle of his maelstrom, the assassin could not penetrate that whirling defense.

Give me an opening, the samurai-ko begged her opponent, her hand tightening around her sword. Just one is all I need.

Then it came, the attack that she had known was coming, stabbing up at the ronin's neck, the speed of the thrust cutting her options down to one. Mochiko bent her knees and the spear's left prong slashed her right shoulder open as it passed her, the wooden shaft sliding close enough to tear the skin from her neck as it moved.

At that moment, with spear extended, there was an opening in the Shiba's unbreakable guard. Mochiko met his eyes with a savage smile, bringing her sword backwards for a single thrust.

The attack came for his heart.

But even as Mochiko lunged Honkai bent low and jerked upon his yari, dragging it backwards over her body, tearing through her neck with one motion of the his blade. The assassin gasped in shock and surprise as his motion slashed her neck and drew a shower of blood across her opponent even as her own thrust went high and wide.

Numbness overtook her body almost instantly, the shock of the attack staggering the ronin, opening her guard and letting her sword clatter to the ground.

Jerking the yari up, Honkai slashed through Mochiko's chest, throwing her backwards, the force more than enough to drive the assassin over the balcony's edge. Striking the hard stones the samurai-ko felt her consciousness fading, her pain growing comfortably distant as her body struck the waves…

* * *

"She was a magnificent warrior," Shiba Honkai said sadly, looking down into the waves. Glancing down, the Phoenix knelt before the balcony, ignoring the nearby movements of the fire brigades. In the scattering of blood and cloth the bushi lifted a row of beads, each one marked with symbols of Shinsei's Tao.

"An assassin with religion," Bayushi Atsuki commented to the magistrate, looking down into the sea rather than looking up at the dying blaze. Overheard the sky had let loose with a mournful deluge, quenching the flames even as the Emerald Champion had arrived with his men. "A strange thing."

"Perhaps it will give you some clue as to the master behind the assassin," Honkai said dispassionately, bowing to the Master of Secrets as he handed him the bloody beads.

Atsuki smiled at the small item knowingly, idly wondering whether the murderer was truly dead and gone. "You performed well today, Shiba Honkai. We are pleased with the results."

"I did what was required," the yari master answered, his eyes falling upon the mixture of blood and rain.

With that the Phoenix took his leave of the Scorpion Champion, shouldering his cross-shaped yari and walking unhindered into the dying storm. Bayushi Atsuki watched him go with a smile, his wrinkled hand closing slowly over the edges of the beads.

"Courage and wisdom," the man said as he looked down on two of the beads, their wooden surfaces rubbed smooth and their edges flecked with blood. "Strange indeed."

* * *

The funeral of Kakita Chikuma was a mournful affair for the citizens of the Imperial City; though few understood the truth of what had happened, the Gozoku made it certain that the Crane had given her life to bring the assassin's life to an end. Hantei Kusada declared that a marker would be placed in the burial grounds of the Forbidden City, in honor of the woman whose life had been sacrificed for her Empire and Clan.

That night, once the fires had burned low, Doji Raigu alone lingered near the small, elegant marker, his black eyes unreadable as rain fell down from heaven, mutely the colors of his emerald armor as night crept over the already blackened sky.

"It was necessary," Shiba Gaijushiko said from behind the Champion of the Crane.

The Phoenix Champion reached into his kimono, withdrawing something from its folds. "My men recovered this from the fire," he said to Raigu, placing in the Emerald Champion's hand a small, simple black fan. "It was hers."

Doji Raigu stared down at the fan for a moment, watching as a few raindrops shattered on its edge. His black eyes were silent and unreadable, and then he turned, striding past Chikuma's marker to the nearest burning light.

Thrusting the thing into the fire the Crane destroyed it, watching it crackle and crumble before he turned away. Striding back, Doji Raigu ignored the shocked look of the Shiba samurai. "What news do we have on the master of this assassin?"

"Atsuki has a few leads," the Shiba said after a moment, his ageless face regaining its composure. "He will let us know what he finds."

"Why did you not discuss this plan with me, Gaijushiko-san?"

The Shiba bowed respectfully to the marker, glancing up at Raigu now from the corner of his eyes. "Would you have agreed to what Atsuki suggested?"

"No," the Crane admitted as he walked away. "There was a time when I would have said the same of you."

* * *

"I had wondered how long it would take for you to approach me," Bayushi Atsuki said with a disturbing laugh. Keeping his back turned to his visitor the Scorpion Champion allowed his hand to continue its low sweeps of the brush. "What shall we talk about to pass the time?"

Yasuki Eirin removed his rain-soaked hat slowly, taking a calm, slow look about the room. When he was satisfied the Crab merchant kept his voice very business-like, as if he was attempting a sale. "I was wondering if you had any knowledge on this assassin…"

"The assassin is dead," Atsuki interrupted bluntly. "Or if not dead, then at least out of the way."

"I understand that, but what about her employer? Surely a mere Lion samurai could not have…"

"How do you know that the assassin was trained by the Lion?" The Scorpion asked his visitor. Eirin stopped for a second, wondering if the older man had eyes in the back of his head. "It was not information that I offered, and the court has yet to hear."

Eirin continued, fighting to remain calm. "I have my sources, Atsuki-sama; though not as extensive as yours or the Imperial Scribe's avenues, they do reach places where you do not go."

"There is no such place," the Gozoku commented.

Eirin smiled. "That does not seem to be the case." He waited a long moment, hoping that he had not gone too far. "In any event, I can supply the name of the assassin's employer, as where as the whereabouts as to where she can be found…"

"I already know about Doji Inosenko, Yasuki," the Scorpion's voice gained the temperament of a demon, "and of course, I also know about you."

The Yasuki's breath caught. "How?"

"Money corrupts," Atsuki said with some perverse form of pleasure. The Scorpion placed his brush on the ground, reaching out slowly to touch his clan's ancient sword. "And it seems that your fellow kinsmen are more easily bribed than their Crane ancestors."

Eirin remained calm, knowing better than to deny his actions, or worse, to run. There was still a chance for him to survive this…

"If you know, then why do I still live? I know your reputation," the Crab said as smoothly as he could manage. "If you wanted me dead, Atsuki-sama, you would not personally take the time."

The Scorpion glanced back at Yasuki Eirin with a smile, his turn revealing just the corner of his unmasked face. "You think that you know me very well, don't you? You think to play upon my love of games, and regain some kind of control…"

The Crab swallowed loudly, but managed to keep his face stern. He waited, silently sweating as those terrible eyes lingered on him, knowing that he stood a half step from seppuku or worse.

"Can you live with Doji Inosenko's death, even though it furthers your goals?"

"Of course," Yasuki Eirin answered without hesitation, knowing that it was what it was what the Bayushi wanted to hear.

Atsuki laughed darkly at the statement, removing his hand from the tsuba of his sword. "You do play the game well, Yasuki Eirin. Welcome to the Gozoku."

The War Goes On…