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Weekly Fiction: Enemy of my Enemy, Part III
Enemy of My Enemy, Part Three
By Rich Wulf
Narihari the innkeeper slung his shovel over one shoulder with an exhausted sigh. He had inherited this inn from his father, who had inherited it from his grandfather before him. For three generations they had serviced this roadside hostel in the heart of Crab lands. For seventy years they had provided food and hospitality for the rare, weary travelers bound for the Kaiu Wall. Few came this way, but it was a decent living, especially when one considered the profits to be had from the many solitary travelers who entered their inn, never be seen again. Narihari, like his father and grandfather, occasionally murdered those who would not be missed and buried their bodies in the hills nearby.
Digging up the first few corpses had been exhausting, but when they obediently rose to aid their master things moved far more swiftly. A newly revealed body stood awkwardly and joined the rest. Thirty shambling zombies stood waiting for Narihari’s instruction. Some were simple peasants. Some were garbed in the armor of samurai. In the distance, the twinkling lights of the tiny village of Settan shone in the night. This far from the borders, the Crab spared few bushi to protect such a remote location. They would be unprepared for an attack like this. Narihari knew the people there. He had friends there, though of course they did not know about the secrets buried here. He regretted what he was about to do, but he had no choice in the matter.
He pointed at the village then looked at the undead host. “Go,” he whispered, “and kill all that you see.”
In the heart of Ryoko Owari lived a girl named Hanae. Though many discounted her as a dull and plain girl when her parents first sold her to the House of the Red Lotus, she had matured into a bright and charming geisha in the two years since. She had earned the respect of her oka-san and even, she believed, the love of a handsome samurai named Motomu. Most of this success, of course, was due to secret aid from her allies among the Bloodspeakers.
Tonight Hanae wept as she sprinkled ground paseri over the evening meal, unable to control her hand. Tonight the patrons of the Red Lotus - friends, family, lovers, would die screaming in blindness and paralysis.
In a small palace in southern Doji lands, an old bushi named Kakita Sotaro knelt and bowed his head in shame. The blood that pooled around his knees soaked through his hakama. His hands were sticky with it, as was his sword, discarded on the floor nearby. The screams of women and children echoed through the halls, terrified by what he had done, but he ignored him. His master’s will was done.
His three sons and four grandsons, all proud samurai of the Crane Clan, now lay dead on the floor of the practice dojo. The first three fell before they realized what he was doing. Two more died as they pleaded with the old man to stop. Another simply begged for mercy. Only the last, his oldest son Taro, drew his sword and faced him. Hatred and betrayal had burned in Taro’s eyes as he shouted for the guard, but he was no match for his father. As the heavy footfalls of the guardsmen approached, old Sotaro drew his wakizashi. He would take one more life tonight, and not for his master Iuchiban’s sake.
In the Ten Thousand Temples of Toshi Ranbo, Seppun Kiharu made his evening rounds. He knelt before each Fortune, great and minor, and paid his respects to them in his customary manner. Such ritual brought a sense of peace to the temple master’s otherwise hectic life. Yet as he rose before the Shrine to Bishamon, he felt a sense of unease. When he stood, he found the statue held both hands upon its spear where before he would have sworn the warrior-god held his weapon with only one. Kiharu’s brow furrowed in confusion. Then he smelled the acrid tang of oil upon the air.
Following the scent, Kiharu entered a secluded alcove of the temples. He saw Taikan, the new acolyte, busily emptying a barrel upon the floor by the light of a ceramic lantern. He looked up at his master, his eyes wide with fear and confusion.
“Help me, master Kiharu,” he whispered. “I cannot stop! He will not let me stop!”
“Taikan what are you doing?” Kiharu demanded.
The boy threw back his head with a mournful wail and dashed his lantern upon the ground. Kiharu barely had time to summon a shield of air spirits around himself as the temples were engulfed in roaring flame. Taikan was lost in the fire, and soon the Ten Thousand Temples were lost as well.
Matsu Shigeru, taisa in the Lion legions, stared into the night from high atop his saddle. On the horizon, he could see the outline of a distant castle. Behind him, the sounds of a one-sided battle were just coming to their inevitable conclusion. His cousin ran to his side, blood-soaked yari in one hand, his face a mask of terror.
“Shigeru, I warned you that this would happen if we crossed into Crane territory,” Masanori hissed in a low voice, looking around sharply for any more patrols. “We must return to our own borders before more soldiers arrive!”
“We have already killed one patrol,” Shigeru said dispassionately. “A dozen Crane samurai, slain by Lion steel on their own land. What do you think Lord Otemi will say when he hears we have broken our truce with the Crane in such a manner?”
“He will demand our heads!” Masanori answered. “And I, for one, will gladly give him mine for shaming the Lion’s honor in such a manner. There was no reason for these men to die!”
“Then if our lives must be forfeit,” Shigeru replied, looking at the distant castle again, “should our ends not be glorious?”
“You cannot be serious,” Masanori retorted. “We cannot take Kosaten Shiro with eight hundred men!”
“Perhaps not,” Shigeru answered, “but when our brethren hear of our courage, our valor, how we refused to entertain a cowardly alliance with an unworthy foe, they will rise to strike the Crane down as well. Our deaths will mean something. The Lion and Crane will be at war again, as we always should have been.”
Masanori looked up at his cousin in terror. “You’re mad,” he said.
Shigeru smiled back at his cousin, and the immortal voice screamed in his mind. “Command the men to march,” he said.
In the ruined city of Otosan Uchi, Iuchiban stood atop his Iron Citadel. Above him, the night sky churned with inky clouds. The air was ripe with approaching rain. Across the Empire, Iuchiban could sense his servants at work, wreaking violence and chaos. Some stood in positions of power, commanding others to horrible acts. Some stalked unseen in the shadows, their sins more violent and personal. Even their master was surprised at the damage they had done and had yet to do. The scars they would leave upon the face of Rokugan might never heal.
Yet as impressed as he was, he did not regret their sacrifice even for a moment. The time for minions and servants was at an end. He knew now what he should have recognized centuries ago. By seeking to control the weak, he had shared in their weakness, granted others the opportunity to turn his pawns against him. Tonight the Bloodspeakers would serve him one last time.
But was it too late? He could sense his enemies gathering. An army massed on the hills beyond Otosan Uchi, flying the banners of the Lion and Crab Clans. He had never feared such fools, but this time something was different. They were too close to his heart this time, too close to be a coincidence. He may well die today, and this time there might be no escape.
Strangely the realization came with little fear. After all, had he not terrorized the Empire for over five centuries? He had known defeat, that was true, but even then it had taken the combined might of the Great Clans to even contain him. Even in his prison he still walked freely through the dreams of his followers. His Bloodspeakers hid in the halls of every great house, walked openly in nearly every province. Were he to die here, his name would be forever whispered with fear – whereas his brother, the Emperor, was now a mere footnote to history.
A strange smile spread across Iuchiban’s face, a mix of pleasure and sadness.
“Come then, heroes of Rokugan,” Iuchiban whispered, lifting his arms so that his broad sleeves billowed in the rising storm. “I am ready.”
Upon his return from the realms of the dead, Hida Kisada had been met with a warm welcome from his former clan. His kinsmen had showered many gifts upon him, most of which he had politely refused. Koman, however, was one gift that he had eagerly accepted. The steed had been a present from Reiha, his grandson’s wife. The horse was large, sturdy, and ill-tempered, a fearless animal bred for war. It was a fitting mount for the Great Bear. Kisada had taken a liking to the animal the instant he saw it, and his respect for Reiha increased tremendously that she had deemed it so fitting for him.
The horse now wore dull black armor to match its master’s. Kisada sat astride the mare, his back banner flapping in the gathering wind. He held the reins in one hand, the other resting on his elaborate war fan. He studied the city below, his eyes cold and unreadable. Matsu Aoiko reined her horse in beside him, following his gaze to the black tower that loomed over the ruins.
“Otosan Uchi,” Kisada said, his voice hoarse. “I cannot believe what it has become.”
“Iuchiban has only completed the ruin Daigotsu began,” Aoiko said. “The city died years ago.”
“I know,” Kisada said. “I knew its fate before I returned to this realm. How could I have ignored the desperate prayers of those who lived here? It is much different to actually see it with my own eyes. This city was beautiful once.”
Aoiko gave a mocking smile. “I did not think that the Great Bear was a man whose soul was moved by beauty,” she said.
If Aoiko expected a sharp retort, she received none. Instead, Kisada only looked distant. “All that I have done…” he replied. “All that I have ever sacrificed was so that the Empire would remain safe, so that jewels like Otosan Uchi would remain untarnished. Was all of it for nothing? Even with our victory on the Day of Thunder, the city still fell.”
Aoiko only looked at Kisada quietly.
“I know the question you would ask even if you would not insult me by speaking it,” he said. “I invaded Otosan Uchi once, but its destruction was not my intent. Never did I imagine it would come to such ruin. My soldiers were forbidden to loot, forbidden to kill any who did not oppose us. It was only when we learned the truth of what the Emperor was, the truth of Yori’s allegiances, that the city truly fell to chaos. But even then, it was nothing like this.” He looked back at the ravaged city.
“The body is dead but the soul lives on,” Aoiko said. “Toshi Ranbo is grander than Otosan Uchi ever was. You did not fight for nothing.”
“I hope you are right, Aoiko,” he answered, an odd edge of menace in his voice.
“So what is our plan?” she asked. “The scouts believe our enemy is more numerous than we expected. The Bloodspeakers apparently dug up many reinforcements in the ruins. Should we send for aid?”
Kisada shook his head. “I think it would serve no purpose. Iuchiban is a coward. If our forces were a match for his, he would flee, and carry his heart beyond our grasp. For us to succeed, he must believe that he can triumph.” He looked at her intently. “Are you willing to do something dangerous, Aoiko?” he asked.
She smirked. “I am a Lion,” she said simply. “What do you suggest?”
“By now he will have seen my banners,” Kisada replied. “He will know that I am here, and the threat that I represent. He will not ignore a Fortune returned to destroy him, if only to make an example of me. I know how to deal with magic such as his; I believe I can keep him occupied.” He reached into his obi and drew out the small glowing stone, the piece of Iuchiban’s heart, offering it to Aoiko. “Meanwhile you will lead a smaller force into the city and claim his heart.”
The Lion looked at the Great Bear’s hand in surprise. “You would trust me with this?” she asked.
He looked at her squarely. “Should I not?” he asked.
Aoiko took the stone from Kisada’s outstretched palm. “You hardly know me,” she said. “How do you know I am worthy of such faith?”
“Because I have heard the prayers of many Lion soldiers,” Kisada replied, “Soldiers who beg that I will grant them strength and honor to match yours.”
Aoiko’s eyes widened, but she said nothing. She only bowed her head in thanks for the great honor.
Kisada’s mare shifted uneasily and the wind increased in intensity. A swarm of leaves swirled around the horse’s legs. Blue lightning flashed in the sky overhead, revealing a figure on the road ahead. Aoiko reached for her sword, startled. Kisada looked down at the man with an only faintly curious expression. The Lion’s hand fell away when she recognized the stranger’s shoulder-length white hair, red robe, and weathered face.
“Truly amazing,” the man said, walking toward them, his eyes wide.
“Cease where you are, stranger,” Kisada said. “You have already bypassed my scouts in hostile territory. If you mean no harm, you would be wise not to draw my suspicion further.”
The man stopped. “I apologize, Kisada-sama,” he replied. “I was attracted by the stench of khadi magic that you carry, but now I see the mark of the heavens upon you. I bid you greetings, Fortune of Persistence. I mean you no harm.”
“A fortunate conclusion,” Kisada replied, though he did not impart whether the fortune was his own or the stranger’s. “Who are you? Your face is familiar.”
“I am Isawa Sezaru, son of Toturi the First,” he said with a deep bow.
“Also called the Wolf,” Kisada said, studying the man earnestly. “The one who hunts Iuchiban and his minions.”
Sezaru looked at Kisada curiously. “I had wondered why it happened tonight, of all nights,” he said, seeming to glide toward them in his long robes. “Now I understand. You bear the solution, don’t you, Kisada? He is afraid because of you.”
“What are you talking about?” Kisada asked, suddenly irritated by the shugenja’s strange question.
“Are you unaware of what has happened beyond this city?” he asked. “The elements scream out in pain at what Iuchiban has done. In every city his hidden cultists have struck out in a wave of murder, betrayal, and destruction. It is all the Emperor’s servants can do to restore order. Such blatant action is unlike the Bloodspeakers, for surely they will be harmed the most by showing their hand in such a manner. I came here seeking the reason why Iuchiban would sacrifice his followers, and now I know. He acts in desperation. My comrade, Katamari, already moves within the city and he reports that the Bloodspeakers are fearful, in chaos. It is unusual for them.” Sezaru looked at Aoiko sternly. “What is it that you bring with you that concerns him so, Kisada?”
Kisada regarded Sezaru suspiciously. “It is none of your concern, shugenja,” he said.
Sezaru’s eyes narrowed.
“Kisada-sama,” Aoiko said softly. “He is the Voice of the Emperor, Toturi’s chosen servant. He is our ally.”
Kisada’s gaze locked with Sezaru’s for a long, intense moment. Neither the Bear or Wolf turned away.
“Tsudao told me that you are a worthy man,” Kisada said. “Did she speak truly?”
Sezaru flinched. When he spoke, his voice was much softer than before. “You have spoken to my sister?”
Kisada nodded. “On the fields of Tengoku, where the souls of Fortunes and past Emperors gather.”
Sezaru’s face broke into a smile for a single, rare moment. “If Tsudao placed her faith in me,” he said, “I can only endeavor to meet her expectations.”
“Then listen well, Wolf,” Kisada replied. “I only have time to explain this once.”
Iuchiban could sense fear rising from his followers. They were confused, uncertain. Some of them were already aware of what was transpiring beyond the city, what their brethren had been commanded to do. Many of them already entertained thoughts of revolt or escape. It was too late for them. This close, their will could not defy his. He focused them upon the army of Lion and Crab gathering against the city, willing them to prepare the defenses. The enemy general’s banner was that of Hida Kisada, a mythical hero of the Crab who it was said had returned from the dead to fight the Bloodspeakers. If such were true, he would soon see whose legend was more potent. Iuchiban’s army of tsukai and undead outnumbered those arrayed against the Crab, but that was no reason to take foolish chances. The Bloodspeaker reached out to Yajinden, the most powerful of his servants, commanding him to seek out Kisada and send him back to the Realm of Blessed Ancestors.
Yajinden was not there.
Iuchiban sneered. The swordsmith’s rebellious nature was certainly no surprise, but never before had he found a way to escape his master’s will entirely.
“Is this your work as well, dragon?” he said. “Have you turned even my greatest pawn against me?”
The Shadow Dragon chuckled in Iuchiban’s mind. “A pawn never realizes he is a pawn until his role in the game is done,” it replied. “You may control Yajinden, Iuchiban, but who is the true master? Who was the one who first helped you learn the path of maho? Who was the one that suggested you walk the path of the khadi?”
“Yajinden,” Iuchiban retorted. “What is your point, dragon?” The Bloodspeaker reached out subtly with his magic as he spoke, hoping to gain some sense of how the dragon watched over him, perhaps some way to strike at it. “All that he did was out of service to me, out of duty and loyalty. I have always been his master.”
“Of course,” the dragon said. “He shared his knowledge with you, and in turn you enslaved him.”
“Such was only fitting,” Iuchiban said. “Without my guidance he is a fool, a man of small ambition. It was his clumsy work that led to our first defeat.”
“You speak of when he gave the Bloodsword, Yashin, to a man too clever to wield it,” the dragon said. “That mistake that led to your imprisonment, but not Yajinden’s.” The dragon chuckled. “How ‘clumsy’ indeed.”
Iuchiban’s vision clouded with rage, but he did not let it split his focus. He continued grasping for the dragon, finding nothing but shadow. “I escaped,” he hissed.
“Eventually,” the dragon said. “By using khadi magic to switch your soul with a Scorpion’s. Yajinden, of course, knew how to do that long before. How careless of him not to share the secret. One might think that he had hoped to be rid of you.”
Finding what he sought, Iuchiban’s hand shot out into the darkness, seizing a fistful of nothing. A ripple passed through the shadows, and the dragon hissed in pain. A pair of shimmering black eyes appeared, narrowed in pain. “Laugh now, dragon,” he said with a snarl.
“I may,” the dragon said, voice tinged with pain. “I find the strangest things amusing.”
“Where is he?” Iuchiban demanded, tightening his grip on the dragon’s misty flesh. “Where is the swordsmith?”
“Well beyond your grasp,” the dragon answered. “Such is the difference between genius and madness. While you paint every happenstance as if it were your own design, Yajinden truly bends history to his will. This is why he is a suitable ally, and you are redundant. To you, everything is all or nothing. Yajinden knows a small sacrifice can award a greater victory.” The dragon seemed to smile. “As do I.”
The dragon pulled away with the sound of tearing flesh. The Bloodspeaker’s fist clenched impotently around nothing, fingers slick with the creature’s black blood. Iuchiban’s mind reeled at the revelation that Yajinden’s treachery extended so deeply into their history. Yet even as memories raced through his mind, a strange clarity came over him as well. Why had the dragon revealed so much? Surely not to gloat. There must be some greater reason. Iuchiban extended his awareness across the city again, throughout his followers. Only one third of those he sensed before remained. The others, like Yajinden, were gone.
“What have you done?” he roared.
Then he sensed another, darker presence in the bay beyond the city.
The Dark Lord had arrived.
Beyond the walls, Hida Kisada’s army moved to attack.
“Let them come,” Iuchiban said, a mad laugh rising from deep within him. “Let them all come.”
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