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|A Gathering of Thunder|
|Written By:||Rich Wulf|
|Released:||Dec, 2004 ()|
Previously: Fires of the Phoenix.
Dawn of the Empire, Part Nine of Ten
“Fu Leng’s armies slowly marched north, destroying all that lay in their path, and even the mighty Crab were hard pressed to stop them,” Unmei said. “Now we come to the part of the tale that you likely already know.”
“Of course,” Unmei replied. “After all, the same tale told twice is seldom the same, and I think perhaps you have not heard this version.”
“Oh?” Kaimetsu-Uo replied.
“Seven Thunders and a prophet rode south to battle the dark god, but for a time another rode with them,” Unmei said. “Another whose identity was buried by history for his own sake. Yet he told his tale to Hida, and Hida told it to me…”
A Gathering of Thunder by Rich Wulf
My father always taught me that some things are simply meant to be. Some events are destined to occur, and will happen regardless of what we do to prevent them. In truth, this is very rare. Father taught me that the more important something is, the less inevitable it is. After all, if something is important but would have happened on its own no matter what we did, well, then it was never very important at all. Choice is what defines us. Choice is what makes us who and what we are. Most of the time, the kharmic wheel can spin one way or the other. Destiny offers us a choice even when — especially when — we would prefer not to have one.
I was only a child then, but I still remember it all clearly. How could anyone forget a time such as that? I stood in the shadows of the throne room and watched my father speak. It was amazing to see the most powerful men and women in the Empire hang upon his every word. I had always admired my father more than any other man; he was without a doubt the wisest, bravest, and gentlest man I have ever known. But these were gods, and they looked upon him as if he were their savior.
At least most of them saw him that way. Akodo never seemed to trust Father, and Togashi rarely spoke to him, always remaining in the back of the room and just listening. Sometimes I felt the Dragon Champion’s eyes upon me and looked up. I always quickly looked away; to look into those eyes was to look into depthless eternity. All of the Kami were different from one another, but Togashi was the one that frightened me most — except for Fu Leng, of course.
That was why the Kami had gathered here today. My father had summoned them, and they had come at his command, stepping away from the war in the south, abandoning their duties to their clans, all to hear my father speak. I felt a sense of overwhelming pride, and was confused not to see that pride reflected in Father’s eyes. He regarded the Emperor and the divine leaders of the Empire with the same friendly smile and calm serenity with which he’d greeted the baker’s wife earlier that morning. There was no arrogance in him, only patience, wisdom, and the eternal hint of mischief in the corner of his smile.
“The time has come,” my father said, pushing his wide straw hat back over his shoulders. “The end of the War Against Fu Leng is nigh.”
Hantei leaned forward in his throne. The Emperor’s face was shiny with sweat. He had been grievously wounded in a recent battle and was said to be very ill, though of course he denied the rumors. His son Genji stood at his right hand, casting a look of concern at his father. “My scouts report that Fu Leng’s army is on the march,” the Emperor said, his voice a low croak. “They prepare to assault Otosan Uchi once more. The hordes are three times the size of our armies. Are you telling me we are doomed, Little Teacher, or that you have found a way to defeat Fu Leng at last?”
“The end is not yet written,” my father answered. “It is for us to decide. This is more than a simple war, Your Majesty. Certainly when you and your brethren fell to earth, you sensed that you were drawn here for a purpose… at least one of you was.”
“Speak clearly, little man,” Akodo demanded with a glare.
“The mortal realm stands between your home in the Celestial Heavens and Jigoku, the Realm of Evil,” my father replied. “Jigoku eternally seeks to spread its corruption through this realm, while the powers of the Celestial Heavens seek to leave this realm free to seek its own fate. In every age, there is a confrontation between the Champions of both realms. Jigoku has chosen its champion already. He must be defeated before this will end.”
“Our brother,” Shinjo said in a quiet voice. “Fu Leng.” She hissed when she said the name, as if uncomfortable with its sound.
“It is as I always thought,” Hida said with a smirk. “Strike off the head and the body dies. I told you your sword was too slow, Akodo. You should not have hesitated to kill him when you had the chance.”
“You dare?” Akodo said, turning to face Hida. The Lord of Lions glared at his brother, head turned slightly to the left as he focused his remaining eye on Hida. “A child of heaven does not murder his brothers, no matter their crime, Hida,” he snapped. “Be grateful of that the next time you question my courage.”
Hida smiled broadly and opened his mouth as if to speak some retort. The smile faded as he thought better of it and he looked away from Akodo.
“Tell me this is not the answer, Little Teacher,” the Lady Doji said softly. “Is there not some way that our lost brother can be saved? Must we destroy him?” Lady Doji never spoke Fu Leng’s name. I had heard that the Kami once called their brother by another name, but that name is buried with the memories of the brother he had once been.
“Wherever his fate lies, it is outside of your hands, Doji-sama,” my father told her, his voice filled with sympathy. “As I said before, the Celestial Heavens leaves the mortal realm free to seek its own fate. Those who face Fu Leng must be chosen from among the mortals.”
“Preposterous,” Togashi said in his strange, hollow voice. “What you ask is impossible.”
“You spend too much time apart from the mortals, brother,” Bayushi said, stroking his chin beneath his ragged cloth mask. “I have seen many of them perform the impossible. Perhaps what the Little Teacher says is correct. Where armies have failed, perhaps a small group of chosen warriors could find our brother’s camp and destroy him.”
“They would die,” Togashi replied. The Lord of Dragons always seemed to question my father’s advice more than any of the others.
“How is that any different from the war we fight now?” Shiba countered, standing beside his twin brother. “Bayushi’s followers run through the shadows, counting legions of demons, sabotaging the Dark Lord’s supply trains. The Scorpion die every day so that we might breathe another hour. What if the sacrifice of a few heroes could end this war forever, Togashi? Would you not take that risk?”
“Perhaps,” Togashi answered thoughtfully.
“No,” Bayushi said, his voice tense. “I have no more children for Fu Leng to kill. Too many have died already. None remain who could do this deed, none that I can spare. Let a Lion do this deed, or a Ki-Rin.”
“Let us all share in this responsibility,” Hantei said, his voice quavering only slightly as he sat higher in his throne. “If we succeed, we shall all share in the glory. If we fail, we will know each of us did all that he or she could. We shall send one hero from every clan. Seven heroes to follow the Teacher to his destiny. Seven Thunders to summon a storm that will wash my brother’s foul touch from the Empire.”
At those words, I saw my father smile, as if he had known he would hear them.
“Fu Leng is a god,” Shinjo said. “I am still not convinced we should not face him ourselves.”
“It is not your destiny,” Shinsei said. “Any but the Thunders who stand before Fu Leng will be ground beneath the wheels of destiny.”
“Then Seven Thunders it shall be,” Hantei said. “Who shall be first?”
“Not me,” Bayushi snapped. “Not ever. I forbid any more of my vassals to die in this war. Punish me how you will, brother, but no more Scorpion blood shall flow in the Shadowlands.” Bayushi turned and stormed from the chamber. Several moments of tense silence followed.
Akodo nodded to a tall warrior by his side. The man stepped forward, smoothing one hand over his luxuriant black beard as he stood boldly before the Kami. “I am Ikoma Jujinin, eldest of Ikoma’s nine sons.” Ikoma had never taken a wife, but from the tales I had heard I was not surprised to hear of his many sons. “My father has proven himself as the Right Hand of the Lord of Lions,” Jujinin continued. “I shall honor his example by…”
Jujinin’s speech was interrupted with a sharp crack as a tall woman in brilliant golden armor struck him across the face. He fell to the ground, dazed eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.
“I am Matsu,” she said simply. “I am ready.”
My father grinned and bowed deeply to Lady Matsu.
Then Togashi gestured to one of the men that stood beside him. The man stepped forward, a tall samurai in deep green armor. His head was shaven in the manner of a monk, but his calloused hands and steel eyes were those of a warrior.
I recognized the name: Togashi’s own bodyguard. Strange that Togashi would question my father one moment then offer to sacrifice his own yojimbo the next — but then I hear the Dragon are a strange people.
“My son Atarasi is on the front lines, Little Teacher,” Hida said. “Seek him there.”
“And I shall send for my finest warrior, Otaku,” Shinjo added.
Shiba looked thoughtful, as if uncertain who to offer, or if they would accept the honor. My father bowed deeply, as if satisfied with the choices they had made. He turned to leave and Mirumoto bowed to his lord Togashi a final time, offering his silent thanks to be chosen for such a duty.
I noticed Matsu did not turn and bid farewell to proud Akodo, nor did she ask his leave. Her eyes were set firmly upon the door, ignoring everyone but my father. Bold Akodo had turned his attention to the nearest window, his good eye turned toward the wall. Shinjo looked upon her brother in silent sympathy. Both had faced Fu Leng in battle; they knew better than the rest what lay ahead for the Thunders. Akodo would not bar Matsu from her destiny, but even bold Akodo could not summon the courage to watch her depart to meet such a fate.
I followed my father out of the throne room.
“What is wrong, little crow?” Father asked me as we walked. “You look sad.” Doji, Matsu, and Mirumoto had moved far ahead, already discussing the challenge that awaited them.
“It is nothing, father,” I said, my eyes upon the floor.
“Oh,” he replied, and we continued walking silently. He waited patiently for the answer, as he always did.
“I always thought of the Kami as gods,” I said, looking up at him. “They are greater than us all. But Akodo’s rage, Bayushi’s grief, Togashi’s doubt… I did not expect them to be so… so flawed.”
“Then think on this,” Father answered. “How would you feel if Akodo felt no remorse for wounding his brother? If Togashi accepted all things without thought? If Bayushi cared nothing for the lives of his people?”
I thought about this for a moment. “I would be afraid,” I said.
“What seem to be flaws are often strengths, little crow,” father said with a grin. “Think upon that as we gather our heroes.”
In all my travels at my father’s side I have seen great and terrible things. Many things have impressed themselves on my memory, but there is one I shall never forget. It was the moment that Fu Leng truly came closest to destroying the Empire.
We had not expected the battle to begin so soon.
In the corner of the chamber, Lady Doji embraced a young Crane girl who sobbed quietly as she clutched an infant to her breast. In the center of the room stood the Emperor’s Champion, Kakita. His blade was drawn, dripping foul ichor on the marble floor. Mirumoto stood at his back, a sword in each hand as his eyes scanned the chamber. In the distance, Matsu’s cries echoed through the palace, rallying the Imperial Guard. On the floor beside them lay the twisted body of an oni, beheaded by Kakita’s sword. It had fallen by the body of Doji Yasurugi, son of Doji and Kakita, the hero who had stepped forward to be the Crane Thunder. The oni’s laughter echoed through the chamber long after its death, mingling with the startled cries of Crane courtiers.
My father knelt on the floor, oblivious to the blood and ichor that pooled around him. He laid one hand upon Yasurugi’s heart, and looked bleakly into the dead Crane’s eyes. It was something I had never seen before and never since, and in that moment the Empire had come closest to its end, even though none ever knew. What frightened me most was not that the Crane Thunder had died, or even that Fu Leng’s oni had infiltrated the Imperial Palace itself.
What frightened me most was that my father had lost hope.
“Accursed beast,” Mirumoto snapped, seething with fury. “Fu Leng knows our plan even before we begin!”
“We are lost,” my father said, head bowed in defeat.
“No,” said a soft voice.
A girl stepped from the crowd, small and slight; I had not noticed her before. She knelt and picked up the sheathed sword that lay on the floor beside the wooden cradle, the sword Yasurugi had dedicated to his newborn son only moments before his death. Still kneeling, she drew the sword, which sang with a resounding crystal note, banishing the oni’s echoing laughter from the room. “My brother’s soul is here.”
My father stumbled slightly as he stood and moved quickly to her side. He reached for her chin with a shaking hand. She looked up at him, eyes blue, clear, and determined. “A twin,” he said, voice barely a whisper. “Yasurugi’s twin.”
Behind him Matsu burst into the chamber again, sword in hand, scanning the room for any sign of further attack. Lion troops flooded into the chamber behind her to reinforce the room, much to Kakita’s annoyance.
The Crane girl nodded. “Hai,” she said.
My father laughed out loud, pulling her to her feet and clasping her in a sudden embrace. “We are not yet defeated, my friends! The Soul of Thunder lives on in her!”
“If such is her kharma, my love, then I have faith that she will bear her brother’s destiny with honor,” Kakita said. He sheathed his sword and bowed to his daughter, then turned to the Dragon. “Protect my daughter, Mirumoto.”
“Protect my Empire, Kakita,” he replied.
“Let him do a better job than his guards did protecting the palace,” Matsu said, sneering at the dead oni.
“Watch your tongue, Matsu,” Kakita hissed. “We are allies. My daughter may well save your life in the Shadowlands.”
Matsu laughed out loud and scowled down at the Crane girl. “She is no warrior,” the Lion said in a loud voice. Konishiko stepped away from my father, looking up at Matsu defiantly. Matsu slapped at Konishiko’s sword with her own blade, lazily attempting to knock it from her hands. A sharp clang of steel on steel resounded as Konishiko disarmed the Lion more swiftly than anyone could see. Matsu held her sore wrist in one hand then nodded to the Crane girl in respect. Konishiko returned the gesture, moving away to kneel once again beside her fallen brother.
“I think we will do fine,” Mirumoto said to me with a lopsided smile.
The mountains of the Phoenix were cold and forbidding, but very beautiful. In that regard they were much like the people who dwelled in them. The Tribe of Isawa, the Children of the Earth, were a sophisticated people. They possessed knowledge far beyond that of the rest of the Empire. Yet that knowledge also kept them apart. In more primitive times, before the Kami fell, the other tribes were greatly jealous of the Isawa. Some would stop at nothing to destroy them, either to pillage their great knowledge or to simply eliminate those who possessed powers they did not understand. Was it any wonder they wished to remain apart even after the Kami came?
Shiba changed all of that. He brought the Children of the Earth into the Empire using a most unexpected method — humility. The Isawa would be treated as equals, given protection, support, and the freedom to continue their research. That freedom, of course, had a price. I remember the last time I visited the Phoenix mountains with my father, and met the man who paid that price.
It was often said that Isawa was the most powerful man in Rokugan, but he did not seem so that day. He was a very small man who often dressed in robes far too large for his skinny frame. A wide hat concealed his features. Many small amulets and magical fetishes hung from his clothing. He clutched one in both hands as he knelt beside a small shrine to his sister, chanting intently in the language of his tribe.
I stood beside my father, who gestured for me not to interrupt. Even the noisy crow that often perched upon my father’s shoulder, the creature he nicknamed me for, fell silent at the sight of Isawa. The little bird was still white then, its feathers still untouched by Fu Leng’s shadow.
After a while, Isawa ceased his chant abruptly. He turned, peering over his shoulder. “Yogo has been forever cursed,” he said. “Ariminhime is dead. Gisei Toshi will never be as wondrous as it once was. Each time we enter combat with Fu Leng’s minions we pay a heavy cost, Little Teacher.”
“Do you believe by remaining neutral you will be safe?” my father asked.
Isawa frowned. “I did, once,” Isawa said, “but it seems the Kami’s enemies bear a hatred for all life, even we who have done nothing to rouse their anger.” Isawa fell silent for a time. “Yet now Fu Leng has finally made an error. He has roused my anger.” He lifted a heavy satchel of scrolls from beside Ariminhime’s shrine and looked at my father with a flat, imperious expression. “I would have had my vengeance one way or another, Little Teacher. Now that we are allies, your Thunders are welcome to share in my victory.”
Isawa bowed to my father and then made his way past us, back down the path to Gisei Toshi where the other Thunders waited. I looked up at my father, who watched Isawa with an unreadable expression.
“You always taught me humility was a sign of enlightenment,” I said to my father. I tried not to speak ill of the important men my father met with, but Isawa bothered me with his arrogance.
My father smiled then. “That is true,” he said. “Perhaps Isawa is humble, and his power is even greater than he would have us believe.”
“Is that possible, Father?”
My father looked off to the southwest then, where black clouds gathered. “Let us hope so, little crow.”
In our travels throughout the Empire, Father and I usually walked; steeds were for wealthy people and we were not wealthy. The Emperor was, and he insisted we make haste, so we had the finest horses. Father adjusted to the saddle with the same quiet mastery he applied to everything he did. I confess I took a great deal of time to grow accustomed to it.
On the road south toward the Shadowlands, we met a single rider. The horse galloped toward us at extraordinary speed, and for a moment I thought it might continue without stopping. At the last moment, the rider gently tugged the reins and the horse wheeled to a halt with extraordinary precision. Using the momentum of the charge, the mounted samurai leapt from her saddle and landed in the road before my father. She knelt, head bowed, pressing one fist upon the earth. A brilliant purple sashimono flapped from her armor, bearing no mon.
The woman stood. Her expression was stern and confident. Hers was not Matsu’s fiery, temperamental pride, but rather a quiet, sincere assurance in her own abilities. She looked to my father, then to each of the other men and women who followed us. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw little Konishiko, but after looking into the Crane’s eyes her doubt quickly faded. She finally looked at me, then back at Father again, nodding.
“We ride for the Crab lands,” my father said. “Can you keep up?”
Otaku’s expression was shocked. She opened her mouth in outrage, then stopped. She laughed then, a bright and vibrant laugh. It was the only sound I ever heard her make.
Then she bowed again, as deeply as she could, climbed back into her saddle, and continued the journey beside us.
The lands of the Crab had been utterly ravaged. I had never seen such a thing. Entire forests had been set ablaze by elemental oni, villages left in ruins by ravenous bakemono. Yet always, no matter where we traveled, I saw courage in the eyes of peasant and samurai alike. These sons and daughters of Hida were unlike any other people I have known, possessed of an indomitable will and raucous humor even when beset by enemies on all sides. It occurred to me that the Empire would have done well had Hida won the tournament to determine the Emperor, but with such an enemy as Fu Leng at the doorstep Hantei could not have selected a better defender.
While my father spoke to Hida and gathered what maps he could of the lands ahead, I was guided through the Hida camps by Atarasi, Hida’s son. He was a large man, like his father. Unlike Hida, he did not possess his father’s rowdy demeanor. Atarasi was quiet and thoughtful. There was a strange pain in his eyes as he looked upon the blasted lands that were his home, describing details of the outpost in terse phrases. I could not help but try to comfort him.
“Why so grim, Atarasi-sama?” I asked. “The Crab suffer now, but once we have vanquished Fu Leng your people will be safe again.”
“They are not my people,” Atarasi replied. “They are my father’s people.”
“But you are Hida’s heir,” I replied.
Atarasi shook his head. “I have known since this war began that I am meant to die,” he answered. “That is why I keep my distance from the others. At least now, knowing I am a Thunder, I know my death will have purpose. Even so, I know I shall die alone.”
Atarasi looked at me with a sad, distant expression. I could think of nothing to say. Nothing Father had taught me, no wisdom I had gathered from the Empire’s finest scholars could help me bring the grim Thunder cheer.
“No man ever dies alone with loyal comrades by his side,” came a voice.
I looked up at the sound, as did Atarasi. A thin woman in crimson and black approached us. A thin veil covered her face, scarcely hiding the lovely features beneath. She wore light armor, only enough to cover her shoulders and midsection, and carried a long, wicked spear in one hand. She had all the deadly beauty of a spider’s web.
“A Scorpion,” Atarasi said, a note of admiration in his voice. The Scorpion had been the Crab’s strongest allies in this war, their scouts daring to explore the deadliest regions of the Shadowlands alongside the Crab’s stout warriors. “Have you come to report?”
“I have come to meet you, Atarasi-san,” she said with a light chuckle. “I am Shosuro, the Scorpion Thunder.”
“Oh?” Atarasi replied, surprised. “The prophet said Bayushi forbade his followers to join this quest.”
“Bayushi forbade any more of his followers to die in this war,” Shosuro answered. “I do not intend to die, Atarasi-san.”
Atarasi laughed at that, showing the first trace of joy I had seen in the dour Hida’s eyes.
It was then that I realized that my father had appeared beside me, though as usual I had not heard him approach. He placed one hand upon my shoulder as he looked upon Shosuro with a satisfied expression.
“Seven Thunders at last, little crow,” he said.
“You knew Shosuro would come, didn’t you?” I asked.
“I did not,” he replied. “The choice was always hers. Destiny offers us a choice, when it matters. I merely hoped that she would choose wisely.”
My father’s words remained with me long after he gathered the Thunders and journeyed into the Ninth Kami’s lands. It was a strange revelation to me, as that was the day I finally understood my father.
People often believed my father was infallible, so wise that he never made a poor decision, and always certain what the future held. That was not so. My father was just a man, a wise man who always placed his faith in noble and honourable souls. If it seemed he never made the wrong decision, it was only because of his confidence in the goodness of others. His example inspired those around him to do what was right.
Seven men and the Little Teacher entered the Shadowlands, prepared to do battle with the champion of all that was evil. As the Crab soldiers watched them march past, there was fear and doubt on many of their faces. For me, there was no doubt, there was no fear. I did not believe for an instant that the Thunders would fail. Father taught me too well for that.
To Be Concluded in: Day of Thunder.
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