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|Children of Rokugan|
|Written By:||Lucas Twyman|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||November 27th, 2009|
Mirumoto Kei’s vision blurred, and she felt herself retching. The smell of smoke overpowered her; too powerful, as it seemed distant but filled her nostrils all the same. She steadied herself, blinking sleep away from her eyes, and focused her sight forward.
She was not outside, she was not on a battlefield – she was in her small command tent, a few feet away from her bedroll. The night air seemed balmy and thin, a cool breeze swept down the foot of the mountains towards her tent. She composed herself — she had awoken, immediately felt sick, and moved to the corner.
For the past two mornings, she felt sick… all the past week, her body ached…
Her eyes grew wide as she stared at the messy tent corner. Before she left the Imperial City, stories from the lands of the Crane had already spread about a new plague crossing the Empire, a disease terrifyingly reminiscent of the sickness that served as a precursor to the Clan War.
Her blood grew cold.
Kei spun around. It was too early for there to be a normal visitor — the sun had not yet risen. She glanced at her daisho, still its stand by her bedroll. If the camp had been attacked, she would have to pull herself together quickly.
“Lady Kei?” the voice, delicate and feminine, repeated, “I apologize for the breach of decorum, but I am coming in.”
The small, pretty face of Togashi Misuko, the wife of The Voice of the Divine Empress, poked through the flaps of Kei’s tent. As usual, she was smiling, her long hair pulled up tightly behind her head, her delicate features a bit more plump than usual. With a concerted effort, she shuffled in without standing. In one hand, she held a steaming wooden cup; in the other, she cradled her protruding stomach.
“Misuko…” Kei said, but she felt a coldness inside that kept her from thinking properly.
Misuko stood slowly and walked to Kei’s side. “I heard you were awake again, Lady Kei. That is the second night in a row.”
Kei looked up at Misuko, her eyes wide and watery. “Lady Misuko, you must leave me. Please.”
“Don’t be silly, dear,” Misuko said, and she sat down, cross-legged, next to her champion. “I know you are my Champion now, Lady Kei, but I am not afraid of abusing my husband’s position when I feel something must be done.”
Kei slid backwards suddenly. “Lady Misuko, this is not a casual request. You must leave me now. Hurry!”
Misuko smiled widely. “Nonsense.” She offered the warm cup to Kei. “Drink this. And don’t call me lady.”
“Misuko, this is for your sake. I will not allow you to be threatened or worse…” Kei found herself involuntarily glancing down at Misuko’s belly. She had promised to the Voice that she would accompany his wife back to a safe place in Dragon lands so that Misuko could give birth while Satsu attended the Empress’s Winter Court, but the return of the Army of Fire had forced them to take a slower, hidden path through the mountains.
“I married a god, Lady Kei,” Misuko said firmly, “there is nothing you can say that will frighten me. Now drink the tea. It will help you with the nausea. I picked the herbs myself, and my… and local peasants have used it for generations.”
“Misuko, please. We do not know how easily this disease spreads,” Kei said, slowly and deliberately. She took the cup from Misuko, mostly to humor the ise zumi, and looked in the tiny woman’s eyes. “I promised to keep you safe, and, your husband’s position aside, I owe him too much to break my word.”
Misuko blinked. Kei was taken aback as the little woman laughed, high and free. “My dear Kei,” Misuko said, “what could you ever think that you owe my husband?”
Kei was stunned for a moment. “Misuko… Lord Satsu… The Divine Voice… has given me everything. He…” — she fumbled for the words — “…he named me the head of his forces during the War of the Rich Frog. You may not know of my history, Lady Misuko, but my family was not in a high position within the clan. He arranged my marriage with Lord Mareshi, he made me a daimyo of the Mirumoto, he has made me Champion of the clan.”
Kei looked down, and Misuko leaned forward, back into her champion’s vision. “Lady Kei, your hesitation is most uncharacteristic.”
“I owe your husband everything, Misuko. I owe him everything for his faith in me.”
Misuko covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, Kei,” she said softly, “you owe him nothing. Lord Satsu, before he became his own man, did not need to put his faith in anyone — he knew exactly what he was getting whenever he chose one of his servants. If anything, he owes you, for fulfilling the potential he knew you had, and more.”
Kei sipped the tea, and barely suppressed a frown at the bitter taste. “Lady Misuko, I am uncertain if this is appropriate, especially now.”
Misuko’s features turned up into a smile. “Lady Kei, the Celestial Order chooses the virtuous for their place. You overstep your bounds by questioning the choices of those above you on the Order.” She tipped her head slightly at Kei. “But I understand your questions. I do not like them, though. You have always been deliberate and brilliant. Uncertainty does not become you.”
Kei sipped on her tea and narrowed her eyes. Misuko nodded, still smiling, and continued. “I, like all monks, began my life the day I became a monk, but I understand, in a small way, your concern. Please imagine with me a young peasant girl, one who loved her family, but feared the strange dreams that came to her at night. Imagine the strange realization when she came upon the mountain from her dreams, when she realized it was real. Imagine she climbed it and found her destiny was greater than she could have ever believed. The Heavens choose us all for great things at some time or another, Kei, and the virtuous are the ones who are able to carry out their wishes.”
Kei slowly sipped from the tea again, not taking her eyes off the diminutive woman.
Misuko shrugged. “And please,” she said with mock sternness, “just imagine with me that the little peasant girl’s upbringing had some strange influence on why the wife of the former daimyo of the Togashi was never very good at saying things that are socially appropriate.”
Kei placed the tea cup gingerly on the ground, and nodded her head. “Thank you, Lady Misuko, but I fear the heavens may have recently chosen another place for me. You have helped me focus on the tasks at hand, but I must insist that I think the danger of the plague is very real to you and your heir.”
Misuko’s laughter was sweeter than birdsong. “Lady Kei, you forget. I am a tattooed woman. I fear nothing! I can see more than most! I am magic!”
She leaned forward and placed her hand on Kei’s stomach. Kei flinched from the strangeness of physical contact. She looked down at Misuko’s hand, then up at the tattooed woman’s face. Misuko’s nose scrunched up as she smiled sympathetically.
“Truthfully, Lady Kei, I do not believe you have the plague. I do not believe so at all.”
The northern Hida provinces
Will. Raw will, tempered by rage.
That was all Kuni Daigo felt he had left. He was fine with this. Daigo had always triumphed through sheer willpower — he was not the strongest man in the Crab lands, nor the most knowledgeable shugenja, nor the most skilled at tactics, but he had one trait that had served him well: his indomitable will. The kami of each element had their own personality, though calling their behavior such was somewhat of a mistake. Each elemental kami was alien in its own way, unaware of concepts such as mortality or time, but each could have their attention gained in different ways. The kami of fire loved sacrifices, while the kami of air were capricious and could be tricked into performing tasks. The kami of the earth, however, were less obvious. The earth was typically immobile and solid, and the kami of the earth were not known for their awareness or flexibility. In order to make the earth move, a more direct approach was required to bend the kami to a shugenja’s whim — and raw willpower, a noisy assertion of self, was both the best way to force the earth to pay attention and simple enough to make the earth respond.
Daigo had will. He also had authority — and the kami recognized authority, even more so now that the Celestial Order had re-asserted itself under Empress Iweko. As the direct servant of the Child of the Celestial Heavens, once Daigo forced the kami to recognize him, they felt compelled to obey him. And no one was more skilled at asserting his identity on the elemental world through raw force than Kuni Daigo.
But the Wall had fallen. Lord Kuon had died, and despite the use of Daigo’s aid in making sure his death was both certain and useful, Daigo still felt a twinge of despair when he thought of his former lord. But regret was not helpful — so he forced it back, held all feelings down other than a slowly simmering rage. Before him, the Wall crawled with strange demons, many of which the Crab had never before seen. Monsters with the heads of bizarre foreign animals; many-armed warriors, and their horrible leader, the twisted, roiling, shape-shifting creature Benjiro dubbed “rakshasa.”
Daigo felt rage, yes, but he did not allow even rage to blind him. As he looked out over the lands of the Hida, as he stared at the crippled Kaiu Wall on the distant horizon, he carefully contemplated the vast network of wards and traps along the battlefield. Once Kuon bought them a moment to recover with his violent death, Benjiro and Daigo had sprung into action, re-activating ancient defenses and constructing new ones. The invaders had shattered the Wall, but Daigo would make sure the Wall was their prison until the Crab figured out a way to repel them.
Daigo turned and looked at Benjiro, who was staring at him quizzically.
“What are you thinking so intently about, Lord Daigo?” the veteran asked.
“They have taken most of the Wall, but the Empire will not fall.” Daigo said bluntly. “They will not move past our lands.”
“Direct. I like it. But why do you think so, Daigo?” Benjiro asked, eagerly, “Because we are the Wall?”
Daigo shook his head angrily. “No. I am not Lord Kuon. I will not claim to be a Wall.” Daigo clenched his fists, and the wards beneath him rippled. “They will not pass because we are Crab, and that is more than enough.”
Benjiro looked hurt for a moment, then laughed loudly. “Well said, Lord Daigo! Are your magistrates prepared?”
Daigo grunted in assent. Benjiro nodded, and said, “Then I will go check with the Kaiu. There has been much activity around the far base of the wall. I fear that our enemy will not wait another day before trying to move into our lands.”
Fear?, Daigo found himself thinking as Benjiro turned and rode down the line, I welcome it.
Daigo quickly put the thought out of his mind and turned to his assistant, Moshi Minami, who was busy jotting down notes from the battle-plan on an open scroll.
Minami looked up, startled. “Yes, Lord Daigo?”
Daigo pointed straight ahead. “Do you see that part of the wall straight ahead, the parapet where their leader watches us from?”
“Yes, lord.” Minami replied, peering through the light fog of the evening.
“I lost my wife there,” Daigo said, emotionlessly. “A Fushiki no Oni tore part of the watchtower from its foundations and set the surrounding scaffolding on fire. My wife leapt from the wall at the beast and fell to her death, striking at the demon again and again as she fell. I was miles away, investigation accusations of maho in a small village.”
“I…” Minami said, carefully, “I did not realize you were married.”
“Hrm. I am not an old man yet,” Daigo said, “but, strangely, it feels like it was a very long time ago.”
Daigo watched silently as the strange demons began to mass on the wall, their monstrous commander ordering them into rank in file as they began streaming down the stairs and ladders onto the ground below.
“Forgive me if this question is inappropriate, Lord Daigo,” Minami said, without looking up from her notation, “but did you have any children?”
The demons began marching forward, slowly covering the ground between them and the defensive lines. Daigo looked out over the assembled defending forces — the front line of Hida, anger burning in their eyes over the death of their champion; the Hiruma runners passing messages from one ward-station to another; the Kuni shugenja and Kaiu engineers hastily constructing wards and traps for the advancing demons; the remaining Lion and Unicorn forces fearfully watching the Destroyers; Daigo’s own assembled Jade Magistrates, the few he could manage to pull away from their plague-ridden home provinces. For many, this was their fifth, their tenth, their hundredth day in combat, but to Daigo’s tired eyes, they seemed so young. So young and so brave. There were no finer samurai in Rokugan.
Daigo gathered his thoughts, exerted his will. He stood up to his full height. “Yes, Minami. I have children.” He raised a fist towards the sky. “And I will not allow the darkness to take them from me!”
Dutifully, the kami bent to his will. Massive walls of stone erupted from the earth, blocking the advance of the Destroyers. Hundreds of wards flared to life. The demons burnt at the touch of jade — but, as expected, they did not fall like oni normally would. Exerting his position, Daigo grimaced as the wards flared brighter, and the demons screamed and backed away.
Kuni Daigo fueled the defense of Hida lands singlehandedly for two days before collapsing of exhaustion. The assembled shugenja maintained the wards for two more before the rakshasa’s forces retreated to determine another strategy for assault.
It would not protect the Empire indefinitely — the Destroyers were too crafty to fall for the same tactics twice. But it was enough to give the Empire a few day’s rest.
The Northern Wall Mountains
Fourteen Dragon samurai huddled in the well-hidden cavern, many watching nervously as dust and small stones crumbled from the ceiling with each tremor of the earth.
“What is that, Lady Kei?” Misuko asked as she peered out of the cave. Coiled about a mountain peak, less than half a mile away, was a massive, serpentine form that threatened to crush the mountain itself in its coils.
“That, Lady Misuko,” Kei said, exchanging concerned glances with her honor guard, “is a wyrm, though I have never seen any so large.”
Togashi Kanmu, a massive, heavily-muscled tattooed man who almost always stood at Misuko’s side, stood slack-jawed, watching the creature slowly move itself away. “It looks as if it is the father of all wyrms!”
“It very well could be, Togashi.” Kei replied grimly. “We are lucky that our scouts encountered the Yobanjin’s advance guard and were able to send the majority of our force towards them as a diversion. Hopefully, our men will somehow manage to retreat from that beast. At least it is the only wyrm we have seen.” Kei began rolling the letter she had just finished and placed it within a long, cylindrical container. “I would wager that we just encountered the main body of the new Army of Fire. It’s not very large, but from the way they remained in formation over the rough terrain, I would not be surprised if every member was at least a survivor of our previous conflict.”
“It’s quite surprising that they regrouped so quickly after we defeated them!” Kanmu said. Several of Kei’s honor guard looked at him nervously, aware that the tattooed man spoke too frankly and out of turn, but he did not appear to notice. Kanmu rubbed his chin thoughtfully, adding, “I wonder who could be guiding that great beast?”
Kei grimaced. “I am certain that question will be answered soon enough, and I am sure the answer will not be pleasant.” She held out the container. The tattooed man quickly took it. He noticed the guards staring at him again, and he exclaimed “Oh!” before bowing deeply. Rather than acknowledging his mistake, Kei stared intently at the Togashi.
“That message must get to the court. The Voice and my husband must be made aware of what we have learned, and the Empire must learn of the re-emergence of Chosai’s army.”
“You do not have to worry about that, my lady,” Misuko said, reassuringly, “I would trust Kanmu with my life. Our message is in safe hands.”
“I can hear water flowing below us. It’s only an eighty-foot drop.” Kanmu bowed deeply to the two women. “The stream will certainly lead out to a tributary, which will take me out to sea. Your message will be delivered, my daimyo.”
Misuko wrinkled her nose with concern. “Be careful, Kanmu!”
Not breaking his stride, Kanmu turned to face his Lady. “Of course, sister!”
The massive tattooed man waved absentmindedly as he tumbled backwards into the darkness. A few seconds later, a quiet splash could be heard.
Kei breathed in sharply. “He’s mad.”
Misuko rubbed her stomach absentmindedly. “Perhaps.”
“Of all the vassals at your disposal, you chose that one as your handservant?” Kei asked, incredulously.
Misako nodded. “I asked you to imagine with me before, Lady Kei. I ask you to do so again.” She tilted her head to the side, bemused. “Once, there was a little peasant girl who climbed a mountain to her destiny. It’s quite the strange story, I admit, but stranger still is the story of her nephew, six years her younger, who decided to make his own destiny by following her.”
She peered out of the entrance of the cave. “I believe our faithful bushi have led the monster far enough away from us. You said you knew someplace safe?”
Kei nodded. “We will try Shiro Mirumoto first, though I fear it may end up close to the front lines of fighting yet again.” She looked thoughtfully off into the north, then began walking out the cave. “I may have another idea, but hopefully things will not come to it, because it may be difficult to lead our forces from such a distant place.”
The Champion’s honor guard closed around the two women, and Misuko took one last look back into the cave, her ever-present smile still beaming. “Goodbye, brother,” she whispered, “I hope you have fun at court.”