|Written By:||Shawn Carman|
|Released:||Dec, 2004 ()|
|Story Year:||First century|
Previously: The Daughter.
Dawn of the Empire, Part Three of Ten
“You are a miraculous creature,” Kaimetsu-uo observed. “I have never seen anything such as you in all my travels. Are there others like you?”
“Many,” Unmei replied.
“And do the Great Clans know of you?”
The koumori shook its head sadly. “They do, but we conceal ourselves from them. Not all are as understanding or forgiving as your grandfather. There was a time when, fearful of Fu Leng’s power, Hantei declared that all creatures not of human origin be destroyed… and Lord Akodo was always first to enforce Hantei’s commands.”
Glorious Battle by Shawn Carman
In the instant before his spear plunged into the beast’s heart, Mirotai met the creature’s eyes. It was the first time he had ever truly looked at one of the kitsu; he had spared them only baleful panicked glances during battle. The creature’s red-gold eyes seemed depthless, eternal. In the moment before its death, it revealed to Mirotai the true measure of its soul, and he knew that what he had destroyed was no mindless beast. All this passed through his mind in the span of a heartbeat. He envisioned the lands beyond the mortal realm, countless spirit realms that spiralled out in every direction. Then there was a shudder at his shoulder as the spear struck home, and the beast was dead.
All the strength drained from Mirotai’s limbs. He released the spear and slumped to the ground, the cloth at his knees tearing as he collapsed onto the jagged stones of the mountain path. The light he had seen only moments before in the kitsu’s eyes was gone, and the brilliant golden fur that had seemed to shine like the sun was now dull brown, somehow cold to look upon.
“What have I done?” he whispered.
“Your duty,” came the answer. Rough hands grabbed Mirotai’s elbow and pulled him to his feet, clapping him sharply on the back in a brotherly fashion. “Well done! Are you hurt?” Ikoma grinned broadly at the young warrior, the scarred old man strangely out of place in his shining golden armor. “No, nothing wrong with you a good bottle of sake cannot fix! The finest gift of the Kami, sake. I bless Lord Hida with every cup I drink, and curse him when I awaken the next morning.”
Mirotai shook his head, unable to speak. He brushed at his clothes absently, glancing around the mountain pass to survey the aftermath. The great Akodo had gathered two dozen of his finest warriors to scour the hated kitsu from the mountains. In the Champion’s final stop before entering the mountains, three of Akodo’s men had been stricken with a terrible fever. Unwilling to wait, the Kami had replaced them with three soldiers from the village’s meager garrison. Mirotai was among them. He had felt at once greatly honored and completely terrified.
“Well done, brothers.” The voice boomed across the mountaintop like thunder. Akodo moved through the ranks, speaking to each of his men in turn. He came to stand before Mirotai, his armor gleaming in the midday sun. “How fares our new recruit, Ikoma?”
“Very well, great Akodo-sama,” the old warrior replied. “Mirotai claimed one of the beasts in single combat.” He gestured to the fallen beast, still impaled on the spear. “No mean feat for one so inexperienced, wouldn’t you say?”
“Magnificent,” Akodo replied with a nod. “A rare honor indeed, Mirotai. It grows more difficult to find these accursed creatures, and even more difficult to kill them. Our hunts take longer each time, with few sightings and even fewer kills. Soon our task will be finished, and you will be numbered among the fortunate few Ikoma will speak of as the kitsu slayers.”
“The stories will mostly be about me,” Ikoma said in a confidential tone. “It helps weaken the resolve of women, you understand.” He paused for a lecherous grin. “I’m sure I can find time to mention how you assisted me in our glorious battle, young Mirotai. Maybe there’ll be a few ugly sisters left for you when I’m done.”
Mirotai nodded mutely. Ikoma was… not what he had expected. The tales his people told of Akodo, on the other hand, made him seem to be a giant among men, a god that walked the earth. Yet Mirotai was not a large man, and Akodo stood no taller than he. He was muscular, but not remarkably so. His only truly distinguishing physical characteristics were his eyes, which burned with an unmatched passion. Other than that, he could have been any mortal man that one might encounter in a teahouse, or working a farm in the countryside.
Despite his appearance, there was no chance that Akodo would be mistaken for a mere mortal. There was something about him, something that Mirotai could not identify, that set him apart. The air around the Champion seemed strangely electrified, like the air after a lightning strike. The ferocity in his eyes was contagious. Already, Mirotai wondered if what he had seen with the kitsu had been a trick of the mind. In the presence of Akodo, there could be no uncertainty. His presence destroyed doubt and fear.
“My scouts have picked up a trail to the northeast,” Akodo said. “We will pursue them, but first we must return to the village for supplies and to treat our wounded.” He gestured to the fallen kitsu. “You will stand at my side during the hunt, Mirotai.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Although you’ll need a new spear.”
“Also sake,” Ikoma insisted. “Much more sake. And if Mirotai desires none I claim his share. Now, Mirotai, tell me about the women in your village.”
That night the village celebrated. Its people had lived in fear of the kitsu, and news of Akodo’s successful hunt was met with joyful relief. Mirotai found himself something of a hero among his friends and family, and was constantly asked to recount his experience. After the fourth such request, he had shouted angrily at one of his cousins in the public square, eager to separate himself from praise he felt he did not deserve. That had ended his newfound fame.
Later in the evening, Mirotai found himself a shadowed corner table in his favorite sake house. News of his poor disposition had already spread throughout the village, so the other patrons were happy to give him his space. There were a few of Akodo’s soldiers here, but most had gone to the livelier house down the street. Things were mostly quiet, which is exactly what Mirotai needed. When Akodo sat down at his table, the young samurai was caught completely off-guard.
“How is the sake here?” the Kami asked.
Mirotai blinked in surprise. “Uh, I like it,” he stammered.
“Good enough,” Akodo responded, pouring a cup. He savored the warm liquid for a moment, nodding appreciatively. “My brother is a madman for creating this. So, are you prepared for tomorrow?”
“I do not know,” Mirotai replied honestly. “I only hope I will not disappoint you, my lord.”
Akodo waved the comment away. “Do not fret over such things. I would leave you here if I did not believe you would be true to your clan.” The Champion seemed distracted, glancing around the sake house with a wistful expression. For the first time, Mirotai wondered about the beauty and majesty the man must have been accustomed to in the Celestial Heavens. How could anything in the mortal world possibly compare? This life must be dull and colorless by comparison. He thought again of the visions he experienced when the kitsu died. The hunt, perhaps, was one of the few things that could make such a man truly feel alive again. Absurdly, Mirotai felt a swell of pity for one of the most powerful beings in Rokugan.
“I will be ready, Akodo-sama,” Mirotai said.
“Akodo!” came a rough voice across the sake house. Ikoma came through the door, a mostly empty bottle of sake in his hand. His eyes were alight with the evening’s enjoyments. “The men are looking for you! You should probably say something inspirational to prepare them for the morning. Some damned fool got them all riled up and the sake is flowing far too freely.” He smiled and hid the bottle behind his back. “I have no idea who might be responsible.”
Akodo shook his head with a quiet chuckle. “I will see you in the morning, Mirotai.” When the Lion Champion left, Ikoma appeared at the table to take his place.
“There is a serving girl at the house down the street,” he said with a leer as he took the mostly full bottle Akodo had left. “She has the most unbelievable… er, you don’t have any relatives who work there, do you?”
Mirotai shook his head absently, causing Ikoma’s dead eye to narrow. “You’re thinking about the beast you killed again. Let me give you a bit of advice, boy. Don’t. I’ve sensed a power within those kitsu as well. I’m not sure what it is… but we’re probably better off without it.”
The young man looked up in surprise at the harsh tone. “This is a war,” Ikoma continued in an ominous tone. “We may call it a hunt, but it’s war. Every day is a war. You fight against something, anything. Maybe it’s sickness, maybe it’s an enemy. Maybe it’s even a storm or some bizarre lion-spirit, but it’s something.” He leaned in closer. “You do whatever you have to do to win. Honor is a pretty word, but it won’t save your life. I’m an old man, boy, and I got to be an old man by doing whatever it takes to survive. You’d better learn to do the same, or else your parting glance at the village in the morning could be the last time you ever see it.”
Again, Mirotai could only nod, even though in his heart he did not agree.
The Lion found the kitsu on the morning of the tenth day. The beasts had retreated to a small plateau amidst the peaks. Caves in the mountaintops provided plentiful lairs. Even at a glance, Mirotai realized that the creatures far outnumbered Akodo’s men. Even as the thought filled him with fear, he thought back to the creature he had slain only a short time ago. If these were the last of their kind, then he could not help but regret his role in destroying something so majestic.
Akodo seemed elated to have discovered his prey at last. He ordered his men into small squads and moved them to the most convenient points of entry to the plateau, preventing any chance of escape. When they all had ample time to reach their positions, Akodo drew his blade and shouted the signal to attack.
The Lion samurai charged into the kitsu’s midst from all directions, their fierce cries disorienting the huge creatures. Even as he ran at Akodo’s side, Mirotai marveled at how much larger these creatures were than the one he had slain.
“There!” Akodo shouted, pointing with his blade. Across the plateau, a kitsu of truly incredible size stood near the mouth of a cave. As they watched, a samurai charged the beast, only to be knocked away with a single blow from the back of the creature’s massive paw. The warrior was not killed, but the sharp impact from the blow left him writhing in pain in the dirt, removed from the battle for at least a short time.
The Lion Champion cut one of the creatures in half with his blade, pressing forward toward the largest one. “Mirotai, attack its flank!” he commanded. Mirotai moved to obey, his spear at the ready in case the beast leapt upon him. The kitsu turned to face him for a moment, fixing the young samurai with its large, red-golden eyes. For a moment, he saw in it the same intelligence the other had possessed, the same depthless understanding of the universe, only laced with anger, sadness, and hatred. This time he saw even more. He saw a time before, when the kitsu ruled these lands. He saw them face an enemy similar to the Dark God that had arisen in the south. He saw them win, but only at great cost. He saw their race recede, slowly die out, only to be further decimated by Akodo’s noble attempt to serve his brother. The creature turned back to Akodo.
“Now, Mirotai! Now!” Akodo shouted.
Mirotai took a step forward, then stopped. He felt the spear drop from his hand to lie useless in the dirt. “I cannot, lord Akodo. I am sorry.”
“What treachery is this?” Akodo demanded, his voice even and calm.
The beast itself retreated, offering Mirotai an appraising look. It glanced from him to his lord.
“Look in its eyes,” Mirotai offered. “I cannot kill this creature. It is not for the likes of me to end its life.”
Akodo said nothing, his face fixed in a fearsome scowl. He sheathed his blade and leapt upon the creature with a speed that Mirotai had never seen in any living creature. The two grappled for a moment, and the sheer power of their mutual struggle was such that all other combatants moved away for fear of being crushed by the struggle of titans. With a roar that split the heavens, the kitsu hurled Akodo away, leaving the Kami in the dirt.
Acting on instinct, Mirotai snatched up his spear and took a step forward. He would not stand by while his lord perished, no matter how blasphemous violence against these creatures might seem. He would not abandon Akodo.
The kitsu stood silently, regarding Akodo with obvious hatred. The Lion Champion remained motionless in the dirt for a long moment, staring at the huge beast in surprise — and with a dawning horror that Mirotai recognized.
“Stand down!” Akodo shouted as he rose to his feet. The clamor all around the plateau died down as both kitsu and samurai ceased their battle. Akodo regarded the large kitsu for several tense minutes, and then, amazingly, bowed low before it. Even more amazingly, the beast lowered its head in a similar show of respect.
Akodo’s expression was grim. He glanced around, his eyes settling on the nearby Mirotai. “I have been a fool,” he said blankly. “In my lust for the hunt, I have been a fool. These creatures are not of Fu Leng. They merely did not know how to speak to us. In my quest to serve my brother’s will, I may have destroyed our greatest allies.”
“What will we do, my lord?” asked Mirotai.
“We will make amends,” Akodo replied. The Lord of Lions turned and looked again into the creature’s eyes.
To Be Continued in: The Perfect Gift.
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