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|Scenes from the Empire|
|Written By:||Nancy Sauer and Rusty Priske|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
Hiruma Moshiro stood stoically on the walls of Hiruma Castle, staring into the perpetual grey of the Shadowlands. He balled his hands into fists and tried to will away the sweat that formed in his palms. He forced his feet to remain still and not fidget as his instincts would have had him do.
Hiruma Moshiro was frightened.
This was not something he wanted to admit even to himself, but he could not deny it. His nerves sent tingling sensations up his arms and it felt like his stomach was trying to crawl up his throat and out of his mouth. Not to mention the palms that he was refusing to wipe dry. He refused to acknowledge his weakness.
Fear was not an emotion that was welcome within the ranks of the Crab, and especially the Hiruma family. They sat in the Shadowlands, the first line of defense against the darkness that dwelled there. The Hiruma swore that the castle would never again fall to the Shadowlands. They were resolute, steady, brave.
Hiruma Moshiro was scared.
What he was scared of, he was not really sure, though he could recall clearly when it had begun. It was nearly a year earlier when Moshiro stood on this wall and felt the explosion that reverberated through the structure itself. He watched a great ball of fire that erupted from deep in the Shadowlands and streaked through the sky to the north. Then nothing.
Since that time his sleep had been wracked with nightmares. Something lurked around the edges of his perception as a terrible threat that he could not quite see.
He could not let it go. What had happened that day? What had been unleashed?
It became his obsession to the point that he took as many watches as his superiors would allow. He was afraid that he would miss whatever would come next and he was afraid he would see it happen.
He wiped his hands and silently cursed himself for it.
When the rumble started Moshiro was the first to feel it. Other sentries started calling out warnings but he stood statue-still, staring out into the Shadowlands.
"Finally," he thought. His fear ebbed away, replaced by relief and resignation. The great doom that he had expected for the last year was here.
All the sentries watched the cloud of dust and smoke approach them. It looked like some sort of animal stampede, but more vast than could be imagined. The vibrations could be felt right through the castle, even at such a distance.
The first thing that could be clearly identified were the Oni. Great, misshapen creatures touched by Jigoku's favour, or wrath. Moshiro knew that it was rare when the largest Oni worked in groups of more than a few. They were simply too chaotic and monstrous to suffer even their own existence.
Moshiro stopped counting after he passed twenty.
The smaller Oni were next - amassed in such a quantity that the ground itself could have vanished, and there would be no way of knowing. Then there were other creatures, such as Ogres and Trolls. Around all of them were the Goblins, scrambling around the feet of the larger creatures, sometimes crushed beneath them, but apparently with no thought of turning away.
The end had come.
Moshiro knew that Hiruma Castle could not absorb such an attack. He was not sure the Great Carpenter Wall itself could withstand such an assault. It was as if all of the Shadowlands had united in a single force bent on exterminating the Crab, and by extension, Rokugan.
Cries went out, ordering all samurai to take up suitable defensive positions. They all knew that they would fall on this day, but there was no consideration given to retreat. They had sworn an oath. If Hiruma Castle were going to fall, then the Hiruma would fall first.
Moshiro knew that their generals were analyzing the line of beasts as it approached. They would be seeking a weakness that could be exploited. He was confident that they saw what he saw. There was a cleft in the center of their crazed approximation of ranks. The closer they came to the castle, the wider it grew.
"They are breaking into flanks! They mean to surround us!" Moshiro heard the exclamation and the orders that followed, but he knew that it meant little. If the beasts meant to cut off their escape, it was no matter, as they were not planning to attempt one.
He watched as the line reached them, with the gap in their lines grown large enough to encompass the castle. Half of the beasts flowed past on the west side. The other half on the east. None approached the walls.
If they had thought the army to be vast before, they were still unprepared for being in the midst of it. Where Moshiro had seen twenty large Oni, he know saw a hundred. The smaller creatures numbered in the tens of thousands& and none looked towards the Hiruma.
By the time the horde had passed the castle leaving in completely untouched, the Hiruma stood confused. Even when a few overeager archers had loosed arrows into the mass, none turned their attention to them.
Moshiro felt the coldness creep over him. The fear he had known for the past year had returned, and had intensified. From his spot on the wall he was able to watch the horde as it went by and one thing was clear to him. They were not attacking. They were fleeing.
Moshiro now knew that the doom he had been dreading was not here yet, but it was coming, and if it could send the creatures he had just seen scurrying into the arms of their greatest enemies... well, what sort of nightmare could it be?
The darkness was warm and soft and scented with flowers, and Kakita Hideshi paused for a moment to take it in. In the north of Rokugan he knew that the chrysanthemums were just beginning to bud out, but here in Mura Sabishi Toshi the gardens still reveled in summer's glory. Lilies, he thought, tasting the fragrance, lilies androses? He looked along the hedge next to him and saw a few late-flowering blossoms. Hideshi picked one and tucked it into his sleeve. The wealthy merchant who owned the garden would not begrudge him a rose, and Beniha would enjoy it. Perhaps she would even smile.
Hideshi continued on his way, thinking. Asahina Beniha smiled all the time in court; her smile was one of her most powerful weapons. He hadn't seen her real smile in weeks. Part of it was the stress of dealing with Yoritomo Gihei and the rest of the thugs that the Mantis were pleased to call a diplomatic delegation'. Yoritomo Naizen had clearly not given up on getting control over the city, and Gihei had been intimidating Crane merchant factors and minor courtiers without check until Beniha had arrived. It was clear to all that Gihei would have liked to have used the same tactics on her, but she never saw him without Hideshi standing at her back. Watching. Listening. Waiting. Gihei might despise the Crane, Hideshi thought, but he was wise enough to fear the Kakita.
Then the news of the plague had started to drift in. Beniha was too worldly to be happy in Shinden Asahina, but she still had her family's reverence for life. Hideshi had been present when she learned of the destruction of the Horiuchi: She had sat still as a statue for a moment, then gracefully rose to her feet and ordered everyone out of the room. When Hideshi had seen her next her eyes were smudged and red-rimmed from weeping. A rose was a poor defense against the grief of the world, but it was all Hideshi could offer her.
Up ahead a shadow moved against the darkness and became the outline of a man. Hideshi recognized him as Yoritomo Isoshi, a bushi in Gihei's delegation.
"Good evening, Kakita-san," Isoshi said. "I would like to speak with you, if it does not intrude on your duties."
"Not at all," Hideshi said.
"Thank you," Isoshi said. "It was my privilege to serve as one of my clan's candidates at the last Test of the Emerald Champion. Sadly I was eliminated early, too early to try my skills against one of your clan's candidates."
"So I have heard, and yet it is said by all that you brought great honor to your family and clan." Unlike, Hideshi thought sourly, Kakita Hideo.
Isoshi bowed his head in acknowledgment of the praise. "Yet I find I am eager to try myself, and to see how my skills have developed since then. I am sure a Kakita would understand this feeling."
Hideshi nodded. "To be better today than you were yesterday is the only goal worth having," he said.
Isoshi smiled. "You will understand then, why it is that I wish to ask you for the honor of a duel."
"Indeed," Hideshi said. "When and where?"
"I don't see why we could not have it now," Isoshi said.
"Now?" Hideshi asked. "With no witnesses?"
Isoshi shrugged. "Why not? There is no quarrel between us to settle, and we do not need permission for a simple duel of skill."
"I suppose," Hideshi said.
"Excellent," Isoshi said. His smile was wide and pleasant, though it did not seem to be echoed in his eyes. He walked to a spot the proper distance away and began to stretch his arms.
Hideshi also began to stretch, and as he did cold suspicion welled up in his heart. Isoshi claimed that they had no quarrelbut he served Gihei, and Gihei had a quarrel with Beniha. She stood between him and control of Mura Sabishi Toshi, and Hideshi stood between Beniha and him. What if Gihei decided to turn to murder to advance his goals? He was a Mantis, so such a thing was not beyond him.
The two men took their stances. Hideshi looked Isoshi over carefully and disliked what he saw. Isoshi's spirit was strong, very strong, with an odd tension about him. The Kakita made himself relax and concentrated, pulling on the strength that lay coiled deep within his bones.
Isoshi made his move and Hideshi moved faster, with a powerful draw that cut through the other man before his sword had fully cleared the sheath. Hideshi completed the move and then swung back to see Isoshi fall to his knees, one arm holding himself up while the other clenched his abdomen. The Mantis looked at him, white-faced and shocked.
"You cannot hide a killing spirit," Hideshi said.
Isoshi made as if to speak, but instead he coughed blood and collapsed. A white misty sphere formed in the air above the body, and as Isoshi made his last death spasm the sphere reformed into the shape of a ghostly warrior. Hideshi started at it in amazement, and then it suddenly streamed towards the large, ornamental obi he wore and made itself a part of it.
"The Talisman of Gaki-do," Hideshi said reverently. "So that is what you do." He thought back on what Ryoshun had said when he presented the token. "Was Isoshi being tested? Or was I?" The night held only silence and the scent of blood.
Hideshi cleaned his blade and put it way, then turned to go. As he left he noticed a rose lying smashed on the ground. He stared at it for a moment, wondering why it bothered him so much, and then put the thought out of his mind. He would find another flower for Beniha.