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|The Hand of Peace|
|Written By:||Seth Mason|
|Released:||Dec, 2004 ()|
|Story Year:||First century|
Previously: The Perfect Gift.
Dawn of the Empire, Part Five of Ten
“Even though Fu Leng was wicked, there were those who still loved him,” Unmei continued. “Shinjo, most of all, prayed that her brother could be saved. The Clan of the Ki-Rin valued loyalty and unity, virtues that sometimes left them unprepared for the treachery of others…”
The Hand of Peace by Seth Mason
Wind was such a curious thing. On a hilltop near the northern mountains of the fledgling Empire, a woman threaded her fingers through the wind as it passed her by. In her home among the Celestial Heavens, the woman had never felt such a fierce blast of air. There the wind had been a gentle breeze that was never too cool or too warm.
Beside the beautiful Kami, two men stood and awaited the will of their leader. They had been called to meet with Shinjo at dawn, but she had not spoken for hours. The Kami instead seemed as if she were communing with the breeze, sensing it in some way the two mortals could not understand. Out of respect and more than a little fear, both Ide and his student Bairezu waited silently for Shinjo to speak.
Finally, the wind deposited a speck of ash in Shinjo’s palm. Though a normal woman would have never noticed such a thing, to the Kami’s senses the ash was as jarring as a thunderclap on a clear day. Shinjo closed her eyes as if in pain and squeezed her hand around the mote, then lowered her head.
“Fire,” she whispered, causing the two mortal men to start. “From the west and south. The wind carries the smell of war… the screams of the dying…” She opened her hand and let the ash float away on the breeze as she finished, “… and the horrors in its wake.” After a short pause, the Kami turned to Ide and bound her long black hair so that it would not fly free on the wind. “Ide, do you know why I have brought you here?”
“No, my Lady,” Ide replied, taking a step forward and bowing his head before the Kami. Though he was young, Ide had impressed Shinjo. While many of the other Kami had gathered the strongest warriors of the tribes, Shinjo had favored Ide for his honesty and his cleverness. Shinjo had come to rely on his counsel when it came to dealing with the mortals. Those that feared the otherworldly Kami were often soothed by the kind words of her vassal. Ide’s most promising student and a warrior of no small talent, Bairezu, waited patiently behind him as his superiors spoke.
Shinjo cast her eyes once again to the south and spoke with more steel in her voice. “It is my brother, Fu Leng. We thought he perished as Ryoshun did, but Fu Leng has returned. He has been driven mad somehow. He has pledged to undo everything Hantei has wrought and claim this land for his own. He commands an army of oni from the deepest pits of Jigoku.”
“I have heard of a dark army marching from the south, my Lady,” Ide replied. “I… did not know there was yet another Kami that had come to this land with you.”
“We did not speak of him,” Shinjo said, closing her eyes as if to banish the memory. “But now villages burn at his command and his advance cannot be contained.”
“Shall I send word to Otaku?” Ide asked, motioning back towards where Shinjo’s followers had settled. “Perhaps she would be equal to the task of…” His voice trailed off as he realized what he was about to say.
The Kami completed his thought. “Making war upon my brother?” Shinjo was conflicted — the slaughter had to stop, but could she destroy Fu Leng? What if he could still be saved? “I will decide when that is necessary, Ide,” she nearly growled. Shinjo felt a small pang of remorse for her misdirected anger, but she knew Ide would understand. “No, there is something else you must do for me. Something you must do for so many of us, Ide.”
“Whatever you wish, my Lady,” Ide responded sincerely.
“Are you so sure, Ide? What I ask may cost you your life, and the life of young Bairezu, but we gamble to save the lives of thousands.”
Ide looked a question at his student.
“I would count myself most fortunate if my death were to have such meaning.” Bairezu said, bowing low to the other two.
“We are in agreement, then,” Ide said, then added with a grin, “Though I will do my best to avoid such good fortune if possible.”
“Kill me now,” Ide sighed under his breath as he brushed yet another bead of sweat out of his eyes. He and his student had reached the mountains earlier in the day, though the terrain had only recently grown so rough that they were forced to lead their horses. Ide was not a weak man, but he was unused to prolonged physical exertion. A few hours of negotiating the rocky landscape was proving more daunting than the task Lady Shinjo had set before the two men.
“Praying to the Fortunes for assistance, master?” Bairezu asked from behind Ide. The much younger man had spent his whole life training for war, so the journey had yet to take any noticeable toll on him.
“You might say that,” Ide replied. He turned back to his student and motioned to the path ahead. “You should lead, Bairezu. It did not occur to me until now, but you may be able to find a more… reasonable route through these lands. You are accustomed to such travel, are you not?”
Ide shrugged and looked around, “I’m not following any particular route, my student. Lady Shinjo commanded us to find the tribe of Yobanjin, the ones who chose to live outside the protection of the Kami. All I know is that they are in these mountains. Somewhere.”
Bairezu opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. After a pause, he said, “May I ask a question, master?”
“Of course,” the older man replied, grateful to postpone further walking.
“Do you think they will return with us?”
Ide took a deep breath and rubbed his chin in thought. After a moment, he said, “I really do not know, Bairezu. But it is Shinjo’s will that the protection of the Kami be offered once again to these people, in light of the new threat that arises from the south.”
“They are a proud people,” Bairezu said, “I do not think they will accept.”
“Then the Fortunes will punish them for their arrogance,” Ide said quietly.
An instant later, a noise pierced the silence of the afternoon, and Ide’s horse reared, an arrow protruding from its neck. Faster than either man could react, the mount was shot twice more, and Bairezu’s steed was dispatched in a similar manner.
“Throw down your weapons!” a thick voice called from seemingly nowhere, and suddenly several archers grew out of the surrounding terrain. The two vassals of Shinjo were surrounded, and one of the archers advanced on them with his bow drawn. “Do it!” he yelled, hatred plain in his voice and on his face. “Or I will punish you for your arrogance.”
“Are you of the Yobanjin tribe?” Ide asked as he laid his knife on the ground. Beside him, Bairezu glared as he followed his master’s lead. “We have been looking for you.”
“You found us a day ago, with your noisy and smelly march through our lands,” the Yobanjin replied with a sneer.
“We have come to deliver a message from—” Ide began, but was cut off when another shrieking arrow shattered the stones at his feet.
“Silence, fool. We know why you are here. We have been stalking you until our chieftain sent word if we were to kill you or not.”
“From the greeting we just received, I can guess at his choice,” Ide said darkly.
The Yobanjin flashed Ide a smile that held twisted joy. “Ask him yourself,” he said, inclining his head.
Ide and Bairezu turned to see what the archer was indicating, and both men nearly gasped. Against the light of the setting sun, a massive serpentine figure moved between air and ground, approaching at an amazing speed. Within seconds, the flying serpent settled upon the rocks, a massive human on its back.
“The chieftain?” Bairezu asked Ide quietly.
“I think so,” the older man replied, trying his best to keep the sarcasm out of his tone.
“Kneel!” the lead archer commanded as the rider drew nearer. Ide looked back at his captors, still caught off guard by the entire situation. “I said kneel!” he hissed, slamming his elbow into the back of Ide’s head.
Ide crumpled to the ground. Bairezu spun on the leader to attack, but was shot in the leg by another of the tribesmen. The warrior cried out in pain and fell to the ground on one knee.
The chieftain dismounted gracefully, mere feet from the two Rokugani. “I see Harito is teaching you dogs some manners,” he growled, looking to the unconscious form of Ide, then to the wounded Bairezu. He seemed completely unconcerned at the state of the two men and leveled his dark gaze at the younger warrior. “You bring a message to the chieftain of the Yobanjin. I am Battul, little one, which means you have a message for me.”
Bairezu focused on the matter at hand, forcing himself to ignore the crippling pain in his leg. “I have no message, mighty chieftain,” he said defiantly. “Ide does. I suppose you will need to wait for him to get back up from your friend’s lesson.”
Battul crossed his massive arms against his chest and smiled thinly. “You Rokugani. So very clever. So civilized,” he said lightly, then delivered a savage kick to Bairezu’s chin, sending the young warrior sprawling backwards onto the ground. “Perhaps you can try and recall what that message may have been.”
“No,” Bairezu said, scrambling to his knees despite the pain. “It is not slavery, and you are blind if you think it is. The Kami are merciful and wise. They seek to protect those around them and build an empire that will flourish for the benefit of all. But one of their number has gone mad and is raging across the countryside unchecked, destroying all his siblings wish to build. He will murder you and your kin if he finds you.”
Battul raised an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed. “You make such an attractive offer. Why should I not wish to serve these slave masters who might… go mad and murder my people? Our kind survived long before they appeared to put us under their yoke. You are young, but your father will tell you we were the strongest of the tribes. Your Shinjo will tell you that Hantei spared our lives, but he knew he could not destroy us. I find it unlikely that we will be unprepared to deal with some wandering madman and his followers. There is nothing we cannot prepare for.”
“Or flee from,” Bairezu spat back. “Is that not how you dealt with Hantei?”
Battul drew a long blade from his belt in a smooth motion and held the edge against the younger man’s neck. “I should kill you for your insolence, worm… but I promised my people we would not war with the Kami or their followers.” The chieftain’s eyes narrowed dangerously as he let a feral grin cross his face. “And if what you say is true, that this army is led by one of their siblings, then I fear my oath prevents me from taking up arms against that one as well.” Battul put his weapon back in his belt and signalled his followers to stand down. “Besides,” he added, climbing back up onto his mount, “why would this enemy come after us? If he seeks only to war against the kingdom of his brothers and sisters, he will have no quarrel with us, and our wyrms fly swiftly.”
“It will not end there,” Bairezu shouted. “Even if the Kami can defeat his armies, what is to say parts of the broken horde will not wander into your territory?”
“There is always new territory to conquer,” Battul said. “Go back to your slavemaster, little one.” His serpent rose lazily into the air, and he turned it back the way he had come. “Tell her never to seek us again, or her messengers will not be as fortunate. Tell her to tell her arrogant brother that he will never command us.” With a nod of respect, the chieftain added quietly, “I respect your bravery, warrior. I wish you luck in finding your way back to your new home. When your side loses, find me again. You have a place among the Yobanjin.”
To Be Continued in: Way of the Dragon.
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