|To All Things an End|
|Written By:||Shawn Carman|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||October 24th, 2009|
It was night in the war camp, although the preponderance of torches throughout the small temple that had been co-opted for the army’s use rendered the distinction moot as long as one was within its walls. Hida Kuon sat before the alter, unmoving, as he had for several hours now. The low chanting tone of his kinsman, Kuni Daigo, had long since fallen into the background, barely noticed. Kuon divided his time with prayers to his ancestors and thoughts of his family. It was painful to dwell upon them too long.
Daigo finished another intonation and leaned forward with his brush, carefully inscribing a kanji onto the lacquered plates of Kuon’s armor. This was only the most recent of many, and Kuon had long since steeled himself against the discomfort that came from the incredible heat the kanji generated at the time of their inscription. “That is the final one,” Daigo said quietly. “I have completed the ritual, my lord. Have you prepared yourself?”
“I have,” Kuon said simply. He stared at the katana he had laid reverently upon the alter. “You will see to it that my younger son receives the blade?”
“Of course,” Daigo said.
Kuon nodded. “My thanks. My older son carries a blade of great importance already. My younger son should not go wanting when he comes of age.”
“He shall not,” Daigo assured him. “And I have something for you, my lord.”
Kuon glanced up at the priest in surprise. “Oh?”
Daigo withdrew a cloth bundle from beneath the altar and held it forth. “A gift, my lord. Please accept it as… as a tithe from a vassal to his lord.”
“Thank you,” Kuon said, accepting the bundle. He unwrapped it carefully and held forth the large weapon it contained. “Magnificent,” he said, holding the hammer aloft. “A finer dai tsuchi I have rarely seen.”
“I commissioned it from the Jeweled Smith,” Daigo said. “Rarely have I seen such work created with such speed. It is intended to match your own hammer. It does not have the eternal jade inlays that yours does, of course, but the prayers I have said over it should give it comparable power for… for as long as it will be required.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Kuon said. “I give you my word that I shall put it to good use.”
The Crab Champion was intimately familiar with some of the most hostile and unforgiving environments in the mortal realm, and yet at this moment he felt more uncomfortable than he could remember. He had met the Divine Empress only once before, during the celebration in the aftermath of the War of Dark Fire, when she had mandated that the Clan Champions attend. He had spent as short a time as possible in the Imperial City then, and hoped to spend even less here now. The summons to the Empress’ presence had dictated he must return, however, and while he had spent a great deal of time focusing on not dwelling on the purpose of her summons, it was difficult at this moment to think of anything else.
The doorway into the forbidden section of the palace slide open and an outline appeared behind the omnipresent screens. The familiar form of Togashi Satsu, a former contemporary of Kuon’s and now one of the most powerful men in the Empire, sat beside the screen after bowing to the Crab Champion. Kuon knelt before the screen and awaited the favor of the Empress.
“It always pleases the Empress to enjoy the company of her greatest servants, the Champions of the Great Clans,” the Voice said.
“It is always a great honor to stand in the presence of the Divine Empress,” Kuon answered. “It is my desire, however, to return to the front and face her enemies on combat rather than visit the Imperial Palace. I am certain my reluctance is obvious to one with such divine insight, and I do not wish to offer offense.”
“No offense is taken from such a demeanor,” Satsu replied, glancing behind the curtain. His demeanor, normally stoic in the extreme, suggested hesitance. Familiar with Satsu’s personality, this gave Kuon more concern than anything thus far. “The Empress is gravely concerned about the failure of the Great Carpenter Wall to hold against the enemies of the Empire,” he finally said.
Kuon nodded. “I see,” he said. “The Wall has fallen, and the Crab have failed in their duty. That is the assessment of the Divine Empress, is it not?”
“The Wall has certainly fallen,” Satsu agree. “Have the Crab failed in their duties? That is a question that none can answer as well as the Crab Champion, hence the Child of Heaven summoning you to her presence.”
“The Wall has fallen before,” Kuon said. “That is the great shame of the Crab, but we have always retaken it. No enemy has ever held the Wall. Even the Tower of Fear was brought to ruin by the Jade Champion, a man of Crab birth.”
“There are many who might say that a failure of duty in the past, even once redeemed, is a poor defense for another failure of duty.”
Kuon bowed his head. “I cannot argue with that assessment, Empress. I can only assure you that, as previous failures have been redeemed, so too will this one.”
“The Empress has little doubt of that,” Satsu said. “She cannot help but wonder if, were the Scorpion or the Crane to fail in their duty, if the Crab would be as understanding.”
Kuon could not keep the disdain from his voice. “The Crane and Scorpion are hardly forgiving of the Crab’s failures, my Empress.”
“And yet they should be. There must be a price for failure, and when that price is paid, then none can speak against it, for it no longer exists. The fractious nature of the clans has been permitted to grow because the price of failure has all too often been put aside in the past.” Satsu bowed his head. “Despite her desire for mercy, the Empress does not wish this to stand.”
Kuon bowed his head and closed his eyes. “If it is my life the Empress desires in exchange for the Crab’s failure,” he said softly, “then I offer it freely and without hesitation.”
Those gathered in the rooms beyond the Empress’ private audience chamber were listless. There was conversation, even laughter, but to Doji Ayano’s ears it seemed forced. No one doubted what could be transpiring in the room beyond the elegant wooden walls and beautifully immobile Seppun guards. The Empress had summoned the Crab Champion only a short time after the Great Carpenter Wall had fallen to an enemy from without the Empire. There were few possible outcomes from such a summons, and none of them bode well for the lord of the Crab Clan. There were a handful of those present who could not mask their enjoyment of the circumstance, the sheer delight they felt either in the disgrace of others, or in the opportunity that such upheaval would doubtless bring. It was Ayano’s tremendous shame that one or two such individuals had born the mon of the Crane Clan.
The door to the Empress’ chambers opened, and two men stepped out. One was the familiar form of Miya Shoin, the Imperial Herald, and his expression was grim indeed. The other was the massive form of the Crab Champion, a man that Ayano had only seen once before, when he entered the chamber, and only then from the rear. His expression was completely flat.
“It is the will of the Divine Empress that all should know what has transpired,” Shoin said, his voice heavy with sorrow. “The honorable Hida Kuon, Champion of the Crab Clan, has offered his seppuku to the Child of Heaven in order to cleanse the stain upon the honor of the Crab, a stain that exists due to the failure of the Kaiu Wall to withstand the assault of blasphemous the gaijin that have invaded the southern Empire.” Shoin paused for a moment. “It is further the will of the Empress that this noble act, the most sacred of all traditions, erases all blame and dishonor from the whole of the Crab Clan, and she will be communicating with her Champions that they might know that any samurai who speaks ill of the Crab for this incident shall, in the wake of Kuon-sama’s sacrifice, be subject to Imperial censure.” He paused once again. “The conditions of Kuon-sama’s seppuku are to be fulfilled in a manner befitting a warrior of the Crab Clan, and are not for public consumption at this time.”
Inexplicably, Ayano felt a sense of relief wash over her, accompanied by sadness that such a thing was necessary. For much of her life, she had been told so many terrible things about the Crab, and about their Champion in particular. Standing now in his presence, she knew without question that the tales of his prowess in battle were absolutely true, but she looked in his eyes and did not see a senseless barbarian, nor the barely controlled murderer she had been told of in the past. No, she saw a man of honor who was experiencing the same emotions she was; relief, that his clan would be spared, and sadness, perhaps for his family.
If Kuon noticed her scrutiny, or that of others among the crowd, he said nothing. He surveyed the room once, almost curiously, and seemed as though he might speak, then thought better of it. Wordlessly, he strode toward the doorway that would lead him out of the chambers and out of the palace itself.
Moving almost against her will, Ayano realized she was stepping forward to border upon Kuon’s path. There she bowed deeply before the Crab Champion. “Thank you, Kuon-sama,” she said quietly, “for your many years of defending the Empire.”
Kuon stopped for a moment, regarding the tiny Crane with surprise. He seemed to consider his words carefully before finally saying simply, “Thank you, little one,” and then resuming his path toward the door.
Ayano heard the rustling of cloth as others followed her lead and bowed before the great warrior, quietly uttering thanks and accolades. If he stopped to acknowledge the others, Ayano was not certain, as she remained bowed for several moments.
She did not wish the court to see the tears on her cheeks.
Kuon and Daigo exited the temple to discover a number of people waiting on them. Kuon hesitated for only a moment before he turned to the Jade Champion. “See to the men,” he said. “Prepare them. We will be departing shortly.”
Daigo bowed. “You have little time, my lord,” he reminded the Champion, then withdrew as ordered and gave the great warrior a few moments with his family.
Kuon descended the temple steps slowly. First among those waiting for him was a warrior almost as broad of shoulder as he was. The man was having difficulty looking him in the eye. Kuon clapped him on the shoulder. “Benjiro,” he said. “It will fall to you to take my place on the field of battle.”
“None can ever take your place,” Hida Benjiro said, his voice hoarse. “But I will do what I can to lead as you would have.”
“No, you will lead far better than I,” Kuon corrected him. “I have ever been a warrior forced into a general’s role. You are better suited to it, I think. Listen to Shigetoshi, but do not cast aside your own instincts.”
Benjiro nodded. “After the Wall fell, I thought you would be with us for some time. Foolish, I suppose.”
Kuon leaned in. “My parents blessed me with but a single brother, who was taken from me far too early,” he said quietly. “I go to meet them thankful that destiny provided me with another to call brother before I left this world.”
Benjiro looked up, his eyes swimming, but said nothing. He nodded, and clasped Kuon’s shoulder tightly, then stepped aside. His sister, Kuon’s wife, Hida Reiha, made no attempt to conceal the tears streaming down her face, but her expression was not one of sorrow or surrender. She was too strong to ever show such things. She held their youngest son, still a child, in her arms. “We did not have enough time,” she said.
Kuon brushed a tear from her cheek with his thumb as he cradled her face. “Do not weep for me, love,” he said.
“I do not weep for you,” she said, somewhat unconvincingly. “I weep with joy for the thousands of demons I will butcher in your memory.”
He could not help but smile. “You must lead the clan now, until such time as you feel our son is ready,” he reminded her. “Focus on that, and forget me.”
“Do not be stupid,” she said. “Every day between now and then, I will simply be waiting for us to be together once more.” She grabbed the front of his armor with her free hand and yanked him to her, crushing his lips against hers. It was as sweet as anything Kuon had ever known. She released him, then stepped away, turning her head to the side as she did.
Only one remained.
Kuon’s oldest son was young, so terribly young, and small for his age. Yet it had not affected his prodigious talent with the sword in the slightest. He was, by the unanimous account of his sensei, one of the greatest warriors of his generation, and among the finest in a hundred years. In another clan, such praise for a Champion’s son might be merely political. Among the Crab, it was something altogether different. Young Kisada, for he had taken his legendary great-grandfather’s name, had undergone his gempukku the previous spring, years ahead of his contemporaries, and now served alongside warriors vastly older, larger, and stronger than he was. Yet Kuon had never been prouder. Alone among those gathered, Kisada had no tears in his eyes. “I will not see you again, father?”
“No, son,” Kuon confirmed. “This will be my final battle.”
“You will be with our family soon,” he observed. “Please give them my regards, and tell them that I will stand with them one day.”
“Not one day too soon, Kisada,” Kuon cautioned. “You have a long life ahead. In time, you will take my place.”
“I will make you proud of me, father,” Kisada said. “Watch me. You will see.”
“I am proud of you already,” Kuon said, and meant it.
A very short time later, Kuon stood at the head of one hundred men, volunteers one and all. They were an odd mix of warriors. Some of them were from his personal honor guard, while others were men who had disgraced themselves and required redemption. Kuon had chosen them personally from an innumerable list of volunteers. Benjiro had offered to deal with it personally, but Kuon felt it appropriate that he select those who would accompany him in death.
Beyond the ranks of his death guard were hundreds, perhaps thousands of other Crab, all gathered to see him depart, all completely silent. Their presence was discernable, like the strange smell in the air after a lightning strike. “Brothers and sisters,” Kuon began, “I stand before you today no longer as your Champion, for that is a title I have relinquished to Hida Reiha. You will serve her as you served me.” It was not a question. “I ride now for the honor of the Crab. I ride to show an Empire what it means to bear the Crab mon, and to show our enemies our tenacity.” He paused and surveyed the area. “I know that some among you are bitter. This is to be expected. But a Crab reveres duty above all, and our duty is to the Divine Empress. We serve her, and in return, she punishes those who speak against us. In this we have her word, and I require nothing else, for her word is law.” He paused again. “Remember what you see here.”
The brilliant light of the Obsidian Moon lit Kuon’s path, and the cold, hard stone felt so familiar beneath his boots. The flickering light of dozens of torches lent a terrible aspect to the iron-clad Destroyers and the larger, feral creatures that appeared to command them. Kuon roared, all thought lost in the blood-red haze of battle. He kicked one of the Destroyers off of the Wall and brought his two hammers together, a flash of green illuminating the night as one of the tiger-creature’s heads exploded between his weapons.
“Hida!” one of his men shouted from somewhere behind him. The others answered it. They shouted every minute or so, and each time, there were fewer voices. Kuon regretted their deaths, but knew that they ushered his path to Yomi, where they would enter the ranks of the honored Crab. And he knew that he would join them shortly.
The battle raged as it never had before. Moments seemed to drag like hours. The blood of his enemies flowed like rainwater all around them. In what could have been seconds or days, only Kuon and a pair of his most seasoned veterans remained.
The ranks of the enemy closed in around them. The time for battle was at an end. This was the time for death, but not at their hands. Kuon would never allow such a thing. “Osano-Wo!” he shouted, remembering the words of Daigo. “I call upon your blessings, ancestor! Heed your descendants and find us worthy of your blessings!”
The kanji Daigo had painted all across Kuon’s armor began to glow red-hot, searing through the plates and burning into his flesh. Kuon ignored the pain and continued killing.
The fire came, and engulfed the remaining Crab. There would be no undead existence for them.
The Imperial Palace, one week later
Despite the recently reduced numbers in court, the chamber was quite busy when the Empress was in attendance, as it should be. Even the most cloistered courtiers would emerge from the estates where they concealed themselves for fear of the plague if the Empress was present. After all, surely the Child of Heaven would not permit those who served her loyally to contract such an infernal illness. Or at least that was their hope.
A Miya Herald approached the dais and spoke to his lord, Miya Shoin, an act that immediately gained the attention of most in the room. Shoin nodded in return to the bowing herald and accepted a scroll, which he promptly opened and read. He then turned and spoke quietly to the Empress behind her screen, and in turn she inclined her head ever so slightly.
“The Divine Empress wishes all to hear the words of the Imperial Herald,” Togashi Satsu said, his voice booming easily throughout the large chamber.
Shoin bowed slightly to the assembled courtiers. “I have received an account from the southern front from the most esteemed Jade Champion, Kuni Daigo,” he said, his tone grave. “On the 17th day of the Month of the Rooster, the Crab Champion Hida Kuon and a private honor guard of one hundred men broke the front lines of the Destroyer Horde and pushed through to the Great Carpenter Wall, where they held their ground against overwhelming numbers. Daigo-sama reports that, in defiance of all reason and logic, Kuon-sama and his men held their ground for three-quarters of an hour before the last among them fell to the Destroyers. Kuon himself perished not from his wounds, but because of a ritual enacted by Daigo-sama. When his wounds reached a point that his defeat was imminent, Kuon-sama willed himself to be consumed by flames rather than risk his return as an undead atrocity at the hands of his enemies.” Shoin bowed his head and rolled up the scroll. “This concludes the report of the Jade Champion, my Empress.”
“Let the word of the Divine Empress be spread through the Empire,” the Voice of the Empress commanded. “In all of the Heavens and the mortal realm, there is no more courageous soul than that of Hida Kuon, whose soul now rests in a place of honor among his most venerated ancestors. The courageous sacrifice of this man has washed away any lingering stain upon the honor of the Crab, and those who speak ill against the sons of Hida and their battle against the Destroyers do so at the displeasure of the Child of Heaven.”
Many in attendance nodded in assent. A few even offered polite applause, and those of the Crab delegation, all wearing the color of mourning, were offered many bows of great respect. They responded politely, but it was clear to all that they were, to a man, devastated by the loss of their Champion.
“Before the Empress retires to her private chambers,” the Voice of the Empress continued, “she wishes to make it known that she has chosen the location of her Winter Court, which will be convened in a matter of weeks.”
The plight of the Crab was almost instantly forgotten, and even members of that clan’s delegation looked to the dais with great anticipation. “The Empress is aware of the growing concern among her subjects regarding the current plague that has affected many portions of the Empire. This is one reason that she has chosen the sight of her court, so that its attendants can be assured that they are not at risk when enacting the will of the Empress. More importantly, however, is that the Empress recognizes the duty of all samurai is to ensure the continuation of their line, that they might continue to serve their lord. It is the estimation of the Child of Heaven that she is no exception to this rule, and that the dynasty of Empress Iweko I must continue in order to ensure the stability of the Empire and the fulfillment of the Mandates of Heaven. For this reason, during the course of this season’s Winter Court, the Empress will wed her consort, a man of exceptional heroism, character, and bravery, the valiant hero of the War of Dark Fire, Akodo Setai.”
All eyes turned instantly to the Lion delegation, where Akodo Setai had gone as white as a sheet. He stood stock still for a moment while the remainder of his delegation was clearly elated. Finally, he simply bowed. “Your will be done, Empress. It is the greatest joy in my life to enact your wishes.”
“The Child of Heaven wishes all her subjects to know that the marriage of the Empress Iweko I and the hero Akodo Setai shall occur within the confines of the Temple of the Jade Sun, in the Mantis Islands. For this reason, among others, the Winter Court of the Divine Empress shall be held within the confines of Kyuden Gotei, hosted by the Mantis Champion and the Amethyst Champion.”
Shoin bowed. “So shall it be known to the Empire, Divine One.”