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Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Thu Mar 28, 2019 6:19 pm
The tenement building where the Spider were gathering was three stories high and had several entrances on the ground floor. This was the place’s strength—and also its weakness.
As the moon rose over the Second City, the Arashi bushi took up their positions. Harun waited in a doorway for Seiho’s signal, the small group he had been asked to lead waiting with him. They followed him willingly, despite even the youngest of them being older than him. But, given what Seiho had said about him, Harun wasn’t surprised.
From where they were, Harun could see the entrance to the building. People passing by, no one stopping as they passed the doorway. All quiet.
He then heard the measured tread of soldiers as the Arashi bushi walked down the street. Seiho in the lead.
It begins, thought Harun.
He led his men around the rear of the building. Harun held up a hand; they halted, waiting. They heard the shouts of the Arashi, the clash of steel and crash of wood as they forced their way into the building.
Harun gave the order to attack. They shouted as one, drawing their weapons and rushing through the door. They smashed into the Spider who were running away from Seiho’s onslaught, from the other groups that had forced their way in through the other entrances.
The ring of steel on steel, the rush of people…the noise…the hot blood…it was all so familiar. And Harun liked it. There was nothing here but the will to survive, and not just for himself but the soldiers who looked at him for direction. All uncertainty, all doubt about himself, fell away in the heat and din of battle.
He saw Seiho, a whirl of steel as he swung his kama—one in each hand—blood pouring down his wrists as he cut his enemies down. The pincers of their attack had merged.
Seiho grinned at Harun as he sank his kama into the head an enemy. “Is this what you do for fun, Kakita-chui?”
Harun shrugged. “I have other pastimes.”
When the Spider were finished off, they searched the building.
“This looks to be all of them, Arashi-sama, but we will continue to search,” an officer said to Seiho.
“Looks like we took them by surprise,” said Seiho, grinning again.
Harun shook his head. “This can’t be all of them…not with several cells coming together. Let them check everyone with jade.”
The Arashi officer looked to Seiho who nodded. The officer left. “They can hardly be hiding behind every shadow,” said Seiho.
Harun ignored this. He looked around. It couldn’t be this easy. There had to be more to this.
An Arashi bushi approached Seiho. “Arashi-sama, we have found something.” He handed Seiho a ratty scroll.
Seiho unrolled it, frowning. Then handed it to Harun. There were small pictures of everyday items, a cup, a furoshiki cloth, a spoon. Next to each item there was another decoration. A spoon… The symbol of the spoon was next to a curving symbol that Harun recognized as the decoration that hung above the Warlord’s palace. Another spoon lay by a stylized image of a crane with a chain around its slender neck. Arahime “It’s a list of targets…” he realized, speaking aloud. At the bottom of the scroll was something Harun couldn’t read.
“That last bit is Ivindi,” Seiho explained. “Don’t know what it says.”
They heard shouts from the next room. “What’s this?”
Harun tucked the scroll underneath his armour.
Two Arashi came forward with a prisoner. An old man in dirty rags, he was thrown on his face before Seiho.
“We found this one hiding,” said an Arashi. “Shall we kill him now or later?”
Seiho looked down at the prisoner. So did Harun.
“Have mercy, great lords,” said the prisoner, his voice muffled from being pressed to the floor. “If you have compassion, spare my life.”
“Your masters, is this all of them?” Seiho demanded.
“No sama,” replied the old man.
“Where are they?”
The old man dared look up. “I don’t know sama…they…they don’t tell me anything.”
Seiho shook his head in disgust. “There’s nothing there.”
Harun frowned at the old man; he wasn’t so sure. They just happened to find this old man when the house had been a battle site not so long ago.
His mind went back to the wall. The ring of Crab bushi that surrounded him as the Crab Champion’s son made him take the Test of Jade.
We all do it, Harun, no exceptions, Hida Nasu had said.
As Seiho started to turn away, Harun held out his jade finger. The Arashi bushi next to Seiho looked at it. The heimin seemed to notice this. He turned, ever so slightly, but this was enough to see what Harun held in his hand.
“Get back!” Harun screamed. With one hand he reached for his sword, with the other he pulled as many back as he could, one of them was Seiho.
“What?” Seiho asked, confused, as there was an explosion of blood and taint.
Most of the bushi had heard Harun’s warning and had had time to react. But not all of them. Some were caught in the blast, lying writhing on the floor.
“Jade! Now! Everyone!” Harun bellowed.
“Archers!” shouted Seiho as he got to his feet. “Take out that Maho-Tsukai!”
The Tsukai made a gesture, the arrows bounced off with no effect. They surrounded him, weapons ready, but no one wanting to engage. The Tsukai reached into his clothing, pulling out a dagger.
“Stop him!” Harun shouted.
They loosed arrows again. But this time they got through, landing in the Tsukai’s arms and legs, streaming blood everywhere. He smiled.
“No…no…” Harun murmured.
The Tsukai waved an arm, spraying blood everywhere as he recited an incantation. There was a low moaning from the bodies on the floor, they began to move, to stand.
“To arms! Attack!” Seiho shouted, attacking with his kama in a fury of steel and rage.
Harun didn’t think, he just attacked. It was a mad, desperate fight. Worse than before as they constantly had to evade the undead’s touch. They pulled back and back, and they kept coming and coming.
Somehow…and no one ever knew who…a lamp was knocked over. The flames began to spread, catching on the debris on the floor, climbing the walls, engulfing them in smoke. Taking advantage of the flames, the maho tsukai turned and charged up the stairs.
This is good, Harun thought, doing his best to push the risen dead into the flames. Dangerous, but good.
“Pull out!” Seiho shouted to his men as he slammed two undead, one with each kama. “Take down as many as you can!”
The Arashi began to withdraw, pushing as many undead as possible into the spreading fire as they went. The flames quickly surrounded them, licking around the room, lacing up the staircase. A flaming beam crashed to the floor, cutting off the nearest exit. The Maho-Tsukai disappeared into the chambers at the top of the stairs. His clothes on fire but he did not appear to care.
“Go! You get out too!” Harun said. “I can take him!”
“No,” said Seiho. “We’ll take him together.”
The pair of them charged up the burning staircase, quickly gaining ground on the old man. He turned to confront them, flames dancing around them all. But between the two of them and the fire, the Maho-Tsukai was outmatched. Harun’s katana was fast, Seiho’s kama seemed to be everywhere. Together they drove the Tsukai back into the flames, their jade-coated weapons burning the Tsukai’s flesh, making him scream. The Tsukai tried to get off another spell, but Harun sank his katana into his chest; Seiho’s kama severed his head.
They quickly jumped back as Tsukai fell into the fire, the flames lessening the explosion of taint somewhat. Harun turned to run back the way that they had come, but found the staircase burning heavily behind them, the rooms below an inferno.
Need to get out, need to get out… Harun’s thoughts raced as he looked for a way out. The flames continued to climb higher; the smoke was suffocating.
He finally found a window, but as they approached it, flames licked across the ceiling. Wood groaned in pain, and then split with a loud crack, sending down an avalanche of burning debris down upon them. Burning boards and plaster fell on them both, sparks scattering like fireworks.
The sparks burned Harun’s face and hands, but he was able to shove the wood free quickly. But Seiho was pinned, dazed from a blow to the head that had left him stunned. Choking for breath, Harun pulled the burning wood off him, the flames scorching his fingers. Seiho’s face was red and peeling with burns, his eyes shut fast.
“Seiho! Get up!” Harun shook him awake.
Seiho stirred. Reaching out with a hand towards Harun and then touching his own face. “My eyes! I can’t see! Oh, Kami...”
“It’ll be bad for us both if we don’t get out now,” Harun said.
Seiho coughed, struggling to sit up. “I...We’re not going to make it,” Seiho said. For the first time Harun could hear fear in his voice. “Fortunes...Harun...I’m sorry…I’m sorry about everything.”
“I’m not the one you need to apologise to;” Harun felt his frustration rising, drowning out his own fear. “And I’ll see that you give it to her in person. Now get up!” He grabbed Seiho’s flailing hand to heave him to his feet.
Seiho’s hand gripped his. Harun guided him through the flames towards the window. With a quick kick, Harun took out the window frame. Below they could see the ground where there were people gathered. Some were watching the fire, others forming a bucket chain to try and put out the flames. Some Arashi bushi then looked up and pointed at Harun and Seiho. The ground looked a long way away.
“We’re going to have to jump,” Harun said. “Get ready!”
They jumped together, landing hard, but without serious injury. Harun immediately collapsed onto the ground, letting his exhaustion take him. The Arashi surrounded Seiho, talking frantically. He was alive…thanks to Harun.
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Thu Mar 28, 2019 6:19 pm
It was the next afternoon when Harun returned to the Crane embassy.
A shugenja attended to him at the Arashi barracks before he left, but not before he had seen Seiho whisked away on a stretcher.
After asking for Arahime, Harun went to the garden watching the fish swirl around in the pond. He felt flat, the excitement of the raid drained out of him. Would she see him? Was she still angry?
When I left Rokugan, my path was so clear… he thought with a sigh.
He sat down on the bench, deep in thought.
Arahime peeked around the pillar towards the entrance. The servants had carried word that Harun had returned, but she wanted to see for herself.
Some footsteps brushed the shoji nearby, and she pressed herself into the shadows. Hiding like this isn’t honourable, she thought. But what do I say to him, with my petty jealousy? It’s not his fault I was hurt. Once the footsteps had passed, she stepped out again to see her father approaching the figure in the entry hall.
The figure turned. Well, he’s all right. A few bandages on the backs of his hands, maybe. A missed night’s sleep. Nothing worse than that. That’s good.
Would she take him with her to Journey’s End Keep?
It couldn’t hurt, could it? At least for as long as it took to sort out what he really meant to her.
And more important...for her to find out what burden he was carrying. And why he was at Seawatch Castle.
“Keep balance. You cannot bring balance to others when you are unbalanced yourself… Big sister, again. Arahime took a deep breath and released it slowly.
Arahime watched her father approach, but lingered for a moment as they spoke.
Harun turned to see Kousuda approaching him. “Oji-san,” he said, making a bow.
“Heard you had a time of it, last night,” said Kousuda. “It is a relief to see that you are unharmed.”
“Thank you, but not everyone was,” said Harun.
“Oh yes, I heard about the Warlord’s grandson,” said Kousuda. “Will he recover his sight?”
“They don’t know,” admitted Harun. “In time perhaps? The Morishita who attended him were not certain.”
“It is a cruel fate, even for him,” said Kousuda.
“I agree,” said Harun. “So, you leave for home tomorrow?”
“I am,” said Kousuda. “Arahime is determined to stay…for the time being at least. There is something I wished to ask of you.”
“Anything to help,” said Harun amiably.
“Arahime told me her path takes her to Journey’s End Keep,” said Kousuda. “I want you to go with her.”
Harun looked down. “I…of course I will, but…will she accept me?”
“She understands,” said Kousuda. “I had hoped you both would come home with me, but…you staying here with Arahime means I can leave with a clear conscience.” He looked directly at Harun. “You need to swear to me to do as she says.”
“I promise,” said Harun without hesitation. “And I will make sure she makes it home safely.”
“That I don’t need to ask,” said Kousuda.
“Oji-san,” said Harun. “There is something I have to tell you…before you go.”
“Yes?” Kousuda’s voice suggested that he might not like what Harun was about to reveal.
“While I was at Seawatch, my mother came to see me,” Harun said.
Kousuda was very still. “Your mother…Yamada?”
The former Ide was silent for a long, long time. “Well,” he said at last. “I suppose it makes sense she would try to find you. How was she? How did it go?”
“Not well,” Harun admitted. “We…we had words. About the Black Hand…about how she gave me up…” He looked into the pond. “Part of me wishes that I had not said them, but I knew I needed to.”
“And how did she take this?” Kousuda.
“She accepted what I said…in the end,” said Harun. “But I still don’t understand…”
“Harun,” said Kousuda a little sternly. “Do not think for one moment that your mother gave you up willingly. Did you know that she lived with us when you were born? I saw for myself how she cared for you, how she loved you, and how it cut her to the core to leave you.”
“Because sometimes you have to choose between two courses of action that are both right…or both wrong,” Kousuda said. “And I think you know something about that already.”
Harun didn’t answer.
“I know it is difficult to understand her sometimes, I struggle too sometimes and I perhaps have known her the longest.” A small smile settled on his face. “Did you know that she saved my life?”
Harun turned in surprise. “She did?”
Kousuda nodded. “Years ago, in the Jewel of the Desert, but that’s a story for another time.” He pulled out a folded, sealed piece of paper. “Here is a letter, it explains everything for Ide Ujinari who Senchou at Journey’s End. You should have some help as well, Kaiu Oda and his wife Megumi will be meeting you there.”
Harun took the letter. “Who are they?”
“They work with Kyoumi,” said Kousuda. “They’ll explain it better themselves.”
“This sounds like a way for you to keep an eye on us after you leave,” said Harun.
“Well, a little,” said Kousuda with a chuckle.
They watched Arahime approach. She looked calm, quiet. She acknowledged them both with a nod
Is she still mad at me? Harun wondered. He couldn’t quite tell if this calmness was just the wall she held back her anger at him. He decided to ignore it, at least for now.
“Arahime-chan,” he said, bowing. “The raid went well, we managed to kill all the Spider samurai. But it looks there could be more, elsewhere.”
Arahime considered this. “So, the threat to me is still there?”
“I doubt they will try again, after the mess we made,” said Harun. He reached into his clothing and pulled out the scroll from the raid. He unrolled it and showed it to her. “We found their plans, the targets they had chosen. Everyone is being put on alert.”
Arahime didn’t appear to hear him. “May I…see that…”
Harun gave her the scroll.
She read it carefully, reading it all the way through down to the bottom. To the part that was written in Ivindi. “This is worse,” she said softly. “These Spider…they’re going after Shinjo.”
“What?!” exclaimed Harun and Kousuda at once.
“That’s what it says here,” says Arahime. “I’m not sure why it is in Ivindi, probably because not many Zogeki can read it.”
“And you can?” Harun asked, raising an eyebrow.
Arahime looked up at him, but did not answer.
“Arahime-chan, Shinjo is very well protected at Journey’s End,” Kousuda said. “She lives, but has been encased in crystal for a number of years. Ever since she was shot with the tainted arrow by Kanpeki. It would be hard for them to be a threat to her…not without freeing her.”
“And the Unicorn have tried to free her,” Harun added. “I don’t doubt you,” he quickly added, seeing Arahime’s dismay. “If you have a way to help her…or free her…I know the Unicorn would be grateful.”
Kousuda nodded in agreement.
Arahime rolled the scroll back up. “ I hope I do,” she said. “I just hope we can get there in time.”
The next day, Kousuda departed for Rokugan. Harun and Arahime came with him to the docks to see him off.
Harun’s farewell to Kousuda was brief, they had said everything they needed to the previous day. Harun then walked some distance away to give Arahime and her father some privacy.
Kousuda embraced his daughter, just as he had done many times since she was a little girl. He hoped, by taking her in his arms, he could protect her from all harm, whisk her away so she would never be in danger again. But he couldn’t; she wasn’t entirely his anymore. She had returned to the world with a new maturity and insight beyond her years. And then there was Harun, ready to take her by the hand once she was ready.
“I still do wish you were coming back with me,” Kousuda said. “I know we have decided, but I did promise your mother.”
Arahime gave him a bundle of letters, tied with a blue ribbon. “One of these is for her,” she said. “Hopefully this explains everything. I’ll write to you as soon as I get to Journey’s End. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
Kousuda smiled. “You’re even more like your mother than you were before.” He tucked the letters into his kimono.
It was time to go.
Harun and Arahime stood side by side on the docks as they watched Kousuda’s ship depart.
This wasn’t part of the plan, Harun thought, but perhaps, this is better…
Several days after Kousuda’s departure, the Warlord gave a reception at the palace inviting the notables in the Zogeku houses as well as from the Rokugani embassies. Doji Mushari and Sawao were invited, along with Harun and Arahime. Harun was reluctant to go, but he couldn’t see a way out of it. So, he went with the Crane party to the palace. His court clothes were heavy in the humid evening, his swords on hip but peacebound. The guards were checking invitations at the palace gates, yet when they saw Harun with the Crane they made a bow and let them though.
“It seems that your reputation precedes you even here,” Doji Sawao said dryly to Harun.
Harun frowned; he didn’t like it but said nothing. He glanced quickly at Arahime but she didn’t seem to notice. She looked rather distant.
The palace gardens were alive with light and colour and music. Bright lanterns hung from poles, the air was filled with perfume and saffron. There were also entertainers wandering around the party. He could see a woman with a snake draped around her shoulders. A man who ate a flaming torch and then spat out a burst of flame. And a tall thin woman who seemed to swallow a sword. A straight one, fortunately, Harun didn’t like the idea of doing that with a katana.
It was a fairly informal affair. Chairs and couches were groups around tables throughout the garden. Servants walked around with trays of food and drink.
Mushari was approached by an acquaintance. Sawao stayed at his side. Harun looked for somewhere to sit down with Arahime following benignly behind him. She still looked distracted.
I have to talk to her, Harun thought, there’s so much I know she hasn’t told me. Could she still be mad at me?
They found a seat to one side of the reflecting pool. Arahime sat down, staring at the fireflies among the water lilies.
“Arahime?" he said gently. “I…I wanted to apologise to you for my behaviour. Coming back and seeing everyone treating you differently…I understand it must be frustrating.”
Arahime sighed. “It is,” she said. “But perhaps…things have to be different. After what happened, after what I went through.”
Harun looked at her carefully. Perhaps this is the time to final ask her.
“Arahime, what did happen, out there in the jungle?” Harun asked.
Arahime didn’t answer.
“Look, I swore to protect you,” said Harun. “To do whatever you say. You can tell me.”
“All right,” she said with some resignation. “When I was with the...people who found me, in the jungle...they were not human. The people here call them shojo, though that is not their name...only those that have been exiled for falling to human vises. I was dying when they found me. They couldn’t speak to me, though. They gave me this.” She touched the necklace she wore. “It…translates for me, that’s how I know Ivindi.”
“But it does more than that, doesn’t it?” Harun asked.
Arahime nodded. “I…I know things now,” she said. “Not just the dancing and the music…it’s has...memories…I guess you would say. So I remember things.”
“Like at the sagai?” Harun asked.
“Yes,” she said, nodding again. “But…when I remember, I remember being...not like myself. Being someone else. It is strange…but it feels good. It feels good not to feel useless. Helpless.” She smiled a little. “I feel confident, like I know just what to say. What to do. Like I still serve a purpose.”
[Harun frowned, if it was up to him he would take that necklace off her. “Are you surethis is a good thing?” He asked sceptically.
Arahime frowned. “It helps me help people. It helps me be useful to someone. .It does not feel evil.”
“I don’t know,” said Harun. “All I know is if you stop feeling like yourself, it could be because there’s something else taking over.”
“It’s not like that,” Arahime said, shaking her head. “Look, forget I said anything.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Harun said.
Arahime turned away to look at the pond. They sat there in silence for what seemed the longest time.
“Kakita-chui?” An Arashi bushi approached them and bowed.
“Yes?” Harun said.
“The Warlord wishes to see you,” said the Arashi.
“Tell him I will be there presently,” said Harun.
When the bushi had gone, Arahime looked at him. “It looks like he finds you more useful than me now.”
“Trust me, I don’t like it,” said Harun.
“I am sorry…again,” he said. “If…what you’re talking about has been with you for a long time, it probably isn’t bad. I need to trust you…but you need to trust me.”
“I’ll…I’ll think about it,” she said.
And I guess that will have to do…for now. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, walking off.
Arashi Aram, Lord of House Arashi and Warlord of Zogeku, sat in a prominent position by the reflecting pool. He was not alone, around him on chairs and couches were people of varying prominence. On his left was a man in green shugenja robes and red hair with matching beard.
The Warlord looked up as Harun approached. “Ah, Kakita-chui,” he said. He indicated the chair next to him. “Please, sit. I have not yet thanked you properly for the great service you have done to me and to House Arashi.”
“I was doing my duty, Warlord,” said Harun, taking the seat. He took the cup that was offered. “I do trust Arashi Seiho-sama is improving?”
“Modest as well,” said the Warlord, with approval. “My grandson’s strength is returning, slowly. As for the rest…we shall see.” He gestured to the man on his left. “This is Konjo, Lord of House Morishita. He was telling me before that he knew your birth parents.”
“Briefly,” said Kanjo, his beard hiding all expression. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Kakita-chui.”
“And you,” said Harun, bowing slightly. “I was at your embassy a few days ago. The almond trees were very beautiful.”
“Thank you,” said Konjo. “Did you know that the first seedling of those trees was a gift from your mother, Utaku Yamada? It is most interesting what beauty can come from…unusual origins.”
“I cannot say I disagree with you,” said Harun. His attention was diverted by a blur of red fur that suddenly hid from view. What was that? A Cat? A fox cub? Perhaps it was just a trick of the light.
“Humph,” said Konjo. “Perhaps you will be an improvement on her.”
“I do try to be,” said Harun.
“Will you be in the Second City much longer, Kakita-chui?” The Warlord asked. “Your actions have put House Arashi in your debt, one that honour demands be repaid.”
“Please, do not trouble yourself,” said Harun. “As for your question, yes I am leaving soon. I am accompanying Arahime to Journey’s End Keep.”
“Seeing your Unicorn kin?” Konjo asked.
“Yes, we both want to see more of Zogeku,” said Harun.
“Well, I can tell there is nothing I can do to persuade you to stay,” said the Warlord. “But I do hope that you return one day.”
“So do I, Warlord,” said Harun. “But we cannot predict what fate the Fortunes have in store for us.”
“That is very true,” agreed Konjo.
Harun returned as soon as he could, and as he neared the chairs he could see that Arahime was not alone. There was a woman in the green of House Morishita sitting across from her, but from her posture and form she looked more like a bushi.
Arahime introduced her as Hogune, wife of Lord Konjo.
“A pleasure to meet you,” said Harun, bowing. “The Warlord just introduced me to your husband, I was telling him how beautiful the gardens in your embassy were.”
“Praise indeed, from a Crane,” said Hogune. “But the pleasure is mine, Kakita-chui, I knew your mother Yamada slightly. To meet her son is a privilege indeed.”
“I have been told many things by those who knew her,” said Harun evenly.
Hogune nodded. “Yes, it must be difficult for you.”
“It can be,” said Harun.
There was a moment of silence, broken by the arrival of a woman wearing the colours of the Lion Clan. It was Matsu Hayate.
“Kakita-chui, Kakita-san,” she said, bowing. She glanced slightly at Hogune.
Hogune rose to her feet. “Do not let me keep you,” she said. “A pleasure to see you both.” She quickly took her leave.
“I come from Arashi Seiho-san,” said Hayate. “He wishes to speak with you.”
“He does?” Harun asked.
Hayate nodded. “Both of you.”
Hayate took them into the palace, upstairs and along terraces overlooking the garden, and then inside to a door where Arashi bushi were standing guard. On seeing Hayate, the bushi let them through, pulling open the big wooden doors.
The room inside was colourfully decorated, the was the faint smell of sandalwood. It was also quite warm, there was a well-built up fire in a brazier despite the evening also being warm. In the centre of the room was a futon, sitting on some sort of frame, a deep sheer silken curtain was draped in front, obscuring it slightly.
Hayate stepped forward, pulling the curtain aside, revealing the bed’s occupant. Arashi Seiho.
The once proud bushi lay propped up by pillows, his breath coming in heavy gasps. Most of his face was covered in bandages, only his mouth and chin were visible. And beneath the heavy robe that Seiho wore, Harun guessed there were more bandages, covering him where the fire had burned him right down to his fingers.
Once so handsome and proud, his charm, wit and not to mention his strength…all gone, taken from him in but one moment.
He’s pitiable… Harun thought, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it.
“Seiho,” said Hayate. “They are here as you asked.”
Both Harun and Arahime bowed.
“Arashi-sama, I pray that the Fortunes will make your recovery rapid and full,” said Harun formally.
“As do I,” said Arahime warmly.
Seiho tried to laugh, but then started coughing. It took him a few minutes and a few sips of water to recover.
“You’d have both rather seen me dead,” Seiho said at last.
“No!” said Harun and Arahime at once.
“I would have wanted it, after how I treated you,” said Seiho. “After what I’ve done, I don’t blame you.” His voice cracked as he spoke. “Arahime…may I…?”
“Yes,” she said, moving to his side. There was genuine compassion in her voice.
“I am sorry, I was such a fool,” Seiho said. “What I did to you…what happened to you…”
“It’s done now,” said Arahime. “It’s in the past.”
“It still matters,” Seiho said.
“Then, I forgive you,” said Arahime.
“See that you deserve her, Harun,” said Seiho.
“I am trying,” Harun answered.
Seiho collapsed in another coughing fit. The servant came in again to help with some water. Hayate quickly took them out.
“Will he recover?” Harun asked when they were out of the room.
“They say he will…some,” said Hayate. “But in time…months they say. And then…”
“You’ll be married,” finished Arahime.
Hayate stared at her. “Yes, we will…how did you?”
Arahime only smiled to herself, saying nothing. Her eyes looked a little darker.
Is this the necklace? Harun wondered, but there was no time to ask now.
“I wish you well then, Matsu-gunso,” said Harun, giving her a bow.
“Thank you, Kakita-chui,” Hayate said. “He has changed…for the better I hope.”
The next day, Harun and Arahime returned to the docks to board their ship that would take them to Journey’s End Keep. It felt good, being on their way again, but he was a little sorry to leave Second City. Perhaps one day they could return, but as he had said last night, there was no knowing where the Fortunes would take them.
“Ah lad, there you are!” said a rough voice from across the docks. “And I see you have brought your lady.”
Harun laughed, he didn’t have to turn to know who that was. Midori the monk came traipsing towards them, grinning from ear to ear.
“Arahime, may I introduce Midori the Monk,” said Harun. “He helped me find the ones who were trying to kill you, and was the first to tell me you were in danger.”
“Midori the Monk?” Arahime looked as if she couldn’t believe what she saw. “My father has told me many stories about you, I wasn’t sure if you were real.”
“I’m not so sure how real I am, meself,”Midori said with a grin. “Though if you want an interestin’ story, you might want to ask your father about how he tried to become Mantis Champion.”
Arahime stared. “Mantis Champion? Surely, that’s not true.”
“Actually, it is,” Harun said, remembering. “I heard it from Moshi Janisha.”
Midori raised an eyebrow. “Janisha? You saw her?”
Harun nodded. “Last winter at Kyuden Hida, saw her and her son and her husband,” he said. “This was before she…”
“Left,” finished Midori, looking a little sad. “Well, we can’t always get what we deserve, unfortunately. I should know.” He grinned again. “Anyway, I just came to see you off…and to meet you of course. You take after your mother.”
“Thank you,” said Arahime.
“Just some monkish advice before you go,” he said. “Keep your noses clean...unless there’s something worth sticking into. And keep your socks dry.”
“What kind of advice is that?” Harun asked.
“Mine!” declared Midori.
Arahime laughed. A horn sounded from their boat.
“Better not keep your captain waiting,” said Midori. “I am not sure if I will see you again, but I am glad to have met you both.”
“Thank you for your help,” said Arahime.
As the two boarded the ship, Harun stopped look back. He could see Midori looking longingly at the ship, wishing he could go with them.
You can take a man out of the Mantis…
He turned, boarded the ship. But when he looked back, the monk was gone.
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Mon Jan 06, 2020 12:54 pm
The Black Hand had been here for several days, so far undiscovered. A deserted hamlet on the borders of Dragon lands. Famine and war had not just left the village abandoned, but in a bad state of repair. But it was suitable for their purposes, until they moved on again.
The followers were scattered around the village, sitting around fires or taking shelter in some of the houses. Talking amongst themselves, they could have been perfectly ordinary but for the black hand imprinted on the front of their clothing.
Utaku Yamada sat on the edge of the village, apart from the others. She faced west, towards the lands of the Unicorn, where she had been born and had always hoped to return. When Shiba Michio asked her to be at his side, she had given up that dream, that life along with many others. Including her only son.
Harun, so like her father, so like her.
His words came back to her that night, as they had done many other nights since she had seen him at Seawatch Castle. The anger, the hurt there…
I know what you have done, Mother, all the deaths, the murders…the people you flayed alive…You talk about duty, what about yours to me? You gave me up! You left! That is not something that you can just wish away…
And she could not wish away his words. She stood by her choice, Harun would not be the man he was today without them. The man he needed to be. The hurt was there still, it could not be denied. Perhaps, someday he might understand. Hopefully.
At the sound of people arriving she turned. It was Nawa, returning from a scouting trip with a few others. They went straight for the ramshackle hut where the Obsidian Hand himself, Shiba Michio, sat in seclusion. Nawa was considered fairly senior in the Black Hand, one of the first to join, before even Yamada had arrived. Yamada stood up and followed them inside.
Michio sat in shadow inside the hut, what moonlight that could penetrate through the holes in the roof. The light only revealing more blackness from his armour and twisted black right hand.
In front was Nawa, flanked by more Black Hand acolytes. His voice was low, his face almost bland, but he had the determined eyes of a fanatic.
“It was more former Onyx, they seem to be gathering together,” said Nawa. “Most of them civilians, and free of the taint, but that doesn’t change things.” Michio nodded at Nawa to continue. “I found out who was doing it, and there seems to be some sort of amnesty given,” said Nawa. “It might even be official…eventually.”
“Who?” Michio asked, his voice low and gravely.
“The wife of the Emerald Champion,” answered Nawa.
“Hitomi,” finished Michio. “The first time she crossed the Hand, we spared her. There will not be a second time. Not for her or for those who stand with her.”
Nawa bowed. “They are north of here,” he said. “If we leave soon, we should arrive with the dawn.”
Michio nodded again. “See to it,” he said.
They all left, leaving Yamada alone with Michio.
Hitomi…I can’t let this happen… she thought frantically…they come after her, Harun could be next.
“This isn’t right, Michio,” she said, her voice seeming lost in the darkness. “You know Hitomi, she works to rebuild. You knew this before and know it is still true.’
“You are questioning me?” Michio asked, staring her down with his cold black eyes.
Was there any life left in them? Any compassion? Mercy? Or had Lord Moon taken it all from him? Drained it until he was but a vessel of vengeance and retribution.
Where is the Jade Hand for balance? Surely it is past time for them to appear?
“If this is truly Heaven’s will, then I cannot stop it,” said Yamada, storming out.
As she walked through the village, she saw Nawa making preparations to leave. Calling for people, weapons, horses. It would be a while yet until they left.
Yamada went to her own horse and got it ready to ride. A dusky mare named Kiriko. She was capable, but nothing compared to her old Utaku steed, the stallion Yoru. Yoru was long dead, and she felt his loss every day. One more piece that connected her to her old life, gone forever.
Unseen by anyone, she led her horse out of the village. Mounting and setting a good pace, she headed north.
Yamada was a much faster rider, she knew she could get to Hitomi ahead of the Black Hand. If she could just warn Hitomi, then she and whoever she was with could perhaps get out of reach in time.
She finally tracked them down at an abandoned farm, the fields were overgrown with weeds and the buildings were in disrepair. But Yamada saw a dim light flickering from one of the barns. She approached.
A shape came out of the darkness. She was thrown to the ground, pinned. There was a rasp of steel and a knife was put to her throat.
“Hello Hitomi,” Yamada said, her voice perfectly calm.
“Yamada?” Hitomi let her get to her feet. “Why are you here? Now?”
“You’re in danger,” Yamada told her. “The Black Hand is coming, you need to be gone from here. And quickly.”
Hitomi frowned. “Come with me,” she said.
She took Yamada to the barn and pulled back the door. Yamada followed her inside to see…a mass of children. Boys and girls, of varying ages, all spread out on the floor asleep.
“They’re the children of Onyx refugees,” she explained in a whisper. “Their parents hid as the Onyx legions fled south, took me a while to track these all down. No one is sure about amnesty for them but…”
Yamada nodded. These were children, mercy should be extended towards them if they were free of the taint. “This doesn’t change things,” whispered Yamada back. “They’ll still come and…” She looked down at the sleeping children. “I’ll help you.”
It took a long time to wake all of the sleeping children and get them ready for their journey. Hitomi said that she was taking the children up river to where some families were ready to take care of them, but as Karasu’s camp was much closer they should probably head there.
The sky was lightening to grey as they all headed through the fields, the sun would be rising soon. Yamada rode her horse, trying to urge the children to go faster without sounding worried, but many were flagging. Blinking their bleary eyes in the dim light.
Yamada kept looking back, then stopped. A small plume of smoke started to rise from the farm behind them. They were here.
“Go!” Yamada thundered, drawing her sword. “I’ll hold them off! Go!”
She wheeled her horse around and charged away.
At the sound of her approach, several figures came into view. All with the black hand on the front of their clothing, they carried spears and clubs, closing in.
Good, Yamada urged her horse faster, angling her katana for an attack and charged straight at them. As she closed in, all was lost in the thunder of hooves and rush of speed. Nothing else mattered, for those few minutes she was a Battlemaiden again.
Two of them fled as Yamada closed in, the third stood his ground right up until Yamada’s horse barrelled into him and her sword severed his head. Then she quickly caught up to the remaining two, leaving them dead on the ground.
There was still Nawa to account for, and none of them could leave here alive. She spurred her horse, cutting through the fields, heading back to the barn. There, right in front stood Nawa, defiant.
“I will not forget this treachery against the Hand, Silent Maiden,” he said mockingly.
“You cannot speak for the Hand,” Yamada answered angrily. “You only use its name for your own ends. I knew Michio for what he was. He was a man, he had honour, you have none.”
“Once,” said Nawa. “Now he is the cleansing fire that will purge all of Rokugan.”
“At your urging,” said Yamada, charging towards him. “But no more.”
Nawa didn’t move, as Yamada neared him several arrowed flew through the air towards her. One hit Yamada’s horse, making it stumble. Another landed in Yamada’s shoulder, sinking into just as she fell off her horse. She sprawled in the dirt, but kept a hold of her sword.
“Not much of a Battlemaiden are you now?” Nawa taunted. “What’s stopping me going after that son of yours once I kill you?”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Yamada growled, staggering to her feet.
Nawa laughed, then stopped suddenly. He then gurgled, blood coming out of his mouth then fell face down on the ground, a knife in his back.
Quickly, Yamads grabbed the knife and threw it at the archer that had shot her. It didn’t kill him, but it gave Yamada enough time to finish him off with her sword. She then saw Hitomi standing over the body of the last one.
“You came back,” Yamada said.
Hitomi nodded, she ran over and looked at the arrow in Yamada’s shoulder.
“It’s fine,” said Yamada through clenched teeth. “Ow!”
Hitomi had snapped part of the arrow off. “Can you walk far? They can see to this back at the camp.”
“Hitomi, you and the children are safe now,” Yamada said. “I can’t come with you.”
Hitomi shook her head. “You can’t got back there yet, not if you want to go back there at all. Besides, Karasu has been looking for you for months. And you can warn him yourself.”
“Fine,” Yamada agreed reluctantly.
She followed Hitomi back to the fields where the children were hiding. The oldest of them approached, he looked about twelve.
“You should have let us fight them,” he said accusingly.
“Not yet,” said Hitomi. “This isn’t your war.”
“And hopefully, it never will be,” said Yamada
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Mon Jan 06, 2020 1:07 pm
All lights from the shore had vanished an hour after sunset when the riverboat came to a stop. Arahime stood on the deck near the railing, watching the vine-woven jungle redolent with the scents of vanilla and hibiscus as it slowly unfurled beside her.
The simple excursions of the day..carrying their bags, making it to the docks through the crowds, saying their farewells...it had been a more tiring day than Arahime cared to admit.
Surely, it was just weariness that bored down on her. Her chest ached, that familiar pressure she had come to know, as though someone was crushing her beneath their weight, where she could not get quite enough air. Like trying to stay afloat as a wave washes over you, leaving you sputtering… Her hands tightened around the railing and she felt acutely aware of the lack of a katana on her obi. Below her, the moonlit river rippled on a V shape at the surface…
She heard a heavy step behind her at the same moment as the redolent reek of fish and tobacco hit her nostrils. A rough hand grabbed her arm, and Arahime froze. A wave of terror washed over her as she stood stunned, too overwhelmed to move. Please don’t leave me here! A panicked child’s voice erupted in her thoughts. A thousand moments flashed through her head. Gasping in the freezing waters, fighting for breath. Crocodiles and tigers inches away from her feet as she clung in the dark to the limb of a tree. The coils of a giant snake falling around her, knocking her to the ground and crushing her beneath its weight. The feeling of insects crawling under her skin as death slowly poured blood and pus into her failing lungs… The fear turned her knees to jelly and she almost collapsed at the man’s strong grip as he turned her to face him…
The muscular sailor’s stone-cut face went pale as he saw her face in the dim light, and he let go immediately, dropping to the ground in fervent bow. “Fergive me, samurai-sama….I didn’ git it were you in the dark. Wanted to warn ye about the giant snake in the water...that’s all…I swear…”
Her heart racing, Arahime waived the sailor way dismissively, but could not keep the tears from squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. She turned away quickly to hide them, but that turned her back to the gently bobbing water. The dense jungle...the giant snakes….the pain in her lungs...her weakness...her fear…
I’m a coward…. The thought bubbled up, filling her with shame. But she could not deny the terror she’d felt at the sailor’s touch. She felt once more Arashi Purashi’s hands upon her, heaving her into the water. Smelled him and the salt air….her vulnerability. But now, she wore no armor. Carried no sword...and even if she had… Coward.
Not a bushi. They hadn’t let her go on that raid, even though she was the target of the Spider cell’s assassination attempts. Not a duelist. The kenshinzen didn’t believe she could handle the duels that the Phoenix wanted to honor her with for the message she had carried. She could not champion her own honor. They pushed her aside, pushed her back, kept secrets from her that it seemed everyone knew but her. About Shinjo. About what Harun had done. About….
She had been angry. Furious even.
But it was all a lie. Her own reaction just now laid the truth bare to see. There might be a place for a bushi who could no longer fight.
But in the Emerald Empire....there was no place for a coward.
No wonder they didn’t trust her.
A gray pall fell across Arahime’s heart, and she turned to go below decks.
She didn’t want to see any more.
Her name was Ksani.
The whirlpools and eddies of time had scoured flat much of the sharpness of her memories over the centuries, but she still had her name.
There were other memories also…the oldest and truest of them, from the time before. She was old now, so old, but she remembered when she had once walked in the sun.
She was the daughter of the Maharajah, he who sat upon the Peacock Throne. One of many, though a true-born daughter born to his fourth wife. She had played in the Gardens of Eternal Harmony, overshadowed by the golden dome of the Ivory Palace.
Not for her, though, to weave a garland to lay at the feet of the man she chose. Her weaving was chosen, she was chosen, to be taught the secrets of the Apsara. Not because her cloth was the finest, or the most beautiful. But because she had guided each thread herself; learned to spun it at the spindle and dye it with stained hands and set it in place. To be an Apsara is to see each thread in the tapestry of lives, and to bind each to common purpose.
Not for her, to bear children of her own, to add threads to the fabric of the future. For one among the Apsara was chosen to remain apart, to be made mother to the whole world, care for them and guide them and raise new leaders from amongst them, until the time when another chose to take her place as Divine Apsara.
One among them had also stood alone, a divine guardian following the steps of Shiva, the Divine Rathi to give courage in battle and inspire the hearts of men. Ksani wondered where her dearest brother Gutbalam was, now. Had he also been lost? Did he wait for her with her ancestors, or had he journeyed along the path towards reincarnation?
These things had always been so in the Ivory Kingdoms. The Rathi were the war leaders and battlemasters, who guided the armies against the demons who threatened the lives of all. And the Apsara served, to rally and unify and rebuild when the war was done so that the Kingdoms might be strong. The Rathi danced the spears and sang war into the hearts of men. The Apsara wove tapestries of connections. Hopes and fears and wants and needs and secret desires, binding common threads of humanity to create common purpose. For hundreds of years, perhaps always, it had been so. She was young, once. She thought it always would be.
The Goddess Lakshmi had chosen her so long ago, and she had taught the ways of the Apsara to a generation of her sisters that followed her. But the Rakasha were relentless, driving the demons before them, tearing the armies apart with teeth and steel. Worse still, their vile sorceries sowed hatred between the peoples and turned them against each other. The armies failed. The palace was overrun and all had fled. When she chose to take up the Goddess’s burden, to serve as Divine Apsara and enter the navrathran haar, her students were few, scattered. Within two generations they were gone.
She had waited, in silence and darkness, for a new daughter of the maharaja to take up the navrathran haar, but none came. Until her.
This new princess was unlike anyone that Ksani had ever met. Ksani had been trained since infancy to serve, to bring peace and understanding between peoples of different faiths and cultures and passions. But this girl Arahime seemed to know only of war. Ksani treasured life...her own, or others. But this girl seemed to feel guilty for not throwing her own away. Ksani had been graced with love in her life, but to her it was a source of suffering. This princess bore a great wound in her heart, a deep emptiness that mirrored her wounded body.
Despite that, this strange foreign princess did show promise. She valued things like folding paper over cooking and weaving. But they shared a love for music and flowers, and the girl learned quickly the chords of the saraswati veena that she had been taught. The threads of the world were not so different than the threads of melody found in a great work of music. She could be taught, with patience and time. Ksani hoped so.
The Divine Apsara was tired. There were no ivory palaces bursting with color and life. The gods had been forgotten. Her people, here, poor servants. They still found joy, but they were a mere shadow of what had gone before. Instead, there were these stern, cold warriors, like this Harun, whom the princess favored, ignorant of the pain he caused, bearing his secrets and blood and hidden shame. She pitied him.
She pitied Arahime too. It was hard to lose a way of living, even if it was a destructive path, and Ksani grieved at the pain the loss seemed to bring the girl. It was hard to know fear, for one who had never known fear. But she knew she could give her a new life and new purpose in the ways of the Apsara. There was joy to be found in that path, and this was a world desperately in need of the healing a new Divine Apsara could bring. A Divine Apsara that understood both peoples? Surely Lakshmi had sent the girl to bring such a world into being! And then Ksani could rest. The world would be safe and tended as it should have been all the years that she was gone.
The thought sent a warm glow into Ksani’s heart, breaking through just as she could feel the rays of dawn’s light touching the princess’s skin through the tiny cabin window. If only this poor, broken princess would surrender her foolish dreams of being a warrior and let Ksani teach her...guide her actions correctly...instead of this gray bleakness that had settled in on her….she would learn so much more quickly. She would be ready if she just surrendered and let Ksani guide her...control her…
Control. She had only ever advised, suggested. The girls brought to her as students long ago had been eager to meet her, unlike this one, and sought out all she had to teach. But this princess was so strange….and in this bleakness of the heart, would she even try? Would it be wrong, to bring new life and joy to this sad girl...and show her...prove to her...the value of a new way? Could she?
Ksani concentrated, speaking calmly...allowing her voice to be a warm caress to Arahime’s spirit. She reached out and focused on the girl’s arm...her hand...blending a memory of her own into this other princess’s skin and muscle. Then...flex….Arahime’s arm twitched at her touch.
It’s all right, Little sister, Ksani said smoothly. Don’t be afraid. I know you are grieving. I know you think you are lost. But I can take care of you. I will take care of everything. Even if your people believe you are useless now, you will take my place as Divine Apsara, and you will never need to suffer again. All peoples will need you again. Just surrender to me...and learn...
Arahime gave a small whimper of protest, but Ksani was right, of course. The Apsara gently pushed the protest aside, forcing Arahime’s body from the futon where the girl’s desire to had failed. I will get you up….
Arahime rose early. Big Sister’s urging, though Arahime could not sense her presence right now. A heat haze floated over the surface of the water, much like the haze that floated over the surface of her thoughts, these days.
She just needed to get to Journey’s End Keep. They were almost there. She just had to figure out how to give Shinjo her message. And then...did it matter? Learn more, she guessed. Become an Apsara. That was Big Sister’s goal for her. It was better than becoming nothing.
Her next lesson would begin again soon.
She went to find Harun, but when she found him she noticed he was still asleep on the deck, near the rest of the men on the ship. He was curled up on his side, arm tucked under his sleeping head.
He looks so sweet. I won’t wake him. She sat down a foot away from him to wait. She considered trying to tell him more about the necklace, about Big Sister. How she was trying to teach her to be an Apsara. He would probably think I was tainted or something, though. Weak. He’s probably right. She tried to shake away the pesky thought. She was being a child. A child’s voice whined in her imagination, once again, But I wanted to be a kenshinzen…
She sighed, feeling guilty for even considering bothering him.
Then Harun stirred slightly, his head turned, his hands twitched and he called out in his sleep. “No…no…don’t listen to him,” he said, panic in his voice. “No, get behind me…I’ll take him.”
“Harun?” Arahime knelt down beside him. This had to be a nightmare, but she wasn’t sure if she should wake him.
Harun’s eyes snapped open. He grabbed her wrist with one hand and her shoulder with the other. His grip was like iron, he rolled her onto her back and pinned her to the deck. His weight on top of her, holding her in place. His breath, scented with kafe like the sailors drank, in her face. An image flashed in her memory….her day spent with Seiho A Crane maiden on a kabuki stage….The sea taking everything she had left…
“Harun! Get off me!” Arahime gasped, her voice strangled. Fear. You coward.
Harun blinked, he stared down at her as if he had just woken up. He blinked again and then got off her.
“Arahime, I’m sorry…” He hid his face in shame. “I…” He shook his head.
“Harun, what has happened to you?” Arahime asked, rubbing her wrist where he had gripped it. “You weren’t like this before. What changed? What made you like this?”
Harun didn’t answer. Hanging his head, he stood up and walked away.
He doesn’t trust me enough to say. Arahime sighed again.
No. He’s embarrassed. Big Sister’s voice arose in her again. You need to give him some space now. I will show you how to get the answer out of him later, when he has had a chance to calm down. For now, you must show him that this does not trouble you and you are all right and all is forgiven. Come… I will show you how. Arahime let Big Sister slide gracefully into her movements as she climbed to her feet.
Might as well let Big Sister out. It’s not as though they need Arahime. I will never be a kenshinzen. If only it did not feel so much like surrender.
A trickle of sweat slid down Harun’s forehead curving around the edge of his eye and disappearing into his curly black beard. Perhaps it was the river or the looming trees of nearby jungle but the heat on the river boat was even more unbearable than anything he had experienced in Second City. Perhaps it was guilt; he felt a surge of shame in his chest at what he had done to Arahime that morning, but even the shame could not push the image of her beneath him out of his mind.
Or it could have been worry.
Those last few days in Second City had been a blur. The assassination attempt on Arahime’s life. Learning of the Spider Clan cell and meeting with the Warlord to make plans. The fight and the fire and carrying Seiho free. And the rush to prepare to travel to Journey’s End Keep, with the secret mission to find Shinjo.
When he had first arrived, she had been hesitant. Shy. She seemed to brighten as she grew more comfortable with him; at the strange ‘wedding’ of the Ivinda she sparkled, her courage blazing. But that fire seemed to turn to anger in the days that followed, with him, with everyone, and she seemed brooding and resentful for reasons he couldn’t understand. She seemed eager to push him away before they set out on this journey, but at least she was driven towards her goal. Once they’d found Shinjo, surely she would get back to normal, he had believed.
Then she disappeared.
She went into her futon below decks on the ship and stayed there, refusing to join him for meals, or even speak with him. Refusing to come out. When he had stolen a glimpse late one night, she was sleeping, her face puffy and pale. He had thought he was losing her, not for the first time.
And finally, this morning, the nightmares again. The consequences...it all was coming for him again...he panicked...And she was there, under him, gasping for breath. He couldn’t push the image of her out of his mind. The softness of her skin. Her wide gray eyes. Her white hair spilling around her. He’d fled.
She’d been angry with him before. She must hate him now.
He turned away from the passing jungle at the sound of excited voices among the sailors behind him. His eyes widened to see Arahime, dressed in bright blue silks and radiant. A brilliant smile lit her face as she glided towards the captain to ask with animation about the ship and the journey. He snapped his mouth shut with a click, suddenly aware, with some embarrassment, that his jaw had dropped open. The sailors had also stopped to look at her, her white hair blinding in the blazing sun. Harun couldn’t hear what was said to cause it, but the sound of her laughter carried like bells as her hand lightly brushed the captain’s arm before he bowed and she turned away.
What….what was that?
Nervously, Harun straightened his shoulders and approached her, coughing to draw her from a conversation she was having with one of the ship’s crew.
She turned to face him and again smiled. “Oh! Harun-kun. Isn’t a beautiful day?”
“Uh….yes?” Fortunes, I sound like a school boy… he cursed himself. “I’m glad you are looking so well, Arahime-san.”
Arahime’s smile wavered, and Harun thought he could see in her gray eyes….something. Confusion? Even fear? Then it was gone.
“I should never have put you through so much worry, Harun-kun. I need to be here to take care of everybody. Anyway, I’m going to be cooking a meal tonight to celebrate our journey. Are there any foods that you especially like?”
Harun blinked. Cooking? Samurai had cooked for themselves, sometimes, in the camps on far forward patrol, especially among the Unicorn. And the Crane certainly had master artisans who had thrown themselves into the art of it, creating new kinds of both exotic delicacies and ways to create and store food to allow it to go further and better serve the troops in times of famine. But Arahime had never shown the slightest interest in the subject. “Um...some fruit would be nice, I guess?” he stammered.
She flashed that brilliant smile again. “Food binds all spirits together. Nothing can bring together conflicting parties in common cause like a shared meal with friends. I will get to work.”
He raised his hand to call her back. “Arahime-san…”
Arahime turned back to face him. “Yes?”
The duelist swallowed. “I...wanted to apologize. For yesterday morning. I...it was just a bad dream. I didn’t mean….”
That radiant smile again, this time warm with compassion. “I understand.” She reached out to lay a hand on his arm. “I should not have been frightened. War is a horrible thing, even when it is necessary. It must have left you with so many terrible memories. But you did not hurt me, and we are both safe now. Please do not be worried.”
With that she turned away, headed for the small ship’s galley, leaving Harun staring in her wake.
What is going on?
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Mon Jan 06, 2020 1:10 pm
The sun was high over the boat as it continued down the Shinano River. The sails hung limp from the lack of wind, so it was the current that drew it along. Most of the crew were taking their rest beneath shade cloths that were stretched between the rigging. Drinking, sleeping or playing games of dice.
Harun usually took this time to practice, the quiet was good and he saw the heat as a challenge to push himself. But today he saw it as a distraction from all those thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him.
He drew his katana, started through his katas, his sword an extension of his arms and hands. Soon sweat was pouring off him, dripping down his face, making his shirt stick to his back. He continued, letting the familiar motions flow, letting them drive the thoughts, the images from his mind.
But still, they came. Arahime’s face as he pinned her to the deck, the fear in her eyes, the anger in her voice, the paralysing thought that he could have hurt her.
He quickened his pace. No…No…I would never…
But what was even stranger was Arahime afterwards. She had not questioned him further, had forgiven Harun so easily, and she had seemed so happy. The light in her eyes when she had talked with the sailors over the meal she had prepared, a spicy Ivindi dish with rice that she seemed to enjoy. And there was the way she smiled at them when she played for them after on the saraswati veena. It made him feel a little uncomfortable.
Would you prefer her to be unhappy?
That thought made Harun stop. This was the happiest he had seen Arahime since he had arrived in Zogeku. Should he not be glad that something of her old self was returning?
He saw her now, making her way across the deck. Her head was shaded from the sun with the back of the sari she wore. She carried something under one arm.
Who am I to question her? I haven’t even told her about Toshi Ranbo yet.
He sheathed his sword and went to follow her.
She sat down underneath one of the shade cloths and unrolled a large piece of paper. She took out a writing kit, dipped the brush in ink and started to draw several upon it. Circles, each of them in perfect proportion.
Harun watched her, curious. “What are you drawing, Arahime-chan?”
“Sit,” she answered, not looking up. “You will see when I am finished.”
Harun did as he was told, watching as she finished the circles and then drawing a picture inside each of them. A fox, an oni’s head, a sword, a woman holding a baby, a closed eye, a man bowing, a flower… All of these circles forming a circle of their own. And in the middle of this she drew more circles, each one inside the next one, smaller and smaller until the innermost one was lost to sight.
After she had finished, Arahime sat and looked at it in silence for a long moment, pleased with herself.
Finally, Harun had to speak. “What is it?”
“It’s a mandala,” Arahime said. “They show the universe as it is understood.” She gestured to the circles and these show each realm, ours and the others that also exist.” Her hand moved along them as she named them. “Darkness, slaughter, dreams, rest…”
“Rest?” Harun repeated. “Yomi?”
“You have seen it, haven’t you?” Arahime asked gently.
“I did, through the door Zetsubou opened to cleanse the land,” said Harun. “It was beautiful. Very green, full of sunshine…and my birth father.”
Arahime nodded, smiling sympathetically.
Harun half-closed his eyes, remembering. “He told me that there was much I still had to do,” he said. “He told me he was proud of me…” He was paused, and when he spoke his voice was breaking. “I disappointed him, I disappointed them all.” He looked at Arahime. “And you.”
“Tell me,” said Arahime.
Harun looked into her eyes. So kind, so trusting, so ignorant of what he could tell her could do.
If I told her, it would destroy her. She will shun me, and I will deserve it. How could I hurt her when she has been hurt so much? How can I lose her all over again?
Harun looked away, shaking his head. “Forgive me,” he said, standing up and walking away.
He could face the Onyx hordes at Toshi Ranbo. He could face ten more rounds against Shimekiri. But he could not face her.
Arahime watched Harun’s retreating back with a mixture of anger and dejection. The anger she turned onto Big Sister.
You told me he would listen to me, you said he would talk…and he hasn’t!
No, he has, he has started to open up. It will take time.
Arahime frowned at the mandala. To trust me?
No, Harun is a very damaged young man, I have seen many in my time, including my own brothers. He does not burden you with his pain not because he does not care, he acts this way this because he does.
This stunned Arahime. He cares…still?
But Ksani didn’t answer.
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Mon Jan 06, 2020 1:13 pm
Yamada and Hitomi arrived at the camp late the next day, the children carried the rest of the way on carts. They were immediately met on arrival by heimin women who came to attend to the children. Hitomi insisted Yamada see a shugenja for her wound, and when she was done the two of them went further into the camp.
People passed them as they went through, most of them Imperial Legion soldiers. Yamada wondered how many of them were remnants of the Last Legion. Formed in a moment of despair, legitimised in a moment of desperation. And then Karasu had been put in charge so that what had been created could not be destroyed.
Karasu’s words came back to her, from that cold night in Otosan Uchi after Harun had been born. I only wish I could ask for your help, Yamada, quite a few of the Legion know about you and what you have done…
But now she was undoubtedly known for other things. The Scorpion purge, the death of the Shogun. All these things she had done, necessary things.
They stopped at a tent with an Imperial Chrysanthemum outside. A bushi in the colours of the Imperial Legions stood at the closed tent flat. He immediately bowed when he saw Hitomi but looked questioningly at Yamada.
“It’s fine, Senzo, she is with me,” said Hitomi.
They went inside the tent. Karasu sat at a table strewn with maps. Two bushi sat other side of him, they were deep in conversation and one was writing down what was being said.
“I thought the war was over,” Yamada said, trying to sound light.
They all turned to look. Karasu froze when he saw her. “Yamada?”
Yamada bowed. “You summoned me, Champion?”
Karasu nodded. He turned towards the two bushi. “That will be all for now,” he said. “Let me know when those scouts report in.”
“Hai, Champion,” they said, bowing and leaving.
Karasu walked towards them slowly. He smiled “It has been so long,” he said to Yamada. He looked at Hitomi. “How did you find her?”
Hitomi shrugged. “She found me,” she said. “I need to get back to the children, we can speak later.” She gave a nod to her husband and Yamada then left.
“Please, sit down,” Karasu said, gathering up the maps and starting to make tea.
Yamada sat down gratefully, watching Karasu move about the tent. Eighteen years had passed since she had seen him last; very little had changed but she noticed it. He still had that same easy confidence as when she first met him. But he no longer seemed to be straining to prove himself. The air of authority hung upon him as easy as if he were wearing armour, fitting him like a second skin.
There were other things too, the beard which was a surprise. The grey above his ears and lines of worry about his eyes even though Yamada knew he was not quite forty. But with this came a maturity, a wisdom of learned experience.
This was the man she had chosen to raise her son, and she could not have done better herself.
“This is hardly a social visit,” said Yamada as Karasu poured the tea.
“I would never expect that from you,” said Karasu. He sat down opposite her. “Does Michio know you are here?”
“No, at least not yet,” said Yamada. She took a sip of tea, it was still scalding hot but it felt good. “Michio…he has…changed recently. Become more paranoid, more desperate.”
“I have noticed,” Karasu said gravely. “More deaths, more…scenes. And I guess there are more I am yet to know about?”
Yamada nodded. “I am not sure how much is the influence of the Dragon or the followers,” she continued. “He no longer listens to me, he stopped a while ago. Everyone is a potential target. A heretic. No room for compassion or mercy. Not anymore.” She stared dejectedly into her teacup. “Karasu, Harun could be in danger.”
Karasu stared at her. “What? But he would never…”
“Before, no he wouldn’t,” said Yamada. “But not now. I am here because he came after Hitomi. It’s not a stretch to say he would go after Harun as well. Or you.”
Karasu nodded, he ran his fingers along his hairline.
“Where is Harun? Is he still at Seawatch?” Yamada asked. “If he is, he’s not safe there.”
“No, he is in Zogeku,” Karasu said. “When we heard that Arahime was alive, he wanted to go, to be with her. He had it all arranged with Lord Shibatsu.”
Yamada nodded, looking a little calmer. “Well, it is good to know the Lord of the Spider is still spinning his webs. How long will he be there? The longer he is, the longer he can be out of Michio’s reach.”
“I’m not sure,” Karasu answered. “The plan was for him to return with her and Kousuda. They should return soon, unless we hear word otherwise.”
Yamada nodded sadly. “How…how is he? I saw Harun at Seawatch. We spoke, but…”
“Yes, he told me,” said Karasu. “We spoke before he left. He’s better, the time there did him well. He asked me about you, and it wasn’t the first time.”
“He hates me,” said Yamada sadly. “I don’t blame him.”
“No, don’t say that,” said Karasu gently. “Harun is just young and there is a lot he still doesn’t understand. He is changing though, perhaps too quickly.”
“Can you see a future for him?” Yamada asked.
“I have had a few offers, marriage out of the Crane. But I don’t think that is the answer, at least not anymore. What path Harun ends up choosing will be one he forges for himself. I don’t think he would be happy with anything else.”
“That doesn’t sound very traditional,” said Yamada.
“Well, he’s your son,” said Karasu.
Yamada managed a small smile. “Harun should be safe for now if he stays in Zogeku,” she continued in a more serious tone. “But the Jade Hand needs to appear, and soon. Do you have any news of that?”
“None,” answered Karasu. “And I know Kyoumi has been looking for a long time, longer than me. I don’t think the Hand has appeared, at least not yet.”
Yamada looked down into her teacup again. “Then, I must continue to carry this burden,” she said with an air of resignation.
“Yamada,” Karasu said gently. “This is too much for you, you just told me yourself. Let me help you.”
Yamada looked up. “How?” She demanded. “Any magistrates or legionnaires you send will just be cut to pieces. Challenging his will is challenging the will of Heaven itself, you know this.”
“Brutally murdering innocent people can hardly be Heaven’s will,” Karasu argued. “I cannot stand idle any longer. I promised myself, I promised him that I would stop him. If I have to do it personally, I will.”
Yamada saw the steel in his eyes, she knew what he meant.
Oh no, he couldn’t, not a duel...
“No, no!” she said angrily. “It’s too risky, there’s far too many things that can go wrong.”
“I told you, that doesn’t worry me,” said Karasu calmly.
“Well it should, you great idiot,” said Yamada. “He’ll kill you.” And Harun will never forgive me…
“If Michio still has the will of Heaven with him, then he will win,” said Karasu slowly. “But if he is not, if his mind is damaged and the influence of the Black Hand corrupts him…”
Yamada nodded. “He could still kill you,” she said.
“I still have to try,” said Karasu. “Honour compels it.”
“Honour,” repeated Yamada in a hollow voice. “That meant something. Once.”
“It still does.” Karasu walked over to her, he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Yamada, you have been strong for so long, far longer than anyone else ever could. Because of you, so many lives have been saved. And the end is coming.”
“I wish I could believe as you did,” said Yamada.
“I know this,” said Karasu. He crossed the tent to where the Emerald blade and armour were displayed. “We all knew how it would end, years ago. We need to be ready.”
Yamada nodded. His voice, it was reassuring, comforting. Maybe, she could hold on a little longer. Maybe he could help.
“We should be in Crane lands by the autumn,” said Yamada quietly. “Moving north, towards Phoenix lands. There are quite a few abandoned villages near the border.”
Karasu nodded. “I’ll send the challenge officially, if he’s still the man I knew he’ll accept.”
“I know,” Yamada replied.
Yamada left the next day. Karasu gave her a horse and provisions, he watched her leave from the doorway of his tent.
Will Michio kill her? Karasu wondered. I hope not, but there is no telling what he will do. How much of the man I once knew is still in him?
Hitomi stood beside her husband. “I’ll keep an eye out for her,” she promised.
Karasu shook his head. “No, we need to double our efforts to locate the Jade Hand,” he said. He went back to his tent and started writing on a piece of paper. “Every magistrate, every yoriki, every legionnaire is now to have standing orders to report any sightings. Senzo?”
The ronin came in and bowed.
“Find Kitsuki Shinpei,” Karasu said. “We need to put our plan into action.”
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Mon Jan 06, 2020 1:26 pm
Journey’s End Keep stood on the very border of Zogeku. Far to the north, it straddled both desert and jungle with the Ki-Rin’s Path that led through the Western Wastes back to Rokugan. High atop the hill, below it was Journey’s End City, which sprawled every which way down to the Shinano River like some sort of growth that seemed to meld with the jungle.
Harun could see it from the deck of their ship as they rounded the last bend. Soon enough, they approached the busy and bustling dock. People seemed everywhere. Samurai, merchants, dockworkers with carts piled high with trade goods of spices, bolts of cloth, spices, exotic animals and birds in cages.
Arahime watched it all. “They are all so beautiful,” she said softly.
It was not beautiful as the Crane would see it; there was no subtlty in the garish colors and cries of the merchants. But each sight and smell and sound was as vivid as a blade of crystal, and Harun nodded in agreement. Arahime smiled at him. She had mentioned nothing about the previous night when she had shown him the mandala. He had half expected her to, especially how he had just walked away without any explanation.
He owed her one though. And soon. But now, it was enough to enjoy the city with her for what it was.
The obvious place to go was the Keep where the governor of the city lived, to present their papers and request to see the body of Naleesh, if she was truly there as the stories he had heard of proclaimed. Harun hired a rickshaw. The heimin who pulled it wore only a loincloth and conical hat. He took them at a good pace though the city, perhaps hoping to receive more of their generosity. The shade of the rickshaw’s awning felt good; the sun was very hot, hotter even than Second City. A dry wind blew in from the desert and seemed to choke the very breath out of Harun’s lungs.
The city got denser as they got closer to the Keep, and more crowded. Stone and wooden buildings stood side by side with tents, yurts or merchants with little more than a cloth spread out on the ground displaying their wares. There were animals too -- horses, mules and even camels.
As they neared the Keep itself, the road got steeper; the heimin was breathing hard as he pulled them up. He then came to a stop at the merchant camp outside the keep.
“This is as far as I can come, samas,” said the heimin breathlessly. He gently lowered the rickshaw so Harun and Arahime could get out. Harun paid him and the heimin turned and pulled the rickshaw back down the hill.
“So many yurts,” said Arahime, looking over the white and brown felt round rooves that surrounded the keep. “Was this what Shiro Moto was like?”
“A little,” Harun said.
Getting their letters of welcome ready, Harun and Arahime approached the Keep.
Built in the Age of Conquest, Journey’s End Keep was built as Unicorn holding. It had become an Imperial holding and then was returned to the Unicorn, who drove the remnants of the rebellious Spider Clan out. It had served as a vital outpost during the Onyx War, for trade as well as refuge when the lands of the Unicorn succumbed to the taint. Their occupation had been tolerated by the Zogeki, but with many Unicorn now beginning to return to their ancestral lands, it remained to be seen how much longer it would remain under Unicorn rule.
Arahime knew all this, of course, studied from book after book in her searches for Shinjo in the long, hot summer. But Big Sister provided other names. Older Names. City of Stone Walls. Rahkiarma. The Birth of the River Goddess. There were a thousand stories about this place. Arahime frowned and stubbornly tried to shove the intrusive thoughts aside. She was supposed to go to Shinjo herself.
Arahime and Harune were welcomed on their arrival and taken to a little room where they were given refreshments while the letters were taken. Harun looked confident, but Arahime felt less so. What do we have to offer them, really, anyway?
The minutes stretched into hours, but the pair waited patiently. Finally, a man with a pointed beard and wearing a curious combination of Rokugani and Ivinda garments in various shades of purple came into the room. He bowed.
“Forgive me, Kakita-sama, Kakita-chui,” he said. “I am Ide Taban, aide to the Governor Ide Ujinari-sama. I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave.”
A dark thunderhead darkened behind Harun’s eyes...this was clearly not the response he expected. “Leave? What do you mean?”
Taban’s tone was kind and accommodating, but firm. “A caravan has just arrived and we are seeing to them, or else my lord Governor might have been able to meet with you personally. The Governor means you no insult. He is grateful that the alliance between the clans of Doji and Shinjo still carries on between us, and owes full respect to your honored father, the Emerald Champion,” Taban bowed at Harun. “And your honored mother, the Voice of the Emperor,” He bowed again towards Arahime. “And your links to the Unicorn Clan are known by him, and respected. But the Governor has received word of threats to the Honored Body of Moto Naleesh from cells of the Spider that have taken root here in the colonies, and he dare allow no one to share her hidden location until such cells have been burned out of the sands of Journey’s End Keep. The risk is too great. We have heard the stories from Second City and what has happened there. The Unicorn cannot bear to lose Shinjo. Not again.”
There was a subtext there. Arahime saw that Harun had missed it. He thinks we should have been welcomed, just for his Unicorn blood. He thinks that blood is enough... But it was not Harun that was the target of Tarban’s veiled words. He means me. He thinks I really did take Shiba from the Phoenix. He fears that I will take Shinjo from the Unicorn. He cannot let that happen.
“If you know us, you know we mean no harm...to you or to the Lady Shinjo,” Arahime leaned forward with the passion of her entreaty. “Shiba himself told me to deliver this message...but what the Lady does with it is up to her….”
Targan held up his hand. “I respect you both. But the Governor has made his decision. There is nothing I can do. Without direct request of the Clan Champion, I am powerless to help you.”
I should have expected it. But, if this is the heaven’s will, the heavens will find a way for us. Arahime laid a hand on Harun’s forearm, forestalling his protests. “We understand. Our apologies for disturbing you. May we rest in the city before we continue on?”
The aide brightened. “Of course! You are welcome to rest and enjoy the hospitality of our city before you return to Second City, or to Rokugan, as you wish. A new Caravan will be leaving soon. There is a celebration tonight for the Caravan which has just arrived. You are welcome to attend if you wish.”
“We’d like that.”
As the golden keep doors closed behind them, Harun glowered with frustration. “We’ll go to Moto Tengui. It’ll be a few weeks, but he’ll get the governor to let you in. I am certain of it.”
Arahime shook her head. “They’re afraid. But...let’s wait a bit and see what happens. If this is what the kami want, they’ll find a way.”
“I want this to be done too,” Arahime answered his frown with a mock pout of her own. “I wish we could have seen Lady Naleesh right away.”
Something in her expression made Harun smile. “I guess it could be worse. You also need to learn how to free her, right? That could take time.”
Arahime sniffed, but her eyes twinkled. “You’re just happy to be with the Unicorn again.”
“Well, yes,” admitted Harun with a laugh. “But they’re your kin as well as mine. Perhaps it is time you got better acquainted.”
Arahime only smiled.
People started to gather as soon as the sun started to set, making their way to the main courtyard of the Keep. Here the sounds of music and drums could already be heard, trailing through the rest of the Keep, drawing people towards it like so many bees towards a field of flowers.
Harun and Arahime were among them, taking their places on cushions that formed a ring. The atmosphere was lively and informal. Attendants came around serving food and drink, of which there was plenty. The conversation was loud but happy, full of vitality and the joy of pleasant company. All were made to feel welcome and at ease. Harun saw Arahime deep in conversation with a dark-skinned young man. He didn’t hear what they were talking about, but he seemed fascinated by what she had to say and was a little bit too friendly for Harun’s liking.
Harun was talking to a man named Shinjo Ishidou. He had also been at Shiro Moto when Harun had been there. After exchanging a few memories, Harun learned that his friend Moto Majid, with whom he had spent much of his wandering year, had since married and was soon to become a father. On seeing how pleased Harun was by this, Ishidou offered to take a letter back. So grateful was he in return, Harun accepted the cup of kumis that Ishidou offered to him.
And immediately regretted it.
Servants came around with tea and sweets. The tea was a deep brown rather than green, strong and pungent; the sweets were soft and coated with many crushed almonds. Harun liked the taste, until he noticed Arahime’s companion offer his own to her.
That is a bit too...familiar...
His thoughts were interrupted when the giant drums struck loudly and the noise from the crowd dulled. Eyes turned to face a wooden stand above the crowd, where Harun could see, from afar, the Governor, Ide Ujinari, and his wife. Ujinari was a small man, but with his pointed embroidered hat he seemed taller. He wore a long tunic of a light cotton in a light purple, fastened at the shoulder as Unicorn often did. His eyes never fell on the two Crane in the crowd, however.
The governor stood. “In honor of your coming to our city,” he said, in a voice that rang clearly across the courtyard, “I have invited my wife, Ide Ryuko, to play a traditional piece of music from the mountains across the Sea of Sand. In troubled times, we must remember and honor our ancestors and founders, without whom we are nothing.”
A murmur went through the crowd, and the smile on Arahime’s face slipped, just for a moment. The Governor’s wife stepped forward and knelt on a cushion provided, taking a biwa into her delicate hands. The governor’s wife was beautiful, but did not have the darker features characteristic of the Unicorn. Her hair was in an elaborate style and her clothing, though the purple of the Unicorn, was along more traditional Rokugani lines.
Ryuko...That name is familiar… The crowd was utterly silent as Ryuko began to play, the plaintive twangs of the biwa tugging delicately on the heartstrings of the crowd. After a few strains of the beautiful music, Harun’s brow knitted. He knew this music. A memory...a geisha house in Dragon lands, many years ago, the song evoking distant purple mountains and cascading waterfalls. It seemed strange to hear it here, the song of a geisha in Dragon lands. A missing daughter of the…. Then he remembered what Midori had told the Scorpion in Second City: Mirumoto Shikei’s geisha-born daughter in exchange for the Spider cell in the city...and who they hunted. And she is right there….
The whispering sounds of the biwa died, and there was a soft, collective sigh from the audience. For the first time that he could remember, Harun felt a pang of homesickness for the halls of the Kakita Academy. Will I ever be able to go back?
There was no time to linger on the thought. As Ryuko returned to her seat, a Moto stepped onto the stand. He carried a stringed instrument; Harun recognised it as a morrin khur. After a bow to Ide Ujinari and his wife, the Moto sat upon the cushion placed for him before the assembly
He began to play, moving the bow across his instrument strings, the rhythm steady and true. Slow at first, and then faster and faster. He then began to sing, his voice deep and throaty as the way of the Moto was. Harun could not understand the words, but he could feel their power resonate deep within himself. The part of himself that called to the wildness within, the part of him that wanted to gallop across the steppes without end or let the wind blow him where it would.
He shot a quick glance at Arahime to see her listening intently. The Moto said something to her in a language Harun couldn’t understand and she nodded, sharing a glance. As if there was a secret that they alone knew.
What did he say? She understood him?
“Not many Crane speak Ujik,” Ishidou said to Harun. “With a rare gift like that, Kakita-hime could no doubt be chosen as an envoy between our peoples.”
“I do not know if anyone has suggested that,” Harun said, keeping his face and tone neutral.
With a polite bow, Harun took his leave of Ishidou to tell Arahime what the Shinjo had suggested, but found her back was turned to him. She was listening to something said in Ujik by the Moto; it made her laugh, her eyes lighting with amusement.
“Arahime….” He was just about to suggest they leave but the music increased in volume. She couldn’t hear him over it.
The Moto had put down his instrument, and more, varied musicians had taken his place. The throat-singing was done. More food and drink were served. Tea and kumis went around. The music got louder and faster; people started to get up and dance -- wild, without form or direction. Just a chaotic throng of movement, noise and joy. Arahime was pulled to her feet, the Moto leading her around the circle. Harun was drawn in too, letting the music take him where he would. He felt wild and free, like the wind itself.
But soon it seemed as though the whole crowd watched Arahime dance, pale and bright against the sea of purple, her movements graceful, sensuous. She looked so beautiful. She was smiling, in that way that he loved, but not at him.
A hot coal began to burn in his chest. Harun gawked.
“No one will blame you for staring. But do try to close your mouth,” a silken voice gently mocked just by his shoulder. Harun snapped his mouth shut in embarrassment and annoyance; he had not noticed anyone approach. He turned to see a woman, lush and in her prime. Her face held a timeless beauty that defied his attempt to guess her age, though her hair was streaked heavily with gray. She wore a brightly patterned kimono, the exotic paisleys telling of journeys far to the west to Mehidaat al Salaam. Her face was veiled with a sheer piece of transluscent gold silk. Scorpion? At her waist, amidst a belt of many linked chains, hung the seal of a Jade Magistrate. “I am quite impressed,” she continued. “Though I’m certain it was not the Crane who taught her to dance like /that/. She is as beautiful as her mother, now, isn’t she? ”
Harun recovered quickly and stifled his annoyance. This was clearly a woman of status and influence. He bowed. “There are some who think so,” he answered stiffly.
The woman smiled and returned the bow. “Harun-chui. Welcome to Journey’s End Keep. My name is Bayushi Megumi. My husband and I have been told to meet you when you reached the city. If you have had enough dancing, of course….”
Harun glanced back to see a number of men crowding in upon Arahime, inviting her to join them in dance. “Quite enough,” he answered darkly.
Megumi led Harun to a brightly-lit stall booth, away from the centre of the celebration. To a brightly-colored felt awning sheltered an area covered in thick carpets around a brass brazier, though the booth was open to the whole gathering. People walked to and fro past the booth to the banquet tables nearby, and iron lanterns were suspended on metal poles between the stalls to light the eating and merry-making.
Within the booth, one of the more unusual men Harun had ever seen was taking his ease. He was older...old enough to, by all rights, be joined to the Brotherhood in honorable retirement. He had certainly earned it. His body was marked not just by time but many trials, as if he had fought in many battles, or at the Wall.
A metal plate covered the left half of his face, concealing what was, undoubtedly, an empty socket. Of his left arm, too, there remained nothing but a stub. He wore a loose kimono, open due to the withering heat, and scars criss-crossed his still barrel-like chest. He had not shaved his head, but his white hair was cropped short. He looked up at Harun and bowed. “Hmm. Yes, I can see Nakura in you. Have a seat.”
Behind him, Megumi smiled gently. “Take care of him for a moment for me, dear. I need to go retrieve another lost little bird…”
The man snorted fondly as Megumi left to dive back into the party. Then he turned to Harun. “So, Harun-san, is it?” the veteran chuckled. “I bet you fit in like a Nezumi in a Geisha house at the Academy while you were there. You look like him, you know.”
Harun blinked, surprised. “Like who?” he asked cautiously.
“Like your father. Nakura.” The man shook his head. “Kaiu Oda, Kakita Harun-san.” He offered a bow from the waist. ”Nakura-san was one of my delegates….and a friend. A little distractible..Always tossing his fortune-telling coins. And flirting.” He shook his head. “I should have known a pretty face would bring him down, but,” he glanced over in the direction that Megumi had left in, “But there are worse ways to go.” He nodded. “Have a seat.”
Harun started to sit. “Can you tell me.…?”
Suddenly, there was the sound of laughter and a thunk as the whole tent shook. The sound startled the Kakita and he dropped his hand to his katana reflexively. As his knuckles brushed the tight silk, the ruddy face of Shinjo Ishidou popped into view, laughing, ears red with sake.
“Please, please forgive, -Samas…” the Shinjo protested. “I fear...I’ve lost my way to the feasting tables….I know...It’s a very funny joke, a Shinjo losing his way.” He laughed at his own joke.
Harun’s hand relaxed and he grinned as he patted his new friend on the shoulder. “You need to go that way, Ishidou-san.” He pointed towards the banquet tables nearby. Ishidou gave a shakey bow and headed towards the tables. Harun relaxed and settled down near the Kaiu.
Kaiu Oda grinned. “The Crane say they throw the best parties, but the Unicorn don’t stint on the alcohol, if you have the stomach for it.”
Harun watched the Shinjo go, and then turned back to Oda. “You were saying about my father? What was he really like? Did you know my mother?”
A delicate cough from behind him, though he had not heard her approach. “My, my. The Crane truly do seek perfection, don’t they?” said Megumi. “You would think that two living, doting parents, especially as extravagant a pair as the Emerald Champion and his wife, would be enough for any son. I’m glad my grandson does not have as lofty expectations.”
Heat rose to Harun’s face. I hadn’t meant to imply that my parents weren’t good enough for me, he mentally protested. He bowed to hide his embarrassment, hiding his face from Megumi. Behind her, rumpled with the dancing and drink, Arahime tried to straighten herself. She didn’t look at him.
Megumi settled herself in place, inviting the girl to sit beside her. After pouring out tea for the four of them, the older Scorpion woman pulled out a letter from her sleeve and passed it to the two young Crane. “I don’t receive missives from the Voice of the Emperor nearly as much as I used to,” she said. “But when Kyoumi asks me to take her little fledglings under my wing, what could I do but say yes?”
Arahime opened the letter, nodded, and passed it to Harun. Harun scanned it...a polite request from Kakita Kyoumi to Shosuro Megumi and Kaiu Oda to watch over and assist her daughter, Kakita Arahime, in Journey’s End Keep. Harun recognized the seal...and the calligraphy. He had often received letters and small gifts as a student at the Academy from Arahime’s mother.
After introductions, Megumi poured the tea, she explained. “Your mother and I,” she nodded to Arahime, who had managed to settle herself and was looking intently at the older couple, “have been corresponding for a long time.” She offered with a small smile. “You may not realize it, but while she may be called the Voice of the Emperor now, Kakita Kyoumi has been the Ears of the Emperor for a very long time,gathering information from across the Empire for Hida Kozan, the previous Voice. A network that the Scorpion have envied, though they will rebuild their own in time. But I could say we have remained mostly friends. It is only natural that a mother would want someone to look out for their daughter when they could not be there. I am told your efforts at the Governor’s palace were not successful. But what, exactly, are you trying to do?”
Harun glanced at Arahime, concerned, but the young woman’s face, other than a flush in her cheeks, was calm and composed. “I can only hope that I know when I see it,” she answered. “Shiba sent me to carry a message to his sister. All I can hope is that the Heavens see fit to help me find the means to do so.”
Her voice seemed so composed, so...at peace. Harun looked at her again. She was still rumpled, sweaty, in that ridiculous gaijin jewelry, but…
“Well, I suppose heaven will find a way, then,” Megumi said primly. “In the meantime, I suppose I can tell you what our own personal inquiries have found out.” Oda chuckled softly but Arahime and Harun leaned forward eagerly as Megumi continued. “The body of Moto Naleesh can be found in a crypt under the Shrine of Shinjo on the north side of the Marketplace. The Shrine is guarded day and night...only an honor guard, though. With a little planning and creativity, I believe that I could get the pair of you into the crypt without being seen.”
Oda took over the story “I saw a report one of the Kuni wrote, when the Unicorn first opened Journey’s End to outsiders and allowed them to take a look. They said, her body is preserved, the flush of life still on her features. But she is encased in pure crystal even the kami cannot penetrate. She never moves, never breathes. There is taint, trapped from a wound to her arm, but restricted to that place only by the growth of the crystal. Kuni Kosori did not know if she is alive or dead. I don’t think the Unicorn know. But she is their greatest treasure. They will not let her go easily.”
Harun glanced at Arahime, who leaned forward, absorbing every word, and asked, “I imagine they tried to get her out?”
Megumi sipped her tea. “Certainly. As a Jade Magistrate, it is my duty to keep track of all of the shugenja coming into the city. Years ago, the Unicorn brought a special group of shugenja from several clans...even the Phoenix...to see what could be done. There was even a Moto Ishiken, if you would believe that…”
Harun suppressed the smile that he felt at the mention of the Moto .
Megumi continued, “...But nothing came of the effort. I’m told that soon after they had left, marks became visible in the crystal. Kanji or some form of writing or pictographs. I think experts in dozens of tongues have tried to read them, but they may be nonsense...not a human language at all.”
“I can read them.” Arahime’s words carried across the table with quiet confidence.
Megumi set down her cup. “You seem very confident, my dear. These are not Ivindi. Nor Naga or Nezumi or any of the tongues of Mehidaat al Salaam.”
“I can read it anyway. I have...a gift,” said Arahime. “Will you help me get in to read the words?”
Megumi glanced over at Oda who brought his knuckle to his chin thoughtfully. “So, you have a gift for languages? Can you read any tongue, then?”
“Is that so?” Oda sat back, contemplating her answer for a long minute before coming a silent decision. Then a gleam sparkled in his one eye, and he leaned forward across the table. “I think Megumi and I can help get you in to see Moto Naleesh. And you can help us.”
A sliver of suspicion touched Harun’s thought as the party seemed to go silent for a moment. “What do you want us to do?” he asked.
Megumi’s scarlet lips curved into a delicate smile. “My dear,” she said to Oda. “Are you sure you want to involve them in your little project?”
“Megumi-chan...I’ve spent eighteen months trying to activate it!” said Oda, part exasperated, part excited. “I know it’s repaired properly...I’m so close…” Oda rubbed the back of his head and gave a rueful smile. ”I apologize if I am too eager. Let me explain. I am not asking much.”
Arahime seemed unphased. “Go on,” she said simply.
Oda leaned forward, excitement building in his voice. “It’s been known for many years that Journey’s End Keep contained a wonder from the days before this city was ever known to the people of Rokugan. They call it a golem...a giant warrior, made of metal and gears and switches and power! The stories of the people speak of a time when it stood guard over the whole region, killing the giant monsters they fought, once upon a time, all controlled by a single warrior safely on the ground.” His fist tightened with enthusiasm, while Megumi sipped her tea calmly. “But no one could use it. It was frozen, broken, rusting. No one dreamed that it would ever walk again, let alone fight.” He grinned. “But no one counted on what a Kaiu engineer can do, either!”
“Maybe not so dramatic, dear?” Megumi inserted tartly. “Repairing the golem was indeed a great accomplishment, but it still does not walk.”
Oda looked abashed, but only for a moment. “It’s true,” he answered with a sigh. “I have it all repaired. I’m sure everything is connected correctly, I’m sure its motions can be completed for fighting, and Megumi’s gifts with the kami have confirmed the kami are ready and listening, but no one knows how to incite it to move. I was hoping you could translate some old scripts I’d found about it. It just seems that something is missing...”
“You mean the trishula?”
Arahime’s words were casual, but silence dropped around the table as everyone stared at her. Oda took a deep breath before daring to speak, though Harun could hear the excitement causing his words to tremble. “It sounds like you know something about this. What is a trishula?”
Arahime hesitated, looking from one to another, and a crease developed between her eyebrows. “A trishula is a kind of three-pointed spear,” she answered. “But it’s well known that the Trishula of the Temple of Aripu controls the Golem of the West…” She hesitated. “Isn’t it?”
Oda and Megumi glanced at each other then back. “Arahime-san...Do you know where this temple or this trishula is?”
The young woman frowned. Harun could see the mark of confusion in her gray eyes as she scanned across the area. The governor’s palace, the tumble of clay buildings, the curve of the river below. The jungle beyond. A hush seemed to hang, just for a moment, over the whole party. She nodded slowly.
For a moment, Harun wanted to gather her into his arms. And either hide her away or shake her until she told him what was going on in that head of hers. He wasn’t entirely sure he liked the look of resolve that formed in Oda’s jaw, under the steel of his mask.
“We need that spear,” Oda grunted with absolute certainty. “Megumi and I...we will figure out how to take you to the crystal of Moto Naleesh. I swear it. But it will be best to wait until this latest caravan has left and the streets are not as busy. But first, you’ve got to lead us to this Temple of Iripu. With the golem, we will protect the Wall from the giant oni that arise again from the Pit. Do that for us, for the Empire, and we’ll get you two in to see Shinjo.”
Megumi wavered, but, laying her hand on her husband’s arm, said, “Just show us where it is. We can come back later without you to get it, if it looks like it will be dangerous. Or if we need to excavate for it. It will not take long to simply travel there and back.”
Harun looked over at Arahime. She seemed uncertain, but, looking back into his eyes, she offered an uncertain smile, as though still beset by confusion.
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Wed Jan 08, 2020 8:48 am
The pair decided to accept Oda and Megumi’s offer of a place to stay in the city. Their home was part of a tall, clay building, packed together with many other similar homes in a way that was very disorienting to the native Rokugani, though there were little touches from the home they shared...a shamisen on a stand. Painted screens. A carefully cultivated bonsai in an alcove with a scroll of calligraphy. The windows allowed a cool night breeze to through the home.
Megumi carried a small oil lamp as she led them up the narrow stairs. “I’ve had the servants lay out futon for you. I imagine you’re tired. We tend to sleep during the day to enjoy the cool of the evening, so do not worry about waking early. Here you go.”
She pushed aside the colored hanging that served as a door to reveal a single, large guest chamber with two soft futons neatly laid out on the floor. The two Crane dropped their mouths open to formulate a response, but Megumi smiled sweetly. “You’re a long way from the Empire here, dears. Enjoy the evening. I’ll leave you the lamp.” She set the lamp on a ledge, turned, and started down the stairs and into the darkness below before either of the two could think of what to say.
Arahime crossed the room and sat down on the far futon. She loosened her hair, the soft white curls cascading down her back. Like summer clouds, like seafoam that sprayed against the cliffs at Seawatch Castle.
Seawatch...she still doesn't know what happened, I still haven't told her…
An image of Arahime earlier that evening flashed before his eyes, dancing with the Moto in the firelight and conversing with them in Ujik.
Well, she has her own secrets, can't I keep mine?
Secrets and lies. Harun's entire life had been built on this, truths that had been kept from him. His mother, his father, his Aunt Kyoumi.
He remembered her kind and patient smile when he had seen her at Kyuden Hida. Her gentle pity at his own realisation at the world was not as just an ordered as he had led to believe it was.
And just like in the story of Prince Glimmerlark she had told them, sometimes the truth could be dangerous. It could destroy, consume unless it was treated carefully.
And Harun knew what he had to do, he just hoped he wasn't too late.
Harun sat down on the other futon. "Arahime," he said. "There is something I need to tell you."
"Of course, Harun." Arahime turned to face him, her white hair framing her face.
She looks so beautiful, and I am about to hurt her terribly.
"I know you have wondered why I was sent to Seawatch Castle," he began. "I kept this from you, and this was wrong. I thought by doing this, I was protecting you, but I was wrong. The truth is, I was protecting myself from the words you would say to me once you knew, and I knew that I would deserve them."
She looked torn...puzzled. But she did not answer, so he continued.
"I did this, I concealed this great and terrible thing I did from you, because...I love you." Harun's declaration came from deep within himself, but when he said it the words felt useless, as if he had thrown them at Arahime's feet to clatter about like broken pottery.
"I love you, Arahime, I always have, but you deserve the truth." He could feel the hot tears welling in the corners of his eyes. "Even if it means I lose you, again.”
He closed his eyes, feeling the tears fall down on his cheeks. "At Toshi Ranbo, my unit was one of the first to take the old Imperial Palace. We fought our way right to the throne room. And there on the dais, was Daigotsu Shimekiri."
Arahime’s eyes widened with surprise, but more subdued than he expected. Perhaps she was reluctant to interrupt him? He kept going.
"He challenged us all to best him in a duel," said Harun. “My father knew he would do this; there were several duelists there. The first to accept was Kakita Isamu. Remember him?"
"Well, he was killed. And then there was Doji Kouta -- he had just started as Isamu's apprentice. He said he liked you. Well, he went next, and was killed. He was brave, but he went up there. Then I did."
"You went to duel him?" Arahime asked.
"No, I went to kill him," Harun said. "And I did."
Arahime looked confused. "What do you mean?"
Harun felt the old shame well up, and his voice became flat and emotionless. "I mean what I said. One of my soldiers was a sniper with a gaijin powder weapon. I got her to stand behind me when I went up to challenge Shimikiri. She shot him as he took his first strike; he dropped his sword. I killed him." He wished he could seek deep into the floor. "I killed him, and I disgraced everyone, my family, my father, the entire clan, I disgraced Kakita himself and the traditions of iaijutsu."
Harun sat silently. He had finally done it, what he should have done when he first arrived in Second City. He had hoped he would feel free, but instead he felt hollow.
This is when she shouts at me. Can't bear to see my face, hear my voice...
But what Arahime said next took Harun completely by surprise.
"But Harun, what you did, you stopped all those people going up there to fight him," Arahime said. "You saved those people, even if it was a little unusual."
Harun's head whipped up. "What? No! Don't defend me! You should tell me that I'm a disgrace to the clan, that I should have cut my belly open."
She looked confused. "But why would I do that?"
"Why?" Harun's voice was high and shrill. "Because you're a Kakita with the blood of Kenshinzen in you! Because you are samurai!"
"Harun, calm down..."
Harun stood up, towering over her. He examined Arahime. It looked like her, acted like her, but Arahime would never, ever say those words. Never defend his dishonourable actions. Never just brush aside Harun's betrayal of tradition.
"You aren't Arahime, are you?" He looked directly into her eyes.
He grabbed the gaudy gaijin necklace that she still always wore. She gasped as the chain tightened around her throat. Her hands flailed, trying to pry Harun's hands off.
"It's this, isn't it?" He pulled harder. "Is that why you never take it off? What happens if I break it?"
"Harun, no," choked Arahime. "You are...hurting me."
"What have you done with her? Answer me!" He demanded. "Arahime!"
Arahime heard Harun's voice as if she was at the bottom of a deep well. Far away, as if some distance from them to her would soften their impact. But it didn’t work.
He’s just as damaged as I am, if not more. Did the war change him so much where he thought betraying our traditions was right?
But he saved people, said Big Sister’s voice.
That doesn’t matter, Arahime insisted, this was tradition, he broke it. And now there is no future for him...or for me.
Not all is as bad as you think, Princess, wounds heal, so do hearts and...he loves you…
Arahime felt herself crumble. But how can I love him, care for him, after this? Everything we were taught to be is gone.
Then you both may need to be something new, Kisani reassured, Past this pain, past this bloodshed. But now he needs your voice, Princess, he will not listen to mine.
Yes, Arahime realised, Yes, I need to speak.
“I’m here, Harun.”
Her senses came back into focus with a sharpness that seemed to pierce her skin. It had been too long, Big Sister had protected her too well. But now, slowly, things became real again. The soft, humid air, the buzzing of insects outside in the night. And Harun, his face right in front of hers. Angry, demanding answers. His hands gripping the necklace around her throat, the navrathran haar, tight.
Arahime narrowed her eyes. “Harun, stop this, now.” She put all her sternness into the command
Harun hesitated, but only for a moment, then stepped back, his hands hanging at his sides.
“This is...you?” His voice was unsure.
Arahime nodded, feeling a tickle of guilt. Should I really have hidden?.
Harun brightened at her nod, but stopped when he saw the sense of betrayal in her eyes. “I was so stupid. Everyone else knew...and said nothing. Even you. What an idiot I was.”
Harun bowed his head. “You are not stupid.The blame is mine. I thought I...we…” he trailed off.
“You thought to never tell me. Then once you did, you wanted me to forgive you. You wanted to pretend that nothing had happened. To tell you what you did was all right. That everything was back to what it had been before. Didn’t you??
“But I never asked-” He lifted his eyes defensively.
“But you wanted it, didn’t you?” Arahime demanded.
Harun was silent.
“I...I did, yes.”
Arahime shook her head. There was a part of her that wanted to forgive Harun, to forget everything and just celebrate the fact they had found each other again. But to do that would be to betray everything within herself. She just couldn’t.
“You were the Topaz Champion, Harun. You were better than any of us. Better than me. If anyone was supposed to stand up for Kakita’s ideals, it was you. Do you even believe in them any more? What else do we abandon?”
The cut drew blood...Arahime was always faster. But Harun was stronger.
“And what about you, Arahime? What did you abandon? Look at you. You don’t even look like a Rokugani any more. Get that thing around your neck and now you prefer gaijin ways to your own, right? What would the Kuni say if they studied that, do you think?”
Arahime swallowed as if struck with a physical blow, then seemed to crumple in on herself.
Her voice was scarcely a whisper when she answered him. “I...don’t know.”
Harun fell silent, waiting for her to go on.
After a moment, she did. “It...it’s like a nerumani. I think. Or…” she frowned, trying to remember the term. “A Meishodo.” She took a deep breath, and began the quiet explanation. “A long, long time ago, a princess of her people, a woman named Ksani, agreed to have her spirit put into the necklace. They, too, were fighting an army much like the Onyx...of tainted creatures from the afflicted lands, and they were losing. To keep the traditions and knowledge of her people alive, to teach them to future generations, if any where to survive, their priests put her soul into the necklace. She did teach some of the young women that survived, as empires rose and fell, but, eventually, there wasn’t anyone left to teach.”
Harun’s eyebrows knit with confusion and disbelief, but he didn’t say anything. His silence stretched out too long.
“If I take it off, she is stuck...trapped out of meido, out of the cycle of rebirth, for who knows how many more hundreds of years. Maybe thousands. I took it...to survive. To not go mad. But now…” she gestured helplessly. “Maybe it was a mistake. I didn’t abandon our ways though. I’m trying to save her.”
But that will likely destroy me. Destroy us. Just like what Harun had done.
“I just wanted to save them too,” Harun said quietly.
The truth was bitter. Their destinies would never be together. They had given up too much. There was no point lingering on it.
“None of this matters anyway,” Arahime said. “What we have to do is far more important than...than what we feel.”
Harun bowed his head. “I will continue to serve you as I have promised to,” he said. “And after that…”
Arahime nodded. Who knew what fate awaited them after that.
She turned away from him, sitting back on her futon. She had intended to read the letter from her mother, but couldn’t bring herself to. After a long time, when she could be sure that wasn’t watching, she lifted a hand to her face to wipe away the silent tears.
Re: L5R - To Touch the Sky - The final post-WC5 Story
Posted: Mon Mar 09, 2020 9:54 am
Steam rose from the leafy undergrowth along the river bank and settled in a pale pall across the languid brown waters that ran alongside the narrow trail through the jungle on the outskirts of Journey’s End City. It was a small expedition that navigated the overgrown trails: Arahime was in the lead, picking out small markers of carved bits of stone and long-forgotten landmarks. Behind her was Oda, his wary eye searching for any threat, and beside him, Megumi, wrapped in an aural of calm and poise. Behind them was Harun, gleaming in his blue and gold Crane armor, beads of sweat pouring down his forehead. A group of Megumi’s ashigaru trailed them all, bearing rope and torches, their eyes trained on the waters for signs of crocodiles or the giant snakes that were said to emerge from their depths.
Megumi sighed and fanned herself lightly as she watched the two young Crane avoid each others’ eyes. The tension between Harun and Arahime had been evident the minute they set out, neither of them giving any explanation as to the change between them. It seemed both had inherited their families’ propensity for drama.
Stubborn, like their parents...
Arahime turned and glanced over her shoulder. “We’re almost there. See that mound ahead?”
To Megumi’s eyes, she could see nothing but a small hillock nearly lost between the roots of two mighty trees that leaned at a precarious angle above it, and the vines that twisted and covered the ground between them. She looked dubious. “It looks like any temple that might have been here is lost to the jungle now.”
Arahime took a small step forward, a puzzled knot between her eyebrows. Harun took a step forward as if to stop her, but Oda reached out to hold him back. “Let her look,” he muttered, eyes intensely eager on the mound.
“No...there is the entrance….the holy places were underground. What was above was just living quarters and rooms for study and entertaining. The sacred path should be….” She ran forward, searching around the mound, and finally finding a gap in the collapsed stone revealed when she pulled away the vines, “Right here.”
As they drew closer, Megumi could see a carving on the rock beside the tiny gap...A furious face and an impossible body with many arms and legs. Half the arms held weapons of war, and half held instruments of music and dance. Arahime brushed her hand across the carving lightly. “Thank you for your protection….”
Oda climbed up onto the hillock and crouched down to look through the crack to peer into the darkness. “Yes, there’s the entrance to a cave here,” he said. “Would never have found it myself.”
Harun glowered at Arahime, who turned away.
Megumi glided up to stand beside Oda near the entrance to decide how best to approach.
“I thought you said they were ready to tear each others clothes off,” Oda whispered back to her, when Arahime was out of earshot..
Megumi shook her head and smiled. “They’re young and headstrong, what should we expect of people their age? I only hope it resolves itself before it’s a problem.”
Oda chuckled. “Or something happens,” he added.
“Not too much,” Megumi added, looking up at Oda then sighing. “Let us just hope that neither of them does anything too stupid.”
They summoned the heimin to light torches and tie off ropes, then left them to guard the entrance while the four samurai lowered themselves into the inky darkness.
The stairs descended, lit by a ruddy flickering light that brightened little by little as Arahime lifted her torch to light the elegant metalwork sconces, now rusted and dull, that bordered the stairs. Harun had to duck his head to avoid the boulders above him. The footing was unstable, cracked with roots and time, but stable to his feet as he trod heavily down, regretting the weight of his armor.
At least it was cooler down here.
At the bottom of the stairs, Arahime strode unconcerned into the center of the room and touched her torch to a great brazier, taller than a man, which cast up a bonfire of flame that lit the whole cavern around them.
The chamber was round, centered on a inky reflecting pool with water as smooth as glass. From the center of the pool, a statue, shaped like a great warrior, arose, his hand held out as if bearing a spear. But those hands were empty. Three other braziers encircled the pool.
To one side of the cavern, a great wall of solid brass ascended, intricately carved with depictions of men and women, growing grain and playing music, and fighting with spear and bow against strange, tiger-headed beasts. On the other side of the cavern, a number of doorways showed no hint but black shadows of what might lie beyond them.
“Where do we go now?” Oda asked, squinting to make out form in the dancing shadows.
Arahime answered, quiet confusion in her voice. “I’m...not sure. I think that way.” She pointed towards one of the passageways. “But the monks built many protections into this temple, so that no one could come steal the trishula and abuse the power of the golem. I remember there are traps….”
A warm, friendly voice made Harun turn quickly back towards the stairs, where he was surprised to see Shinjo Ishidou, a man he recognized from his winter among the Unicorn and again, during the celebration they had visited in Journey’s End Keep. The Unicorn was wearing the familiar garb of all the Unicorn traders in the area, a scimitar hanging freely at his side, his arm banded with gold that glinted in the torchlight. Behind him, Harun could make out the forms of a few others, yojimbo, he imagined, though they were hard to see.
“Shinjo-san, what are you doing here?” Harun asked, curiosity filling him. How had he known about the temple? Maybe the governor had sent him?
“About the same thing you are, I imagine….” Ishidou answered in a friendly, cheerful tone, a smile on his lips. Then he made a gesture with his left hand. “Well, maybe not quite the same.”
There was a twang that reverberated through the fallen temple as a wooden shaft raced through the air and slammed into Harun’s torso.
The bolt penetrated Harun’s shoulder with enough force to knock him off his feet, driving through his armor and biting deep into the muscle. His right arm went limp. He stared up at the stone boulders and roots of the cavern roof as they spun slowly around, and he heard the sounds of feet running down the stairs over the surging of blood in his ears. Arahime’s voice desperately calling his name. He tried to lift himself on his other elbow to see, but he found himself face to face with a man wrapped in the layered cloth familiar to him as the attire of many in these lands. And that man held a spear to his throat
They were surrounded. Ishidou stood back, but there were more than twelve men, eight armed with crossbows, their weapons all pointed at them, ready to fire. Oda had drawn his sword, but had done nothing more, when he saw the crossbow bolt aimed directly at Megumi’s heart, and Megumi’s scrollcase hung from limp fingers at the sight of the spear that pricked the small of Oda’s back.
Get up, get up, move, fight… the words Harun used to shout at his soldiers.
Through the pain and nausea, Harun reached for his sword, but the bolt ground painfully in his shoulder. Blood covered his hand, his arm was weak, he couldn’t grip. The spear at his throat pressed harder and drew blood.
“Do you like stories? I do.” Ishidou asked, laughing as the guards ripped Megumi’s scrollcase from her hands and lashed Odas feet together. “I heard a story myself recently. Of a mighty golem in the desert that towered over a city at the edge of the world, frozen and useless. But then I heard another story...from a girl who said it only needed a single key to operate it. And she knew where to find it.” He turned on Arahime, folding his arms. “I very much liked this story. I want to find out how it ends.”
Harun could feel the ropes lashing his hands and feet together, the blood from his wound trickling down his skin, and that threatened to bubble up in the cough he felt rising in his chest. They then took his swords.
Megumi made a soft grunt as she was forced to her knees, her mouth and wrists bound tightly to prevent any possibility of spellcasting.
“Now girl....” Ishidou folded his arms as he addressed Arahime. “This story...with all that special treatment you get from the Ivinda..they must have told it to you. I’ve been searching across the world for the tool I need to return the Daigotsu to power. Imagine finding it here!” He laughed.
Arahime was silent.
“So now...you are going to show me where to find this trishula and how to use it to awaken the golem,” continued Ishidou.
“What makes you think I can do that?” Arahime asked, her voice had an odd calmness to it.
“Oh, I’ve read enough lore of the Invinda, and other kingdoms. This is not the only golem that the Unicorn have encountered in their travels.” Ishidou replied. “Once I control the trishula, this golem and the others are mine to command. And I will lead the Spider Clan to take these lands again, as the Empress ordered us to, long ago.”
“And what if I don’t help you?” Arahime asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Ishidou sneered. “If you don’t, everyone here dies. Just like the heimen you left above.”
“If I told you, you could still kill them,” Arahime pointed out.
Ishidou laughed again. “Trust me, there will be more important quarry than the likes of you.”
Arahime didn’t speak.
“Don’t do it, Arahime, don’t tell him!” Harun shouted. He strained at the rope that bound his wrists, trying to free them, ignoring the grinding pain of the crossbow bolt.
Ishidou gestured. The man who had the spear at Harun’s throat pulled it back, then thrust it into his belly. An explosion of sick pain and bile filled him and he sagged to the ground, groaning and gasping for air. Blood gushed out in a pool around him.
“Harun!” Arahime rushed forward, her face stricken.
But Ishidou grabbed her and pulled her back. “A belly wound. Painful, certainly, but a slow death. Megumi-sama, I hear, is a talented shugenja. She can heal him if I release her. Bring me to the trishula quickly, and she might have time to heal him before he dies.”
Arahime looked at him then back at Harun.
Harun looked into her eyes, silently pleading with her to refuse. But in her eyes he saw the love she had for him. Unblemished, true as it ever had been. The love that had sustained him the years that they had been parted. That love Ishidou now used like a knife against her throat.
Harun fought to keep awake; everything was growing dark. “Arahime…” His voice was faint.
Arahime turned back to face Ishidou. “Come with me.”
She led him and a couple of other Spider lackeys into darkness.
The other Spider tossed Harun to the base of one of the braziers on the water’s edge. He collapsed in a heap, blood spilling around him.
Megumi they kept tied to the base of a statue; a shugenja was too powerful to be left out of sight for an instant. The Scorpion glared daggers at them and if will alone could call the kami, she would have burned them all to a crisp on the spot.
Oda, however, was dropped heavily beside Harun, as they decided with only one hand and his feet bound there was little he could do. He wormed his way over to the duelist. “Rest easy,” he whispered. “I think she knows what she’s doing. Let’s have a look at that wound, son.”
He touched it, gently, but that was enough. Harun bit his lip to avoid crying out, so hard he drew blood.
“That’s nasty, but we can get you patched up right here until they untie Megumi,” Oda said. His tone was gentle, patient, fatherly.
He removed the remnants of Harun’s obi and then re-tied it tighter, binding the wound.
“But...they will have…” Harun could barely speak, the pain was too much.
“The only thing I want you to worry about,” said Oda, flipping the skirts of Harun’s haidate up and pulling it tight. “Is staying awake. You hear?” He patted Harun on the cheek. “That’s not Yumi-Do that’s calling you.”
Harun tried to focus on the pain, it meant he was still alive.
The darkness surrounded them like a heavy blanket, the light of their torches barely enough to leave them room to breath. Twisty roots like grasping hands pressed through the earth above, while the familiar faces of her gods beckoned to Ksani like a twisted parody of the stories of her youth.
The place smelled empty and dry, like a tomb, the bodies of the monks and those who had fallen there long since turned to dust.
Was her body, too, part of this ancient dust?
The wild princess pushed aside the dusty spiderwebs, leading the small group through the dark passage. It was so different now than the days she first passed this way…
“Honored Apsara….please, this way. The armies of the Rakasha will be here soon.”
The monk, wrapped in his robes of orange and red, led her past the crystal lamps into the belly of the temple with sure steps, but her heart had trembled with sorrow. What right did she have to live when the armies of corruption had destroyed and enslaved so many? “You should have brought them down here….at least the children….It’s not too late to bring them!”
“No, Apsara. It is already too late. We hope that the survivors have fled. The Guardian will guard their escape with what minutes we have left. But we cannot risk the Trishula falling into their hands. Once we have done...what must be done...we will bring the temple down. With luck, the Enemy will never find it.”
The Guardian, the great metal statue that kept watch over the city, was above, fighting the armies of the Rakasha and their twisted demonic horde, but controlled by this temple. It was one of the few remaining strongholds of humanity in the entire kingdom of the Peacock throne. That was why she had been brought here. But now, even this city on the edge of the world was going to fall. It was the end.
“I understand,” Kisani reassured him quietly. “We can’t let the knowledge entrusted to me be lost.”
The monk stepped through the mandala of opening, woven from chains that hung across the entrance to the outer passage. “We will be there soon.”
“How far is it?” Ishidou said roughly, pushing her forward.
Arahime stumbled over a chain that lay across the ground, concealed by the shadows. “We will be there soon.” She lifted the chain. “But first I need to make the mandala....”
One of the guards chuckled. “The gods are long dead, Crane. Only one God remains, and his name is Daigotsu.” Shoving past her, he advanced cautiously forward along the hall, torch held high in one hand and blade at the ready in the other. But Arahime would not follow, and Ishidou just watched.
Suddenly, the floor of the room flipped, tipping up to present a vertical wall, down which the hapless Spider slid, screaming, into impenetrable darkness below. The other Spider pulled back, but Arahime watched with dark eyes as Ishidou glared at her.
“I will make the Mandala of Passage now,” she answered calmly, lifting the chain to lock one of the links on a hook on the ceiling.
A man’s scream echoed faintly in the darkness, causing Harun to startle awake. Arahime! No answer. Perhaps he hadn’t heard it after all.
It was so cold here. It wasn’t cold before, was it? Harun could feel his lips and hands tingle.
Oda’s low voice cut through his drifting thoughts. “That wasn’t her. She’s a brave girl….you better be alive when she gets back now. Come on, lad. Talk to me. Tell me about yourself. Heard you fought with the Emerald Legion?”
“Yes…” Harun mumbled. “Toshi Ranbo…” Of course he’d want to know about his shame…
“You ever get hurt?”
He...didn’t want to know about the duel? Harun made a vague approximation of a nod. “...twice...” he murmured. He remembered waking up after the battle near Shiro Moto...but it was nothing like this. Then, he felt sick..here, it was more. The claws of Meido were drawing tight around his throat.
Oda grunted. “Doubt it was bad, with you so pretty, huh. Well, samurai-ko love scars. But you only get to show it off if you survive. So, fight, boy. Glorious bushido and an honorable death won’t save your girl.”
“Warn us what’s coming next time,” Ishidou gave Arahime a shove forward and propelling her into the next room.
“I don’t know it until I see it,” Arahime protested, her heart thumping with worry over Harun. She could feel Kisani curled in her mind, the secret woman who lived within her necklace seeming lost in memories of a time many centuries ago, when she remembered being here last.
It was hard to tell from the fragments Kisani shared, but it seemed that she had fled here, to this temple, at a time her own civilization had almost fallen, the last older of the religious and cultural tradition of the Apsara. We fled the screaming hoardes of the Rakasha and their minions...right to the gates of the temple. The sun had gone black; the sky rained stone...the world was about to die. Arahime shook her head.
Something from the memories caught her up short. The passage ahead was identical to that behind her, but her eyes fell upon a lever next to the door on the far end. Here, you must dance.
I don’t know how… It was Arahime’s immediate response, but she had grown familiar with Kisani’s silent guidance. “You have to stop here,” she told Ishidou, whose hand was on his katana awaiting a trick.
This time, Ishidou nodded. “Do it. And be fast about it.”
Arahime...no...Kisani...Together they stepped forward into the passage way, and raised their hands and begun to dance. The sound of stone sliding against stone echoed through the empty hallway and Arahime could feel the ground shift below her feet.
Ishidou and his men watched her in confusion. One of the Spider made a joke. “I didn’t know we’d get a show with this,” and made a crass gesture. Angry, Arahime stumbled, and her foot slipped.
Thwhip, thwhip, thwhip A series of tiny metallic darts flew from the walls, right at where her head and neck would be were she not bent in the motion of the dance. They impacted the wall opposite with tiny metallic clicks, scattering at the ground. The darts are poison. The monks would take any measure to keep the rakasha from the Trishula. Ishidou’s eyes narrowed as he watched her reach the lever.
The rakasha must not reach it…
No...the rakasha armies fell when the ten stars fell from the sky, washing the earth in fire and stone….
The world has changed…
Arahime looked back over her shoulder at Ishidou.
But evil remains.
She pulled the lever.
Survive. Just survive.
Somehow that word cut through the fog of questions that haunted Harun. Questions he had not really faced -- not since the fall of Toshi Ranbo.
Should I survive? Why should I survive? Why should I live when so many good people died? Maybe it would be better for everyone…
“Lad, lad...stay with me!”
Better for Arahime...
Oda was calling for him, but his voice sounded far away. His hands fumbled at Harun’s wound, tightening the straps of Harun’s armour, binding it closer together. There was pain, but it felt distant, removed from all of this.
Harun’s voice stuck in his throat. “Tell...tell her…”
“No, you’re going to tell her! Tell her everything, once this is over you’ll be laughing.”
Harun made a faint smile. He had said something like that to Seiho. Death all around them in a burning building. But this, this didn’t seem so bad. A release, from all this pain.
Like Zetsubou, like his birth father, Nakura. Standing before the torii arch, surrounded by the shining shryo of the blessed ancestors, the idyllic green fields of Yomi beyond.
Will that even be my fate? How will Emma-O judge me after all I have done?
“Lad, Harun, stay with me!” Oda started to sound worried.
But Harun’s life continued to ebb away.
Doorways with wood long rotted away, ground broken and cracked, but Kisani still knew them all. She had lived two months in these underground tunnels. The monks had pulled down the temple above them to keep them from the enemy’s gaze. From below the ruins, they fought, using the power of the trishula to guide the golem that rampaged above.
But the golem’s power could not defeat one enemy...hunger. She had lived in these narrow quarters for two months with the monks, and she starved with them. Their meager stores turned to nothing, and she felt the fog of death nearing them all. She watched them offer each other in sacrifice, to keep her...to keep their culture...all their memories, alive just a little bit longer. But it was more than she could bear. She would not see the last of her people reduce themselves to beasts before such a foe. There had to be another way.
“Blessed Apsara...we think there is a way for you...or your knowledge...to survive.” The old monk looked as frail as a dry fern, as though hunger had reduced him to nothing but the bones of a man wrapped in orange rags. Kisani knew she was little better.
“I will not allow you to harm yourselves more for my sake. You do too much already.” She tried to keep her voice strong, certain.
“It will not, my Lady. I fear the sacrifice will be yours. Though, that sacrifice might let we who remain keep fighting just a little bit longer.”
At the end, their way was blocked. A chasm lay before them, facing into a blank, empty wall elaborately carved with depictions of gods and monsters and men. There was no way across...no place to land on the other side, even if you could jump, no resting place for a bridge or grappling hook.
Ishidou looked at Arahime. “So...show us how to cross.”
Kisani sighed had been afraid of this. The monks had used a bow...but she had no skill with the weapon. She...Arahime...looked around for the bow, but only found fragments of wood in the alcove where one might have laid, long ago. “I need a bow,” she told Ishidou flatly.
He glared at her. “Tell my men what to do. I won’t let you have a weapon.”
Kisani was resigned, sharing her knowledge to Arahime. To pass, they must hit the eye of Dawon, mount of Durga. It was a test of skill that only fine human archers could pass; the Rakasha had no such skill, for they relied on magic and strength. I had hoped the monks had not closed this pathway before the end. But I was wrong.
Arahime shared the information with Ishidou.
Ishidou studied her, then scowled and gestured one of his man, who carried a hankyu, forward. “There,” he pointed. “That lion beast, there, ridden by the warrior woman.”
Two...three….. arrows clattered uselessly against the wall, then fell uselessly into the abyss below. Ishidou snarled. “Useless.” He looked at Arahime. “I suppose we must come back with a better archer. Too bad for your man, though.”
“No!” Arahime and Kisani cried together, though Kisani could see no way around it. She lowered her hands in despair.
But there, in the darkness, Arahime broke free. “I can do it,” she said in a soft voice.
Ishidou snorted. “I’ve heard much about you, but not that you were an archer.”
“All arts are one. Let me try. For Harun.”
Ishidou shrugged and had his man pass her the bow. Kisani was uncertain, but found herself reluctant to get in the way. Perhaps I have done too much...This wild princess has skills also...maybe skills that should not be forgotten?
Arahime nocked the arrow and lined up the shot, slowly exhaling as she waited for the perfect moment to take it. Kisani could feel the twisted knot of Arahime’s sorrow and fear that had kept her hidden for so long, slowly melt away, leaving nothing but a still emptiness. It is...comforting. This is strange.
The arrow flew free and true, landing in the eye of the lion-like beast before tumbling into the crevasse below. Kisani drew back...sharing with Arahime a quiet smile.
With a grinding of ancient and dusty gears, a bridge of metal extended itself from the far side of the wall, an inch at a time, until it reached Arahime’s feet. A portion of the mural rocked slowly backward to the ground, marking the final passage. Ishidou blinked, then ripped the bow from Arahime’s hands. “I suppose the boy lives a while longer. Get me that spear.”
The group advanced across the bridge.