Togashi Hoshi stood in a high place overlooking North Wall City. Behind him in a loose array stood the Tattooed Monks, their tattoos brilliant in the early morning sun. Nearby a lone Hitomi woman checked and rechecked her daisho, while two Mirumoto spoke together in low voices.
The son of the Dragon nodded once, and all around him rose his banners as the forces of the Dragon began their attack. In that moment, those with the the eye of the falcon could see clusters of banners rising in other locations on the perimeter, and one in the center of North Wall City itself. It was like dropping a pebble into a bowl of water. The ripples spread outward from the center to the walls, and as the Dragon army converged on the city the bowl was shaken, and the pattern became more complex.
With a single stroke, the outlying border forces and checkpoints had been eliminated by fanatical Hitomi, determined to cleanse their family’s name with their own blood, so there was little to stop the Dragons’ approach. But those in the city fought with desperation, knowing that a quick death would be the only mercy shown them, and the final outcome was still uncertain.
It does not matter. There is no turning back.
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It is a clear night and this one, Shugaru of the Thousand Fortunes, and a Mirumoto wait around the corner of the building that was our prison with a large dog barking at us. Poor thing, he only wants to be free to bite and chew things. I give him this freedom. No, no need for thanks, you may merely growl and run off if that is your way.
Meanwhile the Hida is quickly putting on his armor. The others in the group are throwing rocks at the door and stomping on the ground to keep its attention and urge it to come through the main door. Aha! The sounds from the inside have ceased! The door has been chewed through by the jelly that feeds and it moves with a purpose now! The rest take off at a run around the corner with the large jelly chasing after them and once they are out of sight the Mirumoto dives inside through the window.
I walk around to the gaping hole that was a door and gently step through. The Mirumoto is going through some bundles by the wall and breathes a huge sigh of relief as he pulls out a mud-encrusted teapot. He mutters something about the Shosuro not having the time to hide it very well in the tower on the floating island, and that it seems someone named Hikozaemon has sticky fingers. These Dragon are truly strange, but when he asks that I help with the large wooden chest I kindly agree and we take it along with the bundles and some spears outside.
The Mirumoto is unpleasantly frantic about a need to open the wooden chest and indicates that I should run in the other direction to catch up to the lady of their group and have her bring the key as quickly as possible. Hoh! Impatience over his possessions is making him terse, and I having just been rudely awoken from my nap!
It does not matter. These things are written in the fortunes and are as transient as the flight of a sparrow. I go anyway to fetch the woman and the keys.
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“Tell me again why we are running away from the monster?” asks Koro Visuta as he runs alongside the Hida and Mantis-ko.
“We’re not running away, we’re drawing it away.” growls either the Hida or the Mantis it’s difficult to tell whose voice answered in the darkness.
“Well, then. It does not matter. See how it now goes north!”
“Huh… oh… huff… good. Huh. Guess something distracted it.”, followed by a muffled coughing sound as running footsteps approach from the other direction .
“Hoh! Which of you has the keys? The Dragon says to bring them along quickly.”
After a brief glower a weary voice answers, “Whee. More running.”
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We reach our former prison, a prison no longer. It could never hold our spirits, and it can no longer hold our bodies. Yet still it grips us, tempting us with false hopes of becoming what we once were. We weigh ourselves down with those things we fear to live without – weapons, armor, clothing. Not content with these burdens, we search for others. The Shosuro unlocks the chest, revealing the gift of the gaijin – weapons they sought to keep for themselves, but which the Fortunes decree will be ours. The Hida, feeling a false sense of security in his armored shell, girds himself with another’s katana, for his hammer cannot be found. The Mirumoto, unarmored, relies on his skill with his mismatched daisho, a skill that must one day fail him. The Shosuro inspects her knives, which can be turned against her by another. My brother and I take only clothing to cover ourselves, for we know that nothing here can free us from the bonds of kharma. While the others take a few moments to compose themselves for whatever is to come, the Shosuro extracts a small glass globe from the chest, a cruel mechanism designed to cut short the life of any who meddle with gaijin “property” – another gift, given to one who knows how best to use it.
It has grown quiet outside, and the smell of horses is strong now. Fear of gaijin and the strange Oni drives us to the back of the building, to a passage we were brought through days before. We wish to retrace our steps to freedom, though none of us can ever be truly free in this world. Lanterns light our way under the earth, supported by beams overhead. Showers of dirt fall from the roof as we go, reminding us of the impermanence of all things. The Mirumoto, strongly bound to this world and its rhythms, tells us we head west. It does not matter. All go where they must.
We reach a place where there is light, and a door. We wish to surprise our hosts, so that we may bestow on them our thanks for their hospitality, so we douse our own. We peer inside, only to see friend Hikozaemon bound to a rack, brutally misused, his only crime upholding his place in the Celestial Order. Even the Shosuro, from a Clan known for its ruthlessness, is moved by his suffering, and rushes to free him. The Hida’s rage is as a storm-cloud, held in check by his compassion for his servant. I approach, sensing Hikozaemon’s pain and turmoil, and deliver a single precise strike to his heart chakra, allowing his chi to flow and opening him to the possibility of physical healing.
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“I told them everything.”
He could barely get the words out, his throat raw from screaming and his tongue thick and clumsy. The hands probing his shoulder were gentle, but he couldn’t help letting out a small hiss of pain.
Hida-sama chuckled. “Hoh,” he said. “Now the gaijin will know your famous recipe for seaweed soup! And how many swords the Mirumoto has broken.” He shook his head, speaking softly as he continued to examine Hikozaemon’s shoulder. “It does not matter. They will not live to make use of any of it.”
Another bolt of pain made him groan, and the Hida called quietly to brother Toro, who had been examining the rack where they… No, best not to think about that. His master was speaking again. “Hold him here, and here. He must not struggle.” The monk’s calloused hands gripped him, and he felt an odd sense of relief. There was pain, but it was pain he understood.
Hida-sama looked at him then, his face calm though his eyes blazed with an anger Hikozaemon instinctively knew was not directed at him. “This will hurt, but you will feel better afterwards. Bite on this.” A wad of cloth was carefully wedged between his teeth, and he bit down, ignoring the throbbing from the several broken teeth in his lower jaw. He tried to brace himself, but Hida-sama continued to talk. “You saved the teapot,” he murmured. “You have done well.” The praise caught him off-guard, and he relaxed a little. “Now, Toro,” Hida-sama said quickly, and there was a sickening pop and a wave of agonizing pain. He began to lose consciousness, but Hida-sama spoke to him sharply. “Hoh! None of that.” He could feel himself being propped up in a sitting position, and his master said, “That is good, get it all out,” and then he was vomiting, held securely by the two warriors so that he could not collapse.
When he was done, he did feel better. Hida-sama nodded at Toro, who wandered off again, and then smeared some ointment on Hikozaemon’s burns before he wrapped his arms and legs with cloth strips, supporting the overstretched muscles and hiding the worst of his wounds. He felt better when he couldn’t see them, and managed a shaky nod when Hida-sama asked if he could stand. Mirumoto-sama brought him a spear, which he clutched at gratefully, bowing. Shosuro-sama watched him from the other side of the room — he dimly remembered her releasing him from the rack (and she may have smiled), and he hoped his screams had not offended her. Then the earth shook, and she slipped out of the room and up the stairs. There was another brother there too, one of the prisoners from the cells. He wanted to ask what was happening, how they had escaped, why Hida-sama and the strange brother had white patches on their skin — but Shosuro-sama returned, first holding up four fingers and then shaping her hands into an animal’s ears. Mirumoto-sama slapped Hida-sama on the back, and his master rushed for the stairs. He was confused for a moment, and then he remembered the little black cat that sometimes sat with the other men as they… He shook his head quickly, trying to clear his thoughts. At least the cat would not be a problem.
He followed them all up the stairs, his blood singing in his ears, remembering the voices of the men that had questioned him, over and over, and the agony that inevitably followed. He didn’t want to die today, but he thought it might be worth it if he could hear those voices screaming in pain first.
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Try as I might, though, it is still all I can do to keep up. The foe is panicking, the cat rushing around the room, and we have the element of surprise. Hida-sama was first through the door, charging across the room and cutting deeply into one of the gaijin. Even without his hammer a frightening force to be reckoned with. Next, Shugaru, the Monk of the Thousand Fortunes I’d seen in the jail, leaping and putting a second gaijin into a wrist lock. Shosuro-sama pouncing on the small black cat and stabbing it with a knife… strange. Mirumoto-sama, always with both swords, he takes on the third gaijin in the room and makes a strange fake attack to make the gaijin raise his arms so that he can strike where there is no armor. The Osano-Wo follows through, striking the same gaijin in a way that causes him to cry out in pain.
It does not matter. The one being held. His eyes grow wide as he recognizes me, that this time it is he who is on the wheel as I kiai the way I was taught and plunge my spear into the spot where his kidney should be.
I can’t be sure what happened next, but for some reason Hida-sama strikes at the cat instead of the gaijin, and then seems to notice something in an area of shadow on the wall. Shosuro-sama’s eyes have a strange glow to them as she looks upon the same spot. I cannot look yet, I must focus on this gaijin being choked to death by the monk Shuguru. The gaijin are reacting and one tries in vain to cut the Mirumoto who seems to dodge and then bat away the crude gaijin sword with his wakizashi as if it was in slow motion before his katana slices casually across the enemy’s throat. The Osano-Wo spins and kicks the Hida’s gaijin in the head and I hear something crack in a way I am only too recently familiar with. The choking sounds from the gaijin in front of me seem like a mockery. “My turn.” I whisper as I drive the point of my spear further into the last gaijin and up into his heart.
From the corner of my eye I see the Hida strike at a shadow on the wall. I hear a woman’s scream, it is the Shosuro. I follow the Mirumoto as he crosses the room to strike at a Nightmare that appears from another shadow. I feel another tremor as the building shakes again and look upon the horror in the corner being sliced to ribbons by katana and wakizashi.
I look. I hear another scream, it is my own.
I can only stare in horror while my master Hida-sama chases one shadow while Mirumoto-sama confronts the other. The Osano-Wo catches the cat who howls as it disappears the way pigeons do in a stage magician’s show. I don’t know if those are still my own screams, or if the sobbing sound is me or the lady’s as she keeps repeating “Hisako! Hisako!”. The Hida’s eyes narrow as he follows the shadow around the room slicing each time some part of the room seems to get darker than the others. The Mirumoto must be pretending he is a Crab, shouting about names as he “kills” something that looks like… a maiden… a lady… a mother… and now it is gone as the Shosuro’s screams turn into a shout about cutting off its hands.
The shadow appears behind Hida-sama, from its mouth a laugh cut short by the Hida’s katana puncturing it in the bowels and pinning it against a wall post. As my lord turns to face it it takes the shape of the person wearing the robes of my torturer. It dies as it whispers in near perfect Rokugani:
Cocoon becomes moth
Spark flies away and forgets
He was once a worm
It must be a bad haiku, as in one motion my lord withdraws his katana from the cat’s body and cuts off its head.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The head was removed from the Shapeshifting Cat Man and it fell to the floor with a wet thump. The black fur matted one side, lifeless eyes rolled back. The Scorpion leapt, screaming, driving her knife into the skull. “No! Never again, I will have my life back Hisako! You cannot take this from me….you are dead! Dead! DEAD!” the stabs sunk in rhythmically. The touch on her shoulder brought the knife up and the wild gaze fell upon Mirumoto Yonaka. Blood from her knife streaked her face, “UUUUGH!” her anger refueled. “Neko, it does not matter, we must go,” his voice ringing soft like a prayer bell. A large figure filled the other side of her vision, “My Lady,” Hida Nakamuro’s voice washed over her, “We cannot stay we must get outside.” She stared at the bloody knife, then to the Crab’s face. Why could she not be courageous like him? The hand gently pressed her shoulder, her face again turned back to Yonaka. How could she ever be so calm, even now seeming so serene? Her face looked past them and saw the battered face of Hikozaemon and the two monks she reeled backwards, “No..no..no! Stay away from me!” She stumbled to the wall.
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Shosuro-sama is doing things to the body that I dare not look at. I prop myself up using my spear as Hida-sama walks over and nods. I nod back as there is another tremor and Mirumoto-sama reminds all of us that it is time to go if we don’t want to die in the basements of a gaijin building.
EXCELLENT write up! Two Experience points for the three of you.