A Matter of Honor
A Warrior's Peace
With the Yobanjin invaders broken and driven before the forces of the Empress, the Crab turn their attention to the blossoming threat in the south, even as the Lion make plans to capitalize upon the success of their forces during the War of Dark Fire.
Kyuden Hida, the Crab provinces
“I was there at the beginning,” Hida Fumetsu said. “I was there at the death of the Wall.”
Hida Kuon and Hida Benjiro looked up from the reports on the table and focused on the young warrior. The week’s events had clearly taken a toll on the Champion’s appearance. Kuon had been forged in the fires of endless battles, yet even the most finely honed warrior had limits. The Crab Clan Champion was approaching his. Weariness lined every inch of his face.
“Tell me what you saw,” Kuon said.
* * *
Hida Kashin stood alone on the dais. He was still as a statue, unaffected by the growing crowd and the pressure of the coming event. In Fumetsu’s hazy memory Kashin held an expression of pride and resignation, as if he already knew what lay in his future. His eyes burned with determination and he seemed to glow with the force of his will.
Akodo Seiichi stepped on to the platform and suddenly every man in the crowd held his breath. He bowed deeply to his opponent and Kashin gave a small, perfunctory nod in response. Seiichi’s fingers traced over the ornate carvings on the hilt of his katana and he took his place in front of the young Crab. Seiichi’s posture was a perfect replication of the traditional Akodo stance while Kashin’s was personalized, a departure from the traditional Hida style. Only the space between two heartbeats passed before Kashin gripped his katana and lunged.
“Fumetsu!” Hida Manoru hissed and placed a hand on the young Crab’s shoulder. Fumetsu blinked and immediately returned to the moment. He bit his lip at his mistake. The middle of the Shadowlands was certainly not the place to lose focus. Any mistake here could have spelled his death or eternal damnation, yet he had drifted off like a fool.
“You look like your mind is a thousand miles away,” Manoru continued in a voice hardly above a whisper. “Are you mad? This is no training session.”
Fumetsu accepted the rebuke without complaint.
Manoru quickly scanned the environment but found no threats around him. He turned to Fumetsu and frowned. “You were on edge before we even left for the Shadowlands. What troubles you?”
Fumetsu hesitated then turned to his mentor. “An old friend died recently,” he confessed. “Forgive my preoccupation, Manoru-san.”
“If we don’t figure out why veteran scouts have gone missing in the past few weeks, the fate of Rokugan could be at stake!” Manoru whispered. “Pull together, Fumetsu. I need you present.”
Fumetsu looked around at the twisted trees and the cracked, parched earth. “We’ve been out here for three days and so far we haven’t seen anything.”
“It’s worrisome,” Manoru said. “But – I have a hunch.”
They continued onwards in silence. The skies grew darker and foreboding as they ventured south. The air was stifled with the stench of rot and decay. Fumetsu simply followed the leader and watched for anything that might jump out at them. Finally, Manoru came to a halt at the top of a cliff. Manoru knelt on the ground and pointed at something in the distance. It looked like a wall that stretched out as far as he could see. In some ways it reminded Fumetsu of the beloved Kaiu Wall that protected Rokugan from the dangers of the Shadowlands.
“What is this place?” Fumetsu asked Manoru.
“That is the Wall of Bone,” Manoru replied. “It was created by the despicable Lost samurai years ago to protect their so called City of the Lost. But something seems wrong.”
“Everything is wrong here,” Fumetsu grumbled. Still, the older scout was right. Something was happening. He could not see beyond the tall Wall of Bone but he could hear a distant rumbling from the other side. His eyes scanned the length of the construction, hoping to catch sight of the disturbance.
The Wall erupted with a deafening report without warning. Chunks of bleached bone and disgusting innards showered the area as the largest oni Fumetsu had ever seen shouldered its way through the construction. The oni rushed forward, the earth shaking with each step. It did not seem to have anything in mind except to run as far away as possible.
The hole in the Wall continued to grow as thousands upon thousands of creatures poured out. They were monsters of all types, large and small, limbed and spherical, bipedal and arachnid. At first glance Fumetsu thought that the creatures were united by one purpose. The more, however, he grew more convinced that was not the case. These creatures were trampling each other with abandon. Hundreds of creatures were dying under the hooves of their larger creatures. These oni were simply… running away.
Manoru stood, transfixed by the sight. “Look at it all,” Manoru gasped. “There’s so many of them.”
Fumetsu could not shake his growing horror. He turned to follow the monster’s path. There was only one place they could go. “We have to go back, Manoru-san!” he said. “Without warning, the Wall will be overwhelmed!”
Manoru turned to his partner and his eyes sharpened with resolve. “We’ll make it,” he promised. “The Crab will be ready long before these monsters see our lands.”
* * *
Shiro sano Ken Hayai, the Lion provinces
The vast road that led to the castle gates were lined by thousands of peasants, merchants, and workers as they awaited the appearance of the Lion army. Some were those from the northern border, temporarily evacuated in case the Army of Dark Fire invaded Lion lands. Others were those who lived near the castle who had taken a brief respite from their hard labors. They did not have to wait long before the army appeared in the horizon.
It was apparent these warriors had not been idle in their times on the field. The dust of the road still clung to each bushi. Each man reflected the martial pride of the Lion, but still showed the effects of the constant fighting on the northern border. The end of the procession was filled with the walking wounded, those who had not been fully healed on the road home. Despite their untidy appearance, the Lion warriors held their heads up and the shoulders straight.
However, it was the head of the procession drew the most attention from the crowd. Akodo Shigetoshi rode on his horse, looking majestic in his pristine parade armor. The armor gleamed golden and Shigetoshi looked in every aspect the consummate warrior. Ikoma Otemi rode at his side, looking just as distinguished as the Lion Clan Champion in his battle worn armor. Several generals who had served with distinction followed shortly after.
The large castle gates opened to receive their victorious bushi and the procession stopped just short of it. Shigetoshi turned his horse to face the crowd and his men. He nodded with approval at the sight. His men may not have been clean, but this sight – fresh from victory, fresh from the battlefield – filled his heart. He raised his war fan into the air.
“Utz!” Otemi shouted.
“Banzai!” the thousands of Lion warriors replied in unison.
The crowd cheered until their throats were raw.
* * *
Kuon and Benjiro dismissed the scout as soon as he finished his tale. They waited until Fumetsu left the room to continue their conversation.
“So something is driving the beasts out of the depths of that foul land,” Kuon said wearily. “Whatever it is, it is dangerous enough to scare oni. I am sure in time we must face it as well.”
“We’ll be ready,” Benjiro replied. “We must be.”
Kuon sighed. “Seven attacks in five days,” he said. “We can’t keep our troops in these constant shifts for much longer. We can only tax them so much.”
“Neither can you tax yourself,” Benjiro scolded. “You’ve led the men at the front lines on all seven attacks. You need your rest.”
Kuon did not answer.
“I know every man would rather collapse at their place on the front lines than see the Kaiu Wall fall again,” Benjiro said. “And it won’t. Never again.”
Kuon glanced at Benjiro with a rare smile on his face. “Is that optimism, brother? Perhaps your great heroism against the Yobanjin has changed your outlook on life.”
Benjiro snorted. “Great heroism? It was hardly that.”
“Don’t make light of your exploits, Benjiro. Tales of your deeds are spreading like wildfire through the troops. We can’t all be wrong.”
“It’ll help keep up the spirits, at least,” Benjiro admitted. “The warriors can use something to focus on other than the plague that seems to be afflicting the peasantry.”
Kuon’s face darkened. “Yet another thing to worry over. These problems swarm over us like Scorpion courtiers sensing scandal.”
“It could be worse,” Benjiro said. “At least it’s under control. Rumor is the plague has been nothing short of devastating the Unicorn lands.”
“I worry that it could all be connected, Benjiro,” Kuon said. “We can’t afford to have any weaknesses, especially now. I don’t know if we have the men spare to send to the Imperial Legions, and I definitely can’t afford to leave the Wall now.”
Benjiro raised an eyebrow. “You’ve heard the Imperial Decree, then.”
Kuon nodded. “The Miya appeared a day before your arrival. A festival now, of all times!”
“It’ll help keep up the spirits,” Benjiro echoed. “You should be there to represent those of us who are still on call to defend the Empire.”
“I must,” Kuon answered. “All Clan Champions must attend. I am reluctant to leave in the middle of this crisis, but…”
“An Imperial decree is an Imperial decree,” Benjiro finished.
Kuon returned to the table and leaned over his charts. His eyes narrowed and he tapped the table at several notations on the map.
“Perhaps we can transfer our garrisons on the northern border of our lands,” Kuon said slowly. “It would leave our northern borders undefended, but we could use more men to bolster the Wall. It would give our men just a few more hours of rest a day. It would be worth everything and keep everyone at their peak strength.”
“Don’t,” Benjiro growled. “Our Clans may not be at war for the moment, but you can trust neither of our neighbors. The Crane are constantly scheming to benefit themselves, and the Scorpion to tear others down.”
A single silent moment passed as Kuon continued to read the charts. Finally, he nodded in agreement. “Pessimism suits you better,” he said.
Benjiro only grunted in reply.
* * *
Pain spiked up through every inch of his body every time he took a step. Akodo Setai slowly walked through the hallway, never betraying his discomfort to those around him. Others respectfully stepped out of his way. Finally he entered the Champion’s audience chamber, stood at perfect attention and ignored the pain. Pride would let him do no less.
Shigetoshi and Otemi stood alone in the room. When the door opened they both turned to watch the entry. Shigetoshi nodded to Setai and waved him closer.
“Congratulations on your exploits on the field, Setai-san,” Shigetoshi said.
Setai bowed. “Thank you, Shigetoshi-sama.”
Otemi frowned. “You are still badly hurt. The Kitsu did not attend to your injuries?”
Setai looked down at his body. Bandages were wrapped around virtually every inch of his body under his loose kimono. “I requested they heal only my greatest wounds so my ability to serve would not be in danger. Attending court while still wounded will remind the Empire why they look to the Lion to lead in times of war. I am ready to return to the Courts, my lords.”
“Your services are not needed for the moment,” Shigetoshi said. “We will call you to the court again, but not yet. First you must recover your health.”
“After your climactic battle, every voice in the Empire shouts your name in praise,” Otemi said. “It would not do to have the new hero of the Empire topple over from exhaustion.”
Setai’s expression didn’t change but he fidgeted in place.
“The Empress has announced a large festival to celebrate the death of the last Yobanjin in Rokugan,” Otemi continued. “We have cause to rejoice more than anyone else.”
“We shall place you at the forefront of the commemoration, Setai,” Shigetoshi said. “You will represent the Lion Clan at the heart of the celebration.”
“My lord,” Setai said slowly, “I am honored by the consideration. I would be happy to attend, but I am truly not worthy of the spotlight.”
Shigetoshi turned to the courtier. “You are a hero of the people, Setai. We need to remind others of your valor and generate some goodwill among the others. We can use that to our advantage.”
Setai bowed. Shigetoshi turned to Otemi. “How are our troops?”
“They are all excited to have proven their worth to the Empire once more, Shigetoshi-sama,” Otemi answered. “Morale is at an all time high. We’ve suffered acceptable losses for a war of this magnitude. I believe we can march again at any notice.”
“Excellent. Send orders of recall to any of our troops that may still be stationed outside our lands,” Shigetoshi said, almost as an afterthought. “It wouldn’t do to unnecessarily incite our neighbors with some misunderstandings.”
“Of course,” Otemi said. He picked up a brush and noted it on the parchment on the table. “They’ll be home before the festival.”
Setai was never one to hold his tongue, even if it would get him in trouble. “I may be overstepping my bounds, my lords, but I fear this must be said.” Setai said. “I have attended the Imperial Court for years and I can see an issue we may face in the near future.”
Shigetoshi and Otemi turned to face the former Deathseeker.
“Our morale is high because we faced the enemies of the empire on the glorious field of battle,” Setai continued. “What lies in our future, now that we have defeated our enemies?”
Shigetoshi looked at Otemi. His expression betrayed nothing. “We may have our answer soon enough,” the Lion Clan Champion said.