A Matter of Honor
War of Dark Fire - Part 5
Shiba Morihiko had never visited the Shinomen Mori. He had heard tales of it his entire life, of its vastness and how alien it seemed. Many he had worked with, both within the Phoenix and among those he had met during his appointments as a yojimbo in other courts, had longed to see the greatest forest in the world, but Morihiko had no desire for such a thing.
For much of his life, he had been stationed near the Isawa Mori, the forest where the Phoenix gathered the sacred wood for the scrolls carried by the priests of three of the clan’s families. Morihiko had always enjoyed spending time near the forest. It had a certain serenity, an otherworldliness that was difficult for him to imagine existing anywhere else in the world. If he were to experience it in the Shinomen, then his place, his favorite place in all of the world, would seem diminished in some way, and he would not wish that for anything.
A familiar sound reached Morihiko’s ears as he stared into the woodlands off to the west. It was a rider approaching from the north, probably one of the frequent messengers that traveled between the Castle of the Faithful Bride and Kyuden Isawa to the south. Morihiko paid little mind to the sound as it drew closer, until he heard the panicked neighing of the horse, and turned to look to see what could be the matter.
“Fortunes,” Morihiko spat. The rider was slumped over the horse as if dead, smoldering slightly. It was likely the heat that alarmed the horse so, and there was a wild cast to its mannerisms that indicated it was at the very least in discomfort, if not outright pain. Morihiko spurred his horse forward and moved alongside the other, driving his mount hard to keep up with the panicked beast. He reached out and seized its reins, speaking firmly but comfortingly, and slowed it.
Before the horses were even fully stopped, Morihiko was easing the rider to the ground. He wore armor, and it was badly charred. Some of the plates appeared to have begun melting together, and the yojimbo could not imagine what it would be like to be wearing such armor as it was exposed to heat enough to melt it so. “Can you hear me?” he demanded, feeling the rider’s throat to determine if he yet lived. “Who are you?”
“M… magistrate,” the rider gasped. “Magistrate from… Faithful Bride.”
Morihiko glanced to the north and, for the first time, noticed a strange haze on the horizon. It was nothing of great substance yet, and could easily have been missed if one were distracted, but with the state of the war, Morihiko’s blood ran cold.
“They came from nowhere,” the magistrate gasped. “Struck like lightning, moved through the city like the wind. They destroyed everything in their path.”
“Have they occupied the city?” Morihiko demanded.
“No,” the magistrate croaked. “They merely destroyed fortifications and moved on. They… are coming.”
Morihiko felt the chill of winter in his very soul. “How far behind you?”
“An hour. Perhaps less.”
- * *
Isawa Ochiai strode into the primary audience chamber of Kyuden Isawa, her face strangely calm in the face of the chaos all around her. Messengers, officers, sentries, and attendants scurried from one place to the next, shouting at one another about virtually everything. In the center of the chamber, however, there was an island of calm, an eye amid the storm, and the other Elemental Masters awaited her. “We need to be undisturbed for the next few moments, Masakazu.”
“You will be,” her massive yojimbo grunted.
“Thank you,” Ochiai said. She turned to the others. “What do we know?”
“A sizeable force of Yobanjin is en route to the castle,” Asako Bairei said, idly lifting a scroll in his hand. “They decimated the defenses of the Castle of the Faithful Bride in a rapid attack and moved ahead toward us. Estimates place their arrival within the hour.”
“How many do we believe are present?”
Isawa Mitsuko shook her head. “We have no way of knowing. Before he perished from his wounds, the magistrate who witnessed the attack believes that the army split into multiple forces, the largest of which is headed here. A smaller, secondary force headed into the Isawa Mori.”
“Do you suppose they will set fire to the forest?” Bairei’s voice was terrified.
“Regrettably we cannot concern ourselves with an unoccupied forest at the moment,” Ochiai said. “Our first thought must be for defense.”
“Allow me to meet them before they arrive,” Isawa Emori said, bowing to Ochiai. “I assure you they will not reach the castle.”
“We cannot risk that,” Ochiai said. “The capabilities of the Army of Fire are yet unknown. You could be lost to us, and we will require your assistance when the time comes for defense.” She turned to Ningen. “How many of your kinsmen are on hand?”
The Master of the Void turned his head slightly, as if looking into the courtyard beyond the wall. “Too few,” he answered. “Most of the Shiba forces are deployed. I have sent a message to Kimi to return with the forces to which she is attached, but that will not take place for another four days. We have only the meager standing forces that protect this palace during times of peace.”
“What can you see, Ningen?”
The old Shiba smiled slightly. “They will defend us with all that is within them, without reservation or thought for their own lives. And they will prove… inadequate.”
“You will forgive some of us, Ningen-sama, if we prefer to determine our own fate, rather than depend solely upon the visions brought to you by the Void.” Mitsuko seemed mildly uncomfortable with Ningen’s certainty.
“This is not the opportunity to engage in discussion, philosophical or otherwise,” Ochiai cautioned. “Time is of the essence. Mitsuko and Emori, if you would, please oversee the placement of defenses as best you are able. Ningen and Bairei, please ensure that all our guests have been seen to safety. They need to leave immediately before the enemy arrives.”
“I beg your forgiveness, my lady,” Bairei said with a bow, “but I cannot do that.”
The other Masters all stopped and looked at Bairei curiously. The eccentric Master of Water was among the most agreeable and amiable men who had ever lived, as far as any of them knew, and to hear him refuse an instruction was literally unheard of. “I beg your pardon?”
“It is I who must beg yours,” Bairei returned, “but I cannot permit the library here to be threatened. It is the library to which I must devote my attention. Ningen-san is more than capable of tending to the guests. I must begin making preparations to save as much of our library as is possible.”
“The damage to our reputation in court if any of our guests are harmed would be insurmountable,” Emori began.
“No,” Ochiai said, holding up one hand. “Bairei is correct. We cannot permit such knowledge to be lost, but even more importantly,” here she fixed the Master of Water with a knowing look, “we cannot allow it to be taken by the Army of Fire. Do you understand, Bairei-san?”
The look of anguish on the old man’s face was unmistakable. “I understand, my lady.”
- * *
It was only slightly more than an hour when the Army of Fire was first sighted on the horizon. The Shiba defenses were well in place, and prepared despite that the odds were stacked so badly against them. Those who walked among them, however, saw not one trace of fear or hesitancy among them.
The magic of the Master of Earth prevented a direct frontal assault, as he filled the fields before the palace with massive outcroppings of jagged stone. It delayed the rank and file of the enemy from advancing directly to the palace gates, but there were a number of powerful shaman among the enemy ranks, and the stone could not ensure the relentless application of their incredible fire magic.
As the infantry engaged one another, the skies overhead were darkened with the form of the ancient wyrms that the Yobanjin rode, which began dropping large stones upon the Shiba defenders, undisturbed as they were by archery fire. The beasts were largely immune to the spells of the Phoenix shugenja as well, but even their thick hide, tempered in the thermals of volcanoes, could not endure the sheer heat unleashed by the Master of Fire, and they were turned away. Even the Lady Ochiai could not easily turn aside the magical onslaught unleashed by the Yobanjins shamans, and their corrupt fire blackened the walls of ancient Kyuden Isawa.
The battle continued unabated for hours.
- * *
Asako Kanta struggled not to hurry as he moved through the labyrinth of corridors in Kyuden Bayushi. He had nowhere of importance to be at the moment, and it was unseemly to appear rushed. It was not a simple matter, however; his anxiety over what was taking place in his homelands filled him with a sense of urgency that he could not easily shed despite the hundreds of miles that separated him from the battle. In truth, for perhaps the first time in his life, Kanta had no idea what he should do. He hated the feelings of helplessness, the lack of direction, but he was not sure how he could drive the crowded thoughts from his mind. Meditating had proved useless thus far.
The courtier turned to face a beautiful young woman he did not remember speaking to before, although he had seen her in the larger court sessions. “Hello,” he said, struggling to find the mask he always wore during court. “Forgive me, but I do not believe we have met. Asako Kanta.” He bowed deeply.
“I know,” she said with a warm smile. “I am Doji Ayano. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance. Forgive me if I am intruding, but I saw you out here, and I thought perhaps you might wish to join our conversation?” She gestured through an archway to a group of people who were milling about, conversing, each with an eye on the two of them. “I do not wish to be presumptuous, but you have been standing here alone for several minutes, and…”
“I have?” he said blankly. “I… did not realize.”
“Of course,” she said, the underlying current of sympathy obvious. “Please, come and join us.”
“I fear I may be poor conversation today,” Kanta protested weakly.
“It is alright,” she assured him. “If you wish to speak of your homeland, we would all be interested to hear what you know.” She led him into the room with the others. “Tell us, have you heard anything new? Has there been any contact with Kyuden Isawa?”
Kanta considered the question for a moment, then finally decided that it might be possible to exorcise himself of his demons by discussing the matter. “No,” he admitted. “We received word of the impending attack shortly before it occurred. There was a flurry of communication back and forth, which was costly in and of itself, but nothing for many hours now despite our efforts. Yoma-sama believes that the palace’s defenders may simply be too otherwise engaged to respond. I hope that he is correct.”
“Where is Yoma-sama?” Ayano asked. “Is he well?”
“He is speaking with the Voice of the Empress,” Kanta revealed. “Satsu-sama is a great ally of the Phoenix and wishes to be kept up to date on the matter as much as possible. He and Yoma-sama are discussing possible outcomes, and how both our clans might respond in the aftermath.”
An Ide Kanta did not immediately recognize spoke up. “We heard that there were evacuees, is that correct?”
Kanta nodded. “In addition to the guests of the palace being evacuated to Shiro Shiba, or escorted home, if that was their preference, as much of the palace library as could be removed was transported south. At present the Isawa are moving it as far south as possible, possibly to Nikesake, for safe-keeping.”
A Lion woman stepped forward. “If it would please the Phoenix, the Lion would be greatly honored to store as much of your library as you wish. We will provide you with a secure location near Bishamon Seido.” She bowed. “Your works will remain private, if you prefer. None of my order will access it, but we will protect it with our lives. The center of the Lion lands are as secure a location as can be found. Even during the Khan’s march, Bishamon Seido did not fall.”
“Thank you,” Kanta said with a bow. “I do not believe we have met?”
“Of course, forgive me,” the woman said. “I am Kitsu Kiyoko. I am the lady of the Kitsu family. I arrived only last evening to assume the position of head delegate from the Lion Clan.”
“I see,” Kanta said. “Forgive me for asking, but I believed that Akodo Setai…”
“Setai-sama requested and was granted leave by our lord Shigetoshi to depart the court and assume a command position within the Lion armies in the north,” she said.
“Oh,” Kanta said. “I… I apologize. I suppose I thought that a position at the Winter Court would supercede a military appointment.”
Kiyoko smiled slightly. “Among most clans I have no doubt such a thing would be the case. To the Lion, however, there is no greater duty than that of a soldier.”
“Of course,” Kanta said. “Thank you very much for your gracious offer, my lady.”
“I am absolutely certain that the Crane would wish to extend a similar offer,” Ayano said. “I cannot speak for my delegation of course, as I have no such authority, but I know that the Crane would never spare any expense in offering protection and hospitality to their allies among the Phoenix. Anything that requires safe-keeping will be more than welcome in the Crane lands, Kanta-sama.”
The Phoenix smiled softly. “Thank you. Thank you all.”
- * *
Shiba Ikokawa cut another Yobanjin neatly in half, her flaming blade cauterizing the wounds instantly and saving the courtyard floor from being spoiled. The heat the body radiated meant nothing to her. “Army of Fire,” she scoffed at the dead man. “I have felt more searing heat from the campfires at the Legion of Flame’s barracks.”
Ikokawa gaped at the man standing in the courtyard, eating an apple as if nothing unusual were happening. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you doing here?”
The man stared at her like she was a foolish child. “I am eating an apple. Are you simple?”
She pointed at the Crab mon on the man’s kimono. “All guests were supposed to have been evacuated hours ago!”
The Crab nodded. “I sent the other members of my delegation. I could not go, however.”
“Are you lame?” she asked. “Injured?”
“Nothing like that,” the man answered. “It simply felt too much like running.”
“We are at war!” Ikokawa shouted.
“This isn’t war,” the man answered. “I am Yasuki Kowaru. If you think this is war, you should spend one hour on the Kaiu Wall during the active season.”
Despite herself, Ikokawa smiled slightly. “This area is not safe,” she said. “Raiders break through the lines in small numbers every few minutes or so. You should not be here.”
Kowaru shrugged. “There is no one of interest to speak to, and it’s too noisy to sleep. I would just as soon be here.”
“I cannot permit you to place yourself at risk while you are under the protection of the Phoenix Clan,” Ikokawa said.
Kowaru laughed. “You can hardly do anything about it, a slight young woman like yourself. I would wager it is all you can manage to keep that kimono from exposing your secrets. Honestly is that what passes for fashion among your generation these days? I wore more concealing garments when I was a sumotori.”
Ikokawa’s eyes narrowed, and she began to retort, but was interrupted by another quartet of raiders, shrieking as they entered the courtyard. One of them hurled the dying form of a Shiba sentry to the ground and called out for the others to kill everyone in sight. Ikokawa cut one in half instantly, but the second closest was wielding a blade tempered enough to resist even her flaming katana, and he was not inexperienced as a warrior, it seemed.
Kowaru grunted in annoyance at one of the raiders advancing toward him. The man’s flesh smoldered beneath his armor, and his eyes spoke of terrible pain, pain that he wished to inflict upon others. “Samurai filth!” he spat, smoke issuing forth on his breath.
“Bah,” Kowaru snarled. “I’ve heard better.” In a lightning fast movement, he tore a tarp that was covering several barrels of provisions and hurled it over hit opponent. The material began to smolder as well almost at once, but Kowaru did not hesitate. Through the thickness of the material he seized his opponent by the head and gave it a savage twist, resulting in a loud cracking sound, and the immediate collapse of his body to the ground beneath the now-smoking tarp.
Ikokawa finally shattered the blade of her opponent and dispatched him, then turned to find the fourth of the raiders. She was surprised to discover that the man was standing very still with an extremely confused look on his face and at least six inches of steel jutting out from his chest. He slumped slowly to the floor, and a young woman with a mask and a black and crimson kimono stood behind him, carefully wiping the blood from her blade. “I am of course certain that you could have handled the matter without difficulty, but I saw no reason to be rude.”
Ikokawa snarled. “Did no one evacuate?”
- * *
The primary audience chamber of the palace was a vastly different place than it had been only a short time ago. Ochiai strode in with a markedly slower gait this time, her face pained and sorrowful. Her massive yojimbo was at her side as ever, a ghastly wound adorning his left shoulder. He moved aside to a table filled with now-forgotten refreshments and uncorked a bottle of sake. He grimaced as he regarded it. “What a waste,” he muttered as he poured the majority of its contents over the wound on his shoulder, an annoyed expression the only sign of discomfort he allowed himself. He quickly downed the remainder of the container.
“What is the status of our defense?” Ochiai asked, clearly exhausted.
“As well as can be expected,” Mitsuko replied. “The Yobanjin possess a resistance to traditional magic the likes of which I have never seen.” She shook her head. “I have encountered maho-tsukai in the past who were able to shrug off some simpler prayers, but nothing of this magnitude. It is incredible.”
“It is not them,” Bairei said. “It is their master. He is an Oracle, with all the incredible power that title deserves, and none of the restraint that we are accustomed to seeing from such entities. His power makes them infinitely more dangerous than they would have been on their own, even though it consumes them body and soul.”
“Will the consumption claim their lives, given time?” Ochiai asked.
“Unquestionably,” Bairei confirmed. “Some of them, those who are weaker willed, are doubtless consumed by his ‘blessings’ within hours. Others can last for days or weeks. The greatest among them, perhaps indefinitely. But they will not perish soon enough for our needs, in this case.”
The Master of Earth shook his head slowly. “The defenses I erected are already gone. Melted. They melted the stone. I have never seen anything like it.”
“I have,” Bairei said mournfully.
“At the current rate of conflict, it is possible that we will survive until reinforcements will arrive,” Ochiai said. “The key will be that we five remain in the fight. We have no choice.”
“The matter is less simple than imagined,” Ningen said suddenly, staring absently to the north. “This is not the only attack we are enduring.”
“What?” Emori barked. “What is happening? What do you see?”
Ningen continued staring, as if at something distant that the others could not see. “The Yobanjin did split forces upon departing the Castle of the Faithful Bride,” he answered. “A smaller force set out through the Isawa Mori, bound for the Dragon Heart Plain. Their aim is sinister, to unleash something dark and terrible from the emptiness there.”
Ochiai lifted her hand. “That pains me to hear, but we cannot divert resources from this battle to combat a threat outside the Phoenix lands. We must place our priorities differently.” She hesitated for a moment. “Mitsuko, can you get a message to your fellow Inquisitors?”
Mitsuko nodded slowly. “I believe I read a report that Asako Serizawa is in that region. I will attempt to contact him. If so, he will deal with the matter. He has a penchant for efficiency that can be quite… disconcerting.”
“There is more,” Ningen said ominously. “A third group separated from the main body of the army. They are at present rampaging across the northernmost regions of our provinces. Three villages and their farmlands have been put to the torch already.”
“No!” Bairei nearly shouted. “The people will starve!”
“We cannot afford to divert troops from the palace,” Emori said. “And even if we attempted to do so, they would not be allowed to flee by our enemies, and they could likely not arrive to the north in time regardless.”
“One of us could reach them in time,” Ochiai said quietly.
“My lady, you just said that we five must remain in the battle,” Mitsuko reminded her. “What good can dividing our attention accomplish? We have no assurance of victory in the north, and a renewed certainty of defeat here.”
“If the northern plains are decimated, thousands will starve next season no matter what happens here,” Ochiai said. “Perhaps tens of thousands.”
“If Kyuden Isawa remains, we may be able to alleviate their suffering,” the Master of Air countered.
“May,” Ochiai reminded her. “Alleviate. Not spare them.”
“This is a mistake,” Mitsuko said. “We cannot do this.”
“Then we shall resolve it in the manner of our predecessors for a thousand years,” Ochiai said. “We shall vote. Who stands in favor of leaving the northern lands to fend for themselves?”
Mitusko raised her hand at once, and slowly, Emori did as well.
“And who stands in favor of defending the north?” Ochiai raised her own hand, as did Bairei. All eyes then turned to the Master of the Void. “Ningen-san, the decision is yours.”
“I will go,” Ningen said suddenly. “I will end it. One way or another.”
Ochiai looked at the Master of the Void carefully. “Ningen-san,” she said quietly, “I know you revere life as I do. Think of what you are saying. Think of what you are committing to do. Of the lives you will take. The burden… it will be too much.”
“Let me do this,” Emori urged. “I am too shallow to be concerned with such a thing, my lord. Spare yourself the pain.”
Ningen chuckled lightly. “Ever the fool, Emori-san, even when you know that I can see the truth. No, this is my task. I have known it would come, and I will not shy away from it.” He bowed and turned to leave.
“Ningen,” Bairei said suddenly. “Will we see you again?”
The Master of the Void smiled slightly. “Who can see the future, old friend?”