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    The final installment in our three-part series detailing the events determined by the 2013 European Championship!

     

     

    Dread Tidings, Part 3

    By Shawn Carman

     

    Moto Miyu prided himself on his navigational abilities, but he had long since lost all sense of where he was and what was going on. The Nezumi that had unexpectedly come to his rescue after the death of the village where he had been staying had led him through such a frantic journey through the underbrush that he no longer had any idea whatsoever where he was. His muscles were screaming for rest, and even the energy that had coursed through his body during the battle could not sustain him much longer. He was samurai, however; he would die before he lowered himself to ask a non-human creature for rest.

    The creature in front of him stopped so suddenly that Miyu nearly collided with it, filling his nose with the crisp scent of its musk. “Here,” the creature said. “Safe here little while.” Its voice, although ridiculous to Miyu’s ears, seemed certain, and the priest did not have the energy to argue.

    A human hand appeared, offering Miyu a clay bottle. The priest took it willingly and drank eagerly, indifferent to its contents at the moment, which proved to be cool, clear water. “My thanks,” he said hoarsely, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

    The man nodded. “I am glad to see we were not the only ones who escaped,” Doji Razan said. “I fear too many have already been lost.”

    “Who?” Miyu asked. “The ones at the inn?”

    Razan nodded. “Some at least. Yoritomo Tonogi, Yogo Takashi, and the ronin calling himself Sawaki were all captured by the enemy. Or whatever one should call it. Captured does not seem quite correct.”

    “I saw,” Miyu nodded grimly.

    Razan seemed troubled. “The effect of those… things… was significant. It seemed that the ronin’s face was… I do not know how to describe it. It melted away once the sigils took hold.”

    “Who knows what those blue things even are,” Miyu said. “I saw Yasuki Daisuke fall. The tattooed man Noritada, his tattoos seemed to be combating the sigils, but he appeared to be losing.” He took another draught of water. “I called upon the kami to render him unconscious rather than risk facing him in battle. I hope it was enough.”

    Razan nodded again. “Too many fallen already. Too few of us remaining.” He gestured back toward the camp. “The Lion, Chiyu, and the Phoenix, Mizuhama, both survived. I fear we four may be all that remains, and the enemy ranks have grown by the population of an entire village.”

    “What were they?” Miyu asked.

    “I have never seen their like,” Razan replied.

    “They are the ghosts that haunt the world,” The Nezumi that had led Miyu away replied. “Our tribe, Those Who Wait, have very few Rememberers. When tribe first formed on Day After Tomorrow, great Rememberer Rus’tik’tik one of us. He tell many ancient stories, tales forgotten by most. We not have many Rememberers, but those who have very good at remembering Rus’tik’tik’s stories. He tell of things that walk like blue men who were really ghosts. Haunted world since the first dream. Very bad. Very strong magic.”

    “Well,” Miyu said. “I have no idea what that means, but it sounds bad, I agree.” He thought for a moment, then sighed. “Thank you for helping me, Br’nn.”

    The Nezumi’s expression seemed strangely perplexed. “Why would not help? It the good-good thing.”

    “Strange creatures,” Razan observed. “Noble, in their own way. Perhaps even virtuous.”

    Despite the circumstances, Miyu laughed. “Hearing a Crane say such things about a Nezumi almost makes this whole thing worth it,” he mused.

    “Just be glad you are alive to be entertained,” Razan replied. His expression gave no indication that he found anything about their present circumstances entertaining. “Who knows how long before those creatures follow us?”

    “Why would they follow us?” Miyu asked.

    “We are the only ones who can raise the alarm,” Razan said. “As long as they remain unexpected, there is nothing that can stop them. If we warn others of their abilities, they lose their most significant advantage. Were I in their position, I would very much want to ensure that no one escaped to betray their presence.”

    “Oh,” Miyu replied, sobering at once. “That makes a great deal of sense, I’m afraid.”

    “Unfortunately,” Razan agreed.

    Miyu began to ask a question, but never had the opportunity.

    The nighttime forest erupted in a brilliant display.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The yoriki’s chamber was quiet, as none of the other samurai tasked with serving the magistrates were present at the time. Asako Ifukube looked out upon the SecondCity, a troubled expression on his face. Akodo Ayumi, his erstwhile partner for the time being, remained off to the side, quietly cleaning her weapons in the ritualistic manner of all Lion samurai. In the brief time that Ifukube had known her, Ayumi had spoken very rarely. He had come to appreciate her silence and distaste for pointless conversation. It gave him more time to consider matters of great importance.

    Such as that they currently faced.

    “What are your thoughts?” he finally asked his taciturn companion.

    Ayumi did not answer at once, but finished cleaning her weapon and began to put the materials away. “Aranai’s account of Karachu’s behavior is not in keeping with what we know of the madness spawned by P’an Ku,” she finally said.

    “I would agree,” Ifukube replied. “However it would be somewhat arrogant and exceptionally foolish of us to assume that we could anticipate all the manners in which a divine entity could shatter the minds of a mortal.”

    “Perhaps,” Ayumi replied. “I believe that P’an Ku was not involved.”

    “And why is that, exactly?” Ifukube pressed.

    After a moment, Ayumi merely shrugged. “A Lion follows her instincts.”

    “That is hardly a rational line of reasoning,” Ifukube said with disdain. Then he sighed. “Which makes it all the more frustrating that I find myself in agreement. The person Aranai describes does not sound like the same Asako Karachu that we all are familiar with through his actions here in the SecondCity.”

    “The shugenja confirmed that it was him,” Ayumi replied. “None of that ridiculous doppelganger nonsense. Just a dead Phoenix.” She glanced at him. “No offense.”

    “None taken,” he said absently. “I find myself uncertain how to proceed. Obviously this is a matter that requires greater consideration, and yet we risk offending many if we delve too deeply into matters. Karachu was beloved by many, and not just within the Phoenix.”

    Ayumi shrugged. “I was given a duty. I will fulfill it. I will find the truth, whatever it takes. And if that truth is inconvenient, I am an easy source to disregard. That is why I was chosen for this task, after all.” She looked up at him. “You can step aside, if you wish. I will see it to its conclusion.”

    “No,” Ifukube replied at once. “I will not shirk my duty as easily. In my duties with the Inquisitors I have read many texts of past generations, and I have learned of many things that most within the Empire have forgotten these past few decades. Aranai’s account concerns me greatly, and I would be remiss in my duties if I did not pursue the matter. I believe I may even know where to begin.”

    “And that is?” the Lion asked.

    “We must speak with the Spider,” Ifukube said darkly.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The attackers came from nowhere.

    No, Miyu reflected after a moment’s consideration. That was not entirely accurate. It would have been better to say that they came from everywhere. Mizuhama half-completed a shouted prayer to the kami when she was tacked by two of the blue creatures. Her spell went wild, the kami uncertain how to complete her wishes, and at least a half a dozen of the enthralled as well as a couple of Nezumi were immolated by her entreated energies. Razan did as well, claiming perhaps four of them before he was touched. Miyu struck him down with a spell before he could join the ranks of the enemy. He did not know if the Crane lived, and was not certain if he should wish for that or not.

    Miyu released wave after wave of devastating energy, calling upon the Lords of Death and the kami alike to keep himself alive. The Nezumi simply evaporated into the darkness during the fighting, but the enemy was coming from all sides, and Miyu was not at all confident that they could escape despite their obvious skills. In a matter of moments, Miyu had exhausted what remained of his energy, his spells and blessings depleted, his blood-drenched wakizashi in hand. He wondered if he would be subverted first or if he would simply collapse and die from exertion. “Come on, then,” he demanded of his enemies. “Come at me! Face me like men and we will all die the same!”

    Unbelievably, the enemy hesitated. They seemed to draw back, then their ranks parted, and another walked among them. This one was taller, and somehow… different. Although it looked the same as the others, Miyu knew instinctively that while it resembled a man, it was not. “Didst thou think to hide from me?” the lord of the enemies asked, his tone bemused. “I didst dream of this land when thy ancestors were yet babes. There is no respite from mine vigilance.”

    Miyu felt absolute panic welling up inside him at the gaze of this creature. He did not know if the Nezumi were speaking the truth concerning “ghosts that haunted the word,” but it could not be clearer to him that this thing that looked so much like a man was not, in fact, a man. “What are you?” he demanded. “My people value knowledge. I would not die in ignorance.”

    The thing that was not a man chuckled. “You have about you the suggestion of a Doomseeker,” it observed. “Thou are not among that order, but perhaps some member of thine kin are. Regardless, thy audacity amuses me. How could thou hope to comprehend that which I have become?”

    “If I am no threat, then why not tell me?” Miyu pressed.

    Again, the creature laughed. “Thy will is strong. Insufficient, of course, but strong. Thou art not fit to know my true name, but animals of your ilk have known me as Crystal Wind for longer than thy line has dwelled upon the mortal world. Mine own kin didst cast me out for daring to dream of a proper world, where the Ashalan did rule over the lesser creatures. It is just and fit that we do so. If mine kin, if any still live, will not accept such a fate, then I will rule alone. Truly, it is as it should be.”

    “You will fail,” Miyu said, spitting blood onto the ground. “Actual gods have attempted to overthrow the Empire and failed. You are merely a beast with delusions of grandeur. You have no hope of success.”

    Crystal Wind actually rolled its eyes at the comment. “I have seen into the minds of thy kind,” it said. “I know thy history. One insurmountable obstacle after another, all defeated eventually by the unity of thy kind. I shall wash away thy success in an instant. How will thy clans overcome when all who feel mine caress fall before me? My forces are without limit, and all who fall join.” It shook its head. “All that have preceded me have merely weakened thy ranks for mine victory.” The Ashalan lifted one eternal blue hand and reached out.

    The ground around them collapsed with a rumble and an expulsion of dust and soil into the air. The subverted minions of the enemy cried out in confusion and despair, their lord’s momentary surprise magnified tenfold. And just as suddenly as Crystal Wind fell into the pit, Br’nn was there again. “Run!” the Nezumi shouted. “Run fast-fast!”

    Miyu staggered to his feet, coughing. “What happened?”

    “Collapsed warren tunnels!” Br’nn shouted, his tone one of dismay. “No think what else to do!”

    Miyu nodded, still coughing, and struggled to keep his balance. His hand rested on something cool, and he realized that he had taken up one of the crystal weapons the enemy had been using. His hand throbbed. “What? Ah! Agh!”

    “What?” Br’nn demanded.

    “Hurts!” Miyu wailed. “It hurts!” His arm was thrumming with power and it pained him to his very soul. He wanted to release the weapon but could no longer feel his hand. With horror, he saw that it was beginning to turn a familiar shade of blue. “Kill me!” he demanded of Br’nn. “Do not let him take me!”

    “No want kill you!” Br’nn wailed.

    “Do it! Please!”

    Br’nn let out a feral shriek of dismay and struck Miyu full in the face with his club. The samurai collapsed in a heap, but still lived. Br’nn lifted his club again but never got the chance to strike. The Ashalan appeared from the collapsed tunnel and struck the Nezumi aside with an absent-minded backhand that sent the creature spiraling into the darkness. “How inconvenient,” the monstrosity said, looking down at the fallen Unicorn. “I would have preferred to have savored thy conversion, but it seems I am to be denied that pleasure. No matter. There shall be a great many more, of that I am certain.” It gestured at the disorder and carnage around it. “This is but the beginning. The struggle of my rebirth. Soon, all shall fall before me.”

    Crystal Wind stopped. A look of confusion crossed his face. “An… unfamiliar sensation,” he said, his voice strangely rasping. He looked down in confusion at the length of crystal weapon jutting bloodied from his ruined chest. “What does this mean?” he asked, genuinely confused. “This cannot be right. I… I am meant to rule the world. I cannot… die so… ignominiously.”

    And then he fell to the ground, unmoving.

    Br’nn the Nezumi of the Those Who Wait tribe stood, his chest heaving, as the other blue humans all collapsed. “Ghosts like humans,” he observed sagely. “Talk too much.”

     

    * * * * *

     

    The chamber seemed grossly out of place to be found within the ImperialPalace, Yasuki Makoto reflected, and would have been much more fitting for a particularly well appointed monastery. The construction of the room was immaculate, of course, and the walls were inlaid with subtle, almost imperceptible patterns that could often be lost in the face of decoration. This room had no decorations whatsoever, most likely in an attempt to reject material wealth. It only served to enhance the natural beauty of the chamber’s construction, however.

    Moru, elder statesman of the Brotherhood of Shinsei and the Imperial Advisor of the Divine Empress, smiled. “It would be self-deception to say that I will not miss the beauty of these chambers,” he said wistfully. “However, I do quite look forward to the simple life of the monastery once more. It has been far too long.”

    Makoto smiled demurely. She considered her response, then decided that in this instance, honesty might be best. “There are many who question your decision, my lord,” she said evenly. “Relinquishing one of the most powerful positions in the whole of Rokugan to continue your search for enlightenment,” her voice trailed off. “Sufficed to say that many consider it a strange decision.”

    “Oh, I am aware of it,” Moru said with a nod. “I am curious, however, as to what your thoughts are.”

    Makoto nodded. “One of the many mandates of the Brotherhood is to teach,” she said. “I have thought perhaps you felt it was time to see if your students had learned your lessons.”

    Moru chuckled. “That is true in some fashion, I suppose,” he said. “I can see why your former daimyo holds you in such high regard.” He glanced at her with a smile. “Do not seem surprised, my dear. There is very little that can remain a secret for long, if it is important enough. I know that the Grand Master of the Brotherhood was once the daimyo of the Yasuki, just as I know that he has done a great deal to advance the position of our order within Rokugan over the past two decades. He is a progressive thinker, your former lord, and I prefer to think that it is for that reason, rather than simple nepotism, that he has championed your cause so strongly.”

    “I have often wondered if I am worthy of the confidence he places in me,” Makoto said. Again, this was a statement borne of absolute honesty.

    “That you wonder only proves that you are, in my opinion,” Moru said. “It is for this reason, among many, that I have recommended to the Divine Empress that you take my place as her Imperial Advisor.”

    Makoto’s heart leapt in her chest. This was what she had been working for, but she had never dared let herself believe it might actually happen. Now, confronted with the fact that she could very well become one of the most powerful people in the entire Empire, on a level with the Clan Champions themselves, she felt strangely short of breath. “I… I will do all in my power to serve with honor and distinction, should the Divine Empress choose to appoint me,” she said.

    “I have no doubt that you will,” Moru said. “It is my hope that you will maintain your ties with the Brotherhood after your appointment. Though I will be taking leave of the ImperialCity, there are many here who could be of great benefit to you, and vice versa.”

    “Of course, my lord,” she said, bowing her head.

    “I am grateful to hear it,” Moru said. He lifted a small bell and rang it once. The shoji screens to his room slid open and another monk entered. “Please allow me to make introductions. This is my associate Temoro. He is the abbot of the Temple of Daikoku here in the ImperialCity, and a brother of significant influence. I hope that the two of you will find allies in one another.”

    “I have no doubt,” Makoto said, bowing. She paused for a moment, examining the other man’s leathered countenance. “Have we met before, Temoro-sama?”

    The man smiled slightly. “I was once of the Yoritomo. You may have known me in another lifetime, perhaps.”

    “Perhaps,” she smiled.

    The monk offered a scroll. “I have detailed some items that I think may be of interest to a new Imperial Advisor, particularly concerning what advantages we of the Brotherhood can offer you in your new position.”

    Makoto looked at the scroll. “I am not the Imperial Advisor yet, you understand.”

    Temoro smiled. “Let us not pretend that it will be otherwise, yes?”

    Makoto smiled and took the scroll.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The samurai were long gone. The one with the picture of the horse on his clothing had left and taken the majority of the shiny-bright weapons with him, intending for some reason to give them to the litter-mates of the dead samurai. Br’nn did not really understand that, but it did not matter; the horse human had left the brightest and the shiniest of the shiny-bright weapons for Those Who Waited. Already the others were entranced by its beauty. Some of them were having an impromptu dance around it, which Br’nn would normally join in, but right now there were other things he had to consider.

    Br’nn looked at his arm, at the slightly luminescent mark that was almost but not quite hidden by the fur there. It was a great deal like the ones that the blue almost-human had on it. Br’nn was not sure how it had gotten there, and he was not positive what it meant, but he sensed that it meant something very special. Already he felt younger, more vital. He felt as strong and as fast as he had when he was just a pup, and some of the gray around his muzzle was gone.

    “Interesting,” the nezumi mused in his native tongue. “Perhaps the name of Br’nn will live forever after all.”

     

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