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    • Owlbear

    The fiction detailing the results of the Son of Death tournament in the Resolutions series!

     

    The Son of Death

    By Nancy Sauer

    Edited by Fred Wan

     

    Then…

    The cave was little more than an overhang with pretensions, and the cloth stretched across the entrance kept out nothing of the night’s cold.  Doji Midoru contemplated the guttering oil lamp sitting on the floor and hoped the cloth was better about keeping the light in, but in the end that was Hida Izo’s worry, not his.

                At the moment Izo and his troop of Crab warriors were huddled around the lamp, examining the map one of the scouts had scratched into the dirt of the floor.  Midoru didn’t bother to look; his own investigations had told him everything he needed to know about the situation.  A group of Destroyers were making their way through the valley towards Kehe Mura.  The Crab were frantically evacuating the town’s rice stores, but there was no way they could get it all away before the Destroyers arrived–unless something happened to the Destroyers in the meantime.  The buzz of voices in the cave died to a murmur, and then Izo spoke.  “Crane!  You haven’t said anything yet–what do you think should be done?”

                There was a challenging note in Izo’s voice that Midoru didn’t like, but he put that aside.  Doji Domotai had sent a handful of picked samurai to aid the Crab–all that she could spare, given the plague of undead that the clan was battling–and he would not have it said that she had chosen unwisely.  “It is plain what should be done,” he said.  “There are two possible approaches to the village; if the Destroyers can be led to the narrow one we will have the chance of bottling them up and eliminating them.”

                Izo traded glances with Kuni Gensai, a shugenja the group had picked up along the way.  “You seem to know the area around Kehe Mura very well,” Gensai said.  No one else said anything, but judging from their expressions everyone else was thinking the same thing.

                Midoru shrugged.  “I had business here frequently when I served the Shogun.” 

                “How handy,” Izo said.  “So then, can you be part of the group that lures them in?”

                “I am to help in whatever way I can,” Midoru said.

     

    *     *     *     *     *

     

    Now

    “Excuse me, Isawa-san, but may I exchange a few words with you?”

    Isawa Koizumi turned around and saw a Scorpion he didn’t recognize.  That in itself was not surprising: there were a fair number of Scorpions in Garden Under Shadow City, but the shugenja made a point of avoiding them as much as possible.  Still, he has been fairly certain he was alone in the garden when he entered it, so finding a Scorpion who wished to speak with him was double the surprise.  “I suppose so,” Koizumi said, attempting to smile pleasantly.  “But I cannot imagine what I would want to discuss with an unknown Scorpion.”

    “Well, there is no reason for me to be unknown to you,” the other man said.  “My name is Bayushi Ahahiko, and I know you to be Isawa Koizumi, a young shugenja who is already acclaimed for his talents in speaking to the earth kami.”

    “I see,” Koizumi said.  “You seem very well informed about me.”

    “It is all to your benefit,” Ahahiko said.  “I wish to aid you regarding the truly unfortunate rumors going around regarding you.”

    Ahahiko was clearly smiling behind his mask, a fact that Koizumi found disturbing.  “And what might be these rumors be?  I have done nothing in my life worth generating gossip, much less rumors.”

    “You are indeed a pillar of virtue,” Ahahiko said.  “Which makes the talk about your mother so much more entertaining.  Among those low enough to repeat such scandalous things, I mean.  I myself am sure she was a completely honorable woman.”

    “My mother?” Koizumi repeated.  He was beginning to feel as if he had somehow wandered into a play, with Ahahiko playing the part of the provocateur and himself as the doomed hero.  It was not a role he wanted to embrace.  “Exactly what stories are you–excuse me, “those low enough to repeat them”–spreading about my mother?”

    “Oh, nothing clever or unusual,” Ahahiko said.  “Merely comments on how she was already round with another man’s child when she wed the man you call father.”

    “Impossible,” Koizumi snapped.  “I was born in the fall of the year, and my parents were wed….” He came to a stop as he realized that he didn’t know which month his parents had married in.

    “You see how unfortunate it is?  Just because no one of note recalls attending the festivities that celebrated the wedding, people get the impression your parents’ families have deliberately muddled the issue.”  Ahahiko shook his head sadly.  “It’s terrible that we live in such times.”

    “Terrible indeed,” a voice from behind Koizumi said.  “Were these rumormongers to do their research, they would know that a Crane matchmaker had arranged the betrothal.  There is a certain danger in suggesting that a Crane would stand for dishonesty in such a matter, is there not?”

    Koizumi spun around and discovered there was now a third man in the garden: a white-haired Crane samurai.  He stood behind a bush, which was conveniently short enough to show the stranger’s daisho, which one hand was resting casually upon.  The shugenja turned back around to Ahahiko, trying to figure out what part in the plot this was, and saw that the Scorpion seemed just as surprised as he.  “Excuse me, Crane-san,” Koizumi said, turning to the stranger a second time, “but who are you?  And how do you know the details of my parent’s marriage?”

    “My name is Midoru, and I am a Doji,” the man said.  He bowed to Koizumi.  “I have been searching for someone of your talents in hopes of obtaining a favor.  I hope you would consider accepting my aid, were you to need it in defending your family’s honor; as you see it involves the honor of the Crane as well.”

    “I see,” Koizumi said.  “Well, a Crane duelist would be of some help in dealing with the problem, don’t you agree Ahahiko-san?”

    “Absolutely,” the Scorpion said.  He was still smiling, but Koizumi fancied that there was now a certain tension in that smile.  “Since you seem to have the matter in hand, I shall depart.  Carry the Fortunes, Isawa-san, Doji-san.”

    “Carry the Fortunes, Bayushi-san,” Koizumi replied, making sure to use his most courteous tones.  When the Scorpion had gone he found that Midoru was now standing next to him.  “I appear to owe you some thanks, Doji-san.”

    Midoru made a dismissive gesture.  “It was no trouble.  As I said, I had been looking for you.”

    “Ah, the favor you spoke of.  What is it?”

    “A man of my family died fighting the Destroyers years ago, but due to the nature and time of his death the body was never found and he has yet to receive funeral rites.  I know the general location of where he fell, but I cannot recover the body without help.”

    Koizumi turned the matter over in his mind.  He couldn’t imagine why Midoru needed his help in particular, as opposed to any other shugenja with a talent for earth, or even a band of eta.  On the other hand the Crane had already done him a favor, and was further offering him a splendid reason to get out of the city before Ahahiko came up with anything new.  “I will be happy to help,” Koizumi said.

     

    *     *     *     *     *

     

                Midoru evaded a strike from his monstrous foe and then, judging the moment, slipped his blade into a chink in its armor and pulled it out with a slash.  The Destroyer screamed and flailed before toppling over but Midoru did not see it: he had already moved on to another opponent.  He didn’t now how many he had killed, and he didn’t know how many were left: the world had narrowed down to the froth of metal and violence that surrounded him.  “HIDA!” he bellowed, trying to gauge where the Crabs who had been part of the lure were. 

                “Hida!” a voice called off to his left, and Midoru frowned at the distance the volume implied.  Everyone knew that their best chance for victory lay in staying close enough to support each other.  Had the Destroyers really been that efficient at separating them?  Midoru put that thought away for future worries and concentrated on surviving the now.  And then the noise began.

                It was low and soft at first, like distant thunder, but it went on and gathered strength until the valley filled with it and the ground itself started rumbling.  It reminded Midoru of the one earthquake he had been in, but where that one had shaken a few vases off of their shelves and gone away, this one seemed intent on tearing the world apart.  Even the Destroyers seemed confused by it, and as his opponent pulled back and looked around for the source Midoru finally realized what it was.  He looked up the slope of the mountain to the right to see the wall of rock and earth rushing down, and then he snarled and launched himself at the nearest Destroyer.  If he had only moments of life left, he’d spend them killing his kin’s enemies.

     

    *     *     *     *     *

     

    “Thank you, Isawa-san,” the magistrate of Kehe Mura said, and handed the traveling papers back to Koizumi.  “You may go on.”

    “Thank you, Kaiu-san,” Koizumi said.  He paused a moment, waiting for the man to ask for Midoru’s papers, but when nothing more was said he simply mounted his horse and nudged it into a walk.  This was a pattern that had rapidly become familiar: the border guards or magistrates asked for his papers and completely ignored Midoru’s existence.  This had disturbed him at first, but then he realized they were taking the Crane to be his yojimbo and assuming that as Koizumi’s travel papers were in order then the Crane’s would be as well.  It seemed terribly sloppy to him, but he knew of his family’s reputation as high-handed busy-bodies and he was resolved to keep his peace on the subject.

    He looked down at Midoru, who was walked next to his horse with no sign of weariness.  “You were going to tell me about the temple to the Lords of Death you had visited in the Unicorn lands,” he said.

    Midoru nodded.  “It is strange to look upon, but once the eye becomes accustomed to that it has a certain stately elegance to it.”  He went on in his description and Koizumi listened happily.  He knew many people found him difficult to get along with–cold and forbidding is how most described him–and it delighted him to find that the Crane found him quite easy to talk to.  Perhaps, he hoped, Midoru was also enjoying the journey, and they could remain friends after they had taken care of his kinsman’s funeral.

     

    *     *     *     *     *

     

     Hida Izo carefully picked his way over the mix of boulders and scree that now formed the valley floor until he found Gensai.  “They say you’ve found and marked all the places a Crab’s been buried by the avalanche,” he said.

                The Kuni nodded.  “Only the Crane is left; his body is off somewhere on this side.”

                “All right,” Izo said.  “Let’s go, we are needed at Kehe Mura.”

                “We can’t go off and leave a corpse untended,” Gensai protested.

                Izo looked him.  “The Doji claim they have friends everywhere.  I’m sure one of them will be by to dig this one out.”

                “I’m sure one will,” Midoru said.

                Gensai hesitated, weighing his responsibilities as a priest against what saw in Izo’s eyes.  The Doji had fought well, but that meant less than nothing to Izo’s hatred of the Crane Clan.  “Very well,” he said, and watched Izo walk away.  Then the shugenja carefully made note of where he was standing now.  “Fortunes forgive me,” he said quietly.  “But this is just a delay–I will be back to see that he is laid to rest correctly.”

                “You will not live through the year,” Midoru observed, “but I appreciate the thought.”  As he watched the Crabs form up and leave it occurred to him that so far, being dead was very similar to being alive.  He suspected this should not have have surprised him, being what he was, but it still seemed odd.

     

    *     *     *     *     *

     

    “Wait, there was an avalanche?” Koizumi said.  “How will we ever be able to find the body?”

    “The surviving Crabs marked where their kin and fallen, and were able to retrieve them later,” Midoru said.  “There was no marker for the Crane, but I know roughly where he died.”

    “They left a samurai’s body behind?” The thought was appalling.

    “Do not be too hard on them,” Midoru said.  “After the Destroyers poured over the Wall there were unburied Crab samurai everywhere, and they are still being found.  There are places in these lands where spring plowing is the stuff of nightmares.”  He was walking among the brush and rubble of the valley, making no sound and making it look effortless.  Koizumi scrambled along noisily in his wake.  “The place we seek should be….” His voice trailed off.

    “Midoru-san?” Koizumi said.  “Is there a problem?”

    “The trees have changed,” Midoru said, waving a hand at the slopes around them.  “Some of the large ones have disappeared, and others have gotten quite tall since I was here.”

    “How long ago was that?”

    Midoru glanced back at him.  “Years,” he said.

    “Well, didn’t you put a marker down somewhere?”

    “I didn’t see the need,” Midoru said.  “It’s not the kind of thing one forgets.”

    “And yet, you have,” Koizumi said.

    “I have not,” Midoru said.  “My memory is flawless; it is the land that has changed.”

    Koizumi closed his eyes for a moment to gather in his patience.  As he drew on his focus he became aware of something calling to him.  It was not the low hum of the earth kami, but it plucked at him in a similar fashion.   “Wait,” he said aloud, and opened his eyes.  He didn’t question what was calling him; he had no uncertainty what action he should take.  Koizumi moved several paces away from Midoru, listening carefully, and then stopped.  “Here,” he said, and then he spread his hands wide and began an invocation to the earth kami.  At first they made no answer, but at the urgings of the shugenja stones and clods of dirt began to move aside.

    When the earth settled again there was a wide pit in front of Koizumi, and at the bottom of the pit was a skeleton.  It looked well-preserved; the shugenja could still see the delicate hand bones wrapped around the katana’s hilt and scraps of fabric still clung to the rib cage.  “This is it, is it not?” he said, looking back at Midoru.  He was about to say something more, but the words died in his throat and he couldn’t remember the thought.  Koizumi looked from the Crane to the skeleton and back again and felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.

    “You are not wrong,” Midoru said gently.  “That is my body.”

    “No,” Koizumi said.  “Impossible.”  Despite his words his eyes went back to the skeleton, and he noted that the winding pattern on the hilt of the katana was exactly the same as the one on Midoru’s hip.

    “You see me as such because of your–our–nature,” Midoru said.  “But my remains called to you from the earth, and as soon as you saw them you connected them to me.  Such are the gifts your birth has given you.”

    “What are you talking about?” Koizumi said.  “What is my nature?”

    Midoru paused for a moment, looking uncertain.  Then he took a deep breath and spoke.  “The rumors about your mother are true: She was with child when she was wedded.  No dishonor came to her name, because her lover was a Fortune, and few mortals are willing to speak ill of the Fortune of Death.”

    “Emma-O?”  Koizumi said.  “I am the son of Emma-O?”

    “You know that I speak the truth,” Midoru said.  “You feel it in your bones.”

    “You do not lie,” Koizumi said.  He wanted to believe otherwise, but Midoru was correct: everything about him radiated truth.  “And yet–why?  Why my mother?”

    Midoru shrugged.  “Emma-O has never discussed it with me.  But I suspect he grows weary of being with humans at all times, and yet only knowing them at the end of their lives.  You mother was an extraordinary woman, yes?”

    “She was a singer of great talent,” Koizumi said.  “They say she could move a rock to tears.”

    “Clearly an understatement.  He is drawn to mortals who represent the best of all of us.”

    Koizumi sat down.  If he was the son of a fortune, it meant–it meant–he couldn’t begin to imagine what it meant, beside a lifetime of mistaking ghosts for mortal men.  He looked up at Midoru.  “You brought me here so that you could tell me this.”

    Midoru nodded.  “I did not discover the truth until late in my life, and though regret is a sin there are things that would have been very different had I known.  I knew your foster-father was unlikely to say it, and Emma-O would never understand why it was important, so it was up to me.  That you are a shugenja was fortunate, though: My cousins will be happy to give me a proper burial.”

    “I myself will see that all the rituals are done correctly,” Koizumi said firmly.

    “Thank you,” Midoru said.  He walked down into the pit, growing fainter with every step.  At the last step, when he would have walked on the skeleton itself, he vanished.  Koizumi sat for a few moments, thinking, and then he brought out a large sheet of cloth and spread it out on the ground.  He beckoned, and slowly the bones rose up out of the pit and neatly piled themselves in the center of the cloth.  The daisho came last, and he wrapped them separetley.  As he worked he considered Midoru’s comments on the number of unburied dead still to be found in the Crab lands.  A man of his talents, he thought, could benefit both the living and the dead of the Empire.  As he carried his burden back to his horse Koizumi smiled.

     

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