Between Crimson Skies

the Next Day ...
the continuing story of the Roku-teens

The winds swirl, heavy with the tiny, cutting bits of ice. Though not yet the flurries that will cause an end to all travel till the thaws, the snows are more than a nuisance. They force the two young men to shield tender faces and especially sensitive eyes with the voluminous Kimono sleeves. The two hurry across the open square that only this morning held over a hundred Samurai in the strong morning sun.
The two youths shake the snow off of the starched shoulders of the stiff Haori that they have donned not just for the formal evening but also for the warmth the outer-coats offer. The Emerald Dragons emerge on one’s shoulders, the Azure Crane on the others.
The Dragon boy’s eyebrows are drawn together in a semi-permanent scowl. It is an expression he has been unconsciously aping from his Honorable Uncles face for so long that he has forgotten when he used to practice it in the ponds of the family gardens. When his uncle informed Tsuneo that he would accompany him on this important mission into the lands of the Crane, the practiced expression allowed him to hide the twin forces of excitement and terror that threatened to overcome the dignity he had clung to precariously since his Gempukku the preceding summer. His unease continued to battle his pride at being the only youth in the entire retinue, and he spent most of the long journey to Gisu castle with his mouth pressed into a thin white line, hoping that with his silence he could maintain the thin veil of worldliness he hoped he presented. He had nearly broken into a relieved smile this morning when he saw the two young Cranes and the Phoenix whose company promised a welcome change after the breakneck speed the insane Unicorn Caravan Master had set.
“Wait, wait please honorable Doji-San, but I simply CANNOT believe that you mean what you are saying ! So sorry, I must not be understanding you for what you say sounds impossible !”
Doji Bakkasun entertained a brief smile before he answered, “I have no wish to contradict you, Agasha-Sama, but I speak only truth. I myself would be as skeptical as you, but these are the things that EVERYONE is saying. So sorry, but even the most impeccable Kitsu Inara was telling these things to her friend, the accomplished Kakita Tsukune when they had tea earlier.”
“But ! But it’s IMPOSSIBLE !”
WHAT is impossible, Agasha Tsuneo-Sama ? That the famous and illustrious Kitsu Inara would take tea with my unworthy cousin ? Or that Doji-San would be privy to what they discussed ? I can assure you of BOTH, for he had the tale of it directly from ME !”
The pair of young men swing around quickly to the sight of two women, young as they but so beautifully dressed that they are both overcome with deep stirrings. Doji Bakkasun flashes a grateful smile at the vision in white before him, but her eyes are only for the young Dragon, and seeing the fire within them, he is glad he is not their target. He glances over to the Phoenix girl, radiant in crimson and gold, hoping for some sign of solidarity from that corner, but the Shugenja is ALSO glaring at the Dragon in support of her friend.
“If I have in any way implied anything but respect for your family Kakita Minasu-San, or your cousin whose skill is known far and wide, or to yourself, whose honor is as without stain as your snow-white hair, I apologize immediately. I just find it difficult to believe that the events of this court have occurred in a manner straight out of an ancient tale, with heroic Bushi felling Bandits, Ronin and even Barbarian hordes, magnificent Shugenja performing legendary deeds and magics beyond those of normal men, a game that ensnares all at court, pitting great minds against each other in manners both low and high promising impossible answers for the victors, and above all else, LOVERS scheming to win the hand of fair princess while other women fight openly over a roguish, all-but-ronin Bushi, and a marriage that was arranged between orphans long ago, the two never meeting, but suddenly blossoming into a love to overcome the hurdles of cultures, fortune and all else.”
Through his long speech, the dragon has lost his scowl, slowly trading it for a look of honest incredulity, and finally to something that must be admitted as regret.
The two girls, not used to the great game played by men and women throughout all time, cannot maintain an icy composure in the face of this. They look to each other briefly, before the Phoenix nods ever so slightly to her friend.
“Well, just because the Agasha-Sama had the bad luck to arrive at court so late doesn’t mean ALL is lost. Tonight is promised an even that may surpass all that has gone before, for BOTH the Kuni-Sama, renowned as a great teller of tales by all from the lowest Heimin to the Great Lion himself, AND Kakita Nintoku, celebrated tale spinner of the Imperial Court, have agreed to tell the story of the Battle for Gisu Castle tonight.”
Kakita Minasu’s smile is genuine and expansive, her excitement lightens her face, hinting at the beauty she has yet to fully grow into. Beside her, the enchantment woven by Isawa Shiara owes nothing to the Kami and all to her own glowing youth and enthusiasm.
The two girls are holding hands and nearly jumping up and down with each other, oblivious to the open mouth wonder on the two boys nearby.
The dragon recovers first, “I can think of no better experience for my entire life than to be allowed to accompany this honored Crane to the dinner before us, unless she is truly a Kami and not human, which at this point I would have no choice but to believe with all my heart.”
The Girl flutters her fan, and staring, accepts the arm of the Bushi.
“Uh, I too would gladly die a thousand deaths, and be dragged in the mud for a million ri, and would, uh …”
“Oh for the sake of all the Ancestors ! If I will go with you and take you arms will you PLEASE just stop talking Doji-San ?”
Isawa Shikara takes the boys arm before he can reply, and tugs him into the dining room.

View
Overheard in the Halls of Gisu Castle

Two young Samurai walk the halls of Gisu Castle, one a petite and demurely attractive Kakita girl barely a year past her Gempukku, the other a tall and lanky Doji boy who tries to leverage his full year’s seniority over the girl as much as possible. They walk together in some small degree of awkwardness. The boy walks as closely to the girl as possible and his quickly darting gaze rests everywhere but upon the newly minted woman beside him. It is obvious to everyone but the boy himself that he is falling deeply for his onetime childhood friend. For her part, the white-maned girl seems well aware of her effect on her companion, and enjoys the power it affords her. Despite this, she seems less than interested in his romantic notions. They speak only in fripparies, she guiding and controlling the conversation with ease, until a Crimson-robed girl runs suddenly around a corner in front of them, undecoriously flushed and out of breath.
“Did you SEE it Mina-chan ?!!? Did you SEE them ?”
The Crane girl’s carefully practiced dignity evaporates in an instant as she rushes to grasp the Phoenix girl’s hands in hers, “What Shikki-chan ? What ?”
The Crane boy briefly considers being put out by this turn of events, but he actually finds Isawa Shikara distractingly attractive, and so decides rather to rejoice in his good fortune. This does not stop him from donning a sour expression though.
“You two really should stop rushing about like little girls and start acting your age, you know.”
As one, the two young women turn and glare at the youth in the way that their sex has for centuries at other offensive males. He closes his mouth with an audible snap. They once more turn to each other, and share a secret smile at the shared power of womanhood before taking up their gossip with gusto.
“The newly arrived Unicorn, the one with all the hair and the eyes, and the Dragon and Lion suitors as well – they were all getting ready to compete in some kind of horse race, when HE came down and accepted the challenge as well !”
“Who did Shikki-chan ?
HIM ! You know ! The … WASP.” The phoenix girl can’t help but glance around as she relates this, she would die if she knew anyone heard her talking so about a man.
Kakita Minasu attempts to adopt a scolding expression, but she looses concentration and blushes bright red as she is taken by a sudden realization, “Ohhhh, was the Daidoji with him, the one with all the shoulders and the muscles ??”
“Him ? Oh no, he was with with Imperial Niece.”
“NO ! She chose him already ??”, the Crane girl is crushed, but not entirely surprised. The Yojimbo seems far too perfect to her to not be the obvious choice among those who compete for Otomo Yoroshiku’s hand.
“What ? No, of course not, she hasn’t CHOSEN anyone yet ! The Phoenix was up there too. "
“The Phoenix ?”
“Isawa Takimoto ! Really, Mina-chan, you should pay more attention ! I swear, if you were able to take your eyes of Daidoji-sama for one instant ..”
“I DO pay attention Shikki-chan ! I’m not the only one who forgets Isawa-sama ! I swear he could be standing right next to one and you would never notice. Not like Daidoji Jiro …”
“The were all up there with her, once the fighting started.”
“Fighting ? What fighting ?? Did they DUEL ??” Mirusu cannot believe she would miss a thing like that ! And because of a silly flirtation with Bakkasun of all people ! She can’t imagine how she will live with the regret.
Sensing the conversation rushing past him like a churning river as he stands in the middle, the Doji boy finally sees his chance to gain a surer footing than the fast-eroding sandbank he flounders upon.
“A Duel eh ? Well, I can’t imagine the Shugenja lasting long against the STEEL CRANE !”
His smile turns once more to dust as the two young women favored him once more with their withering scorn.
“That just shows how LITTLE you know ! Isawa-san has brought GREAT honor to our family ! Did you even SEE the competition at the festival ? To have put on so great a showing and at so young and age AND at his first competition ! If not for that dirty little Ronin he had the great generosity to sponsor, he would have MADE it to the closing rounds.”
“Well, there WAS the Crab, he seemed very creative …”
“Ooooh, all of those … Kuni …. give me nightmares !”
“But he’s not like that, really ! He’s always really nice and smiling, not like that other one at all, the one with only one eye. I even got to hear him tell one of his stories – and remember, he was SO BRAVE – letting the Wasp shoot the apples right off of his shoulders !”
“Ooooh, I wish you wouldn’t keep showing off that YOU got to see that when I has stuck practicing my prayers with sensei …. I bet his hair was really shiny that night.”
“The Crab’s ? How could you tell, he always has that hat on ?” The two girls pause briefly at this interruption, consider another sharp look, but abandon the idea as pointless and rather continue as if the boy had not spoken.
“But you said there was a fight, Shikki-chan ! What happened ?!”
The Young Phoenix Shugenja pulls herself up in assumed importance, subconsciously mimicking Kuni Kokuri’s own posture when he spins tales.
WELL, the competition was glorious, the horseman spurring their mounts to breakneck speeds while simultaneously loosing their arrows with stunning accuracy,” her eyes begin to sparkle, " and NONE more elegant in the saddle, nor as effortlessly deadly in his aim than the great Tsuruchi Kyotan … " She trails off a bit and her eyes gain a far-off look.
The look is shattered as Kakita Minasu snaps her fingers loudly and demands, “And THEN ?”
The Phoenix girl attempts to regain her composure, but instead begins to gush in a rapid torrent of words “Oh Mina-chan ! It was HORRIBLE,” she smiles, “BARBARIANS ! GAIJIN ! FILTHYHONORLESSPIGDOGWARRIORS !!”
Doji Bakkasun suddenly becomes alert, “What ? The barbarians are invading ?” His hand drops immediately to his Katana, and he nearly draws it before the Phoenix girl can stop him.
“No NEED,” she interjects triumphantly, “THEY have it all well under control !”
SHIKKI-CHAN, do you mean ALL of them fought, together, as they say they did during the famous ambush ? Did Jiro-sama take command ?”
“I saw it ALL Mina-chan ! First, the heavens shook as the Barbarians appeared out of nowhere, galloping at full speed across the frozen lake, interrupting the glorious competition just as the Magnificently-maned Tsuruchi-sama was about to claim his rightful place as the most proficient Bushi in all of Rokugan. A HAIL of arrows fell around him, but he was miraculously unharmed as he turned to face the foe ! His honorable rival, Moto Tomuri, joined with him as a brother as they wheeled their two horses to face the numberless enemies bearing down on them, certain of a terrible but heroic death in battle. Though Tsuruchi Kyotan’s arrows fell upon them with deadly accuracy, slaying scores of them, it seemed hopeless. But then, just as the horde of unwashed brutes threatened to break upon the handsome Samurai as a Tsunami upon the shores, the heavens cracked open and the very mountains fell among them. Boulders the size of the great houses in Otosan Uchi crushed hundreds of the Gaijin, red blood rising from the carnage as a cloud at the peaks. The great Kuni Kokuri’s wrath was not to be denied as his skin took on the appearance of granite and he grew to the size of three men ! Then the very fires of the nine Hells sprang up amongst the survivors, roasting them in the cleansing flames, sparing none of their vileness to remain. Isawa Takimoto had been replaced by an army of Shugenja, all bearing his grim countenance. Of the few dozens of remaining enemy warriors, only the fiercest and most vile still stood, and they broke upon the Unicorn and Wasp heroes, felling the Unicorn’s noble steed and nearly splitting the towering Wasp with an arrow the size of a Yari ! But still they fought on ! Another unit of expert Gaijin assasins assaulted the very imperial Niece herself, but between her and the horde stood the STEEL CRANE ! Daidoji Jiro shrugged off blows that could shatter lesser men, and beside him stood many of Isawa Takimoto’s legion ! When the battle seemed to turn and the cringing dogs had been bested by the Honor of the Emerald Empire, THEN the Barbarian Sorceror appeared above them, looming among the jet black clouds, seething with the powers of …”
The girl, near shaking with intensity at this point and her rapt audience are suddenly thrown off of their feet by a tremendous thunderclap of sound, followed quickly by a wave of wind that flattens them against the floor.
They look about themselves dazedly as several Scarlet Armored Shiba rush by with a Lion Bushi at their head. another group of the Phoenix Warriors rushes down a nearby hallway, appearing briefly at the intersection as they rush through with a Dragon Bushi in their midst, his two blades flashing. The three young samurai struggle to their feet, the girls for once grateful of the Young Doji’s assistance. He starts to follow the Shiba, wanting to give aid, but the girls clutch his kimono sleeves, unwilling to let their protector leave.
As they make their way quickly away from the chaos the castle, they completely miss the significance of the figure that opens and shuts the shoji screen ahead of them, leaving a small, blood red handprint on the clean white paper …

View
Shadows rise when light fades

As Amaterasu sets over the tumultuous churning waters of Firebird Falls, the sinuous shadows emerge from the holes, the secret cracks and crevices that they hide in during the day. One in particular dominates the lesser shades with its presence. The darkness embraces this form, the caress of an affectionate lover. The shadow cups something small within in its hand, bends low and whispers. What secrets would be revealed if we could only hear those words, and what pains could be avoided in the days to come. But shadows hold their secrets close, for the secrets are the shadows weapons, the wounds they cause are grievous and deep. But look now, look as the the shadow raises its hands, releasing the small creature that was tucked within. Look as it takes flight, not unlike a bird on the wing. Let us follow this bird-thing, first diving in a reckless dance with the falling waters of the falls, then sharply turning up to a balcony, perching on a carved wood railing, cocking its ear to hear the conversation between two men, very similar in features but unalike in temperament.

Daidoji Jiro walks quickly down the halls of Gisu Castle, though it is apparent his step is not sped by anticipation, but rather determination to put an unpleasant task behind him. Does he hesitate the briefest instant before he knocks upon the shoji door ? Does the Crane of steel actually show the briefest hint of fear ? The pause is too short to judge, as his knuckles rap with a staccato sound, disturbing the quiet whispering rustles of the late evening. The voice within commands him to enter, and he does so immediately. He could no more refuse his father’s orders than stop his heart in his chest. He moves with stiff formality to his father, his Daimyo’s feet, and prostrates himself in the forms that Bushido demands. He feels his father’s scorn before the words even come, its oily touch on his neck so familiar, still painful despite the years he has had to become accustomed to it. His father, the Rock, the unshakable central figure upon whose anvil he has been hammered into the man he is today. Jiro may be unbeatable in combat, he may be unshakable by the barbed arrows launched by courtiers that cannot understand his simple yet direct ways, but he still cannot help but tremble slightly at his father’s all-but solid presence. And now his father is asking him to lie, to create a rumor like some scuttling scorpion thing. Jiro understands how important the hand of Otomo Yoroshiku would be to his family and his Clan, but is it worth this price ? He grits his teeth and forces each breath as his father insults both his honorable but gentle mother and himself. Can his father not see how much he tries to be like him, despite his hate of the old man ? But no, such thoughts are unworthy of a Samurai, and his father is not just that, he is his Daimyo. Jiro forces himself into relaxation as he rises, accepting the task his father has set before him, a task he is not allowed to question. He will be strong …. he will be strong ….

The bird-thing, pops up onto its feet, shaking inky black limbs that seem passably winglike, and hurls itself once more into the air. It circles until the light of the rising sun creeps close, waiting for its chance to further the task set to it, flirting with the little death that will be its reward should the warm glow of the Mother fall upon it unprotected. There ! Just as the light almost touches it, a screen is pushed back, opening the chambers beyond a certain balcony, the chambers that hold those it must watch below. With an unnatural burst of speed, the little gloom slips through before it can be noted. It hurriedly hides behind a small vase that decorates the apartments, carefully, ever so carefully. It has been warned that it must not be seen by the Crab, or even the sharp-eyed archer. But it was swift, and its nature was to be unseen. It was not noticed, and it fastened its attention to those before it, absorbing every word, every gesture. After certain morning rituals and tasks were taken care of, those it had been set to observe began to break up, some heading in one direction, some in others. This posed no small difficulty to the bird-thing, but it was not without resources to draw upon. It shuddered, then began to twist and churn in upon itself, resembling less a bird than a nest of small, intertwined snakes. The snakes doubled back upon themselves in a riot of confusions until the combined ball burst apart, three distinct shapes emerging and slithering after their new focuses. We follow all three, not without our resources ourselves. See now the first shadowling as it hugs the bases of the walls in its pursuit of the Void Master. See it blur into the many small small spaces where no sun shines among the small stones and tamed plants int the garden where the Pheonix meets with the girl whose hair shines like the moon. Now be still as the little snake and listen …

The winter has begun to take the Gardens from the dying Autumn, and its icy fingers hung numerous from the limbs of cold-dead cherry trees. The cold did not touch the Artists heart though, and she shared the lightness of her soul in the delicate paper butterflys she set to hang among the icicles. She knew that as the other guests saw the wonders she created that it eased their burdens ever so slightly, and she was once again grateful for her own karma to be gifted as an artist. By her skills, she could go beyond the ability to tell truth; her art was more forceful than mere words could ever be. She could show truth in ways that could not be denied, and sometimes even she was taken prisoner to the power of that truth. But coming towards he was someone who clearly needed her skills, and so she let loose the last of her paper-kin. the approaching Isawa followed it with his eyes, and she saw his tension evaporate for a moment, and was pleased. Isawa Takimoto was a man who did not wear tension well, he seemed unpracticed in it, as much as he was unpracticed in the ways of wooing, though he had shown some imagination in that art recently. And he was a kindred soul, clearly. Though his energies had apparently been focused on the invisible worlds, he still had considerable aptitude in the crafting of both Song and Serenity, as his amazing tea ceremony had shown. Before the first words escaped his lips, she had made her decision to help him. He would be more than an acceptable patron, he would give her that gift that was prized more highly than any other to the true Artist. the gold that would be passed to her school and clan was as nothing compared to the value of the other offering he brought her, a Challenge !

Our attention is divided, as we see the careful dance of Artist and Patron unfolding in the garden, so too do we see what the second little snake has seen, we see the Wasp and the Crane come to the stables. We nestle with the shadow-puppet as it slithers through the straw, carefully avoiding the warmth exuded by the horses.

Shiba Tenkuro is not known for his patience, at least, not with people. He can show infinite ability to repeat the same small tasks for interminable amounts of time when training a Hawk, and never employs pain when breaking a horse, but this self-control vanishes when confronted with other human beings. At first, he is infuriated that these two, these layabouts from the castle with no set duties would presume that their frivolities could possibly be more important than his incredibly busy post. The list of tasks he must perform in the space of the sun’s passage from one horizon to the other would be enough to set a lesser man to tears ! But he IS samurai, and these ARE “honored” guests. He schools himself to be as still and attentive as the hunting birds he prizes, waiting to seize upon the opportunity to be rid of these men and their interruptions. But they surprise him ! The Crane shows both an actual interest in learning how to bring a Falcon to hand, and an unprecedented willingness to actually produce a payment of like value to what he asks from the Phoenix Beastmaster ! Though the Crane clearly doesn’t know enough to know how valuable the horse he offers in trade is (especially after the tales that unsettling, but highly skilled, Crab storyteller has been weaving about the battle in Nightengale Pass !), he does seem willing to learn, and who is Tenkuro to deny him the boon of his wisdom. Now the Wasp, he clearly knows the value of things. Firstly, he is attempting to win the affections of that Scorpion woman, the one who lights mens’ loins afire just by breathing ( let alone when she moves ! ). And secondly, he is gifting her with something MUCH more valuable than some flower, or pretty rock, or even one of those ridiculous poems. He is gifting her with a useful skill ! All in all, when the two young men have been satisfied and sent on their way, Tenkuro finds himself pleased. It trows him off of his balance only briefly, as something the stable-boy is doing is obviously spooking the horses, and he shakes his head with the sure knowledge that someone will have to be shouted at.

Now we are pulled along behind the third snake as it winds its way along the bases of the walls, sliding quickly past the open doorways, avoiding notice. So busy is it with avoiding the Kuni’s gaze that it is almost undone as the Unicorn maiden accompanying him stops suddenly and sweeps her gaze over the hallway behind her. If the gloom could feel fear, it would have lost itself in that moment, frozen by the fire in her gaze. But it is a clever little thing, and it swiftly melts out of its current shape and into the minute cracks between the highly polished boards that make the well-worn floors of the castle. The Samurai-ko’s eyes a drawn to this sudden movement, and her eyes narrow for a moment as she scrutinizes the ground before her, but then shakes her head, once more fixing her thoughts upon her charge, her most puzzling and disturbing charge. As the gaze of the Unicorn leaves the vicinity of the little shadow, it oozes back out, this time reforming as a multilegged centipede, the better to scramble up the wall, slipping in through the shoji as it is slid aside, alighting to the ceiling of the cluttered library. There it hangs, absorbing all before it.

The scarlet clad scorpion woman was NOT accustomed to anything getting in the way of what she wished. Her undeniably attractive features and form had opened many doors for her, and for a lesser woman would have been enough. She, however, was a scorpion, and had never been content to simply let her beauty work on its own. She had honed that beauty into a razor-edged weapon, and practiced its use until she was at least the equal to any prancing crane duelist. No, she was FAR more deadly. After all, an iajutsu master could simply sever the connection between the soul and the body. The worst that the Katana could offer was death. Her blade could sever a bushi from all he held dear. His reason. His family. His station. His HONOR. She had done all these things and more. She knew how they talked about her behind her back. She knew many suspected her power to do all these things (suspected, but could never be sure – she WAS a scorpion after all, and she had ways of enforcing discretion). Her glory was that they knew her power, but could do nothing against it. Her victims were powerless to resist her, and her detractors were unable to act against her. Why then should this uncouth, hardly-groomed, uncultured barely girl be giving her such turmoil. For a brief moment, she toyed with the idea of throwing the fawning little playsword at Kokuri. She could see the potential there, and saw also the conflict within Iuchi. But she stopped herself short. It was apparent that Kokuri was completely unaware of the Unicorn’s puppy love, and it was further apparent that he had already placed her as a sister in his mind. Oh, she could thing of at least 5 ways to change that, some of them not even compromising to either of their honors, but Kokuri had become too valuable to her to waste in this way. He was no scorpion, she had no illusions that she could afford any real loyalty there, but she enjoyed the game of friendship with the jovial yet deadly witch hunter. She sighed inwardly. He could almost BE a scorpion with his wit and skill at manipulating others’ preconceptions of him, but he was too rooted in his views of honesty. And he had the excruciatingly bad fortune to be born a crab of all things ! She would protect him, if she could, as he and the Crane had protected her beneath Kyuden Ikoma, and for the friendship she could not allow herself to indulge in.
All this passed through her as the pike passes beneath the dark surface of the lake, never disturbing her outer face. She gave no sign of this disturbance as she discussed Kokuri’s upcoming nuptuals. Such was her skill that she was fully able to turn these thoughts around and around within her mind as she might a small but fascinating stone as she devoted her outward attention to the tricky matter of making Kokuri aware of the situation that he brought before his new bride as a dowry. She felt no pity for the young Kuni as she saw his sudden internalization of the deeper currents of his betrothal. Pity was only for those she held in no respect, for those who had no CHANCE of earning her respect. Kokuri was too formidable to let his lack of anything tangible to bring to the Unicorn girl he meant to make his bride stand in his way for long. Indeed, she could already see his mind working on the problem. She smiled inside, even letting some of her pride in her well crafted ally seep out to her face, for it was useful to let him see it now. She would now have not one ally but two. A Witch hunter and a Unicorn fetishist would be VERY useful, and they would owe her so much.
But then the thrice-damned homely little horse-kissing girl smiled as well, and her pleasure turned to dust in her mouth. But oh, how she smiled ! And oh, how she pitied the girl before her. It wasn’t so much that she wanted the Pretty Wasp. He was fine to look at, and pleasant to touch, and she did appreciate the other fine qualities that Kokuri had drawn her attention to. She always got what she wanted, and the archer would be no exception, but this honor-weak little THING had the temerity to get into her way !
But wait ! Was Kokuri actually studying HER face ? She quickly schooled herself back into a pleasing facade. She wished she could be sure if the Kuni had actually managed to peel aside her mask, but then, perhaps she did not. She would hate to have to have to close those eyes.

Watch now as the three little glooms follow their prey. See the snake that had followed the Phoenix turn aside as the Crab joins with him and they turn down yet another hallway, letting the centipede-thing follow. It turns to another hallway just as the Wasp and Crane trade their outside sandles for the clean tabi socks waiting for them inside the castle’s doors. It twines with its self-brother for a moment, then as the Wasp moves off deeper into the castle and the Crane strides purposefully towards a nearby door, one splits off, its surface bubbling into a swifter form. The small coal black cricket flies before the Yojimbo, circling once before alighting on a nearby flower arrangement and burying itself amongst the crowded buds.

She can’t stay still, so she paces. She walks back and forth from one corner of the small apartment to the other, never staying in one space for more than a few seconds. With her wild mane of golden brown hair, she would resemble the Lion whose image is blazoned upon her Mon, except that she her eyes are wild with fear. Her hands go up to her head and latch to her scalp without her realization, and she begins to slowly pull out a fistful of straw-colored hair. How could it have come to this ? She made certain, CERTAIN that the scrolls were verified genuine. They were verified by an unimpeachable source, her father’s honor secured despite his failing facilities. And now, now it was all falling apart ! The hair falls limply from her hand as it opens numbly at her side, while the other hand creeps steadily up to take up it’s place at her scalp once again. She has struggled her entire life only to bring honor and glory to her family.
She has pushed herself to achieve her rank as a full shugenja so much faster than anyone had thought possible.
Another handful of hair falls.
She had become foremost of those who spoke with the ancestors in her family, becoming the very voice of their will.
Another handful of hair.
She had gained the attention of the Imperial city itself, and when the time came to choose companions for the Imperial niece, it had been impossible NOT to choose the attractive and astute young Kitsu.
A trickle of blood crawl down her hand as she drops another handful to the floor.
But there he is ! Her savior has come ! The wonderful Crane, the honorable Samurai who had overturned all of the lessons she had ever been taught about his clan ! She nearly cries with joy, but she has no time. As she urgently pleads with him to help her understand the rumors that have circulated, the whispers that not only her father, but the great Ikoma Ujiaki himself are going senile, she asks him to once again champion that which is right and true. But what is this ? He turns from her, his jaw set like granite. He denies the existence of the lies that are spreading throughout the court. She pleads with him once again to help her stand against those who would spread such slanders, but he once again hardens his eyes and states in a firm, unwavering voice that no such slanders exist.
She is dumbstruck. Is this not the man who rode forth to protect her honor and that of her father before ? Is this not the man she has heard stands as a mountain against all who oppose him, unwavering and unassailable. Is this not the man who she hears defeated an army of fifty brigands alongside his amazing companions ?
But no, he denies her once again. She turns now from him, her last hope. and bids him leave her presence. She does not notice the Crane’s obvious pain as he moves towards the door, hesitating briefly before he leaves.
Her hand begins to rise once more to her scalp, but pauses as she realizes, perhaps the Crane is not the ONLY hero in the castle tonight.

As the cricket flies from the room, caring little for heroes or their opposites, the snake hurriedly follows along after the Archer as he makes his way out to the graveled courtyard of the castle, where waits an aging but formidable Bushi, moving through the swift arcs and snaps of a Kata.

The forms sooth his muscles, warming them and working out the aches that seem to settle in his bones more evenings than not of late. He keeps himself as fit as possible, but he knows that his movements are slower than they were five years ago, and slower yet than the fighting prowess he possessed even seven years before. He knows that he has run his course. He is a crab after all, and he knows that the value of his knowledge and experience have finally been overcome by the infirmities of his body. He almost wishes that he had been left to a life on the wall, where he would have easily been allowed an honorable death in combat instead of being forced to see his arms wither long before his wits left him. But then so many lives would have been lost, and the empire would have been let rot from within by those he had excised with fire and steel. He was indomitable, and always ferreted out those who would harm those whose safety was his charge. Well, be honest old man, all but once. That was why he was here after all, wasn’t it ? And that was why he was considering handing his shame over to one who he had been assured was the one to finish what he could not. Though he trusted those who had recommended the Wasp hunter to him without reservation, he could not let his burden pass without taking the man’s mettle himself. And lo, there he was. Was this the man who would finally bring the witch girl to justice ? He would test him then, and see.

….. almost there ! should be done by tomorrow …..

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Winters Blanket Makes for Close Bedmates

As Amaterasu rose for the final morning of the Setsuban festival at the Shrine of the Ki Rin, she smiled down upon her children. Stirring from his sleep, refreshed beyond he had been for many mornings, Kuni Kokuri made his morning ablutions freed from the anxieties he had been harboring while he was competing in the festival, anxieties even he had previously been unaware of. Filled with the warmth of the Sun-Mother’s love, he attempted once more to break the thick frost between himself and the only other crab present at the festival, fellow Witch Hunter Kuni Goru. Perhaps he too felt the unseasonable warmth of the morning, for the grizzled one-eyed veteran spoke with Kuni at some length (well, much longer than at any time previously). Kokuri’s legendary humor was tested though, first by the casual viturpertude with which Goru dismissed his intended bride’s “impure” bloodline, and secondly by the scathing remarks aimed at their family’s Diamo Kuni Yori. Kokuri disentangled himself from the uncomfortable conversation as quickly as politeness would allow, and determinedly refixed both his positive attitude and his smile before setting forth to renew an acquaintance too long neglected.
Isawa Takimoto returned from the void, his hand moving with a motion that it took his mind several seconds to catch up with. Though he was no Kakita Kaiga artisan, the likeness of the masked scorpion was quite passable. He had depicted the hand-shaped mask well enough, the hand spreading over the stern face’s mouth, both obscuring identity and suggesting silence from the observer as well. He turned the rice paper sideways, maybe the hand over the mouth was suggesting even more, like the airless fate of one who would oppose the man ? No matter, it took more than a suggestion of violence to disturb one who walked the void’s edge. Takimoto rolled the scroll an stuffed it into his Obi, careless of the slight smearing of ink that resulted. The Phoenix had searched the void for answers to who had sent the assassins against himself and his companions, and as usual, the void has provided. He cleared his mind once more, and began the prayers to the spirits of wind that might aid him in revealing to the world the honor he often kept hidden. It was not his way to wear his soul on his sleeve, but he had a task to perform, and he was determined to be successful.
Meanwhile, secreted within his tent, Daidoji Jiro, the Steel Crane, worked intently on a secret weapon. A single bead of sweat slowly crawled down his face, tracing a this line from his shaved forehead, down his lantern jaw, and finally loosing itself in the folds of his kimono, unheeded in the fierce concentration Jiro spent on the small object before him. It was dangerous to employ such a tool, for it was as dangerous for him if he was found out as it would be effective in disabling his foes. Even his brothers-in-arms would be taken aback if they knew, and they too might be forced to take action against him. As he finished it, he leaned back looking at it from one direction, then another, making a slight adjustment, ever so gingerly, as if the whole thing might explode at any moment. Finally, he blew a silent whistle of relief. Taking one more furtive glance around, peeking through a tent flap held open only a blade’s edge length, he assured himself no one was looking. He carefully placed the little horse he had woven from the few winter-wilted crysanthemums he had been able to gather into the sleeve of his kimono, made absolutely sure that it could NOT be seen, an then went forth with purpose. He NEEDED the morning cup of Sake he knew would be proffered by the Wasp.
Tsuruchi Kyotan yawned, stretched and scratched absently as he rolled his shoulders, working the kinks out of his muscles in preparation for the day ahead. After washing himself, he sent a silent but heartfelt prayer to his ancestors, thanking them again for blessing him with the fortune to be young, skillful, handsome, and unencumbered by the cares of those who were born slaves to their sense of propriety. He understood honor, and agreed with the idea of personal responsibility, but the idea that ancient customs should determine the worth of a man seemed ludicrous. A man was what he made of himself, and the circumstances of his birth should not be chains to bind him to the wheel of destiny. He smiled as he though of what his friends might think of his little blasphemies, amused as always by the small ways each one rebelled against the established order while trying so hard to keep to the ancient codes. Crab-Sama, with his humor and irreverent cherishing the value of truth over the status of who spoke it. Crane-Sama, with his quiet but stoic pride in being the Black sheep of his family, relishing each disappointment he caused in his father while outwardly showing his obedience to the Daimyo’s will. And Phoenix-Sama, who by his very LACK of vanity in clothing and bearing rose above the glory of those in his clan who strutted about like rich peacocks. Relishing the day ahead already, he quickly tucked a bottle of that divine drink sake into his kimono and went out to meet those who would share it with him.
While his friends were still making their way to the fields where heimin were rushing to clear light snow which had fallen during the night, Kuni Kokuri made his way to the Unicorn encampment that edged the road that traveled from Gisu castle to the North-West all the way to the Spine of the World in the South. The Caravan master Shinjo Gidayu could not bring himself to be far from the way that lead out and beyond the horizon. Kokuri made a great show of seeking out Shinjo Iruko, clowning to beat the best Yose actors. He asked those of the camp if they had seen a young Unicorn maiden, fair of form and voice, whose beauteous face and smile were only surpassed by the glory of her riding skills, but lamented that he could not fully describe any of her features, as his memory could not stretch back far enough to recall last time her had seen her. Making sure his friend Iruko could hear every word, he continued his queries up to the very spot where she breakfasted with her father. Though Iruko was sorely tempted to launch a clopd of the fresh earth at her feet towards her embarrassing friend, she was saved by the applause and laughter from her father, who invited Kokuri to breakfast with them. Kokuri happily accepted for the company, but quietly refrained from ingesting most of the unfamiliar and disquieting gaijin cuisine. Gidayu took the opportunity to inform the young Kuni that he had decided to “gift” him with his daughter, both to serve the dangerously curious crab as a Yojimbo and to learn the ways of the court from someone he felt was competent in them. Taken aback by the completely unexpected compliment, Kokuri attempted to clarify that he was in fact considered to be undecorious and forward in society, and did not feel competent to be a teacher in this arena. Gidayu waved away his concerns, stating that he was not seeking a master courtier, but rather one who was both effective in court AND un-effected in his behaviors. Kokuri attempted to refuse once again, stating he had no need of a Yojimbo, but Gidayu once again disagreed, citing Kokuri’s own self-admitted penchant for making enemies in court by his unsophisticated, though telling, maneuvers. Kokuri tried to refuse for a third time, but Gidayu simply pointed out that the crab had proven him wise in his choice of teachers, as Kokuri had shown great manners in refusing the gift of his daughter’s blade the proscribed three times, and would brook no further discussion. Though glad of the company of his amiable Samurai-Ko companion, Kokuri was highly nervous with the idea of being her teacher. He dealt with it the same way he dealt with all of his fears – though a mixture of bravado and humor, diving into the role of “sensei” with false confidence.
Once again, for the first time in several weeks, all five companions were together once again. Takimoto, Jiro, and especially Kyotan welcomed the return of Iruko to the circle, but as had happened many times before, contention reared before them. This time, it occurred upon the now ceremonial offering of a shared cup of sake. Iruko was scandalized by the idea of partaking so early in the morning, and fell into debate with Kyotan over the merits of his favored beverage. Iruko found no allies in her cause though, as both Kokuri and Takimoto had quickly moved forward with their own agendas for the morning. Kyotan used all of his considerable skills of persuasion to overcome Iruko’s reluctance, and after quaffing the sake, she quickly moved to rejoin the Witchhunter and the Phoenix near the encampment of Otomo Yoroshiku, dubbed Kyuden Otomo by the ever irreverent Kokuri.
While Kokuri moved to capitalize on the successful results of his earlier investigation into the mysteriously appearing letters that had caught the attention of the Emperor’s niece, Takimoto began seeking an aid in his courtship. He started by casting about for an appropriate go between that would be sympathetic to both his clan and his endeavors. He had barely begun when he apprehended an amazing display of artistry by Kakita Tsukune. The Crane had already shown herself an accomplished dancer and was rumored to be a superb flower arranger, but it was her current show of origami skills that truly amazed. Her creation of a paper butterfly was so realistic, it actually flew off her extended finger an into the air, performing a bit of aerial acrobatics before landing once more ! Luckily, the artisan had also drawn the attention of Kitsuki Inara, a Dragon Clan magistrate well renowned for her skill in investigation, but more importantly for Takimoto, as an impartial and honest mediator who was sympathetic to the Phoenix clan. Takimoto immediately began to cultivate a relationship with the two ladies of high court standing.
Kokuri was not idle. He sought out the servants he had determined responsible for delivering the Scorpion’s letters, which he had deduced were being affixed to the bottom of the dinnerwear that were used to bring the Yoroshiku’s meals with an adhesive that quickly released the notes, making them seem to mysteriously appear without being delivered. Kokuri took the servant who had been bribed to carry the letters aside, and made it clear that he would not reprimand her, but that he would require her to allow him a moment of privacy with the most recent note. He composed a haiku with which he adorned the letter that admonished the mysterious Scorpion for assuming himself too clever and overstepping his reach by wooing the Royal Maiden, and advised Otomo Yoroshiku to not overlook the devious and dangerous side of dealing with the scorpion clan.
The morning concluded with a tea ceremony in which Isawa Takimoto proved his mastery, serving a total of seven samurai flawlessly, impressing both the Dragon Magistrate and the Crane Artist mightily. Thus, both Kitsuki Inara and Kakita Tsukune happily joined the Crab, the Phoenix, and the Unicorn. The Crane of Steel and the Wasp had … other arrangements.

To Be Continued !

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Some buds blossom while others wither

As the Lady’s golden fingers charmed the shimmering crimson light from the Shrine of the Ki-Rin, the party slowly woke from slumber. Grittily wiping the the encrusted leavings of the previous day from his eyes, the Wasp went off in search of the newfound source of many diversions, his friend the Crab. The Crab, in turn, finishing his morning ritual purification of both his person and his water supply, began in search of his friend the Phoenix, but was soon distracted by curiosities both large and small. The Crane of Steel made his way out into the festival grounds soon after his morning katas, again searching out his companions. The Phoenix void-caller, unarguably the most difficult of ALL the companions to find perversely decided NOT to seek out his freinds, rather he was beguiled by a display of dancing …

Soon enough, as befitted the manhunter, Tsuruchi Kyotan was the first to find his target. Kuni Kokuri was fascinated by a game of “Heaven’s-Pearl-Hidden-Among-The-Clouds”, never having experienced such a diversion among his own clan, which far more prone to simple gambling games such as dicing, or the slightly more popular “Which Goblin will be skewered by the ballista first” game. Amazingly, the Fox-masked Scorpion gamemaster seemed to work without any magical aid, yet still managed to elude the penetrating attention of both sharp-eyed men, who wisely chose NOT to wager anything themselves. After all, the bond-brothers had far more important tasks ahead of them that day. With a regretful backwards glance from Kokuri, who resolved to seek out the Scorpion at a later time and ferret out his secrets, the two moved onwards.

Jiro had not gone far when he was approached by the ever-lovely Yogo Amia, who sought to inform the Yogimbo that Kitsu Saia, the Lion handmaiden of Otomo Yoroshiku was in need of an ally who could help her to avert a great shame from befalling her clan. The Scorpion Shugneja then departed amicably, feeling her obligation to Jiro for his defense of her life under Kyuden Ikoma.

With three of the four well-met, they set forth seeking the last. Given Isawa Takimoto’s talents for inconspicuousness, they set forth with less hope than grim determination. Surprisingly, they managed to find him with little trouble, and soon set to determining the priorities for the day.

Takimoto and Kokuri journeyed to the tent of the Tournament judges to discharge thier obligation to the Ronin Shugenja Koan, ensuring his enrollment in the competition but also drawing the unfortunate attention of the master of Gizu Castle, Isako Kegetsu. The Daimyo allowed the entry of Koan, but made it very clear that should any injury befall another contestant of the tournament due to the Ronin’s participation, the two Shugenja who argued for him would be held responsible.

Meanwhile, Jiro and Kyotan approached the Lion handmaiden, Kitsu Saia, interrupting a conversation with the Crane suitor, Doji Katamara, in the process further damaging the standing of the once-foremost competitor for the Royal Bride’s hand. Though initially hesitant, upon the urgent recommendations of the persuasive Wasp Magistrate, the Kitsu Shugenja placed her trust in the Daidoji suitor, charging him with the task of ensuring the authenticity of the Historic Scroll which the Lion clan had donated to the competition. Heady with the possibilities of the Lion maiden as an ally to his wooing of her mistress, but unsure of HOW to go about the authentication of the scroll, the Yojimbo sought the aid of his two more scholarly companions.

Both Kokuri and Takimoto had performed admirably in the initial round of the competition, discharging the required show of mastery of the five elements with acceptable skill, but more importantly to their standing, exceptional panache. The showy theatricality of Kokuri’s demonstration, combined with the display of a completely original and powerful spell had secured his right to advance as well as a respectable and appreciative audience. Takimoto too had earned a pass to the next round and his aerial acrobatics had impressed all in attendance. Flush from their success, the two young clerics were reunited with their more militant companions and quickly joined in the quest to protect the Lions’ reputation.

Seeking the aid of one of the tournament judges, the renowned scholar and expert on historical art and artifacts, Kitsu Aysoko, proved initially disappointing when the Dragon admitted that he would be unable to confirm the authenticity of the scroll, but with a surprising revelation, relayed that the greatest Lion scholar of present times was nearby at a monastery organizing the historical treasures stored there. The scholar in question was of course the recent ally of the party and longtime friend of Kokuri, Ikoma Ujiaki.

The band of Samurai left quickly on foot to the monastery, but had not been traveling long when they encountered a young Ronin-Ko who reported that she and her caravan had been ambushed by Gaijin while bringing much needed supplies to the Nightengale’s Roost. The group quickly moved to aid the lady in distress, detecting no trace of deception. Luckily, the perceptive skills that had failed to see anything amiss in the warrior-woman’s report were NOT foiled by the ambush that lay in wait for them ! As the “corpses” lying in the field of snow suddenly leaped up at them and the Ronin-Ko brandished her blades, the party leaped into action as well.

Through the the graces of the impenetrable guard of Daidoji Jiro, the deadly arrows of Tsuruchi Kyotan, and the mighty spells of Kuni Kokuri and Isawa Takimoto, the mixed band of Rokugani and Gaijin bandits was swiftly dispatched. Following a hunch, Kokuri searched the bandits and found evidence to support his suspicion that the ambush had been arranged specifically for he and his brothers. The incriminating letter with the four companion’s descriptions and the purse with half the bounty in advance was turned over to the wasp Magistrate, with the remaining letters going to Takimoto for future revelations.

The group was back on track quickly, and received happily by Ikoma Ujiaki who verified the authenticity of the Lion scrolls and after a too brief reunion sent them back on thier way.

The triumph that was shared by Kyotan and Jiro when they presented Kitsu Saia with the legendary scholar’s testimonial was heady, and Jiro secured not only the favor of the handmaiden but a small insight into the favors of her mistress as well.

The Triumph was not echoed in the second round of the Shugeja tournament though, as both Takimoto and Kokuri came tantalizingly close to victory, but in the end were bested by two far senior and more puissant Shugenja. The two were disappointed not to advance, but realized that they had done incredibly well given the disparity of skill.

This setback, though unfortunate, will give the two far more time to devote to other pursuits, and it is was with this thought that Kokuri enacted the plan he had set in motion earlier that morning, bringing Yogo Amia into contact with his friend Tsuruchi Kyotan, who had been nursing a growing fascination with the Scorpion Siren. Drawig an intimate crowd with his oratorical skills, Kokuri then perched two apples, the symbol of love, an his shoulders, inviting the Wasp Archer to enthrall the object of his desires with his skill.

With a small spattering of juices upon the silk shoulders of his companion, Kyotan shot true both in the impressive display of martial prowess AND his amorous intent. The evening promised to be quite entertaining for the Magistrate indeed.

Kokuri enjoyed the small service he had performed, desperately attempting to postpone the anxieties that still surfaced whenever he thought of his own impending courtship, and moved on to the next task on his personal agenda. Squaring his shoulders, he sought out his Phoenix brother to entreat with him to provide musical accompaniment for the tale he had prepared to hopefully help Takimoto with his own courtship of the Emperor’s niece.

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The Seeds of Spring Wait to Blossom Forth

The winter snows had just begun to fall as the caravan that would escort the Shugenja from many lands to the Setsuban festival began, but by the time most of the scrolls and their guardians had been collected, the warmth of both renewed and new-found friendships had warmed considerably.

A small group of Samurai just approaching their prime had formed a close knit group over the course of the journey, sharing stories and companionship, becoming friends. They were an odd combination, the Roguish Wasp Archer, Tsuruchi Kyotan, the taciturn Phoenix Shugenja, Isawa Takimoto, the stoic Crane Yojimbo, Daidoji Jiro, the lovely Unicorn Samurai-Ko, Shinjo Iruko, and the Jovial Kuni Witchhunter, Kuni Kokuri but the bond was all the stronger for that.

The near idyllic journey was interrupted briefly by a night of troubled slumber on the part of the two shugenja, but despite the loss of sleep, no negative effects were suffered. The significance of the dreams has yet to be determined though.

Shortly before the arrival of the caravan at the Shrine for the Ki Rin, the Shinjo caravan master chose to ride ahead, preparing the way. He left the caravan in the charge of the 5 companions, little knowing that their mettle would soon be tested by an ambush of a Ronin force more than twice their number.

It would have succeeded too, if not for the sharp eyes of the Crab and the Wasp, the flight of the Phoenix and the indomitable battle skills of the Crane. Oddly enough though, the Ronin who loosed flights of arrows upon the caravan studiously avoided any loss of life. This fact troubled them at the time, but the need for an expedient retreat overwhelmed all other concerns.

After a breathless arrival of the Shrine, the companions had a short time to rest before they were set to the tasks at hand, namely registering for the upcoming tournament of magic and more pressing matters, namely, the orders that 3 of the 4 samurai men were under to seek out and win the brides their diamyos had chosen.

In the case of the Crab, his bride-to-be had not yet arrived, prompting a deep sigh of relief. He made good use of the time gifted him to attempt to assist his too boon-brothers in their task, as it was a monumental one. Indeed, even the Wasp, no lover of court, let alone courting, was even tempted to give aid, for the Phoenix and the Crane were aimed at none other than the Emperor’s niece herself, Otomo Iroshuro. Luckily, at least to the archer’s thinking, he was “distracted” by the peerless beauty of Yogo Amia, and was not forced to take part in the grass-court of the Otomo girl.

Through brash maneuvering, the rivals to the Crane and Phoenix were removed for the time being, and the Phoenix celebrated this small victory by gaining ground through a show of skill in both flute and sorcery. The companions were not to be allowed any rest in which to enjoy their triumph though, as they were summoned to the Shinjo Daimyo with startling news.

It appeared that the ambush had NOT been as successfully thwarted as they had though, for in the chaos, an invisible hand had set the prize-scrolls guardian to slumber and absconded with the scrolls themselves. The samurai would not stand for this, and left immediately to track down the thief.

They traveled to a secluded, but nearby village of ronin known as the Nightengale’s Roost. There they confronted the headman Neiben who had been wounded in the battle, and he summoned the Ronin Shugenja Kohen. Kohen had stolen the scrolls as retribution against the Lord of Gisu castle, Asako Kagetsu. The Asako had apparently reneged on his promise to let Koan participate in the tournament of magics on questionable grounds, and Kohen decided to show his mettle in another way. Agreeing to support Koan’s claims, the companions retrieved the scrolls and returned them to the tournament grounds before any but the Shinjo caravan master and the bumbling Unicorn Shugenja were any the wiser.

The companions are flush with their streak of victories, but before them lie many challenges, both in love and magical prowess.

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The Leaves Fall at the Winer's Coming Frost

With the wedding ceremony of Ikoma Rin and Daidoji Karolooming heavily in their minds, the party made haste in their efforts to conclude the promise to deliver to Kitsu Ikatsu her persecutor. Upon arriving at the shrine where they had sequestered to young Lion Shugenga, they were informed by a concerned Mirumoto Amaya that her charge was not well, having refused all food and taking very little water over the last several days. When entering the shrine, the party found that Kitsu Ikatsu had not only shaved her hair in an act of self-punishment, but was determined to commit seppuku if she was afforded the permission to do so. In an effort to help the young Lion pick up the shattered pieces or her life, the party entreated her to use the opportunity she had been provided with by the miraculous cleansing of her taint. The Lion seemed hesitant to take up the courage to begin her life anew until the group brought her face to face with the captured Brother Ikyo. Upon seeing the architect of her shame prostrate before her, she demanded the use of Kakita Hidaku‘s ancestral Katana, which she was granted. In splitting Brother Ikyo’s head in twain, she passed through her moment of destiny and has begun her new life.

After the body of the broken monster has been prudently burned, the group set forth once more for Kyuden Ikoma, donning their finest garments and girding their courage for what promised to be an eventful evening indeed. Isawa Takimoto prepared for the demands of the Ikoma regent as a provider of music for the nuptials, Kakita Hidaku sought the clarity he knew would be necessary for the inevitable trails of both a courtier and a master duelist, Daidoji Jiro hardened his resolve to face the unpleasant spectacle of his estranged brother wedding the twice distasteful Crane regent, and Kuni Kokuri prepared for the dangerous confrontation with the powerful woman with whom he seemed destined to continually and vocally oppose.

Within the court chambers there was a temporary period of peaceful interaction with Takimoto wandering among the guest providing a musical diversion, Hidaku enjoying the celebrity of being a sought-after Representative of the Emperor, and Kokuri catching up with his old friend Ikoma Ujiaki. The only one not enjoying the brief respite was the much gossiped about Jiro. The reverie was not to last however, as the junior Scorpion representative Yogo Amia tracked down Kokuri with an urgent message regarding the assassination of her mentor apparently by non other than Brother Ikyo, despite Ikyo’s imprisonment at the time of the murder !

With little time left before the commencement of the Marriage ceremony Kokuri prudently pulled Jiro aside to accompany him to the site of the slaying. Along with Yogo Amia, the two navigated the depth of the Kyuden Ikoma untill they reached a small, unused library at swhich point they were ambushed by several Lion bushi. As the wedding ceremony began, one of the Bushi smiled and offered greetings from non other than Ikoma Rin herself.

As the trio fought for their lives under the castle, the wedding concluded, and Ikoma Rin made a startling announcement. She stated that the body of Kuni Kokuri had been recovered from the sewers under the Kyuden. Quickly riding the amazement that greeted her statement, the Ikoma regent followed with the proclamation that her trusted vassal Matsu Hokitare would be taking the ill=-fated Crab’s place as the official investigator of the taint in Kyuden Ikoma.

Unable to stand for this affront Kakita Hidaku leapt to his feet and questioned the possibility that his Kuni ally, who had just been present in that same room minutes earlier could have been murdered, his body disposed of AND found again so quickly, let alone the possibility that the Daidoji Yojimbo he left in the company of could have been overcome as WELL. There followed a heated exchange between the Kakita and the Ikoma Lord, with Akodo Toturi eventually stepping in to put to question his own judgment in placing Ikoma Rin into the leadership of the Ikoma clan. He challenged her to a duel with Kakita Hidaku serving as his own champion and Ikoma Rin quickly declared her new husband Daidoji Karoas her own.

As this transpired, the trio who had been ambushed by the Lion assassins under the castle fought bravely, the two shugenja struggling to fell their assailants while the flashing blade of the Yojimbo unbelievably held of four times his number in assailants’ steel. Just as the tide of the battle seemed to turn against the trio, the crab urged his friend to topple a nearby shelf of dusty old scrolls to trap the Lions in the kindling he then urged the Scorpion to set ablaze. The three then ran quickly to a corner secluded enough for the young Scorpion to mask their likenesses in case of further foes set against them.

The three entered the council chambers shortly before the epic duel was to begin, and they watched as the master Kakita duelist unflinchingly set upon his enemy, striking a blindingly fast and powerful blow. Alas, the blow was just short of deadly, and the Crane was able to make an astonishing counterblow. though it lacked the finesse and obvious skill of the Kakaita’s stroke, the Bridegroom’s attack somehow slipped past to strike his opponents head clear off his neck. To the disbelieving eyes of the court, the lesser Bushi had clearly won !

Ikoma Rin did not have time to savor her victory however, for before his friend’s lifeblood had stopped flowing, the very much alive Kuni Witchhunter slowly walked up to stand near the Kakita’s corpse. There, before all the Court and Rin’s shaky disbelieving face, Kuni Kokuri formally laid the charge of attempted murder before Ikoma Rin. As the regent fell to her knees, Kokuri was joined by both Yogo Amia and Daidoji Jiro who added thier own support to the accusation.

Akodo Toturi had seen enough, and at that point declared Ikoma Rin’s life forfeit for her crimes and appointed Ikoma Tsanuri to the post of Daimyo of the Ikoma family. He then disbanded the Autumn court and immediately called his advisors to counsel him on clearing the taint from the Ikoma lands once and for all.

As everyone began to leave, a sardonically gleeful Brother Ikyo strode before them, much to the astonishment of the Shikken and the Witchunter who had burned his corpse just earlier that same day ! The monster had barely begun to speak as the Kuni, with steely determination in his eyes, stepped forth to vow "No matter HOW many times you return, I shall be there, each time … " before taking the twisted monks head with his wakizashi. From the Locust-Cleric’s hands fell a scroll, describing how the grain tainted with the spawn oif the Locust had allready been shipped out into the lands of the Lion, a victory claimed by the forces of Jikoku even from the jaws of death.

After clearing the last remnants of the Locusts and the taint from the Ikomo lands, the brothers in arms raised a last toast to their departed comrade, drinking from the Sake that Kakita Hidaku had sent to furnish the ill-fated marriage feast …

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Shadow of the Locust

The lands of the Ikoma are further thrown into chaos in the wake of the death of Ikoma Ryozo. After weeks under the Regency of Ikoma Ujiaki, the players are sent to escort the aging scholar from his post at the Ikoma Histories back to Kyuden-Ikoma. Along the way, the Shiken met Kuni Kokuri “The Laughing Kuni” on the road. The newly formed quartet decided to join forces and walk towards the histories together as the tale of the dark shadow which had crept across the land unfurled for the newly arrived Kuni. Suddenly, the party was ambushed by a pack of Lion patrolmen who drew steel in a rage. It was quickly made apparent that these men had fallen victim to the hitherto unknown locust infection, the first instance of samurai being effected by the dark parasite.

After dispatching of their enemies and taking Kitsu Ikatsu prisoner for further questioning, the party arrived at the Ikoma histories to find the area burned by a lightning fast assault by the locusts. Ujiaki himself had been in the histories recovering the last will and testament of the fallen Ikoma lord when the attack occurred. The sage had been assaulted from behind and knocked unconscious as the true target was revealed: the will of Ikoma Ryozo was burned, creating a question as to who would rule in his stead.

After returning with Ujiaki to Kyuden Ikoma, the party found the court in distress. Matsu Tsuko and Akodo Toturi were arguing over who was to take the throne of the Ikoma family. Tsuko supported her student Ikoma Tsanuri while Toturi backed the son of Ryozo, Ikoma Rin. After a lengthy debate Toturi proclaimed that Rin should serve as Regent over the lands until a compromise between the familes could be reached. Also, due to his extreme expertise on the subject of the taint, Toturi elevated Kuni Kokuri to the position of head investigator in the lands of the Ikoma.

After the scene at the court, the characters moved to interrogate the captured Lion from the party which had ambushed them along the road to the imperial histories. In front of Kitsu Ikatsu’s cell the characters had their first encounter with Brother Ikyo who explained that he often visited the prisoners of the castle to spread the word of the brotherhood to the poor souls imprisoned within.

Upon passing into the cell, the characters found Ikatsu to be near catatonic, her clothing ripped and her hair covered in dirt and grime. Thinking the girl to still be infected with the taint, the characters proceeded with their interrogation. The woman claimed not to have been tainted, to not remember the time before her imprisonment, and further testing with jade proved this to be the case. As it was evidenced that the girl had been raped, the characters moved to find the culprit, eventually finding that it was Ikyo who was responsible for the girls violation, and also for her cure. Searching for the monk, revealed nothing of his current whereabouts.

The next day, the characters were called to the first court of Ikoma Rin’s rule. Rin made several declarations, not the least of which being that the body of Ikoma Ryozo was to not receive funeral rites, instead laying at the crossroads of the castle to rot. After the court the characters were approached by Ikoma Tsanuri who asked them to give the body of the fallen lord a proper funeral. The characters, who had decided to burn the body for the safety of the lands anyway, agreed to perform the ritual. Tsanuri and a handful of men were present as the body of the once great Lord of the Ikoma was set to rest in Yomi.

The next day, while bathing, [[:Daidoji Karo | Daidoji Karo]] brother to Daidoji Jiro and betrothed of Ikoma Rin entered the bathhouse and struck Jiro, demanding satisfaction for his brother’s and the party’s disregard for the edicts of his intended. Jiro dressed and moved to meet Rin and his brother in her private quarters where terms for the inevitable duel were set out. If Jiro was to lose, then Jiro, working under the orders of Tsanuri would be held responsible for disobeying the edict.

During the duel, Jiro fought valiantly, drawing his steel faster than his brother, but in the end failed to hit his mark. Despite crying out in rage (and losing face) Karo drew first blood and was proclaimed the victor. Rin then announced that for her insolence Ikoma Tsanuri would be stripped of her rank and title, condemned to wander the lands a ronin. Durring the fallout Kuni Kokuri fell from favor in the eyes of Rin, and while nothing was expressly said, it became evident that the witch hunter was no longer welcome in the castle as his luggage had been moved from his rooms.

Deciding that they would plead their case with Akodo Toturi the party struck out for the monastery at Satoshin-Mura where the honored lord of the Lion was reputed to be meeting with his sensei, Akodo Kage. While en route to the monastery the characters came across a messenger riding hard for the castle. The peasants, he explained, were in open revolt because the season’s harvest had yet to be released for consumption. The characters redoubled their efforts towards the monastery to save the besieged Lord. After arriving close the monastery, the characters found two scouts laying in ambush for them who were able to loose a signal before being stopped by the party. They explained that they had been sent by Lord Toturi as scouts against the encroaching peasant rebellion and that very soon the cavalry of Tsanuri would be riding to the road. After making peace with the scouts, the characters continued on towards the monastery where they were stopped at the gate by a young monk and a bow. They identified themselves and asked to see the lord Akodo. The gate guard contended that just moments before there had been a large contingent of shadowlands creature battering at their gates. The characters realized that the scouts had in fact been laying in wait to send a signal to the locust horde.

After being showed into the monastery, the characters were able to meet with Toturi and Tsanuri who explained the tactical situation of the valley. When Toturi called upon the council of the abbot, the characters realized that the man calling himself the abbot of this place was none other than Brother Ikyo. Taking the monk by surprise, the party was able to subdue and capture him. Interrogating the man revealed that he claimed to be the first of seven hands sent by the Dark Lord himself into the world of man to presage his coming. He was a herald sent to spread the word of Fu Leng. The characters decided that they would take him back to the Castle and let Kitsu Ikatsu deal with him. Along the way he made several attempts to communicate with the party, hinting that something may be wrong with the grain supply stored at Satoshin-Mura.

Upon reaching the town surrounding Kyuden-Ikoma the characters decided to visit a local merchant to purchase a wedding gift for the upcoming event. When they approached a merchant who seemed to stock several bells of different varieties they met once again with Otu who spends his time manning the outdoor shop when not traveling the river. It was made clear that his small store was a front for his illegal sake operation which he had been running for some time. After purchasing a few bells and an enormous amount of sake for their wedding gift, the characters begin to turn their eye to the wedding of Ikoma Rin and Daidoji Karo, with only vengeance on their mind.

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The Death of Ikoma Ryozo

The adventure began with dawn falling over the village of Satoshin Mura. The characters passed a night of ill dreams and ill luck as they were ambushed by the silent, ghostly white assassins. Kitsuki Minoru bore the brunt of the ill dreams as he was visited with a vision of his brother prophesying his failure.

After waking the characters moved quickly to find Bento to question him about their would-be murderers. Bento expressed deep apology and regret for the attack. After their conversation he sent his nephew, Goro to collect the bodies of the dead from his hut and to assist the characters in their further investigations. Upon touching the bodies however, Goro became the victim of a parasitic organism which seemed to explode from the base of the dead men’s skulls. Moving quickly Isawa Toshimoko was quick to stop the spread of the debilitating acid, but the damage had been done. Regretfully, the characters made the decision to burn the bodies in the hut, and to claim the head of the child Goro.

Having realized that he had forgotten his brother’s journals back at the castle, Minoru lead the party back to Kyuden Ikoma to search the quarters which had belonged to his brother. When they came upon his rooms, they found that the room had been ransacked and that more importantly, the journal had been taken. In answer to her early summons, the characters met with Yogo Amia who had come into possession of the journal, claiming that she had purchased it from a merchant in town. She was all too happy to return it to it’s rightful owner, but not before having a very long and very “revealing” conversation with Minoru, who promised to meet her on another night to talk to further with her.

After reclaiming the journal the characters met with Shinjo Tsuro who (as they had witnessed earlier) was a noted expert on insects. After showing the carapaces of the insects they had found at the village. Tsuro identified the shells as those of the Conhuu beetle and confirmed that he had brought them into the village in order to prove the story of Kenta his long time companion and servant. Kenta, told the story of Ryozo’s birth to the party and claimed that Ryozo was the source of the corruption in Satoshin Mura. In order to corroborate his claims, the characters resolved to test Ryozo’s possible corruption with jade and crystal. It was also decided that Minoru would spend yet another sleepless night translating his brother’s journals from memory.

In the morning the characters met further to discuss their plan, no sooner had they returned from the market bearing jade and a few crystals when Matsu Hokitare came to collect them to present their findings about the village. Thinking quickly, Isawa Toshimoko cast a spell over the man which he buried deep in his subconscious. Durring the trail Hokitare called the characters to task for their cruel treatment of his master’s peasantry as well as the inability of the party to find the cause of the lack of production. Toshimoko activated his spell causing Hokitare to publicly embarrass himself and to be excused, leaving Ryozo alone to answer for himself. When asked to touch the finger of jade provided Ryozo at first refused, but the real test had been a crystal sent with Tsuro which showed undoubtedly the curse of the Ikoma Daimyo.

Rather than submitting to his shame, Ryozo challenged Kakita Hidaku to a duel in the garden, which ended after only three strikes- the last of which claimed his head.

Though the source of the corruption had been found, the characters were left with a feeling of unfinished business. The Conchuu beetles could not have been twisted by themselves, and though Ryozo’s presence may have been a blight on the land, there seems to be a far more sinister shadow creeping over the lands of the Ikoma…

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The Bitter Failure of Kitsuki Motaro

The scene opened at the Seppuku ceremony of Kistsuki Motaro. The players, Yogo Amia, Mirumoto Amaya, Matsu Hokitare, Shinjo Tsuro, and Ikoma Ryozo sat in attendance of the act.

After the ceremony, the players spoke briefly with Mirumoto Amaya who seemed very bitter and was unable to provide much information as to why Motaro had committed Seppuku other than the details that Motaro had revealed to Minoru. She is understandably upset to have seen her charge fall while she could do nothing but stand and watch.

After speaking with Amaya, the players sought an audience with Ikoma Ryozo to discuss picking up where they left off. They spoke with Matsu Hokitare and were granted their audience after some debate. Ryozo was less than thrilled at the prospect of allowing another investigator to look into the situation at Satoshin Mura, least of all one who by all reckoning was lesser than Kitsuki Motaro and traveled with members of the hated Crane clan. Ryozo allowed the characters access to the village only if Minoru swore an oath to give up his clan and family, becoming ronin if he should fail.

To reach Satoshin Mura the characters chartered a boat down river with Otu who seemed less than thrilled at the prospect of returning to his family home. Along the way he spoke of the villages primary imports and exports as well as the rumors that the village was haunted. Upon reaching the village he promised to return in two days to collect the party and then vanished up the river.

While in the village the characters met with Bento, Doshin of Satoshin Mura. When the players first came across him he was busy trying to fend off a mob of unruly townsfolk who were harassing him and the two Lion Samurai that had come to collect a portion of the annual harvest. The players disbanded the mob and followed Bento to his hut on the edge of the grain fields. The group spoke at length of the recent events and Bento offered his home for the characters to stay in during their time in the village.

Using what little light they had left, the characters split up to search the village for the cause of the decreased harvest and consequential famine which had already begun to affect the villagers. The only possible clues they found were the tiny rice paper thin leavings of a hither-to unknown insect.

Night quickly found its way across the village and the characters retired to Bento’s hut for the night. After setting the watch everything seems normal until they were ambushed by 6 men, all dressed in ghostly white rags and wearing white body powder. The most disturbing detail about the attack was that all of the assailants were ghostly silent the entire time.

In the end the characters are left with more questions than they set out to solve. Who or what are these ghostly men? What of the journals Motaro spoke of before his death? How did these unidentified insect carcasses get into the fields of the Ikoma?

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