[dragon] Bi-Weekly Fiction #38
M S Colson
damnukids at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 6 17:50:13 EDT 2002
By Rich Wulf
Eight years ago...
"I am sorry that I must be the one to bear you this
news," Hida Rohiteki said, her voice grim. "Your
mother wished to be the one to tell you, but you know
that this war requires her presence on the front
Kuon said nothing. He preferred to let his brother do
the speaking. Kuroda was better at it anyway; he was
more like Father, with a cunning mind and a quick wit.
On cue, Kuroda nodded and stepped forward. "Thank you,
Rohiteki-sama," Kuroda said in a quiet voice. Though
his expression was calm and controlled, Kuon could
tell that his brother's grief reflected his own.
Perhaps it was even greater. It was no secret that
Kuroda was his father's son while Kuon was his
"Who did this?" Kuon asked in a quiet voice. "Who is
our father's killer?"
"We do not know," Rohiteki said. "Yasamura-sama slew
the enemy general and had routed the spirit armies.
The Battle of Drowned Honor was all but won when he
was struck in the throat by an arrow. He died
immediately, though his leadership allowed us to seize
Ryoko Owari from the Hantei's army."
"We do not even know the name of my father's killer?"
Kuon said, fighting back the slow rage he could feel
building inside. " How can we avenge our father if we
do not know who slew him?"
"We fight on," Kuroda said, looking at Kuon with a
sad smile. "Father would have wanted that. Vengeance
is not the way of the Crab. Vengeance interferes with
duty. Without duty, there is nothing." Kuroda gestured
toward the Shadowlands. "Would you step away from the
Wall and leave the Empire to its fate so that you can
bury your blade in father's killer?"
Kuon shrugged. "I am just one samurai, Kuroda. The
Wall will not fall without me."
"All of us are 'just one samurai,' brother," Kuroda
said patiently, "but when we stand together, we are
Kuon locked eyes with his brother for a long moment
then finally nodded. He could feel the rage begin to
burn away, as it always did in the face of his
"You are right, Kuroda," he said in a sorrowful voice.
"You are right."
Rohiteki quietly departed, leaving the twins alone
with their grief.
The Present Day
Hida Kuon sat in the shadows of a massive watchtower,
staring out at the countless fires that lined the Kaiu
Wall. Only three days ago, the forces of the Dark Lord
controlled this tower. Now it belonged to the Crab
once more, though the price had been great. He rolled
a wooden figurine between his fingers and chewed his
lower lip, contemplating the battle to come. At the
sound of footsteps, he glanced up, dark eyes
glittering in the torchlight.
"Lord Kuon," whispered a soft voice.
A slim figure stepped forward, clad in light armor
scarred and scorched from today's battle. Even here,
well behind Crab lines, she carried a long-handled axe
in one hand.
"Konichiwa, Reiha-san," Kuon said.
Hida Reiha looked at Kuon thoughtfully. "Kiyoshi said
that you had left your tent. The guards did not know
where you had gone, and they were becoming worried.
I... I knew you would come here."
"My brother died here," Kuon said quietly. He clasped
the wooden figurine in his fist. "In the tunnels below
"I did not think you were one to dwell upon the
past," Reiha said. "Your brother's soul watches over
us from Yomi. Honor him, and fight on."
"Kuroda," Kuon said sadly. He looked at Reiha with a
faint smile. "He was always fond of you, you know. I
can hardly blame him. You have the strength of a Crab
and the grace of a Crane. Steel wrapped in silk, a
flower growing in the heart of the Shadowlands."
Reiha looked slightly embarrassed. "I thank you, my
lord, but poetry does not become you."
"True enough, but I see no reason not to be honest,"
Kuon said. "Come tomorrow, we may be dead. The plans
have been laid, the weapons prepared. All that is left
is the waiting - -we should enjoy ourselves while we
Reiha grinned. "Good to see you acting more like
yourself," she said with a small laugh. "I will tell
the others that you are all right." She turned and
walked back the way she came, pausing to look back
over her shoulder. "I will see you at the camp, Lord
Kuon smiled and bowed to her, but his smile faded as
soon as she was lost from sight. His shoulders slumped
as he leaned against the wall of the watchtower, a
tormented look spreading across his features. He
looked down at the rough figurine in his hand. It was
carved quite clumsily, only vaguely resembling
Fukurokujin, the Fortune of Wisdom. The figurine was
badly worn, with one hand broken off and deep
scratches on the face. Even yet, Kuon knew it at a
glance. He had given the same figurine to his brother
over one year ago, shortly before they had departed
for Winter Court. After retaking the watchtower he had
found it in a shrine on the top floor. The meaning was
Kuroda was alive - and he rode with the Shadowlands.
"I do not envy the decision you must make, Kuon,"
whispered a sinuous voice.
Kuon's tetsubo appeared in his hand in a flash. He
stood with the weapon held high over one shoulder as a
thin samurai appeared from nothing. His armor was a
deep blood red and his face was painted with the
colors of a berserker. Kuon could see the stones of
the Wall through his feet, and the torchlights behind
him shone through his armor.
"Lower your weapon," the samurai said, "I mean no
harm." He extended one hand toward Kuon. The man's
fingers were covered with blood.
"Who are you?" Kuon growled in a low voice, keeping
his tetsubo ready. He felt that he should attack, or
at least call for help, but some instinct told him to
"I am your uncle, Kuon," the man said. "I am Sukune."
"The kagemusha," Kuon said, eyes narrowing. "The
"Your mother told you about me," Sukune replied.
"She told me that you weren't a shiryo but you came
back from the dead anyway," Kuon said. "To me that
makes you little better than a yokai, or one of the
Steel Chrysanthemum's spirits. What do you want from
"Stubborn, aren't you?" Sukune asked, his tone mildly
surprised. "You are surely your mother's son. I have
returned to aid you."
"Fine, then," Kuon said. "Find a tetsubo. I plan to
attack two hours before dawn."
"That is not how I intend to help you," Sukune said.
"A greater battle than this awaits me."
"Oh?" Kuon laughed out loud. "What greater duty has a
Crab than the Wall?"
"Fu Leng has escaped the Realm of the Dead," Sukune
said in a terse voice. "He lays siege to the gates of
Heaven as we speak. He has summoned an army of demons
to fight beside him, an army that makes the one on
this Wall look like a swarm of gnats in comparison."
Sukune threw out one bloody hand in a sweeping
gesture. "I have little time, nephew, so if you are
done turning your misdirected anger against me I would
like to help. Look into your heart, boy, you know I am
who I claim to be."
"I see," Kuon said, lowering his tetsubo. "I... am
Sukune nodded slowly. "Good," he said. "It is as you
fear. Your brother Kuroda now fights in the Legions of
Daigotsu. He has become one of the Lost, though his
soul is not beyond redemption."
"He can be saved?" Kuon asked.
"Not his body but perhaps his soul," Sukune replied.
"His will is too strong. He rebels against the Dark
Lord, undermining the effectiveness of his armies
Kuon laughed ruefully. "So he let me take back the
towers?" he asked, shaking his head bitterly. "When
the day comes that the Horde must let us win the Crab
have truly failed."
"You do not see your own strength, Kuon," Sukune
said. "It is precisely because of your bond with your
twin that Daigotsu has been unable to fully corrupt
him. It was a combination of the strength of Kuroda's
love for you and the strength of your armies that
allowed you to take back the Wall. Kuroda may have
given you an opportunity, but you were the one to
seize it, and I commend you, nephew."
"Daigotsu is no fool," Kuon said. "Even if he had not
realized Kuroda would be so difficult to corrupt, he
must know by now."
Sukune nodded. "When you face Kuroda again, he will
show no such weakness. Daigotsu has turned his efforts
into transforming your brother into a creature of
"Is there any way to save him?" Kuon asked.
"There is only one way that Kuroda will ever be freed
to find the fields of Yomi," Sukune answered. "Your
brother must be slain by one with whom he shares a
strong bond. One whom he loves, and loves him in
"So it must be me," Kuon said. He paused for a
moment. "Or Reiha."
"Do you believe she could bring herself to do the
deed?" Sukune asked.
"No," Kuon said immediately. "She could not kill
Kuroda, no matter what became of him. It must be me."
"Then hold forth Yuruginai, the Celestial Sword of the
Crab," Sukune said.
Kuon set his tetsubo aside and drew the katana from
"You have never wielded this sword," Sukune said,
extending one hand toward the shimmering surface of
"I do not feel that I am worthy of it," Kuon said
Sukune smiled. "Self-doubt can be a powerful enemy.
Conquer that, and all else will seem minimal in
comparison." The kagemusha clasped his fingers around
the blade. A golden light suffused the weapon. "I have
placed a blessing on this star-filled steel that will
allow you to pierce Kyofu's defenses. All else is in
your hands. Be strong, nephew, the destiny of the Crab
lies in your hands."
"Thank you, uncle," Kuon said, eyes fixed upon the
There was no response. When Kuon looked up, Sukune
The camp was still dark as Hida Kuon strode into the
tent where his advisors had gathered. Hida Hitoshi
stood in the far left corner, chewing thoughtfully on
a handful of dried fruit. Hiruma Todori, Kaiu Umasu,
and Hida Sakamoto sat in a circle around the low table
where the map of the Wall had been laid, speaking in
low voices as they laid out the plan of attack.
Mirumoto Hyosuke, the young samurai the Dragon had
exchanged for Hitoshi's cousin, Hogai, watched the
lieutenants with wide, curious eyes. Iuchi Hari,
emissary of the Unicorn, paced the room with a nervous
energy, arms folded behind his back. Hida Rohiteki and
Kuni Kiyoshi sat in the far left corner, eyes closed
in meditation as they communed with the kami. Hida
Sunao, a comrade of Kuon's father, sat dozing just
beside the door. The old samurai sat up with a start
and yawned mightily as he realized the Crab Champion
"Sleep well?" Kuon asked, clapping the old samurai on
the shoulder with a chuckle.
Sunao grumbled something inarticulate in response.
Kuon heard something about "too early."
"Come now, Sunao, haven't you lived long enough?"
Hitoshi asked with a wry smile.
"With all due respect, Sunao has a good point," Hida
Sakamoto said. The young officer rose quickly, running
one hand through his short, thinning hair. "We have
been laying siege for three days without any
noticeable gains. The men are exhausted. Mustering
this early hardly helps morale. We should at least
wait until sunrise."
"Agreed," Sunao grumbled. "There's time enough to die
in the afternoon!"
"You may yet get your wish," Kuon said. "If our
shugenja are not yet prepared, we will have to
postpone the attack until tomorrow."
"We are ready," Hida Rohiteki said, opening her eyes
"This ritual was not easy," added Kiyoshi. The Witch
Hunter's face was painted in garish makeup, his unruly
hair tied in long braids. "The kami are disturbed
since the attack on Otosan Uchi. There has been some
profound shift in the balance of the elements."
"I have not sensed its like since Oblivion's Gate
opened," Rohiteki said. "Evil portents."
"So long as the spell works," Kuon said. "Umasu,
where do our forces stand to the east?"
The Kaiu daimyo's face was grim. "A messenger just
last night reported that we were pushed back once
again. My son set Kaiu Shiro ablaze rather than let it
fall into the hands of the Horde. If we cannot take
back the Wall soon, Daigotsu will continue to extend
his grasp into our lands."
Kuon nodded. "As I thought. We must retake the Wall
soon, or never. Hari-san, where do the Baraunghar
The swarthy Unicorn smiled and toyed with an amulet
tied around his wrist. "General Lixue waits at the
southern front. Our cavalry is eager to sharpen their
blades on the bones of the Lost. When you are prepared
to move, her armies will attack in perfect
"She is nearly two days away," Hyosuke said. "How
quickly can you send word?"
Hari gave the Dragon a pained look.
Todori laughed. "Never ask a Unicorn 'how quick,'
especially an Iuchi. It's just insulting."
"Todori-san," Kuon said, sitting across from the
Hiruma. "It is good to see you. I did not expect to
find you here."
"Lord Masagaro sent me," Todori said, quickly looking
at the table.
"What is the status of Hiruma Castle?" Kuon asked.
Todori did not answer for a moment. When he finally
met the Crab Lord's eyes, his face was grim. Kuon
could see the pain and exhaustion in the scout's eyes.
"We are under siege," he said. "The Oni Lord, Shikibu,
has turned his attentions to the castle. Lord Masagaro
fears we cannot hold out for much longer."
The tent fell silent as all eyes turned to the
"What?" Hyosuke exclaimed. "Todori-san, why did you
not tell us sooner?"
Todori looked evenly at Kuon. "Because my lord
commanded that this information be given only to Lord
Kuon. He asked me to procure a promise, my lord."
"Ask, and it is his," Kuon said forcefully. "By my
mother's sword I swear it."
"That you promise not to aid us," Todori said.
"What?" Hitoshi roared, spitting a cherry pit on the
ground. "Ridiculous! We would not abandon the Hiruma!
My armies will march there this very day! We will
fight back the Oni Lord's horde!"
"Yes," Todori said, looking back at Hitoshi, "but
without your forces here, the Wall would be lost. My
family knows its duty."
"Damn you, Hiruma!" Hitoshi said, hands balled into
"This is madness, Todori," Umasu said. "We will not
abandon your family."
"Lord Masagaro has already made his decision," Todori
said, "and Lord Kuon has given his promise."
"Damn you, Hiruma!" Hitoshi repeated, his face dark
red in anger. "Let us help you!"
"No," Kuon said in a commanding voice. He stood,
forcing all those in the tent to look up toward him.
"Todori is right. Shikibu attacks Hiruma Castle
because we lost the Wall. He hopes to distract us. If
we abandon the Wall to save them, tomorrow they will
take another castle, another village. The Horde must
be pushed back from the Wall, here and now."
"We cannot abandon the Hiruma, Lord Kuon," Hida Sunao
"We will not," Kuon said. He turned to Iuchi Hari.
"Hari-san. What of the magic you use to communicate
with Lixue. Can it be used to contact others?"
"Of course," Hari said.
"Then send word to Friendly Traveler Village. Tell
Yasuki Jinn-Kuen that Hiruma Castle is in danger. Tell
him to arrange to send a unit of troops, as swiftly as
"Your word is my command, Lord Kuon," Hari said with
a graceful bow.
"My lord, Jinn-Kuen is no warrior," Hitoshi said. "He
is a bureaucrat, managing our recovery of the Yasuki
lands. He has only a few courtiers and merchants at
his disposal. The rest have been withdrawn for this
assault. We have no troops in Friendly Traveler
Kuon nodded. "But the Crane do."
Sakamoto nodded quickly. "This is true!" he said. "My
intelligence reports indicate that Daidoji Rekai
herself recently relocated to the village with a unit
of Iron Warriors in order to keep closer tabs on the
Shogun from the safety of the truce that protects the
village. They would almost certainly be able to save
A slow smile of hope spread across Hiruma Todori's
"You would beg the Crane for aid, after what they
have done to us?" Hitoshi asked, surprised.
Kuon glared down at the smaller man and nodded.
"Without hesitation," he said. "Would you turn them
away and let the Hiruma die?"
"The Crane are the enemy as surely as the
Shadowlands!" Hitoshi shouted.
"Your priorities are flawed, Hitoshi," Kuon said in a
"They murdered your mother, Kuon!" Hitoshi snapped.
A loud crack echoed through the tent. In an instant,
Hida Hitoshi lay flat on his back. Kuon massaged the
knuckles of his right hand. "My mother died
honorably," Kuon said fiercely. "You will speak no
more of her, Hitoshi. The Horde is our real enemy. Do
not force me to remind you again."
Hitoshi looked up at Kuon, his face filled with
shame. "I am sorry, my Lord," he said with true
regret. "I was foolish."
"You were angry," Kuon said, extending his hand to
help Hitoshi to his feet. "Anger is a weapon. Do not
set it aside; save it for the beasts that have taken
the Wall. It is time to go to war."
Kuon stalked across the Wall. The chaos parted as he
strode for the base of the tower. The Crab stepped
aside to let him pass; the Horde simply moved away in
terror. His tetsubo dripped blood and ichor from those
who had not moved aside quickly enough. A Lost samurai
was daring enough to charge the Crab Lord. A single
blow from his tetsubo left the Tainted samurai's head
buried in his ribcage. The Lost warrior fell dead with
a thud. Kuon kicked his body over the side of the wall
and continued toward the next tower.
Overhead, the sun had not yet fully risen. An eerie
darkness covered the wall, broken only by an orange
haze in the east. The fires of the stolen watchtower
still burned brightly, and at the base their commander
stood. Kuon was almost disappointed when he saw the
leader of the forces here was not his brother. Instead
it was a nine-foot tall ogre wielding a jagged tree
trunk in one hand.
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