The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Ch. Three

Presenting the Next Chapter of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow Storyline


Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome to Week 5 of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event!

We have received word from the frontlines—the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow rages on, and Akuma no Oni has yet to be defeated. Your voices have been heard, and the champions defending Rokugan from the threat of the Shadowlands hordes are spurred on by your support. Read on to discover the results of the most recent round of voting.

For those of you who are joining us for the first time, or if you missed a previous part of the story, you can learn more about the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event and the single elimination tournament associated with it here. 

Chapter Three

By Robert Denton III

14th Day of the Month of Togashi, the Temple of the Ninth Kami, the Shadowlands
Isawa Tadaka blinked at the ancient paper. It was gibberish. Lines and symbols. Nothing more.

Asako Tsuki gasped. She unfurled it across the table. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Yori was right,” she whispered. “This is Shosuro’s account, written in one of the Asako family cyphers…by Lady Asako herself!” She pointed to a faded personal stamp in the corner. “This is her chop. I’ve seen it back home, at the library!”

She traced her finger to two others. “And this is Kuni’s personal stamp. And this…” She inhaled excitedly. “That is the seal of Togashi-no-Kami! This is a priceless artifact!”

So Yori had been genuine. If Tadaka had decided to turn the Tainted daimyō in, they never would have found this. His head swam contemplating what could have happened instead.

Spike squinted her bulbous eyes at the paper, not quite getting Tsuki’s excitement. “What’s it say?”

“It says that…well…hmm.” She bit her lip. “Perhaps I am reading it wrong, but I think it says Shinsei’s plan was to buy time. Time for ‘Togashi’s Duel.’ Time for the next Day of Thunder.” She frowned. “But the Day of Thunder already happened.”

A thump. Something stirred in a dark corner.

“But listen,” Tsuki continued, “Shosuro said that the elements would fall out of balance, and a lost general will rise from death. That the Hantei will be slain by his own blood, and those he most trusted would betray his legacy. The dragons will abandon the heartland, siblings will draw blades against each other, and when it has all come to pass, the Ninth will return to claim his birthright.

“But when the day is darkest, seven thunders will be reborn from the Great Clans. They will decide the fate of a thousand years on the next Day of Thunder.” She trembled. “It’s a lost prophecy…”

Tadaka pushed Tsuki just before the claws could tear out her throat.

A shamble of a human being stood before them. His arms, skeletal and crystalized, ended in stone claws. His robes, tattered and moldy, bore the insignia of an Elemental Master. Stale motes hung thick in the air around him, carrying the scent of decay. Where his eyes had once been, now three glowing orbs blazed in rolling fire.

And as Tadaka grimly snapped his line of jade beads, freeing a handful of orbs, his eyes lingered on the ancient man’s face. It was a face he knew from his dreams. It belonged to a man he’d never met, but one who had shaped his very future and forged his destiny. A man who’d spoken to him countless times before, ever since he first lit a stick of incense and pressed his hands together.

His lost ancestor. Isawa Akuma.

Except it wasn’t. The man’s face was a sculpture of regret, but his thin frame was worn away by years of unnatural life, and the presence of kansen surrounded him like the stench of a corpse. He spoke without opening his mouth. His voice rent the inside of Tadaka’s skull.

You should have listened to your master.

And finally, Tadaka understood.

“So,” he said. “You are the demon that stole my ancestor’s soul.”

Yours will be a suitable replacement for his.

This was the source of Akuma’s power, wasn’t it? The Oni Lord existed in two places at once: his demonic form, and the body of the mortal that had surrendered his name.

You were born to be mine, Tadaka. That is why I led you here.

Asako Tsuki scrambled to the fallen scroll and hugged it to her chest. Horror painted her features as she stared at the possessed dead man from behind Spike, who hissed loudly and glanced frequently at the door. Tsuki’s fugue only broke when Tadaka removed the porcelain mask and pressed it onto her face. She blinked and met his eyes.

The Tainted beings in this place would ignore her so long as she kept it on. That was, after all, how they’d gotten this far. Then, Tadaka tucked the remaining jade beads into her collar. It was enough for a week, perhaps.

“Go,” he commanded. “Both of you. Take the prophecy back. You must tell the Empire what you’ve learned.” He nodded in the ratling’s direction. “I leave this to you, Spike. Protect her, and get her back home.”

“She’ll live a long time. I promise.” She grabbed Tsuki’s sleeve. “Come on!”

But Tsuki was rooted to the spot, shaking her head, as if trying to wake herself. “I can’t leave you. I can’t. Please, it’s too much.” She shuddered at Spike’s frenzied tugging, torn between her promises.

Weak. She will never survive. Her bones will bleach in the sun.

“You can.” Tadaka smiled. “You will.”

Tsuki trembled. Just a librarian from some dusty corner. Just a victim of circumstance, one who had stumbled into a dark corner of the world where she never should have been.

The hope of the Empire, cradled in her hands. It would not be an easy journey back. But she could make it. She had to.

“We have to give everything,” Tadaka said. “That is the oath we took. We are the servants of both mortals and gods. You give so others have a chance.”

The light returned to her eyes. “I’ll try.” She swallowed. Nodded. “My life, my soul, for the Phoenix.”

Tadaka turned to his possessed ancestor and cast aside his sash, revealing his ruined face. “For Rokugan.”

Spike yanked her away. Their feet echoed heavily throughout the temple. Tsuki didn’t look back, even as Akuma raised his skeletal hands, and the stone collapsed behind her.

Near Cherry Blossom Snow Lake

Shiba Tsukune flicked black blood from her blade and cupped her throbbing eye. This wasn’t the first time that pain had blossomed behind the eye soaked in the blood of angry ghosts. The first sensation upon waking from nightmares was an icy stab in the right socket. And whenever an argument nearby became emotional, the heat there would swell and make her dizzy, and she would remember the endless battlescape and the undying combatants.

But now, the pressure was so great, she felt as though her eye would burst from her face.

It was the second wave that broke the line: dead-eyed samurai in Crab armor, shrugging off arrows and blades, a trisected diamond painted onto their chests. Once known as “the Damned,” now they were thralls beneath the control of Akuma no Oni. Goblins swept up behind them, dividing the defenders and shattering their formations like porcelain. They would have crashed into the command line, had O-Ushi not planted her samurai between them, grimly engaging an enemy that no longer felt pain.

And now there was no strategy, no disciplined ranks, no carefully executed countermoves, and no mindful eyes watching for orders. There was only the flash of claws and blades and blank stares and the screams of the dying.

“You still there, Tsukune?”

Tsukune blinked her thoughts away. O-Ushi’s back still pressed into her own, the taller woman lifting her massive warhammer up from the shattered body of its latest victim. The sounds of battle still surrounded them, but their efforts had made a moment of respite, an eye in the storm of fighting.

She exhaled slow, until she could think clearly. “I am.” She looked across the hewn goblins and bone piles. “Should we reform the unit?”

“Not happening,” O-Ushi replied. “We’ve been separated too long. Now they’ll have to fend for themselves. Battles eventually devolve into this.” She grinned over her shoulder and down at the Phoenix Champion. “Not quite like what you’re used to, huh?”

That was an understatement. This was not at all like the orderly procession of duels that she’d witnessed in her time among the Lion Clan, nor the bloodless capture and exchange of keeps that marked the Shiba’s campaigns in her father’s time. Even skirmishes against bandits and the swarms of angry ghosts at Cliffside Shrine had been more orderly. This was as close to chaos as she’d ever seen. Did the Crab really fight their wars like this?

“The Phoenix are not prepared.” That is what you’d said, wasn’t it, Tadaka?

“We can’t do this alone,” Tsukune spoke. “Being divided is how we got here. We need to form some kind of spearhead. Work together.”

“We’ve done our part,” O-Ushi remarked. “We can only hope we’ve drawn him out.”

Tsukune stiffened. Him. The one commanding the Shadowlands forces.

“Only one thing is going to win this battle now,” O-Ushi continued. “The death of—”

Her voice stopped. Tsukune felt her pull away.

And then a heavy hand slammed into Tsukune’s shoulder, sweeping her down and away from two glossy insectoid pincers.

She rolled out from under a shelled bulk suspended on segmented legs. Curling onto her knees, her breath left her as a raptorial appendage cleaved the shaft of O-Ushi’s hastily lifted hammer, then smashed sideways into her face, sending her sprawling and the warhammer spinning away.

The creature looked like two horse-sized helmet beetles had fused with a praying mantis the size of a rickshaw. It was a scramble of insect legs and a glossy shell, with three glowing eyes burning above a pair of gigantic pincers.

O-Ushi grappled with the pincers as they crushed her torso in a vice-like grip, her armor splintering with the pressure. She grit her teeth as bladed mantis arms struck her shoulder plates, again and again, tearing away cloth and iron with each strike, like axes against a tree. The strain showed on her face as she tried to free herself from the pincers, but she could only halt their steady crush.

Two elongated jaws jutted from the creature’s face like a bear trap. Abandoning the pincers, O-Ushi just barely caught the jaws before they could clamp down on her head. Blood trickled from between her fingers as a massive fang sliced into her hand. She glared defiantly into the creature’s mouth.

A dozen human hands poured out. They grabbed at her face, tangled their fingers in her hair, clawed at her eyes. She screamed.

The sword Ofushikai leapt into Tsukune’s hands. She slashed at the creature, again and again. Steel resounded against black chitin, the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer against the anvil.

Nothing. Not even a scratch! Tsukune reeled back, the creature paying her absolutely no attention at all.

She couldn’t hurt it. Ofushikai, blessed ancestral blade of her clan and home to generations of Phoenix Clan Champions, did nothing to harm it. How was that possible?

“How do I kill it?” she shouted.

O-Ushi struggled against a rain of hands and claws. She shouted back, “Try jade! Between the armor!”

Tsukune wrenched her jade prayer beads from around her wrist and wrapped them around her sword’s hand guard. Carefully she aimed, finding a seam in the creature’s plated armor. With all her strength, she drove it in.

It stopped only inches deep. Stuck. She wrenched with all she had, but the sword wouldn’t budge.

“It’s not working!” she shouted.

O-Ushi jammed her elbow into the creature’s jaw and pointed at her discarded hammer.

Tsukune sprang for it, abandoning her sword. There was still time. It could break through the shell, and then…

An insect leg whipped out, kicking her behind the knees. Another struck her in the stomach. She jerked forward, air forced from her lungs.

Whatever O-Ushi’s cry, Tsukune could not hear it. Only the hammering of her heart in her own head, her lungs desperately twisting as they tried to fill with air. She couldn’t breathe. The world was spinning. She was falling. Falling.

And as O-Ushi’s blood trickled through the cracks of her splintering armor, and the vice-like grip of the creature’s pincers slowly overcame her, Tsukune could only think of how Isawa Tadaka, her former charge and Master of Earth, had been right all along. For all their expertise, for all their knowledge and the gifts of the kami, despite their position as the Voice of Heaven and the emissaries of gods, the Phoenix could do nothing about this enemy. They were helpless. Powerless. Weak.

Just like you, Tsukune, who cannot even protect your charge, who cannot even protect your friends. Tadaka is alone and your friends will die and the land will be swept in blood and it’s all your fault. It should have been you who died and not your brother, and Tetsu should be Champion instead of you, and if you had been better than this, if you had tried harder, none of this would have—

Tsukune closed her eyes. “No. You don’t fool me, demon.”

Whatever spoke in her mind was silenced.

She opened her eyes. Before her, the shimmering image of a Phoenix Clan Champion, gleaming in his gossamer armor, reached out his hand.

We are here. I am here. Find your strength again. Call for me.

Tsukune rose. Whatever doubt was once there, now it was gone. She turned to the demon and reached out her hand, calling for Ofushikai.

It replied, cutting through the demon to rest in her grip.

A shower of ichor soaked the ground as the bisected demon collapsed around Hida O-Ushi. The warrior fell onto her knees, then sideways onto the grass. She lay still.

Tsukune rushed to O-Ushi’s side. Blood trickled from her lips and through breaks in her armor, her chest rising and falling slowly. But she was grinning, like someone had just told her a bawdy joke.

“Not bad.”

“You’re hurt,” Tsukune said. “Don’t move. I’ll find a medic.”

O-Ushi gripped Tsukune’s sleeve, forcing herself to a sitting position. “No. Every moment counts, now.” She pressed a finger of jade, her last one, into Tsukune’s hand. “Take this, and what’s left in my warhammer over there. There’s some jade in the business end.”

 Tsukune’s breath caught in her throat.

“If the big oni have appeared, it means that he’s here, somewhere on this battlefield. You have to end this. Cut the head off the snake. His forces will fall apart.” She coughed, a red trickle worming down her chin. “He shouldn’t be hard to find. He’ll be the spiked mountain with the glowing eyes, the kaijū directing his underlings.”

Now that was a new word. Kaijū. Yet even without seeing the characters used to write it, Tsukune somehow knew exactly what it meant. A giant legendary creature. A being from myth and nightmare.

Akuma no Oni.

Tsukune hesitated. She wasn’t about to leave O-Ushi, injured and bleeding, vulnerable and alone, on a battlefield.

O-Ushi rolled her eyes. “I’ve lived through worse than this, Tsukune. Don’t worry about me.” Her chuckle broke into a cough. “Damn, you’re just like Shizuko was. Come on, you know this is more important than any one of us.”

Tsukune closed her eyes. The injured woman’s gaze was too heavy to hold with the burden now resting on her shoulders. “O-Ushi, I’m sorry. You’re injured because of me.”

A heavy hand rested on her shoulder. “Call me Yoritoko. And hold your head a little higher. You just defeated an Armored Windblade Demon—a Kamakiri-zaka. That’s no small feat for a beginner.”

“Beginner!?” Tsukune puffed out her cheeks. “I’m pretty sure we’re the same age.”

A passing medic found O-Ushi without trouble. He only had to follow her laughter.

Katsuo lifted the broken haft away from the goblin’s body. He was certain it was dead, but he struck it a few more times to be sure. Of course, just because it was dead didn’t mean it wouldn’t stand up again later. He’d confirmed that with his own eyes, and wished he hadn’t.

He frowned at the splintered remains of his spear. He’d need a new weapon if he was going to stand any chance of seeing the end of this day.

Katsuo searched around him for any sign of the others. He was supposed to be the one leading them, but he had no idea where he might find them. That thing, the horrible massive mountain of spikes and teeth, had appeared so suddenly, its cold shadow sweeping over them, that he barely remembered how the ground broke when it landed, crushing the Kaiu’s ballista beneath it. But he did remember how it raised its clawed hands to the sky, and how the bodies of those felled across the field slowly staggered to their feet. Within moments he was swept away, alone with new enemies.

A part of him wanted to run away, to put this place far behind him. But the part that was in control remembered the promise he’d made to Tomoko just a few days ago, the ruins of his village all those months past, and the look on Shiro’s face as he died. Maybe there was nothing he could do here now, with just a broken spear and no unit beside him. But he could not abandon the others. He didn’t want anyone else to suffer what befell his home. He couldn’t stand by and allow it.


Katsuo spun into the path of a towering man in Crab armor, a massive iron tetsubō held aside in a one-handed grip. Although his insignia was hidden by mud and his armor splattered with red and black, the man’s face and voice were burned deep into Katsuo’s memory, the same man who had barked drills at him and the others for hours at a time. This was Hida Yakamo, the one Crab he’d hoped never to see again after today.

Yakamo glanced at the bodies around him. Fallen samurai and goblins, some still gripping their weapons. In this slight depression in the ground, they were temporarily sheltered from the battle. “You’re that farmer boy who volunteered. Where is your unit?”

Katsuo found his voice with some difficulty. “I was separated. This gigantic monster broke us up. Raised the dead, used them like puppets—”

Yakamo seemed lit from within. “Where?” he demanded. “Where did it go? Which way?”

Katsuo gestured with his broken spear.

The massive Hida seemed to consider this. The sounds of battle drew closer, and above the lip of the hill, Katsuo saw a few samurai in blue armor engaging with a rabble of goblins. He became suddenly aware of how exposed both he and Yakamo were in this moment.

The memory of his lost village came to him again. Shiro’s dead stare.

“Hida-sama,” he uttered, “Was that creature responsible for what happened to my home?”

Yakamo studied Katsuo’s features. “I cannot say for certain. But perhaps. Do you want your chance to avenge them, boy?”

His fists gripped the broken haft. He nodded.

Shouts from atop the hill. The clashing of steel. The skirmish poured over the side, goblins locked with outnumbered samurai.

“Then follow me,” Yakamo said. A meaty backhand knocked the spear haft out of Katsuo’s hand. It happened so suddenly, the boy could only blink at his empty hands. “That won’t do. Take this.” The Hida wrenched a katana from the body of a fallen samurai, then tossed it into Katsuo’s stunned grip.

Katsuo stared at the sheathed sword with open horror and awe. He’d never held a katana before. It was heavier than he’d expected, although no more so than the farming implements he’d used back home. His fingers curled around a handle wrapped in cured manta ray leather.

Over the hilltop, another samurai emerged, blood staining the mane of her armored helm. Her right arm hung limply from her side; although she held a blade in the other, Katsuo could see that she was injured. He froze in her vision, watching as her surprise was overtaken by the curled lips of anger.

“Yakamo!” she shouted, pointing at Katsuo. “Did you just give that farmer a katana?!”

He nearly dropped the sword right there.

The woman marched down the hill. “That is a violation of Imperial edict! I could cut him down for that. I could cut you both down!”

Yakamo sneered. “By all means, Tsuko. Perhaps the next Emperor will thank you when these fields are overrun with goblins!”

The woman cursed, regarding Katsuo with open distain. “Look at him! He cannot even hold it properly. He’s frozen with fear. He’ll be a greater danger to others than—”

“I’m not afraid,” Katsuo said.

The woman—a Lion samurai, Katsuo now realized—seemed taken aback for a moment.

The memory came again, fresh. His dead friend. The Lost, on horseback, with their menacing blades. His hands balled into fists around the sword.

“I’m not afraid!” he shouted. “And I can fight them, just like you can!”

Matsu Tsuko crossed the gap in an instant. Her sword flashed a bright arc.

Katsuo flinched, shucking the sheath from his clutched blade in a panicked frenzy. Pure instinct brought the sword between them.

His gritted teeth rattled as her blade clashed against his. The jolt shook through his shoulder and down his arm. He buckled with the force and fell to one knee. He blinked at a razor edge suspended inches from his face. Had he been only a moment slower…

But just beyond their locked steel, Tsuko’s expression was…amusement? Surprise? It was hard to tell. She seemed only to express herself through her eyes, as if her own face was a mask to hide her thoughts.

Yakamo barked a laugh. “Ha! Did you see that? He’s a natural.”

“He dropped his form instantly,” she replied.

“He’s a natural,” Yakamo insisted. “And we must start somewhere. Everyone is scattered. We need to form a unit and find the enemy general. They’ll rally around us if they see us fighting together.”

She stepped back, regarding Katsuo with new eyes. Only now did he see the blood staining her right shoulder, and how she tucked her arm close to her torso. Perhaps she would have overpowered him if she hadn’t been injured.

She cursed and sheathed her sword. “Fine.”

She was upon him before he realized she’d moved. Gripping him by the wrist, moving one hand closer to the sword’s guard, the other to the bottom of the handle. Her feet kicked his knees, forcing his legs wider, his stance lower. “This hand here. That hand there. Lead with this hand, the other supports. Strikes start at the belly.” She slapped his stomach, and he winced. “Not the shoulders. And stay even on both feet, or else you’ll trip. Do not overexert yourself: let the sword do the cutting for you.” She frowned. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Katsuo focused on the sensations in his muscles, his grip. He needed to remember them.

Yakamo glanced over his shoulder at them. “What does Akodo’s Leadership say about impromptu vanguards?”

“Never form one from exhausted soldiers. They’re too tired to be effective; you’d just be throwing their lives away.”

He grunted. “You tired?”

Tsuko knelt and lifted a fallen banner with her good arm. “No.”

“Good. We’ll start with us three and build from there.” He looked at Katsuo. “She cannot fight while wielding that banner, so make sure you watch her back.”

The Matsu samurai didn’t seem especially thrilled to have her life entrusted to a farmer wielding a sword for the first time. But she did not protest.

Katsuo looked up at the torn banner. Only the top remained, a single character fluttering on the surface. But he couldn’t read it; he was illiterate. “What does it mean?”

Tsuko glanced at the banner, then back. “That is katsu.

He repeated the word. “Katsu.” To prevail. Victory.

“Yeah, Katsu.” Yakamo smacked the farmer on the back. “It’s in your name, Katsuo.”

Somewhere, out there, was his enemy. His hands tightened around the sword.

“Yes,” he agreed. “It is.”

Ignoring the sharp ache of his joints and the pain in his leg, Yoritomo braced for the next wave of goblins. Nothing. The rabble backed away from the pinch point he’d created in the pass, the bodies of the first three waves enough to discourage them from another attempt. Still, he didn’t lower his guard, not even to wipe away a bead of sweat. These opponents proved every bit as capricious as the seas, but so far, not a single goblin had made it through.

And to think, Hida Sukune was going to waste an entire unit on this task!

The flesh on the back of his neck goosepimpled, and Yoritomo trusted the instinct, spinning out of the path of an arrow arcing behind him. The missile whizzed past and sunk into the back of a retreating goblin, sending the others splashing away and through the swamp.

Yoritomo turned toward the newcomers: mounted samurai in blue and white armor, the flags protruding from their backs displaying a crane with a spear in its talons. Samurai of the Daidoji family. And the man lowering his bow at their lead, face hidden by his mempō, could only be the Daidoji daimyō himself.

Daidoji Uji. Yoritomo knew the man by reputation alone, but he had not expected to see him here. Weren’t the Crane too absorbed in their northern affairs to pay the Crab any mind?

The daimyō’s voice was as cold as his eyes. “Hida Sukune mentioned you were holding this pass by yourself. Allow the Iron Cranes to give the Son of Storms some respite.”

No introduction. And the other Crane warriors had not put away their bows.

Yoritomo kept his eyes on them. The hairs on his neck had not settled. “So you’ve come to help? Why then do I have the impression that arrow was meant for me?”

Uji dismounted. Neither of the accompanying Cranes looked away as he placed a hand on the foreign-style blade hanging from his side. Not a bad choice; Yoritomo had one like it at home. It was designed to catch short blades in the action of a parry. Chosen, no doubt, for this exact encounter.

If something happened to Yoritomo here, if he fell defending this pass, that would certainly suit the Crane. After all, hadn’t the Crane discovered the Mantis’s piracy only a few seasons ago? Hadn’t one of Yoritomo’s own captains attempted to seize the Keep of White Sails in recent memory? Had he not, just a year ago, shown up the Crane at their own Winter Court?

And now here he was, alone, during a pitched battle, with no one from his own clan to witness. If something other than goblins killed him, well, that could never be proven, could it?

Yoritomo couldn’t help but smirk. He almost respected Uji for having the guts to consider this.

A loud splash. Then another. Uji froze, then fell into a stance, drawing his blade. Yoritomo spun to face the sounds of scrambling feet and screeching battle cries. The goblins had found their nerve again. And their slings, it seemed.

Yoritomo ducked as a hurled stone cleaved through two bamboo trees, planting himself just before the pinch point of the pass. His first strike claimed the head of the foremost goblin. Daidoji Uji’s blade claimed the second. Arrows fell from bows of the Iron Cranes behind them.

And then the wave crashed into them. The Son of Storms cleaved his way through the tide of goblins.

As his kama tore through breaks in goblin armor, Yoritomo kept an eye on Uji’s movements. The man fought opposite of him, efficiently and cleanly, drawing weapons from folds in his armor and abandoning them for new. Tiny daggers. Throwing knives. Chains. Now here was a Crane worthy of study. Here was a real threat.

He wrenched his head back from a goblin speartip. That one had come too close. He couldn’t divide his attention between both Uji and the goblins, but neither could he lose track of the Daidoji. If he couldn’t be sure that the Crane wouldn’t stick a dagger in him if he left his back exposed, then he couldn’t bring his style or full strength to bear.

But then, Uji was keeping him at arm’s length too. No openings. Never looking away. And it was costing him. The goblins piled in faster than they fell.

“Surely you don’t mean to lend your aid from back there! Have you no trust for a warrior who fights by your side?”

Uji’s eyes narrowed above his mask. “Indeed, Son of Storms. No trust for a dog that bites the hand which feeds him. No trust for an opportunistic lord of rogue sailors.”

A goblin darted into Yoritomo’s reach, swinging a stone. He kicked it away, taking his eyes off Uji for only a moment to finish the creature. He caught another blade and glanced. The daimyō was too busy to capitalize on the moment.

“My people were divided before my father gave them purpose,” Yoritomo said as he fought back. “Now our star rises. Without the benefit of inherited titles and empty promises—using only our own sweat and resolve—we built a kingdom to rival that of a Great Clan.”

“Indeed. But also with Crane gold.” Uji crushed a goblin skull with a bash of his helm. “The only reason your ‘clan’ even exists is because Doji advisors suggested mercy in the wake of your ancestor’s treachery. The only reason Kyūden Gotei stands is because Daidoji coffers opened for mercenaries during a time of mutual need. And when that time passed, and the Crane could stand on their own again, did the Mantis remember the benevolence and generosity of Doji’s scions, which allowed them the dignity of a day without starvation?” He kicked the last goblin away and cast the Son of Storms in his hot glare. “Or did they resort to petty theft, like ungrateful spoiled children?”

There! Yoritomo spun, hurling a kama in an arc toward Uji’s throat. “The Mantis clashed as warriors fighting another clan’s wars!”

Uji’s eyes widened as the kama left a deep slash and kept spinning. Red splashed across his mask.

And the goblin sneaking behind him fell dead at his feet.

Yoritomo lunged to pick up the thrown kama as he swept upward with the one he still held, catching another blade. The movement exposed his unarmored flank to Uji’s daggers. He grit his teeth. The daimyō would not get a better opening.

Yet another goblin charged, screaming, spear aimed at Yoritomo’s belly. Doom loomed over him as he realized he wouldn’t be fast enough to pull away.

Uji sprung into the spear’s path. The tip scraped across Yoritomo's thigh, cutting through the silk, before the blades on his forearm found purchase in the wooden shaft. He spun, wrenching it from the goblin’s grasp. Yoritomo switched hands on his kama and unfurled his arms, disarming and then beheading his own opponent before slaying the goblin facing Uji.

They pressed their backs together. Their blades wove a web of steel around them, back-to-back, side by side. Arrows from the Iron Cranes fell around them. They spun, Uji making openings, Yoritomo carving through. They danced together in a red net of death.

Until the final goblin was dead at Yoritomo’s feet.

His chest heaved with rolling breaths. Uji fell to one knee, blood running freely down his side. The spear had injured him worse than first appearances, it seemed. He looked up at the Son of Storms, and their gaze met. He seemed to be considering something, new light in his eyes.

Yoritomo extended his hand. “We are a part of the Empire too, Uji-san, whether that is convenient for the Great Clans or not.”

“So you say,” Uji replied. “But deeds, not words, will matter in the end.”

At first, he believed the Daidoji was refusing help, attempting to stand on his own power. But then he felt something pressed into his offered hand, something the Crane had drawn from beneath his collar.

A small turtle shell. Judging from the scent, it was carved from a piece of agarwood.

“No one will be able to get close to the Oni Lord,” Uji said. “Anyone who does may as well commit themselves to death. They will be crushed or torn apart long before they can even touch the thing with weapons.” He gestured to the shell. “But that tsangusuri will deflect the first fatal blow struck against you, no matter how strong, no matter the source. It will destroy the token instead. The Asahina meant for me to use it to confront the Oni Lord. But that seems doubtful now.”

Yoritomo frowned. “And you intend for me to face him instead?”

“You say you are a part of the Empire, Son of Storms.” Uji hardened his eyes. “Prove it.”

Bayushi Yojiro caught Yogo Kikuyo’s disapproving look just before she turned her head away. He knew she disagreed with what he felt had to be done, but it was his place alone to decide this course of action. He did not require the approval of the Black Watch, merely their cooperation. And while he had not planned on being transported across the Empire, at least he could make the most of this turn of fortune.

The Crab Clan escort said nothing as they approached the command line together. Yojiro took quiet stock of them: Hida Sukune rapidly gesturing to a map on the table, representatives of multiple clans gathered around him. Only the imposing form of Togashi Yokuni—at least, that was who Yojiro assumed the giant in green-and-gold armor to be—seemed to notice his approach and that of the other Scorpion.

A Crab scout seemed to be reporting to his general. “There have been many sightings, but no trail we can follow. It seems he is here, but we are unable to locate him at this time.”

Sukune shook his head. “How? The Oni Lord is gigantic. Even with the chaos of battle, he should be easy to spot.”

Yojiro steadied himself with a breath. It was now or never. “That is because he can conceal himself.”

At once he felt every questioning gaze and the weight of the silence.

He continued, “More accurately, he can muddle the mind. The Oni Lord is capable of confusing the senses, forcing you to overlook him. That may account for the brief sightings, Hida-sama.”

The Crane representative crossed his arms. “I suppose if anyone is to know about the nature of this creature, it would be the champion of the clan that summoned it.”

Yojiro clenched his jaw against a retort. Every instinct, every fiber of his being, urged him to refute the claim. Yojiro could prove that Shoju had not actually called Akuma no Oni from beyond the Wall. The part of him dedicated to law and truth begged him to cast it down.

But he couldn’t. Not knowing what he did.

Not now that he was the Master of Secrets.

All his life, Yojiro’s peers had called him “The Honest Scorpion,” a title parroted by those of the other clans, who thought they were speaking to his favor. They couldn’t have known that it was a grave insult, a mark that he could not be trusted within the clan. The most ironic of compliments. Yet he had embraced this title, finding a way to serve both his own sensibilities and the needs of his clan. He’d done everything that was ever asked of him.

And now he knew a secret that could fracture the Empire if it were ever spoken. The first secret a new Scorpion Clan Champion learned was always a terrible burden. At last, Yojiro knew what it truly meant to be the Master of Secrets. It was not a title, but a curse.

Very well, Shoju. I will play the part. He chose his words carefully. They would all be true, if only technically.

“The former Scorpion Champion told me nothing of the nature of Akuma no Oni. What I share comes from the precious knowledge of the Yogo family, who have long studied the nature of the known Oni Lords. I bring it to you from the smoldering ruins of Yogo Castle, destroyed as it was by the forces of the Shadowlands.”

Shocked looks exchanged above the war map. The color drained from Hida Sukune’s face. Perhaps he believed such a thing, if true, was connected to Akuma’s plans. Perhaps it was. Yojiro had no way of knowing.

“It is clear that Bayushi Shoju brought ruin to my family and my clan. The Scorpion disavow him. The Yogo came here with the hope that they might lend their aid to the defense of the Empire, as their ancestor did in the first War against the Ninth Kami. They hope to win the Crab’s aid in reclaiming their homelands. To this end, I offer something that may be of use.”

With both hands, he offered the jitte he’d recovered just this morning. Shadow covered the silver and jade of the rod, but not the gold of the scorpion-tail prong or the blood-red cord of the handle. “This is the Yogo Jitte, awakened by the revered magistrate Soshi Saibankan himself. Among its many qualities is the ability to reveal the lies of the Shadowlands. Bring this close to Akuma no Oni, and it will be forced to reveal itself. It will not be able to hide from justice.”

Silence, long and heavy. Yojiro’s heart quickened, and he considered the possibility that Shoju had done more to damage the clan than anticipated. If any of the Great Clans rejected him, he might never have a chance to restore the reputation of the Scorpion.

The reverberating voice of Togashi Yokuni broke the silence. “So long as the Shadowlands have a foothold at Yogo Castle, the entire Empire is imperiled. Some may not trust that this was not part of Shoju’s plan. Some may not trust the gift you are offering.” He extended an accepting hand. For a moment, Yojiro could almost swear that the tattoos across the Dragon Champion’s arms had moved by themselves. “But perhaps a demonstration of the Scorpion’s sincerity would be enough to convince them. Allow the Dragon Clan to help you, Champion Bayushi—the one they call ‘honest’—and I will accept your gift on their behalf.”

Yojiro hadn’t told them of his new title, nor had he anticipated the Dragon Champion’s involvement. He’d come to them unarmed and unarmored. He had revealed a weakness in the heart of his clan—over the protests of the leaderless Yogo—and offered one of the family’s most ancient artifacts. What more could he possibly do to convince them that this was not a misdirection, that his entire clan was not in league with the Oni Lord?

Perhaps the Dragon Champion could read his thoughts, for he seemed to reply to them. “My offer is thus: Let the Dragon Clan be a neutral party to vouch for the sincerity of the Scorpion Clan until such a time as trust can be restored. Togashi and Kitsuki advisors shall keep watch over the affairs of the Scorpion so that they can prove that they have nothing to hide. Our fates shall be bound together, and I will ensure that the Dragon Clan Champions that follow me shall honor this agreement.”

He did not need the alarmed glare of Yogo Kikuyo to tell him the consequences, should he agree. Everything the Scorpion did hereafter would reflect on the Dragon’s reputation as well as their own. And so every public proclamation, every deed they undertook, would require that the Scorpion consider the Dragon reaction, no matter how inscrutable the other clan may be. It meant Dragons in every Scorpion court. It meant all their secrets, all their weaknesses, would pass beneath the Dragon’s watchful eyes. It could mean years or even a generation of enforced humility.

Which wasn’t the clan’s strong suit, of late. It would mean his kin would hate him, but then again, they always had. They didn’t need to love their champion to do their duty.

But perhaps, with the Dragon’s help, we can recover the Yogo lands. This agreement will prove we are meek. And the clan will live on.

So be it. He did not know how deep those waters ran. But he could swim.

Yojiro bowed low as the Dragon Champion accepted the jitte.

Read on to see the results of the second round of voting, as well as the percentage of votes each character received!

Match 1

Shiba Tsukune (55%) - Hida O-Ushi (45%)

Match 2

Togashi Yokuni (64%) - Bayushi Yojiro (36%)

Match 3

Yoritomo (53%) - Daidoji Uji (47%)

Match 4

Katsuo the Peasant (56%) - Matsu Tsuko (45%)

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