The cool evening breeze blew through Rugashi, it was late spring, and the nights
in Lion lands were not yet oppressively hot. The night was still, save for the
sound of dripping water. The boy, Mashai, quietly sat across from his father in
the small rock garden outside their home. Man and child each had three cups of
water before them. The elder, Ikoma Choi, had his eyes closed as he communed
with the water Kami effortlessly, his mere thought set the kami to bubble
happily within their glasses, occasionally crossing over from one glass to
another, without spilling so much as a drop. A study in contrasts, his son sat
across from him, face scrunched in concentration, praying fervently, even
desperately for the water kami to respond in some way, some sign. He was a
younger boy, nearly 7 seasons this spring; soon it would be time for him to
leave home, and begin his studies in earnest. They sat as they had for hours,
cross legged. The only disturbance to the stillness was a bead of sweat, finally
condensing from the young man's forehead, and dropping to form concentric rings
in the tea cup below.
At the sound, his father looked up with a heavy sigh. He stood slowly and spoke quietly. "That is enough Mashai-kun, we have other duties to attend to." Mashai stood, and could not keep his sense of shame from his young features. His father was a great and powerful Shugenja, wise and sought after for council by Samurai and peasant alike, but he did not seem to be able to cajole, command or even converse with the Kami. The water kami remained mute to his prayers. Mashai constantly worried about disappointing his father, and while he never voiced such concerns, he could certainly see them upon the old mans face this eve.
The man and boy walked slowly up the path to the ancestral shrine, his father gestured for Mashai to approach first. Mashai was instantly honored, he had never before been allowed to honor the ancestors spirits without accompaniment. He knelt before the shrine, opening it carefully and placing two fresh incense sticks in their holders, lighting them carefully from a nearby candle. Next he carefully took a fresh candle of the finest tallow from a nearby box. He placed the candle's wick in the flame of the candle already sitting in the middle of the shrine, carefully and reverently lighting it. Once the second candle was lit he put the first out with an ornamental taper then lifted it from its holder and carefully replaced it with the fresh candle. He stood, and both men bowed reverently to the shrine before both men moved inside the house proper to kneel quietly before the low tables as servants brought out a meal of chicken and rice.
"My son, there is no easy way to say this, but you are not suitable for shugenja training." His father said once the meal was finished, setting his chopsticks neatly down upon the bowl.
"Yes father." Mashai said, he would never contradict his father's wishes. He kept his eyes downcast, respectful, fully expecting his father to rage at him; truly he had disgraced his ancestors.
His father sighed and then stood, silently bidding his son to follow him. They stepped into the main living area of the domicile; reverently his father knelt before his own father's Katana and took it from the daisho rack. "My son there is no dishonor in the path of the sword, many in our family have no gift of magic, but still bring honor to our clan, I know that you will make our ancestors proud. I have received permission for you to travel to Shiro Akodo, and learn the ways of a warrior there." His father smiled and brought his son's hand to the tsuba of the sword.
Mashai felt truly weak in the knees, looking at the blade. Reverently he gripped its hilt, feeling it's heft in his small hands.. He stood, releasing the blade, and bowed low to his father.
"We should retire my son, we will have one last day together before we depart, and I wish to rise early to go hunting with you one last time before I see you off to become a man." His father carefully pressed the sword into Mashai's hand. "Keep this; it is yours now, as you step down the path of a warrior."
That night Mashai slept contently, the daisho set resting upon its stand at the foot of his futon, the fire of his ancestors burning bright in the shrine and in his heart.
The cool spring morning air greeted them as Mashai and his father met in the
central courtyard of their estate, his father dressed in simple traveling
clothes, a falcon perched atop a thick protective glove. Nearby stood the
falconer, a peasant of especially high status who also carried the groups lunch
for the day, and an eta, whose job was to recover and prepare the kills for
All eyes were turned to the sound of hoofbeats upon the road leading to the house. A column of riders entered the courtyard quickly, their leader dismounted and bowed before Choi formally.
"Ikoma Choi san, I am Matsu Morito, magistrate in service to the clan and champion. I bear you black tidings and for that I do apologize." The man passed a sealed scroll to Choi wordlessly, his manner unreadable, but his companions and their horses shifted nervously.
Mashai's father cracked the seal on the documents and read through them thoroughly, then re-read them, his eyebrow twitched and his jaw clenched, but giving no further evidence to what the documents contained. Finally, he shuffled them quietly and looked at the magistrate. "If my brother has been tried and convicted of maho, I respectfully request permission for seppuku to prove my innocence in this matter, and to spare the shame to my ancestors." Mashai's eyes flew wide in shock at his father's statement.
"Your lord has already granted your request, as well as the request of Jigai for your son," the magistrate said with a touch of sadness in his voice.
"Morito-sama, my son was due to depart for Shiro Matsu upon the 'morrow to undergo training as a bushi. If he will take the oath, I would have him enter into the service of the Deathseekers rather then take Jigai, and serve as my second." His father said, eyes meeting those of the magistrate.
Morito looked at Ikoma Choi and then at Mashai, as if appraising them both. Mashai struggled to stand up straighter and meet the magistrates gaze with a respectful but unflinching gaze of his own.
"Very well, it is within my authority to grant such a request. For what it's worth Choi-san I have no doubt of your honor and integrity; I will return tomorrow night if you wish so you may put your affairs in order." The lion magistrate spoke with a hint of sadness in his voice.
"Arigoto Sama." Choi said quietly, bowing in respect. Mashai quickly joined him in this motion, his head spinning slightly at revelations of the evening. The riders quickly mounted up, and without another word they departed.
His father called the servants into the main area of the house, by now they had
all heard the news. He detailed to them his wishes for the care of the estate
until a new lord or lady was appointed to fill his place. The servants wept
openly, some of the young ones asking why this must happen before being silenced
by harsh looks from their elders. His father was a pious, compassionate man, and
had cared well for his vassals. They in turn had never disappointed him. In a
way, from the young to the old, he was their father too. Once that was done, the
servants immediately began ritually washing the house, scouring the solid walls
and replacing tatami mats. A monk was called from the temple to aid in the
preparations. Ikoma Choi took his son once again to the gardens and bade him
kneel before the ancestor shrine.
"Why, father?" Mashai's composure finally broke, tears forming in the young boys eyes openly. His small fists struck the perfect stone of the steps sharply sending a cracking sound from his knuckles. Mashai didn't even notice the pain, looking at his father with a mixture of betrayal and rage. Immediately he checked himself, expecting a blow or at the very least a strong rebuke from his father.
"Because it is the right thing to do my son," his father said with a soft smile. "You are young, and these things you will come to understand in time. You will make me proud of that I am sure. I have foreseen this in a dream, my own star grows dim, but yours will burn bright, bright enough to cast off the shackles of dishonor. You must trust in yourself, and walk the path of honor, you must temper your fire with wisdom, or it will consume you." The old man clasped hands with his son briefly, an unusual gesture of fondness from his very traditional father. "Let us go to the dojo. Tomorrow you will be my second, after which you will take the death seekers oath, don the white, and extinguish our family candle. Tonight however we must pray, and tomorrow we shall go to the monks of the temple and ask that they care for the graves of our ancestors."
That evening when, all was prepared, Matsu Morito returned alone to witness
Ikoma Choi's seppuku and see justice be done. Choi knelt in the white of death,
his son behind him as the old man recited his death haiku. and then took up the
rice paper wrapped hilt of his wakizashi and moved to begin the ritual, placing
its point to his belly.. With a sudden and quick stroke of the blade, Masai
brought his katana blade down in a clean cut, ending his father's life before he
could proceed further.
"You did not feel your father could go through with the three cuts boy?" Matsu Morito's question was carefull, his face betraying no emotion.
"No Sama, I knew from the moment that he announced his intent that my father would not fail in his task, and if It is not too bold of me, I believe you knew this as well.. Because of this, I wished to spare him the pain, once he had touched the wakizashi, to signify the finality of his actions. He would not have cried out, he would not have hesitated, there was no reason to pursue the matter further in my eyes. I hope you do not find fault with my actions Sama." Masai bowed low after shaking the blade free of blood and re-sheathing it carefully, he wore it in his obi, the bearing of a warrior, not a child.
"Very well then, what shall you be called, soldier?" The Matsu magistrate said, throwing his leg over his horse and sitting in the saddle.
"Ikoma Traisu, of the Lion, sama." The young man barked back, his eyes looking to his superiors face for the first time.
"Very well Traisu-san." The lion magistrate dropped a packet of papers on the path. "There is your travel papers and a letter of introduction to your future commander. You will report to Shiro Matsu for induction into the Deathseeker ranks. Proceed there with all speed once your business is done here." With that, the Lion spurred his horse to gallop away leaving Traisu to oversee the eta and monks who were the only guests at his formerly beloved father's funeral. He stepped to the ancestral shrine, and reached out, smothering the ancestral candle with his palmand clenching his teeth against the searing. He felt he didn't need to stay for the funeral, the peasants would see to their lord, and what remained was only an empty vessel. He began to walk down the path through the rock garden for the last time, in the dim light of the dusk he saw an unusual sight, a salamander; sitting upon one of the rocks, looking at him, it's eyes a golden color as it rested upon the heated rock. On an impulse Traisu reached down and took up the Salimander carefully, rather then shy away it crawled comfortably into the pockets of his sleeves. Without another word he stepped down the road, into the rest of his life.
"For the glory of the empire, and the Lion Clan, charge!" The Gunso's cry rang
out clearly over the battlefield as the death seekers charged towards the
village, their faces shining with sweat even in the blustery winter morning.
They had marched here under cover of darkness, their aching bodies renewed by
the rush of battle. It had been four long years in the service of the death
seekers, four long, dreadful years of peace. They honed their bodies and minds,
practiced the implements of war, but the release so many desired from their
dishonor was denied. Traisu was himself not particularly enthused about the days
battle, reliable intelligence indicated there was a large bloodspeaker cell
within the village, high command had decided that it was safest and most
honorable to raze the village and replace it with new peasants from a different
area. To that end the death seekers had been sent. There were more and more of
them each year without a war to provide them release, and high command felt that
this campaign had a high probability of casualties. Ikoma Traisu's issue with
this mission, which he studiously kept to himself, was simple if they were just
peasants duped into the service of the bloodspeakers, they would provide no real
challenge, and no worthy death. If they were truly maho-tsukai then dieing at
their hands meant he wouldn't be able to kill them, a distasteful prospect to be
"Be wary Traisu, danger comes like an avalanche"
"Who said that?" Traisu spun around unsure where the voice had come from but more weary because of it, aware enough just enough to notice the telltale signs of a disturbance in the snowbank and raise his blade and shout a warnings. Peasants leaping out from the piled nearly caught his unit unawares, he ducked the crude blade of his own attacker and ran him through swiftly then had to dash to come to the aid of the other bushi in his unit. After a brief moment of fierce fighting a score of peasants lay dead and one old matsu was sent on to honorably meet his ancestors. As they neared the village itself there was stillness in the air, the lion troops slowed, fanning out weapons drawn ready for trouble.
"I can help you, but you must call on me and my brethren." The voice said.
"Silence kansen, I will not truck with your kind," hissed Traisu quietly.
"We are not kansen Ikoma sama, we are your friends, and we will help you, you must only call upon us."
Whatever response Traisu might have had was lost in a blood chilling roar. A
creature burst from a snowbank that had clearly been intentionally constructed
in the center of the villiage. It was twice again as tall as a man, and wide as
an ox as its base. It's composition appeared to be of snow stained red, and
chunks of gore trailed from it's icicle like teeth. Two bushi roared and charged
at it, only to be scooped up and broken like toys. Another jabbed it in the side
with a spear, the spear passing completely through the beast with no appreciable
damage. The creature scooped up the hapless bushi and bit him in twain, more
gore spattering down its front.
Ikoma Traisu swore a powerful oath and charged at the creature past his comrades who were forming up ranks and waiting for orders, at his example they also bellowed out their fury as the gunso sounded the attack. As he approached, Traisu ducked a clumsy overhead swing and brough his katana up in a high arc that severed the creatures paw from it's body at the wrist. However, if this even slowed it down it gave no indication, the hand regrowing back almost as quickly as it'd been lost and digging its claws deep into Traisu's flesh, lifting him towards its gaping maw, a cold wind, laden with the stench of death issuing forth. Traisu closed his eyes and raised his katana, praying for a strike that might fell this beast, praying with all his heart and soul
The creatures howl of triumph turned to one of pain, matched only by Traisu's shout of pain and surprise, the whole world it seemed to him to have exploded in fire and light disintegrating the creature in a burst of angry fire kami, vengeful towards this abomination, eager to cleanse it form the land along with the cultists who had summoned it. Ikoma Traisu's hair and armor were burning, his body as well was badly signed as he dropped into a heap, the fire that roared from within him having vanished as quickly as it arrived. The only trace of the oni were two quickly melting stumps of legs, he slumped over as the darkness overtook him.
Traisu awoke in a palanquin, it's smooth movements somewhat jolting to him. He
immediately looked to himself and was convinced he was in yomi, gone were the
white clothing of death seeker, replaced by the brilliant hues of a Lion gold
kimono. He was in a near panic, until reaching down beneath his seat he found
the comforting heft of his katana blade.
"Aha the prodigy awakens! How fortunate, as we are almost home." An older gentleman, in the colors of the Phoenix sat across from him. Traisu's education had been brief, but every lion recognizes the chrysanthemum those in closest service to the emperor were allowed to wear, he struggled to rise and effect a low bow in the palanquin. "None of that Ikoma-san, you are still weak from your exertions, despite the greatest efforts of my magics, but some things are matters of the soul. I am Asako Heishi, and I am most pleased to make your acquaintance."
Traisu struggled to come to a sitting position. "Heishi-Sama, what has happened, where is my unit….the blood speakers?" The elder gentleman waved him to be silent.
"It was fortunate that I happened to be investigating the matter of that villiage with some of my acolytes; your clan's eagerness to taste battle nearly proved disastrous for you and your unit and would have allowed them to escape and set up elsewhere in lion or phoenix lands. Fortunately, thanks to your unique talents you manage to eliminate the problem in one fell swoop. I arrived on the scene merely to provide healing to the injured among your company and take you into my care. Tell me Traisu-san, are you prepared to fight a battle with no end?" The shugenja asked an almost expectant look in his wise aged eyes, almost a hunger.
Traisu almost responded affirmatively before he properly thought of the question. He considered the matter fully over the space of two minutes with the Jade Champion looking on before speaking. "No Sama, while my heart is willing, but I am not prepared to properly prosecute such a war. I have talents, which I do not understand, and believe I would be as much a danger to my comrades and lord if I were to engage in battle with these enemies now. So to answer your question, I am willing, but not prepared."
The champion's eyebrows shot up slightly at this admission, but he then nodded. "Good, you understand your limitations, something many acolytes of fire do not. I am familiar with your history, Ikoma Traisu, whether you like it or not, from the moment your uncle fell to dark powers you were tied into this war more strongly than most, and have been trying to catch up ever since. I have prevailed upon your clan to lift the deathseeker oath from you. They have agreed readily, additionally agreeing to my request to have you trained among the Phoenix; we shall prepare you for the war.
Ikoma Traisu sat in his cell in Kyuden Isawa, today would be the last morning he
would spend here, he would go forth, accept what was in reality his second
gempuku, and forever set his feet on the path of the shugenja, a shugenja
devoted to the destruction of dark powers, but a shugenja none the less. He
looked at the katana that sat upon the daisho rack, he had barely touched it
over the long eight years, only enough to keep his skills from dulling overmuch.
Eight years of classroom study, meditation, and focusing of the mind. Eight
years of being taunted by Phoenix children half his age, for his slowness with
the kami. Eight years with no family, very few friends, and cut off from his
clan. Another eight years with out the touch of his ancestors. In truth it was
his isolation that had bred in him a greater dedication, and a greater closeness
to the kami. It was this closeness that he honed as he had once honed his
swordmanship. In time he had set aside his need for destruction and finding
balance among the elements. In time he was re-embracing the fire for it's quick
nature balanced by it's meticulousness, a balance of action and thought. He was
ready to wield it against his enemies, not because he hated them, but because it
was what was just. In time, he was surpassing those jeering youths, then
surpassing those in the advanced classes. Indeed by the time of his graduation
he was only matched in power in his element by the tensai, and he had managed
through stringent study of the phoenix ways to overcome his deficiency in the
other areas. Today however he would have to give up something, his blade, one of
the last remaining ties to his family. Even though he new it would be a terrible
thing to give up the gift of his magic, this blade was more then a weapon, it
was the last vestige of a youth he had once been, someone's whose action did not
match their thought. He felt the approach of someone and turned quickly.
Standing at the doorway was Asako Heishi, dressed in his full formal regalia,
Traisu bowed low.
"You honor me Sensei, how may I serve you?" Traisu asked, bowing very deeply, not rising until being bade to do so.
"I have come to ask you again, are you prepared now for this war? Your training here has no doubt opened many doors to you, and there are many easier paths you could take. My quest and my mission is not as valued in the empire as it might be, and that complacency will allow our enemies to grow in strength, while those loyal to the cause must walk a thorny path." The champion asked, phrasing each word delicately.
"Master, I will bear any burden, travel any length, and destroy any foe who would pervert the order of magic and endanger the safety of the empire. They will have no place to hide from my light," the young lion intoned, bowing again.
"Very good, this is exactly the sort of qualities I look for in my agents." Heishi took a small package and handed it to the young lion, who cracked the seal. Within was a formal appointment document to the jade magistrates, and the traditional sash of a magistrate.
"Master I cannot accept such a gift." Traisu almost stammered.
"It is not a gift, it is conscription. Take it, that's an order." The champion smiled wryly, then became more serious. "We have made great strides towards ending the threat of the bloodspeaker cult, but the empire becomes complacent, and indeed, I fear once the peace among the clans is shattered our enemies will once again ferment in the chaos and lawlessness. I need men like you, Traisu, unquestionable virtue, who show no fear in thought, word, or deed."
Traisu bowed low to the ground once again. The champion spoke again. "While it has been fortuitous to present this to you in private, it does raise the question; why do you linger here? I had expected you to be upon the parade field much ahead of time." The champion must have caught Traisu's eyes going to the sword. He snorted somewhat in amusement. "Take the blade Traisu-san. You never know when you might have to enforce the Kami and the Emperor's will with steel, and I would not see you distracted by indecision." So saying, the Emerald Champion walked out, followed by his student, walking both the path of the swordsman, and the priest.