Sample 2

The Fire within Shadow

A story within the Legend of the Five Rings setting

by David Horwitz

 

            The man who called himself Bayushi Yoshirou stood for a brief moment at the top of the hill, surveying the Naishou expanse. The sunrise was a masterful painting with colors beyond counting. He did not have long before he was to report to his master in the magistrate's office, right now just a dot within the myriad buildings below. He mused about the perspective one man might have viewing people at such a distance as he took his first steps down the steep incline. Others could seem so small from so far away. Soon though, one must return to the masses of bodies in motion, so one may participate in guiding the flow. He realized that he preferred the view from the hill.

            He worked his way onto the road leading into Toshi Naishou, passing through the peasant district as quickly as his legs could take him. Still, the scent and sounds of crowds and commerce caught him, and he was thankful then for the thick mask he wore. He checked to make sure it was secured as he approached the home of Bayushi Naoto, the domicile that doubled as his master's office. The guard appointed to watch the house bowed low to Yoshirou as he approached, and stepped away from the door. As it opened, the guard announced his arrival.

 

            “Yoriki Bayushi Yoshirou, entering.”

 

            “Come in,” said a voice that was both commanding and hollow, like an ancient cavern.

 

            Yoshirou strode in to the small house after removing his shoes and closed the door quickly. There he saw his master sitting at his writing desk, finishing a sizable stack of letters. He approached and quickly joined his master without the customary bow. Magistrate Naoto did not seem in the least concerned about this egregious breach in decorum, and instead looked up from his papers, his face also hidden by a mask. His was smaller than his assistant's, but bore the traditional red and black of the Scorpion Clan.

 

            “Report,” Naoto uttered, his voice echoing off the walls of the house as if he were at a cliff's edge.

 

            Yoshirou drew in a sharp breath before beginning.

           

            “The deed is done, Naoto-sama. The fools from the capital are already on their way here. No doubt they will pursue me no matter where I go. All that is left to do is...”

 

            Yoshirou balked for a moment as he spoke, and his master took the opportunity to finish his statement.

 

            “Sever your remaining ties in the city. Yes, and you should be swift about it. No doubt they are not far behind you, and we cannot have them witnessing you commit a crime so directly.”

 

            The older man paused for a moment, but then continued.

 

            “Finish this, and when they arrive, we will have you string them along a bit, so they may follow you out to the outskirts of the province. There, the final deed must be done.”

 

            Not allowing his master to catch him hesitating again, the younger samurai quickly responded.

           

            “I am ready to complete my part of this plan, my lord.”

 

            “Good. Now, get out. I have to prepare my next move and finish these accursed missives,” Naoto remarked sharply.

 

            Yoshirou stood and turned to leave. It was not unlike his master to dismiss him quickly, but this could be the last time...

 

            He immediately put the thought out of his mind and walked out of the door, slipping on his sandals as he bowed quickly to the Lion clan guardsman. Shielding his eyes against the brilliance of the sun, which had risen high into the cloudless sky, he strode through the street toward a much smaller structure nearby. Yoshirou nearly did not recognize his own home; a puzzling thought. He had certainly been away for some time, but surely a man never forgets the look of his own abode. The Yoriki shook his head and dismissed the notion, for it was most likely a fleeting foible of a troubled and busied mind. He slid the door open, and again removed his sandals before calmly entering.

           

            “Hello, my flower,” Yoshirou said loudly, so his wife would not worry at the sound of an intrusion.

 

            A young, pale, dark haired woman wearing a comfortable red and black kimono, along with a stylish black mask, appeared at the doorway leading from the kitchen. She pulled off the mask immediately and smiled, a single tear escaping her amber eyes as she ran towards her husband. The embrace lasted for what felt like minutes to Yoshirou, and he could smell lavender and lily in her hair. After she finally released him, she stepped back and bowed.

 

            “It is so good to see you, dearest,” she exclaimed. “I heard you were in town, but it has been so long, I almost did not believe it.”

 

            Yoshirou lifted his mask and pulled it away, smiling so his wife could see his excitement.

 

            “Yes, far too long, I must admit.” He walked with his wife back into the sitting room, where they rested comfortably against some pillows. “I will have to explain all about my trip, but first, I have something I must tell you.”

 

            The young samurai-ko's brow furrowed and her countenance fell, revealing a deeply worried expression.

 

            “What is it, my love?”

 

            Yoshirou wanted to tell her so many things in that one instant, to confess everything to this beautiful woman who loved him, even when their match had been purely political. She deserves better than this, he thought for a moment. Then his mind was his own again. His pained expression became a smile.

 

            “I am famished,” he said with a chuckle, “and I will tell you everything once I am not in danger of collapsing from hunger pains.”

 

            Her face showed great relief as she lightly kissed her husband on the cheek, stood, and bowed.

           

            “I shall make your favorite.”

 

            The two of them talked and laughed heartily during dinner, something that any prior visitor to the home of a Scorpion would call an outright impossibility. Yoshirou told her embellished tales from his trip to the capital, and of the strange customs that the Imperial Families must observe to maintain decorum. He told her about all of the foreign samurai, some even from smaller minor clans, such as the Bat. He spoke of the Oriole and their passion for creating deadly weapons, and their ironic disdain for the blades' use in combat. He spoke of the simple beauty of the Sparrow, and their strange, yet honorable ways. The young, beautiful samurai-ko sitting across the table from Yoshirou was enthralled.

 

            As they both began to clear plates and cups, the dark haired woman spoke, in soft, loving tones.

 

            “My love, I have been thinking...” her voice trailed off. “It has been almost a year since we've been married, and I should like to start a family. I know you think the time isn't right...”

 

            Yoshirou cut her off with a quick kiss. “I don't plan on going anywhere for quite some time. Being away this long has reminded me of my duty that I have to you, and to our... family.”

 

            She smiled at this and led him to their bedroom. Yoshirou followed and removed a small, cloth wrapped item from his pouch.

 

            “I have a gift I wish to give you first,” he said, before she could disrobe.

           

            “Oh? Very well, I suppose I cannot refuse my husband.”

           

            He smiled. “I would like it to be a surprise, so please turn around.”

 

            She acquiesced, and her long black hair fell behind her as she whirled around playfully.

 

            Soundlessly, Yoshirou walked up behind her and slipped the cloth wrapped item around his wife's waist, and pressed it into her stomach. It was only after he pulled the blade upward that the samurai-ko seemed to notice what was happening to her. Only then did she spin around and stare accusingly at her murderer, a small trickle of blood flowing down her lips. Where she expected her husband's traitorous, snarling visage, she found nothing. A blank, pale nothing with no features save forquickly receding and disappearing hair. She would have screamed, but a pale, monstrous hand covered her lips, and lay her silently down on the blood soaked floor. Outside, the sun bled its last and collapsed below the horizon.

            The man who called himself Yoshirou stepped back from the grisly scene and looked into the dead eyes of the woman who he had married. Sayuri; yes, that was her name. So many details had escaped him since he began going through his final changes, before he became even closer to his master in power and ability. He could not even recall why he had decided to draw out this rouse in its final moments, to share that spirited dinner with his wife. He shook his nearly formless head and dismissed it as simply further practice with his deceptions, so as not to ruin anything in the plan's final act. Surely there could be no other explanation. Yoshirou had eliminated all remaining vestiges of humanity that he once possessed in order to obtain this ability. Now he simply acted the part of a normal human samurai. It is often said, he mused, that actors can take on the emotions of their characters in certain dramatic scenes. Yes, thought he, that must be it.

            The faceless man looked out of the window into the darkness. He began to meld into the dark, his form seeping into the blackness that permeated the night. Then, within moments, he was moving, faster than would be thought possible, towards the River Village.

 

 

            It did not take long for the samurai who were pursuing Yoshirou to arrive in Naishou, and they quickly discovered that their quarry had fled to the River Village. He had booked passage on a ship that would set sail for the Islands of Silk and Spice, but they did not know that he had no intention of departing, and had purchased his passage so that they would follow him there with haste. The plan worked perfectly.

            The samurai were led by an Emerald Magistrate who had tracked the Bayushi since he had committed his crimes in Toshi Ranbo. They arrived on horseback, looking glorious and determined as they rode into town. As they searched each building, the Shadowspawn that called itself Yoshirou waited in the darkness of a nearby alleyway. He made no attempt to flee or arm himself, but simply waited for the right moment. Then, as they drew near his location, he focused and pushed the familiar visage of Bayushi Yoshirou over his face and body. His skin and eyes crawled over what was a blank, hollow emptiness, and his features grew more distinct. Finally, he slid his mask into place to complete the lie that was his identity. He strode a few paces from the alleyway, and was recognized immediately by his pursuers. The Emerald Magistrate walked proudly towards his prey and called out to him,

 

            “Bayushi Yoshirou, halt, in the name of the Empress of Rokugan!”

 

            The false Scorpion stepped back into the alleyway and the samurai followed, forcing him back against the wall that joined the two buildings on either side of him.

 

            “Remove your sword and your mask!” The magistrate bellowed at Yoshirou.

 

            The Bayushi removed his wakazashi from his waist tie, and laid it on the ground. He pulled back the mask, revealing a handsome face of a man of 30 years. He was smiling.

           

            “For the crimes of murder and treason against the Empire, I condemn you to death by hanging.” He paused to revel in the moment. “If you come without a struggle, perhaps the Kami will have mercy during your regrettable reincarnation.”

 

            Yoshirou's wry smile broke into a cascade of laughter. He knew what awaited him after he perished. There would be no kami or other spiritual forces to tend to his soul, only his Great Master. Still laughing, he gestured towards the Emerald Magistrate. The Shadowspawn could not remember the magistrate's name, but it was of no matter, as soon it too would belong to the darkness. He lifted his focus on maintaining the falsity across his face, and released a more deadly ability. The samurai who faced him balked at this terrifying sight, and a small black flame rippled over the magistrate's chest.

            A small portion of his muscular form simply disappeared. He clutched the wound and fell to one knee.

 

            “I was hoping you would try something,” he coughed. “Hold him!”

 

            The other samurai all rushed towards the Shadowspawn and quickly pushed him to his knees, rooting him in place. The magistrate rose and drew his crystal-edged blade in one deft motion. The light that trickled into the alleyway caught the crystal, and spread across Yoshirou's empty face. He let out a pained crackling sound as the magistrate approached him.

 

            “I had my suspicions about you, and I am glad to see you prove me right.” He gripped the hilt of his majestic blade with both hands and raised it high. “Die, monster!”

 

            The blade fell, and in his last moments, the samurai who had been Bayushi Yoshirou was gripped with vision. His soul was released from his master's grasp for a few moments, and his mind cleared. He saw his young wife, beautiful and smiling. She would hold him in the night when the days proved too difficult. He saw a young girl, his daughter, come into the world and grow up to be a great warrior and a wise woman, and she would win tournaments and make her father proud. His daughter served the new Emperor as Yoshirou and his wife watched on. He would grow old with them, and in his last days they would be at his death bed, crying silently, as he told them how much he cherished them. As he lay there, watching his loved ones, a dark dragon full of deceit came from below and swallowed them. His final cruelty now complete, the Shadow Dragon turned to Yoshirou and laughed. As its maw fell upon him, there were no memories, no pains, no emotions. There was simply Nothing.

 

...

           

            In Toshi Ranbo, capital of the Emerald Empire, a young magistrate walked out of the palace, where he was staying as a guest. He slid the door closed and breathed in the night air, one hand still grasping an old wound on his chest. The flesh had grown back completely, but it still pained him, now a full month after his victory against the Lying Darkness. Though it was nearly the very late hour of the rat, he found he could still see the outlines of the temple perfectly, almost as if they were lit by a glow that came from within his own mind. The samurai grimaced and strode off towards the temple. If the healers could not eliminate this troublesome pain, perhaps the enlightened monks of the temple could share their insight.

The magistrate ascended the stone steps of the temple and slid open the door. He could hear the sounds of sleeping men echoing through the long halls. As he started to search for any of the monks who may still be awake, he heard a voice from one of the corridors, and the face of a weathered old man appeared to match it.

 

            “Toku Seiha, yes?” said the monk. His voice was commanding and hollow, like an ancient cavern. “I was hoping to get to meet you. Please, come in. I have heard about your troubles, and I am certain that I can help you.”

 

            As the two men walked side by side within the temple, a massive shadow passed over the city, swiftly and silently. No one noticed, and no one ever would. Not until the shadow was at their throats, and all hope for this world was lost, would any of the samurai know the shadow's grand design. Then, as the cloak of darkness enveloped the whole of Rokugan, all would know what Bayushi Yoshirou discovered in his last moments. All would truly know Nothing.

This was written within the Legend of the Five Rings setting, as a submission. Some of the proper nouns were created by AEG as part of their setting.