The Empire Reborn
The last month of Winter, AT 102…
Husaki strode down the gray stone hallways of Kyuden Hida. He had ridden hard for a week, traveling from the blasted landscape of Hiruma, across the snow covered and windswept Wall, arriving at the massive granite fortress that was the ancestral home of the Crab. He was late, and had little time to prepare for the critical task that faced him.
As his massive legs carried him through the Great Hall of the Kami, several advisors jogged to keep up.
“Everything should be ready my lord!” panted one.
“You will need this sacred vestment of your forefathers!” said a second. Huskai took the ornate black and indigo mantle, the mon of Hida emblazed across it, and draped it around his neck.
“Your grandfather’s soul!” wheezed the third, struggling to lift a pillow with heavy dashio upon it. Without slowing his pace, Husaki took his family’s blades and slid them quickly into his obi. He reached a pair of heavy, iron-shod double doors. Kaiu Konsimu and Akodo Toyo stood at attention, guarding it with a dozen of the Crab’s elite warriors. Straightening at the Crab Champion’s approach, they stood aside.
As Husaki reached the door, Konsimu spoke. “Good luck, Husaki-sama.”
“Arigato, Konsimu-san,” Husaki replied.
“Are you sure you can handle what lies beyond?” asked Toyo.
Huskai favored his adopted kinsman with a withering stare. “I believe so,” he answered wryly.
His hands on the handles to the heavy stone portal, Husaki took a deep breath and centered himself. Then, with a mighty shove, he flung both doors open.
Matsu Tesomi, dressed in an ornate red kimono, turned to face him. The shugenja were just finishing anointing the balcony with salt and water. Several red lanterns and some winter crocus were the only decorations, waving in the breeze. He strode to Tesomi’s side, and took her hand.
“Now we can begin,” said the shugenja. Taking a length of red cord, he began the hand fastening. “In the name of the Sun and the Moon, parents to us all, do you Husaki, take Tesomi…”
- * *
Hitomi’s eye was wide, casting a pale, shimmering light across the land that was accented by the layer of snow. Husaki stood at the large window in the Champion’s quarters. The flickering light from the dying fire covered his muscled form in dancing shadows, hiding most of his scars.
Most of them.
His eyes narrowed as he raised his left arm and regard it for the hundred-thousandth time. A jade bracelet clung tightly to his wrist, and another large one to his forearm, just above his elbow. This was not unusual, especially for a Crab. But between the two…
Between the two the skin was blackened. What looked like scales of some ebony material, each the size of a koku, broke the surface in dozens of places. He had ripped them out many times, leaving wounds that leaked a foul greenish fluid, but each time they had grown back.
Unbidden, his mind drifted into history. He saw himself on his gempukku quest. He knew he would return with the head of something greater than a goblin or even an ogre. He was a Hida. His father was the Champion. He spent three weeks in the Shadowlands until he had tracked the oni to its lair. He saw again the burning eyes and slavering, fanged maw of the creature. The battle had been quick, but vicious. He recalled the searing pain as its jaws latched onto his forearm, the exultant release as he had crushed its skull with his tetsubo. His disgust at his own inability to resist the Taint…
Perhaps half a dozen people in the empire had known about this before. Now there was another.
Quiet as a panther, Tesomi came up behind Husaki and leaned against his back. Her hair tickled the base of his neck, and the warmth of her body was welcome against the chill breeze drifting through the open drapes. Gently, she reached around and ran her fingers along the rough and Tainted skin, then grasped his hand and pulled it down to his side, out of his tortured gaze.
Husaki’s eyes returned to the window. Every window in Kyuden Hida faced south. Faced the land that the Crab had stood as sentinels against for centuries. Every eye was needed to watch the Shadowlands, to prevent them from striking against the Empire.
Every window, except one. The window at the top of Kyuden Hida, in the Champion’s quarters, faced north, towards the lands of the other Clans. It was the Champion’s duty to deal with the Empire, to make certain that it both aided and respected the job the Crab had done for centuries. Over a hundred years ago, Hida Kisada had stood at this window and looked out with anger at the state of the Empire. Husaki knew now how he must have felt.
“But I am better than that,” he whispered. “I do not go seeking my gain, but the betterment of the Empire. It is my duty.”
“I know,” Tesomi said, her cheek pressed against his back.
“I may not return. This is beyond dangerous. My life will be completely in the hands of the other Clans.”
“But I have a duty to you as well. We are married now. You are a Crab, and have the protection of the Crab.” He chuckled, dryly, thinking of Toyo’s comment early today. “It seems I have been collecting stray cats.”
He grunted as Tesomi dragged her nails up his thigh. Standing upon her toes, she gently bit his earlobe.
“It’s what happens when you feed them,” she whispered.
Turning, Husaki scooped his bride into his arms, and carried her back into their chambers.
The end of the Year, AT 102…
Husaki strode back and forth in the small apartments he had been given. His massive fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. An overturned table lay atop a shattered tea set. A wooden training post had been snapped in half.
What had changed? He had taken one of the greatest risks of his life. Sutai’s life was forfeit. The corrupt, manipulative, lying pretender to the throne Wampei was dead. The other clans had been content to stand around in Court, letting that arrogant villain tear out the foundations of the empire. But he had come to take action. HE knew his duty! And what had happened to him?
The Council of Clans had finally broken up before midnight. Issues were still not resolved, and the meetings would likely continue tomorrow. He was only there because Hoto had allowed him to be. Hoto determined that his investigation of the Emperor’s condition would delay this “banishment.”
The new Crane Champion had come to Otosan Uchi to lick at Wampei’s boots! To swear fealty! Just a month before he had sent a missive that had upbraided the Crab for their resistance to Wampei.
He couldn’t remember today’s words through the red haze of his anger, but he could hear Hoto’s voice. Chastising him like a child in the Council. Quietly reminding him in a private meeting that the Crab were economically dependent on the Crane to get through the winter. Calming explaining Husaki’s honor and samurai status hung by a very, very thin thread.
Honor? What honor!? He had come to fulfill his duty to the Empire, and what had happened? His honor was in tatters, he was a prisoner, and it seems another Regent just as bad had ascended to the foot of the Emperor’s throne.
With a growl, his patience finally snapped. He left the room, his hand snagging the massive hammer he now often carried. He stormed out of the guest quarters into one of the long hallways that ran about the edge of the palace, heading for Hoto’s chambers. He would BEAT some sense into this Crane, even if it were the last thing he would ever do.
He swung around a corner and pulled up short. A hunched, cloaked form was blocking his path. It appeared to be one of the old, fat servants that populated the palace like locusts.
“Stand aside,” Husaki barked.
The figure bowed slightly, but did not move.
“Greetings, samurai-sama,” came a deep, gravely voice. “Where does the Champion of the Crab go in the middle of the night in such a hurry?”
“I go to my own business,” said Husaki warily. He moved forward to push past the servant. But a large hand, with scarred knuckles, snapped out and grabbed his arm.
“I think it would be wiser if you would return to your room,” the cloaked man replied, straightening to a height that matched Husaki’s. Beneath the hood, Husaki saw a full white beard, scraggly white hair, and a single brown eye staring out at him.
“I don’t know who you are, old one,” the Crab Champion replied. “But you do not want to get between me and my duty.” He wrenched his arm hard.
The old man skillfully followed the move, pulling along with Husaki’s momentum. The Champion of the Crab found himself whirled around, and with a smash of wood and paper he was thrown through the right wall into one of the many small mediation gardens, scattering sand and ornamental stones on his impact.
“Duty?” said the old man as he readied a battle stance. His bulk, Husaki observed as he lunged to his feet, was not fat but solid muscle. “What duty do you fulfill by forfeiting your life?”
Husaki raised O-Ushi’s Hammer, but when his opponent drew no weapon, threw it aside. He lunched at the old man, and they locked arms, grunting as massive cords of muscle tensed.
“I have a duty to the Empire,” Husaki said through clenched teeth. “I came here to fulfill it by striking down Wampei. Now, it seems, I must also educate the Crane.” His foot lashed out, knocking the old man down to one knee.
“When did you get to decide what was right for the Empire?” grunted the old man, trying to prevent Husaki from locking his arms. “Last I checked, there were seven other Great Clans, dozens of minor clans, and millions of people.” With a violent twist, he unbalanced Husaki and with a heavy thud they fell to the ground, cracking the wooden floor. They rolled back into the garden, each trying to pin the other.
“When I am the one without any compromising interests!” snarled Husaki. Stones and sand flew about them. “The Unicorn and Dragon care only about their own expansion. The Phoenix are likely corrupt. The Scorpion are distant. The Mantis unreliable. The Crane power mad!” He got a leg under his opponent. “Only Hideaki seems to have any sense! Do I have to save the Empire from itself?” he roared, and kicked the old man off him.
The old giant slammed against a wooden beam, cracking it in two but landing on his feet. Both combatants were breathing hard, and their noise was attracting attention. The craggy features of the old man softened and his eyes drifted in remembrance. “That’s what Kisada said,” he replied softly.
Husaki was started. “Wha…what?”
With a sudden rush, the old man slammed into the Crab Champion like a herd of Otaku steeds. They both flew backwards, smashing through the outer wall of the palace in an explosion of timber, gravel, and plaster.
They landed on the grass twenty feet below with a massive thud. The air was forced from Husaki even as he locked arms again with his attacker. The old man leaned forward, and with broad white teeth, bit into and tore the heavy linen sleeve of Husaki’s tunic, exposing his Tainted arm. Husaki gasped. “How did you,” he began.
“And Kisada didn’t even have that,” the old man growled. “Although I sometimes wish he had. A taste of the Taint can let you know what you are fighting. To see that the darkness can lay in any soul, to put your own dark side out as a badge that you can never forget or ignore.”
“I know I am but one man,” said Husaki breathlessly. “But when the world goes mad, one man can make the difference. I don’t require admiration, reward, or payment. I just want to fulfill my duty to the Empire.”
“One man can make a difference, but a dozen can make a greater one. A hundred, a thousand, a million even more. Many men think they are doing what is best for the Empire. Sometimes, it is best to let them all take different paths, so long as you know they all intend to end up at the same destination.” Husaki considered these words.
“Hoto…is not my enemy,” said Husaki. “I know this. He…he wants what is best for the Empire in his own way. As a Crane, he has his own duty. And I am a Crab, with mine. Perhaps letting the Crab and the Crane follow their own paths will make the Empire stronger, in the end.”
The old man nodded once, and stood up easily. Husaki was impressed. Every muscle of his groaned, and he was unsure if he could stand at all. “You seem unharmed.”
“I am a Crab,” replied the old man. “A former Crab Champion. The first Crab Champion, actually. And like all former Crab Champions, I am also dead.” Husaki’s eyes widened slightly. “It makes it easier on the aches and pains, let me tell you. Now, why do you use those,” he pointed to the jade bracelets “to control your Taint rather than the Jade Petal tea?”
“The pain reminds me,” said Husaki.
Hida nodded approvingly. “I can help you deal with it. I will return in two months time. Prepare.”
“Who goes there?” shouted several guards with glowing lanterns, leaning out of the hole in the palace.
“It is I, Hida Husaki,” he shouted back.
There were confused murmurs among the guards. Then another shouted down. “My Lord, who were you wrestling with?”
Husaki turned from them to the old man, but he was nowhere to be seen.
“Myself,” he answered.
The beginning of the last month of Spring, AT 103
Husaki waits in the clearing in the forests of Shosuro. The woods are dark and silent, befitting this Scorpion province. His army is camped just half a mile away, ready to march. But last night in a dream, Hida had returned to him, calling him to this spot. So he had sent Tesomi to ready the men, and came here.
“Good,” comes the gravely voice. Husaki turns, and the Crab Kami stands behind him, armed and armored as a simple Crab bushi. Now, Husaki can see a faint golden glow about his ancestor’s skin.
“Have you been thinking about our talk,” asks Hida.
“I have,” replies Husaki. “I have learned all I can from the Taint. Now, as we fight those who do not seek the betterment of the Empire on their path, I no longer need it.”
Hida nods. “Hold out your arm, and be purified, child of the Kami,” he says.
Husaki is somewhat awed by the presence and power of the one in front of him. He takes a deep break and closes his eyes, extending his tainted left arm. He wonders what the cleansing power of the Kami will feel like.
He gets his answer quickly: searing, agonizing pain.
His eyes snap open and stare in shock at the blood spurting from the stump of his arm, severed just above the elbow. His forearm lands on the ground with a wet splat, like a haunch of raw meat. Hida is wiping his blade on the moss of a tree.
“What did you expect? I’m not some Phoenix shugenja. I’m a Crab,” he says.
Husaki cannot help it, he howls in pain, collapsing to his knees.
“Sometimes sacrifices must be made for the overall health of the body. Corrupted limbs must be amputated,” continues Hida matter-of-factly as he lights a torch.
“What…what have you done!?” pants Husaki. “I am lame! How…how can I lead the Crab now?”
Hida says nothing. He drops the torch against Husaki’s severed limb, and the tainted flesh bursts into flame. He holds the torch out to Husaki, whose front is covered in his own blood. “Here,” he says.
Husaki screams like a wounded bull, a bellow that echoes across the forest, scattering birds and startling his distant men. But he cauterizes the wound.
Hida is silent, starring at his panting, sweat covered descendent.
“I…I can still lead my troops,” he gasps. “But a Champion cannot be lame, especially a Crab. I…I will have to pass it over to another. Tesomi is strong…but she would not rule with her heart, she would defer to me. Konsimu will listen…to council, but he will make his own decisions.” He sets his jaw, determined and resigned at the same time. He looks up at his Kami.
“The Crab will follow a new path for the greater glory of the Empire.”
Hida stares, looking through Husaki into his soul, and sees the sincerity and commitment behind his words.
“Ha!” he laughs, slapping Husaki on his wounded arm and eliciting another scream. “I knew you had it in you! Well, I’ve got to get back. The dead shouldn’t trouble the living too much, and Yomi is distant these days. Travel is quite dangerous. But the last time I was there I picked up something from a kinsman of ours who doesn’t need it anymore. I debated whether to leave it with you, but I think you’ve earned it.”
Hida takes a sack from his belt and throws it at Husaki’s feet.
“Good luck kid,” he says, and is gone before the bag hits the ground.
Husaki swallows, his mouth a parched desert. With one trembling hand, he clumsily unties the bag and reaches inside to pull out the massive hand made of a glimmering jade…