Present time, the eastern shore of Rokugan, a few miles south of the Ruins of Otosan Ushi
The calm breeze coming from the sea would have been a soothing sensation to anyone else, but to Gaeru it was a reminder of the long voyage they had just undergone, and how far away from their home they were. The late winter night was conspiring with his wet robes, making him shiver with a cold he had never felt before. His companions had made a campfire a few minutes ago in order to warm themselves, but he refused to sit near it, at least for now. He walked a short distance, to a small rock formation and opened a bag full with pieces of wood, around 8 inches in length. The shugenja carefully studied them for a few minutes; taking the one he felt was better suited. From his robes he pulled out a small knife, and started carving the wood, slowly giving it form.
For an hour he worked on the wood, carving it into a unique shape; on its center, a crude circular woman face, two arms coming from its sides, curving and twisting around the head. Gaeru put the figure down on a nearby rock, and knelt before the improvised shrine, praying and thanking the air kami for the safe voyage.
“That is an interesting and unique ritual”, said an ominous voice as Gaeru finished the prayer. “But one that pleases the kami, nonetheless.”
Gaeru turned around to see the figure of a man, wrapped in thick robes. There was something unusual, yet calming about him; something new, yet familiar. Gaeru tried to look at the man’s face, but a sudden pain in his right arm held him motionless for a second. He turned his vision back to the figure on the rock.
“Not so unique from were I come from…”
“Careful what you say here”, interrupted the stranger. “Not everyone treats outsiders as well as I do, especially with what is happening now.”
Gaeru turned quickly towards the man, the pain once again preventing him from looking to his face. “What do you mean? What is happening…? Who are y-…?” But the stranger seemed to ignore Gaeru’s questions, as he looked towards the north.
“You will find the One you seek to the west, in Scorpion lands. But your warning may be coming too late. The threat you seek to stop comes now from the north.”
Gaeru looked to the north, his mind full with questions, but found himself unable to speak.
“The Empire faces an army far unlike anything the have seen before; and the reign of the New Divine Empress is put to the test.” The figure turned his face to Gaeru, and even thought he could not see his face, the shugenja could feel the disdain in the man’s eyes. Was he being judged for been a ronin, a gaijin? Was it perhaps because he was late with the warning? No, there was something else… The pain in his right arm disrupted his thoughts.
“Now you come with an old omen”, continue the man. “You bring a prophesy, as it is being fulfilled. Could the knowledge you carry be of any help?”
Gaeru turned his face to the ground. He was late, he had failed. But looking to the north, he saw a ray of hope. Perhaps there was a way to redeem himself…
“To seek out the One who’ll heed your warning… even if late”, said the ominous voice. “Or to fight against those you warn about. What would you do, Gaeru-san?”
“How-?” replied Gaeru, finally able to talk. But as he turned around, the stranger was no longer there.
Year 374 of the Isawa Calendar, somewhere south of the Islands of Silk and Spice.
The water raged against the simple vessel as it rocked back and forth in the forceful wind. A samurai, clad in green armor stood in the front of the ship, his eyes tired. For a year he has been searching the high seas. For weeks they had been without food or water, surviving only with whatever fish they may catch and whatever rain may fall. Already two of his men had died, loyal servants who followed him in this crazy voyage; or perhaps not loyal, but desperate. After all, a year ago he had deserted his post, gone against Imperial command, and even stolen this ship. He should have come alone, but he dragged these poor peasants with him into this madness, and now there was no turning back.
He looked around, to the sky, to the sea; he searched.
“Samurai-sama”, called a soft sick voice. The samurai turned back to the peasant, his clothes were torn and dirty, his skin pale. “Excuse me sir. I’m afraid Yoriko is sick.”
The samurai clutched his fist… but kept silent. There was nothing he could do. He had condemned them all.
“Kenmei-sama”, he finally said, his voice almost a whisper, as if talking to himself. “Where are you? I should have never abandoned you, my lord.”
For one year, he had searched for that mysterious Island, trying to keep his promise.
“We will come back for you, Kenmei-sama.” They said. “The Empire will not forget you.”
Yet, the Empire forgot… but he did not. He was determined to find Miya Kenmei again, whatever the cost would be. Days passed, then months. Now he wondered if it was all a dream. Was that Island real? Was he looking for a place that never existed? “No”, he told himself. “It is real. I know it is.” The Island was real. Kenmei was real, and he was alive here somewhere. He made a promise, and he will keep looking until his promise is fulfilled, even if it costs him his life and that of his crew… his life… he wondered if keeping his promised was worth losing his life. He was an outcast now, a deserter. He could no longer consider himself a samurai. He had given everything he had for that promise. Was it really worth it to give more?
And that is when the whispers came…
He turned to his crew, his eyes filled with an energy that he had not felt for months. A sinister smile appeared in his face. No, his life was worth more than his promise. He will survive. He turned his vision to the south, the dark twisted waters of the Sea of Shadows roared in the distance, calling him home.
Present time, and island, a few miles south east of Shima no Koshinryo
The young man stood atop the hill side, his simple green garment flowing with the wind. He could barely sense the Kami around him as he focused his sight on a single dot in the distance. Ever since the scouts reported its location in the morning, it has been standing there, but now, the tiny dot was getting bigger; it was coming closer.
“Guard!” the young man called out loud towards the nearby trees. A bushi; clad in dark green armor rushed from one of them and knelt before him. “Summon the council, we must get ready.”
“Hai, Kato-sama”- replied the guard, and rushed back to the city with two other figures following close by.
Kato waited a few more minutes looking at the distant dot, making sure it was really coming closer and it was not his imagination. Once he was sure that it, in fact was getting bigger; he headed to the city.
Utau Kaeru Toshi, the City of the Singing Frog, felt more like a village than a city. Only a handful of houses rounded the small square; just enough to provide a place to live to those whose duties required them to always be present. No commerce was allowed in the city, and those who lived there had to travel for two hours before reaching the next city. In the center of the square lied a simple statue, carved out of a jade-like stone. Legends said that it was carved by the air kami themselves, and that one of them still lives in the mystical statue.
Kato knelt before the statue as he passed by, for a minute he waited there, listening to the soft song that came out of it: “Koh… kee…”
Kyuden Kenmei was not really a palace in itself, it was more like a shrine, erected in the memory of Miya Kenmei. The entrance to the palace was always guarded by two bushi. A long straight hall led the way to a single round chamber, its walls covered with the dark green stones that bore the dark omens which Kenmei found when he reached the Island, the same omens they were bound to protect. There, Kato found the council already waiting for him.
The council of six was originally formed by Kenmei and his five most trusted followers to resemble Isawa’s council of elements. Four old shugenja sat around a round table leaving two chairs empty. Kato looked at one of the chairs, his brother’s, the one he had refused to sit in since his brother left the Island a few weeks ago.
“Council”, he finally said to the four, his voice soft and timid, yet filled with authority, one he found hard to achieve. “Our scouts reported another incursion this morning.”
“The Green Ones are getting bolder”, interrupted one of the four, a tall man dressed in dark brown and green.
“And this one is getting closer”, continued Kato, trying to ignore the old shugenja.
“We must protect the Island”, said another one, a dark skinned female dressed in red garments.
“But without Gaeru and Oten, can we really succeed?” asked a third one, dressed in a deep blue robe.
“We must! But we need to start now.”
“Hai!” replied all four at once.
The five shugenja gathered around the stone statue in prayer. Kato could feel the others call in the kami, and felt out of place. He was not as powerful as they were, he could barely hear the kami; but Gaeru had given him the duty of protecting the Island, and so he will. He prayed to the kami. He prayed to his ancestors. He prayed to Miya Kenmei for help.
Slowly, a thick white mist began to cover the casters. A subtle murmur of voices overcame the place? then an intense growling and a total silence. Kato could feel the air kami dancing around him; the earth kami rumbling at his feet. He could feel a soft rain, and an intense heat. It was the first time that young shugenja had participated in this ritual; but he knew all too well what was to come next. An intense pain overcame his whole body as he felt his blood rushing through his veins. The whispers came soft at first, then darker. Give up hope… surrender to us. The voices roared in his mind, draining him of his energy. He was tired. He was ready to give up.
Concentrate! He could hear his father’s voice. The kansen may well be all around us, but we must be strong! He wondered where the voice was coming from… Concentrate!
Suddenly, Kato felt the energy coming back to him, and as if someone else was guiding his voice, he began praying to the kami, singing to them. He could hear their voices now. There were hundred, thousands of voices around him: The kami of the air and sea; the kami of the earth and fire, all dancing around him in a white mist.
For three hours the kami danced, and for three hours they prayed; until slowly, the thick white mist began spreading out to the Island. As the Island was covered by the mist, Kato began to feel the rush of air passing through him, the sea roaring around the Island. The kami had accepted their offer, and the Island was being covered by a mystical illusion, until it was left unseen and unheard to outsiders.
A few hours west of the Ruins of Otosan Ushi.
The two travelers moved with an uncanny speed. The younger, a female bushi dressed in dark blue armor was slightly ahead, scouting the area for any presence. They were traveling with no papers, and if Gaeru’s vision proved to be real; Rokugan was not in the mood to tolerate the incursions of two unknown ronin. She looked back at his companion; an old man dressed in dark green robes. They have been running for almost a day with no time for breaks, but Oten did not seem to be tired at all, surely the result of whatever spell he had cast on them.
“Perhaps we should stop and rest for a while, Junsei-chan”, he said to her. “There is a long way ahead, and we will need to be rested if we are to face samurai of the Great Clans.”
“Hai. Perhaps we should take a minute to eat something.” Junsei turned her sight back to the direction from which they came from. “Do you think Gaeru would be well?”
“Do not worry about him, child. He is a resourceful man. He will reach the Empress safe.”
“Do you think she will accept our offer? After all, we are nothing in these lands. And… We failed in our duty…”
“We might be late with the warning. But we are here now, and if the incoming threat is a great as the omen says, Rokugan will need all the help it can get.”
“Come now, Junsei. This is no time for doubts.”
“Right”, she said looking to the distance. “Carry the Fortunes, Gaeru-kun.”
A short distance away, a dark figure watched the two travelers; his black armor contrasting with his long white-green hair. He touched the hilt of his black-bladed sword with his right hand, ready to strike at any moment. They are good prey, whispered a soft voice. I feel the desire in their blood. But there was something else about these two, something unique. Something his new Master would want to know. No, as strong as the temptation was, he did not dare kill them. At least not until he discovered their secret and deliver it to his Master. Yes, he will spare them, for now.
TO BE CONTINUED