“By Any Other Name” by Helen Keeble

“Where are the others”
“Dead.”

The voices were close, very close. The ground spun beneath him. He lay very
still, and tried not to breathe.

“All of them” The first voice, harsh and incredulous.
“Yes.” The second voice again, resigned and tired. The cold rock lurched and
dipped, even with his eyes closed. There was a salty, slightly metallic
taste in his mouth. He tried to gather his wits. They thought him dead.
Good. Stay still, stay quiet, let the chill seep into his bones. Wait.
“_All_ Them and ours”
“Apart from us three.”
“Well, _that_ was worthwhile.” His heart leapt into his mouth at the new
voice, sounding shockingly loud right above him. A breath of air against his
face, as someone stepped over him. “If they weren’t already dead, I’d kill
them.”
“Silence, you.” The first voice, weary yet in a tone of command. That would
be the leader, then.
“Well, it’s true.” Third voice again. Someone spat. “Okiku and Mar for a
pile of corpses. What a bargain.”
“I said silence.”
“Just pointing out-”
“We need to leave quickly.” The second voice cut urgently across the
bickering. “This will have attracted attention.”
A small pause, then a long sigh. “Make sure of them,” the leader ordered.
“Then we’ll- put that down!”
A chiming clatter, of something metallic being dropped. “I need it,” said
Third, sullenly.
“Leave their daisho alone,” First commanded, in a tone that brooked no
disobedience. “Use something else. Now, hurry.”

Two pairs of footsteps receding- one with the soft scuff of sandals on
stone, the other with an odd clicking noise. Like claws. He restrained the
shudder, and continued to lie still.

“Bastard,” Third muttered. Something heavy was dragged across rock. “Well,
this is going to get messy.” A grunt of effort, something swishing through
the air- and then a sickening, meaty, crack.
“Yeah, I think you would rather I just picked up your sword too.” The sound
of another body being dragged. “Hello, Crane.” Another squelching thud. “Not
so pretty now, eh”

Something was dragged away from his back. He had to move soon. His muscles
seemed content to stay dead, though.

A long, low whistle. “Woah. Which one of you fried the ogre Mmm-mmm,
crispy.”
The ogre. There had been an ogre, appearing out of nowhere, it seemed, and
the unit was already engaged and the light of the torches reflected from the
iron-bound club and Tsumein was shouting- damn it, where’s that spell This
week would be nice, Sojo! But the club came down faster than he could speak
and someone was pushing him back, Raeko was pushing him back as the ogre
roared and she shouted and he spoke the last word and then…

He opened his eyes, a tiny crack- and Hida Raeko’s dulled eyes stared into
his own, only a hand span away. Her jaw gaped soundlessly at him, her arm
still flung over his chest. He was lying in her blood.

It was only the tiniest of sounds, hastily stifled, but he knew immediately
that it had betrayed him. The muttered grumbling abruptly ceased, leaving
only an intent, listening silence. He held his breath, not even daring to
close his eyes. He heard no footsteps, nothing- but a shadow fell across
Raeko’s shattered face.

“Don’t tell me you’re rising already.” The voice came from directly above
him. Something prodded the middle of his back. He stayed limp, unresisting.
“Damn. This area is worse than I thought.” A low, hissing sigh. “Well, can’t
be having that. Stay dead, you poor brave bastards.” The shadow shifted,
elongating.

Rising already. Can’t have that. Stay dead. Don’t rise as a zombie. The
stranger was making sure the corpses did not reanimate. That wasn’t
something a Shadowlands creature would do. And that meant-

“Wait!”

The tetsubo ruffled his hair, slamming into the stone only inches from his
face. Limp with shock and relief, he stared stupidly at it. Through the
ringing in his ears, he heard someone cursing in surprise.
“Well, paint my face and call me a geisha.” The voice raised. “Ibaran! Rei!
There’s a live one down here!” Then the tetsubo was thrown aside, and there
were hands on him, feeling his neck. The dry, rough touch moved swiftly over
his body, searching. “This blood isn’t all yours, is it Good. Careful,
now.”

Gratefully, he leaned into the steadying hands. He rolled over, looking up-
and squinted, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the bright orange
light-

Burning where eyes should be, in a black-scaled face.

“Easy.” The creature grinned at him, a flash of sharp white teeth. “I’ve got
you.”

He knew then that he was dead.

His kick connected solidly with the crouched figure, knocking it
off-balance. His arms came up of their own accord, shoving away the hands on
him, shoving as hard as he could- and then he was free, and rolling
desperately away, over Raeko’s body. A snarl from the darkness, and the
flare of eyes. He scrabbled for the container at his side, feeling the
flicker of the fire spirit there. Without the preliminary precautions and
bindings, the invocation was much shorter. No restrictions- his own body
offered, wholly and freely, to be used as fuel for the magic. He was dead,
but he would not be worse than dead, and he’d take this thing with him!

“No-!” The dark figure lunged for him, hands outstretched- too late.

Four words, and the world became fire.

*****

“… damned useless cowardly irrational pony fu-”
“Be quiet. Stay still.”
“I’m going to-”
“You will be silent, and when he wakes, you will be respectful. Now stay
still so I can treat this.”

Curiously, there was no pain. He opened his eyes. Vague shapes swam before
him, refusing to resolve into focus. Blinking, he reached to rub his eyes-
and discovered that his arms were bound behind his back.

“It _was_ an understandable mistake.” A different voice, coming from
somewhere behind him, and sounding rather amused.
“Oh, yes, richly comic.” Third’s voice, dripping sarcasm. “Why don’t you
wake him up and enjoy the humour yourself”
“A joke is never as funny the second time,” said the other voice, solemnly.

Subtly, he tested his bonds. He was lying on his side, securely trussed from
head to foot, with a gag in his mouth. Someone obviously knew how to deal
with shugenja.

“Ibaran-sama, I think he’s awake.”
“Damn, someone hit him again.”
“Silence.” A pair of sandals appeared in his line of sight. Someone crouched
down next to him. He glared up at the vague shape, trying to convey his hate
and resolve with only his eyes.
“Listen.” The voice was harsh, but quiet. “I am not your enemy. Look.” The
man was showing him something, something green. Jade. The amulet rested on
the bare palm. “Understand Nod.”
Slowly, he nodded.
“Good. I am going to untie you. Remain calm. Take offensive action, and you
will die. Understand Nod.”
He nodded again.
The ropes came loose, and the gag was pulled away. He sat up unsteadily,
rubbing his eyes. “Water,” he croaked, throat dry.

Someone pushed a water bag into his hands. The jade charms encrusting it
shifted and clinked as he raised it eagerly to his lips. The water was
stale, warm, and delicious. He drank greedily.
“Easy,” said the person who had handed him the water bag. “We need to
conserve that.” The voice was good-natured, though thick and slurred. He
blinked up at the figure, his vision finally clearing. A lean, gangly man,
all sinew and bone, was smiling down at him, exposing toothless gums. Sickly
green veins spidered across his face.
“It’s alright,” said the harsh voice, as he involuntarily flinched away.
“Name”
“Sojuan,” he replied, still watching the Tainted man warily. The man seemed
to take no notice of the hostile stare, gently pulling the water bag away
again. Sojuan noticed that he handled it gingerly, touching only the straps.
“As- Utaku Sojuan.” With an effort, he tore his gaze away from the Tainted
man to look at the figure kneeling at his side. “Who are you”
“Kuni Ibaran.” The man bowed slightly, then straightened. His white
face-paint accentuated his deep-set black eyes, making his face unsettling.
“A… Kuni But-” His eyes flickered back to the Tainted bushi.
“These others are under my control,” Ibaran said, catching the motion. “You
are quite safe.”

A snort. “Interesting use of the word ‘safe’,” said another voice- one that
Sojuan recognised. The scaled creature squatted on a boulder nearby, its
heavily-muscled arms clasped loosely around its knees. It leered at him,
orange eyes flaring. “Do you _feel_ safe, pony”

“Damned,” whispered Sojuan.
Ibaran raised an eyebrow. “Unusual. You are not Crab.”
“I’ve… heard of you. Them.”
“Interesting.” The Kuni’s head tilted to one side, his piecing black eyes
studying him. “You are correct.”
“But… in the Shadowlands!”
“No, Winter Court,” said the scaled creature sarcastically. “Where did you
think you were”
“But… that can’t be safe!” Sojuan’s mind reeled.
“See” The monstrosity grinned at the Kuni. “I told you safe was the wrong
word.”
“Silence.” The creature subsided, though a rebellious expression flashed
across its face. The Kuni turned back to Sojuan. “There are… precautions.
As I said, they are under my control.”

Sojuan rubbed his forehead, trying to make sense of it all. A monster, a
tainted bushi, and a Kuni, in the Shadowlands. It sounded like the start of
a bad joke. “I don’t understand. Why are you here”
“Scouting,” said Ibaran- appearing to feel that this was all the explanation
necessary. “And you”
“Me We were- wait, the others!”
“Dead,” said Ibaran bluntly.
“And dismembered,” added the creature cheerfully. “They ain’t getting up
again.”
“Dead… ” Sojuan echoed. It did not seem real. “There were twenty of us!”
“I’m sorry,” said the thin man softly. “They fought bravely. Your friends
died with honour.”
“Mission” pressed the Kuni, ignoring the interruptions.
“Hunting,” Sojuan replied absently, still trying to take it all in. The
Kuni’s terse mode of speech seemed contagious.
Ibaran stared at him. “This deep”
“Yes. We were following the trail back from- wait a second.” Something the
Kuni had said suddenly sunk in. “What do you mean, ‘this deep’ We only
marched half a day!”

There was a small pause.

“Oh, shit,” said the scaled man.

“What” asked Sojuan, looking round at them all.
“We left the Wall three days ago,” answered the thin man, a look of concern
on his ulcerated face. “And we thought we were going in a straight line.”
“We were,” said Ibaran absently. The Kuni seemed deep in thought, sitting
absolutely motionless, eyes unfocused. At last he stirred. “Shifted,” he
grunted. “Recently. Shen.”
“I’m on it.” The scaled creature flowed to its feet, leaping from the rock.
It stumbled slightly as it landed, with what sounded like a hiss of pain,
and flung a disgusted look at Sojuan. “Though I’d be a lot faster if someone
hadn’t decided I needed to be deep-fried.”
“Want some help” offered the thin man.
“Stay. Break camp,” Ibaran ordered, coiling up the ropes that had been
binding Sojuan. “Shen, go.”
“Yeah, yeah…” The abomination bounded away, soon vanishing out of sight
amongst the scattered boulders.

“I’m Rei, by the way,” said the ulcerated man, wrapping the water bag up in
a cloth. “That was Shen.” He jerked a thumb at Ibaran’s back, adding in an
undertone, “He always forgets to introduce us.” He slung the water bag from
his waist, and bent to pick up a pack. “Are you feeling well enough to
travel”
“Uh… yes. I think so.” Sojuan got to his feet, slightly unsteadily. He
leaned on a large rock, and inspected himself. His hands were covered in
soot, though the skin underneath seemed whole. He tried to brush the black
powder off- unsuccessfully.
“Your face, too,” Rei said, sounding amused. “That was some spell.”
“Um.” Rather lost for words, Sojuan wiped his hands on his kimono. The
garment was completely ruined anyway, the hems frayed and charred. He looked
down at it, and winced. “Not another one,” he muttered without thinking.
“Midori is going to kill me.”
Rei laughed. “Whoever she is, she’ll have to stand in line. Shen has first
call.” His smile faded at the look on Sojuan’s face. “Joke,” he said
quietly. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m not,” said Sojuan shortly. He turned away from the tainted bushi.
“Kuni-san”
Ibaran, busy packing away looked like a medicine kit, did not look up, but
the cowled head tilted slightly in acknowledgement.

Sojuan groped for words. “What… happened”
The Kuni’s hands did not pause. “I observed your group under attack, and
intervened. But too late.”

Sojuan waited.

“Details” he prompted at last.
“There are few to tell. You and your enemies were evenly matched. Mutual
destruction. We arrived as the last of your group fell, and drove off the
few remaining Shadowlands creatures.”
“Just the three of you”
“I had more than two Damned, then,” said Ibaran, perfectly calmly.
“I’m… sorry.”
The Crab lifted one shoulder in a small shrug. He straightened, tying the
pouch to his obi, then reached for a bundle on the ground. “I regret we did
not arrive sooner.”
“Well… thank you, anyway,” Sojuan said awkwardly.
Ibaran inclined his head slightly, then held out the bundle. “Are you well
enough”
“To carry I’ll take my share.” The Unicorn accepted the load. It clinked in
his hands, the items inside shifting. He felt at it curiously. “What is
this”
“Their wakizashi,” said Ibaran quietly. He shouldered a similar bundle. “The
full daisho were too awkward. I am sorry.”
Sojuan weighed the bundle in his hands, looking down at it. Nineteen lives.
It did not seem heavy enough. “Thank you.”
Ibaran nodded gravely again. “If I may- a question”
Sojuan looked up inquiringly.
“Crab. Crane. Dragon. Unicorn. Scorpion.” One white-painted eyebrow raised.
“Unusual.”
“I know,” Sojuan said wryly. “But it works. Have you heard of the Legion of
the Jade Hand” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rei look up sharply.
“Ah.” Ibaran nodded. “That explains much. I have heard of that group.”
“So have Daigotsu’s forces, it seems.” Sojuan looked away, occupying himself
with tying the cloth-wrapped wakizashi to his back. “Our camp was
attacked… let’s see, early yesterday morning, it would be by now. A fairly
large force. We destroyed most of them, but the creature who seemed to be
the general fled. It was decided to track it down before it could gather
more troops…” He trailed off.
“Ambushed”
“Yes.” Sojuan sighed. “We tracked the creature down, and attacked- we had
the advantage of numbers. But when the unit was fully engaged, suddenly more
appeared, as if out of nowhere. After that, I don’t know. It was too dark
and confused to understand what was going on in the battle as a whole.”
Ibaran looked thoughtful. “This creature… twice man-height, and furred
Horns of an ox”
“Yes! You saw it”
The Kuni’s thin lips quirked in the smallest of smiles. “Dead.”
Sojuan was silent for a moment. “At least it wasn’t for nothing, then,” he
said at last.

A rattle of sliding gravel made them both look up. The scaled man was back,
silhouetted against the overcast sky. He swung down from the large boulder
to land lightly by Ibaran’s side.
“Nothing I can see nearby,” Shen reported. He squatted down, smoothing out
an area of sand, and began rapidly sketching lines in it. “Here’s us. This
gully continues down this way- it’s all broken stones and rocks that way.
Here’s where the battle was.” One pointed nail stabbed a hole into the dirt,
then indicated an area some way off. “There’s something in the distance
which _might_ be that forest we passed earlier. And this way,” the scaled
hands marked out a large area to the left of the gully, “it flattens out to
plains. No cover at all- please tell me we don’t have to go that way.”
Sojuan stared down at the rough map. “We passed rock fields on the way
here… but I never saw this forest, or these plains.”
“Definitely shifted. And quickly, too.” Ibaran was studying the map
intently. Catching sight of Sojuan’s blank look, he held out his hands,
fingers splayed, palms parallel to the ground. “Like this. Your group.” He
raised the first finger of his left hand slightly. “Us.” The fourth finger
of his right. “Lands turn, bring us together.” Keeping his hands horizontal,
the Crab rotated them in opposite directions until the indicated fingers
touched.
Sojuan nodded in understanding. “So… which way Back towards your forest”
Ibaran shook his head slowly. “That would now take us deeper in. No.” He
took a few paces away, then folded his arms across his chest. The Crab stood
motionless for a moment.

“This way,” he said at last, coming back and decisively drawing a line on
the map, through the stone field area.
“The route with most cover, too,” said Rei cheerfully. “Every cloud has a
silver lining.”
“Did Shinsei say that” Shen muttered.
“No, I did,” said Rei, with a perfectly straight face. “Shinsei’s not here.”
Shen groaned loudly.
“Onwards,” said Ibaran, scuffing a foot over the map. He turned and began
walking away, without a backwards glance.
“Remember how to use your own feet, Unicorn” said Shen, strapping a pack
onto his hunched back.
“Manners, Shen,” said Rei reproachfully, before Sojuan could think of an
appropriate retort. “Be nice.”
“I am being nice,” the scaled man protested, shouldering an iron-studded
tetsubo. He flashed a wicked smile at Sojuan, his teeth very white in his
dark face. “He’s still got all his limbs.”

Without answering, Sojuan turned away, and trudged after the Kuni.

*****

It was amazing how boring constant fear was.

They might have been walking for hours, days, minutes. Nothing changed. Grey
rock, grey dust, grey sky. No terrors- just grey. The unrelenting bleakness
seeped into his soul. At times it seemed that he had been trudging behind
the Kuni for years. He had always been walking here; he always would. There
had never been such a thing as the colour green, or the flight of birds.
There was only this.

Sojuan held his jade amulet in his fist, and kept walking. The weight of the
swords was an anchor. He kept the names of their bearers running through his
head, a litany against the dark. He tried to think of the poems he would
write for them, how he would strive to capture a tiny part of their essence.
The words came haltingly.
All the time, he watched the gloom, peering into shadowed areas, a hand
ready on his scroll case. But nothing happened. Nothing moved but the stolid
form of the Kuni, pacing with an even, unfaltering stride- and the Damned.
They were ghosts in the greyness- now behind, now ahead, now ranging to the
sides. Shen’s eyes burned in the shadows. Nobody spoke.

Ibaran halted.

Reflexively, Sojuan dropped into a crouch, spinning to scan the
surroundings. “What is it” he whispered.

The Kuni unslung his pack, kneeling down beneath an overhanging outcrop of
rock. “Dinner.”
“About time, too,” muttered Shen, squatting down next to Ibaran. The
berserker stretched his arms out, rolling his gnarled shoulders. The sound
of cracking joints made Sojuan suddenly aware of the chorus of complaints
from his own muscles.

Rei was still standing a little way off, studying the darkening
surroundings. “Aren’t you joining us” Sojuan asked him.
The bushi smiled, shaking his head. He unfastened the water bag from his obi
and offered it to Sojuan. “Go ahead- I’m fine.” Drawing his ragged kimono a
little tighter about himself, he resumed his attitude of quiet alertness.

Sojuan went over to the others and sat down- on the far side from Shen.
Ibaran was rummaging around inside another jade-studded container.
Withdrawing a rice ball, the Kuni tossed it to Shen, who caught it neatly-
and then began juggling it from hand to hand, swearing under his breath.
“Hot food” Sojuan exclaimed, impressed. “How do you manage that”
“No,” Ibaran grunted, passing a rice ball to Sojuan. It was quite cold. The
Kuni took one himself, and began eating, with no sign of either pleasure or
dislike. Shen was still toying with his, eyeing it with distaste.
Shrugging, Sojuan took a bite. The rice was poor quality, but tasted fine-
better than fine, in fact, to his empty stomach. And yet… there was an odd
texture, gritty, like sand between his teeth…
“Jade powder,” he said aloud, in realisation. He glanced again at Shen. The
Damned caught the look and scowled, his eyes flaring. In three swift gulps,
his rice ball was gone. Sojuan returned his gaze to his own meagre meal-
but, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shen surreptitiously rub his
mouth, a spasm shaking his body.

Abruptly, it all went black.

“Nightfall,” Ibaran’s calm voice came out of the darkness, even as Sojuan
started to his feet. “It can come suddenly.”
Rubbing his head where he had banged it on the overhanging rock, Sojuan sank
down again. The only light now came from Shen’s eyes, strong enough to
illuminate the scaled face. Sojuan decided that he would have preferred
total darkness.

“Shen,” Ibaran grunted.
The points of light moved. Sojuan heard rustling sounds, then the gurgle of
pouring water. It was clear that the Damned could see perfectly well with
those unholy eyes. More rustling, followed by a thud.
“Here’s the stone,” he heard Shen say.
“Good.” A soft whisper of words, too low to make out. A chant It sounded
vaguely familiar…
“Sojuan-san.” A finger prodded him in the ribs, making him jump. “Over
here.”
Cautiously, he edged a little closer to the Kuni- and then, unexpectedly,
felt warmth rising against his outstretched hand, as though he had waved it
over a brazier. Gratefully, he held out both hands, allowing the heat to
soak in.
“Hearthstone,” Ibaran explained.
“I know.” Sojuan shifted position to warm his numbed toes. “Not simple to
make, but extremely useful. Pity one can’t make one that emits light as
well- at least not one which doesn’t do it all the time.”
Twin orange fires turned his way. “How do you know that”
Sojuan shrugged nonchalantly- knowing that Shen would see the gesture- but a
soft whistling saved him from further explanation. Rising steam dampened his
palms.
“Hot tea, in the Shadowlands,” he said, admiring the ingenuity. “Not
something I expected, but welcome nonetheless.”
“Tough, ’cause you ain’t having any.” The glow flashed his way, then moved
to lean out from under the overhang. “Rei! Tea ceremony!”

The crunch of gravel announced the bushi’s arrival. “Shen, close your eyes”
“Brought me a present” The tone was unmistakably flirtatious.
“No, I just don’t want to lose my night-vision… such as it is. Cloudy,
tonight.”
“Must be the oni farting.” Sojuan saw the two stars blink out- though a
diffuse glow still remained- the light shining even through Shen’s closed
eyelids. Sojuan shivered slightly.
Scuffling noises. “Damn, now I can’t find where I put them.”
“I can’t see in here, it’s too dark. Feel around.”
“What do you think I’m doi-” A sharp hiss of pain. “Damn damn DAMN damn-”
“What”
“Put my hand full on the sodding water bag. Ow.” A clink. “Ah, here they
are. Careful, now.”
“Got it. You”
“Yeah, yeah…”

Sojuan felt Ibaran shift position, clearing his throat.

“Before you is purity,” the Kuni said quietly.
“I take it in reverent hands.” The words were spoken by two voices
simultaneously.
“Honour the memory of the Lady,” Ibaran continued.
“I bow to Amaterasu.”
“Reflect on the struggle of our Thunder.”
“I make reverence to Lord Sun.”
“Your souls are theirs.”
“I belong to no other.”
“Now.”
“And always.”
“You are Crab. Drink.”

A pause. Caught up in the strange ritual, Sojuan felt a great peace settle
over him.

“Crap, that tastes foul,” said Shen, coughing. “Must have been from a sick
bush.” Sojuan sighed.
“If you’ve _quite_ finished,” Ibaran said testily.
“Oh, yeah.” A gulp. “Can I open my eyes now, Rei”
“Wait a second.” The rustle of cloth, followed by retreating footsteps.
Sojuan noticed again the odd clicking sound Rei’s feet made against the
stone. “Alright.”
Orange fires sprang into being again. “About time.” Clinking noises
indicated Shen was occupied in tidying away the tea set. The glow from his
eyes was noticeably dimmer, but by it Sojuan could just make out Ibaran’s
profile. The Kuni had drawn up his cowl, leaning his head back against the
rock face.

“Ibaran-san”
A listening sort of silence.
“Now what”
“We rest.” The Crab sounded half-asleep already.
“What about watches”
“You will not stand one tonight.”
“I can-”
“Your body requires rest.”
“But, the… the Damned-”
“As I told you, it is quite safe. I am here. Sleep.”

Sojuan thought about arguing, but it suddenly seemed like far too much
effort. He leaned back against the cold stone, trying to find a way to prop
up his head so that he could keep Shen’s hunched form in view. He did not
have as much faith in the Damned as the Kuni did. He would stay alert. He
would keep up his guard. Just in case.

And with that thought, he fell asleep.

*****

He was buried alive. Foul ichor clogged his mouth and nose, suffocating him.
Sojuan thrashed helplessly, clawing, trying to breathe-

And awoke, and found that he _still_ couldn’t breathe.

“No fireball” The rough hand over his nose and mouth was withdrawn.
Gasping, Sojuan scrabbled backwards, jerking upright- then doubled over
again as he hit his head on the overhanging rock.

“Sorry.” Shen was hunched next to him, not looking even remotely apologetic.
“Just making sure. Sleep well”
Sojuan rubbed his aching head, looking around. “Where’s the Kuni”
“I ate him. For breakfast,” Shen said seriously.
Sojuan eyed the Damned. Shen looked straight back. It was very hard to tell
what might be going on behind that flaming gaze.
“Why didn’t you eat me, then”
“I’m full now.” Shen emitted a contented belch. “Maybe later. Besides,
you’re too skinny. I’ll fatten you up first.” He waved a hand at a small,
paper-wrapped parcel lying between them. “I saved you some leftovers.”
Keeping a wary eye on Shen, Sojuan opened the parcel. It contained nothing
more unusual than a jade-dusted rice ball. His stomach rumbled at the sight
of it.

“So,” he said a few moments later, swallowing. “Where is he really”

Shen had moved away to take up a hunched stance at the edge of the overhang,
looking outwards with his tetsubo across his knees. One massive shoulder
shrugged slightly. “Out scouting with Rei. Why” He twisted round to flash a
wicked grin at Sojuan. “Feeling insecure”
“Not at all,” Sojuan replied coolly, carefully inspecting the paper for any
last grains of rice. He crumpled the paper into a ball and dropped it. “Did
anything happen during the night”
“Nah. All quiet…” Shen scowled. “… though no thanks to you,
Bonfire-san.”
Sojuan winced. “Oh, not again. What did I set fire to”

Shen stared at him.

The Unicorn felt his face redden. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just a small
problem I… well. Um.”
Shen shook his head slowly. “My, what an exciting life your wife must lead.
No, I meant you stand out like a lit torch.”
Sojuan raised an eyebrow, looking pointedly into Shen’s eyes.
The bushi grinned. “Not like that. Look, in the Shadowlands, I’m invisible.
So’s Rei. The Kuni can conceal himself. You, however, are trailing a huge
banner saying ‘Free Food’.”
“I see. Well, considering the alternative, I think I can live with that.”
Looking for a way of changing the topic, he looked around. “Is there any
water”

Shen passed him the water bag. He took two careful swallows, then moistened
the edge of his sleeve and wiped the grime out of his eyes. A muffled snort
came from Shen’s direction, along with something that sounded like a mocking
“Crane”, uttered just loud enough to be audible. Sojuan smiled slightly, and
ignored it. Drawing out his jade amulet, he composed his mind for prayer.

“Shouldn’t you be facing the other way” he said after a moment.

Another slight snort. From beneath half-closed lids, Sojuan watched Shen
shift back round again. Keeping a thread of attention on the Damned, Sojuan
allowed the rest of his mind to sink into the familiar sutras.

The words were meaningless. The meditation was empty. His mind touched only
one tiny fire kami, curled deep within the ember at his side, protected by
magic and jade. Sojuan was relieved to find that it was still there.
Abandoning his entreaties to the higher powers, he concentrated only on that
small spark. He spoke praises to it, feeling the flame flare a little
higher, burn a little steadier in response. He felt as though he cupped that
flame in his hands, whispering to it while darkness pressed all around…
and he suddenly had an uncomfortable feeling that the darkness was
listening.

“Down!” Shen hissed, breaking his half-trance. The Damned shoved him further
back under the overhang, almost crushing him against the rock.
“What” Sojuan whispered, heart hammering. Shen did not respond, staring
intently out, crouched on all fours as though ready to spring. One scaled
hand tightened on the tetsubo. Not even daring to breathe, Sojuan peered
round Shen. Gradually, he became aware of movement in the mist outside…
shapes, coming closer… two figures, man-sized, one lean, the other
bulkier…
“It’s them!” Sojuan exclaimed, relief flooding him. He started forwards- and
ran into Shen’s rock-hard shoulder. The bushi hadn’t moved. Every muscle in
his neck and shoulders was tense, ready.

The approaching figure of the Kuni raised its right arm, sweeping it down in
a wide arc. Three times.

Sojuan felt the breath rush out of Shen. “It is them.”
“A signal”
“Yes.” Shen started to move forwards. “Though I bet you didn’t see it.”
“But it was an obvious-”
“Distraction,” finished Shen. “Come on.”

“Sojuan-san,” said Ibaran, as they scrambled out from under the overhang.
“You are well”
“Ibaran-san,” Sojuan responded politely, having to restrain a sudden mad
urge to giggle at the formality. “Quite well, thank you. Are we ready to
move on”
“Almost. There are matters to attend to first.” Ibaran looked at Shen.
“Packed, fed, watered and ready to go. Just say the word,” said the bushi-
but Sojuan detected a slight edge to his cheerfulness.

The Kuni continued to look at him.

The Damned shifted uncomfortably. “No,” he said suddenly, glaring straight
at Ibaran. “I didn’t.”

Ibaran said nothing, but his eyes narrowed.

“Four of us, Ibaran. It’s necessary.”
“Shen…” said Rei quietly.
“I know what I’m doing. I am in control.”
“You may think-” Rei started.
“I am in control!” Shen rounded on him, hands clenching into fists. “Think
about it! Two bushi, and one of those half-blind and weak You know what it
does to me, Rei! I have to-” He stopped abruptly. Ibaran had moved at last,
one swift motion. Two fingers now rested on Shen’s forehead. Ibaran’s other
hand was clenched around his jade amulet. The two held the pose, neither
moving a muscle.

“I. Am. In. Control.” Shen spoke the words precisely, separating them out.
His eyes were miniature orange suns, locked with Ibaran’s.
“You will drink,” Ibaran said, levelly. “Or I will kill you now.” His
fingertips always maintaining contact, he moved behind Shen, until his
fingers rested on the base of the bushi’s skull. “Rei.”
The Damned was white-faced under the tracery of green veins. He fumbled with
a small flask, uncapping it and pushing it into Shen’s hands. Rigid, staring
straight ahead, Shen drank. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the
slightest of shudders passed through his body. The glow from his eyes
flickered, fading until they were no more than smouldering embers. Sojuan
started breathing again.
“Good.” Ibaran’s hand fell away from Shen’s neck. “Now go and get the
packs.” The Kuni turned his back on the Damned.

Sojuan felt his heart miss a beat. Shen was staring hard at Ibaran’s back,
fists clenched, every muscle standing out in his neck and shoulders. There
was something very much like sheer, raw hatred in his face. Sojuan opened
his mouth to shout a warning- just as Shen turned on his heel. The Damned
bushi stalked away, vanishing under the rock overhang. With an apprehensive
glance at Ibaran, Rei hurried after Shen. Sojuan heard him asking something,
and a savage snarl in response.

“Ibaran-san” Sojuan approached the Kuni tentatively. He was standing
motionless, jaw clenched, starting at nothing. “Ibaran What’s wrong”
Ibaran took a deep breath through his nose, and let it out slowly. Some of
the tension drained away from his stance. “That is… stressful.” The
white-painted face turned to Sojuan. “You know how it feels to commune with
a spirit.”
Perplexed, Sojuan nodded.
Ibaran tilted his head in the direction of the Damned had gone. “Think of
communing with that.”
Sojuan tried to imagine it. Rather like clasping a viper to your chest, he
thought. “I see. Ibaran… is it… he…”
“Safe” Ibaran finished. He shrugged slightly. “He is not yet Lost.”
“Not quite the same thing,” Sojuan said dryly.
“No.” Ibaran was silent for a moment. “I can control him. He is in the same
state as when his keeper gave him to me.”
“I thought you were their keeper.”
“I am a hunter,” the Kuni said icily. “I use the hounds I am given. I do not
raise them.”
“Oh.” Sojuan had the distinct impression he had said something remarkably
offensive. “I… apologise, Kuni-san, I did not mean-”
“No matter.” Ibaran gave a small shrug. “Have you jade”
“Wh- uh, yes.” Sojuan blinked at the abrupt subject change. “Of course.”
“Strengthened”
“You mean… blessed With the prayer of Jade Eternal No, I don’t know
how…”

Ibaran held out a hand.

“Uh- oh, yes. Please.” Sojuan fumbled with the pouch at his waist. “Thank
you.” The two fingers of jade were cool and hard, no trace yet of blackening
or softening. He passed them to the Kuni, and then- reluctantly- undid the
thong that held his amulet around his neck. The dense mist seemed colder,
clammier, as he handed over the jade. Sojuan wrapped his arms around
himself, shivering.

Ibaran cradled the jade carefully in cupped hands, closing his long fingers
over it. Whispering softly, he brought his closed hands up, touching them to
forehead, eyes, and heart. Despite his apprehension, Sojuan felt the
familiar thrill of curiosity. He stretched out with his senses, trying to
understand exactly what the Kuni was doing. He fancied he felt a slight
tremor through the earth as Ibaran finished the chant, but the Kuni did not
seem to have noticed anything unusual. He opened his hands, offering the
jade back. Sojuan took it, inspecting it closely. Disappointingly, it looked
unchanged. Ibaran seemed perfectly satisfied, though.

“Now, the rest.” Ibaran frowned, turning. “Rei! Shen!” he called sharply.

The two Damned emerged from the small grotto, both lugging gear. Rei still
looked pale, worried. Shen, however, might as well have been carved from
stone. He did not look at either Ibaran or Sojuan as he approached.
Ibaran snapped his fingers imperiously, pointing at the ground. Rei sank
down obediently, kneeling at the Kuni’s feet. The tainted man turned down
the collar of his kimono, lifting his chin to expose his throat. An iron
collar was bolted around his neck, a disc of green jade set into the front.
Ibaran put his hand over it, chanting quietly- the same chant he had
whispered over Sojuan’s own jade. Once again, Sojuan thought he felt a
vibration pass through the earth. He marvelled at the power of the spell,
that could so move the earth kami, and yet have such a subtle effect on the
jade.

Shen was next. The scaled man knelt stiffly, as though his joints pained
him. He stared stonily upwards past the Kuni, his face expressionless. He
too wore an iron, jade-inlayed collar. Ibaran took a lot longer over this
chant.

Sojuan was expecting the slight tremor- but this time, he heard it as well.

“What the hells was that!” Shen bounded to his feet, tetsubo raised.
“What I felt it before… it’s not part of the spell” Sojuan asked. Ibaran
shook his head grimly, a hand on his scroll case. He pulled Sojuan closer,
so that the two shugenja were back to back. The Damned crouched to each
side, heads turning.

The low, rumbling sound came again, almost too deep for hearing. Sojuan felt
more than heard it, resonating within his chest, vibrating his very bones.

Again, louder.

Again. Small pebbles jumped and skipped across the ground.

“Lady Moon, light in darkness, see us now,” Rei invoked softly. His voice
shook. “Ibaran, it’s a Shein.”

At his back, Sojuan felt Ibaran go very still.

Shen laughed suddenly, a wild, berserk sound. “Drink the Jade Petal, Shen!”
He chortled madly, like a ferret in a rage. “Well done, Kuni! You’ve killed
us all!”

“Sojuan-san,” Ibaran said, very calmly. “Can you fight”
“I’m a fire shug-”
“Not spells. Just steel.”
“… not very well.”
“Then listen. Stay very still. Be small, in mind.” Ibaran’s voice was
distant, as though the Kuni was in a trance. “Lock yourself away. Do you
understand”
“No! What-”
“Listen. Be a bushi. You are not shugenja. _Be small._”

Sojuan started to answer- and froze.

Something was coming towards them, picking its way around the spires of
rock.

“How in Jigoku did you miss that on your patrol!” Shen snarled at Rei.
“It’s the size of a bloody house!”
“Look at it! It lies down on these rocks, it’s invisible!” Rei’s entire body
was tense, his eyes fixed on the approaching oni. Sweat trickled down his
face.

The oni came slowly, ponderously, placing each massive foot with care. It
was the same dusky grey as everything else, its body covered with irregular,
stony scales. It flowed onto a large boulder, perched on the top- and
paused, the great head peering down. Huge, triangular ears swivelled.

Sojuan’s hands came up automatically, starting the gesture that would
channel the power of jade through his fingertips- but a hand caught his
wrist.
“Stay. Still.” Ibaran’s face was strangely blank. “No magic. Be small.”

The oni sniffed loudly, nostrils flaring. It turned its head, first one way,
then the other, considering them with each bulbous, yellow eye. Then it
looked straight at them, and Sojuan saw the second pair of eyes, small and
manlike, set in the front of the oni’s head. The eyes did not blink.

Ibaran’s fingers dug painfully into his wrist. “Be small!”

Sojuan tried. He imagined walls around his thoughts. He imagined his mind
hiding within them. He was cut off from the whisper of the kami, completely
alone in his own head. He had absolutely no idea what he was doing- but
Ibaran’s grip eased fractionally.

“Sod off, you bastard!” Shen screamed at the oni, stalking towards it. “Go
on! Piss off! Go!” A swing of his tetsubo punctuated each word. “I’ll smash
your skull in, and your friend too! Go on! Leave!”

The oni cocked its wide, blunt head, considering him with each eye in turn.
It made a deep grumbling sound, low in its throat.

“Go on! You want a piece of me” Shen was right next to the boulder now,
snarling right up at the monster. “Think I’m a shugenja Go on, have a
sniff!” He flung his arms wide in invitation. “Come and find out!”

Oni no Shein snuffed the air again, ears pricking forwards. All four eyes
blinked. Then it moved.

“What the-” Shen leaped away, back-pedalling frantically as the oni headed
straight for him. “We’ve got a bloody stupid oni here, Rei!”
“I don’t understa-” Rei cut himself off abruptly, his eyes widening. “Shen!
It’s the hearthstone!”
“Damn!” Shen struggled with his backpack, as the oni reached the bottom of
the boulder. “Alright then! Here you go, Shein, enjoy!” With a mighty heave,
he flung the heavy backpack. It skidded to a halt right under the oni’s
snout. It stopped, rumbling, and nudged the backpack with its blunt snout.
It had no mouth.

“Good. Good,” Ibaran breathed in Sojuan’s ear. “Back away. Very calmly.
Now.”

Heart hammering in his chest, Sojuan took a step back. Another. The oni
appeared completely engrossed in the backpack, pushing it this way and that
across the ground, all the while making noises like a Hida with indigestion.
Another step. Rei and Shen were backing away now as well. The oni ignored
them all. Sojuan took another step backwards.

The ears swivelled. It looked up from the pack, and Sojuan found himself
staring right into its human-like eyes.

“Damn damn DAMN!” Shen shouted angrily, as the oni started forwards again.
“What is WRONG with this thing!”
“It’s got to be sensing something else!” Rei looked around wildly. “But it’s
not calling! It’s not sure!”
“Nemuranai,” said Ibaran in a detached tone. “Sojuan”
“What!”
“Nemuranai. Are you carrying any” There was an edge to the Kuni’s voice
now.
“Of course! Nothing power-”

For the first time, Sojuan heard Ibaran swear.

“Shen, Rei!” the Kuni shouted, his calm manner dropping away without trace.
“DISTRACT IT!”
“HOW!” Shen yelled back- but he was already in motion. His tetsubo slammed
into the oni’s front paw. It gurgled a little, shaking its foot, but it
didn’t even look down. All four eyes were fixed on Sojuan.
“Jade Strike it!” Sojuan screamed.
“We do, we die!” Ibaran snarled back. His hands were clenched together,
shaking, as though he was having to physically restrain himself from spell
casting. “Drop your nemuranai, now! Hurry!” He raised his voice. “The eyes,
Shen!”
“I can’t… REACH… the sodding… eyes!” Shen’s shouts came in gasps, his
tetsubo striking showers of sparks from the oni’s mailed shoulders. Oni no
Shein grunted, pausing to swipe lazily at the berserker, one eye still fixed
on the two shugenja. Shen flung himself backwards, then darted in again,
aiming for the joints. “DAMN IT!” The tetsubo rebounded, jarring out of
Shen’s hand.

A blur of motion shot past Shen, leaping incredibly high into the air. Rei
landed lightly on the oni’s back, one hand scrabbling for purchase on the
glassy scales, a wakizashi shining in the other. Oni no Shein turned
clumsily, snorting. Rei clung to the oni, found his balance, ran nimbly up
its spine, leaped for its head-
Abandoning its attempts to inspect its own shoulders, the oni shook itself
like a wet dog. Rei went flying, hitting the ground hard and rolling in a
tangle of limbs.

“We can’t touch this thing!” Shen snarled, circling, trying to get back to
his tetsubo. The oni turned to watch him, a disinterested look in its eyes.
“Ibaran, run!”
“Not yet! Sojuan, YOUR NEMURANAI!”
Sojuan grabbed for the jade container that hung from his obi. As his fingers
brushed the smooth surface, he felt the fire kami within flare up eagerly,
greeting him-

Oni no Shein jerked. Every eye turned to fixate on Sojuan.

“Too late,” whispered Rei, struggling to his hands and knees. “It’s
calling.”

The oni’s nostrils dilated wide. Sojuan could hear the whistle of air being
sucked into vast lungs. The oni’s throat swelled, inflating like a bullfrog-

“NO!” Shen’s eyes seared through the gloom, flaring brighter than fire.
Barehanded, he sprang for the oni, seizing its side, swinging himself up.
Hanging by one hand from the beast’s neck, the berserker slammed the other
into the swelling neck-pouch.

His arm sank in up to the elbow.

Sojuan flung himself flat, covering his head with his arms as black ichor
fell like rain around him. The blood hissed in the dust, leaving tiny
smoking craters. Someone was screaming, the oni was bellowing, the ground
shaking beneath its weight. Near-deafened, Sojuan could only clap his hands
over his ears, and wait to be trampled.
The moment did not come. The cacophony faded. Sojuan looked up, and saw a
miracle.
The oni was retreating, emitting weird gurgling honks, torn skin flapping
around its neck. Black, viscous liquid dripped from the wound, splattering
as the oni flailed backwards. It turned tail, slipped around the boulders,
and vanished into the mist.

“Up you get.” Hands lifted Sojuan, placing him back on his feet. “You
alright” Sojuan nodded, still trying to catch his breath. Rei let go of him
to help Ibaran up as well. The Kuni’s white face paint was marred with a
splattering of oni blood, already raising blisters on his skin, but Rei
barely glanced at him. “Shen,” the tainted bushi breathed, hurrying
forwards.

A dark shape lay huddled, tightly curled into a ball. The surrounding ground
was slick with oni blood and slime. Sojuan picked his way cautiously after
Rei.
“Shen”
The figure curled a little tighter.
“Shen Are you-” Rei put a hand on the scaled shoulder.
“DON’T TOUCH ME!” Rei jumped back. Shen was shaking, trembling from head to
foot. His head snapped back, teeth bared in a frozen snarl. His eyes stared
upwards sightlessly, burning bright as the mid-day sun, brighter than Sojuan
had yet seen. Shen rocked back and forth, a high-pitched keening eminating
from between his clenched teeth.
“Is it the oni blood” Rei crouched down next to the huddled, shaking
figure. “Shen, it’s alright-”

Shen shook his head violently from side to side, his arms and hands folded
tightly across his chest.

“Shen.” There was a sudden terrible fear in Rei’s voice. “Show me.”

Shen closed his eyes. Slowly, he uncurled, unfolding his arms. His hands
shook.

“O Kami,” whispered Rei.

Black blood dripped from Shen’s hands- black, and bright red. The two bloods
intermingled, oni and human, streaking Shen’s arms. The ends of his fingers
were raw and bleeding.

Ten long, curved, shining black talons projected from the wounds.

“Move!” Sojuan was roughly shoved aside. Ibaran grabbed Rei, flinging him
back, away from Shen. The Kuni glanced at Shen’s clawed hands, jerked a
dagger from up his sleeve, and grabbed Shen’s jaw. The Damned did not
resist, seeming oblivious as Ibaran forced his head back, exposing his
throat-

“NO!” Rei caught Ibaran’s wrist as the dagger flashed downwards.
“Do not interfere!” Rage contorted Ibaran’s face.
“We need him.” Rei’s voice was quite calm. He kept his grip on Ibaran’s
wrist. “Oni no Shein-”
“Disabled. Unhand me!”
“It could still call-”
“We are leaving now-”
“LISTEN TO ME!” A twist, a jerk, and suddenly Ibaran’s knife was on the
ground. The Kuni hung helpless in Rei’s grasp. The bushi took a deep breath,
and continued quietly, “Listen. It already called, from the first time you
cast Jade Eternal. I can’t fight Kautko. Neither can you, and Sojuan
certainly can’t. Only Shen.” Rei released Ibaran. “Now decide which is the
better gamble.”

Ibaran bent slowly, and reclaimed his knife. His eyes were flat and hard.
“One chance. That’s all I’ll give.”
Rei nodded. He held out his hand. “I’ll safeguard.”
“No,” Ibaran said curtly. “Sojuan will.”
“What” Sojuan exclaimed. “Ibaran, I don’t under-”
“Here.” Ibaran reversed the knife, offering it hilt-first. Hesitantly,
Sojuan took it. The blade was inlayed with jade, shining darkly against the
steel.
“Hold him like this,” Ibaran instructed, jerking Shen’s head up again. The
Damned was still limp, unresisting, oblivious to everything. Ibaran pointed
at the angle of Shen’s jaw. “The blade goes under here. If he moves or
screams, strike.”
“_What_!”
“Do it!” Ibaran turned away, hunting through his pack.
“Please,” Rei added softly. “I’ll help you hold him.” He sank to his knees
next to Shen, taking the scaled man’s head in both hands. “Shen. Shen.
Listen to me. Listen. Hear me”

Shen continued to stare straight through Rei- but, after a moment, his head
jerked slightly, a convulsive nod.
“Good. Listen now,” Rei’s words were soft, easy, as though speaking of
something inconsequential. “You’ve done this before. You can do it now.”
Gently, he tilted Shen’s head back, shooting an urgent look at Sojuan.

Gingerly, Sojuan set the point of the knife to Shen’s throat. Without
ceasing his reassuring murmurs, Rei reached round to adjust the angle of the
blade, until it was aligned with the gaps between the scales.
“That’s it, Shen. Breathe. Breathe with me. One thrust, Sojuan. You can do
this. That’s it.” Sojuan was not quite sure who Rei was reassuring. It took
him both hands to keep the knife steady.

“Now.” Ibaran was back, an open jar in one hand. He scooped a handful of
salve from it.
“Now, Shen,” whispered Rei, still holding the berserker’s head.
Shen’s trembling stilled for a moment, his eyes closing. Then he held out
his hands.

Ibaran touched the salve to the torn flesh.

Shen’s entire body spasmed. If Rei hadn’t been holding his head, Sojuan felt
sure the berserker would have thrown himself on the knife. As it was, it was
all he could do to keep from accidentally impaling Shen as the Damned shook
uncontrollably. His mouth opened wide, gaping in a soundless scream.

Ibaran scooped up more salve, applied it. Every muscle stood out in Shen’s
arms and shoulders. Sojuan heard the hissing of burning flesh. The greenish
salve turned black. Bright red blood trickled down Shen’s chin.

“Breathe, Shen, breathe!” Rei urged, his eyes anguished. “Breathe with me.
That’s it.”
Shen’s breath came in great ragged gasps. His teeth unclenched, the
lacerated lips moving, whispering. Sojuan could only make out broken
snatches of words- Damned, not, I, Damned, Lost…

Ibaran started working on Shen’s left hand, slow and methodical.

“I am Damned, I am not Lost,” Shen whispered through blood-stained lips. His
eyes closed, his face contorting. “I am Damned, I am not Lost!” The breath
suddenly hissed out of him, as Ibaran applied yet more salve. “IamDamned,
IamnotLost! Iamdamned, Iamnotlost,
IamdamnedIamnotlostIamdamnedIamdamnedIamIamIam-”

“Done.” Ibaran sat back, wiping his hands on the hem of his robes.

Sojuan looked down at Shen’s hands. They looked as though they had been
plunged into fire. The claws had retracted, only the very tips showing at
the ends of Shen’s raw fingertips. Blood and fluids oozed through the
covering of salve. The ravaged hands trembled.

Sojuan suddenly realised that, throughout the whole ordeal, no-one had been
holding Shen’s arms steady.

“I am in control,” Shen whispered hoarsely. Sojuan took the knife from his
throat. The berserker’s eyes opened. They were completely black, empty
sockets. “I am in control. Rei, I can’t see.”
“It’s alright, Shen.” Rei helped Shen to his feet, holding him upright.
“No.” Ibaran’s voice was as rasping as Shen’s. “It’s not.” Ibaran was
staring past them, at the jumbled, rocky landscape. Sojuan looked at him,
and felt his blood turn to ice. There was raw, utter terror in the Kuni’s
eyes. He turned.

Something was moving in the mist. A small, pallid figure, nearly invisible
in the fog. Its arms seemed elongated, spindly. It came slowly, doubled
over, long-fingered hands spidering across the ground, feeling its way
forwards. A huge, dark figure bulked protectively behind it.

A deep, low rumble resonated the ground.

“Shein again” Shen’s head turned wildly.
“Kautko,” said Rei, his face colourless.
“Sojuan,” Ibaran said, turning away from the approaching oni. “Run.”

They ran, and the world turned into nightmare. Rocks loomed out of the fog.
Stones turned and rolled underfoot. Sojuan completely lost track of where
his companions were, or where the oni were, or where anything was. All he
knew was that that white, silent figure had filled him with utter dread. He
ran. Now and then he caught a glimpse of Ibaran’s black kimono, or the dual
form of the Damned, Rei dragging Shen. He ran, through the stitch in his
side and the shortness of breath and the beginnings of dull fire in his
legs. Because whatever oni no Kautko was, it was wrong, deeply, deeply
wrong. And he was mortally afraid.

“_Sojuan!_”

He ran desperately in the direction of the shout, and something huge lunged
through the space where he had been. Not looking back, he ran on, up an
incline that grew steeper, until he was scrabbling on hands and knees,
hauling himself up, expecting at any moment to feel claws in his back-

Something grabbed his outstretched arm, a sticky, slimy, foul touch. He
screamed, and so did whatever had grabbed him.

“You’ve got him! Don’t let go, pull!”
Sojuan found himself lifted over the last bit of the incline. More hands
grabbed at him, pulled him to safety, then released him. Panting, Sojuan
looked at his own wrist. A smear of red, mingled with a viscous green
substance, ringed his wrist. He looked up to see Shen crouched nearby, eye
sockets still dark. Fresh red blood dripped from his right hand.

“IBARAN!” Rei screamed, over the edge of the cliff.

Sojuan looked down. Oni no Shein stood at the base of the rock face,
rumbling and gurgling through its torn throat-sac. Its four eyes glared down
at the small figure before it. The Kuni feinted left, dived right, tried to
run-

Shein smashed him back with a flick of a paw. Lazily, it put out one long
talon, pinning Ibaran to the ground. It let out another sonorous roar.

The white form of Kautko materialised out of the fog.

“Sojuan.” Rei was pulling at his kimono. “We have to run.”
“I can incinerate-”
“It feeds on the kami. Ibaran is gone. Run.”

“Half a skin of water.”
“Not much.”
“There’s this too. Jade petal tea, about three-quarters full.”
Sojuan looked at the small flask. “How much do you need per day” he asked,
lowering his voice.
“Myself, only a small cup,” Rei replied, equally softly.

They both glanced across at the huddled form of Shen. The berserker was
slumped motionless against the wall of the small cave, his hands cradled in
his lap. He seemed oblivious to everything, head bowed.

Rei sighed. “He won’t take it anyway. Well, it’s liquid, and it won’t do you
any harm. Next.” He placed a small pouch on the pile of items. Jade beads
were sewn onto the fabric. “Food. About three day’s worth.”
Sojuan hefted the pouch. “That’s on very short rations,” he said, trying to
keep his voice neutral.
“Not for two people.” Rei delved into his pack again, avoiding Sojuan’s eye.
“Next, jade. Two packets of powder.”
“And I have two fingers.” Sojuan pulled them out, running his fingers over
them. There was still no sign of corruption. “What else”
“One tetsubo, three tantos, and,” Rei smiled ruefully, “twenty-one
wakizashi.”

“Better pick one and use it.” Shen’s voice was flat.

“At least we have some supplies-” Rei started.
“We could have an entire supply-wagon and it would do us no good.” Shen
looked up, his empty eye sockets staring blindly at Sojuan. “Unless the pony
knows the hand-signals.”
“Hand-signals” Sojuan said blankly.
Rei froze. “I had assumed… they didn’t show you the hand-signals”
“_What_ hand-signals”
“For getting back over the Wall,” Shen supplied.

There was a moment of silence.

“Well, that’s it then.” Shen leaned his head back against the cave wall,
closing his eyes.
“Don’t you know them” Sojuan asked Rei.
The tainted bushi shook his head slowly. “We’re not allowed to.” His face
was an expressionless mask, under iron control.

Sojuan looked down at the meagre pile of supplies. He picked up the bundle
of wakizashi, feeling their weight.

“What happens,” he said slowly, “if we get back to the Wall”
“We get shot full of arrows,” Shen replied.
“We might meet a patrol first,” Rei pointed out.
“Then we get shot full of arrows,” Shen repeated flatly. “Except for the
pony, if he’s really lucky and manages to persuade the Hiruma that he has an
exceptionally good reason for being in the Shadowlands with two
out-of-control Damned.”
“Better than nothing,” Rei said quietly.
“Would they come to see what they’d shot down” Sojuan asked.
“Probably.” Shen shrugged.

Sojuan looked down at the cloth-wrapped swords. Nineteen lives.

“I don’t know about you,” he said quietly, not looking up, “but I’m going
see that these get home.”
“How very noble,” said Shen, a hint of the familiar sarcasm creeping back
into his voice. “I suppose you know which way to go”
Sojuan’s frayed patience snapped. “Better than sitting here waiting to die!”
“Going out looking for death Oh yes.” Shen’s mouth curled up in a small
smile. “And if you’re very, _very_ lucky, something will eat you before
Kautko finds you.”
“We may have outdistanced it-”
“What charming optimism. And how many Shadowlands creatures did you see
during our run”
Sojuan blinked. “None.”
“Precisely,” said Shen, with the air of one presenting an irrefutable
argument.
“What” Sojuan looked at Rei for explanation. “Isn’t that a good thing”
The tainted man shifted uncomfortably, looking down. “Nothing will share a
territory with Kautko and Shein,” he said. “I think we’re still in their
hunting ground.”
“I don’t care,” Sojuan said fiercely, turning back to Shen. “I’m not giving
up!”
“Oh, neither am I,” Shen said pleasantly, his eyes still closed. “Just
making sure you appreciate the hopelessness of the situation.”
“There is always hope!”
Shen’s lip curled slightly, but he said nothing.

“Actually, Sojuan may be right,” Rei said suddenly. He was sitting
cross-legged, fingers steepled, a thoughtful look on his veined face. “If we
can’t outrun them… at least we’re in good terrain. This whole area is
littered with these small caves. If we can find a deeper one…”
“Shein won’t be able to reach!” Sojuan finished. “If we can lure Kautko…
they’re linked somehow, aren’t they What happens to Shein if we kill
Kautko”
“You’ve jumped over a fairly major step there,” Shen said dryly.
“We have faith in you.” Rei smiled at him.
“Me” Shen held up his burnt hands in protest. “Don’t look at me.”
“I can heal-” Sojuan started.
“Can you re-grow my eyes Heal jade damage” Shen interrupted, an odd note
of satisfaction in his voice. “I am useless.”
The smile had faded from Rei’s face. “Shen…”
Shen shook his head. “No. I am blind. I cannot hold a weapon. My strength is
gone.” There was a strange, almost serene smile on his face. “I have no
power.”
“We need you.”
“And I will do what I can. But-”
“What you can” Rei said softly. “Will you”
Shen was silent for a moment. “Rei, I can’t. Its been driven too deep, I
can’t call upon it. You must understand-”
“Oh, I understand.” Slowly, Rei unfolded his limbs, rising to his feet. “You
coward.”

The serene look vanished from Shen’s face, replaced by confusion. “Rei”

“You heard me. You coward. You’ve always been a coward, haven’t you You’ve
always thought only of yourself.” Rei was looming over Shen now, his fists
clenched. “I despise you.”
“What-!” Shen got no further. His head snapped back, slamming into the stone
as Rei’s fist connected with his chin.

“REI!” Sojuan couldn’t believe his own eyes. “What are you-”

“Stay out of this, Sojuan!” Rei didn’t look away from the sprawled Shen. He
kicked him in the ribs, his face a mask of utter contempt. “You know it’s
true, Shen. You’re giving up because you know you can’t save your own skin.
You won’t sacrifice yourself. You never have. It was never for the good of
the Clan, or for Rokugan, was it” He bent low, whispering directly into
Shen’s stunned face, “You embraced the Taint _because it kept you alive_!”

With a roar of pure fury, Shen uncoiled, lashing out in a motion too fast
for Sojuan to follow. Rei went flying, crashing into the far wall of the
cave. Hands raised, Shen leaped for him-

And froze.

“STOP!” Sojuan was on his own feet as well, drawing the fire kami into
himself without conscious thought. “Or oni or no oni, I swear I’ll fry you
to ash!”

Shen didn’t move, but Sojuan wasn’t even sure the berserker had heard him.
Shen was staring down at his own hands.

The talons extending from his fingertips gleamed in the light from his eyes.

“No, Sojuan,” Rei gasped, rolling to his hands and knees. “It’s alright.”
Stiffly, he got to his feet, one hand clutched to his side. There was no
trace of scorn on his face now. “Shen, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
“I thought it had receded.” Shen sounded very young. His voice trembled. “I
thought, I thought…” His face contorted, his shoulders shaking. “I
thought, if I didn’t call it back… if I didn’t use…”
“I know.” Rei’s eyes were anguished. “I am so sorry.”
“I didn’t want it to come back,” Shen said softly, still looking at his
hands. “I thought… I wasn’t going to use it. I wasn’t even going to try.
Even though…” He stopped, swallowing hard.
“O Fortunes, Shen, I had to say that to make you angry.” Rei reached out to
him, pleading. “It wasn’t-”

Shen stepped back, away from Rei’s outstretched hand. With a slight, silken
noise, the black claws retracted.

“I’m going out to keep watch.” His voice was cold and hard again, no trace
of vulnerability. Without another word, Shen turned, ducked through the cave
mouth, and was gone.

Sojuan started after him, but a motion from Rei halted him in his tracks.
“Let him go.” Rei slumped back against the cave wall, sliding down to the
ground. He buried his head in his hands.
“Are you sure that’s safe”
“No.” Rei didn’t look up.
“But, if he… we do need him…”
“Exactly.” The tainted man let out a short, hoarse bark of laughter. “May
Lady Moon forgive me. Sojuan, if you could save- no, not even save. If you
could buy the _chance_ to save one life, just one, at the cost of your soul,
what would you do”

Sojuan was silent a moment. One hand reached up to grip his jade amulet. “We
are the Jade Hand,” he quoted, knowing it wasn’t what Rei wanted to hear.
“We will win, but not at the cost of our souls.”
Rei looked up, his ulcerated mouth twisting in a bitter smile. “So what
would you think of someone who sacrifices not his own, but another’s soul”

Sojuan went over and knelt next to Rei, looking out of the cave mouth at the
darkening Shadowlands. It took him a long time to think of an answer that
wasn’t a lie.

“Maybe that he should never have been put in a position where he had to make
such an impossible choice,” he said at last.
“Should not” Rei shook his head. “Shall I rail against the Fortunes, then”
Sojuan said nothing.
“When I was young,” Rei said, his voice going soft and quiet, “my monastery
sent a delegation to another, in the Crane lands, to exchange scrolls. I was
chosen as part of the group. Weeks it took us, travelling further than I had
believed possible- and then, one day, we to the edge of the world. I beheld
a wonder. A miracle.” His eyes were unfocused, looking at something far
beyond sight. “Do you know what it was”
Sojuan shook his head, puzzled.
“Neither did I, at first.” Rei absently rested his hand on his chest,
rubbing gently just below his heart. “I tasted the salt on my lips; heard
the cry of the gulls. It had not entered into my mind that there could be
anything greater and more beautiful than my mountains, but there it was.”
His voice was raw with remembered wonder. “It was more than my heart could
contain. That night, I walked into the ocean, following the moon’s trail on
the waves. And when I emerged, with the dawn, I was different. I was
sea-born.”

The tainted man fell silent for a moment. Sojuan hardly dared to breathe,
waiting.

“I knew what I must do.” Rei stirred, glancing at Sojuan with a small smile.
“The sea is tireless. Always in motion, it wears down the mountain. All
rivers flow to it, all waters begin there and end there. So would I be. I
left the others and journeyed on my own, always moving, travelling from
village to village, combating whatever evil I found. The sea carried me; the
crow flew before me; the moon lit my path. I knew that this was what I had
been created to do.” Rei looked away, staring out into the Shadowlands. “Was
that my sin Pride, presumption In one village, a maho-tsukai had carried
off a child. I tracked him down. The child still lived- she ran into my
arms, sobbing. I bent to lift her, and she scratched blackened nails down my
cheek. And that was that.”
Sojuan let out his breath. “A noble tale.”
“Is it Listen. Not knowing what else to do, I caged the girl, and brought
her to the Crab lands. The border guards took one look and directed me to
the Kuni. They killed her, of course, and then offered me the same service.”
Rei’s expression was hidden in the dusk. “I accepted.”
“What”
“Surprised They gave me a day to prepare myself. I sat down to meditate,
but I could not focus. The crow kept coming back into my mind. The white
crow. The crow that guided Shinsei into the Shadowlands.” Sojuan heard
rather than saw Rei’s smile. “It took me most of the day to understand what
was being said to me.”

Sojuan said nothing. There was nothing to say.

Rei sighed. “So you see, the Fortunes lead me to this point, this place on
the wheel. This time, this place. And I chose to drive a friend further into
darkness.” He shook his head slowly. “Am _I_ in control”
“What” Sojuan stared at him. “Of course-”
“Why” Rei cut him off. “Because I speak fair words There are oni who do as
much. How can you know How can I know”
“What do you think” Sojuan asked quietly.
Rei did not reply for a long moment. “I think I am in control of myself,” he
said at last. A trace of humour entered his voice. “But then, I’ve always
thought that. Most people do.” He sighed deeply. “Well.” Rei stood, and
Sojuan heard his feet clicking on the stone floor, moving towards the cave
entrance. “Rest, Sojuan-san. I’ll keep watch.”

It was a long time before Sojuan could sleep.

*****

“Wake up.” A rough hand shook him.

“What What is it” Sojuan started up, one hand going automatically to his
scroll case.
“Your watch.” Twin orange fires looked down at him.
“You came back,” Sojuan blurted out, before his mind could catch up with his
mouth.
A snort. “Where did you think I was going to go” The points of light moved
away, sank down. Sojuan could just make out Shen’s form, crouched on the
other side of the cave. Then the lights blinked out, leaving only a faint
glow.

Rising, Sojuan groped his way to the entrance of the cave and peered out. It
was completely black. He could barely see his own hand in front of his face.

“Shen”
“What” The tone was flat and unfriendly.
“I can’t see a thing.”
“What do you want me to do about it, sleep with one eye open You’ve got
ears- use them.” Sojuan heard a scraping noise, scale grating on rock as
Shen settled himself more comfortably. “Rei’s the real watch. You’re just
the screamer.”
“The screamer”
“Yeah.” One orange light flared in the darkness. “If you get eaten, remember
to make a noise.”
“Rei’s still out there When’s he going to rest”
“When am _I_ going to get to rest” Shen said irritably. The glowing eye
closed again.

Sojuan wrapped his kimono a little closer around himself, shivering. The air
was bitterly cold. He widened his eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the
night. It was so silent he could hear his own heartbeat, thundering in his
ears. He waited, counting his pulse. A hundred beats. The dark was still
impenetrable. It was starting to play tricks on his vision, vague shapes
moving just in the corners of his eyes.

“Shen”
“Now what”
“Would it disturb you if I meditated”
A deep sigh. “You can’t possibly disturb me any more than you already are.”

Giving up his attempts to see into the darkness, Sojuan composed his mind.
The night air pressed heavily against him, driving out the words of the
sutras. He took a deep breath, and tried again. The words echoed around the
inside of his head. It was impossible to concentrate.

Closing his eyes, Sojuan determinedly resettled himself. Holding his jade
amulet seemed to help. He began whispering the sutra under his breath.

“Pony.”
The voice broke his focus. He scowled. “My _name_ is Sojuan.”
“Whatever. What the hell are you doing”
“I told you. I’m meditating.”
“Do you _have_ to do it out loud”
Sojuan found himself reluctant to admit that the night was unsettling him.
“It’s more respectful.”
“_Respectful_ What’re you trying to do, impress a passing kansen”
“I was praying for Ibaran, actually,” Sojuan said icily.
“What for”
“What do you mean, ‘what for’!” Sojuan was honestly shocked.
“What do you mean, what do I mean, what for” Shen repeated mockingly.
“Someone needs to say the sutras to help his spirit-”
“Spirit What- ah.” Shen’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. By their light,
Sojuan saw him sit up. “You’ve never heard of Oni no Kautko before, have
you”
“No…”
“Well, listen, ’cause I want my sleep and I’m only saying this once. Kautko
eats the kami- that’s why it can’t be harmed by magic. If it gets hold of a
shugenja, it sucks as many kami through him as it can. And then it consumes
the shugenja too. That’s it. The end. No spirit, no reincarnation, no ghost,
nothing. Gone.” Shen sank back down again, his eyes closing. “So praying for
Ibaran’s spirit is a bloody pointless waste of time.”

Sojuan sat frozen in horror, trying to comprehend what Shen had just said.
“You mean-”
“Didn’t you hear me say I was only going to explain that once”
Sojuan stared at the dark shape. “You don’t care,” he whispered. “A man’s
soul was completely destroyed and you don’t care.”
“Oh, I care.” Shen’s voice was perfectly calm. “I care about that Kuni’s
soul precisely as much as he cared about mine.” Shen rolled over, so that
Sojuan couldn’t see even the diffuse glow from his closed eyes. “Now shut up
and let me sleep.”

Sojuan was silent for a long moment, getting his emotions back under
control. “You’re wrong,” he said at last.

No answer.

“He tried to stop you falling further.”

No answer.

“He cared. He tried to help you. The least you could do is recognise that
fact.”

“So simple to you, isn’t it” There was a deep, deep, bitterness in Shen’s
voice. “Always right to restrain the Taint, always wrong to channel it.
Pony, if I hadn’t been fettered and burned, I could have taken on Kautko. I
might even have won. And then we could get back to the Wall, and I could
undergo the ritual that the Kuni know, the one which removes all Taint.”
Shen let out a short, ironic laugh. “Terminally. But, as it was, Ibaran
chose not to allow me to do that. He saw to it that all my strength was
gone, right when we needed the most. And so Rei will be destroyed, and you,
while I… I will be forever Damned.” His voice rose, snarling now.
“Ibaran’s short-sightedness did this and I will not mourn him!”

Sojuan said nothing, listening to Shen’s harsh breathing. Gradually, the
sound faded, becoming calmer.

“I have a question, Shen.”
“Is it as inane as the others”
“You can judge that. This ritual. Has it ever been tried on a native
Shadowlands creature”

A pause. “Yes.”

“Did it work”

A longer pause. “No.”

“So it cannot remove corruption willingly embraced”

A very long pause.

“Utaku Sojuan,” Shen said at last, and his tone made Sojuan’s muscles tense.
“Be very, very careful what you say next.”
“This ritual sounds very powerful. I was just wondering what its limits
are.”
“It would work on me!”

Sojuan was silent.

“It would have worked,” Shen repeated, very quietly, as if to himself. “It
would have.”

*****

Dawn came slowly, so gradually that for some time Sojuan was convinced he
was simply imagining it. It was nothing like true dawn. The slow-growing
light had no source. No pink-gold brightening of the horizon; no sun edging
into the sky. It was more like twilight reversed, the pitch black fading to
deep indigo, to darkest blue, and finally to a cold, steely grey. Even then,
it did not seem truly day. The light had an unreal quality, as though it
might vanish at any moment, plunging the world back into midnight. The
uncertainty was almost worse than the dark.

The cold had penetrated right through Sojuan, freezing his joints. Wincing,
he stretched, trying to loosen cramped muscles. Shen was curled into a tight
ball at the back of the cave, his shoulders rising and falling with his
deep, even breathing. He did not stir as Sojuan rose and stepped out of the
cave.

To his surprise, Rei was standing a little way off from the mouth of the
cave, balanced on a large, domed boulder. One foot tucked up in
crane-stance, arms spread wide, the Damned was absolutely motionless, not
even appearing to breathe. His head was tilted back, eyes fixed on a
particular spot just above the horizon, his face still and calm. Sojuan
suddenly wondered if Rei had been there all night- he had not heard the
Damned’s distinctive footsteps at any time during his watch.

Slowly, Rei raised his arms above his head, lowering his foot at the same
time until he stood spear-straight on the rock. Then, with a crunch of
gravel, he jumped down.
“Morning,” he greeted, coming over to Sojuan.
“Any problems”
Rei shrugged. “A quiet night.”
“For you, maybe,” came a muttered voice from the depths of the cave. “Bloody
pony.”
“Forgotten my name again, I see,” Sojuan said calmly.

Shen’s head poked out of the mouth of the cave, shooting a dark look at
Sojuan. Then the rest of the bushi emerged, dragging the two small bundles
of supplies. He tossed one to Rei, the other to Sojuan, and stretched,
rolling his shoulders. He himself carried only Rei’s tetsubo, strapped
across his back.

“Eaten already” Rei asked, bending to pick up his pack.
Shen shook his head. “Rather hungry than sick.” The berserker did not look
directly at Rei, instead addressing the air just over his left shoulder. Rei
winced.
“Shen, I-” Rei started, but the other Damned cut him off.

“You said you were carrying nemuranai” he asked, turning to Sojuan.
Sojuan’s hand went automatically to the small jade box that hung from his
obi. He nodded.
“Time to lighten our load, then.” Shen jerked a thumb over his shoulder at
the cave. “It’ll delay the oni for a bit, at least.”
Sojuan ran his fingers over the smooth jade, following the curving lines of
engraving. “You said the oni eats spirits”
“Spirits, kami, ghosts… whatever it can find,” Rei answered. “I’ve heard
the Kuni speculate that it even consumes other kansen, which is why it’s
never found with maho-tsukai or other oni- apart from Shein.”
“And it destroys them utterly”
“It is the oni of silence,” Rei said. “Where it has passed, there is
nothing.”
“Then I’m not leaving my nemuranai,” Sojuan said decisively.
Burning eyes stared at him. “You have just _got_ to be joking.”
“I’m not. I won’t abandon them.” Beneath his hand, he thought he felt the
jade tremble in gratitude.

Rei was looking at him with a strange, respectful expression, but Shen
simply looked disbelieving. “They’re _things_,” the berserker enunciated
carefully, as though explaining something to a small child.
“My nemuranai are _alive_. To leave them would be murder.” Sojuan folded his
arms across his chest. “I won’t do it.”
“A true servant of the kami, indeed,” Rei murmured.
“A true idiot, more like,” Shen snapped. “A couple of semi-awake spirits
aren’t worth your soul!”
“I disagree,” Sojuan said firmly. “And it’s my decision.”
Shen raised his eyes skywards, petitioning the Fortunes for aid. “I’ll
remind you of that when Kautko’s sucking you dry,” he growled. “If Shein
gets a whiff of those nemuranai, it’ll go straight for you!”
“Yes,” Rei said suddenly.

They both looked at him. Rei was staring into the middle distance, as though
thinking something through. A slow smile spread over his face. “That’s it,”
he said. “Sojuan, give the nemuranai to Shen!”
“What!”
“_Not_ very likely!” exclaimed Sojuan.
“Bait!” insisted Rei excitedly. “Kautko can’t harm Shen-”
“Would this be a bad time to reveal that I’m a maho-tsukai” Shen muttered.
Rei brushed the jest aside with an impatient wave of his hand. “It’s
perfect. If we can separate Kautko from Shein, and then fool it into
attacking Shen instead of us…”
Shen sighed. “So I get to save the day again, huh Lucky me.” He looked at
Sojuan. “Hand them over, then.”
“Can’t _you_ take them” Sojuan asked Rei.
“No, that would involve him actually _doing_ something,” Shen said under his
breath. “Can’t break centuries of tradition, can we”
“Sojuan, I told you I was a monk… before,” Rei said, ignoring Shen’s
comment. “I’m not a shugenja, but I’m not entirely out of touch with the
kami, either.” He smiled ruefully. “I’m not sure whether or not Kautko would
find me palatable, and I’d rather not find out the hard way. Shen is the
only person who’s absolutely safe from Kautko.”
“Why the hesitation” Shen flashed a grin at Sojuan. “Afraid I’m going to
get your nice shiny nemuranai mucky”
“It’s just not that simple.” Sojuan struggled for words to explain his
objection. “It’s just… the nemuranai are alive. And they can be…
unpredictable.”
“Unpredictable” Shen raised a scaled eyebrow-ridge.
“Around people they don’t… approve of.”
“Great.” Shen cast his gaze heavenwards again. “Now even a bunch of
inanimate objects don’t like me.”
“Can you persuade them somehow” Rei asked Sojuan.
“And what sort of ‘unpredictable’ are we talking here ‘Mildly sulking’
unpredictable, or ‘exploding in your face’ unpredictable” Shen added, eyes
narrowing.
“Maybe. Very. Both.” Sojuan answered each question in turn.
“I have _so_ changed my mind.” Shen folded his arms across his chest,
scowling at Rei. “_You_ take them.”
“Come on…” Rei glanced between them both imploringly. “This makes sense.
It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

Sojuan and Shen exchanged identical looks of extreme suspicion.

“If you touch them, I can’t guarantee your safety,” Sojuan warned.
“If you make me blow up, I’m gonna come back as a gaki and haunt your
descendants,” retorted Shen. “If you have any, which I strongly doubt.”
“I do, actually. Or should have, in the near future.” Sojuan resolutely
turned his mind away from that thought. “Well… if you’ll keep your hands
to yourself, I’m willing to try to persuade them.” He began going through
his pouches, removing items and lining them up on a flat stone.

Rei’s mouth fell open. He and Shen exchanged stunned glances.

Sojuan finished emptying pouches, and started turning out his pockets.

“I know Unicorn have a reputation for acquiring strange artefacts,” Shen
said weakly, his eyes wide. “But this is just ridiculous.”

“Done,” Sojuan said at last, sitting back on his heels.

“Sweet Fortunes,” Shen said, looking almost awed. “No wonder oni no Shein
came after us. What did you do, rob the ancestral vaults of the Iuchi”
“New plan,” Rei said, staring down at the objects. “Use something in
Sojuan’s vast collection of nemuranai to save us.”
Sojuan shook his head. “I would have volunteered already. These are very
minor artefacts.” He rested his hand on the jade box. “This is the most
powerful of the lot, and it’s actually nothing more than an ember, inside.
It’s just warded so that it never goes out.”
“What for” asked Shen, leaning close to inspect the box. “Have a problem
with tinder and flint”
“No.” Sojuan grinned. “It’s just so that wherever I go, I have a friendly
fire kami to call upon.”
“Clever,” breathed Rei. “And very useful in the Shadowlands…”
“Exactly. This is the one that’s likely to cause the most problems, though.
Fire kami are temperamental. One moment.” He stared down at the box,
questing out to the spirit within. As always, it responded eagerly to his
touch. Sojuan spoke the customary rituals of praise… and then, hesitantly,
tried to explain the situation.

“HIDA’S BALLS!” Shen leaped away as the box suddenly blazed with a corona of
fire.

“As I feared,” Sojuan said, watching the flames dance angrily over his hand.
“It doesn’t like you.”
“The feeling is entirely mutual!” Shen snapped, back pressed against the
cliff-face.
“Give it a chance,” said Rei. “Sojuan”
“I’m trying.” Sojuan mentally pleaded with the kami. Not for long, just for
a little while… and then back to living lands, where it could burn
freely…

Gradually, the flames died down, the jade returning to its previous
unremarkable appearance. Sojuan could still feel the heat of the kami, but
it was a sullen sort of acceptance, rather than an angry blaze. “That’s
good,” he said to it reassuringly, then looked up. “Shen Come here.”

Shen eyed the box warily.

“It’s just an inanimate object, remember” Sojuan couldn’t restrain a smirk.
With a glare, Shen sidled back over to Sojuan. The Unicorn felt the jade
grow warmer under his hand- but the box did not ignite.
“Alright.” Sojuan slid the box into a pouch, and held it out to the
berserker. “I think it’ll let you hold it.”
“You _think_”
Rei rolled his eyes. “Just take it, Shen. You’ve already survived been
burned once.”
“Yeah, and once was enough.” Nonetheless, Shen took the pouch. Both he and
Sojuan flinched as Shen’s fingers closed on the straps- but nothing
happened.

Shen let out his breath. “Well, that was fun.” He carefully fastened the
pouch to his obi, and looked down suspiciously at the other objects. “So,
how many of these are going to disapprove of me”
“All of them,” Sojuan replied, his hands busy touching each item in turn,
questing for the spark of awareness buried in each. “But they aren’t likely
to be so… vehement about it. These are weak nemuranai, only barely
awakened. They won’t do anything to you, but I doubt you’d be able to use
them if you tried.”
“Pity,” muttered Shen.
“What are they” Rei asked, studying the collection with intense interest.

Sojuan untied a large pouch from his side and opened it. “Various things
I’ve been working on.” He picked up a large, bronze needle, balanced it
across his palm, and blew gently over it. The needle began to spin,
oscillating uncertainly. “This is supposed to point towards the As- the
place where it was enchanted, but it doesn’t work in the Shadowlands.” He
shook his head, dropping the needle into the bag, and picked up a short,
wooden tube, about the length of his forefinger. “This one, I never got a
chance to test. It’s a whistle that’s supposed to be only audible if you’re
wearing one of these,” he tapped his Jade Hand amulet, “but since sounding
it releases the air kami, it can only be used once. Not terribly useful in
the current circumstances, anyway.” He placed it in the bag as well. “These
are also one-use only. Flares.”
“You thought _flares_ would be a useful thing to have in the Shadowlands”
Shen snorted. “Tell me, do you have an item which leaves a nice trail of
fresh blood as well”

Sojuan ignored the comment, carefully placing the three origami firebirds on
top of the other items in the pouch. “Try not to crush these. If you rip
them, they’ll go off.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Shen said dryly. He pointed at the next item in
line. “Is that a nemuranai or a rock”
“Yes,” Sojuan said, smiling. He picked up the twisted, blackened stone. “I’m
proud of this one, since Earth kami don’t normally work well with me. But
Earth that has met Fire, and has felt the heat of the forge… This stone
remembers the agony of the furnace- and can tell other spirits of it. ”
“Very poetic. And what use is that”
Sojuan sighed. “The kami of this stone reminds a blade of how it felt to be
newly-forged.”
“So it’s a fancy whetstone. I see what you meant about these nemuranai being
useless.” Shen rolled his eyes, reaching for the last object. “Please tell
me this is some sort of oni-destroying wea-”

“Don’t touch that!” Sojuan snatched the netsuke away from Shen’s grasp. It
was a small sphere, carved of amber. A lion and a ki-rin, done in
bas-relief, playfully chased each other over the surface.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Shen sighed. “So what is it”
“Nothing.” Sojuan hid the netsuke away in the bag. “As you said, nothing
helpful.” He tied the mouth of the bag shut, triple-knotting the cord.
“Don’t open this,” he warned.
“I’ll try to restrain myself.” Shen reached for the bag.
Sojuan hung onto it for a moment. “And no throwing it to Kautko at the first
opportunity, either.”
Shen put on a look of exaggerated wounded innocence. “The merest _thought_
never entered my mind.” One black-scaled hand shot out, snatching the bag
away so quickly that Sojuan stared at his own now-empty hand for a moment,
counting fingers. Shen hung the bag from his obi. “Are we finally done here,
or do you have a few Celestial Swords shoved down the back of your kimono”
“I wish.” Sojuan shook his head, getting to his feet. “That’s it. Shall we
go-”

“Much as I hate to be the voice of gloom,” Shen interrupted, not looking at
all regretful. “We still don’t have the faintest idea of which way to go.”
“The same way as we were going,” Sojuan said testily.
“Which was”

Sojuan opened his mouth to answer- and shut it again, looking around. The
rocky landscape stretched away in all directions, a maze of towering
boulders and narrow ravines. Without the sun, it was impossible to navigate.

“That way” he said at last, rather hesitantly, pointing.
Shen shrugged. “It’s as good as any random guess.”
“Wait.” Rei was looking down at the ground. “There’s a way to find out.”
“How” Sojuan asked.
Rei’s head raised, but it was at Shen he looked. “You know,” he said gently,
“that I would never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” With that,
he crouched down, digging his fingers into the dust, and closed his eyes.
“What-” Sojuan started, but a quick gesture from Shen cut him off. The
berserker was watching Rei, his face expressionless.

Still with his eyes closed, Rei’s head turned from side to side, like an
animal testing the air. His fingers clenched, digging deeper. A shudder ran
down his form- and then he opened his eyes. He stared blankly for a moment,
as though looking through rather than at Sojuan and Shen, then blinked.

“That way.” Rei’s voice was even hoarser than normal. As though lifting a
heavy burden, he staggered to his feet, brushing chips of stone from his
palms, and pointed. Then he doubled over, coughing.
“Are you alright” Sojuan asked.
Rei nodded, still coughing. He turned his head, and spat out a mouthful of
some dark, viscous substance. “Fine,” he gasped. “I’m fine.” He
straightened, wiping a hand across his mouth. “Let’s get going.”
“I’ll lead.” Shen sounded rather more sombre than usual. He began walking in
the direction Rei had indicated, glancing back once to make sure they were
following him.

Sojuan stayed back to walk next to Rei, letting Shen get a little way ahead.
“How do you know” Sojuan asked him.
“The direction to go in It’s… it’s like…” Rei looked thoughtful, as
though trying to think of how to put something in words. “It’s like a
current in a river. There’s a… a centre, a source to the Shadowlands. The
Taint flows out from it, towards the living lands. If you can attune
yourself to the flow, you can follow it.”
“I see. Sounds… dangerous.”
Rei glanced at him sidelong. “One cannot follow a current without getting
wet.” Absently, one hand went up to his iron collar, almost but not quite
touching the jade inlay. “An appropriate penance,” he said quietly, his eyes
on the flitting form scouting ahead.

They walked in silence for some time, Rei occasionally slowing to look back
the way they had come. Shen ranged to the front and sides, always staying
within sight. Sojuan felt the same dull, weary mindlessness as before settle
onto him. It was very hard to think or stay alert. One foot in front of the
other, again and again and again, the rhythm hypnotic, until his own
footsteps echoed in his head, the only sound-

Sojuan suddenly became aware that there was another sound, right on the edge
of hearing- a faint, high-pitched susurration.

Ahead, he saw Shen pause, then scale a large boulder. The berserker peered
over the top- then slid back down again, turning to look back at Sojuan and
Rei. One hand waved them closer, the other gesturing for silence.

“What is it” Sojuan whispered, as he and Rei caught up with Shen.
“You remember that nothing shares a territory with a Shein and Kautko” Shen
whispered back.
Sojuan nodded.
“Well, I think we’ve found the boundary.” Shen grinned, jerking a thumb over
his shoulder. “Have a look.”
The boulder was rough and pitted, easy to climb. Cautiously, Sojuan scaled
the rock, until he could just poke his head over the top-
“Ah,” he heard Rei say next to him.

Ahead of them, the maze of stone and rock ended. The ground rolled away,
dipping down onto a broad, flat plain. Scrubby, wilted nettles, and tangled,
black briars grew in scattered patches. On the horizon, Sojuan saw a glint
that might be a distant river. However, his attention was immediately
grabbed by the section of plain immediately ahead.

It was full of bakemono.

Twenty or so long, low dwellings- more like random piles of stone, wood and
rubbish than huts- were arranged in a rough circle, around a shallow,
stone-lined pit. Bakemono swarmed in all directions around it. Some were
industriously scrubbing at the stones, sweeping black ash from them. Still
more were heaving sections of cut briar, throwing them into the pit. Most of
the bakemono, however, were fully occupied in pushing each other into the
pit, for no apparent reason. Managing to hurl a fellow onto the razor-sharp
briars seemed to provoke paroxysms of joy. The excited hoots of the throwers
and the high-pitched squeals of their victims drifted faintly upwards.

Sojuan felt a hand pulling at his obi, and slid back down the rock to join
the two Damned.
“Dinnertime, evidently,” Shen whispered.
Sojuan felt sickened. “We’ll have to go around.”
“There will be watchers out.” Rei looked worried. “And that plain stretches
away for miles on either side, with no cover but those briars.”
“If only you all had a hide like mine.” Shen tapped his own scaled shoulder,
rolling his eyes. He looked at Sojuan. “Now would be a good time to reveal
that you can make things invisible.”
“I suddenly wish I’d listened to my sensei, and attuned myself with air.”
Sojuan wracked his brains, trying desperately to think of a plan, any plan.
“How many were there”
“Maybe a hundred,” Rei whispered. His lips curved in a wry grimace. “Give or
take a few. There really isn’t much difference between being outnumbered
twenty-to-one or fifty-to-one, when it comes to bakemono.”
“So fighting’s out.”
“I’m good, but I’m not that good,” Shen said dryly. He rubbed his thumbs
across his fingertips nervously.
“And spells might call the oni.”
“Caught between the hammer and the anvil,” Rei said, looking around. “We-”
The bushi stopped abruptly in mid-sentence. Sojuan slammed into the rock,
the breath knocked out of him as Rei pushed him aside, leaping forwards-

A small, misshapen black form darted out from behind a nearby boulder with a
squeal of terror. Rei’s leap carried him directly into its path. Before the
bakemono could make any further noise, Rei had pivoted on one foot, kicking
the other up to catch the goblin under the chin-

With a sickening *crunch*, its head exploded.

Sojuan suddenly became aware that Shen had also moved. The berserker was
rapidly circling the area, tetsubo high and ready, peering around the nearby
rocks. Within a few moments, he was back at Sojuan’s side, shaking his head.
“We were lucky. Lone scout,” he whispered, his narrowed eyes flaring
angrily.
Rei shook his leg, scraping off the still-twitching goblin corpse, and
rejoined them. He leaned on the rock, balancing on one leg to wipe gore from
his foot. The sole looked as hard as horn, and the toes seemed fused
together, forming a sharp point.
Rei caught Sojuan’s stare, and flashed him a slight grin. “In my
meditations, I used to imagine the corruption flowing out of my body into
the ground,” he said, looking down at his feet ruefully. “My visualisations
were rather too effective, I think.”
“Now is _so_ not the time to discuss this,” Shen hissed. “Think of
something!”
Sojuan stared helplessly at him, then at Rei. Both Damned looked back
blankly, then at each other.

“Spells,” Sojuan said at last. “We have to. Let’s deal with the immediate
threat.”
“What can you do that will affect that many bakemono” Rei asked.
“I don’t know!” Sojuan mentally ran through every sutra and petition he
knew. There had to be something… “Maybe I can confuse them, or scare
them…”
“Bakemono are sodding cowards, but they’re braver in numbers,” Shen snarled.
“To scare that many would… take…” The Damned trailed off, his eyes going
wide. Sojuan automatically swung round, but there was nothing there.
“Shen” Rei asked.

The berserker said nothing, still staring into space as though thinking
something through. For a brief moment, something like fear flickered across
his face. Then his expression set as hard as stone.

“I think I have something. If nothing else, it’s a distraction.” He flung
down his tetsubo, fumbling with the cord around his waist. “Sojuan, how good
are you at fireworks”
“What are you thinking of”
“I don’t know… bolts from the sky, flaming balls, anything like that!”
Shen dropped the various pouches he was carrying, quickly followed by his
obi. “Wait- I’ve got it! An aura of fire, can you do that”
“I… think so…”
“_Without_ frying me”
“Yes…”
“Shen, what are you planning” Rei interrupted, looking worried.
“Think about it!” Shen stripped off his kimono as he spoke. “What are
bakemono afraid of”

Sojuan swallowed hard. He had not realised how much of Shen’s deformities
had been concealed by his clothes. Now, bare to the waist, clad only in
ragged, peasant-style pants, the full extent of his Taint was revealed.
Every muscle in his torso and arms was grotesquely enlarged, making him look
hunched. Shen’s spine was sharply defined, as though parts of the vertebrae
were growing through the flesh. The scaling of his face and neck continued
down over his arms and chest, thickening to overlapping, iron-hard plates on
shoulder and back. On the underside of his arms and across his abdomen there
was no scaling, but the skin was crossed by black veins.

Shen flexed his hands. Claws tore through his fingertips, a thin trickle of
blood dripping from each sharp point. “Well” He spread his arms in
invitation, turning slowly like a maiden displaying a new kimono. “Do I look
like a maho-bujin”
“Shen-!”
“_Do I!_”
“Yes,” Rei said, his face pale. “Apart from the jade.”
Shen swore viciously, scratching a claw down the iron collar. “I’d forgotten
about that. Can you get this thing off me, Sojuan”
“Um…” Sojuan looked at the collar. It was bolted closed with an iron peg,
welded shut. “I don’t… wait!” He scrabbled through Shen’s discarded
clothes, searching for the bag of nemuranai. Finding it, he jerked it open,
his fingers fumbling with the knots, and pulled out the whetstone nemuranai.
“Shen, let me reach the back of it.”

Shen started to kneel, but Rei caught his arm.

“Shen,” he said quietly. Their eyes met, locked. “Do you-”
“I know,” Shen said simply.

They looked at each other for a moment more. Then Rei released Shen. The
berserker knelt, bowing his head.

“This is going to hurt,” Sojuan warned. He set the edge of the whetstone to
the bolt, and concentrated. The memory of the forge… the sweet agony of
the flames, fire dancing within and without, so that what was cold and hard
became soft and malleable… remember!
Dimly, he heard Shen’s breath hiss between his teeth, but he was caught up
in the memory of fire. The nemuranai slid through the iron, the metal
softening and flowing away-

“That’s it!” The collar fell away, landing on the ground with a faint
ringing sound. Shen straightened, wincing. The scales on the back of his
neck were scored and burnt.
“Right.” Shen took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “I’m ready. Sojuan, if I
do this,” he stabbed his left arm into the air, “let rip with whatever
impressive stuff you can. But save it for the signal.”
Sojuan nodded. “I understand.”
“Then here I go.” Slowly, Shen opened his eyes again. They blazed like the
sun itself. Without another word, he swung himself over the boulder.

Sojuan hastily grabbed his jade box from the ground and scrambled after him,
peering over the top of the rock. Shen was striding down towards the goblin
village, not even attempting to conceal himself. The swarming bakemono
hadn’t noticed him yet, still engaged in their gruesome sport. He was down
at the edge of the rocks. Still no alarm. He was starting out across the
plain-

A shrill cry went up. A goblin dropped its load of wood, shrieking and
pointing. First one, then two, then four, then a dozen heads turned. Shen
kept walking. To Sojuan’s surprise, the goblins did not rush forwards, or
shout. Instead, they stilled, each head turning to fixate on the approaching
figure. The stillness spread like ripples through water.

Shen’s pace never faltered. Straight-backed, with even strides, he strolled
right into the village, his manner identical to that of a noble lord walking
among peasants. The goblins in his path edged away, murmuring to each other.

At the edge of the pit, Shen halted. Slowly, his head turned, his gaze
sweeping over the watching mob. The light from his eyes was bright enough to
cast shadows from the nearest bakemono. An eerie silence descended.

Shen simply stood there, his hands clasped behind his back in a bored,
relaxed stance, surveying the village. Sojuan couldn’t tell whether he spoke
or not. Shen looked exactly like a samurai waiting for the headman.

And then, the headman appeared.

The ragged, uncured skin covering the entrance of the largest hovel was
thrown back. The nearest goblins flung themselves flat, squealing and
fawning like dogs. A large bakemono, nearly twice the size of any of the
others, emerged from the hovel, a cut-down yari clutched in its hands. It
wore a bone headdress, cobbled together from several bakemono skulls, a
necklace of claws, and, incongruously, a bright yellow kimono, decorated
with painted pansies. The hem and sleeves of the garment trailed behind it
as it waddled in a stately, dignified fashion towards the waiting Shen. The
berserker and the bakemono considered each other.

Sojuan did not like the look on the goblin’s face. It looked as though it
was thinking.

The goblin headman came a little closer. Shen stared at it, his eyes
flaring. A little closer still. The other bakemono were edging towards the
pair now, forming an ever-closing ring. The headman stopped, just out of
Shen’s reach. Its high, shrill voice carried faintly up, but Sojuan could
not make out any words.

Shen appeared to be considering the goblin’s words. He said something. Once
again, the two stared at each other.

The bakemono shifted its grip on the spear. The point dipped slightly
towards Shen. The goblin spoke again, and Shen replied. The surrounding mob
pressed a little closer. Sojuan held his breath, his hand tight on his jade
box.

For the third time, the goblin spoke. And this time, the yari swung straight
down to point at Shen.

Quick as a striking asp, Shen caught the shaft, yanking it towards him. The
bakemono chieftain shrieked, stumbling forwards. The surrounding goblins
surged inwards-

And then back out again, as Shen’s other hand punched straight into the
chieftain’s chest. Roaring, the berserker flung his left hand into the air,
brandishing the dripping, bleeding, black heart aloft.

Sojuan drew the fire kami from the box, channelling it with his own
strength, and sent it streaming invisibly towards Shen.

A corona of fire burst into being around the Damned, sending goblins fleeing
and shrieking. Shen twisted in the middle of the blaze, his eyes exactly the
same colour and intensity as the flames. For an awful moment, Sojuan thought
he had lost control of the fire- but then Shen straightened, snarling, the
corpse of the goblin chief falling at his feet. The last few bakemono broke
and fled, scuttling desperately for the safety of their huts. Within
seconds, the village centre was empty.

Still burning, Shen turned and raised both arms, waving for them to come
down.

“I can’t _believe_ he pulled that off.” Rei looked shocked, horrified, and
exultant, all at once. His arms were full of Shen’s clothes and possessions.
“Let’s hurry.”
They both vaulted over the boulder, leaping down the rocks, pebbles shifting
underfoot.

“Ah, my loyal minions.” Shen grinned at them as they nervously approached
the village. “Don’t worry, these puny mortals will not interfere with
Daigotsu’s emissaries.” He turned on his heel, strolling casually across the
village centre. There was not a squeak, not a rustle from the hovels, but
Sojuan felt many pairs of tiny, glittering eyes fixed upon him. He tried to
walk as nonchalantly as possible.

“Nice trick with the fire,” Shen whispered.
“Thanks.”
“… Nearly scared me out of my skin.”
“You _did_ signal.”
“Did I” Shen paused. “I guess I did. I got a little carried away.”

They walked on. Sweat stuck Sojuan’s kimono to his back.

“How long am I going to be on fire” Shen muttered out of the corner of his
mouth. “I’m roasting in here.”
“I’ll drop it now, if you like.”
“Wait until we’re out, I think-” Shen froze in mid-step, his head whipping
round.

Sojuan felt a long, low rumble shake the ground.

“New plan,” whispered Shen, turning and starting to walk so fast it was
almost a run. “Drop the magic _now_.”

Sojuan called the fire kami back, the flames around Shen abruptly dying “Was
that-”
“Yes,” answered Rei, his face white.

Another tremor passed through the earth.

“Don’t look back,” Shen said tensely. His claws flexed, but he maintained
his steady, even pace. “Just walk. We’re still being watched.”

The sweat on Sojuan’s back turned clammy. He fixed his eyes on the horiion,
and walked. They passed through the village, and out the other side. The
plains stretched ahead, briars and the occasional standing stone breaking
the monotony. They kept walking.

“Now,” Shen said at last. “Run.”

They ran. Brambles caught at Sojuan’s clothes, lacerated his legs. Every few
minutes another deep sound would resonate across the plains. Each time
sounding a little closer.
Sojuan saw Shen look back over his shoulder, and swear. “Shein!” he panted.
“Just saw… it come down… the rocks!”
“Should have stayed in the hills!” Rei snarled, looking furious with
himself. “This is the WORST possible terrain we could have picked!”
“Not quite! I know… where cover… is!” Shen called over his shoulder.
“Follow!”
They ran after him. Sojuan’s breath was starting to come in gasps, his legs
burning. He stumbled, and would have fallen had Rei not caught his elbow.
The bushi dragged him onwards, half-carrying him.
“SHEN!” Rei called. “Where are we-”
“There!” Shen pointed triumphantly, stopping.

There was a dark shape on the horizon. A squat, square stone tower, built in
ancient style. Bits of ruined wall and crumbled stone indicated where
secondary buildings might once have stood.
“Whoa.” Sojuan pulled Rei to a halt. “Is this a good idea”
“Shen” Rei asked.
Shen shrugged. “The goblin shaman asked me if I was going to the ‘big
powerful wizard’. Apparently that’s where he lives. The goblins seemed
terrified of him, anyway.”
“A maho-tsukai”
“I have no idea. Look, we need cover. That’s cover.” Shen stabbed a claw in
the direction of the tower, snarling. “We’ll just have to deal with whatever
is inside! Unless you’d rather stay out here and play tag with Shein”
“Tower,” Sojuan said firmly. “Let’s go.”

They raced onwards. As they drew nearer, they could see that, despite its
obvious age, the tower was in good repair. The stonework even looked
scrubbed, no signs of staining or blackening. A small, neat, formal garden
surrounded the tower. Smooth slabs formed a set of stepping stones through
the raked sand, up to the closed door. Wind chimes sang softly in the
breeze. The tower would not have looked out of place in the middle of the
Crab lands. It was utterly normal, and deeply disturbing.

“I do NOT like this,” muttered Shen. He dropped into a walk, approaching the
garden suspiciously. “Who does feng shui in the Shadowlands”
“Shen,” Rei said suddenly, peering into the distance. “Do you think that’s
the river”
Sojuan looked as well. “I thought I saw the gleam of water before. It
certainly looks like a river.”
Shen and Rei exchanged glances.
“You think that’s Last Stand River” Sojuan asked, hope rising in his heart.
“No,” Shen said firmly. “Nothing’s gone right for us so far, why should it
start now”
“We could be into the old Kuni lands,” Rei said slowly. “Which would
explain…”

They all looked at the tower again.

A rumbling bellow sounded behind them.

“No time,” said Shen, starting up the path. “Let’s see who’s home.”

Gingerly, they crossed the garden. Just as they reached the last
stepping-stone, the door of the tower opened.

A tall man wearing dark grey robes looked out at them with an expression of
mild astonishment. Beneath his cowl, his face was painted in a kabuki mask
of dark blue and red. The mon of the Kuni glittered over his heart.

“My word,” he said, his voice deep and cultured. “A Damned, a maho-bujin,
and a Unicorn.” One elegant eyebrow raised. “I think someone is _very_
lost.”

“A _what!_” Shen spat, bounding forwards. “Get out-” He stopped abruptly.
The man was holding up an amulet in one white hand. The light from Shen’s
eyes caught the crossed Crab claws engraved upon the jade.

“Don’t make me Jade Strike you,” the man said warningly, the other hand
going to a scroll-case at his side. “Now explain yourselves.”
Sojuan and Rei looked at each other uncertainly. Sojuan opened his mouth to
speak-

Another bellow shook the ground.

The man looked past them, his eyes widening. He stepped back from the door.
“Get in.”

They piled inside. The room they entered was sparsely furnished, serene yet
very austere. Sojuan barely glanced at it, keeping his eyes fixed on the
man. The others too were watching him warily, Shen seeming ready to attempt
to rip his head off at the slightest provocation, but the man paid no
notice. He slammed the door shut, hastily fastening bolts. A large ward was
painted across the inside of the door.

“Up,” the man ordered tersely. “Next floor. We want as much distance as
possible between us and that.” He herded them out of the room, to a sturdy
wooden ladder. Shen swarmed up it first.
“Nothing dangerous,” he called back.
“I should hope not,” the man murmured.

Sojuan ascended the ladder, and found himself in what was obviously the
man’s bedroom. Blankets were spread neatly over a futon. A screen delicately
painted with a wild meadow scene stood in one corner, a grey kimono flung
over it. The only other furnishings were two chests. A small window,
shuttered and blocked with a lattice of iron bars was set into one wall.

“Now,” the man said calmly, swinging off the ladder. “Perhaps you would be
so good as to explain who you are, and, more importantly, why Oni no Shein
and Oni no Kautko are following you.”
“I think _you_ can start,” growled Shen.
The man looked at him coldly. “You are not in control. Be silent or I will
kill you now rather than later.” He switched his gaze to Sojuan. “Utaku, I
see”
Sojuan nodded uncertainly. “I’m Utaku Sojuan. This is Rei and Shen. We’re
all that remains of two scouting parties.”
“I presume you had a Kuni with you at some point,” the man said, looking at
Shen with distaste. Shen glared.
“Kautko consumed him,” Rei said.
“Ah.” The man looked thoughtful. “I am Kuni Gosei.”
“So _you_ say,” muttered Shen.
“What are you _doing_ out here” Sojuan asked, still keeping a hand on his
scroll-case. Something nagged at the back of his mind. Something that wasn’t
right…
“I live here,” Gosei said simply. “Part of the time, at least. I’m studying
goblins.”
“There’s few less to study now,” Shen said, smirking. “Especially the big
ones.”
Gosei frowned. “Don’t tell me you killed the tribe leader.”
“Yep.” Shen smiled sweetly at him. “Sorry.”
“Foolish creature, that will set me back-” Gosei’s angry words were
interrupted by a low roar. The stones of the tower shivered.

“It’s here.” Gosei’s face went still.

They all listened.

Another roar, from the other side if the tower this time.

“It’s circling,” whispered Rei.

Snuffling, snorting sounds. The scrape of talons across rock.

“This tower has stood for hundreds of years,” said Gosei. “It won’t be able
to knock it down.”
“Will it be able to bludgeon open the door, though” asked Sojuan.

Gosei frowned slightly.

A splintering crash echoed around the tower.

“I’d say that’s a yes,” said Shen. He was crouched next to the ladder,
peering down intently. His claws fretted nervously at the stone floor.
“Can it fight Kautko” Gosei asked, looking at Sojuan and pointing at Shen.
“Yes, _it_ can,” Shen replied, not taking his eyes off the hole. “Come on,
you bastard,” he muttered, his eyes narrowed. “You’ve got to come up this
way…”
Gosei suddenly stiffened. “How old is the oni”
“_What_!”
“How old is it!” The Kuni was sweating now. “How big”
“Pretty damn-” Shen started.

With a sound like the world ending, a huge talon ripped through the
shuttered window.

The claw hooked around the bars, and pulled. The grating gave way, taking
part of the stone wall with it. A bulbous yellow eye filled the gap. Then it
sank downwards, the head dipping.

Oni no Kautko stepped off the scaled forehead, and into the room.

Sheer terror glued Sojuan to the spot. He couldn’t move. The oni’s head
turned blindly, looking straight at him. It had no eyes, no nose, no ears.
Only a soft, lipless, round mouth, like a leech’s. It made a tiny mewing
noise, like a kitten calling. From outside, Shein rumbled in answer.

Someone was screaming, someone was shouting and then he was being pulled
back, a hand like an iron vise closing around his arm.
“No!” It was Gosei. The shugenja spun, dragging Sojuan with him. The Kuni’s
arm _twisted_, through an impossible angle, backhanding Rei savagely. The
bushi staggered, tripped, and fell out of sight, down the ladder. “NO!”
Gosei caught Shen’s wrist as the berserker flung himself towards Kautko- and
Shen stopped dead, jerked to a halt. Sojuan gaped at the impossibility, even
as Shen spun, snarling, clawing, fighting to get free of the shugenja who
was still, impossibly, holding him trapped-

“NO!” Gosei screamed, but it was not to Shen, nor to Sojuan that he spoke.
He was looking at Kautko, and his face contorted with fear and fury. “NO!”
The Kuni shook his head, and his hood fell back. “MINE!”

Sojuan stared at the back of Gosei’s head- and saw, through the tangled
hair, a second pair of eyes, a second nose, a second mouth, open, screaming
in chorus with the other, “MINE! MINE!”

A yellow mist emerged from the screaming mouth, and Sojuan fell into
darkness.

*****

“Get up! O Kami, wake up!”

A hand was shaking him. The touch felt strange, distant, as though he was
wearing a thickly-padded overcoat. And there was something wrong with his
ears too, everything was so quiet- or, maybe not, because he could hear the
urgent vice perfectly clearly. But something was gone, something that he was
used to hearing… there was something very, very wrong.

But, much to his surprise, he seemed to be alive.

“O Kami, please be alive, O Amaterasu, let him be alright- wake up!”

“Rei” His voice was strange. There was a deeply unpleasant taste in his
mouth. He swallowed. “Rei”

“Merciful Amaterasu, a thousand praises to your name.” Rei was half-sobbing,
sounding close to tears. “You’re alive!”

He opened his eyes- and was blinded.

Rei was kneeling over him, his face hovering anxiously near his own. But he
looked- different. He _shone_. Not mere mundane light, but a beauty, a
grace, that veined through Rei like emerald through dull stone.

“What _happened_ to you” he exclaimed.
“I got knocked out, that… thing, pushed me down the ladder. I don’t know
how long I was out, but when I woke up the oni- ”
“The oni!” He sat bolt upright, staring around wildly. “Where-”
“It’s alright, they’re gone-” Rei kept talking, but he lost the thread of
the words. His attention was grabbed by the view through the hole in the
side of the tower.

I’ve died, he thought dazedly. I’ve died and this is Yomi.

The landscape was changed. It was beautiful. The greys were gone. The sky
was a deep, perfect azure blue. The rocks were like sunset clouds brought do
wn to earth, pale, delicate shades of blue and purple and orange melding
exquisitely into each other. Briars as black and shiny as a beetle’s wing
case made arches like graceful calligraphy across them. It took his breath
away. The beauty stabbed him to his heart.

“Where are we” he breathed.
Rei looked at him oddly. “Where we were. Did you hit your head”
“Maybe.” He reached up to feel for a tender spot- and stopped, staring at
his own arm.

It was thick with muscle, powerful. Black scales glimmered, shining with a
faint iridescence like oil on water.

“What’s happened to me” he whispered.

He saw movement out of the corner of his eyes, and looked up. There was
shape huddled nearby, stirring. A man, rolling to his hands and knees,
shaking his head groggily- and then freezing, staring down at his hands. A
slender man, built straight and lithe, black hair tied roughly back, wearing
a torn, stained, and scorched purple kimono. A man with tears rolling down
his face now, looking up, straight into Sojuan’s eyes, his expression that
of one who’s most heartfelt, deepest wish has suddenly, impossibly been
granted-

Sojuan was looking at his own face.

“Thank the kami,” breathed Rei, hastening to support the swaying,
stunned-looking man. “I thought to find you worse than dead, Sojuan.”
“Sojuan” the man repeated blankly.
“That’s not me!” Sojuan shouted, surging to his feet- or trying to.
Everything was wrong, off-balance. He tripped on the level floor,
over-compensated, and struck the ground heavily.
“Shen!” Rei looked at him, startled. “What’s wrong”
“Nothing,” whispered the man leaning against Rei. He was still looking at
his own hands, turning them over and over, as though he had never seen them
before. An incredulous, joyous smile shone through his tears. “Suddenly,
nothing is wrong.”
Rei stared at him, looking utterly confused. “What Sojuan-”
“That’s NOT ME!” He struggled to his hands and knees, the strange weight of
his own body pulling him down, like a badly-fitting suit of armour. “That’s
not Sojuan!”

Rei’s eyes widened, and he flinched back. Deprived of support, the man Rei
had been holding fell to the ground, not even making an attempt to catch
himself. He simply lay there, hands curled to his chest as though cradling
some infinitely precious treasure. Rei moved further back, staring at him
suspiciously. “What are you saying, Shen A shapeshif-”
“I’M NOT SHEN!”
“So that’s it,” the man on the floor said, his wide, light grey eyes fixed
on Sojuan.

“O Lady Moon, not now, please,” Rei muttered, his face paling. He moved
towards Sojuan, hands outstretched. “Easy now, Shen, relax…”
“Get away!” Sojuan knocked Rei’s outstretched hand away effortlessly,
sending the bushi staggering. “I’m not Shen!”
Rei took a step back, eyes locked on him. “Stay back, Sojuan,” he warned.
For a moment, Sojuan felt a surge of relief- and then he saw Rei’s hand fall
to his wakizashi. “He’s gone mad.”
“Yes,” said the other man. He began to laugh, a berserk, wild sound. “Oh
yes!”
“I’m not mad!” The statement rang hollow in his ears. “I _am_ Utaku Sojuan!”
He pointed desperately at the other man, at the face he usually saw only in
mirrors. “Ask him! Question him! He’s not me!”
Rei’s eyes flickered uncertainly between them. “Sojuan”
“I…” The man hesitated, the expression of half-mad, incredulous joy
sliding off his features, replaced with something far darker. Sojuan looked
into his eyes, his own eyes, and saw a terrible realisation dawn there, a
sudden cunning-

“NO!” Sojuan leapt forwards, desperately clutching at Rei’s sleeve. “Please,
don’t listen to it, you must believe me-!”
Rei jumped away from him, drawing his wakizashi and putting his back to a
wall. “You’re both mad,” he whispered, the blade weaving between Sojuan and
the other man.
The man wearing Sojuan’s form chortled again. “You have no idea how right
you are, my friend.” His laughter increased, shaking his narrow shoulders.
“So this is how it is! And to think I wondered before if I was mad!”
“LAST NIGHT!” Sojuan shouted at Rei. “Last night! You asked me if I’d
sacrifice my soul to save a single life!”
“Did you” asked the other man with interest, fighting back giggles. “How
prophetic. What was the answer”
Rei looked hard at Sojuan, eyes flicking over him. The sword-point wavered,
dropped- and then came up again. “Anything could have overheard that.”
Sojuan closed his eyes, trying to think, pressing his palms against his
forehead- and flinched away, feeling the rough scales beneath his hands.
This was a nightmare, some sort of Shadowlands-inspired hallucination, a
twisted vision…

“My bag!” he exclaimed suddenly. He scrabbled at his waist, finding the
pouch slung from the obi. “My nemuranai!” He tossed the bag to Rei, who
caught it one-handed, the sword-point never wavering. “The amber netsuke,
hold it!”
Not taking his eyes off him, Rei tore the bag open, holding it between
clenched teeth as he searched inside with his free hand. Suddenly, the bushi
froze, a strange expression creeping over his face.
“A woman!” Sojuan babbled desperately. “A vision of a woman, with hazel
eyes, laughing, on a black Utaku battle-horse! My wife, Midori! How would I
know that if I wasn’t me”
Slowly, carefully, Rei put the bag on the ground, replacing the small sphere
within it. “She’s lovely,” he said quietly. “You care for her a great deal.”
He looked up again, his expression hardening. “So who are you” he asked,
the knife swinging to point at the man still sitting on the floor.
“Me” The man shook his head, snickering. “Don’t ask me. I’ve no idea who I
am.” His hands ran over each other lightly, then up to touch his face. An
expression of wonder flickered over the finely chiselled features. “I had
forgotten,” he said softly. “I had almost forgotten.”

Rei’s hand tightened on his sword.

“I think my name was Shen, once,” the man added, almost as an afterthought.
His long fingers continued to explore his features. “When anyone bothered to
name me. You did, though. You always called me by my name. You tried to
teach me how to read.” He looked up at Rei, a sudden delighted smile
illuminating his face. “I threw your copy of the Tao off the Wall,
remember”
Slowly, Rei’s hand fell. He slumped bonelessly against the wall, sliding to
the ground. “What…” he whispered. “Shen…”
“Doesn’t look like it, but it is.” The grin twisted slightly, turning
disturbingly feral. It was an expression Sojuan had never imagined to see on
his own face. “Though I could be Sojuan gone mad, for all I know.”
“_I’m_ Sojuan,” he asserted fiercely. He had a sudden urge to launch himself
at the impostor, shake him, to demand his body back…
Shen cocked his head to one side, scanning him from head to toe. “My, how
you’ve changed, pony,” he said. “Think this will affect your Jade Hand
status” The infuriating grin did not leave his face.
“Give it back!” Sojuan shouted, lunging for him. “Give it back!”
“Shen- Sojuan- whoever!” Rei caught hold of his ankle, sending him
sprawling. “Calm down!”
“He’s taken my body!” Sojuan suddenly found that he was shaking, his voice
trembling out of control. “M-make him g-give… give… ” He couldn’t go any
further, shock overwhelming him.
“Easy, easy. Breathe deeply.” Rei pulled him into a sitting position,
supporting him with an arm around his shoulders. Despite the calming words,
the bushi looked nearly as shaky as Sojuan felt. “How did this happen”
Sojuan shook his head mutely, all of his willpower going towards attempting
to control the sobs that shook his body.
“Unless this is the oddest manifestation of the Taint I’ve ever heard of, I
don’t think I can claim the credit,” Shen said dryly. “I have no idea
either.” He frowned, brow furrowing in concentration. “Kautko came through
the window, I went for it…” He stopped abruptly, eyes going wide. “Gosei!
Gosei stopped me! I am going to _kill_ that Kuni-”
“N-not K-Kuni,” Sojuan hiccupped. He took a deep breath, trying to get his
voice back under control. “It, it grabbed me… and there was a, a face, a
second one, on the, the b-back of its h-head…” He trailed off, shaking
even harder.
Rei’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “A second face”
“Oni,” Shen spat. “Must have been.”
“Never heard of an oni that does this,” said Rei. “And where did it go”
“Hida’s Balls, where did they _all_ go!” Shen leapt to his feet- and fell
over in a tangle of limbs. Muffled swearing came from the collapsed form,
his struggles only worsening his predicament. Sojuan started to giggle
uncontrollably.

“Shut it, you whoreson pony!” Shen managed to disentangle his head from his
kimono enough to glare at Sojuan. The sight of his own face adopting such a
threatening, aggressive expression only served to deepen Sojuan’s mirth. He
rocked with laughter.
“Sojuan! Stop it, Sojuan!” Rei shook him, hard, then slapped him. Sojuan
managed to choke off the hysterics. “What’s wrong, Shen”
“Everything’s wrong!” growled Shen, finally managing to unbraid his own
limbs. He hauled himself up, clutching at the wall. “Nothing’s the right
length! Nothing _works_ right!” He took a few tentative steps, as graceless
as a newborn foal.

Sojuan gingerly stood, using Rei’s shoulder for support. He shifted his
feet, trying to find his centre of balance. He felt strangely top-heavy, yet
also… powerful. Every movement he made seemed amplified ten-fold.
Shen seemed to be having rather the opposite problem. “You have the strength
of a bloody jellyfish,” he snarled at Sojuan, waving his arms for balance.
“How the hell did you ever manage to keep yourself upright without support”
Sojuan ignored him. Every movement took conscious thought. It was rather
like trying to operate a puppet while wearing thick mittens.

A glimmer on the floor caught his eye. Carefully, he knelt, putting out a
hand- and hesitated.

“What is it” asked Rei, catching the movement.
Sojuan said nothing for a moment, staring down at the object. Then, slowly,
he picked it up.

Nothing happened.

Wordlessly, he turned his hand palm up, opening his fingers. The jade amulet
shone against the black scales.

“_Well_ now.” Rei whistled under his breath. They glanced at each other,
then, as one, looked at Shen.
“Sure, why not” Shen shrugged, attempting a nonchalant tone- but his
fingers hovered for a moment over the jade. Sojuan saw him take a deep
breath, closing his eyes. Then, he took the amulet.

Shen’s eyes flew open. “Nothing,” he said wonderingly, looking at the jade
in his own hand. “Nothing. It’s just a stone.”
“What does it mean” Sojuan asked. “If I can touch it, and so can Shen,
then…”
“Then,” Rei reached out, taking the jade from Shen. The green stone lay
inert in his hand. “… it’s probably a fake.” Rei scowled. “This is the
amulet the oni showed us, remember”
“Tricked,” snarled Shen.
“Of course!” Sojuan hit himself hard on the head, feeling utterly mortified.
“I am an idiot.”
“Lo! He is enlightened!” exclaimed Shen. “What prompted that”
“Think about it! If you or Rei went into a _real_ Kuni’s tower, what would
happen”
“I’d… be… very lost” Shen looked mystified for a moment- and then he
too slapped his forehead. “I’d be fried to ashes by the sodding Wards!”
“The one on the door is a fake, I’d stake my sword on it,” Sojuan said
grimly. “All the signs were there, we just didn’t see them.”
“An elaborate deception…” Rei said thoughtfully. He went over to one of
the chests. Flinging back the lid, he poked through the contents. “Peasant’s
clothes… an ashigaru uniform… Hida kimono… Hiruma-style pants… Kuni
robes…” He looked up. “Disguises. It’s got to be a shape-shifter.”
“It didn’t change its shape, it changed our shapes!” Sojuan snapped. “Why
would it do that”
“Twisted sense of humour” Shen suggested, grinning.
“Not much of a motivation,” said Rei.
“It’s a bloody oni, it doesn’t need a motivation!”
“It was shouting something,” Sojuan said. “At the other oni. ‘Mine’.”
“Fighting over prey, perhaps” Rei frowned. “Still doesn’t explain this,
though.”

“Sojuan,” Shen said suddenly, a strange expression coming over his face.
“Can you still command the kami”
“Why wouldn’t I-” Sojuan automatically reached out with his senses as he
spoke- and staggered. It was like running into an unexpected iron wall,
hidden in darkness. He tried again. The petition echoed around his head,
reverberating. Desperately, he grabbed for the jade box at his side,
reaching out to the kami there…

Power, a hot, angry, utterly outraged power flared up his arm, a searing
pain-

“… Sojuan Sojuan!”

Someone was shouting at him, shaking him. He blinked dazedly. He was lying
on the floor, looking up at Rei’s concerned face.
“They hate me,” he whispered. “The kami hate me.” He buried his face in his
hands, wanting to weep- but no tears came. The light from his eyes reflected
in every scale on his palms. “They won’t listen!”
“Well, that answers that,” said Shen. He reached down, pulling Sojuan to his
feet. “Believe it or not, I think that our two-faced friend did us a
favour.”
Rage filled him. “Did you a favour, you mean!” Sojuan snarled, jerking away
from Shen’s hand.
“Think about it! You can’t command the kami! That means…”
“Oni no Shein won’t sense him as a shugenja,” Rei finished, his eyes going
wide. “That’s why it left!”
“And minor nemuranai won’t leave that strong a trail for it to follow,
nothing like that as strong as a shugenja!” Shen continued excitedly. “If we
go _now_…”
“We can escape…” Rei froze, the look of triumph sliding from his face.
“And then we get to the Wall.” He looked at Shen, his expression unreadable.
“Look, worry about that later.” Shen brushed the matter aside with an
impatient, exasperated gesture. “You think the other oni did this because it
was enamoured with my winning personality The damned thing will be back, if
it shakes off Kautko and Shein, and I just bet it’s going to be hungry.”
Rei let out his breath. “You’re right. One problem at a time. We have to
leave.”
“No!” The protest leaped unbidden from his lips. “We have to stay! We have
to wait for the oni!”
Shen rolled his eyes. “Damn. He’s only been Tainted for five minutes, and
he’s already gone insane.”
“I’m not Tainted!” Even as he spoke the words, fear engulfed him. He pushed
it back. “And I’m not insane. The oni did this- it can reverse it!”
“And I’m so sure that it will, if we just ask it politely enough,” snapped
Shen. “Think!”
“He’s right, Sojuan-” Rei began.
“NO!” Sojuan’s hands curled into fists. “I want my body back!”
“So you want us to capture an _oni_ in our current state” Shen bent down to
pick up his discarded tetsubo. He hefted it experimentally, his lip curling
in disgust. “I can barely lift this thing now!”
“We have to try!”
“Sojuan,” Rei said gently, “think what you’re saying. It’s an oni.”
“I know the risks-”
“Sojuan.” Rei’s tone stopped him in mid-sentence. “Remember. ‘We will win,
but not at the cost of our souls’.”

There was a small silence.

“You know, I never thought I’d be grateful to the Jade Hand,” Shen remarked
at last. He shouldered the tetsubo, with a small grunt. “Let’s go.”

They descended the ladder in silence, the difficulty of navigating the rungs
taking Sojuan’s full attention. He was grateful for the distraction. At that
moment, he felt quite capable of throttling Rei on the spot. The strength of
the emotion terrified him.
It’s the shock, he told himself, over and over. Just the shock. The anger is
a natural response, that’s all. That’s all. O Lord Sun, please let that be
all.

Ahead, he saw Shen pick his way over the shattered remains of the door- and
then pause, staring out.
“What is it” asked Rei, half-drawing his wakizashi.
“Nothing,” Shen replied. His head turned to look back at Sojuan, an odd
expression on his face. “So this is what you see,” he said softly. “I begin
to understand.” Without another word, he stepped out, Rei at his heels.
Sojuan braced himself, and followed.

It’s the Shadowlands, he told himself firmly. Fu Leng’s realm. The Pit. Evil
incarnate.

It was still beautiful.

Black briars arched gracefully over roseate rocks. The sky was the clear
blue of a mountain pool, deep and pure enough to stop the heart. No clouds,
no sun, nothing to mar that perfect dome. A breeze ruffled his hair,
bringing with it a delicate fragrance, elusive and indefinable. Even the
gravel underfoot seemed to shine with a subtle glimmer.

He closed his eyes, and immediately felt the spiritual void, that
soul-sucking emptiness. It was still there. It weighed his heart with
weariness, sapping his will. Nothing had really changed.

Sojuan opened his eyes, and saw again the glory.

“What do you see” Shen asked, his voice low. There was an almost wistful
look in his eyes.
“I see the Shadowlands,” he said shortly. “Which way, Rei”
“Straight east,” said Rei, setting a brisk pace. “And pray that’s Last Stand
River.”
Sojuan jogged- stumbling a little, until he found the natural length of this
body’s stride- to catch up with the tainted bushi. “And if it is We get to
the Wall What then”
Rei glanced at him, worry written clearly on his veined face. “I don’t
know.” He walked on for a bit before speaking again, waiting until Shen was
some distance away. “Sojuan, tell me something.”
“What” Sojuan braced himself for a question about his state of mind, his
condition, what he saw-
“My jade,” Rei said quietly. “Has any of it corrupted” He raised his head,
turning back the collar of his kimono to expose the metal band around his
neck.
Surprised, Sojuan looked at the jade disc inlayed into the steel. A thin
sliver of black showed at the rim, a crescent moon of darkness. “Yes.”
Rei breathed a long sigh. “I thought so.”
“But you’re already tainted…” Sojuan felt hideously embarrassed his lapse
in tact, but this body didn’t seem to know how to blush. He forged on, “And,
anyway, if we are close to the Wall… it’s only a little bit corrupted, it
will protect you for long enough…”
“Any amount of corruption is too much,” said Rei, not looking at him.
“Sojuan, with jade as precious as it is, didn’t you wonder why the Crab
would waste it on those already under the Fallen Kami’s touch”
“I thought…” Sojuan hesitated. “No, I didn’t.”
“This small amount of jade,” Rei tapped his collar, “will darken within a
day or two. Unless it is blessed by a Kuni, with the prayer of Jade Eternal.
Then it will not decay… as long as the Kuni refreshes the spell each day.”
He glanced across at Sojuan, his eyes unreadable. “We Damned make good
scouts, but there’s always the risk that we will fall. It’s a safeguard,
Sojuan.”
“If… if a Damned became Lost, and escaped from or killed his Kuni
watcher…” Sojuan said slowly. “Then…”
“Then the spell would not be refreshed, and the jade would decay.” Rei
looked away, towards the glimmer of the river on the horizon. “Sojuan… a
Damned wearing a corrupted collar has never crossed the Wall. Ever.”
“But… these circumstances…”
“The rule is absolute.”
“Rei,” Sojuan whispered, his throat suddenly dry. “Back at the goblin
village… I took Shen’s collar off.”
Rei said nothing. He drew his kimono collar up again, hiding the corrupted
jade.

They walked on in silence.

“They aren’t going to let either of us back over the Wall, are they,” Sojuan
said, after some time. It was not a question.
“No,” Rei admitted.
Anger and despair fought within him. “So what can we do”
“Try to get the Kuni to come to us. We need to get a message over the Wall.”
Rei’s eyes were on the slender figure scouting off to one side, out of
earshot of their quiet conversation.
“He’s still Tainted!”
“Is he”
“Yes! He may have stolen my body, but his spirit is the same!”
“As is yours,” Rei said quietly. “But the kami will no longer speak to you.”
“I’m not Tainted.” Fear made his voice break on the last word. “Rei, I’m
not. I’d know.”
Rei didn’t say anything for a moment. “You were very angry, back in the
tower.”
“I’m not Tainted!”
Rei turned to look at him, a mixture of compassion and resolution in his
face. “Are you willing to find out”
Sojuan swallowed hard, trying to clear his throat enough for speech. “Yes,”
he said at last.
Rei nodded. “Shen!” he called, raising his voice. “Come here!”

The figure turned, jogging back. Sojuan felt extremely odd, watching his own
body run towards him with an easy, loping stride, lithe and light. He was
quite sure that he himself had never moved with quite that fluid, cat-like
grace.

Shen came to a halt beside them, a joyous, delighted smile illuminating his
face. “I’ll tell you something, pony,” he said, not even breathing hard.
“You may have bugger all in the way of muscles, but you sure are fast.” He
bounced on his toes, seeming unable to keep still. “You weigh nothing.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Sojuan snarled, his hands curling.
Shen shrugged, started to say something- and then seemed to think better of
it, turning to Rei. “What did you want”
“Sojuan was carrying the jade,” replied Rei. “You’ve got it now.”
“Good point.” Shen fumbled at the back of his neck, untying the thong. He
lifted it up, displaying the jade pendant hanging from it, and flashed a
grin at Sojuan. “I guess I really shouldn’t be wearing this, eh”
Sojuan took a deep breath. “Give it to me,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Brace yourself,” Shen warned- and dropped the amulet into his outstretched
palm.

Sojuan felt nothing.

“See!” he said triumphantly, closing his fingers and brandishing his
clenched fist at Rei. “See! I can-”
“For Hida’s sake, _drop it_!” Shen yelled frantically, grabbing his wrist
and prising at his fingers. Startled, Sojuan opened his hand, letting the
jade fall-

And stared at the burned and smoking scales; the raw, blackened flesh.

“What do you think you’re playing at!” Shen shouted at him. The bushi
looked almost as distressed as if he himself had been burned. “That’s _me_
you’re screwing up there!”
“Stoicism won’t change the truth, Sojuan,” Rei said softly, his eyes pained.
“I didn’t feel it,” Sojuan said blankly, looking at the injured hand.
“Seriously, I didn’t feel anything.”

They all stared at each other.

“So… what in Jigoku does this mean” Shen asked, bending to pick up the
dropped amulet- by the cord, Sojuan noted.
Rei shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Your turn,” Sojuan said to Shen.
Shen rolled his eyes. “If you insist…” With a dramatic flourish, he
snapped the amulet into the air- and caught it neatly. He turned his hand,
displaying the jade. “I already tried. It doesn’t affect me.” He dangled the
amulet from the cord again, to show them his undamaged palm.
“This is very strange…” Rei said thoughtfully.
“You’re telling me…”

Sojuan didn’t say anything, as Rei and Shen began to speculate. Something
was wrong. He had been watching Shen’s eyes, not the showy display with the
amulet. And there had been something there, a tiny widening of the pupils…

“I want that back,” he interrupted, pointing at his jade.
“Here, have it.” Shen flipped it to him. “Just don’t touch it. Don’t want
you to keel over dead because you didn’t realise it was burning a hole
through your spine…”
Sojuan nodded, dangling the amulet from the cord. He slowed his pace
slightly, falling behind Rei and Shen. The two bushi did not seem to notice,
still deep in conversation about the meaning of the test. He waited for some
time… and then, quietly, gently, brushed the back of Shen’s neck with the
jade.

“SHIT!” Shen yelped, flinching away. He spun round, one hand slapping at his
neck as though something had just stung him- and froze

Sojuan dangled the jade in front of Shen’s face. “So it has no effect, does
it,” he said coldly.

Rei stared between the two of them. His face went very still.

“No effect!” Sojuan repeated, voice rising. He flipped the jade again- but
this time, Shen caught it, yanking on the cord. Sojuan stumbled forwards.
“Yes, it hurts,” Shen hissed, his face only inches from his own. Sojuan
stared into his eyes, reading the pain, and anger, and… something else.
“It hurts as much as it did before. Exactly as much.” Shen released the
jade, sending Sojuan staggering backwards.
“You said it had no effect!” Sojuan shouted.
Shen looked at him, then at Rei. “I lied,” he said simply. Without another
word, he turned on his heel, and strode away.

“You see! And you think that will be able to get over the Wall Why-” Sojuan
took two angry steps after Shen- then stopped. Rei hadn’t moved. He was
simply standing motionless, staring at the ground. “Rei What-”
Slowly, the bushi looked up. The angry words died on Sojuan’s lips. Rei’s
face was grey. Sojuan had seen that expression once before- on the face of a
man with an arrow through his chest.
“He lied,” Rei said dully. “It was that important, and he lied.”
“Rei…”
“You’re right. We can’t trust him.” Rei took a deep breath. “So, do we risk
sending him over the Wall”
Sojuan was silent a moment. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, we do,” Rei said quietly. His hand dropped to rest on the hilt of his
wakizashi.
“But-” Sojuan cut short his automatic protest, and forced himself to truly
consider the option. Although Shen had reacted to the jade, it had not
reacted to Shen. If the jade kami truly could not detect the Taint hidden
within… Shen would indeed be able to walk through wards. He might be able
to get past the Kuni. Wearing Sojuan’s form, he might be able to get into
the heart of the Legion of the Jade Hand itself.

Could he risk that

I am not afraid, Sojuan told himself, trying to ignore the dryness of his
mouth. I am not afraid to die. A samurai does not fear death. But a tiny,
treacherous voice whispered back- of course not. What was there to fear in
leaving the impure mortal realm for the perfection of Yomi Or rebirth,
following the soul’s path until one was worthy- what was there to fear, if
one had striven to live honourably and well With that knowledge, what
bravery did it take to face death You have never known fear, because you
have never known doubt. Now taste the uncertainty, and feel the terror rise
to grip your throat. Now face true fear, and discover that you have no
courage, no bravery, no honour-

“No!” Sojuan pressed his hands to his forehead, clenching his fists. “NO!”
“Sojuan-!”
“I don’t think like this!” He doubled over, eyes tightly-shut, trying to
focus, to concentrate only on himself, on the very core of his being. “I
don’t! This isn’t me! GET OUT!” The shout echoed around his own head. He
stood on a small island, with darkness lapping at his feet, just waiting to
surge and submerge him, to drown him in despair…
“This isn’t me,” he repeated fiercely, palms still pressed to his head as
though to squeeze out external influences. Distantly, he felt Rei’s hands on
his shoulders, trying to steady him. “I don’t despair. I will not despair.
This is not me. I will not listen!” The dark tide swelled. “I WILL NOT
LISTEN!”

“No,” said a voice- not Rei’s. Sojuan looked up, and felt a wave of
dizziness, looking up into his own face. Shen stood a little way off,
staring down at him through his own eyes. “Listen. Be aware.”
“I will NOT!”
“Listen to me!” Shen moved closer, hate and empathy warring across his face.
“Don’t try and ignore it. You can’t. If you try not to think of it, it will
come through you unaware. You must listen. Be aware of every thought, so you
can decide whether to accept it. Be aware!”

Sojuan’s breath came in ragged gasps. Listen. He was afraid, more than
afraid, he was terrified, he was going to die and be damned forever,
despair, despair… he listened, but that did not mean he accepted. As long
as he acknowledged the thought as something separate from him, it could not
dominate his mind. It was not him. He would not let it be him.

Gradually, his breathing steadied. The whisper was still there, at the back
of his mind, but it had no power over him. Slowly, he adjusted to its
presence, until it no longer took all his willpower to maintain his
resistance. He dropped his hands away from his forehead. At some point, he
had fallen to his knees.

“Better now” asked Rei, helping him up.
Sojuan started to nod, then desisted as the top of his head threatened to
fall off. “Is that what it’s like for you” he asked. “That… whisper,
thoughts…”
“No.” Rei looked as though he might say something else, but stopped himself.
Sojuan looked at Shen. “You knew, though.”
Shen had already started to walk away again, but stopped at the words. He
did not look round. “Yes.”
“You… heard it”
“Yes.” Shen’s shoulders were tense. “It happens to… older Damned.”
“Does it ever stop” Sojuan asked softly.
“Oh yes.” Shen turned at last. His eyes were dark with remembered pain.
“When you’re held down and scoured with jade powder, it stops.” His mouth
twisted, but the smile did not reach his eyes. “For a while.”
“Do you hear it now”
“Why do you even bother to ask” Shen’s tone was full of bitterness. “If I
say yes, you won’t trust me. And if I say no, you won’t believe me.” He
turned away again.
“That’s your own fault,” Sojuan said sharply.
Shen was silent for a moment. “Yes, it is, isn’t it,” he said at last, an
odd note in his voice. “There’s nothing else. Just me.” He moved away.
“We’re wasting time. Try and keep up.”

They moved steadily onwards, in silence. Shen did not range off by himself,
but instead stayed only a few strides ahead. Rei watched him almost
constantly, his face still drawn and pale. Several times, Sojuan caught him
fidgeting with his wakizashi. However, his own attention was mainly occupied
in maintaining his awareness of his own thoughts. It was like carrying a
very full cup of water- there was a balance to it. If he concentrated too
hard, or took his mind off it completely, it spilled over, touching him with
a trembling of fear. He tried not to wonder what effect this was having on
him.

Mind, body, and spirit, his old sensei had often said, when teaching
meditation exercises. The three parts, all equal in importance. Perfection
requires perfect balance. Are you listening at the back there, Sojuan Yes
Then perhaps you can demonstrate White Crane Spreads Wings for us. Not like
that! Slowly, with grace. Control, boy, be aware of every movement you make!
If you cannot control your body, how do you expect to control your mind If
you cannot control your mind, how can you control your spirit And if your
own spirit is uncontrolled, why then should another spirit answer your call
Hold position. What is the distance between your left and right thumbs at
this instant- don’t look! Poor, very poor. You are in imbalance, Sojuan. Be
aware!

I am in imbalance, sensei, and I cannot be aware of my body because it is
not mine. Body affects mind affects spirit affects body. The circle closes,
and goes round in both directions. I am aware of this thought. I am afraid,
afraid of what is happening to me. Is that my fear If I reject it, am I
rejecting a malign influence, or a part of myself You cannot find balance
without acceptance, Sojuan! Sensei, I remember you saying that, but do I
hear you now from memory or do you seek to undermine me so I accept my fear
and-

“Wake up.” A finger prodded him hard, low on his back where the scaling was
light. Sojuan started, looking around in surprise. Somehow, he had
absent-mindedly managed to walk straight past Shen, without noticing the
bushi had stopped.
“What is it”
“Look.” Shen pointed ahead. The plains rolled gradually downwards, dipping
towards a silver ribbon of water. The glittering river meandered across the
stony ground, stretching left and right as far as the eye could see. Across
the river, the ground began to rise again, to a dark, distant line, drawn
across the horizon.
“The Wall,” Sojuan said, relief and fear battling within him. “We’re nearly
there.” He looked at Rei. The tainted bushi swallowed hard- and then
launched into motion, lunging forwards. In an instant, Rei held both of
Shen’s hands trapped, arms locked behind his back.
“I’d like it to be noted,” Shen said, quite calmly, “That I’m not
resisting.” He twisted his head round to look Sojuan in the eye. “Not that I
expect that makes any difference.”
“I’m sorry, Shen,” Rei whispered, his voice hoarse.
“Why call me by that name” Shen’s lip curled slightly. “If you still
thought I was Shen, you wouldn’t be doing this. But then again, I suppose
you’re right. I’m not Shen.” He let out a sudden, short laugh. “Shen is
Damned.”
Rei’s grip tightened. “Sojuan, this is your decision.”
“Try to make it on your own,” Shen added, eyes glittering.

Sojuan took a deep breath, clearing his mind. He listened- and discovered
that the pessimistic whisper had fallen silent. No thought moved of its own
accord, demanding attention. It was almost annoying. He’d been hoping that
it would suggest a course of action- so that he could do the opposite.
Unless it would have known that, and thus have suggested what it wanted, so
then…
“Sojuan” Rei interrupted his thoughts.
Sojuan shook his head, struggling out of his introspection. He let out his
breath- and came to a decision.

“This is interesting,” Shen remarked, as Sojuan began to struggle out of his
kimono. “It’s already stained, you know. You don’t have to worry about
keeping it clean when you cut my throat.”
Sojuan drew a tanto, and cut several long strips from the garment. “Tie his
hands,” he said, moving to take over Rei’s grip on Shen. “Behind his back,
securely.” He braced himself, but Shen simply stood docile as Rei obeyed.
“It’s so nice to be trusted,” Shen said dryly, his arms flexing slightly as
he tested the bonds. “Hmmm…” He appeared to concentrate for a moment.
Sojuan readied himself- but then Shen relaxed, grinning wryly. “Huh. I
forgot I don’t have claws. What happens now”
“Now…” Sojuan paused. “I suddenly realise I don’t have any ink. Rei”
“No…”
“Don’t look at me,” Shen added helpfully. “Not many people to write to, in
the Shadowlands. If I even knew how to.”
“Well, never mind.” Sojuan smoothed out the kimono on the ground, searching
for an unstained part. Then, bracing himself, he pulled his blade sharply
across his little finger.

Nothing happened.

“Dramatic. Pity the scales rather spoiled the effect,” observed Shen.
“I’ll do it,” Rei said quietly. He drew his own wakizashi, and knelt by
Sojuan’s side. “What do you want written” He smiled slightly, without
humour. “It had better not be too long.”

In the end- after Rei had slashed his own finger open several times- they
managed to scrawl a few untidy characters. The blood dried quickly, the
words rusty-red on the grey cloth.
“This man Shen. Oni swap Shen Sojuan. Help. Waiting.” Sojuan re-read the
brief message, then folded the fabric. “I hope it gets their attention, at
least.” He tied the bundle closed with another strip of cloth, and fastened
it around Shen’s neck.
“A letter written in blood” Shen raised an eyebrow. “That should get their
attention, all right.” He shifted position uncomfortably. “So, now we go
down and get riddled with arrows, yes”
“Something like that,” replied Sojuan, starting walking. “Rei, how close can
we get”
“The edge of the river, probably. Then we’ll have to send him on alone.”
“Good thing that river’s only waist-deep,” muttered Shen, twisting his
wrists ineffectively against his bonds. “By the way, if all goes well…
what do you want me to tell them”
“Is there any point in discussing that” Rei’s voice was quiet, not
accusing. “You’ll do as you see fit, no matter what we say.” Shen flinched
as though Rei had struck him.
“Just tell them what’s happened,” Sojuan said. “Send for a Kuni. They’ll
know what to do.” He tried to put conviction into his voice.
“They will,” Rei said, with greater certainty.
“And if they don’t, they won’t rest until they do,” Shen added. “You’ll just
love Kuni hospitality, pony. If you’re very lucky, you might even get to see
where we live.” He grinned suddenly. “I’ll show you my garden.”
The barracks of the Damned. A small shiver ran down Sojuan’s spine. “I will
never go there,” he said flatly.
“You might,” Rei said gently. “If all else fails.” He held up a hand to
forestall Sojuan’s angry protest. “Not to stay. But for the Ritual. If there
is no other way.”
“The ritual”
“I told you about it,” Shen said. “The one that removes Taint, terminally.”
He smiled bitterly. “I’m absolutely certain it would work on _you_, at
least.”

Hope rose in Sojuan’s heart. There was still something that could be done,
even if this body refused to relinquish its hold on him. His spirit could be
freed. This corruption had been forced upon him, he had not sought it-
surely the kami would be able to sense that! He could be cleansed. He had
not embraced corruption. He held fast to that thought, and resolutely
quashed any doubts. All they had to do was get to the Kuni.

Nothing moved on the bramble-choked plains ahead, on either side of the
river. The dark line on the horizon steadily grew, thickening to a black bar
separating sky and earth. Sojuan could just about make out a taller section,
almost directly ahead of them. One of the great watch-towers of the Kaiu
Wall, solid and reassuring. There would be shugenja stationed there, perhaps
even a Witch-Hunter.

“No patrols that I can see,” said Rei, as they started down the slope to the
river. The bushi looked slightly concerned. “I’m surprised by that.”
“Maybe they’re just well hidden,” Sojuan suggested. “Or maybe they haven’t
got the men for patrols, at the moment. The Crab Champion was mustering
forces for a large assault on Daigotsu’s forces, after all.”
“Perhaps.” Rei shook his head slightly, still looking dubious.
“Well, we’ll know by the time we get an arrow in the back,” Shen snapped. He
was having a hard time navigating the sloping, gravelled terrain without the
use of his arms for balance. He tripped, sliding a short way down the slope
before catching himself. “Damn it! Look, is this strictly necessary I
really don’t want to fall over in the middle of that.” His head jerked to
indicate the slow flow of Last Stand River.
“Be careful, then,” Sojuan told him shortly.
“You never minded it before,” Rei said, with a slight, sad smile. “You were
always the first one across.”
“Yeah, but it didn’t smell like that before.” Shen wrinkled his nose. “Now I
understand your reluctance.” He glanced at Sojuan, a speculative look on his
face. “How do you fancy a dip, pony”
Sojuan looked down at the placid water. It flowed silently, an invitingly
cool blue-green, gently shimmering. He closed his eyes, calling up an image
of the river as he had seen it last time- stinking, slimy, and fetid. “Not
at all,” he said firmly.
“Open your eyes, and tell me that,” Shen muttered.
Sojuan glared at him. “Not at all,” he repeated.
Shen looked at him for a moment, then shrugged. He looked across the river
at the distant bulk of the Wall. “Oh well. At least _that_ looks better
now.”
“I think it’s the most welcoming thing I’ve ever seen,” Sojuan said,
starting forwards. “Come on.”

He had only gone a few steps, when he realised he could only hear one pair
of footsteps following. He stopped, turning. Shen hadn’t moved.
“What did you say” Shen whispered. “Not ‘come on’, I mean before that.”
“I said the Wall looked welcoming,” Sojuan said, perplexed.
Shen stared at him. Slowly, he looked across at the Wall, then back at
Sojuan.
“What” Rei asked. He took a few steps back, moving round behind Shen. One
hand fell to his wakizashi. “What’s wrong”
Shen didn’t reply immediately. Instead, he looked down at the ground,
searching. After a moment, one sandaled foot scuffed the dirt, kicking loose
a small pebble. “Tell me something, Sojuan. What colour is this rock”
Sojuan looked at it. “Grey.”

Rei stiffened.

Shen’s mouth twisted. “Don’t guess. Tell me what colour you see.”
“Mauve,” Sojuan whispered. “A dusky mauve.”
Shen kicked the stone, sending it skipping into a briar patch. “It’s black.
Now tell me what colour the Wall is.”
“Dark. Black, or dark grey- I can’t tell which at this distance. It looks
just the same as it always has.”
Shen looked hard at him. “Are you lying again”
“No!”
“Then untie me.” Shen writhed against his bonds, his eyes suddenly wide and
frantic. “Hurry, you fool! We have to get out of here!”
“Trickery-” Sojuan started- and then gaped as Rei stepped forwards, slashing
through the fabric binding Shen’s arms. “Rei! What- ”
“Get back over the rise! Away from the river!” Rei ordered, tearing away the
last of the bonds. Shen straightened, shaking his arms, then started away
without hesitation. Rei followed him, almost at a dead run. “Come on,
Sojuan!”
“What’s going on” Sojuan sprinted to catch up. “Why-”
“Save it for running!” Shen flung back over his shoulder.

Sojuan took the advice. It was taking all his breath to keep up. He still
felt rather insulated from the sensations of the body he wore- dimly, he was
aware of aching legs, dull fire in his side, but the feelings were distant.
He could keep running through them, though just maintaining control of the
body required a great deal of concentration. He focused on watching the
ground ahead, thinking of where each foot would fall, how to maintain
balance. And kept running.

Ahead, he saw Shen trip, stumble, and fall heavily. Shen struggled back to
his hands and knees, but seemed unable to go any further. “I can’t,” he
gasped, as Rei and Sojuan came up to him. His head hung down, chest heaving
for breath. “Can’t run… anymore.” He shot a dark glare at Sojuan, as
though it was all his fault. “No… stamina.”
Rei sank to the ground next to Shen, looking winded but not exhausted. “We
should be far enough. At least to avoid random patrols.”
“Will somebody tell me what’s going on!” Sojuan practically shouted in
frustration.
“You saw… the Wall as… dark,” Shen panted.
“So It _is_ dark!”
“Not to… me.” Shen looked up, his breathing coming a bit steadier. “To me,
it always looked… off-white, like old bone. Wrong. Like a scar.”
“So what I’m not you!”
“But you’re seeing through his eyes,” Rei said. “The way he sees… saw…
things. Why didn’t you tell us”
“I…” Sojuan hesitated briefly. “I… didn’t think it was relevant.”
“Well, it’s bloody relevant now,” Shen snarled. “If I hadn’t worked it out,
we’d have knocked right on Daigotsu’s parlour door!”
The breath caught in Sojuan’s throat.
“A Fallen Tower,” Rei confirmed heavily.
“How do you know” Sojuan clutched at straws. “Maybe I’m not seeing
everything the way he did!”
“I saw one, once. When we were sent to cover the… retreat.” Shen stopped,
a shadow of a memory flickering across his face. A small shiver ran down his
arms. “Anyway, it was the only part of the Wall that ever looked… well,
natural. Solid and… right.”
Sojuan distractedly ran a hand through his hair- stopping abruptly as his
finger encountered only hard scales. “We’ll have to try and get round it.
Which direction”
Rei looked left and right thoughtfully. “Depends which tower we’re at.” He
shook his head. “I can’t see any landmarks I recognise. I think we’ll just
have to guess.”
“Well- wait a minute!” Sojuan fumbled with the bag at his waist, struggling
with the knots. “We might just be close enough…” Losing patience, he
jerked a claw-tip through the drawstring, and drew out the bronze needle.
“I thought those nemuranai didn’t work for Damned,” Shen said.
“This one doesn’t require activation,” Sojuan replied absently, balancing
the needle across a nearby rock. “And, anyway, I’m not Tainted.” Shen rolled
his eyes.

The needle swung for a moment- and then settled down, pointing decisively in
one direction.

“There!” Sojuan exclaimed triumphantly. “The Asahina Temples are that way.”
“Great. That’s so very helpful,” Shen said sardonically. “Pony, there’s this
thing called triangulation, that requires _two_ lines…”
“And we _have_ two lines.” Sojuan pointed. “That way’s the Wall, so that way
is east. And this isn’t pointing at that steep an angle from that, so…”
“We’re towards the southern end of the Wall!” Rei finished triumphantly.
“Good thinking.” He quirked an eyebrow at Sojuan. “But… Asahina Temples”
“That’s where I enchanted it.” Sojuan scooped the needle back up, replacing
it in the bag.
“Odd place for a Unicorn.”
“But not,” Sojuan said, retying the bag closed, “for a Crane.”
Shen blinked.
“But…” Rei stopped, his puzzled expression clearing. “Oh- Utaku by
marriage”
Sojuan nodded. “Two years.” He shrugged wryly. “I’m almost used to the
purple by now.”
“I’m in the body of a CRANE!” Shen sounded utterly outraged.
Despite everything, Sojuan couldn’t help grinning at Shen’s discomfort.
“Afraid so. An Asahina, even. Still like it” Without waiting for a
response, he turned to Rei. “Let’s get moving. Which way”
“South,” Rei said, unfolding to his full height again. “On this side of the
river.” He smiled grimly. “For once, this is the safer side.” He looked down
at Shen, and his smile faded. “Can you keep going”
Shen’s head drooped again, his whole body sagging into a posture of
exhaustion. He stayed there a moment longer, then nodded wearily, struggling
to his knees. Rei leaned over, offering a hand. Shen looked at it, then up
at Rei.

“You didn’t have to tell us,” Rei said softly.

Shen stared up at the other Damned for a long moment. Then, slowly, he took
Rei’s hand.
Rei pulled him to his feet. “Sojuan”
“I’m fine. Physically, at least. You”
“I’ll race you to the sea, if you like.”
“No thanks,” muttered Shen, still leaning heavily against Rei. “Unless it’s
at a walk.”
“Walking it is, then,” Rei said, starting forwards while supporting Shen.

“Ah. So you are resigned to your fate, then.”

Sojuan’s heart leapt into his mouth. He spun wildly, one hand slapping at
his side where his wakizashi would have been. A figure in dark robes sat
cross-legged on top of a nearby boulder, fingers steepled in a meditative
pose. It shook back its cowl, and smiled at them.
“Gosei!” Shen snarled. He lunged, hands outstretched- and fell flat on his
face. Rei had reacted even faster, drawing his wakizashi even as he leaped
forwards-

One elegant eyebrow arched. “Oh, _please_.”

Rei’s leap carried him to the top of the boulder. He landed in a low crouch,
his head swivelling. Gosei had disappeared.

“Now, did you really think,” the voice came from somewhere over their heads,
“that I would show myself if you could possibly hurt me”

Sojuan looked up. The oni was now seated calmly in mid-air, about ten feet
above Rei’s head. The tainted bushi snarled, leaping again. Gosei yawned
ostentatiously, drifting a little higher. The tips of Rei’s fingers just
barely missed its robes. “If you’ve quite finished…”
“Add that to the list of traits to tell the Kuni,” Shen muttered, spitting
dust. He struggled into a combat stance, though his legs trembled. “It
flies. Great. This is fair.”
“Just a little agreement I have with the kansen, actually,” Gosei corrected.
“One can hardly emulate a shugenja for as long as I have without picking up
a few tricks.”
“I was right, then,” Rei said, never taking his eyes off the hovering
creature. “It is a shape-shifter.”
Gosei raised an eyebrow. “Clever boy.” Its face suddenly seemed to sink into
the skull, the features receding- and then boiling outwards again. Rei’s own
face smirked down at the crouching bushi.
“Very entertaining,” Shen said. “Go on, do Daigotsu next. I’ve always wanted
to know what he looks like.”
The oni’s face rippled again, returning to the painted features of the Kuni.
“Actually, I’m not here for your entertainment.” Gosei favoured them all
with a beatific smile. “You’re here for mine.”
“Sorry. I don’t dance very well,” Shen informed him.
“Nor run, it seems.” The oni sighed, absently buffing its nails on its robe,
then bending its wrist through an impossible angle to admire them. “Ah well.
It was an entertaining spectacle while it lasted.”
“If it’s a spectacle you want, come on down,” Shen invited. “I’ll show you
some moves you won’t forget.”
“You You can barely stand.” The oni cocked his head, inspecting Shen. “I’m
disappointed, cousin. I expected you to have made some improvements to that
body by now.”
Shen’s face darkened with fury. He stared up at the oni, mute with rage.
“You walk on water, and complain of thirst.” Gosei spread its arms wide,
gesturing at the surroundings. “Why not drink deep Replenish your strength,
little cousin.”
“Don’t. Call. Me. That.” The words emerged from between Shen’s clenched
teeth.
The oni smiled benignly down at him, as though at the antics of an amusing
child.

“Enough!” Rei said sharply. “Don’t let it bait you, Shen.” He leaped down
from the boulder. “Let’s go.”
“What about that” Sojuan protested, circling warily to get behind the oni.
It seemed to be ignoring him, not turning- but then he saw the glitter of
eyes, watching him through the lank hair.
“Let it follow. It’s not doing anything except annoying us.” Rei strode
away. “And we can’t hurt-” Rei suddenly whipped around, one arm snapping
forwards-

Gosei casually plucked the spinning wakizashi out of mid-air. “_Very_ good,
little Dragon. I almost wasn’t expecting that.” The oni flicked its wrist,
and the blade buried itself in the ground between Rei’s feet. “You might
want to hang onto that, though. Might come in handy.” It laughed. “Then
again, perhaps not. You didn’t seem to be doing very well with it before,
when you appeared on my doorstep.”
“Are you saying…” Shen stopped, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“Very quick, little cousin,” Gosei told him approvingly. “And yes, of course
I could be lying.” It chuckled again.
“It’s lying,” Sojuan said flatly. “Kautko and Shein can’t track me now.”
“You” The voice came from the back of Gosei’s head. The oni reached back to
part its hair, and Rei’s face smiled down at Sojuan. “What makes you think
they’re tracking _you_”
“What-” Sojuan cut himself off abruptly. “Light of Lord Sun, fill my hands;
from Your grace, the darkness flees-”
The oni laughed heartily, much louder than before. “Oh yes, manling, speak
your spells. Let us see what answers.”

Sojuan continued to chant, circling. His hands wove in empty gestures. The
oni’s head rotated like an owl’s, watching him with identical amused
expressions on both faces. “A pretty sight, Unicorn. I think, if Kautko and
Shein pass you by, I will ask you to dance for me again.”

Trying to ignore the honeyed words, Sojuan dragged out the chant, though it
felt obscene to be speaking the words without hearing the kami answer. He
backed away, constantly moving so that the oni’s head was forced to turn to
follow him. Shen was circling it as well, in the opposite direction.

“By the way, I really am shocked at your lack of manners,” Gosei said out of
Rei’s face, its eyes glittering down at Sojuan. “Perhaps it is true about
the gaijin ways of the Unicorn. Don’t you know the correct way to thank one
who has saved your life I shall instruct you. First, you kneel.”

Sojuan raised his voice, meeting the oni’s gaze defiantly. Out of the corner
of his eye, he glimpsed Rei stoop into a crouch, quietly reclaiming his
wakizashi.

“Oh, really, this is becoming quite tiresome,” Gosei announced in a slightly
exasperated tone, head snapping round to keep wary eyes on all of them. “Too
many guests so quickly become wearying, neh Fortunately, my dear dual
compatriots should be rectifying the situation for me… oh, very shortly
now.” He stood up, feet planted firmly on thin air, and bowed extravagantly.
“Farewell. I do hope I’ll be speaking with some of you again.” With a swirl
of black robes, he was gone, soaring out of sight.

Rei slid his wakizashi into its saya with a click. “Help me, Sojuan,” he
said, hastening to support the swaying Shen.
“You think it was telling the truth” Sojuan took Shen’s other arm.
“Can we take the risk of disbelieving it” Rei said grimly.
“That was one strange oni. It _did_ take a risk coming back. I’m not so
certain it was lying.” Shen grimaced, dangling between them as they
half-dragged, half-carried him forwards. “And oni only call me ‘cousin’ when
they want something.”
Sojuan glanced at him. “You talk to a lot of oni”
“You’d be surprised. They can be a chatty bunch.” Shen shook his head. He
was silent for a while, then- “This is so _not fair_!” he said suddenly,
angrily. “Kautko and Shein shouldn’t be able to track us!”
“I still think it was lying.” Sojuan shrugged, the motion bouncing Shen,
clicking his teeth together. “Anyway, how can we guess what that oni-pair
can and can’t do”
“I’ve encountered them before,” Rei said, over the top of Shen’s head.
“Twice- Shen was with me the second time. We were with a small scouting
patrol, like now. We knocked our shugenja unconscious, the rest of the squad
hid, and I sprinted back to the Wall for backup. Good thing we weren’t too
far out.”
“Ah, that was a sweet day,” Shen said, rubbing his knuckles wistfully.
“The point is, it worked,” Rei continued. “Kautko and Shein couldn’t find
our shugenja while they were knocked out- Shen said they went straight past
the hiding place, following my trail instead.” Shen nodded in agreement.
“And what that… thing… did to you seems even more absolute. If even the
_kami_ don’t treat you as a shugenja…” He shrugged as well.
“Do you mind not doing that” Shen asked testily, jouncing roughly between
them.
Sojuan shook his head. “I’m amazed the Kuni in the Legion of the Jade Hand
didn’t tell us about these oni, since they’re that dangerous….”
Rei started to shrug, then changed it to the other shoulder at Shen’s glare.
“They’re extremely rare. If the Kuni briefed you on every oni variant before
you left camp, you’d be sitting there for twelve generations.”
“Can’t be that rare, if this is the third time you’ve seen them,” Sojuan
pointed out.
“Guess Rei’s just lucky,” Shen muttered. “We should tell the Kuni, and then
they can use him as b-” Shen cut himself off abruptly. His face paled.
“As what” panted Sojuan. The strain of carrying Shen was starting to tell
on him.
“Nothing,” Shen said quickly. His eyes flickered to Rei, then away again.
“Just a joke.”

Sojuan stumbled, accidentally yanking Shen’s arm as the bushi suddenly
seemed to become twice as heavy. Shen went sprawling to the ground. Sojuan
looked back to see what had happened- and saw that Rei had stopped in
mid-stride.

“For Hida’s sake…” Shen rolled to his knees, brushing dirt from his hands.
“Pick a patch of softer ground-”
“Finish your joke, Shen,” Rei interrupted.
“It was just a joke! You didn’t have to drop me over it! Come on, let’s
move!” Shen looked suddenly nervous, despite his words. He didn’t quite look
Rei in the eye.
“Bait,” Rei said softly. “You were going to say bait.”
“Yeah, and it was dumb. It wasn’t funny. Let’s go!”
“Three times,” Rei said, not moving. “Three.”
“Coincidence is a wonderful thing,” Shen snapped, staggering to his feet.
“Now move it, monk!”
“You were right. It wasn’t lying.” Rei’s voice was barely a whisper now.
“It’s not Sojuan they’re following.”
“What are you saying” Sojuan looked between them. “You mean that Shein and
Kautko are drawn-”
“SHUT UP!” Shen shouted, rounding on him. “Shut it, pony! What do you know
about anything”
“I know he’s not a shugenja!”
“That’s right,” Rei said. All colour was draining from his face, leaving
only the stark tracery of green veins. “I’m something much worse.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Shen yelled at him, looking frantic. “You can’t do this
to me!”

Rei said nothing for a moment, staring at the ground. He wrapped his arms
around himself as though suddenly cold, a shiver passing through him. “I
swore an oath,” he said, mostly to himself. His voice trembled ever so
slightly. “I said to Her, let me show that the night can hold light. She
said, what are you willing to give And I said, whatever You ask.” His
trembling stilled. “I placed no limitations on my oath,” he said softly, his
eyes shadowed. “None.” He looked up suddenly, as though he had come to a
decision. “I swore to protect those she guided me to.”
“Great! Wonderful!” Shen was practically vibrating with agitation. “So
protect us! Can’t do that by loitering around here!”
“Can’t I” Rei looked at Sojuan. “Do you know why I’m often chosen for
Shadowlands missions, Sojuan” he asked, almost conversationally. “You must
have guessed by now. I never need food. I never need water. I never need
sleep. And I can control my Taint in ways far beyond most Damned.” Rei
loosened his kimono, drawing his hands out of the sleeves as he spoke.
“Because I draw on the power of the Celestial Heavens. Not briefly, like a
shugenja. _All the time_.” The folds of rough fabric fell away to Rei’s
waist.

The sea lapped around his chest.

Sojuan gasped. He could almost see the waves move, could almost taste the
salt spray. The tattoo curved over Rei’s skin in brilliant blues and greens,
vibrant and full of depth. A full moon was sinking into the sea, just
dipping under the horizon- or perhaps just rising. The pale rays edged the
cresting waves in silver.

“Ise zumi,” he said, wonderingly.
“Nearly,” Rei said. “I told you before. I walked into the ocean, and was
changed. Sea-born.” His finger lightly traced the tattooed moon, and he
smiled, a gentle, wondering smile. “The Lady Moon accepted my vow, and
marked me for her own.”
“Look, let’s admire art later!” Shen said. He clenched his fists. “Move, you
bastards!”
Rei looked at him, and his face was very calm. “They’re a part of me. I
can’t turn them off.”
“So what We’ll run, we’ll go fast!” Sojuan was startled to see tears
rolling down Shen’s face. “Now move before I… I…” He stopped, unable to
find words, choking.

In the moment of silence, they all felt the faint tremor that shook the
ground. A distant, low note echoed over the plains.

Without a word, Rei went over to Shen, and pulled him into a tight embrace.
After a moment, he looked over Shen’s head at Sojuan. “Carry him. Go. Now.”
“Rei, you can’t-” Sojuan started, not entirely sure what he could say.
“_My_ choice, Sojuan! Leave!” Rei pushed Shen roughly away, into Sojuan’s
hands. “I’ll draw them away as far as I can.” Rei turned away, leaping onto
a nearby rock. He took a deep breath, flinging his arms wide like a bird
taking flight. A great white crow unfurled protective wings across the
kikage zumi’s back, beak opening wide in a silent scream of challenge.

“Come, oni!” Rei called, clear as a temple bell. His skin began to shine a
subtle, rippling silver, moonlight on water. “Come if you dare!” He leaped,
landed lightly, and began to run, an easy, loping wolf-trot, straight west.
He did not look back.

“REI!” Shen screamed, writhing in Sojuan’s grasp. “Let me go, damn you! Stop
him!”
“It’s his decision! Don’t waste his sacrifice!”
“No! I won’t let him! LET ME GO!” Shen twisted violently, getting one hand
free. Sojuan jerked his head back, anticipating a punch, but instead Shen
lashed out like an angry cat, hissing. The clawing fingers skittered
harmlessly over Sojuan’s neck. Without thinking, he slapped Shen sharply
across the face.
Shen’s head snapped back. His eyes rolled up, and he slumped bonelessly in
Sojuan’s grasp.
Must remember own strength, Sojuan thought, heaving Shen across his
shoulders. I could have broken my own neck.

With a last glance westwards, he set off.

********

Something strange was happening to the landscape. Sojuan paused, looking
around uneasily, wondering what new trickery was afoot. So slowly he hadn’t
noticed it happening, all colour had drained out of the surroundings. The
sky had darkened to a deep, stormy grey over the monochrome world.

Carefully, he lowered Shen to the ground, then nudged him. “Shen. Shen, wake
up.”

The bushi’s head lolled loosely. Four shallow, parallel gashes cut across
his cheekbone, in the centre of a darkening bruise. Sojuan winced at the
sight, then shook him a little harder. “Shen!”

Shen’s eyelids flickered. He made a small sound of pain, head turning. His
eyes opened, staring out at the horizon.

“What…” Groggily, Shen reached up to his own face, fingers brushing
across his open eyes- and then he suddenly sat bolt upright. “I’ve gone
blind! I’ve-” The panicked face turned towards Sojuan, and Shen stopped in
mid-sentence, flinching backwards slightly. He stared wide-eyed for a
moment, then gave a weak, shaky laugh. “Oh.”
“Are you alright”
“Yeah.” Shen assumed his usual half-sardonic expression, not entirely
convincingly. His eyes kept flickering uneasily to the surroundings.
“Just… forgot, that’s all.”
“What’s happened to the landscape It’s gone all grey…”
Shen snorted. “My- that is, your- eyes are sharper than normal, but even
they can’t see colours in the dark. It’s night, you idio-” His expression
changed suddenly, terribly.

Sojuan caught Shen’s wrist as he struggled to rise, holding him back. “I’ve
been carrying you for hours. He’s long gone.” He softened his voice at
Shen’s stricken face. “I’m sorry.”

Shen didn’t move for a moment, standing as still as a statue, staring
westwards. Then, slowly, he sank back down, jerking his wrist out of
Sojuan’s grasp. He sat hunched over, his back to Sojuan, and made no sound.
Quietly, Sojuan turned away. He moved a little way off, and looked out
across dim, tangled plains. Nothing moved.

“S-Sojuan” Shen’s voice sounded rather higher than usual.
“Yes” He turned, and thought he heard a tiny gasp of relief.
“Never mind.” Shen twisted round to face him, but said nothing more.
Sojuan shrugged slightly, and started to turn around again- but a slight,
abortive motion from Shen made him stop. “What”
“I…” Shen hesitated. His eyes looked very large in his thin, fine-featured
face. “I… just wanted you to look over here.”
“What Why”
Shen gestured briefly at Sojuan’s face. “The light.”
“The… Oh.” Sojuan absently reached up to his own eyes, and saw the orange
light reflecting from his scaled hand. “I see. I’ll… come over here, shall
I” He went and sat down next to Shen. The bushi immediately swivelled to
face him, eyes fixed on his own. Sojuan met the gaze, and essayed a weak
smile. “I have to admit, I found the light disturbing… before, but if it
makes you more comfortable…”
Shen’s eyes flickered briefly, fearfully, over the surroundings, then back
to Sojuan’s face. He nodded mutely.

The intent stare was starting to make Sojuan nervous. He shifted
uncomfortably, glancing away- then back again quickly as Shen made a small,
hastily stifled noise. “Sorry. Just not used to staring at my own face for
so long. And one of us really should be keeping a watch.”
“I can’t see.”
“You’ve still got ears,” Sojuan said, unable to help smiling slightly at the
reversal of roles from last night. “Use them.”
Shen did not smile. “I don’t like the dark,” he said, in a very small voice.
“Neither do I.” Sojuan shrugged, then gestured self-deprecatingly. “But
then, I’m not a Crab. You must be used to this.”
“No. I’m not.”
Sojuan looked at him. Shen was sitting very still, but there was a tenseness
to his pose, a sense of arrested motion. He looked like he might leap out of
his own skin at any moment.
“Shen…” Sojuan said hesitantly, more to attempt to distract Shen from the
surrounding darkness than out of any real curiosity. “How long…”
“Since I saw darkness, with open eyes A long time.” Shen’s hands were
tightly clasped in his lap, the knuckles white. “I… I remember… I woke
up and there were eyes looking at me, looking at me from the floor next to
my head. I tried to fix it, I tried… when they opened the door of my cell,
they found me still trying.” Shen was very straight, very controlled, and
very rigid. “Still trying to stuff my own eyeballs back into their sockets.”
Sojuan swallowed hard, trying to think of something to say. “A terrible
thing to bear.”

Shen did not answer for a moment. Then, “I was six,” he said.

Horror seized Sojuan’s throat, stopping words from emerging.

“I was born a thing,” Shen said, very quietly. His black, dilated eyes
stared blankly through Sojuan. “You wouldn’t have guessed it. I was born
whole, perfect- I’m told my mother even called me beautiful, can you imagine
that” Shen’s voice was distant, detached, as though relating something that
had happened long ago, to someone far away. “It was pretty much the last
thing she said. I dragged out her entrails, you see, in that birthing. My
father was already dead, of course. I should have been killed too, but, once
again, the great flaw of the Kuni overcame the watchers. Curiosity. What an
opportunity, a great experiment! A second-generation Damned; a native
Shadowlands creature, tamed and obedient to their will. That’s what they
thought, anyway.” The shadow of a smile ghosted briefly across Shen’s face.
“I think they were disappointed.”
Sojuan found his voice again at last. “The Kuni raised you”
“No. They hurt me,” Shen corrected. Twin orange fires reflected in the dark
depths of his eyes. “Different shugenja, each with their own pet theory. So
many of them. Do you know how you drive the Taint out of a child, Sojuan
You hold him down and hurt him. That was the only constant.”
“I should have thought,” Sojuan said quietly, “that someone would have tried
kindness.”
“Why Don’t be fooled by my one-sided story. I was never a real child.” His
mouth twisted. “Oh, I was feral. A wild thing, wearing an almost human form.
By the time I was eight, I was as strong as a grown man.” Shen’s voice
softened suddenly. “But you are right. There was one who tried kindness. She
alone did not seek to change me, but to teach me control. But even she would
not stop the others from hurting me.” Shen’s face went hard again. Looking
at it, Sojuan almost couldn’t recognise his own features. “The Kuni are
nothing if not persistent. It was a long, long time before they admitted
defeat. You know what their final report was ‘Second-generation Taint from
both parents cannot be suppressed.’ Pure and simple. It should have been the
end of me, the failed experiment- but Mirutai requested me instead. She was-
is- one of the wardens of the Barracks of the Damned, you see. She told the
other Kuni that, despite everything, I was Crab.” A slight, fierce note of
pride entered Shen’s voice. “She said that she could prove it. She had me
bound by steel and spells, and brought before the Conclave. And she asked me
one simple question. What did I hate the most And I, drugged and compelled
to tell the truth, with shugenja peering at my very thoughts, replied, the
Taint.” Shen smiled very slightly. “Even I was surprised. If you’d asked me
the same question when I wasn’t ensorcelled, I would have said the Kuni.
But, as it was, I was given to the Damned. It was the happiest day of my
life.”
“Because they accepted you” Sojuan asked.
Shen started to reply, then paused, looking thoughtful. “No,” he said at
last. “Because I was useful. Because I was allowed to do something that was
necessary. But you’re partially right. There was some acceptance. Not much-
I am still a thing, even there. But there were some few who were kind to
me.” Shen fell silent. Then, “Rei,” he said, a single, strangled sob, and
hid his head in his hands. “My face is wet,” he said after a moment,
sounding utterly bewildered.
“Tears,” Sojuan said. His own eyes burned- he could see the light reflecting
brighter from the wet streaks on Shen’s hands. “They’re tears.”
“Tears,” Shen repeated blankly. “Another new thing. Darkness, and tears.”
His fingers traced his eyes lightly. “They hurt.”
“Yes.” Sojuan stood abruptly, unable to bear to stare so directly into
another’s pain for any longer. He moved a short distance away, looking out
across the Shadowlands, and tried to close his ears.

“Shen, I grieve with you,” he said, after some time.
“I hated him,” said the muffled voice. “How I hated him, when he arrived. He
wouldn’t leave me alone, always probing and asking stupid questions. And he
told terrible jokes, and didn’t make sense. I longed for him to get eaten by
something. But he always came back, until he was the second-most experienced
veteran, after myself. Three years. A lifetime, for a Damned. So I got used
to him.”
“His was a samurai’s soul.” Unable to think of anything more comforting,
Sojuan fell back on the old words of ritual. “May he be long remembered.”
“Nobody,” Shen said, and there was a lifetime’s worth of bitterness and
anger in his voice, “ever remembers the Damned.”

There seemed to be nothing to say to that.

“Shen,” he said eventually, after a long time. “I’m exhausted. I have to
sleep.”
A short pause. Sojuan turned. Shen was sitting cross-legged, his tetsubo
across his knees, staring into the dark. His face was dry.
“Go ahead. I’ll watch as best I can.” Shen hesitated. “Sojuan… if
something comes, if I hear something…”
“Then wake me, of course.”
“That’s not what I meant. I know… that is, I feel…” He stopped again.
“What”
“It doesn’t have to be dark, for me,” Shen said quietly. Sojuan saw his
hands twist on the handle of the tetsubo. “I’m trying, I’m trying to keep it
back…”
Sojuan found that his mouth was dry. “I understand. Just… keep trying.”
“I’m used to it.” Shen face was turned westwards. “But it calls,” he said
absently, as though to himself. “They call.”

*****

“Do not wake him. Not yet.”

The voice jolted Sojuan out of his exhausted, uneasy sleep. Instinctively,
he lay still, and silent.

“I have nothing to say to you.” Shen’s voice, a soft snarl. Sojuan tensed-
but there was no prod, no surreptitious nudge intended to wake him.
“Then simply listen. We have matters to discuss, you and I.” The voice was
Gosei’s.

A long silence.

“Speak,” said Shen at last, and a cold hand gripped Sojuan’s heart.
“Excellent.” The oni’s voice was a soft purr, impossible to place. “We are
much alike, little cousin.”
“I doubt it.”
“Oh Then let me ask you something. Your people have built a great city- why
do you not go to them”
“I am not one of them!”
“Come now, my cousin. There is no need for lies between us. _I_ will not
harm you for speaking your heart.”

A pause.

“Because I don’t want to.”
“Precisely. It is not the dark you wish, nor the company of your own kind.”
Gosei’s voice was as cloying as honey. “You desire the living lands. You
wish to dwell there, undetected, an equal.”
“So” Shen’s voice was wary, guarded.
“We share the same craving, you and I.”
“Our motivations are _somewhat_ different.”
“Are they Come now, cousin, you do not share the blind ignorance of your
captors. You know that we are not all mindless brutes, wanting only to
spread corruption.”
“So what do you want”
“What we all want. To live comfortably, and well. To be surrounded by
pleasant things. To have mastery over others. To be admired, and respected.”
“How touching. Go jump in the Pit.”
A soft chuckle. “But I already told you, I cannot find what I want there.
Only in the Empire.”
“Great. It’s that way. Have fun playing hide-and-seek with the
Witch-Hunters.”
“Ah, the Witch-Hunters. I believe you are on the cusp of seeing my problem.”
The oni sighed. “How to avoid their attentions. How indeed.”
“I’m definitely the wrong person to ask. Sorry.”
“Then here’s another question for you, little cousin. What makes Kautko and
Shein so powerful”
“They’re a team. Their abilities complement…” Shen’s voice trailed away
into silence.
“Precisely. Now, imagine a different team. Imagine it… one who can walk
undetected through Wards, who can pass unnoticed past the vigilant Kuni, yet
who has no experience with playacting and deceit… and one who is a master
of disguise, who can take on the mannerisms of any being, but who could be
unmasked by a shugenja at any time…”

A thoughtful pause.

“You’re saying we could both pretend to be Sojuan. And if one of us is
called on it, the other can take over and fool the challenger.”
“Correct.”
“You’re utterly mad.”

Gosei laughed softly, and said nothing.

“There’s an obvious flaw. Even the dumbest Hida is going to know something’s
wrong when _two_ Sojuans try to get over the Wall.”
“Not so difficult to work around. You go over the Wall. I’ll join you on the
other side.”
“How”
“I will give you my name. You will summon me.”
A snort. “Believe it or not, my maho is a little rusty.”
“It is a simple matter, if the oni is willing. I will teach you.”
“Uh-huh. So I just waltz over the Wall, convince everyone that I’m a Unicorn
I know next to nothing about, and then summon an oni. You know, I’m
beginning to see why Fu Leng preferred to do the thinking for you lot.”
“Stand aside, and I will solve that problem as well.”
“What do you mean”
“I will take his memories, and tell you what you must know.”

A long, long pause.

“This actually sounds like it might work…”
“Then you agree”
“Give me your name.”
“First, you must agree.”
“Your name.”
“Your agreement.”

Sojuan’s heart thundered in his ears.

“Yes.”

“Swear it. By the Fortunes and our Father alike.”
“In the names of Lord Sun and Fu Leng, I swear it.”

Panic finally broke through Sojuan’s terrified paralysis. He opened his
eyes, the tiniest slit. Dawn had broken. Shen was standing with his back to
him, tetsubo dangling loosely from one hand. Facing him, some distance away,
was the dark form of Gosei. It was smiling.

“I am Kommei.” It bowed. “Now put down your weapon, and stand aside…
brother.”

The tetsubo fell from Shen’s hand, landing in the dust near Sojuan’s side.

One chance, Sojuan told himself, squeezing his eyes shut so that the glow
could not betray him. With surprise, he might be able to hurt one of them.
He inched his hand towards his wakizashi- only to recall that he had never
reclaimed it from Shen. The soft rustle of robes as something bent over him.
His fingertips brushed the handle of the tetsubo. He held his breath,
gathering his strength. One chance-

“SOJUAN!”

A shout, a hiss of surprise, a scream of outrage and pain- Sojuan had only
an instant to take it all in as he surged to his feet. The oni was grappling
with Shen, a tangle of flailing limbs and yellow mist, but Sojuan was
swinging even as he rose, the tetsubo sweeping low. He felt the crunch of
breaking bone vibrate up the handle, and heard a shriek of pain. Then the
world exploded into dizzying light as a fist like stone caught him on the
side of the head. The ground came up and hit him in the face.

“Oath-breaker, blasphemer!” Sojuan heard the shrieks through the ringing in
his ears. He looked up, the world spinning and swaying around him, and saw
the oni and Shen circling each other- the oni now limping, supporting its
weight on a left arm grown grotesquely long. Livid bruises circled its neck,
and its shattered left leg dragged behind it. A thin yellow mist trickled
from between its teeth, bared in a snarl at Shen. “Blasphemer!”
Shen laughed. “How naive.” His wakizashi glinted, weaving before him as he
circled. “Fu Leng, the Sun, the Fortunes… what made you think I care about
any of them”
“They hear, and they do not forget,” Oni no Kommei hissed. “You are
forsworn, and you shall suffer!”
“I do that anyway.” Shen shrugged, and his feral grin widened. “And I will
see you sent screaming back into the dark before me!” He lunged. Kommei
leaped away, floundering into the air- but it was an ungainly,
exhausted-looking flight. It seemed barely able to stay out of range of
Shen’s blade.
The swaying ground finally steadied. “SHEN!” Sojuan shouted, rolling to his
feet. The tetsubo was an ungainly weight in his hands as he ran. “Swap!”
“But you were doing so well with it!” Shen howled with berserk laughter as
they passed each other like relay runners. The hilt of the wakizashi slapped
solidly into Sojuan’s palm as he let go of the tetsubo. He shifted it to his
right hand, and fell into a crouch, eyes on the hovering oni.

“You can’t kill me,” Kommei gasped, struggling a little higher. “You need
me.”
Shen spun the tetsubo in lazy figures, just missing Kommei’s feet. “Come on
down, Kommei,” he invited. “Come down and beg for your life.”
Kommei’s desperate eyes met Sojuan’s. “Kill me, Unicorn, and you are trapped
forever.”
“My life for yours, is that it” Sojuan replied. “I’ve had enough of your
tricks.”
“I swear! On my name, I swear I will not harm you!”
Shen glanced at Sojuan, looking uncertain. “An oni does not take its name
lightly,” he said in a low voice. His tetsubo lowered fractionally.

Sojuan bit his lip, thinking. The oni hovered overhead, hands pulled into
its sleeves. Sojuan looked up at it- and saw the hooded eyes, the slight
smile-

“No!” He stabbed upwards, leaping- but not high enough. The oni’s hands shot
out, fingers blurring through the final motions of a spell. One hand reached
upwards, clawing at the sky, while the other pointed at Sojuan.

“That it” Shen snorted derisively. “Looks like you fizzled, oni.”
“No,” Sojuan gasped. It took all his strength not to drop the wakizashi and
fall to his knees. Rough as a cat’s tongue, spirits licked the edges of his
mind. Sharp and evil as barbed arrowheads, they surrounded him, a buzzing,
swirling, invisible cloud. “It summoned kansen, Shen.”
“Now who’s an oath-breaker, oni!” Shen snarled.
“I swore I wouldn’t harm you.” The oni’s eyes glittered triumphantly. “And I
won’t.” Its hands wove the spell again. This time, Sojuan felt the kansen
shriek away like a humming-bulb arrow, shooting off north-west.

A pause… and then the ground shook beneath their feet.

“Idiot,” Shen spat. “You’ve outsmarted yourself, oni. Kautko and Shein have
no reason to attack us… thanks to you!”
“No” Kommei tilted its head at Sojuan, smirking. “Are you sure”
Sojuan backed away, until he was next to Shen. “It’s surrounded me with
spirits,” he said quietly. “What happens if Kautko touches me Can it
consume me, even if I’m in your body”
“I have no idea.” Shen’s wide, fearful eyes met his own. “Run.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” Oni no Kommei pointed out sweetly.
“No more running,” Sojuan said. A glimmer of an idea began to come to him.
“Shen… you have to get Kautko. Leave Shein to me.”
Shen looked at him disbelievingly.
“And give me your obi,” Sojuan added.
Shen looked at him a moment longer, then, shrugging, untied the long strip
of silk and passed it to him. “This had better be one hell of a plan.”
“I’m making it up as I go along.”
“Great.”

Sweat trickled down Sojuan’s lower back. He tied the obi into a loop,
struggling to form the knot with his clawed fingertips. Then he waited. He
tried to breathe deeply, to centre himself. The dark flesh of this body was
a weight upon his soul. Through it, dimly, he felt the unease of the fire
kami, bound into the jade box at his side. The kansen buzzed distractingly
around his head. He could feel _them_ all too well.

“There,” whispered Shen, tightening his grasp on his tetsubo. His arms were
shaking with strain and exhaustion, but he raised the weapon. “Here it
comes.”

A dark shape crested the horizon. It grew swiftly, moving with an ungainly,
lurching gait. It did not seem fair that something so large could move so
swiftly. Out of the corner of his eye, Sojuan saw Kommei settle gently to
the top of a boulder, and sit perfectly still.

“Damn!” Sojuan groaned, as the grey shape grew clearer. “Kautko’s riding
Shein! Shen, we have to knock it off!”
“I’m open to suggestions!” Shen hissed back. His forehead furrowed- then
cleared. “Sojuan, amulet!”
“Here!” Fumbling silk and wakizashi in one hand, Sojuan drew the Jade Hand
amulet out of a pouch and tossed it. Shen snatched it neatly out of the air-
and then there was no more time for thought.

Oni no Shein’s large, clawed feet bit into the ground, sending a cloud of
dust rising into the air behind it. The wide muzzle was close to the ground,
tracking. As Sojuan watched, the nostrils flared- and Shein sounded a long,
triumphant, growling note. All four of its eyes fixed on him. Between the
heaving shoulders, Oni no Kautko balanced as lightly and easily as a white
seabird on the rolling surface of the sea.

Sojuan sheathed his wakizashi, set his feet into the ground, and watched
them come. Closer, closer, until Shein’s galloping footsteps shook his bones
and the hot stink of its breath whistled around him-

Sojuan flung himself to the side, passing almost under the oni’s head. The
wind of its passing buffeted him, the great body so close that the tip of
its tail scored a fiery line across his shoulder. Sojuan had planned on
having time to get to his feet again- but the oni twisted like an eel, its
massive bulk turning frighteningly fast. The blank, pitiless eyes set into
the centre of the broad forehead locked onto him.

A soft, mewling cry drifted down from atop Shein’s shoulders.

It charged again. Frantically, instinctively, Sojuan scrabbled for the fire
kami, calling for aid as the oni bore down on him, but his pleas echoed
within his cage of flesh, unheard…

Abruptly, Shein flung back its head, rearing, its front feet pawing the air
almost above Sojuan’s head. He rolled desperately, expecting at any moment
to see the claws come flashing down- but the moment did not come. Startled,
Sojuan completed his roll, coming to his feet. Shein was making a
high-pitched whistling through its nose, nostrils dilating wide. The bulbous
eyes set into the side of its head rolled, the whites showing.

“That’s it! Burn, you bastard!” Shen’s whooping laugh drifted down from
above. He clung to the oni’s back, bare feet braced between spiny ridges.
One hand gripped the edge of a plate-like scale, raising it slightly. The
other was thrust underneath it.
Shein bucked and twisted, and Shen lost his footing, hanging for a moment
only by one hand. As he swung, Sojuan caught the glint of green in Shen’s
other hand.
Shen’s toes scrabbled for purchase on the slick scales, then found a grip.
“Not so easily, friend!” His own face locked in a rictus grin of agony, he
thrust the jade back against the oni’s skin. It bellowed in response,
writhing- but it could not do so violently enough to dislodge Shen. Not
without unseating Kautko as well.

The blind, white head of Kautko turned towards Sojuan. It mewled, the soft,
sucking mouth pulsing. Long, spindly fingers gently stroked the grey scales
of Shein’s neck. The oni rumbled in answer, and dipped its head low. Kautko
slipped from its back, landing in a low crouch. The spider hands twitched
across the ground for a moment, and then it began to feel its way towards
Sojuan.

“Whoa! Time to get off!” Shen landed near Sojuan in a plume of dust, as
Shein began to writhe in earnest. His white teeth flashed in a mad grin as
he scooped up his tetsubo again. “Your turn!”
“Jade!” Sojuan snatched it from him, running to circle round Kautko.
“By the _cord_, you fool!” Shen’s shout echoed after him. Sojuan looped the
thong around his wrist, not pausing in his run. His hands fumbled with the
obi, preparing it.
“What are you- WATCH OUT!”
Even Kautko and Shein seemed startled as Sojuan ran _between_ the two oni.
Shein lowered its head like a bull, snorting suspiciously.

*You’ve got a lot of things to learn, before you’re a proper Utaku male,
Sojo!* A remembered snatch of his wife’s teasing laugh echoed in Sojuan’s
head as he threw the looped obi. *When you can catch a colt at full gallop,
then maybe you’ll be a fit husband!*

Compared to _that_, catching an oni was _easy_.

The impromptu lasso settled neatly over the surprised Shein’s ear.

Quick as lightening, not giving himself time to think how monumentally
stupid he was being, Sojuan leapt after the dangling end, and pulled. The
loop tightened, folding the soft membrane, slipped- and then caught in the
notch at the base of the ear. Shein gurgled, tossing its head. Sojuan, still
keeping a tight grip on the end of the obi, was flung into the air, smashing
against Shein’s neck. He let go of the silk, digging his claws into the
edges of the scales, and swung himself up, just behind the base of the oni’s
skull. Stretching out full length, he just managed to catch the loop again.
He just had enough time to twist the silk into a secure handhold- and then
the world went mad. Shein bucked, twisted, shook, writhed, until Sojuan
could no longer tell which way was up. He clung to his precarious handhold
with grim determination- and fervently wished that horse-breaking, rather
than just horse-catching, had been another of the duties of an Utaku male.

Still, the top of Shein’s head seemed the safest place to be at the moment.
He prayed that Shen was taking advantage of the distraction.

Abruptly, Shein’s writhing ceased. Sojuan hung limp with relief for a
moment, every bone in his body feeling shattered to powder- but then saw
what had made the oni stop.
“SHEN!” he screamed, as the oni charged. “MOVE!” Then he was flung against
the oni’s head again, as it leaped.

It landed spraddle-legged, snorting and whistling with rage. Hanging by one
hand from the silk cord, Sojuan frantically tried to see below the oni’s
head. It was nudging at something between its front claws, whining softly.

The pallid form of Kautko stood up shakily, holding onto the black talons
for support. One long arm hung limp, shattered at the shoulder. It leaned
its forehead against Shein’s throat, and mewled.

“I nearly had it!” Shen rolled up from the ground some distance away,
spitting dust. He crouched, bracing himself with one hand. The other was
curled against his chest. He was weaponless.
Sojuan looked around frantically. “There!” he shouted, pointing, his amulet
swinging from his wrist. The tetsubo lay discarded in the dust, some way to
Shen’s left. “There, Shen!”
Shen shook his head, and then Sojuan noticed how he was cradling his right
hand, how the fingers stuck out at impossible, crazy angles, the blood
dripping…

A soft, slow sound, like the wing-beats of a dove, drifted in the air. Oni
no Kommei was clapping, smiling from the top of its boulder. “So close,” it
said, mock-sadly. “So very close.”

Sojuan dangled helplessly, hearing the long, low growl building in Shein’s
throat. Its blunt head lowered, swinging towards Shen. Sojuan could feel the
big shoulder muscles gathering, bunching. Kautko stepped away slightly, its
blind head still fixed on Sojuan. Shen’s hand gripped the dirt. His eyes
locked with Shein’s, his lip curling. The amulet cord around Sojuan’s wrist,
slick with sweat, began to slide off. He clutched at it as it fell- and felt
his fingers close around the smooth jade. He heard the hiss of burning
flesh, but felt nothing. The oni crouched low.

Shein leaped.

Shen dived.

Sojuan crammed the jade deep into Oni no Shein’s ear.

The oni twisted in mid-air, gurgling horribly. Sojuan’s body snapped like a
whip as the oni fell heavily, landing on its side. The twisted, frayed obi
finally gave way. Sojuan had just enough sense remaining to tuck himself
into a ball, covering his head. A brief sensation of flight, and then the
world dropped on him. Gasping, he could only lie there, certain that he had
broken his spine. Darkness swam at the edges of his vision.

A clawed paw smashed into the ground by his head.

Sheer instinct sent him rolling away, to his feet. Every part of him
screamed in pain, but his legs appeared to be functioning. Sojuan staggered
backwards, staring in horrified fascination at the oni writhing on the
ground before him. Shein’s spine arched in agony, its feet clawing ground
and sky. It seemed miraculous that such a small piece of jade could have
such an effect.

“Well,” croaked an exhausted, battered-sounding voice from behind him. “Now
what”

Sojuan turned- and saw the white body, the hands brushing the ground limply,
the sucking mouth still and gaping. The oni hung in Shen’s grasp. His
injured arm was wrapped around its throat, his other hand clamped around the
top of Kautko’s head. Then Shen let go. The skeletally thin body fell to the
ground, head turned impossibly far back.

Shen had broken its neck.

“Oh,” Sojuan said, unable to think of anything else to say. He hadn’t
expected to live this long. “Good work.”
“You too.” Shen jerked his head. “What about that”
They both looked at Shein. It was still spasming in the dust- but then, as
they watched, the convulsions stilled. Slowly, it rolled, gathering its feet
underneath it.
“I’d hoped it would die,” Sojuan said tonelessly, too exhausted to feel
anything but pain.
“Mmm.” Shen reached out and took the wakizashi from Sojuan’s obi, holding it
awkwardly left-handed. “Another plan would be good, right about now.”
“A shugenja would be even better,” Sojuan replied, watching Shein struggling
to its feet, testing each paw in turn.
“True. Hey, Kommei! How about swapping us back now” Shen called, not taking
his eyes from Shein.
“Mmm… no, I don’t think so,” came the amused reply.
“Bloody oni,” Shen muttered. His eyes met Sojuan’s, and for an instant
Sojuan saw the terror behind the bravado. Then it was gone, Shen’s eyes
taking on the blank, cruel merriment of the berserker. He saluted Sojuan
with the wakizashi. “To a swift death, then” he said, softly. “A swift
death, and the soul’s rejoining.”

He stepped in front of Sojuan.

*To the soul’s rejoining…*

In the icy clarity of his last few moments, voices swelled from Sojuan’s
memory.

*Mind, body, and spirit! All must be in balance!*
*To control the kami, control your spirit.*
*To control your spirit, control your mind.*
*To control your mind, control your body.*

The ground shook with Shein’s low, harsh growl.

*To control, know.*

“Come, oni!” Shen sang, though his legs trembled and his blood dripped into
the ground. “Come if you dare!”

*To know, be aware.*

The blunt, wedge-shaped head lowered. The eyes set into the forehead were
dulled and dead, but the bulbous yellow eyes were filled with fire and hate.

*To be aware, accept.*

Oni no Shein gathered itself to spring.

*Accept.*

This flesh was his, the scales, the claws, the burning coals of eyes, they
were all his, to command as he willed. The pain was his to feel, and it
trebled in intensity as he accepted it. His was the strength of his limbs,
his the lungs that drew air into his body, his was the heart that pounded in
his chest. It was all him. Even the darkness in his veins, that was part of
him too, and he drew it into himself and accepted it until it was no longer
something separate. He knew himself to be complete, and he stood in balance.
And from that position of strength, he could stretch out.

It was so easy, and it took less than an instant.

The jade burned his palms, a terrible pain, but the fire within the box knew
him now, because he knew himself. The fire kami responded to his touch,
welcoming him fiercely. It was alarmed at the change in him, but there was
no time for that. Gathering it into his hands, Sojuan shouted the words of
prayer and praise, and turned the fire loose.

The spirits shot from his fingertips, even as the oni leaped. The fiery bolt
took it straight in the eye, and burned through into the brain.

Sojuan leaped backwards, dragging Shen with him. The mountainous body
crashed to the ground, skidding and thrashing in a cloud of dust… and
stilled. The broad head stopped only inches from their feet. Smoke curled
from the empty eye sockets.

Shen sat down, hard, as though his legs had simply given way. He stared at
the oni. “Well,” he said weakly. “Well.” He tentatively prodded the blunt
snout, then looked up at Sojuan. “Nice timing.”
Sojuan said nothing, simply concentrating on breathing. A tumult of emotions
filled his head- shock, delight, fear, regret… and grief, for he had slain
something powerful and magnificent, beautiful in its own way. He knew the
reaction to be inappropriate, but he could not be rid of it. It was a part
of him. Rage swelled in his heart, and he fought it down.

A stealthy movement caught his eye. Oni no Kommei was quietly edging away,
trying to move out of sight behind a boulder. It gasped as he looked
straight at it, and floundered into the air.

“I don’t think so,” Sojuan said to it softly. With a gesture, a thought, he
burned it from the sky. Kommei fell like a dazed moth, thumping
spread-eagled onto the ground. It twitched feebly, staring up at him with
frantic eyes.
“Mercy,” it whispered. “Please.”
Shen growled, low in his throat. In an instant, he was on the oni, pinning
it to the ground. It struggled, but Shen pressed the wakizashi point to its
throat. “You swore by your name,” Shen hissed into its ear. “Break that, and
you deny your nature!” The oni went limp and still.
“I swore by my name not to hurt you,” Kommei whimpered. “Mercy!”
“Can you switch us back”
“Yes… yes.” It plucked feebly at his arm. “I need to touch both of you.”
“Sojuan” Shen asked softly.

Sojuan did not reply. A dull shine in the dust caught his eye. Slowly, he
picked up the tetsubo. It was heavy, and good in his hands. A voice
whispered inaudibly in his ear. Another laughed. An angry fire kami drove
them both away, and swirled anxiously around his head. The tetsubo spoke of
blood.

“Sojuan”

He looked at them, and saw a pale, ungainly creature, pinning down a
shattered and hurt man. Both were weaker than him. He blinked, and saw Shen
watching him with worried eyes, scratched and bruised, blood running down
his arm. The blood was red, so red. He walked carefully towards it, very
carefully, for the darkness was swelling now, rising, and he did not want to
fall.

“Hurry, Sojuan,” Shen urged.
“Yes,” he replied absently. It was hard to hear Shen’s voice, through the
chorus of other voices. “There is little time.”
“Take my hand,” croaked the oni, holding out a twisted arm. “And I will heal
you.”
“No,” Sojuan said clearly, through the silent maelstrom.
“Sojuan!”
“I am Jade Hand,” Sojuan said, and brought the tetsubo down.

*****

Fires do not burn in the Shadowlands, as a rule. So when a spot on the
western horizon lit up dull orange, it attracted attention. The sentries
watched it for a while, then sent word to their commander, who came up
himself to see. They watched the flickering glow carefully, alert for any
signs of movement.

“Could be the goblins again,” one watcher said to another.
The more seasoned soldier shook his head. “Too far out. They wouldn’t burn
themselves for no reason.”
His comrade spat off the side of the Wall. “Who can tell what Shadowlands
creatures will do”
“Shall we investigate, sir” another asked the commander.

At that moment, the dim light abruptly ceased. For a moment, all was still.

Then a spark of light shot into the air like a firework, blossoming into a bird-like shape. It circled three times, then went out, leaving bright after-images on the watcher’s eyes.

“I think so,” said the commander.

The scouting party came back a few hours later. The commander was waiting
for them at the entrance of the tunnel under the Wall, and listened to the
confused report with a frown.

Tracks of some great beast, or several, so confused that even the Hiruma
could not read them.

A hill of soft white ash, still warm, and two other smaller heaps, already
half-scattered to the winds.

A horrific Shadowlands monstrosity, dead, a smile on its scaled lips. Its
hands tightly gripped the hilt of the wakizashi buried in its own throat.

Torn paper scraps of an origami bird.

And a man, unconscious, his right hand badly broken, his whole body scratched and battered, a fresh purple bruise swelling on his temple.

“We’ll have to wait to hear what happened from him,” the commander said, looking down at the limp figure on the stretcher. He fingered the Jade Hand medallion around the man’s neck, and shook his head wonderingly. “Sounds like he’s a lucky bastard, though. I think this is going to be quite a tale.”

He followed the stretcher, through the protective wards, and into the safety
of the Wall.

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