“Night” by Matt Dalen

Euiko huddled below the shallow overhang, her heart beating wildly.  Below her palms she could feel the slick surface of obsidian.  The air was still, the way it is before a powerful storm.  She could imagine that she could feel the energy in the air, silently building up to a crescendo.  Frantically, her eyes searched the dusk-lit landscape for any sign of pursuit.  Was it truly dusk, or had the coming storm just darkened the skies?  She had long since lost any sense of time in this place.  Along the edge of the shallow ravine spread out before her, jagged, black rocks were silhouetted by the roiling sky, and her eyes strained to make out any movement between them.

 

Slowly, as if trying to remain unseen, something moved between the rocks, into the ravine.  She could almost convince herself that she was imagining it, but she knew that she wasnt.  They were still tracking her.  A chill ran through her; caused by the chill or the air or the fear of being discovered, she didnt know.

 

Ever so silently, Euiko began an entreaty to the kami.  She was barely conscious of which spell she had chosen as her ears and eyes strained for some sign that the shadowy figure had discovered her refuge.  Slowly, she attempted to move, to push herself back further into the shadows.

 

A pebble fell, the sound of its movement loud as thunder.

 

Euiko started, and released the kami.  She could feel them swirling around her, following her will and seeking out her enemy.  A green aura surrounded the figure.  Its eyes caught hers, and in a split second, she caught her breath as she recognized his face before it was enveloped in jade fire.

 

Ikoma Anzai crumpled to the ground.  In the dim light, she could just make out the grinning countenance of his mempo staring at her, as if mocking her.  The young shugenja sat, clutching her knees, until the mempos laughing expression was blurred by tears.

 

***

 

You were born a Tonbo, Chie-chan, the old shugenja said.  Why is it you wish to take the name of the Tamori?

 

The young womans face was serious as she looked at her sensei.  All Kyuden Tonbo holds for me now is bad memories.  My father died in that place, defending me, run through by a Lion blade.  My mother starved herself to death so that I might have food, running from that place.  All that I knew died on that day, with my father.  I have no wish to return to that place of death.

 

Tamori Osen gazed at her impassively.  She met his stare without wavering.  The nauseatingly sweet scent of incense filled the room, giving her a slight headache.  She ignored it.  Finally, Osen spoke again.  That is not an answer to my question, Chie-chan.  I ask you again, why do you wish to take the Tamori name?

 

Chie hesitated before replying.  Finally, she said, To to honor those who saved my life.  Euiko-sama could have let me die, or left someone else to care for me.  But even as she was defending herself from the Phoenix, she taught me her skills at healing.  Isako-sama guided me to a place of safety, and went to fight to protect me.  And when they died, Shosei-sama found me, and guided me to the lands of the Tamori, treating me as his own sister.  Without them, I would not be here today.

 

The Tamori are founded on the idea of fighting evil and healing the innocent.  Tamori Yamabushi train to fight the minions of Iuchiban.  Those who cannot or will not fight, devote their lives to healing the innocent, whoever they may be.  I would join them in this task.  She lapsed into silence, her eyes never losing contact with the older shugenja.

 

Osen nodded silently.  Very well.  Your gempukku is complete.  Have you decided what name you will choose?

 

Quietly, the woman who had been Tonbo Chie spoke two words.  Tamori Euiko.

 

***

 

You killed him.

 

Euiko crouched back into the crevasse, her eyes still searching the darkness, studiously avoiding the body not ten feet before her.  The scent of rotting flesh reached her nose nonetheless, combining with the pungent smell of moist earth to make her slightly nauseous.  Black rain sheeted down, hiding the landscape.

 

Its your fault.  The voice was familiar, a dim memory from her childhood, echoing in her mind.  It seemed to come from just behind her, blending into the pounding of the storm.

 

No, she whispered.  I… it… there wasnt anything I could do.  He…

 

He was a Lion, and you hated him for it.  A different voice, harder, yet still familiar.  He killed us, and so you killed him.  She had almost forgotten what her fathers voice had sounded like.

 

No  Euiko clenched her fists, tears leaking from her eyes.  It wasnt that way I saw him die the bloodspeakers  She had been awake for what had to be days, but she could not afford to sleep.  Not here.  Not yet.

 

The first voice, growing more forceful with every word.  You cursed him to death when you ran.  You always run.  Its your fault hes dead.  Its your fault were dead.

 

No!  Euikos scream of despair was lost in a crash of thunder and drowned out in her mind by the mocking laughter of Anzais mempo.

 

***

 

Tamori Euiko looked around the camp in trepidation.  This was where Shosei had lost his arm.  What if something like that happened to her?  She had watched him train, learning to use his left hand as well as he had once used his right.  She didnt know if she was strong enough to survive something like that.  Yet that was why she had been sent here, was it not?

 

You must be the Dragon girl Shosei wrote me about.  Tamori Euiko, is it not?  Euiko turned to see an unshaven man in light armor standing behind her.  The faded mon of the Hiruma was etched onto the breast, and his twisted grin was deformed by an ugly scar running down his cheek to his chin.  Im Hiruma Masu, trainer of the new recruits.  Welcome to the Wall.

 

The slight girl wrenched her eyes from his scar and bowed deeply.  It is an honor, Hiruma-sama.  Shosei-sama has often talked about you.

 

Masus grin deepened.  Nothing good, I hope.  He turned towards the camp.  Youll be quartered in with the rest of this years recruits.  Your bunkmate will be Kuni Taiko.

 

Euiko looked around the encampment as they walked through it.  The buildings all appeared fairly new probably, all had been built since this land had been reclaimed from Daigotsus minions.  There was activity everywhere.  Fresh digging surrounded the ramparts at the edges of the camp, and the treeline had been pushed back so that nothing could sneak up on them.  The largest building in the camp was in the center of the compound, and it was here that Masu led her.  The smell of freshly cooked food surrounded it.

 

This is the mess.  Your fellow recruits should still be here.  He looked around the large room, and then headed for a long table near the back, where several young people were gathered.  Here we are.  Tamori Euiko, meet Kuni Taiko, Utaku Xi-Lao, Hida Shinji, Tsuruchi Ikari, and Ikoma Anzai.

 

***

 

You blamed him for our death.  How could you not?  He was Lion.

 

Yet we would not have had to sacrifice ourselves if you had not been there.

 

Its your fault.

 

Its always your fault.  The voices whispered in her ears, their voices mingling with the fall of the rain to form a constant beat.

 

You failed him.

 

You failed us.

 

No!  Euiko whispered forcefully, still mindful of who might be listening.  Masu ordered me to run!  Its not my fault!  Anzai would have died anyway!

 

He could have lived.

 

Tears blinded Euiko.  No! she sobbed.  I couldnt do anything!  It was only supposed to be a training run!  Quietly, she whispered, No one was supposed to die

 

***

 

This will be your first trip into the Shadowlands, so we wont go very deep.  This is just a quick run to Shiro Hiruma and back.  Hiruma Masu looked down at them, waiting expectantly.  Although there will be patrols in the area, youll need to be on your guard.  Even the edge of the Shadowlands can be a dangerous place, and oni and bakemono have been known to get past the most diligent of patrols.

 

Anzai raised his hand.  Will we have jade?

Masu laughed.  Were not stupid enough to send you into the edge of the Shadowlands with no protection.  Youll each have a small finger of jade, just in case.  Youll each be paired with one of your companions, whose job it will be to watch your back.  If anything happens, stay with your companion.  If it looks to be more of a fight than you can handle, follow my orders, and use common sense.  He looked around at the six of them one more time.  I expect you to be back here in thirty minutes, fully packed.  Dismissed!

 

***

 

Euiko had long ago lost the energy to reply to the voices.  On her cheek, tears mingled with sweat and rain.  She had almost fallen asleep once, but that must not happen.  She had to stay awake, in case her pursuers returned.  The voices continued their merciless barrage as the young woman stared out through the remnants of the storm, into the eyes of the still-laughing mempo, lit by the barest hint of dawn in the sky.

 

A movement in the predawn haze started her out of her trance.  She was too tired, her eyes bleary with tears and fatigue was it friend or foe?  It could not be another member of her party The bloodspeaker had been too powerful.  There was no way even Masu could have survived.  Were they looking for her?  Had they come to kill her?

 

Dimly, blurrily, she made out a figure approaching.  Strong hands grasped her, laying her down on the sodden ground.  She tried to fight, but lack of sleep had drained her strength.  There were voices, but she could not make out what they were saying.  Finally, she blacked out.

 

***

 

The bloodspeakers had attacked as soon as they were out of sight of the Wall.  Six of them had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, surrounding the recruits.  Xi-Lao and Taiko died first, cut down in the first seconds of the attack.

 

Form a defensive circle! Masu shouted as his dai-tsuchi crushed the spine of the man who had cut down Xi-Lao.  Shugenja in the center, bushi to the outside.  Ikari, guard your side.  Euiko!  Jade strikes!

 

Euiko stood behind Anzai, attempting to pronounce the words required to summon the kami.  Twice she had to restart, her voice slipping on the liquid syllables of the prayer.  She looked up as Anzai attempted to fight off two of their attackers at once.  He parried the one to the left, whirling to avoid a thrust from the one on the right as he sank his blade deep into the bloodspeakers side.  Black blood spurted from the fatal wound.

 

As her protector turned to face his one remaining attacker, Euiko released the kami.  They swirled around the tainted madman, enveloping him in jade flame.  With one final scream of fury, ignoring the purity eating away at his flesh, the bloodspeaker lunged, his katana flying towards Euikos head.  She staggered back, as Anzai hurled his body before hers.  His katana caught the dying bloodspeakers, and with a kick, he pushed the decaying body to the ground.

 

Euiko staggered forward, bile rising in her throat.  Her stomach heaved until there was nothing more to throw up.  Finally, the young shugenja turned.  The battle was almost over.  Shinji and Ikari had fallen, as had three of their opponents.  As she watched, Masu struck down the last remaining bloodspeaker with a final blow of his dai-tsuchi, and turned to face his two surviving students.

 

Well have to decapitate the bodies, he said grimly.  Otherwise, they could return.

 

Euiko nodded, drawing her katana.  Screwing her eyes shut, she swung the sword at Xi-Laos neck, with all her might.

 

***

 

She opened her eyes blearily.  She felt like she had been sleeping for years.  Her head and neck ached, and her thigh was numb from lying on it.  Slowly, she sat up and looked around.

 

Ah, our guest is awake.  This is good.  A little man wearing the robes of a shugenja hurried over to her side.  You are very lucky to be alive, you know.  By the time a Hiruma patrol found you, your jade was almost completely gone, and you appeared to be having hallucinations.  Bending down slightly, he peered into her eyes.  This close, she could smell the strong scent of medicinal herbs on him.  How do you feel?  Some disorientation is to be expected.

 

Euiko shook her head slowly, trying to remove the cobwebs from her mind.  Where where am I? she asked hesitantly.

 

The shugenja grinned.  At least you can talk.  Thats good.  I had been worried that you had been permanently scarred.  He straightened.  You are in Shiro Hiruma.  You have been asleep for almost three days.

 

Euiko stared at her hands distractedly, barely hearing his words.  I can barely remember… what happened?  There were voices…

 

The healers grin lessened.  You had been awake and in a stressful situation for quite some time, he said kindly.  Several days, in fact.  You were hallucinating.  Put it behind you.

 

But it was so real…  She looked up quickly.  Anzai… I killed him, didnt I?

 

He shook his head.  You would have to ask the scouts about that.  But not now.  There will be time for all that when youve fully recovered.  For now, rest.

 

Euiko lay back, closing her eyes.  Scraps of memory teased the edges of her thoughts.  What had happened?  How had Anzai died?  Slowly, carefully, she pieced the scattered memories into a coherent picture.

 

***

 

We are not far from Shiro Hiruma.  We should try to get there as quickly as possible.  Masu looked at the two survivors of his party grimly.  With speakers in the area, well need to travel fast and light.  Ill take point.  Anzai, you guard our rear.  Euiko…

 

A strangled scream from Anzai interrupted him.  The young Lions arm had exploded into a bloody mass of insects, worms, and maggots, his katana falling to the ground.  He lurched towards Euiko, his arms reaching out.

 

Masu bounded past them, racing towards the man who had emerged several yards away from whatever mystical place he had been hidden.  He held his dai-tsuchi low, moving erratically as if to attempt to dodge any attack by this new enemy.  When he was just paces from the bloodspeaker, Masu leaped, his dai-tsuchi falling towards the mans skull.

 

With a fluid movement, the man dodged to the side, his bones moving almost too smoothly, as if there were too many joints.  With a single spoken word, he threw Masu to the ground, his dai-tsuchi falling several paces away.

 

Anzai, moaning in agony, reached for Euikos face, his eyes pleading behind the grinning expression of his mempo.  Euiko staggered back, her mouth agape in horror.  He stumbled forward, grabbing her arm.  She screamed at the oily, slick feel of his hands, jerking away.

 

He fell to his knees, his rotting arms still reaching for her, his mouth attempting to form coherent words.  Healh… Mee…

 

Masu had regained his footing and his weapon, and was slowly circling the bloodspeaker, who was just leering at them, his arms crossed.  The crab shot a look at his companions.  With one final shout of Run, you fools! he set his jaw, raised his dai-tsuchi, and charged the enemy.

 

Euiko bolted.  Anzai staggered after her.  She stole a quick look behind her.  The Lion had fallen to the ground, his eyes still trying to meet hers through the narrow holes of his mempo.  After a second that seemed like an eternity, she turned and ran into the wilderness.

 

***

 

Euiko lay on her mat.  The diminutive shugenja had disappeared some time ago, leaving her with her memories.

 

When she finally closed her eyes, all that was there was Anzais mempo, laughing.

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