“Shadows of the Past” by Matt Dalen

The air was quiet in the camp of the Jade Hand.  Although it had been just about a month since Tamori Shosei had first joined the small group, he was still getting used to the idea of it.  All Rokugani were taught to fight the Shadowlands, but the Legion took it an extra step, eschewing even the Damned, those poor souls corrupted against their will in the fight against evil.

Shosei had never thought to see the day when members of all clans put aside their differences to fight a common enemy, but here it was.  Everyone had their own reasons for fighting, of course.  Some fought for honor, some to redeem their family, or to absolve themselves of the guilt of some dishonor, real or imagined.  Some, like Shosei, fought out of revenge, to find and punish those who had wronged them.  Yet they all had come together in this small keep, to train in specifically anti-Shadowlands fighting techniques.

As Shosei looked over the camp, he could see small groups just starting their morning training.  Here, an old Hiruma scout taught a group of samurai how to move in the shadowlands without detection.  There, a young Daidoji samurai-ko trained some duelists in the art of using the yari.  Further in, the Kuni witch hunters were teaching shugenja how to counter the magics of the maho-tsukai.

Normally, Shosei would be down there as well, attempting to teach a group of recruits the art of jade magic and alchemy.  But today was different.  Today was an anniversary, of sorts.  Exactly five years ago, today, Shosei had undergone his gempukku.  That had been the end of his childhood, and the beginning of his one-man war on the Shadowlands.

 

***

 

Five Years Earlier

The sun had already risen over the mountains, but the air was still chill from the cold mountain nights.  Tamori Shosei rose from his bed and walked over to the window, looking out over the small fief.  Had it really been just yesterday that he had undergone his gempukku, leaving behind the child’s name of Masaki forever?  Nothing seemed any different.  The mountains still rose to the sky, the ashigaru still plowed the fields.  Even Shosei himself didn’t feel any different, except for a vague sense of relief that it was finally over.  The hours of training, the long ceremony – they were finally a thing of the past.  Shosei was now able to choose his own path in life.  He was still unsure of what he wanted to do, other than a vague sense that he wanted to study alchemy, to perfect the all-too imprecise art.  Calling upon the kami to cast spells was all well and good, but they didn’t necessarily answer, having a will of their own.  Alchemy, on the other hand… Alchemy was nice and orderly.   If you mixed a certain amount of this, a little bit of that, you would always end up with what you intended.

Shosei was startled out of his reverie by the entrance of his father.  A tall man, Tamori Atasuke was in good shape.  He had not been born a Tamori – before he had married Shosei’s mother, his name had been Kitsuki Atasuke, the head magistrate in this area, and a second son of a minor family.  His marriage to Tamori Euiko had been one born of love, although Euiko’s father had been opposed to their union.  But Euiko had her way, and they were married, and two years later, when Euiko’s father died, she had become the daimyo of this fief.  Atasuke had retired from the magistrates several years ago, but still practiced his skills, since he was occasionally called upon to assist in a particularly hard case.

Now, Tamori Atasuke had a worried look on his face.  He looked as if he were distracted about something.  After a little bit, he spoke, “Mas… Shosei-kun, you are wanted in the Quiet Snow room, to assist your mother in greeting a guest.  Since you will one day be daimyo, it is important that you begin learning how to deal with members of other clans.”

Shosei nodded.  “I will be right down, father.  May I ask what clan our guest is from?”

“She is a Kuni witch-hunter,” Atasuke said, and then turned around and left.

Shosei understood now why his father was so distracted.  If a Kuni witch-hunter was visiting, there could only be one reason, and a maho-tsukai in the area was not a good thing.  He sighed worriedly, and began dressing.

 

***

 

The witch-hunter was a slight woman, although it was nearly impossible to tell her age through the face paint she wore.  Her jet-black hair wreathing the makeup gave her a strange, unnerving appearance.  She sat on a mat facing Shosei’s parents, sipping tea.

As Shosei entered the room and bowed, his mother motioned him to be seated.  “Shosei-kun, this is Kuni Harukichi, a witch-hunter from the far south.  Kuni-san, this is my son, Tamori Shosei.”

The small woman gave a slight bow, and then returned her attention to Shosei’s parents.  “Now, as I was saying, I have come here to enlist your help.  For some time now, I have been on the trail of a fairly powerful maho-tsukai, a shugenja named Sadao.  I have received information that leads me to believe that he has taken refuge in this area, but we do not know his precise whereabouts.  As the resident authorities, I am hoping to enlist your help in tracking Sadao down.”  She turned to Atasuke.  “I have heard that you, as a magistrate, have faced maho-tsukai in the past, and I was hoping that you would assist me in this matter.  Sadao is a very dangerous man, and I cannot fight him alone.

Atasuke sipped his tea.  “Your words honor me, Kuni-san.  I am but a mere retired magistrate.  While it is true that I have faced maho-tsukai on two separate occasions, that was long ago.  Surely you require someone who has more experience in that area than I.”

“Nevertheless, your help would be invaluable.  My companions are too far away to be here any time soon, and I must find Sadao as soon as possible, before he attempts to summon an oni.  You have both experience in fighting maho-tsukai in the past as well as an exemplary record of tracking down criminals.  If you will not assist me I will have to wait for my companions to return, and by then it may be too late.

Atasuke bowed his head.  “If you put it that way, I would be honored to assist you in your investigation.  We shall meet later tonight to discuss the details of the case.  Until then, I am sure you require rest.  My son shall show you to your room.  Shosei-kun?”

Shosei rose and led the woman to one of the spare rooms.  As they walked, Shosei cleared his throat.  “Anno… Kuni-sama?”

“Hai?”

“What is it like, being a witch hunter?  I mean, fighting maho-tsukai all the time sounds dangerous.”

Kuni Harukichi turned to the young man and smiled faintly.  “What, are you considering joining the Kuni?”

“No,” Shosei stammered, “but I have never seen an oni, or a bakemono, or a maho-tsukai.  We live so far from the border of the Shadowlands, that sometimes, it seems like they might just be a fairy tale, meant to frighten us.  Are they really as bad as people say?”

The Kuni’s face darkened.  “Some of the things that I have seen would give you nightmares and turn your hair as white as a Crane’s.  Oni tall as a house, with claws and fangs, like something out of a nightmare.  The depths of the Shadowlands are probably much worse than people say.  As for maho-tsukai – well, they come in as many types as there are people.  There are weak ones, who only know minor blood magic, and are little threat – most shugenja or samurai would be able to kill them easily.  And then there are the more powerful ones, like Sadao – shugenja who have turned to blood magic as a way to gain power, summoning onis and other denizens of the Shadowlands.  These are the ones that the witch hunters were formed to hunt down.”

Shosei shivered.  “Why did Sadao turn to the Shadowlands?

Harukichi seemed almost reluctant to answer.  Why do people ever turn to maho?

Was he a witch hunter, like you?” pressed Shosei.

She sighed.  “Sadao was once a fairly high ranking witch-hunter.  He had made it his life’s work to discover ways to counteract certain maho.  Unfortunately, in his studies, he ventured too far, experimented with certain forbidden spells, all in the name of research.

Shoseis eyes widened.  How dangerous were the spells?

He attempted to summon an oni.  That was when we caught him, as he was beginning the ceremony.  We were able to stop the summoning, but Sadao escaped.

And youve been chasing him alone? Shosei asked, almost in awe.

Three of us were sent out to catch him.  We split up early on, to search the places where he is most likely to have fled.  One of my companions went to Scorpion lands, one travelled to Phoenix lands, and I came here, to Dragon lands.  I know that Sadao has relatives in this area – his mother’s sister married a Mirumoto.  I doubt that he’d try to contact them for help, but if they don’t know that he has turned to the Shadowlands… It’s a long shot, but it’s all I’ve got.”  She was silent for a moment as they reached her room.  “I thank you for guiding me, Shosei-kun.  Now, I must get some rest.  Your father and I are leaving early tomorrow to hunt Sadao.”  The door slid shut behind her, leaving Shosei alone in the hallway with his thoughts.

 

***

Three Weeks Later

 

At the first sound of cracking, Shosei dived behind a rock.  The small jar he had been experimenting with exploded with a loud report, half-melted glass flying everywhere.  Even from his refuge, Shosei felt the heat of the explosion, as a chunk of glass flew past his head.  The grass still smoldered in the middle small clearing he had chosen for his alchemical experiments.  He had been experimenting with some new compounds of his own invention.  So far, the results had not been good.

As Shosei bent to put out the small fire, a household servant ran up into the clearing.  The servant bowed.  Shosei-sama, the daimyo bids you return to the main house immediately.  Your father has returned, and he is gravely wounded.

The young man stared at him blankly for a few seconds, and then turned and started running for the house, leaving his alchemical materials in the clearing for the servant to retrieve.  The image of his fathers body lying limp at the feet of an oni ran through his head repeatedly, as he envisioned the worst.  Without thinking, he instinctively started weaving a defensive spell about himself.  In minutes, Shosei had arrived at the hallway outside his fathers room.  Before he was able to enter the bedroom, Kuni Harukichi grabbed his arm, holding him back.

Shosei-kun!  Your mother is attempting to heal his wounds.  To go in there now would only disrupt her concentration and put him at risk.

Shosei stopped and slumped to the ground.  Slowly, he looked up at Harukichi.  Will he be all right?

From the expression on the witch-hunters face, he could tell the answer, even before she spoke.  Your father has contracted the taint.  The odds of him successfully being healed are low.

How did it happen?

Harukichi sat beside him, and began talking.

Two days ago, we managed to locate where Sadao was staying, thanks to your fathers excellent investigational skills.  He was living with a local merchant, a man with a great reputation in the past.  None of his neighbors even suspected that he was a maho-tsukai, although a minor one.

Your father and I waited until daybreak to assault the house.  We were too late.  Sadao had just finished summoning the oni.  We broke into the house to see the merchants daughter lying dead on the ground, covered in blood.  Over her stood Sadao and a monstrosity right out of the Shadowlands.  I wont describe it to you, as Id much rather not remember.  The small woman paled visibly at the memory.

After a momentary pause, she continued, although her voice was a little ragged.  Your father immediately attacked it.  He used the Daisho technique well, wounding the beast severely, but the demon managed to strike him across the ribs, sending him flying across the room into the wall.  I had had my hands full dealing with Sadao, and so when Atasuke was wounded, my attention was broken long enough for Sadao to strike at me.  He didnt hurt me much, but it bought him enough time to escape on the back of that winged monstrosity.  I suspect that he and the demon are halfway to the Shadowlands by now.

She took a breath.  I brought your father back here, in hopes that your mother might be able to use her healing skills to cure him, but I fear it was too late.  The onis claws were tainted, and there are few ways of removing the taint.

Shosei just sat there in silence, absorbing the information he had just heard.  It seemed impossible his father, tainted?  He had seen him just a few weeks ago, seemingly in the prime of his life.  Shosei had always secretly held the belief that nothing could stop his father, that no criminal would go unpunished.  The idea that one of those criminals had not only escaped, but had destroyed his father, was nearly unthinkable.

As he sat there, the door to his fathers room opened, and his mother stepped out.  Tears glistened at the edges of her eyes, but she did not cry.  She merely turned to him, and spoke.

Shosei-kun.  Your father would like to speak to you.

Is he Shosei trailed off, seeing from his mothers face that there was no hope.  His father would not survive.

She shook her head.  Be quick.  He has not much time.

Shosei walked slowly into the room and kneeled at the side of the bed, looking into his fathers face.  There was a great deal of pain there, and the signs of the struggle against the taint were obvious.  Father.

Atasukes eyes open slowly.  Masaki, my son or is it Shosei?  You have come.

Tears ran down Shoseis face as he grasped the dying mans hand.  Father, was all he could say.

My son I am sorry that I will not live to see you become a great shugenja.  I fear Sadao was too much for us.  His oni was too much for me, and as for Harukichi  Atasuke lapsed into a fit of coughing.

Father.  There was anger in Shoseis voice now.  I swear, upon Togashi himself, that I will find the tsukai Sadao, and repay him for what he has done.  You will be avenged.

Atasuke made no sign that he had heard his sons words.  Help he coughed violently several times.  Help me get my wakizashi.  I must perform the three cuts.  Shosei, you must be my second.  Weakly, he rose to his knees next to the bed.  Shosei handed his father the wakizashi, and stood above him.

My son I am sorry.  Beware beware she knows not what she does  With those cryptic words, Atasuke, with a speed belying his weakened state, made the cuts.  Shosei waited a second, and then ended his fathers suffering forever.

The alchemist bowed his head.  Father.  I will avenge you.  Speaking those words, Shosei turned on his heels and stalked out of the room.

 

***

 

Three days later, Kuni Harukichi was preparing to leave, to again find the trail of the traitor Sadao.  Shosei accosted her as she was packing.

Kuni-sama.  I would speak with you.

The witch hunter turned to him, an inquisitive look in her eyes.  Shosei-kun.  What is it you would have of me?

Shosei stuttered for a second, then stepped forward with a determined look in his eyes.  I want you to take me with you, to train me!

You would become a witch hunter?  Harukichi arched an eyebrow.  An odd request from one who has only seen the taint but once in his life.

I do not wish to become a witch hunter.  I merely wish to know how to combat the Shadowlands, so that I may kill Sadao.

Harukichi looked at him for a second, a faint, sad smile fleeting across her face.  Ah.  That then, is a different thing altogether.  I am not the one who would teach you.

But youre the one following Sadao! protested Shosei.

Harukichi shook her head.  You would be worse than useless in a fight against a maho-tsukai without a lot more training.  You must train first, if you would take on Sadao.

Then tell me who might teach me!  Where must I go?

Harukichi was silent a moment.  Very well.  I must leave to hunt down Sadao, but I do need to report on the events that have transpired.  You will do as well as any to take the message.  And while youre down there, the wall is always looking for volunteers.  She pondered for a few seconds, then appeared to make a decision.  I will give you a letter of recommendation to a certain friend of mine, one Kuni Michinori.  Michinori-sama is head of shugenja in one of the towers along Kaiu Kabe, and will be able to teach you the skills necessary to succeed.  There are few shugenja with alchemical training along the wall your abilities should prove valuable.  You are sure that this is what you want, though?

Shosei nodded vehemently.  Very sure.

Very well.  You must leave with my report within three days.

Shosei bowed deeply.  Thank you, Harukichi-sama.

The woman smiled grimly.  We will see if you thank me once youve spent some time on the wall.

 

***

 

Present Day: Legion of the Jade Hand

 

Tamori Shosei?  The vaguely familiar voice started Shosei out of his reflections.  He turned around, and a figure out of his past stood before him.

Harukichi-sama?

The witch hunter smiled.  Please, no formality.  Just san will be fine.  Michinori-san told me I could find you here.

Shoseis face was dark.  If youve returned, then that means is Sadao dead?

Harukichi shook her head, frowning.  No, unfortunately.  I have spent ten years hunting him down, but always he has escaped me.  I find underlings, month-old leads, but nothing substantial.  However, I have finally tracked him to this area.  He has returned to the site of his treachery, and by now has probably joined with Daigotsu behind the wall.  He is beyond us, for now.

Shosei cursed.  His greatest enemy was beyond his reach.  One day soon, he will pay.  Already the Crab retake the wall once we have that back, Sadao is lost.  I will hunt him to the City of the Lost itself.

And abandon your post in the Legion?  I thought you better than that.  Harukichi frowned.

Shosei shook his head and looked at her, as if newly being made aware of her existence.  But you are right, of course.  I have sworn an oath to the Jade Hand, an oath that I would not lightly give it up.  But Sadao will pay.  I will make sure of that.

 

***

Kuni Harukichi watched as the Dragon walked back to the camp.  Silently, she mouthed, I know you will, Shosei-kun.   A small smile played at the edges of her mouth.  I know you will.

 

 

***

 

Note: Big thanks go out to the RicePaper Society, without whom this story would be a lot less readable. Props go out to the Jade Hand, for being a generally great group of people.

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