“Steel and Jade” by Matt Dalen

Kakita Shimazu gazed into the flames of the cookfire, thinking. The five Legionnaires had been here on the trail of two thieves for a week now. All the evidence pointed towards the bloodspeakers fleeing civilization, heading into the wilderness. There was little in this direction except for the northwestern edge of the Kaiu Wall and the ruins of the long-dead Boar clan. It was a place lightly patrolled, with many a bandit group active, and sometimes worse. When they finally caught up to their quarry, what would they find?

“Ho, Shimazu-sama. Enjoying your meal?” The upbeat voice of Tamori Shosei interrupted the Crane’s reverie.

Shimazu looked up at the young Dragon, a fleeting expression of annoyance piercing his normally calm expression. “It is acceptable,” he said flatly. “I am accustomed to the usual rigors of the trail.”

Shosei nodded. “Right, right.” He sat down across from the Crane. “So, when do you think we’ll catch up to the thieves?”

“Teri-san would probably have a better estimate, but I would guess we’re no more than a few hours behind them,” Shimazu said. “The big question is, what do we do with them when we find them?”

“We kill them, of course,” Shosei said flatly. “They are traitors to the empire.”

Silently, Shimazu smiled. “Is it really so black and white to you? Many of these bloodspeakers were once peasants, only trying to better their lot. Is it so hard to sympathize with them?”

Shosei shrugged. “They’ve sided with the enemy. They should know their place in the world.”

The Crane’s clear blue eyes looked over his companion. “As the blessed Emperor did?” he asked quietly. “He, too, was once called traitor.”

“But that was different,” Shosei protested. “He did not fight alongside Daigotsu and Iuchiban, siding against his own people.”

“Hida Kisada, too, once sided with Jigoku against the empire. Yet now…” Shimazu paused. “Now he is called Fortune, and honored as a hero.” His eyes caught Shosei’s. “While a man still lives, there is always hope of redemption.”

“Neither of the heroes you mentioned were tainted. The touch of Jigoku is enough to pull even the best of heroes beyond redemption,” the young Dragon said darkly.

“The best of heroes, such as Isawa Tadaka?” Shimazu asked wryly. “Things are not nearly so black and white as you would like, my young friend. There are many evils in this world not born of Jigoku, and there are some heroes who would not let even the touch of the ninth kami to rend their soul.” He shook his head. “That aside, not all bloodspeakers practice maho, or are tainted. There are some that just desire a better life for themselves, that desire not to be the lowest of the low. Can we truly condemn them for simple ambition?”

“But…” Shosei started speaking, but lapsed into silence. Together, the two legionnaires stared into the fire, as the sounds of the nighttime mountains surrounded them.

***

Two days later, Shosei looked out into the valley from his perch on a rocky outcropping. This deep into the Twilight Mountains, there were few people, and the bloodspeakers appeared to have built a small encampment at one end of the valley.

“It’s well-fortified, but there’s no exit,” Hiruma Teri said, crouching beside the shugenja. “They also don’t seem to be expecting us.”

“They’re just peasants,” Shosei said quietly, a note of regret in his voice. “Most will have had no military training. Look, here.” He pointed. “They’ve left this passage completely unguarded. If we set a two-pronged attack, one down the center, and one from the side, with some support from up here, we could catch them completely off-guard.”

Teri nodded. “It’s a good plan. You keep an eye out, I’ll go let the others know.”

Shosei just nodded, his eyes still scanning the valley, his expression inscrutable.

***

Teri looked through the rough brush into the bloodspeaker encampment. A rough path ran through the camp, leading out one end of the valley. It was down that path that the two Unicorn would be riding any time now. From this angle, he could just barely see the edge of Shosei’s kimono up on the ridge above. Turning, he motioned Shimazu up beside him.

“As soon as they move, we attack,” he whispered to the Crane. Shimazu just nodded.

A noise in the valley caused them both to face forward. Some sort of gathering was happening. A large circle of maybe fifteen to twenty peasants had gathered in the center of the clearing. In front of them, on a slight uprising, stood a man wearing a blood-red kimono. His veins on his neck and arms were faintly darkened, giving him a dark, corrupted look.

“The leader, do you think?” Shimazu whispered.

“Maybe,” Teri said. “We’re awfully close to Boar territories, though. I wouldn’t think even the bloodspeakers would be stupid enough to risk an attack by the Shakoki Dogu.”

“The Shakoki Dogu are just a myth,” Shimazu replied, eyes on the gathering. Although they were too far away to hear his words, they could tell that something big was happening.

Teri nodded slowly. “So some say. Me? I’d rather not find out.” He turned his attention to the path. “Listen. I hear hoofbeats. It looks like Dokomo and Yui are about to arrive.”

Shouts came from the makeshift barricade the peasants had set up. As Teri and Shimazu watched, a pair of Unicorn horses came into view, their riders shouting. Moto Dokomo fired off several shots with his bow, felling a few of the peasants, before discarding it for a scimitar. Utaku Yui was crouched low, katana in her hand, slicing at any who came in her way. Within seconds, the two horses had cleared the barrier and were into the encampment proper.

“That looks like our cue to attack,” Teri said, grinning. Shimazu grinned back, and the two charged at the crowd.

Out of the corner of his eye, Shimazu could see flames rising up to consume several of the cultists. Shosei was doing his job from the heights, sowing chaos in the bloodspeaker ranks. Yui had dismounted and was now locked in combat with three cultists, while Dokomo was doing his best to contain the bloodspeakers to a confined area. As Shimazu let instinct take over, he could hear Teri behind him, his heavy testubo making a distinctive, sickening thump as it hit its target.

Slowly, Shimazu worked his way towards the cult leader. He was the real threat. These peasants didn’t know the first thing about defending themselves; they had probably been lured to the cult with false promises of power.

As he parried a kama, Shimazu saw a flame arcing down from the ridge towards his goal. A mistake. If the tsukai were able to survive, he’d know Shosei’s location for sure. Slicing his katana through a peasant’s throat, the Crane watched as the flames vanished, as if doused by water. He frowned. The tsukai was more powerful than he had guessed. He broke into a run, dodging past the last couple of peasants and charging at the tainted leader.

The tsukai smiled as he saw the Crane advance. Taking a step back, he ran a thin dagger along the inside of his wrist and shouted something. From the wound, a bloody katana grew, and the tsukai took a stance, waiting for the other’s arrival.

As he arrived within reach of the tsukai, Shimazu stopped and took his own stance, eyeing his opponent. “Kakita…” he whispered.

The cult leader’s eyes narrowed. “Once, yes, I did go by that name. That was long ago, however. Still, I remember enough of my skills to do away with the likes of you.”

“Traitor.” With that single word, Shimazu leapt to the attack. His sword darted in, here, there, each time blocked by his opponent. One of his attacks nicked his opponent’s shoulder; in return, blood spurted from a wound in his thigh. The two duelists circled each other for what seemed like an eternity, though it could not have been more than a minute, attacking and counterattacking.

Finally, Shimazu saw his chance. With a lunge, throwing his entire body behind the attack, he thrust his katana up through the tainted Crane’s guard, piercing his shoulder. With a cry of pain, the tsukai fell back, his katana dissolving into blood. With one more slice of his blade, Shimazu ended the leader’s life.

“What happened to sympathy for the enemy?” a voice asked behind him. Shimazu turned to see Shosei standing behind him.

“He was a true traitor, not a misguided peasant,” Shimazu replied, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “He deserves the suffering he will find in Jigoku.”

Slowly, Shosei nodded. “The rest have been killed or have surrendered. The others are binding them now.”

“Good.” Shimazu turned and knelt at the side of the tainted Crane’s corpse. “I believe this is what we have come to retrieve,” he said, untying the Crane’s obi and drawing out his daisho. “Look, they bear the crest of the Kuni.”

Shosei knelt beside him. “I can feel the kami about them. They are both old and powerful.” He looked at the man next to him. “Shimazu-sama, you’re bleeding. Here, let me help you up I can bind your wounds back at camp.”

Shimazu sighed as he stood up, holding the daisho at his side. Leaning on the young Dragon’s shoulder, he made his way back to their camp, leaving the carnage behind him.

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