The blond bandit waited at the west gate, arms hanging over the low turrets. The gate was barely guarded, but it was barred with the great beams used in time of war. He nudged the bow at his feet further out of his way. The whole wall was lined with bows, slings, weapons of every kind. He had moved all of this here, hidden in hay wagons, at the Emperor's command, and mostly on his own. He had even commandeered weapons from the north gate on His Highness' orders. The bandit was more than a little worried about the wisdom of such a move, even though he knew most of the details of the defense plan; he was one of the very few who did. Strangely, the Emperor had not even told the Suzaku warriors everything he had planned. How does his Majesty expect to make this work? The army doesn't know what's going on and they were upset at being so abruptly disarmed. Hmmm. . . They seem rather divided about our dear Emperor's sanity. I know I didn't say anything about Mount Rekakou, but they do know he's not sleeping. It's a good thing they realize that if they desert or disobey him now, they lose the empire. If only they keep their heads when the fighting starts, they'll carry us a great deal further than the Emperor with his mad scheme will!
The soldiers certainly hadn't been happy about giving up their weapons. If the Kutou army attacked now, the guards at the north gate were nearly defenseless. To his relief, the bandit saw the dark mass that was the Kutou army retreat up the hill. He waited, but they did not reappear.
Maybe now the Emperor will let go of this fantasy, he thought. That army is not going to attack tonight. They know we're ready for them.
He heard the jingling of a horse jogging up behind him. He blew out a little puff of exasperation. Speak of the devil and His Majesty appears. He turned around, then caught himself grinning.
The Emperor was wearing his full armor now. It was polished to a high gloss and reflected the torches in a thousand points of light. He sat straight on the horse, proud, a warrior and monarch.
The Emperor looked up at him, his gentle voice carried in the quiet night air. "Has the army retreated yet?"
The bandit jumped down from the platform and nodded. "A while ago. They just took off up the hill. I think they're gone."
Hotohori shook his head. "No. They won't go far. This army is led by General Nakago. He is very resourceful, and he will be watching us. I have already received a report of his minions checking the north gate." He half-smiled. "It's well guarded wouldn't you say?" He reached a hand down to pull the bandit onto the horse. "I think it's time we go." The few guards at the gate saluted, and the Emperor raised a shout of encouragement. The horse wheeled around and galloped back the way it had come.
As they raced through the dark city, past the squares and houses, it became apparent that the city was not as deserted as it appeared to be. The activity was being carried out in the dark by Imperial Guards.
"Highness, what's going on? Why isn't the Imperial Guard at the palace? Or with you?"
Hotohori looked over his shoulder. "Some of them are in the palace, but I've had to divide them. I can't have them with me right now. Secrecy is important." The bandit gave him a questioning look. "Let's just say, I received a message from a friend." He looked ahead as the horse thundered through the streets. "I know you don't trust my visions, but I have reason to. 'General Nakago knows you and what you will do.' I know who told me that now. And I believe she means there is a spy in Konan. So I've set up a little surprise for him. All our forces have different orders."
They broke into the market area. The Emperor's head came up as he pulled back on the reins. "But we are about to countermand them all." The commanders and army members looked up from the maps and plans they were studying, or, more appropriately, fighting over, as the horse reared to a stop. Before they could question him, Hotohori shouted "Guards! You have new orders! All soldiers will report to the west gate!" There were mummers of surprise.
. . . "Highness! These orders are all mixed! We can't fight according to the orders here!"
Hotohori glared down from the horse. "Those orders are remanded! You will report to the east gate. Leave all the tents and lamps, horses and a few men at the north entrance. Those men must enter and leave the tents and city frequently. The area must continue to look like it is well guarded! Those who come to the west gate will come silently and without light! Go!" The not totally unconfused army leapt into motion, mounting horses and spreading orders. The dark streets clogged with people moving to the north and west gates.
Suddenly, a fireball shot into the sky. The horses reared, and Hotohori fought his mount to a stop. The men turned and began to move toward the fire. The Emperor rounded on them. "Stop! You have orders! Get your men and report as ordered." One commander gasped, "Sire!"
Hotohori held up his fist, pointed to the haze and smoke. "That fire is a distraction! It is being controlled! Go to the west gate! There are weapons and you will be there to protect it!"
He raced out into the street and grabbed the iron fan off his back. "Rekka-Shinen!" he shouted and a fire ball blasted into the air. "This is going to be the most spectacular fire nobody's ever seen!" He gleefully bounced from one side of the alley to the other in deformed mode, shooting fire into the night sky and laughing manically.
A small cat, hunting in the alley, dropped its jaw at the spectacle and backed nervously away.
"The first thunderings of the ram rumbled at the west gate. The guards inside the walls stood quietly, their arms at the ready." Keisuke was laying on his bed reading. Amazing! The Emperor was about to put down the entire Kutou force! He backed up and excitedly read the previous paragraphs again.
"The Emperor himself stood at the north gate. Beside him the blond bandit and the Priestess of Suzaku looked into the dark, scanning for the enemy. The Kutou army marched over the hill, and this time the army's torches were lit. They were not trying to hide their approach any longer. The horses paused in a bright line on the short slope, a distance from the north gate.
"The Emperor smiled to himself. Tamahome had told Nakago that the Konan army would withdraw, but the Kutou army was being greeted with what appeared to be a still well-secured gate. The Emperor hoped the commander of the Kutou army was not as sharp as General Nakago. If the enemy was confused by the display, they might divert their path. But which way would they go, east or west?
"To the east, fire limned the sky. The Kutou army backed over the hill and vanished."
Miaka pulled her arm away. "But Hotohori, I want to come with you! Won't we meet with Tamahome? What if something bad happens?"
The Emperor pulled them both to the line of tethered horses. "You must go the shrine now! I won't be able to protect you, but Tamahome can, and that is where he is. If you don't go, he will come looking for you, and you will be separated for sure!"
Miaka put her hands together. "Oh, Tamahome!" Her voice became more determined. "Okay, I'll go!"
The blond bandit was already on a horse. "Come on, Priestess. Move it!"
"But what about. . . " The Emperor grabbed her waist and hoisted the surprised Priestess onto the horse. The bandit put his arms around her as she reached toward the Emperor. "Hotohori!"
"Not now!" The bandit turned the horse and kicked its flank. He shouted over his shoulder, "Good luck, Emperor! Take care of yourself!" as they raced away.
The Emperor watched them leave, then mounted his own horse and headed to the west gate.
Far away in the palace at Kutou, a young boy looked at his arm. A message appeared, scratched on his skin, and he stared with horror at what he read. "Konan waits at the west gate."
He jumped up. "I must contact General Nakago!" He hurried to the blue sphere hanging in a corner of the room and attempted to send a message. The globe did not respond. The boy hit his fist against his thigh. The ward around the palace in Konan kept his messages from getting through. He hastily began to scratch words onto his forearm with his fingernail.
The door to the room slammed open. The boy turned. The dark-haired emperor of Kutou was watching him. "Where is General Nakago?" he demanded.
The boy kneeled and bowed his head. "Sire! The Priestess has given her permission. The General has lead an attack against Konan."
The Emperor stared a moment before his face became livid. "We, the Emperor of Kutou, have not granted permission for the General to take our men anywhere!"
The boy shrank back. "Sire, he has not. They are not your men."
The Emperor drew his sword. "We do not care whose men they are! Nakago is instigating a war which we will not fight without Seiryu being summoned! You will send a message to Nakago now!"
The boy backed away. To disobey was death. "Sire, the palace in Konan is warded. My messages are not getting to him!"
The emperor knew the Seiryu Seven could communicate through sorcery; he advanced on the boy and leveled his sword at the boy's throat. "You will try again anyway." The boy quickly turned and activated the globe. He sent his message, closing his eyes and hoping the message would get through. A faint murmur issued from the globe. The message was received!
Hotohori rode up and down the line of soldiers, forcing their silence. The west gate boomed and shivered as the ram smashed against it again. Then in the distance, he heard the alarm of the north gate. He tied up his horse, climbed a ladder and looked down. The Kutou army was there. They too had heard the signal. A cheer rose and the army redoubled its attack. Hotohori drew back. They had to think the Konan army was still at the north gate for this ambush to work.
The ram thundered against the doors again, and the wood panels cracked. The carved ornaments splintered; the gold braces holding the great beams bent in. The Kutou army was trying to break the gate open before the Konan army arrived from the north gate of the city. Hotohori raised his arm.
Another hit and the hinges of the gate gave way. The left panel fell inward, blowing up dust and wind. The Kutou army came rushing in. Hotohori dropped his hand; the archers fell to. They wiped out the first wave of Kutou soldiers; men with swords took on the next. The fight became frantic, as warriors fought for home or glory.
The Emperor surveyed the enemy army from the platform. There were far fewer Kutou warriors then the reports had indicated, and his own warriors were fighting with spirit. But there was a strange quality to the Kutou warriors. They didn't shout in pain, only in victory. Hotohori suddenly wondered if his people could win this battle after all. He gave a rallying cry and dodged a sword blow. The Emperor stabbed the man through the neck and turned quickly, leaping to the ground. He drew up short. Nakago stood there, glaring at him.
No. At this moment, it didn't matter. It couldn't. Hotohori would not let Nakago have his city or his empire. He would not let him have the Prietess. Even if it meant all the Suzaku Seven were killed, he would protect Miaka. Hotohori raised his sword.
Suddenly, Nakago threw his hands open at his sides. They were empty. He spoke through gritted teeth to Hotohori. "My Emperor commands that I withdraw. I do not suggest you retaliate against Kutou for this attack! We are a powerful nation and will destroy you!"
Hotohori stood and glared back, his posture aggressive. "No, you will not! The people of Konan are free! And we will always defeat your army's advances, even as I will now defeat you!"
The General laughed derisively. "You would never be able to defeat me or this army. It is mine! I am loyal to my Emperor, however." Suddenly, Nakago lifted his hands. The blue character on his forehead flashed. "Kutou army! Disperse!" He whipped his hands apart and the army vanished. The Konan guards stumbled to a halt from their fighting and gasped in surprise. The war was suddenly over. The soldiers leapt to their standards, rallying for a second attack that never came.
Nakago glanced at them with disdain. With a stroke of his mind he opened a cleft in the earth that separated him and the Emperor from their interference. Hotohori stood his ground against his nemesis. He whistled a signal and the archers of the Konan army let a volley of arrows fly toward Nakago.
The warriors fell back in fear as the wooden shafts rebounded from the ward around the general.
Nakago's lips curled in a sneer. He ignored the archers and their arrows. "That was a pretty speech, Highness. But I have yet to see you back it up with more than words. Prove to me what you can do!" His power ripped through the ground, spitting clumps of dirt and slamming into Hotohori. It tore into the Emperor's armor.
Hotohori staggered from the force, but his sword took the brunt of the energy. Blue power began to flare and arch around Hotohori's weapon, seeking to escape his control.
"Where are you going?!? You're going to get killed if you go out there!"
"No! Let me go!" Miaka pulled away. "Tamahome! Chichiri! Listen! We have to go to the west gate! Hotohori needs our help!"
Deep in his chest Hotohori felt a pain growing around the slivers, the pieces of the arrow that had never come out. They were in him and were a part of the empire they had come from. They were coming alive with Nakago's power.
But Suzaku would protect his own.
Hotohori closed his eyes and whispered a prayer for help. He felt the symbol on his neck respond to his need. He focused on it. Then everything around him seemed to fade; he heard Suzaku, the beast god, speak to him, his servant. "Recognize this, my power. It is the power granted to yourself, and it is the same as the power of your enemy. It is the power of god. You are the same. Control your power and you will control your enemy, and your enemy's enemies, and their powers. You can disperse this threat with your life force, for this energy is also mine!"
Hotohori opened his eyes and gasped; the red energy of his life force coursed around the blue power infecting his holy sword. Suzaku had promised to help. He raised the blazing sword over his head, but he felt he was being taken right out of his body by the powers that pulsed through him. They warred together and sapped his consciousness. He began to feel tired, beyond tired. Where was the control he had of his powers? Of his sword?
He reached out to Suzaku with his mind. Intead he saw Miaka praying in the shrine in the palace. "Help me, Miaka," he called. And as he called to her, he pictured the Priestess running in the field of friendship flowers. He saw her studying at school and talking to Yui. He saw her happy, kissing Tamahome, wishing on Suzaku, growing up. But he was not there, with her. Then he saw her holding his sword in her hand. Someday she would have his sword. As a part of Suzaku it was also a part of her.
He didn't want to give it up. But he loved Miaka. The sword had been his, the holy sword, given by Tai-itsukun, the ruler of the Universe. But soon it would be time for her to have it. Because he loved her, he would let it go. But before then he would not let it be destroyed until she had taken it from his hands. He was a Warrior of Suzaku, the sea snake, in the city favored by the beast god, and now he could feel the power of the Priestess and the other Warriors around him. He drew power from them, from her, from Suzaku. The ward around the city split and flared. Even in the city, Nakago's power was strong. Hotohori saw the destruction around him and knew that standing before him was one he could hate. "Nakago! This will be your end!" He smashed the tip of the sword into the ground.
Both powers discharged into the earth with incredible force. Nakago was struck by the racing energies and hurled back against a building. He levered himself against the wall and stood up. His leather armor was torn, and he was standing in a great crater. He had used his strength to redirect the energies. But now his powers had fled; he had to return to Kutou or be captured here. He looked up. The ward around the palace had disappeared. Suddenly Nakago vanished.
A moment later Tamahome, Miaka and Chichiri appeared from within Chichiri's cloak. They took in the scene around them for a moment. The army was blasted off its collective feet, and the city wall showed an expanse of night sky through its crumbled remains.
At the center of the blast, the Emperor lay awake, staring, his arms and legs wrapped around the sword to protect it.
Miaka jumped the narrow end of the cleft in the earth and ran to him as he struggled to his knees. Tamahome reached him first. "Emperor! Are you all right?"
Hotohori nodded slowly. "Nakago has escaped. We have to shore up the defenses here, and protect the other entrances to the city." He would find the strength to fight on, but Chichiri took the sword out of his shaking hands. "Highness, let the commanders do that. Nakago and his entire army are gone, ya know? There isn't any other danger here."
Hotohori put his fist to his chest and bowed his head. His shoulders slumped forward. "Praise Suzaku," he whispered.
The Emperor felt somebody take his hand. "Hotohori, please listen to them. I know they're right. Come back to the palace with us." Miaka looked at him with pleading eyes, and finally he nodded.
Just then Tasuki came sprinting across the road. He took in the destruction, the broken walls, the soldiers separated from the Emperor, and finally ran a hand through his wild red hair. "Well, what'cha think? Was that or was it not the best fire ever?"
The Emperor sat in the gazebo overlooking the lake, although his back was turned to the water. The palace was calm, without the hustle that had marked the days before. The sun rose over the water and spread the first rays of light across his back, warming his neck.
Miaka walked up and balanced herself on the rail. She began to swing her feet. "Good morning, Hotohori!"
He smiled at her. "Good morning."
She waved her hand. "It's kind of early, isn't it? Couldn't you sleep?"
Hotohori shook his head. "I slept very well, thank you."
Miaka was surprised. "Then why are you awake? Did you dream?"
Hotohori shook his head again. "Of course. But not that one."
Miaka smiled. "I'm so glad!" she squealed. "I hope you never have that dream again."
He looked away. "I won't."
Miaka's eyes popped. "How do you know?"
"It was a message from Suzaku."
"A message? Are you sure?"
Hotohori nodded. "It was how I knew where Nakago would attack." He put his hand on his chest. "The arrow was made from wood grown in Kutou. It was a part of the land, and therefore connected to Seiryu. Suzaku was able to use it to find out Kutou's plans, and he communicated it to Tai-itsukun. She was the one who chose the symbolism in the dreams." Hotohori tapped his fingers on the seat. "She chooses images just as ugly as her face!"
Miaka laughed, her fingers up in a "v" symbol. "And that's pretty ugly!"
Hotohori laughed too, then sobered a bit. "I know you heard part of the visions when you were in the shrine; I heard you talking to Suzaku."
Miaka looked at her feet. "Yeah, I was. And I did. It was awful!" She looked back at him again. "How did you stand it? Hotohori, I sincerely do hope that you never have to dream that dream again." Miaka looked out over the water, distracted for a moment. "Hotohori?"
"I was wondering, how did Nakago get all those soldiers across the border and into the city? Could he do it again?"
The Emperor turned toward her and leaned his arm on the rail. "No. The army that was here was . . . an illusion, Nakago's conjuration. He used the raids at the border to slip into Konan. Then he called up his army with the powers of Seiryu. He has more control than I ever dreamed. Chichiri would have noticed and been able to stop him, or at least alert us, except that when I was injured, Suzaku put up a ward around the city, effectively sealing our powers in the palace, but also diminishing Nakago's when he entered the ward. The army was fading as soon as the gate was broken. I know we didn't find the traitor that Tai-itsukun warned me about, but, Miaka, you don't need to be afraid. You have Suzaku's protection." And mine. He didn't say it; she didn't need to hear it again; likely she wouldn't want to. But he would be there for her. Finally he said, "However, I believe it is more imperative than ever that we begin the rites to summon Suzaku."
Miaka nodded and looked out across the water.