Note: 'Allies in the Shadows' can be considered one of several prequels to my book 'The Sword of the Soul' (which is LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS crossed with SAMURAI 7). However, unlike 'The Sword of the Soul', 'Allies in the Shadows' is almost pure L5R.
This story was written to meet the 31 Days challenge for Feb 7th - "The White Lady." For those of you familiar with the character of Kakita Nasami, let's just say that this story answers at least one question about her.
Allies in the Shadows
"Whatever you do, whatever you see, do not turn back."
The words echoed in Nasami's head as she and her comrades pounded down the road through the night. All around her, she could hear the snorts of the horses, the jingle of armor and rattling of weapons, the muffled gasps of her fellow samurai.
It had seemed like such a simple request at first, when she and her companions had first come across the group of Unicorn samurai making a frantic dash across the countryside, sparing no effort in crossing the lands of the Dragon to reach their Clan's own lands. Their horses had been near to collapse, the samurai exhausted, but save a few hours during the day to rest, they were determined to ride once again through the night.
As Unicorn territory was where Nasami and her companions were headed, they had offered to ride with them. The Unicorn had been skeptical, but once reassured that they would not slow them down, they had gratefully accepted the company.
At the time, Nasami had wondered exactly what had been driving the Unicorn so hard, but samurai do not pry.
She should have asked.
Night had barely fallen when one of the Unicorn sentries riding near the back had glanced behind him and let out a hoarse cry of warning. Not a single one of the Unicorn samurai had looked back, but had suddenly urged their steeds forward.
And the frantic ride had begun.
Nasami, however, refused to flee unless she knew what she was fleeing from, and so she had turned to look over her shoulder, pushing her long white hair out of her face to see behind her.
And went absolutely ashen.
Even in the darkness of night, one should be able to see shadows, shapes, formless and strange. But despite a full moon and the clear light of the stars overhead, behind them was... nothing.
A gaping emptiness where the world should have been.
"Blessed Amaterasu," she whispered, and the Unicorn samuraiko beside her glanced at her. "What is it?"
"If you survive the night, we might tell you."
Nasami turned around and drove her heels into her horse's side, urging her steed to greater speeds, even as her companions did the same.
As they rode, occasionally Nasami would glance back over her shoulder to make certain that the emptiness was not catching up to them, but each time it seemed to draw closer.
Then things started emerging from it.
Things moving faster than the samurai on horseback.
Whatever they were, they didn't attack. They simply raced alongside the fleeing samurai, keeping a taunting pace with them while the nothingness closed on them from behind.
"Can we fight this?" Nasami heard Kaminari call out, and she faintly smiled. Of course, their leader would want to turn and fight.
"No," the leader of the Unicorn called back. "This is not a foe you can defeat with steel, Crab. I wish to heaven that it were, but it's not."
"What happens if that thing touches someone?" Kori called out, the former ronin keeping a wary eye on the things that were pacing them.
"They are unmade."
"You mean they die?"
"No... it is as if they never existed."
"No..." Nasami whispered, but further explanation was cut off by a scream as one of the Unicorn's mounts went down after catching one of its hooves in a hole in the road. Horrified, Nasami turned to look back at the fallen samurai, but as he rose to his feet and drew his katana, yelling defiantly, the emptiness rolled over him, and the samurai's shouts cut off abruptly.
"Blessed Amaterasu," she repeated. "We have to help him!"
"NO!" the Unicorn leader shouted, urging his steed onward. "You cannot save the ones who fall, you can only save yourself."
The night wore on, until Nasami and her friends thought they would drop from exhaustion. Although they were competent riders, and the Unicorn exceptionally so, it was a long, hard ride. The pain, however, made staying awake easy, and the fear kept them alert.
A sudden cry beside Nasami, however, jerked the samuraiko from her thoughts, and she looked over in horror to see the Unicorn samuraiko she had been riding beside yanked out of her saddle by one of the things that had been pursuing them.
Nasami half-lunged from her horse's back to snatch at the woman's hand, hoping to catch her before she fell, but the Unicorn samuraiko landed hard on the ground.
With a snarl, Nasami yanked on the reins, but Kaminari caught a glimpse of what she was doing out of the corner of his eyes.
"I SAID NO!"
Nasami looked back to see the other woman struggling to rise, then she glanced at the wave of emptiness rushing toward her.
And before any of them could stop her, Nasami turned her horse back toward the Unicorm samuraiko, urging the horse onward.
"NASAMI!" she heard Ujiro and the others yelling behind her, but the Unicorn leader's shouts drowned them out.
The samuraiko ignored them, ignored the writhing shapes that flowed past her, ignoring the darkness that was moving toward her, and rode straight for the woman.
"Get up, damn you!" Nasami screamed to the fallen Unicorn, who pushed herself to her feet and reached out her hand to clasp the samuraiko's. With a mighty heave, Nasami pulled the Unicorn samuraiko up behind her, then she turned the horse's head back toward the others and slammed her heels into the animal's side. With a whinny of terror, the horse reared up and bolted after the other samurai who were already far ahead.
"You shouldn't... have come back..." she heard the Unicorn samuraiko gasp.
"That thing hasn't caught us yet," Nasami snapped back. "Just hold on."
"Why... why did you come back?"
Nasami looked over her shoulder at the other woman.
"No life is too small."
But no sooner were the words out of her mouth when several of the shapeless things pursuing them leapt at the two women. Nasami let go of the reins to draw her sword, while the Unicorn behind her did the same. But as the things tangled themselves up in the horse's legs, both women were pitched headlong and landed on the road, narrowly missing being trampled by the horse's hooves.
Instinctively Nasami rolled with the impact, rising to her feet, but the Unicorn was not so lucky, and before she could rise, the darkness rolled over her. Nasami had only an instant to register that the woman had vanished completely before she, too, was engulfed by the emptiness.
Nasami didn't know how long she'd been hanging there in the emptiness of the Void when she opened her eyes. Not that it did her much good, it looked the same whether they were opened or closed.
"Am I... dead?"
She whirled around and saw someone emerge from the darkness. Pale, thin features, tall and thin frame, dark robes...
"You..." she murmured, recognizing the gaijin sorcerer she had first met in Ryoko Owari some months back. Back then, the sorcerer had taken over her mind, using her as an assassin to take out an enemy of his. It was only because of her friends' timely intervention that she had been freed of the sorcerer's influence before she had carried out his command, but Nasami had never forgotten what had happened. Although she had given him her word that she would keep the secrets she had learned while under his dominance, she had also sworn that he would pay for what he had done.
It seemed that fate was giving her that chance.
"I can save you," he told her, holding out one hand to her. "Or are you that eager to die?"
"Why should I believe you? How do I know you're not some manifestation created to trick me?"
"I think you'll find that this darkness is as much my enemy as it is yours."
As she glanced around, she realized that he was right. The encroaching darkness had halted, and although she could never explain how, she would swear that the emptiness was... angry.
She turned back to the sorcerer, who still stood there patiently, holding out his hand. "Why do you care?"
"I don't," he said calmly. "But I know your value. And I find you... entertaining."
"Even though I swore to kill you if we ever met again?"
"I believe your people have a saying... 'when the darkness descends, look for allies among the shadows.'"
Nasami's mouth tightened, and she clenched her hands into fists at her sides. "So you want to make me a piece in your game again?"
"Not exactly." He stepped closer to her. "I could be of use to you... just as you are to me. If you survive this, you could bring a great deal of information back to your companions... and your Empire... about the foe that surrounds us now."
"How do I know I can trust you?"
For a moment, the two of them stared at one another, then both felt the darkness around them shift.
"You're running out of time, Nasami... will you accept my offer?"
The samuraiko's mouth twisted into a bitter smile as she reached out and clasped his hand. "Allies we must be... how do we get out of this?"
"You must be absolutely certain of yourself... of who you are... of your place in the pattern... if you doubt even for an instant... you will cease to exist."
Nasami nodded, and tightened her hand around the pommel of her katana.
"Now... close your eyes and concentrate..."
She did so.
I am Nasami... I am Sasuraitsuru, the Wandering Crane... bearer of Mamorimasu... daughter of Shujiro and Noreiko-
She gasped as she felt a sudden bitter chill sweep down her spine.
I am Nasami... sister of Yoshio... Meiko... Chisora... Muyuko...
The cold froze the blood in her veins and turned her muscles to stone.
I am Nasami... I am Nasa...
Her breath caught in her lungs and she choked, unable to breathe.
She could no longer feel, no longer see...
With the last bit of willpower she possessed, she screamed.
I AM NASAMI, AND I AM CRANE!
All around her, she heard the darkness howling in fury, and then she was on her hands and knees, gasping for air.
She was kneeling on dirt...
Her head came up and she stared around her.
The darkness was gone; she was in the real world once again, and she was alive.
Beside her was the gaijin sorcerer, a smile playing around his thin mouth.
"Impressive... your strength of will is astonishing."
"Is... is it over?"
"For now, yes. But you are not unchanged by what happened to you, Nasami."
"What do you mean?"
He pointed at her head, and she reached up in confusion to touch her hair.
"In your last breaths, just before the Living Darkness caught you, you screamed out your allegiance to your Clan. That allegiance, among other things, is what saved you."
Nasami took a few strands of her hair between her fingers. It felt slightly different to the touch than it had before. Then suddenly she realized what it was.
Before, in the tradition of the Crane, she had dyed her hair white. But months away from home had dwindled her supply of dye, and for the last month or so, the black streaks had begun to reappear.
But now... her hair was again white.
"Your hair will never again be the black that it was. Nor will any dye ever be able to cover it. You are Crane... until the day that you die."
"Until I die..." she whispered. "Yes."
Then she glanced up at him, and her smile matched his, twisted and yet strangely triumphant.
"But that day is not today."