For the last three weeks, Kuni Sokisu has had the same nightmare every single night. It begins when he walks into the office of his commanding officer and sees that he is holding a new set of travel papers, but conspicuously does not have a dossier on his next assignment.
"Sir," he began, "I have completed my investigation into the Bloodspeaker cell near --"
His commander raised a hand and cut him off. "I was briefed by your assistant Bakei yesterday. Right before he requested that I transfer him to some other task, any one I possibly had."
Sokisu frowned. "Bakei was weak, sir. The Crab would be better off without him, and I will be more than capable of taking my next assignment without his 'help'."
The officer stared at him for a few seconds. "Sokisu, less than two weeks ago, you were forced to incinerate a seven year old girl who had been turned into a monster. Because her mother was hungry for power beyond her station but unwilling to suffer the consequences herself."
Sokisu swallowed and took a moment to collect his thoughts. In that moment, another maho-tsukai is out in the world making bargains with dark powers beyond her ken and another innocent little girl is growing claws of obsidian and a carapace of thick, black scabs. "The evils of the Taint are limitless, sir. And it is my sworn duty to hold it at bay."
His commander's stare didn't let up. "It's not your commitment I am worried about, Sokisu, nor is it your conviction. I'm worried that if you keep up at this rate you're going to either go utterly mad or drop dead of a heart attack. I already know the reason you arrived a day later than Bakei was that you were held over for a day in Nishiyama Mura by local authorities who mistook your sobs of anguish for the howls of a madman."
Nameless spirits of pure malice bargain to drink away the souls of the corrupt and the foolhardy wherever they may reside. "I was... emotionally affected by the incident, I admit. But I am now fully ready for my next assignment, and if it is to mean my death, I will accept it gladly only to know that it comes in the service of the Crab."
The commander seemed unimpressed. "We all would die if it were to serve the Crab. I had hoped you would recognize, however, that dying is the last thing you do that serves the Crab, and the Crab would like to forestall that for as long as possible. I would much rather you lapse in your duties now and then live another five years, than to see you keep your pace and be dead in three months."
Sokisu didn't respond. He thinks he can hear the screams of peasants being torn asunder by a hurricane of bones and teeth.
"A few months ago I recieved an invitation for you to attend your sister's wedding." He ruffled through the travel papers and pulled the aforementioned invitiation from the stack. "I know you and her are not close, and that she will be marrying a Scorpion, so I had intended to merely keep it to myself -- but I've changed my mind. I want you to go to your sister's wedding, and while you're there, I don't want you to so much as think about your job as a Witch Hunter. I want you to relax."
Sokisu wasn't angry that the invitation had been withheld from him -- if he'd been asked, he'd have turned it down, and everyone knew that. How could he go to a wedding as tainted blades whisper in the ears of madmen, goading them to further and further heights of depravity? He was angry that he would be told to forsake his duties, but even then he felt more despondent than angry. "Sir, if you want me to relax, I hardly think that avoiding the traps of the Scorpion would be a fair step up from rooting out maho cults."
The officer shook his head. "The Scorpion are going to put on the most lavish wedding reception you've ever seen, even for a union of such little status. There's going to be games and festivities and enough sake to get Daigotsu and Sekawa to kiss each other. All of it is going to be in the hopes of loosening your lips to get some precious secrets out of you, which you are not going to worry about, because there is nothing about you they couldn't discover from reading the most basic summary of the Kuni family."
Sokisu was taken aback. A child is taken in the night, replaced by a foul simacrulum. "Sir, really, I appreciate your concerns, but I actually find my work to be very relaxing, and --"
The officer cut him off, his temper visibly ired. Somewhere a goblin cuts off a man's fingers, one knuckle at a time, and nibbles at the meat around them. "I'm sorry, did we move the Imperial Court to Kaiu Shiro all of a sudden? You're not supposed to turn down a gift twice, you're supposed to listen to what I say for you to do and then do it. You're going out to see your little sister get hitched and either you'll let yourself go and come back refreshed and renewed, or you'll be stubborn, spend the whole time obsessing over all the evil you could have been preventing, come back and cough up your own lungs the next time someone drops something heavy. But I am not going to stand here and take the time to convince you because you are my subordinate and I have more important things to attend to, and that is MY sworn duty to the Crab. Now take your papers and get out."
His commander shoved the stack of papers into his hands and then shooed him out. Sokisu walked out of the castle, enraged and aghast, and all around him in every direction Crab samurai were dying.
When Sokisu finally arrived at his destination, the inauspiciously-named Stone Leaves Village, his sister Taiko was waiting at the edge of town for him. She was wearing a kimono of Scorpion black and red, but far too large and with a Crab mon affixed to it with a pin -- probably indicating that she was still Kuni Taiko and she'd got her own clothes dirty and hadn't brought extras. She called her brother's name and ran toward him, her prosthetic leg making a dull "clop" each time it collided with the road, and probably had intended to embrace him if she didn't realize her arms wouldn't go high enough to reach over the horse Sokisu was mounted on. She took a step back, looking slightly more awkward than usual.
Sokisu was not inclined to help alleviate her embarassment; regardless of how she was acting now, they hadn't talked in five years, had barely talked before that, and there was also the matter of abandoning her Clan and her duty to live with the most pointless, counterproductive Clan in the Empire. Instead he simply said, "So, looks like you aren't a Shosuro just yet. I can still see your face."
A man spoke up from the direction Taiko had come from, he wore the same black and red kimono as her, though it was a much better fit on him. "Actually, I'm filling out a request to the Central Mask Magistrate to see if we can get her wooden leg counted as a mask, if we paint some stuff on it. Facemasks really aren't for everyone." He pointed toward his own, a simple black bandanna tied around his forehead.
Taiko stepped back again and put her arm around the man. "Isn't he great? Sokisu, I'd like you to meet my fiancee, Shosuro Ren."
Ren bowed. Sokisu couldn't return it because he was on hoseback, but he wouldn't have anyway. "So, I take it you're the big, scary Witch Hunter sent to scare me off of marrying his little sister and turning into another person who giggles behind a fan? You're going to have to pretend I said something vaguely menacing here, I keep looking at her and getting distracted."
Taiko slapped him playfully. "Hey, be nice, he's still my brother." Her brother didn't care, he just stared at them, waiting for them to be finished.
Ren waved his hands a little. "Okay, okay. You know I was just joshing you, right? There's really no such thing as the Central Mask Magistrate, all mask-related requests just go to the Clan Champion."
Sokisu ignored their attempts to engage him, to banter with him, simply sitting there until it was time for him to move to the inn or wherever his lodgings would be.
Kuni Sokisu stared off into the distance, a lukewarm sake cup sitting on the table in front of him, untouched. He knew that at that moment the forces of the Shadowlands were committing a thousand unspeakable atrocities on the citizens of the Empire, atrocities it was his sacred task to prevent. If he wasn't to give his life to defend against them, then of what use was his life?
Taiko, with little fanfare, sat down at the other end of his table and knocked back his glass of sake in one gulp. "You know, Sokisu, why did you bother to travel here if you're not going to bother to actually be here?" she said, bitter over more than just lukewarm sake.
He made a point of meeting her disapproving gaze head on -- averting his eyes would make her think he'd admitted she was right, he knew that much. "I'm sorry if I don't see much occasion for joy when my own sister abandons her duty to her Clan and to her family, to be married off to a pack of thieves and murderers, creating a relationship we both know won't have the slightest bit of impact on whether or not our Clans go to war again."
She laughed. It wasn't mirthful. "Abandoning my duty to my Clan? And what duty would that be, exactly? I can't order the spirits around like you do, I can't be a shugenja. I can't even lift a tetsubo over my head, much less swing it, I can't be a bushi. I can't aim a bow and I can't see what I'm aiming at more than 20 yards out, I can't be a scout." She rapped her knuckles on the piece of mahogany that comprised her left leg from the knee down. "I sure as hell can't run any distance, I can't be a message carrier. Yasuki Mohiko showed us what happened when I tried to be a merchant, so I can't do that. There's very few things I can do, brother, and if one of those things is to make vague threats from behind a fan, then I'm glad I could find a way to make it serve the Crab even if it will probably end up meaning nothing. This is so like you, Sokisu -- if someone isn't climbing up Akuma's back to throw themselves into his mouth, they aren't dutying HARD enough!"
He made an effort to hide a sneer, but not a very forceful one. "The Crab need everyone, Taiko. There's still ways you could have made yourself useful to the Clan."
Taiko leaned forward a bit, mouth agape, and laughed in suprise. "Seven. Fortunes. You're actually thinking I could have been a sentry on the Wall, one of the ones whose only job is to scream horribly when some terrible monster disembowels them and alerts the others that it's coming. Aren't you?"
Sokisu was, and he didn't see what was so wrong with that. "Duty comes in many forms, and few of them are glorious. All of them are necessary."
She rolled her eyes. "You know, Sokisu, the fact that you even believe the Clan has those says an awful lot about you. That's a story that fathers tell their children in order to get them to study and train harder. And you do know that there wasn't actually an oni hiding in the woodpile, that Dad just said that so you wouldn't find his good pipe-weed, right?"
Sokisu knew, because if he didn't he would have turned his father in for being a maho-tsukai, for letting that oni hang around the house all that time. He didn't exactly think that would help him, though, and kept his mouth shut.
After thirty seconds of uncomfortable silence, Taiko spoke up again. "You know, you never even asked me what he was like. The man I'm going to be spending the rest of my life with, that is."
"So," Sokisu said, trying to match her tone as perfectly as possible. "What is he like? The man you're going to be spending the rest of your life with, that is."
She scowled. "He's fantastic. He's always willing to help me, he always has a joke for any situation, if I fall behind he will slow his pace so we walk together, when he sees I'm sad he will actually stop what he is doing to cheer me up. He's not like you at all." She crossed her arms. "I'm glad you could show up and remind me why I left."
With that she stood up and walked off, the "clop, clop, clop" of her wooden leg fading off into the distance behind him.
The wedding took place at the shrine behind the home of the priest who performed it, an old man named Soshi Aki. It was quiet, somber, and reserved, and Sokisu almost couldn't recognize what it was because maho wasn't in some way involved. He was restless the entire time, and this time for some reason he could not quite put his finger on. He'd only realized that the vows had actually been exchanged when everyone started applauding.
At the reception, he sat at a table at the edge of the room, alone, staring off into space. The room was filled with noise -- Scorpion were singing and carousing, a table of Hida that Taiko had invited were playing an ancient Crab drinking game called "drink until you pass out", a random Mantis who apparently had just been in the area for some reason or another was dancing with a Bayushi woman who laughed at everything he said, and every few minutes a different voice would cry out "Welcome to the Clan!" or simply "Shosuro Taiko!"
Had Sokisu been more involved in the festivities he probably would have noticed how many of the Scorpion in the village seemed to be past retirement age, but he had no interest in engaging any of them and their words passed over him like water over a river-stone. Underneath it, in the background of the background conversation, Sokisu heard something that held his interest. He wasn't sure what it was, but he was sure he didn't like it.
"Wow, you really should be more careful with those emotional outbursts, Kuni." The voice came from over his shoulder, and the old priest, Aki, stepped into view, carrying a bottle of sake in one hand and two cups in the other. "In case you can't tell, that's sarcasm and I am saying you should lighten up."
"I figured as much. Come to loosen my lips with drink to pry some hidden truth out of me? It's why your mask is still on, isn't it?"
Aki chuckled and pointed to the lacquered red band that went over his eyes. "This old thing? As much as I'd love to say it's part of an ancient tradition or ritual that I keep my mask on during the reception, truth is I fell asleep in my garden a couple weeks ago while I was wearing it and now I've got really ugly tan lines. No, I'm here to show off my good wishes to the new couple and my hopes for their happy future together, just like everyone else here. And as I believe is tradition in your Clan, my good wishes are going to be accompanied by heavy drinking." He poured out a serving of sake into both glasses, gulped one, and after a moment's consideration gulped the other. "You seriously think we can keep up that Scorpion routine all the time? Man, that would get tiring!"
Sokisu scoffed and turned away from him, trying to focus on that noise he half-heard, but Aki wouldn't take the hint. "What are you so dour for, it's a wedding! Come on, loosen up a bit, you can afford to have a LITTLE fun! Get a drink, get a shish kebab, get a little wild!"
"I don't know what it is you're trying to gain out of me, but your efforts are wasted. You may as well try and get your information out of the Hida, though I suspect you'll be pouring your heart out to him far before he's even inebriated."
Aki sighed and shook his head. "You know, nobody else has apparently noticed it because they're all too busy having fun, but the newlyweds are nowhere to be found in this little scene. Your sister is actually in my bedroom, crying as her new husband tries to console her, telling her that her brother doesn't hate her, that the last living member of her immediate family didn't think she was better off dead than alive, that of course you care about her even if you can't really show it. And you should be thankful she's marrying into the Scorpion, because if her groom were an Isawa or a Moto then he wouldn't be able to tell those lies very convincingly. I figured maybe if I could get some booze in you it might loosen you up just enough for you to go in there and, just once, tell your sister you love her."
"She is Crab," Sokisu grimaced. "She's strong. She doesn't need me to support her every action."
"She's human, she needs to know you'd be willing to. I think you're in the habit of overestimating people's reserves of inner strength. Not everyone wants to trundle through their lives with no emotional contact from anyone."
"We are Crab," he said again, as if repeating a mantra. "We all have duties and we must all fulfill them, regardless of what we want or how we feel about them."
Aki picked up both of his glasses and then, after a moment's consideration, took a swig directly from the sake bottle. "Yes, yes you are. But all that responsibility... do you ever wonder who it's actually to?"
Sokisu awoke in the middle of the night. The noise was still there, and though it had become quieter, it had also become more distinct. Before it had been an indistinct mumbling susurration, now, it was definitely spoken words in some sinister-sounding language he did not understand. Though Sokisu had the capacity to speak with the kami, his relationship with them was purely professional, and it would be unheard of for them to initiate a conversation with him -- they seemed not to like him anyway. No, there was only one thing this voice could belong to: a kansen, the wicked, Tainted spirits of dark magic. And where kansen went, maho-tsukai followed.
He returned to the home of Soshi Aki on the outskirts of town, threw open the door, and began pounding in the doorframe. "Get me the master of this house!" he bellowed. "The Witch Hunter Kuni Sokisu demands to speak with Soshi Aki!"
Aki, who had apparently been sleeping in the next room with his robes and mask on, walked in, looking far less concerned than he should. "Kuni, if you want to talk to your sister now, then first of all, she went back to her own house two hours ago. And second of all, you sure have a funny way of showing contrition. "
Sokisu snarled. "Don't try to distract me. There's a Bloodspeaker cell operating in this village, and since the speech of the kansen is loudest at your house, I am going to bet that you're the ringleader of it. I'm done playing your games: you can either surrender to the Emperor's justice and reveal your co-conspirators, or I can kill you right here and right now."
Aki sighed and rubbed his temples. "Wow, you're a real piece of work. Not only do you think I'm running a maho cult -- I'm not, by the way, but you think that I am -- I just performed your sister's wedding and you don't seem the slightest bit concerned that, if I was a maho-tsukai which again I am not, I may have put some kind of horrid Jigoku ju-ju on her. I thought even the most stone-cold Crab would have come here screaming 'what did you do to my little sister', but you've managed to suprise me again."
Sokisu felt vaguely embarassed, but wouldn't allow the words of a bloodspeaker to sway him. He extended his hand toward Aki, the closest he could get to pointing an actual Jade Strike at him.
"No, I did not do a damn thing to your little sister or anyone else," Aki cut him off before he spoke. "See, this is why my Clan hates yours. If you were a Lion or a Crane you would come here and accuse me of some dishonorable deed I'd never committed, I'd make veiled threats and deny it without ever actually denying it, then I'd have you sent off in disgrace for your impropriety. But a Crab comes and accuses me of working with the Shadowlands, I start making veiled threats, you take that as proof I'm hiding something and then you set me on fire, forget impropriety. It appears that five years experience as a Witch Hunter isn't enough to teach such esoteric topics as 'restraint' or 'forethought'." He took off his mask and, after two tries, he stashed it in his belt. The skin that was underneath the mask was pale and clammy. "Since I would not like to be set on fire and my Clan would not like you to run around my house setting all of my stuff on fire, it appears to be your lucky day."
Sokisu was suprised but no less wary. "What do you mean by that?"
"What I mean by that, is, is that I'd rather you know about a secret than destroy it, so I'm going to show you what it is you think makes me a maho-tsukai, and you're going to look foolish for it, and apologize, and then we will pretend this incident never happened. Follow me, the entrance is out back." He gestured for Sokisu to follow him, and as they walked, Aki spoke.
We had come so far and been through so much and now the young man named Soshi Aki saw he was going to die in this hellish, forsaken desert, only an arm's reach from his homeland.
The Scorpion Thunder, Bayushi Kachiko, was renowned for her beauty, feared for her cunning and secrecy. She never entered a situation in which she was not at the most advantageous position possible, she never was seen unless she was seen to be beautiful and perfect and deadly. Today, her mask was gone, lost miles ago over some nameless dune, her hair was matted and clumped and frayed, and she wheezed whenever she breathed. Weeks-old eyeshadow streaked down her cheeks, still there simply by virtue of the fact that it wasn't worth the amount of movement it would take to rub it off. The only reason she wasn't sweaty was that there was nothing left for her body to sweat out. She was, by far, the most beautiful Scorpion there.
We were the Clan of veils and secrets and masks, the Clan who made warriors quake in fear with a smile and the snap of a fan, the Clan always in control. Everything about us had been seared away by the fires of the sun named Shilah, leaving only simple men. Simple, dying, powerless, hopeless men.
We had come so close -- so close! -- to escaping death at the hands of Lady Sun. We had come to the edge of the desert, the place that foolishly had been given the name Sorrow's Path. Aramoro's brilliant and audacious gambit had secured our lands for our return. We thought we were home free. We should have known that the Unicorn -- or if not them, then someone else -- would attempt to stop our return. Honestly, we had seen the evils of the Caliph and her lapdogs the Senpet Empire, we had labored under their tyranny for what felt like a lifetime, and we had utterly forgotten how it would be possible for anyone to despise us as much as we despised our slavers.
The histories say we rode beside a Goddess that day, but it was not true. Shinjo was there at the same time we were there, travelling in the same direction, but she was in no way with us. She seemed completely unaware of the suffering going on around her, and when we saw the Unicorn's defensive line, she would not be dissuaded of the idea that they had assembled to welcome us. She was always that optimistic, as I understand it.
The most high-ranking Scorpion officers in attendance were meeting with Kachiko, as well as anyone else who happened to be nearby and able to speak. Normally, those of lower rank would be sequestered away while the real planning was taking place in darkened rooms behind shoji screens, but we were all too damn exhausted to even bother. We were trying to figure out how we were going to make it past the Unicorn, and none of us were coming up with anything useful. There were more of them, they were more mobile, they were better armed, in a better position, and in far better health. Most of the 'ideas' we had were just repetitions of the phrase "We can't do that, because..."
Kachiko actually asked me a question directly, after a time. I wasn't her trusted advisor or anything, I had just happened to fall down near where she was, and I was the first shugenja she could see without having to turn around. She was lying on the ground and her robe was hanging open, and absolutely nobody cared. She didn't have the energy to be modest and we didn't have the energy to be titillated. "Soshi... when's the last time we tried to just summon water? Maybe we're close enough for it to work now. We could do this if we just had some water..."
I would have bowed to her but that would have required me to get up. "No good... it's no good, Kachiko-sama. We can cast the spell, but there's no water anywhere it can take it from. You end up having to drink all that you summoned to replace what it pulled out of your own body." I think she would have howled in frustration if she had the energy.
Someone asked "What about other elements? What can you do to those?" Well, he didn't really. He asked something in Mekhem, and the magical aura around the scrawny white cat he had draped over the back of the horse he was leaning on translated it into something we understood. He was the only one standing, so we all had to look upward at him.
"More of them," I said when it became apparent nobody else was going to answer, "but they would be limited by how taxing the spellcasting would be. We can't do much of anything -- I don't think all of us together could teleport more than eight people before passing out, if that's what you're thinking."
He started stroking his chin in thought, and I was oddly struck by how big those fat, brown fingers of his were. "That's not what I was thinking. Spells that make illusions, make things vanish or make things that aren't real appear -- what elements are those?"
I shook my head. "They're air, which we have plenty of... and they're actually our specialty. But the Unicorn know that and they're not likely to fall for any of them. They won't run from a phantom army and they won't let us by if we appear to have vanished."
He nodded, but he looked a lot more encouraged than I would have guessed based on the answers I gave him. "And the Unicorn, those are the ones that come from the Moto, right?" Everyone in earshot was looking up to him now. It looked like they were looking up to their savior, but really they just wanted the noises he was making to stop so they could curl up and die in peace.
I nodded even though anyone could have answered, he was talking to me. "Yes, the Moto you know are related to our Unicorn clan. They're known for their superior calvary and their strange, gaijin tactics --"
He smiled. "I'm a strange ghayjan. I have tactics. And I have spent a long time fighting the Moto. If there is one thing I know about their tactics, it's that they are so in love with their horses that they will never do standing still what they can do on the move." Abresax, Fist of the Scarab stepped over to where Kachiko lay and crouched next to her, surreptitiously pulling her robe closed. She was half-naked and dying and he was above her strong and in perfect health, but he did not address her as an inferior; but neither did he address her as his superior. He put his hand on her and spoke, "Selqet... I believe that I can deliver us from this place. But it will be hard, and I will be more merciless on your own men than the enemy will. You will all have to do exactly as I say without the slightest question or deviation. I know that you have just been freed from the chains of the slave, I won't simply command you to leap back into them. If you will not take my aid, I will understand it."
Kachiko put her hand on his face and the contrast was horrible, she was delicate porcealin, he, enduring sandstone, and she could crack upon him at any moment. "If you say that you can lead us from here, then you will lead us from here. Do whatever you must do to take my people home. You don't just have my blessing... you have my trust."
Abresax, Fist of the Scorpion Clan rose and addressed the entire encampment. "All right, everybody listen up!" he bellowed. "In four hours the Burning Sands are going to be nothing more than an unpleasant memory for you all. I'd rather not have the Moto ruin the suprise of how we're going to break past them, so what's going to happen is I am going to come to each one of you, in turn, and tell you your part in this plan. And you're not going to tell anyone else what your part is, because there's two things that you people do, isn't there? One of them is keep secrets, and the other one is win."
After he spoke to each Scorpion in turn, they all congregated in one place, and the shugenja -- myself included -- cast our spell, filling our lax encampment with dozens of illusory copies of Scorpion warriors. Seven brown-skinned Senpet warriors holding seven hooked khopesh blades above their heads walked toward the Unicorn, and once they were spaced a good distance apart, Scorpion warriors followed, forming up behind each of the gaijin. There were still enough wounded or sickened or dehydrated Scorpion in the camp, meagerly holding out bows and makeshift pikes, to make it appear as if hardly any had left. When seven units of samurai had assembled, with identical numbers and identical weapon composition, seven Senpet Legionnaires screamed a war cry in a language only they understood, and the Scorpion charged.
The Unicorn saw right through the transparent ploy, and were in fact a bit insulted by it. Light and medium calvary easily skirted around the edges of the illusory advance to attack the vulnerable positions behind them. Battle Maidens spread out to match the full length of the Scorpion advance; this made the line rather thin, but once they collided they would see which unit was real and the rest of the calvary would ride through their illusory opponents to devastate the real Scorpion from behind.
Since I am here to tell the story, I don't really have to say that isn't what happened. We hit that line of calvary like the fist of Osano-Wo, and the Unicorn were chagrinned to see that they couldn't fold over to envelop the real Scorpion unit because all of them were real, just about the time the light cav discovered the only living thing left behind in that encampment was a scrawny white cat. The 'Abresax' I was follwing behind, who was actually a woman named Altani, apparently thought THAT was the funniest thing that has ever happened. By the time the other units had turned around, we'd broken through and sent them scattered. Without the heavy unit to strike us up against, the light units retreated rather than impale themselves on our pikes.
Of course, the plan wouldn't have worked if we'd all known about it. Though they did not have the tactical advantage they imagined, the number of Utaku was still enough to slaughter us. But the only ones who knew what was actually going on were the seven Senpet and the shugenja -- we had to, to know how to set up the spell properly -- but we were allowed to tell nobody. Everyone else was told that as bad as you may be, you are among the few that would be able to meet the Unicorn head on. You may be in pain, but your compatriots are in worse pain. You may have relied on greater warriors to carry out your will in the past, but all the greater warriors you see around you will be laying on the ground, moaning in misery when the battle cry is called, and all of them will be relying on you to bring them home. You may think you lack the strength to move, but it's a strength you must have, because if you do not who can? After the shugenja cast their illusion, there will be six false duplicates of your commander, so form up behind the real one over there and be ready to fight for your brothers and sisters who no longer can fight for themselves.
They stood in a small stone chamber, the walls engraved with kanji over every square inch. In the center was a sandstone sarcophagus, the lid engraved with the image of a man, stern-eyed, square-jawed, with a wide nose and an odd beard the size of a thumb. Cut into the wall was a shelf upon which sat four jars, each carved into the shape of a different animal. There was a place on the wall to fit a torch, and Aki finally set his torch in it, though he'd been in the room talking for quite some time.
"I could go on, and if you want more you can read what we wrote on the walls here, but I think that's enough to illustrate the picture. This is the Tomb of Abresax. It's more of a 'secret admirer' kind of secret than a 'secret shame' kind of secret, but all the same I'd count you as lucky to see it."
Sokisu folded his arms, clearly unimpressed. "If you have convinced me of your innocence, it is only because no tsukai would be capable of speaking at such length without saying anything either interesting or threatening. I don't see what any of this has to do with a kansen infestation you are failing to combat."
Aki rolled his eyes, barely noticeable in the dim torchlight. "Gee, and here I thought you'd at least open the lid and accuse me of raising undead. Okay Kuni-san, while we're standing here in the bizarre burial chamber prepared in accordance with ancient, esoteric gaijin rituals you seem not the slightest bit curious about, I'll tell you what it has to do with your kansen infestation: There is no kansen infestation. The nearest we can figure, Anubis, Senpet Lord of the Dead, pays attention whenever someone is buried according to his sacred rites, and if you stir up the spirits in the area you can hear him recounting the litany of the fallen for about a day and a half before the kami settle down again and muffle the speech. Nothing is whispering dark promises of power into your ear. A spirit is listing off the names of the dead because each of them believed that if their names were not recounted, their lives never occured. The voice you hear is a never-ending foreign funeral. Depressing, maybe, but harmless."
Sokisu looked down at the sarcophagus and back up at the old priest. "You clearly know that the dead are to be cremated specifically to guard against necromancy, but you've decided to ignore this law and keep a fresh corpse on your premises. If you are not guilty of maho, you are at least guilty of recklessly enabling such."
Aki shrugged, but not in a way that indicated he didn't know something. "You know what, the Senpet people held a lot of stupid and primitive beliefs and I am not afraid to say it. They believed that if someone were to destroy the written record of an event's occurence, then that event would have actually never happened. Even the Yobanjin, as I hear it, have a grasp of the duality between the body and the soul, but the Senpet didn't quite understand it. A man's body had to be intact for his soul to be intact -- in fact, whenever they drew the human form, they were all depicted standing in unnatural positions so that every part of their body was visible, because to even depict a man without all of his fingers shown would be an attempt to erase the fingers from his spirit."
He rapped his knuckles on the stone lid of the sarcophagus. "Abresax believed all of these laughable, illogical things, worshipped ten thousand false gods, and thought that to incinerate a man's remains was to annihilate his soul -- the most unspeakable blasphemy that could ever be committed. When we found him dead after Oblivion's Gate, we didn't have to discuss what would be done, and we didn't even have to stop anyone from cutting his head off. I grabbed his dead body in my bare hands to take him back for his proper Senpet burial, and not a single Scorpion who saw me do it so much as grimaced. We took him back and dessicated him in natron salts, cut out his major organs and placed them in four canopic jars, wrapped the body in linen, and sealed it beneath the earth, because it was how he had hoped to be treated after his death.
"We know the risks of keeping a dead body around. We keep a few more Kuroiban than normal around here to make sure nothing happens, and Jade Magistrates are known to check in from time to time. If we had a Jade Champion right now you could ask him about it, most of them think it's a bizarre but harmless quirk our Clan picked up in exile."
Sokisu was moved from the accusatory sort of questioning to the questioning sort of questioning. "Why? Why go to all the effort and expense to maintain such a pointless sacrelige? If you revere him that much, why not give him the last rites properly and see him placed back on karma's wheel? What could this possibly accomplish for you?"
Aki shook his head, smiling. "Because we couldn't ply or threaten him, we had no blackmail or secrets to use on him, and he turned away from his place at the right hand of his god-king to help her lowly slaves back home just because it was the right thing to do. The Scorpion as a Clan and as each of its members would be dead three times over if not for that man. If that doesn't deserve our loyalty, then nothing does. And if Scorpion loyalty only applied when it was advantageous to us, or when we didn't think we knew better than the man we were loyal to... we'd have all died in the desert and we'd have deserved to."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
Finally Aki spoke up again. "You know -- and this is probably me talking as a Scorpion more than me talking as a man -- I keep trying to make a lesson out of this, to find some way to get a 'people have needs beyond their simple duties' message from it and to segue back into talking about your sister, but I'm just at a loss. It looks like an old man cut a few corners because he didn't want to walk too far on a trick knee, stirred up the incantations of a morose foriegn god, and agitated an oversensitive Witch Hunter. If there's an applicable personal lesson in that, I can't see it."
But Sokisu thought he did. Just not the lesson the old priest would have expected.
A few days later, Kuni Sokisu came to the door of Shosuro Ren's estate with an armful of flowers.
"Irises," Ren said as he glanced at the bouquet in Sokisu's arms. "Taiko's favorite. Are you here to give them to her, or are you going to set them on fire as she watches?"
"I know you got a couple of bouquets of them already," Sokisu said as if he hadn't heard the insult, "but I know your garden doesn't have any in it, so I looked around and got some bulbs to plant. I'm just carrying an armful of flowers over them so I don't look like I'm bringing you a bag of dirty onions. But, before I give them to you, I have to give you a warning."
Ren held up his hand. "Yes, yes, I know. You love Taiko even if you don't know how to show it, and if I ever do the slightest thing to harm her, you're going to come up here and boil off all the water in my body one sake-cup's worth at a time."
Sokisu looked a little confused. "No, actually -- I thought that much was implied already. I just wanted to warn you that for some reason she thinks irises are at their most beautiful an hour before dawn and she feels compelled to awaken everyone around her to come look at them. And if you let her talk you into it, you'll make your whole Clan look foolish."
They stared at each other for a few moments, then Ren clapped him on the back and led him inside.
Any Crab will tell you that duty comes before all else. And that duty can mean walking into the jaws of certain annihilation. The wise ones, however, will say that duty can also be boring, inglorious and seem to be pointless. The man eager to die in the service of the Empire may have passion, but the man who would only give his life if ordered has wisdom, and it is not passion that built the Wall.