The flood of terrible yellow energy swallowed Kakita Eriko before she could even comprehend what had happened. Pain ripped at her consciousness as her soul was ripped free of her mortal shell. Screaming in terrible agony, she tried to reach for something, anything that would help her escape the pain.
For long moments, there was nothing but the suffering she endured, a torment that seemed to go on for an eternity, then something else brushed her soul. Through the mist of misery and death, another form reached out, his hand meeting hers.
The proud, fierce face of her friend and rival, Matsu Iwane pushed through the swarming energy, his jaw gritted as he endured the pain of their sudden death. Pulling closer, Eriko drew herself to him, trying to hold on to her sanity as she was torn apart.
As suddenly as it had begun, their torment ceased, leaving behind only soft tendrils of smoke surrounding the two souls. Eriko looked about, but her eyes couldn't pierce the gloom of their bound existence.
"Are we dead?" Eriko asked, feeling confusion and alarm building within herself.
"Not really much, is there? I was hoping to meet my ancestors when death finally took me." Iwane replied, a look of both disappointment and amusement upon his face. "I suppose it will do, but my grandparents would have been a much more welcome sight than your primped form."
"I wasn't exactly looking forward to dying with you either, but the Fortunes deemed this to be our time, so we best make the most of it." Eriko replied, slightly annoyed at her companion's opinion. What did the Lion know of looking decent anyway.
The mists began to shift nearby, drawing their attention to the figures entering their sight. Suddenly they found themselves surrounded by figures clothed in the glory of Tengoku. Each was crowned with majesty and stood tall in their sight, looming over them. Awed by what they beheld, the two samurai dropped to their knees, foreheads to the ground before the ancient ancestors of the clans.
"Matsu Iwane, Kakita Eriko, why are you here?" The first asked, his long white beard hanging down across the green and gold robes of a dragon.
"We were slain by a Maho-tsukai while serving as the Emperor's Emerald Magistrates." She replied, doing her level best not to show any fear before the mighty spirit. Every fiber of her being wanted to panic, to hide, but she refused to give in to fear. Are you not samurai? Why do you cower? Hold your head high before his questions! Her rational mind said, trying to draw her from where she kowtowed. I can't, I'm afraid. She knew it was wrong, that she should have been able to rise, but her body refused to obey, her weak heart frozen in fear.
Then let us stand together. Another voice entered her mind, not her own, but that of Iwane. She glanced over at him, seeing a camaraderie she didn't understand in his eyes. I know, I'm frightened too. His words shocked her, a Lion admitting fear! But he wanted to stand with her anyway, even if both of them were afraid. She didn't know how to respond, instead pushing herself to her feet. Next to her, the Lion rose proudly, any semblance of fear hidden behind his bold exterior.
"Your task is not finished, young ones." The second said, a being that looked part man, part beast, maned with fiery red hair, and wearing the earthen robes of a Lion.
"Then we shall not be accepted by our ancestors?" Iwane asked, fear filling his eyes. There was no worse fate he could contemplate than to be rejected by his family. Eriko could scarcely believe the words either, the thought of rejection filling her with dread.
"Do not be distressed," the Dragon said, his eyes glinting kindly behind his hardened exterior, "you have not been rejected, just asked to wait."
"Wait? For what are we waiting?" Eriko asked, her eyes drawn up to the mighty figure's warm gaze.
"You are waiting, because there is a duty you must perform." Said another whose hair was wild, bearing the pale garments of the Badger Clan.
"Our blood depends on what you shall do, and what your offspring do." The last spoke, clothed in the elegant uniform of a Phoenix yojimbo.
"Your comrades are not finished with their trials, and you are their only true hope. If you do not assist us, then our lines will suffer, and a curse will descend upon the Empire of the sort that will shake it to it's foundations." The Lion said, his piercing gold eyes seeming to draw into their souls.
"Then our course is clear, most honorable ones." Eriko bowed deeply to them. "We would mean nothing were it not for those who have gone before, and we shall not fail those who come after."
The spirits smiled down on them, bowing respectfully in return. Then the Dragon spoke once more. "Your children shall suffer many trials for what you have done, but they shall be honored as well, for the sacrifices they make will change not only the Empire, but the souls of those they meet as well."
With those words, the spirits left, vanishing back into the void from which they came leaving the two samurai alone once again. Iwane turned to Eriko, his eyes showing how unsure he was. "Are you sure that such a pledge was right for either of us to make?"
She looked over at him. "If we stand together, then I am sure we can overcome whatever awaits our kin. Will you stand with me?"
Smiling at her bold response. "I died with you once, and if I must do so for my Emperor, I will as many times as called to." She looked away, trying her best to show disdain for his words, but somehow, she couldn't ignore it. There was something she admired in him, a strength she longed to have. Maybe someday, that strength will belong to both of us.
Ten Years Later
It had been strange, but then again, Eriko had never been dead before. Time was so immaterial, she wasn't sure if it had been an hour or a century since she had lived. The only true gauge of what had happened in this empty world was the time she spent with Iwane.
They had talked for countless hours, tirelessly recounting their lives and the stories of their ancestors. Fighting had broken out often, as they had very different opinions concerning their families and history, but they were both so lonely that their differences were often dropped quickly.
Many times however, they did something she never would have found herself doing in life, agreeing with each other. The more she knew about him, who he was, what he meant, the more she began to care about the rough Lion. She dared not say it, much less express it, but she was growing fond of Iwane.
As she was thinking, the barriers around them seemed to shift, opening the curtain of darkness that had enveloped them. Rising swiftly, Iwane looked about, prepared for whatever lay ahead of them. Slowly coming up next to him, Eriko waited in deep expectation, something else that surprised her. All of her feelings, emotions, cares, they were still very real to her, even if her needs were not.
Flowing into the envelope where they dwelt, the majestic form of the Dragon drifted in through the clouds of mist. He did not speak but gestured for them to follow. Moving out of the cloud, they glided slowly down towards Rokugan, following the spirit.
As they drew nearer, Eriko noticed they were not descending upon the territories of the Clans, but further south, into the Shadowlands. Too curious to keep her silence, she spoke. "Why are we headed there? I was sure we would be going further north than this."
"Patience, young one. The fate of your companions is not a pleasant one, but one of terrible consequence. You will understand soon enough." The ancient spirit replied, but refused to speak again.
As they neared the ground, Eriko caught sight of a small group of figures moving swiftly across the broken, cursed land. They bore their armor and blades proudly, rushing up along the jet colored stones.
"Quickly, he has slowed!" One of them called to the others. He had aged quite a bit since Eriko had last seen him, his craggy, rugged features etched even more deeply than before, but nonetheless she recognized Ichiro Munemitsu, one of their companions back when they had been Imperial Magistrates. "If we hurry, he will not escape!" The zeal in his voice told Eriko that he was still the same, relentless hunter he had always been, his heavy armor and great dai-tsuchi causing him little hindrance as he hurried over the rocks.
Following in his wake, came more familiar faces. Her eyes gleamed with pride at the sight of her old companions. Making their way after Munemitsu, the Badger Clan Magistrate, came Mirumoto Hasaiki, of the Dragon Clan, Kitsu Yojireru from the Lion, and Shiba Sentei, a yojimbo of the Phoenix.
"Well, I see they're still working together!" Iwane sounded no less proud than Eriko felt, but something seemed wrong.
Suddenly she realized what was amiss. "Hey, where do you think Isawa Shokan is? He was always with the others, and Sentei would never abandon him."
"Strange... You're right, where has he gotten to?" Iwane replied.
As if to answer their question, a swirling flame leapt down from the rocks above. They turned their attention upward, looking to it's source. Standing high over them upon the rocky hill, was Shokan.
"What happened to him!?" Eriko said, alarm filling her voice. It was certainly Shokan she saw, but his form had changed. His hair and skin were paler than bleached bone, and a third eye had sprouted from his forehead.
"Come to me, my old friends!" He cackled in an unearthly voice, a long, serpentine tongue slithering from his mouth as another spell formed in his hands.
"He has been fouled! Kill him quickly!" Hasaiki shouted, drawing his bow. Before he had a chance to unleash a shaft, however, the ground under his feet opened, swallowing him in it's embrace. The gap quickly closed, sending a fountain of blood spurting into the air.
Without a moment's hesitation, Munemitsu charged, whirling the great hammer aloft. He brought it down hard, but found Shokan had moved just inside his swing and rammed his hand clean through the armored Badger's chest. Throwing the broken body of his former comrade aside, he advanced on the others.
Eriko and Iwane watched in helpless horror as their friends were slaughtered by the mad shugenja. She wanted to reach out and stop him, but knew her hopes were in vain. Turning aside, she tried to hide her face from her friends' twisted fates, and found herself in Iwane's embrace. He held her silently, until the screams of their friends ceased.
Looking back upon the carnage, they watched as their friends' souls drifted free of their mortal bodies. But just as they began looking about, Shokan played his last card. Dipping a quill into the blood of the deceased, he began writing upon scrolls, grinning with a malevolent delight.
Hasaiki had just seen them, his face lighting with recognition. He ran towards his dead companions, a look of cheer upon his face, when the world suddenly erupted in a terrible wailing. Hasaiki's expression turned to terror as his soul was dragged backwards by an unnatural darkness.
"Help me!" He cried in dismay as he was dragged into the scroll that Shokan had written in his blood. Eriko ran forward, diving out to catch his hand, but he was gone before she reached him. Tears streamed openly down her face as Shokan continued his ritual, dragging off the souls of her companions one by one, until they were all trapped within the scrolls.
"You traitor! How could you do this to your friends!" Iwane shouted at Shokan, rage blazing in his eyes. The Maho-tsukai continued his work, ignoring the fury of the spirit standing beside him.
"Aaaagh!" Unable to contain his own grief, Iwane shouted at the sky. He gripped at his chest, as if to rip out his own heart, but his efforts were in vain. Eriko, still stretched out where she had fallen, sobbed openly, her hand extended hopelessly towards the Maho scrolls that held her friends' souls.
"Now you understand." The Dragon spirit said, his voice solemn and sad. "They will never be free as long as Shokansuru has them bound, and they can never join us in Tengoku. You must beseech your children, or they will never be free."
Turning from where he stood, Iwane faced the spirit. "What must we do?"
Countless hundreds of years would turn to dust, and yet Eriko found her duty unfulfilled. She and Iwane had grown very close, finding little comfort save for the stories they heard while awaiting the time of their retribution. Despite all that had happened, Shokansuru was alive, his power only growing, and still he refused to set their friends free.
Eriko had tried time and again to goad her heirs into action, but they constantly chose other venues, never following a path that would lead them to free her friends. Iwane was finding little luck as well, the women of the Matsu family were too proud to listen to a male spirit.
Once again, they walked the shadowlands, watching in regret as monsters of Shokansuru's creation assaulted the Kaiu Wall. Eriko feared that no heir would ever come, and they would be bound to this torment forever.
"How many will perish under Shokan's hand? How long before someone frees our friends?" She asked, watching in tears as a team of young Crab samurai sold their lives against a terrible Oni.
"We can never give up hope." Iwane replied, his breast swelling at the sight of the noble warriors' sacrifice. "Someday our heirs will rise up, and the Empire will be free of Shokan's bloody hand. For now, we must be patient. It is the only way for us to keep our hope."
Eriko nodded sadly, watching as one of the young warriors threw himself into the creature's maw, hacking viciously with his no-dachi. The beast gurgled and died, dropping to the ground. She walked over to it's dead carcass, her hand touching that of the young man. Rising from the corpse of the Oni, his spirit looked upon her in wonder.
"Who are you?" His voice was uncultured, but strong.
"Someone who waits for her time." She responded. "Go on, your family is waiting."
Unsure of how to approach the situation, he bowed deeply to her, then turned and headed on his way, leaving the mortal world behind. Eriko watched him go, her heart bleeding for the mother who lost her brave son. She knew she would have to wait, and that many more would die. But she had to keep hoping that an heir would be born, someday.