The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Ch. One
Presenting the First Chapter of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow Storyline
Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome to Week 1 of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event!
We have received word from the frontlines—the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow is about to begin! Read on for the introduction to the storyline, and don't forget to participate in the first round of voting!
For those of you who are joining us for the first time, or if you missed a previous part of the story, you can learn more about the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event and the single elimination tournament associated with it here.
By Robert Denton III
9th Day of the Month of Togashi, 1123, on the shores of Cherry Blossom Snow Lake
Hida Sukune knew the battle was lost the instant a spear broke through his father’s armor and pierced his belly. Kisada only noticed the wound after he’d flung his opponent screaming from the side of the battlements. He collapsed like the fortress gates, blood running free like the fire. The grim honor guard formed a circle around him, and as they withdrew, Kisada would not look at his son.
It was later said that the Castle of the Forgotten fell only after the Great Bear did.
Kyūden Hida's halls thundered with the wet hasty script of rushed scribes and scrolls rolled before the ink fully dried. Heralds would carry them to the Great Clan families, to the Imperial Palace, and beyond. They would learn the Crab’s shame and be warned of what was coming.
It is my failure, not yours. Kisada’s words echoed in Sukune’s head even now. Yakamo had protested. If the other clans had heeded the Crab—if they’d sent the jade, the resources, then…
Kisada’s wound left him unable to fight. You must lead now, Sukune. Redeem the clan. Do what you can. Stop Akuma’s march.
At any cost.
Sukune banished the memory and traced the invaders’ course on the map. Akuma no Oni’s forces had an uncontested path straight to Otosan Uchi.
But he wasn’t going there. Instead, the horde marched northwest, to the Shinomen Forest.
Why? He could shatter the seat of Rokugan’s power. So why not go straight for the capital?
“I have a theory,” said Genzo. The silver-streaked sergeant bore the symbol of the Falcon Clan. The Toritaka were only a Minor Clan family, but they had maps of Maemikake and the marshes surrounding the Lakes of Cherry Blossom Snow, and more importantly, they’d offered to help.
“The Council of Twilight was explicit that the Oni Lord cannot be permitted to enter the marsh. It is dangerous. There is quicksand, predators… and the remains of its victims,” he emphasized.
Sukune remembered how Akuma’s forces multiplied at the Castle of the Forgotten, broken bodies rising beneath the oni’s trisected gaze. Warrior puppets. Undead.
The Rokugani cremated their dead. But as he discovered the last time he ventured into the Shinomen, there were generations of bodies preserved in the muck. Generations of dead.
Was that his plan? In Akodo’s Leadership, clever generals did not burn lands and slay farmers, instead using enemy resources to build and replenish their own…
Sukune frowned. “I am in agreement with your council.”
They’d overcommitted at the Castle of the Forgotten. Sukune had thought so, but chose not to speak, trusting his father’s experience and judgement. They had not known their enemy well. Now, with only a third of the Crab’s mustering forces intact, they were less than a bump in the road. A last-ditch effort to buy the other clans time to mount their own defenses would put the Crab’s very future at risk, and perhaps make the Oni Lord even stronger.
I should have said something. But what? That Crab stubbornness and tenacity, their greatest strengths, would undo them? That they had to become something that they were not? They would not have listened. They hadn’t before!
The canvas parted. Hida O-Ushi entered, face dusty as her unwashed armor. Sukune was certain she’d been sleeping in it. Hida Yakamo followed, his tall frame blocking the light.
“The villages are evacuated,” O-Ushi said. “Only a few conscripts worth taking.”
She ran frustrated fingers through her hair. “A few. Not enough to form a unit. But there were some volunteers among the peasants. Refugees from Ishigaki Province. Katsuo, their spokesman…. spokes-boy, really… offered some insight that we might use.”
Well that was something. He turned to Yakamo. “Train them with the Sparrow. The Suzume family seems to work well with farmers.”
“You can keep handing me Minor Clan samurai, little brother, but I sure as hell can’t train them.”
Sukune pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yakamo, please—”
“A testubō is too heavy even for their strongest!” Yakamo argued. “They have no armor, which eliminates nearly all our formations! And the Fox have nothing resembling real military training at all!”
“Drill them as ashigaru, then,” O-Ushi shouted. “Do I have to hold your hand?”
“Then they’ll be hewn like wheat!” Yakamo snapped back. “Worthless like the Falcon, who cannot even hold their swords correctly!”
Toritaka Genzo frowned. “I’m standing right here.”
Enough! Sukune slammed his fist into the table. “Damn it, Yakamo! You know what is worthless? Excuses.”
Silence. O-Ushi blinked at her brother. Yakamo’s jaw was slack. Even the Falcon seemed especially interested in a spot on the table.
Sukune slowly unclenched his jaw. He’d never had an outburst like that before, especially not to his tyrannical older brother. But he hadn’t been feeling much like himself lately. Too much loss. Too little sleep. Too much at stake. Didn’t Yakamo realize that if they failed—
Yakamo met Sukune’s eyes. “Our ways are not compatible.”
He was right. Their tactics, compiled over generations, were developed for those with Crab Clan training. But the Minor Clans who had pledged to help… the Sparrow, the Fox, the Falcon, the Otter… were too different from the Crab. They were as a castle mismatched to its foundation: it would never stand.
A messenger in turquoise and gold entered and bowed, extending a scroll with the Mantis Clan seal. Between the three Hida siblings, he seemed unsure who to offer it to. “The Son of Storms offers an exchange of information and possible cooperation.”
That language was quite deliberate. Yoritomo was offering to join, but not beneath the Crab’s command. He would not follow any orders but his own.
I should have expected that. But Sukune had hoped that the Lord-Captain knew that too many generals tore an army in half. Is this how things fall apart, before the fight even begins?
Of course, there was another option.
Kikyo sat at empty attention in the corner. Recovered from deep in the Shinomen, the legendary armor seemed to be watching the proceedings. Waiting.
He could don it. The spirits it enchained, the massive gashadokuro formed from their skeletal remains, would follow his orders. He might not need the other clans.
Months ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But if Akuma could bolster his own forces with the dead, could he also seize control of those the armor summoned? Would using it inadvertently deliver a gashadokuro directly into the Oni Lord’s hands? The Kuni weren’t certain…
O-Ushi stiffened. “What is that?”
Just beneath the silence came the ring of steel, and distant shouts.
Then a shattering crash as a body tore through the tent, limply smashing into the table.
Sukune followed the others outside. Fires tore haphazardly through the camp, illuminating bodies locked in desperate struggle. Mounted warriors raised their moonlit blades to bask in the cries of the dying.
A bloody Hiruma scout knelt at Sukune’s feet. “An ambush! It is the Lost! They must have infiltrated us at the Castle of the Forgotten!”
Sukune’s blood turned to ice. In his desperation for numbers, had he unwittingly allowed Tainted samurai who could pass for humans into their ranks?
Yakamo let loose a battle cry as he crashed into one of the Lost and broke her neck. O-Ushi darted behind him, heaving her warhammer upward until it collided with another Tainted samurai. Sukune’s sword found its way into his hands. He was swept into his siblings’ wake.
Do what you can.
Sukune chose his opponents, yielding stronger warriors to his siblings. He let his instincts guide him through the churn, careful not to overexert. But before long came the familiar pains. Shards in his chest. Joints locking up. The world spinning.
He pulled away, panting against a tree. Just a moment to catch his breath…
“You Kisada’s son?”
He tossed his gaze to a rough-looking woman. Leaning on a strung bow, scars criss-crossing her cheek, she bore no sword, no sign of family or clan. Just some rōnin, then?
The woman spoke in a husky voice. “You look short on archers, Hida-san. Luckily for you, I’ve got a business proposition.”
Fewer rōnin than he’d expected had joined his forces. Most seemed only interested in putting as much space between them and the incoming horde as possible.
Sukune gestured to the battle around them. “This is poor timing for discussing business.”
“From here, it looks like my timing is pretty good.” Procuring a bottle, she brought it to her lips.
That’s enough of that. There was no time to waste on some flippant and drunk—
She flung the bottle. “Behind.”
Ceramic shattered against a snarling mempō Sukune hadn’t seen coming. The would-be attacker fell as another drew blades. Sukune backpedaled, but his parry came too slow, too late…
A humming-bulb arrow hammered his sword, correcting his swing just enough to deflect the attack. Two more arrows, launched simultaneously, planted in his enemy’s throat. Sukune finished the first before he could rise again.
And as the world steadied itself again, realized he knew her after all.
“You are the Scorpion’s princess-thief,” he deduced. “The Little Wasp.” Tsuruchi.
She grunted. “I only stole what was mine by birthright.”
He’d heard stories of the disowned samurai with the Lion mother and Scorpion father. The Scorpion’s enemies were quick to recall how the she’d captured Traitor’s Keep, her father’s castle, with just a handful of rōnin. They called it the “Castle of the Wasp” now. One of Doji Satsume’s last acts as Emerald Champion had been to grant her the protections and status of a Minor Clan, perhaps just to spite the Crane’s enemies. But had the Emperor ever actually approved this? The Scorpion claimed that he had not, that he’d died before he could. But then again, the Scorpion hadn’t proved themselves particularly trustworthy as of late…
“Traveling covertly,” he observed. “Rōnin disguise?”
“Northern lands aren’t so friendly,” she replied. “And some still doubt what I’ve earned. Maybe, after I’ve helped you deal with pressing matters, the Crab can help with that.”
So she didn’t want money, this time, but political support to refute the Scorpion. Perhaps word of the Crab’s support of the Mantis had rippled through the Minor Clans?
“You’re hired. Report to my sister. She should get a real kick out of you.”
Tsuruchi dove into the fray. Sukune followed with his gaze. Nearby, three Sparrows sent a mounted Lost crashing with their slings. Another Lost leaped on an unarmed Kitsune shugenja, only to be batted aside by a gossamer silhouette that Sukune swore resembled a bear. A riverboat guard of the Otter disarmed an attacker with a boat oar and sent him sprawling. A Toritaka hunter, spinning a spear around his body, abruptly stabbed an empty space. A robed opponent materialized on the weapon and fell dead.
It was as if the Lost simply didn’t know how to deal with them. They had expected Crab, not a ragtag band of Minor Clans. They were too unpredictable…
Do what you can.
Of course. He’d been looking at it all wrong!
The were neither hammer nor anvil. They were saw and axe, awl and chisel, cord and net. He’d been trying to organize them like Crab, hammer them into those tactics, that role. But they had their own unique ways. He just had to judge which tool to use and when.
And he could. He knew how. Like the winning move of shogi, the solution to winning this war materialized before his eyes...
A wave of green fire. Shadows thrown like fishermen's nets. Flames crashed through the skirmish, charring the screaming Lost, leaving the rest untouched.
Sukune blinked. What?
Beneath renewed battle cries, the tide turned and the Lost fell back. Whoever had invoked the jade flames just delivered them victory. But it could not have been the Kuni, or it would have happened at the battle’s start. So who had aided them? Who came?
Across the lake, Sukune finally spotted the fluttering banners. Red and orange. The symbol of the Phoenix. And beyond, a force bearing the heraldry of the Inferno Guard.
He almost didn’t believe his own eyes. What were the Phoenix doing here? It would be days, perhaps weeks before any message reached their lands.
Distantly by the lakeside, Hida Yakamo towered over a young Shiba woman and an older Asako. Even in the dim light, Sukune recognized the woman’s sword and the gentle glow of her purple eye. She was Shiba Tsukune, Phoenix Clan Champion.
And her hand was on her blade. And Yakamo was yelling.
Sukune broke into a sprint. His chest tightened with the exertion, but he pushed on.
Why would his brother pick a fight with the Phoenix Champion? Especially now? Yakamo’s impulsive streak earned him many enemies. Had something happened between them?
O-Ushi matched his stride. “It’s the Phoenix! They must have—” She paused. “What is it?”
His lungs were on fire. Between gasps, he managed two words. “Yakamo. Diplomacy.”
She blanched and matched Sukune’s sprint.
He had no breath left when they both tumbled into the confrontation. Yakamo’s tetsubō was in hand, the young champion looking defiantly into his face. “You are mistaken,” she said. “Asako Tsuki would never have consorted with such forces. You are a liar.”
“Challenge me if you wish,” Yakamo growled. “But first prepare two pyres.”
Sukune hesitated. Was the champion looking for someone? Who was Tsuki?
Tsukune spoke to the man beside her. “Maezawa-san, show him reason.”
The sage offered a withered smile. “Bloodshed is unnecessary. Simply take us to Tsuki, and we’ll sort all this out.”
“Impossible,” Yakamo replied. “For now.”
The Phoenix were silent as Yakamo spoke. Plainly he recounted the battle that led them here, purposefully calling Akuma no Oni by name. The Phoenix paled as he did, but none matched the alarm of the Phoenix Champion’s face, as if in dire realization.
Sukune almost missed his brother’s glance, a look that seemed to say, “I can handle this.” Was he attempting a trade, the messenger’s fate for aid from the Phoenix? Yakamo was a brute, but he was not the dullard many believed him to be.
The Shiba tilted her head, as if something invisible whispered in her ear. At last, her hand withdrew from her blade. “Show me where I am needed,” she said. “I’ll do my best.”
“That is the plan,” Sukune finished. Officers from the other clans exchanged quiet looks as he spoke. “It is eccentric. Unconventional. But it is based on what I’ve observed of your strengths. It will come together if we trust each-other.” He regarded the room with all the confidence he could muster. “Questions?”
Sukune’s jaw locked as the pirate loomed over the map. All eyes followed him, the only champion that hadn't deferred his command. If the Son of Storms disagreed with the plan, then he would simply disregard it. He could ruin everything. Yakamo tensed. O-Ushi held her breath.
Yoritomo tapped the image of a narrow pass. “Deploy me there.”
A collective gaze shifted to Sukune.
Yoritomo nodded. “Deploy the rest of the Mantis where you think they are strongest. Put me in the pass, and not a twisted soul will cross it.”
That would spare valuable fighters from what could become a death trap, allowing a bolstering of the front and reserves. But it also meant an entire flank relied on one warrior.
“You see a problem?”
Not quite a challenge. Sukune chose his words carefully. “Not on its face, Yoritomo-sama. However, one would normally entrust such a position with at least twenty of one’s strongest men.”
A few knowing snickers arose from the Mantis officers.
Yoritomo crossed his arms. “I’ll manage.”
As the others filed out to prepare, Yakamo approached, regarding the map with a sneer. “It’s not what father would have devised.”
I know. But we have to change. The Crab are the wall, and that’s the problem.
Instead, Sukune said, “I’m willing to consider something better.”
The Crab could not absorb another heavy loss. They could not stand aside, but another loss like their last against the Oni Lord would mean the death of the clan, in more ways than one.
A heavy hand on his shoulder. Yakamo shook his head. “No. This will work.” He paused. “I trust you.”
Sukune’s chest rumbled as he watched his brother leave. Yakamo had never said anything like that before. Not even when they were children.
He hoped he would be worthy of it. Even if everything went as planned, he still wasn’t sure it would work.
14th Day of the Month of Togashi, 1123, somewhere in the Shadowlands
There is a darkness within you, Tadaka.
Isawa Tadaka gasped. This time the vision spoke not with his ancestor’s voice, but that of his teacher. His eyes searched the broken horizon. He wondered where Rujo was now…
Asako Tsuki pinched her brow as her eyes narrowed.
He pulled back his sleeve, revealing a string of jade beads. By now over half had lost their luster, dimming to the dull shade of exhausted charcoal. But the other orbs did not burn his flesh. He wasn’t Tainted.
“It’s not that,” Tsuki said. “You looked like you were in pain.”
“I’m okay.” But he did not know if that was true. His hand wandered to the handle of Kuni Yori’s wakizashi at his hip, as if he could borrow some of the strength of the Kaiu sword.
“We’re here,” said Kuni Yori.
Yori halted on a small hill overlooking the wastes. The land beneath was a massive bowl-shaped indentation in the cracked earth, as if a Fortune had pressed a massive thumb into the ground.
Tsuki frowned. “It’s… an empty plain.”
“Okay,” squeaked Spike. “We saw it. We can go back now.”
Kuni Yori ignored them, fixated on something beneath him. “What is the story of the Seven Thunders?”
The aragoto-style makeup, fashioned after a kabuki stock character, rendered Yori’s expression unreadable. After all this time, he’d never actually seen Yori’s face.
Tsuki answered. “During the first War Against Darkness, when all seemed lost, the Little Teacher gathered seven warriors to confront Hantei’s fallen brother. These were the ‘Seven Thunders,’ one from each of the newly formed Great Clans. They followed Shinsei into the Shadowlands and defeated the Ninth Kami, saving the Empire.”
Yori nodded. “And the rest?”
Tsuki looked confused. But then, few knew the whole story.
Tadaka continued. “Shiba could not abandon the Phoenix Clan Thunder—Isawa, his rival and friend. Seeking him in the Shadowlands, he instead found Shinsei and a gravely wounded Shosuro, carrying twelve scrolls that Isawa had written. Shiba gave his life to save them.”
Yori gestured to the crater. “This is where it happened. This is where the Seven Thunders fought the Ninth Kami. This is where Fu Leng fell.”
Reaching into his satchel, Yori withdrew a smooth mask. Porcelain. Featureless. White.
He offered it to Tadaka.
“This is what I wanted to show you. You may turn away if you wish. We can return to Rokugan. Or you can kill me here. That might be better.” Yori shrugged. “But I believe this is what you seek, Tadaka. It’s what you’ve always sought. It called to you.”
Tadaka regarded him carefully. “How long have you known?”
“Does it matter?”
No. It didn’t. Perhaps Yori knew about the visions and planned all this. But all his life, Tadaka’s heart beat in this direction; all his dreams pulled him here. He had one last step. His life was meaningless if he didn’t take it.
He accepted the mask. “Tsuki-san. Spike-in-the-Gut. Kindly remove my head if something goes wrong.”
Then, before they could object, he placed it over his face.
Before him rose a black fortress. Glossy stone formed a triangular foundation upon which a nine-tiered temple arose, the highest seeming to vanish into the sky. Purple and red orbs cast the temple in nightmarish hues, while faceless beings in monk trappings dragged themselves across its cursed decks.
Yori had brought them to a temple built by misguided souls. The Temple of the Ninth Kami. The resting place of Fu Leng himself.
Perhaps Yori could see it because he was Tainted. Invisible to the others, this mask, whatever it was, unveiled it to Tadaka.
“By Lady Sun,” he whispered.
Tsuki and Spike must have misunderstood, because no sooner had Tsuki cried out Tadaka’s name than Spike leaped forward, smoothly drawing the wakizashi from its sheath at Tadaka’s side. But instead of bringing the Kaiu-forged blade to his throat, the ratling lunged at the sword’s owner. Yori did not resist as it slid beneath his sternum.
Indeed, he barely seemed to even notice.
“What have you done?” Tadaka demanded, “He hasn’t harmed me! He was—”
“It is fine,” Kuni Yori said, sliding to his knees. “I wasn’t coming back from this in any case. Besides, this ratling may have just saved your life.”
A dagger, hidden in Yori’s sleeve, clattered to the ground.
Spike kicked it away. “Nice try, zakseker.”
Of course. This close to the temple, even Yori would not be able to resist the Taint’s whispers. He knelt by Yori’s side.
“Listen.” Yori’s breath was shallow. Blood flecked his lips. “When Shinsei and Shosuro returned with the Black Scrolls, Kuni himself met them… as did Togashi-no-Kami, who had expected them. Before succumbing to her wounds, Shosuro gave Kuni an account of the battle between the Thunders and Fu Leng. They kept the record secret, guarded.” He licked his bloody lips. “Until it was stolen by your ancestor, the Elemental Master who gave his name to an oni.”
Isawa Akuma. The one who appeared in his dreams. The one who led him to those secret teachings, techniques that his teacher had tried to bury. The one who begged for absolution. For redemption.
“I believe it was brought here,” Yori continued. “I believe it rests inside.” He grabbed Tadaka’s collar, steadying himself. “That firsthand account tells how the Thunders defeated Fu Leng. It could contain details, clues that could reveal his weaknesses… how to do it again. How to do it for good. Because he’s coming, isn’t he?” Yori met Tadaka’s eyes. “He’s grown stronger over the years, hasn’t he?”
The Kami Who Fell. Was that the darkness he’d felt? Was that the threat that haunted him ever since he first opened his eyes and saw his ancestor’s face? Was the oldest of the Empire’s enemies somehow behind their misfortunes? Not a thousand cuts, but one. Not mortals, but gods?
Perhaps not. Perhaps their calamities were always by their own human hands. He couldn’t fix that. But this was something he could fix. This was something he could solve.
“But you’re not certain,” Tsuki said.
“No,” Yori admitted. “I could be in error.” He looked to Tadaka. His yellowed eyes looked so tired. “It is up to you, my student. It is your choice.”
All his life, Tadaka felt that something terrible was coming and that, whatever it was, the Empire was not prepared. He felt this so deeply that he’d dedicated his life to preparing the Phoenix. And now, here he was. Everything he’d given, every doubtful look and second-guess he’d endured, had led him here. Knowledge, long lost, could save the Empire. Their past, through the lens of the present, could save their future.
Tadaka turned toward the obelisks and took his first step.