The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Ch. Four
Presenting the Next Chapter of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow Storyline
Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome to Week 7 of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow event!
We have received word from the frontlines—the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow rages on, and Akuma no Oni has yet to be defeated. Your voices have been heard, and the champions defending Rokugan from the threat of the Shadowlands hordes are spurred on by your support. Read on to discover the results of the most recent 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
14th Day of the Month of Togashi, Near Cherry Blossom Snow Lake
Despite the deluge of cold rain, Yoritomo caught Hida Yakamo’s hot glare. The Crab probably believed that the Son of Storms abandoned his post. Was there even time to explain?
Yakamo looked like he’d been chewed up, swallowed, and had fought his way back up the throat. He had formed a ragtag band and pushed into the apex of the fighting. Even now they repelled waves of goblin horrors. The band’s members were mostly Crab, but a few others had answered the rallying cry. Like the Matsu daimyō, apparently, who carried a banner instead of her weaponry, one arm shedding a steady crimson river.
Oh, and there’s Katsuo. Even hammering at the frame of what was once a ballista, the boy looked more like a samurai now than he had the previous day.
“Uji and his Iron Cranes are holding the pass,” Yoritomo said. His eyes settled on a massive ballista bolt nearby, decorated with paper wards and tipped with jade. “You plan to use that on the Oni Lord?”
“If we can get this ballista repaired,” said Yakamo. “The Kaiu engineers spent the week constructing these and hiding them in the field. They got some use before goblins got to them. This is the only one left that isn’t a pile of splinters.”
Katsuo crawled across the sundered ballista with the expertise of a carpenter. “Give me time. I’ll get it working again.”
Yakamo might have replied, but instead he noticed the arrival of a disheveled Shiba Tsukune. His eyes went straight to the jade amulet around her neck, and then widened in alarm.
“What happened to her?” he demanded. “Where is O-Ushi?”
“She’s with the medics,” Tsukune assured him. “She’s safe. She told me to find Akuma no Oni. That if we slew him, his army would fall apart.”
Yakamo nodded, although concern for his sister’s fate never left his face. “The oni spawn are coming from here. We’ve been beating back waves for some time. He must be nearby.”
Yoritomo pointedly cast about the battlefield around him. “Impressive that something so big can hide. Perhaps he is invisible, like a camouflaged octopus.”
“Correct.” They turned toward the unnaturally deep voice. No one had seen Togashi Yokuni arrive. From his belt, he drew an ancient jitte. “Or, perhaps I should say, he was.”
At once, Yoritomo stood in a shadow.
Perhaps a bow’s range away, a mountain of rusty iron flesh rose from the sea of nightmares. He stood taller than the mast of the Bitter Wind, his mouth large enough to swallow an ox whole. Three serpentine tongues flicked acid beneath the three flaming orbs that were his eyes, orbs that seemed to blur together as Yoritomo stared into them, a diamond-shaped flare that scorched his mind.
Tsukune cried out, falling to one knee. She clutched her purple eye, jaw clenched in anguish. Glowing liquid dripped between her fingers. “I-invoking…kansen…” she gasped.
Yokuni lunged in front the ballista, shoving Yakamo aside. He slammed his hands against the earth. For a moment, his dragon tattoos writhed, and his hands glowed against the grass.
A loud crack split the air. Jagged stone burst around the ruined ballista, accompanied by disembodied screams. Yoritomo’s teeth rattled as a shockwave rippled through him. Yokuni wrenched violently, as if something had struck him in the stomach. Then he crumpled to hands and knees, drained from deflecting the oni’s sorcery.
The Oni Lord pressed himself flat against the ground, his clawed hands clamped into the soil. With a gesture, a wave of spawn poured from the earth, a screaming mass of eyes and claws.
Matsu Tsuko raised the banner. “Rally here! Protect the ballista!”
“You heard the Lady of Lions!” Yakamo bellowed, as defenders formed a shell around the weapon.
Katsuo’s hammering increased its tempo. Tsukune forced herself to her feet and drew her weapon. Yoritomo braced himself as the wave of monsters crashed into them.
Yokuni leapt and scooped up the discarded ballista bolt. Spinning it like an oversized spear, he battered oni spawn on each side, sending them sprawling to be finished by the others. Tsukune rushed to guard his back, her movements falling naturally in tandem with his, a samurai trained to fight beside mystics and shugenja. Black blood sprayed arcs in the rain.
Beyond, the Oni Lord rose. Long steps brought him toward the ballista. Panic briefly washed over Yakamo’s features. Oni spawn were one thing, but could they keep Akuma no Oni himself from simply smashing the only weapon that could seriously harm him?
Yoritomo remembered the briefing from the previous days. Akuma no Oni was given the name of Isawa Akuma, the Master of Earth. It was what made him so formidable. But perhaps he’d inherited other things from Isawa Akuma. His hubris, perhaps? His pride?
He was only a few hundred yards away, now. He was closing in.
I can’t believe I’m about to do this.
Yoritomo dashed out, away from the mass. “So this is Akuma no Oni,” he shouted, “with a face even a mother would drown.”
The creature paused. Tilted his head.
“It is a great honor,” Yoritomo continued, “to finally meet the least powerful of the Oni Lords.”
The massive creature jerked in his direction. Did his eyes burn a little brighter? Did his tongues writhe just a little more menacingly?
Good. Look this way. Yoritomo held his arms to his sides. “After all, a powerful Oni Lord would have gone straight for Otosan Uchi when they had the chance. I’ve heard there are Shadowlands creatures crawling at the bottom of the seas. Why not simply travel up through the ocean and attack the capital directly from the Golden Sun Bay?” He shrugged. “But then, I suppose you did the best that a coward could do.”
The ground shook with the monster’s steps. Yoritomo glanced back at the others; Katsuo tested the mechanism as three Crab soldiers loaded the bolt. No sign of Yokuni, and he couldn’t track the others through the goblin mass. Keep him busy.
Akuma’s jaws dripped high above the Son of Storms’ head. Yoritomo looked up into his enraged eyes without flinching. “All my life I have sought a worthy challenge.” He shook his head. “How disappointing that instead, here I find you.”
The creature slung his massive fist into the ground where Yoritomo stood. The Son of Storms barely rolled away, his kama flashing. He ducked beneath the follow-up strike, then leaped back from a shower of acid. Chemical steam burned his nostrils and eyes. The Oni Lord leaped over him like a cat, hammering another cratering punch into the earth.
But now Togashi Yokuni stood beneath his boulder-like fist, hands pressed against the creature’s knuckles, his muscles straining beneath the strength of the demon. The creature tried to yank his hand back, but Yokuni grasped him, held him fast.
His chance. Yoritomo scrambled up the creature’s arm and onto his back. With a swing, he dug both of his kama into the creature’s flesh. He let his weight drag him down and around Akuma’s flank, tearing a path like a sail. He dragged the blade across the creature’s thigh and into the tendons behind the knee, cutting through and rolling to the earth.
He crumpled to one knee, the other leg ruined. The creature screamed in pain, showering acid from his mouth. Yokuni ignored the sting as Akuma shrieked and jabbed at him with clawed hands, digging trenches in the soil. Yokuni sidestepped and brushed them aside, until finally he stomped a foot onto the creature’s clawed hand, pinning him.
A loud crack. The ballista fired.
Akuma roared as the massive bolt sunk into his side. A chorus of cheers arose from the ballista, Katsuo holding his hammer up high.
As the creature crashed onto his side, Yoritomo crossed his kama. Honored ancestor Osano-wo, are you watching? Your descendent begs for your aid! Please give me the strength—
Lightning traced an arc into the ballista bolt. Akuma shrieked as a god’s fire traced through his body. He collapsed onto his hands, smoke pouring from burns across his flesh.
Yoritomo stared, stunned, as ozone traced his nostrils. The entire battlefield seemed to slow down, to pause, as thunder echoed through the heavens. He’d hoped that the Fortune of Fire and Thunder had been listening. But he never dreamed that the Fortune would answer.
Was that you, Honored Ancestor? Was that a sign of your blessing? Are you telling me that I am destined to fell this creature, that I am—
The Oni Lord wrenched the bolt from his side and reared back to hurl it toward the Son of Storms.
Yoritomo tensed, ready to throw himself aside. The creature would make another opening, and he would capitalize, once more running up the arm and…
Akuma was not looking at him. His gaze was above his shoulder. As Yoritomo followed it, he realized the Akuma wasn’t targeting him, but the defenders gathered around the ballista. He saw Tsukune’s eyes widen as she froze in place. He saw the peasant, Katsuo, as the color drained from his face. He saw Yakamo pushing Tsuko down to avoid the trajectory, directly in its path. There was no way any of them could avoid it.
The only thing in the way was himself.
Just as Uji had thrown himself in the way of the goblin’s spear meant for him. Deeds, not words, will matter in the end.
Yoritomo nodded. He’d had a good run, up to now.
He hurled himself in front of the bolt. It tore through his armor, lifting him off his feet, sinking into his chest.
He struck the ground and was still.
The Oni Lord pounced to tear Yoritomo’s limp body to ribbons. But Yokuni held him fast, arms wrapped around his ruined leg. Akuma roared in frustration and spun, snapping at Yokuni as he jumped back, spinning. He diverted the Oni Lord’s attacks, again and again, as goblins rushed to claim the Son of Storms’ body. He sprung onto Akuma’s shoulder, then leaped to intercede.
Akuma snatched him from the air and smashed him into the ground.
Yokuni heard a snap as his chest buckled under the crushing weight of the demon’s hand. For a moment, his vision blurred, and the burning-orb eyes of the Oni Lord spun beneath his victorious grin.
For a moment.
Then Yokuni grasped the Oni Lord’s arm with both his hands. The dragons on his arms, brilliant jade tattoos, writhed down his limbs, over his hands, and into the very flesh of Akuma no Oni.
The Oni Lord screamed as his flesh calcified, growing brittle, blackening, as if burned from within. It fell away like dried mud, and beneath his screams, a human voice begged for the pain to stop.
Yokuni could not hear it. He couldn’t hear anything at all. Just his own heart, beating steady, as it always had. One beat after another, just as one thought had preceded this one. In the same way that one could not recall their first thought, there was no such thing as beginning or end. Such was the blessing of the Order’s teachings.
I have done everything you asked of me, Lord Togashi, except one. I regret that I could not prepare Mitsu for this burden. May he forgive me.
He exhaled, resting his head against the grass, as the Oni Lord crumbled around him.
This was a good life. May I remember its lessons in the next one. When I find my way once more to the High House of Light, as I have countless times since the dawn of the Order, may this world be more peaceful than when I left it.
The Dragon Clan Champion closed his eyes and did not open them again.
Tsuko was the first by the unmoving body of the Son of Storms, swatting at the encroaching oni spawn with her banner. Then came the others, forcing the goblin warriors back with spears and blades.
“He died to spare us,” Tsuko said. “Perhaps he had a noble spirit after all.”
Yoritomo’s chest heaved as the bolt fell away. “Perhaps,” he whispered.
Tsuko raised her voice. “He lives!”
Yakamo stared incredulously. “How?!”
The Son of Storms tried to move his leg. He couldn’t feel it. Yet there was no pain. Just the groggy sense that he’d fallen a great distance and lost a few moments of time. And then came the sound of a horn, something distantly familiar, and a new wave of cheers arose from the samurai around him. He heard the thundering of hooves and the clashing of blades, and then they crossed his sight. Cavalry. And they were not fleeing from the sight of goblins, which meant they were not normal steeds.
They were outriders of the Unicorn Clan.
Their arrival seemed to bolster the spirit of the fighting troops. With restored energy, they fought anew. The Unicorn galloped across the battlefields, joining the fray.
A grinning warrior with the heraldry of the Moto brought his steed to a stop. Yoritomo’s dazed eyes lingered on the man’s scarred cheek, and the brittle horn attached to his helmet. “You’re the biggest one here; you must be Hida Yakamo!” he barked. “Feel honored! Shono gives his regards.”
Yakamo blinked away his brief confusion. If he knew the Moto, he didn’t return the familiarity. “The Crab welcome anyone who would fight beside us.” He gestured to the Son of Storms. “This man is injured. Can you ride him back to the command line?”
As they spoke, Yoritomo drew a trinket from his sleeve. Once agarwood carved to look like a turtle shell, it was now broken.
He smiled wryly at himself. “I can’t believe I owe my life to a Crane.”
The monster Akuma no Oni filled Katsuo’s vision. He could not pull away, not even to regard the battle still raging nearby, separating him from the others. The flaming orbs that had been the creature’s three eyes now smoldered, rapidly greying like dying coals. The monster hunched onto his arms and legs, acid pouring from his razor-filled mouth.
He vomited. Wet chunks splattered out. He lurched, over and over, each spasm seeming to drain the creature of color, expelling another misshapen glistening cluster.
They were bodies. Misshapen flesh fell from his open maw, splatting against headless torsos and twitching limbs. The impact of their fall merged them into a glistening mound, like wet clay.
And two arms unfolded from that quivering mass. Clawed hands gripped the earth. The grass itself seemed drawn up those arms, sheathing the flesh. The grass blackened, stiffened, becoming fur, spines, armor. Three orbs ignited between them.
He was reforming, wasn’t he? Remaking himself, abandoning the shell that the Dragon Champion had sundered.
Katsuo’s mouth was dry. His sword felt as though it weighed a hundred bushels.
Why did I think I could do this? This thing cannot be killed. We’re all going to die here. We’re—
A woman’s soft voice. “I didn’t get your name.”
Katsuo jumped at Tsukune’s words. He hadn’t realized she was standing right beside him. The woman’s eye glowed like a purple lantern, and a thick iridescent tear-streak now thickly painted its way down her face, a brushstroke of melted pearl.
She seemed calm. Almost quizzical. How could she be so calm at a time like this?
She turned slightly, and after a moment, lowered into a bow. “I am Shiba Tsukune of the Phoenix Clan.”
Katsuo swallowed. He returned the gesture, lower. “I am Katsuo, of…” Of what, exactly? His village? Should he say that? “…Of Kurosunai village.”
Tsukune made a face.
Had he made a mistake? “I mean, just Katsuo,” he spat out.
Tsukune nodded. She spoke calmly, distantly. “The Dragon Champion gave his life to make him vulnerable. He gave us this chance.”
“How do you know that?”
Tsukune’s hand hovered before her glowing eye. “I can see him. The Realm of Slaughter is telling me to slay the Oni Lord in battle, to send him into Tōshigoku’s embrace, where he cannot escape.”
Katsuo trembled. “How are we supposed to do that?”
Her brow furrowed. Did she not even know? Did she not have a plan, or something?
“I don’t think I can do this,” he confessed. “I thought maybe I could, but what could I even hope to do against something this, this…much?” He knew that he was losing control, but he couldn't help that a dam had broken inside him. “That thing killed, or should have killed, two clan champions! Even struck by lightning, he kept going! I don't have magic tattoos or an enchanted weapon.” Katsuo shook his head. “I'm just a farmer. I—”
He trembled. What more could he say?
“You feel like you shouldn’t be here,” said Tsukune. “Like it was a mistake. I remember what that felt like.”
Katsuo paused. Was that true? The Phoenix Champion once felt the same way?
“There were far better candidates,” Tsukune spoke. “And some who came before me, I’ll never live up to.” She laid a hand on her sword. “But Ofushikai, it chose me. I still don’t know why. I don’t think I ever will.
“But maybe I don’t need to know. Maybe my role isn’t to question, but to use this gift to help as many as I can. To lift them up. To save the things we love.”
Katsuo closed his eyes. His tiny piece of farm. Takuhiro’s happy dog face, barking. Tomoko’s smile.
The things we love.
Tsukune gave him an affirming nod. “I think you do have a power. I think everything you’ve been though has led you right here. And I think you are exactly where you are supposed to be, Katsuo of Kurosunai Village, the man whose name means ‘victory.’”
How strange. There was no doubt anymore. Akuma no Oni had shed his husk, and now a new glistening body, sleek and spined, reared up and unleashed a vile roar. Yet, Katsuo knew what he had to do. Was this what it was like to be samurai?
“Will you fight with me?” Tsukune asked.
He raised his sword. “I’ll give it my all.”
They spun toward the beast as he charged toward them.
14th Day of the Month of Togashi, the Temple of the Ninth Kami, the Shadowlands
The animated body of Isawa Akuma wrenched back from the line of salt Tadaka had hastily drawn. Tadaka dove from a spray of acid, his nostrils burning. Blood ran down his face, but he ignored both his wound and the whispers urging him to give that blood to the kansen. He chose another hallway of the temple, hoping to once again duck out of sight.
Another moment to breathe.
He realized now that the Oni Lord was split between two bodies: his demonic one, and his ancestor’s. But which one had reached out to him in his dreams? Was it truly his ancestor’s spirit, or had it been the demon all along?
And did that mean that if he defeated the spirit here, Akuma would live on through the demon? Was the best he could hope for to buy time for Asako Tsuki to return to the Empire? Could he even free his ancestor from this cursed state?
Would he make it out alive?
The shambling horror froze between rows of forgotten tomes. He seemed to be hesitating. Sluggish.
He’s distracted, Tadaka realized. The demon may exist in both places, but he had only one mind. And whatever was happening with his other form, the oni was having trouble splitting his attentions.
He resumed his frenzied writing, tracing words with his finger in ink mingled with the crushed powder of his last piece of jade. It pooled in the origami paper’s creases. Azusa’s gift, a symbol of her trust, would make a fine paper charm, a thing to sever Akuma, if only temporarily, from the Realm of Evil. If only Tadaka could complete the complicated letters. If only the kami were here to bless it.
It was the faintest hum, a rattle in his chest, just barely perceivable. Were he not searching so desperately, he wouldn’t have felt it at all. There was a kami here, perhaps several, somewhere deep below. Not kansen, not corrupted spirits, but kami. Or ghosts, perhaps. Ancestors?
He could be imagining it. So desperate, that his mind invented a solution. After all, why would such spirits be in a place like this?
No. He had to believe that what he felt was real. He had to believe, impossible as it was, that there was still an ally here he could convince to aid him. He had to. He had no options left.
The shambling horror raked at him with crystalline claws. Tadaka rolled away, paper gripped in his dripping hand.
Whoever you are, Tadaka prayed, my hidden ally, whatever you are doing… don’t stop! Keep him busy!
His legs burned as the halls shook with thunderous roars. I just need a little more time!
Read on to see the results of the third round of voting, as well as the percentage of votes each character received!
Shiba Tsukune (55%) - Togashi Yokuni (45%)
Yoritomo (49.6%) - Katsuo the Peasant (50.4%)