The Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow: Ch. Five
Presenting the Fifth Chapter of the Battle of Cherry Blossom Snow Storyline
Greetings, Legend of the Five Rings readers, and welcome to Week 9 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, The Tomb of the Ninth Kami
Beneath the library of nightmares, breathless and ducking from the gaze of his long-dead ancestor, Isawa Tadaka found the sword: An ancient straight blade of hammered iron, no sheath. A curved handle, heavy orb pommel. And yet, defying centuries, there was not a speck of rust.
It couldn’t have been Matsu’s. Wrong style. Utaku’s, then?
The sword rested here, undisturbed, because none of these denizens could touch it. Beneath it glowed a thick patch of fronds, blooming even though there was no light.
This was the voice that had called out to him, a lone song of sanity in a chorus of maddened kansen. The kami in this blade had awakened. Were it an ordinary kami, this place would have corrupted it. But this spirit was far from ordinary. Whatever its wielder had done had made the spirit strong.
And once he invoked the spirit, it would flee, just as the others invoked in the Shadowlands had. The sword would become nothing more than an ordinary, crumbling relic. The Isawa family existed to preserve such artifacts. Every instinct screamed that he seek another way. Perhaps he could wield the sword instead? Cut him down?
No. That wouldn’t work. His ancestor’s body was already dead. Animated dead. Tadaka needed to sever the connection itself. Otherwise, Akuma would just possess something else.
There was no other way. This object was just a shell. The spirit within, that was what was sacred. The people he’d sworn to protect, they were what mattered most. Hadn’t Kuni Yori taught him this? All that time wandering the wastes, Yori had shown him exactly how to defeat the Oni Lord.
Tadaka scooped the sword up as Akuma’s voice echoed in the darkness. He would have to complete his task running. The demon was close again. How much time did he even have left?
Meanwhile, near Cherry Blossom Snow Lake
The last time Hida Sukune had seen an onikuma, a “demon-bear,” it had nearly decimated his expedition. Claws like wakizashi, fur that broke blades, a body the size of a stone-thrower. He’d been helpless to do anything against it. But this time, he was glad it fought on his side.
It was as if the entire forest had risen to cast away the Shadowlands invaders. Oni swatted at birds and deer, only to fall prey to mauling bears. The Fox Clan had come through after all, and now he and the other officers could disengage. They had a moment to breathe.
Across the field, surrounded by the chaos of battle, a new body stood, glistening and sickly green with scales and horns and three flaming eyes. Akuma no Oni. The plan had worked. At last, the Oni Lord was revealed.
No ballistae were left standing. No Kuni shugenja or Inferno Guard were left unengaged. No heralds remained in the field to give orders. A vanguard had formed nearby—Sukune could just make out his brother Yakamo leading them, and Matsu Tsuko waving the standard—but the samurai and soldiers were wholly occupied with beating back the oni spawn who were trying to reach their master. At last, the Oni Lord was exposed, and Sukune had nothing left to throw at him.
Nothing except two warriors, who had Akuma engaged. Sukune could not make them out at this distance. Whoever they were, he could do nothing for them. The fate of the Crab Clan—of the entire Empire—was in their hands.
Whoever you are, he thought, make this count.
Why you, Shiba Tsukune?
She darted out of the path of three acidic arcs flung from the demon’s three tongues. This form was smaller, and maybe a little weaker, but Akuma was still three times her size. And now, he was faster…
Bitter fumes burned her eyes, blurring her vision. She ducked beneath a swiping claw, and into the path of Akuma’s massive reptilian foot. Forced to choose, she accepted the consequences and tried to roll with the blow. She felt something snap as the force sent her sprawling.
Of all the brave souls who marched against the Oni Lord, what makes you think you can beat him?
Katsuo had asked her much the same question, hadn’t he? He didn’t feel that he should be here, that he could contribute anything significant to the fight.
And yet, here he was, leaping over Tsukune to put himself between her and the oni, swiping wildly and protectively to drive the demon back. Akuma reared, three eyes narrowing on the new threat.
Akuma must be more vulnerable than before! Why else would he avoid a mere blade?
She called Katsuo’s name and tossed him her jade. He caught it haphazardly, and emboldened, advanced on the creature, sword held inexpertly at the ready.
She forced her knee beneath her. Her head pounded, and breathing hurt, like something was tangled up insider her chest and wouldn’t expand. But seeing Katsuo now, recklessly disregarding his own safety, how could she give anything less than her all?
The Oni Lord broke the Crab’s defenses—their very Wall. He sundered their champion and scattered their samurai. Their entire history has been dedicated to defeating the Shadowlands. Yet who among them faces him now?
Katsuo leaped at a feint and was punished. The demon’s tail tore away lamellar plates and forced him to the ground. Tsukune darted forward with a cry, and Akuma abandoned his bone-crushing stomp to face her. She halted, sword ready. Maybe if they surrounded him, kept him moving, they could force him to make a mistake?
The Son of Storms draws his lineage to a son of Hida. A Fortune’s blood rushes through his veins. You may carry the name of a Heavenly Kami, but unlike the Son of Storms, your lineage is purely mortal.
Katsuo clambered to his feet. He shouted. The demon spun.
Tsukune leaped onto Akuma’s exposed back and brought her sword up high.
The demon fell backward. She rolled off just before he smashed back-first into the ground. The air left her, the sword falling out of her reach. Akuma rose again. His spines left holes in the earth. She rolled away from jets of his acid spray. Safe from harm, but now further from her weapon.
Could an Isawa call upon the five elements to defeat the Oni Lord? Could a Kuni? Even their power does not belong to them—it belongs to spirits and Fortunes. Yet if gods are powerless to stop him, what hope is there for humankind?
Katsuo thrust out the jade to hold the demon at bay. Akuma titled his head, as if amused. But he didn’t advance, merely ducking back or to the side as Katsuo thrashed, again and again.
Tsukune covered her nose against acidic fumes. Blood trickled onto her sleeve, but she ignored it. She extended her fingers. Even Ofushikai seemed to reflect her own fatigue, dragging along the ground into her grasp.
Even the Master of Dragons, Togashi Yokuni, for all his mystic power and wisdom, could do nothing but stall for time. Are you even sure this was not a part of the Oni Lord’s plan?
She needed a respite. Her muscles burned with every movement. She couldn’t seem to draw enough air into her lungs. She felt like she might collapse at any moment. Katsuo still fought on, but he was fading, diminishing, sluggish. Akuma showed no signs of tiring. He didn’t need rest, didn’t need to pause. How much longer could they keep going?
Panicked shouts. An oni spawn nearly slipped through the line of Yakamo’s vanguard. They were being overwhelmed. They’d been fighting all morning. The hours of nonstop battle were finally taking their toll. They couldn’t hold back the rabble for much longer.
Why you, Shiba Tsukune? Why this peasant, Katsuo? Why, of all the heroes of legend, are you both here instead of them?
“It doesn’t matter why,” she replied to whatever spoke to her now. “We’re the ones who are here.”
Correct, the voice answered.
Her sword. It was sheathed in faint light, twisting around the blade, like coils of flame. The voice was coming from Ofushikai. Ancient, amused, wise…
Now, it said, show them all what mortals can do.
Akuma screeched as Katsuo struck it with the jade. He crossed into the demon’s reach and dug his sword into the monstrous leg. Switching his grip, as he’d seen others do, his muscles tensed to carve a tear into his corrupted flesh.
Claws raked the man’s face. Red splashed onto the ground.
And now he was in the demon’s grasp, arms pinned at his sides in the demon’s bone-crushing grip. Akuma’s lips parted and revealed rows of dagger teeth.
Tsukune’s heart pounded as she dragged herself up, but they were too far apart—there was no way to reach him. Muscles rippled in the Oni Lord’s arms, a trickle of dark blood winding through his fingers. Katsuo’s face seemed oddly resolute as Akuma unlocked his maw. Fearless, to his last moment, he stared into the oni’s mouth as razor teeth encircled his head.
The last incantation fell from Tadaka’s lips. The sword was heavier now. Dull. He’d felt the spirit leave the shell, but it was different somehow. Perhaps it hadn’t been a kami, but an ancestral guardian, or something else. But whatever it was, it eagerly answered.
Already the paper ward, written on Azusa’s origami paper in jade ink, sprouted tiny fronds. The spirit was willing. He needed one last offering. One final—
Tadaka felt his ribs snap as he smashed against the wall. The sword clattered to the floor. Stone claws pinned him, pushing against his chest. Waves of pain wracked his body. His possessed ancestor leaned in, Tadaka’s face blistering from the heat of three fire-orb eyes.
There was no time left. His own Earth, his body, was all he had left to give.
You are too late, came the Oni Lord’s voice. Nothing will stop—
Tadaka exhaled. Take it.
With his last ounce of strength, Tadaka slapped the paper charm on his ancestor’s face.
“Let me teach you something.”
The Oni Lord’s screams tore through the shrine.
Katsuo grunted as he struck the dirt. Fangs snapped at the empty air where his neck had been. He jerked back, away from the trembling claws and flailing tongues. Everything seemed to pause as Akuma shook, eye-orbs dimming, and wavering as if he were boiling inside.
He’s weakened! Tsukune realized.
With her ghost eye, she could barely catch a tiny glint of glowing purple light. A rectangular charm with faint writing, perfectly centered on the oni’s forehead.
Katsuo locked her gaze with wordless affirmation, eyes widening urgently, as if to signal: Now! NOW!
There would be no second chance.
Tsukune bolted, Ofushikai ready.
Katsuo flung the jade with a wrist-flick. It arced in slow motion as she closed the gap. She caught it in her left hand.
The monster steadied, recovering. Flames returned to his eyes.
Katsuo hunched his back and braced himself. She couldn’t see his face, but he nodded.
The creature’s eyes cleared. Realization washed over his features.
Tsukune’s foot planted between Katsuo’s shoulders. Her momentum pushed her forward. With all her strength, she sprung off his back.
Ofushikai dug into the creature’s shoulder. Tsukune’s elbows struck his chest. Akuma reeled, his abyssal maw opening in a scream. Fumes burned her nostrils, acid burned her skin. She wrenched the sword out as he recovered, his heavy claws wrapping around her. As a vice-like grip began squeezing her sides, she brought the blade high.
With the last of her strength, she plunged Ofushikai into the glowing light.
The blade slid through scales and sunk with no resistance, not even against bone. She didn’t stop until the sword’s guard pressed against the Oni Lord's flesh, the blade jutting out from under Akuma’s jaw.
Her ears popped. A mortal spasm that dug claws into her chest. An abyssal scream that filled her lungs with fire.
Her fingers uncurled from Ofushikai’s handle as her strength faded. The oni toppled forward. His skin grayed and cracked, calcifying into stone. She watched him petrify, the Oni Lord’s arms solidifying into thick rock, pinning her. Unable to free herself, she felt the ground rushing up behind her with spine-breaking speed. In his death throes, Akuma’s final act would be to crush her beneath a body of stone.
With one eye, she saw Akuma no Oni's spiteful maw in the throes of his death. The hatred spilling out. Burning. The demon would curse this world with his last breath.
With the other, her ghost eye, she saw only Tadaka. He was smiling in spite of the skin missing from his cheek. He looked so peaceful. So happy. The light passed through him, and he floated like a feather before her, but she could smell his sandalwood scent, and she could even feel his hand on the back of her neck, as well as his gentle forehead as he pressed it against hers. She closed her eyes. He was warm.
It was what she had hoped to feel in her last moments, before she left this world. The Fortunes were kind after all. She embraced him, and everything that had led her here.
“My life,” she whispered.
He replied. “My Soul.”
And then, darkness. The ear-splitting sound of rock shattering against the unyielding ground was mercifully brief.
The battlefield sounds fell away as Katsuo clawed at the crumbled stone that had once been Akuma no Oni. A burst of rallying samurai, the spontaneous unmaking of the oni spawn around him, the breaking of goblins at the loss of their general, and even Yakamo’s thundering battle cry and other voices raised in victory, all dimmed as he strained to free the Phoenix Champion.
Buried under so much stone, crushed by the one’s dying body, there was no way Tsukune could have lived. But he tossed the crumbling rocks aside, sweat pouring from his brow as he dug. He had to free her. He couldn’t leave her corpse under all that rock, all that…
Empty space. A gap. Sunlight pouring in. Katsuo’s eyes widened as his face went pale.
He fell to hands and knees.
He whispered, “Thank the Fortunes.”
Tsukune squinted into the sunlight, blinking up at him from her tiny crater. Split stone formed a pocket around her. It was as if she’d been protected somehow, as if something had embraced her in a bubble, breaking the stone around her, leaving her untouched and lying on the soft ground.
Katsuo paused. “What?”
She smiled. “There are cherry blossoms.”
A petal, soft pink, glided into his vision.
Katsuo lifted his face into a shower of pinks and whites. Cherry blossoms, long out of season, cascaded across an impossibly blue sky. Far across a field dotted with calcified demons and sundered stones, the forest bloomed. Blossoms mirrored across the pristine surface of the Lake of Cherry Blossom Snow. She could tell from his expression that Katsuo had never seen so many blooms at once. And looking up from beneath, seeing the flurry of petals falling around him, Tsukune was reminded of the first snow of winter, and the wish for a brighter spring.
He leaped to his feet and cheered. Samurai voices, the mingled victory cries of the Great Clans, thundered back.
And Tsukune laid back her head as her fingers tangled with a sash of orange silk. A mask. The last thing of Tadaka’s in this world. How it had come to her, across all this distance, she would perhaps never know. But she was glad. This, like her pain, was one more gift.
“We did it,” she whispered, as the world blurred with tears. “We actually did it.”
He wasn’t sure what was left. The kami, or whatever spirit had lain in wait, had taken much this time. But he could accept that. He knew the spirit would soar, untouched, back to the Emerald Land.
His ancestor’s voice, calm and content: I am free, Tadaka. Thank you.
Please protect them, he thought. Protect Tsuki. Protect and guide the others.
And then an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Whatever awaited his ancestor now, whatever Emma-O would decide, at least he was free.
Tadaka sighed and closed his eyes. He was so tired. He would lay here for a while. Yes, for a long while.
When he closed his eyes, he was standing before a glossy reflection pool dotted with fallen peach blossoms. He could hear the songs of nightingales mingled with laughter, and see the gentle smile and camellia blush of a seventeen-summers girl.
I’m sorry, Tsukune. I hope you understand.
I love you.
And then he slept. Deep, and without dreams.
Read on to see the results of the final round of voting, as well as the percentage of votes each character received!
Shiba Tsukune (59%) - Katsuo the Peasant (41%)