The third and currently final piece of The Way.
|“The border is secure, Sakamoto-dono.” The kneeling samurai risked a glance upward at his master, where he stood staring out over the Sakamoto lands. Tsuyoshi had spoken little since the first return to the Sakamoto fortress, unlike in the past, when he would be full of stories to tell and uplifting tales of Sakamoto heroism to keep his men going in the darkest of times.
“Enomoto is free?”
“Yes. The Inori fled like dogs upon our approach.”
“And we slew as many as we could catch, dono,” the warrior replied, a faint smile appearing on his features. “As you commanded.”
Tsuyoshi turned then, and smiled at his taisho. “Stand, Akihiro. There is no difference between us. You know this.”
“Only that you are the better leader than I, dono.” Akihiro was the warrior’s first name. It was a sign of their close friendship that his lord used his first name rather than family name. In the time before, Tsuyoshi had grown to know the names of all three hundred of his warriors and called them by name. They shared a bond that all knew could never be broken.
Except by the cursed imprisonment they’d endured for the past several hundred years. During that time, they’d known nothing but the darkness of their prisons, the edges circumscribed by glowing walls covered in sutras railing about the futility of anger and the pointlessness of war. After what they’d been through, it seemed an insult. An insult they’d dealt with until Sakamoto Hiroshi, whose body Tsuyoshi now inhabited, had unwittingly freed them. Now, the rice paddies lay still, unkempt by any farmer save the foolish or desperate, their bountiful harvest waiting to rot.
“I maybe be better at leadership, but it is your tactics that make us successful,” Tsuyoshi said, smiling at his best friend. “Tell me how it went.”
“Hai, Dono. Once we left the fortress, we found the villages in the area to be in disarray. Some were mostly empty, others acting as if nothing had happened. We reached the river by morning and crossed at the shallows above Enomoto. The Inori never knew we were coming.”
Tsuyoshi smiled. Half his secret in the initial stages of the attacks on his ancient enemies had been Akihiro’s ability to pick the perfect approach to a battle. That and the supernatural stealth his forces had picked up on as they continued their war in the mountains had led to victory after victory. Eventually legends about them appearing in the enemy’s very midst undetected began to surface and combined with the very real ability to shrug off blows that would ordinarily kill a man had sufficed to win some battles without ever lifting a sword. Now, it seemed, the legends would repeat themselves.
“Does the brewery still stand?”
“Hai, Dono. We made certain to destroy the guards they had placed around that portion of the village before we attacked. Their main force was camped on the ridge above.” Akihiro snorted in derision. “They believed they were invulnerable to attack and had only a few pickets. By the time we struck, it was too late to even raise an alarm.”
Tsuyoshi smiled darkly. Appearing in their midst, indeed… “What happened next?”
“They fled up the trail to the Nagaone pass. Left their camp and supplies for us in their fright.”
“Did they even try to fight?” Tsuyoshi asked derisively.
“Hai. They fought. And then someone screamed that we were the demons of the Sakamoto returned and panic set in.”
The daimyo grinned viciously. “Excellent. How many leaders were taken?”
“All together, we took seven heads, Dono.” Akihiro grinned darkly. “Their heads are being made up and boxed for shipment to their master as we speak.”
“Properly identified?” Tsuyoshi’s smile grew darker.
“With our mon on the box, hai.”
A Japanese mon is the symbol of a clan, the icon that flies on every flag, is worked into many kimonos and is worn on the back of every flag-bearer who goes into battle for a clan. The symbol becomes an icon with which to represent movements on a battle map, to hang over doorways in claimed territories, and to declare dominance by flying over a fortress.
“Excellent. Send a third of our men to the northeastern pass. The valley leading to Mitsumine will need to be secured if we are to start pressing into the mountains.”
Akihiro flinched. “You do not intend to send us up there, do you?”
Mitsumine was a series of three mountains that rose out of the range to the east of the Sakamoto clan territories. The springs and streams that started in those remote vestiges were what became the mighty Arakawa river. Near the top stood three shrines, bastions of warrior monks who did naught but train in preparation for a battle they said would come at the end of time. Samurai destined to become kensai, or “sword saints,” spent years training in the fog and mists of Mitsumine, until they could sense the presence of those they could not see, could split the ends of a human hair with their katana, and could deliver blows so fast that a split body would hold together for a few moments after they had struck, before collapsing in two parts. It was said that the greatest samurai of the empire felt most at home in the mountaintop aerie, and that their souls spent as much time there as they did in their familial shrines. It was a place of such holiness that, in their past rampage, the Sakamoto fury had not been able to even approach the mountain without increasing pain spreading throughout their limbs.
It had been the first sign that they were no longer fully human. By the time it was over with, all of them knew they had left the mortal plane and become something paranormal.
Tsuyoshi’s eyes flared and he cut a hand through the air. “No! Control the villages there, but do not approach the mountain! I would rather we do not even face those warriors!”
Akihiro swallowed and nodded. Despite even their ‘gifts’ (as the men called them), the warriors of Tsuyoshi’s army could not stand up to those of Mitsumine. Luckily, it took quite a bit to get the samurai atop Mitsumine to leave their foggy home.
“After you have secured the valley, we press north until we reach the Inori lands and their allies. It will be as it was before.”
“What about the priests from the Temple of The Way?”
Tsuyoshi scowled. “Simple. We make it impossible for them to approach.”
“How do we do that, dono? We are only three hundred men.”
“Three hundred, plus the peasants and samurai who still serve the Sakamoto mon. I have spoken to their leaders while you were securing Enomoto. The priest they send will not be able to make his way through if Sainoyama is girding for war. The roads will be closed.”
“War? With Sainoyama?” Akihiro was surprised. “You believe we can take them?”
Tsuyoshi grinned darkly. “I have not been entirely dormant during my imprisonment, my friend. Already, two of our warriors have begun the trek to find the Oni of the Highlands.”
“Oni!? You would work with them!?”
The daimyo turned and waved a hand at the Sakamoto lands ranged before them. “Are we so different, now, Akihiro?” The warlord marched to the balcony and stepped outside, setting his hand on the guardrail before staring into the distance. The sun was setting, and the valley was already in shadow from the mountains around it. The sky above was lit with the last great spread of light of the dying sun, errant beams glittering in the afternoon air. “The people of this land see us as demons, Akirhiro. Inhuman, unstoppable.” He turned and smiled dangerously at his taisho. “They FEAR us. We can use that fear to make certain that the Sakamoto clan is never put in such a position again!”
“You speak of war against the Emperor?” Akihiro was not sold.
Tsuyoshi eyed his war leader carefully for a moment. “In our first war, did we not defeat everything we fought? Did not men scream in fear at the very sight of our mon, rising over the hills above the backs of our men? Did we not burn every fortress between here and Karuizawa?”
“Hai, we did, but…”
“And what makes you think that, now that we have been granted the gifts that we have, after such long time in torment, that we can’t do it again?”
“But the Emperor!”
Tsuyoshi snorted. “Is but a man, surrounded by other men, whimpering in fear should the Sakamoto turn their eyes upon him. The warriors we have, buttressed by the Oni I seek to call into counsel, will gain the same superiority we had the last time we walked this earth, Akihiro. With your leadership, we can smash Yoshida, take Sainoyama, and even march east to Nagatoro. There, we can build fortresses to blockade the passes and force the Emperor into negotiations. Sainoyama is home to the empire’s greatest silk trade! Imagine what power we would wield!”
“The Emperor would certainly march against us…”
Akihiro’s daimyo spat. “And can he hope to stand against us? Three hundred immortal warriors, backed by Oni and the spirits of the Arakawa river valley!? Already, I have heard word that the spirits are restless! Our very presence brings them to wakefulness! The shrines are reporting hauntings even as we speak!” Tsuyoshi clenched his hand, raising it between himself and his henchman. “Neither the Emperor nor the priest of The Temple of The Way will be able to pass through territories occupied by the very spirits of this land and of hell itself! They would be too busy fighting off attacks to make any progress!”
“How can you do this?” Akihiro asked, curious. “Is our presence really so much of a burden on this world that the spirits themselves are rising?”
Tsuyoshi’s expression softened. “Has your time imprisoned taken the fire out of you, Akihiro, my companion and sword-friend? Did you spend your time reading the sutras that floated about the edge of your vision, or did you focus on what you’d done to ‘deserve’ such torment? Does not the idea that the priests think we should have simply sat down and TAKEN such an act upon our families and done nothing about it gnaw at your very being?”
Tsuyoshi’s next words roared out of his throat, fury enhancing the emotions as his face turned a darker shade of red. “We did what any man should do! We avenged our families! We struck back at the darkness that slew our bloodlines to the last man! Our wives died! Our children died! Those who had served us in honor for all of their lives were struck down without the opportunity to even defend themselves! Our BABIES! Our FUTURE WAS TAKEN AWAY!
“We hunted down those who would harbor such blackness and the gods shined upon us so that we could do it! And what did the priest of The Way do to us just when we had reached our goal!?
“He locked us away in darkness and torment for all eternity! Can you even BEGIN to think that was right!?”
Akihiro stood before him, fists clenched, jaw working as he relived the horror of returning to his home to find his entire clan slain in a single act of terrible magic. Slowly, the rage built until he was shaking, tears at the corners of his eyes as he remembered the sorror, the terrible grief, the loss.
And to be locked away for avenging their families? To have it all be forgotten in the time since, to have those still living stare in awe and fear at their shrines and not even comprehend WHY they’d done what they’d done?
It was too much.
Akihiro joined his daimyo in a howl that hung in the early evening air, that carried across the valley, to echo their grief. Shortly after, from every point where a Sakamoto warrior who had witnessed the terror, a voice joined in, horrific pain echoing off the mountainsides. Animals fled in fear, mothers grabbed their children and ushered them indoors, to hide away from the hideous sound.
In Sainoyama, people looked up at the sudden chill on the breeze and wondered what terrible spirit had just passed them over. A priest at a shrine in the middle of the city sat up in a cold sweat, shivering in terror as an image of Sainoyama, the beautiful city of silk, burned in his mind’s eye…