The voices were close, very close. The ground spun beneath him. He lay very
still, and tried not to breathe.
"All of them?" The first voice, harsh and incredulous.
"Yes." The second voice again, resigned and tired. The cold rock lurched and
dipped, even with his eyes closed. There was a salty, slightly metallic
taste in his mouth. He tried to gather his wits. They thought him dead.
Good. Stay still, stay quiet, let the chill seep into his bones. Wait.
"_All?_ Them and ours?"
"Apart from us three."
"Well, _that_ was worthwhile." His heart leapt into his mouth at the new
voice, sounding shockingly loud right above him. A breath of air against his
face, as someone stepped over him. "If they weren't already dead, I'd kill
"Silence, you." The first voice, weary yet in a tone of command. That would
be the leader, then.
"Well, it's true." Third voice again. Someone spat. "Okiku and Mar for a
pile of corpses. What a bargain."
"I said silence."
"Just pointing out-"
"We need to leave quickly." The second voice cut urgently across the
bickering. "This will have attracted attention."
A small pause, then a long sigh. "Make sure of them," the leader ordered.
"Then we'll- put that down!"
A chiming clatter, of something metallic being dropped. "I need it," said
"Leave their daisho alone," First commanded, in a tone that brooked no
disobedience. "Use something else. Now, hurry."
Two pairs of footsteps receding- one with the soft scuff of sandals on
stone, the other with an odd clicking noise. Like claws. He restrained the
shudder, and continued to lie still.
"Bastard," Third muttered. Something heavy was dragged across rock. "Well,
this is going to get messy." A grunt of effort, something swishing through
the air- and then a sickening, meaty, crack.
"Yeah, I think you would rather I just picked up your sword too." The sound
of another body being dragged. "Hello, Crane." Another squelching thud. "Not
so pretty now, eh?"
Something was dragged away from his back. He had to move soon. His muscles
seemed content to stay dead, though.
A long, low whistle. "Woah. Which one of you fried the ogre? Mmm-mmm,
The ogre. There had been an ogre, appearing out of nowhere, it seemed, and
the unit was already engaged and the light of the torches reflected from the
iron-bound club and Tsumein was shouting- damn it, where's that spell? This
week would be nice, Sojo! But the club came down faster than he could speak
and someone was pushing him back, Raeko was pushing him back as the ogre
roared and she shouted and he spoke the last word and then...
He opened his eyes, a tiny crack- and Hida Raeko's dulled eyes stared into
his own, only a hand span away. Her jaw gaped soundlessly at him, her arm
still flung over his chest. He was lying in her blood.
It was only the tiniest of sounds, hastily stifled, but he knew immediately
that it had betrayed him. The muttered grumbling abruptly ceased, leaving
only an intent, listening silence. He held his breath, not even daring to
close his eyes. He heard no footsteps, nothing- but a shadow fell across
Raeko's shattered face.
"Don't tell me you're rising already." The voice came from directly above
him. Something prodded the middle of his back. He stayed limp, unresisting.
"Damn. This area is worse than I thought." A low, hissing sigh. "Well, can't
be having that. Stay dead, you poor brave bastards." The shadow shifted,
Rising already. Can't have that. Stay dead. Don't rise as a zombie. The
stranger was making sure the corpses did not reanimate. That wasn't
something a Shadowlands creature would do. And that meant-
The tetsubo ruffled his hair, slamming into the stone only inches from his
face. Limp with shock and relief, he stared stupidly at it. Through the
ringing in his ears, he heard someone cursing in surprise.
"Well, paint my face and call me a geisha." The voice raised. "Ibaran! Rei!
There's a live one down here!" Then the tetsubo was thrown aside, and there
were hands on him, feeling his neck. The dry, rough touch moved swiftly over
his body, searching. "This blood isn't all yours, is it? Good. Careful,
Gratefully, he leaned into the steadying hands. He rolled over, looking up-
Burning where eyes should be, in a black-scaled face.
"Easy." The creature grinned at him, a flash of sharp white teeth. "I've got
He knew then that he was dead.
His kick connected solidly with the crouched figure, knocking it
off-balance. His arms came up of their own accord, shoving away the hands on
him, shoving as hard as he could- and then he was free, and rolling
desperately away, over Raeko's body. A snarl from the darkness, and the
flare of eyes. He scrabbled for the container at his side, feeling the
flicker of the fire spirit there. Without the preliminary precautions and
bindings, the invocation was much shorter. No restrictions- his own body
offered, wholly and freely, to be used as fuel for the magic. He was dead,
but he would not be worse than dead, and he'd take this thing with him!
"No-!" The dark figure lunged for him, hands outstretched- too late.
Four words, and the world became fire.
"... damned useless cowardly irrational pony fu-"
"Be quiet. Stay still."
"I'm going to-"
"You will be silent, and when he wakes, you will be respectful. Now stay
still so I can treat this."
Curiously, there was no pain. He opened his eyes. Vague shapes swam before
him, refusing to resolve into focus. Blinking, he reached to rub his eyes-
and discovered that his arms were bound behind his back.
"It _was_ an understandable mistake." A different voice, coming from
somewhere behind him, and sounding rather amused.
"Oh, yes, richly comic." Third's voice, dripping sarcasm. "Why don't you
wake him up and enjoy the humour yourself?"
"A joke is never as funny the second time," said the other voice, solemnly.
Subtly, he tested his bonds. He was lying on his side, securely trussed from
head to foot, with a gag in his mouth. Someone obviously knew how to deal
"Ibaran-sama, I think he's awake."
"Damn, someone hit him again."
"Silence." A pair of sandals appeared in his line of sight. Someone crouched
down next to him. He glared up at the vague shape, trying to convey his hate
and resolve with only his eyes.
"Listen." The voice was harsh, but quiet. "I am not your enemy. Look." The
man was showing him something, something green. Jade. The amulet rested on
the bare palm. "Understand? Nod."
Slowly, he nodded.
"Good. I am going to untie you. Remain calm. Take offensive action, and you
will die. Understand? Nod."
He nodded again.
The ropes came loose, and the gag was pulled away. He sat up unsteadily,
rubbing his eyes. "Water," he croaked, throat dry.
Someone pushed a water bag into his hands. The jade charms encrusting it
shifted and clinked as he raised it eagerly to his lips. The water was
stale, warm, and delicious. He drank greedily.
"Easy," said the person who had handed him the water bag. "We need to
conserve that." The voice was good-natured, though thick and slurred. He
blinked up at the figure, his vision finally clearing. A lean, gangly man,
all sinew and bone, was smiling down at him, exposing toothless gums. Sickly
green veins spidered across his face.
"It's alright," said the harsh voice, as he involuntarily flinched away.
"Sojuan," he replied, still watching the Tainted man warily. The man seemed
to take no notice of the hostile stare, gently pulling the water bag away
again. Sojuan noticed that he handled it gingerly, touching only the straps.
"As- Utaku Sojuan." With an effort, he tore his gaze away from the Tainted
man to look at the figure kneeling at his side. "Who are you?"
"Kuni Ibaran." The man bowed slightly, then straightened. His white
face-paint accentuated his deep-set black eyes, making his face unsettling.
"A... Kuni? But-" His eyes flickered back to the Tainted bushi.
"These others are under my control," Ibaran said, catching the motion. "You
are quite safe."
A snort. "Interesting use of the word 'safe'," said another voice- one that
Sojuan recognised. The scaled creature squatted on a boulder nearby, its
heavily-muscled arms clasped loosely around its knees. It leered at him,
orange eyes flaring. "Do you _feel_ safe, pony?"
"Damned," whispered Sojuan.
Ibaran raised an eyebrow. "Unusual. You are not Crab."
"I've... heard of you. Them."
"Interesting." The Kuni's head tilted to one side, his piecing black eyes
studying him. "You are correct."
"But... in the Shadowlands?!"
"No, Winter Court," said the scaled creature sarcastically. "Where did you
think you were?"
"But... that can't be safe!" Sojuan's mind reeled.
"See?" The monstrosity grinned at the Kuni. "I told you safe was the wrong
"Silence." The creature subsided, though a rebellious expression flashed
across its face. The Kuni turned back to Sojuan. "There are... precautions.
As I said, they are under my control."
Sojuan rubbed his forehead, trying to make sense of it all. A monster, a
tainted bushi, and a Kuni, in the Shadowlands. It sounded like the start of
a bad joke. "I don't understand. Why are you here?"
"Scouting," said Ibaran- appearing to feel that this was all the explanation
necessary. "And you?"
"Me? We were- wait, the others!"
"Dead," said Ibaran bluntly.
"And dismembered," added the creature cheerfully. "They ain't getting up
"Dead... " Sojuan echoed. It did not seem real. "There were twenty of us!"
"I'm sorry," said the thin man softly. "They fought bravely. Your friends
died with honour."
"Mission?" pressed the Kuni, ignoring the interruptions.
"Hunting," Sojuan replied absently, still trying to take it all in. The
Kuni's terse mode of speech seemed contagious.
Ibaran stared at him. "This deep?"
"Yes. We were following the trail back from- wait a second." Something the
Kuni had said suddenly sunk in. "What do you mean, 'this deep'? We only
marched half a day!"
There was a small pause.
"Oh, shit," said the scaled man.
"What?" asked Sojuan, looking round at them all.
"We left the Wall three days ago," answered the thin man, a look of concern
on his ulcerated face. "And we thought we were going in a straight line."
"We were," said Ibaran absently. The Kuni seemed deep in thought, sitting
absolutely motionless, eyes unfocused. At last he stirred. "Shifted," he
grunted. "Recently. Shen."
"I'm on it." The scaled creature flowed to its feet, leaping from the rock.
It stumbled slightly as it landed, with what sounded like a hiss of pain,
and flung a disgusted look at Sojuan. "Though I'd be a lot faster if someone
hadn't decided I needed to be deep-fried."
"Want some help?" offered the thin man.
"Stay. Break camp," Ibaran ordered, coiling up the ropes that had been
binding Sojuan. "Shen, go."
"Yeah, yeah..." The abomination bounded away, soon vanishing out of sight
amongst the scattered boulders.
"I'm Rei, by the way," said the ulcerated man, wrapping the water bag up in
a cloth. "That was Shen." He jerked a thumb at Ibaran's back, adding in an
undertone, "He always forgets to introduce us." He slung the water bag from
his waist, and bent to pick up a pack. "Are you feeling well enough to
"Uh... yes. I think so." Sojuan got to his feet, slightly unsteadily. He
leaned on a large rock, and inspected himself. His hands were covered in
soot, though the skin underneath seemed whole. He tried to brush the black
powder off- unsuccessfully.
"Your face, too," Rei said, sounding amused. "That was some spell."
"Um." Rather lost for words, Sojuan wiped his hands on his kimono. The
garment was completely ruined anyway, the hems frayed and charred. He looked
down at it, and winced. "Not another one," he muttered without thinking.
"Midori is going to kill me."
Rei laughed. "Whoever she is, she'll have to stand in line. Shen has first
call." His smile faded at the look on Sojuan's face. "Joke," he said
quietly. "Don't worry."
"I'm not," said Sojuan shortly. He turned away from the tainted bushi.
Ibaran, busy packing away looked like a medicine kit, did not look up, but
the cowled head tilted slightly in acknowledgement.
Sojuan groped for words. "What... happened?"
The Kuni's hands did not pause. "I observed your group under attack, and
intervened. But too late."
"Details?" he prompted at last.
"There are few to tell. You and your enemies were evenly matched. Mutual
destruction. We arrived as the last of your group fell, and drove off the
few remaining Shadowlands creatures."
"Just the three of you?"
"I had more than two Damned, then," said Ibaran, perfectly calmly.
The Crab lifted one shoulder in a small shrug. He straightened, tying the
pouch to his obi, then reached for a bundle on the ground. "I regret we did
not arrive sooner."
"Well... thank you, anyway," Sojuan said awkwardly.
Ibaran inclined his head slightly, then held out the bundle. "Are you well
"To carry? I'll take my share." The Unicorn accepted the load. It clinked in
his hands, the items inside shifting. He felt at it curiously. "What is
"Their wakizashi," said Ibaran quietly. He shouldered a similar bundle. "The
full daisho were too awkward. I am sorry."
Sojuan weighed the bundle in his hands, looking down at it. Nineteen lives.
It did not seem heavy enough. "Thank you."
Ibaran nodded gravely again. "If I may- a question?"
Sojuan looked up inquiringly.
"Crab. Crane. Dragon. Unicorn. Scorpion." One white-painted eyebrow raised.
"I know," Sojuan said wryly. "But it works. Have you heard of the Legion of
the Jade Hand?" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rei look up sharply.
"Ah." Ibaran nodded. "That explains much. I have heard of that group."
"So have Daigotsu's forces, it seems." Sojuan looked away, occupying himself
with tying the cloth-wrapped wakizashi to his back. "Our camp was
attacked... let's see, early yesterday morning, it would be by now. A fairly
large force. We destroyed most of them, but the creature who seemed to be
the general fled. It was decided to track it down before it could gather
more troops..." He trailed off.
"Yes." Sojuan sighed. "We tracked the creature down, and attacked- we had
the advantage of numbers. But when the unit was fully engaged, suddenly more
appeared, as if out of nowhere. After that, I don't know. It was too dark
and confused to understand what was going on in the battle as a whole."
Ibaran looked thoughtful. "This creature... twice man-height, and furred?
Horns of an ox?"
"Yes! You saw it?"
The Kuni's thin lips quirked in the smallest of smiles. "Dead."
Sojuan was silent for a moment. "At least it wasn't for nothing, then," he
said at last.
A rattle of sliding gravel made them both look up. The scaled man was back,
silhouetted against the overcast sky. He swung down from the large boulder
to land lightly by Ibaran's side.
"Nothing I can see nearby," Shen reported. He squatted down, smoothing out
an area of sand, and began rapidly sketching lines in it. "Here's us. This
gully continues down this way- it's all broken stones and rocks that way.
Here's where the battle was." One pointed nail stabbed a hole into the dirt,
then indicated an area some way off. "There's something in the distance
which _might_ be that forest we passed earlier. And this way," the scaled
hands marked out a large area to the left of the gully, "it flattens out to
plains. No cover at all- please tell me we don't have to go that way."
Sojuan stared down at the rough map. "We passed rock fields on the way
here... but I never saw this forest, or these plains."
"Definitely shifted. And quickly, too." Ibaran was studying the map
intently. Catching sight of Sojuan's blank look, he held out his hands,
fingers splayed, palms parallel to the ground. "Like this. Your group." He
raised the first finger of his left hand slightly. "Us." The fourth finger
of his right. "Lands turn, bring us together." Keeping his hands horizontal,
the Crab rotated them in opposite directions until the indicated fingers
Sojuan nodded in understanding. "So... which way? Back towards your forest?"
Ibaran shook his head slowly. "That would now take us deeper in. No." He
took a few paces away, then folded his arms across his chest. The Crab stood
motionless for a moment.
the map, through the stone field area.
"The route with most cover, too," said Rei cheerfully. "Every cloud has a
"Did Shinsei say that?" Shen muttered.
"No, I did," said Rei, with a perfectly straight face. "Shinsei's not here."
Shen groaned loudly.
"Onwards," said Ibaran, scuffing a foot over the map. He turned and began
walking away, without a backwards glance.
"Remember how to use your own feet, Unicorn?" said Shen, strapping a pack
onto his hunched back.
"Manners, Shen," said Rei reproachfully, before Sojuan could think of an
appropriate retort. "Be nice."
"I am being nice," the scaled man protested, shouldering an iron-studded
tetsubo. He flashed a wicked smile at Sojuan, his teeth very white in his
dark face. "He's still got all his limbs."
Without answering, Sojuan turned away, and trudged after the Kuni.
It was amazing how boring constant fear was.
They might have been walking for hours, days, minutes. Nothing changed. Grey
rock, grey dust, grey sky. No terrors- just grey. The unrelenting bleakness
seeped into his soul. At times it seemed that he had been trudging behind
the Kuni for years. He had always been walking here; he always would. There
had never been such a thing as the colour green, or the flight of birds.
There was only this.
Sojuan held his jade amulet in his fist, and kept walking. The weight of the
swords was an anchor. He kept the names of their bearers running through his
head, a litany against the dark. He tried to think of the poems he would
write for them, how he would strive to capture a tiny part of their essence.
The words came haltingly.
All the time, he watched the gloom, peering into shadowed areas, a hand
ready on his scroll case. But nothing happened. Nothing moved but the stolid
form of the Kuni, pacing with an even, unfaltering stride- and the Damned.
They were ghosts in the greyness- now behind, now ahead, now ranging to the
sides. Shen's eyes burned in the shadows. Nobody spoke.
Reflexively, Sojuan dropped into a crouch, spinning to scan the
surroundings. "What is it?" he whispered.
The Kuni unslung his pack, kneeling down beneath an overhanging outcrop of
"About time, too," muttered Shen, squatting down next to Ibaran. The
berserker stretched his arms out, rolling his gnarled shoulders. The sound
of cracking joints made Sojuan suddenly aware of the chorus of complaints
from his own muscles.
Rei was still standing a little way off, studying the darkening
surroundings. "Aren't you joining us?" Sojuan asked him.
The bushi smiled, shaking his head. He unfastened the water bag from his obi
and offered it to Sojuan. "Go ahead- I'm fine." Drawing his ragged kimono a
little tighter about himself, he resumed his attitude of quiet alertness.
Sojuan went over to the others and sat down- on the far side from Shen.
Ibaran was rummaging around inside another jade-studded container.
Withdrawing a rice ball, the Kuni tossed it to Shen, who caught it neatly-
and then began juggling it from hand to hand, swearing under his breath.
"Hot food?" Sojuan exclaimed, impressed. "How do you manage that?"
"No," Ibaran grunted, passing a rice ball to Sojuan. It was quite cold. The
Kuni took one himself, and began eating, with no sign of either pleasure or
dislike. Shen was still toying with his, eyeing it with distaste.
Shrugging, Sojuan took a bite. The rice was poor quality, but tasted fine-
better than fine, in fact, to his empty stomach. And yet... there was an odd
texture, gritty, like sand between his teeth...
"Jade powder," he said aloud, in realisation. He glanced again at Shen. The
Damned caught the look and scowled, his eyes flaring. In three swift gulps,
his rice ball was gone. Sojuan returned his gaze to his own meagre meal-
but, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shen surreptitiously rub his
mouth, a spasm shaking his body.
Abruptly, it all went black.
"Nightfall," Ibaran's calm voice came out of the darkness, even as Sojuan
started to his feet. "It can come suddenly."
Rubbing his head where he had banged it on the overhanging rock, Sojuan sank
down again. The only light now came from Shen's eyes, strong enough to
illuminate the scaled face. Sojuan decided that he would have preferred
"Shen," Ibaran grunted.
The points of light moved. Sojuan heard rustling sounds, then the gurgle of
pouring water. It was clear that the Damned could see perfectly well with
those unholy eyes. More rustling, followed by a thud.
"Here's the stone," he heard Shen say.
"Good." A soft whisper of words, too low to make out. A chant? It sounded
"Sojuan-san." A finger prodded him in the ribs, making him jump. "Over
Cautiously, he edged a little closer to the Kuni- and then, unexpectedly,
felt warmth rising against his outstretched hand, as though he had waved it
over a brazier. Gratefully, he held out both hands, allowing the heat to
"Hearthstone," Ibaran explained.
"I know." Sojuan shifted position to warm his numbed toes. "Not simple to
make, but extremely useful. Pity one can't make one that emits light as
well- at least not one which doesn't do it all the time."
Twin orange fires turned his way. "How do you know that?"
Sojuan shrugged nonchalantly- knowing that Shen would see the gesture- but a
soft whistling saved him from further explanation. Rising steam dampened his
"Hot tea, in the Shadowlands," he said, admiring the ingenuity. "Not
something I expected, but welcome nonetheless."
"Tough, 'cause you ain't having any." The glow flashed his way, then moved
to lean out from under the overhang. "Rei! Tea ceremony!"
The crunch of gravel announced the bushi's arrival. "Shen, close your eyes?"